Media

Thai military junta tightens grip on media, issues gag order

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 22, 2014 Thailand's military government has further tightened its grip on the country's media by banning criticism of the junta, threatening to shut down the offending media outlet and legal consequences.

The edict came at a time when probably not many were listening. On Friday night, shortly after the weekly, self-adulating TV address by army chief and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, all television broadcasts were temporarily stopped again for another announcement by the "National Council for Peace and Order" (NCPO), as the military junta calls itself.

In announcement number 97 since the military coup nearly two months ago, the subject line was innocuously titled "Cooperating with the work of the National Council for Peace and Order and the distributing of news to the public".

However, its contents were yet again a reaffirmed open threat to the media and anyone else daring to criticize the military coup and the junta with is now in control of both the government and the narrative:

3. Operators and providers in the media of all types, both state and privately owned - including radio; television broadcasted via terrestrial, cable, digital or internet; newspapers, journals or other publications; including all types of electronic media including social media - are obliged to distribute the information as presented by the NCPO. In this regard, a person should cease presenting information in the following:

(1) False or defamatory information or that creates hatred towards the monarchy, the heir, and all royals.

(2) Information that could harm national security, including the libel of others.

(3) Criticism of the work of the NCPO, its officials and associated persons.

(4) Secret recordings - audio, image and video - of the secret work done by government agencies.

(5) Information that causes confusion, that incites or provokes conflict or divisions in the Kingdom.

- Taken from: "ประกาศคณะรักษาความสงบแห่งชาติ - ฉบับที่ 97/2557", National Council for Peace and Order, July 18, 2014 - Translated by author

Furthermore, the soliciting of resistance against the NCPO and anything else that could "lead to panic" in the population will not be tolerated.

Failure to comply with these points could result in an effective shutdown of the offending news outlet by soldiers, provincial governors or city and provincial police chiefs. This could be followed by legal prosecution that could end up in front of a military court since Thailand is still under martial law, invoked two days before the coup.

The junta has repeatedly already made clear that it will not tolerate dissent - while at the same time Gen. Prayuth has invited the public to voice their disagreements in a civil manner during his weekly addresses. Friday's edict is as broadly worded as previous ones when it comes to defining what actually does constitute as criticism, as defamation, as a threat to national security, etc.

There's also another problem with the edict:

Thai Journalists Association chairman Pradit Ruangdit said the junta's order (...) may allow authorities to abuse their power in suspending the broadcast or publication violating the order.

"It is not clear if there will be any warnings, any steps or any approaches in determining the offense," Pradit said in a statement. "If there is an abuse of power and there is no check and balance process, it is more likely that this will create a bad impact."

He said the Thai Journalists Association would call a meeting next week with media executives and professionals to discuss and find a solution to the problem.

-"Thai Junta's Gag on Media Raises Alarm, Criticism", Associated Press, July 19, 2014

Not only has the edict effectively banned criticism media criticism of the NCPO, but also interviews with academics and former civil servants who could "give opinions in a manner that can inflict or worsen the conflict, distort information, create confusion in the society or lead to the use of violence".

This apparent gag order by the junta is not only limited to the mainstream media and its journalists and reporters. NCPO spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree emphasized that the junta is not only seeking "cooperation" from the media, but from all individuals - effectively pointing the finger at all Thai social media users, who have been facing heightened measures by the junta to block or otherwise restrict access online.

The military junta has already set up media watchdogs to monitor unfavorable coverage and debate in print, on air and online, a clear indication that it has a very clear idea how the public political discourse sohould be shaped, but - given its blanket gag order - not so much when it comes to identifying who they're actually up against.

The only aspect in the announcement that was more comprehensible compared to the previous ones is the open contempt of anything that does not fit the junta's narrative that is being discussed in public.

Thailand's military junta wants you to snitch on anti-coup dissidents - for cash!

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 24, 2014 Thailand's ruling junta has unleashed a new weapon in its quest to quell anti-coup activism.

Voice of America reported on Monday:

Thailand’s police force is now asking for citizens’ help in identifying those perceived to be displaying opposition to the military coup in the kingdom.

A Thai police general has announced he will give cash rewards to those turning in photos or videos of anyone illegally expressing a political stance. (...)

Deputy police commissioner General Somyot Poompanmoung has announced rewards of about $15 [THB 500] for each picture of such suspects.  The police general said he will personally pay the reward for any photographs that result in charges.

"Thai Police General Offers Cash for Snapshots of Dissidents", Voice of America, June 23, 2014

This comes after a protest in central Bangkok took place on Sunday, exactly one month after the military coup of May 22, 2014 and a little more than a month after the country was put under martial law. Police officers, some of them in plain clothing, were deployed. They detained and later released student activists.

In previous weeks, small but vocal anti-coup protests popped up in the capital, some showing the three-finger salute from "The Hunger Games" movies, reading George Orwell's "1984" in small groups or just eating sandwiches. Such simple and seemingly innocent  actions have met with scorn from the military junta, which has repeatedly warned against any form of opposition to the coup. The warning also includes comments made on social media, which the junta is still struggling to control.

The call to report dissidents is not new in Thailand, as very recent history has shown: In 2010, the government of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva oversaw the initiation of a so-called "cyber-scout" program to train volunteers for online monitoring of web comments deemed insulting to the monarchy.

