yellow shirts

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Ex-yellow shirt leader Sondhi found guilty of insulting Thai monarchy

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 2, 2013 Thai court sentences former leader of the ultra-royalist and reactionary yellow shirts movement Sondhi Limthongkul to two years in jail for lèse majesté, but for entirely the wrong reasons.

Things went from bad to worse for Sondhi Limthongkul, the media mogul turned leader of the so-called 'People's Alliance for Democracy' (PAD) aka the yellow shirts, on Tuesday:

The Appeals Court on Tuesday sentenced Sondhi Limthongkul, a core member of the People's Alliance for Democracy, to three years imprisonment after finding him guilty of lese majeste, reversing the lower court's decision which acquitted him of the charge. The prison sentence was reduced by one-third to two years in jail because his testimony was deemed useful.

Mr Sondhi was charged that on July 20, 2008 he went up the stage and made a speech at a rally of PAD supporters at Makkawan Rangsan Bridge over a loud speaker.

"Sondhi gets 2 years for lese majeste", Bangkok Post, October 1, 2013

In that speech, which was broadcasted by his own satellite TV channel ASTV, Sondhi quoted pro-Thaksin supporter Daranee Charnchoengsilpaku, more commonly known as "Da Torpedo", demanding her arrest and prosecution.

Daranee's reportedly very strong remarks made in 2008 criticized the military coup of 2006 and the monarchy, which led to her arrest and sentencing to 18 years in jail. But, following a petition from her, the ruling was nullified and her case was declared a mistrial (we reported) since the hearings were not made accessible to the public and the media. Nevertheless, she remained imprisoned and the retrial in 2011 still found her guilty, sentencing her to 15 years in jail. Earlier this year in July, it was announced that Daranee will seek a royal pardon after more than 5 years of imprisonment and several have reported health concerns.

This lèse majesté charge against Sondhi - filed by the police - originates as far back as 2008 as he was issued an arrest warrant shortly after the aforementioned broadcast and eventually faced trial in 2011 after several delays. In September 2012 he was acquitted of the charges by the Criminal Court, as it found that Sondhi had "no intention" of breaking the law. Now, a year later, a higher court has overturned that ruling.

For Sondhi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for corporate fraud earlier this year, it is another blow for the man who led a powerful and controversial political movement, more commonly known as the yellow shirts. The group is notorious for their street protests and the siege of Bangkok's airports in 2008 (the trial has yet to commence) in their continuous campaign to rid Thai politics of the influences of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra (a former business partner of Sondhi), including the current government of his sister Yingluck.

In August, Sondhi and other high-ranking leaders announced their resignation from the movement after they failed to convince their former allies, the opposition Democrat Party, to quit parliament in an effort to topple the government. While all involved insist that the PAD is not dead, their departure effectively disables the already marginalized movement (for now), despite the ongoing existence of ultra-royalist, anti-democracy and reactionary political offshoots.

The lèse majesté case and the conviction against Sondhi shows that even supporters of the monarchy and proponents of the draconian law are not exempt from the deeply flawed Article 112 of the Criminal Code. The reasoning of the judges clearly shows the 'logic' of the law and its perceived purpose:

The Appeals Court found Mr Sondhi guilty as charged, reasoning that it was not necessary for him to repeat Ms Daranee's remarks in public. In doing so, Mr Sondhi caused other people to know what Ms Daranee had said and to talk about it, thus affecting the monarchy.

"Sondhi gets 2 years for lese majeste", Bangkok Post, October 1, 2013

In other words, Sondhi made himself an accomplice to the crime and it doesn't matter if it was used in order to vilify her and demand her arrest, since Daranee's words - as with all other allegedly offensive remarks in all lèse majesté cases - are not publicly discussed outside the court rooms. As explored in a previous blog post here, prosecutors have the contradictory task of pursuing offenses against the monarchy (and also the often cited "national security") yet at the same time insist that they do not have an effect on them personally as loyal Thais.

Notably, while countless other lèse majesté prisoners are rejected bail and remain imprisoned while awaiting trial - as authorities claim they are a flight risk - Sondhi Limthongkul yet again walks free on bail (reportedly 500,000 Baht or $16,000 in this case) and probably will never see the inside of a prison cell.

Is this the end for Thailand's ultra-nationalist yellow shirts?

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2013 As leaders of the ultra-nationalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announce they have quit their roles in the movement, is this the end for Thailand's yellow shirts?

It was a Friday and the end of a rather tumultuous political week with long parliament debates on constitutional amendments almost coming to a grinding halt because of the antics by opposition Democrat Party that ultimately couldn't stop to vote.

From the outermost sidelines of the Thai political playing field, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - the ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic and anti-Thaksin street protest group also commonly known as the yellow shirts - announced that it would make a televised statement later that Friday evening.

