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Red shirt activist accuses Thai military of ‘torture’ during detainment

05 August 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 4, 2014

Thai red shirt activist Kritsuda Khunasem during on YouTube interview, in which she accuses the Thai military junta of torture during her detainment in June 2014. (Screenshot: YouTube)

A young Thai activist for the red shirt movement, who was detained by the military junta shortly after the coup under suspicious circumstances and released after much public attention about her whereabouts, has accused that she was physically assaulted and mentally abused during her detention.

A spokesman for the military junta dismissed Kritsuda Khunasen’s claim Sunday, insisting that all detainees are treated “with respect to human rights and with politeness”.

Kritsuda Khunasen was best known for providing legal and other aid to fellow red shirts and their families, especially those affected after the anti-government protests of 2010 and the deadly military crackdown.

She was arrested on May 28 – days after the military coup of May 22 – in Chonburi province under martial law and vanished for a several weeks, raising serious concerns about her whereabouts and wellbeing.

The military has denied any knowledge of her whereabouts despite television footage showing that she was arrested and taken away by soldiers from the 14th Military Circle. (…)

Since Kritsuda’s arrest, her family and Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) have tried unsuccessfully to locate her. Human Rights Watch has publicly raised concerns about Kritsuda’s safety and other secret military detentions.

Kritsuda has already been held two weeks longer than the seven-day period of administrative detention permitted under the 1949 Martial Law Act, which the military invoked after carrying out its coup on May 22, 2014.

Thailand: Account for ‘Disappeared’ Political Activist“, Human Rights Watch, June 18, 2014

With the army being tight-lipped about Kritsuda’s fate, public and international pressure intensified, as did the rumors with some fearing the worst. Faced with such strong accusations, the army then showed that the 27-year old was still very much alive in a TV report on the military-owned Channel 5. What was shown then was rather bizarre:

Kritsuda Khunasen, (….), saying that she was satisfied with her living conditions and “happier than words can say.” (…)

The news section revealed a smiling Kritsuda giving an interview and having a meal with her boyfriend who was also detained after the coup. She said she was satisfied with what the military has provided her, whether food, accommodation, or any other request.

It also reported Kritsuda as saying that detention made her feel “calm by spending more time by herself.” She said she wanted the political conflict to start over by having all sides talk, according to the report.

She also dismissed a viral video clip done by a person claiming to be her brother, saying that she was tortured. She said that was false information.

Missing activist appears on Army TV, saying she’s “happier than words can say”“, Prachatai, June 24, 2014

Following that TV appearance, Kritsuda was released the following day.

On Saturday, exiled Thai journalist Jom Petchpradab posted a half-hour long interview with Kritsuda on YouTube, who has meanwhile fled with her boyfriend (who was also arrested) to an undisclosed location somewhere in Europe. In the video, she gave an entirely different account of her detention by the junta:

In the interview via Skype, Kritsuda said she was blindfolded and her hands were bound on the first seven days of the detention. During this period, a female officer would help her when eating, taking a bath, and when she wanted to go to the toilet. She said while she was naked during taking bath, she heard a male voice. “I consider this sexual harassment.”

(…) She said she was beaten several times during the interrogation. She was also suffocated when a plastic bag and a piece of fabric was placed over her head until she lost consciousness.

The embattled red-shirt activist said the focus of the interrogation was to link former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra with her boss “May E.U.,” and the militant wing of the red shirt camp.

Mananchaya Ketkaew, aka “May E.U.”, is a low-profile red-shirt figure who represents the pro-Thaksin “Red E.U.” of red shirts in Europe. (…) There has been a rumor that the group is financially supported by the former Prime Minister. Kritsuda said Thaksin had never supported the group and that the donations were from May and red shirts in Europe.

She added that on 15 June she was forced to sign a paper stating that she had asked the military to allow her to continue staying in the camp for longer than the period allowed under martial law for pre-charge detention, and she had to also state that she felt safer inside the camp. “I had to write that statement because I wanted to survive.”

Kritsuda reveals military tortured her to link Thaksin to hard-core red shirts“, Prachathai, August 2, 2014

The video was widely shared on social media before it was apparently taken down by Jom himself with no further explanation, although other uploads of the interview have popped up elsewhere. Additionally, the online report by Prachatai English we have cited above was also reportedly blocked in Thailand, but an alternative link was provided.

