Preah Vihear: Cambodia and Thailand maintain peace to boost restoration efforts

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on March 12, 2018

The Preah Vihear Temple on the Thai-Cambodian border has been the subject of a long territorial dispute between the two countries, at times escalating into a short armed conflict. Then, five years ago, the International Courts of Justice has awarded the territorial sovereignty in and around the temple to Cambodia, ending an almost 50-year old dispute. We made the trek to the ancient temple to see how the situation today.


I'm standing on a cliff - more than 500 metres above sea level - looking down on the plains of Cambodia. The view is majestic.

Above me, at the cliff's highest point, sits the Prasat Preah Vihear. Ownership of this 11th century Hindu temple was for decades disputed by Thailand and Cambodia. In 2011, it led to deadly clashes at the border between both countries.

Civilians like Chan Chon were shocked at the unprecedented escalation.

CHAN CHON, Resident:
"I was very scared like every one else around here. They used all kinds of weaponry that we have never seen before - and we were never as scared as this before."

SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT; Preah Vihear, Cambodia:
"41 people have lost their lives - both soldiers and civilians alike. In 2013, the International Courts of Justice in The Hague has confirmed an earlier verdict that not only the temple itself, but also the area surrounding it is indeed Cambodian. Ever since then, both Cambodia and Thailand are not only interested to maintain peace in the border region here but also to cooperate in the conservation efforts of this ancient Hindu temple here."

The damage from the violence can still be seen in a few places, but today the area is seeing more tourists than soldiers, about 130,000 visitors per year come here.

As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is also part of a restoration program. Neighboring Thailand, once an adversary, is a vital partner here.

KIM SEDARA; President, National Authority for Preah Vihear:
"The role of Thailand is very important, actually, we are good neighbors right now. Thailand is one of the member states of the ICC Preah Vihear, as well, among the 9 countries, as a member. And Thailand helped in capacity building, in research and planning the conservation of a temple in Kok Ket, another site, in the future. This is the showing of a very positive and good showing of in terms of collaboration and helping each other."

The dispute over Preah Vihear was not the first in Southest Asia, and it's not the last.

Based on its principle of non-interference, ASEAN does not directly intervene in such conflicts but analysts say its existence provides the framework to help its member states find common ground.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK, Director Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University:
"When these bilateral conflicts are mitigated and resolved, it’s more because of the countries in conflict than because of ASEAN. But without ASEAN, they would not have the context and framework to promote a bilateral solution. The resolution is bilateral, but ASEAN provides a regional landscape or environment, but not a direct mechanism of resolution."

Cambodian officials are promoting Preah Vihear as a tourist attraction;

Tucked away in one of the most remote places in the country, it stands as symbol of what peace and cooperation among ASEAN neighbours can achieve.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia

Angkor Wat: Between Mass Tourism and Heritage Conservation

Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on March 5, 2018

Angkor Wat is considered as one of the greatest cultural heritage sites in Southeast Asia, with millions of tourists visiting the ancient temple ruins each year. But how do officials balance mass tourism with conservation? And could this serve as a role model for other heritage sites in the region? We went there to find the answer.


A new day over Angkor Wat, one of the largest ancient temples in the world.

Built around 900 years ago, it has seen the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire and now stands as a symbol for modern day Cambodia.

But its popularity as a tourist destination means it's a marvel you won't be able to enjoy in quiet isolation. 

About 5 million people visit Angkor Wat and its surrounding grounds every year, and though it may seem over-crowded, park officials disagree.

They say in this area, measuring some 400 square kilometres, there’s still plenty of space to move around.

SOK SANGVAR; Deputy Director General, Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA):
"I think we’re very far from the ceiling, from the maximum. I think, once again, it’s really about how you move people around. We’re only 5 million [visitors] and so many space actually in [around] here, so many things you can visit. So we are still full of potential, still! Either you can spend time in the temples, or you can spend time with the villagers in the park."

Tourism plays a key role in Cambodia’s economy. It contributes 12 per cent to the country’s GDP,
and revenue from it amounts to some 4 billion US dollars. Angkor Wat alone pulled in more than a hundred-million in tourist dollars last year.

"It’s been 25 years since and its surrounding areas have been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. Now, managing the millions of tourists that are coming here is just one part of the job. The other are the conservation efforts, that is not only much sought after here in Cambodia but also beyond its borders in ASEAN."

LONG KOSAL; Spokesman, Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA):
"In ASEAN, we can say proudly that we are leading in stone conservation, as well as brick conservation - because why? Because our temples are made of stone and brick. And we have a lot of Asian friends coming over to request us to share our experience."

Fellow ASEAN members such as Indonesia and Thailand have worked together with Angkor Park officials to restore and maintain the ancient religious sites in their own countries. 

One such project is along the Thai-Cambodian border: After their dispute over territory was resolved in 2013, both countries are cooperating on the conservation of temples - such as Preah Vihear - on both sides of the border.

Requests for restoration help have also come from further afield - for example, Syria whose many historic sites have been damaged in the civil war.

As the sun sets another day over Angkor Wat, there’s no let-up in its popularity and importance to Cambodia.

Its people are working hard to ensure that its heritage will remain for future generations to admire - even if you have to share it with others.

Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Thai soldiers accused of 'burning alive' 2 Cambodians amid border tensions

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 13, 2015 Thailand's military has denied killing two Cambodians citizens by "burning them alive" after they allegedly crossed the border into Thailand illegally last week, following accusations by Cambodian authorities quoted by The Phnom Penh Post:

Cambodian officers said their Thai counterparts informed them that on the night of January 7, four Cambodians illegally crossed the border with intentions of evading taxes on a smuggled motorbike.

“While they were dragging [the motorcycle] across the border, the soldiers shot at them, firing about 10 bullets. But all of the bullets missed so they deployed more soldiers and arrested two Cambodians while the other two escaped. The soldiers then burnt the two men alive in car tires,” said Anh Kamal, deputy military commander in Battambang’s Sampov Loun district.

Since the incident, Cambodian military and police have reported being denied access to the site of the killings. Cellphone photos posted by locals claiming to have seen the spot show two ash-covered indentations side by side.

The charred remains were sent to Bangkok for a biopsy to confirm identities, authorities said. Thailand has not yet officially confirmed the nationality of the deceased men. Its Foreign Affairs Ministry could not be reached.

"Thais ‘admit’ to burn deaths", Phnom Penh Post, January 12, 2015

The article went on to report that a man claiming to be the brother of one of the missing men, saying that they are migrant workers, suspects that his relatives are among the deceased. Furthermore, officials from the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok are working with Thai authorities to identify the bodies, according to an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh, warning that they will "file a complaint" should the remains be indeed from Cambodian citizens.

Meanwhile, Thai officials have denied these allegations in the Bangkok Post:

"We beg the Cambodian side not to speak like this. Making such comments (causes) damage because (Thai-Cambodian) relations, at present, are going well," said a highly placed source in the Burapha Force, which supervises the Thai-Cambodian border. "Use reason and talk. Don't make allegation and then give such information."

"Army denies Thai soliders [sic] confessed to burning 2 Cambodians alive", Bangkok Post, January 12, 2015

The border region between Cambodia and Thailand remains a source of tensions for both countries. It is also the scene of the Thai-Cambodian border dispute over the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear - a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008 - which sparked sporadic exchanges of fire between both armies, but deteriorated into several days of fighting in 2011 when at least eight people were killed. In November 2013, the International Courts of Justice upheld a ruling originally made in 1962, awarding Cambodia the sovereignty of the Preach Vihear promontory.

Apart from that, other numerous incidents have resulted in deadly gunfire as well as alleged cases of illegal border crossings, as they involve land encroachment and illegal logging and smuggling of rosewood. The Cambodian human rights organization ADHOC says that 33 Cambodian illegal loggers were killed in 2013 and 45 in 2012 (source). The Cambodian Ministry of Interior on the other hand claims that 69 Cambodians were killed crossing the border illegally in 2013. Thai authorities regularly deny opening fire on illegal border-crossers. The most recent incident last December involved Thai soldiers reportedly shooting on five Cambodian women crossing into Thai territory, killing one.

UPDATE (January 19, 2015): The Phnom Penh Post reported over the weekend that Thai Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn told his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong that the Thai authorities still haven't identified the bodies, thus acknowledging the incident officially for the first time.

Burma, Cambodia 'hail' Thai junta: With neighbors like these...

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 5, 2014

For the Thai military, launching a coup in Thailand is one thing, but maintaining it is a whole other task. Probably one of the hardest jobs for the junta is to seek universal legitimacy from the international community - especially since "the transition of power" was very one-sided, to say the least.

So it comes as no surprise that the international reactions to the coup of May 22, especially from the Western world ranged from concern to condemnation (e.g. from the US and Australia) and sanctions against Thailand (from the EU), while China seized the opportunity for increased engagement with the military junta - which also explains why a group of Chinese businessmen were among the first to meet army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the coup.

Despite the backlash from the West, the junta claims* some positive acknowledgment from Vietnam, and it appears that other neighboring countries are equally amicable toward the Thai generals - resulting in some utterly bizarre statements:

Thailand’s military on Friday compared its seizure of power in May to restore stability after months of unrest to the brutal crackdown by Burma’s former junta in 1988 to snuff out a pro-democracy movement.

Thailand’s military justified its intervention by the need to restore stability after months of unrest and demonstrations by pro and anti-government protesters.

Perhaps unwittingly, the deputy chief of the Thai junta likened its seizure of power to one of the darkest chapters in the rule of Burma’s junta, its crushing of pro-democracy protests in 1988 when at least 3,000 people were killed. 

“[Burma's] government agrees with what Thailand is doing in order to return stability to the nation. [Burma] had a similar experience to us in 1988, so they understand,” said Tanasak Patimapragorn, supreme commander of Thailand’s armed forces, following a visit to Bangkok by Burma’s army chief General Min Aung Hlaing. (...)

The visit by Burma’s military commander, General Min Aung Hlaing, marks the second by a foreign official since the coup, after that of Malaysia’s defense minister.

-"Thai Junta Compares its Coup to Burma’s 1988 Crackdown", Reuters, July 4, 2014

In a separate meeting with junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Min Aung Hlaing voiced his support for the NCPO solving Thailand's problems. [Burma] understood the situation, said spokesman Colonel Werachon Sukhondhapatipak*.

