Emergency Powers and Thailand's Internal Colonization

The emergency decree is still in force in 10 regions in Thailand, and allows authorities shut down media, freeze bank accounts and arrest citizens with no charges.
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Over the past number of months, the Thai government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has become the target of much international criticism, ranging from human rights abuses, failure to investigate, violations of freedom of the press, and arbitrary detentions, among other colorful exploits.

However, the most outstanding issue has been the country's ongoing, seemingly permanent State of Emergency, which has raised serious concerns and many unanswered questions. Back on July 5th, the influential Brussels-based International Crisis Group released a report which recommended as a top priority that "Thailand should lift the emergency decree imposed over large swathes of the country or risk further damaging its democracy, hindering much needed reconciliation, and sowing the seeds of future deadly conflict." Underscoring this point were comments from top U.S. diplomat William J. Burns, who said that "the indefinite promulgation of those kind of decrees is not a healthy thing for any democratic system."

And yet, despite some soothing rhetoric from the British-educated premier, no movements have been made to lift the State of Emergency in Bangkok and critical provinces in the Central, Northern, and Northeastern regions, while no credible explanations have been provided as to why it should be necessary to maintain these draconian laws of exceptionalism at this current juncture. Suthep Thaugsuban, who heads up the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES), has consistently argued against lifting the Emergency Decree, as it provides the state's repressive apparatus with a wide range of powers. The emergency decree is still in force in 10 regions, and allows authorities shut down media, freeze bank accounts and arrest citizens with no charges. It also prohibits political gatherings of five or more people, though that prohibition only seems to apply to political gatherings that do not serve the government's agenda.

The reasons for Thailand's repeated extension of emergency powers are based both in the history of these kinds of laws, and the political expediency it serves the government in the short term.

Looking back upon some of the very first implementations of "state of emergency" laws by England in its colonial territories of the 18th century, a dramatic connection can be observed between the use of these powers and the recognition of the shaky legitimacy and lacking social capital of colonial occupation. In a book on the subject entitled The Jurisprudence of Emergency, Nasser Hussein argued that emergency laws arose out of the colonial condition, representing in their form and execution a fundamental element of survival and power. Hussein's argument focuses on "the discourses of modern law which form the potential conflict between state power and legal authority, between what the state perceives as necessary power for survival at certain moments and what the law makes available." In other words, there is a problem of the normative construction of emergency law, who can decide when it can be used and for how long, and the vague and arbitrary nature of declaring states of emergency over national vs. personal interests.

Hussein's argument is especially germane to Thailand. In particular, while Thailand often prides itself on being the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by Western powers, Thai writers have often argued that large sections of Thailand's national territory, which were only annexed by the Kingdom of Siam over the past two centuries, have long been administered as colonial dominions. This is especially the case of the country's Northern and Northeastern regions.

In economic matters, scholars like Chattip Narthsupha have pointed out while the free market system introduced in Siam with the 1855 Bowring Treaty created a new capitalist class of Chinese merchants, the increased trade of agricultural products was not accompanied by any measure of real development for the areas from which those products originated. Much like Western powers did in their own colonies, Chattip argues that this new merchant class did not actually engage in capitalist production, but rather limited its activities to extracting wealth from the provinces through force, treachery, and exploitation. Of this was born the alliance between Thailand's aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie practicing its own brand of "parasitic capitalism." Both shared an interest in repressing the peasantry, for reasons of power and money. Both shared a corresponding lack of interest in rural development.

In political matters, scholars like Somchai Phatharathananunth have pointed out that the assertion of Bangkok's power over the country's outermost provinces was met with considerable resistance. In the Northeast, the resistance to centralization took the form of millenarian movements like the 1902 Holy Men Revolt, through which farmers primarily attempted to hamper the collection of taxes by the central government. The rebellions were not only put down brutally by the Siamese authorities, but also resulted in the acceleration of the state's projection of cultural hegemony over the periphery -- among other things, that involved the destruction of Isan Buddhism, the weakening of local identities through the imposition of Central Thai as the national language, the invention of a new national identity with a corresponding social hierarchy, and a modern educational system that served as a purveyor of ideological conformity. In the long run, "ideological domination" supplanted physical repression as a method of social control.

Thailand's history of internal colonialism has had a lasting legacy on both the economic and political life of the country. In the economic sphere, the legacy of internal colonialism is evidenced by the persistent developmental disparities between the relatively affluent Southern/Central regions on one side and the relatively impoverished Northeast on the other. In the political sphere, this legacy is reflected in the continuing second-class citizenship status reserved for the inhabitants of the Northeast, as well as the millions among them who have migrated to Bangkok over the last century.

Not coincidentally, the support for Puea Thai and the Red Shirts is strongest among constituencies and regions that have borne the brunt of Bangkok's internal colonialism. The increased politicization and mobilization of these groups has not only ushered in a crisis of legitimacy of unprecedented proportions for the Bangkok-based Establishment. Like every respectable colonial authority, the Abhisit government had no option but to suspend the law in an attempt to compensate for its lack of legitimacy. The hope is that dictatorship might preserve, in the short run, what ideology no longer can defend. In the long run, it is up to the various "reconciliation" and "reform" committees set up by the government in the wake of the crackdown to patch up the critical flaws in Thailand's official ideology, such that the Establishment may once again enjoy the luxury of making any pretense of constitutional government.

Over the past 15 years, the people of Isaan and other areas of Thailand have experienced rising incomes and have demanded that their voices be heard. Abhisit and the Democrat Party, who seem to prefer the rhetoric of democracy over the actual practice of it, have consistently suppressed and denied these calls for representation from those they have chosen to exclude from the political process. If that is not colonialism, what is?

The State of Emergency imposed by the Thai government is thoroughly abusive and unlawful, and should be acknowledged by all parties as disruptive and poisonous to the real reconciliation process. Furthermore, the continued extensions of these laws of exceptionalism underscore a fear and reluctance on behalf Abhisit, Suthep, and co. of facing the ballot box.

It's time to call an election and give democracy a try -- dictatorship isn't working.

Robert Amsterdam is an international lawyer retained by the former Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra to advocate on behalf of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)

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