A similar tactic was later used by Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, commonly known as the "Singha Beer heiress" and later involved in the anti-government protests of 2013-14. In 2011, working for the opposition Democrat Party, she urged citizens to email any hints of anti-royal slurs online.

As seen in numerous cases regarding alleged lèse majesté suspects, vigilantism was at least tolerated if not actively encouraged. It seems that the military junta is now expanding it to its opponents and those who do not agree with its takeover of power a month ago.

Tongue-Thai’ed!: Whistle blown on Abhisit's spurious pleas for reform

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 9, 2014 This is part XXIV of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, amusing, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

Ever since deciding not to compete in the upcoming snap-elections on February 2 after a lot of meandering, the implosion of the opposition Democrat Party has left Thailand's political party in a bit of an existential downward spiral as it tries to echo the anti-election protesters' mantra of "reform before elections", while still grasp at the last bits of political relevancy the party has. In an effort to maintain that, the Democrat Party has launched its non-election campaign to discourage convince people to follow their boycott.

Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva held a speech at a party event called "Eradicate Corruption, Committed In Reforms" in Bangkok on Tuesday, when this happened:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BstwVBOvYM

Here's a description of what happened:

[...] an unidentified man stood up in the audience and blew his whistle. The audience mistook him as a supporter of Mr. Abhisit, since whistle-blowing has been a trademark of the anti-government protesters, and no one restrained him until he held up a sign which read - in English - "Respect My Vote!".

The heckler then shouted at Mr. Abhisit, "If you cannot even reform yourself, how can you reform the country?". Mr. Abhisit was visibly surprised by the incident, but the former leader tried to manage the confrontation by thanking the man for his remarks.

However, the heckler went on to shout, "When you were the government, why didn't you do it? Stop the discourse about anti-corruption. You have intimidated other people, so can they not intimidate you as well?".

"Heckler Tells Abhisit To 'Respect My Vote'", Khaosod English, January 7, 2014

The heckler was later identified to be a 34-year-old Bangkok businessman referred under his Facebook handle "Ake Auttagorn" who told Prachatai that he staged the one-man protest "out of frustration" at the political discourse now and that "Thailand already had this lesson many times before" with the Democrat Party "always at the center of it".

And this is how Abhisit reacted to the heckler...

"This is an example of reasons why we need reforms," Mr. Abhisit told the audience, "This is the form of Democrat Party′s rivals", to which the heckler shot back, "I am not your rival, I am the people!"

Security guards later surrounded the man and led him out of the room. After the heckler has been removed, Mr. Abhisit told the crowd that such harassment is a reason why the upcoming election on 2 February 2014 would not be a fair one.

"Heckler Tells Abhisit To 'Respect My Vote'", Khaosod English, January 7, 2014

While he at least didn't snap back at the heckler (and could have said something like, you know, "stupid bitch"), Abhisit failed to ackowledge that the need for reform is not because of a heckler disrupting him, but rather because of an uncompromising deliberate escalation by the political opposition and the anti-election protesters originating from a long-held contempt for electoral democracy, those who vote for their political rivals and the failure of the opposition to effectively present itself as a viable political alternative. The Democrat Party has chosen to be part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, no matter how loud the whistle is being blown on them.

Siam Voices 2013 review – Part 3: The Rohingya, unwelcomed and ignored

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 29, 2013 In the third part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, we highlight the plight of Southeast Asia's most persecuted refugees, the Rohingya. In Thailand, it seems that they are particularly unwelcomed by authorities.

Ever since neighboring Myanmar has gradually opened up to the world politically and economically in the past few, it has also unearthed the animosity of some against the Rohingya people, an ethnic muslim minority that has been denied citizenship for decades. This animosity grew into hateful violence when deadly riots in Rakhine state in 2012 (and later in other places) displaced over 100,000 Rohingyas.

Many thousands are fleeing Myanmar in overcrowded and fragile vessels, often operated by human traffickers. Preferred destinations - that is if they make it through the Andaman Sea - are Malaysia and Indonesia, but more often than not they either involuntarily arrive in Thailand or are being intercepted by Thai authorities. During the low tide months between October to February, almost 6,000 Rohingyas according to Thai authorities have entered Thai territory.

Because the Thai state regards them as illegal economic immigrants rather than persecuted refugees, they're repeatedly refused asylum and in most cases the Thai authorities are sticking to the policy they euphemistically call "helping on": intercepted refugee vessels are given food, medicine and additional fuel before towed out to sea again on their way elsewhere. Should a boat be deemed unsafe, they will be deported back to Myanmar. There have been past allegations against Thai officials that these boats have been simply set adrift or even removed their engines - as happened again in February this year - with little inquiry and thus consequences.

This year, reports of human trafficking involvement by Thai officials emerged over the months during and following the waves of refugee boats passing Thailand's coastlines. It started with one of them carrying 73 migrants found on New Year's Day, but instead of the usual procedure they were split up and put on other boats. As it turns out, according to an investigation by the BBC, members of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) had sold these people off to human traffickers. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing by their own officers, but has nonetheless transferred two accused ISOC officers out of the South.

However, the allegations did not die down over the course of the year as two investigative reports by Reuters in particular (here and here) have put more weight on these, accompanied most recently by calls to Thailand from the United Nations and the United States to investigate these claims - none of which have taken place so far despite repeated pledges by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra so far. The same empty-handed result happened after a reported shooting incident in late February during a botched boat transfer killed at least two refugees. Again, calls for a probe were met - like in any other case - with deafening silence. Additionally, around 800 refugees were found in illegal human trafficking camps in south Thailand in January.

