military

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much Ado About Nothing?

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

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

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

 

ConstitutionNet: Last minute add-on to Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Crisis Committee or the long arm of the military

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on August 31, 2015 “If I were a woman I would fall in love with his excellency.”

Those flattering words were spoken by General Thanasak, until recently Foreign Minister of the Thai military government, who expressed his adoration for the Chinese Premier at an ASEAN security forum in early August. His counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, stood next to him looking somewhat embarrassed, not knowing what to say. Some would regard this open adoration as a sign of blooming relations between the two countries. After Thailand’s ties to Western countries soured since its 2014 military coup, it quickly pivoted towards China. The statement regarding the Chinese premier also underlines something else: the desire of the Thai military government to assert a more rigid and streamlined control of governance. Reading between the lines, General Thanasak’s praise for China’s “excellency” also pays regard to its form of governance in general. China’s politburo – the supreme policy-making body of the Communist party overseeing governance – has long been criticized for its level of stricture and unrepresentativeness; yet Thai constitution drafters have openly mooted the idea to implement something similar.

Following the military coup in May 2014, the generals who instigated the movement have been looking to cement their vision of a “reformed” democracy. They preach a system free from corruption, cronyism and imbalance; yet they continue to commit these very acts themselves. The junta that formally calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has taken firm control over the political discourse. It has outlawed public gatherings, detained dissenting opponents, and enforced a high degree of media scrutiny and online surveillance. It also oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO unilaterally appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC).

The CDC has worked hard since the beginning of 2015 to draw up a new constitution with the hope that this will be the last one for the foreseeable future. While the draft was originally scheduled to be completed by late July, the CDC was granted a 30-day extension to clarify certain aspects of the constitution. The draft, reduced from 315 to 285 articles, was forwarded to the NRC, which will vote on its adoption in September 5. If the vote outcome is positive, the draft constitution will then be subject to a nationwide referendum in early 2016. This may or may not pave the way for elections sometime at the end of 2016 – a whole year later than what the military junta originally promised. Regardless in which form the draft will be enacted, Thailand’s twentieth constitution could deeply transform the country’s political landscape and have lasting negative consequences due to the changes severely hobbling the powers of elected officials to govern.

Crisis Panel: Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation 

Certain features proposed in the constitutional draft, such as the new electoral system or the pre-vetted Senate, have previously been discussed on ConstitutionNet. Additionally, a highly controversial article was added to the draft constitution at the last minute. Article 260 provides for the establishment of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation that would co-exist with the elected government. The Committee would have the power to “commit or suppress any action” in the event of a crisis or conflict in the country that cannot be contained.  Committee’s non-elected membership and lack of definition on what constitutes a “chaos” or “crisis” appears to be yet another signal of how the Thai military attempts to hold onto power and limit the power of elected officials by constitutional design.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

Contradictions mount as Thai authorities hunt Bangkok bombing suspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ANALYSIS: Transparency is essential in Bangkok bombings probe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tongue-Thai'ed - With 'love' from Bangkok to Beijing

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 6, 2015

"If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency" - Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimapakorn _____________________________

This is part XXXI of “Tongue-Thai’ed!”, an ongoing series where we collect the most baffling, ridiculous, confusing, outrageous and appalling quotes from Thai politicians and other public figures. Check out all past entries here.

It is no big secret that ever since Thailand's military seized power in a hostile takeover with the coup of May 2014, the military junta would face big challenges - among them, on the diplomatic world stage. Thailand just narrowly avoided becoming a pariah state among Western countries (we reported) only because it is still a (geo-)strategically important stakeholder in Southeast Asia. But all the rather soft and symbolic sanctions still couldn't avert Bangkok's diplomatic pivot towards Russia and especially towards China.

We reported back in December:

(...) it did not come as a surprise when then-army chief and still-to-this-day-junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha greeted Chinese businessmen as his first guests shortly after the coup of May 22 in an effort to woo investors back to the country and help jump start Thailand’s struggling economy. That was shortly followed by a visit of Thai military commanders to China.

