Media

Unfolding and unscrambling the Thai military junta's policy advertorial

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 26, 2016 An advertisement supplement touting the polices of Thailand's military government appeared on the front page of the English-language newspaper The Nation on February 23, 2016. (Pic: Reader submission)

THAILAND'S military government has gone on the media offensive to promote its "reform roadmap" by planting paid advertisement supplements in Thai newspapers. But the published product is, in its own words, one giant "confusion trap".

It is an uphill struggle the Thai military has faced ever since it took over in the coup of May 22, 2014 and almost two years later it has become increasingly Sisyphean. The battle over the sovereign narrative of the political discourse in Thailand is one of the biggest headaches for the "National Council for Peace and Order" (NCPO) – as the military junta formally calls itself.

Considering the restrictions by the junta to curtail any kind of criticism, be it by online censorship, aggressive behavior towards the media (also increasingly against foreign media) and the detainment and harassment of dissidents, the generals have a hard time of convincing anyone of their iron- and at the same time ham-fisted rule, let alone winning back any hearts and minds it has intimidated.

With general grumbling over the government's performance (especially economically) growing, a second controversial constitution draft far from being safely confirmed and thus eventual elections still an empty promise at this point (despite repeated assurances that it will definitely take place next year no matter what, just not exactly which month!), the military government of junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has its work cut out.

Coinciding with the reemergence of a certain former prime minister in the public eye (more on him next week), the government's PR department also mounted a media offensive of their own. Over the course of the week, it has placed special policy pamphlets wrapped around the newspapers of Thai-language Thai PostPost Today, its English-language sister publication Bangkok Post and its direct rival The Nation. These supplements were sponsored by the state-owned Government Savings Bank, Krung Thai Bank and the Government Lottery Office.

It was a confusing sight for many readers at first, since the paid advertisements bore the logos of the respective newspapers and looked like an actual product from the newsroom, thanks to the lack of any disclaimers – with the Bangkok Post being the only exception (clearly marked as a "special advertisement supplement") in addition to a clarifying remark by its editor. While a newspaper being wrapped by a full double-paged advertisement is not unusual, it is not often that a Thai government does it on that scale, which makes it look almost like an advertorial.

Instead of presenting a product with the loftiest ideas money can buy, this particular printed product touts ideas money can't buy, but is sure to still cost some money anyways: the military junta’s policies, its “reform roadmap” and why the coup was necessary in the first place. However, the end result left readers with a lot more questions than answers.

https://twitter.com/NotThatBobJames/status/702697532590129152

Starting off with the upper half of the front page (see header picture above), it described "Thailand's vicious cycle" of "bi-polar"(sic!) political "hyperconflict" (sic!) as a result of "without credibility government" (sic!), leading into all kinds of traps like "conflicting" and "confusing" (and for some reason illustrated by a fishing hook), thus making the "NCPO undertaking" (sic!) – more commonly known as the 2014 military coup – necessary in order to prevent the county from becoming a "failed state". It does not mention the military's involvement in this vicious cycle (including the last coup in 2006), nor the manufactured deadlock by the anti-election movement 2013-14 that paved the way for the most recent coup.

The bottom half of the front page featured the usual long-term sales pitch for building Thailand into "a first world nation with stability, propensity, sustainability" through the "sufficiency economy philosophy" while at the same time eventually lifting Thailand into a "high-income country" and "knowledge-based economy" after it has transformed itself into an "innovative industry" (a long way ahead since the country is currently ranked below the worldwide average in that regard) – that and "Hope, Happiness & Harmony". All in all a tall order for the junta that is fighting a sluggish economy that is expected not to grow more than 2 percent this year.

The biggest headache highlight though is the centerfold, displaying a mind-boggling behemoth of a diagram, supposedly displaying the Thai military government's "Administration Guidelines". Written in what can only be smaller than font size 10, it spreads out into a completely illegible maze of different government bodies, which have countless committees, which in turn have countless sub-committees tackling a seemingly wide array of issues – we just simply can't read them at all!

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One noteworthy item in this unattractive centerfold is the junta's purported timeline in the right bottom corner, which claims to hand back power to an elected government sometime in 2017, while also already setting off a "20-Year National Strategy Plan". The plan, which in fact is a bill, came out of the National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA, a fully-appointed government body) and was passed by the fully-appointed legislative body last week. The bill sees the establishment of a 25-member group that seeks to dictate long-term policy goals to the cabinet, which could be yet another mechanism  to restrict an elected government. It's not made better by the fact that members of the current junta, including Prime Minister Prayuth, will be on this panel for the first few years.

The backside is probably the most egregious part of this pamphlet, attempting to explain why its policy of "Pracharat" (commonly translated as "state of the people") is the polar opposite to the "evil" populism-schemes of the previous governments the military has ousted – even if the former is currently nothing but the junta's hottest buzzword as it has yet to be defined into actual policies, unless it's just a simple rebranding.

https://twitter.com/JeromeTaylor/status/702707785222344704

However, the coup de grâce is found in the bottom half. Not only does the graphic un-ironically define how a "pseudo-democracy" differs from a "genuine" one (considering the current state of Thai politics), but it also tries to cram several dozens of items from the centerfold into just three small boxes – and fails miserably ...

https://twitter.com/Journotopia/status/702681008504598528

All in all, it does beg the question: what is the military junta is trying to achieve here? It is not going for maximum exposure since it has published this pamphlet in three four newspapers, only one two of them in Thai, thus leaving international readers as the likely target audience. However, given the authoritarian rule of the government, it won't be easily swayed by some loftily phrased aspirations – let alone by that giant policy diagram.

