After just 106 days in office the coming days promise to be a tense period for the government of Thailand’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, with conditions approaching ideal for the Royal Thai Army (RTA) to mount the country’s 19th coup d’état since absolute monarchy rule was abolished 79 years ago.
Already the subject of strong public criticism over the way in which her government has handled the 2011 Thailand flood, public anger at the government’s plan to request a royal pardon for prisoners, including her disgraced older brother fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is drawing heated condemnation from those opposed to the disgraced former leader’s return.
Royal pardon discussion on back of blatant lie
The royal pardon was first discussed by members of the cabinet in Ms Yingluck’s absence on Tuesday, November 15, after the public and media were fed a blatant lie that the PM was stranded in Sing Buri, 140km (87 miles) north of Bangkok, the evening before because the helicopter she was using to inspect the continuing 2011 Thailand flood was incapable of flying at night.
That the Thai media traveling with the leader of country didn’t think it odd that the country leader’s helicopter, a Russian-built Mi-17 (ordinarily perfectly equipped for night flight) couldn’t fly the Thailand PM to an emergency 24-hours a day anywhere in the kingdom is an extremely sad indictment of the professional standard of Thai journalism and one that every member of the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) should feel deep embarrassment over, but in Thai style probably won’t.
The truth is that the Thai PM was deliberately absent from the cabinet meeting as this enabled deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung, appointed to take care of Thaksin’s return since the government was formed, to not only chair the two-hour long cabinet meeting, but also a special 15-minute discussion immediately after where a royal pardon for prisoners, including the deposed former leader, was discussed.
Simply put, if the PM had been in attendance at the meeting she would have either had to recuse herself, which could have raised eyebrows that something was afoot, or been in breach of the Thailand constitution‚ the matter discussed having benefits for a family member.
In any event news of the “secret” discussions regarding a royal pardon quickly leaked into the public domain and while Yubamrung and the PM have refused to reveal the wording of the proposed Royal Decree, leaked details indicate it requests Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej to issue a royal pardon for sum 26,000 prisoners aged 60 and over, with a routine exemption for those convicted for corruption or drug cases as contained in past royal pardons removed.
Past Thailand royal pardons
In the past royal pardons have specifically excluded these two groups ‚ a previous recommendation from the Council of State (Privy Council) specifically addressing these two groups, and with Thaksin yet to serve a single day behind bars for a two-year jail term imposed in 2008 for abuse of authority, opponents are claiming it makes a joke of the Thai judicial system, while others see it as applying pressure on the monarch to issue a royal pardon the man blamed for much of Thailand’s political unrest over the last three years.
On December 5 King Bhumibol will celebrate his 84th birthday, a date which also marks the very auspicious ending of his seventh 12 yearly cycle of life (Buddhist belief) and it has long been expected that to mark such an occasion he will issue a royal pardon for prisoners, as he has done on past auspicious occasions.
However, while Thailand moved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and the Thai royal family is deemed to be above politics, the automatic approval of the King on legislative Bills and Acts is not guaranteed, though it has only been rarely withheld in the past.
In 1954 the King twice declined to endorse a land reform Bill and in 1976 declined to sign a law to extend democratic elections down to district levels, while in 2004 an attempt by the government to replace Jaruvan Maintaka as auditor-general failed when the King declined to approve it and the request was withdrawn in 2006.
Explosive reaction to proposed Thaksin royal pardon
The reaction to news of the proposed royal pardon involving the former prime minister has been explosive, especially given that 22 of Thailand’s 77 provinces remain inundated from the 2011 Thailand flood, and millions of people remain displaced, unemployed, or otherwise affected, with residents in some communities destroying the sand bag dykes that prevented the CBD from also being flooded, but at the expense of inundating the homes of people in Bangkok suburbs.
That an application for a royal pardon for Thaksin has come at this time should be of no surprise to anyone with the self-exiled deposed leader and those close to him making it clear on a number of occasions his strong desire to return for his eldest daughter’s wedding on December 9.
