Thaksin

What does Thailand really know about the CIA's 'black site' prisons?

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 12, 2014

Thai officials have denied the existence of secret U.S. detention and interrogation facilities in Thailand, following the highly anticipated release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's use of torture in the past decade during the interrogation of terrorist suspects. But there may be some indications that Thailand may knows more than it is ready to admit.

The 525-page, highly redacted report finds that the CIA's so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were brutal - far worse than previously thought and ineffective in acquiring credible information. Among the 119 detainees, 26 were wrongly detained and 39 were tortured, according to the report. What the Senate Committee report didn't further reveal were the exact locations of these CIA facilities around the world. Fifty-four countries are suspected to have participated in the CIA rendition program to aid in the capture, detainment, transport and interrogation of terrorist suspects outside the jurisdiction of the United States - among them is Thailand.

However, members of the current Thai military government were quick to deny the accusations:

"A secret prison has not existed here and there are no reports of torture in Thailand. No Thai agencies have carried out such operations," Prime Minister's Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana said. "There have never been cases of bringing in these sorts of prisoners. We have never conducted any illegal activities with the US."

Suwaphan, a former director of the National Intelligence Agency, said he did not see Thailand being mentioned anywhere in the report. "The incidents mentioned in the report took place many years ago … Anyway, I can assure [you] there are no secret prisons or torture in Thailand." [...]

Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda affirmed that no secret prisons had existed in Thailand. "The Army was unaware of any secret prison in Thailand when I served as the Army chief. At that time, I had given assurance that Thailand did not have any secret prisons," Anupong said.

Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Worapong Sanganetra said he had no information regarding secret prisons or torture of suspected terrorists in Thailand.

"Govt denies secret prisons here, tightens security at US Embassy", The Nation, December 12, 2014

Contrary to Suwaphan's statement, Thailand is actually mentioned in the report by name (starting at page 301) in the capture of "Hambali", former leader of the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (which has links Al Qaeda) and the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings. The capture in Ayutthaya in 2003 is being credited to "signals intelligence, a CIA source, and Thai investigative activities", even though the report now says it was "largely through luck."

There have been rumors about a detention facility in Thailand since the early 2000s during the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The Washington Post was first to report in 2005:

By mid-2002, the CIA had worked out secret black-site deals with two countries, including Thailand and one Eastern European nation, current and former officials said. An estimated $100 million was tucked inside the classified annex of the first supplemental Afghanistan appropriation.

Then the CIA captured its first big detainee, in March 28, 2002. Pakistani forces took Abu Zubaida, al Qaeda's operations chief, into custody and the CIA whisked him to the new black site in Thailand, which included underground interrogation cells, said several former and current intelligence officials. Six months later, Sept. 11 planner Ramzi Binalshibh was also captured in Pakistan and flown to Thailand.

"CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons", Washington Post, November 2, 2005

Despite the very few mentions of "Thailand", the report very often cites "DETENTION SITE GREEN", which is widely believed to be the CIA black site prison in Thailand. It has been rumored that the location was somewhere either in Udon Thani province, in Sattahip at the Thai Navy base or near Don Muang Airport.

This is where the aforementioned Al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah was brought to and "placed in isolation on June 18, 2002, and remained in isolation for 47 days, until the CIA began subjecting him to its enhanced interrogation techniques on August 4, 2002" (page 30 of the report), hoping to gain intelligence on an imminent terrorist plot.

The report also indicates (despite the many redactions) that at least a few officials had knowledge about Abu Zubaydah's detainment at the black site in Thailand, contradicting this week's official denials. Under the section "Tensions with Host Country Leadership and Media Attention Foreshadow Future Challenges" in the chapter about Abu Zubaydah's case, it reads:

On April █ 2002, the CIA Station in Country █ attempted to list the number of Country █ officers who,[t]o the best of Station's knowledge," had "knowledge of the presence of Abu Zubaydah" in a specific city in Country █. The list included eight individuals, references to "various" personnel █████████████ and the "staff" of ████████████████ and concluded "[d]oubtless many others." By April █, 2002, a media organization had learned that Abu Zubaydah was in Country █, prompting the CIA to explain to the media organization the "security implications" of revealing the information. The CIA Station in Country █ also expressed concern that press inquiries "would do nothing for our liaison and bilateral relations, possibly diminishing chances that [the ███████████ of Country █] will permit [Abu Zubaydah] to remain in country or that he would accept other [Abu Zubaydah]-like renderees in the future." In November 2002, after the CIA learned that a major U.S. newspaper knew that Abu Zubaydah was in Country █, senior CIA officials, as well as Vice President Cheney, urged the newspaper not to publish the information. While the U.S. newspaper did not reveal Country █ as the location of Abu Zubaydah, the fact that it had the information, combined with previous media interest, resulted in the decision to close DETENTION SITE GREEN.

"Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program", United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, published December 9, 2014, page 24 - PDF

That's at least a strong indicator that the report lists eight individuals (possibly more) who know about the detainee's presence in the country of "DETENTION SITE GREEN" and highly likely the same country the local officers come from - which is believed to be Thailand in this case.

The "major U.S. newspaper" that was asked not to reveal the information about Abu Zubaydah's whereabouts is likely the Washington Post, which also wrote that the Thai officials at one point must have become aware of the CIA facility and its operation eventually:

Two locations in this category -- in Thailand and on the grounds of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay -- were closed in 2003 and 2004, respectively. [...]

