Just a handful of hacks are holding up the bar at Bangkok’s foreign press club as the junta cracks down on international broadcast media and calls in local journalists for questioning
It was, perhaps, an act of optimism to believe that a media conference would be called by the Thai army to explain, as it had announced, its concrete plans for the restoration of Thailand’s democracy. This is especially so given that, when local journalists questioned Thai army officials a few days ago about when democracy would be restored, the news conference was promptly ended.
Yesterday afternoon, Thai army spokesman Colonel Sirichan Ngathong said the junta’s plans were to take steps towards restoring normal administration to the country, establish a legislative council and a reform council and work towards holding democratic elections in a time frame yet to be determined. That is, the anti-government “yellow shirt” key claim has been met, and the terms of “democratic elections” will be determined by a constitution that is yet to be written.
Of the information that is otherwise available, little of it relates to Thailand being under army lockdown and, where that is mentioned, it is in formal and strictly factual terms. What we do know is that the international broadcast media has been blocked, that local journalists have been called in for questioning, with some arrested, and editors have been formally warned.
Around 250 people have now been arrested by the junta, with those few handfuls who have been released having signed a pledge not to oppose the junta’s activities. The army is continuing to hunt for many more, issuing public broadcasts for people to hand themselves in.
At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, however, a handful of news hacks propped up the bar, given there is little else they can do. All foreign news channels are blocked.
The once-proud BBC went missing in action before the coup was even announced. Locals are now asking themselves if the BBC was taken off the air because it was an unfettered voice of international journalism, or just because its reporting of local events had become so superficial and, seemingly, ill-informed.
The army has also warned that it will limit internet access to block social media from discussing the coup. Facebook was taken down for 37 minutes on Wednesday, although this was said by an army spokesman to be a “gateway” problem.
However, Facebook, Line, Instagram and YouTube have been identified for potential closure if they promote “divisiveness” or “infringe on the monarchy”. There is also a related move by the junta to closely screen information sent via the internet.
These threats, and to crack down strongly on any further protests, reflect a growing sense of frustration by the army over what it views as a lack of compliance with its world view, and continuing if limited protests around Bangkok.
Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol who, under increasingly strict lese majeste laws, cannot have anything said about him that could be construed as less than supportive, is said by the army to have condoned the coup. The king has condoned military coups in the past.
However, the much-loved 86-year-old king, who has been in poor health, has not been seen in public during this period of military control. The venerated king has also not issued a statement under his own name.
But there is no question as to who is in control in Thailand. The area around the Victory Monument, which has been a daily protest site, has now been reopened to traffic, if with a continuing military presence to ensure that protesters do not return. Soldiers lounged by their trucks along the main roads on the outskirts of Bangkok, while a machine-gun armed Hummer patrolled a main road near the Thailand stock exchange.
After having yet again deposed a democratically elected government, the Thai junta’s plans to restore “democracy” raises questions over the meaning of the term. That the junta also has no time frame in which to do so similarly raises a variation of the legal adage that democracy delayed is democracy denied.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University, Melbourne.