-"Junta did right thing: Myanmar chief", The Nation, July 5, 2014

*(Side note: Almost all news where foreign envoys supposedly express their "understanding for the political situation in Thailand" are almost exclusively made by a Thai junta spokesman or member - so it's to be taken with a grain of salt.)

A lot can be said about the apparent history-related blind spot not only on the Burmese army's part, but also its Thai counterpart (and we already had a few examples of selective historic knowledge by Thai politicians in the past).

Reuters South East Asia Correspondent Andrew Marshall sums it up best:

In related news, there's also some praise coming from the other side of the Thai border:

In a bid to reinforce the legitimacy of his government amid an ongoing parliamentary boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday looked west for an analogy.

He chose one that didn’t involve a ballot box.

Instead, he pointed to Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order, which was formed after the military’s May coup and immediately began clamping down on dissenting voices, as a suitable parallel.

Both governments had received royal approval, Hun Sen said, and were therefore equally legitimate.

-"Gov’t as legit as junta: premier", Phnom Penh Post, July 4, 2014

Hun Sen's evident approval comes after he criticized the Thai junta for its handling of Cambodian migrant workers amidst a sudden mass-exodus in which an estimated 250,000 Cambodians have returned from Thailand, many out of panic after the junta announced a crackdown on illegal migrant workers and rumors of abuse in police custody.

However, this also follows the release of Veera Somkwamkid, a Thai ultra-nationalist activist who was arrested and jailed in 2011 after illegally crossing the border in late 2010 to claim that a disputed border region belongs to Thailand. Upon Veera's return, 14 Cambodians have been released from Thai custody, but Thai officials have stopped short of stating that this was a prisoner swap.

On one hand, the Thai military states that it is "unfazed" by outside reactions (especially from the West), yet at the same time it seemingly gladly accepts legitimizing praise from other, not-so-democratic countries.

With neighboring rulers like these...!

Thailand lifts ban on Preah Vihear border conflict documentary

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 26, 2013 Earlier this week, the Thai independent documentary “Boundary” or “ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง” (literally “Low heaven, high ground”) on the Thai-Cambodia border dispute around the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear was banned from commercial release by a sub-committee of the Thai national Film and Video Board (see previous coverage) for endangering "national security and international relations" and misinforming an unknowing audience about ongoing legal cases. The Film and Video Board lifted the ban on Thursday, citing a "technical mistake".

Filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol follows a young Thai ex-soldier who took part in the bloody crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests 2010 on his way back to his home village in Sisaket province near the border, where the conflict between Cambodia and Thailand was heating up. The movie also features accounts from locals from both sides of the border and mentions Thailand's other conflicts, such as the insurgency in the Deep South.

Thailand and Cambodia have been in a territorial dispute since the ownership of the ancient Preah Vihear temple was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by International Courts of Justice, where both countries testified last week in seeking a new ruling on the 4.6 sq km area around the World Heritage site from the ICJ. A verdict is expected in October later this year.

In recent years the conflict has escalated into armed clashes between the two countries. Forty people have been killed since June 2008, hundreds injured and thousands of locals displaced. The Preah Vihear issue is also constantly exploited by Thai ultra-nationalists to drum up anti-Cambodia sentiment and pressure military and politicians, driven by the fear of "losing territory to the Khmer".

Reports indicated that the censors might have taken offense at a lot of things in the documentary, including soundbites of Cambodian soldiers and villagers criticizing their Thai neighbors, the stated number of casualties of the 2010 red shirt protests (100 vs. officially 84) and footage from the clashes.

"Boundary" would have been the third movie banned from commercial release in Thailand, along with 2010's "Insect in the Backyard" and 2012's "Shakespeare Must Die". The ban unsurprisingly drew much attention and condemnation, especially from foreign media - such as* AP, The Guardian or The Hollywood Reporter - and on social networks. The movie was screened at small movie festivals in Thailand, and also at the Berlinale earlier this year.

Now it seems things have turned, according to the filmmaker on the movie's Facebook page on Thursday evening:

Ban Verdict Overturned: “Boundary” has been cleared to screen with 18-plus rating

The Film and Video Board, attached to the Office of Cultural Promotion, contacted the filmmaker of Boundary on Thursday to apologize for the “technical mistake” regarding the ban order on Tuesday, April 23. The filmmaker was informed that the ban order was the decision of a sub-committee that in fact has no authority to issue such verdict. Only the main committee has the jurisdiction to do so. When the main committee saw the film on Thursday, April 25, they decided to let the film pass. Also, before banning any movie, the committee is required to allow its director to defend himself, but that didn’t happen on Tuesday.

However, the censors asked the director to remove two seconds of ambience sound in an early scene. That scene is the New Year’s celebration at Ratchaprasong Intersection during which an MC announces on stage: “Let’s count down to celebrate HM the King’s 84th anniversary”. The censors expressed concerns that this might lead to misinterpretation.

The filmmaker realizes that the sound has no significance to the story of the film and agreed to mute it.

The sub-committee who banned the films cited several inappropriate issues and presentation, but the main committee does not object to any of them. Besides those two seconds of audio, the entire film remains intact.