But after published reports revealed the existence of the site in June 2003, Thai officials insisted the CIA shut it down, and the two terrorists were moved elsewhere, according to former government officials involved in the matter. Work between the two countries on counterterrorism has been lukewarm ever since.

"CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons", Washington Post, November 2, 2005

Both Hambali and Abu Zubaydah, among other former detainees of "DETENTION SITE GREEN", are currently beingheld at Guantanamo Bay.

The question now is who among the Thai officials knew what at what point? Obviously, the blanket denial by the current military junta is not only to protect themselves from losing face and potential legal and diplomatic repercussions both domestically and from abroad, but even more so since some members of the junta (like then-army chief Gen. Anupong EDIT: he became army chief in 2007) were in charge wof national security back then.

It also highlights the tenure of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra again and his dealings with the United States, Thailand being its oldest ally in the region. Asia Times Online wrote in 2008:

Months before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, the US and Thailand established the Counterterrorism Intelligence Center (CTIC), a secretive unit presciently which joined the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Thai intelligence officials to gather information about regional terror groups. [...]

Former prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra's democratically elected government paved the way for the CIA's secret prison's establishment, first by refusing to ratify the previous Democrat Party-led administration's decision to sign onto the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and second by granting a legal exemption and agreement not to extradite any US citizens who violated the Rome statute on Thai soil to an ICC signatory third country.

His government also, apparently on the US's urging, introduced terrorism-related charges into Thai criminal law. In quid pro quo fashion, Washington rewarded Bangkok in 2003 with the bilateral promise to negotiate a free trade agreement and upgraded Thailand to major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, which allows the Thai military to procure, sometimes at friendship prices, sensitive military technologies.

Yet the public revelations about CIA-led torture of terror suspects brought to Thailand cast a harsh new light on that special bilateral relationship and raises even harder questions about Thaksin’s motivations for allowing the US to violate Thai sovereignty.

"US and Thailand: Allies in torture", Asia Times Online, January 25, 2008

It has also been argued that the participation of Thaksin's government in the "war on terror" indirectly led to his campaign in the infamous "war on drugs" that resulted in some 2,800 possible extrajudicial killings and also horribly mishandled the situation in the Deep South, which sparked an Islamic separatist insurgency that still lasts until today.

Back in the present, questions remain about Thailand's role in harboring the CIA's detainment facilities and knowledge about the torture of terrorist suspects inside the black site prison, what is now widely billed elsewhere as "America's shame". The current military government's denial is in stark contradiction to the US Senate report. It does not raise confidence that anyone in Thailand will come clean about it - let alone be transparent - and it could grow into yet another dark stain on Thailand's military junta.

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

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?

Thailand protests live-blogs: It's been quite some busy days…!

As you may have seen and read it at Siam Voices or on my Twitter account, Thailand has seen the biggest anti-government protests since 2010, as rallies led by former Democrat Party MP, former deputy prime minister and veteran political bruiser Suthep Thuagsuban have gradually escalated their initial anti-amnesty bill campaign into an all-out anti-democratic push to topple the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in order to "eradicate Thaksinism". Here are the live-blogs we have been writing over the days at Siam Voices: November 11, 2013: LIVE: Thailand’s Senate amnesty debate, and the Preah Vihear ruling

November 25, 2013: LIVE: Thailand anti-government protests paralyze Bangkok

December 1, 2013: LIVE: Thai anti-govt protesters make ‘final push’

December 2, 2013: LIVE: Fresh violence raises tensions in Bangkok

December 3, 2013: LIVE: Tensions ease in Bangkok

To keep up with the situation in Thailand that will surely change quickly over the next few days go to my Siam Voices blog at Asian Correspondent and follow us on Twitter @Saksith, @siamvoices and @ASCorrespondent.

Thai Constitutional Court to decide on govt's fate yet again

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 20, 2013 UPDATE (Nov 20, 14.30h): The Constitutional Court ruled that the charter amendments to be unlawful, but did not disband the ruling Pheu Thai Party and their coalition partners. The judges took offense at the many irregularities during the parliamentary process (such as MPs using their absent colleagues voter ID cards to vote on their behalf) and the changes to Article 115.5 of the Constitution (see below). Full story and analysis here.

Original article

The current political tensions in Thailand could be prolonged this morning (Wednesday) at 11am as the Constitutional Court yet again decides on the constitutionality of proposed amendments brought forward by the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT). A rejection could also yet again threaten PT and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's grip on power - something that anti-government protesters are counting on.

Pheu Thai and the Yingluck government are still licking their wounds after a massive backlash earlier this month - including from their own supporter base - for pushing a wide-reaching amnesty bill through parliament, which was struck down in the Senate last week.

That decision has not appeased the opposition, as street-protests led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thuagsuban of the Democrat Party are still ongoing despite sinking attendances and a failed call for a national strike. Nevertheless, anti-government sentiments - stemming from an emotional antagonism against former prime minister and Yingluck's brother Thaksin - are high and what was initially meant as a anti-amnesty bill protest has gradually shifted into a straight-up campaign to overthrow the government. Currently, they are collecting signatures to impeach 310 MPs who were in favor of the amnesty bill.

