police

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.