As long-time readers know, H. Numan is not just our Dutch correspondent, he is also our Bangkok correspondent. In the latter capacity, he sends this much-needed update on the latest political goings-on in Thailand.
Meanwhile, back in Bangkok
by H. Numan
I haven’t written about Thailand for a long time. There’s a good reason for that: we had several military coups. Generals generally don’t like to be criticized, and ours are no exception. As both the Baron and I can’t afford legal fees, better be safe than sorry. Also, his late majesty King Bhumibol died. His successor is king Maha Vajiralongkorn, his son. King Bhumibol reigned from 1950 to 2016; that’s 76 years. His reign was the longest ever in Thai history, and one of the longest rulers of all time. The new king is therefore no spring chicken. At 64 he is the oldest ruler of Thailand ever to ascend to the throne. Currently queen Elisabeth II of the United Kingdom holds the title of longest-ruling monarch.
Now, about that criticism generals and kings don’t like: Thailand has the strictest lèse-majesté laws, not on this planet, rather in the entire solar system. Any criticism can — and must — be prosecuted by the authorities. The punishment is 12 years in jail, for each offense. Offenses can be cumulative: someone liked 6 ‘wrong’ pictures of the king on Facebook a couple of years back, and got 6 x 12 = 72 years. Under Thai law the sentence can be reduced by half by the court if the suspect cooperates, which he did. So this chappie only has to serve a mere 36 years for liking something incorrect on Facebook. It’s also an excellent way to get even with people you have a quarrel with: when you submit a charge of lèse-majesté, the police must investigate it by law, even if they know it’s a trumped-up charge.
The generals were quite keen on using the lèse-majesté laws to get opponents off the streets. The last coup happened in 2014, and is about to be ended with ‘democratic’ elections to be held on the 24th of March. Strict censorship is still in place, but a bit relaxed. So I don’t have to worry too much about getting 12 years or more in jail. Let’s update you folks what’s happening in the land of the smileys:
Living in Thailand I am amazed how the Thais can get away with just about anything. We have had a full-blown mohammedan uprising in the three southernmost provinces bordering on Malaysia since 2004. Sometimes the terrorists expand their activities outside those provinces. The two most infamous of those attacks were the one at the Erawan shrine in 2014, and the Mother’s Day bombing on 12 August 2015, almost to the day a year later. Those two were by far the worst terrorist attacks ever in Thailand.
The Mother’s Day bombing was a series of bomb attacks in Bangkok and the southern part of Thailand with, 17 victims. The attack on the Erawan shrine — which is, incidentally, within easy walking distance of my house — was the worst attack ever, with over 20 victims.
Technically the attack on the Erawan shrine wasn’t done by our own home grown mozzies, but by Uighurs. A few weeks before Thailand extradited 200 of them back to China. The Uighurs didn’t like that and took revenge. Uighurs are, by the way, also muslims, but from China.
Those two attacks made international headlines, but the day-to-day violence since 2004? Rarely. Don’t underestimate it. Since 2004 more than 7,500 people have died due to mohammedan violence. That’s more than both intifadas and the Northern Irish civil war combined.
It’s a real mess down south. Teachers and government officials are regularly targeted. So much so that teachers get guns, ammunition, training and severance pay from the government. A full army corps is necessary to keep some semblance of law and order. Without any attention whatsoever from the international media…
The same goes for corruption. The generals who committed the last coup in 2014 said they did it to combat corruption. Now, we had a funny little incident that show how sincere they are. Vice Premier General Prawit Wongsuwan was seen wearing a very expensive watch. Someone discovered he hadn’t declared that watch when he took office. So people started paying attention what he was wearing. It turned out he had a whole collection of very expensive and undeclared watches, about 24 of them. Not to mention undeclared expensive diamond rings as well.
We do have an “anti”-corruption commission in Thailand, but that commission is about as effective and sincere as the bureau for prevention of smoking from Marlboro. That commission after much delay and a lot of public pressure finally investigated him. Which took many months. Finally the general stated that those watches weren’t his, but he borrowed them from a friend. Who just past away, bless his soul. So those watches weren’t his, and he didn’t have to declare them. And … you probably guessed it. The “anti”-corruption commission accepted his explanation.
So we have elections on the 24th of March. Those elections have been announced, postponed, postponed and postponed a bit more. The generals like their seats of power, apparently. Are the elections really democratic? Take a wild guess. This is Thailand, after all.
Before you take your wild guess, I have to explain about something called article 44 of the constitution. Once the generals took over they quickly wrote that article. You know that old army joke?
Article 1: The sergeant is always right.
Article 2: In the unlikely case the sergeant happens to be wrong, article 1 applies.
That in a nutshell is article 44. It gives the prime minister the absolute power to overrule anything and anyone, except the king of course. Prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha doesn’t use it often, but when required he won’t hesitate to use it. Article 44 is present in the new constitution, albeit under a different name.
That’s not all. The military rewrote the constitution and made sure that for the next 25 years at least they remain in firm control of Thai politics. A number of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military. If the military doesn’t agree with what the parliament or the government decides, they have the right to send the government and/or the parliament home. By the way, the military decides who becomes a senator, anyway. You can elect your local representative, but not your senators.
Last week we had a little tiff: Princess Ubol Ratana is the older sister of the king. She married an American (and thus a commoner) and had to renounce her royal status, though she remained princess. After her divorce she returned to Thailand and performed duties on behalf of the royal family. All of a sudden she announced she wanted to run for prime minister for the Thai Raksa Chart party in the coming elections. His majesty the king was not amused. Nor General Prime Minister Prayuth. Apparently there is a rule within the royal family to abstain from politics in any fashion. After the king made it known he wasn’t amused, first the party and a bit later the princess herself withdrew her candidacy.
Who is going to win the coming elections? By a landslide? None other than our current prime minister Prayuth, of course! There are plenty of parties in Thailand but only one party really matters: the Pheu Thai party of former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted in a military coup and currently lives in Bahrain and Hong Kong. After the military handed back power and called for elections, his sister was promptly elected. She was the first female premier of Thailand.
But a Thaksin government was not to the liking of the military, so another coup. In the 25 years I have lived in Thailand, I have enjoyed three military coups, two civilian coup attempts and the siege of Bangkok of 2010, which lasted six weeks.
The military realize now that once they allow democratic elections, Thaksin or parties which favor him will win. That’s a given. One reason why the Thai Raksa Chart party now faces disbandment is their strong alliance with the Pheu Thai party. The name was actually a ‘spare name’ Pheu Thai had registered in case the military were to disband the Pheu Thai party. This happened before, after the coup that ousted Thaksin. It was known back then as the Thai Rak Thai party.
There were a few coup rumors last week, which the army and the government vehemently denied. But be realistic: I know of few countries with so many coups since 1932 — that is the year the absolute monarchy was abolished and replaced by a constitutional monarchy. Count the number of coups and coup attempts, and you’ll find on average a coup every four years.
Back in Holland when I was a kid we watched the news in winter and hoped school would be closed due to severe weather. It happened only once. In Thailand the kiddies also watch the news, and hope for a coup. During and after a coup all schools are usually closed for a couple of days. I don’t think they have to change that habit in a hurry.
— H. Numan