02 November 2019

Short Film Marathon

Short Film Marathon
Short Film Marathon
100 Times Reproduction of Democracy
The annual Short Film Marathon (หนังสั้นมาราธอน) began yesterday at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya. More than 400 films will be screened, in alphabetical order, until 12th December, and the cream of the crop will be selected for the forthcoming 23rd Short Film and Video Festival. Attendees at yesterday’s launch were given bib numbers, just like a real marathon. (Fortunately, no actual running was required.)

The first programme included Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s new film 100 Times Reproduction of Democracy (การผลิตซ้ำประชาธิปไตยให้กลายเป็นของแท้). The film begins with a self-reflexive commentary on artistic reproduction: 100 Times Reproduction of ‘A Cock Kills a Child by Pecking on the Mouth of an Earthen Jar’ (การผลิตซ้ำภาพยนตร์สั้นเรื่องไก่จิกเด็กตายบนปากโอ่งจำนวน 100 ครั้ง), which itself incorporates A Cock Kills a Child by Pecking on the Mouth of an Earthen Jar (ไก่จิกเด็กตายบนปากโอ่ง), Chulayarnnon’s award-winning entry at the 17th Short Film and Video Festival. Scenes from that film (a patient with arthritis exercising and visiting her doctor) are repeated, and the director sells 100 DVD copies of it and gives away 100 copies of his award certificate.

100 Times Reproduction of Democracy then transitions into the equally repetitive issue of Thai politics: the cycle of coups has been reproduced a dozen times since the democratic revolution of 1932. The film shows how one symbol can be replaced with another, with the removal of a plaque commemorating the revolution. Chulayarnnon also filmed the PDRC’s ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ rallies—as he did in Myth of Modernity and Here Comes the Democrat Party (ประชาธิปัตย์มาแล้ว)—and Rap Against Dictatorship’s performance of My Country Has (ประเทศกูมี) earlier this year. The song is juxtaposed with footage from Children’s Day of toddlers posing with tanks and machine guns, showing how militarism is inculcated at an extremely young age.

05 April 2019

Bangkok Joyride IV

Bangkok Joyride IV
Ing Kanjananvanit's epic documentary Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์) continues with its fourth instalment, Becoming One (เป็นหนึ่งเดียว), playing now at Cinema Oasis in Bangkok. The series, shot on Ing's iPhone, is an exhaustive record of the PDRC campaign against Yingluck Shinawatra. In part four, a protester claims that Yingluck's brother, Thaksin, is "worse than Hitler", echoing an equally hyperbolic quote from Ing's earlier documentary, Citizen Juling (พลเมืองจูหลิง): "We talk of Hitler... But villagers, all citizens nowadays fear PM Thaksin 10 times more."

Bangkok Joyride covered the early stages of the PDRC's campaign in parts one and two, How We Became Superheroes (เมื่อเราเป็นยอดมนุษย์) and Shutdown Bangkok (ชัตดาวน์ประเทศไทย). Part three, Singing at Funerals (เพลงแห่ศพ), covered the buildup to the 2014 election. Part four covers the protests from 26th January to 8th February 2014, including the 2nd February election.

The PDRC sabotaged the election, blockading polling stations to prevent voting. (It was ultimately invalidated, and the military launched a coup before another poll could take place.) Despite this, Bangkok Joyride celebrates the protesters, and in parts three and four Ing herself appears on stage at PDRC rallies. She can also be heard from behind the camera, wishing the protesters luck; in part four, she tells a demonstrator: "We fight the exact same battle."

In part three, Ing accused the mainstream Western media of pro-Thaksin bias, and this conspiracy theory is expanded in part four when she harangues the BBC's Bangkok correspondent, Jonathan Head: "How do you sleep at night, Mr Head?" Bangkok Joyride's fetishisation of national symbols also continues in part four: protesters are filmed while standing for the national anthem, not once but five times.

Part five, Dancing with Death (รำวงพญายม), will be released later this year. Meanwhile, Neti Wichiansaen's documentary Democracy after Death (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย), which highlights the PDRC's anti-democratic agenda, provides an effective counterpoint to Bangkok Joyride. The short films This Film Has Been Invalid [sic], Auntie Maam Has Never Had a Passport (ดาวอินดี้), Shut Sound, Myth of Modernity, and Here Comes the Democrat Party (ประชาธิปัตย์มาแล้ว) also include footage of PDRC demonstrations.

15 January 2019

After the Coup

After the Coup
After the Coup: The National Council for Peace and Order Era and the Future of Thailand, edited by Michael J. Montesano, Terence Chong, and Mark Heng, is a collection of essays on Thailand's political situation since the 2014 coup. Contributors include influential commentators such as Duncan McCargo, Thongchai Winichakul, and Puangthong Pawakapan. (Montesano previously co-edited Bangkok, May 2010 and contributed to Divided over Thaksin.)

The political affiliations of Thais from the middle class, the south, the north, and the northeast are examined in four chapters. Middle-class and southern interviewees discuss their reasons for joining the PAD and PDRC, notably their devotion to Rama IX and their anger at Thaksin Shinawatra's "alleged disloyalty to King Bhumibol. Most interviewees cited this issue as a decisive factor in turning them against Thaksin." The book also confirms a widespread and patronising sense of middle-class superiority: "All interviewees stressed a lack of education among Thaksin's supporters as evidence that elections in Thailand lack legitimacy; the uneducated simply succumb to vote buying."

