Military

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. 

Exiled Thai academic accuses military junta of threatening his family

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 25, 2016

The Thai military has allegedly threatened the family of self-exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Associate Professor at the Center for South East Asian Studies at Kyoto University and currently a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge.

The scholar wrote on his Facebook profile on Wednesday evening that army officers have appeared at his house and called one of his sisters, demanding them to tell Pavin to "stop all activities overseas" – especially "talking about the monarchy" – or else his "family will have to bear the consequences" and demanded his entire family to "report themselves at the army camp".

AFP's Southeast Asia correspondent Jerome Taylor tweeted Thursday that junta spokesperson Colonel Winthai Suvaree told the agency that he had no information on authorities' contact with Pavin's family.

Pavin is known for his outspokenness on Thai politics – including the monarchy – and even more so since the Thai military summoned him among hundreds of other academics, politicians and journalists in the aftermath of the 2014 coup, while he was based in Japan at that time. He openly refused to comply and, in his typical mischievous online manner, replied mockingly on Facebook if he could send his pet dog instead.

Shortly thereafter, the military junta revoked Pavin's passport, practically exiling him. But that didn't stop him from slamming them in numerous opinion pieces in the foreign press and also traveling abroad, giving lectures and participating in academic events discussing the current state of Thai politics. One of these events was this Wednesday on the future of the Thai monarchy at Oxford University, which was the likely cause for the Thai military's alleged harassment of Pavin's family. In the past, Pavin has accused Thai authorities, through their consulates and embassies, to have attempted to sabotage these public events either by discouraging Thai students from attending or pressuring the hosting universities to cancel.

Furthermore, Thai authorities have attempted to ask Japan to extradite Pavin on the premise that not only did he not comply with the military summons, but also that some of his articles were deemed "insulting to the monarchy" or lèse majesté, an offense punishable with up to 15 years in jail and rigorously (ab)used under the current military government. The junta has also asked other countries like New Zealand and France for extradition of lèse majesté suspects that have fled Thailand.

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.

ConstitutionNet: Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Draft punked or ‘Once more with feeling’?

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on October 15, 2015 Thailand has to wait for a new constitution as the drafting process is being sent back to the drawing board with an entirely new Committee taking office last week.

Writing constitutions can be a very costly venture. How costly? In the past 10 months, Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was busy creating the country’s 20th constitution. The Committee members convened 158 times and accumulated a bill of 85 million Baht ($2.35 million), according to Thai media estimates– the catering alone cost 23.7 million Baht ($655,000). Was it worth it? Probably not. The constitutional draft did not survive the vote in the National Reform Council (NRC) on September 6, as the fully-appointed chamberrejected it with 134 votes to 105 and 7 abstentions. However, that didn’t really hurt Thailand’s military junta. Ruling since the Kingdom’s 12th successful coup in May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, have had a tight grip on the political process. With heightened media monitoring, censorship and arbitrary detainment of dissidents - euphemistically called ”attitude adjustment” - the junta also tries to control the official narrative.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Throughout the constitution drafting exercise, the stakes were incredibly low for the military government. As the Chairman of the NRC’s Legal and Justice Reform Committee has recently summed up: “The CDC is like a cook preparing food for the NRC. The NRC tasted the food and it was found to be not delicious.” On the one hand, a passed draft would have constitutionally enshrined the junta’s ‘reforms’ to the political system, which would have ended up severely restricting the powers of elected officials, be it through a new voting system, a fully appointed senate or several non-elected bodies that could usurp a co-existing, democratically elected government. On the other hand, a failed process buys another six months for the junta to cement its position and develop a draft constitution more to its liking – a win-win for prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

From among several reasons, two stand out why the draft was struck down - sending back the constitution drafting process to its very beginning. First is the controversial late addition of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation to the draft constitution. Dubbed by the media as the ‘Crisis Committee’, it would have established a military-dominated, extra-parliamentary executive panel shadowing the cabinet of ministers that would have intervened during a yet-to-be defined “crisis situation”. The other reason for the rejection is, as with nearly all government bodies since the coup, the NRC had 29 members from either the military or the police force. CDC Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno hinted that all these members voted against the draft because of orders from their superiors – regardless that the whole process was initiated and dominated by the military junta in the first place. Whatever the reasons for orders were, it has definitely played into the hands of the generals. The failed draft vote has now conveniently extended the junta’s rule for at least another half year, as democratic elections are postponed yet again to mid-2017, since the entire constitution drafting process had to be restarted. According to the interim constitution, the drafting process would not only take another six months, but would also require the establishment of an entirely new CDC and National Reform Council.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

 

ConstitutionNet: Last minute add-on to Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Crisis Committee or the long arm of the military

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on August 31, 2015 “If I were a woman I would fall in love with his excellency.”