The last time the military published a diagram, it was a largely unfounded mess. This time, it published a series of haphazardly-constructed infographics, making things more difficult to understand to the general public. The junta's long-term policy vision just mentions democracy as a side note and reinforces a paternalistic style of governance, seeing itself as the ultimate arbiter of the future direction Thailand is taking, while at the same time completely muddling its message.

But then on the other hand, transparency has never been the military's strong suit.

Correction: An earlier version stated that three newspapers have carried the Thai junta's advertorial. It is four - in addition to Bangkok Post, The Nation, Post Today, Thai-language daily Thai Post also ran this.

h/t to several Twitter followers and readers for providing photos and copies of the pamphlet. 

Thai junta PM embarks on day-long rant after criticism of constitution draft

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 3, 2016 The Thai military government's intolerance towards dissent is nothing new. But its reactions against criticisms of the newest constitution draft - over a single day, no less - is a renewed display of insecurity by the junta.

Either you're damned if you do or damned if you don't. That's the conundrum Thailand's military government has put itself ever since it seized powers in the 2014 coup, suspended electoral democracy and almost every other aspect of political discourse and freedom that comes with it.

While its rule is undoubtedly authoritarian, the junta has promised to "reform" the political system, introduce a new constitution and then to hold new democratic elections in late 2015 - before postponing it to early 2016then delaying again to mid-2016 in order to accommodate for a public referendum on the constitution draft and then it got delayed yet another time to 2017 because that draft didn't make it through the junta's fully appointed ersatz-parliament and the whole drafting process had to begin all over again.

Last week, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) (whose members were all replaced after the first draft failed) presented their second attempt to the public (PDF) which will be directly put up to a public referendum this summer. However, the contents and their intentions are largely the same as the previous one, aiming to restrict the powers of elected governments and have more unelected forces to easier intervene (we will address the contents of the draft in a future story).

To make matters more dubious, CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan already hinted before the publication that elections could be further delayed beyond mid-2017 to accommodate more time for organic laws to be drafted and implemented. However, Thai junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha later reaffirmed that democratic elections will actually take place in July next year, even if the constitution draft ist rejected in the public referendum - only then to change his mind on Monday again and widened out the timeframe to the whole of 2017.

That only further fueled suspicion and criticisms and seemingly this has all come to a head on Tuesday with a string of incidents and reactions that show how thin-skinned the junta is.

It started in the morning with the temporary detainment of Jatuporn Prompan, a prominent leader of the red shirts, a protest group that largely supports the toppled government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, the also deposed ex-PM Thaksin. The red shirts have announced last week that it would boycott the draft constitution, which is the likely reason for Jatuporn's brief detainment - or "attitude adjustment" as the junta's euphemistically calls it. He was released later in the afternoon.

At roughly the same time at Government House, prime minister Gen. Prayuth started lashing out at reporters, triggered by a question concerning the current constitutional drafting process and the delayed election date, saying things like "If you wanna vote, then go vote - you get the crappy ones [in the parliament], what are you gonna do then?" or "If the country goes down, don't come blame me!"

All this venting took place while he was inspecting exhibition stands, making it for those involved a possibly very awkward photo-op (see video below). As he was sniffing a wooden chicken and reading some labels he continued yelling: "I understand everything because I read! Are you reading anything? Have you read anything that the government is doing something good?!" When a reporter asked him what he was actually referring to, Gen. Prayuth fired back with: "If you're an idiot than look it up yourself!"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37BwpY__EYQ

Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the junta's number 2, deputy-prime minister and defense minister, commented on Jatuporn's brief detainment by saying that "constructive criticism" on the draft constitution is welcomed by the military government, but it must be "civilized", not using such words like "dictatorship", let the junta do its job, not "inciting unrest" - or else be "invited" for another round of attitude adjustment.

By the afternoon after the weekly cabinet meeting, PM Gen. Prayuth held another press conference and continued his tirade, claiming that nobody's helping him whenever he gets pelted by criticism: "Why is nobody talking about my rights? (...) I have democratic rights, too! You don't defend me, but you defend all these scoundrels?"

The reporters continued asking the still visibly agitated prime minister (see video below) with such questions like on the unclear sections of the draft (to which he replied "Why do you wanna know all this? You want this [draft] to fail, do you?!") or on the criticisms against the draft that it would create further political conflict instead of resolving it ("Who is inciting conflict, apart from politicians, apart from the press?! Who else?! Tell me!!").

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWfnFPugyO8

He concluded his fiery press briefing by bemoaning the lack of trust he has by the public (despite a recent government poll attesting him a "98.9 per cent" approval rating, even though we all know better): "You don't trust me at all after these two years? Haven't you seen the work I've done? [slams podium] HUH?! You trust all the others, but not me!!"

