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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.

Thai Studies, Harvard University and the problem with political lobbyists

27 August 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2014

It is an unfortunate reality that many areas of study at universities across the world will never have the same draw than others. Very often, the more exotic the area, the less attractive it is for most prospective students.

There can, however, be certain benefits to taking the road less traveled. With (theoretically) smaller student to faculty ratios and (theoretically) a broader range of topics to cover, the more exotic subjects provide students with an opportunity to study something that is substantially less crowded than, say, law, economics or medicine, engage in cultural and academic exchanges with foreign cultures, and maybe even become a rare expert in that area.

Despite being often ridiculed as such an exotic fringe subject (or as the Germans say an ”Orchideenfach”, comparing it to an orchid flower – small, expensive and useless according to some) by the general public, Thai Studies at foreign universities actually have a tradition going back several decades. Cornell University was the first in the United States to open a Thai Studies center in 1947.  Formal Thai-language education in Germany dates back to the 1930s. Today, a number of Thai Studies programs with vastly different specializations are being offered at universities worldwide.

One of the institutions that may, or may not, be added to this list is Harvard University in the United States, considered to be one of the elite universities in the world. That is the wish of Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology at Harvard and a key figure behind the initiative to establish a Thai Studies program there.

In 2012, the first seeds were sown:

On April 18, Thai Studies at Harvard was launched with an inaugural lecture on “Thailand at Harvard.” (…)

The targeted $6 million in funds will enable the programme to provide Thai language instruction; fund a chair (professorship) of Thai studies; and host seminars, workshops, lectures, and a film series focusing on Thailand. (…)

Prof Herzfeld emphasised it was crucial to establish a Thai programme in perpetuity at Harvard. He maintains the only way to do so was to create a dedicated professorship and a dedicated programme of Thai language instruction, and seminars and lectures on Thailand across the entire university. These facilities would provide resources for people in the community who have interests in working in, or doing research about Thailand.

According to the plan, the chair of Thai studies would be open to researchers on Thailand from any academic discipline. This would be a tenured position for a senior professor and would have a title that includes the name of the chair. The incumbent could be of any nationality.

Harvard plans to launch Thai studies initiative”, The Nation, May 21, 2012

Last week, The Harvard Crimson – a student-run college newspaper – published an article by Harvard alumni Ilya Garger that focuses on the current state of the Thai Studies efforts, in particular its financing and its supporters:

(…) Harvard is collaborating with key supporters of the recent coup to create a permanent Thai Studies program at the university. These individuals, most prominently former Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satirathai, have spearheaded a campaign to raise $6 million for the program, which they have characterized as a means of promoting Thailand’s monarchy and national interests. Professor Michael Herzfeld, who is leading the initiative, wrote in an emailed statement to me that the program would not be tied to specific political interests and Harvard conducts due diligence on its donors. (…)

(…) At a fundraising event I attended in Bangkok last August, Surakiart declared that the Thai Studies at Harvard was intended as “a program to honor the King.” (…)

(…) Surin used the word “beachhead” to describe the envisioned role of the Thai Studies program. (…) Surin announced donations from several tycoons, and said he was seeking funding for the program from the King’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarch’s wealth of more than $30 billion.

The Thai Studies program’s proponents at Harvard include well-intentioned and politically astute individuals who are aware that the some of the money being raised comes with an agenda. Michael Herzfeld in particular has a strong record of standing up for academic freedom. Harvard must ensure that the program is funded and run transparently, and that it is not co-opted by coup apologists (…)

”Troubles with Thai Studies”, by Ilya Garger, The Harvard Crimson, August 18, 2014

The article also elaborates on Harvard University’s ties to members of the Thai royal family. That is likely the reason why the article and the allegations made in it got even more attention when it was taken off The Harvard Crimson’s website last Wednesday because of ”concerns about the personal safety of its author” during his stay in Thailand at the time of publishing.

”The fact that we were compelled to temporarily remove the piece certainly was surprising,” said Crimson president Sam Weinstock in an email reply to Asian Correspondent. “We avoid removing content from our website in all but extremely exceptional circumstances.” Weinstock also added that he is not aware if a similar situation has occurred before at the college newspaper.

