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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.

Thailand’s junta extends censorship with mass online surveillance

10 September 2014

Originally published on Siam Voices on September 19, 2014

Thailand’s ruling military junta is further tightening its grip on the public discourse by heightening its censorship measures, going as far as reportedly implementing widespread surveillance of Thai Internet users. The new measure seeks to crush criticism at the military government and  to crack down on anything that is deemed insulting to the royal institution – also known as lèse majesté.

When the Thai military declared martial law two days before it launched the coup of May 22, 2014, one of the main targets was the complete control of the broadcast media, which resulted in the presence of soldiers at all major television channels and the shutdown of thousands of unlicensed community radio stations and over a dozen politically partisan satellite TV channels, primarily those belonging to the warring street protest groups.

Nearly five months later, most of these satellite TV channels (with one notable exception) are back on the air but have been renamed and had to considerably toned down their political leanings before they were allowed to broadcast again. The TV hosts who were last year’s heavy-hitting political TV commentators are now hosting entertainment programs or, if they’re lucky, return to a talk show format, but only in the name of national “reform” and “reconciliation”.

But the military junta, also formally known as the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), still has a firm grip on the media, as it has set up specific monitor watchdogs for different media platforms (and also specifically for foreign news outlets) to screen out critical content against the NCPO. Furthermore, it has practically issued a gag order to the Thai media – only then to reiterate that while criticism against the military junta is allowed,  it should only be done “in good faith”.

The censorship measures and the monitoring efforts also extend online. Unlike during the last military coup in 2006, the emergence of social media networks makes it a daunting uphill battle for the junta to control the narrative. Nevertheless, the authorities have always been eager to have more control to filter and censor online content and have blatantly resorted to phishing for user information, and even considered launching its own national social network. And there was this:

In late May, a brief block of the social network Facebook sparked uproar online, while statements by the Ministry for Information and Telecommunication Technology (MICT) and the NCPO over whether or not the Facebook-block was ordered or it was an “technical glitch” contradicted each other. It emerged later through a the foreign parent company of a Thai telco company that there actually was an order to block Facebook, for which it got scolded by the Thai authorities.

Thailand’s junta sets up media watchdogs to monitor anti-coup dissent“, Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, June 26, 2014

The junta also reactivated its “Cyber Scout”-initiative, recruiting school children and students to monitor online content for dissidents, and announced plans for internet cafes to install cameras so that parents can remotely monitor what their kids are doing.

The towering motive of the junta’s online monitoring efforts has been recently laid out by outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha:

Gen. Prayuth outlined a strategy to “defend” the monarchy in a speech (…) [its] transcript describes the monarchy as an important element of Thai-style democracy and an institution that the Royal Thai Government is obliged to uphold “with loyalty and defense of His Majestic Authority.”

“We will use legal measures, social-psychological measures, and telecommunications and information technology to deal with those who are not mindful of their words, are arrogant at heart, or harbour ill intentions to undermine the important Institution of the nation,” the speech reads.

Under Section 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Codes, insulting the royal family is a criminal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law, known as lese majeste, has been harshly enforced since the military staged a coup against the elected government on 22 May. (…)

Prayuth Vows Tougher Crackdown On Anti-Monarchists“, Khaosod English, September 11, 2014

And in order to achieve this, the junta reportedly doubled down its online monitoring earlier this week:

Thai authorities reportedly planned to implement a surveillance device starting from 15 September to sniff out Thai Internet users, specifically targeting those producing and reading lèse majesté content, a report says. Although the report is yet to be confirmed, it has created greater climate of fear among media.

Prachatai has received unconfirmed reports from two different sources. One said the device targets keywords related to lèse majesté and that it is relatively powerful and could access all kinds of communication traffic on the internet. Another source said it could even monitor communications using secured protocols.

After learning about this, a national level Thai-language newspaper editorial team has reluctantly resorted to a policy of greater self-censorship. Its editor warned editorial staff not to browse any lèse majesté website at work and think twice before reporting any story related to lèse majesté.

Thai authorities reportedly to conduct mass surveillance of Thai internet users, targeting lèse majesté“, Prachatai English, September 10, 2014

On Wednesday, it was reported that amidst severe internet slowdowns across Southeast Asia due to a damaged undersea connection cable extra internet filtering in Thailand has been activated.