Nontawat Numbenchapol 25 April 2013

(emphasis by me)

A couple of interesting points here: Why does the documentary get an 18+ rating? Also, that part that is to be muted also seems odd - why did the censors take so much offense to it when it bears no significance to the movie? How severely misinterpreted can that part (in Thai "เรามาร่วมเคาท์ดาวน์และร่วมฉลองให้พระบาทสมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัว มีพระชนมายุครบ 84 พรรษา" ) be that it needs to be muted?

What went wrong at the Thai Film and Video Board that allegedly a subcommittee was able to order a ban, while it had no power to do so? And how much did the public backlash affect yesterday's decision?

No details for a release date and locations have been released yet.

* the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also published a press release condemning the ban on Thursday night Bangkok time - just six hours after the ban was already overturned...!

Thai documentary on Preah Vihear border conflict banned

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 24, 2013 A Thai independent documentary about the disputed border region with Cambodia and the ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear has been banned from screening in Thailand for "national security" reasons, according to the filmmaker.

The movie "Boundary" or "ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง" (literally "Low heaven, high ground") by Nontawat Numbenchapol revolves around a young Thai soldier from the violent crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests 2010 on his way back to his home village in Sisaket Province near the border and local life with the dispute looming in the background.

On Tuesday, the movie's Facebook page posted an update that the movie has been banned from screens nationwide and cites the authorities as saying:

ผลการตรวจพิจารณาภาพยนตร์ ของคณะอนุกรรมการพิจารณาภาพยนตร์และวีดีทัศน์ เรื่องฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง ไม่อนุญาตให้เผยแพร่ในราชอาณาจักรไทย ด้วยเนื้อหาที่ขัดต่อความมั่นคงของชาติ และความสัมพันธไมตรีระหว่างประเทศ และการนำเสนอข้อมูลบางเหตุการณ์ยังอยู่ในขั้นตอนการพิจารณาของศาล โดยไม่มีบทสรุปทางเอกสาร

“The Film and Video sub-committee [attached to the Ministry of Culture] do not permit the documentary film “Boundary” (Fah Tam Pandin Soong) to be screened in the Kingdom of Thailand. The film’s content is a threat to national security and international relations. The film presents some information on incidents that are still being deliberated by the Thai court and that have not yet been officially concluded.

Facebook update by Nontawat Numbenchapol, April 23, 2013 - translation by Nontawat, emphasis by me

The area around the ancient Hindu temple has been at the center of a long territorial dispute between Cambodia and Thailand since the ownership of the temple has been awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1962. The conflict heated up again in recent years, escalating in armed clashes on the border in 2011. Forty people were killed, hundreds injured on both sides and thousands of locals have been displaced.

The 4.6 sq km area remains disputed territory with both countries drawing up different border lines. Last week, the two countries went to court again at the petition of Cambodia to the ICJ to reinterpret the vicinity of the original 1962 verdict. A judgement is expected in October 2013.

The movie has already been screened at small independent theaters and movie festivals in Thailand, and also at the Berlinale earlier this year - one of the major international movie festivals.

The Bangkok Post has listed some points in the film that might have caused issues with the censors:

The film also includes YouTube footage of Thai soldiers in action during a border skirmish in 2011, a survey of damage from Cambodian shellings, and a long monologue from a Cambodian soldier who criticises Thailand. (...)

One concern is a caption explaining that there were "nearly 100 deaths" during the red-shirt crackdown at Ratchaprasong on May 2010. The official figure is 89.

"Preah Vihear documentary banned", Bangkok Post, April 24, 2013

Nontawat defended his documentary, saying that...

จากย่อหน้าข้างต้นคือส่วนหนึ่งของเหตุผลที่ภาพยนตร์ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง ไม่ได้รับอนุญาตให้เผยแพร่ในราชอาณาจักรไทย โดยข้อมูลทั้งหมดที่ผมได้จากการลงไปยังพื้นที่จริงจากมุมมองของประชาชนในพื้นที่จริงที่อาศัยอยู่บริเวณชายแดน ไทย - กัมพูชา ที่ได้รับผลกระทบโดยตรงจากข้อพิพาทกรณีเขาพระวิหาร ส่วนหนึ่งทางผู้สร้างต้องการให้ภาพยนตร์เรื่อง ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง เป็นพื้นที่การแสดงออกให้ประชาชนในพื้นที่ที่ได้รับผลกระทบจริงๆได้แสดงมุมมอง ทัศนคติ และ ความคิดเห็นที่พวกเค้าไม่มีโอกาสได้สื่อและได้พูดออกมาสู่สาธารณชนได้รับรู้ ประชาชนควรมีสิทธิได้พูดในสิ่งที่คิด และภาพยนตร์ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูงเป็นการนำสารของประชาชนทุกฝ่ายมาสู่สาธารณชน และอยากให้ฟังความคิดเห็นที่ต่างกันและอยู่ร่วมกันได้ในสังคม และยังคงเชื่อว่าประชาชนไทยมีวิจารณญาณในการทำความเข้าใจในชุดข้อมูลนี้ด้วยตัวของพวกเขาเอง

The information I present in my film has been gathered from my first-hand experience in actual locations of the ongoing Thai-Cambodian border conflicts. It presents the viewpoints of the residents in the border areas who feel direct impact of the Preah Vihear spats. One of my intentions is to let the film be a space for the people in the troubled territories to voice their views, opinions and feelings that they haven’t had a chance to do so in the media report on the issue. I believe that the public deserve to hear these voices, and I believe that the people in the conflicts have a right to speak their minds. The film “Boundary” wishes to bring messages from involved parties to the public domain, in order that we’re able to listen to, as well as learn to tolerate, different opinions. I believe that the Thai public possess the intellect and judgment to interpret and understand the information proposed by the film.

