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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: 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.

Thailand fails to find closure on Bangkok massacre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thailand: 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.

Thailand: What we missed in August 2012

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 27, 2012 In a new section on Siam Voices, we look back at some news stories that made the headlines in Thailand this month.

Thailand's Olympic medal winners: Sporting hurt pride

Earlier this month, the 30th Olympic Summer Games took place in London. As usual, Thailand's Olympic ambitions included the expectation of some medals, having won seven gold, four silver and 10 bronze medals at previous games in the weightlifting, boxing and taekwondo competitions. That was not the exception this time around again, as silver medal winners Pimsiri SirikaewKaeo Pongprayoon and bronze medalist Chanatip Sonkham won medals at exactly these sports respectively.

However, it wasn't all smiles and joy: especially in the case of light flyweight boxer Kaeo Pongprayoon, many Thais took offense to his loss in a controversial final against China's Zou Shiming due to some questionable officiating and actions by Zou. Predictably the Thai fans couldn't shake off the feeling that 'they' got robbed and some of them predictably took their anger online, partly in very poor taste. An example of nationalism-fueled rage was to be seen on the Facebook page of the International Boxing Association, whose picture of a celebrating Zou Shiming got over 65,000 comments, most of them negative and still counting two weeks after the end of the games.

And generally, despite the fact that Thailand did quite well compared to its neighbors, these games were a disappointment for the officials, who hoped for two gold medals as a target (that's nothing compared to the secret German medals target that was missed by lightyears) and now have to think about how to improve the support for athletes, both olympic and paralympic, whose summer games are starting later this week.

Pheu Thai's rice scheme: The Price is Right?

It bears many names: pledging scheme, mortgage scheme, fixed pricing scheme - but they all mean the same rice policy of the Yingluck government that has been one of the essential cornerstones of Pheu Thai Party's campaign before the election and of the current administration since last October. In a nutshell, the government buys rice at 15,000 Baht (about $480) per ton - that is 50 per cent more than the market price. What was primarily aimed to help the around 8 million rice farmers in the country was met with criticism and concerns that it will either lead to a global price hike, a loss of Thailand's status as the world's top exporter of rice or both.

Almost a year after its introduction, the criticism has increased in recent months, as export numbers are declining and projections that Thailand will lose its number one position in global exports. And so the critical analysis pieces go on, and on, and on, and on - but the consensus was the same: the government's rice policy causes private rice millers and exporters to suffer and the governments sits on a huge pile of rice that they can't get rid off in bi-lateral deals, as it is about to spoil. Nevertheless, the government will continue it. More details can be read over here at Bangkok Pundit's post.

Policemen found guilty of extrajudicial killing - and released on bail!

In early August the Criminal Court in Bangkok found five police officers guilty of the murder of a 17-year old man. The teenager was arrested by these policemen in 2004 in the southern province of Kalasin for allegedly stealing a motorcycle. That was during the time of the "War on Drugs", a heavily-propagated campaign by the Thaksin administration that targeted drug dealers and traffickers, but also ensured security officials to use a heavy-handed and violent approach, in which, according to rights groups, over 2,500 people were killed - many of them extrajudicially - and over 1,600 died in prison or custody, about 131 of them as a result of police brutality. The 17-year-old was one of them, as he was detained for over a week and later found dead in another province.

Three police officers have been sentenced to death for premeditated murder and hiding the young man's body, one to life imprisonment for premeditated murder and the Police Colonel was sentenced to seven years in jail for abusing his power to cover up the murder. However, despite the convictions, these men are walking free on bail pending appeal. Understandably, the key witnesses are concerned over their safety, since their witness protection program ironically ended with the court verdict. Calls for new witness protection have been so far unanswered.

Thaksin's US travels spark anti-American tantrum

Yeah, Thaksin is still traveling freely around the world, even more so since many countries have re-granted him entry. The United States was the latest to do so and that issue alone has stirred up some diatribes from his enemies, most of all the self-proclaimed Thaksin hunter, diplomatic wrecking-ball and former foreign minister Kasit, who immediately called to severe ties with the US, should they not extradite him to Thailand. If only when he and his cabinet issued an extradition request for Thaksin when they were in government - but they didn't!

The fugitive former prime minister traveled to New York first and then was scheduled to appear at a red shirt gathering in Los Angeles - but Thai media reported that some "700 to 2,000" yellow shirts have allegedly foiled the event and Thaksin had to bail out. The problem is that the numbers were from a Thai community paper in LA and cannot the independently verified. And let's be honest: an assembly of 2,000 similarly dressed people would have made local news already over there - only it didn't! Meanwhile, back in Thailand the anti-Thaksin protesters gathered at the US Embassy and have come up with some rather bizarre conspiracy theories. Let's see where Thaksin goes next...