Other bilateral meetings between Prayuth and Chinese leaders took place during the Asia-Europe Meeting in October, where he met China’s premier Li Keqiang and a month later at the APEC Conference hosted in Beijing with president Xi Jingping. The latter would welcomePrayuth again to the Chinese capital last week, where both countries signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and build a “medium-speed” rail network linking the countries.

"Thai junta seeks deeper ‘China pivot’, lauds Beijing’s leadership style", Siam Voices, December 29, 2014

Since then, the Thai military government has made more advances towards Beijing by fulfilling the navy's long-held dream of buying submarines from China worth $1bn - even though the purchase is on hold for now - while around the same time controversially deporting around 100 Uighur muslims to China.

But what's strikes a bigger chord with the Thai generals is China's authoritarian one-party rule in exchange for economic propensity.

So, it came to no surprise when the Thai military's Foreign Minister General Thanasak Patimaprakorn was full of praise for China again, as expressed earlier this week at an ASEAN forum in Kuala Lumpur...

At a joint press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Foreign Minister General Tanasak Patimapragorn made a surprise declaration while standing on a podium with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

"If I were a woman I will fall in love with his excellency," he told reporters in English, much to the surprise of China’s top foreign envoy who appeared somewhat unsure how to respond. (...)

"Let’s say we are so close, we are more than friends, just say we are cousins with a long history together," he said.

"We don’t talk diplomatic talk, we talks like personal, like family, like friend," he added.

"Thai junta envoy admits crush on China", AFP, August 5, 2015

Well, that got awkward pretty quickly...

Also, why the need to change gender to express your love? There's no need to be ashamed of expressing one's man crush. And even if the probably biggest one-sided declaration of bromance on the diplomatic stage has been so far not reciprocated, this will most likely not the last we hear of it.

Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short 'boring' Friday night rants

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address

Originally published at Siam Voices on June 1, 2015

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking... and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government's media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta's efforts to "Return Happiness" to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuouslyintimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People" ("คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ").

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the "lakorns", the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable - so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program - which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen - Gen. Prayuth discusses the week's progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he's joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme [...]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: "I do and I feel bored."

"Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show", The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of "wisdom" - it could be possible that the majority actually doesn't watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved "lakorns". And TV executives aren't really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

"It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it's been a year now, it has lost its appeal," Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (...)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

"Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut 'Returning Happiness to the People'", The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government's daily TV show "Thailand Moves Forward", also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.

One year on: Future looks grim under Thailand's ruling junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 22, 2015 When Pink Floyd’s vocalist and bassist Roger Waters wrote the 1979 rock classic 'Another Brick in The Wall', he was thinking about the authoritarian teaching and rote learning he encountered in his school days that would produce, in his opinion, more proverbial bricks in the wall of mental detachment.

I recently came across somebody online pointing out the difference between a teacher and a professor: a teacher makes sure that students learn, a professor on the other hand (ideally) only points them to the general direction and leaves it up to them once they encountered the ”fountain of knowledge”. He then went on to say that a government should be similar to the professor’s job, which creates a free environment where discussions can be held and ideas can flourish. The current Thai government is more like the teacher that not only decides what we have to learn, but also when and how.

And boy, what a teacher we have right now!

It’s been exactly a year since Thailand’s military has launched the country’s 12th successful coup, toppling what was left of the embattled and besieged government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was the end of over half a year of anti-government protests that eventually morphed into anti-democracy rallies, but it was just the beginning of Thailand under martial law and military rule. On that day, we saw the death of Thai democracy as we knew it.

While martial law was revoked earlier this year (with the now already infamous Section 44 in its place instead), the military junta still has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and is busy re-writing and revamping almost everything about it.

The blueprint of the country’s political future is being drafted in the next constitution. But all signs show that this charter does nothing but constitutionally enshrine the steady regression of democracy by massively curtailing the powers of elected governments or otherwise leave the door open for extra-parliamentary interventions. Amidst these legislative changes, The Economist has aptly called it a "baby sitter’s-charter”.

