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.

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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

Squaring the circles: Thai police close case on Bangkok bomber hunt

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 30, 2015

Thai police are confident that they have arrested the main suspect in the deadly Erawan Shrine bombing - just in time for a certain official...

IT'S an equation with many unknown variables that the Thai police have been dealing with since August 17, when the deadly bomb attack at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine killed 20 and injured over 100 people, followed the next day by a similar attempted bomb attack at Sathorn pier in which nobody was harmed.

The investigation started off slowly and the authorities were caught as much off-guard as most observers, since the scale and severity of the attack didn’t fit with any domestic groups that oppose the Thai military government. With only some grainy CCTV footage, dozens of witness accounts and many arrest warrants against unknown men, Thai authorities often contradicted themselves in their hunt for the perpetrators.

Two weeks after the bombing, the police arrested Mohammed Bilal (aka ”Adem Karadag”, the name in a fake Turkish passport he was carrying), and Yusufu Mieraili, identified as a Chinese Uighur from Xinjiang province. Despite initial reluctance, the focus was swiftly put on the Uighur angle. Members of the ethnic minority from western China often have to flee abroad from state persecution. In July the Thai military government deported about 100 Uighur refugees to China amidst international protest and in what is being widely regarded as the military junta cozying up to Beijing.

After several weeks of more contradictory police statements, from more fruitless accusations (the police implicated 17 suspects in total), suspects having already fled the country, to the Turkish embassy strongly denying having been ever been contacted by Thai police, the police suddenly turned to their first arrest Mohammed Bilal (aka Adem Karadag) as their main suspect after reviewing CCTV footage, again. Despite initially denying the allegations (his lawyer says that he came to Thailand days after the bomb attack), it was reported that both he and Mieraili confessed to involvement, with the former being the one who planted the bomb at the shrine.

Following the weekend, as both prime suspects have been paraded around in public crime re-enactments (again!), Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung concluded with certainty on Monday that Mohammed Bilal is the main suspect behind the deadly Bangkok bombing of August 17, 2015. As for the motives, Thai police said this:

“This case is conclusive,” said Royal Thai Police commissioner-general Somyot Poompanmoung. “The perpetrators are part of a human smuggling network” in retribution for the Thai government’s crackdown on a human trafficking network.

However, Somyot and other top officials clarified the group was likely hired by others and links to vested political interests could not be ruled out. Authorities have given few clues about other political motivations for the attack, however outside analysts have suggested it could be linked to the country’s internal political divisions.

Detonators, ball bearings and other evidence recovered from the debris around the shrine and an alleged second bombing attack at a pier match materials found in two raided apartments, police told reporters at a Monday briefing.

"Thai Police: Foreign Suspects Confess to Bombings", Voice of America, September 28, 2015

Not only are Thai authorities blaming human traffickers for the attack, but are also introducing a domestic angle by implicating a militant member of the red shirts, the group aligned with the former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, both toppled in military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.

Min Buri is also where a bomb exploded in 2014 during the height of anti-government street protests, killing two men transporting it by motorcycle. Police said that bomb was partly made by Yongyuth Pobkaew, who was previously given a suspended, one-year sentence for a 2010 bombing which killed four people northwest of Bangkok in Nonthaburi province.

Thai authorities have alleged a radical cell of the Redshirt movement was behind both incidents. Police said Yongyuth purchased materials used for the Erawan Shrine bombing. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Friday but police said his whereabouts were unknown. (...)

Speaking at today’s televised press conference, police chief Somyot also told reporters that domestic Thai politics could not be ruled out as a motive. “We cannot rule out politics,” he said. “We are not falsely accusing anyone here. My words are based on evidence.”

"Police Link Bomb Attack to Uighurs, Deep South and Thai Politics", Khaosod English, September 28, 2015

Evidence that we still have yet to see, as Somyot is about to retire later this week as National Police Chief, handing over the job to his successor Pol.-Gen. Chakthip Chaijinda (rumored to have been chosen by the even-more-hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan).

Thai police are patting themselves on the back - since they are also cashing 3m Thai Baht ($84,000) in reward money meant for the public following the arrest of Karadag -  just days before their chief's retirement, considering the case to be solved while still leaving lingering doubts unanswered. The authorities have consistently avoided calling the deadly attack an act of terrorism, partly so as not to scare away even more tourists, as many foreign nationals are among the victims. And whether or not criminals - who mostly operate well hidden from the public - were behind the bombings as a direct "revenge" on the military government's crackdown on human traffickers (triggered by a discovery of a mass grave earlier this year) also remains to be seen.