In contrast, two chapters on the north and northeast focus on the red-shirt movement and the UDD, asking two pertinent questions: "Why was there so little resistance to the coup? Why were there so few Red Shirt protests in the twelve months following the coup?" The junta's intimidation tactics provide the answer: red-shirts are closely monitored and coerced into renouncing all political activity, including one interviewee who "had to promise not to wear a red shirt, or even a checked shirt containing red in the pattern."

Other chapters have a broader focus. Prajak Kongkirati expands his earlier essay on the 2014 election (in Military, Monarchy and Repression) to analyse forty years of election-related violence. Surachart Bamrungsuk provides a potted history of Thai coups, demonstrating that, for the military, practice makes perfect: "The absence of external security challenges has left the army free to involve itself in political affairs and to become more skilled in political manipulation." Thongchai Winichakul (updating his essay in "Good Coup" Gone Bad) examines the prospects for royalist hegemony following the succession.

There are two especially interesting chapters on mass media and politics. Aim Sinpeng and Wimonsiri Hemtanon highlight the 'filter bubble' effect caused by Thailand's partisan media, though their essay includes an unfortunate instance of self-censorship. They discuss a 1995 Thai Rath (ไทยรัฐ) corruption exposé "involving a high-profile member of the prime minister's Democrat Party" without naming the politician involved. (Duncan McCargo previously identified Suthep Thaugsuban as "the figure at the centre of the scandal" in his book Politics and the Press in Thailand.)

Puangthong Pawakapan surveys international media coverage of the monarchy since the 1960s, noting how critical reporting has increased since the 2006 coup: "The foreign press was instrumental in constructing a benign image of King Bhumibol in the international arena, and was thus complicit in entrenching the power of the monarchy. However, the political coverage of Thailand changed after 2006. The foreign press began to see the monarchy... as a crucial factor in the conflict that now engulfed Thailand."

28 December 2018

Military, Monarchy and Repression

Military, Monarchy and Repression
Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand's Authoritarian Turn is the first book to examine the causes and consequences of Thailand's 2014 coup. The essays were first published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia (volume 46, number 3; August 2016). In their introduction, editors Veerayooth Kanchoochat and Kevin Hewison summarise the country's volatile political climate since the previous coup in 2006: "Thailand's politics has been marked by multiple military interventions, political mudslinging, spates of violence, a "tradition" of street protests, and repeated civilian uprisings, usually followed by efforts to lay the foundations of electoral democracy."

Chris Baker (author of an excellent Thaksin Shinawatra biography) analyses the causes of the coup, from short-term PDRC demonstrations ("almost six months of constant protest which created the context for the coup") to long-term social trends and traditional power structures. He also argues that the current junta is more repressive than many previous coups ("this was clearly a military government of a kind not seen in over 40 years"), though he is optimistic about the country's political future: "The present generation of the Bangkok middle class, who grew up against the backdrop of the Cold War and the ninth reign, will be replaced by another which grew up in Bangkok as a globalised city."

Other contributors are more pessimistic. Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat (editors of Khaki Capital) believe that the military-dominated status quo will continue: "Perhaps only another 1992 military massacre of civilians will sufficiently taint the image of the armed forces to the extent that civilians cohere against them, monarchical support for the military diminishes, and soldiers return to the barracks. More likely, for the foreseeable future, military officers will continue to play a prominent role in Thailand, guaranteeing the resilience of monarchised military". Similarly, Prajak Kongkirati concludes that the 2014 election (later invalidated) and the ensuing coup "plunged Thailand into a state of uncertainty and (potentially violent) instability, possibly for years to come."

Eugénie Mérieau highlights the Constitutional Court's "effective usurpation of sovereign power". (The Court has disqualified four prime ministers from office: Thaksin Shinawatra, Samak Sundaravej, Somchai Wongsawat, and Yingluck Shinawatra.) Mérieau's argument is persuasive, though she refers to the politicised judiciary as a "Deep State", a term more often used by conspiracy theorists. Likewise, Chris Baker refers to an "Illuminati" of influential anti-democratic figures: again, the thesis is reasonable, though the terminology implies paranoia. Paul Chambers and Napisa Waitoolkiat's term "parallel state" is a less problematic description for the pervasive influence of unelected institutions on Thailand's nascent democracy.

30 October 2018

Histoire(s) du thai cinéma

Histoires du thai cinema
Gaze and Hear
The Six Principles
Histoire(s) du thai cinéma, a marathon programme of Thai short films with political themes, took place over a weekend at Bangkok's Dam'n Cineclub earlier this year. The event, split into two twelve-hour sessions (18th and 19th August), was curated by Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa.

The selected films covered Thai politics since the democratic revolution eighty years ago. The Six Principles (สัญญาของผู้มาก่อนกาล), directed by Abhichon Rattanabhayon, examines contemporary public perceptions of the 1932 revolution. Octoblur (ลมตุลาคม), directed by Patana Chirawong, intercuts footage of the 14th October 1973 massacre with the funeral of Thanom Kittikachorn, the military dictator who ordered the attack. Suchart Sawasdsri's "Red" at Last (มนัส เศียรสิงห์) and Manussak Dokmai's Don't Forget Me (อย่าลืมฉัน) both include footage of the 6th October 1976 massacre: "Red" at Last is narrated by a survivor of the tragedy, while Don't Forget Me features incongruous narration taken from a vintage documentary on the Mlabri tribe.

