Thailand's postponed democracy

Nick Cumming-Bruce
25 March 2007

When tanks rumbled into Bangkok on 19 September 2006, ending prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's discredited five-year rule, Angkhana Neelapaijit, like many urban Thais, had mixed but hopeful feelings. The spectacle of soldiers snatching power was hardly welcome to a country that witnessed eighteen other military interventions over the past seventy-five years. Only a decade earlier Thais had voted for a "people's constitution" designed to consign such events to history. Yet hostility on that score was for many tempered by a mixture of relief and hope. How the mood has changed.

The relief at the overthrow of leaders gorged on the conceit of their wealth and seemingly absolute power and vicious in their willingness to stoop to any expedient, from financial intimidation to violence, to silence critics, fostered a sense that the generals were the lesser of two evils. They promised to hand over to a civilian government, draft a new constitution and hold elections under it within a year. And the man they picked to be prime minister in this transition was by most accounts a good guy, albeit a retired soldier.

Compared with the grasping, abrasive Thaksin, Surayud Chulanont cuts an avuncular, gentlemanly figure, with a reputation for honesty and professionalism. As army commander, he had sought to nurture those qualities in the military. Its intervention in politics was a thing of the past, he promised. In one of his first public appearances, Surayud honed that image. The four main challenges, as he saw them, were social and political reform, restoring national unity and restoring the rule of law.

"In the last five years there has been a deterioration in the rule of law", he said. "Until every citizen stands equal in the eyes of the law there can be no justice for all and no end to the corruption which has become a national disease." Past promises of politicians had often evaporated. "But I'm not a politician", Surayud said. "I have the authority of an appointed prime minister to act quickly and decisively."

Nick Cumming-Bruce is a British journalist currently based in Bangkok where he has worked as a correspondent for the Guardian, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He currently works for the Landmine Monitor mine action team.

Also by Nick Cumming-Bruce on openDemocracy:

"Thailand: a coup for democracy?"
(20 September 2006)

"Thailand's high-stakes gamble"
(9 October 2006)

"Burma and the ICRC: a people at risk"
(15 December 2006)

Among the disappeared

Such pledges gave Angkhana particular reason to hope. By then, two and a half years had passed since her husband Somjai Neelapaijit, a prominent and respected Muslim lawyer had disappeared. A team of five policemen had abducted him on a busy Bangkok street early one evening in March 2004. Passers-by heard his shouts and saw the officers who forced him into their vehicle and drove him away. His body has never been found.

Somjai's offence appears to have been his work defending Muslims accused of security offences in Thailand's three southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani), torn by a bloody insurgency that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since Thaksin's declaration of martial law in January 2004. Not only had Somjai brought about the release of individuals seized by security forces, he had had the temerity, just days before his abduction, to file complaints of torture of five southern men to Thailand's National Human Rights Commission. The abduction teams included one of the police interrogators identified by his clients.

The ranks, positions and experience of the officers implicated in his kidnap made clear it was not a rogue operation. Phone records of the officers' mobile phones showed they had received calls from Government House, the office compound where the prime minister works and the nerve-centre of government. The evidence pieced together by Angkhana and investigators pointed to Somjai's abduction being ordered by a high-ranking figure in Thaksin's government. Human-rights investigators believe Somjai was alive for several days after his abduction and that key leaders of the government, the police and the army knew of his situation yet failed to ensure his safety or bring about his release.

Somjai's fate illustrated the regime's ruthless contempt for legal process or human rights. In an earlier campaign Thaksin launched against the drug-trafficking scourge, some 2,500 people were killed in mysterious circumstances that often bore the hallmarks of police extra-judicial executions. The aggressive tactics Thaksin and his interior minister, Chidchai Wanasatidya - both former policemen - preferred in tackling insurgency in the south, had led to a number of mass killings and 100 known cases of forced disappearances at the hands of security forces since the start of 2004.

"The Thai security forces are using 'disappearances' as a way to weaken the militants and instill fear in the Malay Muslim community", Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch said on 19 March, releasing a report on forced disappearances in Thailand. "These 'disappearances' appear to be a matter of policy, not simply the work of rogue elements in the security services."

Somjai's disappearance also became a litmus test of Thailand's judicial apparatus, revealing the brazen impunity of the police. Thaksin first tried to brush off the incident, then promised swift investigation and resolution of the case, handing it to the department of special investigations (DSI), a body operating under the ministry of justice and supposedly more independent than the police. But the head of the DSI was a former police official, as were many of its investigators, and the case went nowhere.