Those flattering words were spoken by General Thanasak, until recently Foreign Minister of the Thai military government, who expressed his adoration for the Chinese Premier at an ASEAN security forum in early August. His counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, stood next to him looking somewhat embarrassed, not knowing what to say. Some would regard this open adoration as a sign of blooming relations between the two countries. After Thailand’s ties to Western countries soured since its 2014 military coup, it quickly pivoted towards China. The statement regarding the Chinese premier also underlines something else: the desire of the Thai military government to assert a more rigid and streamlined control of governance. Reading between the lines, General Thanasak’s praise for China’s “excellency” also pays regard to its form of governance in general. China’s politburo – the supreme policy-making body of the Communist party overseeing governance – has long been criticized for its level of stricture and unrepresentativeness; yet Thai constitution drafters have openly mooted the idea to implement something similar.

Following the military coup in May 2014, the generals who instigated the movement have been looking to cement their vision of a “reformed” democracy. They preach a system free from corruption, cronyism and imbalance; yet they continue to commit these very acts themselves. The junta that formally calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has taken firm control over the political discourse. It has outlawed public gatherings, detained dissenting opponents, and enforced a high degree of media scrutiny and online surveillance. It also oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO unilaterally appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC).

The CDC has worked hard since the beginning of 2015 to draw up a new constitution with the hope that this will be the last one for the foreseeable future. While the draft was originally scheduled to be completed by late July, the CDC was granted a 30-day extension to clarify certain aspects of the constitution. The draft, reduced from 315 to 285 articles, was forwarded to the NRC, which will vote on its adoption in September 5. If the vote outcome is positive, the draft constitution will then be subject to a nationwide referendum in early 2016. This may or may not pave the way for elections sometime at the end of 2016 – a whole year later than what the military junta originally promised. Regardless in which form the draft will be enacted, Thailand’s twentieth constitution could deeply transform the country’s political landscape and have lasting negative consequences due to the changes severely hobbling the powers of elected officials to govern.

Crisis Panel: Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation 

Certain features proposed in the constitutional draft, such as the new electoral system or the pre-vetted Senate, have previously been discussed on ConstitutionNet. Additionally, a highly controversial article was added to the draft constitution at the last minute. Article 260 provides for the establishment of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation that would co-exist with the elected government. The Committee would have the power to “commit or suppress any action” in the event of a crisis or conflict in the country that cannot be contained.  Committee’s non-elected membership and lack of definition on what constitutes a “chaos” or “crisis” appears to be yet another signal of how the Thai military attempts to hold onto power and limit the power of elected officials by constitutional design.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

After deadly Bangkok bomb blast, questions arise about culprits, motives

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 18, 2015 A screencap of CCTV footage shows the moment of explosion at the Erawan Shrine in Central Bangkok. The blast, which authorities say was caused by a bomb, has claimed at 19 lives and injured around 80 people. (Pic.: Screenshot/Nation Channel)

After the deadly bomb attack in central Bangkok claimed at least 22 lives Monday evening, questions remain about who carried out the attack and why? Saksith Saiyasombut puts the questions into context.

It was at almost 7pm when a huge blast rocked the busy Ratchaprasong intersection in central Bangkok in the middle of rush hour. Moments later, a horrifying scene of carnage, injured people and bodies revealed itself in front of the Erawan Shrine, a Hindu religious sanctum popular with both Buddhist Thais and foreign tourists.

