Thai regime destroys protest camp after biggest democracy rally of the year

Also in this edition: More activists facing years in jail, new cabinet ministers fail to impress, and Prayut's friendship with the Myanmar junta is an increasingly liability

Welcome to the latest Secret Siam weekly news roundup. If you have not yet subscribed to the newsletter, you can do that here:

Plenty to discuss this week, starting with a clear statement from the democracy movement that predictions of their imminent demise are premature…

“Bad children” show they’re not ready to give up

The democracy movement held the biggest protest of the year so far on Wednesday, an extremely well organised rally that drew a crowd of at least five thousand people and ended peacefully without any clashes.

The protest site was kept secret until the last minute by the organisers from the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration to make it harder for police to erect barricades. People were told to assemble at Skytrain stations and wait for the announcement on social media of where to go — an extremely effective tactic that stretches police resources and makes it more difficult for them to prepare a crackdown.

The rally was publicised with the help of some brilliant art from guerrilla political cartoonist Kai Maew based on a famous Spider-Man scene, showing a figure representing King Vajiralongkorn with a crop top, striped jogging trousers and graffiti on his face straining to stop a Skytrain full of young protesters.

Ahead of the protest, prime minister Prayut Chan-ocha again tried to claim he is a democratic leader rather than a dictator. “How am I a dictator? I don’t want bad children,” he told reporters. “I want all kids to be good and want them to learn what is democracy according to international standards.” The regime routinely claims that its governance and response to peaceful protests meet “international standards” even though it’s clear that this is far from the truth.

When the location of the rally was revealed, it was the Ratchaprasong intersection — a good strategic choice because it’s easily accessible via the Skytrain, far enough from any royal site to make a violent police response less likely, and it has strong political resonance because it’s where a previous generation of democracy protesters, the Red Shirts, faced a brutal military crackdown back in 2010. As one older protesters wrote in chalk on the street on Wednesday: “My friends died here a decade ago.”

The three main speakers at the rally were among the best-known protest leaders who are not yet in prison — Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon, Benja Apan and Attapon Buapat. All three were already facing lèse majesté charges and are likely to be behind bars soon, and it showed significant courage for them to stand up to speak at the rally knowing that it would reduce their slim prospects of staying out of jail.

Patsaravalee’s speech was particularly brave — she directly addressed the subject of the monarchy, and the demands for royal reform that the regime is trying to silence. She said the protesters were the last good friends Vajiralongkorn has left because they are trying to help him by explaining to him that unless he starts behaving in a way that befits a monarch and stops trying to unreasonably expand his power he will endanger the future of the monarchy.

She made three specific demands — the army should be reunified into a single force instead of the king having his own separate Royal Guard 904 regiments, the palace should stop interfering in politics, and the vast royal fortune should be returned to public ownership. Noting that Vajiralongkorn is trying to turn back the clock to the era of absolute monarchy, Patsaravalee said:

Absolute monarchy might be restored in this reign, but it could also be overthrown in the next reign, and we all know how fearsome revolutions can be.

It was one of the great speeches of the past year of democracy protests, and it annoyed ultraroyalist Thai Pakdee leader Warong Dechgitvigrom so much that he recorded a special video to denounce her and unconvincingly deny her points about Vajiralongkorn.

Ratchaprasong was thronged with people chanting the slogans of the democracy movement — “Death to feudalism. Long live the people”, “Release our friends”, “Abolish 112”. Pictures of the detained movement leaders were pasted to the Ratchaprasong sign and carried by many of the protesters.

After darkness fell, the crowd turned on the lights on their phones, a striking sight that was often seen at rallies last year but has become less common now with peaceful protests often unravelling in chaos due to police violence.

At a time when many young Thais are losing hope, and many observers argue that the protest movement is failing, Wednesday’s protest was a defiant demonstration that the struggle is far from lost. It was the most successful political rally of the year.

Inevitably, it swiftly led to more repression. Police said more lèse majesté charges may be filed against 11 speakers and 10 other protesters who were at the rally. Then, at the weekend, the regime stepped up its crackdown yet again.

Another escalation

On Sunday, police moved in to forcibly remove a protest camp outside Government House. The camp was established about month ago by activists from the Save Bang Kloi Coalition fighting for land rights for Karen villagers who were forcibly resettled from their ancestral home in the Kaeng Krachan forest in Phetchaburi province. They were later joined on March 14 by a group of pro-democracy protesters led by Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa who had marched 247.5 km from Korat to Bangkok. They named the camp “Through The Sky Village” and vowed to remain there until the government listened to their demands.