Thai Senator 'accidentally' kills secretary with uzi - or pistol - or wife - or cousin...!

In mid-August, a news headline from Thailand went around the world that was both shocking and bizarre: "Senator 'accidentally' kills secretary with Uzi". Mae Hong Son Senator Boonsong Kowawisarat was carrying the firearm during dinner at a resort when it accidentally discharged and killed a woman believed to be his secretary. Of course, these circumstances were perfect ingredients for yet another 'quirky' news item from Asia for Western media - and when even Gawker was reporting it (predictably not without mistakes), you know something has hit critical mass.

But the next morning, the circumstances weren't that clear anymore as nearly every detail of this incident was put in question: What was the weapon and who did it kill? In the end it emerged that the Senator's pistol, a 9mm Jericho 941 (also named Uzi Eagle), fired a bullet into the stomach of Chanakarn Detkard, his domestic partner with whom he has two children.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

Thailand: 2 years after the May 19 crackdown - some personal (and very short) thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 21, 2012 On Saturday, thousands of red shirts gathered at Ratchaprasong Intersection in Bangkok to commemorate the second anniversary of the violent crackdown against the anti-government protests on May 19, 2010 by the military. Ninety-one people have lost their lives and thousands were wounded in the clashes - protesters, soldiers, civilians and journalists (notably Fabio Polenghi) are among the casualties. In the past two years there has been hardly any justice and impunity still prevails.

There seems to be a growing discontent among some red shirts over the people they initially supported. Key issues such as lèse majesté have still seen no action from the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Many see this as a promise from the government in exchange for a shaky détente with the military that allows it to stay in power. Yingluck's brother, the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, made his regular phone-in to his supporters on Saturday, asking the crowd to put aside calls for solving social inequalities and injustice for the sake (yet again) for national reconciliation - potentially alienating the progressive, pro-democracy wing of the red shirt movement.

In contrast to 2010 and 2011, I have decided not to write a long column on the state of the nation. However, I tweeted a few concise thoughts on Saturday that have gained some response and I thought they would be worth sharing here:

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

What I've been up to lately... (aka Shameless Self-Plugging)

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Phew, what a week that was! As regular readers of my blog know, I do not write too many exclusive posts for my personal blog here. Most of the time, all the posts I write for Siam Voices are being republished here and form time to time I post a personal column almost every sixth month - so since my last one was a recap of 2010, a new one is overdue. And you came around at the right time, because there's a lot to tell you about the last few days and weeks...

So, even the last person must have recognized that I'm in Bangkok right now, where I'll spent nearly all of this summer working (as a journalist), researching (for my final thesis) and if there's still time for some little fun (for my own sanity). The first two weeks of my stay so far has been almost entirely work-centric - there was an election nonetheless!

So here's a list of posts I've written or other things I've been involved in (Note: This post, among other articles, should have gone up long, long time ago. Apologies!):

Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent - June 24, 2011 "Thailand’s Democrat Party rally: Reclaiming (the truth about) Rajaprasong" A field report from the Democrat's rally at Rajaprasong, the same place where over a year ago the red shirts seized. Deputy prime minister Suthep Tuangsaban wanted to show 'the truth' about what happened during the violent clashes a year ago, while prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warns people that a vote for the opposition Pheu Thai Party is a vote for Thaksin.

Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent - June 27, 2011 "‘Justice Delayed, Justice Denied’ – A public seminar on last year’s violence and what has (not) happened since" As an interesting contrast to the Rajaprasong rally by the Democrat Party, this public forum at Thammasat University has several speeches on what has (not) happened ever since the violent crackdown on the protests. Spoiler: Not much...

Thaizeit.de - June 29, 2011 "Wir sind ein gespaltenes Land" ("We are a devided country") A Thailand-based, German language website conducted an interview with me about the current political situation. I particularly like the description "Thai-hanseatic" and my answer to the last question (if necessary, put through a translator).

Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent - July 1, 2011 "Pheu Thai Party rallies in Nakhon Ratchasima – a photo essay" Another day on the campaign trail, we followed Yingluck Shinawatra to a Pheu Thai Party rally in Nakhon Ratchasima (also known as Korat). I'm surprised that me and my cameraman (I'm on double duty for IHLAS News Agency) were let onto the stage that easily and at the time Yingluck came, there was absolute pandaemonium! After that we were racing to back to Bangkok to be just in time for...