Tireless campaigning for justice by Angkhana led to prosecution of the police officers who seized Somjai, unprecedented and a landmark event in Thailand. But Thai law only allows prosecution for kidnap when there is a demand for ransom and they could not be charged with murder without proof of Somjai's death. Since there was no body, they could only be tried for coercion and robbery. However, the investigation and conduct of the prosecution was little short of a fiasco, reeking of cover-up. In July 2005, a Thai court still convicted one of the five officers, although he remains free on bail pending appeal. The other four returned to active duty. One was even promoted while the trial was still under way.

What happened to Somjai, along with the anti-drug campaign and abuses in the south, benchmarked an abrupt deterioration in Thailand's human-rights record. "Before Thaksin, Thailand was the unquestioned leader in southeast Asia on human rights and democracy. It showed that democracy, economic development and stability can go hand in hand", said Adams. Now, he added, it was another country of concern in a region where progress on human rights has mostly stalled or regressed.

But the hopes of human-rights activists that coup leaders would see prosecuting the government's thuggish excesses of recent years as a way both to fulfil their promises of restoring justice and prosecute Thaksin have given way to frustration and disillusion. Coup leaders took months to replace the police chief and DSI boss appointed by and close to Thaksin. In February, the Surayud government eventually decided to form a committee to investigate the human-rights abuses of the Thaksin era (2001-06) but allowed it even fewer powers than the existing National Human Rights Commission.

Angkhana sees the change of leadership at the DSI as producing "some progress" in the investigation of Somjai's disappearance but fears it may be too little, too late. It seems crucial evidence has disappeared and the deputy director of the DSI, another police officer with links to those involved in Somjai's disappearance, remains in place.

In the dark

After a promising start, the government's handling of the crisis in southern Thailand is also in difficulty. Surayud won plaudits for publicly identifying injustice as the cause of southern violence and for travelling to the south to apologise for the brutal excesses and neglect of past administrations. To that unprecedented act of contrition the prime minister added an offer to negotiate any issue with those behind the insurgency except separation and he revived the main local institution for managing the conflict, dismantled by Thaksin, which has a mandate to investigate and punish abuses.

An International Crisis Group report released in March 2007 notes the number of arbitrary arrests sharply declined after the interim government took over. Yet complaints of torture and forced disappearance continue and there is little evidence of action to make those responsible for even the most egregious abuses of the last few years accountable. Moreover, the response from insurgents to these gestures of conciliation has been an escalation in violence and brutally indiscriminate killing of civilians, raising fears the government will surrender to calls for a return to harsher tactics.

The government's hesitant and fumbling performance stretches across the spectrum of political and economic policy. Where coup leaders promised civilian rule, martial law remains in force in many provinces, the activities of established political parties remain severely curtailed and media are subject to greater censorship than under Thaksin.

"They may talk the right talk but they are incapable of getting the bureaucracy to do the right thing", a Thai human-rights investigator says of Surayud's government. "We're at the six-month mark for this government, but you ask anyone on the street, we don't know what the government has achieved, what they have been doing."

Half-way through the year the interim government has allowed itself, Surayud has little time left to put things right. The political timetable picked up by Thai political analysts may see the assembly now drafting a new constitution for Thailand completing its work in April, followed by a month of public debate and a referendum; thereafter, coup leaders have set a tentative date of 23 November for holding elections for a new government. Yet, many Thais still complain they do not know who is really in charge or what their objectives are.

Political analysts see a key behind-the-scenes role being played by elder statesman Prem Tinsulanonda, a former prime minister and army boss who has remained influential as chairman of the privy council advising Thailand's revered King Bhumibol. But they also see his role less as evidence of discreet royal intervention than as symptomatic of a reassertion of old establishment interests that Thaksin sidelined.

"It's as if we are going back to the kind of government we had in the 1980s, it's the old bureaucrats, the old guard who are asserting their position and these are not people interested in democracy but in law and order", says Jon Ungpakorn, a member of Thailand's pre-coup senate. Options considered by the constitution drafting assembly included the possibility of allowing a royally appointed prime minister.

"Such things will not be long lasting", Ungpakorn adds. "Society won't go back to the old days of guided democracy."

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