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.