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2011 - Some Personal Thoughts

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 31, 2011 2011 is history and looking back on Thailand this past year, it has been yet another eventful year that brought some answers, but many more questions to the wide-spread problems that continues to plague the country in many aspects. However, 2011 brought many chances and changes, shed light on issues and topics left in the dark before, voices echoed by many and opinions uttered by a few, whether you agree with them or not.

This is a (definitely incomplete) list of these stories that happened in 2011...

Lèse majesté sees December surge

Let's start off with the most recent topic that has unfortunately brought Thailand into the world headlines for all the wrong reasons again and that is none other than the problematic issue of lèse majesté that is gripping freedom of speech. The whole month of December was filled with stories about high-profile cases and countless victims of this draconian law, the discussion to amend it and the (irrational) defenders of this law and the institution that is meant to be protected by it.

The recent surge of lèse majesté began in late November with the dubious sentence against Ampon "Uncle SMS" Tangnoppakul, despite doubtful evidence. The 62-year old grandfather is now being jailed for 20 years, five years for each alleged SMS sent. On December 8 the Thai-born US citizen was  sentenced to two and a half years prison for posting translated parts of a banned biography on the King. On December 15 'Da Torpedo', despite winning an appeal resulting in a restart of her trial, was punished to 15 years prison for alleged remarks made in 2008. These are just a few cases that happened in November and December compared to the countless other (partly ongoing or pending) cases over the past 12 months.

But the surge was also accompanied with growing and publicly displayed concern by the European Union, the United Nations and the United States Embassy in Bangkok over the increasing blatant usage of the lèse majesté law, only with the latter to be flooded with irrational, angry hate speeches and also the venue for a protest by royalists in mid-December (and also in a nearly instant iconic display of royal foolishness, the protesters are wearing Guy Fawkes masks, most likely inspired by the #Occupy-movement, but totally oblivious to its historical roots). It was not the first time this year that this issue got attention from the international community, as seen in October.

The government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected into office last July (see below), and while she would have liked to see some change on the application of the law, not to the law itself though, the new ICT minister has vowed to exploit this to the fullest. He was only to be topped by deputy prime minister Chalerm Yubamrung a few months later, who went into full combat mode and declared war on lèse majesté web content with a THB400m ($12,6m) strong war chest, right after a meeting with the military's top brasses. The hopes of many supporters of the Pheu Thai Party, especially the red shirts, are at latest by now fully gone, as this government already has a tainted record on this issue.

But there was also an important protest by opponents of lèse majesté - the "Fearlessness Walk" shows that this issue can no longer be ignored and the consequences of its enforcement are doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to do. It is drawing attention to the ambiguous nature of Article 112 of the criminal code (as well as the Computer Crimes Act), it is drawing attention to the signs of changing times and those who refuse to see them, and ultimately it will draw more opposition - we will (unfortunately) hear more about this issue in 2012!

(Non-)Culture: Baring the unbearable and monopolizing "Thai"-ness

While we're on the subject on being subjected to the anachronistic ideas of a few, there were several stories in 2011 in the realms of culture that were disconcerting, to say the least. It wasn't so much the incidents themselves rather the reactions by those self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything "Thai"-ness - a phrase I've been using too often in each of those stories: three girls dancing topless on Songkran, the then-culture minister calls for a crackdown on them as if they have attacked everything "Thai"-ness stands for. A few months later the same culture minister suddenly notices that infidels foreigners are getting Buddhist tattoos and calls for a ban (and back paddles after some considerable uproar). Shortly after his ministry senselessly attempts to crack down on a senseless internet meme because it's "inappropriate" and "not constructive". Later this year a rather curious guide for parents was published on their website. And finally a singer's rather raunchy video gets a ton of hits online and a sanctimonious scolding on national TV.

See a pattern here? The selective outcry borders on ridiculousness and fuels Thailand’s National Knee-Jerk Outrage Machine (“กลไกสร้างปฏิกิริยาอย่างไร้ความยั้งคิดแห่งประเทศไทย”, trademark pending), claims to uphold the only valid definition of "Thai"-ness, that isn't even fully spelled out yet, while they have not noticed that the world beyond their minds has moved on and come up with new and different definitions of what else Thailand could be. The problem is that these cultural heralds, by political office or class, claim monopoly on this. Everyone below their wage level is not entitled to even think about it. And if something doesn't fit their point of view, as guest contributor Kaewmala put it brilliantly, "Only taboo when it's inconvenient!"