Those refugees that were being sheltered in Thailand faced no better conditions. In the summer months, around 2,000 Rohingya were detained in 24 stations across the country mostly located in the South under vastly differing standards. Some were overcrowded and caused the detainees to riot, others were regularly made accessible for human traffickers to lure refugees out. Thai authorities have discussed expanding or building new detention facilities, but this was met with resistance by local residents. The fate of these men, women and children is still to this day unresolved as a deadline by the Thai government to find third-party countries taking them on passed on July 26 with no result, thus leaving them in legal limbo.

The Rohingya issue and the (reported mis-)handling by Thai authorities - largely underreported in the domestic media and thus mostly met with indifference by the general public - is slowly becoming a national shame. But judging by its actions it appears little will change about that attitude: a formerly highly-regarded forensic expert reheated her old claim that some Rohingya might be involved in the insurgency in the deep south and a Thai minister even accused them to be "feigning pitifulness" for the media.

In general, the Thai authorities seemed to be more concerned with its own image rather that the wellbeing of the refugees, as evident just last week when the Royal Thai Navy filed a lawsuit against two journalists from Phuket Wan- who have been diligently reporting on this issue - for defamation and even resorted to invoke the Computer Crimes Act (see yesterday's part), even though these two journalists had been merely quoting from the aforementioned Reuters' story. The lawsuit has been met with criticism, including from the UN.

Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn once accused the international community of leaving Thailand alone to deal with the Rohingya refugees, (perhaps willingly?) oblivious to the fact that Thai authorities have largely denied international aid and refugee organizations access to them. So the question Thailand has to ask itself for the coming year is not what the world can do for Thailand, but rather what Thailand can do to help the Rohingyas?

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Racy posters spark uniform debate at Thai university

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 16, 2013 The ongoing debate on student uniforms takes a racy turn, as one student's poster campaign challenges the necessity of uniforms at Thammasat University.

They're a common sight everywhere you go: young women in white blouses and black skirts or young men in white dress shirts and black dress pants, sometimes with belt buckles (in the case of the girls only held by a few binder clips) or pins sporting their university logos.

Thailand is one of the very few countries left in the world - next to neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - that requires students to wear uniforms even at university level. While the wearing of uniforms is mandatory at every academic institution in the country, how strict the rules are enforced varies from place to place and is mostly up to the teaching personnel.

And every now and then there is some controversy about the outfits students are wearing, mostly about their interpretation. For example back in 2009, the directors of the nation's top tier universities Chulalongkorn and Thammasat in Bangkok complained about female students wearing uniforms that are "too sexy" and "inappropriate" - a publicly announced clampdown by both universities fell flat. Then in 2011, a similar short-lived uproar by education officials took place after a Japanese news website poll listed Thailand's student uniforms as "the sexiest in the world."

However, the questions about the necessity of uniforms at higher education level and its effects on student performance is rarely asked.

Several posters were plastered across notice boards in early September at Thammasat University's Rangsit campus on the northern outskirts of Bangkok. The four different motives have slogans such as "Isn't sex more exciting with student uniforms?", "Were you required to wear a uniform at your last midterms?", "When student uniforms are being challenged" and "Free humanity from the shackles" while depicting couples (both hetero and homosexual) having sex.

These were the creation of a transgender female liberal arts student at Thammasat University nicknamed "Aum Neko", who shows her opposition to the mandatory uniform rule after it emerged that students were not allowed to take part in an exam in a compulsory freshmen course as they were not wearing the required uniforms.

In the Bangkok Post, she explains the reasons for her protest and why she chose the provocative motives:

"Personally, I believe in liberalism. I believe that 'forcing' students to wear uniforms at university level is an insult to their intellect and humanity. You are using the power of uniforms to control, not only their bodies, but their behaviour and thoughts." About the provocative posters, in which she poses as one of the models, Aum Neko said that the main concept is to tie the uniform, which traditionally represents goodness and morality, together with sex, which represents wickedness, something that shouldn't be expressed.

"Uniform opinions", Bangkok Post, September 11, 2013

An extensive interview with Prachatai goes more in-depth about the motives and themes of her posters, explains why no fellow female students were taking part in the campaign and what she believes her university is supposed to stand for.

Unsurprisingly, the poster campaign has sparked debate on social and mainstream media on the necessity of student uniforms, but also about the 'inappropriateness' and shock value of the posters - with plenty of support and condemnation towards Aum. Thammasat University announced that it will conduct a disciplinary review of her actions (she caused another stir last year by casually posing on the lap of the statue of the university's founder Pridi Banomyong), as some social media users are calling for her expulsion. However, Thammasat will also set up a committee consisting of lecturers and students to "to investigate the issue and come up with solutions."

The story also raises the question whether or not the university is still maintaining it's liberal-democratic roots, as its students have historically been politically active in the past - but the internal debate on the lèse majesté law (which bizarrely featured journalism students protesting against the reformists) has put the institution at odds with itself.

While on the surface the debate over student uniforms may appear to be just a superficial issue, it is one of many aspects in Thailand's militaristic education system that reinforces uniformity and obedience, since for Thai conservatives these are still the most important characteristics of our education - while Thailand's society has changed and is more than ready to move on.

