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Thais in Milan rally for and against junta leader’s visit

18 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 17, 2014

Exiled Thai activist Junya "Lek" Yimprasert (center) holding a sign denouncing Thai junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a rally in Milan, Italy, which hosts the Asia-Europe Meeting. (Photo by Eugenio Morongiu)

Exiled Thai activist Junya “Lek” Yimprasert holding a sign denouncing Thai junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a rally in Milan, Italy, which is hosting the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting from October 16-17, 2014. (Photo by Eugenio Morongiu)

The attendance of Thailand’s junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan has promted Thais to take action to either protest against his arrival or to display support for him as the political polarization among Thais extends abroad, writes Saksith Saiyasombut.

“Dittatore NON sei benvenuto!” – The message in Italian makes it clear in no uncertain terms that somebody isn’t welcome and judging by the face on the image it is also very clear who it is directed at: A drawing of the trademark stern look of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. A few of these stickers (in different languages) have been put in the northern Italian city of Milan.

One such sticker was put on a lamppost, when Mrs. Wiyada discovered it. She immediately put up her own sign on the post (and took it down again after snapping the picture): a portrait of a proud-looking General Prayuth in front of an Italian flag above silhouettes of a crowd waving Thai flags with the slogan “Welcome Thai PM to Italy.”

It comes to no surprise that the recently retired army chief is causing such an uproar: in May 2014, he launched a military coup – the second within 8 years and the 12th in total since 1932 – and his military junta has appointed a quasi-parliament dominated by military officers, who in return have appointed General Prayuth as prime minister. Furthermore, his military government intends to “reform” to political system in a self-proclaimed crusade against “corruption” that may eventually results in fresh elections some time in late 2015 – or not. Also, not to mention the countless summons, detentions and trials against dissidents critical of the coup and severe media censorship, especially online.

Contrary to general impressions and most appearances in recent months, the Thai junta seems not to be completely tone-deaf of the opposition it has suppressed in recent months, as the Foreign Ministry anticipated that there’ll be protests against General Prayuth‘s visit to ASEM in Milan in order to explain the political situation to leaders of the European Union heads of states from Europe and Asia from their point of view.

(READ MORE: Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’)

Junya “Lek” Yimprasert is one of the people protesting against Prayuth in Milan. A veteran labor and political activist, she is forced to live in exile after being charged last year with lèse majesté for writing a 2010 essay critical of Thailand’s monarchy, for which she could face a jail sentence of up to 15 years. Now she lives in Finland and has traveled to Milan a week before the ASEM to attend the associated Asia-Europe People’s Forum to explain her opposition against Prayuth at a panel discussion on Thailand under military rule. (Disclaimer: This author was one of the other panelists at this forum, following an invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation)

“The ASEM must not allow a military dictator to come to Europe and collect stamps of approval,” said Junya in a rapid-fire manner during the three hours panel talk. Her demand would be later echoed in the final declaration (PDF) of the bi-annual and bi-continental meeting of NGOs and social movements, adding that “democratic governments to grant asylum to all citizens who have been put under pressure and have been prosecuted in Thailand.”

The other part of her plan to protest against Prayuth is to mobilize local activists, as she and her group of other concerned Thai citizens have met with Milan-based groups to jointly organize a rally on Thursday, when the leaders from Europe and Asia arrive at ASEM. “It is an act of international solidarity,” Junya would say later.

Meanwhile, the other side was also preparing to convene in Milan. Mrs. Wiyada (full name withheld), a 38-year old resident of Cervia (roughly 3 hours away from Milan) who has called Italy her home for 9 years now, is charge of PR for several groups “all across Europe in 18 countries” that are aligned with the group that have held prolonged anti-government protests from autumn last year and whose actions have paved the way for the military coup in May 2014.

Talking to Asian Correspondent, Mrs. Wiyada says that initially she only planed to greet General Prayuth with a small group of Thais. “But when we heard that the other side (referring to Junya Yimprasert) were coming, we decided to meet up,” she said, claiming that  Thais from “all over Italy and some from Switzerland” will join to show their support to the Thai junta leader – all on their own initiative and nobody the background paying them.

While she admits that the current military government “isn’t a democracy,” she claims that the toppled government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra “wasn’t democratic either,” reiterating the claims that her and previous affiliated administrations may have won at the polls, but weren’t acting in the interest of the country.

It is not known where exactly the political allegiances are among the roughly 5000 Thais living in Italy, but like in the rest of the continent, political groups from both sides of the spectrum exist and regular meet to discuss the state of Kingdom. However, Mrs. Wiyada claims that “the other side doesn’t have the support from most Thais here in Italy. That’s the difference!”