Al Jazeera "The Stream" - June 29, 2011 "Thai Elections: Lions, Tigers, and Bears? Vote 'No'! - Saksith Saiyasombut" Al Jazeera's new social media-centric show "The Stream" has done an Skype interview with me - at 2.30am (since they're based in Washington DC!). I'm kind of surprised that they went with the "Vote No" and the animal posters as the lead and my answers concerning social media and Thai politics probably wasn't what they wanted to hear. This is my third time that I appeared on Al Jazeera program (after appearing on The Listening Post, twice) - can I now be called a 'regular contributor'...?

CNNgo - June 30, 2011 "Saksith Saiyasombut: Get out from under your coconut shell and vote" My first contribution for CNNgo, a lifestyle and travel website, but also always with an eye on the more serious sides of life, including social issues and politics. This column doesn't go into the details of the political mechanisms, but more my feelings about this country and where it is heading to, when we're not careful enough. This piece was done in the same night as the Al Jazeera interview and so was the next piece...

CNNgo - July 3, 2011 "Top 10 strange moments of Thailand's 2011 general election" Top 10-lists always go well as an online article format so I did my very own top 10 of election campaign oddities, and there were many of them this year.

Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent- July 3, 2011 "Live-Blog: Thailand Elections 2011" Throughout the whole election day I live-blogged, partly from my mobile phone on a back of a motorcycle, about nearly all aspects of that day.

Thailand's Democrat Party rally: Reclaiming (the truth about) Rajaprasong

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 24, 2011 The big screens flanking the stage on the left and the right are bearing a gruesome view. Footage of at times badly injured people from last year's rally are being shown when suddenly at the sight of blood people started cheering - as it turns out, not for the brutally killed victims of the anti-governments protests of 2010, but for a woman with an Abhisit cut-out mask waving to the crowd behind her.

Thursday's rally of the governing Democrat Party rings in the final days of a fiercely contested election campaign and the chosen venue was not a coincidence: Rajaprasong Intersection, where a little bit more than a year ago the red shirts held their rally for the better part of their nine and a half-week-campaign to force the government of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva out, only to be dispersed in a chaotic crackdown by the military on May 19. 87 people lost their lives, more than 2,000 were injured and, for some a symbol of the 'red chaos', Central World, one of Asia's biggest shopping malls, burned down. The red shirts have returned a few times since then to remind people what happened.

Now the government has chosen this (almost) very same spot to show their version on the events of May 19, 2010. Unsurprisingly, the announcement to a rally at that place has been widely regarded as a deliberate provocation to the red shirts, who view this intersection as a symbol of state brutality and political oppression. The more anxious were the expectations on what or if they would do anything to disrupt the event in any way. Despite the Pheu Thai Party discouraging its supporters to stage a counter-protest, some smaller groups had hinted at convening at the site in some form. But during the whole evening, there have been no such incidents reported (though I heard there has been a cursing ritual at the nearby Erawan Shrine the day before).

Contrary to concerns that streets have to be closed off for yet another political rally, the Democrats have chosen the large plaza in front of the Central World. Since this is a private property, the approval of the owners was a privilege the red shirts didn't have and most unlikely will ever get. The stage, primarily in blue and with a big Thai flag as a background, was positioned in front of the burned down section of the mega-mall that is being rebuilt - another symbolism of the evening.

Supporters started to flock in hours before the event started with a jubilant mood, while many placards and signs are being handed out, many of them showing '10', the number on the ballot paper where the Democrat Party is listed. Several politicians and government ministers were warming up the estimated 5,000-strong crowd, while the same two Party's pop songs were blaring from the loudspeakers. Even two heavy rain showers were not enough to dampen the mood of the mostly older attendees.

The rally kicked off at 6pm with the National Anthem, when deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban shortly thereafter begun his speech, which he has previously touted as the definite 'truth' about the crackdown. Suthep went straight ahead to his account, citing many pieces of evidence and lines of arguments that have been previously presented in some shape and form before. Suthep, broadly speaking*, argues that armed militia groups, dressed in black have caused casualties on both sides. But, according to him, no one has been killed directly at Rajaprasong, pointing that the other casualties have happened at places near the rally site. Additionally, the deputy prime minister hints that the late rogue Maj Gen Kattiya Sawasdipol aka "Seh Daeng" has been killed because of an internal argument over the leadership of the red shirts movement.

Of course, he could not resist taking a jab at the opposition, referencing their PM candidate Yingluck Shinawatra statement that she could not control the red shirts from heckling. Suthep understood her sentiment, only to add that the red shirts have 'hijacked' the Pheu Thai Party. "22 convicted criminals are on the ballot paper," mentioning the red shirt leaders running for office, "the worst case would be [jailed red shirt leader] Jatuporn Phromphan becoming a security minister - I'd better start hiding."

