Dystopia unchecked

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arriving at the Supreme Court in Bangkok on July 21 to make her final statements in a trial on a charge of criminal negligence. Photo: AP/Sakchai Lalit

On August 25, supporters of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra crowding a car with tinted windows, thinking she was travelling to the court for the verdict. By the time it came, on September 27, she had fled. Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha rides on a tractor at a farmer school in Suphan Buri province on September 18. His military government in 2016 introduced a scheme similar to the one for which Yingluck faced trial. The scheme pays farmers to hold on to their stocks until they get a good price. Photo: ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/REUTERS

At a rally by “Red Shirts” loyal to Yingluck Shinawatra’s government on May 10, 2014, days before General Prayuth seized power in a coup. Photo: PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP

The country’s military junta, armed with a new interim Constitution that makes a mockery of democracy, has been postponing elections on some pretext or the other.

THE BLATANT TRAMPLING OF DEMOCRACY IN Thailand and some other South-East Asian nations seems to be of little concern for the international community. Many countries in Southeast Asia have authoritarian governments, some of them elected governments like the ones in Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. In Cambodia, which is holding elections this year, the opposition has been muzzled. In Singapore, the election law was amended suitably by a pliant legislature to get a new President elected without recourse to an election. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who faces serious charges of corruption, has been muzzling the media and the opposition. The international community’s focus in the region these days has shifted to the atrocities being committed against the hapless Rohingya community in Myanmar. Thailand is hardly on its radar.

The regional powers and most Western governments have been treating the military junta that seized power in Thailand three years ago with kid gloves. Thailand is a close military ally of the United States. The previous administration in Washington did voice mild disapproval when the civilian government in Bangkok was ousted by the military. But the Donald Trump administration has embraced the military junta. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the highest ranking official to visit Thailand after the 2014 military coup, which ousted a popularly elected government. Tillerson was in Bangkok in August this year. The junta chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been invited to Washington to meet with the U.S. President in October. The Malaysian Prime Minister, who was denied an audience by President Barack Obama after the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal broke out two years ago, was in Washington in September to meet with President Trump.

The Thai armed forces, with the backing of the royalty in Bangkok, have been thwarting the will of the people with impunity for decades. The new Constitution that the army rammed through last year will make all future civilian governments toothless. The enthronement of a new king, Maha Vajiralonkorn, who is known to be closer to the army than even his late father was, has encouraged Prayuth to be ruthless with the opposition parties, especially the one led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the last popularly elected Prime Minister, who tried to challenge the military establishment. Her hard-core supporters, the “red shirts”, rallied round her leadership.

The military junta, despite being armed with a new interim Constitution that makes a mockery of democracy, has been postponing elections on some pretext or the other. King Bhumibol’s death was the reason given for postponing the elections that were to be held earlier in the year. The army fears that Yingluck’s supporters will once again win the elections to the lower house of parliament. Under the revised Constitution, the upper house will be packed with the military’s nominees. A popularly elected government will have to put up with representatives chosen by the army and the Bangkok elite. Under Section 44 of the interim Constitution, the military junta will have powers to stop “any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or the administration of state affairs”.

Yingluck, like her elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, chose to suddenly leave the country when the Bangkok establishment turned the heat on her and threatened her with incarceration. For three years, Yingluck has been hounded relentlessly by the military. She has been running from court to court to face charges ranging from mismanagement to corruption during her last stint as Prime Minister. The army-run government accused her of being responsible for losses running into billions of dollars in a populist scheme aimed at helping the rural peasantry, her main backers. Under the “rice management scheme”, farmers were paid much more than the market price for their produce. The government had hoped to make a profit by selling the rice in the international market at a later date. Unfortunately, the global prices crashed, and the government incurred huge losses as millions of tonnes of rice lay rotting in warehouses. The current military government, too, introduced a similar scheme in 2016, paying rice farmers to hold on to their stocks for several months until they got a good price.

Yingluck had promised her supporters that she would fight the cases to the very end. But in late August, even as more than 5,000 of her “red shirt” supporters were waiting at a Bangkok court for her scheduled appearance, the news spread that she had left the country. It was reported that Yingluck had flown out of the country without informing the authorities or the court. She was last heard of in Dubai, where she joined her brother, who has been living there since being ousted in a military coup in 2006. In the process, she forfeited a $900,000 bail surety. She had earlier protested that the government had anyway seized all the money she had in her name that was deposited in Thai banks.

