Dark clouds hover as political heat rises

Dark clouds hover as political heat rises

Three members of the cabinet and several others were given jail sentences last week for their roles in toppling the Yingluck Shinawatra government.

They spent two nights behind bars before being bailed out with their hair intact.

The part about the hair is not so trivial as some may think. For the pro-democracy camp, it is another clear sign of political double standards.

Pro-democracy activists, who has been jailed pending court decisions, had their hair cut to prison specifications almost as soon as they stepped behind prison doors. The activists included a young woman who had long hair before going into prison. She emerged with a neck-length haircut.

The prison authorities explained that the time the three cabinet members and friends spent in jail was so chaotic that there was little time for a haircut.

The fact that four activists currently in jail were denied bail three times even though they have yet to be convicted is another source of rancour.

The activists are being held on charges, including sedition and lese majeste, despite the fact they have not caused a government to be toppled. Nor have they called for a violent uprising or for the military to step in and usurp government power as the convicted pro-military activists did in the past.

With the four protest leaders legally crippled, a protest was called to demand their release. But without a clear leader, the activity became somewhat disorganised and was met with brute force.

The level of force unleashed by the police was unprecedented since the protests began over a year ago, resulting in a number of injuries and arrests.

The police have recently intensified their counter-protest actions, including by increasing the application of the lese majeste criminal charge.

On the other side of the political chasm, government supporters are full of glee, happy to see those they consider enemies of the state thrown in jail.

In answering questions about the latest incident, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha employed a different tactic, using a soothing voice, instead of his usually furious and condescending tone.

The police have no choice but to respond to any legal violations, he said, and then chided the media for not reporting both sides of the story.

His soothing voice notwithstanding, his words had the effect of adding fuel to the fire.

For several months now, the police have thrown the book at the protesters in an obvious attempt to silence them. Now the ultimate weapon has been drawn -- the lese majeste charge. The stakes have been raised, pushing the political temperature to a new high.

Meanwhile, pro-government parliamentarians have been diddling with the motion to rewrite the constitution.

While feigning to go along with the popular demand for a new constitution, a group of government MPs and senators have asked the Constitutional Court to decide if parliament has the power amend to the constitution.

Their action cannot hide their disdain for the people's role in drafting the country's highest laws. It has undercut the opposition parties' attempt to ensure political conflicts must be solved by parliamentary mechanisms.

On their part, the protesters appear to have abandoned all hope that their call for a new constitution would be answered in the halls of parliament. Now "the game" will be played out once again in the streets.

The mood among those in the pro-democracy camp swings over a narrow range of emotions from frustration, anger and disappointment to hopelessness.

This is not a good omen if resolving the conflict is going to be done peacefully.

Some have mused about the possibility of taking up arms. While its futility is obvious and it's only a minority view, it cannot be discounted that a fringe element could emerge to inflame the situation even further.

Since the last confrontation on Feb 28, video clips have surfaced showing a group of men with short, cropped hair wearing hard hats behind the police line. They were apparently soldiers. But what were they doing there? At least, one person in civilian clothes was filmed throwing rocks at the protesters.

Other clips show some protesters throwing objects at the crowd-control officers. Some people have insinuated that some of these protesters may have been embedded in the protest movement by the authorities.

Another insidious and inflammatory tactic employed by the government in its war against its own people is the use of information operations.

Evidence suggests that military personnel have been trained to conduct these operations -- to disrupt, mislead, provoke, harass or simply troll the opposition's social media communications, and promote the military's brand of patriotism and royalism.

The military continue to protest that they have been wrongly accused. This is despite the fact that Twitter had previously deactivated close to a thousand accounts attributed to the military's IO campaigns. Most recently, Facebook has for the first time banned a bunch of accounts for similar reasons.

Since the emergence of the protest movement over a year ago, it has become increasingly apparent that Thailand is undergoing a fundamental change.

During such a change, social turbulence is to be expected. While there are reasons for optimism that democracy will eventually prevail, there are fears that the country will be embroiled in a protracted, acrimonious conflict with high social and human costs.

For the foreseeable future, I see dark clouds hovering over the sky.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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