Ignorance no excuse for generals' ire

Ignorance no excuse for generals' ire

Handcuffed and shoved into line by police, the 15 anti-coal protesters were hauled off to the Songkhla lockup on Tuesday. (FB/bnasae)
Handcuffed and shoved into line by police, the 15 anti-coal protesters were hauled off to the Songkhla lockup on Tuesday. (FB/bnasae)

Two of our national leaders' recent verbal onslaught against anti-coal protesters in Songkhla province seems unfair to me. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called them people who "attacked" police officers during the clash on Monday. His deputy, Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, labelled them as "hard core".

Neither leader had met nor talked to any of the protesters in person before making such judgements. Nor had they ever visited their communities.

The two generals have been harshly criticised for their aggressive responses to the recent protest by about 50 people who walked from Songkhla's Thepha district to submit a letter of protest against a 2,200-megawatt coal-fired power plant project to the premier in person.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

Critics pointed out the two men must have been told earlier on about the opposition and concerns of local people about the potential negative effects of the project. They believed the generals must have known the protesters were just normal locals but went ahead anyway with describing them otherwise.

But what if the two generals knew very little about the facts behind the protest or they received misleading information?

Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit reacted after the protesters tried to break through a police barricade as they were en route to meet the prime minister. The mayhem resulted in the arrest of 16 people who have since been released on bail. There were also a few injuries.

The protesters were on a five-day march against the power plant. They started in Thepha district on Friday, aiming to reach the mobile cabinet meeting venue in Muang district to tell Gen Prayut in person of their concerns about the social and environmental impacts.

The coal-burning plant, pushed heavily by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), has sparked much controversy. Local communities claim public participation was scant while the developer downplayed the project's potential negative impacts.

Egat has denied all the allegations. The government has tended to back the project citing its economic benefits. Gen Prayut once said southerners would have to "use lanterns" like in the old days if the development of coal-fired power didn't go ahead as planned.

Local residents may have felt desperate that their voices were not being heard by those in power.

The police charged the 16 protesters with obstructing traffic, resisting arrest and harming authorities, and carrying "weapons" -- sticks with anti-coal campaign flags. I don't think these sticks should be regarded as weapons as long as they were not used to attack the police.

This is not the first time Gen Prayut and Gen Prawit have been antagonistic to social activism. Earlier, they tried to discredit democracy activists and public health advocates.

Some observers wonder whether the two generals are just pro-capitalism, putting the benefits of the state and the private sector ahead of the people, or whether their reactions are typical of dictators.

Since the generals lack experience in national administration and an understanding of environmental and social issues, in fact anything beyond the defence sphere, they likely have to rely heavily on advice from bureaucrats and policy advisers.

But this doesn't mean such mandarins understand or care about the plight of local people either. Many of them are stakeholders in controversial projects. It is possible the two leaders may not have been given both sides of the story. The worst-case scenario is that they may have been given biased and distorted information.

History proves it can happen. During the Black May uprising in 1992, the then government led by Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon ordered a military crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bangkok. Fake news had been spread alleging the demonstrators had opted for extreme violence with acts of arson.

Similarly, during the 6 Oct 1976 massacre, false information was given to the cabinet, accusing student activists of being violent and reporting that there were "migrants" mingling with them.

Both events ended with deadly force being used by the state against demonstrators.

The information battle is continuing with the current administration. With the state backing the power plant project, would you expect government officials to give the two leaders the facts or the sort of information they wanted to hear?

One wonders if our two leaders, who haven't really lent an ear to the plight of the people, know much about the issue at all. Still, ignorance is not really an excuse for their harsh words.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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