INSIGHT-Amid outward calm, climate of fear cements Thai military rule

BANGKOK Fri Aug 22, 2014 12:41am EDT

BANGKOK Aug 22 (Reuters) - "Is she dead yet?"

Thai opposition activist Kritsuda Khunasen said she was blindfolded and struggling to regain consciousness when she heard this chilling query from one of her interrogators.

She was detained for nearly a month by the Thai military after it toppled the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 22. Kritsuda said she was beaten by soldiers and hooded with a plastic bag until she blacked out.

"That was the moment I thought I'd died," she told Reuters via Skype from a secret location in Europe, where she is seeking political asylum.

Junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has dismissed Kritsuda's claims as "totally untrue" and ignored United Nations calls for an investigation.

But allegations of abuse in military custody, plus signs of defiance on Thai campuses, undermine Prayuth's claim that the junta is - to borrow the title of his Friday-night TV address to the nation - "returning happiness to the people".

Prayuth has sought to reassure tourists, foreign investors and fellow Thais that the military has restored calm after months of divisive and sometimes deadly street protests.

But anti-coup activists and human rights monitors say that calm is sustained by a climate of fear, selectively but ruthlessly applied against opponents of a military eager to avoid its past mistakes.

Its 2006 coup, which overthrew the protest-besieged government of telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, led only to further unrest that culminated in the military's bloody crackdown on Thaksin's "red shirt" supporters in 2010. His sister Yingluck was elected by a landslide the following year.

This time round, the junta - formally called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) - has worked systematically to snuff out all challenges to its authority, no matter how small, said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"They don't blink," he said. "They have power and they use it. They don't care about criticism from the outside world or human rights groups."

The NCPO has detained hundreds of activists, academics, journalists and politicians, and set about purging the bureaucracy of Thaksin sympathisers.

Red shirt leaders told Reuters their movements were monitored, their phones tapped and their families harassed.

"We are very afraid. Most of our members have gone into hiding or are laying low," said a prominent red shirt activist on condition of anonymity. "There are people lurking outside our children's schools."

The junta has silenced other political opponents by publicly threatening to seize their assets. Dissenters living abroad have had their Thai passports revoked.

The military has also shut down websites and exploited draconian laws that forbid all criticism of Thailand's royal family. Martial law remains in place nationwide.

"People who disagree with the coup still live in fear," said Human Right Watch's Sunai. He believed a long period of oppressive military rule could backfire by triggering the very unrest it was designed to suppress.

"Then there will be a very serious threat of violent confrontation," he said.

CAMPUS CRACKDOWN

On Thursday, General Prayuth was elected prime minister by a junta-appointed national assembly, whose members are mostly acting or retired soldiers and police. He has promised to hold elections by the end of 2015.

With the protests that crippled parts of Bangkok over, consumer confidence in July hit an 11-month high. On Monday, the assembly rubber-stamped the junta's 2015 budget bill.

But tourism, which accounts for about a 10th of Thailand's economy, is struggling: the number of foreign visitors in July fell 10.9 percent from a year earlier, according to data from the Department of Tourism.

The military has hailed its own efforts to foster unity through so-called "reconciliation centres" and campaigns to educate red shirt members, particularly in pro-Thaksin rural strongholds in the north and northeast.

"In red shirt villages leaders told them twisted information which led them to being brainwashed," General Kampanart Ruddith, assistant army chief of staff, told Reuters. "We must tell villagers what correct democracy is."

Kritsuda, the alleged torture victim, was also a red shirt activist. She was released without charge in late June, then fled Thailand, telling Reuters her interrogators had threatened to kill her if she spoke about her detention.

A spokesperson for Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on Aug. 5 for an "independent and detailed investigation" of Kritsuda's allegations.

NCPO spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree said it had released all detainees, referred to as "war captives" by the military.

"Nobody was ever mistreated or harmed and we have never kept anyone beyond seven days," he said. "We can assure you that nobody is being detained still."

Yet reports of abuse persist. A student at a Bangkok university told Reuters how he and three friends were interrogated by soldiers and police for putting up anti-coup stickers around campus.

After a night of questioning at a police station, he said the four students were ordered into an unmarked van with no licence plates and blindfolded by soldiers carrying submachine guns. The soldiers told the students the van was heading for a military base, where four graves would be dug and a last meal served.

The students were released unharmed the next day, but were now too "spooked" to protest against the junta, said one of them, who asked to go by the nickname Gai.

"It's not like I want to die," he said.

Elsewhere, students are growing bolder. On Aug. 8, a group called the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) at Bangkok's Thammasat University were warned by the military authorities to cancel a seminar on the interim constitution, which gives the junta sweeping powers. The group ignored the order.

"People are testing the water to see what they can and can't do," said Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of the independent news website Prachatai.

In another small sign of dissent, hundreds of leaflets, some bearing the words "No Coup," were scattered outside the army's Bangkok headquarters in mid-August. A junta spokesman called the act "unacceptable".

THE ELITE'S WEAPON

Another powerful tool for silencing dissent is Thailand's lese-majeste law, which imposes heavy sentences for even mild criticism of the monarchy. General Prayuth is a staunch royalist.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was "seriously concerned about the prosecution and harsh sentencing" of suspects for lese-majeste.

At least 13 new cases have been opened since the May 22 coup, while older cases have been revived, with "chilling effects on freedom of expression," said Ravina Shamdasani in a statement.

On Aug. 14, Bangkok taxi-driver Yuthasak Kangwanwongsakul, 43, was sentenced to two years and six months in jail for talking about social inequality with a passenger, who secretly recorded the conversation on his mobile phone and filed a lese-majeste complaint with police.

On the same day, Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, a student from Khon Kaen University, was arrested for appearing in a play featuring a fictional monarch. The play's student director, Pornthip Munkong, 25, was arrested the following day.

The play was performed in October but the complaint was lodged only last month by a soldier who police have not identified.

"The lese-majeste law is the last weapon left in the elite's legal arsenal to suppress pro-democratic sentiments and movements," David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar who monitors lese-majeste laws.

Thailand has been divided for a decade between the royalist establishment, backed by the military and the conservative middle class, and the mostly poorer, rural supporters of the Shinawatra family.

Fuelling the crisis is a deep anxiety, particularly among the traditional elite, about the future of the monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is widely revered but his heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, has yet to command the same devotion.

The junta insists that laws protecting the monarchy are necessary to maintain order.

CLEANING UP ONLINE

Website managers say censorship is more heavy-handed now than after the 2006 coup, thanks in part to the Computer Crimes Act.

Passed in 2007 by the previous junta-appointed assembly, the vague and arbitrary law has been used "to pressure and intimidate online journalists, editors, and political activists," said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

A Thai website editor said the authorities have developed new ways to access personal information from anyone who clicked on one of hundreds of blocked websites.

"Users are redirected to a state web landing page and asked to log in through a fake Facebook, for example, and asked to submit personal information," said the editor, who asked not to be named for fear of violating the junta's orders.

The state's Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) explained its rational on June 20 on its Facebook page.

Collecting user data is "supported by Article 26 of the Computer Crimes Act (2007)," the TCSD said in a statement. "This way, the TCSD can manage more witnesses which could lead to more prosecutions and make the online community clean." (Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Aukkarapon Niyomyat; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)