Thai Politics Updates April 2012
The month of April is a long-awaited one for most Thais who look forward to the annual 5day public holiday and Songkran (Thai New Year) celebration. This year, it was the occasion for Thaksin to meet his supporters for the first time since the coup d’état that ousted him in September 2006. On the 1st of April, the Cabinet passed a resolution to extend the current parliamentary session for an indefinite period, without giving official reasons. Notable parliamentary debates of this month included the debate on the article 291 of the Constitution governing rules for the launch of a charter amendment process and the report by the House Committee on reconciliation (April 4-6). They fairly reflect the main priorities of the current government. I.
Thai-China relations An agreement was reached with China on technical assistance related to water management. Thai-Cambodia relations In April, there was a clear show that tensions between Thailand and Cambodia, which came close to war only two years ago, have relaxed considerably. Hun Sen himself declared the relationship between Phnom Penh and Bangkok had improved during the Yingluck Shinawatra administration. Thaksin Shinawatra, despite earlier promises, was unable to secure the release of Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Pipattanapaiboon, two Thai yellowshirt serving sentences in Cambodian prison for illegal entry and espionage. After meeting for two days, the Joint Thai-Cambodian Working Group reportedly agreed not to withdraw troops from Preah Vihear temple and the surrounding area, despite the 18 July 2011 International Court of Justice ruling ordering them to do so.
Thaksin’s tour in Lao and Cambodia For the first time since he was ousted in a coup on September 19, 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra met his red-shirt supporters “for real” in Vientiane, Lao and Siem Reap, Cambodia, between the 11th and 15th April 2012 at the occasion of the Songkhran holidays. The gathering in Laos was relatively small—perhaps smaller than organizers intended as some reports asserted that buses arranged to transport supporters went unused, and only about 1,000 people showed up. The rally in Siem Reap, Cambodia, however, was massive. Tens of thousands of red-shirt supporters gathered. Thaksin spent time with many high-level personalities including Sanoh Thienthong, participated in many lot nam dam hua ceremonies, and sang many songs on stage together with key red-shirt leaders, demonstrating their renewed strong friendship. Some of the leaders he also publicly kissed, like Thida Thavornseth. UDD leaders present at the event in Siem Reap included Thida Thavornseth,
Korkaew Pitongkul, Weng Tojinarakul, and the two stars, usually described as the most popular speakers (and singers), Jatuporn Promparn and Nattawut Saikuea. Veera Musikapong did not join his colleagues, while Arisaman Pongruanrong was present but unable to go on stage due to a court order restricting his right to participate in political activities. Thaksin made a speech in which he stressed his desperate desire to return home and praised his younger sister’s talent as prime minister. He made it clear that he was not aiming for the post of prime minister if he could return home this year. He came down the stage to kiss and hug his supporters. Thaksin’s speech was not political, however, it was interpreted that he asked red-shirt people to get prepared for reconciliation and forgiveness. He sang the song “Let it be” by the Beatles, and this was interpreted as a call on red-shirts not to fight for prosecutions in relation to the government crackdown on the April-May riots in April-May 2010. The organization of this event reveals the degree of cooperation between Hun Sen and Thaksin. Cambodian authorities provided security for the event. The Cambodian press did not seem very enthusiastic, however. The Phnom Pen Post criticized the amount of money spent (all Thais were allowed a free entry to Angkor Wat, normally priced at 20 dollars a person a day) as well as “double-standards” in terms of freedom of assembly when comparing the right of Thais to assemble in Cambodia to the right of Cambodians themselves to assemble in their own country. It was reported that the total cost of the event amounted to at least 60 million THB. II.
Reconciliation - KPI study On April 6, the parliament voted to endorse the report submitted by the House Committee on Reconciliation, chaired by coup leader Sonthi Boonyartaglin and to send it to the government to consider taking further action. More than 200 members of the Volunteers for Protecting the Land Group had rallied in front of parliament in opposition to the vote on the House committee report for national reconciliation. A government panel, chaired by Yongyuth Wichaidit, whose main mandate is to monitor the implementation of the recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is to look into the report. The objective of the government is reportedly to draft a law on reconciliation. Such a law would include provision on amnesties. However, conditions and modalities of these amnesties remain unclear and are at risk of sparking controversy or even reviving the political conflict if amnesty involves Thaksin Shinawatra. Pheua Thai Party spokesman Prompong Nopparit reportedly announced that the draft bill on reconciliation could be expected to be forwarded to the House in August or September when the next parliamentary session starts. (Bangkok Post, 9 April 2012) - The issue of amnesty The issue of amnesty triggers a very emotional debate and shakes the hearts of Thai people.