A "change in its stance" was touted by the movement. The question was in which direction it was heading. Would the yellow shirts return to mass street protests they have given up on in 2012? Would the Democrat Party return to the fold after their break-up and following ridicule by the PAD?

In the presence of all key yellow shirt leaders such as Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang - most of whom have kept a rather low public profile in the recent past - from the movement's own TV studio, a spokesman read out a slightly surprising 30-minute statement:

Core bosses of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) announced last night they have quit the movement's leadership (...)

Their decision, which was broadcast on the satellite-based ASTV station, came after it became clear Democrat Party MPs would not quit parliament to join a campaign to push for political reforms as had been suggested earlier by one of the PAD leaders Sondhi Limthongkul. (...)

The PAD leaders, who face a number of charges as a result of anti-Thaksin Shinawatra protests, claimed their ability to conduct political activities was being curbed by court orders.

If they were to bring about political reform, they would have to violate those court orders but there were no guarantees that their "sacrifices" would pay off in the long run.

They said the PAD alone was not powerful enough to bring about change. The Democrats, however, have the resources and are not restrained by any court orders, they said, but the Democrats have turned their back on Mr Sondhi's proposal.

By rejecting the PAD's offer, the Democrat Party showed that it was only aiming at discrediting the government and, like other political parties, hoped to use other groups for its own political gains, the statement added.

"Top PAD bosses resign en masse", Bangkok Post, August 24, 2013

The leaders further lamented in their Friday night announcement the 'vicious cycle' of politics. Even if the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (which they perceive as a proxy government of her brother Thaksin) is overthrown, the ruling Pheu Thai Party would comfortably win again in a reelection scenario. Any other political party would also act purely for their own political gain, their statement continued.

The yellow shirts have put their hopes in their former fellow anti-Thaksin protesters from the Democrat Party (both have large overlapping supporter groups mainly consisting of middle class Bangkokians), but they have moved on and created their own street protest groups. Furthermore, the opposition politicians would also not want to risk their political careers and quit parliament, which was a condition demanded by the PAD for them to join.

It was an admission of failure for the PAD in their mission to 'free' Thai politics of the influence of Thaksin (also a former business partner of Sondhi before ties between two soured) and everything the yellow shirts believe he stands for, among them a corrupt democratic system that needs to be done away with - preferably via a military coup and replaced with appointed representatives instead of elections.

What began as a broad urban anti-Thaksin alliance in 2005 and the (re-)introduction of street politics to Thailand and reached its climax in the 2008 airport siege (their trials have been postponed countless times), became more and more marginalized over the years. All that is left of the movement is the ultra-nationalist and anti-Thaksin core from the beginning.

Will this mean the end of anti-Thaksin protests? Far from it! The sentiments against Thaksin have only run deeper in Thailand over the years, as the various affiliated off-shoot protest groups such the ultra-royalist multi-colored shirts, the short-lived Pitak Siam and the recently emerged 'White masks' have shown. What all these groups have in common - apart from near-facist political leanings - is that while they have identified what they hate, they rarely have offered a proper political solution to the ongoing polarization.

The leaders' resignation wants to be understood as something temporary rather than a complete breakdown. A return of the yellow shirts to the streets is never really out of the question given the right circumstances. However, with Friday's announcement the People's Alliance for Democracy have become a complete misnomer: they do not have enough the mass support they require, nor have they allies such as the Democrat Party and the military, and they certainly do not stand for democracy.

Thailand: Reconciliation games continue as amnesty bill goes to parliament

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 26, 2013 When Thailand's parliament reconvenes next week to continue the political season one of the most discussed and possibly the most controversial issue will be the passing of the so-called amnesty or reconciliation bill. Advertised as a means to overcome the ongoing political division by giving far-reaching amnesty to those convicted for taking part in the countless political protests - of both yellow and red shirts - since the military coup of 2006, opponents are accusing the government of white-washing the activities of the red shirt protesters and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Depending on which of the various drafts you read, the bill could issue an even more far-reaching amnesty that also includes the junta behind the military coup, the military and civilian authorities responsible for the violent crackdown of the 2010 anti-government red shirt protests (including then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thuagsuban), the various protest leaders, erasing the post-coup judiciary (a junta-appointed court which has dissolved deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party and banned 111 politicians from office in 2007) and - according to one draft - even absolve Thaksin himself from a 2008 court sentence for abuse of power in a land purchasing case.

