Enough of the iron grip

Friday's meeting of the 'five rivers' is at the Army Club, the site of the military's coup d'etat on May 22, 2014. (Post Today photo)

The military regime will today shake hands with representatives from some political parties at a meeting that is to help pave the way for the post-coup era.

The meeting, according to the regime's deputy spokesperson is to "inform about election preparations" ahead of national elections tentatively set for Feb 24.

Even though the country is about to re-enter democratic mode, the regime is making no promises whether the dictatorial order -- the ban on gatherings of five or more persons -- will be lifted. This is a disappointment.

The deputy spokesperson said invitations have been sent to 105 political parties and at least 10 have turned them down. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is also head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), will chair the meeting which will take place at the Army Club on Vibhavadi Road.

Some critics see a symbolic significance to the venue as it was there the regime took power, taking political leaders into custody.

Now it's the place where it is expected to give back much-awaited freedom. But that is only an expectation.

The last meeting in late June this year, presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, the NCPO's "big brother", ended without substance.

After four-and-a-half years in power, it's laughable that the regime still cannot say that real peace has been restored to Thai society.

The regime always claims a fear of unrest as a reason to maintain tight military control through the use of dictatorial orders that suppress freedom of expression.

But the fact is such orders have been unjustifiably abused. A case in point was the action taken against Chiang Mai-based scholar Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, and a group of activists who participated in an academic forum in the middle of the year.

The activists staged a symbolic protest against the authorities who kept them under surveillance which they felt was an act of harassment and intimidation. They went on to face legal action based on the five-people or more gathering ban.

At times, fierce suppression was meted out on people who rose up to protect natural resources and communities from dubious projects.

This was the case with the anti-coal villagers in Songkhla who face harsh legal action from paranoid local authorities acting to please the junta.

Of concern are NCPO orders 3/2015 and 3/2558, enacted on April 1, 2015 as tools to maintain peace and order. The orders, which replaced martial law, give state authorities broad powers to detain people for seven days, without charge.

Moreover, there are quite a few things suggesting unfair, if not foul play by the military regime, including the controversial joining by four cabinet ministers of the newly formed Palang Pracharath Party, named after the Pracharath populist scheme. This was criticised as a blatant case of vested interest.

Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana took up the role of the PPRD's leader while Science and Technology Minister SuvitMaesincee became its deputy leader. Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong is the party's secretary-general while PM's Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool is the party's spokesman.

The four have ignored calls for them to quit the cabinet while the regime continues to pump money into the scheme that is seen as a move to garner political gain.

It is rather unusual that the regime intensified its "return happiness" campaign at a time when the election is looming. This hurts the regime's credibility and shows its hypocrisy.

It's time for the regime to open up. The fact is the country has a regular legal mechanism, a royal emergency decree, for instance to deal with difficult situations. There is no need for special military orders used arbitrarily.

There is also no excuse for prolonging tight control, in particular the ban on gatherings of more than five people, while freedom of speech must be restored without conditions.

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