On Thursday, Wiyada’s group – roughly two dozen – are waving Thai flags and holding signs at the hotel where General Prayuth stays in the morning and later in the afternoon (see HERE), and then waiting for him at the famous Duomo cathedral in the evening, cheering to him whenever the group saw him.

In a different part of town, at least 200 to 300 protesters are rallying through the streets of Milan – the overwhelming majority being Italian students. Nevertheless, Junya and other Thais are to be seen front row holding anti-Prayuth signs, joined by other students as well. Junya was also holding the picture of Fabio Polgenhi, the Italian photojournalist killed in the deadly crackdown by the Thai military on anti-government red shirt protesters in 2010. The investigation of his death have dragged on and may never be fully concluded.

While some local Italian media outlets would later refer these protest merely as a student rally against the Italian far-right party Lega Nord and racism in general, other media outlets specifically point out the opposition to the Thai junta as well. Regardless that may appear for some that the anti-Prayuth angle was an afterthought, the pictures of Mrs. Junya leading a large rally protesting the leader of Thailand’s military junta have effectively framed her cause.

Talking after the rally to Asian Correspondent, Junya Yimprasert thinks it was “a success” and emphasized the cooperation with Italian activists. When asked about whether the participation of mostly Italian students in a protest about a Thai issue would diminish her campaign, she counters that “Italians also have a right to discuss issues in Thailand. The case with Thailand is an international problem (…) and it is time for the world to tell Thailand that enough is enough!”

While Thais were protesting for and against him, General Prayuth himself was shaking hands with leaders from Japan, China, Singapore and many other heads of states from Europe and Asia. According to the junta, these pictures of the encounters will be spun as a sign of acceptance by the international community of Prayuth and the military government – regardless of what was actually said.

Thus it is astonishing but unsurprising that a junta spokesman in Thailand claims that there have been no protests against Prayuth in Milan – Thursday’s events evidently rebuke that assessment, showing that the junta cannot control the complete narrative. Both the rallies for and against Thailand’s junta prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha prove that not only does the political polarization exists among Thais abroad, but also that he not necessarily welcome everywhere.

Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’

17 October 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 16, 2014

Thailand's prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at Malpensa Airport in Milan, where he will be attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting on October 16-17, marking his first visit to Europe since taking over powers in a military coup in May 2014. (Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam)

Thai prime minister and military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives in Milan, Italy Wednesday to attend the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting. Pic: Facebook/Wassana Nanuam.

Thai junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha will meet leaders of the European Union for the first time since the military coup this week in a self-proclaimed mission to help Western leaders “understand” the political situation in Thailand. But there is no guarantee that it is going to work, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

One of the many life lessons one will learn is that you simply can’t win over everyone. That’s something that Thailand’s military government seems to be struggling to cope with, especially when it comes to foreign policy towards the West. Observing the reaction from Thai prime minister and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha and members of his cabinet shows a curious split in narrative wobbling back and forth between desperately seeking approval and snide dismissal when it comes with dealing criticism abroad.

In the immediate aftermath of the military of coup in May 2014, many countries around the world (to varying degrees) expressed their “grave concerns” about the worst-case scenario. Some condemned the hostile takeover of power and others also added a demand for a “rapid” or “immediate” return to democratic principles and elections.

Western countries reacted initially the harshest at the sight of Thailand’s second coup d’etat in eight years: United States Secretary of State John Kerry said that the coup would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military.” This was emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – which is a drop in the ocean compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself for next year’s budget. The European Union (EU) seemingly went slightly further, stopping all visits to Thailand and suspending the signing of an agreement on closer economic and political ties – an apparent downgrade in EU-Thai relations.

The Thai junta, seemingly offended and also appearing unfazed at the same time, has turned to other countries in the region by seeking closer ties to China, as evident in the approval of a $23bn train network connecting the two countries. But the Thai junta’s China pivot could turn out to be a zero-sum game in the long-term. Neighboring countries like Burma and Cambodia have welcomed the Thai generals (literally!) with open arms and gave their blessings to the junta as well, which should alarm ASEAN despite their long-held tradition of non-intervention.

It was evident that the Thai junta and the military government (which is essentially one and the same) had an unsurmountable uphill task to convince the international community that their (vague, but yet so clear) intentions to “reform” the political system are sincerely for a return “swift” return to “true democracy” with elections held sometime in late 2015 – which may or may not be postponed further back into 2016, depending on whether or not their “reform” plans actually stick.