The authors of the drafts nearly all come from the governing Pheu Thai Party (PT). Red shirt leader and current deputy commercial minister Natthawut Saikua and coup-leader and now-opposition politician Sonthi Boonyaratglin may come from opposite ends of the political devide, but have presented similar amnesty drafts, with the main difference that "those who commit terrorist acts and acts causing death" are excluded in Natthawut's bill proposal. The former deputy prime minister and now newly demoted named labor minister Chalerm Yubamrung also throws in a draft of his own in a typically eager attempt to leave a personal mark on this issue, in which almost everybody - including Abhisit and Thaksin - are absolved. None of the bills include those imprisoned under the lèse majesté law.

Last week, another proposal for a reconciliation bill was introduced by a group that has been often neglected in the political infighting but was arguably most affected in the political crisis:

Relatives of those killed in the April-May 2010 crackdown on red-shirt protesters are to submit a "Worachai-plus" amnesty bill as parliament prepares to consider six other amnesty bills next month. (...)

"People from all colours will be absolved of any offence they committed or had committed against against them, except for core leaders," Ms. Payao [Akkahad, the mother of 25-year-old Kamolkade Akkahad, a medical volunteer who was killed inside Wat Pathum Wanaram on May 19, 2010] said of the victims' relatives' version of the bill.

The relatives will submit their five-page bill to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra tomorrow, and to the parliament speaker on July 24, she said.

This bill, [Punsak Srithep, father of the 17-year-old Samapun Srithep, who was killed on May 15, 2010, on Ratchaprarop Road,] said, would allow judicial lawsuits to be pressed against persons or groups that killed people and/or damaged private property. The relatives' bill also does not prevent private entities whose properties were damaged in the unrest from launching civil suits against vandals or arsonists, he said.

"2010 victims' relatives push amnesty bill", Bangkok Post, July 15, 2013

The draft, coined by local media as the "People's Bill", has found in opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva an unlikely proponent. While he lauds it to be "the first amnesty bill that had been proposed with a reasonable and reconciliatory tone," parts of the proposal directly target him and his administration's role in the violent crackdown on the red shirt protesters in 2010 (both he and his former deputy Suthep are facing murder charges by the DSI on at least one count, if not even more). It comes as no surprise that his party supporters and other ultra-conservatives have criticized Abhisit for voicing his support, many questioning whether or not he actually read the entire thing. The opposition has not yet brought up a proposal on their own.

Meanwhile, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the mainstream red shirt umbrella organization, has voiced skepticism about the "People's Bill":

Prominent Pheu Thai politicians and Redshirts leaders, such as Mr. Weng Tojirakarn, Mr. Sombat Boon-ngarmanong, and Ms. Suda Rangupan, have accused Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak of trying to slow down the process to pass amnesty bill by picking a fight with the powerful military.

According to those opposed to the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill, the effort to free detained Redshirts protesters should be a priority over the need to prosecute the security forces. They expressed their fear that the military would never allow Ms. Yingluck′s government to pass such a bill, ruining the chance of any little gain there might be altogether, and might even launch a military coup in retaliation.

Some Redshirts also openly questioned the motives of Ms. Payao and Mr. Pansak, indirectly accusing them of being collaborators with the rival Democrat Party which, strangely enough, had expressed its support for the ′Victims Families′ amnesty bill.

"Fragmentation Among Redshirts Highlighted By Amnesty Debate", Khaosod Online, July 24, 2013

Instead, the UDD and the Pheu Thai Party are reportedly backing the draft by PT MP Worachai Hema, putting it top of the agenda for deliberation in parliament (even before the 2014 Budget Bill!) and ditching all other proposals - a move some observers say is to avoid uproar from the UDD, despite reports of dissatisfaction among certain groups within the fragmented movement. Under Worachai's bill, all political protestors will be granted amnesty - regardless of their political allegiance - while excluding the protest leaders and authorities responsible for the crackdowns.

August rings in a new political season that could get very heated very quickly: on top of the 2014 Budget Bill, the 2.2 trillion Baht (US$ 730bn) loan for infrastructure investments and proposed constitutional amendments, the amnesty bill will spark months of legislative tugs of war and wars of words (and potentially worse antics by the opposition outside and inside parliament like last year) - once again revealing how big Thailand's political divisions really are and that even a far-reaching amnesty will not be enough to close the gap.

Thailand: Ultra-conservatives hijack "Thai Spring" moniker

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 17, 2013 Thailand's political climate could be heating up again after the Prime Minister's Mongolia speech has caused strong reactions, especially from anti-government groups. A new online group now has now claimed the 'Thai Spring' moniker to denounce the government, but it has very little to do with its bigger counterpart in the Middle Eastern revolutions.

When Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra went to Mongolia's capital Ulan Bator in late April, many were expecting yet another trip abroad to drum up economic ties with foreign states and private investors. However, speaking at a conference of democratic countries, she addressed some very sensitive issues for the first time since the beginning of her tenure in 2011.