Indeed, given the tone and sensitive issues raised in the article, the author might well have put himself in the crosshairs. An apparent death threat was made  against Garger by a Los Angeles-based Thai national on Facebook, but that reportedly happened after the removal of the critical article and also not on the Facebook pages of anybody directly involved.

A day later the article was put back up on the Crimson website with a note that the author Ilya Garger had left Thailand. The Hong Kong-based founder of a business research service told Asian Correspondent that the request to temporarily remove his article from The Harvard Crimson’s website ”wasn’t in response to any individual threat. (…) No one has personally contacted me with any threats, ” but admitted that the response to his article was ”stronger than expected.”

Garger added that the Thai Studies initiative at Harvard has progressed as far as it is has ”because relatively few people knew about it.” While lauding Prof. Herzfeld in his article for his strong standing for academic freedom, Garger thinks Herzfeld made ”too many concessions in exchange for donations. (…) I wrote the article because I think that with more scrutiny, this program will be carried out in a more responsible way.”

Surin Pitsuwan. Pic: AP

In the aforementioned article, two Thai politicians are named the main campaigners raising the estimated $6m for the Thai Studies program. One is Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister under Thaksin Shinawatra, with whom he split after the military coup of 2006. The other man is Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister under Chuan Leekpai and 2013 ASEAN secretary-general. The latter publicly supported the anti-government protests (at least in their early stages) that preluded the military coup of May 22.

Both Harvard alumni, Surakiart and Surin invited members of the Harvard Club of Thailand for a fundraiser evening in August last year. The event, which was attended by high-ranking members of the Democrat Party (as shown in a ThaiPBS news report), held a reception for Michael Herzfeld and Jay Rosengard of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In the invitation seen by Asian Correspondent, Mr. Surakiart and Mr. Surin called for a permanent Thai Studies program ”for the benefits of our own Thai people,” but also ”Harvard scholars and students to learn Thai, to study our rich history and our proud culture” in order ”to offer solutions to our issues of the day within a larger global context, to help increase competitiveness of our human resources, to raise our profile and that of our products and services, among others.”

The event also highlighted the need for scholarships and fellowships to Harvard University are for Thai students ”less privileged than us” and a need for Thai professors ”hold prominent teaching and research positions” at the Thai Studies program at Harvard.

Herzfeld declined to respond to Asian Correspondent’s questions about the Crimson article, and also more general questions about the current progress of the Thai Studies initiative. Instead, we were referred to a Harvard spokesman, who issued a statement  saying that ”faculty searches and appointments are conducted independently, and faculty members determine and pursue their own research interests and teaching” whenever donations are accepted.

The involvement of Thai politicians and apparent supporters of Thailand’s recent military coup shows the difficult relationship between academia and politics, especially when it comes to fundraising. It remains to be seen that due diligence will be conducted in the creation of a Thai Studies program at one of the top ranked universities in the world, and whether the initiative will spawn a multi-disciplinary and critical program that upholds academic freedom or it becomes solely a training ground for Thailand’s political elites.

Junta chief Prayuth named new prime minister of Thailand

22 August 2014

Originally published on Siam Voices on August 21, 2014

UPDATE: Thailand’s hand-picked parliament appointed junta and military chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new prime minister of Thailand Thursday morning in a unanimous vote. There was little doubt about the outcome of today’s vote. Prayuth is due to retire from the armed forces next month and the change appears aimed in part at ensuring the military maintains its grip on power as it  implements major political reforms in the months or possibly years ahead.

+++ ORIGINAL ARTICLE +++ 

Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is expected to appoint army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the next prime minister on Thursday morning. And there’s a very high degree of certainty there will be no opposition. Here’s why:

Earlier this week on Monday, the NLA passed the 2015 draft budget – which allocates a large chunk of its 2.58 trillion baht (US$81.08bn) to education and at the same time increasing military spending yet again (read our infographic break down here).

What was significantly telling was not only that 183 lawmakers voted for the budget and only three abstained (while 11 others apparently failed to show up), but the whole entire process before the actual vote:

Of the 197 members in the assembly, only 17 reserved their right to speak on the budget bill in the first reading on Monday – and none of the 17 hailed from the military. As for the so-called debate, all the NLA members did was to praise or applaud the junta or express their gratitude to the paramount leader for choosing them to sit in this honourable post.