In a country under military rule and a notoriously corrupt police force, the investigation of the worst attack in the history of Bangkok was largely undermined by constant contradictions being spouted and the lack of transparency displayed by the authorities (and then harrying the media for highlighting their discrepancies). Public confidence is unlikely to increase after the latest developments, as the Thai police are seemingly trying to square the circle with their suspicion on the perpetrators behind the bomb attack. The equation remains with many variables, waiting to be resolved.

Thailand to tighten grip on Internet with its own 'Great Firewall'

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 25, 2015

Plans by the Thai military government to restrict the country’s internet traffic through a single gateway has raised concerns not only in the IT community, but among a public who fear authorities will easily be able to control what they can see and what they can not.

It seems that outages of major online platforms have had some unfortunate timing lately. Shortly after the Thai military launched last year's coup - the country’s 12th - Facebook was suddenly not accessible for anyone in Thailand. While the period offline was no longer than a hour, the outcry by its over 30 million users nationwide was loud, suspecting an online shutdown by the new rulers in order to clamp down on dissenting voices.

Fast forward this past Thursday night: another Facebook outage, and similar outcry - only this time those were heard around the world as the site itself was down for a couple of minutes for everybody. But again some Thai users might have been startled by this incident, as it happened shortly after news emerged that the Thai military government wants to siphon all incoming internet traffic through a single gateway - effectively emulating China's ”Great Firewall” in order to filter unwanted content.

The idea was conceived by the military government right after it took over power last year (among other ideas like a national social network), but it wasn’t until August this year that things were set in motion:

On 4 Aug. the military government approved the plan, and on 27 Aug. issued an order to the ministry tasked with regulating the internet to make it happen, according to cabinet meeting records.

“The Ministry of Information Communication Technology is hereby instructed to speed up the aforementioned issue and report any progress to the prime minister by September 2015,” read the 27 Aug. cabinet minutes of the gateway project.

Junta Readies ‘Great Firewall of Thailand’”, Khaosod English, September 24, 2015

Furthermore, Thai netizens recently discovered a related cabinet resolution from June 30, ordering the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to report what laws need to amended in order to realize a single gateway and report back by September 4.

Amidst these revelations, Thai authorities were forced to justify these plans and ultimately revealed the primary purpose of the gateway:

According to BBC Thai Service, Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom under the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and the vice president of the NBTC, on Thursday, 24 September 2015, admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.

(...) the CAT president added that national security is also one of the underlying reasons to the plan in order to make it easier for the state to crackdown on cyber crimes, saying that even the US has implemented such system.

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

The NTBC vice president further defended in the same interview with BBC Thai the proposal, saying that it would actually ”increase” the competitiveness of Thailand’s IT sector against its neighbors, providing ”incentives” for private internet operators to log onto what it euphemistically calls a ”digital hub”, seeing itself as the center of Southeast Asia’s online connectivity.

From a business standpoint, it's doubtful how you could increase competitiveness by bottlenecking all of Thailand’s online traffic, effectively risking to cripple broadband speed, and also making state-owned CAT Telecom the sole monopolizing gatekeeper again, harkening back to the early days of Thailand’s internet connections.

Though, what dominates in the arguments by the authorities is the emphasis on ”national security”, the need to monitor internet content and to censor it when they feel it's necessary. While that mentality has often been expressed by several MICT officials under different governments (see hereherehere and here) in the past, this has become the leading doctrine in the Thai military government’s IT policy.

Under the military junta, the media are under its watch (especially online), it has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source) - and has ordered internet providers to censor on sight - and reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software - all that solely to go after Thais that are dissenting against the junta. Last week, the outspoken journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was detained by the military for a second 'attitude adjustment' reportedly for a critical Facebook post (shortly after his release, he has been forced out at The Nation newspaper). In August, a military court sentenced two Thai Facebook users to a record 30 and 28 years in prison respectively for allegedly insulting the monarchy online.

Furthermore, the Thai military government is in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at "preparing Thailand for the digital economy". But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertainty, benefitting the state more than Thai online users. The single internet gateway is very much in line with the Thai military government's hawkish policies, as it also wants to conquer the cyberspace as well.

