Thailand

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.

TRANSCRIPT

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

Despite denials, Thailand's online surveillance plans are alive and well

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 22, 2015 "We will not talk about this any more. If we say we won't do it, we won't do it," said Thai Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak at an economic forum in Bangkok last week. His decisive words were in response to the ongoing controversy over the Thai military government’s plans to introduce an online single gateway.

Last month, Thai internet users discovered a cabinet resolution surveying the implementation of a single online gateway ”to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.” Subsequent resolutions ordered the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) and related agencies to speed up their preliminary work.

If realized, Thailand’s internet traffic would be bottlenecked through a single gateway, making it possible for officials to filter and block undesirable content. This is in line with the military junta’s ongoing efforts to monitor and censor dissenting voices, both in real life and online, ever since it launched a military coup in May 2014.

Amidst widespread criticism and a coordinated mass-click-and-refresh bombardment that briefly knocked several government websites offline, Thai officials were scrambling to calm public opinion, only then to contradict themselves justifying why the junta wants to have a single gateway in the first place. The explanations varied from economic reasons, cybersecurity concerns and ultimately ending at Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha being initially ”worried” about the ”youth addiction to online games and access to inappropriate media”.

A week later, the government was hoping that the debate had died down. However, despite repeated statements insisting that it won’t pursue the single gateway plan anymore, not everyone is convinced by their declaration. And it seems there is more trouble coming the junta’s way:

Online activists have announced they will launch attacks against the government beginning Thursday after the prime minister said the project to route all internet traffic through a single point of control is still alive.

The coalition of anonymous internet users known as Citizens Against Single Gateway last night warned private sector operations with IT systems linked to government servers to transfer them to safe places before the assault on government systems begins at 10am on Thursday.

Those behind a crippling attack earlier this month, the Thailand F5 Cyber Army, issued the announcement yesterday after Prime Minister and junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha said agencies are still studying the project (…).

First Chapter of ‘Cyber War’ to Begin Thursday”, Khaosod English, October 21, 2015

The little detail that the government is "still studying" the single gateway plan is enough reason for opponents to distrust the Thai military government. But there are several more signs that justifies the continuous skepticism by many online users.

CAT TELECOM has announced that it will proceed with the plan to build a national Internet gateway, which it claims would help make Thailand a digital hub in Asean.

The aim of the project is not to control the flow of information into the country over the Internet as some fear, said CAT acting chief executive officer Colonel Sanpachai Huvanandana. He said a working committee for the project would be set up. Whether that committee is under the Information and Communications Technology Ministry or under the Digital Economy Committee is up to the ICT minister.

The national Internet gateway is one of two priorities for making Thailand a digital hub for the region by expanding capacity and reducing costs. The other is to have large content providers such as Facebook, Google and YouTube establish servers in Thailand.

Net gateway for digital hub”, The Nation, October 21, 2015

The other part of the plan to have internet tech giants like Google and Facebook setting up shop in Thailand (the latter already did) seems ambitious to say the least, given a potentially significant infrastructural disadvantage and previous persistent, but unsuccessful attempts by the military government seeking cooperation of these companies to censor posts deemed insulting to the monarchy and also identify their authors.

At the same time it is being reported that General Thaweep Netrniyom, the secretary-general of the Office of the National Security Council (NSC), could be appointed the head of the aforementioned CAT Telecom. It would be the first time that somebody from the NSC would take up that position at the state-owned telecommunication company and unsurprisingly his focus is expected be on cyber security - just as CAT’s current CEO (a Colonel nonetheless) announced they are still not giving up on the single online gateway.

However, as mentioned before, that is not the only measure by the military junta to control the flow of online information in Thailand. It already has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source), ordered internet providers to censor on sight, reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software, it is also in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at “preparing Thailand for the digital economy”. But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillanceprosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertaintybenefitting the state more than Thai online users.

Most recently, Defense Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan announced on Tuesday the creation of a new ”Army Cyber Center” specifically to ”protect” the Thai monarchy and to ”keep track of information on media and social media and to sort them out systematically,” essentially underlining their priorities. In August this year, two people were sentenced to a record 28 and 30 years in prison respectively for allegedly posting Facebook messages deemed insulting to the monarchy.

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

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

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

Much Ado About Nothing?

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

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

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

 

Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 21, 2015 As the hunt for the main suspect in the Bangkok bomb attacks continues, Thai authorities are increasingly contradicting each other about the possible perpetrators. That's par for the course, says Saksith Saiyasombut.

"He doesn't really look Thai," a woman was heard saying Tuesday, looking at the grainy CCTV footage showing the main suspect in Monday's bomb attack at Bangkok's popular Erawan Shrine that killed at least 20 people and injured about 120. Authorities are looking for a young man who was wearing a yellow t-shirt, dark shorts and dropped a suspicious backpack at the shrine before leaving the scene. On Wednesday, police released a composite sketch of the suspect, based on eyewitness reports, and announced a bounty of 1 million Baht ($28,000).