It is not true that Thai military officers do not like speaking in public, especially since junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha spent more than an hour proposing the bill and concluding his speech.

Rubber-stamp NLA could be waste of time and money“, The Nation, August 20, 2014

It would have been both ambitious and foolish to assume that the NLA would be any kind of a legitimate legislative government body, but the utter lack of debate and high degree of kowtowing by the junta-appointed legislature further underlines that the assembly is an unnecessary House full of yes-men.

A ‘yes’ vote this morning seems a foregone conclusion:

The first step to be taken in the selection process Thursday is for NLA members to nominate a candidate or more for prime minister. (…)

If there is only one candidate, the NLA members will be called by their names in a roll-call to verbally say whether they agree with the nomination. (…)

The winning candidate must get more than half or 99 votes from the 197 NLA members.

NLA to vote for PM by roll-call“, Bangkok Post, August 20, 2014

While the role-call procedure isn’t new during a PM selection, it is highly likely that there will be a rare unanimous vote in a Thai parliament.

Speaking of rare, on Monday junta leader, showed up wearing a business suit instead of an army uniform during his long, rapid-fire address to the NLA, in which he said:

“Thai people are capable. Many of them are nearly clever but others are not so smart. We need to help each other,” he said. “Does anyone have any problems? Does anyone disapprove [of the bill]?”

NLA session ran like well-oiled Army machine“, The Nation, August 19, 2014

We all know by now that nobody disapproved, to which Prayuth quipped:

“Nobody had any problems. Nobody disagreed,” Prayuth said.

NCPO aims to avoid debt“, The Nation, August 19, 2014

According to a NLA spokesman, Gen Prayuth actually doesn’t have to give a speech or even show up at the assembly during his endorsement for prime minister (UPDATE: He actually will not be present at the NLA), as the 197 members will say ‘yes’ to his name one by one (with the possible exception of the assembly president and his two deputies).

In April 2011, a column in The Nation described Prayuth as somebody taking on too many roles, thus in the words of the author wearing too many hats:

Here are just some of the hats that Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has put on over the past few weeks: (…)

- That of a not-so-convincing denier of coup rumours: Prayuth can never be convincing on this subject because of the role he played in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. How can he, who was involved in a coup then be denying the threat now?

- That of an adviser to all Thai voters: “Vote to protect monarchy” was the instruction from Prayuth that this newspaper carried on its front page last week. He was also quoted as saying that a high turnout was the key to safeguarding the monarchy and democracy. But what if the majority of Thai voters vote for the “wrong” party? Will there be another military coup? (…) Surely, he can’t be serious.

- That of chief censor and promoter of the lese majeste law: Prayuth has ordered the Information and Communication Technology Ministry to block more websites and has told his soldiers to file lese majeste charges against red-shirt leaders for what they allegedly said during the April 10 rally. This was even before the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and police could make a move.

These are just some of the many hats that Prayuth has enjoyed wearing recently, though one can’t help but wonder if they really fit an Army chief.

An army chief who dons too many hats“, The Nation, April 20, 2011 (hyperlinks inserted by me)

Fast-forward three and a half years and a military coup later, General Prayuth today is not only wearing the proverbial hats of army chief (as he’s reaching retirement next month), of the junta leader and quite possibly the hat of Thailand’s prime minister No. 29.

And should by some oddity somebody else become prime minister today and Prayuth stays on ‘only’ as army chief and junta leader, he will still have his hands firmly on the rudder…

“Don’t worry who will be prime minister or cabinet members. Whoever they are, we can control them and ensure they can work,” Gen Prayuth said.

NLA waves through budget“, Bangkok Post, August 19, 2014

The Thai junta’s 2015 draft budget, explained in 4 graphs

20 August 2014

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 19, 2014

Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved the draft for the 2015 budget in its first reading on Monday. The body, whose members were all picked by the military junta and is thus dominated by active and retired military officers, rubber-stamped the budget bill with 183 votes and three abstentions (assumed to be the assembly president and his two deputies). Noting the lack of votes against the bill, junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha quipped: “Nobody had any problems. Nobody disagreed.”

An ad-hoc committee will screen the budget bill and it is expected to be completed by September 1 and put to a vote on September 17, all well before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. By then a new cabinet is expected to be in charge of the interim government.

