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In Thailand, Scant Signs Of Democracy A Year After Coup

Protester in Bangkok after the May 2014 coup
Protester in Bangkok after the May 2014 coup
Arnaud Dubus

BANGKOK — Phayao Akahad and Sukanya Prueksakasemsuk have both paid a high price for the political turmoil that has befallen Thailand, which culminated, in a May 2014 military coup led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

One lost a daughter during the 2010 crackdown on the “Red Shirts” protests that took place against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The other's husband languishes in prison after being sentenced two years ago for a lese-majesty offense, the crime of offending the monarchy that warrants harsh punishments in the Southeast Asian country.

A year after the coup, Akahad and Prueksakasemsuk agree on one point: if the military men running the country really want to establish reconciliation, they should start by taking responsibility for their past errors.

“You can’t order reconciliation," says Akahad, whose daughter Kamolkate, a 24-year-old nurse’s aid, was killed by soldiers five years ago while she was providing help to Red Shirt demonstrators. “If you establish justice, the reconciliation will be done automatically. The military must first recognize its errors.”

It is a vision shared by Prueksakasemsuk, whose husband, Somyot, ran a pro-Red Shirt magazine and was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2013 for publishing an article on a fictional monarchy that a court judged insulting for the Thai royal family. “What the military wants is that we all think the same thing,” she says. “They want people to believe everything is calm, even if it’s not true. They just want to remove the opinions that are different from theirs.”

Being followed

The two women also suffered directly from last year's military overthrow. Three days after the putsch, soldiers burst into Prueksakasemsuk's home, confiscated computers and brought her, her 23-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter away. They were questioned for six hours before they were freed. “My daughter was traumatized because the soldiers pushed her to the limit with their questions,” Prueksakasemsuk recalls.

Since then, she says she hasn’t been under direct pressure from the soldiers. “I can participate in certain public activities, but I know I’m being followed,” she says.

For Akahad, a woman with a lively temperament who doesn’t mince her words, the impact of the putsch was even faster. In the hour that followed the overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra, Akahad's 24-year-old son, Nattapat Akahad, was violently arrested and taken away by soldiers who kept him for six days in a military camp. “I told them: ‘You’ve already killed my daughter, now you want to take my son,"” she says.

Since then, she has had a few disputes with the junta representatives, like when she was arrested with her son last December for protesting against what she calls “distortion of facts” by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. The head of the military junta had said his troops were not in the position of “defendants” concerning the death of her daughter, even though a judicial inquiry concluded in 2012 that she had indeed been killed by soldiers.

“What we ask from the military is that they recognize their mistakes," says Akahad. "They and the then government must apologize for what they did. They must accept their responsibilities."

Questioning the Constitution

Twelve months after the coup, the two women are skeptical, even pessimistic on the political direction taken by the military regime. Prueksakasemsuk notes that the law suppressing lese-majesty is used with an unprecedented severity. She mentions the case of a 58-year-old man, Theinsutham Suthijittaseranee, sentenced in March to 25 years in prison for posting unflattering comments about the royal family on Facebook.

“The military thinks a group of people want to change the monarchy. The junta wants to control the situation during the transition,” she says in reference to the succession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 87 and in poor health.

Prueksakasemsuk says the other aim of the junta is to neutralize the movement in favor of Thaksin Shinawatra — a goal that has already almost been reached.

Currently a draft Constitution is being drawn up. The document allows for a directly elected Senate and the possibility for non-parliamentarians to become prime minister. But neither Akahad nor Prueksakasemsuk have much faith in the process. “Ordinary people like me can’t participate in the country’s political life anymore. This Constitution is just a tool for the military to perpetuate their power,” says Prueksakasemsuk.

Akahad was left with that same impression following a meeting she attended regarding the content of the draft charter. Akahad participated a civil society representative. Also in attendance were politicians and people who are preparing the Constitution.

“They just asked the opinion of the politicians," she recalls. "I stayed seated for four hours just listening to them. They weren’t interested in knowing what the people thought."

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