The 2011 General Elections

Will he or will he not? In the end, Abhisit Vejjajiva did dissolve parliament and paved the way for early elections in May and also set off quite a short campaign season, which not only saw a few strange election posters and illustrious characters running for office, but it also saw the emergence of Yingluck Shinawatra as the lucky draw for PM candidate of the opposition Pheu Thai Party. After much skyping to Dubai discussion within the party, the sister of Thaksin was chosen to run and it turned out to be the best pick.

The Democrat Party were banking heavily on negative campaigning (a precursor to the upcoming, inevitable Thaksin-phobia in 2012), which reached its climax in the last days with their rally at Rajaprasong, the same venue where the red shirts protested a year ago. In this event, then-deputy prime minister Suthep Thuangsuban claimed to give the "full truth" on what really happened during the violent crackdown of May 19, 2010. What followed were hours of fear-mongering in case of a Pheu Thai win and an incident that almost caused a major misunderstanding:

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.

"Thailand’s Democrat Party rally: Reclaiming (the truth about) Rajaprasong", Siam Voices, June 24, 2011

The last days of the campaign were spent outside of Bangkok, for example Pheu Thai in Nakhon Ratchasima before the big day. On Sunday, July 3, election day of course meant a full-day-marathon for a journalist. Not only did it mean covering as many polling stations around town as humanly possible, not only to crunch the numbers of exit polls (which turned out to be total BS!), but also of course running the live-blog at Siam Voices. In the end, it went very quickly: Abhisit conceded, Yingluck smiled and at a lunch meeting later there was already a new five-party coalition.

The worst floods in decades: a deluge of irrationality

790.

This is the current death toll of the what has been described as the "worst floods in decades". Floods are an annual occurrence in Thailand during the rainy season. When the water was sweeping through Chiang Mai already back in late September, this natural disaster was somehow going to be different. But it took some considerable time, despite the unprecedented damage it has created in Ayutthaya to the ancient temples and the vital industrial parks, until the capital was drowned in fear of what was to come.

It was curious to observe that those who were least likely to be affected (read: central Bangkok) were losing their nerves the most. Back in November I attempted to explore one possible reason:

One of the real reasons why the people of the city react the way they did though is this: After a military coup, countless violent political protests and sieges of airports, government buildings and public roads, this city has a sense of anxiety not unlike New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: a sense of being constantly under siege by something or somebody that separates Bangkok from the rest of the country even more. An incident at Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate (we reported) is a perfect example of the conflict between inside and outside Bangkok in miniature form.

"The Thai floods and the geographics of perception – Part 2: Certain fear of uncertainty", Siam Voices, November 23, 2011

On an anecdotal note I remember people around me hoarding bottled water, moving their belongings upstairs and barricading their houses waist-high - while I can understand these precautions, I was astonished to say the least when I started to read social media updates that accuse the government so much so to the point of deliberately drowning the people of Bangkok and other outlandish conspiracy theories, including the now ubiquitous "blame it on foreign media"-card.

There's no doubt that this natural disaster has not only shown the worst in people, but also it's helpful and charitable side (not only towards humans exclusively). During my work reporting from the floods for foreign news crews (hence there weren't many posts on Siam Voices), I admired the apparent resilience and defiance I saw from many victims of the floods - some of which are now struggling with rebuilding their lost existence. And a lot of clean-up will be needed to be done, both literally as well as politically, in order to prevent such a disaster from happening again!

What else happened in 2011? (in no particular order)

- Then-prime minister Abhisit urging then-president of Egypt Honsi Mubarak to respect the will of the people - while being totally oblivious that he exactly did not do that a year ago because, well, "They ran into the bullets" themselves!

- Half a dozen Thais walking through the border region with Cambodia and surprised that they're being arrested, in an arbitrary way to dispute the border demarcations between the two countries. This ongoing conflict, largely fueled by the ever-shrinking PAD, sparked into a brief armed battle. Two of the strollers are still sitting in a Cambodian prison.

- The one-year-anniversary of the crackdown of May 19 and my personal thoughts on this.

- The somehow strangely toned-down five-year-anniversary of the 2006 coup.

- Army chef General Prayuth Chan-ocha going completely berserk at the press.

- The fact that Thailand got its first female prime minister and the (un)surprisingly muted reactions by Thailand's feminists.

- The saga of the impounded Thai plane on German ground, the curious case study on how Thai media reported it, the juristic mud-slinging, and how this mess was eventually solved. Which brings us to...

- The German government allowing Thaksin back into Germany, after heavy campaigning by a bunch of conservative German MPs. Still boggles my mind...!