The hardest part still remains the Western head of states and diplomats. The appointment of recently retired supreme commander General Thanasak Patimaprakorn as foreign minister – much to the chagrin of several diplomats – certainly didn’t help to raise the diplomatic credibility of the military government either.

His first big mission was at the United Nation General Assembly in New York last month, where General Thanasak was spouting the usual claims by the Thai junta that it is “not retreating from democracy,” but that the military intervention was “necessary” amidst the deteriorating political conflict (while absolutely disregarding the manufactured nature of the anti-government protests that made the coup possible in the first place!).

Now his boss has boarded the plane and after making his first visit as Thai junta prime minister to neighboring Burma, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is visiting Europe this week. More specifically, he is attending the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting in the northern Italian city of Milan on Thursday and Friday.

This marks a curious turn of events after the (in hindsight rather soft) sanctions and nearly universal condemnation from the West as General Prayuth will be meeting EU leadership with Herman Van Rompuy, recently elected President of the European Council, and EU Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso, as well as heads of states from both Europe and Asia.

The main goal of this trip is clear: thaw frozen Thai-EU relationships and get back to business – literally! Thailand is poised to position itself in a leading role in ASEAN and being the EU-ASEAN coordinator in July 2015 certainly helps – especially with the launch of the ASEAN Economic Community looming around the corner.

But is normalizing relations with a Thai military government that is anything but democratic the right way to go?

“The reason why we’re seeking to engage [with the junta] is that this is the best way to get our points across,” a source within the diplomatic community in Bangkok told Asian Correspondent. “We have ways to pressure them on certain issues. However, we are aware what impression this might give to the public.”

Indeed, the problem is that any engagements by foreign envoys with the junta could appear to give them legitimacy.

“Prayuth is coming here to collect his stamps of approval,” said Junya Yimprasert, an exiled Thai political activist, at a panel this past weekend at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum (AEPF) in Milan*. Junya, who is organizing a protest of General Prayuth’s presence at ASEM on Thursday (which the Thai Foreign Ministry has anticipated), has called for ASEM not to let the Thai junta prime minister take part, which was echoed in the final declaration of the AEPF (PDF).

As Prayuth will be attending ASEM and meeting the same European leaders that have condemned him months ago, he will still have a tough time to convince everybody that it’s time to get back to normal (and it might take even longer, according to his own words).

Since he launched the military coup, assumed absolute power and sat about completely overhauling the political system, things in Thailand are far from being normal. You don’t have to be a foreign diplomat to figure that out. This time, Prayuth won’t be able to convince everybody.

*(Disclaimer: This author was one of the panelists at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum at the invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation.)

Tongue-Thai’ed!: The 3 most ludicrous things said in Thailand this week

04 October 2014

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…

Why are some opinion poll results so positive about the Thai junta?

25 September 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 24, 2014

”The streets are quiet, there are no protests and people are happy!”

This is a common justification of the military coup in Thailand. And often – despite apparent ongoing repression of dissent – the proponents of the army’s actions base these claims on the results of opinion polls.

A couple of months ago we highlighted the flawed fallacy of taking opinion poll results as a serious indicator of the mood among Thais and what they think of the current political situation, especially about the junta and their work.

Apart from the general problems with Thai opinion polls (i.e. dodgy methodology and phrasing, small sample sizes, questions about representation etc.), the circumstances since the coup – such as the crackdown on criticism on the street, online and in the media – are discouraging people from expressing their true feelings:

According to one pollster, a number of respondents refused to be interviewed when asked about their political views for fear that they would be “summoned” by the junta.

As a result, the respondents are dominated by either yellow-shirt supporters or people who are politically neutral, said the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.

Mainstream polls have provided glowing praise of the performance of the National Council for Peace and Order since it seized power on May 22, amid orders curbing freedom of expression of the media and anti-coup protesters.

NCPO ‘deterring’ honest opinion polls”, Bangkok Post, August 3, 2014

Besides the likely skewed results by the established opinion poll institutes like ABAC, Bangkok University and Suan Dusit (whose results and methods have been also often criticized in the past), a new organization is raising suspicion with findings such as this:

Up to 95 per cent of the public support junta chief and PM-elect Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as the prime minister, the Master Poll survey has found. The survey was carried out by Thai Researchers in Community Happiness Association among leaders of 622 communities around the country on Friday and Saturday.

Prayuth receives public overwhelming support as PM: survey“, The Nation, August 24, 2014

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has gained increased popularity since it seized power in May with latest poll by the Thai Researchers in Community Happiness Association revealing the junta’s popularity now rises to 81 percent from 70.1 percent.