Even for Gen. Prayuth, known for his often mercurial and sardonic outbursts in public, the constant criticism and skepticism towards the military junta's constitutional draft process must have hit a nerve. It displays a distinct lack of confidence and insecurity in the process to go on ranting for almost a whole day.

It also explains why a spokesman for the military junta has come out reiterating that the junta "never prohibits criticism or expression of opinion,” but asks for discussions of the draft to be held "respectfully". The thing about respect is that it is mutual - something that the Thai military government and its leader clearly does not show and Tuesday tirade was no exception.

Rajabhakti Park: The corruption case the Thai junta doesn’t want you to talk about

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 17, 2015 The statues of seven past Thai kings in Rajabhakti Park, a military-sponsored project embroiled in corruption allegations. (Photo: Khaosod English)

The ongoing controversy over alleged corruption at a military-sponsored park and other events to honor Thailand’s monarchy is becoming a big headache for the military government, as it struggles to uphold its own pledge of a ”clean” rule and instead cracks down on criticism.

IT was supposed to be a monument to honor the past: seven giant bronze statutes of seven past Thai kings - from the Sukhothai period (1238 - 1583) to the current ruling Chakri dynasty (since 1782) - were erected in a newly built park near the royal resort town of Hua Hin.

Rajabhakti Park is a project sponsored by the Thai military in another very public display of its loyalty to Thailand’s monarchy, of which it regards itself to be its ultimate protector amid growing concerns over the health of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 88 years old earlier this month.

But one year after the project's initial announcement and with the construction of the park pretty much completed, the Thai military junta is being besieged by allegations of corruption and has so far not been able to convincingly refute them.

The first rumors surfaced in early November as irregularities in the financing of the tall bronze statues were called into question. Specifically the high costs of reportedly 43 to 45.5 million Baht ($1.19 to $1.26 million) each, with payouts to middlemen, including an army colonel and several amulet traders, of roughly 10 percent "commission”called into question.

Right from the beginning of the case, the military government has denied any irregularities or involvement of any army officers, while deputy prime minister, defense minister and former army chief General Prawit Wongsuwan repeatedly insisted that this is ”not a government matter, it’s the army’s” - suddenly distinguishing the junta and the military as two separate, independent entities.

The royal park project was initiated and supervised by General Udomdej Sitabutr, army chief from October 2014 to September 2015 - exactly the same time it took for the completion of the park. An internal investigation in late November, led by his successor and current army chief General Teerachai Nakwanich (reportedly a protege of Gen. Prawit), declared ”there is no corruption” in the case and ”everything was transparent”, while not giving any details about the inquiry itself and at the same time telling off the media from further digging into the matter.

Just days after the military declared the case closed, Gen. Prawit announced the launch of a new investigation led by defense permanent-secretary General Preecha Chan-ocha - who also happens to be the brother of junta leader, prime minister and also former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The probe is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Another investigation by the Office of the Auditor General, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission found out that 63 million Baht ($1.7 million) of state budget was used in the project, contradicting an earlier statement by Gen. Prawit that the money came entirely from donations. Coincidentally, the chairman of the NACC was removed two weeks later by order of the military junta and replaced by Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, a police general who happened to be secretary-general to Gen. Prawit shortly after the coup.

The Rajabhakti Park case is just one part of a wider purge in recent months, in which several high-ranking officials face lèse majesté charges for allegedly enriching themselves with either false claims to the royal family or abusing their connections to it. Some cases are tied to mass bike rallies to honor Queen Sirikit and King Bhumibol in August and December, respectively.

Two of the suspects, a police major and a prominent soothsayer, died in military custody on October 23 and November 6, respectively. Their bodies were hastily cremated within a day (not in accordance with Buddhist week-long funeral rituals), but authorities have ruled out foul play in both cases. The whereabouts of several other targeted officers is unknown. Some are rumored to have fled the country.

Whatever the inquiries will unearth (or not), the Thai military government is already practicing the worst kind of damage control by cracking down on its critics. Pro-democracy student activists and two red shirt leaders (a group supporting the toppled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra), respectively, have attempted to visit the park, only to be intercepted and detained by authorities on the way there.

Thai officials have also arrested two men for sharing (not creating) infographics on the Rajabhakti Park corruption case on Facebook: a 25-year-old man taken into custody at a hospital while he was awaiting surgery, and a 27-year old factory worker, who has reportedly confessed. Both men, currently in military detention, are being charged for violating the Computer Crimes Act and for sedition, the latter carrying a sentence of 7 years.

The 27-year-old suspect is being additionally charged with lèse majesté, which alone can carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years per offense. It was revealed later that one of the offenses was sharing (again, not creating) contents on Facebook that mocked the king's dog. That in itself marks an even wider interpretation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code - which only mentions "the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent" - after previous rulings have expanded the law to past kings and even "attempted" insults. Punishments under the notorious lèse majesté law have been particularly heavy-handed since the military coup: In August, two suspects have been given record sentences of 30 and 28 years in jail, respectively.

Thai authorities have also announced its intentions to charge ”hundreds” of Facebook users with lèse majesté as well as for 'liking' offending content. Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit told reporters last week not to ask too much about the scandal, as "there's no point" to further press coverage of issue. He added, “Please stop mentioning this already. It damages confidence a lot. You’re Thais, why do this? The government is working for the country. Therefore, the media must help us out.”