Tongue-Thai’ed!: Democrat poster boy Abhisit loses his manners

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 10, 2013 This is part XXII of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, amusing, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

Former Thai prime minister and leader of the opposition Democrat Party Abhisit Vejjajiva was and still is by some regarded as a well-mannered politician who would never lose his temper or resort to the use of direct derogatory language towards political opponents or critics. We wouldn't expect anything less with his oft-mentioned Oxford-educated (English language) eloquence and general high-brow public image.

Abhisit Vejjajiva

However, with the increasing frustration of being in the opposition against a government that is seemingly unbeatable at the polls, the Democrat Party recently started to imitate the governing Pheu Thai Party's political rallies and has taken to the streets to get their message across and mobilize their supporters. Freed from the restraints of parliamentary debates and press conferences, party members can unabashedly slam the government, its policies and everything else related to it.

At one such event in Bangkok on Saturday, Abhisit took the stage and among many other points in his speech, he criticized Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's regular absence in parliament and regular foreign trips, and her failure to tackle the problems back home while launching trivial projects like the upcoming reality TV show "Smart Lady Thailand" to advertise the Thai Women Empowerment Fund.

And here is when things went downhill for Abhisit:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adikMyfh1no

นายกรัฐมนตรีก็หลบเลี่ยงปัญหาเหล่านี้ ผมก็ดูไม่ออกครับว่าที่อยู่ในประเทศมา 1 อาทิตย์ที่ผ่านมา ไปทำอะไรบ้าง เมื่อเช้าเห็นแว้บๆ มีข่าวไปทำอะไร โครงการอะไร Smart Lady แปลว่าอะไร ผมก็ไม่ค่อยเข้าใจทั้งหมดหรอกครับ เหมือนกับว่าจะประกวดใช่มั้ย หา Smart Lady แปลว่าอะไร Smart lady นี่ผมถามอภิมงคลแล้ว แปลว่าผู้หญิงฉลาด แต่นี่ผมก็ถามว่า อ้าว แล้วถ้าทำโครงการนี้เนี่ย ทำไมต้องทำ ทำไมต้องหาผู้หญิงฉลาด ทำไมต้องประกวดผู้หญิงฉลาด เพราะว่าเขาบอกว่า ถ้าแข่งขันหาอีโง่ ไม่มีใครไปแข่งได้ 

The Prime Minister is dodging these problems. I don't know what she was up to in the past week in the country. This morning I spotted what project she was doing - "Smart Lady". What does that mean? I didn't fully get that. It's like a competition, right? What does it mean to find a "Smart Lady"? So I asked Apimongkol [Sonakul, Democrat MP] and he said it means 'smart lady'. But I ask why do they do this project, why do they have to find a smart lady, why do they make a competition out of this? Because if they are looking for a stupid bitch, there would be no competition!

"คำต่อคำ นายอภิสิทธิ์ หน.ปชป.ในการปราศรัยเวทีประชาชน เดินหน้าผ่าความจริง วัดดอกไม้ ยานนาวา", Democrat Party Thailand, September 7, 2013 - translation by me

Now, อีโง่ (pronounced "ee-ngo") is not very easy to directly translate into English. However, the prefix อี ("ee") is only used to address somebody in a very rude manner - think of it like "that ..." in a very condescending tone. Since โง่ ("ngo") means 'stupid' or 'the stupid one' and Abhisit was talking about the female prime minister, it is safe to assume that not only he made a derogatory remark about her intelligence, but also specifically about her gender.

(READ MORE: What was Abhisit thinking when he made his stupid “bitch” remark?)

Unsurprisingly, a lot of negative reactions followed these remarks from Pheu Thai Party members and government personnel. Also unsurprising was the repeated silence of the country's prominent feminists, as previously seen here and here - despite the fact that prime minister at times faces nasty sexist remarks. Meanwhile, Yingluck herself is currently (somehow ironically yet again) on a foreign trip to Europe.

On Monday, Abhisit was seemingly unfazed by the controversial gaffe he created:

Mr. Abhisit did not apologise for his now-notorious remark when reporters questioned him at the Democrat Party headquarters earlier today. He claimed that he did not refer to Ms. Yingluck specifically when he said those words on the stage. "I was merely following what I saw on Google," Mr. Abhisit insisted (typing "stupid bitch" in Thai on Google search would bring up images of Ms. Yingluck). [and there's also a dedicated Facebook page for it]

"I don't know which newspaper has reported the news in such negative manner," Mr. Abhisit told the reporters, "I suppose it's the same old one that likes to distort [my words]. And if it's Khaosod, I would not know what to say about it because that newspaper is beyond any remedy". Asked by a reporter what he has to say to the people who are offended by his remark, the visibly irritated Mr. Abhisit shot back: "Offended about what?"

"Abhisit Unapologetic For 'Stupid Bitch' Remark", Khao Sod English, September 6, 2013 

The media is definitely now reporting on it, as seen by the Bangkok Post and The Nation - both having considerably softened the translation to "stupid woman".

A colloquial and at times rowdy beer tent-esque atmosphere is to be expected at such political rallies from all parties. However, with harsh rhetoric provoking vulgar crowd reactions (again, something other parties are not discouraging either) and erratic displays of antics in parliament - just last week a Democrat MP was throwing chairs - the Democrat Party are increasingly descending into gutter politics and will stop at nothing to damage the government, even at the cost of any political progress.

