Immigration

How (not) to protest at the US Embassy, according to the Thai junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 10, 2014 We recently mentioned the foreign reactions (and sanctions) of the international community in the aftermath of the military coup in Thailand, and the reaction of the Thai military junta. The junta's response was somewhere between indifference towards the Western condemnation and longing for approval, even by Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, its historically frowned-upon and not-so-democratic neighbors.

One of the countries that's in the focus when it comes to reactions to incidents and events happening elsewhere in the world is obviously the United States, a long-time ally with bilateral relations going back as far as the early 19th century.

The US have downgraded its military relations with their Thai counterpart by suspending military aid worth $4.7m (a drop in the ocean compared to the total Thai military budget estimated at $5.4bn) and cancelling several joint-exercises, though a decision to relocate the long-running regional and multi-national military exercise Cobra Gold has not been made yet. Also, a senior US official told a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. in late June that military rule in Thailand will stay "longer than expected" and has expressed his skepticism towards the sincerity of the junta's reconciliation efforts.

Obviously these sanctions have caused pro-coup Thais to lash out against the US, basically telling them to keep out of Thailand's business while repeatedly banging the "foreigners don't understand Thailand" drum - but that's another story. Naturally, the Embassy of the United States was also targeted by protests from both anti- and pro-coup protesters, despite a ban of political gatherings by the military junta.

The lone protester, Thep Vetchavisit, said he was there to voice his anger towards the US government for downgrading its military relations with Thailand in response to last month's military coup d'etat. Mr. Thep arrived at the US Embassy on motorcycle and presented caricatures of former American presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon to the embassy officials. He spent the next ten minutes posing for photos in front of a crowd of reporters outside the embassy.

"America, don't poke your nose into Thailand's [internal] issues," Mr. Thep told reporters. "We have been living for many years peacefully. When the Thais started to fight and kill each other, the soldiers intervened to maintain peace, so that Thais won't kill each other."

Mr. Thep said the American authorities should learn a lesson from Iraq, "which is now a mess," and refrain from interfering with Thai politics any further.

-"Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law", Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

Despite an apparently emotional anti-American and pro-coup protest, the local authorities saw nothing wrong with that:

Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay, the deputy chief of Bangkok police, said Mr. Thep's outbursts against the US government did not count as a protest.

"No chaotic incidents happened. There was only a gesture of anger about America’s interfering in Thailand's internal affairs, and a demand for the Americans to stop such behaviour," Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay said to reporters after Mr. Thep left the scene. "This man's actions do not count as a violation of the legal ban on political protests, because it was merely an expression of anger."

-"Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law", Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

So, then it's okay to protest at the US Embassy, right...?

Deputy National Police Chief Somyot Phumphanmuang is to summon the student activists who ate “anti-coup sandwiches” in front of the US Embassy on Tuesday, and send them to the military for “attitude adjustment,” Naewna has reported.

Half a dozen student activists from the Thai Student Centre for Democracy gathered in front of the United States Embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday morning to “test the standards of the authorities,” after a lone anti-American, pro-coup demonstrator held a solo protest in front of the US Embassy on Sunday but was not arrested.

The students were able to carry out the activity for around 15 minutes, then they dispersed without getting arrested.

-"Police to summon ‘sandwich protest’ student activists for attitude adjustment", Prachatai English, July 1, 2014

Hm ok, but what about just congratulating the United States on their national holiday...?

Thai police arrested and charged a woman protester for showing support for the US in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok on 4 July, Independence Day.

The police charged Chaowanat Musikabhumi, aka “Nong,” with defying the coup makers’ order banning political assemblies. She is now detained at the Crime Suppressiong Division.

When she was interrogated by the military and security officers at the Thai Army Club, the military officers told her that by holding a placard reading “Long Live USA Day,” she may have violated Article 112 of the Criminal Code or the lèse majesté law that the placard deemed a parody of “Long Live the King.”

She tried to explain that the phrase “long live” is not only used for blessing a monarch as in the Thai phrase Song Phra Charoen, but can be used in many contexts. She added that she was just aimed at showing appreciation for the long-life US democracy.

-"Protester may face lèse majesté for holding “Long Live USA” placard on July 4th", Prachatai English, July 8, 2014

It is evident that publicly reading "1984", eating sandwiches and showing the three-finger salute as a form of protest are absolutely verboten because of their suspected anti-coup sentiments, and even go so far to monopolize the phrase "Long Live" and twist it into a lèse majesté case, while it is absolutely legal to protest at the United States and its embassy (at best even alone) to effectively tell them to keep out of Thailand's business, no matter how lopsided or broken its politics currently are.

Some protests are apparently indeed more equal than others.

[UPDATE, July 11] The "Long Live USA"-protester who was threatened with lèse majesté-charges has been released with no charges on Friday, Prachatai reports. But as with many other previous detainees, she has to sign an agreement that she will not engage in any "political activities" anymore.

