Teenager With Letters Rattles Thai Junta as Crackdown Grows

Member of ousted Thai government Watana Muangsook

Watana Muangsook is escorted by military officers as he arrives at a military base in Bangkok in April 2016.

Photographer: Narong Sangnak/EPA
  • Clampdown comes ahead of August vote on proposed constitution
  • Referendum seen as gauge of public support 2 years after coup

When Thai politician Watana Muangsook was being held at a rural army camp for defying the military government, the junta decided there was a new threat: His teenage daughter, who should leave the country.

The 18-year-old had been visiting foreign embassies last month with the media in tow to deliver letters complaining the military had taken her father away for a fifth time. After a phone call from a senior member of the junta, her family decided to send her into temporary exile. 

“They didn’t want my daughter to go to the UN,” Watana, a former commerce minister, said in an interview. “When I got out of prison, my daughter in Hong Kong cried. She apologized: ‘Daddy I didn’t want to come here’.”

The episode highlights the measures the junta is taking to muzzle dissent ahead of a referendum in August on a new constitution that would extend its hold over Thai politics. The vote will be the first since coup-maker-turned=Prime-Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power two years ago and has taken on broader significance as a gauge of public support.

The junta hasn’t said what will happen if voters reject the draft charter, but it could lead it to delay an election slated for late next year. It could also hamper efforts to kick-start an economy that is growing at a slower pace than its biggest Southeast Asian rivals including Indonesia and the Philippines. The World Bank forecasts the Thai economy will expand 2.5 percent this year, less than the roughly 4 percent pace it averaged in the decade before the coup.

“Dissent and regime crackdowns have been intensifying since the beginning of this year because of the escalating siege mentality of the increasingly phobic regime leaders,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. “Thailand is definitely entering a more dangerous phase which could see growing junta violence against the populace but also more resistance.”

Thaksin’s Ouster

The junta did not respond to a request for comment but has said public dissent is being whipped up by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose ouster in a 2006 coup set off a cycle of military intervention, protests and counter protests that the country remains trapped in. Thaksin, who lives abroad to avoid a jail sentence for a graft conviction he says was politically motivated, has denied this.

Thai stocks have outperformed regional peers since the coup brought an end to street protests that roiled markets, declining about 1.4 percent in that time versus a 22 percent drop in the MSCI Southeast Asia Index. Still a nearly 70 percent plunge in the applications for foreign direct investment last year signals some investors remain wary.

The draft charter has been criticized by academics, rights groups and the nation’s largest political parties -- particularly over sections that would allow for a non-elected prime minister, turn the senate into an appointed body that included sitting members of the military and give extra power to the courts and bureaucrats.

Draft ‘Unacceptable’

“I find the draft constitution illiberal, unacceptable,” former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, whose Democrat Party has long been in opposition to Watana’s Pheu Thai Party, said in Bangkok last week. "With that guided democracy, I only foresee more trouble for Thai political life into the future because there will be incessant demands for more participation."

The junta’s legislature has passed a new law that outlaws campaigns for or against the charter, with violators risking 10 years in prison. Prayuth has used a clause in the interim charter -- one that makes all his actions lawful and final -- to grant soldiers the power to arrest civilians and detain them without oversight.

There have been recent high-profile arrests, including eight people charged with sedition for connections to a satirical Facebook page that mocked Prayuth, and the mother of a prominent activist charged for not disavowing a private Facebook message sent to her that allegedly insulted the monarchy. Authorities detained small groups of people who gathered in Bangkok to protest those arrests.

Military Courts

Those cases -- along with more than 1,600 others brought since the coup -- will be tried in military courts. The Nation newspaper warned in a May 13 editorial that increased repression was eroding support even among those who initially cheered the coup.

“As a new constitution was pursued in earnest, it became increasingly apparent that the generals were intent on retaining much of the power they unlawfully seized, and that citizens have been allowed precious little say in their country’s political future,” it wrote. “So the murmur of dissent has grown louder.”

Watana is among the more than 1,300 politicians, activists, academics and journalists who have been summoned since the coup for temporary detention in what the junta calls "attitude adjustment."

Arrests, Intimidation

"They want you to stop talking, to stop making any comments," Watana said. "Once you make a comment they arrest you. They just want to intimidate you."

Watana was detained for four days last month before being taken to a military court, charged with disobeying the junta and released on bail. His daughter returned from Hong Kong just a few days after the call, which the military government declined to comment on.

While Watana said he has never been mistreated in detention, it isn’t something anyone should be subjected to. "I fear no one," he said. "But everyone when they are under detention worries -- even me."

Watana said the junta has failed to follow through with its pledge to reconcile the country and it remains as divided as ever. If people from all sides band together against the new charter, however, they could finally push the military from power.

“It’s called divide and rule,” Watana said. “Once the people can unite, you cannot stay. Certainly tomorrow you are out.”

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