Thailand's recent political polarisation was represented by films examining the PAD, UDD, and PDRC protests. In Prap Boonpan's The Bangkok Bourgeois Party (ความลักลั่นของงานรื่นเริง), a group of yellow-shirted Bangkokians murder a man merely because he disagrees with their ideology. (This dystopian satire later became a reality, when PAD guards killed Narongsak Krobtaisong.) The UDD movement is featured in Red Movie (แกะแดง), directed by the Underground Office collective, which ends somewhat idealistically with John Lennon's utopian song Imagine. PDRC demonstrations appear in Boonyarit Wiangnon's Lice in the Wonderland (เพลี้ย) and two films by Chulayarnnon Siriphol: Here Comes the Democrat Party (ประชาธิปัตย์มาแล้ว) and Myth of Modernity.

The films with the most powerful impact were Nil Paksnavin's Rajprasong (ราชประสงค์), Nontawat Numbenchapol's Gaze and Hear (สายตา รับฟัง), and Re-presentation (ผีมะขาม ไพร่ฟ้า ประชาธิปไตย ในคืนที่ลมพัดหวน) by Chai Chaiyachit and Chisanucha Kongwailap. Rajprasong ends with a black screen and the jolting sound of eighty-seven gunshots, representing the victims of the 2010 massacre in downtown Bangkok. Gaze and Hear is a parody of royalist propaganda, with a hypnotic voiceover and flashing lights inducing a trance-like state of obedience. Re-presentation ends with an artist unsuccessfully attempting to draw Democracy Monument, and tearing up his sketch to reveal a drawing of a Rama V statue on the page beneath, a reference to the established hierarchies underlying Thailand's elusive democracy.

23 September 2018

Democracy after Death

Democracy after Death
Democracy after Death
Neti Wichiansaen's documentary Democracy after Death: The Tragedy of Uncle Nuamthong Praiwan (ประชาธิปไตยหลังความตาย เรื่องเศร้าของลุงนวมทอง) is an account of Thailand's recent political history, bookended by the coups of 2006 and 2014. These events are narrated in a voiceover addressed to Nuamthong Praiwan, a pro-democracy protester who committed suicide in 2006. Nuamthong was also the subject of Prap Boonpan's short film Letter from the Silence (จดหมายจากความเงียบ).

The film covers Thailand's polarisation between the PAD and UDD protesters, culminating in the military crackdown of 2010, "the most brutal political massacre in Thai history." As in Thunska Pansittivorakul's The Terrorists (ผู้ก่อการร้าย), former prime minister Abhisit is blamed for the massacre: "Directly responsible, Abhisit Vejjajiva holds Thailand's new record of the number of people shot by the military."

Democracy after Death is significant for its inclusion of sensitive political events excluded from Pen-ek Ratanaruang's documentary Paradoxocracy (ประชาธิป'ไทย). It's also a refreshing counterpoint to Ing Kanjanavanit's Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์), as it highlights the underhand tactics of the PDRC movement (extorting money and sabotaging the 2014 election). Whereas Bangkok Joyride is pro-PDRC, Democracy after Death is biased in favour of Thaksin Shinawatra, noting sympathetically that he "was forced to leave and has had to remain outside Thailand" though ignoring his corruption conviction.

The film's director is also living in exile, due to a previous lèse-majesté prosecution, and Democracy after Death has been self-censored to avoid further charges. A photograph of the junta and Rama IX on the night of the 2006 coup has been pixelated, and a soldier's pledge of loyalty to the king has been bleeped out. Like the short film Narayana's Arrow Spaceship: Between the Orbits of Mars and Jupiter (ยานศรนารายณ์ ระหว่างวงโคจรดาวอังคารและดาวพฤหัสฯ), the credits are also self-censored.

01 August 2018

Bangkok Joyride III

Bangkok Joyride III
The third part of Ing Kanjanavanit's epic documentary Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์) opened last week at Cinema Oasis. Chapter three, Singing at Funerals (เพลงแห่ศพ), covers the PDRC demonstrations from 15th to 26th January 2014, when Suthep Thaugsuban escalated the protest with his 'Shutdown Bangkok' campaign. The forthcoming chapter four, Becoming One (เป็นหนึ่งเดียว), will cover the PDRC's sabotaging of the 2014 general election.

Singing at Funerals follows the same format as the first two chapters, How We Became Superheroes (เมื่อเราเป็นยอดมนุษย์) and Shutdown Bangkok (ชัตดาวน์ประเทศไทย). Filmed on Ing's iPhone, it features excerpts from PDRC rallies (including speeches by Vasan Sitthiket and Ing herself) and extensive footage of street processions. The coverage ultimately becomes excessive: the camera follows Suthep for half an hour as he collects donations from an endless line of protesters. There are also numerous shots of Thai flags being waved, and this fetishisation of the national flag has been a consistent feature of Bangkok Joyride.

