A small group of exiled Thais with close ties to that country’s ousted government is working to build a government in exile, and looking to a series of western countries, including Canada, as the potential headquarters for efforts to undermine the junta now ruling their nation.
The May 22 military coup that toppled prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra from power has imposed curfews, severely restricted press freedoms and rounded up hundreds of politicians, journalists, human rights activists and ordinary citizens making gestures considered critical of the military regime.
People have been arrested for even seemingly benign acts of protest, such as handing out sandwiches, reading George Orwell’s 1984, or displaying the three-fingered salute seen in The Hunger Games.
Under such tight conditions, no large-scale domestic protest movement has been able to rise up.
Now, a new group calling itself the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy has been formed in hopes it can, from outside Thailand’s borders, coordinate a resistance — and eventually become something bigger. It “will be morphed into” a government in exile in the future, Jakrapob Penkair, a former Thai cabinet minister who is playing a central role in the new organization, said in an interview with the Globe and Mail from Hong Kong.
The organization is working with Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer based in London who has represented Thai billionaire and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - the brother of the prime minister removed last month. Mr. Thaksin is not openly involved — that may yet change — but the establishment of a government in exile would accomplish the dual goals of adding critical pressure on the military junta and bringing fresh legitimacy to his leadership, which has remained pivotal in Thailand even after he left the country to self-imposed exile.
“We have lost in the first political round," said Mr. Jakrapob, referring to the military coup and crackdown. "We have to regroup, and in regrouping we have to realize that our power is really outside outside Thai territory. So we must start from the outside in."
Under military rule, Ms. Yingluck has been barred from leaving Thailand. Only one of her cabinet ministers, the deposed Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan, has escaped. Mr. Charupong is helping to lead the organization. He said in a statement Tuesday that “the junta has violated the rule of law, abused democratic principles, and destroyed your rights, liberties, and human dignity.”
Thai military leadership dismissed Mr. Charupong’s statement as “merely words.” Spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree said the rest of the world would see that Thailand is “adhering to humanitarian principles.”
To counter that message, the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy is seeking the support of foreign countries, in particular as it looks for a place to operate. It has looked to Australia, Germany, the UK and Canada. Mr. Jakrapob, a former Thaksin spokesman who is also a central leader in the new organization, has already met with someone he described as “directly associated with your government,” although he declined to provide further detail.
Calling Canada a “splendid country” whose artistic community could be employed to disgrace the junta, he said “we may want to ask to set up an office there, a coordinating office, for the organization.” Ottawa could also help “us in the international forum to air grievances for us, or even to vote for us if need be,” he said.
It’s not clear, however, what a government in exile might do, other than “just raising international awareness of the political situation in Thailand,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow senior fellow for Southeast Asia with the Council on Foreign Relations. He was skeptical Ottawa would step in. “No government like Canada or the U.S. is going to risk totally alienating the Thai government by hosting a ‘government in exile,’” he said.
Adam Hodge, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, reiterated Canada’s condemnation of the coup and said the government “looks forward to a credible roadmap for an early return to civilian rule in Thailand.” As for hosting any future government in exile, he said he won’t make any predictions.
“We will not speculate on hypothetical visa applications, but all applicants for temporary resident visas must meet the requirements to come to Canada, as set out in Canada’s immigration law,” Mr. Hodge said.
The international community has condemned the military junta, but done little of substance to oppose a country that remains an important manufacturing centre, and a hugely popular destination for tourists. The U.S. has cut funding of lesser programs, such as firearms training for Thai police, and Secretary of State John Kerry has said he is “disappointed” by the coup. The EU this week suspended official visits to Thailand, froze free trade talks and threatened worse sanctions if conditions don’t improve.
And in a series of statements, Mr. Baird said he is “profoundly concerned” by Thailand’s “serious and regrettable setbacks for democracy.”
Though Thai activists have for weeks spoken about building a government in exile, they face a series of problems, stemming from lack of funds to credibility. One man could potentially solve both: Mr. Thaksin, whose family wealth Forbes estimates at $1.7-billion (U.S.).
“He remains the major symbol of our struggle. But whether or not he would be directly involved in the organization, that remains to be seen,” Mr. Jakrapob said. He claimed Mr. Thaksin has so far offered no money.
Involvement by the Thai tycoon and former prime minister, himself removed from office by a military coup, may present issues for other countries, however. While in office, Mr. Thaksin oversaw bloody campaigns against drugs and Islamic militants that also killed numerous innocents. In 2008, he was convicted of corruption; he has lived in self-imposed exile, and not served the two-year sentence.
Mr. Jakrapob expressed optimism that the junta can be toppled with or without the billionaire.
“You don’t have to beat them,” he said. “You just have to shine the light on how bad they are, and how outdated they are in the modern world.”
With a report from Kathryn Blaze Carlson