In the initial confusion over whether it was a targeted explosion or an accidental blast - slightly hampered by the language barrier since both the words for 'bomb' and 'blast' or 'explosion' are the same in Thai ("ระเบิด") - the authorities quickly closed off the scene to commence their investigation. One hour after the blast, a spokesman for the national police stated that the explosion was caused by an "improvised explosive device" (IED), which was later confirmed by national police chief Somyot Poompanmuang to be a "pipe bomb". Two more explosive devices were found in very close proximity to the scene and were defused by police bomb disposal experts.

Latest official figures as of writing report that 22 people have been killed, 123 people have been injured.

(READ MORE: Bangkok blast: Thai authorities hunt male ‘suspect’)

As no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Thai authorities themselves have been hesitant to point the blame in any direction. During a televised address late Monday night, a spokesmen for the Thai military government read out a statement expressing "deep concern" for the victims and their families, while emphasizing that it is "too early to speculate which group may have been responsible for this crime but authorities are following possible leads".

However, at roughly the same time, the army's Internal Security Operation Command openly speculated on possible motives for the attack ("political conflict, state official reshuffle, and international terrorism") without providing any substantial information that supports their assessment. It also reportedly ruled out insurgents from the Deep South.

Defense Minister and deputy junta leader Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told Reuters that the perpetrators "intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district," while his spokesman got a bit carried away...

But Defence spokesman Kongcheep Tantrawanich said later the bombing was “the work of those who have lost political interests and want to destroy the ‘happy time’ of Thai people. It’s an attempt to ruin Thailand’s tourism image and cause damage to the country’s business sector.”

"19 killed, 123 hurt as bomb blast rocks Bangkok tourist attraction", Bangkok Post, August 17, 2015

With many details still murky at best, much speculation has arisen in the aftermath of the bomb attack. We attempt to put these claims into context and analyze the likelihood of each scenario.

Option 1: Anti-junta activists? Highly unlikely, because...

...it would do their cause more harm than good.

Ultra-nationalists and supporters of the Thai military government like to point their fingers at the red shirt supporters of the ousted government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for any disturbances and incidents that cause unrest.

Since the hostile takeover of power by the Thai military on May 22, 2014, there have been two explosions in Bangkok: one just down the road from Monday's blast in front of the Siam Paragon mall on February 2, 2015 and a grenade blast at the Criminal Court a month later on March 7, 2015. Both incidents caused minimal damage (only two were slightly injured in the Siam Paragon incident). Another blast occurred on Koh Samui in April after a car exploded in the underground parking garage of a mall after closing time. Authorities have been quick to point the finger at anti-junta activists, but have so far failed to apprehend suspects in some cases, and make a solid connection in all cases.

(READ MORE: Bomb explosion in central Bangkok kills at least 22 – as it happened)

Also since the coup, the military junta keeps a tight lid on any possible display of opposition and dissent, as protests have been curtailed and activists arrested, including groups unaffiliated with any political factions. Furthermore, mainstream media and internet are being heavily monitored.

While targeted grenade blasts (some of them deadly) have occurred at political rallies on both sides in the past, a bomb attack on this scale, with casualties being coldly accepted as part of the plan, would be absolutely out of character for any political protest groups and thus highly unlikely.

Option 2: Muslim separatist insurgents from Southern Thailand? Unlikely, because...

...the separatists hardly operate outside of the south. And just because foreign media has raised this issue before any Thai outlet did, doesn't mean it has any more or less credence.

(WATCH: WATCH: The moment the Bangkok bomb exploded)

The ongoing conflict in the southernmost Thai provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are often overlooked and underreported in Bangkok. However, the sad reality is that the separatist insurgency has been going on for over a decade now and claimed thousands of lives on both sides, on nearly a daily basis.

However, the conflict has never spread out of the region - let alone reached the capital - as Southeast Asia security expert Zachary Abuza explains:

The conflict remains dominated by conservative Sha’afi clerics, who see themselves as the guardians of traditional Malay culture, and a bulwark against Thai colonialism and cultural influence. Thai officials are frustrated that the 100-year project to assimilate the Malays has failed, unlike every other minority group. (...)

Despite concerns that the insurgents could reach out to transnational groups, such as the Islamic State, to date they have remained inwardly focused. Thai authorities have expressed concern about the influence of the Islamic State, including after recent arrests in Malaysia, but the concerns are driven more by ignorance than reality.

