Thai Junta exacerbating seriousness of T-shirt case

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - So-called secessionist movement just a handful of ‘powerless’ people, say critics.

Junta leaders were slammed yesterday for panicking and overreacting by arresting a woman over alleged possession of T-shirts with a federal theme.
The motorcycle-taxi driver identified only as Wannapha was released yesterday on a bail of Bt200,000 after being in the Army’s custody for six days.
She has been accused of sedition and crimes of secret association, as the authority found she had 400 alleged “Organisation for Thai Federation” 
T-shirts in her possession. 
Political observers said the group,  which junta No 2 General Prawit Wongsuwan accused of actively trying to overthrow the monarchy in a neighbouring country, was in fact an association of only a handful of people and lacking any power to realise its aspiration.

The comments were in response to statements on Tuesday from Prawit and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that there was a secessionist movement running deep in the Kingdom. So far the only tangible evidence presented to the public has been limited to a small number of T-shirts bearing a small red-and-white flag. The flag was alleged to be a symbolic representation of federalist aspirations.
Prawit accused Chucheep Cheevasut, also known as Uncle Sanamluang, of being the key movement leader. 

Chucheep is a red-shirt extremist believed to be living in exile in a neighbouring country. His political activities seem largely limited to uploading to YouTube his so-called underground broadcasts bearing strong political messages. 

The YouTube channel had over 145,000 followers, with each video reaching thousands or tens of thousands of views. And the Organisation for Thai Federation Facebook page had less than a thousand followers with low engagement. 

Weng Tojirakarn, a key leader in the red-shirt umbrella group United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, said yesterday the government was exacerbating the situation, possibly for its own political gain.
This is the same old ploy to use security reasons to justify the junta’s grip on power, Weng said.
“In fact, the group is rather powerless. They isolated themselves from the UDD almost 10 years ago. And I believe that they only have perhaps one to three people in the movement,” the red-shirt leader told The Nation. “They are completely impotent. And the junta is making a mountain out of a molehill.”
Political scientist Chamnan Chan-ruang said the junta was overreacting. The group was underground and had always been recognised by a very small number of people until the government made a big deal out of it, he said.

More importantly, the political scientist said their aspiration was not necessarily anti-monarchist. A federation and a republic were two different types of states and the former very often had a monarch as head of state, he explained.

“So, I’m pretty shocked that not one, but two rulers of the country made such ignorant comments equating a federation with the overthrow of the monarchy,” the expert said. 

“Plus, I think it is absurd to arrest people over some vague and unknown symbol. It’s their right to have some political ideological preferences. If this became the norm, then the hammer and sickle or the five-pointed red star would be considered illegal, too.”

Political scientist Wanwichit Boonprong sees the issue as about an imminent threat. 

The symbol is comparable to the Nazi swastika in terms of controversy, he said. The junta was not being over-sensitive by taking the matter in its hand, he said. 

These political messages had been distributed through social media and could be open to different interpretations, Wanwichit said. 
The security forces were being decisive in trying to stop the movement before it did any damage, he said. 

While some critics suspected the junta leader’s actions to be an attempt to gain justification for another election delay, Wanwichit said he believed the threat was real. 

The junta knows very well that if the whole thing turned out to be a hoax, it could expect a severe blowback, he argued.
Wanwichit said it was still a smart move to bring the issue to light now, and gave the junta some justification to remain in politics.

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