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Compulsive loquaciousness: Thai junta PM goes off script at media gala dinner

01 May 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 30, 2015

Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s keynote speech at gala dinner in front of international media representatives is yet another example of the junta leader’s unpredictable talkativeness, while his understanding of the media differs greatly from the international audience he was talking to.

Since seizing power almost a year ago, it appears that General Prayuth Chan-ocha is tirelessly working on something. Ever since the military coup of May 22, 2014, his authoritarian regime has micro-managed almost every aspect of Thai politics and more often than not also even beyond – and we’re not even talking about the numerous detainments, media censorship, rampant online surveillance or the recent expansions of the junta’s nigh-absolute powers. From the lottery system to World Cup television broadcasts to Songkran etiquette, the military junta seems to be eager to influence almost every aspect of everyday life in Thailand.

Junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth himself is mostly at the forefront of these actions and doesn’t seem to be tired of talking about it, especially on his weekly TV address. Every Friday evening he reaches out to the nation via television to speak on average almost for an hour about his government’s progress, achievements, future plans and whatever else is on his mind, mostly in a furiously fast-paced, relentlessly off-the-cuff manner (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him). These tirades are usually delivered in a patronizing “I can’t believe I have to spell it out to you” tone.

This kind of rhetoric is only exacerbated under live conditions, for example at his daily press conferences, where he constantly displays his contempt towards reporters and the media by being borderline sardonically abusive, either verbally or physically. However, the biggest verbal escalation was in March where he, visibly annoyed by the barrage of questions, quipped about “executing” critical journalists.

With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to Wednesday evening, where Gen. Prayuth, in his function as prime minister, was invited to be the headline speaker at the gala dinner of “Publish Asia 2015″, a regional summit for the newspaper industry. Given what we know about Prayuth’s fiery no-holds-barred rhetoric, the international audience was in for quite a ride…

It seems that the problems were just getting started here…

But that didn’t deter junta leader Gen. Prayuth from staying on topic – or rather straying off topic…

On his weekly TV address and the apparently low viewership, he said:

And just when you thought it was over…

But the translators were not the only apparent ‘casualties’ of that evening…

Back to Prayuth himself, he then finally realized what audience he was talking to:

This remark is particularly interesting because “Peace TV”, the satellite TV channel of the anti-junta red shirt movement has been permanently taken off the air by the authorities for “politically divisive” coverage that could “incite unrest”.

And ending on a high note…

There’s not much else to add here, other than: this is one of the rare times where Gen. Prayuth’s compulsive loquaciousness has been exposed to an international audience, who got a taste of his singularly unique trail of thoughts. Some might argue that his speech might have missed its target audience, but it’s not everyday that you get the wisdom of Uncle Knows Best – except for the Thai people that have been under his thumb for almost a year now.

P.S.: If you dare, here’s the full video of Gen. Prayuth’s speech sans translator.

Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand

16 April 2015

Originally published on Siam Voices on April 15, 2015

After half a year of vacancy, the position of US Ambassador to Thailand looks like it will be filled soon. With the nomination of experienced career diplomat Glyn Davies, it offers a glimpse into the future United States’ diplomatic relations with Thailand.

In an episode of the American TV drama ‘The West Wing’, a scene depicts how new ambassadors are welcomed in Washington, D.C.:  “I understand that you’re a sports fan?” asks the fictional president Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen. “Yes sir, Mr. President. Golf!” replies the fictitious new Thai Ambassador Tada Sumatra (who came up with that name?), both men standing in the president’s Oval Office with their respective aides. “Okay, well – golf’s not a sport. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but let’s not you and I get confused with things that men do,” rebuffs the president before proceeding with the acceptance process.

It is doubtful whether such pleasantries will be exchanged during the acceptance of the next US Ambassador to Thailand, because the current relationship between the two countries is less than cordial.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, the Thai military junta has faced a series of condemnations, diplomatic downgrades and some sanctions by Western countries, just stopping short from ostracizing Thailand from the international community amid the risk of driving the still geo-strategically important country into the arms of both China and Russia.