Facebook update by Nontawat Numbenchapol, April 23, 2013 - translation by Nontawat, emphasis by me

What eventually led to the ban - be it the Preah Vihear angle or references to the 2010 red shirt protests the film begins with - has unsurprisingly not been further explained by the National Film Board and the Film and Video Screening Office, which has a track record of issuing rare but notable bans on small independent films critically dealing with social or political issues.

Among these were 2010's “Insect in the Backyard” by Tanwarin Sukkhapisit - a drama about a transsexual taking care of two teenagers who eventually turn to prostitution - that was not banned for strong depictions of sex, but rather the "immoral" and "unnecessary" display of child sex workers.

More recently, last year's "Shakespeare Must Die" also fell victim to the censors. The Thai adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" by Ing K. and Manit Sriwanichpoom is set in an alternative Thailand ruled by a "dear leader" and mob mentality - a thinly veiled allegory to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and to the various political color-coded street protesters. The film board banned the movie fearing it could "causes divisiveness among the people of the nation".

What all these bans have in common is that the censors assume that the content is too much to handle for the Thai audience and might be confused by the messages, images or motives, fictional or not. In the case of "Boundary", the censors deny on ludicrous grounds the viewers a chance to see the daily lives of those that are affected most by the border dispute around Preah Vihear.

Nontawat says he will appeal the ban.

Cambodian royalist rage: A lesson for Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 24, 2012 Last week, the former King of Cambodia Norodom Sihanouk, died in exile at the age of 89 years. The monarch played a major role in the country's turbulent past, having been credited with leading Cambodia to independence from French rule but also assisting the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime. He served numerous times as prime minister and twice as King of Cambodia until ceding the throne to his son in 2004.

However, royalist rage erupted last week amid an online scandal. The privately run 'I Love Cambodia' page on Facebook posted a picture on October 17 showing Thapanee Eadsrichai, a reporter for Thailand's Channel 3, doing a piece-to-camera while laying her paper notes at her feet. One of the pieces of paper was a portrait of the late King Norodom, which the reporter almost stepped on - an unimaginable offense to any individual, let alone a King, in Cambodia and Thailand.

This accidental misstep by Thapanee sparked outrage on Cambodian social media - as of writing, on the original Facebook post alone over 900 'likes' and over 500 comments have been posted with the majority spewing hateful, emotional and often barely comprehensible calls for violence (or worse) either against the Channel 3 reporter, Thailand or both.

Fortunately, the ultra-royalist rage hasn't turned to violence and all involved parties were executing damage control, with the Cambodian government calling on its people to exercise restraint, and the Thai reporter, her channel and the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs all apologizing, insisting that there was no intention to defame the late King and to harm relations between the two country

The Channel 3 reporter explained that as she was doing a stand up report in front of the main pavilion,  Chaturamouk, and she needed to lay down all of her personal belongings including mobile phones, notebooks, and the newspapers which carried stories and the photo of the late king Sihanouk.

She said she did not lay the stuff close to her. The photo that appeared on Facebook was shot from behind and to the side, making it appear that the items were on the ground near her.

Learning about the misunderstanding on the social media on Tuesday night, she had returned to the same spot and made gestures of remorse in front of the king’s photo board.

"Reporter apologises for mistreating Sihanouk photo", Bangkok Post, October 10, 2012

The story could have ended there with all sides acting very quickly to defuse the situation and to clear up the unintentional gaffe. Nevertheless, some still found something to be riled up about:

After causing an uproar by mistakenly stepping on a photograph of late Cambodian King Sihanouk while covering his funeral, Channel 3 reporter Thapanee Ietsrichai is in trouble again - this time it is for not taking her shoes off while apologising at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. Messages posted on Cambodian websites and the social media dubbed her apology as being insincere, claiming she was "not genuinely penitent".

"Channel 3 reporter in trouble again", The Nation, October 19, 2012

Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent years. In 2003 a Cambodian newspaper wrongly accused a Thai actress of claiming Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand.  Riots ensued and protesters burned down the Thai Embassy in Phnom Phen. There have also been a number of border clashes between the two countries. On the other hand relations have turned friendlier recently with the new Yingluck government, as Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen welcomed her brother Thaksin more than he already used to.

One thing the two countries certainly have in common is a tendency towards royal extremism. The ferociousness of the reactions to this latest incident in Cambodia should give Thais an opportunity to reflect about similar behavior among their own people. The Thai Ministry for Information and Communication Technology (MICT) issued a redundant warning to Thais not "to share or to 'like'" the controversial photograph and cited the same ambiguously worded Computer Crimes Act that it has been using in against suspects in lèse majesté cases.

