EDITORIAL: Dissent shows no signs of quieting

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - By trying to seal a pot slowly coming to a boil, the junta can be sure of the unrest it so fears.

Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha has expressed concern about possible social unrest following a small protest at the weekend, but the way the authorities are reacting to such incidents guarantees they will be unable to maintain order, and in fact will likely fuel more insurrection. Arresting peaceful demonstrators and subjecting them to legal harassment are tactics that never work, other than underscoring the ruling junta’s insecurity amid fierce public criticism over the deputy premier’s collection of luxury wristwatches.It was Prayut and the junta’s blundering that got this dangerous snowball rolling, even before the watch affair. Had they not made legislative moves seemingly aimed at perpetuating their stay in power, and had the National Legislative Assembly not found a technical trick to delay the promised November election by another 90 days, we would not be in the present predicament.

The result was predictable. Infuriated politicians and activists began exercising their long-suppressed right to freedom of expression. The junta sought to suppress it further. Warrants were issued and arrests threatened. Nevertheless, on January 27, about 100 activists gathered on the skywalk in front of Bangkok’s MBK shopping mall, demanding that an election be held in November as pledged. They deliberately defied the junta’s ban on political gatherings of more than five people. 

Police arrested 39, who became known as the MBK39. These activists were summoned to hear charges against them last Thursday. Police released 28 without pre-conditions, while five additionally accused of sedition were taken to court for a ruling on whether they could be detained further. The court found no basis for doing so and ordered them freed. 

There were several other activists, however – including Rangsiman Rome, Sirawit Serithiwat, Ekachai Hongkangwan and lawyer Anon Nampa – who faced the same charges but had failed to answer the police summons. On Saturday they held another public gathering, at the Democracy Monument, and then surrendered to Pathumwan district police. Citing a vast trail of paperwork if they were to be bailed out, police kept them in custody until late that night. Around 200 supporters staged a candlelight vigil outside, appealing for an immediate end to their prosecution for having done nothing more than peacefully expressing political opinions.

Four of the people detained were finally released, but Rangsiman was taken by van to northeastern Khon Kaen province, some 450 kilometres from the capital, to answer charges in connection with a speech he gave at a university forum there in July 2016. A squad of supporters tracked the van the whole way, wanting to make sure Rangsiman remained safe. He met his accusers, acknowledged the charge and was freed on bail on Sunday, returning to Bangkok at his own expense.

Rangsiman and the rest will have to make many more appearances at police stations and in courtrooms while this dismaying chapter in Thai history plays out. Anyone who values rights and freedoms must applaud them for their determination to prevent democracy being postponed any longer. In no way should anyone feel so cowed by the state’s actions that they refuse to express their opinions and demands.  
Pryaut can resolve this crisis quickly by clearing the path to the election. Instead, he has instructed Army chief General Chalermchai Sitthisart to closely monitor the activists lest they spark a public wildfire against the junta. In doing so, he’s only making matters worse himself.

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