Another cause for 'hope' for the anti-government protesters is today's upcoming verdict from the Constitutional Court on the legality of proposed amendments to the 2007 constitution, in particular the makeup of the Senate. In the draft, the new Senate would be increased from 150 to 200 members, all elected into office instead formerly 76 elected and 74 appointed senators (Article 111 of the Constitution). Critics also accuse the government of amending or abolishing passages that prevent direct relatives of MPs, party members and those who served as MPs in the recent past (Articles 115.5, 115.6 and 115.7, respectively) to run for Senate. Furthermore, the one-term limit of six years (Article 117) would also be done away with.

The complaint was sent in by a group of Democrat MPs and like-minded appointed Senators in September. Their reasoning and demands:

[...] ใช้สิทธิตามรัฐธรรมนูญมาตรา 68 ยื่นคำร้องขอให้ศาลรัฐธรรมนูญวินิจฉัย สั่งระงับการแก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญ [...] และให้ยุบ 6 พรรคร่วมรัฐบาลที่ ส.ส.ในสังกัดร่วมลงชื่อเห็นชอบกับการแก้ไข และสั่งเพิกถอนสิทธิเลือกตั้งหัวหน้าพรรคและกรรมการบริหารของ 6 พรรคร่วมรัฐบาลเป็นเวลา 5 ปี

Invoking Article 68 of the Constitution, [they] call on the Constitutional Court to rule and suspend the amendments [...] and dissolve the six-party government coalition whose MPs voted in favor of the amendments and bar their party leaders and executives from running in elections for 5 years.

ประเด็นที่กลุ่มผู้ยื่นคำร้อง [...] นั่นคือ เรื่องผลประโยชน์ขัดกัน คือ ส.ว.แก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญให้ตัวเองลงสมัคร ส.ว.ครั้งหน้าได้ จากเดิมที่เป็น ส.ว.ติดต่อกันเกิน 1 วาระไม่ได้ รวมทั้งมีการแก้ไขให้ "ลูก เมีย สามี" ลงสมัคร ส.ว.ได้ โดยจะโยงให้เห็นว่าอาจส่งผลให้ระบบตรวจสอบถ่วงดุลมีปัญหา รวมทั้งกระบวนการพิจารณาแก้ไขร่างรัฐธรรมนูญที่ไม่ชอบด้วยระเบียบข้อบังคับการประชุม อย่างการกดบัตรแทนกันของสมาชิกรัฐสภา

The reasonings of the complainants [...] are that the Senators are changing the constitution for their own benefit, from running in the next election whereas currently they cannot be in office for more than one term consecutively to allowing children, wives and husbands [and parents of MPs] to run for Senate, also including potential problems with checks and balances and irregularities during the parliamentary debates on the constitutional amendments, such as MPs using voter ID cards of absent colleagues to vote for them.

"คำวินิจฉัย"ศาล รธน." ปัจจัยจบ"ม็อบนกหวีด"?", Matichon Online, November 15, 2013

โดยน.ส.รสนา [โตสิตระกูล] กล่าวว่า เห็นว่า [...] ขัดรัฐธรรมนูญ มาตรา 122 และมาตรา 3 วรรคสอง ที่กำหนดว่า การปฏิบัติหน้าที่ของรัฐสภาต้องเป็นไปตามหลักนิติธรรม [...] ดังนั้น จึงเห็นว่า การแก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญดังกล่าว [...] เป็นไปเพื่อให้ทันกับ ส.ว. ที่จะหมดวาระ ในวันที่ 2 มี.ค.2557 ซึ่งจะสามารถลงเลือกตั้งใหม่ได้ทันที

[Appointed Senator] Miss Rosana Tositrakul says "In my opinion [...] [the amendments] violate Article 122 and Article 3.2 of the Constitution that say that the duties of the parliament have to follow the rule of law [...] thus I think these constitutional amendments [...] are for the Senators to run again, since their term ends on March 2, 2014."

"'รสนาง ยื่นศาลรธน. เบรกลางนติๆวระ3 แก้ที่มาส.ว.", Thai Rath Online, September 23, 2013

As with previous petitions, the complainants have cited Article 68, stating that anyone can file a petition to the Constitutional Court in case “a person or political party” tries to “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State under this Constitution“, which they clearly see in the amendments. The problem here is that it is ambivalent whether or not the attorney general is required to submit petitions - the majority of the judges think the attorney general is not necessary here and accepted it directly. Another amendment aims to clarify that point.

It has to be mentioned that - not unlike Pheu Thai and the amnesty bill - the appointed Senators are attacking the proposed changes to their chamber with a certain amount of self-righteousness, was it them who also have partly circumvented the restrictions and played the system for their own benefit, as our writer Kaewmala points out:

Poll after poll shows the majority of Thais supporting a fully elected Senate. The 2007 Constitution prohibits spouses, parents and children of sitting MPs from running for the upper house. This means most Thais don’t see the dangers of husband-and-wife parliament as much as the guardians of Thai democracy do. (And one might also ask if appointed Senators are less politically incestuous than the elected ones).

In any case, in February 2011 as many as 67 of 74 appointed senators resigned one day before the end of their six-year term so that they would qualify for another term. One can say that they strictly followed the letter of the Constitution, which imposes a one-term limit. It is clear that these 67 Senators felt a strong sense of duty to serve (by appointment), although the people seem to want to choose the representatives themselves. Is it a coincidence that those making the biggest noise against a fully elected Senate in the just approved constitutional amendment are mostly appointed senators?

