An Ounce of Detention

By Marwaan Macan Markar 15 July 2014

BANGKOK — The latest military regime in Thailand has brought to national attention an army compound located at the corner of a tree-lined street in a historic quarter of the capital. It was once the main venue for the army’s top-heavy generals and lower-ranking officers to relax. They still refer to it as the Army Club.

But its new use since the late May coup—Thailand’s 12th successful military putsch out of 19 attempted power grabs in over 80 years—is far from recreational. It has been transformed into something darker: the gateway into a world of military-enforced detentions for hundreds of Thai citizens summoned to hand themselves over to army custody.

The junta’s modus operandi was unveiled soon after the coup and has proceeded, hardly surprisingly, at an efficient military clip. Names of those wanted by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta is known, are read nightly by a deep, somber voice over television and radio stations, conveying a hint of McCarthyism. And those named on the list have little choice but to obey: report the next morning to the Army Club.

The regime’s dragnet has been spread far and wide in its quest to go after the political class and those whose names have popped up in Thailand’s deeply polarized political divide. It began with former elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and many of her cabinet ministers, and extended to parliamentarians, businessmen and women, academics, political activists, broadcasters and journalists from across the political spectrum.

Most of them meekly obliged, resulting in stays at various military compounds across Thailand from one to five days. Only one openly protested—senior journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk—by covering his mouth with black tape as a stand against the climate of repression, before walking through the gates of the Club on a rainy Sunday morning. But some intellectuals named on the junta’s nightly lists have opted to spurn the military’s hospitality, going underground or fleeing into exile.

‘Military Vacation’

The NCPO, however, sees the implications of naming names and the stays in military custody in a different light. There is nothing to fear, assured Col. Werachon Sukondhapatipak, an NCPO spokesman, from the summonses and the military treatment that follows.

“We are inviting them to give them some time to think about their actions, so they can be relaxed and be calm and they are looked after very well,” he said of those called in and immediately relieved of their mobile phones to cut off any outside contact. “We also talk to them to get their opinions as part of this cooling off period.”

The rationale for such a “military vacation,” as Mr. Pravit sarcastically wrote of his ordeal as a “guest detainee,” is no laughing matter. The junta’s chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been drumming into the heads of Thailand’s 67 million population that it is one of a slew of plans to restore political peace and prevent the
country, in the military’s view, from teetering toward a civil war. The color-coded politics that has divided Thailand has to end, the gruff strongman has repeatedly said.

The information gathered from those in military custody will reportedly be collected to shape the junta’s reform and reconciliation blueprint. The junta’s outreach will also feature National Reconciliation Centers in all provinces, aiming to drive home the latest martial tune: happiness and unity in Thailand.

“[Gen. Prayuth] has emphasized the need to create a new value for our people … the divided society must be mended [so that] living in harmony becomes a priority,” said Col. Werachon. “Gen. Prayuth has said this is a daunting task for him.”

Such professed intentions, however, fail to mask the military-style approach to shepherding millions of famously free-wheeling Thais into a pen of national unity, patriotism and political harmony. And the nightly naming of names raises the obvious question: Can detentions in military custody achieve political peace and reconciliation?

Purging Thaksin’s Legacy

“The military’s solution is classic textbook, with ideas based on deterrence,” said Panitan Watanayagorn, a national security expert at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The strategy is to neutralize its opposition by categorizing people as troublemakers, those who cooperate and those who can be co-opted.”

The lists of people summoned reinforce that view. After all, a large swathe of those in the junta’s crosshairs are politicians, the business elite, activists, broadcasters and intellectuals directly linked or associated with Ms. Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former, twice-elected prime minister who was ousted in the September 2006 military coup.

The elder Shinawatra, living in self-imposed exile, has remained a scourge of the traditional, ultra-royalist establishment, which includes the military, ever since he emerged on the national stage in 2001 and saw his pro-Thaksin parties win every successive election. No wonder the post-coup purging of “network Thaksin,” as Mr. Panitan describes it, has also extended to targeting pro-Thaksin bureaucrats in important ministries, such as defense, being transferred to ineffective positions.

The junta’s unorthodox push to secure political peace has, for obvious reasons, drawn the attention of veteran conflict-resolution experts in the country.

“They are pursuing a dual-track approach by trying to keep the people [detained] quiet for a while and making the case for peace, law and order to prepare the way toward reconciliation,” noted Gotham Arya, former director of research at the Centre for Peace Building at Bangkok’s Mahidol University.

“According to the Western textbook, this may not work, because of the contradiction, since those detained are opinion leaders and they may have negative feelings afterward.”

Yet, the junta may have something more homespun to grapple with. How will the strategy “correspond to the sociological approach of Thailand?” asked Mr. Gotham, given the attempt to force people to reconcile.

“If the people accept this new approach, then reconciliation may be possible.”