The proposed 2015 budget sees a total allocation of 2.58 trillion baht (US$81.08bn) – 50bn Baht ($1.57bn) or roughly 2 per cent more than the previous budget. According to the Budget Bureau’s published draft (translated spreadsheet) from last month it breaks down like this:

Infographic: Saksith Saiyasombut – Click to see bigger image

Not only are ministries listed, but also civil servants, the bureaucratic system, provincial funds, the so-called “independent” government agencies (e.g. the obstructionist Election Commission) and many others.

As is evident above, education set to get a big chunk out of that pie chart with 498.16bn Baht ($15.66bn) being allocated to the Education Ministry, but more on that later.

But not only the Education Ministry can look forward to an increased budget as the next graph shows:

Infographic: Saksith Saiyasombut – Click to see bigger image

The increased budgets for the ministries of transport, interior and agriculture are not surprising.

On the transportation front, the junta has recently approved 741.46bn Baht ($23.3bn) for the construction of two high speed train routes from Thailand’s industry belt on the eastern coast up to the north and north-east to Chiang Rai and Nong Khai respectively. The main goal seems to be to improve freight links with China, as evidenced by the fact that neither or fthe routes will pass through the capital Bangkok.

The Interior Ministry is also in charge of many administrative issues down to the local level  (e.g. appointed provincial governors). Whether that money will be used for any decentralization efforts has yet to be seen, even though that looks very unlikely at the moment.

And with the military junta pledging to help rice farmers get the money that the toppled (elected) government’s rice subsidy scheme couldn’t pay out, the rise of the Agriculture Ministry’s budget is unsurprising. On the other end of the spectrum, the massive cut for the Finance Ministry could also be related to the rice scheme and thus a punishment of sorts by the military junta.

The loss of almost a third of the Tourism Ministry’s budget appears to be counterintuitive, as tourist arrivals are currently down 10 per cent compared to this time last year – unsurprising, given the prolonged political crisis and its (politically) violent resolution.

The next two graphs are by ThaiPublica and focus on a trend of government spending in the past decade, regardless of who is in power. Let’s start off with the education spending between 2008 until today:

Education spending 2008-2015 (in billions THB) – Infographic by ThaiPublica

As regular readers of this blog know, Thailand’s education system leaves muchto be desired and is a serious concern not only when it comes to regional competitiveness, but also – in the opinion of this author and others – one of the root causes of why Thailand has a prolonged political crisis in the first place.

Previous governments in Thailand were already spending a sizable amount of its national budget for education, but ultimately more money was thrown at the problem rather than a complete and long overdue overhaul of the curriculum.

Noteworthy is the repeated emphasis by junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to re-examine and thoroughly reform Thailand’s education system. The 498.16bn baht ($15.66 billion) are more likely to be spent to teach Thai children about the “Thai values and morals” that Gen Prayuth has been preaching and to re-enforce the archaic, militaristic attitude at Thai schools, rather than critical thinking and individuality on the part of the students.

The last graph is on military spending in the past 10 years and the trend should be quite obvious:

Military spending 2005-2015 (in billions THB) – Infographic by ThaiPublica

After the military coup of 2006 (or 2549 in the Buddhist calendar) the defense budget rose annually between 25 to 33 per cent until 2010, before levelling off in 2011-2012.

However, in a bid by Yingluck’s government to appease the military, the defense budget increased again gradually – we all know by now how well this worked out for her and her government…

Thus, it comes to no surprise that military spending has grown over 100bn Baht ($3.14bn) or 135 per cent over the last 10 years and with next year’s budget draft, the junta is adding another 5 per cent, or 193.07bn baht (US$6.07bn).

While these graphs are a good indicator about where Thailand’s military junta is putting its emphasis, what they cannot directly visualize is the character of the junta and its leader Gen Prayuth, who said that if Thailand doesn’t “purchase new weapons, then nobody will fear us”.

Prayuth also stressed that the junta only has “limited time” to govern before an eventual promised return of civilian power sometime later next year, but as stated in the interim constitution, Gen Prayuth and the junta will be calling the shots until then – and most likely beyond that, including complete control over the country’s finances and an assembly to rubber stamp it.

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