The ongoing controversy over Rajabhakti Park could slowly become the biggest problem for the military junta so far, which has been only able to respond to criticism by stifling it. Not only does it face the tainting of its biggest showcase of loyalty to the monarchy - a nigh-endless source of pride for the army - but this is also a slap in the face to junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has pledged to crack down on corruption. An opaque investigation and more furious backlashes against critics could further undermine a government that is desperately seeking legitimacy that is looking increasingly elusive.

Despite denials, Thailand's online surveillance plans are alive and well

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 22, 2015 "We will not talk about this any more. If we say we won't do it, we won't do it," said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak at an economic forum in Bangkok last week. His decisive words were in response to the ongoing controversy over the Thai military government’s plans to introduce an online single gateway.

Last month, Thai internet users discovered a cabinet resolution surveying the implementation of a single online gateway ”to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.” Subsequent resolutions ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and related agencies to speed up their preliminary work.

If realized, Thailand’s internet traffic would be bottlenecked through a single gateway, making it possible for officials to filter and block undesirable content. This is in line with the military junta’s ongoing efforts to monitor and censor dissenting voices, both in real life and online, ever since it launched a military coup in May 2014.

Amidst widespread criticism and a coordinated mass-click-and-refresh bombardment that briefly knocked several government websites offline, Thai officials were scrambling to calm public opinion, only then to contradict themselves justifying why the junta wants to have a single gateway in the first place. The explanations varied from economic reasons, cybersecurity concerns and ultimately ending at Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha being initially ”worried” about the ”youth addiction to online games and access to inappropriate media”.

A week later, the government was hoping that the debate had died down. However, despite repeated statements insisting that it won’t pursue the single gateway plan anymore, not everyone is convinced by their declaration. And it seems there is more trouble coming the junta’s way:

Online activists have announced they will launch attacks against the government beginning Thursday after the prime minister said the project to route all internet traffic through a single point of control is still alive.

The coalition of anonymous internet users known as Citizens Against Single Gateway last night warned private sector operations with IT systems linked to government servers to transfer them to safe places before the assault on government systems begins at 10am on Thursday.

Those behind a crippling attack earlier this month, the Thailand F5 Cyber Army, issued the announcement yesterday after Prime Minister and junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said agencies are still studying the project (…).

First Chapter of ‘Cyber War’ to Begin Thursday”, Khaosod English, October 21, 2015

The little detail that the government is "still studying" the single gateway plan is enough reason for opponents to distrust the Thai military government. But there are several more signs that justifies the continuous skepticism by many online users.

CAT TELECOM has announced that it will proceed with the plan to build a national Internet gateway, which it claims would help make Thailand a digital hub in Asean.

The aim of the project is not to control the flow of information into the country over the Internet as some fear, said CAT acting chief executive officer Colonel Sanpachai Huvanandana. He said a working committee for the project would be set up. Whether that committee is under the Information and Communications Technology Ministry or under the Digital Economy Committee is up to the ICT minister.

The national Internet gateway is one of two priorities for making Thailand a digital hub for the region by expanding capacity and reducing costs. The other is to have large content providers such as Facebook, Google and YouTube establish servers in Thailand.

Net gateway for digital hub”, The Nation, October 21, 2015

The other part of the plan to have internet tech giants like Google and Facebook setting up shop in Thailand (the latter already did) seems ambitious to say the least, given a potentially significant infrastructural disadvantage and previous persistent, but unsuccessful attempts by the military government seeking cooperation of these companies to censor posts deemed insulting to the monarchy and also identify their authors.

At the same time it is being reported that General Thaweep Netrniyom, the secretary-general of the Office of the National Security Council (NSC), could be appointed the head of the aforementioned CAT Telecom. It would be the first time that somebody from the NSC would take up that position at the state-owned telecommunication company and unsurprisingly his focus is expected be on cyber security - just as CAT’s current CEO (a Colonel nonetheless) announced they are still not giving up on the single online gateway.

However, as mentioned before, that is not the only measure by the military junta to control the flow of online information in Thailand. It already has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source), ordered internet providers to censor on sight, reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software, it is also 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 surveillanceprosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertaintybenefitting the state more than Thai online users.

Most recently, Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan announced on Tuesday the creation of a new ”Army Cyber Center” specifically to ”protect” the Thai monarchy and to ”keep track of information on media and social media and to sort them out systematically,” essentially underlining their priorities. In August this year, two people were sentenced to a record 28 and 30 years in prison respectively for allegedly posting Facebook messages deemed insulting to the monarchy.

Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2015 As the hunt for the main suspect in the Bangkok bomb attacks continues, Thai authorities are increasingly contradicting each other about the possible perpetrators. That's par for the course, says Saksith Saiyasombut.

"He doesn't really look Thai," a woman was heard saying Tuesday, looking at the grainy CCTV footage showing the main suspect in Monday's bomb attack at Bangkok's popular Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 people and injured about 120. Authorities are looking for a young man who was wearing a yellow t-shirt, dark shorts and dropped a suspicious backpack at the shrine before leaving the scene. On Wednesday, police released a composite sketch of the suspect, based on eyewitness reports, and announced a bounty of 1 million Baht ($28,000).