There is no doubt that Thailand’s military junta is determined to go forward with its own, very exclusive way of governing and tightly controlling the narrative through widespread media censorship and massive online surveillance. By invoking the need to “protect the monarchy”, the military has a convenient weapon to act against dissidents in real life and in the virtual domain as well, no matter where they are.

According to the legal watchdog NGO iLaw, over 270 people have been detained by the junta between May 22 and September 5. Eighty-six of them are facing trial, most of them before a military court. Fifteen of those are cases concerning lèse majesté.

7 observations about Thailand’s new, junta-picked cabinet

02 September 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 1, 2014

One hundred days after Thailand’s military launched a coup and toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the establishment of an interim constitution, a so-called “National Legislative Assembly” (NLA) and its appointment of army chief and Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister, Thailand now has an interim cabinet.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed the cabinet on Saturday and the names were published in the Royal Gazette on late Sunday afternoon (PDF), thus making the announcement official. This marks another step by the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta calls itself, in its proclaimed roadmap to substantially “reform” Thailand’s political system and to bring what they say is “true democracy” that will result in elections some time late 2015.

Here’s the list of the 33 members of the cabinet “Prayuth 1″:

  • Prime Minister: Gen. Prayuth Chanocha
  • Deputy Prime Ministers: Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, Yongyuth Yutthawong, Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn, Wissanu Kruea-Ngam
  • Defense: Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr (deputy)
  • Interior: Gen. Anupong Paochinda, Suthi Makbun (deputy)
  • Foreign Affairs: Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn, Don Pramudwinai (deptuy)
  • Justice: Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya
  • Finance: Sommai Phasi
  • Transport: ACM Prajin Juntong, Akom Termpitayapaisit (deputy)
  • Energy: Narongchai Akrasanee
  • Commerce: Gen. Chatchai Sarikalya, Apiradi Tantraporn (deputy)
  • Industry: Chakkamon Phasukvanich
  • Education: Adm. Narong Pipatanasai, Lt.-Gen. Surachet Chaiwong (deputy), Krissanapong Kiratikorn (deputy)
  • PM’s Office: ML Panadda Diskul, Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana
  • Social Development and Human Security: Pol.-Gen. Adul Saengsingkaew
  • Public Health: Rachata Rachatanavin, Somsak Chunharas (deputy)
  • Labor: Gen. Surasak Kanjanarat
  • Culture: Veera Rojpojanarat
  • Natural Resources and Environment: General Dapong Ratanasuwan
  • Science and Technology: Pichet Durongkaveroj
  • Tourism and Sports: Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul
  • Information and Communication Technology (MICT): Pornchai Rujiprapa
  • Agriculture: Peetipong Phuengbun na Ayutthaya

Here are some observations of the new Thai junta cabinet, in no particular order:

1. Timing of the not-so-subtle signs

As with many other announcements and decisions made by the military junta, it was really just a matter of time before the cabinet would be announced – albeit on a relatively short notice. This time however, the signs in the run-up to the announcement were quite obvious: the resignation of several National Legislative Assembly members such as Narongchai Akrasanee (now Energy Minister), Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul (Tourism) and Ratchata Rachtanavin (Public Health) within a week signaled that a finalized cabinet line-up was imminent, since according to the interim constitution one cannot be both. On top of that they’re joined by Pornchai Rujiprapa (MICT) and Gen. Surasak Kanjanarat (Labor), who resigned from the boards of the state-owned energy company PTT and the public broadcaster MCOT, respectively. Also, Pridiyathorn Devakula and Wissanu Kruea-Ngam have quit the board of Post Publishing (who brings out the Bangkok Post among others) to become the new deputy prime ministers.

While it may surprise some that the announcement was made on a Sunday afternoon, the crucial date of August 31 wasn’t such a surprise. Not only can the new cabinet get right onto work on Monday, September 1, but it also allows some crucial decisions to be made that are due this coming month: the 2015 budget draft is set to be rubber stamped by the NLA and, more importantly, the annual reshuffle of military officers is taking place this month. Not only can the military leadership further cement its position by demoting any potential dissenting officers and promoting loyalists, it also doesn’t have deal with any opposition in the Defense Council anymore, since all seven positions (defense minister, his deputy, permanent secretary for the defense, supreme commander and the chiefs of army, navy and the air force) are filled with military men.

