A Lexicon of Repression in Thailand

By Tyrell Haberkorn

In an essay for the May 2017 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies (“The Anniversary of a Massacre and the Death of a Monarch,” currently free to download), I reflect on the fortieth anniversary of the 6 October 1976 massacre, when state and para-state forces brutally murdered unarmed students at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Unresolved questions about the possible role of the institution of the monarchy in the massacre have been a primary factor both ensuring impunity for the perpetrators and constricting public discussion about the massacre. The anniversary events, held under the military regime of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and marked by calls for recognition of the humanity of those killed, directly challenged the ongoing impunity of the perpetrators of the massacre. One week after the anniversary, Rama IX, Bhumipol Adulyadej, died and the crown prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, was named his successor as Rama X.

One of the primary features of the NCPO’s regime has been a sharp spike in prosecution of alleged cases of lèse-majesté, the very accusation used to catalyze the 6 October 1976 massacre. Rightists alleged that the students had staged a mock hanging of the crown prince. My JAS essay on the fortieth anniversary ends with what was then an open question about how the use of the accusation of lèse-majesté may or may not change during the reign of Rama X.

As another anniversary passes, the question is now a markedly less open one. On 22 May 2017, the third anniversary of the coup by the NCPO passed in Thailand. After three years of military rule and the naming of Maha Vajiralongkorn as Rama X, there are no signs of a return to democracy or a letup in the use of the accusation of lèse-majesté to quash dissent anytime soon.

The third anniversary of the 22 May 2014 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) passed as the vast majority of nearly 70 million Thais went to work and school as usual and the several million tourists who visit each month continued to flow across the borders into the country. But the veneer of daily life hides the quiet battle taking place between the NCPO and those who want to see a return to democracy. Rather than the streets that figured in previous anniversary protests, the very lexicon used to describe the NCPO’s rule is the new terrain of struggle. The NCPO would like to erase the keyword most central to its existence: “coup.”

If no one uses the word, then perhaps people will begin to think that the junta came to power via legitimate means, rather than the illegal seizure of power known as a coup. I witnessed this attempted erasure at a seminar organized by the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG), a new anti-dictatorship group, on the eve of the coup anniversary in Bangkok and then again at a hearing in one of the five cases faced by Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a prominent detained critic of the junta, in the Khon Kaen military court on the actual anniversary.

The NCPO has been sensitive about language from the very first days after the coup: being held incommunicado on a military base, for example, is called “attitude adjustment” rather than arbitrary detention. The NCPO’s concern with words is of a piece with the increasing internet and broadcast censorship that caused Reporters Without Borders to rank Thailand 142 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, a ranking that has steadily declined since the coup, and brings to mind the Chinese government’s ban on words related to 1989’s June Fourth massacre and the former East German government’s restriction of the very word “censorship.”

But what took place both during the DRG seminar and the military court hearing revealed that the NCPO’s concern extends beyond restricting expression in the present. The junta possesses a keen comprehension of Karl Marx’s admonition that political struggle is inseparable from the struggle over the meaning of the present as it becomes the past. 

On the first anniversary of the coup in 2015, students held street protests in Bangkok and the northeastern city of Khon Kaen. At least 30 activists were arrested after sitting down in silent protest in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. They were taken to a nearby police station and initially released without charge after being admonished to stop protesting; 9 of those arrested were later served with warrants for violating the junta’s prohibition on public assembly of 5 or more persons and still face prosecution. In Khon Kaen, 7 activists were arrested and charged with violating the same prohibition after they massed in front of the city’s Democracy Monument and held up a cloth banner printed with the words, “Oppose the Coup” (“คัดค้านรัฐประหาร”).

On the second anniversary of the coup in 2016, the New Democracy Movement (NDM), a broad-based anti-dictatorship student group, organized a march from Thammasat University, the historic center of the student movement, to Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, where several hours of speeches were held until rain and darkness forced the event to an end. Despite a heavy police presence, no arrests were made and the police even fended off a small group of coup supporters who tried to assault the NDM activists.