16 April 2018

About Heroes

Bangkok Joyride I
Bangkok Joyride II
Cinema Oasis, the arthouse cinema that opened last month in Bangkok, will begin a season of political documentaries this month, after the Songkran holiday. The About Heroes season features Bangkok Joyride (บางกอกจอยไรด์), a documentary directed by Ing K. The film, divided into two chapters, is a record of the PDRC's protests in 2013 and 2014 against former prime ministers Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra.

Chapter one, How We Became Superheroes (เมื่อเราเป็นยอดมนุษย์), covers the first stage of the protest, when Suthep Thaugsuban campaigned against a proposed amnesty bill. The amnesty was a blatant attempt to exonerate Thaksin of his corruption charges, and was unanimously rejected by the Senate. The film also features extended clips of a parliamentary no-confidence debate against Yingluck. Emboldened after defeating the amnesty bill, Suthep called for the dissolution of parliament and the establishment of an appointed government.

Chapter two of the documentary, Shutdown Bangkok (ชัตดาวน์ประเทศไทย), covers the escalation of the PDRC's protests. Following the playbook of the PAD, the PDRC shut down major roads in central Bangkok and occupied government buildings, yet were unopposed by the police. The anti-democratic nature of the protest was revealed when the PDRC sabotaged the 2014 general election, which may be included in the forthcoming third episode, Singing at Funerals (เพลงแห่ศพ).

Ing has also directed the banned films Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย) and My Teacher Eats Biscuits (คนกราบหมา). Her documentary Censor Must Die (เซ็นเซอร์ต้องตาย) was not banned as, according to section 27(1) of the Film and Video Act, "films of news events" are exempt from classification.

When I interviewed Ing in 2016, she said: "this ruling has set a marvellous legal precedent for all documentary films. I'm going to use this ruling to exempt my next film (another cinéma vérité documentary, called Bangkok Joyride) from the censorship process. Then it's a matter of finding a cinema." She solved that problem by building Cinema Oasis.

Citing the "news events" exemption, she didn't submit Bangkok Joyride to the censors, which explains why she was able to include a protester saying "Long live the King" in chapter one and a snippet of the royal anthem in chapter two. Boundary (ฟ้าตํ่าแผ่นดินสูง) was muted to remove a chant of "Long live the King", which was regarded as politicisation of the monarchy, and the royal anthem was cut from Soi Cowboy (ซอยคาวบอย) for commercialisation of the monarchy.

22 May 2014

coup d'état

At 4pm today, the Thai military launched another coup. Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha confirmed the coup in a live television announcement broadcast on all channels, and all civilian broadcasting has been suspended. A night-time curfew has been imposed. The constitution (itself drafted by the military following their previous coup) has been abrogated. Including today's takeover, there have been a dozen successful coups since Thailand's first constitution in 1932.

Since their declaration of martial law on Tuesday, the military had been acting as a mediator between the UDD, the PDRC, the Election Commission, Pheu Thai, and the Democrats, with representatives from each group meeting for negotiations at the Army Club in Bangkok. Prime Minister Niwatthumrong Boonsongpaisan did not attend the meeting, though Niwatthumrong, the cabinet, and former prime ministers Yingluck Shinawatra and Somchai Wongsawat have been ordered to report to army HQ.

This afternoon, Suthep Thaugsuban, Jatuporn Prompan, and other UDD and PDRC leaders were arrested during the Army Club negotiations. Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has also been detained. It's not clear whether the army launched the coup because the negotiations were not progressing, or whether the coup was premeditated and the negotiations were a pretext to detain the protest leaders. The UDD and PDRC protests have now been dissolved.

20 May 2014

"Martial law is not a coup d'etat..."

Prayut Chan-o-cha
The Thai military has declared a state of martial law, effective from 3am this morning. Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha made a televised statement announcing that the military has taken over control of national security. In a message broadcast by Channel 5, a station owned by the military, he sought to reassure the public: "We urge people not to panic. Please carry on your daily activities as usual. The invocation of martial law is not a coup d'etat."

The declaration does have some of the hallmarks of a coup, and the military apparently acted without government authorisation. Martial law gives the military wide-ranging powers to suspend civil rights and impose media censorship. Already, ten television stations have been ordered to stop broadcasting, and Prayut has issued warnings against political protest and criticism. (Last week, the PDRC vacated its Lumpini Park base and returned to Democracy Monument. UDD protesters are currently occupying Aksa Road on the outskirts of Bangkok.)

According to the constitution, the military has the power to declare martial law only "in a certain locality as a matter of urgency" (article 188). In other circumstances, "The King has the prerogative to declare and lift the martial law". Today, the military declared martial law throughout the country, not "in a certain locality", and a royal decree has not been issued, thus the declaration is unconstitutional.

The imposition of martial law represents a further undermining of the government's authority, though Prime Minister Niwatthumrong is still nominally in charge. The election, previously scheduled for 20th July, has been postponed indefinitely. As in 2006, it seems that the army does not have the patience to wait for an election, and prefers its own direct intervention.

08 May 2014

"The PM's status has ended..."

Yesterday, the Constitutional Court announced that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra must resign from her post, along with nine members of her cabinet. Chalermpol Ekuru, President of the Court, declared: "The Prime Minister's status has ended. Yingluck can no longer stay in her position". (Yingluck, Thaksin Shinawatra's sister, won the 2011 election; a new election has been scheduled for 20th July.)