2. Double duty for a very green cabinet

Among the 33 cabinet members, 13 of them hold military or police ranks – practically the entire upper echelon of the Thai military are at the table: besides army chief and PM Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, there are his predecessors Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan (now dep.-PM and Defense) and Gen. Anupong Paochinda (Interior), his deputy army chief Gen. Udomdej Sitabuir (dep. Def.-Min.), assistant army chiefs Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya (Justice) and General Chatchai Sarikalya (Commerce), supreme commander Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn (dep.-PM and Foreign Affairs), air force chief ACM Prajin Jaunting (Transport), navy chief Adm. Narong Pipatanasai (Education), permanent secretary for defense Gen. Surasak Kanjanarat (Labor) and deputy army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Surachet Chaiwong (dep. Edu.-Min.).

The military is occupying the key ministries, especially concerning economics and national security – including the appointment of National Intelligence Agency director Suwaphan Tanyumvardhana (who reports directly to Gen. Prayuth, the junta chief and now also to Gen. Prayuth, the PM) as minister of the PM’s office. Also, with Prawit and Gen. Anupong are two key persons behind the prolonged anti-government protests that enabled the military coup back in powerful positions in addition to their advisor roles in the Thai junta.

Furthermore, a lot more familiar faces are on the list as nearly the entire military junta aka the NCPO, including its advisory board, forms the cabinet (with the notable exceptions of junta advisors ACM Itthaporn Subhawong and Somkid Jatusripak), since the junta is going to stay on alongside to the interim government with wide-raging powers guaranteed by its own constitution.

3. Retirement plans for life after the military

As mentioned above, the annual reshuffle of military officers is set to take place this month and five key personnel have reached the age of  60 years and thus mandatory retirement: army chief Gen. Prayuth (PM), supreme commander Gen. Tanasak (Foreign Affairs and dep.-PM), air force chief ACM Prajin (Transport), navy chief Adm. Narong (Education) and Pol.-Gen. Adul Saengsingkaew (Social Development). Whether or not they are actually going to retire from their military ranks and find new ‘employment’ in the junta and the cabinet is unknown at this point.

4. The Foreign Ministry has some explaining to do

The Nation reported on August 20 that several officials at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) would find their work “difficult to explain to their foreign counterparts and the international community” if a military officer takes up that portfolio, since they “have plenty of capable diplomats,” for the example the new deputy foreign minister Don Pramudwinai, who previously was Thai envoy to the UN.  Now that supreme commander Gen. Tanasak is going to represent the Thai junta to the world, the diplomats will have their work cut out, since “two military coups in a decade is already hard enough to explain,” according to a MFA source quoted in The Nation.

5. Operation: education

As the sole cabinet portfolio, the Education Ministry has been assigned two deputy ministers to support Education Minister Adm. Narong Pipatanasai. That’s not a big surprise considering Gen. Prayuth’s much-touted “reform” plans for Thailand’s poor education system involve a 19.3 per cent cut of the total 2015 budget (498.16bn Baht or $15.66bn, to be precise), but also a big emphasis on “Thai values and morals” rather than an overhaul of the curriculum for the promotion of critical thinking and analysis. It also doesn’t help that an apparent follower of pseudoscience and a paranormal cult has been put in charge of reforming the public school curriculum.

6. The many more hats of Gen. Prayuth

Last week before his nomination and eventual confirmation as prime minister, we talked about the “many hats” Gen. Prayuth is already wearing as army chief and junta leader. In fact, we forgot to mention that ever since the military coup he’s now wearing a total of 15 different hats, meaning he’s the chairman or president of several government committees, TV channels and even sport clubs. There’s also news that he’s even going to take over command of the 4th army region, which Thailand’s troubled South. With his mandatory retirement as army chief anything but certain, it begs the question if he will be able to juggle everything?

7. Other observations

Continuing the trend of severe gender imbalance set by the NLA, there are only two women in the cabinet: Deputy Commerce Minister Apiradi Tantraporn and Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul. The latter is also currently – quite puzzingly – CEO of Toshiba Thailand, but no apparent conflict of interest has been signalled here yet, despite two members stepping down from their board positions at Post Publishing (see above).