Some of his supporters would welcome that Abhisit Vejjajiva is 'finally' not pulling any more punches (as in the past that was left to e.g. his former deputy Suthep as extensively documented here, here and here), but while it is one thing to appear folksy and aggressive, it is an entirely another unacceptable thing to resort a misogynistic remark. There's no doubt that Abhisit Vejjajiva is no more Mr. Nice Guy.

Thailand fails to find closure on Bangkok massacre

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 16, 2013 Over three years after the deadly military crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests, battling narratives on what happened that day are still defining the current political climate - even more so with the debate on the government-sponsored amnesty bills and the release of an official inquiry report that fundamentally contradicts with recent court rulings.

On May 19, 2010, after nine-and-a-half weeks of anti-government protests and street occupations by the red shirts, the military staged a bloody crackdown. With the previous clashes since April 2010, at least 90 people were killed and thousands injured, mostly civilians. The chaos and carnage has left a gaping wound in the nation's psyche that still hasn't healed. Not least because the questions surrounding  what exactly happened and who is responsible for the deaths are still the subject of intense argument across all political allegiances, mostly with little facts and much hyperbole.

Last year, the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) released their final inquiry report into the events of May 19, 2010. The panel, set up during the administration of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva with virtually no powers or access, found faults on both sides and was promptly criticized and dismissed by both sides.

Last week, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) released its own report in what they think happened in the crackdown:

The report, around 90 pages long, can be summed up in 2 points: that the security forces did commit several inappropriate actions - such as dropping teargas from the helicopters onto the crowd below and censoring a number of websites - but the bigger issue is that it was the Redshirts who "violated human rights" by engaging in unlawful protests and provoking the authorities.

The Redshirts under the leadership of the National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the report said, violated the laws by organising a protest at Ratchaprasong Intersection, the heart of Bangkok′s financial district. The move equals to provoking violence, according to NHRC. Therefore, the NHRC said, it is entirely lawful that Mr. Abhisit formed up the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) and declared emergency laws. (...)

The casualties during the crackdowns in April and May 2010 were results of clashes between the security forces and shadowy armed militants allegedly allied to the protesters, according the report. (...)

Even the deaths of 6 civilians at Wat Pathumwanararm Temple, declared as ′safe zone′ for fleeing protesters by the authorities, were described as a consequence of alleged gunfights between the militants and the soldiers near the temple - (...)

"NHRC Accused Of Whitewashing Authorities' Hands In 2010 Crackdown", Khao Sod English, August 10, 2013

The NHRC report fails to point the finger of blame at the military for the deaths, which Abhisit and his then-deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban are now facing murder charges by the DSI. Especially foggy are the circumstances, in which six civilians were killed inside Wat Pathumwan, that are described by the NHRC inquiry ("killed outside and then dragged inside the temple grounds"). In fact, they were disproved in a landmark court ruling just a few days earlier that explicitly found the military responsible for the deaths - which was instantly rejected by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, back then one of the key commanders of the crackdown.

Expectedly, the NHRC report was met with heavy criticism with accusations of whitewashing the crackdown, since it also seems to be reinforcing the same official line that has been touted by the authorities and the Abhisit government back then in 2010 and is still insisted upon today by the now-opposition Democrat Party and its supporters. Given the political affiliations the NHRC head Amara Pongsapich and the circumstances that led to her appointment, the report is hardly a surprise, but a disgrace to the National Human Rights Commission's task.

The May 19 crackdown was also a central issue of the parliamentary vote of the so-called amnesty bill last week. From the various draft bills that have been suggested (including one by families of the Wat Pathum victims strangely supported by Abhisit), the government led by the Pheu Thai Party (PT) submitted the draft of PT MP Wocharai Hema, that grants all political protesters amnesty - including the various yellow and red shirt protests since the 2006 military coup - but does not include the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdown. The bill was initially passed by the lower House, but has to vetted and submitted for vote again.

The heated exchanges during the debates saw both political sides occupying their narratives to the events of the violent clashes during the red shirt protests of 2010. One such moment included Democrat MP and former deputy PM Suthep insisted that no snipers were deployed in the dispersal, despite secret documents stating the contrary.

On Thursday, the Bangkok Post published a column by Democrat deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij voicing his opposition to the amnesty bill, accusing the government for a lack of "any genuine desire for reform or reconciliation" and points to the TRCT panel that was set up by then-PM Abhisit (but gave it virtually no powers whatsoever), cites the "objections from the UN human rights office" (although the UN OHCHR only cautioned and then clarified it didn't object the bill at all) and (mistakenly?) references the NHRC as "our own Human Rights Watch", while during the Abhisit government he and his government regularly blasted the findings by HRW and other international human rights organizations.

What all these events in the past week show is that the wounds of what is considerably the worst political violence in the Thailand's recent history still have not healed, because not only are competing truths evidence of an ongoing divided political discourse, but also the very likelihood of repeated impunity for the authorities and the military for the May 19 crackdown still prevails, something that has been practised too often in the country's history - 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006, just to name a few - in the short-sighted hope that all is forgotten and forgiven until the next tragedy.