"Constitutional amendment and the guardians of Thai democracy – Part 2", by Kaewmala, Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, October 20, 2013

Furthermore, the government and the red shirts, who were rallying Tuesday evening (and still soul-searching after the amnesty bill debacle), perceive the Constitutional Court to be politicized (also see here), as the preemptive refusal by PT lawmakers to accept the court's verdict clearly shows.

Nevertheless the nine judges will rule not only on the constitutionality of only a part of a greater catalogue of charter amendments, but also on the fate of Yingluck Shinawatra's government. As commented in Matichon, one of at least three likely scenarios can take place at 11am: 1) the amendments are constitutional, 2) the amendments are unconstitutional but the parties are not dissolved, instead the individual 312 MPs who voted in favor of the changes face impeachment, 3) the amendments violate Article 68 of the Constitution (see above), the ruling Pheu Thai Party and their 5 coalition parties face dissolution.

Today's decision by the Constitutional Court is less about the issue about the Senate's makeup, but yet another watershed moment that could defuse the political polarization a little bit or push the tensions beyond the brink.

Some personal thoughts: Thai amnesty bill's wrongs do not make one right

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 4, 2013 It all happened much quicker than anybody thought. What was anticipated to last right into the weekend was done in a day and a night, and we all are still nurturing a massive political hangover.

Parliament rushed the Amnesty Bill through the second and third readings with 310 votes and an absent opposition, and now awaits confirmation in the Senate - all that amidst a flood of outcry and criticism from all sides for very different reasons. As this political crisis in Thailand has dragged on for the best part of a decade now, the political landscape has become deeply polarized.

However, the arguments of both sides show that no matter how many wrongs you make, hardly any of them make it a right.

While the ruling Pheu Thai Party initially tabled the most agreeable version of the Amnesty Bill by their MP Worachai Hema, it then did an audacious bait-and-switch as it retroactively added in the more controversial sections that ultimately transforms it into a blanket amnesty, which would cover not only political protesters, but also their leaders and other people that have been convicted .

The hubris the party showed - all that in absence of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - with this move is reminiscent of the man that is most likely to profit from it: former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra lives in self-imposed exile since 2008, following a conviction and 2-year jail sentence for abuse of power handed down by a post-coup court that was arguably biased against him. Ever since then, he has been more than a shadow if the governments of his party's incarnations, including the current one of his sister Yingluck. While it is understandable that he is longing to return to Thailand, it can be argued that he is more effective abroad than at home, given the mountain of old and new problems he would have to face on his return.

With the blanket amnesty also absolving those responsible for the bloody crackdown on the 2010 anti-government protests, the party is betraying its loyal supporter base. The red shirts are split on this matter, as seen when 4 red shirt leaders abstained (Natthawut Saikau and Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, plus "Seh Daeng"'s daughter Khattiya and MP Worachai Hema, the bill's original sponsor), while all others followed the party line - something red shirt leader and MP Korkaew Pikulthong used to try to explain his political schizophrenia.

There have been protests against the bill before by a red shirt splinter group and they will do so again on November 10, while on the same day other red shirts will rally in favor of the bill. The red shirt movement is (once again) at a junction and has to reflect on what it actually stands for: as a force for genuine political reform - even if it means breaking away from Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party - or forever be branded as Thaksin's mob. The crucial question is, whether the majority of the base and the leaders are capable of the former?

While conservative anti-government protesters (mainly consisting of supporters of the opposition Democrat Party) rally against the impunity that Thaksin could get away with, it is also a sign of frustration from the opposition in and outside parliament in their failed attempt to get rid what they see as "Thaksinism" from Thai politics - even if it comes at the cost of democracy.

One of their main arguments is endorsing the 2006 military coup as "patriotic" to protect the country from the "evil" Thaksin and his politics. Their vehement defense of the coup and their denial of all its consequences displays the self-righteousness in their crusade for the "good people" and their lack of self-reflection.

The decision now lies with the Senate, but it can also be expected to be challenged at the Constitutional Court - two bodies that have played their own part in the political mess that Thailand is today. It is exactly the mindset of self-serving self-righteousness and a dangerous black-and-white thinking among those political institutions and groups that are not meant to be politicized but are politicized ever since the military coup and the meddling of non-parliamentary groups.

That is also why the culture of impunity of the darkest days in Thai history (1973197619922006 etc.) still prevails and will repeat over and over again until we start to realize that it needs more than just a simple electoral majority, more than an amnesty, more than the crucifiction of a political enemy and more than just the reversal to times that once were or never were at all - all those would be the first things to make things right.

Thailand: Tensions rise ahead of amnesty bill showdown, protests (UPDATE)

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 31, 2013 UPDATE (November 1, 8.00am): After an 18-hour marathon session ending at 4.20 am, parliament punched the Amnesty Bill through the second and third reading with 310 votes, while 4 MPs abstained: the red shirt leaders Natthawut Saikaur and Weng Tojirakarn, original bill sponsor Worachai Hema and Khattiya Sawasdipol, and the daughter of Maj Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol aka "Seh Daeng", the rogue general who supported the red shirt movement and was killed while giving an interview with The New York Times at the beginning of the 2010 crackdown. The opposition Democrat Party staged a walkout. The bill is now in the Senate for approval.

