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!: The 3 most ludicrous things said in Thailand this week

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 3, 2014 This is part XXV, XXVI and XXVII 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's been a while since this section has graced this blog and while the past couple of months were not lacking in ridiculousness both in verbal and non-verbal form (but mostly the former) thanks to Thailand's military junta's hostile takeover (like this most recent example by the Thai junta leader and PM himself), the circumstances and consequences of these many announcements were mostly no laughing matter, regardless of their ludicrousness. It takes some special effort to top the mind-boggling developments that are not coming directly from the Thai junta.

This past week, there were three such cases. In descending order of ludicrousness, here they are...

3. Safeguarding Thai cuisine - with a robot?!

A couple of years ago, we talked about the ugly side of Thailand's world-famous cuisine: food chauvinism. The general message by self-proclaimed guardians of Thai food is that nobody will ever be able to create genuine Thai dishes unless he or she has grown up with it in the motherland - so foreigners shouldn't even bother attempting to cook renowned and popular classics like green curry or Tom Yam Gung.

That doesn't stop Thai institutions from finding ways to monopolize what they think Thai cuisine is and also attempt to prosecute those eateries abroad that seemingly violate the mostly unwritten rules of Thai cooking. For one such self-proclaimed guardian, the culprits are pretty clear:

“There are many Thai restaurants all around the world that are not owned by Thai people,” said Supachai Lorlowhakarn*, an adviser to the National Innovation Agency, which is in charge of the Thai Delicious program. He added, almost apologetically, “They are owned by Vietnam or Myanmar, or maybe even Italian or French.”

"You Call This Thai Food? The Robotic Taster Will Be the Judge", New York Times, September 28, 2014

Even though there are some god-awful pseudo-Thai places out there, that opinion ignores some genuine Thai restaurants owned by actual Thais bringing Thai food to the masses worldwide, while trying to compensate for the fluctuating (but steadily improving) supply of more exotic ingredients.

Nevertheless, they are still going ahead methodizing and standardizing Thai food. One such effort was been presented earlier this week in the New York Times:

A boxy contraption filled with sensors and microchips, the so-called e-delicious machine scans food samples to produce a chemical signature, which it measures against a standard deemed to be the authentic version. (...)

The [National Innovation Agency] has spent around one-third of its budgeted 30 million baht, around $1 million, on Thai Delicious, including around $100,000 to develop the e-delicious machine, according to Sura-at Supachatturat, a manager at the agency. (...)

The machine evaluates food by measuring its conductivity at different voltages. Readings from 10 sensors are combined to produce the chemical signature.

"You Call This Thai Food? The Robotic Taster Will Be the Judge", New York Times, September 28, 2014

The project was launched in July 2013 after then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (and presumably many other officials) were dissatisfied with the Thai food options abroad. But the problem with the very notion of this device is the mindset of Thai authorities that Thai cuisine - and by extension Thai culture - needs to be "protected" from foreigners "diluting" the dishes, while many are (deliberately?) oblivious that the origins of Thai cuisine aren't without foreign influence either (namely chili being introduced by Portuguese missionaries).

*By the way, if the name Supachai Lorlowhakarn sounds familiar to some of you: he was director of the National Innovation Agency and convicted of plagiarizing his PhD dissertation after a long legal battle against the original author and a foreign investigative journalist. So, looks like he's still attached to the NIA...

2. Le Tour de France in Thailand?!?!

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has knocked out this unbelievable press release - unbelievable as in: I literally do not believe this!

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is in talks with Paris-based Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) for the possibility of staging the world’s biggest cycling race, the Tour de France, in Thailand in 2015, the year when the entire Southeast Asian region will integrate under the ASEAN Economic Community framework. (...)

[TAT Governor Mr. Thawatchai Arunyik] added, “By playing host to a world famous cycling race as the Tour de France, we are saying that Thailand is ready to host any international sporting events of all types and sizes. (...)”

"Tour de France to be held in Thailand next year", TAT press release, October 2, 2014

It seems to be a bit of a forgone conclusion by TAT that the Tour de France will certainly come to Thailand. While the prestigious annual cycling race had stages outside of France (namely the starting locations) all across mostly central Europe, it sounds very unlikely that the organizers are willing to lift the entire race to a different continent. What could be possible though is that the TAT (which operates under the Ministry of Tourism and Sport) might have asked the Tour de France-organizers ASO for help to hold a high-profile cycle race in Thailand - which still doesn't explain the deliberate overstatement by the TAT itself - without any apparent signed deal - apart from creating buzz at all costs, risking widespread ridicule.

