More than a year after tanks trundled through downtown Bangkok, it looks like the generals intend to stay. The military deposed democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19, 2006, and promised a slew of changes–economic reforms, a crackdown on corruption and a resolution to the insurgency in the predominantly Muslim southern provinces. For this, and for a change of pace from the corporate strongman tactics of Thaksin, the crowds came out in droves, offering food and flowers, and mugging for photos next to soldiers and their tanks.
The honeymoon is over, though. The economy is stagnant, the insurgency continues and the military is becoming more deeply entrenched every day ahead of national elections on December 23. Not content with expanding their budget from 86 billion baht before the coup to 143 billion now, the generals have issued a spate of bills targeting free speech and the right to assembly, including cybercrime and film censorship. Most troubling, the military produced a draft of an Internal Security Act (ISA) that would allow it to command government officials “not to perform any act or to perform any act” that would affect internal security. Human Rights Watch has criticized this provision as a blank check that could be used to overrule existing laws and human rights protections. The executors of ISA could also act as criminal investigators and sentence those deemed a threat to national security to “re-education camps” for up to six months. They can order curfews, prohibit demonstrations and public gatherings should they give rise to “public disorder” and suspend or alter communications and transportation systems. The military- and law-enforcement-based Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC), charged with overseeing the act, could seize state agencies and would be exempt from prosecution under the Administrative Court, the highest court to oversee human rights violations.
ISA is well on its way to becoming law. It passed its first reading by the National Legislative Assembly and awaits a committee review and a final vote–a process that the government seems keen to fast-track ahead of the December elections.
The alleged motivation behind ISA? National security–and terrorism. “This law could help us prevent any future acts of terrorism,” said a senior official in the coup government’s Council on National Security, who spoke on condition of anonymity. As he envisioned it, the law could also help update outmoded security systems, deal with drugs and arms trading on the borders and with ongoing violence in the south. But the law’s critics, including more than 100 academics who signed a petition protesting ISA, see it as old-fashioned Thai military control dressed up in the rhetoric of security and counterterrorism. They worry that ISA could be used to suppress dissent.
At a meeting with anti-ISA signatories, government officials stated that the draft bill is inspired by the US Homeland Security and Patriot acts. That Thailand would follow in US footsteps is not surprising, considering that the countries are economic and strategic allies–close enough for Thailand to become home to a US “black site,” a covert prison that was closed down in 2003 after its existence became public.
According to analysis by the International Consortium of Jurists, ISA draws on the emergency decree that Thaksin declared for the southern border provinces in 2005, martial law and the ISOC structure set up by Thailand’s old anti-communist act, which was in effect from 1952 to 1979. The ISA, however, would transcend the time and area limitations of the emergency decree and martial law and expand the powers of ISOC. As Naruemon Thabchumphon, an academic who circulated the petition against the act, said, “If passed, this law will give the military unlimited time and area to expand their security system. The whole kingdom of Thailand will be under a permanent state of emergency.”
The new cybercrime law also contains language about terrorism and national security–and was recently used in the secret arrest of two bloggers for their outspoken remarks about the much revered monarchy. The bloggers were eventually released without being charged but retain criminal records and could be charged with cybercrime violations up to ten years in the future. In addition, more than 50,000 websites, many including content critical of the coup generals, are blocked by the government, and individual Internet service providers, who view the cybercrime law as allowing them free rein to censor, block even more sites.
One of the most ambitious pieces of recent proposed legislation, ISA would grant the ISOC “enormous power in terms of controlling political activities,” according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Chulalongkorn University security specialist and a foreign affairs adviser to the coup’s Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont. “The ISOC can bypass normal due process. That’s not unusual even in democratic Western countries–President Bush has it. But the problem with us is that we need elected officials who can vote on that policy–and it must be subjected to checks and balances in executive and parliamentary system.”
Even if the act faces an elected Parliament, it may pull through anyway, thanks to the military’s increased financial muscle and strategic jockeying. In response to public feedback, ISA will appoint the prime minister as commander of the ISOC and position the army head as ISOC deputy commander, instead of its head, as stipulated in the original ISA draft. But in a country where coup generals are beginning to resign from the military to assume top-level positions in the interim civilian government, critics are not hopeful that ISA will protect civil liberties–or be implemented by a commander who will.
To its critics, ISA is just the latest manifestation of growing authoritarianism in Thailand. “We’re living under a coercive democracy,” says Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University. “This is just the latest sign that we are living in a dark age.”