Around dawn, four companies of police moved in to clear the area, forcing protesters out of their tents and telling them they had just three minutes to collect their possessions and disperse. At least 67 were arrested, and taken to the Border Patrol Police Region 1 headquarters in Pathum Thani, a standard intimidation technique because of the notorious reputation of this royalist force in violence against activists.

Following the removal of the protest camp, a flash mob was hastily arranged to gather at the nearby Chamai Maruchet Bridge in the afternoon to call for the release of those detained earlier. Towards dusk, police ordered the protesters to disperse immediately. Around 20 people ignored the warning and lay down on the ground to peacefully resist arrest, each holding up one hand making the three-finger democracy salute. In an absurd overreaction, police in full riot gear moved in to detain them all. They were taken to the Narcotics Suppression Bureau on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road because the Border Police headquarters didn’t have enough space left following all the earlier arrests.

In total, 99 protesters were arrested in the morning and evening crackdowns. Two monks who had been with the protesters were forcibly disrobed at Wat Benjamaborphit.

Police claimed the camp and flashmob were health hazards that violated emergency coronavirus rules which the regime has been abusing for more than a year to try to stifle protests. But on the same day as they destroyed the tent village they allowed a pro-regime event nearby organised by Watanya “Madam Dear” Wongopasri of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party and ageing hip hop star Apisit Opasaimlikit, aka Joey Boy, in which three hundred people skateboarded through the royal district in traditional Thai costumes without facemasks or social distancing. Amid widespread anger on social media about the obvious double standards, Watanya defended the skateboard event in a post on Facebook and said it should not be politicised — even though she is a politician, and wearing traditional dress for public events is widely understood to be a royalist political statement.

Wassana Nanuam, the Bangkok Post military correspondent who frequently acts as a mouthpiece of the regime, reported that in fact the camp was cleared because a photograph of the new cabinet has been arranged for Tuesday and the government was concerned that protesters would disrupt it by shouting slogans or throwing things over the fence. Prayut denied this was the reason, claiming inaccurately that the camp had been causing disruption in the area. “I’ve been enduring it for many weeks, but it’s a problem with traffic and schools,” he told reporters. “Do you understand?”

Police Major General Chiraphat Bhumichitr also sought to smear the protesters by telling reporters that marijuana, kratom leaf juice, condoms and sex toys were seized at the camp. In fact, the sex toys and condoms belonged to activists with the Feminist Liberate group who are campaigning to raise awareness about sexual issues and to overturn the archaic Section 287 of Thailand’s criminal code which bans the sale of “obscene” items.

Commenting on the disproportionate police crackdown at the weekend, and the increasing level of violence shown by the regime in recent months, Cod Satrusayang of Thai Enquirer observed that “what started as arbitrary arrests in the middle of the night has turned into full-scale street warfare conducted by border police units” as the authorities escalate their repression:

But the violence we are seeing being used by the security personnel must not be allowed to be come the norm. These are not normal actions by a normal government.

He warned that unless the regime is held accountable for their actions, “the escalation in violence will only continue and it will be a matter of time before lives are lost”.

More political prisoners

Every week, more leading activists are being jailed, as the regime continues its policy of locking up protesters and refusing to allow bail. Student activist Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong and veteran campaigner Ekachai Hongkangwan are due in court on Wednesday facing absurd charges of allegedly threatening a convoy carrying Queen Suthida last year. They are being charged under the archaic feudal-era Article 110 of the Penal Code, which carries a sentence of 16 years to life, or even the death penalty if the queen’s life is deemed to have been threatened. There is no realistic prospect of them getting bail.

Francis shared his reaction in a thread on Twitter last week:

The charges stem from an incident on October 14 last year when a cream-coloured stretch Rolls Royce limousine carrying Queen Suthida and the 15-year-old Prince Dipangkorn tried to drive through a crowd of protesters outside Government House. The protesters were taken completely by surprise — police had done nothing to clear the street in advance or announce that a royal vehicle was on the way. Plentiful video evidence shows that nobody attempted to attack or block the car. According to several palace sources, the Rolls Royce was deliberately driven into the protesters to provoke a confrontation. Not even daring to risk being in the vehicle himself, the king had sent his wife and son as bait. It was an orchestrated prelude to the aggressive regime crackdown that followed in subsequent days, and Francis and Ekachai are now facing many years in jail despite having clearly committed no crime.