Attitude re-adjustments: A new crackdown by Thailand's military junta?

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 15, 2015 UPDATE [Sep 15, 2015 - 17:35h local Bangkok time]: Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk as well as former Pheu Thai Party  MPs Pichai Naripthaphan and Karun Hosakul have been released from military detention.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Two opposition politicians and a journalist are among a new wave of detainments by Thailand's military government. A sign of things to come?

"Freedom can't be maintained if we're not willing to defend it." That's what Pravit Rojanaphruk tweeted on Sunday afternoon before his feed went unusually silent. On Monday he was reported to have been detained by the military government to undergo what it calls "attitude adjustment". The journalist for 'The Nation' newspaper, known for his outspokenness in his articles and on social media alike, seemed to know what was coming, tweeting on Saturday:

http://twitter.com/PravitR/status/642576747372744705

He is now at an undisclosed army base, without access to a lawyer. It is unknown how long he will be held and also initially why. This has sparked a flurry of criticism against Pravit's detention. Whether it's from his newspaper 'The Nation', its parent company, the Thai Journalists' Association, or international organizations like the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Thailand and Reporters Without Borders - all have condemned the arbitrary action by the military junta and called for his immediate release. The Nation Group's editor-in-chief Thepchai Yong said: "There is no justification whatsoever for his detention. If the military believes he has done something wrong, there are normal legal channels to deal with it."

This was not the first involuntary visit to the generals for Pravit, as he was summoned three days after the military coup of May 22, 2014 among hundreds of politicians and other dissidents (see photo below). Following his six days in custody, he described the ordeal as "surreal" in an interview with Asian Correspondent. While the facilities at the army camp were reportedly comfortable and all detainees were treated respectfully - at times even "cordially" - Pravit suspected that it was all part of "psychological warfare" by the military and that his group were treated better than others. Furthermore, he said military officers attempted to gain information on other persons, including academics and foreign journalists, that are perceived to be critical of the Thai military. Pravit, like many other former detainees, are reportedly under regular observation by the authorities since their release.

Spokesmen for the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta formally calls itself, released statements in a piecemeal fashion over the course of Monday explaining Pravit's detainment, first saying that the journalist "disseminated information" in a fashion that could cause "misunderstanding" - a standard claim to shut down any criticism against the military rulers - while at the same time admitting that there has been no such proof yet. Then, another spokesman stated that the main reason for Pravit to be taken into custody was a "provocative and decisive" Facebook post, but stopped short of specifying which one and why. Because it was a Facebook post, the junta makes the pedantic distinction that Pravit was summoned "as an individual, not as a journalist". The same spokesman also estimates that he "may be detained from three to seven days" and is expected to sign an agreement with the junta again not to violate their orders or otherwise be charged with sedition.

Pravit's ordeal is the latest in a new string of detainments as two politicians of the toppled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party - namely former energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan and former MP Karun Hosakul - are being held at undisclosed locations by the for almost a week now after both men were vocally critic of the military government's policies. The NCPO says they will be released later this week after the necessary "attitude adjustment" (in case of Pichai his seventh) required to make them "stop making remarks" deemed harmful to the military's "national reconciliation" efforts. Earlier this month, authorities revoked the passport of former education minister Chaturon Chaisang, who also criticized the military government.

These incidents come at a peculiar time for the military junta, which has refrained from mass-scale summons this year, relatively speaking (they are still regularly targeting grassroots anti-junta activists). However, as the recently rejected constitution draft has effectively extended the military's authoritarian rule by at least another 7 months and democratic elections are delayed to as late as June 2017 (one and a half years later than promised after the coup), the generals seem to be even more sensitive of criticism. Deputy junta Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan has warned that anybody "slandering" the NCPO will be "called into army camp", as "now is not the time" for that.

Junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha - who's about to leave for the United Nation's General Assembly in order to make the international community "know him better" - further emphasized the government's low-to-zero tolerance stance last week, lashing out at journalists in his usual mercurial and sardonic demeanor, and threatening to silence every critic by jailing them "again and again". "I’m just going to tape their mouths shut," he added - just like second time-detainee and journalist Pravit did to himself before his first "attitude adjustment".