Military junta’s popularity rises“, ThaiPBS, September 22, 2014

The “Master Poll” surveys (no reason given why they’re called that) are conducted by the Thai Researchers in Community Happiness Association (TRICHA), which emerged very shortly after the military coup on May 22, 2014. Its first poll on June 14 right away found that 80.8 per cent among 1,209 people are “happier” ever since the hostile takeover.

Other surveys in the past couple months included asking 599 people about the weekly Friday evening TV address by outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha (90 per cent are watching it regularly! 95 per cent like it!) or asking a diminutive sample size of 424 moviegoers if they liked the junta-organized screenings of the of the fifth installment of the nationalistic, dramatized biopic series of the 16th-century King Naresuan – guess what: 93.7 per cent of them came out “happier” because they got to see a movie for free!

Not only are nearly all results of their “Master Poll” surveys suspiciously overwhelmingly positive towards the junta, despite a relatively small sample size (in most cases below a 1,000), but also the sudden appearance of TRICHA itself shortly after the coup does raise some questions.

In a message on TRICHA’s website (in which the survey results are in Thai, but everything else oddly is in English), it states that, “As one of private companies in Thailand, (…) the Master Poll and Policy, Co., Ltd. plays a leadership role as one of the country’s organizations for academic research and policy making.” (sic!) This message is signed by an unnamed “Association’s Chief”, whose profile on the website is empty as of writing, as are many other sections.

A look at the website’s domain registration reveals that both masterpoll.net and tricha.net are registered to Mr. Noppadon Kannika, who has also been occasionally named as TRICHA’s director in the Thai press (e.g. here). According to his bio from his Alma Mater University of Michigan (where he graduated in Survey Methodology), he was director of the ABAC Poll Research Center and has held “some official positions,” including one at the Royal Thai Army – indeed, he has been research advisor to the commander-in-chief in the past.

According to his profiles on Twitter and LinkedIn, he left ABAC to pursue another Master degree at Georgetown University in Strategy and Policy Management, while his Twitter bio still links to ABAC Poll, but has been regularly tweeting news articles about the “Master Poll” results. The masterpoll.net domain was registered on May 15, 2014 – one week before the military coup. That could be just a coincidence. However, Mr. Noppadon’s LinkedIn page lists the “Royal Thai Army” as his current employer while his job title is, according to himself, “unknown”!

Given the relative lack of information on the TRICHA’s website, the apparently suspicious career choice its director made recently and ultimately a bunch of questionably one-sided survey results are ultimately clear indicators that these are very weak foundations to base an universal assessment of the Thai people’s happiness – especially in the current political climate where only very few options and opinions are tolerated.

Thai PM apologizes for ‘bikini’ remark after Koh Tao murders

19 September 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 18, 2014

Following widespread outrage and condemnation after his flippant remark in the aftermath of the murder of two British tourists on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao, Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister Gerneral Prayuth Chan-ocha has apologized for suggesting that the behavior of the victims is to be blamed for the crime and tourists wearing bikinis are more vulnerable to attacks.

“I am sorry that my statement caused uneasiness. I affirm that I did not look down on or criticise anyone. I simply wanted to warn them to be careful at certain places and certain times,” Prayuth said.

Prayuth issues apology over bikini remark“, The Nation, September 18, 2014

As we reported yesterday, Gen. Prayuth rhetorically asked during a televised speech if tourists “can be safe when they wear their bikinis,” which was then followed by a flippant “unless they’re not beautiful!”

The remark was quickly picked up by the international (and mostly only by the international initially) press and has sparked criticism and condemnation, especially by the UK press – the country of the two murder victims – as exemplified by the front page of Thursday’s The Daily Mail accusing Gen. Prayuth of “insulting” and “smearing the murdered Britons”.

Some readers have been asking about the complete context of his remark. Here’s a clip of yesterday’s speech that includes his controversial remark:

Translation:

[Starting at 0.09 min.] “…safety…tourists! We always have problems with that! We have to see it with their eyes: They think that our country is beautiful and safe and can do whatever they want, wear bikinis and go anywhere…I ask you: will they make it through [as in "be safe"] wearing a bikini? Unless you’re aren’t pretty. [laughter] Everyone here is pretty! Well, it’s dangerous and we have to tell them that! [We have to tell them] two things: [that we have] the law to protect them and that they have to be careful, that after [September] 18 they shouldn’t go there [but] we have security there and there looking after…because that negatively affects the tourism there…at Koh…which is it…Koh Chang? What island is it again? Ah, Koh Tao! Yeah, that’s [???]. No tourists coming because they’re afraid. [...]“

While it’s pretty clear that he’s focussing on tourist safety and that he’s concerned about the negative effects it will have, the flippant remark meant as a half-baked joke is still inappropriate at best. Paired with his comments earlier this week asking to “look into the behavior of the other side” (meaning the victims) and his overall tendency to run  his mouth, one can think that Gen. Prayuth is (unwittingly) blaming the victims. (Note: also, doesn’t it come across as a bit rude that he so nonchalantly forgot where the crime took place?).