One of the most vocal critics against Thailand’s military rulers is the United States, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying shortly after the takeover of power that it would have “negative implications for the U.S.–Thai relationship, especially for our relationship with the Thai military,” later emphasized with the US’ suspension of military aid to Thailand worth $3.5m – in hindsight more a symbolic slap on the wrist compared to the $6.07bn military budget the junta gave itself.

Furthermore, amidst calls to either completely cancel or move it to another country in the region, the annual long-running military “Cobra Gold” exercise was scaled down this year while the preparatory meeting for next year’s drill have been indefinitely postponed.

Another sign of American discontent with the Thai junta that was widely (and incorrectly) speculated on is the ongoing lack of a US Ambassador in Bangkok. The position has been left vacant since Kristie Kenney left Thailand late last year after a tenure of nearly 3 years, during which, as Siam Voices contributor Daniel Maxwell noted back then, she managed to create a positive image as “a culturally sensitive ambassador” who was popular among a lot of Thais. This has often been attributed to her and her embassy’s successful utilization of social media. The Charges d’Affaires W. Patrick Murphy has taken over duties ever since.

The wait for a new Ambassador to Thailand looks to be coming to an end, as US President Barack Obama this week nominated Glyn T. Davies for the post.

Davies is a distinguished career diplomat with 35 years of experience, most notably as US representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the Austrian capital Vienna, and from 2012 to 2014 as Special Representative of the U.S. Secretary of State for North Korea Policy, in which he managed the American position on the controversial nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, respectively. In other words, this man knows a lot about crisis diplomacy.

People close to Davies have apparently good things to say about him, as former IAEA deputy director-general Olli Heinonen said in a 2011 Associated Press report:

“He’s a good communicator and willing to talk to adversaries,” Mr. Heinonen said. “He’s easygoing and fairly low-key but can be tough when he needs to be.”

Others describe Mr. Davies as likable, with a good sense of humor, a consummate networker, extremely committed to U.S. diplomacy but also known to show his frustration if his efforts are not working.

New U.S. envoy on N. Korea faces tough mission“, Associated Press, October 20, 2011

These personal traits should come in handy when Davies is dealing with the Thai military government. Relations between the two countries hit a low point in late January when US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel heavily criticized the authoritarian government during his visit to Thailand, provoking the junta – in a thinly-veiled case of hurt pride – to fiercely rebuke Russel’s words, summoning… erm, “inviting” US charge d’affairs Murphy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and causing Prayuth to go on a week-long verbal rampage.

Davies’ nomination could also be regarded as a sign that the United States has realized that it will be likely dealing with the military junta for a lot longer than initially anticipated, namely beyond the promised elections sometime in early 2016, while it still isn’t known in what capacity the junta will exist after that.

But whether or not Glyn Davies will become the next US Ambassador to Thailand is less up to the Thai government but more dependent on the United States Senate. More specifically, the question is whether the perpetual political gridlock can be somehow resolved, which has caused dozens of nominations for ambassadors to be stuck in political limbo waiting for confirmation, leaving over 50 countries worldwide without an American ambassador.

In other words, it’s most likely the political dysfunction in Washington D.C. that will delay the arrival of the next US Ambassador in Bangkok for his acceptance process, complete with handshakes and a little small talk – perhaps about golf?

Russian premier visits Thailand: More rubles rolling into Prayuth’s regime?

11 April 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 10, 2015

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Thailand this week was a rare and convenient foreign policy opportunity for the junta, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

It’s been a while since the red carpet has been rolled out at Bangkok Government House for a foreign leader who isn’t from an Asian country. That hiatus ended mid-week with the visit of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday.

The timing couldn’t be better for Thailand’s military junta, still yearning for some international recognition. Relations with most Western countries cooled significantly (we reported) after last year’s military takeover, led by then-army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has since installed himself as the country’s prime minister.

Since the coup, foreign criticism has been met with petulant and indignant rebuttals by the junta – more often than not from Gen. Prayuth himself – as seen with the most recent backlash against the military government’s revoking of martial law and the subsequent invocation of Article 44, which gives junta leader Gen. Prayuth nigh-absolute power.  In the latest development, soldiers have been granted permission to effectively act as law enforcement officials.