In her speech, Yingluck praised her brother and former prime minister Thaksin's political achievements (while deliberately overlooking his faults and wrongdoings) during his rule, acknowledged the red shirt protesters who "fought back for their freedom" and gave "their lives defending democracy".

She also condemned the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin and said  "elements of anti-democratic regime still exist" and are still working against her, explicitly mentioning "the so called independent agencies have abused the power."

For once, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - until then always striking a conciliatory tone and a soft approach - made a politically committed speech and was ready to take sides. She did not shy away from sad truths (e.g. the military drafted constitution of 2007), while highlighting her government's populist policies and those of Thaksin - something she could have done much earlier.

(READ MORE: Bangkok Pundit's analysis of Yingluck's Mongolia-speech)

The strong reactions by her political opponents suggest Yingluck has struck a nerve: the controversy around the misogynist insult by a Thai Rath cartoonist and the ill-advised lawsuit against him by the PM and the even more ill-advised rampage by the ICT minister were just one of many different verbal flash points following her speech.

This week, another front has opened up in the reactionary fallout to Yingluck's Mongolia-speech:

A new website has been launched, Thai Spring, where people can voice their opposition to the Yingluck Shinawatra government, retired police officer Vasit Dejkunjorn and former senator Kaewsun Atibodhi said on Thursday.

Describing himself as a person who adheres strongly to the principle of a democratic administration under the monarchy, and who has experienced many political eras in Thailand, Pol Gen Vasit said he was aware there are groups of people trying relentlessly to undermine the highest institution in the country.

Those people have a plan to take over Thailand and change its administrative system, and he would not stand by and allow this to happen, he said. (...)

"It is a website, <http://www.change.org/users/thaispring>, where they can sign in and express disapproval of the prime minister's speech in Ulan Bator. "More than 10,000 people have signed on to the website so far to express their opinion that in delivering that speech the prime minister acted wrongly. (...)

Pol Gen Vasit called for the government to review its role, otherwise the "Thai Spring" movement would develop, in the same way that the "Arab Spring" phenomenon had led to anti-government protests by huge numbers of people.

"Anti-govt 'Thai Spring' website opened", Bangkok Post, May 16, 2013

The two men behind the campaign, Vasit Dejkunjorn and Kaewsun Atibodhi, are noted ultra-royalists and anti-Thaksinites respectively. Vasit has attended several pro-monarchy rallies in the past, while Kaewsun often publicly slammed Thaksin on the stage of the yellow shirts gatherings and investigated against his administration after he was appointed to a post-coup committee. So, it's pretty clear where these two are coming from politically - as is their the often regurgitated claim of the Yingluck-Thaksin campaign to overthrow the monarchy.

What stands out in this case are the means of their protest: this ultra-conservative group is starting their anti-government campaign online. Unlike what is erroneously reported, "Thai Spring" does not have a self-hosted website (yet) but is rather a group on the Thai section of Change.org, an online petition platform that normally avoids overly politically partisan campaigns.

The petition itself called "ร่วมลงชื่อปฏิเสธปาฐกถาอูลานบาตอร์ของนายกรัฐมนตรี" ("Petition to Denounce the Prime Minister's Ulan Bator-Speech") has at the time of writing reached over 14,000 signatures and have explained in a long open letter how PM Yingluck is just a puppet of the exiled Thaksin, how they're going turn the country upside down, and how all the media in their pockets, comparing at lengths the PM, the government, the ruling party to Kim Jong-Il and North Korea*. Of course, they also claim to speak on behalf of all Thai citizens.

No doubt the attention-grabber here is the name 'Thai Spring' this group has hijacked in order to mimic the 'Arab Spring', which has fundamentally changed several Middle Eastern and North African countries and is still ongoing after over two years. But looking at the two sides here, they couldn't be further apart from each other**:

The 'Arab Spring' was in part sparked by a disenfranchised youth stifled with high unemployment and fed up with decades-old authoritarianism. On the other hand, these men behind the so-called 'Thai Spring' represent an elitist, reactionary force that see their vision of Thailand endangered by Thaksin Shinawatra - who without a doubt is not a democrat either, but (unwittingly) enfranchised a largely neglected rural population with political conscience - and want to stop it with all non-democratic means at all costs (e.g. endorsing a military coup), even at the cost of democracy itself!

This could signal yet another political (re-)entrenchment, as the opposition both in and outside parliament have been clearly agitated by Yingluck's speech, which could be seen as a battle cry for a stronger push in the upcoming political challenges later this year such as the charter amendments, the reconciliation bills, but also the court verdict in the Thai-Cambodian border dispute.

The relative calm over the past years could be pushed aside by the reemergence of the heated political polarization and a further escalation between the two fractions that have diametrically opposing visions about the future of Thailand's rule and its structure. But with the hijacking of the 'Thai Spring' by the ultra-conservatives it has already been made clear: this spring does not signal a fresh new start.

