Any use of the word “strategy” when referring to Thailand’s military dictatorship is likely to be overcooked. Yet the media has been writing of the junta’s strategy coming to the referendum.
One way of looking at the recent and much-hyped lifting of a travel ban on some politicians is that the military junta is declaring a political victory. And, that that “victory” allows the military a timely opportunity to “loosen up” prior to the constitutional referendum, where it craves increased support. Not only does it want the constitution to pass that vote, but some see the referendum as a measure of support for the junta and the royalist authoritarianism of the junta, to be embedded in the political system going forward.
The Nation recently reported that the junta “was scrutinising its [coup] orders issued earlier to ban politicians and political activists from leaving the country such as order 1/2557, 2/2557, 3/2557 and order 80/2557.” These orders essentially prevented some Puea Thai Party politicians and some red shirt activists from leaving “the country without [the junta’s] permission.”
None of the banned persons listed had ever been charged with any crime. It was just the junta’s way of repressing and watching them.
The junta announced that it “lifted the travel ban to reflect the improved political situation and to ease political tensions ahead of the referendum.” That led to suggestions that the junta was declaring political victory and that this was part of a “strategy” seeking to embed its polity going forward.
But, then, the junta did warn: “We did not ease all the rules as we need to maintain tight grips on some issues.” The statement also added the royalist claim of “we are all Thais”, declaring: “We relaxed the rules because we believe we are Thais alike…”.
Khaosod reported that some of the previously banned politicians in Puea Thai welcomed the move. The coup-loving, election-losing Democrat Party’s Wirat Kalyasiri said the move was “a good sign” and claimed it “will lead to reconciliation.” He may have jumped the gun. More thoughtful on the Democrat Party side was Nipit Intarasombat who said: “I don’t feel happy or excited that this order will be repealed, because it shouldn’t have been there in the first place…. Personally, I even think that the repeal comes too late.”
The Nation son reported that “activists” and “scholars” were less happy. Lifting the ban did not “respond to the needed assurance that people’s rights and liberty are protected, and also fails to fulfil the junta’s desire to ‘look good’ in the eyes of other countries.” They thought the junta was responding to “the international community’s recent criticism of the human rights situation in Thailand.”
Chaturon Chaisang pointed out that “although the junta had abrogated the travel ban, many measures still applied to the select group of activists and politicians. The ban on financial transactions that is applied against some of them is still in place, he said, adding that the threat of temporary detentions also remained.” And, he quite rightly pointed out that the list was never enforced by the junta against politicians it liked: “Many activists, although on the list, could go abroad as long as they do not slam the junta…”.
We were’t so sure. The travel bans have not really been front page for those criticizing the junta. Arbitrary detention, lese majeste, military courts and arbitrary powers are more significant. Except that the junta then followed up with another “concession.”
The junta has announced that “no longer will use military camps as venues for ‘attitude adjustment’ re-education sessions, instead sending dissidents to ‘friendlier’ government buildings for the talks.” In other words, it is going to harass opponents, and seek to “persuade them not to speak out against policies and actions of the military regime,” but not in military camps but somewhere else.
Where? “[P]ovincial halls and police stations will be used to house the political opponents…”. We guess the difference is that the abductions and detentions will be “civilianized.” As Deputy Prime Minister and General Prawit Wongsuwan said “of the forced incarcerations,” “the sessions would continue and those summoned would still have to report to military officials.” So “civilianization” is about location, not who is doing the abductions, detentions, interrogations and intimidation.
Adding to the seeming non-significance, the Bangkok Post reports that The Dictator has “rejected calls for the regime to relax the ban on political activities, saying politicians have failed to improve their behaviour.” Paternalism runs deep in the hierarchical military. He added that “content posted on social media and media interviews indicated certain politicians have not stopped making mischief.”
As ever, General Prayuth Chan-ocha angrily rejected such calls declaring “he was not considering easing other restrictions, as it could lead to public disorder and threaten the regime’s political roadmap.”
Failed Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva wants the junta “to allow political parties to engage in activities that would help them prepare for reforms.” As usual, he resorted to weasel words, assuring the junta that politicians like him would be “good.” Politicians “who want to cause trouble, he said, would “resort to secretive means to achieve their ends…”.
In the end, neither of the steps is hugely significant. The major elements of repression and arbitrariness remain in place. Whatever the junta was “thinking,” and we are sure something must have been ticking in someone’s head, it was clear that the move was not a “softening” as some editorials claimed.
Our guess, and that is all it is, is that they are looking beyond the referendum and how they can fix an election in 2017 (should it go ahead). Our guess on top of our guess is that, like juntas before them, they are looking at which politicians to bring into a military party. That requires some accommodations to be made.