By Ann Norman
How to express my dismay and disgust that Dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha (self-appointed Prime Minister of Thailand) is visiting the WHITE HOUSE on Monday? If you have some time, read my speech, given at Lao-Thai Human Rights Conference on Capitol Hill just days before President Trump extended the invitation, on the last weekend in April. My speech is called “Thailand’s Orwellian Nightmare: Three Cases” and gives you a small taste of what it is like to be a human rights worker or member of the political opposition in Thailand under Prime Minister Prayut. To cut to the chase, you will be tortured (Kritsuda Khunasaen), or murdered (Chaiyaphoom Pasea), or jailed for nothing (Pai Daodin). It is hard to convey, in a small space, the climate of fear caused by a junta government that systematically crushes anyone who speaks out against it or just raises inconvenient facts.
If you doubt my account, or think it is overly selective, let me draw your attention to a fourth case that I mentioned in that speech, only in passing, as a parallel to the case of Red Shirt leader Kritsuda Khunasaen. In an aside, I said “(This strategy repeats itself in the recent Ma Noi case)” — the strategy being to use torture to get witnesses in Thailand to confess to illegal and improbable dealings with the dissident abroad in order to get the dissident extradited back to Thailand’s Ministry of Love. Ma Noi was an extremely outspoken dissident living in exile to escape a lese majesty charge (the so-called crime of insulting the king). At the time I gave the speech, Ma Noi was still broadcasting his anti-monarchy messages into Thailand, and Thailand was desperately trying and failing to get him extradited back to Thailand. Let me update you on what has since happened to a man I was concerned about, who I randomly mentioned in a speech on “Thailand’s Orwellian Nightmare”: on July 29, one day after the birthday of the King he so vehemently opposed, Ma Noi was abducted in Laos by ten armed men in ski masks, who were speaking Thai, and he was assassinated.
Dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha is up to his neck in all of these cases, defending and/or denying the military’s actions without any concern for consistency or plausibility. In fact, it works best for him if you are scared away from making accusations against the government but know in your heart that that it is all true and you will be tortured, killed, or jailed on a pretense if you step out of line.
And the Thai people are definitely scared. I learned this three years ago when I attended my first Thai protest (it was outside the UN in New York), walking in with a sign written in both Thai and English, “Freedom of Expression is the Foundation of Democracy.” (At that time, I had no almost no Thai connections but for odd reasons had partially learned the language.) My seemingly noncontroversial statement about the importance of free speech was considered brave and edgy by fellow protesters, most of whom were wearing floppy hats and sun glasses and hiding behind their own pro-democracy signs. They did this out of fear that the junta government would identify them from the videos and go harass their families back in Thailand! The fact that Thais EVEN IN THE UNITED STATES are so scared to protest, tells you all you need to know the state of human rights in Thailand.
This year, the pro-democracy Thais who would ordinary organize protests of this visit admit to being burned out and afraid. I myself feel burned out by the hopelessness of it all. The people we try to protect do get sentenced to jail for nothing (Pai Daodin) and are assassinated (Ma Noi). The military dictator who promised a quick return to democracy after some needed reforms, now has dug in for a long, long stay, blocking every possible move of the pro-democracy side. Barring some unforeseen turn of events, the military will be in power for at least another decade. My associates who have relatives in Thailand are forced to quit or tone down their opposition when the junta threatens their relatives. Yes, the junta really does stoop that low!
Added to my discouragement with situation in Thailand, is my shame that the United States is giving up on its commitment to support democracy and human rights internationally and to take in asylum seekers.
Whatever the meaning of this White House invitation to a the leader of a successful coup that overthrew a democratic government in 2014 (officially the aim is to broaden bilateral relations and enhance cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region), it cannot be interpreted as sign that Americans now respect Prayut Chan-o-cha. Look at who else was invited that same weekend: authoritarian President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for promoting a vigilante killing spree of suspected drug dealers (although Duterte turned Trump down). And the day after, Trump said in an interview that he would consider an invite to North Korean Dictator Kim Jung Un. So either President Trump was calling Asian world leaders indiscriminately that weekend, or he really had a list of evil dictators in his head and he was systematically going down that list. In any case, not all Americans agree with the actions of their President as he extends what at least LOOKS like an honor to yet another foreign dictator.
With very little hope that it will matter, I make the following suggestions to President Trump in his meeting with Prayut Chan-o-cha:
Ask Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to hold free and open elections.
We note that the new junta-written Thai Constitution, which General Prayut forced through in a “public” referendum in which no one was allowed to publicly discuss the contents of that constitution, is undemocratic. And the Constitution that passed in the “public referendum” was subsequently amended at the request of King Vajiralongkorn to give himself more power. Those changes were not run past the people. There is no easy path out of this conundrum, but we note it, if only to counter Prayut’s inevitable claim he is following a “Roadmap to Democracy.”
Pressure the Thai government to immediately repeal the limits on free speech, a free press, and peaceful assembly so that democracy can operate;
Immediately repeal the barbaric lese majesty law, the use of which has escalated since the junta took over, ruining hundreds of lives and creating a climate of fear;
Free the political prisoners, including all those charged under the lese majesty law;
Renounce use of the Dictators’ Law, section 44, of the Interim Constitution, by which Prayuth Chanocha gives himself powers to do anything he thinks is necessary with impunity (Oddly the Interim Constitution is no longer in effect but Prayut still claims the right to use the Dictator’s Law.);
At long last, finish passing a law against torture and enforced disappearance, which Thailand has already committed itself to doing;
Continue the fight against slavery, rather than threaten reporters who report on it and prematurely shut down investigations into the slave trade when they turn up too many high-level suspects;
Create a path to citizenship for the stateless people in Thailand;
Accept Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar;
Shut down the shadowy temporary prison at King Vajiralongkorn’s Thavi Wattana (Daveevattana) palace, where 4 seemingly healthy people have already died, the most recent one in August, of heat stroke, and where the King’s former aid Jumpol Manmai was taken after being declared “extremely evil” and charged with forest enchroachment;
Solve the mystery of what has happened to King Vajiralongkorn’s recently divorced wife Srirasmi. Prove she is alive and well. (It is impossible to honor Vajiralongkorn as the new king while rumors float around that he abuses and even murders his enemies with impunity);
And stop interfering in the Bhuddist religion.
As Junya Yimprasert pointed out, “Everybody sees that the Prayuth junta is using ‘Protection of the King’ as a pretext for shoring-up the power and privilege of the elite.” A just government would peruse and promote equal rights for all. This is the way to bring about reconciliation of divided groups in Thailand.
As President Donald Trump discusses security issues with Dictator Prayut Chan-o-cha, he should keep in mind the the Thai military is preoccupied with maintaining its own power within Thailand over the Thai people. The United States should not engage in military cooperation that will help the Thai military oppress its own citizens.