By Pipob Udomittipong (Guest Contributor)
On Wednesday, May 11, 2011, throngs of the supporters of the right to free speech, including many so called “Red Shirts”, will again lay siege to the Nag Lerng Police Station in downtown Bangkok. Another reminiscence to the packed room of the Faculty of Law, Thammasat University in late April, when a press conference was held by the Nitirat Group and a lecturer who was facing intimidation and imminent legal action for his exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a history professor from Thammasat University, will report himself to the police in Bangkok on the accused violation of Section 112. He has made sharp criticisms over the misuse of the lèse majesté law (Section 112 of the Penal Code) and called for reform of the monarchy, making it more suitable to the changing democracy. After the arrest of Surashai Danwattananusorn, a core leader of Red Siam, a splinter group of the Red Shirt movement, and Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, a core leader of the 24th of June Group which spearheaded the collection of 10,000 signatures for the amendment and repeal of Section 112, there are now three people with the same initial, “S”, that will fall victim the law which imposes ridiculously harsh sentences (3-15 years of imprisonment), is applied dubiously and allows anyone to make the complaint.
Such use of the law is obviously an impediment to the right to freedom of expression, a very basic and indispensable right enshrined and made applicable by national and international instruments. The question is, when will the Phue Thai Party, which claims itself as “more democratic” than other political parties in Thailand, come out to make their stand on the right to freedom of expression? The Party always claims to command loyalty from the Red Shirts or members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) who have paid dearly for the fight for democratic rights, including the right to speak.
It is fine for the Phue Thai Party to keep selling its policy gimmicks and the so-called “populist policy” to garner support from the “Red” constituents. But to live up to its word as being a more democratic party, it has to make its position clear.
Previously, the Phue Thai Party announced the “Two Pronged” Policy basically to separate the activism of the Red Shirt movement from their political campaign bracing for the forthcoming general elections. Without much scrutiny one can conclude that the distancing of the Party from the Red Shirt movement simply stems from their fear and concern over the misuse of the lèse majesté law to persecute dissenting voices. The Party’s stand was simply a response to the latest announcement by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) which threatened to press more charges against those committing breaches of Section 112. And of course, a natural response to the Royal Thai Army which has announced and already pressed charges against those accused of violating the law. Judging from the number of the accused having to stand in the Court on a lèse majesté charge in the past few years and the sheer numbers of them are those affiliated or are known to be siding with the Red Shirts, it was to no one’s surprise that the “Two Pronged” Policy was just a means of saving themselves.
The traditional Thai term “Prai” connotes the very core identity of the Red Shirts. Such a commonly viewed derogatory word has been proudly adopted by Red Shirts from the core leaders down to those occupying the two main sites in Bangkok for almost three months last year. Equally echoed out loud is the term “Ammart”, or literally the “courtiers” or “aristocrats”, which has been symbolically hailed by the Red Shirts as those powers that be, the “exalted ones”, they are vehemently opposed to.
But in terms of the battle against the “Ammart”, from Thai Rak Thai to its reincarnation, “Phue Thai”, have they shown any distinctive difference to other political parties? The answer is perhaps “no”.
Late April this year, the House of Representatives passed in three rounds of reading the Public Demonstration Bill (217 or 272 MPs). For pundits, the law shall be an important weapon for the government to suppress the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. It shall be a sharp blade that cuts deeply into the core freedom people in a democracy deserve. What have the 188 MPs of the Phue Thai done to oppose the undemocratic Bill? They have simply pulled themselves out of the Special Committee of the House of Representatives to review the draft of the Bill (which simply means they shall not have whatever say as far as the change made to the draft is concerned).
Has anyone heard from the Phue Thai Party, officially and unofficially, that they have any clear and tangible policy to uphold the right to freedom of expression? Has the policy announced by Thaksin during the recent launch of the Phue Thai’s candidates given any reckoning on the upholding of the right which is so essential to keep checks and balances of the state power?
Clicking on the homepage of the Phue Thai Party, one will only find their gimmicks about “increasing salaries of the university graduate, increasing minimum wage to 300 baht per day, guaranteed price of jasmine rice at 20,000 baht per ton, etc”,
It’s time that the Red Shirts, if they are the real supporters of the Phue Thai Party, to hold the Party accountable and take them to task. And it is time for the Party to refrain from excusing themselves by claiming that “we’ve got to win the elections first!” As an eligible voter, I won’t buy it and I shall not vote for any political party that shows no concrete stand and solutions to untangle the misuse of this repressive law.
The author used to work in many rights NGOs including Foundation for Children, EarthRights International and in the National Human Rights Commission. Since a few years ago, he has become a freelance translator and interpreter working for a range of NGOs and civil society organizations working on HIV/AIDS, drug use, environmental preservation, energy, etc.