"The Smoldering Thai Insurgency", by Zachary Abuza, Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, June 29, 2015

And then there's this:

"This does not match with incidents in southern Thailand. The type of bomb used is also not in keeping with the south," Royal Thai Army chief and deputy defence minister General Udomdej Sitabutr said in a televised interview.

"Bangkok bombing 'does not match' insurgent tactics in Thai south - army", Reuters, August 18, 2015

As mentioned above, the ICOC "ruled out insurgents from the deep South" Monday, the Nation reported.

Unless there's a change in tactics and a claim has been made by any of the insurgent groups, the likelihood that they carried out Monday's attack remains low at this point.

Option 3: Who else? Well...

This is probably the most theoretical territory and thus also the most dangerous as pure speculation has thrown around a lot of names, groups and factions. Many of the theories being thrown around in the vast space of the internet are incidental or anecdotal at best and should be - until any further solid confirmation pointing into any of these directions - taken with a huge grain of salt.

Nevertheless, whoever made carried out these attacks has played into the hands of the hawkish Thai military government, regardless of the intentions. It potentially delivers them the justification for harsher security measures or, even worse, a reason to somehow remain even more of an influential power stakeholder in the near distant future, thanks to political changes being undertaken since the coup.

What we can say for certain is...

...that we don't know anything about the perpetrators yet! But - as the above is subject to change once we do know more - what can also be said for certain is that the attack, the way it has been carried with the aim of causing the most damage possible, is unprecedented for the city of Bangkok and, with possible suspects and motives being still highly elusive, is serving the very definition of terrorism: causing chaos and intimidating uncertainty in an already tense political situation.

Thai military courts hand down record prison sentences for insulting monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 7, 2015 Thailand's military courts have issued record prison sentences - 30 years and 28 years - against suspects for allegedly defaming the country's monarchy on Facebook. Two separate verdicts have found the accused guilty of posting content on Facebook that is deemed a violation of the country's infamously draconian lèse majesté law, also known as Article 112 of the Criminal Code, that states “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.”

The first sentence was delivered Friday morning in the Thai capital Bangkok:

On Friday morning, 7 August 2015, the Military Court of Bangkok sentenced Pongsak S., a suspect of offences under Article 112 or the lese majeste law and Article 14 of the Computer Crime Act (importing of illegal content into a computer system), to 60 years imprisonment.

The court gave 10 years prison term to each of the six lese majeste counts he was charged with. Since the suspect pleaded guilty as charged, the court, however, halved the sentence to 30 years in jail.

Pongsak used Facebook under the name “Sam Parr” to distribute messages and images defaming the monarchy, which he copied from other sources. At the press conference in January 2015, he pleaded guilty to all charges and said he did so because he was instigated by some Facebook friends. He also said that he went to anti-establishment red-shirt demonstrations.

He told Prachatai that he was tricked into meeting a decoy who had been talking to him via facebook under name ‘Numbannok Rak Seri’ (a free country boy) in the northern province of Tak and was arrested on 30 December 2014 at the bus transit in Phitsanulok Province.

“It turned out when I met the guy at the military base later that he was an officer out of uniform,” said Phongsak.

"Military court sets new record on lese majeste sentence; man gets 30 years behind bars", Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Hours later on the same day, another military court in the northern city of Chiang Mai sentenced a woman to prison:

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), the military court of the northern province of Chiang Mai on Friday afternoon, 7 August 2015, sentenced Sasiwimol (surname withheld due to privacy concerns), a 29-year-old employee of a hotel in the province, to 56 years in jail for allegedly posting six lese majeste messages under the Facebook identity ‘Rungnapha Kampichai’.

The military court gave 8 years jail term to each of the 7 lese majeste counts of the suspect. However, since the defendant pleaded guilty as charged, the court halved the jail term to 28 years.

At the deposition hearing in June 2015, the defendant denied all allegations. However, during the plaintiff’s examination hearing today, 7 August 2015, she retracted her pretrial statements and pleaded guilty.

Prior to the ruling, Sasiwimol submitted a letter to the court, requesting the judges to reduce the jail sentence because she has never committed any crime and is a mother of two daughters aged seven and five. The military court judges dismissed the request and reasoned that the jail sentence is already light since case is severe because it is related to the revered Thai monarchy and gravely affected public sentiment of Thai people.