That about sums up what the Thai authorities can agree on so far. After the initial uncharacteristic hesitant response by Thai officials on who could be behind the unprecedented attack (and the subsequent failed bomb attack on Tuesday), the police and the military government seem to be slowly but steadily getting back to their usual "we said, they said"-thing, complete with open, unsubstantiated speculations, making the overall investigation seem less credible as it is being observed by a wider international audience.

Four days after the attack, officials are still in the dark about the possible motives and perpetrators, with the usual suspects getting a mention and wilder theories popping up. This hasn't stopped Thai authorities from pressing forward with their own findings and opinions - regardless of any contradictions among themselves.

With the release of the sketch, reports cited an motocycle taxi driver who is believed to have given the suspect a lift away from the scene of the blast, who he described as somebody who didn't "seem to be Thai" and spoke "an unfamiliar language" on his phone. Police spokesman Prawuth Thawornsiri wouldn't confirm the description, saying that: “If the suspect disguised himself, wore a wig, put on fake nose and spoke Arabic, we wouldn’t know if he’s really [a foreigner] anyway.” Nevertheless, the arrest warrant issued a few hours later was for an unnamed "foreigner", which is based on the sketch.

The contradictory statements started then to pile up on Thursday, starting with the National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmuang's assessment that "at least 10 people" of a "big network" were involved in preparing it "at least one month in advance". How he knows this, despite still not knowing who's behind the attack, is not known.

(ANALYSIS: Transparency is essential in Bangkok bombings probe)

Regardless of the amount of suspects and the ambiguous nationality and ethnicity of the main suspect, the military junta has ruled out that the attack was carried out by an international terrorism network, which kinda makes sense since Thailand is rarely targeted by any international terrorist group, except for a few instances but never against Thais (we reported). Junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree then suggested an "organized crime" connection, without giving any clear motive.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Thai police requested assistance from Interpol, as confirmed by deputy national police spokesman Kissana Phathancharoen first to Reuters, whereas Thai military junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha - who appeared comparatively measured in the first two days after the attack - was quoted saying in his usual manner:

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha bristled when asked if his government, which was installed after a military coup last year, was seeking outside help. "This incident happened in Thailand. It is Thailand. Why do we want other people to come in and investigate?" the former general told reporters on Wednesday.

"Thai police grapple for firm clues to Bangkok bomb suspects", Reuters, August 19, 2015

He later went on to suggest to that police officers watch an American police procedure drama for inspiration. Whether he was being sardonic or serious is not known. That still didn't stop his military junta deputy PM and defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan asking the UK and US for assistance in the investigation - but only in form of equipment, not personnel. How the Thai officials are going to use the tools without any instruction and assistance and what tools were actually requested is not known.

With the hunt ongoing and the authorities continuing to chase any clue they can find, their senior officers aren't really sure if they're too late, as police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri openly wondered whether the main suspect is still in the country, while Major-General Werachon Sukondhapatipak, another military junta spokesman (mostly dealing with the foreign media), is certain that he's still in the country.

These few examples from Thursday alone show how contradictory the statements from the police and military government are, sometimes even coming from the same branch. The root cause for this problem can be regarded as a pathological phenomenon in Thai bureaucratic culture: the compulsive need to say something - no matter if it's substantial, truthful or none of that - in order to appear knowledgeable, proactive and in command. While in many Western countries, the police would have one or two daily press briefings, many Thai senior police officers are constantly give updates whenever they're asked. It also doesn't help that Thai police and military usually have a tense rivalry.

The shambolic investigation in the murder case of two British tourists on Koh Tao last year garnered a torrent of international criticism and now heightened international attention is observing the ongoing investigations of the bomb attack. The Thai authorities are collectively already guilty of one thing: being incapable of delivering a clear and consistent message.

And thus, the worst case scenario could be what Thai scholar and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes:

At issue will be whether any party makes a credible claim of perpetration, or the authorities make a credible apprehension of the culprit. Without either, the latest blast may well fit the pattern of previous Bangkok-based explosions that ultimately fade into Thai oblivion due to a lack of forensic means and popular regard for the law.

"Terrorist attack in Bangkok turns up heat on Thailand", by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2015

With the Erawan Shrine already cleaned up and re-opened again within 72 hours after the blast, one can wonder if the work to find the callous attacker(s) behind Monday's bomb attack has been thorough enough. A BBC report suggests the contrary, with reporters still finding shrapnel and ball bearings at the scene. And when correspondent Jonathan Head attempted to hand them over at the National Police headquarters down the road, he was told that it was outside the office hours...

Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short 'boring' Friday night rants

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 1, 2015

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking... and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government's media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta's efforts to "Return Happiness" to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuouslyintimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People" ("คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ").

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the "lakorns", the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable - so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program - which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen - Gen. Prayuth discusses the week's progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he's joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme [...]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: "I do and I feel bored."

"Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show", The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of "wisdom" - it could be possible that the majority actually doesn't watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved "lakorns". And TV executives aren't really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

"It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it's been a year now, it has lost its appeal," Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (...)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

"Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut 'Returning Happiness to the People'", The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government's daily TV show "Thailand Moves Forward", also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.

