The more things change

A military regime is in power. It is driving Meechai Ruchupan's new constitution and passels of laws through its handpicked National Assembly to enable and ensure military hands on power even after it nominally returns to the barracks to allow elections the red shirts will probably win again. It has a new Computer Crime Act to intimidate and if necessary incarcerate infuriating pests complaining about lack of democracy. Oh, and almost forgot: it's not 2017.

All of that was the prequel to Dec 12, 2007.

Events on that day were tumultuous scenes where normally sane people became, briefly, adrenaline fuelled. It was literally riotous. The junta's National Legislative Assembly was put under siege and then attack by a surprising coalition that included some of the very last people you'd expect even to meet at a protest featuring violence, let alone right in the very thick of elbows and truncheons.

Last week, after more than nine years, the famous final scene played out at the Supreme (Dika) Court. Cultured Jon Ungphakorn, perpetually legal-minded Supinya Klangnarong, consumer protection advocate Saree Ongsomwang and seven other similarly unlikely hooligans were officially labelled as, well, convicted hooligans.

2013: Six years after charges were filed, former senator Jon Ungphakorn (centre, receiving flowers), now-resigned National Broadcasting and Telecommunications commissioner Supinya Klangnarong (2nd right) and others emerge after being found guilty at the Criminal Court for the 2007 events. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

The judges overturned the Appeal Court's dismissal of their case, noting the defendants were undoubtedly guilty. But they also noted they were one-day ruffians only, of fine demeanour, well educated, with worthy occupations. They are -- not to put a fine point upon it -- not young and uninformed.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that in answer to the question "Where were you on the afternoon of Dec 12?", the answer is "Illegally gathering in order to assault parliamentary security guards and cause general chaos", just as the legal articles charged.

But because of that demeanour, etc, the 10 weren't sentenced. If they repeat rash and violent acts before 2020, the judges will call them back and reconsider. But for now, they are reprieved and free to go.

Certainly a reprieve is better than a prison term but note the harsh charges brought by the military regime in 2007 were prosecuted rigorously under numerous governments right up until Wednesday. They were arrested under the rule of coup maker Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin and his prime minister Gen Surayud Chulanont, who was a fine soldier.

They were charged in 2009 while Abhisit Vejjajiva was prime minister, then tried and found guilty in the Criminal Court in 2013 while a female was premier. The 10 appealed and were acquitted six months after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power. Still under Gen Prayut, the state appealed and the Supreme Court overruled the acquittal.

If we clambered into the Bangkok Post Sunday's coveted time machine and returned to midday on Dec 12, 2007, it would be familiar and different. The first thing we would notice after opening the door and stepping into Ratchawithi Road is that our smartphones didn't work.

Then we would notice the political fervour. Fifteen months after the coup that dislodged Voldemort from real power, there were large crowds. The military's ban against gatherings of more than five people was obeyed, in this neighbourhood, in the breach.

Inside the parliament, behind the red and the cream walls, regime lackeys and carefully selected elites were talking about -- "debating" is an unrealistic description -- the fine points of the junta's last-minute rush of laws. In particular, the talk of the street was a new Internal Security Act that would legalise the harshest of the regime's decrees to ensure they lived into the post-election period. Sound familiar?

Jon, Supinya and their eight cohorts joined the mob trying to storm the legislature. They slipped under and through an uncertain cordon of guards, into the parliament building where they sat down in approximate Gandhi fashion in front of plenty of press cameras.

"With elections 11 days away, we wanted them to stop writing new laws," said Jon.

There's no question the 10 acted against the regime's laws, but there was plenty of doubt those laws were righteous. Sound familiar?

Jon and the others have not itemised the actual or collateral cost of their legal defence. There were three separate trials, hundreds of hours of preparation, lost sleep, away from spouses, partners and families. It seems already to have cost Supinya her job.

A high-profile state prosecution piles literally infinite hours and resources into a case, destroys forests for paper, relentlessly harasses and threatens and attempts to intimidate.

The generals currently handling reconciliation have been adamant they will never discuss, let alone grant, amnesty even to the most worthy, least offensive demonstrator. And of course there are so many cases like Pai Dao Din.

A proper system of justice pursues criminals and more thoughtfully handles cases of genuinely concerned citizens. We still are waiting for a regime that recognises the term "loyal opposition".


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