BY ACHARA ASHAYAGACHAT . 15/8/2016 (BANGKOK POST)
Citizens of Thailand are not alone in the region when it comes to having to put up with dialogue-averse strongman leaders looking to consolidate authoritarian power.
The 15 million people of Cambodia have been watching the same movie starring Hun Sen, and featuring a muted soundtrack of dissent, for 30 years. Political repression is the order of the day ahead of local elections in 2017 and national elections the following year.
The brazen daylight slaying of activist Kem Ley last month in Phnom Penh could be a sign of things to come. Authorities arrested the shooter who claimed the crime arose from an unpaid debt. However, it is no surprise that few people believe that story.
Meanwhile, members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, already suffering from the self-imposed exile of leader Sam Rainsy, face an intensifying legal assault that has landed more than 20 critics of the government in jail. Then there is the murky “sex scandal” that has ensnared four members of the human-rights group Adhoc, a National Election Committee member and a UN staffer. It has prompted 59 NGOs to denounce the “farcical use of both the criminal justice system and state institutions as tools to intimidate, criminalise and punish the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and civil society”.
Malaysia is no less ferocious in dealing with its critics.
When the United Nations conducted its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of human rights in Malaysia, the government accepted 60 recommendations but so far only 20% have been implemented, says an NGO coalition monitoring the UPR process. More worryingly, it said, in cases in cases relating to 57% of the recommendations there have been increasing rights violations, and a trend toward growing impunity.
Meanwhile, the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak continues to crack down on freedom of expression and other civil and political rights to tame criticism of the gross mismanagement of the state fund 1MDB, and to ensure his political survival for the next election due before August 2018.
An amended Sedition Act and a new Prevention of Terrorism Act have also empowered police to use unnecessary or excessive force when arresting opposition leaders and activists.
The Najib government is reacting to rising public discontent over issues ranging from allegations of corruption to the treatment of former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with a wave of repression, often relying on broad and vaguely worded criminal laws.
In Thailand, meanwhile, the military shows signs of continuing its thick-skinned and belligerent behaviour. It has rejected calls for the revocation of the arbitrary power allowed under Section 44 of the interim constitution, which remains in effect even though a new constitution was adopted in the Aug 7 referendum.
“The referendum is not a blank cheque for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to use power more arbitrarily,” said a civil society network combining former foes from red and yellow camps and including environmental groups and academics.
A junta statement even used the word “contempt” to express the government’s view of some international critics of the referendum process, who noted how severely the “Vote No” campaign had been curbed. Voting day itself may have proceeded smoothly, but overall the referendum was far from free and fair.
Now, instead of the promised return to democratic civilian rule, the new constitution facilitates unaccountable military power and a deepening dictatorship.
It contains provisions that will make it extremely difficult for a single party to win a majority in the 500-member lower house. This will allow 250 NCPO-selected senators to play a critical role, including choosing a prime minister, who will no longer have to be an elected MP.
In addition, the NCPO will reserve Senate seats for its key members, including the defence permanent secretary, supreme commander, the army, navy and air force chiefs, and the police commissioner-general.
Both the new government and parliament will also be required to adhere to the “20-year reform plan” that the majority of the people had no role in drafting.
Yes, the charter was supported by 16.8 million voters, but that means some 33 million eligible voters either voted against both referendum questions, spoiled their ballots (more than 900,000) or did not turn out at all.
So now the curtain is rising on a new movie, but not the action fare we’re accustomed to, for the next five years — at least. Let’s call it For Reform With Love. What kind of reviews can we expect from the majority of Thais if the next junta-backed government can’t sustain the economic and political stability we crave?
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