With the unchanged stances over Thailand's lèse majesté law and the continuous insistence of Thai ultra-royalists to show their loyalty to the monarchy by witch-hunting those deemed not loyal, some should look at the comments made by their Cambodian counterparts to get an idea of how it feels to be a victim of extremism.

2011 - Some Personal Thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 31, 2011 2011 is history and looking back on Thailand this past year, it has been yet another eventful year that brought some answers, but many more questions to the wide-spread problems that continues to plague the country in many aspects. However, 2011 brought many chances and changes, shed light on issues and topics left in the dark before, voices echoed by many and opinions uttered by a few, whether you agree with them or not.

This is a (definitely incomplete) list of these stories that happened in 2011...

Lèse majesté sees December surge

Let's start off with the most recent topic that has unfortunately brought Thailand into the world headlines for all the wrong reasons again and that is none other than the problematic issue of lèse majesté that is gripping freedom of speech. The whole month of December was filled with stories about high-profile cases and countless victims of this draconian law, the discussion to amend it and the (irrational) defenders of this law and the institution that is meant to be protected by it.

The recent surge of lèse majesté began in late November with the dubious sentence against Ampon "Uncle SMS" Tangnoppakul, despite doubtful evidence. The 62-year old grandfather is now being jailed for 20 years, five years for each alleged SMS sent. On December 8 the Thai-born US citizen was  sentenced to two and a half years prison for posting translated parts of a banned biography on the King. On December 15 'Da Torpedo', despite winning an appeal resulting in a restart of her trial, was punished to 15 years prison for alleged remarks made in 2008. These are just a few cases that happened in November and December compared to the countless other (partly ongoing or pending) cases over the past 12 months.

But the surge was also accompanied with growing and publicly displayed concern by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States Embassy in Bangkok over the increasing blatant usage of the lèse majesté law, only with the latter to be flooded with irrational, angry hate speeches and also the venue for a protest by royalists in mid-December (and also in a nearly instant iconic display of royal foolishness, the protesters are wearing Guy Fawkes masks, most likely inspired by the #Occupy-movement, but totally oblivious to its historical roots). It was not the first time this year that this issue got attention from the international community, as seen in October.

The government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected into office last July (see below), and while she would have liked to see some change on the application of the law, not to the law itself though, the new ICT minister has vowed to exploit this to the fullest. He was only to be topped by deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung a few months later, who went into full combat mode and declared war on lèse majesté web content with a THB400m ($12,6m) strong war chest, right after a meeting with the military's top brasses. The hopes of many supporters of the Pheu Thai Party, especially the red shirts, are at latest by now fully gone, as this government already has a tainted record on this issue.

But there was also an important protest by opponents of lèse majesté - the "Fearlessness Walk" shows that this issue can no longer be ignored and the consequences of its enforcement are doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do. It is drawing attention to the ambiguous nature of Article 112 of the criminal code (as well as the Computer Crimes Act), it is drawing attention to the signs of changing times and those who refuse to see them, and ultimately it will draw more opposition - we will (unfortunately) hear more about this issue in 2012!

(Non-)Culture: Baring the unbearable and monopolizing "Thai"-ness

While we're on the subject on being subjected to the anachronistic ideas of a few, there were several stories in 2011 in the realms of culture that were disconcerting, to say the least. It wasn't so much the incidents themselves rather the reactions by those self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything "Thai"-ness - a phrase I've been using too often in each of those stories: three girls dancing topless on Songkran, the then-culture minister calls for a crackdown on them as if they have attacked everything "Thai"-ness stands for. A few months later the same culture minister suddenly notices that infidels foreigners are getting Buddhist tattoos and calls for a ban (and back paddles after some considerable uproar). Shortly after his ministry senselessly attempts to crack down on a senseless internet meme because it's "inappropriate" and "not constructive". Later this year a rather curious guide for parents was published on their website. And finally a singer's rather raunchy video gets a ton of hits online and a sanctimonious scolding on national TV.

See a pattern here? The selective outcry borders on ridiculousness and fuels Thailand’s National Knee-Jerk Outrage Machine (“กลไกสร้างปฏิกิริยาอย่างไร้ความยั้งคิดแห่งประเทศไทย”, trademark pending), claims to uphold the only valid definition of "Thai"-ness, that isn't even fully spelled out yet, while they have not noticed that the world beyond their minds has moved on and come up with new and different definitions of what else Thailand could be. The problem is that these cultural heralds, by political office or class, claim monopoly on this. Everyone below their wage level is not entitled to even think about it. And if something doesn't fit their point of view, as guest contributor Kaewmala put it brilliantly, "Only taboo when it's inconvenient!"

The 2011 General Elections

Will he or will he not? In the end, Abhisit Vejjajiva did dissolve parliament and paved the way for early elections in May and also set off quite a short campaign season, which not only saw a few strange election posters and illustrious characters running for office, but it also saw the emergence of Yingluck Shinawatra as the lucky draw for PM candidate of the opposition Pheu Thai Party. After much skyping to Dubai discussion within the party, the sister of Thaksin was chosen to run and it turned out to be the best pick.