Thailand: HRW calls for probe into alleged Rohingya shootings

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 14, 2013 New details have emerged about the alleged shooting at Rohingya refugees by Thai navy officers in which as many as 20 people were killed, according to witness reports (we reported). The New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch has released a statement calling on the Thai government for an investigation. HRW also published their own findings about the incident:

Survivors told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of February 21, Thai fishermen helped their drifting boat ashore on Surin Island off the coast of Phang Nga province. On that same day, at about 6:30 p.m., a Thai navy patrol boat numbered TOR214 arrived at the island and towed their boat back to the sea. Navy patrol boat TOR214 and the Rohingya boat arrived near a pier in Kuraburi district of Phang Nga province at around 5 a.m. the next morning. According to the survivors and Thai villagers on the shore, navy personnel from the patrol boat began to divide the Rohingya into small groups in the boat and ordered them to get ready to board smaller boats. At that point, the Rohingya became uncertain whether they would be taken to immigration detention on the mainland or be pushed back to the sea. When the first group of 20 Rohingya was put on a smaller boat by the Thai navy, some panicked and jumped overboard.

“Navy personnel fired into the air three times and told us not to move,” one survivor told Human Rights Watch. “But we were panicking and jumped off the boat, and then they opened fire at us in the water.”

"Thailand: Fleeing Rohingya Shot in Sea by Navy", Human Rights Watch, March 13, 2013

This account was based on 4 survivors of this incident, after they have swum to a nearby village and have been sheltered by the local villagers and also hidden from the authorities. These 4 men have now reportedly fled to Malaysia as they fear retributions from Thai authorities. Reportedly, two bodies were found and pulled out of the water with one of them baring a bullet wound in the head. These two have been already been buried at a nearby cemetery. The rest of the 20 men are still missing, but presumed dead.

The whereabouts of the remaining refugees are unknown, as they could have been towed out and left to the sea again on their journey to Malaysia or Indonesia. Or worse, they could be sold off to human traffickers, as recent cases have shown and more accusations by Rohingya refugees have surfaced. This has now also been underlined by witness reports of local villagers.

The Thai authorities are fiercely denying the allegations, pointing the blame back at the Rohingya refugees themselves.

"The navy commander [Adm Surasak Rounroengrom] has insisted that the navy did not kill or shoot at the Rohingya," a navy source told the Bangkok Post. "We feel for them. No humans or sailors can commit such act because the Rohingya people are not our enemy."

Firing on the Rohingya "doesn't even cross our minds," the source said. (...)

The same source said Vice Adm Tharathorn Khachitsuwan, commander of the Third Region Navy, and Rear Adm Weeraphan Sukkon, commander of the Royal Navy Phang Nga Base, both believed the navy was being framed by Rohingya who were angry because the navy prevented them from coming ashore.

(...)  "Those who accuse the navy of hurting or killing the Rohingya should come out and take care of them too. They should not accuse others and not help" to look after the displaced people, the official said.

"Thai navy denies shooting Rohingya refugees", Bangkok Post, March 13, 2013

A spokesman from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to contradict with the usual handling of Rohingya boat refugees:

Human Rights Watch has criticized the "push back" policy, saying Thailand is failing to provide the Rohingya asylum seekers with the protections required under international law. Thai foreign ministry spokesperson Manasvi Srisodapol denied the existence of such a policy as described by Human Rights Watch and many other organizations.

"Fleeing Rohingya Refugees Fired Upon, Says Rights Group", VOA, March 13, 2013

Compare that to the comments made by Royal Thai Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Surasak Rounroengrom:

"Since the policy is to push them back out to sea, we provide humanitarian aid with food and water, medicine and gas for them to continue their journey. All we do is help them, even fixing their boats [if necessary], before sending them back on their way," Surasak said.

"Navy dismisses reports on Rohingya killings", The Nation, March 14, 2013

On Monday, at an event of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (see a summary here), Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra also addressed the issue of the Rohingya refugees in her keynote speech, stating that Thailand is treating them well and "on humanitarian grounds”. Zoe Daniels from the ABC further asked her about the specific shooting incident:

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: In the case of the navies I think we will work on a fair basis and will be fair to everyone under the legal process.

ZOE DANIEL: Talking though about the Thai Navy shooting and killing refugees, could I ask you will you order an investigation into that incident?

YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA: Okay, first of all I have to say that we don't encourage any violence, to do any harm to anyone. This is our policy and of course that we will have to fair to everyone and we will look and investigate the case.

"Calls for Thai Govt to investigate alleged navy shooting", ABC News, March 13, 2013

The likelihood of an impartial and independent investigation into any matter concerning the authorities' handling of the Rohingya refugees are slim. The military is unwilling let anybody - let alone a civilian body - conduct a probe into this. An internal inquiry by the Internal Security Operations Command into allegations of their officers being involved in human trafficking (we reported) has found no evidence against them, but still has transferred them into a different part of the country.

UPDATE: Shortly after publication of this article, Phuketwan has another story with more witnesses about this incident:

A fisherman told today for the first time of having a gun pointed at him by a military officer in a controversial incident that led to the deaths of an unknown number of boatpeople north of Phuket.

Fisherman Yutdhana Sangtong said today that four other fishermen were in the boat when the gun was pointed at him. They were ordered to leave. ''Go away. These people have been fed already. Get out,'' he says he was told at gunpoint.