Niwatthumrong Boonsongpaisan, a former Shin Corp. executive, has been appointed caretaker Prime Minister to replace Yingluck. Niwatthumrong was also the head of the government's controversial rice subsidy scheme, and today the National Anti-Corruption Commission recommended that Yingluck should be impeached by the Senate for her role in the policy. Impeachment would result in a five-year ban on political activity, though as she has already been forced to resign, it's not clear how she can be dismissed again.

The Constitutional Court's case against Yingluck relates to her demotion of Thawil Pliensri in 2011. Thawil was head of CRES (the Council for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation which launched the miltary massacre in 2010); Yingluck replaced him with the chief of police, then appointed Thaksin's brother-in-law Priewpan Damapong as the new police chief. The Court ruled that this was an act of nepotism that violated article 266 of the constitution, which prohibits "the recruitment, appointment, reshuffle, transfer... of a Government official" if such action is performed "for personal benefits or for the benefits of others or of a political party".

Yingluck's dismissal is the third occasion on which the Constitutional Court has ordered the resignations of prime ministers associated with Thaksin. The Court dismissed Samak Sundaravej in 2008 for hosting a TV cookery show. The Court ruled against Somchai Wongsawat, Samak's successor, later that year, in an attempt to placate PAD protesters.

Today's verdict seems to echo the Somchai case, another 'judicial coup' to appease anti-Thaksin protesters. Just as the PAD blockaded Government House and Suvarnabhumi airport, PDRC protesters have blocked intersections in Bangkok and disrupted the election. The courts have sided with the protesters against the government, nullifying the 2nd February election and preventing the dispersal of the PDRC.

Neither the Constitutional Court nor the NACC accused Yingluck of actually breaking the law. The Court ruled that Yingluck was legally authorised to transfer Thawil, though the transfer was not "in accordance with moral principles". Likewise, NACC spokesman Vicha Mahakun confirmed that corruption had not been proven: "the evidence is not clear that the accused took part in corruption, or whether she allowed corruption or not".

Yingluck's predecessor, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was also convicted of inappropriate staff transfers: he demoted Piraphon Tritasawit in 2009, and ignored the Administrative Court's verdict requiring reinstatement; and the Court ruled in March that his 2009 dismissal of Patcharawat Wongsuwan was also unlawful. However, neither case reached the Constitutional Court, unlike Yingluck's transfer of Thawil.

04 May 2014

"Yingluck should make the sacrifice
of withdrawing from power..."

Last week, the Election Commission announced that a new election will take place on 20th July. An election was held on 2nd February, though it was subsequently nullified by the Constitutional Court. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament last December as a concession to the PDRC protesters who have blocked intersections in Bangkok and disrupted the election. Suthep has also threatened to disrupt the next election, which would probably result in another annulment by the Court.

For the past week, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has pledged to reveal his plan to end the country's political limbo. Yesterday, he finally unveiled his proposals, calling for Yingluck to resign: "Yingluck should make the sacrifice of withdrawing from power". Curiously, he specified that she should quit before the Constitutional Court announces its verdict in the Thawil Pliensri case. A guilty verdict is widely expected, though it's unclear why Abhisit wants to pre-empt it.

Abhisit also proposed that the Senate should appoint an interim government, which would draft a series of political reforms. Those reforms would then be put to a referendum, and a general election would be held so that the government could implement the reforms. This plan is hardly surprising, as Democrat lawyer Wirat Kalayasiri made the same suggestion in the Bangkok Post last month: "the Senate Speaker would have to nominate the next prime minister... whose interim government should make plans for national reform ahead of the next general election."

Abhisit's proposals are similar to those of the PDRC: Suthep Thaugsuban has also called for an appointed group to draft plans for political reform before an election. However, Suthep has rejected Abhisit's plan, as it gives the Senate the authority to appoint the interim government; Suthep's stated aim is that he will seize sovereign power and select a prime minister by himself. Pheu Thai also rejected the proposal, as an appointed government would be unconstitutional.

Abhisit has stated that he will resign from politics if his proposals are accepted by both sides of the political dispute. (This is a safe pledge for Abhisit to make, as his proposals have not been accepted by either side.) The Democrats have announced that they will boycott the forthcoming election if Abhisit's plan is rejected, which seems highly likely. (They also boycotted elections in 2006 and earlier this year.) Instead of their petulant boycotts, they should refresh their leadership, introduce policies that appeal beyond their core voters, and disassociate themselves from the undemocratic PDRC.

03 April 2014

"Acts of the prime minister
that are unconstitutional..."

It seems increasingly likely that Yingluck Shinawatra will become the third prime minister affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra to be disqualified by the Constitutional Court. (Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat were both dismissed in 2008. The Court disqualified Thaksin himself in 2007, though he had already been removed by a military coup.)

Twenty-seven senators signed a petition asking the Constitutional Court to rule on Yingluck's removal of Thawil Pliensri as head of the National Security Council. The Court accepted the petition yesterday, and Yingluck now has fifteen days to defend herself against a charge of violating the constitution. Thawil claims that his transfer "involves acts of the prime minister that are unconstitutional".

Yingluck demoted Thawil in 2011, replacing him with the chief of police, then appointed Priewpan Damapong as the new police chief. Thawil was secretary of CRES (the Council for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation which launched the military massacre in 2010), and Priewpan is Thaksin's brother-in-law, thus the Court petition argues that Thawil's replacement was politically motivated. The constitution prohibits "the recruitment, appointment, reshuffle, transfer... of a Government official" if such action is performed "for personal benefits or for the benefits of others or of a political party" (article 266).