Nevertheless, this is a lesson for the outgoing army chief, junta leader and prime minister that he is now under much, much more public scrutiny now that he has took (over) this position and that he has to choose his words more carefully.

So, now that we’ve cleared this we can move on, right?

Translation: “Prayuth insists that he didn’t mean to offend. Tone [of remark] only because he wanted to remind to be careful, as there are many unregistered migrant workers there.

Oh boy…!

Thai PM after Koh Tao murders: ‘Can tourists be safe in bikinis?’

18 September 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 17, 2014

The murder of two British tourists on the southern Thai island of Koh Tao has raised questions about tourist safety in Thailand. Hannah Witheridge (23) and David Miller (24) were found dead on Monday morning half-naked and with severe wounds to their heads. Local police initially (without any substantial evidence) suspected migrant workers on the island of the crime, before turning their attention to a British backpacker, who was a roommate of one of the victims and another British man, who has been asked not to leave Thailand before the investigation is complete.

The murder case is another setback for Thailand’s struggling tourism industry, which is facing declining numbers this year due to prolonged political protests that set the stage for Thailand’s military to launch a coup in May 22. One of the military junta’s initial goals is to kickstart Thailand’s tourism industry again and make the country attractive for visitors again.

Thus, it was critical that the Thai military government’s of outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, reacted to this murder case with the appropriate sensitivity in order to show the world how serious his administration taking this bloody crime.

Unfortunately though, it didn’t quite turn out that way…

“There are always problems with tourist safety. They think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also the army chief, told government officials. But “can they be safe in bikinis… unless they are not beautiful?” he said, addressing the issue of tourist safety in a speech broadcast live on television.

Thai PM questions if ‘tourists in bikinis’ safe after murders“, AFP, September 17, 2014

For those unfamiliar with Gen. Prayuth, he has a long record of running his mouth before the coup (see one example here) and even more so since the hostile takeover of power a couple of months ago (another example here) and spearheading nearly everything politically for the foreseeable future. His remarks often range somewhere between “father-knows-all” during his weekly TV addresses and deeply annoyed and sardonic during press briefings.

Thus the latest flippant remarks about tourists’ safety correlating to beach attire appears to be brash, and for many even misogynistic that’s hinting at victim blaming. According to a tweet by Bangkok Post military correspondent Wassana Nanuam, it appears that Prayuth’s rhetorical question was half-baked at best before steering away and saying: “Everyone in this room is beautiful!”

Translation: PM worries about tourists, orders them to be looked after. “In Thailand, can they wear their bikinis? Unless they’re not beautiful,” making sweet eyes before teasing [the crowd], “Everyone in this room is beautiful!” 

A day earlier in his initial reaction to the Koh Tao murders, Gen. Prayuth said this, again unwittingly suggesting bit of victim blaming:

“I have been following this matter very closely,” Gen. Prayuth told reporters as he arrived at Government House this morning. “We also have to look into the behavior of the other side [the tourists]. (…) This case should not have happened in Thailand at all. I think it will affect foreign opinion of our country.

PM Tells Police To Hasten Investigation of Koh Tao Murder“, Khaosod English, September 16, 2014

Indeed it will affect the foreign perception of Thailand as a tourist destination and its safety during a visit. But what also affects this is how sensitively locals and officials are handling this murder case. A half-thought flippant remark by the junta leader and prime minister – who by the way hasn’t expressed his condolences to the victims’ relatives either – doesn’t help to improve Thailand’s image.

UPDATE: The British UK tabloid The Mirror reports:

Hannah Witheridge’s local MP has responded to comments made by Thailand’s prime minister in which he appeared to criticise the behaviour of the two tourists.

MP Brandon Lewis told the Daily Express: “I have not seen anything indicating any blame on the victims. I hope the focus will be on bringing whoever committed this barbaric crime to justice.”

Mr Lewis’s comments come after Thailand’s prime minister said: “We have to look into the behaviour of the other party (Miss Witheridge and Mr Miller) too”.

British backpackers murdered in Thailand: Updates as police hunt for killer“, The Mirror, September 17, 2014

UPDATE 2: Unsurprisingly, the UK press has jumped onto Prayuth’s ill-advised quipped as it’s being reported and criticized by several outlets, including Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Guardian, The Independent and the Huffington Post UK.

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

16 September 2014

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.

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