The King Prajadhipok’s Institute, whose study has served as a basis for the drafting of the House Committee on Reconciliation report, has proposed amnesties as a way out of the crisis, after investigating lessons learnt from foreign countries that experienced violent conflict and engaged in a process of reconciliation, such as the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland, South Africa and eight other case studies. The comparison between the 10 countries showed that they all issued amnesties. However, in the case of Thailand, the problem is that the word amnesty in people’s minds refers to three very different things. 1. An amnesty for Thaksin Shinawatra, ex-prime minister ousted by a coup in 2006 and convicted in abstentia in 2009 for corruption. He is also facing many other corruption cases, stemming from the work of the Assets Examination Committee, a coup-administration-appointed administrative body with judicial powers. The fact that this body was set up by the junta which overthrew Thaskin makes it illegitimate in the eyes of a part of Thai society.
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Cases still under investigation include: the two-digit and three-digit lottery; a soft loan granted by the Export-Import Bank to Myanmar; conversion of telecom concession fees to a telecom excise tax; political violence; and Ratchadapisek land deal.
2. An amnesty for red-shirts currently serving jail sentences related to their political activities during April-May 2010. Charges include breach of the emergency decree, blocking traffic, illegal assembly, etc. Among these, the fate of people convicted of lèse-majesté charges or using the article 112 of the penal Code remains undefined. Views on their eligibility for an amnesty related to protest activities diverge. Some of them have been charged in connection to speeches made on stage at Ratchaprasong or Sanam Luang as part of red-shirt rallies. 3. An amnesty for the government side who conducted the massive crackdown on the protest which left 91 people dead and about 2,000 people injured. The question of who exactly in the chain of command should be covered by this amnesty also remains unanswered. Many red-shirts opposed the amnesty for government officials who “ordered the killings of red-shirts.” They warned Pheua Thai members that they need the truth to be revealed and perpetrators to be brought to justice before they can forgive, and eventually reconcile. It was reported that a clear signal in that sense was sent to Thaksin Shinawatra at the occasion of his visit in Siem Reap, Cambodia. For example, the Bangkok Post quoted the younger brother of Kamolkate Akhad, the nurse who was shot dead in Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19, 2010, as saying, "Right now, have politicians given priority to the public interest? I oppose reconciliation because all the political violence occurred because of politicians. They have used people as their tools. Eventually, these politicians will reconcile. Then what about the people who fought alongside them?" (Bangkok Post, 19 April 2012)
The question is whether or not it is possible or desirable to trade off an amnesty in corruption-related cases for an amnesty in political violence cases including thousands of injuries and almost a hundred deaths. Most red-shirts argue that those two different types of penal cases cannot be compared. Academic groups also jumped into the discussion on the amnesty bill, especially jurists and legal experts. The Nittirat group, a group of seven Thammasat law lecturers under the leadership of Germany-educated Dr. Vorajet, issued its own statement based on the following arguments: â€œ1. Nittirat reaffirms its push to amend the lese majeste law as prescribed in Article 112 of the Criminal Code; 2. Nittirat totally opposes reconciliation by granting blanket amnesty to all parties involved in the political disturbances in the wake of the 2006 coup. In the past, the country granted blanket amnesty on two occasions: in 1978 pertaining to the October 1976 bloodshed and in 1992 pertaining to the Black May 1992 incident. But such amnesty was unfairly applied to those responsible for cracking down on people; 3. Nitirat proposes that amnesty should factor in the following points: 3.1. No amnesty for state officials involved in crowd dispersal operations that have taken place since September 19, 2006; 3.2. Instant amnesty for those accused of violating the emergency situation and Internal Security Act; 3.3. Removing those involved in street protests and facing criminal charges from judicial review and resolving their violations via a conflict-resolution committee; 3.4. Absolving those ruled by the conflict-resolution committee as being involved in politically motivated incidents and targeting those who acted without political motivation for normal criminal proceedings. Amending the Constitution to include provisions on conflict resolution. 4. In order to repeal the consequences of the coup, the new charter should include provisions to repeal the amnesty granted to coup leaders and bring them to justice. The work of the Assets Examination Committee would consequently be voided, paving the way to prosecute the suspects again under due process.â€? - Compensation It was promised that compensation for those killed and wounded in political violence during the April-May 2010 events would be paid in May. They are entitled to 7.5 million THB. Under its 2 billion baht compensation scheme, the government has agreed to pay families of those killed 7.5 million baht, 4.5 million for disabilities, 1.125 million for severe injuries and 675,000 for moderate injuries. However, there is speculation that families of the victims or victims themselves who have filed complaints in relation to the crackdown should first drop the charges before getting the 7.5 million compensation. Interestingly, the case filed at the Civil Court for relatives of victims of political violence has been delayed, at the request of the red-shirts lawyers (hired by the 111 Foundation) March