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The political atmosphere in Thailand is seeing rising tensions again after a period of relative calm and could see a major showdown this morning (Thursday) as the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) is submitting the controversial and rewritten Amnesty Bill for deliberation in parliament while the opposition is preparing to take to the streets and is trying to mobilize protests against it.

The so-called Amnesty Bill was originally intended to benefit only those involved in political protests since 2006, but not their leaders or any officials involved in violent clashes. However, a 35-member parliamentary vetting committee (dominated by Pheu Thai MPs) retroactively amended the bill, extending it to "persons accused of wrongdoing by a group of people or an organisation set up after the military coup of September 19, 2006."

This would include all officials and military officers responsible for the deadly crackdown on the 2010 anti-government red shirts protests as well as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008 after was convicted for abuse of power and sentenced to two years in jail.

The Pheu Thai Party has faced a backlash over the amendment, not only from the opposition Democrat Party but also from within their own ranks as the red shirt supporter base are objecting the possibility that those responsible for the victims of the 2010 crackdown could walk away scot-free. A red shirt splinter group and families of the victims held separate rallies against the bill over the past week.

Parliament announced on Tuesday that the deliberation for the second reading will begin this morning, before the third and final reading will take place on November 2 - technical and procedural hurdles notwithstanding. What also emerged is that the party ordered all its MPs to attend and also to vote in favor of the bill. All signs clearly show that the Pheu Thai Party is really now pushing to pass it through parliament, where it has a comfortable majority coalition.

On the other political side, the opposition Democrat Party are also now preparing their counter-measures, focussing outside of parliament:

The Democrat Party, which is planning to hold a mass rally at Samsen train station in Bangkok this evening to voice opposition to the blanket amnesty bill, should abide by the law, Deputy Prime Minister Pracha Promnog said yesterday. (...)

Four deputy Democrat Party leaders - Korn Chatikavanij, Thaworn Senneam, Issara Somchai, Siriwan Prassachaksattru , and party executive Satit Wongnongtaey - stepped down from their positions as board members. Though the five will continue as MPs, they say their reason for quitting the board was to pre-empt any moves to dissolve the part based on their role in the protest.

"Protesting Democrats told not to break law", The Nation, October 31, 2013

While the planned rally and fierce attitude on display by the Democrat Party has limited impact on what is going inside parliament, it will come down to how many people it can muster. In recent months they have regularly staged rallies (with conflicting reports on attendance numbers) while other anti-government groups, such as the "People's Democratic Force to Overthrow Thaksinism" (PEFOT, what a moutful!) or the short-lived white masks could gather only a couple of hundreds.

However, given the focus on a feared Thaksin whitewash and return to Thailand, the Democrat Party is in a rare situation where it could assemble a broader anti-Thaksin coalition (including whatever is left of the ultra-nationalist yellow shirts). Even though it is unlikely that they will literally rally for days, a 'strong' first showing could give at least some temporary momentum - Democrats have optimistically estimated it can rally 10,000, though half that would be considered a success.

The big questions are at what point Pheu Thai will pull back (if at all) and how the red shirts' grassroots base will react to the Amnesty Bill? Whatever happens in the next few days, this is the result of a certain hubris in the Pheu Thai Party on this issue. In the past, the ruling party would dip its toe to test the political waters with each new piece of critical legislation (as seen with the constitutional amendments). Now it seems that they are just short of dive bombing into hot water.

The danger for the ruling party does not come so much from the opposition, in or outside the parliament, but rather from within, especially the red shirts, even though the mainstream United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship - despite its declaration to abstain a few MPs - is likely to follow the party line and not create a mutiny should the bill pass. Nevertheless, the party should not underestimate the potential for dissent and resentment among its supporters for what is essentially the betrayal of a key campaign promise.

Thai gov't faces backlash from all sides over amnesty bill

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 29, 2013 Last week, we reported on the attempts by MPs of the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) to amend the amnesty bill draft to include those affected by groups or organizations set up after the military coup of 2006. The original draft by PT MP Wocharai Hema pardons protesters involved in the numerous political protests in recent years, but not their leaders and authorities involved in clashes during these events.

Now with the planned rewrite - spearheaded by PT MP Prayuth Siripanich, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary vetting committee of the bill - it could mean that a number of politicians and officials under investigation or already convicted could be acquitted, including former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The outcry by the opposition Democrat Party and anti-government protesters over a feared whitewash of their political enemy was to be expected. However, there's also opposition coming from PT's own supporter base: the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the umbrella organization of the red shirt movement,  who issued a statement voicing their disagreement with the draft rewrite since it also could potentially acquit those responsible for the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests in 2010:

(...) The United front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) would like to release this following statements:

1. The UDD are standing by its commitment to support the original format of MP Worachai Hema’s amnesty bill that will grant pardon to political prisoners of all colours only. (...)

3. The differences in solutions to the problem derived from the dissimilarity of opinions. Some MPs believe that amnesty bill should be priority after the formation of the government but the UDD believe that constitutional amendments and the eradication of coup consequences should be the primacy. However, since three years have passed and thousand remain convicted, the amnesty for political prisoners of all colours became the immediate policy of the UDD which resulted in the organization’s proposal for the amnesty bill that was later transformed into the original version of MP Worachai Hema’s bill.