This wouldn't be the first attempt by Thai authorities in recent years to bring in a world-class sporting event to Thailand. After a disastrous FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2012 when Bangkok authorities failed to build an arena on time and strong efforts to host a Formula 1 race in the Thai capital were ultimately killed off after the proposed inner-city circuit failed to get official approval, confidence in Thailand's ability to host an international sporting event is reserved to say the least - and it certainly doesn't help when the Thai authorities are already foolishly setting it in stone already.

UPDATE: As expected and reported by The Guardian, the ASO has dismissed the TAT's claim noting that "something was lost in translation" and indeed (as predicted) were in talks about merely organizing a one-day cycling race in Thailand.

1. Safety for tourists - with ID-tags?!?!?!

And today's "winner" is the Thai junta's Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul. After the recent murder of two British tourists two weeks ago and following messy police investigation that resulted in the rather suspicious arrest of two Burmese men, the minister's idea to increase tourist security was this...

Under the new plan, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul said hotels would hand out wristbands to tourists on check-in that would show a “serial number that matches their I.D. and shows the contact details of the resort they are staying in”. It was not immediately clear whether tourists would be obliged to wear the wristbands. (...)

Minister Kobkarn added Tuesday: “The next step would be some sort of electronic tracking device but this has not yet been discussed in detail.”

"Thailand considers ID wristbands for tourists", Asian Correspondent, September 30, 2014

This just defies any explanation and almost rivals the recent comments of her boss in sheer outlandishness...

Thai media's early naming of Koh Tao murder victims a serious breach of ethics

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 15, 2014 Two British tourists were found dead on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao on Monday morning. Local police say that their bodies were naked, with severe wounds to their heads and a blood-stained hoe was found next to them on a rocky beach. The victims are believed to be a 24-year-old man and a 23-year-old woman. The UK Foreign Service is "urgently" investigating and there were unconfirmed reports that the island was temporarily put on 'lockdown'.

By Monday afternoon the names of the two victims were known by the media. At this point the manner in which the story was covered by Thai media and international media became distinctly different. Western media, as a rule, will not publish names of deceased until next of kin have been informed. Today, many Thai media outlets chose to reveal more information about the victims, including their full names and, in at least one case, publishing their passport pictures. (European tabloids aren't above breaking these ethical rules on occasion, but it's not standard practice.)

Among the offenders are the websites of the English language The Nation and ThaiPBS English; and the Thai language Post Today, Thai Rath, Krungthep Turakij and ASTV/Manager, with the latter even showing the victims' passport photos. As of writing and to the knowledge of the author, the only Thai media outlets that explicitly stated they were not going to reveal their names are Bangkok Post and Khaosod English. Asian Correspondent is also withholding their names and we will also not link to any sources pointing to that.

Revealing victims names a severe breach of journalistic ethics as the identities of crime victims (and survivors alike) are supposed to be protected from public disclosure at least until their next-of-kin are notified. The reasons for this should be self-evident. For next-of-kin to learn of the loss of a loved on a foreign news website is almost unthinkable.

Even worse: Volunteer EMTs working for a local charity specializing in recovering bodies have posted photos of the victims on the organization's Facebook profile, which have been widely shared already. Due to the uncensored, gruesome nature of the content we will also not link to that.

It seems that most Thai media outlets have learned nothing about how to deal with the private information of crime victims. In early 2013, we reported on the Thai media's failure not to publicize the name of gang-rape survivor, with one outlet even showing her full student ID. Back then Mark Kent, the British Ambassador to Thailand, told Asian Correspondent that media and authorities "need to respect victim confidentiality, especially for serious crimes and incidents."

Another infamous case of insensitive handling was the coverage of an ethnic Karen girl that was kidnapped, tortured and practically held as a slave by a Thai couple in Kamphaeng Phet province. Local police stripped her naked in front of the press in order to show her scars, the result of years of torture. (See previous coverage here and here. Note: the girl is now cared for in a shelter and has been recently awarded $143,000 compensation, but her abusers are still at large to this day!)