Opinion: Low stakes for Thai military junta in constitution draft vote

Originally published at Siam Voices on the morning of September 6, 2015 UPDATE (11.00 AM, Sunday, September 6, 2015): The National Reform Council has REJECTED the constitutional draft with 134 to 105 votes and 7 abstentions. A new constitution has to be drafted and thus a whole new process with an all new committee is set in motion, while the whole timetable to possible future elections will be delayed by at least 6 months. The Thai military junta and the interim constitution (incl. the catch-all Article 44) will still stay in power in the meantime to at least roughly early 2017.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE (Published earlier Sunday morning before NRC vote)

One could say that it’s a sign of dedication if you’re coming to work on a Sunday. Others would say that they have no other choice - which is rather ironic since the very reason they’re currently convening this morning (as of of writing) is about a vote.

The National Reform Committee (NRC) is coming together this Sunday morning to deliberate and vote on the draft for Thailand’s next constitution, a crucial step that decides the political direction of the foreseeable future in the country.

Since the beginning of the year, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) has been busy penning the country’s charter No. 20 after the previous 2007 version (enacted after the military coup of 2006) was suspended after the military coup of May 2014. They were so busy in fact that they needed another month to put on the finishing touches.

Despite all the polish and trimming (from a 315 article behemoth to ‘just’ 285), there are many members of the NRC who are not entirely happy with many of its contents and have already voiced their opposition to it. Does this mean a possible bump in the road back to democracy in Thailand and a sign of trouble for the military junta (which has appointed all NRC members, by the way), which has kept the whole political discourse strictly in line until now?

The answer is rather simple: it doesn’t really matter for them either way!

On one hand, a positive outcome for the draft would constitutionally enshrine the undemocratic nature of the junta’s ‘reforms’ to Thai politics that enables non-elected elements to intervene any elected government at almost any time. One of these clauses is the recently added Article 260, the "Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation" - a euphemism for a politburo-style executive committee co-existing for five years alongside an elected government (still with a 4-year term limit) with powers to take over at anytime in a yet-to-be-defined ‘crisis’ situation. Also, this and other bodies would be created to deter any substantial constitutional amendments that could dismantle these bodies.

On the other hand, a ”no” vote would also come in handy for the military junta since the timetable for this whole drafting process - which took round about 8 months - would start anew as stipulated in the interim constitution. We have pointed out several times that an endless loop of drafting and rejecting would technically be possible and this legislative limbo would be the junta’s Groundhog Day. In other words, the military government would be able to prolong their direct rule.

Either way, the stakes are incredibly low for the military junta.

Also, if the NRC members were really concerned about the undemocratic nature of the draft, they wouldn't and shouldn't have agreed to take part in this kabuki theater, as this process only creates the illusion of choice and proper process.

Same goes for the public referendum (in case this draft gets passed) scheduled early next year, which decides when (or rather if) the next election is going to be held. But the people’s choice itself could seemingly become a moot point, since the junta’s law experts ‘just’ happen to discover that it is seemingly nearly impossible to even reach a minimum quota of positive votes for the constitution draft thanks to the wording in the interim constitution, unless that hole get patched pretty soon. And even if everything goes smoothly up until that point, the latest suggestion for new elections is for the end of 2016, which is a whole year later than what the junta originally promised.

Either way, we'll soon know more about where Thailand's political future goes next - until that most people would have likely woken up on this Sunday morning.

Thai junta's constitution drafters propose 'indirectly elected' Senate

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 27, 2015 The Constitutional Drafting Committee are continuing to re-write the political rule book for a post-coup Thailand. But, like with all the military junta's government bodies, the claim to "reform" and bring "true democracy" is questionable, as the most recent proposals for an unelected sorry, "indirectly elected" Senate shows.

One of the key elements of Thailand's military government is the Constitutional Draft Committee (CDC), which is tasked to, well, write a new constitution that lays the legal groundwork for a new elected government (when we actually get there is another matter), the first one since the military coup last May that has temporarily indefinitely suspended electoral democracy. However, just like all other government bodies of the Thai junta - such as the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the rubber-stamping ersatz-parliament, and the National Reform Council (NRC), a rather exclusive group suggesting wide-ranging reforms - the CDC is fully-appointed and of questionable political bias.

Since its nomination in November, the 36-member strong committee has 120 days to accomplish the herculean task to not only write a new charter, but also to have one that (appears to at least) curtail what they call "parliamentarian dictatorship", which they and their allies accuse the past successfully elected governments associated to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of, including the last one of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra before it got toppled by the military that is running the country now.