4. One of the core problems is the group of people who will receive amnesty. In the case of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra who was victimised by the consequences of coup d’état, he should be granted justice through the elimination of coup consequences, not via amnesty bill. The amendment of article 309 is the right way to help Thaksin and it should be abolished.

"UDD Statement on the Revision of MP Worachai’s Amnesty Bill", October 25, 2013

In essence, the UDD opposes the notion of a rewritten amnesty bill that would see political and military officials not punished for the events of 2010, while at the same time suggesting an alternative route to undo the conviction of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra via constitutional amendments, which are another hot issue the government is currently facing heavy flak from the opposition and especially Section 309 seems to be very protected by the Democrat Party.

In the aforementioned Section 309 of the 2007 Constitution, the coup makers are essentially granted an amnesty since their actions and their consequences are declared constitutional, including the set-up of government agencies. One of them was the Assets Examination Committee, whose investigations led to a conviction of Thaksin in 2008 for abuse of power in a land purchase by his former wife and his self-imposed exile to avoid a 2-year prison sentence. The same conviction would be overturned by the rewritten amnesty bill.

On Sunday, around 300 red shirts of the Red Sunday Group of activist Sombat Boongam-anong (which is considered as a more progressive splinter group) returned to Rajaprasong intersection in the center of Bangkok - where most of the 2010 protests took place - to show their disappointment in the proposal, with Sombat accusing the Pheu Thai Party and Thaksin of failing their followers. Prior to that, the families of the 2010 protest victims have also voiced their opposition to it.

Despite the apparent controversy the ruling Pheu Thai Party has created among their own ranks, it is very doubtful that this could result in a backlash that is sizable and influential enough to revert it or even a "mutiny" as the Bangkok Post suggests, since the red shirts have already stated not to protest against the government should the bill pass in this form.

It is obvious the ruling Pheu Thai Party is willing to bank on a big political gamble that (while maintaining a comfortable majority in parliament) could alienate those parts of the supporter base that want to see justice for the deaths of the 2010 protests, one of the campaign promises that brought them to power in the first place.

UPDATE (Tuesday, 8.00pm): In a decisive push forward, parliament will meet on Thursday, October 31, to deliberate the amnesty bill in its second reading according to several media reports. What also emerged that the Pheu Thai Party passed a resolution that all its MPs, including the red shirts, are required to attend and all should vote in favor of the bill. The vote on the third deliberation is planned to take place on November 2.

Is this the end for Thailand's ultra-nationalist yellow shirts?

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2013 As leaders of the ultra-nationalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announce they have quit their roles in the movement, is this the end for Thailand's yellow shirts?

It was a Friday and the end of a rather tumultuous political week with long parliament debates on constitutional amendments almost coming to a grinding halt because of the antics by opposition Democrat Party that ultimately couldn't stop to vote.

From the outermost sidelines of the Thai political playing field, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - the ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic and anti-Thaksin street protest group also commonly known as the yellow shirts - announced that it would make a televised statement later that Friday evening.

A "change in its stance" was touted by the movement. The question was in which direction it was heading. Would the yellow shirts return to mass street protests they have given up on in 2012? Would the Democrat Party return to the fold after their break-up and following ridicule by the PAD?

In the presence of all key yellow shirt leaders such as Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang - most of whom have kept a rather low public profile in the recent past - from the movement's own TV studio, a spokesman read out a slightly surprising 30-minute statement:

Core bosses of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announced last night they have quit the movement's leadership (...)

Their decision, which was broadcast on the satellite-based ASTV station, came after it became clear Democrat Party MPs would not quit parliament to join a campaign to push for political reforms as had been suggested earlier by one of the PAD leaders Sondhi Limthongkul. (...)

The PAD leaders, who face a number of charges as a result of anti-Thaksin Shinawatra protests, claimed their ability to conduct political activities was being curbed by court orders.

If they were to bring about political reform, they would have to violate those court orders but there were no guarantees that their "sacrifices" would pay off in the long run.

They said the PAD alone was not powerful enough to bring about change. The Democrats, however, have the resources and are not restrained by any court orders, they said, but the Democrats have turned their back on Mr Sondhi's proposal.

By rejecting the PAD's offer, the Democrat Party showed that it was only aiming at discrediting the government and, like other political parties, hoped to use other groups for its own political gains, the statement added.

"Top PAD bosses resign en masse", Bangkok Post, August 24, 2013

The leaders further lamented in their Friday night announcement the 'vicious cycle' of politics. Even if the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (which they perceive as a proxy government of her brother Thaksin) is overthrown, the ruling Pheu Thai Party would comfortably win again in a reelection scenario. Any other political party would also act purely for their own political gain, their statement continued.

The yellow shirts have put their hopes in their former fellow anti-Thaksin protesters from the Democrat Party (both have large overlapping supporter groups mainly consisting of middle class Bangkokians), but they have moved on and created their own street protest groups. Furthermore, the opposition politicians would also not want to risk their political careers and quit parliament, which was a condition demanded by the PAD for them to join.