It seems the insensitivity of the Thai media and police continues unabated. It's not necessarily a malicious disregard for privacy on the part of the media, but a mind-numbingly ad-verbatim approach to reporting that includes citing every single bit of information that the authorities have given to them (who have also failed to protect the victims' identity).

What is severely lacking in many Thai newsrooms is more sensitive judgment by the reporters and their editors, especially when it comes to reporting about crime - the victims deserve better.

UPDATE: As of Monday night (CET) several British media outlets, among them the BBC and the tabloid The Mirror, have publicized the full identities of the victims, following an official announcement by the local Thai police. It can be assumed, if standard procedures have been followed, that their relatives have been informed shortly before that.

Thai court renders emergency decree meaningless, limits officials' powers

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 20, 2014 The Thai Civil Court yesterday ruled to sharply limit the authorities' powers to deal with the ongoing anti-government protests, while maintaining the state of emergency which was declared last month amidst increasing violent incidents.

The case was filed to the court by Mr. Thaworn Senniam, a core leader of the People′s Committee for Absolute Democracy With the King As Head of State (PCAD) [sic!], who argued that the State of Emergency enacted by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra violates the rights to free assembly guaranteed by the 2007 Constitution. (...)

At 15.00 today the majority of the judges ruled that the government will not need to repeal the State of Emergency, but the verdict also prohibits the authorities from exercising many powers prescribed in the emergency decree.

According to the verdict, the security forces cannot launch a crackdown on anti-government protesters, seize any chemicals from the protesters, dismantle any barricades erected by the protesters, prevent individuals from entering any building at their own will, close down traffic, evacuate or seal off protest areas.

Most notably, the authorities are also prohibited from banning political gathering - the crucial aspect of the emergency decree.

"Court Strips Govt Of Various Emergency Powers", Khaosod English, February 19, 2014

The ruling comes a day after deadly violence erupted between security authorities and protesters on Tuesday at Phan Fah Bridge as the police attempted to reclaim some rally sites occupying public roads. One policeman and four protesters were killed by gunshots with 68 reported injured. It appears that both the police, but also men among the protesters, were heavily armed and exchanged gunfire, in addition to a widely circulated online video showing a grenade attack on police officers (WARNING: graphic content!).

Nevertheless though...

The court, however, found that the protests were being carried out “peacefully without weapons,” and ordered that the demonstrators’ rights and freedoms “be protected according to the Constitution.” The decision bars the government from using force or weapons to crack down on the demonstrators.

"Thai Court Limits Crackdown on Protesters", New York Times, February 19, 2014

The Civil Court echoes a decision last week made by the Constitutional Court to reject a petition by the ruling Pheu Thai Party to outlaw the protests, similarly stating that the actions by the protesters - including the seizing of government buildings, threats against members of the media and most of all the obstructions on election day - are covered by the constitutional right to protest and should be challenged under the criminal law instead, if at all.

It has to be noted that during the anti-government red shirt protests of 2010, the Civil Court upheld the authorities' right to disperse protesters since they have "caused hardships and hurt people’s freedom and [authorities] have full rights to reclaim the area."

The reactions from the government side have been rather tame: interim deputy-prime minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the ruling will "complicate" the work of the security officials, while the man in charge of overseeing the protests, Chalerm Yubamrung, remained unconcerned, since they had "no plans to disperse the protesters anyways for now" and even thanked the Civil Court for not outlawing the state of emergency, which is still scheduled to end on March 22.

However, other observers see this as another wrench being thrown into the caretaker government's works in its dealing with the protesters. Human Right Watch's Sunai Pasuk sums it up:

Prominent legal analyst Verapat Pariyawong, who earlier called the Constitutional Court "indifferent to the flagrant abuse" by the protesters, goes even so far saying:

The Thai civil court's order today is one step closer to full scale judicial coup. (...)

2. The constitutional court's ruling only binds the civil court legally but not factually. That means the civil court is bound by legal interpretation but there is no judicial basis for the civil court to rely on factual determination by the constitutional court. The constitutional court determined the facts at one point in time but facts change by minute, therefore it is judicially impossible and legally illogical for the civil court to disregard the current situation and conveniently rely on the constitutional court's ruling.

