Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Thailand is coming to the end of very difficult year, which brought violent street protests, an election boycott, martial law, a coup, media censorship, the appointment of a new military-backed government, and a royal divorce. Here, we look back at what has transpired over the past 12 months.

January: Tens of thousands of protesters flood the major intersections of Bangkok as opposition groups intensify their bid to topple the government of then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The protest, led by former lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban, aims to “shut down“ Bangkok for several days or until Yingluck is removed from power. Despite the planned shutdown, Bangkok is not entirely paralyzed. But the protest loudly echoes the demands of the opposition to call of the February election and instead create a so-called People’s Council to replace the government.

February: Despite the anti-government rallies and the boycott campaign of the opposition, Thailand is able to hold a “peaceful” election. But many Thais are unable to vote or are prevented from approaching polling centers because of the protests. The number of disenfranchised voters is estimated at 12 million.

March: Thailand’s Constitutional Court annuls the February elections by declaring it unconstitutional because voting failed to take place on the same day around the country. Subsequently, the Election Commission announces that the next poll would be scheduled for July.

April: Street protests continue to call for the removal of the caretaker government headed by Yingluck. She will be eventually be forced to step down after the Court rules the following month that she abused her power in 2011 when she replaced the national security chief with one of her relatives.

May: Two days after declaring martial law and failing to mediate between rival political forces, the Royal Thai Army launches a coup on May 22, suspends the 2007 Constitution (except for the provisions on the monarchy), seizes control of major media stations, and imposes a nighttime curfew. This was Thailand’s 12th successful coup in the past century, although the number rises to more than 20 if unsuccessful coup attempts are counted.

June: One of the early directives of the coup regime is a ban on public gatherings of five or more people. Although this doesn’t stop anti-coup protesters from converging on various places, the army becomes increasingly intolerant of the protests by arresting those who defy this law. But protesters find creative ways to express their opposition – like adopting the three-finger salute from the Hollywood film “Hunger Games” to signify their yearning for “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

July: The Junta issues a new order banning media from reporting news that is critical of the government. Media groups immediately express concern about the broad and vague provisions of the order. They also highlight the severe punishment – legal prosecution, censorship, and shutdown – for violating any part of the order.

August: The National Council for Peace and Order, the name of the junta government, enacts an interim constitution as part of the purported roadmap for democratic reforms in the country. But critics point out that the new charter is designed to perpetuate a military dictatorship. Using this constitution, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is selected by the National Legislative Assembly as Thailand’s 29th prime minister.

September: The murder of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in Koh Tao island beach resort embarrasses the military-backed government. The police are accused of bungling the investigation.

October: For months, students have been ordered to memorize Prayuth’s “12 Core Values,” which focus on discipline and respect for authority. Some students protest this and other curriculum changes which they argue were made without consulting the public. Another reform dubbed as teaching “correct democracy” constitutes a revision to history books, which have apparently already expunged the name of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

November: Additional troubling signs of censorship: The media is asked by Prayuth not to report the activities of Thaksin and Yingluck, a TV host is replaced because the junta doesn’t like her critical comments about the government, and the Hunger Games film was banned in some theaters and protesters are detained for performing the three-finger salute.

December: Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkron divorces his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, sparking speculation about the royal succession and its impact on local politics.

When will Thailand’s military hand over power to a civilian government? Will it succeed in promoting reconciliation? Will there be an election soon? For how long will the government continue to impose strict media regulations? Will it finally allow protests to resume in the streets? And the most important question: Will democracy triumph in 2015?

Indonesia: Police Chief Scandal Jokowi’s First Real Test

Written for The Diplomat

Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s only nominee for the country’s top police post has been named by an anti-corruption agency as a suspect in a money laundering scandal. But the nomination was not withdrawn and Congress proceeded to endorse the candidate despite the corruption case. Because of this, Jokowi has faced accusations that he succumbed to political pressure instead of aggressively pursuing reforms and fighting corruption in the bureaucracy.

Immediately after his nomination, police Commissioner General Budi Gunawan was listed by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) as a suspect in a bribery and money laundering case. The agency cited a report from the Financial Transaction Reports and Analysis Center (PPATK), which traced suspicious bank transactions involving the three-star general between 2005 and 2008. Budi reportedly made several deposits and withdrawals amounting to $5.9 million in several banks while he was stationed at the national police headquarters.

If found guilty of violating the anti-corruption provisions of the criminal code, Budi could face four to 20 years in jail plus a hefty fine.

Many suspected that Budi was appointed despite his tainted record because of his close ties to former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is also the leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) that supported Jokowi’s candidacy. Budi’s nomination is seen by some as a clear example of the former president’s strong influence in the Jokowi administration.

The Jakarta Globe published an editorial urging Jokowi to quit Megawati’s party and break out from the former president’s shadow: “He is the president of Indonesia who is voted in by the people. PDI-P and Megawati will continue to be his nightmare – forcing bad policies and appointments for their own interests. He will not be able to control the party as he is not in Sukarno’s bloodline.”

Jokowi’s refusal to cancel Budi’s nomination disappointed supporters who expected the new president to be aggressive in reforming the bureaucracy. After all, Jokowi became nationally prominent as mayor of Solo City and later as Jakarta governor because of his innovative leadership and popular image as a crusading hero of the common people. After his election victory, Jokowi announced the “Nawa Cita” (Nine Priority Agenda) of his presidency, which included the rejection of a weak state “by reforming the system through corruption-free dignified, and reliable law enforcement.” When news of the Budi nomination scandal broke out, many asked if Jokowi was already abandoning his commitment to the electorate.

An online petition was launched urging Jokowi to drop Budi and appoint a new national police chief with a clean record. The Twitter hashtag #ShameOnYouJokowi trended globally reflecting the anger of many people, among them those who believed that Jokowi would usher in an era of reform in the country.

Perhaps hurting from the criticism, Jokowi decided to postpone Budi’s inauguration. But this created a new complication when some party leaders felt insulted that the president had ignored the parliament’s endorsement. The threat of impeachment has even been made.

Jokowi will likely survive this political crisis, the first serious one under his administration. But his reputation as a reformist has taken a serious hit.

One Response to “Thailand’s Twelve Turbulent Months”

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