Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thai Government Declares State of Emergency

After repeated threats by Thai officials, the government yesterday declared a state of emergency in response to spiraling political violence in recent months. Clashes between pro- and anti-government forces, in addition to at least 4 grenade attacks on protesters by unknown assailants, have killed dozens since November, prompting authorities to enforce a crackdown and assume powers to impose curfews, (further) censor the media, dissolve gatherings of any kind and use military force against protesters.

Anti-government protesters gather in Bangkok. Jan. 5, 2014 (VOA)
The recent protests began back in November, when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party pushed a controversial amnesty bill that would have shielded her older brother and military-ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra from past corruption charges, which would have allowed him to return to Thailand from exile without serving jail time. Although the legislation was ultimately scrapped following massive public outcry, the issue has reenergized anti-government sentiment in a country where the thin veil of democracy is constantly at odds with state-sponsored terrorism and repression.

This isn’t the first time that the Thai government has declared a state of emergency. After Yingluck’s older brother was ousted in a military coup d’état in September 2006, his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party was replaced in flawed elections by the People Power Party (PPP), which is largely a continuation of TRT. Frustrated by the political rebranding and angered by other grievances, the ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ (PAD) took to the streets to lead anti-government protests, centered in Bangkok. After protesters occupied the Government House (offices of cabinet ministers) and escalating violence between pro- and anti-government demonstrations in 2008, Thai authorities declared a state of emergency.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s ousting in 2006 has ushered in a new chapter in Thailand’s political history reflected today, one of emboldened dissent, government corruption and deep economic (and by extension, political) divisions amongst the public. Many are angered by the perceived dynastic nature of Thailand’s elected officials, government corruption, and the military’s prominent role in ‘securing order.’ Their demands are relatively extreme but somewhat anticipated: the PAD, the prominent force behind the current protests, is calling for the creation of a people’s council that would usher in much-needed political reforms. Despite these popular demands, they now face a military crackdown.

The Thai government, on the other hand, has other instruments besides military force that serve to repress government opposition. One prominent example and constant point of scrutiny is the enforcement of Thailand’s lèse majesté law (Criminal Code section 112).
Created in 1908 and reinstated in every one of Thailand’s constitutions since, the lèse majesté law criminalizes any criticism of the monarchy and any form of speech that the King finds offensive. Between 1990 and 2005, there were only a handful of cases tried under this law. But since then, between 2006 and 2011, over 400 cases have gone to court. If convicted, offenders can face up to 20 years in prison, even if their criticisms are accurate. Attacks on the freedom of speech, and more specifically dissenting views, are a defining feature of Thailand’s repression in recent years.

Thailand’s current violence and political situation beg the question of where the country is heading. The unprecedented protests have only intensified in the face of political turmoil: in response to all of the Democratic MP’s resignations from office in November of last year, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved Parliament and set new elections to be held next month, all under the pretext of political reform. It’s crucial to note, though, that the ‘reforms’ she pursues are very distinct from the desires of the people, who demand stronger accountability and less corruption from their elected leaders.  While the future of Thai democracy and the efficacy of authorities are thrown into doubt, what is certain is that protests won’t easily cease (and may become more extreme) and grievances forgotten if there continues to be a deliberate strategy by the ruling class to strangle political opposition and minimize the political influence of and space for dissent.

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