It was an admission of failure for the PAD in their mission to 'free' Thai politics of the influence of Thaksin (also a former business partner of Sondhi before ties between two soured) and everything the yellow shirts believe he stands for, among them a corrupt democratic system that needs to be done away with - preferably via a military coup and replaced with appointed representatives instead of elections.

What began as a broad urban anti-Thaksin alliance in 2005 and the (re-)introduction of street politics to Thailand and reached its climax in the 2008 airport siege (their trials have been postponed countless times), became more and more marginalized over the years. All that is left of the movement is the ultra-nationalist and anti-Thaksin core from the beginning.

Will this mean the end of anti-Thaksin protests? Far from it! The sentiments against Thaksin have only run deeper in Thailand over the years, as the various affiliated off-shoot protest groups such the ultra-royalist multi-colored shirts, the short-lived Pitak Siam and the recently emerged 'White masks' have shown. What all these groups have in common - apart from near-facist political leanings - is that while they have identified what they hate, they rarely have offered a proper political solution to the ongoing polarization.

The leaders' resignation wants to be understood as something temporary rather than a complete breakdown. A return of the yellow shirts to the streets is never really out of the question given the right circumstances. However, with Friday's announcement the People's Alliance for Democracy have become a complete misnomer: they do not have enough the mass support they require, nor have they allies such as the Democrat Party and the military, and they certainly do not stand for democracy.

Dubious “Al Qaeda” video threatens former Thai PM Thaksin

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 28, 2013 A YouTube video of questionable origin and quality emerged on Friday, supposedly by members of the militant terrorist organization Al Qaeda, issued a threat against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra for his government's heavy-handed actions against militant separatist insurgents in the South of Thailand.

In the 2:45-minute long video tilted "Al-Qaeda video against former Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra", men dressed in tunics and masking their faces in headscarfs while branding firearms are reading out a statement - while holding up a picture of Thaksin - possibly in Arabic and then again in English by another unmasked person, pledging to kill Thaksin in order "to avenge the killing of Muslims in the South" of Thailand.

The separatist insurgency in the 3 deep Southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat has claimed over 5,000 lives (civilians, military and rebels) since 2001 and the heavy-handed approach of Thaksin Shinawatra during his tenure as prime minister has been blamed for escalating the situation, whereas reports of impunity of Thai security authorities and the insurgents' increased targeting of civilians have deteriorated the conflict.

The video specifically makes reference to the Tak Bai incident of October 2004 when Thaksin was prime minister, where almost 1,300 people were detained after a protest at a police station in Narathiwat and were abused by the police and then stacked on top of each other in military trucks. 78 people died during the transport, the total death toll is 85. It also mentions the current government of Thaksin's sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, explicitly calling it a "puppet government".

The video was made 'private' and later removed by YouTube for "violating" their "policy on violence" on Saturday, thus inaccessible for the public to see. Later attempts to reupload the video by other parties have been reportedly met with a similar response.

While the authenticity of the video has yet to be verified, strong doubts can be raised about the video. For instance, when the statement was issued in English the words did not match with the lip movements of the unmasked man in the video.

Others have flatout dismissed the video:

Lt.Gen. Paradorn Pattanatabutr, secretary-general of the National Security Council, told Khaosod that the "amateurish" video is clearly not a work of Al-Qaeda or any other Islamist organization.

"The people who made this clip are no other than the same group who want to overthrow Mr. Thaksin," Lt.Gen. Paradorn declared. (...)

"[The Malaysian colleagues] are also aware that right now there is anti-democracy movement campaigning against the government," Lt.Gen. Paradorn said tartly.

"'Al-Qaeda' Video Threatening Thaksin's Life Dismissed As Fake", Khaosod English, July 27, 2013

The video has been released as Thaksin, who lives in exile since a military coup ousted him in 2006, just turned 64 years old on Friday and Paradorn implies the domestic political situation in Thailand - the parliament will reconvene next week and will deliberate the controversial amnesty bills first - as a motive for the video, whereas Isra News have investigated possible Malaysian anti-government backgrounds in the video (read Bangkok Pundit's summary here) and Prachatai reports that the user has mainly commented in Urdu (the national language in Pakistan) on other videos concerning Pakistani politics.

Another factor speaking against the video is the particular reference to the decade-old incident of Tak Bai. Also, neither Al Qaeda nor their affiliated Southeast Asian groups such as Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah have been overly active in Thailand (even though the latter is reported to maintain cells in the Southern provinces and a main operative of theirs has been arrested in Ayutthaya in 2003) nor have they been linked to the insurgent groups in South Thailand, despite past claims by authorities. Also, the insurgent groups themselves have limited their activities to the three southern border provinces - with the notable exceptions of the Hat Yai bombings in 2005, 2006 and 2012 - and never have extended their actions to the capital Bangkok.

While the capital Bangkok is more a logistical hub for terrorist groups, that is not to say that there has never been any terrorist activity in Thailand (I'm looking at you, Chalerm!): In early 2012, the US Embassy issued a warning to its citizen, which was immediately followed by an arrest of a suspect of the Lebanese Hezbollah. A month later, three Iranians literally blew up their cover and were suspected to have made plans to attack Israeli targets in Bangkok. A year later, Thai authorities (namely then-deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung) spoke of an Al Qaeda terror plot against the US consulate in Chiang Mai, only then to bizarrely announce a day later that the suspect has already left the country unhindered.