Speaking Sunday, a spokesman for the junta emphasized how “naturally happy” she was during the TV appearance in June. The spokesman added that she was “cooperative” and concludes that she was “worried and felt unsafe about the repercussions [from the red shirts] from giving helpful information to the authorities.”

Considering the tightening grip of the military junta, the mass summons and temporary detentions of hundreds of politically active Thais (among them politicians, academics and activists) in its early weeks, the widespread censorship in media and online – it will be near impossible to find out what really happened, especially with the junta claiming to respect human rights, but not allowing dissident voices claiming the contrary. The moves by the junta during the entirety of Kritsuda’s ordeal (e.g. the bizarre TV appearance, the censorship of the latest accusations) shows that they have had to deal with more public attention that they would prefer.

Kritsuda Khunasen and her boyfriend are currently seeking asylum from an as of yet unnamed European country.

UPDATE: A new video was uploaded on Monday showing a new portion of the same interview with Kritsuda, in which she details the torture allegations of her and her boyfriend, and also explains why she has no visible bruises.

Infographic: Thailand’s junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly

02 August 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 1, 2014

On Thursday evening, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej officially endorsed the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), whose 200 members are all appointed by the military junta. A clear majority is dominated by active and retired military officers, while the rest consists of businesspeople, academics, technocrats and former senators. Former politicians of recent governments are barred from eligibility as stated in the recently established interim constitution.

This is another step by the so-called “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta formally calls itself, in its self-proclaimed “reform process” since the military coup of May 22, 2014, with the promise of new elections sometime in late 2015.

After the establishment of the interim constitution last week and the endorsement of the NLA members, the legislature will convene for the first time on August 7 and nominate a prime minister, who will then be tasked to appoint members to his Cabinet. It seems almost certain that army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha will become interim prime minister and many members of the NCPO his cabinet ministers. The NCPO will remain in place and will still have ultimate power over the post-coup government.

(NOTE: If you spot any mistakes, please let me know on Twitter @Saksith. This infographic will likely be reviewed and updated accordingly.)

A first look at Thailand’s new interim constitution

24 July 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 23, 2014

Thai junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha (left) receives the royally-endorsed interim constitution from HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej Tuesday evening. (Pic: Khaosod English/Facebook)

Two months after Thailand’s military has staged a coup on May 22, 2014, the country has now adopted a new interim constitution. Army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha was granted an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Tuesday in order to seek His Majesty’s endorsement of the country’s 19th constitution.

The 2014 Interim Constitution, available online HERE on the website of the Royal Gazette, is 17 pages long, consists of 48 articles and draws up how and who will govern Thailand, who will draft and approve the next full constitution, and what role the military junta aka the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO) will still have – all that with the proclaimed aim of creating a “genuine democracy” by “reforming” the country and “eradicating corruption” as stated in the constitution’s preamble, before organizing new elections sometime by October 2015.

Here’s a first look and analysis of some of the key aspects of the new interim constitution, grouped by field of topics. (Note: All citations are unofficial, rough translations by this author.)

The National Legislative Assembly (สภานิติบัญญัตแห่งชาต)

Article 6: The National Legislative Assembly should have no more than 220 members, who should be of Thai nationality since birth and no younger than 40 years of age and appointed by the NCPOThe National Legislative Assembly will assume the duties of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Article 7: Members of the National Legislative Assembly should be knowledgeable and come from different groups in society such as the state sector, the private sector, the social sector, the academic sector, the professional sector and other sectors that are beneficial to the National Legislative Assembly.

Article 8: A member of the National Legislative Assembly is prohibited from assuming office if he/she:

  1. Has assumed a position in a political party within three years prior to the date of appointment as member of the National Legislative Assembly.
  2. Is a Buddhist novice or priest.
  3. Is bankrupt or has caused bankruptcy through corruption.
  4. Has been previously stripped of his/her right to vote.
  5. Has been previously expelled, dismissed or fired as a government official or employee at a state enterprise on the grounds of corruption, fraud or misconduct.
  6. Has had assets seized by the court.
  7. Has been previously barred or removed from political office. (…)

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) will be housing both chambers of the House filled with appointees of the junta, who are not politicians or have been that for the past three years (perhaps coincidentally, three years since the election victory of the government the junta has just ousted), but instead with representatives from different sectors of society. Sounds familiar

The Prime Minister and the cabinet (นายกรัฐมนตรและคณะรัฐมนตรี)

Article 19: HM The King endorses the Prime Minister and other ministers, not exceeding 35 [cabinet members], who are is appointed by the National Legislative Assembly and not more than 35 ministers recommended by the Prime Minister to constitute the Cabinet (…)

[NOTE, July 24: The article above has been corrected to better reflect the appointment process. Apologies for any confusion.]

The requirements of a prime minister or cabinet member stay mostly the same (Article 20) compared to the previous constitution: still must be born Thai, now has to be no younger than 40 years (previously 35), still has to be university education with at least a Bacherlor’s degree. However, like the members of the NLA, the prime minister and the other ministers must not have assumed a position in a political party within the last three years.

Also, he/she cannot be at the same time be a member of the NLA, the National Reform Council, the Constitutional Drafting Committee, the member of a local government or of the independent government agencies (e.g. Election Commission, National Anti-Corruption Commission, National Human Rights Commission etc.). That would already exclude a lot of potential candidates and make way for plenty others.

The cabinet may be allowed to attend and speak at the NLA, but they are not allowed to cast their vote at the sessions (Article 19).

The National Reform Council (สภาปฏิรูปแห่งชาติ)

Article 27: A National Reform Council should study and propose reforms to the following areas:

(1) Politics, (2) Public administration, (3) Law and Justice, (4) Local government, (5) Education, (6) Economy, (7) Energy resources, (8) Public health & environment, (9) Mass Media, (10) Social, (11) others

This will allow a democratic regime with the King as the Head of State that is in accordance with a Thai society in which elections are honest and fair, with mechanisms to prevent and eradicate corruption and misconduct, to eliminate disparity and create social and economic fairness, in order to have sustainable development.

Article 28: The National Reform Council should have not more than 250 members. (…)

As with members of the NLA, the members of the National Reform Council (NRC) are appointed by the junta and are subject to the same restrictions as stated in Article 8. The composition of the NRC is a little bit more complex:

Article 30: The NCPO will appoint members of the National Reform Council based on the following rules:

  1. Establish a selection committee which will appoint members for the committees of each area as stated in Article 27 and also a selection committee in every province (…)
  2. The NCPO will appoint the selection committees from a line of experts (…)
  3. The selection committee is tasked to find qualified persons based on Article 28 and Article 29 (…). A list with names will be submitted to the NCPO for approval. Members of the selection committee cannot put their own names on the list
  4. The selection as stated in (3) should consider a diverse range of candidates from various sectors such as from the state, private, social, academia, professional and other sectors that are beneficial to the work of the National Reform Council, including from all provinces (…) all genders and those less privileged.

Going by that text, the makeup of the the NRC would be 77 members – one from each province – and 173 others, who are able to send draft bills to the National Legislative Assembly for consideration (Article 31.3). Also, how inclusive will be the council really be? For example, will “all genders” be represented, including transgender people?

The Constitutional Drafting Committee (คณะกรรมาธิการยกร่างรัฐธรรมนูญ)

Article 32: A Constitutional Drafting Committee should prepare a draft constitution, which consists of 36 members (…)

  1. The chairman will be appointed by the NCPO
  2. The National Reform Council will appoint 20 members
  3. The National Legislative Assembly, the Cabinet and the NCPO will appoint 5 members each

As the name implies, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) is tasked to draft a new full constitution in 120 days after its inception through the National Reform Council (NRC) (Article 34) and will include a broad catalogue of considerations (Article 35, which we may cover in a future post) such as mechanisms to “eradicate corruption”.

However, should the CDC fail to present a finished draft at the end of the 120 days, the committee will be sacked and a new one will be set up (Article 38). Even more severe, should the draft be rejected by the National Reform Council or should the consideration take longer than 15 days (as stated in Article 37), BOTH the Constitutional Drafting Committee and the National Reform Council will be dissolved and replaced by a new one, and the whole process starts anew (also Article 38). All sacked members would be barred from joining the newly formed CDC and NRC. There could be a potentially interesting precedent here.

Also, as expected, there’s no word on a public referendum on the new constitution.

The National Council for Peace and Order (คณะรักษาความสงบแห่งชาติ)

It comes at no surprise that the NCPO, aka the junta, will maintain some considerable influence for the foreseeable future. It affirms that the junta is in charge in the absence of a government and parliament (Article 43) and all past 100+ orders and announcements are still valid (Article 47). And Article 44 underlines that the junta will stay in power:

Article 44: For the benefit of the reform process to promote unity and solidarity of the people or in order to prevent or protect from threats against public order, national security, the monarchy, national economy or sovereignty of the country – no matter whether it’s from inside or outside the country – the head of the NCPO is authorized, with the approval of the NCPO board, to order, to suspend or to take action, regardless of its effects on the legislative, executive or judiciary. All orders or acts are to be regarded as lawful and constitutional. At the conclusion of that order or act, the speaker of the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister are to be notified as soon as possible.

What may appear as an emergency passage for some, this is basically a carte blanche authorizing the junta to do nearly everything it sees fit, from calling special meetings to seemingly unlimited vetoing powers. No matter if it violates this constitution or law, this article could enable extrajudicial actions against those it sees as a threat.

And finally, the very last article of the interim constitution states:

Article 48: All acts related to the seizure of power on May 22, 2014 by the NCPO and those associated or ordered by the head [of NCPO] (…) regardless of its impact on the legislature, executive and judiciary (…) and regardless of the acts carried out on, before or after said day, should those acts are considered to be unlawful, all those associated with those acts are entirely free of fault or guilt.

As with previous coups, the junta has written its own amnesty into law.

Summary aka the “tl;dr”-part

  • A fully junta-appointed, 220-strong National Legislative Assembly that doubles as both the parliament and the senate, which will deliberate and vote on bills.
  • A 250-strong National Reform Council supposedly representing a broad section of society and all provinces looking to reform almost every aspect in the country and also able to draft bills.
  • All persons holding a position at a political party within the past three years are barred from participating.
  • A 36-strong Constitutional Drafting Committee tasked with, well, drafting a new constitution with 120 days or else faced with dissolution, only to be replaced by a new committee. No word of a public referendum.
  • The NCPO aka the junta will still wield considerable powers whenever it sees fit and also has given itself an amnesty for the May 22 coup.
  • According to media reports, all appointments should be done by September later this year and more official details are expected Wednesday morning at a press conference by the NCPO.

Thai military junta tightens grip on media, issues gag order

22 July 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 22, 2014

Thailand’s military government has further tightened its grip on the country’s media by banning criticism of the junta, threatening to shut down the offending media outlet and legal consequences.

The edict came at a time when probably not many were listening. On Friday night, shortly after the weekly, self-adulating TV address by army chief and coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, all television broadcasts were temporarily stopped again for another announcement by the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta calls itself.

In announcement number 97 since the military coup nearly two months ago, the subject line was innocuously titled “Cooperating with the work of the National Council for Peace and Order and the distributing of news to the public”.

However, its contents were yet again a reaffirmed open threat to the media and anyone else daring to criticize the military coup and the junta with is now in control of both the government and the narrative:

3. Operators and providers in the media of all types, both state and privately owned – including radio; television broadcasted via terrestrial, cable, digital or internet; newspapers, journals or other publications; including all types of electronic media including social media – are obliged to distribute the information as presented by the NCPO. In this regard, a person should cease presenting information in the following:

(1) False or defamatory information or that creates hatred towards the monarchy, the heir, and all royals.

(2) Information that could harm national security, including the libel of others.

(3) Criticism of the work of the NCPO, its officials and associated persons.

(4) Secret recordings – audio, image and video – of the secret work done by government agencies.

(5) Information that causes confusion, that incites or provokes conflict or divisions in the Kingdom.

- Taken from: “ประกาศคณะรักษาความสงบแห่งชาติ – ฉบับที่ 97/2557“, National Council for Peace and Order, July 18, 2014 – Translated by author

Furthermore, the soliciting of resistance against the NCPO and anything else that could “lead to panic” in the population will not be tolerated.

Failure to comply with these points could result in an effective shutdown of the offending news outlet by soldiers, provincial governors or city and provincial police chiefs. This could be followed by legal prosecution that could end up in front of a military court since Thailand is still under martial law, invoked two days before the coup.

The junta has repeatedly already made clear that it will not tolerate dissent – while at the same time Gen. Prayuth has invited the public to voice their disagreements in a civil manner during his weekly addresses. Friday’s edict is as broadly worded as previous ones when it comes to defining what actually does constitute as criticism, as defamation, as a threat to national security, etc.

There’s also another problem with the edict:

Thai Journalists Association chairman Pradit Ruangdit said the junta’s order (…) may allow authorities to abuse their power in suspending the broadcast or publication violating the order.

“It is not clear if there will be any warnings, any steps or any approaches in determining the offense,” Pradit said in a statement. “If there is an abuse of power and there is no check and balance process, it is more likely that this will create a bad impact.”

He said the Thai Journalists Association would call a meeting next week with media executives and professionals to discuss and find a solution to the problem.

-“Thai Junta’s Gag on Media Raises Alarm, Criticism“, Associated Press, July 19, 2014

Not only has the edict effectively banned criticism media criticism of the NCPO, but also interviews with academics and former civil servants who could “give opinions in a manner that can inflict or worsen the conflict, distort information, create confusion in the society or lead to the use of violence”.

This apparent gag order by the junta is not only limited to the mainstream media and its journalists and reporters. NCPO spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree emphasized that the junta is not only seeking “cooperation” from the media, but from all individuals – effectively pointing the finger at all Thai social media users, who have been facing heightened measures by the junta to block or otherwise restrict access online.

The military junta has already set up media watchdogs to monitor unfavorable coverage and debate in print, on air and online, a clear indication that it has a very clear idea how the public political discourse sohould be shaped, but – given its blanket gag order – not so much when it comes to identifying who they’re actually up against.

The only aspect in the announcement that was more comprehensible compared to the previous ones is the open contempt of anything that does not fit the junta’s narrative that is being discussed in public.

How (not) to protest at the US Embassy, according to the Thai junta

11 July 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 10, 2014

We recently mentioned the foreign reactions (and sanctions) of the international community in the aftermath of the military coup in Thailand, and the reaction of the Thai military junta. The junta’s response was somewhere between indifference towards the Western condemnation and longing for approval, even by Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, its historically frowned-upon and not-so-democratic neighbors.

One of the countries that’s in the focus when it comes to reactions to incidents and events happening elsewhere in the world is obviously the United States, a long-time ally with bilateral relations going back as far as the early 19th century.

The US have downgraded its military relations with their Thai counterpart by suspending military aid worth $4.7m (a drop in the ocean compared to the total Thai military budget estimated at $5.4bn) and cancelling several joint-exercises, though a decision to relocate the long-running regional and multi-national military exercise Cobra Gold has not been made yet. Also, a senior US official told a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. in late June that military rule in Thailand will stay “longer than expected” and has expressed his skepticism towards the sincerity of the junta’s reconciliation efforts.

Obviously these sanctions have caused pro-coup Thais to lash out against the US, basically telling them to keep out of Thailand’s business while repeatedly banging the “foreigners don’t understand Thailand” drum – but that’s another story. Naturally, the Embassy of the United States was also targeted by protests from both anti- and pro-coup protesters, despite a ban of political gatherings by the military junta.

The lone protester, Thep Vetchavisit, said he was there to voice his anger towards the US government for downgrading its military relations with Thailand in response to last month’s military coup d’etat. Mr. Thep arrived at the US Embassy on motorcycle and presented caricatures of former American presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon to the embassy officials. He spent the next ten minutes posing for photos in front of a crowd of reporters outside the embassy.

“America, don’t poke your nose into Thailand’s [internal] issues,” Mr. Thep told reporters. “We have been living for many years peacefully. When the Thais started to fight and kill each other, the soldiers intervened to maintain peace, so that Thais won’t kill each other.”

Mr. Thep said the American authorities should learn a lesson from Iraq, “which is now a mess,” and refrain from interfering with Thai politics any further.

-“Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law“, Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

Despite an apparently emotional anti-American and pro-coup protest, the local authorities saw nothing wrong with that:

Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay, the deputy chief of Bangkok police, said Mr. Thep’s outbursts against the US government did not count as a protest.

“No chaotic incidents happened. There was only a gesture of anger about America’s interfering in Thailand’s internal affairs, and a demand for the Americans to stop such behaviour,” Pol.Maj.Gen. Amnuay said to reporters after Mr. Thep left the scene. “This man’s actions do not count as a violation of the legal ban on political protests, because it was merely an expression of anger.”

-“Police Say Anti-American Protest Not Violation of Martial Law“, Khaosod English, June 29, 2014

So, then it’s okay to protest at the US Embassy, right…?

Deputy National Police Chief Somyot Phumphanmuang is to summon the student activists who ate “anti-coup sandwiches” in front of the US Embassy on Tuesday, and send them to the military for “attitude adjustment,” Naewna has reported.

Half a dozen student activists from the Thai Student Centre for Democracy gathered in front of the United States Embassy in Bangkok on Tuesday morning to “test the standards of the authorities,” after a lone anti-American, pro-coup demonstrator held a solo protest in front of the US Embassy on Sunday but was not arrested.

The students were able to carry out the activity for around 15 minutes, then they dispersed without getting arrested.

-“Police to summon ‘sandwich protest’ student activists for attitude adjustment“, Prachatai English, July 1, 2014

Hm ok, but what about just congratulating the United States on their national holiday…?

Thai police arrested and charged a woman protester for showing support for the US in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok on 4 July, Independence Day.

The police charged Chaowanat Musikabhumi, aka “Nong,” with defying the coup makers’ order banning political assemblies. She is now detained at the Crime Suppressiong Division.

When she was interrogated by the military and security officers at the Thai Army Club, the military officers told her that by holding a placard reading “Long Live USA Day,” she may have violated Article 112 of the Criminal Code or the lèse majesté law that the placard deemed a parody of “Long Live the King.”

She tried to explain that the phrase “long live” is not only used for blessing a monarch as in the Thai phrase Song Phra Charoen, but can be used in many contexts. She added that she was just aimed at showing appreciation for the long-life US democracy.

-“Protester may face lèse majesté for holding “Long Live USA” placard on July 4th“, Prachatai English, July 8, 2014

It is evident that publicly reading “1984”, eating sandwiches and showing the three-finger salute as a form of protest are absolutely verboten because of their suspected anti-coup sentiments, and even go so far to monopolize the phrase “Long Live” and twist it into a lèse majesté case, while it is absolutely legal to protest at the United States and its embassy (at best even alone) to effectively tell them to keep out of Thailand’s business, no matter how lopsided or broken its politics currently are.

Some protests are apparently indeed more equal than others.

[UPDATE, July 11] The “Long Live USA”-protester who was threatened with lèse majesté-charges has been released with no charges on Friday, Prachatai reports. But as with many other previous detainees, she has to sign an agreement that she will not engage in any “political activities” anymore.

Thailand: Did Pheu Thai ‘hire motorcycle taxis’ during the 2010 protests?

09 July 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 8, 2014

Claudio Sopranzetti is an Italian post-doctorate student at Oxford University best known for his research on Bangkok’s motorcycle taxis. This handy (and at times only) mode of transportation through the often jammed streets of the Thai capital is hard to miss thanks to the drivers’ bright orange vests seen waiting at the end of almost every alley and street. Apart from bringing people from one point to another, they’re also hired as couriers and for other errands. In short: without them, a lot of things would happen much slower in Bangkok.

Sopranzetti’s research resulted in the PhD dissertation “The Owners of the Map – Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok” at Harvard University in which he draws up a fascinating ethnography of the riders, most of whom come from upcountry. He also credits them with a growing political participation and thus growing influence over the years, as evident most recently in the 2010 red shirt protests.

Here’s an Al Jazeera English report from 2010 shortly after the protests with soundbites from Sopranzetti summarizing his findings:

Last Monday, he held a talk at Chulalongkorn University on the same topic and this is how The Nation summarized it:

Motorcycle taxis played a big part in the 2010 red-shirt protests, a Chulalongkorn University (CU) seminar was told Monday.

Claudio Sopranzetti, a post-doctorate student at Oxford University, said the Pheu Thai Party had hired the motorbike taxis because they knew about Bangkok streets and alley-ways and could easily transport people to different parts of the city. Sopranzetti also pointed out that this gave rise to a red-shirt motorbike taxis group.

-“Motorbike taxis played a big part in 2010“, The Nation, July 7, 2014

[UPDATE,  July 9, 2014: It appears that The Nation has quietly removed the article, hence why the link above will lead you to their front page.]

Somehow the main conclusion of The Nation (that’s pretty much the whole article) is the notion that the motorcycle taxis that supported the red shirts back then must have been bought by the then-opposition Pheu Thai Party, a persistent accusation until today. While there are overlapping interests among all three groups, it doesn’t automatically mean they’re one and the same as The Nation suggests here.

Unsurprisingly, Sopranzetti himself strongly disagrees with the report:

This is how news are made up in contemporary Thailand, I can understand censorship but this is something different. I have never said that “Phua Thai had hired the motorbike taxis” to join the Red Shirts. The drivers who supported the movement did it because of their own ideology, belief in democracy, and hate for double standard and inequality. The nation should be ashamed of calling itself a newspaper. They do not report news, they fabricate them.

-Facebook post by Claudio Sopranzetti, July 8, 2014

Indeed the political participation of the motorcycle taxis during the various political protests in the past isn’t really because of financial reasons, other than for the provided services. On this issue Sopranzetti said in an interview with New Mandala in 2010:

Arnaud Dubus: It was said that some of them get a small amount of money to participate in the demonstration?

Claudio Sopranzetti: It is true for those working as guards. The issue of payment for demonstrations is a tricky one. This money is seen as used to pay for a service, in the sense that guards would be paid to be guards, for doing the job. But receiving money to join the demonstration, it seems really odd. 200 baht is probably less than their daily average income. A motorcycle taxi who is in a good spot is making 400-500 baht per day, which converts to 10,000 to 15,000 baht a month. It is a fair amount of money. A university professor told me: they make more money than I do.

-“Interview with Claudio Sopranzetti: The politics of motorcycle taxis“, New Mandala, July 21, 2010

Talking to Asian Correspondent via email, Sopranzeitti also voiced his displeasure over The Nation‘s coverage of his seminar: “It is really an embarrassing bending of reality to fit a prejudice they have. I am just sad they [The Nation] used me for this.”

In related news, the military junta has briefly toyed with the idea of changing the orange vests and instead hand out new ones colored green. Also, registration would opened up for all and done by the Department of Land Transportation, as opposed to the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority in the past, who distributed a limited number of vests, but also for free.

The junta claims that this limitation is the reason is why the free vests are sold on by local mafia gangs for a large amount of money – something the original policy introduced in 2003 under prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was supposed to have solved. Nevertheless, unregistered motorcycle taxis run by local mafias would operate with these bought vests.

The new plan for unlimited registration of new taxis has raised some concerns about over-supply, to which a military official said that it would balance itself out. In the end, the junta decided to stick with orange for the new motorcycle vests, because the color is “more familiar.” There are some things even the junta can’t change that easily.

The Thai post-coup government: The junta’s shadowy cabinet

08 July 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 7, 2014

This is part two in a three-part series looking at how the Thai junta government after the military coup will be structured, governed and by whom this will be led. Part one details the mass purge among government officials. Today we look who could be in the interim cabinet.

Since the military coup of May 22, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) spent its first weeks seizing and establishing full control over the branches of government power. The sole executive and legislative powers at the moment lie in the hands of the generals and their advisors. The notable exception is the judiciary (i.e. Constitutional Court) and the supposedly “independent” government agencies like the Election Commission and National Anti-Corruption Commission, which all played a role in at least exacerbating Thailand’s political deadlock that ended with the coup d’etat.

But the junta is now quickly moving ahead to work on the implementation of the next interim constitution, the government (both of which we will be discussing in a future article in the series), and with it the next cabinet. As repeatedly stated by the junta and its leader, army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, all these should be coming around very soon, “at the latest in September,” as Prayuth said in one of the weekly televised NCPO announcements. 

While no official announcements have been made about the make-up of the future cabinet, it didn’t stop Thai media from speculating who is likely to be appointed as a minister in the next Thai government, as Matichon Weekly magazine and the Thai Rath daily newspaper did last month.

This is what Matichon predicts the administration of “Prayuth 1″ could look like:

  • Prime Minister: Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha
  • Deputy-PM (Security): Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan
  • Deputy-PM (Economy): Pridiyathorn Devakula
  • Deputy-PM (Commerce) Somkid Jatusripitak
  • Deputy-PM (Law): Visanu Krue-ngam
  • Foreign Minister: Surakiat Sathirathai
  • Defense Minister: Gen. Anupong Paochinda
  • Interior Minister: Gen. Daopong Rattanasuwan
  • Transport Minister: Air Chief Marshall Prajin Jantong
  • ICT Minister: Gen. Thanasak Pratimapagorn
  • Energy Minister: Piyasvasti Amranand or Prasert Boonsampan
  • Justice Minister: Borownsak Uwanno
  • Finance Minister: Prasarn Trairatvorakul
- Source: “คอลัมน์: ลึกแต่ไม่ลับ”, Matichon Weekly, Vol. 34, Issue 1766, June 20, 2014

Thai Rath’s cabinet prediction is the same concerning the Defense, Interior and Transport portfolio, with the latter two ministers also potentially becoming deputy-PMs. It also sees Police-General Adul Saengsing-Kaew and Navy commander-in-chief Admiral Narong Pipthanasai being appointed deputy prime ministers as well as Assistant Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant-General Paibul Kumchaya and deputy army chief Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr getting cabinet positions.

Both lists include numerous familiar names from the military and former administrations, not least because almost all of them are working in the current junta administration (see our infographic here), either overseeing the ministries they may or may not be heading in the near future, or serving on the advisory board to the junta. Case in point: its chief advisors, former defense minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan and former army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda. Both men have reportedly supported the prolonged anti-government protests of the ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Among the non-military members of the speculated interim cabinet are Surakiat Sathirathai (Foreign) and Somkid Jatusripitak (Commerce) – both former ministers under Thaksin Shinawatra a decade ago – current Bank of Thailand governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul (Finance), Prasert Boonsampan (former CEO of the state-owned oil and gas company PTT) and Piyasvasti Amranand (former Thai Airways CEO and recently appointed PTT chairman), both tipped to become the next energy minister under the junta. 

Somkid is particularly interesting since during the Thaksin years, he was credited for the economic and social (often called populist) policies that won over the rural population and ensured a solid large voter base for the following elections. That seemingly clashes with the persistent anti-populism stance of anti-Thaksin groups including the military junta, so much so that the junta wants to have populism outlawed in the next charter. However, unlike his fellow cabinet and party members he was not arrested after the last military coup of 2006 and he has apparently broken his ties with Thaksin, which partially explains why he’s now one of the advisors to the junta.

But the biggest question that also has the largest consensus among political observers is the position of the prime minister, which will be most likely filled by none other than army chief and junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha himself.

Gen Prayuth could remain as NCPO chief so he could continue to supervise the new government to be set up in early September. The difference is whether he would retire as army chief or extend his term while serving as NCPO chief.

The other scenario is that Gen Prayuth could become prime minister himself in line with the NCPO’s increasing popularity. He could then appoint new heads of the armed forces so the rank and file could be promoted.

-“Prayuth at a crossroads as retirement nears“, Bangkok Post, June 21, 2014

Gen. Prayuth is scheduled to retire as army chief on September 30 during the annual reshuffle of military officers. Same goes for Gen. Thanasak Patimapakorn, Adm. Narong Pipattanasai and ACM Prajin Juntong, the commander-in-chief of the supreme command, the navy and the air force respectively.

Not only would the timing fit here, since Prayuth could be at the helm of the interim government beginning in September when the aforementioned military reshuffling takes place or a new budget is seeking approval. But it also is in line with the general impression that Thailand’s junta, with the new interim cabinet, constitution and parliamentary bodies, is making sure to put down the new roots in order to wield considerable influence for the next government(s) to come.

However, the rumored self-appointment would also unwittingly turn General Prayuth into something he would deny wanting to become: a politician.

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