If the Constitutional Court found Yingluck guilty, she would automatically face dismissal as Prime Minister. This scenario is highly likely, as the Central Administrative Court has already ruled that Thawil's replacement was unconstitutional. That verdict was upheld last month by the Supreme Administrative Court, and Thawil has now been reinstated to comply with the forty-five day deadline imposed by the Court.

The constitution states that, if a prime minister leaves office, the new PM must be a member of parliament: "The Prime Minister shall be a member of the House of Representatives" (article 171). Furthermore, the prime minister must be selected by a majority parliamentary vote: "the appointment of a person as Prime Minister shall be passed by the votes of more than one-half of the total number of the existing members of the House of Representatives" (article 172). If a majority vote is not reached within thirty days, "the person who has received the highest votes" must be selected (article 173). However, the Constitutional Court's nullification of the election means that a prime minister cannot be proposed or voted for, as there are no sitting MPs.

The PAD and PDRC have both called for a royally-appointed prime minister, citing article seven of the constitution, though article seven merely affirms "the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State". In fact, the King unequivocally ruled out an appointed prime minister in 2006: "Article seven does not empower the King to make a unilateral decision... If the King made a decision, he would overstep his duty and it would be undemocratic".

The status of the caretaker cabinet would also be in question following the Prime Minister's dismissal. According to the constitution, the cabinet must remain until the next parliament is in place: "The outgoing Council of Ministers shall remain in office for performing duties until the newly appointed Council of Ministers takes office" (article 181). However, the constitution also states that the cabinet must resign following the prime minister's dismissal: "Ministers vacate office en masse upon... the termination of ministership of the Prime Minister" (section 180).

The Constitutional Court is likely to be one of the primary arbiters in these cases, and in the absence of legal precedents, much will depend on the Court's own interpretation of the constitution. Ominously, the Court's recent judgements have been questionable and arguably biased. It declared the election illegal on 21st March despite having declared it legal on 12th February; and it ruled that the election could be postponed, citing the 2006 election as a precedent, though the 2006 election was not postponed.

Yingluck is not the only prime minister to be found guilty of inappropriately transferring government officials. Abhisit Vejjajiva has been convicted of two such cases: he demoted Piraphon Tritasawit in 2009, and ignored the Administrative Court's verdict requiring reinstatement; and the Court ruled last month that Abhisit's 2009 dismissal of Patcharawat Wongsuwan was also unlawful. However, neither case reached the Constitutional Court, unlike Yingluck's transfer of Thawil.

21 March 2014

"Don't even dream that
there'll be another election..."

This afternoon, the Constitutional Court declared that the election held on 2nd February was unconstitutional. Citing article 108 of the constitution, which requires that the "election day must be the same throughout the Kingdom", the Court argued that the election did not take place on a single date and was thus invalid.

PDRC protesters led by Suthep Thaugsuban prevented candidates from registering in twenty-eight constituencies, and blocked voting at 11% of polling stations. Suthep's anti-democratic agenda has never been in doubt, though he confirmed it again yesterday: "If the court rules the election void, don't even dream that there'll be another election. If a new election date is declared, then we'll take care of every province and the election will fail again."

The Constitutional Court's judgement is in contrast to its verdict of 12th February, when it rejected calls from the opposition Democrats to nullify the election. Today's verdict is hardly surprising, however, given that the Court had previously nullified the 2006 election. The Democrats boycotted this year's election, as they did in 2006, in the expectation that the result would be voided by the Court.

Today's verdict legitimises the protesters, and reinforces the impression that the judiciary lacks impartiality. The Constitutional Court has a history of anti-Thaksin judgements. In 2007, it dissolved TRT though exonerated the Democrats. The following year, in what has been described as a judicial coup, it disqualified Samak Sundaravej for hosting a TV cookery show, and dissolved the PPP.

01 March 2014

"We will stop closing Bangkok..."

Suthep Thaugsuban has announced that his 'Shutdown Bangkok' campaign, which has disrupted traffic in the city since 13th January, will finally end on 3rd March. He pledged to dismantle his blockades at major intersections, and consolidate his protest camp at Lumpini Park: "We will stop closing Bangkok and give every intersection back to Bangkokians. We will stop closing Bangkok from Monday."

However, Buddha Issara, a Suthep ally who is leading a protest site at Chaengwattana, has refused to withdraw from the area. (Buddha Issara, a Buddhist monk, has also been accused of extortion, after protesting at businesses associated with Thaksin Shinawatra and insisting on payment before agreeing to leave: last week, he demanded 120,000 baht from the SC Park Hotel, which is part of the Shinawatra Group.)

Suthep led protests against the government's proposed amnesty bill last year, and successfully pressured the government into dropping the proposal, though the protests continued to escalate. Protesters blocked the registration of candidates for some constituencies before the general election, and obstructed polling stations to prevent advanced voting. On election day, Suthep's PDRC forced the closure of 11% of polling stations, denying millions of citizens their right to vote.