In sum, the civil court basically teamed up with the constitutional court in attempts to intervene in the executive domain, where the court has no accountability, and pave ways for the protestors to claim pseudo-legitimacy to overthrow the government.

Facebook post by Verapat Pariyawong, February 19, 2014

The Civil Court's ruling has effectively cut off the emergency decree at its knees and the powers of interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's caretaker government are seemingly being more and more marginalized - than it already is by law - by the judiciary and (supposedly) neutral government agencies.

The Election Commission has changed its plans again to complete February 2 elections (more background here), while the National Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating against PM Yingluck herself for "neglect of duty" in the government's increasingly disastrous rice-pledging scheme.

These developments will also very likely embolden the protesters to further up the ante in their disruptive crusade to bring down the government by - judging by past actions - any means necessary.

Thai govt declares state of emergency as political crisis deepens

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 22, 2014 The political standoff took a new twist Tuesday when the Thai government's declared state of emergency to counter the ongoing anti-election protests. With additional developments in the background, the wheels in this political crisis are about to spin faster.

With the mass anti-election protesters' campaign to "shutdown" the capital Bangkok entering its second week, the Thai caretaker cabinet decided to declare a state of emergency (SoE) on Tuesday evening as a response to the continuous targeting of government offices and banks by the protesters. The move also comes after explosions on Friday and on Sunday injured over 60 demonstrator and killed one. The suspects are still at large and police have set a 500,000 baht bounty on the perpetrator of Sunday's blast.

The 60-day state of emergency, starting on Wednesday, will last until March 22 and covers Bangkok and in parts its surrounding provinces Nonthaburi, Thonburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakarn. While the emergency decree is significant in principle - potentially  expanding the power of security forces to include searches, arrests and detentions people with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight and also censor media coverage - details of which regulations are being issued had yet to emerge as of publishing.

The announcement also includes a restructuring of the government organization tasked with handling the demonstrations. It now officially called the "Center for Maintaining Peace and Order" (CMPO) or "ศูนย์รักษาความสงบ" (ศรส.) in Thai.

Tuesday's announcement brought a familiar face in Thai politics back to the front line with the Pheu Thai MP Chalerm Yubamrung, who announced the CoE, assuming the position as CMPO director, while police chief-general Adul Saengsingkaew and defence ministry's permanent-secretary Nipat Thonglek acting as operating directors.

Chalerm is a veteran politician known for his bullish appearance and his reputation of being a blowhard, to put it mildly. When he was reappointed from deputy prime minister overlooking national security to labor minister in a reshuffle last year, he bemoaned his apparent political downfall. But when the current protests kicked off last November, somehow Chalerm managed to wrestle his way back into the headlines when he seemingly single-handedly took charge of monitoring the rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban - practically his political counterpart and arch-nemisis. Weeks later, Chalerm even boastfully and colorfully announced that he's "****ing back!"

The CMPO declared that the rallies by Suthep - who in April 2010 as deputy PM issued the last SoE declared in Thailand during the red shirt protests - have "constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working.” But at the same time they insist there are no plans to crack down on the protesters and are hoping that Suthep will surrender himself to the authorities. A notable sight during the televised announcement was the toned down presence by military officers, normally front and center at such announcements, even though many hold positions in the CMPO.

As the effects of the state of emergency declaration are yet to take effect, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken a proactive role after months of a hesitant, non-confrontational approach by police. Protest leader Suthep was unsurprisingly defiant, as he called the authorities to "come and get us" and still insists that his movement is "peaceful" despite riots and threats by its militant wing. Suthep says that the protests will continue with a view to stopping the February 2 election.

In related news, the Election Commission (EC) - still very reluctant to hold the February 2 polls - has asked the Constitutional Court to review the possibility of postponing the election. According to the constitution, a general election cannot be moved to another date, but by-elections can. However, with the SoE declaration affecting only Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the court may actually find a reason delay the vote because of these special circumstances. Moreover, candidacy registration has been disrupted by anti-election protesters in over 20 districts in the deep South.

With the state of emergency declaration the tense standoff between protesters and caretaker government goes to the next level and is less than likely being resolved anytime soon, since the government seemingly determined to hold the February 2 election and Suthep most likely now even more determined to stop it. Adding to that the EC's ongoing efforts to delay the February 2 elections, the National Anti-Corruption Commission's investigation against 308 mostly Pheu Thai lawmakers for their role in the proposed constitutional amendments and another probe directly targeting caretaker prime minister Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, the current political crisis in Thailand could be in very real danger of spinning out of control.

