Criteria for terrorism charges are loose, restrictions on civil liberties tight. The violent immediacy of the Red Shirt protests has dulled in the aftermath of eighty-eight dead, but the country’s mood still hangs dark. Thailand’s democratic fa├зade is chipping away to reveal an ugly autarchic underside.
To top off the recent weeks’ extrajudicial killings in Bangkok’s streets, the government heightened charges against an already-exiled former premier and dubiously detained a Chulalongkorn University lecturer this Tuesday. Two Red Shirt-affiliated foreigners were arrested Wednesday. These developments follow ongoing intimidating interrogations of “potential dissidents” (mostly students) by the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES), and accusations against nine Red Shirt leaders of terrorism, not to mention an alleged 500 others among the rank-and-file.
The word of the hour is unsubstantiated: ill-founded investigations, unjustified detentions, unsound accusations of terrorism. But while the government still lacks public proof for terrorism charges leveled against its political opponents, it has certainly demonstrated its own reign of terror in the latest phase of the country’s unrest.
The use of the word “terrorist” is an effort to tap into a public fear that already exists. This has been done before. In the 1970s, the specter of communism afforded the military bureaucracy extra legroom from its citizens to dictate policy. Strategic allegations of “communism” and “anti-monarchism” at this time dehumanized leftist student protesters enough in the eyes of those pulling the triggers to allow the massacres of 1973 and 1976. These words have a single enabling purpose: to cast a political “other” worthy of violent repression.
Substituting “corruption” for “communism”, the military took the liberty to intercede again in 1992, this time faced with greater resistance. 2006 saw more of the same with Thaksin’s expulsion on corruption charges, which sparked the most recent cycle of protests as patience for political meddling ran out.
The civil and military elites’ most recent tactics to keep a stranglehold on Thailand’s nominal democracy are desperate. The attempted indictment of Red Shirts in an anti-monarchist plot in late April largely failed to get off the ground. Accordingly, “terrorist” is merely the latest trigger word: a catch-all for any elusive, influential enemy entity.
Decha Premrudeelert, a leading NGO advisor in the Northeast, reaffirmed the context for the government’s current tactic. “In the struggle for power, you have to create an identity for the opposition. In the Cold War, it was communists. Now it is terrorists.”
Calling the Red Shirt leaders “terrorists” and claiming there were 500 more within Ratchaprasong gave the military a blank check for violent intervention. The highly charged word was used to convince the public that the military wasn’t taking the lives of human beings when it shot indiscriminately into the crowd–it was simply fighting terrorism.
The government’s accusations are identical to charges against the Yellow Shirts for their 2008 occupation of the Government House and Suvarnabhumi Airport. But stagnated court cases over those allegations are still pending a year and a half later, whereas calling Red Shirts “terrorists” warranted immediate, brutal killings. Inadvertently, the aftermath of these charges has reaffirmed one of the Red Shirts’ core grievances: political double standards.
The Emergency Decree and the guise of fighting “terrorism” have allowed for grievous breaches of human rights. Impromptu detentions and interrogations without formal charges are stacking up, accompanied by the government’s promise to shoot “terrorists” on sight, as banks and government buildings burned earlier this week. As the situation has progressed, CRES’ recondite operations seem more and more fanatically illogical. Its undertakings have definitively failed to foster stability or reach a resolution – the sole initial goal of the organization.
Instead of spotlighting external actors guilty of inciting terror for political ends, recent accusations of terrorism have become part of the government’s own policy of fear.
Exiled Thaksin Shinawatra is a populist former premier and a businessman with highly suspect financial practices. He is not a terrorist. The added charge is an afterthought aimed at convincing the international community to aid in his fiercely sought extradition. The Yellow Shirts were charged with terrorism after the 2008 protests as an overstatement; an acquittal on those charges would absolve them altogether. The accusation against the Red Shirts was the most egregious: the charge was intended to dehumanize protesters, allowing soldiers to gun them down with impunity.
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship is not a terrorist organization. It is a fractured people’s movement for democracy, representing the disenfranchisement of the rural and urban poor. Its leaders are not terrorists; they espoused nonviolence even as the military swept them from the Ratchaprasong stage on 16 May 2010.
Cycles of corruption and intervention have pushed Thailand’s system of governance ever further from representative electoral democracy. Decades of coups, countercoups, protests, and reelections have stagnated democratic process, and terrorism charges against the two major political pressure groups only exacerbate this. This stagnation must end somewhere if Thailand is to move forward.
The question of the moment – whether this is a turning point in Thai politics – still lingers. But regardless of the pliability of Thailand’s political system, this is a new era: one that will not stand for age-old machinations. The Yellow Shirt and Red Shirt movements demonstrate hitherto unprecedented political awareness and agency of the people at large. Media and information availability prevent the continued concealment of military and bureaucratic interference in politics, even with ever-tightening censorship. The status quo is no longer an option.
Albeit disorganized and factionalized, the Red Shirts’ occupation of the capital embodies a new face of Thai politics that cannot be erased or rewritten: the socially and politically disenfranchised are seeking political voice and representation, now, and this ideal cannot be staunched with force. Deaths and dispersal will only intensify their cause.
Demands for democracy have been raw and vehement. Their physical manifestation in Bangkok has been dispelled for the time being, but the determination is no less powerful post-relocation. The use of political fear tactics – killing protesters, interrogations and detentions, charges of terrorism – will only further define the line beyond which the people will take no more. The current administration must reconcile with this truth.