The Democrat Party were banking heavily on negative campaigning (a precursor to the upcoming, inevitable Thaksin-phobia in 2012), which reached its climax in the last days with their rally at Rajaprasong, the same venue where the red shirts protested a year ago. In this event, then-deputy prime minister Suthep Thuangsuban claimed to give the "full truth" on what really happened during the violent crackdown of May 19, 2010. What followed were hours of fear-mongering in case of a Pheu Thai win and an incident that almost caused a major misunderstanding:

The big screens flanking the stage on the left and the right are bearing a gruesome view. Footage of at times badly injured people from last year’s rally are being shown when suddenly at the sight of blood people started cheering – as it turns out, not for the brutally killed victims of the anti-governments protests of 2010, but for a woman with an Abhisit cut-out mask waving to the crowd behind her.

"Thailand’s Democrat Party rally: Reclaiming (the truth about) Rajaprasong", Siam Voices, June 24, 2011

The last days of the campaign were spent outside of Bangkok, for example Pheu Thai in Nakhon Ratchasima before the big day. On Sunday, July 3, election day of course meant a full-day-marathon for a journalist. Not only did it mean covering as many polling stations around town as humanly possible, not only to crunch the numbers of exit polls (which turned out to be total BS!), but also of course running the live-blog at Siam Voices. In the end, it went very quickly: Abhisit conceded, Yingluck smiled and at a lunch meeting later there was already a new five-party coalition.

The worst floods in decades: a deluge of irrationality


This is the current death toll of the what has been described as the "worst floods in decades". Floods are an annual occurrence in Thailand during the rainy season. When the water was sweeping through Chiang Mai already back in late September, this natural disaster was somehow going to be different. But it took some considerable time, despite the unprecedented damage it has created in Ayutthaya to the ancient temples and the vital industrial parks, until the capital was drowned in fear of what was to come.

It was curious to observe that those who were least likely to be affected (read: central Bangkok) were losing their nerves the most. Back in November I attempted to explore one possible reason:

One of the real reasons why the people of the city react the way they did though is this: After a military coup, countless violent political protests and sieges of airports, government buildings and public roads, this city has a sense of anxiety not unlike New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: a sense of being constantly under siege by something or somebody that separates Bangkok from the rest of the country even more. An incident at Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate (we reported) is a perfect example of the conflict between inside and outside Bangkok in miniature form.

"The Thai floods and the geographics of perception – Part 2: Certain fear of uncertainty", Siam Voices, November 23, 2011

On an anecdotal note I remember people around me hoarding bottled water, moving their belongings upstairs and barricading their houses waist-high - while I can understand these precautions, I was astonished to say the least when I started to read social media updates that accuse the government so much so to the point of deliberately drowning the people of Bangkok and other outlandish conspiracy theories, including the now ubiquitous "blame it on foreign media"-card.

There's no doubt that this natural disaster has not only shown the worst in people, but also it's helpful and charitable side (not only towards humans exclusively). During my work reporting from the floods for foreign news crews (hence there weren't many posts on Siam Voices), I admired the apparent resilience and defiance I saw from many victims of the floods - some of which are now struggling with rebuilding their lost existence. And a lot of clean-up will be needed to be done, both literally as well as politically, in order to prevent such a disaster from happening again!

What else happened in 2011? (in no particular order)

- Then-prime minister Abhisit urging then-president of Egypt Honsi Mubarak to respect the will of the people - while being totally oblivious that he exactly did not do that a year ago because, well, "They ran into the bullets" themselves!

- Half a dozen Thais walking through the border region with Cambodia and surprised that they're being arrested, in an arbitrary way to dispute the border demarcations between the two countries. This ongoing conflict, largely fueled by the ever-shrinking PAD, sparked into a brief armed battle. Two of the strollers are still sitting in a Cambodian prison.

- The one-year-anniversary of the crackdown of May 19 and my personal thoughts on this.

- The somehow strangely toned-down five-year-anniversary of the 2006 coup.

- Army chef General Prayuth Chan-ocha going completely berserk at the press.

- The fact that Thailand got its first female prime minister and the (un)surprisingly muted reactions by Thailand's feminists.

- The saga of the impounded Thai plane on German ground, the curious case study on how Thai media reported it, the juristic mud-slinging, and how this mess was eventually solved. Which brings us to...

- The German government allowing Thaksin back into Germany, after heavy campaigning by a bunch of conservative German MPs. Still boggles my mind...!

- And while we're on topic, we are saying good-bye to a regular contributor of outrageous quotes - no one has been so focused to do a different job than written his business card than Thaksin-hunter and former foreign minister in disguise Kasit Piromya!

I'd like to thank my colleagues at Siam Voices for building a diverse and opinionated collective, our editor who keeps everything in check and YOU, the readers! THANK YOU for the support, feedback, criticism, links and retweets!

Here's to an eventful, exciting 2012 that brings us news, changes, developments to discuss for all the right reasons! Happy New Year!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany again (*sigh*). He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.

A new cavalry unit in Thailand's north-east: Old wish, new threat?

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 2, 2011 The Thai military is getting a new cavalry unit near the north-eastern town of Khon Kaen. The cabinet has recently approved the formation of the 3rd Cavalry Unit (essentially a division of tanks) that will cost 70bn Baht ($2.3bn). This is also a treat for privy council president Prem Tinsulanonda, who has mentioned that a third cavalry unit is a long-held one last wish, since he himself hails from the cavalry. But why is this approved now:

The new division of tanks will be a supportive unit for the Second Army Region serving along the northeastern border with Cambodia and Laos. (...)