This year, instead of a street protest, on 21 May, the DRG held an expansive seminar at Thammasat University on “360 Degrees of the Army: The Thai Army Has Done More Than You Think.” The NCPO allowed the DRG to hold the seminar, but with two caveats. First, the DRG was forbidden from disseminating any documents, including a folded broadsheet “(Un) Happy Birthday” card that documented prosecution rates for peaceful political expression, military expenditure, and corruption, a calculation of a likely delay until elections are held, and other key social, political, and economic facts of life since the coup. Second, the moderators and the speakers of the day’s sessions on education, the judicial system, environment, security, gender equality, labor, and other topics were barred from using three words: NCPO (คสช.), dictatorship (เผด็จการ), and coup (รัฐประหาร). If any of these words were uttered, the seminar would be shut down and the organizers arrested.

Activists responded to the prohibition with humor and aplomb. During the session on the judicial system, Yingcheep Atchanont, director of the Internet Dialogue on Legal Reform (iLaw), one of the primary organizations documenting human rights cases since the coup, took the banned words to heart as he led a conversation with Pansak Srithep, an activist with Resistant Citizen, an anti-coup group, and father of a young man killed when the military cracked down on red shirt protestors in May 2010. As Yingcheep asked Pansak questions about his struggle for justice for his son, whose case remains unresolved like those of all other civilians killed during the 2010 protests, he held up A4 pieces of paper with the three forbidden words scrawled across them. Yingcheep’s hands did not stop moving during the entire thirty-minute session and offered a visual account of the coup’s significant impact on the judicial system.

There has been a sharp increase in cases against civilians for the peaceful expression of their opinions, with at least 252 people being prosecuted for protesting, 138 for lèse-majesté, 60 for sedition (often for criticizing the junta), and 212 for disseminating information about the draft constitution documented by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. In contrast, civilian cases attempting to hold the military or other state officials to account for violent actions have come to a standstill, and in some cases, human rights defenders have faced criminal accusations for documenting torture and other rights violations. Each time Yingcheep raised one of the signs, the plainclothes intelligence officers present raced to the front of the room to photograph him. Other speakers adopted the same strategy in subsequent sessions. While not thrilled about the replacement of the spoken words with visual versions, the authorities allowed the event to run to its completion. Rather than erasing the reality of military rule, the prohibition of the key words of the coup period highlighted the NCPO’s persistent, and unsuccessful, attempt to deny it.

The extent of repression of political freedom, and the attempt of the NCPO to deny the coup and cast itself as a legitimate government, came into even sharper view in the Khon Kaen military court the next day. Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, widely known by his nickname “Pai,” is a final-year law student and one of the leaders of both the NDM and Dao Din, a student group that works closely with rural villagers in struggles with capital over natural resources. Pai was scheduled to appear in a hearing as a defendant in the case of the 7 students arrested for protesting in Khon Kaen on the first anniversary of the coup. Until September 2016, all civilian cases against the crown and state were placed within the jurisdiction of the military court, including peaceful protest cases, and 2,177 civilians have been or are being prosecuted within the military court system. This is only one of five cases in which Pai is being prosecuted for his peaceful expression of opinion.

But until the most recent of these five cases, Pai remained out on bail rather than behind bars, the military dictatorship seemingly aware of the fact that detaining and prosecuting law students for peacefully expressing their opinions is bad public relations. This changed after 2 December 2016, when Pai became the first person to be arrested after Rama X was named king. Part of the context for the 2014 coup was the advanced age and frail state of the health of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, and concern that there might be a struggle for power or other tension during the transition. He died in October 2016 and by early December, all uncertainty over who would succeed him dissipated with the naming of his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, as Rama X. Following the coup, there was a sharp increase in lèse-majesté prosecutions with people imprisoned for cultural political activism, bathroom graffiti, taxi conversations, and social media posts. Article 112 of the Criminal Code defines lèse-majesté as the insult, defamation, or threatening of the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent, and sets the punishment at 3-15 years imprisonment per count. In practice, anyone who engages in speech or action that does not unquestioningly glorify the monarch risks prosecution.

Pai’s alleged crime was to do what over 2,600 other people did: click Facebook “share” on a BBC Thai news article detailing the new king’s biography. The article was translated into Thai from an English-language BBC article. Although bail is typically not granted in Article 112 cases, Pai was initially granted bail, perhaps due to his prominence as a student activist. But less than three weeks later, on 22 December, his bail was revoked, after Pai made another post on Facebook criticizing the arrest of other activists for peaceful political expression, which the court judged to be an instance in which he “mocked state power without fear of the law.” Pai has been detained in the Khon Kaen Prison since then; he was indicted on 10 February, and witness hearings are slated to begin in late 2017.

