Everything else

Starting a new chapter

2016-07-15 09.17.54 HDR.jpg After a short hiatus, I’m happy to finally announce that today I’m beginning my new job as Channel NewsAsia’s new IndoChina Correspondent based at their Bangkok Bureau. I’m excited to be back in the city and being back on the air reporting on country has changed a lot since my last stint, to say the least. There’ll be surely no shortage of stories to cover and developments to analyze. And last but not least, I’m looking forward to working my new and old colleagues!

There’ll be one or two small changes on my social media front: I will still have my own personal accounts (facebook.com/saksith.saiyasombut and @Saksith), but in addition I will also post all the stuff our Indochina Bureau produces on my ”work” accounts (facebook.com/Saiyasombut and @SaksithCNA), including our reports, when we go on air next, exclusive looks behind the scenes, Facebook live streams and other stuff down the line.

I’m super-stoked for this opportunity and I wanna thank those that have made it possible, you know who you are! Here’s to the new chapter - starting now!

Cheers,

Saksith Saiyasombut Channel NewsAsia IndoChina Correspondent

Thailand in 2015: Some personal thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 24, 2015 A definitively incomplete look back at a year in 2015 where few things made headlines for the right reasons.

FOR the second time since its most recent assumption of powers, the Thai military junta has presented its annual government performance to the general public. This was the opportunity for the cabinet of junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha to show what it actually has achieved in its first full year ruling over Thailand. But for some reason, it has cut the schedule down from three days last year to just one day today.

This is also the fifth time that I’m writing a year-in-review ever since I started covering Thai politics. This is the opportunity for me to reflect and comment on the developments in the political sphere in order to help the general public understand what the hell is actually going on in the circles of power. But for some very specific reason, this year’s exercise is an exceptionally frustrating one.

Last year, I wrote about the metaphorical arsonists that have caused the death of Thai democracy as we knew it and those complicit in it. The latter have now been largely sidelined since then, as well as their political enemies.

If 2014 marked the watershed moment in Thai history, 2015 was largely a continuation of the season of infamy.

The Thai military government - with all its doublespeak about their so-called "roadmap” back to democracy, its nonchalance about the blurred lines between military and government, its incredibly tone-deaf verbosities and compulsive loquaciousness, its "attitude adjusting" detainments and ultimately its blunt threats against those daring to oppose or those just simply doing their jobs - has put this country in a petulant state of revertigo, a dizzying regression to old behaviors triggered by something in the past, or at least what should be in the past. Or to put it in the words of a Thai education official, a "360 degree turn".

The junta's reimagineering of the political landscape, in which the powers of elected officials will be severely restricted or otherwise affected by outside intervention, was both dead on arrival and on schedule at the same time: on one hand, the junta was mulling over a referendum on the next constitutional draft, but also delaying the possible election date, which was initially set for late 2015, but kept getting pushed back further and further. The next possible date for new polls has now been pushed even further at mid-2017, since the draft was rejected by the junta-appointed legislative and the whole process started anew. And that on the other hand just simply extended the junta’s rule, as it claims that it will definitely hand back power in 2017 - unless they decide otherwise.

It seems that almost nothing can dampen the junta’s rule: not the still-sagging economy, not the ongoing cases of slavery in the fishing industry, its poor handling of refugees (if they were not deporting them back), or the air traffic security downgrade. Not even the bomb attack on August 22 at Bangkok's busy Erawan shrine that killed 20 and injured over 100 people has shaken the generals too much, as it has self-congratulatorily declared the case closed after a shambolically contradicting investigation. Just don’t call it an act of terrorism.

Other "achievements” by this government would be too long to list all of them here (as well as PM Gen. Prayuth’s almost daily sardonic hissy fits), in a year where very few things indicated progress and even fewer cases where common sense has prevailed, such as the tiny advancements in LGBTI rights and the dismissal in the libel case against the Phuketwan journalists.

The ongoing rule of the military junta also unsurprisingly signals the ongoing regression of human rights and freedom of speech, as dissidents are detained in what officials euphemistically call "attitude adjustment” and assemblies are outlawed (unless you are an ultra-nationalist protesting against the US embassy). Political parties across the spectrum have been rendered irrelevant, either unable and unwilling to engage in the current political climate, leaving the field to a very few but brave student activists.

Lèse majesté has reached its lowest point yet in 2015, as both criminal and military courts have handed out record sentences and arbitrarily extended the definition of the draconian law, from vague allusions in university theater productions to sharing Facebook posts mocking the King’s dog.

The military government has also extended its front lines online as well. The new proposed Cyber Laws aim to create the foundations for "digital economy”, but also enable widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (just on Wednesday the alternative news website Prachatai lost its appeal) and more legal uncertainty, benefiting the state more than Thai online users.

Compared to that the junta’s plans to bottleneck internet traffic through a "single gateway” to filter unwanted content was just the icing on the cake - and something that sparked a rare display of civil disobedience, as online activists crashed government websites, sending officials scrambling for an appropriate response. While the government states it isn’t pursuing those plans any more, one shouldn’t be surprised if the single gateway and other means to control the narrative online will pop up next year.