Thai authorities use scare tactics to curb political rumors online

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 12, 2013 Thailand's authorities are openly resorting to scare tactics to curb online discussions of politics after the summoning of several users for posting coup rumors on Facebook and a dumbfoundingly revealing interview with an official admitting his division's use of said methods.

The debate of the amnesty bills in parliament last week and the anticipation of opposition both in and outside the House caused the government to invoke the Internal Security Act in order to deal with anti-government protests. This, along with suspicious tank movements to the capital Bangkok (later dispelled by the army as a routine exercise), triggered heightened political tensions with fears of an escalation of the ongoing standoff between the various factions.

So it comes to no surprise that these tensions are being discussed online, including the inevitable mention of a possible military coup (which unfortunately is never out of the question in Thailand). However, such talk is not tolerated by the Thai authorities and have launched counter-measures, as seen last week:

Four people, including an editor of a TV channel, will be summoned for posting statements on social media which could lead to anxiety among the general public, a senior police officer said today.

Pol Maj Gen Pisit Pao-in, commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division [TCSD], said the four suspects posted messages via social media, saying they anticipated a coup and urged people to stock up on food and water in preparations for shortage. Their statements could put people in a state of panic, he said.

The four included Sermsuk Kasitipradit, political and security editor of Thai Public Broadcast Service (ThaiPBS), Dechatorn Tirapiriya, a Red Shirt leader in Chonburi province, Warnuee Kamduangwong and a user under the pseudonym “Yo Onshine”.

"Four people to be summoned for posting unwanted texts on social media", MCOT, August 5, 2013

The contents of the Facebook posts themselves are largely unknown to the public and the most prominent person to be accused, ThaiPBS' Sermsuk Kasitipradit, has reportedly already deleted the offending Facebook post. He was interrogated on Friday.

The TCSD chief also was of the opinion that the four persons summoned - even before any charges were filed - violated Article 116 of the Criminal Code and Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act (and NOT "National Computer Act", MCOT!). Both articles address the matter of "national security" stating that "words, writings" or "false computer data" respectively that can cause "disturbance" or "a public panic" is punishable with either a hefty fine or five years in prison or both.

Regular readers know that the Computer Crimes Act (CCA) is vaguely worded and deeply flawed, and thus its interpretation and application in conjunction with the Criminal Code by the authorities are arbitrary as the countless lèse majesté-related cases have shown in the past.

What this case also reveals is the blatant view of the Thai authorities in regards of curbing free speech online with straight-up intimidation, as the TCSD's chief Police Maj.-Gen. Pisit Pao-in shows in what can only be described a dumbfounding interview:

Q : Are asking if clicking "like" is now against the law. [sic]

A : It will be if you 'like' a message deemed damaging to national security. If you press 'like', it means you are accepting that message, which is tantamount to supporting it. By doing so, you help increase the credibility of the message and hence you should also be held responsible. (...)

A : The TCSD action is just meant to have a psychological impact. We don't want these four persons to be jailed. We just questioned them and it's okay for them to say they didn't mean to create panic. After this action, people are now more careful [about their Facebook messages]. I am mainly aiming at social peace. (...)

Q : What about "sharing" such a message?

A : There are two kinds of sharing. If you share in a way to support the original message, this is wrong. But if you comment against the message, this is okay.

"'Liking' political rumours is a crime", The Nation, August 11, 2013

Unfortunately, Pisit's staggering and blatantly anachronistic comments are in line with past and present governments in handling online censorship: under the premiership of Abhisit Vejjajiva the number of blocked URLs skyrocketed and the 'Cyber Scouts'-program to monitor online dissidents was launched. The current government of Yingluck Shinawatra has maintained if not even worsened the trend by doing essentially more of the same, as current Minister for Communication and Technology (MICT) Anudith Nakornthap vowed to continue the crackdown on lèse majesté contents and has also pledged to criminalize Facebook 'likes' not once, but twice now with the current case!

It is just astonishing yet unsurprising that such a self-image and understanding the Thai authorities still have of what and how discussions - especially of political nature - are ought to be like and ought to be dictated by only them. By admitting to openly use such scare tactics against online users and to outlaw simple 'likes' and 'shares' on Facebook, it really begs the question what their understanding of 'social peace' is, that can only be enforced.