Among the many changes the CDC is currently proposing is the make-up of the Senate, the Upper House next to the House of Representatives. In pre-2014 coup Thailand (and thus post-2006 coup), the 150-member Senate was half-elected and half-appointed. But now, the CDC is suggesting this model instead:

Thailand's new 200-member Senate (...) will be chosen from pools of candidates, including former premiers, ex-military leaders and representatives of different professions, another committee spokesman, Lertrat Ratanavanich, said Wednesday. They can only serve one six-year term.

"Thai constitution drafters say Senate to be unelected", Associated Press, February 26, 2015

This doesn't sound as straightforward as the previous system, so how will they be exactly chosen?

The Senate will consist of 200 members, half of whom will be chosen by the council of "experts," which Bowornsak described as "a diverse group of individuals with expertise and morality about politics, national administration, the judicial system, society, ethnology, and folk wisdom."

It remains unclear how the council of experts will be chosen.

The other Senators - also appointed - will be chosen from a pool of former high-level politicians and bureaucrats such as prime ministers, military commanders, parliament speakers, judicial leaders, and representatives from other civic organizations.

"Junta's Charter Drafter Clarifies 'Unelected' Senate", Khaosod English, February 26, 2015

In case you're wondering how this "pool" of candidates is being set up, here's the complete list:

Senators will be selected from among five categories of people: former prime ministers, former Supreme Court presidents and former parliament presidents; former high-ranking state officials such as military leaders and permanent secreta­ries; heads of legally registered professional organisations; people's organisations such as labour unions, agricultural co-operatives and academics; and other groups such as lawyers, environmental activists, poverty networks and healthcare experts.

Senators from the first four groups will be selected from among themselves, while those from the fifth will be nominated by a screening committee and selected by the National People's Assembly and executives and members of local administrative bodies.

"CDC agrees to indirect Senate pick", Bangkok Post, February 26, 2015

So basically a bunch of yet-to-be-defined committees supposedly representing a broad spectrum of the population would be tasked to choose the candidates for the Senate, making it practically fully appointed.

However, the chairman of the CDC, Bowornsak Uwanno (pictured above), does not agree with this notion:

"Certain newspapers and TV channels have identified the new Senate as unelected," CDC chairman Bowornsak Uwanno said at a press conference today. "It's not lovely. It's an inaccurate presentation of news.” (...)

However, the CDC chairman stressed today that elected members of local administrative organizations will be included in the process of selecting senators, because they will be responsible from choosing 100 senators from a list of 200 candidates approved by the panel of "experts."

"Therefore, accusations that the new Senate is unelected are false," Bowornsak said.

He also told reporters that some foreign countries have similar parliamentary models, citing France, though he failed to point out that French senators are indirectly elected by a "super-electorate" of elected local and regional officials, whose options are not screened by any unelected panel of professionals.

"Junta's Charter Drafter Clarifies 'Unelected' Senate", Khaosod English, February 26, 2015

OK, so he is saying that it is still a democratic process because the people are voting the local officials, who then, alongside other officials, are going to pick 100 senators pre-selected from a yet-to-be-defined-but-very-likely-appointed "expert" vetting panel, which still leaves the other 100 senators to be chosen in a yet-to-be-defined-but-also-very-likely-appointed fashion.

And how large is that percentage of elected local officials who would be picking the senators? It doesn't matter, because the military junta has suspended local elections anyways and replaced outgoing officials with - guess what? - appointed ones!

To say that CDC chairman Bowornsak's argument that the Senate wouldn't be unelected is shaky at best and at worst rather disingenuous, which makes the description of an "indirectly elected" upper House one hell of a political euphemism.

There's a certain irony here when you compare this to the efforts during the Yingluck administration to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully-elected again. While the underlying motivations could still be questioned, the principle of a fully-elected Senate was enough of a reason for the Constitutional Court, in what many observers say a politically charged verdict, to outlaw these proposed amendments. Even worse, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) - which has recently impeached the already toppled former PM Yingluck - was going after most of the lawmakers involved and is thinking about doing it again.

And now (arguably) the same similarly politically-aligned camp that was against the previous amendments and is now running the country (one striking example is Rosana Tositrakul, back then an appointed senator who petitioned the Constitutional Court and now, surprise, a member of the National Reform Council), is now floating the proposal for a Senate that really isn't elected at all.