But that is a losing battle and no other case has proven it more than the Rajabhakti Park corruption scandal. What was initially planned as yet another big display of the military’s loyalty to the monarchy worth around 1 billion Baht ($28 million) has descended into a massive headache for the junta, as military officers are accused of receiving kickbacks and suspects in similar cases have died in custody. The junta has so far responded in the only way it can: by detaining critics and crying conspiracy.

What this and the year as a whole shows is that the assumption of control by the Thai military junta remains a textbook definition of an assumption - one without proof or legitimacy that will be constantly challenged. The junta is obviously playing the long game sitting comfortably at the helm for the foreseeable future in one form or another, it is mounting a battle of attrition for its opponents.

For me personally, it is a battle against cynicism. The actions by those in power are self-evident and predictable, yet stupendously brazen and unashamedly blatant in their execution - in that regard that is pretty much the status quo for Thai politics in general regardless of what era we are talking about. But wouldn’t that be the lazy way to explain all this and then leave the foreseeable future to be damned like this? Wouldn’t it be cynical?

I honestly don’t know any more, because my articles over the past five years have chronicled the systematic failure of the Thai political discourse by nearly all involved, hence it is no surprise how we got here where we are now. And it still seems that we haven't reached the worst yet. But how many more years are we gonna be trapped in this repeating state of revertigo and how will this cycle be broken? The answers to the question may already have been given multiple times along the way, but amidst this constant regression in Thailand, how many more times do they have to be repeated?

Thailand's indefinite roadmap: Prayuth threatens to 'stay on' in power

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 30, 2015 Thailand’s military government is becoming increasingly blatant about its intentions to stay in power

THAILAND'S Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has never been shy about letting everybody know his opinions. The junta leader also expects everybody to listen. Nobody knows that better than the local journalists who have endured the daily press briefings by the PM that have more often than not turned into prolonged tirades (as we have reported previously). The rest of the country might have caught some nuggets of his wisdom during his weekly TV addresses while waiting for their nightly fix of local television's ubiquitous and hugely popular soap operas.

It’s one and a half years into the rule of Thailand’s military after it took power in the coup of May 22, 2014. Its reign has been authoritarian, dominating nearly the entire political discourse, censoring the flow of information and intolerant of criticism and dissent - even if it's something as innocuous as an old man giving flowers to anti-junta protesters.

The junta has its hands in almost every institution that is currently re-writing the constitution, thus re-defining the rules for any future elected government - that is IF there is going to be an election any time soon. With a new timeframe for democratic elections in mid 2017 - instead of initially late 2015 - the military junta has postponed the date at least three times already. First the constitutional drafting process was blamed to be taking too long, then the generals granted a public referendum on the next constitution in exchange for another delay, and eventually the rejection of said draft constitution by a fully-appointed government body pushed it further back even further, since the whole process of writing a new constitution has to start over again.

But even when the rules for the currently sidelined politicans are set and the veneer of democratic normalcy is being prepared to be raised, there is no guarantee that that’s actually going to happen.

While Gen. Prayuth himself has decided to reduce his daily press briefings, he didn’t keep it short during a meeting of the self-titled "five rivers”, which includes the military junta, the cabinet, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) and the newly established National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA), this week.

In his speech Wednesday morning, a hot-headed Prayuth went on an extensive tirade clocking in at two hours and 15 minutes, attacking his opponents and ultimately culminating in this threat:

"Politicians do not have to be suspicious of me. [The media] writes every day that I intend to cling on to power. I must make it clear. If there is no peace and order, I must stay on.”

In other words, if there are any political groups or individuals are attempting to stage anything large-scale that the military government sees as a threat, it has a very convenient excuse to shut the country down.

Even though his Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan tried to downplay Gen. Prayuth’s threat, saying that the prime minister ”didn’t mean it literally” and people ”shouldn’t read too much into it”, it becomes increasingly obvious that this wasn't just yet another slip of the tongue by Gen. Prayuth and what the military junta is doing to ensure its grip on power, no matter how the political landscape looks in the foreseeable future.

As a return to democracy becomes more and more elusive, Thailand’s military rulers are turning the twindow for the next election into a time horizon: always visible, but never reachable.

Thailand's 'single gateway' internet plan backfires spectacularly

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 2, 2015 A message displayed on a website blocked by Thailand's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). (Pic: Wikimedia Commons)

Junta backtracks on plans to bottleneck Thailand’s internet traffic through a single gateway after online backlash

Imagine this: you are being awarded for something you haven’t done but you go to the reception gala anyway because it’s too tempting to miss the limelight. That’s what happened last Tuesday in New York, when Thai military Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha - during his week at the United Nations' General Assembly - received the "ICTs in Sustainable Development Award" by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s IT and telecommunication agency.