- And while we're on topic, we are saying good-bye to a regular contributor of outrageous quotes - no one has been so focused to do a different job than written his business card than Thaksin-hunter and former foreign minister in disguise Kasit Piromya!

I'd like to thank my colleagues at Siam Voices for building a diverse and opinionated collective, our editor who keeps everything in check and YOU, the readers! THANK YOU for the support, feedback, criticism, links and retweets!

Here's to an eventful, exciting 2012 that brings us news, changes, developments to discuss for all the right reasons! Happy New Year!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany again (*sigh*). He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.

Thai Police Chief Also Vows to 'Personally' Crack Down on Anti-Monarchy, Rotten 'Tomatoes'

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 2, 2010 After the commander-in-chief of the Thai army Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha insisted over and over again that his top priority task is to protect the monarchy, national police chief Wichean Potephosree didn't want to be outdone and has announced this:

The police chief warned that those trying to challenge and abuse the monarchy would face the full wrath of the police force. He also said he took the issue seriously on a personal level. "With 25 years in service at the Office of the Royal Court Security Police, I am seriously concerned about this issue," he told the Bangkok Post.

He said all police officers were duty-bound to arrest anybody who tried to bring down the monarchy and to protect the royal institution.

"Wichean Takes It Personally", Bangkok Post, November 1, 2010

To underline his determination, he also promises this:

Other projects he has promised to implement in the next six months are to "clean up the house", foster unity in the force and improve services at police stations.

Police were criticised during the anti-government rally led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship from March to mid-May. Many described them as complacent, of ignoring orders to put an end to the protest and even of sympathising with the demonstrators.

Pol Gen Wichean admitted the existence of "tomato" police, a term used to describe red shirt sympathisers within the force. "But I strongly believe that police officers who do not take sides can survive," he said.

"Wichean Takes It Personally", Bangkok Post, November 1, 2010

While Prayuth takes care of the so-called 'watermelon soldiers', Wichean makes sure that his rotten 'tomatoes' in the police force are being sorted out. With the these clear statements, both chiefs are preparing to set their forces align with the political stand of the current government and even if there'll be a new one eventually, the forces will fight to keep this stand alive.

Pongpat's Acceptance Speech - A Lèse Majesté Case?

Note: This article was originally published on July 31, 2010 in a series of guest blogger posts for Bangkok Pundit at AsianCorrespondent.

On May 16, when the street battles between the soldiers and the anti-government protestors were bringing large parts of Bangkok to a grinding halt for days already, elsewhere life went on as nothing has happened as for example the Nataraj Awards, the national television and radio awards, took place that evening.

The most notable moment during the award ceremony was the acceptance speech of actor Pongpat Wachirabanjong for best supporting actor. Here's the video with English subtitles.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/v/6xYfbUIGqW4&w=600&h=360]

The speech has, as evidently seen in the video, touched many Thais and hit a nerve among a certain people. It was forwarded via email, Twitter and heralded as the 'best speech ever' or 'or true patriotic act of loyalty'.

Last week, the very same actor has been hit with a legal charge for lèse majesté...

Actor Pongpat Wachirabanjong will be summoned to hear his lese majeste charges on July 29, and if he fails to show up after two summons have been issued, police will seek an arrest warrant for the man, Deputy Bangkok Police Chief Pol MajGeneral Amnuay Nimmano said yesterday.

The police are also planning to invite witnesses, lawyers and Thai language experts to listen to the actor's acceptance speech at this year's Nataraj Awards as part of the investigation. Amnuay said the case should be concluded within a month.

Despite media and social networks describing Pongpat's speech as a moving declaration of his love for His Majesty, singer Phumpat Wongyachavalit filed a lese majeste complaint against the actor on June 23, accusing him of using inappropriate words.

 

"Pongpat summoned to hear charges", The Nation, July 22, 2010

Of all people he is now charged with lèse majesté?! So what is the inappropriate use of words?

Police Wednesday summoned Pongpat to surrender to face lese majesty charge after a singer filed complaint with police, alleging Pongpat had insulted His Majesty the King by simply calling His Majesty as "father".

"PM says police should consult special advisory panel on Pongpat's case", The Nation, July 22, 2010

This is certainly a very odd case, since the use of the word "father" (or more correctly "Father") in connection to HM the King is widely used in Thai language.

Even the prime minister got involved in this case and has suggested that the police should contact a recently set-up advisory board that deals with these kind of cases. The result came back very quick and the case against Pongpat has now been (unsurprisingly) dropped.