The decision to end the shutdown is an acknowledgement that Suthep's PDRC has been unsuccessful in its plan to bring down the government. Suthep caused maximum disruption on the streets (as the PAD did in 2006 and 2008), and the Democrat Party boycotted the election (as it did in 2006), recreating the circumstances that led to the coup in the hope that the army would intervene again. However, this time the Court ruled that the election was legal, and army chief Prayut called on both sides to avoid confrontation.

Suthep's public support is also dwindling, and attendance at his rallies has been declining sharply. There were also concerns about public safety, after several deaths from grenades and gunfire aimed at some protest sites: last weekend, four people, including three young children, died after attacks on protesters in Ratchaprasong (close to Siam Square in Bangkok) and Trat (a province on the Cambodian border).

19 February 2014

"This case is over..."

Kitti Eaksangkul
A general election was held as scheduled on 2nd February, though the government continues to face street protests and judicial interventions. Prime Minister Yingluck met the Election Commission on 28th January, after the Constitutional Court decreed that the election could be legally postponed. While the EC called for a delay, Yingluck argued that there was no legal precedent for an extension beyond the sixty-day period stipulated by the constitution.

Suthep's PDRC protesters attempted to prevent voting on election day, just as they did when advanced voting took place on 26th January. 89% of polling stations opened successfully, though voting was cancelled in nine provinces due to PDRC disruption and lack of Election Commission officials. Kitti Eaksangkul was attacked by a PDRC protester as he attempted to enter a polling station, and a photograph of the assault was reproduced in newspapers around the world.

There is still confusion surrounding twenty-eight constituencies in which no candidates could register for the election, marking another disagreement between the government and the Election Commission. The government maintains that the existing royal decree can be applied to the new round of registrations and by-elections, though the EC insists that a new decree is required. This is uncharted legal territory, a further sign of the stalemate created by the cycle of protests in Bangkok. As with the election postponement, the EC will ask the Constitutional Court to adjudicate on the need for a royal decree.

Following a petition from the Democrat Party (which boycotted the election) seeking an annulment of the election, the Constitutional Court ruled last week that the election was legal. This was an unexpected victory for the government, as the Court had annulled the 2006 election (which the Democrats also boycotted).

The Democrats have previously accused the government of disrespecting Constitutional Court judgements (after the Court rejected Yingluck's bill to restore a fully-elected Senate), thus the Democrat lawyer was careful not to challenge the Court's validation of the election. The lawyer, Wiratana Kalayasiri, said, "This case is over. But if the government does anything wrong again, we will make another complaint."

The PDRC protesters are still occupying several intersections in Bangkok, though they closed two of their camps at the start of this month. The protest sites are almost totally deserted during the daytime, though more protesters arrive in the evenings. Some sites resemble street markets rather than political demonstrations. (Also, Suthep has failed four times to appear at the Criminal Court to answer murder charges relating to the 2010 military massacre.)

More than a month after Suthep's 'Shutdown Bangkok' protest escalation, the police have begun an attempt at reclaiming some of the blockaded buildings and roads. Yesterday, four protesters and a police officer were killed at Phan Fah near Democracy Monument. Protesters attacked the police with grenades and gunfire, and the police responded with live ammunition.

Today, the Civil Court ruled that, while the government is within its rights to declare a state of emergency, it has no authority to disperse the protesters. This judgement is a contradiction, as political demonstrations are forbidden during a state of emergency. It also legitimises the illegal protest movement and represents another judicial undermining of the government's authority. Furthermore, the ruling is in contrast to the Civil Court's decision of 5th April 2010, when it decreed that the government did have the authority to disperse the UDD protesters.

Yesterday, the National Anti-Corruption Commission unanimously decided to bring formal charges against Yingluck for her role in the government's rice subsidy scheme. This could potentially lead to Yingluck's impeachment, if she were found guilty. Impeachment would require a three-fifths majority vote in the Senate, though Yingluck would be suspended from duty pending the Senate's vote.

In 2011, the government agreed to pay farmers up to 50% above the market rate for their rice, intending to withhold it from the world market and thus drive up the price. The result, however, was that other countries such as India and Vietnam increased their rice exports, the government was left with vast stockpiles of rice that it could not sell, and therefore it could not pay the farmers for the rice they had supplied.

Despite initially dismissing the rice farmers as uneducated peasants, the PDRC have now embraced the farmers as victims of the government, and are raising money to pay them. (Suthep accused the government of buying votes with this and other policies, though he is now employing the same strategy by paying the rice farmers himself.)

11 December 2013

People's Democratic Reform Committee

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has announced that she will dissolve parliament, and has scheduled a general election for 2nd February next year. After her announcement, the opposition Democrat Party resigned en masse: all of their MPs quit parliament simultaneously, in a dramatic rejection of the democratic process.

Yingluck was responding to pressure from Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat MP who has been leading street protests in Bangkok for the past month. A fortnight ago, Suthep invaded and occupied the Finance Ministry, in an attempt to destabilise the government. Four people were killed in clashes between students supporting Suthep and UDD members on their way to a pro-government rally. Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters who were attempting to break into various government buildings, though a temporary truce was called to mark the King's birthday on 5th December.

Suthep was formerly a Democrat MP, though he resigned in order to take his protest onto the streets. There's a bitter irony here, because when Suthep was Deputy Prime Minister in 2010, he and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered the army to use live ammunition against UDD protesters. (Abhisit and Suthep have both been charged with murder following the 2010 military massacre.) In fact, in 2010 Suthep said: "if they violate the laws, such as blocking roads and intruding into government offices, we will have to disperse the protesters." Now the tables have turned, and Suthep is leading his own protesters, using precisely the tactics that he condemned in 2010.