30 was initially set to consider the damage and reparation lawsuits filed against the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration and Finance Ministry. The foundation has filed lawsuits for damages totaling 130 million baht against the Finance Ministry. - Rallies in commemoration of past violence Commemoration to honour the memory of the deaths occurred two years ago at Kok Wua intersection during clashes between the army and protesters took place on April 10. The UDD held its event on April 11 instead of April 10 because that date fell within the mourning period for Her Royal Highness Princess Bejaratana Rajasuda, (according to Tida Thavornseth, UDD Chairwoman). They performed a religious rite at the Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Avenue. Tida Thawornseth presided over the ceremony. Deputy Agriculture Minister Nattawut Saikuer and other UDD core members and MPs, including Korkaew Pikulthong and Weng Tojirakarn, joined the event. The Democrat party, led by party deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij, Apirak Kosayothin and other high-profile Democrat MPs, held a ceremony on April 10 at Kok Wua where General Romklao Tuwatham was killed while on duty. A group of about 10 red-shirts gathered at the Democracy Monument and shouted at the Democrats. Court cases - Red-shirts On 10 April, the North Bangkok District Court dismissed a case filed against Sombat Boonngamanong, also called Nuling, a red-shirt activist and NGO leader, for leading an antigovernment rally under the Din Daeng expressway on May 18, 2010. He was charged with illegal assembly, blocking traffic and causing unrest in violation of the emergency decree in force at the time. In the case of red-shirt co-leader Jatuporn Prompan, the Constitution Court scheduled May 18 for rending its verdict. His parliamentary status is put into question due to the fact that he did not vote in the July 3, 2011 election as he was in jail. He is also being investigated in another case, on charges of lèse majesté. Meanwhile, a few hundred red-shirts still remain in jail for their participation in the AprilMay 2010 protests. The government had promised during the electoral campaign to try to help bail them out, and set aside additional funds to do so last year. There is a 43 million baht "Justice Fund" to be used by the Rights and Liberties Protection Department of the Justice Ministry to bail out detainees. (“This fund is available to yellow shirts also, but the majority of the red shirts are poor and when they faced arrest, they had no money to bail themselves out” interview with Pitaya Jinawat, director-general of the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, Bangkok Post, 16 April 2012). The justice fund had reportedly already disbursed 100,000 baht each to the families of people who died in the political violence of recent years, although bail requests supported by the Justice Ministry were rejected by the courts. - Lèse majesté A petition was filed at the Constitutional Court by the two lawyers handling the lese majeste case against Somyos Prueksakasemsuk questioning the constitutionality of the article 112 of the Penal Code. They requested a suspension of the trial until the court makes a ruling. Despite being in poor health condition, Somyos has been denied bail seven times and has
spent almost a year in jail at the Klong Prem Remand Prison. He is on trial as being the editor of Voice of Taksin magazine, which published two articles (by a writer who used a pseudonym) deemed critical to the Chakri dynasty. In another case, Surachai Saedan, core leader of the radical red-shirt group Daeng Siam, was sentenced on April 27 to two and a half years in jail on charges of lese majeste related to a speech he made at a red-shirt rally on February 5 and 6, 2011 at Samakkhitham Temple in Bangkok. These two and a half years added up to the sentences earlier pronounced in other cases. Aged 70, he is condemned to spend in total 10 years in jail. The case of Akong or Uncle SMS, also in poor health and old, condemned to 20 years in jail for sending four SMS deemed critical to the monarchy was also raised in public discussion about the consequences of the use of lèse majesté. Constitution change Debate on the Constitution Drafting Assembly heated up the parliament this month, as the first reading of the law amending the article 291 of the Constitution was rushed within a few days. In line with the government’s proposition, the CDA structure would be made up of 77 drafters, to be elected from each province, plus 22 experts, to be appointed by parliamentarians. The opposition party criticized this mode of selection, arguing that Pheua Thai would use its voting power in parliament to select candidates of its choice to sit on the list of experts. Colour politics] - By-elections: the soon-to-be “Pathum Thani model” A by-election in Pathum Thani was very much commented upon, as it featured a large defeat for the Pheua Thai party candidate in a constituency that is considered a strong “red-shirts” base. The election was held on the 21 April. It was held to fill to fill in the seat of Pheua Thai MP Sumeth Ritthakanee, who resigned to run for the post of Provincial Administrative Organisation chairman on 22 April. Voter turnout was as low as 35 per cent, compared with a 75 percent voter turnout in the July 3, 2011 general election. Pheu Thai lost in both elections. Democrat Party candidate Kiatisak Songsang won the MP seat against rival Pheu Thai candidate Somchai Rangsiwattanasak. MP Sumeth Ritthakanee who resigned from the parliament did not get the hoped for PAO chairmanship. Lessons were quickly drawn and after criticizing Sumeth’s move, the Pheua Thai reportedly resolved to prohibit its MPs from resigning to run for local administration offices. (Bangkok Post, 24 April 2012) Thida Thavornseth said that Pheu Thai's loss in the by-election in Pathum Thani was among the first negative consequences for the government. "This indicates that many red shirts have independent minds."(The Nation, 25 April 2012). It was described in the media as a “slap in the face” for the Pheua Thai (The Nation) and interpreted as showing that the ruling party is not invulnerable, and its red-shirt strongholds are not impregnable as formerly believed. In Chiang Mai, Pheu Thai MP for Chiang Mai Chinnicha Wongsawat was disqualified for filing a false assets statement. Red-shirts in Chiang Mai asked for primaries to be organized