Compulsive loquaciousness: Thai junta PM goes off script at media gala dinner

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 30, 2015 Thailand's Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's keynote speech at gala dinner in front of international media representatives is yet another example of the junta leader's unpredictable talkativeness, while his understanding of the media differs greatly from the international audience he was talking to.

Since seizing power almost a year ago, it appears that General Prayuth Chan-ocha is tirelessly working on something. Ever since the military coup of May 22, 2014, his authoritarian regime has micro-managed almost every aspect of Thai politics and more often than not also even beyond - and we're not even talking about the numerous detainments, media censorship, rampant online surveillance or the recent expansions of the junta's nigh-absolute powers. From the lottery system to World Cup television broadcasts to Songkran etiquette, the military junta seems to be eager to influence almost every aspect of everyday life in Thailand.

Junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth himself is mostly at the forefront of these actions and doesn't seem to be tired of talking about it, especially on his weekly TV address. Every Friday evening he reaches out to the nation via television to speak on average almost for an hour about his government's progress, achievements, future plans and whatever else is on his mind, mostly in a furiously fast-paced, relentlessly off-the-cuff manner (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him). These tirades are usually delivered in a patronizing "I can't believe I have to spell it out to you" tone.

This kind of rhetoric is only exacerbated under live conditions, for example at his daily press conferences, where he constantly displays his contempt towards reporters and the media by being borderline sardonically abusive, either verbally or physically. However, the biggest verbal escalation was in March where he, visibly annoyed by the barrage of questions, quipped about "executing" critical journalists.

With that in mind, let's turn our attention to Wednesday evening, where Gen. Prayuth, in his function as prime minister, was invited to be the headline speaker at the gala dinner of "Publish Asia 2015", a regional summit for the newspaper industry. Given what we know about Prayuth's fiery no-holds-barred rhetoric, the international audience was in for quite a ride...

It seems that the problems were just getting started here...

But that didn't deter junta leader Gen. Prayuth from staying on topic - or rather straying off topic...

On his weekly TV address and the apparently low viewership, he said:

And just when you thought it was over...

But the translators were not the only apparent 'casualties' of that evening...

Back to Prayuth himself, he then finally realized what audience he was talking to:

This remark is particularly interesting because "Peace TV", the satellite TV channel of the anti-junta red shirt movement has been permanently taken off the air by the authorities for "politically divisive" coverage that could "incite unrest".

And ending on a high note...

There's not much else to add here, other than: this is one of the rare times where Gen. Prayuth's compulsive loquaciousness has been exposed to an international audience, who got a taste of his singularly unique trail of thoughts. Some might argue that his speech might have missed its target audience, but it's not everyday that you get the wisdom of Uncle Knows Best - except for the Thai people that have been under his thumb for almost a year now.

P.S.: If you dare, here's the full video of Gen. Prayuth's speech sans translator.

Assuming absolute control: Thai military junta revokes martial law, but...

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 1, 2015 UPDATE [April 1, 2015]: Martial law has been officially lifted, according to a Royal Gazette statement televised (full PDF in Thai) on Wednesday evening at around 9.40pm local Bangkok time. As widely expected, Article 44 of the interim constitution is being referred to instead along with orders for every military officer with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and above to "maintain peace" and those ranked below acting as their assistants, authorizing them to summon, detain suspects, confiscate and enter premises without a warrant. More details about Article 44 in the original story below and an English-language summary on the additional stipulations of the order can be read here by legal expert Verapat Pariyawong.

ORGINAL STORY

The good news: the Thai military junta may soon lift martial law, which has been in place for nearly a year. The bad news: it will be replaced by something worse that could give junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha much more power.

You know there's a problem when even Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NRHC) makes a stand. The normally tepid and toothless paper tiger of a human rights watchdog criticized the military junta’s plans to replace the still ongoing martial law with something even worse.

Martial law was declared before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago, which gives them far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship. The interim constitution was put in place shortly thereafter in July 2014.

Needless to say, the military government’s handling - or rather mishandling - of civil liberties under martial law has drawn heavy criticism, especially from many foreign countries, who demand the repeal of it.

Developments this week suggest that martial law will likely be indeed revoked. However - and this is what has alarmed the NHRC, among others - the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta formally calls itself, plans to replace it with this:

Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay.

Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) - Unofficial translation

In layman’s terms, the head of the junta General Prayuth Chan-ocha can issue any order he thinks is appropriate to ensure what he thinks is "national security”, ”public unity and harmony” or ”public peace and order”, without any judicial and political oversight other than to immediately report to the fully-appointed, military-dominated ersatz-parliament (the National Legislative Assembly) and the Prime Minister - who happens to be General Prayuth Chan-ocha as well. A practical and handy carte blanche.

General Prayuth himself said on Tuesday that he has asked King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law. Though this is seen as something of a formality.

Ever since the hostile power takeover last May, the military government has been in tight control of nearly every aspect of the Thai political discourse (e.g. the junta’s constitutional drafters are wrapping up their work on a new full charter soon). So it is not surprising that they want to maintain that for the short and mid-term future, while at the same time trying to pacify the criticism against them by doing away one of the main issues.