"Northern military court sends mother of two to 28 years in prison under lese majeste", Prachatai English, August 7, 2015

Both cases have set an unprecedented record for long prison sentences, since the court issued the punishment per offense that was deemed not only a violation of the lèse majesté law, but also to the Computer Crimes Act. In other words, the accused were punished twice for allegedly violating two vaguely worded laws and also accumulated a long prison term because the courts counted each Facebook post as separate offense. Both defendants have pleaded guilty not only to halve their sentences (the fact that they were still unprecedentedly long is telling) but also to keep the possibility of a royal pardon open.

Lèse majesté-related complaints have sky-rocketed in the past decade (regardless of who was in power) thanks to self-proclaimed ultra-nationalist vigilantes as more verdicts have shown increasingly looser interpretations of the law, rendering a reasonable debate or even a possible amendment of the law impossible. To make matters worse, ever since Thailand's military - which sees itself as the defender of the Thai monarchy - took power in the coup of May 22, 2014, it has transferred jurisdiction of lèse majesté cases to military courts. Unsurprisingly, the number of cases have piled up under the  junta.

The Thai military government is fighting against lèse majesté suspects at multiple fronts: evidently, social media is under increased surveillance and Facebook itself reported a sharp increase of blocked content in the second half of 2014, while it also states that Thai authorities have requested information of certain Facebook users three times.

Furthermore, the junta is hunting a number activists charged with lèse majesté that have fled abroad, often resulting in diplomatic spats, and other repeated requests to countries that have granted asylum to the prosecuted suspects.

Tongue-Thai'ed - With 'love' from Bangkok to Beijing

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 6, 2015

"If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency" - Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimapakorn _____________________________

This is part XXXI of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

It is no big secret that ever since Thailand's military seized power in a hostile takeover with the coup of May 2014, the military junta would face big challenges - among them, on the diplomatic world stage. Thailand just narrowly avoided becoming a pariah state among Western countries (we reported) only because it is still a (geo-)strategically important stakeholder in Southeast Asia. But all the rather soft and symbolic sanctions still couldn't avert Bangkok's diplomatic pivot towards Russia and especially towards China.

We reported back in December:

(...) it did not come as a surprise when then-army chief and still-to-this-day-junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha greeted Chinese businessmen as his first guests shortly after the coup of May 22 in an effort to woo investors back to the country and help jump start Thailand’s struggling economy. That was shortly followed by a visit of Thai military commanders to China.

Other bilateral meetings between Prayuth and Chinese leaders took place during the Asia-Europe Meeting in October, where he met China’s premier Li Keqiang and a month later at the APEC Conference hosted in Beijing with president Xi Jingping. The latter would welcomePrayuth again to the Chinese capital last week, where both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and build a “medium-speed” rail network linking the countries.

"Thai junta seeks deeper ‘China pivot’, lauds Beijing’s leadership style", Siam Voices, December 29, 2014

Since then, the Thai military government has made more advances towards Beijing by fulfilling the navy's long-held dream of buying submarines from China worth $1bn - even though the purchase is on hold for now - while around the same time controversially deporting around 100 Uighur muslims to China.

But what's strikes a bigger chord with the Thai generals is China's authoritarian one-party rule in exchange for economic propensity.

So, it came to no surprise when the Thai military's Foreign Minister General Thanasak Patimaprakorn was full of praise for China again, as expressed earlier this week at an ASEAN forum in Kuala Lumpur...

At a joint press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn made a surprise declaration while standing on a podium with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

"If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency," he told reporters in English, much to the surprise of China’s top foreign envoy who appeared somewhat unsure how to respond. (...)

"Let’s say we are so close, we are more than friends, just say we are cousins with a long history together," he said.

"We don’t talk diplomatic talk, we talks like personal, like family, like friend," he added.

"Thai junta envoy admits crush on China", AFP, August 5, 2015

Well, that got awkward pretty quickly...

Also, why the need to change gender to express your love? There's no need to be ashamed of expressing one's man crush. And even if the probably biggest one-sided declaration of bromance on the diplomatic stage has been so far not reciprocated, this will most likely not the last we hear of it.