Khun Chaturon Chaisaeng, acting leader of the now dissolved Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, greeted the assembled press at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand this evening with the opening remarks;
"Thank-you for allowing me to use my freedom of speech…one of the last freedoms I have left."
Although the general ban on political parties, which began after the September 19th coup d’etat, has recently been lifted, Chaturon and 110 other members of TRT have been banned by the Constitutional Court from politics for the next five years.
Yet beyond being banned from participation as a political candidate or even a member of a political party Chaturon and TRT seem to be at risk of losing their freedom of speech also.
T-ITV (formerly I-TV until the junta-installed-government decided that a television station not controlled by the military or government was a bad idea and launched questionable legal action and took over the station three months ago) was scheduled to interview Khun Chaturon for a new talk show until the office of the Prime Minister intervened.
A senior staff member with T-ITV informed me that the station was threatened by a government official who said "if they (reporters) interview someone we don’t like" the station’s staff salaries would not be paid.
Since the government take over three months ago the staff have not been paid.
The government has promised that next week the long overdue salaries would be paid but it seems that I-TV must self-censor its broadcasts if they plan to get paid and stay on air.
During Chaturon’s press conference he claimed that the coup and the recent Constitutional Tribunal’s decision are part of the same effort by the military to dismantle the enormous electoral power that TRT commands.
"One can not help thinking that it had all been planed" claimed Chaturon.
What the military establishment wanted all along was to disband the TRT and create a "weak coalition (between the) democrats and the military" claimed Chaturon.
If the junta was sincere about seeking a return to democracy then freedom of the press is essential and freedom for citizens, even those banned from political office, to speak is implicit.
Khun Chaturon is a banned political actor yet he is still an influential figure whose opinion could add to a healthy political discourse in a proper functioning democracy.
Yet, as the ongoing crisis demonstrates, Thailand is not only far from a functional democracy but also appears to be heading in the wrong direction.
Chaturon claimed that the junta was "determined to destroy us (TRT) from the beginning" and he might be right.
Many have questioned the Constitutional Tribunal’s black and white exoneration of the Democrats and the political assassination of the TRT.
Now, if the junta continues what appears to be the persecution of the TRT, they are at risk of permanently derailing a return to Thailand’s once fragile democracy.
Worse yet, by persecuting a political party with 16 million voters, the junta could create political martyrs that will certainly look to the future to exact their revenge.