*On the comparison to North Korea, here's another quote from the open letter: "If you pay a visit to North Korea you will witness the omnipresence of portraits of the leader. In Thailand it is the same. These two likeminded families have thus been sending their followers and subordinates to infiltrate all strata of their respective societies." Hmm...!

**More on the (un-)likelihood of an 'Arab Spring'-style uprising Thailand hopefully in a future post.

Thai army ordered to stand down after bullying yellow shirt paper

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 14, 2013 This past weekend, around 40-50 military officers suddenly showed up in front of the building of ASTV-Manager protesting the paper's harsh criticism of the army and the 'slandering' of their armed forces chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The soldiers from the 1st army region assembled on Friday afternoon after the newspaper compared Prayuth's most recent outburst to a "woman in her periods". A second protest was staged on Saturday morning at the same spot and they threatened to repeat it again every day until the paper apologizes.

The show of force by the officers in green came after a public tit-for-tat between General Prayuth and the newspaper, the latter attacking the armed forces for their handling of the border conflict with neighboring Cambodia over the ancient Buddhist Hindu temple Preah Vihear. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) will hold hearings in April, after the Cambodia has requested the ICJ to reinterpret aspects of the 1962 ruling in their favor. A decision is expected to take place in October later this year.

Just to be very clear, the publication the soldiers were protesting is far from being the beacon of the Thai press media: ASTV-Manager is the press outlet of the ultra-nationalistic and ill-named "People's Alliance for Democracy" (PAD), also commonly known as the yellow shirts. Apart from their regular anti-democratic diatribes and low punches as seen above (that reflects its comments section), the Preah Vihear temple conflict is one of the issues the political pressure group is using to rally up supporters - just that it's one of the less popular ones compared to those that have a distinct anti-Thaksin and nowadays anti-Yingluck agenda to it.

The last PAD protest over the temple conflict was in early 2011, following another deadly clash at the border between Thai and Cambodian troops. At the short-lived and small protest sit-in, the yellow shirts were at times calling for an open war with Cambodia. Frustrated with their diminished relevance in Thai (street) politics, it was also during that time when they broke off their formerly close alliances with the Democrat Party (which were in power back then) and with hawkish factions of the military, as the PAD accused both of not doing enough for the "interest of the country" over the border conflict.

In the run-up to the ICJ hearings - to which the PAD has urged the government not to accept anything at all by the ICJ in the irrationale fear of losing sovereignty - the PAD's news-outlets are repeating their diatribes against Cambodia, the ICJ and also the army as they started criticizing General Prayuth, which deteriorated into the spat and ultimately to the soldiers' protest, who see not only their army chief being attacked but also the institution of the armed forces as a whole:

The green-uniformed protesters on Saturday said the article has damaged their morale because the army chief is like their "second father". They demanded the media outlet issue an apology to the general.

They also denied being ordered by their superiors to stage the event. Gen Prayuth told reporters earlier that the soldiers were free to hold such rallies because they were trying to protect the armed forces, not just him. (...)

"If [the PAD] were the government, I would have to listen to it. But since it is not, I have no idea what to do with it," Gen Prayuth said during a visit to the border area earlier in the week.

"Prayuth to troops: Stand down at ASTV", Bangkok Post, January 12, 2013

Despite the fact that Prayuth has ordered the soldiers to cease from any more protests, the public display by the soldiers underlines the over-confident self-perception of the armed forces' role in Thai society that they are above from criticism - given Prayuth's erratic outbursts at the media (read here, here and here) that is hardly surprising. While this is mouthpiece of an ultra-nationalistic pressure group we're talking about, having 50 troops show up at their doorstep isn't right either! And to make matters worse, the army is now asking for forgiveness "confidence in the army" - quite an ambitious request after this weekend.

Generally, the reactions by fellow Thai journalists on this incident were swift and clear:

The TJA statement called for the army to respect freedom of the press. If the army feels the media have violated its rights, it can file a complaint with the National Press Council. As well, it said the army chief should listen to media coverage that fairly reflected the army's and his performance without bias and in a constructive way.

At the same time, it said, all media (...) should refrain from distorting the facts or abusing the dignity and human rights of people appearing in the news. They should also refrain from using rude or insulting words, it said.

"Journalists decry threats", Bangkok Post, January 12, 2013

While this response is in principle correct, it begs the question where the TJA was during other (arguably equally severe) interferences and threats to the media and freedom of speech in the past few years? Where was the TJA on the countless lèse majesté cases affecting free speech and charges made against journalists? Where were they when on the verdict of Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, held liable for online comments she didn't make? Did they say anything about the media interferences by the Abhisit administration? Was there any criticism made over the apparent failure by Thai TV to inform about a potential tsunami warning? And what did the TJA say when (of all people) journalism students were protesting against reforms of the lèse majesté law?