Perhaps this is a better way to describe how the Thai military junta government rules over the country: Not only is it like a bad teacher that expects its students only to obediently memorize the stuff, but also like an overbearing nanny overlooking us on every step.

And no other person exemplifies this "teacher-nanny-in-chief"-dom than junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Driven by what I once described as "compulsive loquaciousness", Gen. Prayuth sees himself forced and challenged to say something about everything, no matter how ill-advised or confrontational it comes across. Same goes for his weekly TV addresses every Friday night (in a total of 40 hours of airtime since last year).

But it’s not only the former army chief himself who has delayed his retirement. Several other military officers have become either junta members, cabinet ministers, or more often than not both - mostly old men who may or may not have been good at commanding troops, but so far have failed to command the country to their liking.

The economy is at best floundering. But the military junta and their supporters have not realized that they are not part of the solution but an essential part of the problem - a delusion that has befallen them for a year now.

This week also marked the 5th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protesters. Back then, at the very early beginning of my blogging career, I said that "the worst isn’t over - the mess has just begun". Unfortunately, it seems that I was right.

In the past decade, there has been no real sincere, lasting effort from both sides of the political divide to repair the gaping wounds in the nation’s fabric. Instead, it has been covered by exactly the same "blanket over the ever-increasing rift and [blind preachings of] ‘peace, love and unity’ until the next escalation" that I warned about in 2010 - and what we got since then were more escalations and more blankets. But at this point, the wounds are wider and deeper.

It is this political short-term memory loss and cognitive dissonance that has led Thai democracy astray, weakened and easy prey for those firmly not believing in it and adamantly opposing. It is quite sobering to see those in command of the 2010 crackdown now ruling the country.

The near-term future looks rather grim. The junta has recently approved a referendum on the country’s next constitution, but at the cost of delaying possible elections until September 2016 - and even that is not guaranteed, as Gen. Prayuth threatened to stay on if the charter is rejected.

The past 12 months have contributed truckloads of bricks in the mental wall that has been growing and growing in this political crisis, making it even more difficult and daunting to tear it down.

In May 2010, I expressed my doubts that a lasting change towards a more open, free and democratic Thailand will happen anytime soon.

Five years and a military coup later, I’m still waiting.

Thailand's post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say?

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 12, 2015 Thailand’s draft for the next constitution is still subject to heated debate. But  the hottest issue at the moment is whether the Thai people will actually have a say in the next charter via a referendum.

It’s been almost a month now since the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) presented the fruits of their labor with the new draft that will become Thailand’s 20th constitution (download the draft and English translation here, more analysis in the coming weeks) - that is, if it actually survives the coming weeks and months.

Since a military coup ousted the popularly elected but embattled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra almost exactly a year ago, Thailand’s military junta government is trying its absolute best to ensure that this draft, and with it its singular vision about the country’s political power structure, is written into law with minimal changes.

After the previous military coup of 2006 that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra the Constitution of 1997 was scrapped. Instead of what was widely regarded as the "People’s Constitution" that pushed Thailand towards democracy, the interim government drew up the 2007 Constitution. It included stipulations like a two-term limit for the prime minister, a half-appointed senate and easier processes to impeach the government.

Curiously, and specified in the 2006 interim constitution, the then-military junta put this draft to a referendum and launched a far-reaching PR-campaign (knowing well that it controlled the airwaves, see more examples herehere, and here) calling on the people to vote in favor of it. Eventually, the referendum in August 2007 went in favor of the constitution with 58 to 42 per cent (turnout: 57 per cent) and elections were held later that year in December - only for another Thaksin-associated party to come to power (and later repeated in 2011 with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck).

Now, with the 2007 version thrown into the bin again, another Shinawatra government toppled, and the military tightening its grip on power, a new draft has been drawn up by the junta’s all-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee and the question many are asking is if there will be a referendum again?