Later, he heard a volley of gunshots, In the days that followed, Khun Yutdhana says, he found three bodies in the water nearby. Other fishermen around the district reported finding more bodies along the coast, around the village of Hinlad.

"Two Accounts of the Boatpeople 'Shooting' Leave Questions to Answer", Phuketwan, March 14, 2013

Tongue-Thai’ed! Part XVIII: Thai Minister throws tantrum over villager with no birthday

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 11, 2013 This is the XVIIIth edition of  “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, in which we encapsulate the most baffling, amusing, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures – in short: everything we hear that makes us go “Huh?!”. Check out all past entries here.

One of the first light-hearted stories of 2013 took a very disturbing and serious turn involving a civil servant with a non-existent birthday and a disgraced minister that made a fool out of himself with an unbelievable rant, not without consequences.

Earlier this week, news spread about a man called Sangwian Kuncharoen, an assistant village chief in a small community in Sa Kaeo province, located on the Eastern border of Thailand. The 53-year-old actually isn't supposed to be that old - he isn't supposed to able to celebrate his birthday ever - because Mr. Sangwian has an unusual bureaucratic problem:

A mistake on his civil registration records listed him as born on Feb 30, 1960 - a date that did not exist. Because of the error, Mr Sangwian never officially graduated and could never open a bank account. And not once in his life has he been able to hold a party on his birthday. (...)

Since his house registration document carried the wrong birth date, his identification card, issued to him at the age of 17, repeated the mistake.

The error has plagued him ever since. For a person to change his or her birth date they need at least two witnesses _ including an official who can guarantee the information was incorrect _ to testify in support of the change request. It difficult to do for people who have moved away from their birthplace, he said.

Mr Sangwian raised the problem of his non-existent birth date at a meeting of about 400 village headmen, and other local administration officials yesterday in Aranyaprathet district.

"Feb 30 birth date causes problems", Bangkok Post, January 9, 2013

Suffice to say that he is in a bureaucratic nightmare! Of course, the local media picked up on this quickly and ran it as a  light-hearted story of an oddity from the Thai heartlands.

However, since these things (i.e. citizen registration) fall under the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, the man at the top of it, Jarupong Ruangsuwan, got personally involved - but not to personally fix the Mr. Sangwien's problem, but rather to blame him for the problem.

And boy, the minister did go on a rant...

การร้องเรียนผ่านสื่อแบบนี้ เท่ากับเป็นการเผาบ้านตัวเอ งซึ่งทำไม่ถูก ขอให้ทาง ผวจ.สระแก้ว (...) ว่า ทำไมนายสังเวียนไม่ไปยื่นเรื่องเพื่อแก้ไขให้ถูกต้อง แต่กลับมาร้องเรียนออกสื่อทีวีให้เป็นข่าวแทน ถามตรงๆ ว่าทำไมถึงอยากดัง (...) แต่แบบนี้ควรโดนสอบทางวินัยหรือไม่ เพราะถือว่ามีเจตนาทำให้กระทรวงมหาดไทยเสื่อมเสีย

"To file such a complaint is as bad as to burn down your own village, which is not right. I want to ask the authorities in Sa Kaeo province (...) why he has not requested this to be corrected, but instead went public on the media with it instead - does he want to get famous?! But should he in case be the subject of a disciplinary committee? Because he has intentionally damaged [the reputation of] the Interior Ministry!"

“คนอื่นอย่าริทำเป็นอันขาด ขอพูดแบบนักเลงเลยว่าแบบนี้สมควรตาย เพราะไม่อย่างนั้นตนคุมลูกน้องไม่อยู่ เห็นได้ชัดว่าเรื่องที่เกิดขึ้นนั้นผิดแน่ๆ อยู่แล้ว แต่กลับเอาเรื่องมาโพนทะนาให้ใหญ่โต ทำให้องค์กรเสื่อมเสีย ผมถือว่าเป็นเรื่องต้องตำหนิ ใครก็อย่าทำแบบนี้กับผมอีก ผมเอาตาย ไม่เก็บไว้แน่ ผมรักและสนับสนุนคนดี แต่คนเผาบ้านผมรับไม่ได้ ไม่รู้ว่าจะทำเรื่องเล็กให้เป็นเรื่องใหญ่ทำไม ทั้งๆ ที่ข้าราชการกระทรวงมหาดไทยต้องทำเรื่องใหญ่ให้เป็นเรื่องเล็ก ผมชอบคนแบบนี้มากกว่า”

"Others should not even think about doing the same - let me be very clear that in that case you should die [probably out of shame]! Because otherwise I wouldn't be able to handle everybody. It is clear that this incident is just wrong anyways! But blowing this this out of proportion is damaging our organization. It is something that has to be blamed! Nobody should dare to do that to me again, or I will take you down! I won't let go! I love and I will promote good people, but I cannot accept people burning [or metaphorically bringing] down the house! I don't know why he's making such a big fuss out of such a small thing. All officials at the Interior Ministry have to work big things into small things - I like THAT kind of people more!"

"'จารุพงศ์' ฉุนขาด ซัด 'ผช.ผญบ.'อยากดัง", Thai Rath, January 10, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we have the first public political blow-up of this very young year! I don't know what's more damning: the fact that the Thai bureaucracy is not able to fix an apparently simple, but severe problem (then again you could ask why it took Mr. Sangwien that long to bring it to attention) or the fact that the Minister of Interior went on a disproportionate rant to roast that man and make it an even bigger problem. On the other hand, we have seen before that somebody high-ranking would only know to show authority by throwing a threatening, loud tantrum. If this wasn't the Thai bureaucracy, he would probably already have to deal with human resources now...!