Meanwhile, another well-known activist, Chukiat Saengwong, was arrested and denied bail last week on various charges including allegedly being one of the people who defaced and burned a portrait of Vajiralongkorn outside the Supreme Court on March 20. Chukiat is nicknamed “Justin” because he always shows up at protests wearing a crop top, as well as a headband in the colours of the German flag, to lampoon Vajiralongkorn’s notorious fashion choices when off duty in Bavaria. The name “Justin” has been a codeword for Vajiralongkorn for several years because Justin Bieber has also been photographed in a crop top.

According to the latest count, at least 77 people are now facing lèse majesté charges, and 19 activists have been imprisoned.

Another 13 protesters — including Mind and Benja who had spoken at the Ratchaprasong rally a couple of days earlier — arrived at court last Friday expecting to be jailed on lèse majesté and sedition charges over their role in a protest outside the German embassy on October 26. But their arraignment was postponed until May 13, because the public prosecutor apparently hadn’t completed all the necessary paperwork.

It’s not clear if this was genuine incompetence or if the regime is wary of jailing too many more people too soon, but there seems little prospect any of the 13 will be granted bail in May. The October 26 rally was among the most audacious of 2020 with tens of thousands of protesters marching to the German embassy where activists read out statements calling on the government in Berlin to investigate an explosive list of issues — whether the king was breaking German law by exercising Thai sovereignty from there, whether he had evaded German tax, whether he had trafficked a harem of Thai women to Germany, and whether he had been involved in violence against palace servants in Germany and exiled dissidents in Southeast Asia. These were accusations that had never been mentioned publicly in Thailand before, so bold that most international media didn’t even dare to report them. Given the embarrassment they caused to the king, the 13 activists facing charges know they can’t expect any mercy from the court, especially as judges have been ordered by the palace to routinely oppose bail.

New dinosaurs named

The government announced three new cabinet ministers to replace the ultraroyalist former PDRC members who had to step down in February after being convicted on various charges related to their campaign to topple the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2013 and 2014.

As usual with Thai cabinet appointments, those selected had no significant expertise or experience relevant to their role, and the positions were allocated to political factions to try to ensure their continued support in keeping the coalition together.

The new education minister, replacing Nataphol Teepsuwan, is Trinuch Thienthong. She has negligible knowledge of the many challenges facing Thailand’s notoriously bad education system and was appointed purely for political reasons — she is a niece of infamous 86-year-old Sa Kaeo godfather Sanoh Thienthong who still contains a sizeable bloc of MPs-for-hire. Appointing Trinuch shows the regime has no interest in education reform and is more concerned about internal coalition management.

The Bad Student activist group of high school pupils has been trolling Trinuch since her appointment, noting that she received her position as a result of political horsetrading rather than expertise. They tweeted:

The future of the students is just a cake to be shared by the adults. When Khun Trinuch eats her share of the cake, please do not be too gluttonous.

This morning, on her first day at work, they reinforced their message by presenting her with an actual cake.

Bad Student has also noted Trinuch’s voting record — she has opposed several progressive initiatives including efforts to support LGBTQ rights, curb the power of the junta and prevent future coups — and they satirically tweeted a blank space which they said was the findings of their extensive research into her educational expertise.

Meanwhile, the new digital economy minister Chaiwut Thanakhamanusorn also represents a provincial family with significant political clout — his father is a Singburi godfather and two of his siblings are also Palang Pracharath MPs. Chaiwut has immediately begun parroting the propaganda of his predecessor Buddhipongse Punnakanta, vowing to wage war against “fake news” that is harming the monarchy. “Suppressing websites that carry content insulting the monarchy is still a big job that needs doing,” Chaiwut told reporters. Such comments are of course absurd, because in fact the monarchy depends upon fake news for its survival, and the regime is actually trying to suppress the truth about the royals.

Beauty and the beasts

Two months after seizing power in a coup and embarking on a murderous campaign of violence and intimidation against their own people, the Myanmar junta marked Armed Forces Day on Saturday with a celebratory military parade in the dystopian capital Naypyitaw while soldiers killed at least 114 civilians around the country. It was the deadliest day yet since the February 1 coup.