There were signs as early as one month after the coup that the military is against a referendum this time. Then later in October - with the country still under martial law - National Reform Council (NRC) member Chai-Anan Samudavanija had this rather singular take on the issue:

Once the constitution had been drafted, he saw no need for a national referendum, because there weren’t any clearly conflicting issues.

“Usually, a referendum is required when opinions are split between alternative options; whether society wants A or B. However in the current situation, those alternative options aren’t apparent, therefore, a referendum is not necessary.”

“Public endorsement of the constitution can, instead, be demonstrated through the absence of public dissent,” he pointed out.

'Fewer MPs would mean less corruption’”, The Nation, October 13, 2015 - via Bangkok Pundit

The referendum issue flared up again in March when the sidelined political parties from both sides of the spectrum (the ousted, Thaksin-associated Pheu Thai Party and the opposition, ‘Democrat’ Party) started to become more vocal:

In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Pheu Thai legal experts, led by Pongthep Thepkanchana and secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, insist a referendum must be carried out — and the public should be given a choice of an alternative if they don't like the one currently being written.

Asking the public to simply accept or reject the new charter is not enough, they say. The voters should be given options and allowed to pick a version of a charter — for example the 1997 version — if they disagree with the coup-sponsored draft.

The experts' suggestion is in line with what the Democrat Party has proposed, but the Democrats called for the 2007 version (…) to be one of the choices. (…) [Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva] outlined his support for a referendum in a previous interview with the Bangkok Post, saying it will not only ensure the legitimacy of the new charter, but it will also help quell any suspicions the charter has been designed to allow the coup-makers and other bodies set up after the coup to prolong their hold on power.

Pheu Thai backs charter referendum”, Bangkok Post, March 16, 2015

These calls were repeated by both parties and have been echoed in the most unlikeliest of places, as both NRC member Alongkorn Polabutr and even the CDC’s chairman Borwornsak Uwanno voiced their support for a vote by the people.

However, the military junta government is still staunchly against this and put some people back in their place:

"The CDC needs not say anything because a public referendum is neither the matter nor duty of the drafting panel," Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngarm said. "It is the matter for the cabinet and the National Council for Peace and Order to decide." (…) "The CDC's job was finished once it completed drafting the new constitution," Mr Wissanu said.

Govt lashes out at CDC, NRC for referendum remarks”, Bangkok Post, April 30, 2015

However, junta leader and Prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on the same day that it’s not up to him but the CDC and NRC to decide whether or not to hold a referendum. The question here if he was either referring to himself as the prime minister or the leader of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta is officially called, since both positions are occupied by him - in the same way many positions are in the NCPO and in the cabinet.

Meanwhile, civil society groups are speaking up on this matter, while academics, activists, students, NGOs and alternative media organizations have launched their pro-referendum campaign with the unveiling of the website prachamati.org (the Thai word for referendum), providing a forum where users can debate and vote on crucial parts of the draft constitution - because that’s exactly what’s currently not happening in the real world.

We can expect a pretty clear schedule in the coming weeks: The cabinet and the junta (essentially the same people) submit their comments to the CDC by May 25. Then the CDC has until July 23 to amend the draft and send the final version to the NRC, which has two weeks to review and approve by August 6 - or not and then start the whole process all over again.

The issue of whether or not to let the Thai people vote on the new constitution is yet another thorny one for the military junta, which doesn't like leaving anything to chance (or rather choice in this case), most evidently illustrated by the junta’s threat in case of a referendum to delay the future election even further into 2016.

Thailand: Public assembly law creates new hurdles for political protests

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 4, 2015 In the past decade, Thailand has seen fair share of political protests. As color-coded groups staged prolonged, large-scale street rallies, politics frequently more often took place outside than inside its usual institutions. Many of these protests went on for several weeks with varying degrees of impact on public life as major public areas (Rajaprasong Intersection in 2010 and 2014, Democracy Monument), numerous government buildings (even Government House itself in 2008) and even Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (also in 2008) have been occupied. And many protests have also sparked violent incidents (sometimes deliberately provoked), some resulting in deaths as protesters have clashed with security officials - or in the case of the red shirt protests of 2010 - the military.

