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.