The top military officers from 12 countries — Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States — issued a statement condemning the regime’s “use of lethal force against unarmed people” to coincide with Armed Forces Day. Most of the world boycotted the military parade and only eight countries sent representatives — Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

The Myanmar military’s return to global pariah status has put the Thai regime in a difficult position. Privately, Prayut and Thailand’s generals are desperately hoping resistance is snuffed out in Myanmar, because if protesters manage to topple the junta it could give renewed impetus to Thai activists and create momentum for democracy movements throughout the region. Also, the Thai generals are old friends of their Myanmar counterparts and have plenty of lucrative trade deals and shady border businesses together. But Prayut’s failure to condemn the Myanmar junta, and his decision to send a representative to the Naypyitaw parade, have been widely criticised.

Last week the Thai military was caught supplying 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar military forces cut off by Karen National Union insurgents in a frontier area near Mae Sot, and in further evidence of cross-border cooperation with the Tatmadaw, “wanted” posters have been displayed in refugee camps in Thailand with images of leading activists and dissidents.

Tanee Sangrat, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claimed it’s not official Thai policy to capture and send back Myanmar dissidents, but this just illustrated the embarrassing fact that the Thai military operates beyond official government control. Despite frequent denials from Thai diplomats, it has long been clear that the military has reciprocal arrangements with other authoritarian regimes in the region to allow dissidents to be kidnapped and killed. This is how the palace has been able to order the murder of 10 Thai activists outside the country since 2016.

Talking to reporters this morning, Prayut continued to insist that his regime is not giving support to the Myanmar junta, despite plentiful evidence to the contrary. “How is Thailand supporting the Myanmar military? There is probably no-one who supports the use of violence against the people”, he said. With reports emerging that around three thousand Karen villagers had fled across the border towards Mae Hong Son after air strikes in the area targeting armed insurgents, he said Thailand was prepared to accommodate refugees escaping the junta’s violence. But within hours it became clear that the Thai military was actually forcing refugees back across the Salween River to Myanmar.

Once again, foreign ministry spokesman Tanee denied the reports despite widespread video evidence and reporting from Reuters that quoted Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, telling a local meeting that refugees must be kept out:

All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border.

Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Thailand’s “heartless and illegal act must stop now”.

Somebody showing far more courage than Prayut with regards to the Burmese junta is Yangon University student Han Lay, who was Myanmar’s entrant at the Miss Grand pageant in Bangkok on Saturday night. She made a tearful plea for international intervention which has made it unsafe for her to return to her home country. Unusually for a beauty pageant, the organisers also screened a montage of Myanmar military atrocities.

There is little chance Prayut will listen to what she had to say. Hopefully at least he won’t force her back across the border too.

Art attack

The latest skirmish to go viral in Thailand’s culture wars happened at the University of Chiang Mai last week when the dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Asawinee Wanjing, and other yellow-clad staff tried to get rid of anti-establishment artworks created by students, including a modified Thai flag with the blue stripe (which represents the monarchy) replaced by grey, and a shrouded body with its hands tied which was intended to resemble the bodies of two murdered anti-monarchy dissidents that washed up in the Mekong River in 2018 after they were kidnapped in Laos.

Students were outraged to find several artworks stuffed into bin bags. As they argued with staff, art teacher Thasnai Sethaseree arrived at the scene and sailed into battle on the side of the students, berating the royalist university officials.

In a tirade directed at one of the deputy deans, Thasnai yelled:

Are you a professor too? Do you love art? Do you love and respect human beings? Art is no one’s master, and art is no one’s slave. How many times have you threatened students? Are you threstening education?

Art has faced enough shame because of people who do not love liberty. The students have just finished their thesis exhibition. Some classes are still not over and they have to keep working.

What job is it of a lecturer to clean up for them? What job is it of the Dean to pick up trash. You’re an artist. You’re a teacher. First, respect people. Second, respect other artists. Third, respect artwork, whether it is made by students or people who have not studied art.

Meanwhile, a student lay down in front of the car faculty staff were hoping to use to dispose of the controversial artworks.

Faculty dean Asawinee has given two conflicting excuses, initially saying the area was messy and just needed to be tidied up ahead of an upcoming exhibition, and then arguing that some of the artworks were offensive to the national flag and the monarchy. But her explanations have not gone down well with the famously independent minded student body, and there are calls for her to resign.

Meanwhile, Thasnai has become a social media star.

Car crazy

Notorious gangster Tamanat Prompow, probably the most corrupt man in the cabinet, has been photographed with a new Rolls Royce, which he boasted was a bargain — “only 20 million baht”. The convicted drug smuggler and murderer with a fake PhD says he has at least 17 luxury cars worth 157 million baht. In his 2019 asset declaration he listed a Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Tesla and Mercedes among wealth and possessions worth a total of more than a billion baht.

That’s all for this edition. Thank you for reading!