Tanks played a key role in the fresh clash between the two neighbours when heavy weapons, including tank artillery, were involved at the border area near the Preah Vihear Temple from February 4-7.

"Cabinet approves new Army divisions", The Nation, February 2, 2011

Of course, why not use the recent clashes at the border as good opportunity to request more troops, equipment, vehicles and thus more money - not that the army isn't getting enough new toys in recent months.

But before the recent clashes at the Thai-Cambodian border the reasons for the new cavalry unit were a bit different:

The idea of setting up a 3rd Cavalry Division arose from army restructuring. The changing national security situation and perceived threats were taken into consideration when deciding on the restructuring, the supreme commander said.

"Cavalry unit for Khon Kaen eases closer", Bangkok Post, January 7, 2011

"National security situation"? I wonder what that means? Let's go back to last summer:

Apart from the 7th Division, the army also plans to set up the 3rd Cavalry Division in Khon Kaen. (...) Although sources said that the set-up of the two divisions will be developed concurrently, the 7th Infantry Division looks set to progress faster than the 3rd Cavalry as it requires a shorter time and smaller budget. The 3rd Cavalry division will require a budget of about 70 billion baht to establish, plus a timeframe of about 10 years. (...)

Politically speaking, there is every reason to believe that the 7th Division will be set up sooner than the 3rd Cavalry, especially when considering the mission of battling Thaksin Shinawatra and the red shirts, a task for which the government has no one to rely on but the military. With the 7th Division in place, the government would certainly benefit.

"Red presence forces military to establish new division", Bangkok Post, July 29, 2010

Oh, of course! Since Khon Kaen is considered to be a red shirts stronghold it does only make sense for the government and the army to try to gain more control over the region. Now what would they do?

After the crowd dispersal at Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok, the army under the Isoc recorded the names and addresses as well as ID cards of the red shirts involved before releasing them. The army then visited them at home to try to provide "healing" in its own inimitable way.

"Red presence forces military to establish new division", Bangkok Post, July 29, 2010

Guess these people are in the same annoyance level of door-to-door salesman and missionaries. Kidding aside, the plans to speed up all these military projects show the original intent of the armed forces -control of its own people. And with a military chief determined to protect the nation's highest institutions from what he sees as their enemies, one can see why. On the other hand though the military is at the moment busy with fighting at the Cambodian border for very dubious reasons.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai journalist and blogger still based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith.

"Black Khmer magic" a threat to the Thai army?!

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 20, 2011 During the most recent clashes at the Thai-Cambodian border the Thai military have beefed up their presence in the area with more troops, more military hardware and apparently also more amulets...?!

The chief of the 2nd Army distributed talismans to his troops to help protect them from evil curses which he believes Cambodians are likely to call upon in their fight over disputed border areas. As a result, soldiers guarding the border with Cambodia are now equipped with arms, life-saving kits - and talismans.

Second Army chief Thawatchai Samutsakhon issued assorted talismans to soldiers stationed at the disputed border area near the Preah Vihear temple in Si Sa Ket's Kantharalak district to ward off Khmer curses. "I believe in this and I have to take care of my subordinates in every possible way," Lt Gen Thawatchai said.

Lt Gen Thawatchai is a follower of the late Luang Poo Jiam Atissayo, a respected monk at Wat Intrasukaram in Surin's Sangkha district. (...)

An army source stationed at the border said he believed Cambodian troops would perform "some kind of rituals" on Preah Vihear temple to counter the army's distribution of talismans to its troops.

"Keep your talismans close, boys", Bangkok Post, February 12, 2011

Now, it would be easy to laugh it off as a quirky side note and call it a day. But you have to consider that superstition in ghosts and black magic is deeply rooted in South-East Asia and coexists alongside more established religions (and sometimes leads to some wild spiritual mashups). One big aspect of this are talismans and amulets that are supposed to give magic and/or protective powers from bad influences, but also bullets, knives and other worldly dangers.

So much so that in another incident, where two F-16 fight jets of the Thai Air Force have crashed during an exercise drill with US armed forces, there were persistent rumors that...

The air force spokesman brushed off a rumour that there could be a supernatural cause of the crash. "Do not believe in this sort of thing. I can't see how the crash could be related to that [black magic]. This is science: an engine problem perhaps, not superstition.

"Air force seeks clues to crash of F16 jets", Bangkok Post, February 15, 2011

Its impact reaches regularly into politics in Thailand, when there have been dozens of predictions by fortune tellers about the possible downfalls of prime ministers and/or military coups. And like all predictions, some are correct (partly), some are not (yet) and some utter nonsense!

For more on superstition and its influence on Thai politics I recommend you an article written by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker called "The spirits, the stars, and Thai politics", available here.

BONUS: As said above, superstition is widely common in South-East Asia and doesn't stop at the highest ranking people. The Irrawaddy runs a story where Burma's military junta leader Than Shwe was seen wearing a women's skirt in "an intentional act of superstition" to nullify many fortune-tellers prediction "that a woman will rule Burma one day".