NOTE: The incident referenced by the video is the Tak Bai incident, not the Krue Se Mosque incident. The article has been edited in order to reflect the correct reference.

Thailand: Reconciliation games continue as amnesty bill goes to parliament

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 26, 2013 When Thailand's parliament reconvenes next week to continue the political season one of the most discussed and possibly the most controversial issue will be the passing of the so-called amnesty or reconciliation bill. Advertised as a means to overcome the ongoing political division by giving far-reaching amnesty to those convicted for taking part in the countless political protests - of both yellow and red shirts - since the military coup of 2006, opponents are accusing the government of white-washing the activities of the red shirt protesters and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Depending on which of the various drafts you read, the bill could issue an even more far-reaching amnesty that also includes the junta behind the military coup, the military and civilian authorities responsible for the violent crackdown of the 2010 anti-government red shirt protests (including then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thuagsuban), the various protest leaders, erasing the post-coup judiciary (a junta-appointed court which has dissolved deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party and banned 111 politicians from office in 2007) and - according to one draft - even absolve Thaksin himself from a 2008 court sentence for abuse of power in a land purchasing case.

The authors of the drafts nearly all come from the governing Pheu Thai Party (PT). Red shirt leader and current deputy commercial minister Natthawut Saikua and coup-leader and now-opposition politician Sonthi Boonyaratglin may come from opposite ends of the political devide, but have presented similar amnesty drafts, with the main difference that "those who commit terrorist acts and acts causing death" are excluded in Natthawut's bill proposal. The former deputy prime minister and now newly demoted named labor minister Chalerm Yubamrung also throws in a draft of his own in a typically eager attempt to leave a personal mark on this issue, in which almost everybody - including Abhisit and Thaksin - are absolved. None of the bills include those imprisoned under the lèse majesté law.

Last week, another proposal for a reconciliation bill was introduced by a group that has been often neglected in the political infighting but was arguably most affected in the political crisis:

Relatives of those killed in the April-May 2010 crackdown on red-shirt protesters are to submit a "Worachai-plus" amnesty bill as parliament prepares to consider six other amnesty bills next month. (...)

"People from all colours will be absolved of any offence they committed or had committed against against them, except for core leaders," Ms. Payao [Akkahad, the mother of 25-year-old Kamolkade Akkahad, a medical volunteer who was killed inside Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19, 2010] said of the victims' relatives' version of the bill.

The relatives will submit their five-page bill to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tomorrow, and to the parliament speaker on July 24, she said.

This bill, [Punsak Srithep, father of the 17-year-old Samapun Srithep, who was killed on May 15, 2010, on Ratchaprarop Road,] said, would allow judicial lawsuits to be pressed against persons or groups that killed people and/or damaged private property. The relatives' bill also does not prevent private entities whose properties were damaged in the unrest from launching civil suits against vandals or arsonists, he said.

"2010 victims' relatives push amnesty bill", Bangkok Post, July 15, 2013

The draft, coined by local media as the "People's Bill", has found in opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva an unlikely proponent. While he lauds it to be "the first amnesty bill that had been proposed with a reasonable and reconciliatory tone," parts of the proposal directly target him and his administration's role in the violent crackdown on the red shirt protesters in 2010 (both he and his former deputy Suthep are facing murder charges by the DSI on at least one count, if not even more). It comes as no surprise that his party supporters and other ultra-conservatives have criticized Abhisit for voicing his support, many questioning whether or not he actually read the entire thing. The opposition has not yet brought up a proposal on their own.

Meanwhile, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the mainstream red shirt umbrella organization, has voiced skepticism about the "People's Bill":

Prominent Pheu Thai politicians and Redshirts leaders, such as Mr. Weng Tojirakarn, Mr. Sombat Boon-ngarmanong, and Ms. Suda Rangupan, have accused Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak of trying to slow down the process to pass amnesty bill by picking a fight with the powerful military.

According to those opposed to the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill, the effort to free detained Redshirts protesters should be a priority over the need to prosecute the security forces. They expressed their fear that the military would never allow Ms. Yingluck′s government to pass such a bill, ruining the chance of any little gain there might be altogether, and might even launch a military coup in retaliation.

Some Redshirts also openly questioned the motives of Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak, indirectly accusing them of being collaborators with the rival Democrat Party which, strangely enough, had expressed its support for the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill.

"Fragmentation Among Redshirts Highlighted By Amnesty Debate", Khaosod Online, July 24, 2013

Instead, the UDD and the Pheu Thai Party are reportedly backing the draft by PT MP Worachai Hema, putting it top of the agenda for deliberation in parliament (even before the 2014 Budget Bill!) and ditching all other proposals - a move some observers say is to avoid uproar from the UDD, despite reports of dissatisfaction among certain groups within the fragmented movement. Under Worachai's bill, all political protestors will be granted amnesty - regardless of their political allegiance - while excluding the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdowns.

August rings in a new political season that could get very heated very quickly: on top of the 2014 Budget Bill, the 2.2 trillion Baht (US$ 730bn) loan for infrastructure investments and proposed constitutional amendments, the amnesty bill will spark months of legislative tugs of war and wars of words (and potentially worse antics by the opposition outside and inside parliament like last year) - once again revealing how big Thailand's political divisions really are and that even a far-reaching amnesty will not be enough to close the gap.