Two new cabinet members were also cabinet members in the last junta government 2006-07: Mr Pridiyathorn Devakula (then Finance, now dep.-PM) and Yongyuth Yutthawon (then Science, now dep.-PM)

And finally, the average of the “Prayuth 1″ cabinet members is 62.4 years old. As of now, the abilities and knowledge of the new ministers who’ll lead the ministries’ policies are yet to be proven.

Thai court dismisses murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep

30 August 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 29, 2014

Thailand’s Criminal Court has dismissed murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-Deputy pPM Suthep Thuagsuban for their roles in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2010. Over 90 people were killed and thousands injured (both protesters and security officers) when the military dispersed the red shirt protesters after weeks of rallies in central Bangkok. The protesters were calling for the resignation of Abhisit’s government and a new election.

The Criminal Court’s decision on Thursday seems to stem from a technicality:

The court said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the two men held public office at the time of the protest.

“The court has no jurisdiction to consider the case because the two were a prime minister and deputy prime minister,” a judge said on Thursday. “The charges relate to political office holders. The criminal court therefore dismisses the charges.”

Thai court dismisses murder charges against former PM, deputy“, Reuters, August 28, 2014

The charge against Abhisit and Suthep was filed in late 2012 by police, prosecutors and the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) on the latter’s recommendation and followed a growing number of court rulings saying that protesters were killed by bullets fired by soldiers.

Suthep, who was in charge of national security and thus tasked with overseeing the security situation during the protests as director of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), authorized security forces to disperse the protests back in 2010 (including the use of deadly force) and has since then repeatedly rejected any responsibility or blame for the deaths of the protesters. At one point he even suggetsed that they “ran into the bullets”. In late 2013, he quit Abhisit’s Democrat Party and became an unlikely protest leader against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (who the red shirts support).

The nearly half year of prolonged rallies and sabotaging created the political impasse the military used a pretext to carry out a coup on May 22 – Suthep claims this to be planned since 2010. Ever since the coup and a very brief detainment by the junta, Suthep has entered Buddhist monkhood and is essentially under political asylum.

Thursday’s dismissal means that any accountability on the army’s part is very unlikely, especially under the military junta. Its leader, army chief and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was deputy commander-in-chief during the 2010 crackdown and since becoming army chief a year later he has actively interfered in the DSI’s investigation:

On August 16, 2012, Prayuth told the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation to stop accusing soldiers of killing demonstrators during the government’s crackdown on the “Red Shirt” protest in 2010 and not to report publicly on the progress of its investigations. Prayuth has denied any army abuses during the violence in which at least 98 people died and more than 2,000 were injured, despite numerous accounts by witnesses and other evidence.

Prayuth is also using Thailand’s archaic criminal defamation law to deter public criticism, Human Rights Watch said. On August 17, Prayuth ordered an army legal officer to file a criminal defamation complaint against Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Amsterdam’s translator. At a UDD rally on May 19, Amsterdam gave a speech in which he alleged that the army committed brutality against demonstrators for which it should be held accountable.

Thailand: Army Chief Interfering in Investigations“, Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2012

The DSI chief Tharit Pengdit, who reportedly apologized to Prayuth for the accusations back then, was removed from his post shortly following the military coup.

While the main charge of premeditated murder has been dropped by the Criminal Court for now, it doesn’t mean the end of legal challenges for Abhisit and Suthep, as other avenues have already been explored:

Since a petition has also been filed against Mr Abhisit and Mr Suthep with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is responsible for handling criminal cases against politicians, the court also ruled that if the NACC finds the petition against them has sufficient grounds, the graft agency is duty-bound to forward the case to the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Posts for further consideration.

Abhisit, Suthep murder case rejected“, Bangkok Post, August 28, 2014

Given Thursday’s dismissal by the Criminal Court, the generally slow pace of the investigations and the current ruling military junta, it will be now even less than likely that anybody from the past Abhisit administration – let alone the army – be held accountable for the deaths during the 2010 protests, as prolonged impunity adds to the growing pile of reasons for the political conflict, no matter who is calling the shots right now.

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