The last major demonstrations we've seen were the anti-government protests of 2013-14, which lasted almost half a year and brought parts of the capital Bangkok to a grinding halt - not to mention halting political discourse, deliberately creating a deadlock in which the military could easily launch the coup of May 22, 2014.

Following that hostile takeover and the declaration of martial law, the military junta outlawed public gatherings of more than five people. But even after its recent revocation has effectively banned any protests, as the infamous Article 44 still gives the junta near-absolute power.

Then, the military government’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), passed a law on Friday that seeks to regulate future public protests:

People seeking to stage a public protest must inform authorities 24 hours in advance, and others who think they create public nuisance may petition the Administrative Court or courts of justice under the new public assembly law passed on Friday.

The law also prohibits public gatherings in the 150-metre radius of the royal places of Their Majesties, those of the royal family members, and residences of regents/royal guests. A public rally cannot be held on the premises of Parliament, Government House and courts unless authorities arrange a spot for it. (...) Other places deemed off-limits include embassies, consuls and international agencies.

The law requires a rally organisers to notify police officers supervising the area they would like to use as the rally venue at least 24 hours before the assembly. They must also tell authorities the purpose of the gathering and how long it will last.

New public assembly law passed”, Bangkok Post, May 1, 2015

The bill was in the works since August last year after a proposal by the Royal Thai Police was approved by the cabinet in late November. The draft bill passed its first reading in the NLA with an overwhelmingly unanimous 182-0 vote in late February. The core components, such as the 24-hours notification and no-go areas at key government buildings, were left untouched until the final vote by the NLA. Other restrictions include a ban on loudspeakers between midnight and 6am, a requirement of protesters to stay at the site between 6pm and 6am and (obviously understandable) a ban on weapons at the rallies (a more detailed list can be found here).

Any violation of these restrictions is enough for the police officer charged with overseeing the protest (in most cases the commander of the police station which has been asked for permission) to declare the protest "illegal" and seek an order to disperse at the civil or provincial courts.

Protesters that refuse to leave despite being ordered by the police could face up to a year in jail and/or a maximum fine of 20,000 Baht (about $600). Other punishments include up to 6 months prison and/or 10,000 baht (about $300) for protesting without police permission, also up to six months for the rally organizers for any stage-related violation (loudspeakers after midnight, "inciting" speeches) and up to 10 years imprisonment for carrying weapons, trespassing and damage, making threats and causing harm to others and any disruption of public service and utilities (e.g. water and electricity).

That's a lot of obstacles for future protests. Furthermore, declaring most key government buildings such as Government House and Parliament off limits is understandable given that these sites have been besieged and occupied before, but it also prevents some protesters - the smaller, non-obstructive kind - from certain symbolic acts, such as handing petitions to politicians. That is if they even get this far.

The first hurdle that organizers have now to face is asking the police for permission, which could look like this in practice:

If the police station chief says no, we have the right to appeal to his boss. And if the boss says no too, his judgement will be deemed final. But we can still appeal to the court against the ban.

By then, I expect many affected groups which want to have their voices heard through protest will become frustrated and may scrap their planned expression of discontent. Another scenario is that a planned protest will lose steam because instead of protesting, the people involved will be forced to waste their time in courtroom battles.

Also, which police station chief - who will likely be of police colonel rank - will say yes to a protest in his area of jurisdiction at the risk of being reprimanded by his boss? So, there is a likelihood that rejection will be the norm.

"Harsh laws on public gatherings a blow to democracy", Bangkok Post, May 4, 2015

As usual with laws and regulations in Thailand, it's not the exact wording that is the problem but the motivation that it was written with. A certain fatigue of political protests regularly descending into chaos is understandable, however one should take the circumstances of the bill's creation into consideration. There has been absolutely no input by the public and the draft was waved through with few to no changes.