That about sums up what the Thai authorities can agree on so far. After the initial uncharacteristic hesitant response by Thai officials on who could be behind the unprecedented attack (and the subsequent failed bomb attack on Tuesday), the police and the military government seem to be slowly but steadily getting back to their usual "we said, they said"-thing, complete with open, unsubstantiated speculations, making the overall investigation seem less credible as it is being observed by a wider international audience.

Four days after the attack, officials are still in the dark about the possible motives and perpetrators, with the usual suspects getting a mention and wilder theories popping up. This hasn't stopped Thai authorities from pressing forward with their own findings and opinions - regardless of any contradictions among themselves.

With the release of the sketch, reports cited an motocycle taxi driver who is believed to have given the suspect a lift away from the scene of the blast, who he described as somebody who didn't "seem to be Thai" and spoke "an unfamiliar language" on his phone. Police spokesman Prawuth Thawornsiri wouldn't confirm the description, saying that: “If the suspect disguised himself, wore a wig, put on fake nose and spoke Arabic, we wouldn’t know if he’s really [a foreigner] anyway.” Nevertheless, the arrest warrant issued a few hours later was for an unnamed "foreigner", which is based on the sketch.

The contradictory statements started then to pile up on Thursday, starting with the National Police Chief Somyot Poompanmuang's assessment that "at least 10 people" of a "big network" were involved in preparing it "at least one month in advance". How he knows this, despite still not knowing who's behind the attack, is not known.

(ANALYSIS: Transparency is essential in Bangkok bombings probe)

Regardless of the amount of suspects and the ambiguous nationality and ethnicity of the main suspect, the military junta has ruled out that the attack was carried out by an international terrorism network, which kinda makes sense since Thailand is rarely targeted by any international terrorist group, except for a few instances but never against Thais (we reported). Junta spokesman Col. Winthai Suvaree then suggested an "organized crime" connection, without giving any clear motive.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Thai police requested assistance from Interpol, as confirmed by deputy national police spokesman Kissana Phathancharoen first to Reuters, whereas Thai military junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha - who appeared comparatively measured in the first two days after the attack - was quoted saying in his usual manner:

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha bristled when asked if his government, which was installed after a military coup last year, was seeking outside help. "This incident happened in Thailand. It is Thailand. Why do we want other people to come in and investigate?" the former general told reporters on Wednesday.

"Thai police grapple for firm clues to Bangkok bomb suspects", Reuters, August 19, 2015

He later went on to suggest to that police officers watch an American police procedure drama for inspiration. Whether he was being sardonic or serious is not known. That still didn't stop his military junta deputy PM and defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan asking the UK and US for assistance in the investigation - but only in form of equipment, not personnel. How the Thai officials are going to use the tools without any instruction and assistance and what tools were actually requested is not known.

With the hunt ongoing and the authorities continuing to chase any clue they can find, their senior officers aren't really sure if they're too late, as police spokesman Lt. Gen. Prawut Thavornsiri openly wondered whether the main suspect is still in the country, while Major-General Werachon Sukondhapatipak, another military junta spokesman (mostly dealing with the foreign media), is certain that he's still in the country.

These few examples from Thursday alone show how contradictory the statements from the police and military government are, sometimes even coming from the same branch. The root cause for this problem can be regarded as a pathological phenomenon in Thai bureaucratic culture: the compulsive need to say something - no matter if it's substantial, truthful or none of that - in order to appear knowledgeable, proactive and in command. While in many Western countries, the police would have one or two daily press briefings, many Thai senior police officers are constantly give updates whenever they're asked. It also doesn't help that Thai police and military usually have a tense rivalry.

The shambolic investigation in the murder case of two British tourists on Koh Tao last year garnered a torrent of international criticism and now heightened international attention is observing the ongoing investigations of the bomb attack. The Thai authorities are collectively already guilty of one thing: being incapable of delivering a clear and consistent message.

And thus, the worst case scenario could be what Thai scholar and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes:

At issue will be whether any party makes a credible claim of perpetration, or the authorities make a credible apprehension of the culprit. Without either, the latest blast may well fit the pattern of previous Bangkok-based explosions that ultimately fade into Thai oblivion due to a lack of forensic means and popular regard for the law.

"Terrorist attack in Bangkok turns up heat on Thailand", by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Nikkei Asian Review, August 19, 2015

With the Erawan Shrine already cleaned up and re-opened again within 72 hours after the blast, one can wonder if the work to find the callous attacker(s) behind Monday's bomb attack has been thorough enough. A BBC report suggests the contrary, with reporters still finding shrapnel and ball bearings at the scene. And when correspondent Jonathan Head attempted to hand them over at the National Police headquarters down the road, he was told that it was outside the office hours...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there's this:

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

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

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

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

Option 3: Who else? Well...

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

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

What we can say for certain is...

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