Alongside nine other countries, the ITU awarded ”Thailand's ICT Policy Framework” as ”an exemplary model for the development of an effective telecommunications/ICT Regulatory environment,” according to a statement on the ITU website, listing off several ICT policies that have happened over the past 15 years under various governments - in other words, well before then-army chief Gen. Prayuth launched the military coup of May 22, 2014, toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The statement also highlighted the ”National ICT Master Plan”, a policy blueprint introduced in 2002 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck’s brother) that also saw the creation of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). It's that same MICT plus the current cabinet that made headlines for all the wrong reasons again in the past few weeks, as a proposal to control Thailand’s internet traffic by introducing a single gateway was made public.

SEE ALSO: Thailand to tighten grip on Internet with its own ‘Great Firewall’

The public response was unsurprisingly negative. Thailand's internet-savvy population feared not only even more online censorship and content filtering under military rule, but also a decrease in the speed and stability of Thailand’s internet infrastructure, since all traffic would be squeezed through said single gateway.

And in a rare display of civil disobedience and dissent against the military junta, internet users hit back on Wednesday evening:

To express dissent – and highlight the vulnerability of government systems – a community of online gamers opposed the government’s plan to police all internet traffic knocked offline websites of several state agencies, including the telecommunication ministry.

No sophisticated hacking seemed involved. Instead it was conducted using a simple yet reliable method to cripple targeted web servers. Activists circulated messages on Facebook last night urging supporters to mass-click and refresh the websites of specific government agencies at 10pm in what proved a successful bid to bring down services – a common method known as a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS.

“Today after 10pm, people who are united to oppose the single gateway system will launch a symbolic attack by method of DDoS, which is a symbolic method [of expression], since it is a method that everyone with a mobile phone and internet can do,” the post reads. “It is a demonstration of the power of the people.”

"Cyber Activists Bring Down Govt Sites to Protest ‘Single Gateway’", Khaosod English, October 1, 2015

During the night from Wednesday to Thursday, practically every website ending with a ”.go.th”-domain was targeted and at least seven government websites went offline amidst the constant barrage of mass refreshes, among them the MICT itself, the Ministry of Defense, the Government House, the military’s Internal Security Operations Command and the state-owned telecommunication companies TOT and CAT Telecom.

Thai government websites are comparatively easy targets, loaded with malware, generally unstable and using a form-over-function-approach to design (read: copious amounts to crude flash animations). The MICT website was reportedly accessed 100,000 times on Wednesday night alone compared to the daily average of 6,000 - the takedowns were a clear warning shot not to mess with a population that's not only very active online, but also seems to have better IT capabilities.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Nevertheless, as the websites slowly came back online Thursday, officials were scrambling to control the damage, both virtually and publicity-wise. And this is where things got even muddier. Newly-appointed ICT minister Uttama Savanayana reiterated that the single gateway is still just an idea at this point and the government will ”never restrict or interfere” with the internet access and freedom of its citizens. Furthermore he called the public to stop calling the proposal ”single gateway”, despite the fact that that word showed up several times in the original cabinet orders.

Apart from Uttama, other officials cited more, often contradictory reasons for the Thai military government to look into a ”single gateway”. The whole range goes from...

...”filtering and blocking unwanted content”...

The plan to reduce internet gateways was initially proposed by Pol Gen Somyos Pumpanmuang, the chief of the Royal Thai Police, in June 2015. He reasoned that through a single gateway system, it will be much easier for the state authorities to monitor, filter, delete, and intercept information on the internet that could be deemed inappropriate.

Thai authorities to step up surveillance via ‘single internet gateway’”, Prachatai English, September 23, 2015

...to ”improving IT business”...

(…) Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom (…) and the vice president of the NBTC (…) admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.

The general, however, said that the primary purpose is actually increase the competitiveness of the IT sector in Thailand (…)

Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015

...to "saving costs"...

ICT Minister Uttama Savanayaya told reporters that it was a misunderstanding that the project was about national security; rather he said it was purely an economic measure simply to reduce Internet access costs and ISPs could use the single gateway or not as they choose. It would also free up ISPs from security costs as the government would take care of IT security on their behalf.

Thai ICT minister defends single gateway initiative”, TelecomAsia, September 25, 2015

...”anticipating cyber threats”...

[PM's Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana] said the measure was being studied because the government anticipated several types of cyber threats, including hacking of government's websites and spreading of rumors and false information to discredit various institutions.

Suwaphan says govt studies single Internet gateway to prevent cyber threats”, The Nation, October 1, 2015

...and finally to ”won’t somebody please think about the children?!”

"The prime minister is worried about children and young people who use technologies and the internet without an appropriate framework or scope, and he has asked related agencies to come up with measures," he said.

ICT minister vows to 'never curb rights’”, Bangkok Post, October 1, 2015

No matter what the reasons are and even if the officials eventually get their stories straight, the Thai military government seemingly has underestimated the public's response to the single gateway plans. However, this won't stop the junta's efforts to monitor, filter and censor any online content it sees as a threat to its narrative. As highlighted last week, this is not the only measure or proposal concerning IT policies and the biggest of them all, the Cyber Law bills, are not yet even passed.

As the United Nations have declared unrestricted access to the internet and freedom of expression online a human right in a 2011 resolution, the Thai military government is already running afoul of this principle and would do so even more if it actually realizes all of its proposals.

h/t to several readers