The next two speeches were held by former prime minister Chuan Leekpai and the party's campaign strategist Korbsak Sabhavasu, who (like all speakers) were interrupted with loud, approving cheers whenever a swipe at the red shirt leaders or Pheu Thai executives was made. Especially when Korbsak read some of the names on Pheu Thai's ballot, each name was replied with a disapproving, at times disgusted roar, to which he added: "You cannot have any reconciliation with these people!"

The long evening reached it's climax at 9pm, when a long video clip was played. This video montage, set to "O Fortuna", showed several quotes by red shirts leaders and Thaksin (including the infamous "We'll burn down the country"speech by Nattawut), accompanied by scenes of destruction, all allegedly done by red shirts, evoking some kind of Thai apocalypse. It was followed by another clip, which actually is the "We're sorry, Thailand"-ad from last year, which has created some controversy. But instead of showing the original slogan of the clip ("Seeding positive energy, changing Thailand [for the better]"), a portrait of Abhisit was shown.

The prime minister immediately took the stage, welcomed by load cheers. "We're here not to put more oil into the flame," said Abhisit, "but to show that this place is like any other place in the country, a place for all Thais." Before he continued, he asked from for a minute of silence for all victims. "The truth must be told", he continued and recounted the events of recent years ever since he took office, including the 2009 and 2010 protests, from his point of view. "People are saying I do not show much emotion," Abhisit said, "but on the night of April 10, I cried!"

The prime minister went on attack on Thaksin and the opposition in the closing moments of his speech:

"Why does their big boss hinder reconciliation? I don't understand! His followers are living a difficult life! (...) Like in the past, Thaksin thinks, the red shirt leaders act. This time it is the Pheu Thai Party that acts!"

"Society needs to help those who are legitimately angry and punish those who use them to incite violence!"

"If you don't vote at all or for us, fearing that the reds will come out again, then you'll be a hostage of those who incite fear! (...) If you want the country get rid of the poison that is Thaksin, then you should vote for us and vote for us to get more than 250 seats!"

The rally is an attempt by the government to (symbolically) reclaim Rajaprasong not only as a public space, but also to reclaim the sovereignty of interpretation over what has happened during the crackdown. The gloves are clearly off and the Democrats did not leave out a single opportunity to blame Thaksin for the 'mob'. The governing party is, if the polls are anything to go by, losing ground even in Bangkok. So in a sense this is also a reclaiming of the capital as their home battleground. Abhisit and his Democrat Party, having previously claimed to move on, are apparently not quite done yet with the past.

*Author's note: This article is aimed at re-telling the atmosphere of the event, rather than disseminating the 'facts' presented by the speakers bit by bit. This may or may not be addressed in another post.

The May 19 Bangkok Crackdown, One Year On - Some Personal Thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 19, 2011 Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and not of Asian Correspondent and of the other Siam Voices authors

I've been blogging about Thai current affairs and politics for over a year and my writing debut coincided with the start of the protests by the red shirts in March 2010. Over the next nine weeks, I was trying to grasp this potentially crucial moment in the recent history of the Kingdom not by documenting each and every minute of what was happening on the ground (since I was and am still based in Hamburg), but more from a different meta-level by providing context and backgrounds on the persons, motives and other backgrounds.

I was in shock after the violent clashes on April 10, 2010. I was angry about the knee-jerk reactions against foreign opinions and international media, which wasn't perfect - but still better than the domestic coverage. I was doubtful if the leadership of the red shirt was too big and indecisive. I was baffled by the ignorance of many people who couldn't see the roots of the problems. There were many stories during the two and a half months that became my daily routine.

And then came May 19, 2010: I was about to go to bed shortly before midnight, when I received first words from Bangkok (where it was already about 5 AM) about a potential troop movement closing in on the under-siege Ratchaprasong intersection and about to strike. Already exhausted I decided to follow that lead and to stay up for a few more hours to see if something actually happened. The rest was, well, not only another 16-hours-streak of live-blogging but also the definitive destruction of a national myth, that Thailand is a unified and peaceful country.

One week after the violent crackdown on the red shirt protests, I wrote a column on my personal blog, stating that the mess had just only begun and a radicalization of all factions could occur. I doubted that there would be any serious attempts at reconciliation since nobody seems to get that understanding is crucial to harmony. I condemned the democratic institutions including the courts and the media for failing to effectively solve or even address problems that had been boiling for years. I feared we Thais would just preach to move on and forget by just putting a blanket over the ever-increasing rift. I hoped that everyone would sincerely think for a moment why we got to this point and does not forget this at the next best diversion.

