Should Thai “grenade protesters” and arsonists get amnesty?

Should Thai “grenade protesters” and arsonists get amnesty? – bangkokdave.blog.com, February 13, 2013

[The original article appears top be offline. Here is the original text.]

“Political prisoners.” In Thailand, the term has been popping up with increasing frequency – and has become a virtual mantra for various pro-Thaksin and anti-establishment groups, including UDD, the Nitirat group of academics, and more recently a red-shirt splinter group who have actually incorporated the phrase into its moniker: “January 29 for the Release of Political Prisoners.”

After last year’s spectacular failure of pro-Thaksin MPs to push through a “reconciliation” bill that was a poorly disguised attempt to legislate amnesty for their patron, UDD, Nitirat, and now the January 29 group, are trying another tack: promoting an amnesty for “political prisoners.” Last week, the head of a government-appointed panel pushed for the introduction of its mish-mash version of UDD and Nitirat proposals into parliament.

But what makes a prisoner in Thailand “political”?

We often equate a “political prisoner” with a prisoner of conscience. But a number of people connected with recent political protests have been imprisoned or charged with violent crimes, including assailants who in 2010 threw grenades into crowds or at government installations. Recently, a red shirt was sent to prison for setting fire to a provincial hall. Are these and other violent offenders considered by UDD, Nitirat and the government panel “political prisoners” worthy of amnesty?

Violent acts such as grenade attacks, targeted assassinations of soldiers and arson committed for a political cause are indeed politically motivated, but this does not make the offenders into political prisoners. Thailand is not a dictatorship; it is not Syria where government soldiers slaughter women and children in their homes – and where absolutely nothing short of violence can remove a regime from power. It is a democracy – a very flawed one; one with limitations on certain freedoms that would be unacceptable in the West – but one nevertheless, where issues can be aired out in debates and protests, or resolved through elections.

However, Thailand does possess one group of genuine political prisoners: those given long jail terms for supposed violations of the nation’s strict lese majeste (LM) laws. Whether you agree with these “offenders” or not, and whether you like them or not, they are genuine prisoners of conscience; it would make sense to call them “political prisoners” and lobby for their release. In addition, those arrested for minor violations of various emergency decrees, while in a different category from prisoners of conscience, should also be freed.

But why should the amnesty extend to assassins and arsonists? Why should violent offenders against a state that allows free elections, debates and assorted protests of all stripes be equated with prisoners of conscience? Why should the man who murdered one innocent civilian and wounded 90 others on Silom Road on April 21, 2010, deserve not only freedom, but the saintly moniker of “political prisoner”?

If the proposed amnesty were aimed only at LM prisoners and those imprisoned for minor violations, it would be fine – and worthy of support by all parties. As it stands, it is not clear whether violent offenders are included in the proposed amnesty – and most absurd of all, whether those convicted of LM – the only genuine political prisoners in Thailand – are even included at all.

But as long as “grenade protesters” and arsonists are included in the proposed amnesty and those imprisoned for LM stand little chance of release, the term “political prisoners” is a propagandistic sham – designed mainly to promote and expand the idea that Thailand is not a democracy until UDD, Nitirat and other Thaksin-affiliated groups say it is. By expanding the term “political prisoners” to include violent offenders and pushing it into everyday political discourse, UDD and others hope that violent actions committed in the name of politics become an acceptable thing; something to be forgiven – and possibly allowed in the future without consequence.

It is attempted brainwashing through repetition. Say “political prisoners” with UDD enough times, and they will be so. Except they won’t. And with Thailand’s few actual political prisoners facing the prospect of many years without freedom, abusing the term that defines them for pure political gain is an insulting exercise in shameless hypocrisy.

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