Geopolitics

Meanwhile In Thailand: Junta Clamps Down Since May Coup

Bangkok is no Hong Kong right now. Once considered an Asian model of democracy, Thailand is under strict military rule since the spring, with free speech squashed and fears deepening.

A Bangkok protest in June
Harold Thibault

BANGKOKIt was an openly provocative gesture in a kingdom where the army seized power in a May coup d’état to restore order: Students and professors gathered Sept. 18 on Thammasat University's campus near Bangkok to hear a lecture about democracy and the decline of dictatorships in foreign countries.

Four months after the military takeover, this country long lauded as a model of political openness in Southeast Asia is seeing its freedoms alarmingly diminished.

The university gathering lasted no more than 10 minutes because some 30 police officers stormed into the room. In a menacing tone, they ordered the conversation to end, arguing that it "threatened national security," master's degree student Apichat Pongsawat recalls. Four lecturers were taken into custody.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup in May before receiving the king's endorsement to become prime minister on Aug. 25, has since justified the lecture's interruption. He called for putting aside "all criticism, all forum on politics" in a bid to restore unity. Martial law is still in effect.

"Since the coup d’état, we're not allowed to talk about anything," Apichat says. Because the student dared to protest against the coup on May 23, he was detained in a military camp. He was sidelined for a week for what the army called "attitude adjustment," without access to a lawyer and without any contact with the outside. According to Amnesty International, 242 people have been detained since the military takeover.

Apichat is a member of Nitirat, an association of "enlightened jurists" which, as early as 2012, asked the government to change article 112 of the country's penal code concerning the crime of lèse-majesté, which prevents any debate about the monarchy.

Given the reality today, such a reform seems a long way away. On Sept. 12, the prime minister told parliament that he wanted to use new technologies to accuse of lèse-majesté "those who don't pay attention to the words they use, who are arrogant at heart or have ill intents regarding the important institution of the nation."

Since then, everybody has been wondering whether that means their Facebook activity could be considered a violation that could lead them straight to jail. Apichat, who had 5,000 contacts on his former account, felt the need the delete it after he was freed. On his new private profile, he only has about 200 "friends," and he knows he should watch his language. "I'd risk being arrested again," he says.

Silencing critics

For Thanapol Eawsakul, founder of a political magazine entitled Fah Diew Kan (The Same Sky), detention started on May 23. He demonstrated in the streets against the overthrow of the elected government. The soldiers explained to him that this time around, the army would be "very serious on the crime of lèse-majesté." When he was freed a week later, he realized that the country had shut up. "A lot of my friends had deactivated their Facebook accounts," he says. "Some had changed their user names. Most militants got scared."

After that, he avoided discussions about the monarchy. But it was only on July 5 that he understood he was not allowed to talk about any political subject. That day, the military contacted him again. They wanted to "have a cup of coffee" with him. In reality, they placed him in detention for a second week. Thanapol now wonders how long Thailand will suffer this oppression.

Another journalist, whose editorial board has asked him not to speak to foreign media, says he considered fleeing the country when he learned on Twitter that he was on a list of people expected to present themselves to the authorities. He went there. And like the others, he was taken to a military camp in a rural region. He was with soldiers when the junta blocked access to Facebook for a few hours on May 28. "One colonel was bragging about it — "That's it, we did it" — but at the same time his daughter reproached him for that in an instant messaging app."

Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat who has since become associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies, believes there is no doubt that the army wants to keep political control. One event in particular is approaching — every Thai citizen knows it, although it is a taboo subject in public.

"Concerning the royal succession — King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86 — the military are worried that Prime Minister Thaksin, his sister Yingluck or their party control the transition," Pavin says.

Like many critics, Pavin was ordered to present himself to the army after the coup d’état. Because he didn't go — he was abroad — his passport was revoked in July. Since then, he has been unable to return to his country and is therefore seeking asylum in Japan.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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