Thai media names British gang-rape victim, raises serious ethical issues

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 20, 2013 The decision to publish the full name and personal documents of a Scottish student who was gang raped in the southern Thai city of Nakhon Si Thammarat raises serious questions about ethics in Thai media when it comes to reporting crimes.

Reports of the incident emerged in the Thai media Monday, with police confirming that the 20-year-old was dragged off the street and assaulted by four  suspects after she left a night club the previous evening.

The Daily News website ran a short story on the incident, accompanied by a copy of the victim's university identity card that showed her face and her full name.

Several reader comments below the story strongly criticized the Daily News for fully revealing the woman's identity. The coverage was also condemned on Twitter, though plenty of people included links to the offending article with their tweets. The Daily News editors later removed the image and her name from the article. However, there have been reports that the news channel TNN24 also showed her personal details and photo.

This insensitive coverage comes only a few days after the case of a 12-year-old ethnic Karen girl that was kidnapped and tortured by a couple in Kamphaeng Phet province hit the national headlines.

(READ MORE: Thailand: Plight of tortured Karen girl shocks a nation and Couple jump bail: Thai justice system fails tortured Karen girl by Kaewmala)

In this case, local police have had the girl stripped her almost naked to document her mutilated body after years of torture by the couple in front of members of the media. While the pictures did not show her face, it is still highly questionable - if not un-dignifying - by the local police to parade the girl in front of media and further traumatize the victim.

This prompted a response by the international children rights organization Plan International, which wrote in a column in the Bangkok Post:

As adults and as human beings, we - journalists as well as civil servants and law enforcers - have an obligation to protect children's rights. In the case of this Karen girl, even though her face was obscured and her name was withheld (all positive steps), we failed to protect her dignity and have subjected her to the shame of appearing near naked in a room full of strangers. We've put her under a spotlight, stripped her of her clothes, her humanity and her dignity, and objectified her in the name of raising awareness. (...)

Journalists are the last line of defence for children who have been scarred by their ordeals. In this instance the journalists could have chosen not to take photos, interrogate or otherwise participate in an event that would deepen the harm this girl had already suffered. A female official from the provincial authorities could have photographed the girl's hands, arms or legs in a private room and then shared those pictures with the media to avoid further harm to the child.

"Media needs guidance on reporting of child abuse", Bangkok Post, February 18, 2013

This also applies to the case of the British sexual assault victim and, indeed, all victims of crime in Thailand. The media may have access to sensitive images and identity information, but this does not mean they have to publish them.

While this is not a solely a Thai phenomenon (many European tabloids have done similar), many media professionals here display a total disregard for victims' personal right to privacy, and not even for a misguided belief that the public's right to know trumps personal privacy. It is also the authorities' fault to disclose such details (some of which may be critical to an running investigation and successful prosecution) to the media.

Unfortunately, there is a strong tendency among Thailand's media to take the information provided by the authorities and reproduce it without question or any real context. The reason why so many Thai-language newspaper items read like dry protocols of what has happened is because they mostly actually are unreflected, regurgitated quotes and soundbites by whoever was just talking. A typical introduction to a story in a mainstream Thai newspaper is: “On this date, at that time, at that place, that person, whose rank or position is this, said this,” followed by a couple of more soundbites.

The Thai Journalists' Association was not available for comment at the time of publishing.

Thai media newsrooms really have to ask themselves the following questions: What does it add to coverage to necessitate the publishing of the victim’s full personal details? What more harm and humiliation can be caused to the victim of the crime by revealing the full name and picture? What function do journalists, reporters and editors still serve, if they do not prioritize the information given in order to tell what is really important and thus in the process fail to protect the victims of crimes?

UPDATE 1: The Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) has responded to our inquiry:

It is unfortunate that this lapse of ethics occurred. Our concern is not only for Thailand but also other countries in the region where colleagues have noted similar lax in observing ethical standards. It is important for the media not to further traumatise the survivor, that the role of the media is to report and expose the issue, but to protect the dignity of the survivors". The media needs to understand that ethical responsibility is part of human rights.