The problem is that the same critics (including this blog) see right through this move and are now concerned that Article 44 gives Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, nigh absolute powers to do nearly everything and also for an indefinite amount of time, regardless of the junta’s much purported "reform roadmap" to return "true democracy" to Thailand sometime soon.

Many observers have drawn a comparison to Article 17 of the interim constitution of 1952, which contains some very uncanny parallels…

. . . whenever the Prime Minister deems it appropriate for the purpose of impressing or suppressing actions, whether of internal or external origin, which jeopardize the national security or the Throne or subvert or threaten law and order, the Prime Minister, by resolution of the Council of Ministers, is empowered to issue orders to take steps accordingly. Such orders or steps shall be considered legal.

—Article 17, Interim Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, 2502 B.E. [1952 C.E.]

From: ”Article 17, a Totalitarian Movement, and a Military Dictatorship”, by Tyrell Haberkorn, Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014

This section was created during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958–1963) and later used frequently during the equally ruthless rule of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963–1973), both of whom authorized a total of 76 executions based on this passage.

The junta is currently busy trying to convince people that history is not going to repeat itself. The chairman of the National Legislative Assembly Pornpetch Wichitcholchai has urged the Thai people to simply ”trust” Gen. Prayuth, while the deputy PM and effectively the junta’s number two, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, has assured that the law will only be used for protection against "ill-intended elements", and effectively told the NHRC to buzz off.

Meanwhile, his more cantankerous and (nominal) superior Gen. Prayuth had a hard time himself dispelling criticism and ended up chewing out yet another reporter at a press conference on Monday, singling out a Channel 7 journalist (an army-owned TV channel, no less) while insisting that he’s not angry - and that on heels of him quipping last week that he would "execute" critical reporters.

His promise to use the law "constructively" is to be met with skepticism, since civil liberties have taken a nosedive since the coup almost 11 months ago and Article 44 seems to be Gen. Prayuth’s catch-all solution to nearly all problems. He has already indicted that he will utilize it rather creatively, resolving issues concerning forest encroachment and apparent safety issues of Thailand-based airlines which have led several Asian countries to ban new flights after the International Civil Aviation Organisation raised concerns.

The question is not so much if Gen. Prayuth is going to (ab)use the power bestowed on him by Article 44 - the fact that he has these powers and he sees the need to still have them in the first place to cement his rule is more worrying.

To borrow a much-used phrase by a 19th-century English politician: ”Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

No laughing matter: Thai junta leader's renewed threat to media

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 26, 2015 Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha this week warned that he has power to 'execute' critical reporters. Maybe this time he wasn't joking, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

THE allegations against the four men are severe: they are accused of being in connection to an alleged ”terrorism network” plotting to launch bomb attacks in Bangkok. A blast on March 7 at the Criminal Court (where no one was injured) is being pinned on them. They were held in military barracks for almost a week without charges, in accordance with martial law that is still in force since the military coup almost a year ago.

During the detention these four men were also allegedly tortured into making false confessions, according to human rights lawyers. One suspect said he was punched, kicked and even electrocuted ”30-40 times” by soldiers during interrogations.

Unsurprisingly, the Thai military disputes these allegations as a ”distortion of facts” and army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has threatened legal action after the accusations.

That is in essence an example of how Thailand’s military junta deals with accusations and criticism leveled against them: denial and rejection - so far, so common. But that also comes with a heavy dose of self-righteous zeal to claim the ultimate sovereignty over what they constitute as the truth.

And no one defends this "truth" more vigorously than Gen. Udomdej’s army chief predecessor: General Prayuth Chan-ocha, current military junta leader and also prime minister.

Even the most casual Thai political observer is aware of Gen. Prayuth’s frequent contentious exchanges, especially with the press, in which he is at best sardonic and at worst goes on a tirades mostly ending with threats - and coming from a military man in charge of a government with wide-reaching powers, and with no one seemingly stopping him, this makes it very problematic, to say the least.

Case in point, from earlier this week:

"Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy, unlike other countries where the government has more power to restrict freedoms," Gen. Prayuth (…) told investors and businessmen at a conference in Bangkok today. "Even the media can’t criticize [those leaders], like they do here. I insist that today, we are 99 percent democratic, because I didn't overthrow democracy at all."

Gen. Prayuth continued, "I can’t even stop people from opposing me at this moment. If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad. It would be over, I wouldn't have to wake up at night like this. Today there are some people who love me, but there are also many people who hate me. But please know that I am not doing this for myself. I am here to work for the country."

Junta Leader Blames Thai Crisis on 'Too Much Democracy’”, Khaosod English, March 23, 2015

It gets even worse later this week, when Gen. Prayuth had yet another episode in which he scolded reporters for a particularly (from his perspective) annoying question that quickly escalated into a rant accusing everyone not thankful enough for the "freedoms" he permits to criticize him and the junta. But then it deteriorated even more after reporters asked what would happened to media outlets stepping out of line, to which he said this:

"We'll probably just execute them," said Prayuth, without a trace of a smile, when asked by reporters how the government would deal with those that do not adhere to the official line.

"You don't have to support the government, but you should report the truth," the former army chief said, telling reporters to write in a way that bolsters national reconciliation in the kingdom.