One must also not forget the military junta's general disdain to any display of public dissent, including rallies concerning environmental issues. The new law could give future governments - and possible extra-parliamentary forces - a handy tool to curtail political protests.

Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand

Originally published on Siam Voices on April 15, 2015 After half a year of vacancy, the position of US Ambassador to Thailand looks like it will be filled soon. With the nomination of experienced career diplomat Glyn Davies, it offers a glimpse into the future United States' diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In an episode of the American TV drama 'The West Wing', a scene depicts how new ambassadors are welcomed in Washington, D.C.:  "I understand that you're a sports fan?" asks the fictional president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. "Yes sir, Mr. President. Golf!" replies the fictitious new Thai Ambassador Tada Sumatra (who came up with that name?), both men standing in the president's Oval Office with their respective aides. "Okay, well - golf's not a sport. It's fine, don't get me wrong, but let's not you and I get confused with things that men do," rebuffs the president before proceeding with the acceptance process.

It is doubtful whether such pleasantries will be exchanged during the acceptance of the next US Ambassador to Thailand, because the current relationship between the two countries is less than cordial.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, the Thai military junta has faced a series of condemnations, diplomatic downgrades and some sanctions by Western countries, just stopping short from ostracizing Thailand from the international community amid the risk of driving the still geo-strategically important country into the arms of both China and Russia.

One of the most vocal critics against Thailand's military rulers is the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying shortly after the takeover of power that it would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” later emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – in hindsight more a symbolic slap on the wrist compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself.

Furthermore, amidst calls to either completely cancel or move it to another country in the region, the annual long-running military "Cobra Gold" exercise was scaled down this year while the preparatory meeting for next year's drill have been indefinitely postponed.

Another sign of American discontent with the Thai junta that was widely (and incorrectly) speculated on is the ongoing lack of a US Ambassador in Bangkok. The position has been left vacant since Kristie Kenney left Thailand late last year after a tenure of nearly 3 years, during which, as Siam Voices contributor Daniel Maxwell noted back then, she managed to create a positive image as "a culturally sensitive ambassador" who was popular among a lot of Thais. This has often been attributed to her and her embassy's successful utilization of social media. The Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy has taken over duties ever since.

The wait for a new Ambassador to Thailand looks to be coming to an end, as US President Barack Obama this week nominated Glyn T. Davies for the post.

Davies is a distinguished career diplomat with 35 years of experience, most notably as US representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the Austrian capital Vienna, and from 2012 to 2014 as Special Representative of the U.S. Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, in which he managed the American position on the controversial nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, respectively. In other words, this man knows a lot about crisis diplomacy.

People close to Davies have apparently good things to say about him, as former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen said in a 2011 Associated Press report:

“He’s a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries,” Mr. Heinonen said. “He’s easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be.”

Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

"New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission", Associated Press, October 20, 2011

These personal traits should come in handy when Davies is dealing with the Thai military government. Relations between the two countries hit a low point in late January when US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel heavily criticized the authoritarian government during his visit to Thailand, provoking the junta - in a thinly-veiled case of hurt pride - to fiercely rebuke Russel's words, summoning... erm, "inviting" US charge d'affairs Murphy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and causing Prayuth to go on a week-long verbal rampage.

Davies' nomination could also be regarded as a sign that the United States has realized that it will be likely dealing with the military junta for a lot longer than initially anticipated, namely beyond the promised elections sometime in early 2016, while it still isn't known in what capacity the junta will exist after that.

But whether or not Glyn Davies will become the next US Ambassador to Thailand is less up to the Thai government but more dependent on the United States Senate. More specifically, the question is whether the perpetual political gridlock can be somehow resolved, which has caused dozens of nominations for ambassadors to be stuck in political limbo waiting for confirmation, leaving over 50 countries worldwide without an American ambassador.

In other words, it's most likely the political dysfunction in Washington D.C. that will delay the arrival of the next US Ambassador in Bangkok for his acceptance process, complete with handshakes and a little small talk - perhaps about golf?