UPDATE: As soon as this post was published on Monday afternoon, news came out that army chief Prayuth has "apologized". However, he merely did only excuse his choices of words ("a lousy newspaper"), but not the message itself.

Thailand: What we missed in August 2012

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

Thailand's Olympic medal winners: Sporting hurt pride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thaksin's US travels spark anti-American tantrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thailand's yellow shirts change focus, abandon street protests... for now

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 12, 2012 The ultra-nationalist "People's Alliance for Democracy" (PAD), also commonly known as the yellow shirts, have assembled for the first time since Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister. Yingluck is the sister of their arch-nemesis and former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

With the change of government came also the concerns of a return of widespread anti-Thaksin protests, and fears that the current administration ultimately only governs to benefit the big brother exiled in Dubai. In other words, if Thaksin re-emerges, so will the yellow shirts.

About 2,000 to 3,000 "rowdy PAD supporters" (not my words, astonishingly the Bangkok Post's!) gathered in a convention hall at Lumphini Park, Bangkok Saturday to discuss the group's future direction. The gathering came amid heated (at times physical) debate over the Nitirat group's proposals to amend the constitution and the lèse majesté law - both pressing issues where the yellow shirts and, especially when it concerns the monarchy, will ferociously defend.

Given its history of protests, blockades and nationalistic diatribes - and amidst the developments of recent weeks - the following results of the  meeting might be surprising at first sight:

The People's Alliance for Democracy yesterday backed away from its threat to stage a major Bangkok rally against the charter rewrite in a move hailed by the government as a breakthrough in easing political tensions.

PAD spokesman Panthep Phuaphongphan said the mass rally may be put on the table again if "the conditions are ripe enough for a big political change among Thai people".

"Under these conditions ... the PAD will hold a major rally immediately," said Mr Panthep. (...)

He said they would start a nationwide campaign as soon as possible about the charter rewrite and the direction parliament has taken on the issue.

Nanta, a 59-year-old teacher from Chon Buri, welcomed the PAD's resolution, saying the issue was far too critical for the group to handle alone and the public needed to be better educated about the issues.

"PAD shelves mass rally over constitution", Bangkok Post, March 11, 2012

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) will set up a committee to campaign for national reform instead of holding mass rallies to counter the Pheu Thai-led government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, according to PAD spokesman Panthep Pourpongpan.

Panthep said the group would launch protests if the government changes Article 112 of the Penal Code, amends the charter or any laws to waive penalties on Thaksin Shinawatra and his group, and when the time is right.

"PAD vows to pursue reforms", The Nation, March 11, 2012

There have been some politicians and academics who hail this development as a move forward to "ease the political tension". However, it should be noted that the PAD is neither the same broad alliance against Thaksin seen in 2006, nor the less broad collective who took over government house, then Bangkok's airports in 2008. Under the Democrat-led government, the ties between the two were steadily getting worse, ultimately broken during the conflict over Preah Vihear.

Another issue that plagued the movement were the financial problems of their founder and main leader, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul. Rumors of his financial demise were further fueled after his satellite channel and PAD-mouthpiece ASTV were forced off air. In general, Sondhi has been largely low-key in his appearances, even a plea for a military coup was (fortunately) largely ignored (and his outlandish conspiracy theories don't help either!). And in the latest sign that even Sondhi is not untouchable anymore, he recently was found guilty on multiple accounts of corporate fraud and sentenced to 20 years. However, he was released on a hefty bail and appealed against the verdict.

In a way, this reflects the marginalized role the PAD has in the political landscape today. The Preah Vihear protests at the beginning of 2011 were an early sign of a diminished supporter base and burned bridges with many political allies. Smaller  off-shoot groups were solely there 'to defend the monarchy' from whatever perceived threat during the Nitirat discussion and Sondhi himself is still obsessed fixated to fight against his former business partner Thaksin:

Sondhi said , "We have to win this fight. This is not to change the government. The country will survive only if bad politicians are gone," he said.

"PAD vows to pursue reforms", The Nation, March 11, 2012

Hard-core yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul told the crowd he would continue fighting Thaksin as he had done for eight years. He said he did not believe the government's promise not to touch on the issue of the monarchy in the charter rewrite.

"PAD shelves mass rally over constitution", Bangkok Post, March 11, 2012

And again, the focus to (re-)"educate" people about their ideas on how to reform the country does raise some questions whether or not the current mindset of the PAD has changed from a past outright anti-democracy position (including the infamous "close down the country for a few years"-approach) to a more moderate one.