Thai PM Prayuth warns media, says has power to execute reporters”, Reuters, March 25, 2015

He went on to target specific outlets like Matichon by literally pointing at copies of their newspapers and lambasting their coverage (which you can read here in a transcript of the whole tirade by Khaosod English that is - for a lack of a better word - just amazingly mind-boggling).

If there’s still any doubt about what kind of man and what kind of mentality we are dealing with here, then there’s your answer! This is a man ruling a regime under which dissent is outlawed and the media is under constant surveillance.

In an ironically tone-deaf incident, earlier on the same day, Gen. Prayuth he blasted Channel 3 journalist Thapanee Ietsrichai for her investigative report into the inhumane slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats (coinciding with a similar investigation by the Associated Press following similar reports by The Guardian and Global Post in recent years) for the damaging the country’s reputation and summoned to explain herself to the authorities.

As amusing (and admittedly cathartic) as it is to laugh and ridicule the general’s verbal outbursts and this junta’s ineptitude to deal with criticism (as we have extensively chronicled it), it’s no laughing matter and perhaps we should stop treating it as such.

Maybe we should stop portraying Prayuth’s outbursts as amusing one-note anecdotes about somebody’s public anger issues, but rather as the dangerously misguided delusions of somebody who knows no other way to exert power than by abusive force - and more worryingly, is in a situation and position powerful enough to actually do it.

Gen. Prayuth’s mere mention of considering the use of execution against critical journalists - twice, no less! - crosses yet another line after so many other lines have been already crossed. Maybe it is time for others to take Thailand’s plight under the military junta more seriously.

ThaiMiniCult's newest puritan crusade targets underboob selfies

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 19, 2015 The "appropriate" display of female breasts, according to an actual banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture in 2010.

Thailand's overzealous cultural watchdogs made international headlines again this week, and as usual for entirely the wrong reasons. This time, they have targeted yet another apparent online phenomenon:

Thailand's military government warned women on Monday against posting 'selfie' photos of the lower half of their breasts - a social media trend that has gone viral - saying their actions could violate the country's computer crime laws.

Thailand's 2007 Computer Crimes Act bans any material that causes "damage to the country's security or causes public panic" or "any obscene computer data which is accessible to the public".

The culture ministry said offenders faced up to five years in jail, but did not say how they would identify the culprits.

"When people take these 'underboob selfies' no one can see their faces," ministry spokesman Anandha Chouchoti told Reuters. "So it's like, we don't know who these belong to, and it encourages others to do the same.

"We can only warn people to not take it up. They are inappropriate actions."

"Thais warned against taking 'underboss selfies'", Reuters, March 16, 2015

Yes, (regular readers know what's coming next) the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything "Thainess" we usually call ThaiMiniCult are once again setting out on their puritan crusade again to safeguard sanctimonious sanctity of what's appropriate and what's not.

And even though there's no concrete evidence that the "underboob" selfies have gotten ahold in the Thai online community, as Yupa Taweewattanakijbaworn admitted to Thai Rath, the director of the ThaiMiniCult's Culture Surveillance Center nevertheless insisted almost step-motherly that, "Thai culture [as a whole] doesn't approve public display of scantily clothed [people] anyways."

Predictably, this (non-)incident was picked up by the international media rather quickly (and due to the fact that an international news agency like Reuters actually wrote about it), further making a mockery of the ruling authoritarian military junta, which has already a tough time to promote itself and its "values" - let alone to foreigners. However, this open vigor by the ThaiMiniCult is not a new occurrence and popped up even before the current military government.

As previously with Buddhist tattoos on foreign skins, mediocre foreign TV-sketches, and whatever that short-lived 'planking'-meme was, Thai authorities - and especially their colleagues at the Ministry of Culture - always see the need to combat these with a threat to use the law to their fullest possible punishment. It doesn't make it any better when the law they are citing to clamp down possible offenders with - when these acts of perceived cultural indecencies are made online (and, much to the apparent annoyance of the Thai authorities, anonymously) - is the Computer Crimes Act, which we've lambasted in its current and very likely future form.

Also, long-time Siam Voices readers will have noticed by now, most episodes of ThaiMiniCult's outrage involve the public display of female breasts one way or the other. The most infamous case goes back as far as 2011 when the then-Culture Minister called for a public witch hunt after an online video emerged showing women dancing topless in the streets during the Songkran new year holidays - only then to find out the women were underaged.

Back then, author and Siam Voices contributor "Kaewmala" said in an interview with this author that Thai society "needs to get real" with sexuality and stop hiding behind a "taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment." In a later article on this blog, she said that the Thai cultural heralds have pathological "mammophobia". The underlying theme of sexual hypocrisy in Thailand was also picked up by Siam Voices contributor Thitipol Panyalimpanun, who recently wrote that "Thailand put itself into this struggle by positioning itself as noble society."

It is this holier-than-thou-attitude by the self-proclaimed Thai cultural heralds that leaves easily mockable, mostly because of their overzealousness in protecting whatever their one solid vision of "Thainess" entails, but also their argumentative inconsistency. In an online post that mercilessly mocks this brouhaha, while the ThaiMiniCult has an apparent problem with "underboob" selfies, it hasn't gawked at Thai magazine and newspaper covers featuring otherwise barely covered female breasts - and never mind that infamous banner (see above) the ThaiMiniCult itself had on their website in 2011...