Rohingya stuck in Thai detention vulnerable to traffickers

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 8, 2013 Over 2,000 Rohingya refugees are detained in Thailand as more reports about inhumane conditions, human trafficking and rape surface while efforts to relocate them to another country have so far failed. With a deadline looming very soon, they are now threatened to be stuck in limbo.

The Rohingya, an ethnic minority group denied citizenship and targeted in ongoing deadly persecution in Burma (partly incited by Buddhist monks), have fled on often overcrowded and frail vessels in the Andaman Sea in attempts to reach Malaysia or Indonesia, but more often than not land on Thailand's shorelines or are being intercepted by Thai authorities and either towed out back to sea again (euphemistically labeled by Thai officials as a "help-on"-policy) or deported back to Burma, since the Kingdom regards their status as those of illegal immigrants rather than asylum seekers.

In recent years, there were numerous reports of mistreatment by Thai officials during these "help-on"-procedures such as setting refugee boats adrift on the sea again and sometimes allegedly even removing the engine. Earlier this January, we reported on allegations that officials of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) have sold off 74 Rohingyas to human traffickers. Later in March, the Thai Navy faced allegations of shooting and killing as many as 20 refugees that were fleeing in the water from a failed boat-transfer. In both cases there were no impartial investigations and internal inquiries have come up without any results.

Those stranded or rescued by Thai officials - as many as 800 were found in human trafficker camps - are put into detention. According to statistics by Muslim humanitarian groups and published in the Bangkok Post, 2,018 Rohingya refugees are currently detained at 24 stations of vastly different standards, mostly located in the South of Thailand but also some as far as Chiang Rai in the North.

In the late May, Channel 4 News visited the second-largest detention center in Phang Nga and found the conditions to be dismal:

We got a good idea of just how serious these problems are when Channel 4 News accompanied a group of charity workers to an immigration lock-up in a Thai town called Phang Nga. The volunteers, who were members of a local mosque, told us the facility was severely overcrowded and they wanted us to see for ourselves.

(...) We found 276 male Rohingya living in extremely cramped conditions on the second floor – the majority crammed in one of two small “cages”. Inside, there was barely enough room to sit. There were a small number of others living between the two cells suffering from swollen feet and withered leg muscles. The cause was simple – lack of exercise. The men say they haven’t been let out in five months.

(...) This place typically hosts five to 15 men – not 276 – and the smell of sweat, urine and human waste was overpowering. The heat and mosquitos were oppressive and the men seemed to share a deep sense of despondency. A man told my translator that he was ready to tie his clothes together and use them as a rope to hang himself. In another conversation captured on film an inmate told us he had “nothing to live for”. Our translator was forced to plead with them not to kill themselves.

"The plight of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims in a Thai camp", by John Sparks, Channel 4 News, May 31, 2013

The report goes on to say that the Thai authorities are aware of the problems and "alternative arrangements are being identified." How these alternatives look (e.g. additional buildings) was not said. However, in some areas, plans for the construction of additional facilities were met with protests of locals.

In other locations, there are reports of female refugees falling victims to human traffickers and sexual assault:

[H]uman traffickers – both Rohingya and Thai – were able to gain access to the shelter in Phang Nga province soon after a group of about 70 Rohingya women and children arrived there in January. Korlimula, who was identified to Human Rights Watch as working for a Rohingya-Thai human trafficking gang, told Narunisa that he would reunite her with her husband in Malaysia for a fee of 50,000 baht (approximately US$1600).

On May 27, Korlimula helped Narunisa and her two children to escape from the shelter and took her to meet with other associates. Narunisa and her children were put on a pickup truck driven by a man, whom she later learned is a police officer at Khao Lak police station in Phang Nga province. The three of them were taken to six hideouts in the province, and in each case locked up against their will. At the final hideout on Koh Yipoon Island in Phang Nga province’s Kuraburi district, Korlimula repeatedly assaulted and raped Narunisa at knifepoint over the course of three days, from June 9 to 11. After that, Narunisa and her children were dumped on the street in Kuraburi district and the three of them made their way back to the shelter on June 18. Narunisa reported the rape case at Kuraburi district police station on June 18, and then filed a formal complaint against Korlimula on June 21.

"Thailand: Traffickers Access Government-run ‘Shelter’", Human Rights Watch, June 27, 2013

Such cases reveal that some human trafficker rings are colluding with local officials and politicians. Bangkok Post reports that both the human trafficker and the police officer have been charged.

The refugees have been waiting for at least six months, while Thailand is trying to find another country to take them in, but has yet to find one. The deadline of July 26 is running out, but the question about the fate of the more than 2,000 Rohingya refugees stuck in a legal limbo in Thailand's detention centers remains unanswered.