Thailand's year of living precariously

Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva's image to the outside world is in tatters — and it's only to get worse this year. Without even looking at what might come in the next few months, there have already been a few stories over the past couple of weeks that have stood out. One of the most illuminating has been the new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that "slams [the] Thai government for failure to prosecute army over crackdown deaths" last year.

"Human Rights Watch concludes that there will be no rule of law and there will be no respect for human rights so long as the military remains above the law in Thailand," said HRW Asia chief Brad Adams.

The military has been an influential player in Thailand's political jostling for near 100 years. It is clear that so long as Thailand has a military force that essentially has the final say in whether governments live or die, the nation will never have the kind of liberal democracy Western idealists like to tout. Democratic principles aside, having a military force above the law is a common theme in Southeast Asia and the balance of power is certainly unlikely to change in Thailand given how reliant Abhisit has been on the army to secure his position.

HRW also criticised the red shirts:

Adams was critical as well of actions by the "Red Shirt" protesters, also known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. The group was supported by armed militants dressed in black, and some Red Shirt leaders called for the use of violence including arson.

The response to the HRW has largely been one of praise, except, of course, when it comes to deputy prime minister Suthep, who is known to say the most bizarre things: "That organization should better look into their own country first before, […] [like] John F. Kennedy’s assassination, nothing is still clear about that." Say what?

Moving on, Thailand celebrated World Press Freedom Day this week with news that its freedom of the press has actually declined in the past year, with Thailand now ranked 138th — 14 places lower than last year — according to Freedom House. This came hot on the heels of police raids on 13 red shirt radio station operating without a license.

The trouble don't end there, of course, as the Thai-Cambodia border squabble boiled over once more with both sides taking shots at each other. The border crossing reopened on Wednesday after 12 days of fighting that led to 18 deaths. It's unclear who shot first or why, but there is ample speculation.

It may be that Cambodia PM Hun Sen is continuing with the "theatrics" he is known for in order to boost nationalist sentiment and support for his regime. Alternatively, it may be that Thailand is behind the latest spat of violence and that this is a roundabout way of delaying the elections that are supposed to happen in June. Some are saying that there might not be elections at all:

In recent weeks, army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has filed criminal complaints against several top opposition activists for allegedly insulting the monarchy—a serious crime here—and a move which helped trigger murmurings that a coup is being planned. People familiar with the situation say some military leaders fear that a national vote could allow supporters of ex-Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006 and is now living in exile, an avenue back into power.

The drama continues.

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