Unfortunately, one year on, I don't see much has changed.

Of course, one might have a different observation from the one I have and that's totally fine - but this is more an attempt to describe the despair and anger I have when looking at the current state of Thailand from outside - and I'd argue that this distance creates a vastly differently picture than from the inside.

First off, there's the utter lack of even acknowledging that mistakes have been made and the deaths have been caused by the Thai military. Instead, we get the perfect denials and a blatant white-wash by the authorities that not a single soldier could possibly have killed (not even accidentally) a civilian. Of course not, "they all ran into the bullets!" And they wonder why nobody believes them and there's dissatisfaction over their findings?

The problem with reconciliation is that it isn't enough just to give out amnesty to everyone (as the opposition Pheu Thai Party plans, more on them later) and appease both sides. More and more people, especially the red shirt protesters are demanding justice and accountability! But getting a 'mea culpa' from anybody in the higher echelons of power is very unlikely.

It's almost ludicrous to see the 'attempts' at reconciliation when comparing the authorities trying to seize control over the main national narrative of the current state of affairs. It cannot be denied that that there's at least a perceived increase in restrictions of freedom of expressions, especially online. Hundreds of thousands of web pages have been blocked in recent years, cyber-dissidents have been either intimidated, prosecuted or jailed for saying things out of the norm, a subversive 'Cyber-Scout' programme has been created - one cannot help but feel paranoid while giving their views anywhere on the web. But these attempts will ultimately backfire sooner or later and have already created unwanted international attention, as seen in the case of Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn.

Where does the sudden urge to protect everything that defines 'Thai-ness' come from? Why do the knee-jerk reactions from self-proclaimed heralds of 'Thai Culture' - whatever that is - grow stronger and stronger? Does it seem almost desperate to cling to a constructed ideal and shove it down the throat of the people? What are they afraid of?

It's change!

The perceived threat of many in power may be embodied by a large angry mob, lured in by sweet promises of a capitalist who doesn't play by the old rules (more on him later as well) - but in reality it is the possibility of change that might threaten the status quo even just a bit. So instead of embracing it, they try to push it back as hard as they can. The need for reform is greater than ever, but what many don't (or won't) realize is that reform and long-lasting change is hard and painful for everybody. Instead, many are just looking for quick fixes and instant satisfactions.

Speaking of which, the upcoming election is a chance to give Thailand some normalcy back but on the other hand it is also the return of campaigning, which is a whole other reality than after the elections. The opposition Pheu Thai Party (PT) is banking all their campaign on their leader who isn't there. The fact that Thaksin is the only campaign program they have and that his sister is running as PM candidate shows that Thaksin himself has missed the moment to make room for a new fresh start. But it cannot be denied as well that Thaksin still draws in a big electorate, so a PT victory is not unlikely.

The bigger tragedy in my opinion though is that the red shirts have missed the opportunity for a fresh new start and to emancipate from PT and Thaksin. There was a void one year ago, with most of the red shirt leaders jailed, that could have been filled with a progressive leader that leads a real democratic movement. But ever since seeing Thaksin calling-in again repeatedly and also battling their enemies with means they don't endorse in the first place, the red shirts have not moved forward.

The big question of course is what the military will do after the elections? This question alone shows how far we have fallen back. It is poisonous to democracy to have the armed forces as an unpredictable faction in current affairs, fearing that they could sweep in at any time. The 2006 coup has re-politicized the army and they are more present than ever. I cannot remember a commander-in-chief who has been that vocal and over-emphasized the loyalty to the royal institution. They have a very clear image of what the country should look like, but they cannot expect anybody to agree with them.

Yes, the situation seems to be very desperate - one might even agree with the royalist yellow shirts, who recently demanded to close down the country for a few years and let an appointed government 'cleanse' the political system. But as mentioned before, we should not give in to quick fixes and cathartic moments of making more wrongs to eventually get a right. Change needs time and sacrifices, two things many Thais are unwilling to give, apparently.

The list of problems the country faces is very long and many are debating how to fix them. But even more problems are (willingly or not) left in the dark and are just slowly emerging to the surface. I can't help but feel that Thailand is falling back in many regards and at every opportunity it digs a deeper hole into descending, into insignificance. Yet at the same time I'm confident that the world sees the kingdom in a different light now than the glitzy travel brochures and Thailand cannot hide itself anymore in this day and age.

As I said, these are just my feelings about a country I call my origin, but in recent years became so much more alien to me. I'm not hoping that the Thailand I know will come back, but I hope that the Thailand that will emerge in the future will be a free, thinking and mature one - until that I will not stop doing my part for this hope!