The first protest against the government’s proposed royal pardon application was held Friday (November 18, 2011), organised by long-time People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) activist Dr Tul Sitthisomwong, with other protests planned over the coming days.
The PAD, aka the yellow-shirts, were the group whose protests led to the 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin while he was in New York attending a United Nations summit and reorganised in 2008 to rally against the government of Samak Sundaravej, before chasing his government out of Government House and occupying it, both Bangkok airports and a number of regional airports, resulting in the stranding of hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors.
Generally considered a spent force in Thailand politics for the last couple of years, the PAD has shown before that it is capable of reorganising if required, though its current strategy in relation to the proposed royal pardon appears to be to challenge its validity with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), and hope the powerful Privy Council will not pass the royal pardon application to the King for endorsement.
The 2006 Thailand coup & lucky numbers
Also unhappy with the proposed royal pardon for Thaksin is a large group of Thailand academics, along with Thailand business groups who see it adding additional risk of more Thailand political instability, at a time the country is reeling from the 2011 Thailand flood.
Another opponent of the royal pardon is prominent self-exiled Thai socialist Giles Ji Ungpakorn who says the proposed Decree is a “gross betrayal of red-shirt prisoners and all those who sacrificed their lives for democracy”.
According to Mr Ungpakorn, “the criteria means that no lèse-majesté prisoners will be covered, or any of the red-shirts accused of burning buildings or on terrorism charges”.
That the government should consider a royal pardon for Thaksin at a time when so many people are still seriously affected by the 2011 Thailand flood will “anger and demoralise many red-shirts”, he says.
Mr Ungpakorn’s views are similar to those of Professor Somsak Jiamthirasakul, a history lecturer at Thammasat University, who questions why red-shirt protesters prosecuted or awaiting prosecution for taking part in rallies against the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva last year have been excluded.
The Decree [if enacted] can only be seen as benefiting a certain individual and is wrong and will set a bad precedent he said on his Facebook page.
When elements of the Thai army staged their coup against prime minister Thaksin in 2006 then third army Area Commander Saprang Kalayanamitr said Thai politics was below standard and that the kingdom’s leadership was weak. He also claimed that Thailand had a false democracy.
It has also been revealed since that the coup had been brought forward a day to take advantage of the fortuitous 199 date, Thais considering the number nine to be particularly lucky.
With PM Yingluck attending the 19th Asean Summit in Bali, large numbers of the red-shirt rank and file supporter base living in 2011 Thailand flood evacuation shelters, inundated homes or emergency accommodation, more than 50,000 Thai troops already on the streets and enjoying one of the pinnacles of the organisations popularity for their work helping with the 2011 Thailand flood and this weekend in particular is starting to look alarming for the superstitious, with the 19th coup on the 19th month, during the 19th Asean summit containing an awful lot of nines, while the 27th of November provides a perfect number 9 if the month is excluded and is probably the last date anything could happen in the lead up to the December 5 celebrations.
With the 84th birthday of King Bhumibol rapidly approaching and the plight of 26,000 people in Thailand’s bursting at the seams prison system also hanging in the balance, it’s yet to be seen whether the 2011 Thailand flood disaster is a prelude to greater troubles ahead.
Editorial Note: At the same time as this article was being written the Commander-in-chief of the RTA, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, was ordering the redeployment of 221 Army colonels, with many of his colleagues from Class 12 of the Armed Forces’ Preparatory School rotated to key positions in Thai army units. On Sunday, 20 November Thailand Justice Minister, Pracha Promnok unequivocally stated that former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra would not benefit from the royal pardon decree the government was seeking for prisoners on the occasion of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 84th birthday. Additional denials on Sunday and Monday (20th & 21st of November), including a hand-written letter that was disseminated far and wide from the deposed prime minister stating he expected his sister’s government “will not do anything that will benefit me or any individual specifically”, saw street protests that had been planned in the says ahead cancelled. 23/11/2011
Read: Thailand Royal Pardons – the process
- 2011 Thailand flood could be more destructive than Asian Economic Crisis
- Jatuporn to be Yingluck’s first test on clean Thailand government
- Thainess, the economy & the 2011 Thailand general election
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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