Her supporters naturally felt bereft and leaderless after her sudden exit. The army and the Bangkok elite had finally succeeded in their plans of making the opposition rudderless, at least for the time being. This is the scenario that the Thai establishment had envisaged. The Thaksins were the only well-known names in Thai politics who dared to challenge the political domination of the Thai elite, consisting mainly of the royalists, big business and the armed forces. Thaksin was ousted by the military after five years in office. While in office, he had introduced many schemes that helped the hitherto neglected rural areas. The health-care programme Thaksin introduced for the underprivileged section is one of his lasting legacies.

It is highly unlikely that Yingluck would have been allowed to leave the country without the tacit approval and perhaps encouragement of the army. The authorities were after all watching her every move closely. She could not have just got on to a passenger jet and left the country. The Thai government is suspiciously silent about the circumstances of her exit. On the day she was set to appear before the Bangkok court, 20 of her close associates, including a senior Minister in her Cabinet, were found guilty of illegally profiting from the rice support scheme. They received hefty jail terms ranging from 24 to 42 years. The writing was on the wall for Yingluck. She preferred to scoot rather than be incarcerated. It could have a lasting negative impact on Thai politics or result in genuine progressive forces filling the leadership vacuum left by her departure.

In late September, Yingluck was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison by the Supreme Court of Thailand. She was found guilty of negligence in the rice subsidy scheme. The verdict in effect ensures her lifelong exclusion from Thai politics.

If it is up to Prayuth, the current military strongman, there will never be a return to genuine democracy in Thailand. He is, after all, the man who presided over the massacre of the “red shirts” in 2010. After formally seizing power in May 2014, the general appointed himself chairman of 15 committees supervising the national economy and national security. In August of the same year, he was appointed Prime Minister. He has been busy these days visiting rural areas in civilian garb, giving the impression that he plans to run for the elections scheduled for next year. Since the 1970s, when Thailand was under military rule, the country has not witnessed such centralisation of power in the hands of a single individual.

Prayuth seems to have the support of the new monarch, though the king has asked the military government to revise some of the draconian aspects of the new Constitution. The government has been making widespread arrests, targeting people suspected of harbouring “lesse majeste” views. Even “liking” Facebook posts critical of the monarch is considered “lesse majeste”, and many Thai citizens have served time in jail for this so-called crime. Before the 2014 coup, only five people were hauled up for the crime. After the coup, 65 people have been charged with the crime of “lesse majeste”.

The level of repression is similar to the 1970s situation when the country was under a spell of military rule. The current government has abrogated to itself the power to detain citizens without charges. More than 150 Thai citizens had been tried by military courts by the beginning of the year. There is no right to appeal.

Yingluck’s sudden flight from the country was preceded by that of many prominent activists, intellectuals and politicians who had found their voices stifled. Meanwhile, an appeals court in Thailand dismissed the case against another former Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the pro-establishment Democrat Party. Yingluck’s government had filed charges of manslaughter against Abhisit, who as Prime Minister had ordered a military crackdown on opposition protesters on May 19, 2010. Twenty “red shirt” protesters were killed and more than a hundred injured on the streets of Bangkok. More than 90 people died as the protests continued for another two months.

The Abhisit government came to power by devious means. After the pro-Thaksin government was ousted by the military in 2006, the Constitution was revised in order to favour Abhisit and his pro-establishment party. But when elections were held in 2008, it was once again the pro-Thaksin Peoples Power Party that got the popular mandate. The Bangkok establishment, acting in cahoots with the military and the palace, engineered the dismissal of the elected government. The cycle got repeated with when Yingluck’s popularly elected government was ousted by the military in 2014.

The only other case pending against Abhisit, who until recently was the blue-eyed boy of the Bangkok elite, relates to corruption. That case, too, is expected to be thrown out by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). The NACC has acquitted former army generals accused of corruption despite plenty of evidence that could have proven their guilt. Prayuth himself was accused of corruption in 2015, but no progress has been made in his case. He currently has the lowest approval rating.

No other previous leader of the country in the last 15 years has been as unpopular as he is. The economy has slowed down after the military stepped in and is projected to grow only 3-5 per cent this year. A recent report by Credit Suisse said that Thailand was the most unequal country in the world, with 1 per cent of the population controlling 58 per cent of the wealth. India was put in second place.