Unfortunately, Mr. Sangwien eventually resigned from his position amidst the pressure from the Interior Minister and thus evades a potential investigation. Meanwhile, the governor of Sa Kaeo province has ordered that his birthday, in accordance with regulations, will be changed to February 1. So, pretty soon Mr. Sanwien can finally celebrate his birthday for the first time - and hopefully without anybody yelling at him.

If you come across any verbosities that you think might fit in here send us a email at siamvoices [at] gmail.com or tweet us @siamvoices.

Thailand: What we missed in September 2012

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 27, 2012 We look back at some news stories that made the headlines in Thailand this month.

Rich kids, fast cars, solid impunity: Social injustice on the roadside

At the beginning of this month, Central Juvenile and Family Court in Bangkok sentenced an 18-year-old girl to two years in jail for reckless driving, resulting in a crash with a van in which nine people were killed in December 2010. The sentence was suspended and the girl is banned from driving until the age of 25. What caught the attention of the public eye in this case is that not only was the driver 16 years old at the time of the accident (thus not legally old enough to drive a car), but also the daughter of a well-connected, high-society family, or "hi-so" in common Thai slang. That fact and that she survived almost unharmed made her the target of a relentless online witch hunt (we reported).

Just a few days later another lethal traffic accident involving an heir of a wealthy and influential businessman occurred in Bangkok when a police officer was hit by a sports car and dragged down the road for some distance. The drunk driver fled the scene and was later to be revealed as Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, the 27-year-old grandson of the recently deceased founder of Red Bull. However, since this is a wealthy and well-connected heir, the Thong Lor district police inspector initially attempted to cover up the hit-and-run case by detaining the family's caretaker as a scapegoat. This did not work and the inspector got suspended and Vorayuth will be brought to court. In the meantime, his family has reached a settlement with the siblings of the victim: a meager sum of 3m Baht ($97,000).

There have been countless incidents in the past were the offspring of the rich and powerful have gotten away after somebody else was killed (*cough*Chalerm's son*cough*) and these two incidents have yet again spurred some widespread outrage - but also, as usual with such widespread public outcries, quickly died down. Ironically, days later after Vorayuth's incident,  a female pop singer was caught drunk driving at a police control, but - showing her total obliviousness to recent events - initially refused the breathalyzer test because - according to herself - she "is a celebrity and knows many senior police officials" and felt "not in an appropriate condition. And when I'm sober, I'll blow into it."

2012 Flood Watch: Waiting for the deluge?

After last year's flood crisis swept through Thailand and had most of central Bangkok spiraling into panic, many were wondering if such a large deluge can happen again this year. According to the numbers, this is unlikely to repeat, as there weren't heavy rainfalls that raised the water levels at the nation's dams like in 2011. Nevertheless the question that has been often raised is whether or not the country is ready for a big flood again and the if lessons were learnt from last year's failures. The problem that appeared this month though is that the heavy rainfalls that are falling directly over Bangkok are flooding the streets, prompting a deluge of pictures from sois under water on social media. The reason is the city's drainage system is struggling to cope with the downpours.

ASEAN Economic Community: Coming soon-ish

One of the big upcoming projects for Southeast Asia is the common ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). That is supposed to launch in 2015, but concerning Thailand there are some doubts whether or not the country is ready for the regional economic changes as many areas are still in dire need of improvement - education and English proficiency would be two right off the top of my head. It looks like that the other ASEAN countries have similar issues in the run-up to the AEC and thus the economic ministers have agreed to delay the launch from the first day of 2015 to the very last day of the year. However, ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan has a rather interesting take on the issue:

"However, there was never an agreed, exact date as to when in 2015 we should all work towards -- should it be 1 January?  Mid-year?  Or year-end 2015?  The AEM (asean economic ministers) agreed on 31 December 2015," he said in the statement.

"Surin: AEC still on track", Bangkok Post, September 12, 2012

Ah yes, so we also learn that the launch date of "2015" was apparently just meant as a general guideline and they expected to set this off somewhere in those 365 days...!

Reading: World Book Capital of a non-bookish country 

A recent story in the Bangkok Post revealed this:

About 60% of Thai children never even get to see a book in the first three years of their lives, according to the former president of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT).

Citing a study conducted in 2008, Rissawol Aramcharoen said the parents of over five million young children never read any stories, or fairy tales, to their children when they are young.

These children had also never been involved in activities that could develop their intelligence, she told told a seminar to mark International Literacy Day on Sunday.

"60% of preschoolers never see a book", Bangkok Post, September 10, 2012

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised by the numbers, since we have often reported on the dismal state of Thai education (see above) and that also correlates to a much cited study that says Thais on average read seven or eight lines per year - yes, you read that right: not eight to seven pages, let alone books, but lines! However, not much else is known about the source of this study. Regardless, it does not hide the fact that Thais are not very bookish. The reasons for a lack of reading culture are very clear as mentioned over at Bangkok Pundit.

Note: The release of the final report by the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) into the deaths during the anti-government red shirt protests of 2010 will be addressed in a future column.