On the afternoon of the third anniversary of the coup, Pai was brought to the military court in the back of a heavily barred Department of Corrections van. Approximately 40 supporters and activists, including his parents, his younger sister, Dao Din members, Khon Kaen University students, intellectuals from around the country, and journalists waited in the hot sun outside the prison for his arrival. I have followed Pai’s case closely since his Article 112 arrest and was also there as an observer. A cluster of military intelligence officers photographed all of us and a small unit of soldiers carried out drills nearby.

When Pai arrived, his parents and younger sister raced over to hug him as he stepped down from the back of the truck, barefoot and flanked by guards on either side. One week prior, Pai was awarded the prestigious 2017 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights for his “brave and noble actions against dictatorship,” joining a list of prior laureates including Min Ko Naing, Xanana Gusmao, and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the awarding of the prize to Pai and noted that he violated the country’s criminal law, even though he has not been convicted in any of the five peaceful political expression cases pending against him. His parents and younger sister flew to South Korea to accept the prize on his behalf, and they took a photograph presenting Pai with the medal, certificate, and a bouquet of flowers in front of the military court, with military police part of the backdrop. As soon as the photograph was taken, he was ushered inside to again be placed behind bars in a holding cell.

All of the supporters outside followed Pai inside to chat and exchange news before the hearing commenced. This was the second time I have visited Pai since he was remanded. The first time was in January, when we spoke in the visitor’s rooms at the Khon Kaen Prison, which are incongruously pained in pastel shades of pink, blue, and green. Access to the news, particularly political news, is restricted in prison, and Pai was eager for information about domestic and international politics. We told him about a recent wave of six additional lèse-majesté arrests in Thailand, the use of the “Mother of All Bombs” by U.S. President Trump in Afghanistan, and the continuing reversal of the Pink tide in Latin America. We also told him that those concerned with human rights and freedom of expression from around the world were following his legal battles closely.

A military policeman came to take Pai upstairs for the hearing and we waited to see if we would be allowed inside the hearing room. The court granted permission, as long as those wearing flip-flops removed them and anyone wearing a skirt had her knees covered.

The court only heard one witness, a military officer who was part of the group that arrested Pai on the first anniversary of the coup. As is the practice in all Thai courts, a verbatim transcript of each hearing is not made. Instead, a judge summarizes the witness’s testimony, which is then taken down by a court reporter. Lawyers, defendants, and witnesses may interject with corrections either at the time testimony is given or at the conclusion of the hearing, when the record is read out loud for all to hear. During this hearing, the witness recounted what he saw during the protest and his role in the arrest of the student activists. In this case, a correction to his testimony was made by one of the judges, rather than the other way around. The military officer stated that Pai and the others held their protest on “the anniversary of the coup by the NCPO.” When the judge restated the testimony for the official record, he described the protest as taking place on “the day that the NCPO began to govern the country.” Although the judge’s restatement of the timing of the protest and erasure of the word “coup” from the court record is unlikely to affect the eventual outcome of the case, this belies the significance of his linguistic intervention. The judge’s removal of the word “coup” from the record reflects an effort—perhaps planned, perhaps unconscious—to erase or cover over the existence of the dictatorship.

The military is writing a version of history through the cases they prosecute and the corresponding record they create of them. But similar to the attempt to ban the use of the three keywords—coup, dictatorship, and NCPO—during the seminar held by the Democracy Restoration Group the day before, the judge’s correction cannot elide the fact of the coup or the steady opposition to it. Pai was in court that day because two years prior he held up a banner that read “Oppose the Coup.” Unless the judge wishes to alter the photograph of the banner, the word “coup” will have to remain in the official record. Pai is a civilian being prosecuted in a military court for his peaceful expression of opinion because the NCPO is a dictatorship that has controlled all three branches of government since the coup. Activists like Pai continue to oppose the regime even though it is clear that it may result in their loss of liberty. They too are writing history through their actions.

Tyrell Haberkorn a Fellow in Political and Social Change at the Australian National University who works around state and para-state violence in Thailand. She is the author of Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law and Violence in Northern Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming January 2018), and articles and translations for Prachatai, Dissent, alJazeera, openDemocracy, Critical Asian Studies, and the Journal of Asian Studies.  

Throughout May, AAS is celebrating Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Read more