so that they can choose their own candidate instead of the one chosen unilaterally by the Pheua Thai party. - Red shirts-Pheua Thai relationship The relationship between the Pheua Thai and its mass base the red-shirts, largely under the leadership of the United Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) movement, started to be much discussed in the media, as a consequence of the “Pathum Thani experiment” (cf supra). Whereas there is no doubt that the UDD and the red-shirts enormously helped the Pheua Thai party to win the July 3, 2011 general election (proof of this is the number of red-shirts rewarded with Cabinet positions especially Nattawut Saikuea and soon Jatuporn Promparn) a split over visions of amnesty as well as over the “compromises” made by the Yingluck administration seems to be threatening the unity of the “reds”. The visit of Yingluck Shinawatra to Prem Tinsulanonda at the occasion of the Songkhran ceremony of lot nam dam hua was very much criticized and made headlines in most newspapers. This ceremony, whereby people have to kneel to receive the pouring of sacred water on their hands, is a symbol of an unequal relationship between a “nong’ (younger brother/younger sister or inferior) and a phu yay (someone to be respected according to the rules of seniority in force in Thai society). In that case, Yingluck, being prime minister, acted as the inferior and general Prem, being the president of the Privy Council, as the phu yay. Many red-shirts consider that Prem has played a role in the 2006 coup d’etat and saw this move as, at least, inappropriate and in contradiction with the origins and discourses of the Pheua Thai party, or even as an act of treason (for the most radical Thais). As for being too “compromising”, the most radical red-shirts criticizing the use of the article 112 and calling for the release of political prisoners expressed growing disappointment at the stance of the government over this matter. - Southern insurgency Arrests were made in connection with the car bombs in Yala and Hat Yai on 30 March which killed 14 people. The question of how to reorganize agencies working in the South to tackle the southern insurgency as it shows no sign of improvement, with daily bombings and shootings, was discussed in parliament. MPs from the southern provinces submitted a letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra asking for a general debate in parliament on the situation in the far South. Rumours about secret talks between former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and insurgents were also alleged during parliamentary debates. According to the rumour, Thaksin held talks with a separatist group in Malaysia but the talks failed, leading to the deadly March 31 car bombings at municipal Yala and Songkhla's Hat Yai district that caused massive damage. Thaksin Shinawatra later denied the Democrat Party's accusation that he held secret talks with southern rebel leaders.
Economy and Society
War on drugs and death penalty Despite the fact that the death penalty is strongly condemned by international law (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (ICCPR) to which Thailand is a
member, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to which Thailand is a signatory), especially for drug trade offences, Chalerm Yubamrung reaffirmed its stance on applying the capital sentence for drugs, and making sure that it is applied as quickly as possible (within 15 days from the date the verdict being final). The death penalty in Thailand is rarely carried out. The last executions occurred on 24 August 2009 for people convicted on drugs charges. Before that, there was a de facto moratorium in place since 2004. Anti-drug policies are very popular among the Thai electorate. Thai Rak Thaiâ€™s most praised policies indeed include the 30-THB universal healthcare system, educational loans, onemillion-THB development fund and the war on drugs. The implementation of the latest in 2004 however led to the death of about 2,500 people and was widely criticized by human rights organizations and families of the victims. Policy implementation The opposition has criticized the government in failing to implement its electoral promises or implement them poorly. The initial 300 baht minimum daily wage hike in seven provinces is starting to take a toll on workers with their welfare benefits being cut, while small and medium enterprises are running into trouble as they cannot afford the higher wage bills, former prime minister and opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiya said (Bangkok Post, April 14, 2012) He was also quoted as explaining the rising cost of living as a consequence of the government's policy to offer a 15,000 baht starting salary to holders of bachelor degrees.
Cabinet gave approval in principle to a Defence Ministry request to increase salaries of military personnel by a total 952 million baht.
Inflation The issue of rising prices came at the top of public debate and hit headlines, so much that Yingluck made a few mediatized visits to markets and supermarkets to check the prices to finally recognize that the prices were indeed higher. Food and beverages in particular rose, up 7.3% from last year, while electricity, fuel and water prices jumped 8.5%. Yingluck declared that food prices were expected to ease starting in June, as supply shortages from last year's floods ease. Kasikorn Research projects inflation of 3.9% this year and 4% next year.