News / Asia

Thai Police General Offers Cash for Snapshots of Dissidents

Thai policemen arrest an anti-coup protester (C) during a demonstration at a shopping mall in Bangkok, June 22, 2014.
Thai policemen arrest an anti-coup protester (C) during a demonstration at a shopping mall in Bangkok, June 22, 2014.
Thailand’s police force is now asking for citizens’ help in identifying those perceived to be displaying opposition to the military coup in the kingdom. 
A Thai police general has announced he will give cash rewards to those turning in photos or videos of anyone illegally expressing a political stance.

Human expression outlawed

Political gatherings of more than five people and comments, including those posted on social media, expressing opinions that could incite unrest are banned under martial law.

Authorities have been detaining students and others who, in public, have engaged in seemingly mundane activities such as eating sandwiches, wearing T-shirts with slogans, reading the George Orwell novel “1984” or making a three-fingered gesture popularized in the movie, “The Hunger Games.”

Deputy police commissioner General Somyot Poompanmoung has announced rewards of about $15 for each picture of such suspects.  The police general said he will personally pay the reward for any photographs that result in charges.

A long-time observer of Thai history and politics, Tyrell Haberkorn, a fellow in political and social change at the Australian National University, calls this dismaying.  She terms it an assault on human expression, going beyond the political realm.

“The line of what is considered criminal is shifting with every day, but also marks an incredibly concerning move because it is in a sense a request for citizens to become vigilantes,” she said.

Junta, ruling power

Under martial law, the military has the right to try those arrested, and the decisions of the military courts will be final, according to the junta.  

Haberkorn said the international community should be paying close attention to the alarming developments affecting Thailand’s judiciary. “That there is no appeal in the military court is very, very concerning given what seems to be the ease with which peaceful activists have been charged with very grave crimes against the crown and state.  I am most concerned about what is going to happen if and when those proceedings begin,” she added.

Such organizations as the Asian Human Right Commission, for which Haberkorn is an advisor, and Amnesty International have condemned the junta’s scrapping of civil courts as illegal under international human rights law.

A military court Monday approved arrests warrants for 28 people, including a former Cabinet minister and dissident in exile, Jakrapob Penkair.  There could be more arrests Tuesday.

Police general Somyot said his officers are prepared to deal with possible protests that might occur in Bangkok to mark the anniversary of the June 24, 1932 Siamese Revolution.  That coup ended the era of absolute monarchy and resulted in the kingdom’s first Constitution.

Thailand has no constitution.  It was abrogated by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, who has assumed all executive and legislative powers since carrying out the May 22 coup.

The junta, official known as the National Council for Peace and Order, since ousting the civilian government has summoned hundreds of people to turn themselves in.  After spending days or weeks in detention, most have been released after pledging not to engage in political activity or leave the country.

General Prayuth has said it will take about 15 months of reforms before elections could again be held.

An NCPO spokesman, army Colonel Werachon Sukondhapatipak, told VOA in an interview last month that a primary goal of the military takeover is to permanently eradicate the political influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  The billionaire telecommunications mogul was deposed in the country’s previous coup in 2006.

Another junta spokesman, army Colonel Wintai Suvaree, rebuts a front page story in Monday’s Bangkok Post that General Prayuth had been actively plotting since 2010 to overthrow Thailand’s democratically elected government.

Military takeover

A leader against that government, a former deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, was quoted in the article as telling supporters at a Saturday night banquet in the capital that he had been advising the general for several years about how to unset the administration of then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck, who is Thaksin’s sister, was removed from office after a May 7 judicial ruling that she had abused her power.

General Prayuth imposed martial law on May 19 and then carried out a bloodless coup three days later.

The general has repeatedly said the intention of the military takeover is to bring back happiness to the people of Thailand.  He even penned the lyrics to a happiness song to reinforce that image.

The country has suffered through years of political instability since a 2006 coup ousted Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile. The party he backed won the 2011 general election, leading to Yingluck becoming prime minister.

That came a year after the violent quelling of unrest by “Red Shirt” protesters, loyal to the Shinawatra family.  Suthep, at the time, was in charge of national security and Prayuth was the deputy commander in chief of the army.

Suthep, an influential figure in the Democrat Party for decades, faces murder charges for allegedly ordering the 2010 crackdown in which more than 80 civilians died.  Suthep has termed the charges “politically motivated.”

Rival protests in recent months before the imposition of martial law had resulted in occasional violence, with some deaths.

Front page headlines Monday in Bangkok’s newspapers, which are operating under military censorship, trumpeted the results of an opinion poll conducted over the weekend by the National Institute of Development Administration showing a high approval rating for the military junta.

The NIDA poll results also found that 41 percent of respondents want Prayuth to become the next prime minister.

The army chief has issued dozens of decrees since the coup.  Some are seen as populist measures, such as capping fuel costs, freezing prices of consumer products, a crackdown on illegal parking and taxi mafias, broadcasts of World Cup soccer matches on free-to-air TV channels, free screenings of a historical movie and holding free concerts featuring military singers and musicians.  

For millions of farmers in north, the political stronghold of Shinawatra-backed parties, Prayuth reinstated payments under a rice purchase program that had been accused of gross mismanagement by the administration of ousted prime minister Yingluck.

The May 22 coup was the 19th successful or attempted putsch since the 1932 revolution.

The United States and other countries have condemned the military takeover.  The U.S. State Department has called for the junta “to set a timeline for early elections and to facilitate an inclusive and transparent electoral process.”

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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