Thaksin’s real emergency

4 August 2005

The Thai prime minister’s emergency powers are not just about stopping violence in the South

By Roby Alampay
Mr. Alampay is the executive director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance. He may be emailed at roby@seapabkk.org.

Bangkok — Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last month took sweeping emergency powers that would, among other things, allow the government to tap into phone conversations, intercept email and censor the news. The Prime Minister’s new powers also include the authority to arrest and detain people without charge.

For the record, the Prime Minister says he will use the overwhelming powers specifically and exclusively to arrest the spread of violence in Thailand’s southern region. In early July, bomb blasts in the province of Yala killed two police officers, injured 17 civilians and added to the more than 800 killed in the context of a situation that has rapidly deteriorated since the start of 2004.

There is no question that Thaksin has a crisis in his hands. There is, however, the question of whether his new powers are justifiable or necessary.

Listening to Thaksin over the past 18 months, one would have thought that they are not. In 2004, the Prime Minister attributed isolated troubles in the south to “bandits” and even drug addicts. When a protest at a police station took a bloody turn, and when dozens of arrested protesters–mostly agitated Muslims–suffocated to death in a police van that was transporting them to jail, the Prime Minister sent his apologies and offer of reconciliation in the form of hundreds of millions of paper cranes air-dropped from military planes.

But not to be cynical; Thaksin also actually said some sensible things. As the violence and death toll escalated, he recognized that there were socio-economic frustrations at the root of what others were more openly calling an insurgency. In this regard he vowed to bring more investments and economic development to the South. And all the while, Thaksin was quick to defend the need to at times be aggressive militarily, and he always assured that he was already well within his authority to order such action.

Regardless of his strategy of the month, the Prime Minister always insisted that nothing was out of hand. He assured everyone that he had enough power to deal with the southern situation.

In fact, even prior to last month’s decree, he already enjoyed more power than other prime ministers in Thailand’s modern era ever had. When oppositionists in Parliament called for a review of the emergency decree for Thaksin, he likely wasn’t worried. In the last national elections his Thai Rak Thai party walked away with three-fourths of the seats up for grabs. In an equipment-procurement scandal for a new national airport recently proved, the oppposition didn’t have numbers to impeach, censure or even properly investigate the incident. The reality is, as the opposition itself conceded in February, Thailand is already under a de-facto one-party rule where the ruling party and its leaders are immune to a lot of things.

It should be further noted that prior to the drafting of the new emergency laws, and on top of his imperviousness in Parliament, Thaksin already had the southern provinces under martial law. The military already had the authority to restrict people’s movements and activities.

The question then is, with so much power already at his disposal, why did Thaksin seek even more authority?

On one hand, there was simply an opportunity to ask for it. The bombing in Yala received prominent coverage just a week after explosions rocked London. With the British themselves pondering emergency anti-terrorism measures, the Thai voters that so empowered the Thai Rak Thai were willing to give their Prime Minister even more room to maneuver. The Bangkok Post published a survey suggesting that 72 percent of Bangkok residents and 86 percent of those in the South were supportive of emergency powers for Thaksin.

On the other hand, it may be instructive to also ask: What really is so new about these new powers? Prior to the new decree, there was only one area–the press and its freedom–where the Prime Minister’s powers have so far not been allowed to visit. And there’s the rub. Comparing the provisions of the new emergency decree with the martial rule it replaces in the South, it would seem that the only new thing that the emergency decree really provides are mechanisms for controlling the media.

Thaksin has made no secret of the fact that he finds an aggressive press inconvenient to his aggressive ways. It is a belligerent press that has kept an underrepresented opposition viable and noisy. Ever since the South erupted onto the nation’s front pages, Thaksin has demonized journalists as unpatriotic, meddlesome traitors for so much as watching out for the human rights of the people living there. Recently, the pressures on the press have been even more overt. A $10 million criminal defamation trial has just started against a media activist and a Thai newspaper who questioned Thaksin, his family, and a giant telecommunications conglomerate they own, on possible conflicts-of-interest. In the last two months, meanwhile, the government suspended 17 community radio stations and two websites carrying content highly critical of Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai. And now, of course, there are the decrees allowing government the right to outright censor the news.

Responding to its critics, the government now assures that it will try to limit its application of the new decree, and institute safeguards against any abuse of absolute power. They’ll do their best, they said, not to trample on the rights of citizens. But if human and civil rights really were an overriding concern, why insist on keeping options to censor the news? Surely a press that is free to report and comment on all developments is a reliable mechanism to check on any overzealous exercise of power?

Of course it is, but in Thaksin’s eyes, that may precisely be the problem.

(The article appeared 01 August 2005 on the UCLA Asia Institute’s AsiaMedia website.)