The yellow shirts might have taken a step back, but given the controversy surrounding the planned changes and their arch-nemesis Thaksin still looming in the air, a return to street protests is not out of the question.

Note: A sentence mentioning Sondhi's lastest conviction has been added to this article.

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

The Cambodian view on border clashes with Thailand

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 18, 2011 In a comment in the English language The Phnom Penh Post, co-founder and former editor-in-chief Michael Hayes expressed his view on the most recent Thai-Cambodian border clashes and reflects on the national feeling about this issue. He writes:

At the very least I’ve never been called a spin doctor for the Cambodian government. But on the issue of the current border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand surrounding Wat Preah Vihear, I’m as angry as all Cambodians are at what we perceive as a Thai-initiated conflict of grossly unjust proportions. (...)

The nagging question that perplexes us all is why Thailand is trying to export its domestic political problems and dump them on poor Cambodia? The sentiment here is that if the red shirts and the yellow shirts want to fight it out, do so somewhere in Thailand, but don’t use Cambodia as a scapegoat.

"The view from Cambodia", by Michael Hayes, The Phnom Penh Post, February 17, 2011

We have recently blogged about the Thai national(-istic) implications of the border clashes, but just to recap: The PAD are partly to be blamed for the recent flareups in battles at the border that begun earlier this year when seven Thais were captured on Cambodian territory including a Democrat MP and Veera Somkwamkid, an infamous activist of the PAD-allied Thai Patriots Network, who has been very vocal about the border issues and known to getting into trouble several times at the very same place. That's probably why Veera and another activist have been sentenced to multiple years in jail (btw, it looks like they won't get off the hook that easy via a royal pardon).

The PAD have been protesting since late January on the streets near government house and have repeatedly viciously attacked the government and also the army, who may have some "some wounded pride among the top generals as a result of the PAD's assertions that the army has been weak" (Source: Reuters). All in all, as hinted in Hayes' comment, the border clash is a result of Thai domestic politics and ratcheted up by the ultra-nationalistic PAD. But the red shirts are absolutely on the sidelines about this issue.

Hayes continues:

In the 20 years I’ve been in Cambodia the Preah Vihear issue is without question the only one I’ve seen that has united the entire nation. Cambodian TV stations have been running fundraisers off and on with donations large and small pouring in from all quarters for two years. Even the normally truculent Sam Rainsy Party and others in the opposition are fully on board.

"The view from Cambodia", by Michael Hayes, The Phnom Penh Post, February 17, 2011

Really? In an analysis by the Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) it paints a different picture of the Cambodian opposition:

Abhisit's PAD problems are somewhat mirrored in Cambodia by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party's hounding of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The party accused Hun Sen of neglecting land controversies in the border demarcation process with Vietnam while highlighting the confrontation with Thailand.

'He is trying to avoid the border issue with Vietnam,' said Chhaya Hang, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a Phnom Penh-based non-governmental organization. (...)

Hun Sen might also be under pressure to speed up the Thai-Cambodian border conflict for budgetary reasons.

"ANALYSIS: Domestic politics muddy Thai-Cambodian border spat", DPA, February 9, 2011 (via KI-Media)

Nevertheless, Hayes' comment correctly points out the problems on the Thai side. The conflict stems from made-up false propaganda that is revived by the ultra-nationalists, partly to fight against their descend into obscurity, partly to avenge their disappointment over a government, which they thought have helped to come into existence.

This very government meanwhile, is trying stubbornly to keep this matter and its eventual resolution strictly bilateral, which is one of the reasons it has most recently refused to sign a ceasefire agreement with Cambodia, which asks observers from ASEAN to monitor to area.

Thai-Cambodian border clashes: Nationalist fever boils over

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 10, 2011 It has been nearly a week since the tense situation at the Thai-Cambodian border at the disputed ancient Hindu temple Preah Vihear escalated yet again, when troops on both sides exchanged gunfire and according to independent observers, killed 11 people on both sides. Even though no shooting has been reported since Tuesday, the current calm is more than fragile.

At the same time in Bangkok, the yellow-shirted PAD have been camping and rallying at Government House since late January, demanding the government to step down and calling for a stricter handling of the Thai-Cambodian border issue. By doing so, they are yet again playing the card of ultra-nationalism to justify their cause. But unlike at their last large-scale protest in 2008, this time it appears it is the only thing left for them is to cling on.

Ever since the rally started on January 25, the PAD's narrative and thus their constructed enemies were clear: Thai prime minister Abhsit, Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, Thai defense minister Prawit Wongsuwan and the Cambodians at the border - they all have to leave in some way, whether its from their post or from the area the yellow shirts claim to be Thai soil. Additionally, the endless line of contributing speakers on the PAD stage are attacking the army for not being fierce enough with the issue, essentially calling them to reclaim the area by force.