Nevertheless this whole strange act again shows the discrepancies of the authorities dealing with lèse majesté cases. (I'm NOT discussing the law itself!) One can be amazed by the speed the police has dealt with this charge - from filing until the dismissal it took only just more than a month. Also, no efforts have been wasted, language experts have been invited by the police to determine whether the use of word in this context was illegal or not. There are other more obvious cases that are still lingering in legal limbo.

The other point is Pongpat's speech itself. The key phrase "If you hate our Father, if you don't love our Father anymore, then you should get out of here!", which was followed by the audience cheering and applauding enthusiastically, sets a worrying subtext of "if you're not for us, you're against us" - and even more scarier was the reaction by the crowd.

The Unbelievable Rise of Col. Sansern's Popularity

Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd at work (Screenshot from CRES announcement, May 16)

Let's make this short: there are many things that I cannot simply understand! This is one of them.

For some incomprehensible reason Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd, military spokesperson and as seen on dozens of CRES TV announcements during the red shirt riots in earlier this year, has become a darling of the local Thai media.

It all begun late last month when The Nation ran a series of high-praising articles of him including this journalistic gem:

He's been on primetime television every other day recently. He's that guy in uniform who catches every woman's eye. He makes viewers giggle despite the tension, and has a smile to melt the coldest heart. With his winning personality, he has to be a strong contender for Man of the Year award. (...)

However, since the red-shirt protests began in March, he has become a favourite across the whole country - and many women's secret crush. Right now, he's even beating big-screen heartthrob Theeradej "Ken" Wongpuapan in the popularity stakes.

As one of his avid supporters, I've joined every fan club for Sansern on Facebook, watched every video clip of him posted on YouTube and even looked up his profile through Google. And yes, when I met him, I was star-struck! The chance to meet my hero came when a senior reporter I am shadowing at The Nation said she was going to interview the colonel. I begged to tag along.

"Saluting the kingdom's coolest colonel", The Nation, May 30, 2010
Then there is this 'interview' including hard-hitting questions such as:

Why are you so admired for your role as CRES spokesman? / You got higher votes than popular actor Ken Thiradej in a recent poll. Why could that be? / Has Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva persuaded you to enter politics? / Has your wife teased you about your fan club? / Given the fan club and the popularity you have as CRES spokesman, do you think your job is successful? / What makes you good-humoured?

Taken from: "Staying cool under fire", by Budsarakham Sinlapalavan & Nathapat Promkaew, The Nation, June 28, 2010

To top it off there is this exclusive video showing the contents of his bag. Notice the lady reporters reaction when he pulls something specific out...

But that is still not the end of his media tour de force. In the last days and weeks, Col. Sansern did appears on not one, not two, but three frigging high-gloss magazine covers (or cover stories)!

Seriously ladies, what is it with this guy and the sudden popularity? Is it because he appeared more often on TV than Abhisit did in recent times?  This is one of the stories that truly deserve the "WTF?!"-tag...

In Case Against The Open Letter Against CNN

An open letter against CNN's coverage of the deadly clashes as posted on Facebook. Excerpt:

As a first-rate global news agency, CNN has an inherent professional duty to deliver all sides of the truth to the global public (...) not merely one-sided, shallow and sensational half-truths. (...) CNN should not negligently discard its duty of care to the international populace by reporting single-sided or unverified facts and distorted truths drawn from superficial research, or display/distribute biased images which capture only one side of the actual event.

Mr. Rivers and Ms. Snider have NOT done their best under these life-threatening circumstances because many other foreign correspondents have done better. All of Mr. Rivers and Ms. Sniders' quotes and statements seem to have been solely taken from the anti-government protest leaders or their followers/sympathizers. Yet, all details about the government’s position have come from secondary resources. No direct interviews with government officials have been shown; no interviews or witness statements from ordinary Bangkok residents or civilians unaffiliated with the protesters, particularly those who have been harassed by or suffered at the hands of the protesters, have been circulated.

"Open Letter to CNN International" by Napas Na Pombejra, May 17, 2010

Bangkok Pundit has dissected the open letter sentence by sentence and asked the question "Is CNN's coverage really biased?". (SPOILER ALERT: The answer is NO!)

But that still does not stop many people from unquestioningly praising that letter (see the comments in BP's blog post and also the links below), especially The Nation seem to really love this letter and run with it, like the publisher Suthichai Yoon tweeting it and even reprinting it  in Wednesday's paper edition...

Further reading: