Here are all my posts of the Siam Voices 2013 Year in Review series of the past week in one handy list for you:
- Part 1 - Politics: ”Blowing the final whistle on Thailand’s political calm”
- Part 2 – Freedom of speech: “Lèse majesté and the media in the crossfire“
- Part 3 – The Rohingya: “Unwelcomed and ignored”
- Part 4 – Education and reform activists: “Hey, teachers! Allow those kids to grow”
- Part 5 – Miscellaneous: “What else happened in Thailand…?”
Thank you everybody for the support! Happy New Year and may 2014 bring us some good news for right reasons to write about…!
This is the final part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review, as we look what else made headlines in Thailand in the past 12 months – including the strange, outrageous and ridiculous. You can read the previous parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls
It has become somewhat of a tradition now at the end of every year in review that we highlight all those news stories that were for various reasons not covered in the blog and mostly talked (rather more ranted) about on my Twitter feed. So without further ado, here’s the definitive incomplete look back at what else happened in Thailand, from the noteworthy to the quirky and from nonsensical to downright ridiculous.
Most unexpected pro-LGBT message of the year: During the Bangkok gubernatorial race earlier this year, the main challenger to the incumbent (and later re-elected) Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, Pheu Thai Party’s Pongsapat Pongcharoen published a campaign video with an unexpected pro-LGBT message promoting sexual diversity, mainly aimed at wooing the city’s potential transgender voters. While he didn’t mentioned more details how that would have been reflected in his policies, this we saw a legislative push to bring legal equality to same-sex marriages in Thailand, which would be the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. While a survey last year polled 60 per cent to be against same sex marriage, Thailand is generally known to be tolerant (but not entirely accepted) towards diverse genders and sexual orientations. A bill would have been submitted for a vote in the later months of the year, but due to the current political crisis and the dissolvement of the House, the legislation has been put on the backburner for now.
Media failures of the year: Those who are regularly following me know that I can be admittedly harsh on my colleagues in the Thai media. But apart from the small typos or mix-ups, there were three particular inexcusable cases of failures: one of them is when Daily News posted the full ID card (with photo) of a British gang-rape victim (which as taken down shortly after public backlash), and then there was Channel 3 showing the full murder of two women, but instead blurred the perpetrator’s gun (as per regulation).
In both cases, the authorities also are partly to be blamed since it was them who released the pictures to the media, as they did in the case of a 12-year-old ethnic Karen girl that was kidnapped and tortured by a couple in Kamphaeng Phet province (who unsurprisingly jumped bail and are still at large) – in fact they actually stripped her almost naked to document her mutilated body after years of torture by the couple in front of the press. While they did not show her face, the media are the last line of defense for crime victims and should apply their own judgement, rather than to recite everything said by the police ad verbatim - the victims deserve better.
Media mix-up of the year: Channel 5 for running a picture of actress Meryl Streep portraying the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher instead of the actual Iron Lady herself. However, they weren’t the only ones who made such a blunder on that occasion as a Taiwanese TV station ran footage of Queen Elizabeth II during the news of Thatcher’s passing. Also, (almost predictably) some people also confused actor Morgan Freeman for the late Nelson Mandela…!
The worst Thailand-related article of the year: ”10 Things Americans Can Learn From Bangkok“, Huffington Post, February 26, 2013. Where to start…? Nearly all 10 points in this
click-bait list are either incorrect (“SkyRail”, eh?), horribly wrong (“the red light districts are well regulated by police officers and social workers” – really?!) or sheer nonsensical (“packed with people for whom globalization is a watch word”)! But the worst part is: it unwittingly makes a case PRO lèse majesté (“Respect Your Elders”) and confuses it for quirky local folklore…!
Pseudo-science in Thai media: In June, The Nation ran a story about John Hagelin, a physicist and “1994 Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner” who proposed the Thai army to use “quantum physics and transcendental meditation let the part of brain that created negative behaviour to relax and thus cut crime and terrorist attacks” for $1 million. What they fail to mention (or to look up): 1) his theory about a correlation between “physics and consciousness” is regarded as nonsense by most physicists and 2) the Ig Nobel Prize is “a parody award presented at Harvard University” as a “veiled criticism of trivial research”.
Most celestial Thai political candidate: Thoranee Ritteethamrong, Bangkok gubernatorial candidate No. 21, came in dressed as the Chinese goddess Guanyin at the candidate sign-up and held her campaign without any billboards, but with a mandate “from heaven”. That got her at least 922 votes (or 0.035 per cent) on election day.
Most unjustified flip-out by a Thai official: There are couple of well-known public figures well-known for their temper (*cough*Prayuth*cough*), but this one takes the prize this year: Interior minister Jarupong Ruangsuwan blew his lid when an assistant village chief made headlines about his unusual birthday – February 30 – and didn’t get it fixed for 53 years. Instead of showing empathy with him (after all he couldn’t open up a bank account for example because of this bureaucratic mistake), Jarupong accused the low-ranked official to be a fame-seeker and should “die out of shame” he brought onto the Interior Ministry. Unfortunately, the assistant village chief resigned because of the minister’s apparent lack of EQ, but at least gets to officially celebrate his birthday now on every February 1.
Worst impression on the new colleagues at the first day of the new job: After losing his position as deputy prime minister for national security and being transferred to the labor ministry in the last cabinet reshuffle, Chalerm Yubamrung was crying foul play behind this move and that didn’t stop on his first day at his new job, when he reportedly “spent more than an hour complaining about his transfer” after introduced himself to his new
subjects co-workers – team confidence building, it isn’t.
Insensitive and oblivious moments in Thai advertisement: A Thai woman in blackface in a commercial for a whitening-drink (!) actually becoming pale-skinned? Dunkin Donuts promoting their new ‘charcoal’ doughnuts with a Thai woman in blackface? A cosmetics brand offering ‘scholarships’ for the ‘fairest’ student? What could go wrong? A whole lot, actually!
Best Thailand-related viral video of the year: “Never Go To Thailand” by Brian Camusat. If only the Tourism Authority of Thailand would have even nearly as much swagger as this video – but then again it wouldn’t possess the irony to title it like this…!
Most unconvincing suicide case:
CHIANG RAI [PROVINCE] – An unidentified foreigner is believed to have committed suicide in a bizarre way, putting his head in a water-filled plastic bag and then sealing it with a copper wire around his neck, in a field near the Myanmar border, reports said.
“Foreigner commits bizarre ‘suicide’“, Bangkok Post, January 4, 2013
Strangest robbery of the year:
A robber made off with 2,200 baht [$71] in cash from a convenience store in Phuket province on Tuesday, but minutes later returned a 10-baht coin [$0.32] before escaping a second time.
“Store robber returns 10 baht“, Bangkok Post, June 18, 2013
Most ambitious promise by a Thai politician:
The Ministry of Transport is expected to improve the entire public transport system within two months as several issues, such as passengers being rejected by taxi drivers and illegal parking, remain unresolved.
“Public transport issues to be solved in 2 months“, National News Bureau of Thailand, July 15, 2013
Remember when Thaksin enthusiastically pledged to “free Bangkok of traffic jams in 6 months” back in the 1990s…?
Strangest dare of the year: After persistent rumors of ‘chemically tainted’ packed rice (which have proven to be not true), the president of the Thai Rice Association announced whoever eats one of their products and dies because of it will get 20 million Baht…!
Best costume: Deputy-prime minister Plodprasop Suraswadi as the 13th century Lanna King Mangrai…!
(Un-)honorable mentions: Wirapol Chattigo, the defrocked monk formerly known as “Luang Phu Nenkham”, embroiled in a sea of scandals starting with being filmed on a private jet plane sporting luxury items, followed by accusations of money-laundering and child molestation and reportedly at large abroad. Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya, who is suspected to have killed a police officer in a hit-and-run case in 2012, failed to show up to hear charges in early September because he’s on an ”overseas trip” and still hasn’t returned yet. Chalerm Yubamrung (yes, again), for saying it’s okay for “police officer to ask for money during Chinese New Year” since that’s “not a bribe” and for setting off a terror alert against the US consulate in Chiang Mai and then announcing the suspect “has left the country” unhindered – and all that based on a mere “sniff”…!
And now, the strangest story of the year, from the “Best intentions but poorly executed”-category:
Thai officials say a man who was high on drugs was arrested after attempting to donate methamphetamine tablets to help flood victims at a relief center. (…) [The man] told the volunteers they could sell the drugs and use the money to support the troubled families. The volunteers were actually from a civil drug suppression task force.
“Thai man arrested for giving meth to flood center“, Associated Press, October 15, 2013
Final words: I’d like to thank my co-writers and editors at Siam Voices and Asian Correspondent for their contributions and hard work this year. And a special thanks to YOU, the readers, for your support, feedback and retweets! We wish you a Happy New Year 2014 – let’s just hope that there’ll be more stories to write about for all the right reasons…
In the penultimate part of the Siam Voices 2013 year in review, we look at an important but often neglected issue: education
As regular readers may know, we often have talked about Thailand’s lagging education system, which has a lot of problems in a lot of areas. Whether it’s ridiculous questions being asked in the annual O-Net tests, questionable standardization of these tests, poor PISA scores, horrendous English-language training and thus proficiency, or virtually non-existent sexual education, most Thais are in agreement that something needs to be done about it if the country doesn’t want to fall behind its neighbors competitively. Thailand’s standard of education is already a concern for foreign companies operating in Thailand.
And again in 2013 the international education listings and surveys did not show any signs of improvement. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 ranked Thailand’s education dead last among ASEAN countries, Thailand’s English proficiency is “low” according to a survey by Education First, although the trend is showing a slight improvement. The same goes for the OECD’s PISA survey, in which Thailand makes some improvement in reading and science. Amidst such results, Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang (already the fourth during Yingluck’s tenure), acknowledged that the country’s education system is severely outdated and needs an overhaul.
Yet the Yingluck Shinawatra government’s most notable education policy is the pricey “one tablet per child”-scheme, which needs some time (like most education policies) to see its results. The problem that has been plaguing this and past administrations is that Thailand spends a lot on its education with little improvement to show for it. Nevertheless, some issues were tackled this year, such as plans to reduce the study hours from over 1,000 to 600-800 a year, reduce the home-workload or link teacher payment to the student performance.
But as many pointed out, there are far more deeper problems with the education system…
Thai students have an altogether different impression. In Thai schools, a drill sergeant’s dream of regimentation rooted in the military dictatorships of the past, discipline and enforced deference prevail.
At a public school in this industrial Bangkok suburb, teachers wield bamboo canes and reprimand students for long hair, ordering it sheared on the spot. Students are inspected for dirty fingernails, colored socks or any other violation of the school dress code. (…) a system that stresses unquestioned obedience.
“In Thailand’s Schools, Vestiges of Military Rule“, by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, May 28, 2013
Indeed. That archaic attitude is being reflected in widespread rote learning and repetitious memorization methods, but also the fact that Thailand is one of the last few countries left in world which requires university students to wear uniforms. Also, school children have strict haircut guidelines that were relaxed this year.
But what this year also showed is that more resistance is forming against the old ways of learning and teaching. There’s the Anti-SOTUS group that calls for an end to the harsh hazing rituals at universities. We also saw the Facebook campaign by “Frank” Nethiwit Chotpatpaisan against the “mechanic” education system and oppressive school rules, going as far as declare himself “sick of Thainess”. In a final display of his principles this year, the opinionated and strong-willed 11th-grader rejected a nomination by the National Human Rights Commission, criticizing its callousness towards the 2010 crackdown and the report it produced.
Then there’s the Thammasat University student provocateur nicknamed “Aum Neko”, who protested against compulsory uniforms with racy and suggestive posters, much to the annoyance of fellow students and university officials. Aum Neko is no stranger to controversy (having casually posed on the lap of Thammasat’s founder Pridi Banomyong’s statue last year) as a TV reporter
rather pompously filed a lèse majesté complaint against the student for comments she made in an interview months earlier. Earlier this month, in the middle of the anti-government protests, Aum Neko got into trouble again for protesting against Thammasat’s perceived siding with the protesters, as she attempted to take down the Thai national flag and replace it with a black banner. That led to even stronger reactions by fellow students and officials (one vice rector even wrote on his Facebook page that he would “trample” her). She is now facing expulsion from the university.
What all these stories from the past 12 months show is that Thailand’s education (and not only that) still has yet to adapt to a changing social and cultural landscape and is in desperate need of a system that can accommodate the growing diversity of (free) thinking, opinions, access to knowledge and lifestyles. This will require the will to completely overhaul the education system (which also means dealing with the aging bureaucratic structures and curriculum) and the necessary time to grow to fruition – and that is more time than the average duration of governments in Thailand.
The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series concludes tomorrow! Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?
In the third part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, we highlight the plight of Southeast Asia’s most persecuted refugees, the Rohingya. In Thailand, it seems that they are particularly unwelcomed by authorities.
Ever since neighboring Myanmar has gradually opened up to the world politically and economically in the past few, it has also unearthed the animosity of some against the Rohingya people, an ethnic muslim minority that has been denied citizenship for decades. This animosity grew into hateful violence when deadly riots in Rakhine state in 2012 (and later in other places) displaced over 100,000 Rohingyas.
Many thousands are fleeing Myanmar in overcrowded and fragile vessels, often operated by human traffickers. Preferred destinations – that is if they make it through the Andaman Sea – are Malaysia and Indonesia, but more often than not they either involuntarily arrive in Thailand or are being intercepted by Thai authorities. During the low tide months between October to February, almost 6,000 Rohingyas according to Thai authorities have entered Thai territory.
Because the Thai state regards them as illegal economic immigrants rather than persecuted refugees, they’re repeatedly refused asylum and in most cases the Thai authorities are sticking to the policy they euphemistically call “helping on”: intercepted refugee vessels are given food, medicine and additional fuel before towed out to sea again on their way elsewhere. Should a boat be deemed unsafe, they will be deported back to Myanmar. There have been past allegations against Thai officials that these boats have been simply set adrift or even removed their engines - as happened again in February this year – with little inquiry and thus consequences.
This year, reports of human trafficking involvement by Thai officials emerged over the months during and following the waves of refugee boats passing Thailand’s coastlines. It started with one of them carrying 73 migrants found on New Year’s Day, but instead of the usual procedure they were split up and put on other boats. As it turns out, according to an investigation by the BBC, members of the Thai Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) had sold these people off to human traffickers. An internal investigation found no wrongdoing by their own officers, but has nonetheless transferred two accused ISOC officers out of the South.
However, the allegations did not die down over the course of the year as two investigative reports by Reuters in particular (here and here) have put more weight on these, accompanied most recently by calls to Thailand from the United Nations and the United States to investigate these claims - none of which have taken place so far despite repeated pledges by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra so far. The same empty-handed result happened after a reported shooting incident in late February during a botched boat transfer killed at least two refugees. Again, calls for a probe were met – like in any other case – with deafening silence. Additionally, around 800 refugees were found in illegal human trafficking camps in south Thailand in January.
Those refugees that were being sheltered in Thailand faced no better conditions. In the summer months, around 2,000 Rohingya were detained in 24 stations across the country mostly located in the South under vastly differing standards. Some were overcrowded and caused the detainees to riot, others were regularly made accessible for human traffickers to lure refugees out. Thai authorities have discussed expanding or building new detention facilities, but this was met with resistance by local residents. The fate of these men, women and children is still to this day unresolved as a deadline by the Thai government to find third-party countries taking them on passed on July 26 with no result, thus leaving them in legal limbo.
The Rohingya issue and the (reported mis-)handling by Thai authorities – largely underreported in the domestic media and thus mostly met with indifference by the general public – is slowly becoming a national shame. But judging by its actions it appears little will change about that attitude: a formerly highly-regarded forensic expert reheated her old claim that some Rohingya might be involved in the insurgency in the deep south and a Thai minister even accused them to be “feigning pitifulness” for the media.
In general, the Thai authorities seemed to be more concerned with its own image rather that the wellbeing of the refugees, as evident just last week when the Royal Thai Navy filed a lawsuit against two journalists from Phuket Wan- who have been diligently reporting on this issue - for defamation and even resorted to invoke the Computer Crimes Act (see yesterday’s part), even though these two journalists had been merely quoting from the aforementioned Reuters‘ story. The lawsuit has been met with criticism, including from the UN.
Supreme Commander Tanasak Patimapragorn once accused the international community of leaving Thailand alone to deal with the Rohingya refugees, (perhaps willingly?) oblivious to the fact that Thai authorities have largely denied international aid and refugee organizations access to them. So the question Thailand has to ask itself for the coming year is not what the world can do for Thailand, but rather what Thailand can do to help the Rohingyas?
The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?
Welcome to the second part of our Siam Voices 2013 year in review series. Today we highlight the state of freedom of speech, which is still endangered by the draconian lèse majesté law. We also take a look at the ongoing protests, where Thailand’s media itself became the story.
As the current chaotic protests are dominating the headlines, earlier this month yet another man was found guilty of defaming Thailand’s monarchy for posting two anti-monarchy messages on a web forum. Article 112 of the Criminal Code, also more commonly known as the lèse majesté law, cites that “whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” However, this time there was also this:
The third offence was related to an attempt to insult the monarchy. The prosecutor made the accusation that evidence on the defendant’s computer showed that he had prepared to post another lèse majesté message on the web forum, but the attempt failed because of his arrest and the confiscation of his computer. He was found guilty under Articles 112 and 80 of the Criminal Code for the attempted offence and was sentenced to three years and four months in jail. Nevertheless, the judges did not give the rationale for their decision.
“Thai man found guilty of attempted lèse-majesté“, Prachatai English, December 12, 2013
With the other offenses he was sentenced to a total of over 13 years in prison, but it was reduced to six years and eight months due to his plea of guilty and “beneficial testimony”. It is an unprecedented and worrying ruling since for the first time somebody was convicted of “attempted lèse majesté”, invoking Article 80 of the Criminal Code.
But given the lèse majesté sentencings of this past year, it is clear that things have not improved – it may have gotten even worse.
In January, a red shirt leader was sentenced to two years in prison for merely hinting at the monarchy. Later that month, veteran activist Somyot Pruksakasemsuk was found guilty of lèse majesté in a high-profile case with much international attention and followed by strong reactions. His offense: editing – not writing himself – two political essays that at best made allusions to the royal family for a now-defunct political red shirt magazine. Somyot was sentenced to 11 years even though he had already been in detention since April 2011 and been denied bail 15 times until today.
Numerous lèse majesté complaints filed this year also showed how frivolously the law is being misused: an activist targeted for distributing mock banknotes depicting Thai historical figures other than the King; a TV host filing a complaint against a student activist months after she was sitting on it; a sibling rivalry turned bitter with one brother accusing the other of insulting the King, causing him to be jailed for a year before he was acquitted; and even ex-yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul was found guilty because he quoted inflammatory remarks by somebody else. In related news, a court upheld a suspended sentence against Prachatai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn for not deleting web comments quickly enough that were deemed insulting to the monarchy.
In November, the courts added a new dimension to lèse majesté that was previously unheard of by stating that the law also applied to previous kings, thus not only arbitrarily expanding taboo topics, but also making critical, academic research into current Chakri dynasty impossible.
What is apparent is the need to openly discuss the law and how it is being misused, as ThaiPBS attempted to earlier this year. But it was met with outrage and resistance by a vocal minority, still maintaining and promoting the perception that even talking about the law is illegal, which is factually wrong and deliberate misinformation. With the current political polarization deeper than ever, even a consideration to reform the lèse majesté is now further away than ever.
Also worrying is the increased usage of 112 in combination with the Computer Crimes Act – which we have criticised numerous times before – as an effective tool to crack down online dissent. So it came as no surprise when the commander of the Technology Crime Suppression Division [TCSD] Pol. Maj-Gen Pisit Pao-in emerged as the new self-appointed chief censor, brazenly using scare tactics to curb political online rumors. Likely emboldened by the sudden public attention, he went a step further and threatened to monitor the mobile messaging app LINE, demanding the developers behind it cooperate (to which they refused). You know when you’ve taken it too far when even the ICT minister (not widely known as a free speech proponent either) disagreed with Pisit’s audacious plans and the latter was soon forced to backpaddle.
Media in the crossfire of protesters
With the country’s relapse back to street protests, so grew the news coverage of them both in the domestic and international media. With the volatile political situation the fight over the sovereign narrative was in full swing and again, those not agreeing were at the receiving end of accusations of being biased with even physical attacks against both local and foreign colleagues.
The protesters felt misrepresented especially by the foreign media and fired back in the same vitriolic manner as they did back in 2010 with a sense of hurt national pride, entitlement and superiority. However, the protesters – equipped with their own satellite TV channel and other media outlets – have so far failed to present credible non-Thai language sources to back up their claims. In a similar vein they also targeted Thai free TV stations during one of their rallies in early December. The TV channels have greatly resisted the hostile takeover attempts and the pressure to cease their broadcasts and switch to the protesters’ channel.
It is said that “journalism is the first rough draft of history” and it looks like, thanks to the protesters’ attitude to the media, the first drafts will be less than favorable towards them regardless of the outcome.
The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?