But what is the PAD's rationale behind the ultra-nationalistic sabre rattling and the constant ripping of the current Thai government? Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a diplomat-turned-academic, explains:

At a deeper level, however, the conflict reveals a power struggle between the government and the PAD, the two main bastions of royalism in domestic Thai politics. The PAD is apparently manipulating the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia to undermine the Democrat-led government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Relations between the two groups were not always so fractious. The Democrat Party and the PAD fought side-by-side to unseat the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and its subsequent proxies. They were both also willing to use anti-Cambodian nationalism as a rallying cry. (...)

But after it formed a government in late 2008 through a backroom deal brokered by the military, the Democrat Party gradually distanced itself from the PAD and its yellow-shirt protesters in an attempt to rebuild the government's image. PAD members were infuriated. Many believed that they helped install the Democrat Party in power but never got the credit they deserved from the Abhisit government.

"Thailand's Rising Nationalism", by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Wall Street Journal, February 9, 2011 (full text can be read here)

Furthermore, political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak (also known to some as 'the Quotemeister'), sees in the PAD a larger danger to the government than the red shirts:

PAD leading voices have since turned their oratory guns broadly at the powers-that-be, including the current army chief, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, and especially Mr Abhisit. (...)

Mr Sondhi (...) has been playing up his overseas Chinese roots in defiance of what he calls the 'poo dee', the blue-blooded high and mighty with privileged backgrounds. This 'poo dee' happens to coincide neatly with the red shirts' battle cry in 2009-10 against the amataya, although no realignment of these two social movements appears in the offing. But if the various colours against the 'poo dee' and the amataya are lined up at a future point, the powers-that-be should be gravely concerned.

"Where is the PAD going this time with its protests?", by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Bangkok Post, February 8, 2011

Shawn Crispin of Asia Times Online, elaborates on another angle:

Still, some have speculated that the military has swung back towards the PAD with the transition from outgoing army commander General Anupong to new chief Prayuth as a way to pressure Abhisit out of his early election plan. With the reappearance of the PAD on Bangkok's streets, this time as ultra-nationalists in defense of Thai territory, local newspapers have been awash in unexplained coup rumors. (...)

That leaves Abhisit to convince Prayuth that early polls are a better bet than backing the PAD and fomenting instability on the border.

"Bombshells and rally cries", by Shawn Crispin, Asia Times Online, February 8, 2011

The cracks between the PAD and the ruling Democrat Party were visible for some time already. The most recent scathing attacks by the yellow shirts are a more than crystal-clear sign that their bond is broken beyond repair. Apart from that, it reveals a jaded frustration among the PAD that not only in their view they were not being credited enough for bringing down three governments they saw as morally illegitimate to rule, only then to see the successor not being much better either.

The PAD's experiment at participating in politics (by 'normal' means) in form of the New Politics Party ultimately failed to break ground in the political landscape and at the local voting booths, thus leading many senior figures, including Sondhi, to leave the party and return to the streets with the PAD, as they see it as the only way to bully through their cause. Furthermore, the jaded frustration indicates their struggle against growing irrelevancy and obscurity, with the also anti-government red shirts reenergizing during their last few rallies (which were invited by one PAD activist to join them in chasing out the government).

Meanwhile, the sabre rattling by the PAD's rhetoric has reached a new low on Monday when the leader Sondhi Limthongkul has - well, read it yourself:

Yellow-shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul has urged the Thai military to seize Cambodian territory, including Angkor Wat, to barter for Preah Vihear Temple. (...)

The Thai armed forces should move forward to seize Battambang, Siem Riap, Angkor Wat and Koh Kong. And then, in negotiations which would be arbitrated by China and ASEAN, Thailand would barter them for Preah Vihear and force Cambodia to adopt the watershed for border demarcation instead of the 1:200,000 map, according to Sondhi.

He said that a diplomatic approach should not be used in a military campaign. Thailand must take the most advantageous position before any negotiation, and it is not making war with China or Vietnam, but with Cambodia which has no warships. Thailand must wield its greater military power when it has to.

‘[To] whoever says that we’re mad for war, none of us sitting here want our children to [go to war and] die, but to die for a great cause, to protect the land, is worth it.  We have 300,000 soldiers who are better equipped than Cambodian soldiers, but we lack the guts, because the senior military figures serve evil politicians.  Today, [Defence Minister] Gen Pravit Wongsuwan is not a soldier, but a politician who says anything for political gain.’

"Sondhi urges Thai military to seize Angkor Wat in exchange for Preah Vihear", Prachatai, February 9, 2011

P.S.: Nationalistic fervor is not exclusively a Thai issue here. The Cambodian blog KI-Media has an analysis about the situation across the border.