The protest started last month, when the government passed a bill that would have granted an amnesty to anyone charged with political offences since the 2006 coup. The amnesty, a blatant attempt to facilitate Thaksin Shinawatra's return to Thailand, was deeply unpopular with the public. (Thaksin has been living in self-imposed exile in Dubai since he was charged with corruption in 2008.)

Opposition to the amnesty briefly united both sides of Thailand's political divide. The red-shirts opposed it because it would have absolved Abhisit and Suthep of their responsibility for the 2010 massacre. The yellow-shirts were against it because it would have annulled Thaksin's corruption charge. Suthep began campaigning against the amnesty, and up to 100,000 people gathered at Democracy Monument to support him. (Democracy Monument was also the scene of a red-shirt protest in March 2010.)

Yingluck caved in to public opinion and did indeed drop the amnesty bill. It was also unanimously rejected by the Senate. However, Suthep did not stop his protest; in fact, he stepped up his campaign and called for the complete eradication of "the Thaksin regime". He has since led thousands of protesters in occupying several government ministries in Bangkok. Last Monday, his supporters marched to the offices of Thailand's terrestrial TV stations. Intimidated by the protesters, most channels broadcast a live speech by Suthep, in which he called for a national strike. (He made a similar appeal last month, though that was unsuccessful.)

The government's proposal to amend the constitution is another reason for the current protests. Under the 1997 constitution, widely regarded as Thailand's most democratic charter, the Senate became fully elected for the first time. However, after the coup, the new the 2007 constitution reverted to a partially appointed Senate. Yingluck had sought to amend article 117 of the constitution, and thus restore the fully elected Senate, however the Constitutional Court ruled that any such amendment was unlawful.

The Constitutional Court has a history of politically-motivated judgements. In 2006, it dissolved Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party though exonerated the Democrats of all charges. In 2008, it ordered Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign for the heinous crime of hosting a TV cookery show. Later that year, it dissolved the People Power Party in what has been called a judicial coup.

Suthep's goals, and his deadlines for achieving them, are both highly fluid. He sets a new deadline every few days, and when it passes he simply postpones it. He initially gave the government until 11th November to cancel the amnesty bill. (They didn't.) Then he declared that 1st December would be "Victory Day". (It wasn't.) He then issued a two-day deadline, for Yingluck to resign before 3rd December. (She didn't.) Then he announced that yesterday would be the "final battle" after which he would surrender to the police. (It wasn't, and he didn't.) At the weekend, he gave Yingluck another deadline of twenty-four hours to resign. (She didn't.) And he gave the police twelve hours to stop guarding Government House. (They didn't.)

Emboldened after the amnesty bill was cancelled, he has now demanded not only the resignation of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of parliament, but the establishment of an entirely new political system. He has formed a People's Democratic Reform Committee to govern the country instead of an elected parliament. He has also called for a royally-appointed prime minister, though the King has previously and unequivocally ruled this out. The PDRC's name is therefore somewhat ironic, as it is clearly undemocratic. (The People's Democratic Reform Committee sounds familiar: the organisers of the 2006 coup called themselves the Council for Democratic Reform...)

Suthep's concept of an appointed government is similar to the People's Alliance for Democracy's "new politics" policy, which called for a 70% appointed parliament and a royally-appointed prime minister. (The PAD is another undemocratic group with an ironic name.) Suthep's protest tactics (occupying ministries) also resemble the PAD's invasions of Government House and Suvarnabhumi airport in 2008. A warrant has been issued for Suthep's arrest, though there has been no attempt to detain him. Even if convicted, he is unlikely to face jail: the PAD leaders have still not been prosecuted, some five years after their brazen takeover of Suvarnabhumi.

Like the PAD, Suthep is doing his best to provoke the army into staging another coup, though army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha has so far managed to resist his natural impulses. Abuse of power was used as a justification for the 2006 coup against Thaksin, though corruption is endemic throughout Thai politics. In another irony, Suthep is campaigning against the corrupt Thaksin regime, yet Suthep also has a reputation for corruption: he illegally distributed farmland as Agriculture Minister in 1995, and he was disqualified as an MP in 2009 after violating the constitution.

In resigning as an MP and organising disruptive protests, Suthep has shown that he prefers mob rule to parliamentary democracy. (PDRC protesters carry whistles instead of the hand-clappers used in previous demonstrations, though in other respects they are following the PAD playbook.) Suthep and the PDRC represent only a minority of the electorate, as they consist largely of middle-class Bangkokians. They are vastly out-numbered by Thailand's rural poor, most of whom are pro-Thaksin.

Thaksin and his proxies have won every election since 2001. If a new election were called today, it's very likely that Yingluck would win again; that's why Suthep wants to replace elections with an appointed council. The Democrats have lost five elections in a row, but instead of reforming their party to make it more electable, they prefer to blame the democratic system itself. Unable to accept Thaksin's popularity with the electorate, his opponents consistently resort to undemocratic alternatives. Hopefully the election will go ahead as scheduled next year, though if the Democrats boycott it (as they did in 2006) they may trigger another judicial or military intervention.