Published on July 17, 2007
And yet he has no qualms about endorsing the much-debated internal security bill that critics fear will effectively roll back any democratic progress that comes with the hand over of power to an elected government.
While there is no denial of the fact that new forms of terrorism are posing a threat to Thailand's security, bestowing the Army with the kind of blanket power normally enjoyed by dictatorial regimes like that in Burma is definitely not an answer. The bill, which has already been approved in principle by the Cabinet and is awaiting deliberation by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly, is essentially incongruous with the current debate on the country's political future.
The bill is making a mockery of the draft constitution, which both the Surayud government and the Council for National Security (NSC) very much want to see adopted in a national referendum slated for August 19. Nothing can be more ironic than the powers-that-be trumpeting what they claim to be the democratic virtue of the draft constitution while at the same time introducing a law that is authoritarian in nature.
The bill primarily seeks to bolster the power of the Army commander-in-chief, who traditionally holds the dual post of director of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), the all-powerful security apparatus that was instrumental in fighting communist insurgency during the Cold War. Army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who is also the CNS chairman, effectively reinvented the Isoc in the aftermath of the September 19 coup, with the aim of using it to fight the remnants of the old regime that were still agitating for a grassroots rebellion against the junta.
The chapter that deals with the proposed power of the Isoc director alone is enough to send a chill down the spine of critics. Under the bill, the Isoc director has the authority to arrest and detain whoever is suspected of being a threat to "national security". Members of the media suspected of supporting activities considered a danger to national security are also liable to summary crackdown and arrest.
The bill also authorises the Isoc director to order, without warrant, searches and seizure of documents and assets on the grounds that they may be linked to activities threatening national security. The bill makes it clear that authorities enforcing the security law will be exempted from legal redress.
By giving Isoc such unprecedented power since the end of the communist insurgency, the bill is creating a new monster that will overshadow future democratically-elected governments. Isoc, and by extension the Army, will be the real power.
The biggest irony is that the internal security bill was a legacy of the Thaksin government which, in the eyes of the military junta, is nothing short of being an enemy of Thailand's democracy. The Thaksin administration, of course, had a different agenda for introducing the bill. Then prime minister Thaksin was facing a civil revolt and the bill was seen as a tool designed to ensure his political survival.
Proponents of the bill argue that the worsening insurgency in southern Thailand alone should be enough to justify the new security law. But what they have failed to acknowledge is that the authorities' failure to contain the violence in the region has more to do with strategic and bureaucratic incompetence than whether or not they have enough power. They must not forget that the state of emergency and curfew declared in several of the southern provinces has given them overwhelming power and yet the violence continues unabated. Again, both the Surayud government and the CNS need to be reminded that they already have problems with their legitimacy because of the way they came to power. The least they can do now is to pave the way for the country to return to democracy as soon as possible and, meanwhile, keep their hands away from any moves that infringe upon democratic principles and basic civil rights.
There have been persistent doubts about the junta's political agenda. CNS chairman Gen Sonthi's recent trial to test his political popularity has sparked widespread criticism. The possibility that he might run for election is seen as an attempt by the junta to cling to political power. The internal security bill will only intensify public distrust of the military.
By openly supporting the bill, Surayud is betraying his own mantra that his most crucial task is to guide the country back to full democracy. How can he claim to be a democratic torch-bearer while embracing one of the most authoritarian aspects of the legacy of the previous regime?
Even though there have been some positive signals from the prime minister that he is open to suggestions to make the bill less draconian, he has made no promise whether all the concerns raised by its critics will be addressed.
The best course of action by Gen Surayud now is to have the bill withdrawn. A government that came to power through a coup has no business introducing laws that diminish basic civil rights. If a security law is truly needed, leave it to the next democratically-elected government to decide.