Kulachada Chaipipat Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

UPDATE 2: Mark Kent, the British Ambassador to Thailand has issued this short statement to Siam Voices:

I and other Ambassadors have on several occasions set out our view to media and authorities about the need to respect victim confidentiality, especially for serious crimes and incidents. This includes protection of personal data and images

Mark Kent British Ambassador to Thailand

Indeed, he has raised this issue before with his Canadian counterpart Philip Calvert during a visit to Phuket earlier this year. It is also worth noting that the ambassador met with senior editors of the largest mass circulation newspaper Thai Rath yesterday afternoon and has certainly raised that issue with them as well: 

Thailand: Abhisit, Suthep charged with murder over 2010 crackdown

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 7, 2012 Thailand's Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has said it will charge former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and then deputy prime minister Suthep Thuagsuban with premeditated murder for their involvement in the death of a taxi driver during the crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protests in May 2010, where about 90 people were killed. Both will be summoned to acknowledge the charges on December 12, 2012.

The charges come after a court determined that taxi driver Phan Khamkong was killed by security forces during the crackdown - more similar cases and inquiries lead to the same conclusions.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI), police and Thai prosecutors jointly decided to charge the former leader and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban under article 288, the section of the Thai criminal code that deals with murder, said DSI chief Tarit Pengdith. "Their actions -- repeatedly sending the armed forces against civilians -- show an intention to endanger life," he said.

"Ex-Thai PM to face murder charge", by Thanaporn Promyamyai, AFP, December 6, 2012

The timing of the charges is no coincidence as the parliament is currently in recess until December 21 and Abhisit is not protected by its immunity. DSI chief Tharit Pengdith has been lining up the charges against the two Democrat Party politicians earlier this year.

Last month Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government comfortably survived a vote of no-confidence. Emboldened, it is now considering pushing for amendments to the constitution and another attempt to bring forward the so-called "reconciliation bills" is expected. Depending on which version will be eventually passed, it states that all charges and verdicts related to political protests between 2005 and May 10, 2011 (so a few days before the May 19 crackdown) will be dropped, including the verdict against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Some analysts said the charges were a way for the ruling Puea Thai Party to pressure the opposition into accepting a broad amnesty deal that could whitewash guilt on both sides of the conflict and bring Thaksin home from his self-imposed exile in Dubai.

"It's a political game and a way for Puea Thai to gain the upper hand by forcing their opposition to accept some sort of amnesty deal," Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank in Bangkok, told Reuters.

"Former Thai PM Abhisit charged over crackdown deaths", by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Reuters, December 6, 2012

This decision also highlights the very flexible nature of DSI chief Tharit towards whoever is currently in power. Just a few years ago, Tharit was focussed to prosecute the red shirt leaders and not put the blame for the deaths during the protests on the army after the crackdown, leading to inconclusive reports. Now, as seen above, he is working against those the used to serve. The DSI has also now accepted more other cases to investigate allegations of irregularities of big projects and constructions, especially against the Democrat-led Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, whose Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra is up for re-election in February.

Even if Abhisit and Suthep will face trial, it can take years of legal process until this eventually goes to court - and this is just over the death of one person during the protests. Nevertheless, it is a sign that those cases are being very slowly progressed. However, this decision is rooted in political consequences and will cause further political consequences, as the current political climate could rise again.

However, one crucial section that is responsible during the clashes and the crackdown is still being left untouched: the armed forces have so far been not charged and even the slightest hint by DSI chief Tharit has been met with so much uproar that he caved in and apologized.

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.

Thai Tourist Police launch iPhone app... in Thai

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 15, 2011

In an effort to keep up with the times, many Thai agencies and state organizations are releasing smartphone apps. Plenty of those are handy tourist guides. Now Thailand's Tourist Police have released a free app as well and the description sounds pretty good...

The purpose of this web site for facilitating of both local and foreign tourist police station, attraction places, restaurants, accommodations, Gas station, hospitals, etc., or when you have accident, you can inform the police immediately with 8 Sub-Division.

Prepared by the Sub-Division 5 of Tourist Police Division

There is one slight catch though - it's entirely in Thai! Well, there are not that many tourists who can already read Thai sufficiently enough to use this app, but I'm pretty sure that the next update will be bilingual. Until then, those who want to use the app have to learn the language - there's probably an app for that, too...!

via @RichardBarrow

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.