So it comes to no surprise that the junta is looking for new (and/or) old friends elsewhere, so far finding them in neighboring Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar), and – more strangely – in North Korea. Most important, though, is Thailand’s pivot towards China (we reported). Ties between the two countries – especially between its armies – have strengthened significantly with Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan traveling to Beijing for the second time since the coup this week, not only to deepen ties but also do some window shopping for military equipment.

Back in Bangkok at Medvedev’s visit, things seems to be going smoothly as well.

“When a friend is in trouble, moral support from allies is needed. Russia still chooses to be friends with Thailand today and we will ensure the bond of friendship remains tight,” Gen Prayut said. He thanked Mr Medvedev for his understanding about Thai political developments and vowed he would strengthen ties between the two countries. (…)

The two leaders witnessed the signing of 10 MOUs at Government House. Five were signed between state agencies, including energy, tourism, cultural exchange, anti-narcotics and investment.

Thai and Russian private companies signed five MOUs to strengthen cooperation in machinery engineering, navigation technology, rail infrastructure, fibreglass production and educational exchange between Moscow State Regional University and Siam Technology College.

Prayut reaches out to Moscow”, Bangkok Post, April 9, 2015

While Russian-Thai relations go back to when Tsar Nicholas II welcomed King Chulalongkorn in 1897 (more can be read here and here), ties between the two countries have not been a priority for either party over the years, especially because of the Cold War and the United States being Thailand’s long-standing ally. And despite a rather turbulent episode with the extradition of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout to the US, which left Russia fuming at the then-administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Russian ruble has been steadily rolling into Thailand since the fall of the Soviet Union.

That is mostly thanks to an influx of Russian tourists and expats, who are now ranked third as the country with the most tourists to Thailand, behind Malaysia and China. However, in 2014 the number has dropped to 1.6m tourists – a decrease of 8.6 per cent (source). But that has less to do with the Thai political crisis and more to do with Russia’s own economic woes and its tumbling ruble (partly as a consequence of international sanctions for its meddling in the Ukrainian conflict). The fall in Russian visitors has had a significant economic impact, especially in the Russian stronghold of Pattaya.

Nevertheless, both countries are optimistic about their economic outlooks, with a bilateral trade volume (officially) estimated at almost $4bn and about many potential lucrative deals: Russia could, as Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters, buy 80,000 tonnes of rubber from Thailand, thus alleviating one of the junta’s biggest commodity headaches. Also, the prospect of a Russian-Thai free-trade agreement could fill void left by the suspended talks with the European Union, much to the disappointment of European trade lobbyists in Thailand.

But more importantly, the Russians also have this to offer:

“We are feeling out the interest on the Thai side to purchase military equipment,” Russian Trade Minister Denis Manturov told Reuters in Bangkok on Wednesday. “Our friends from the Western part of the world are ignoring Thailand.” (…) Talks on defence-related sales were focused on military aircraft and related training and services, Manturov said. He declined to give details of specific deals under discussion.

Russia eyes military sales to Thailand, rubber deals“, Reuters, April 8, 2015

Unlike its direct neighbors, Thailand’s Air Force is mostly equipped with American F-16 and Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets. But in the current situation, Russia could bundle an attractive package for the Thai generals, which could also cover their long-held wish for submarines.

It should be by now obvious that a rapprochement between Russia and Thailand could – despite denials by both countries – be of geo-strategic benefit for them, given how the two are internationally spurned (albeit at completely different levels of severity and significance). The Thai military junta could always use a big country at its side for international legitimacy, that is also willing to do business and not ask pesky questions about democracy and human rights, while Russia can continue to develop its trade relations in Southeast Asia.

That said, Western countries won’t be giving up on Thailand just yet. Not if if they don’t want to leave the playing field to a geo-political rival.

While Thailand is not likely to be welcoming many foreign leaders from the West, the red carpet at Government House may be rolled out for new guests more often – although at what cost?

After martial law in Thailand, there is Article 44 – and a backlash against the junta

03 April 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 2, 2015

The removal of martial law in Thailand has not been met with relief, but with more anxiety and criticism – not only from abroad – amid fears of a descent into a fully-fledged dictatorship under Article 44, which gives the junta near-absolute power.

Television viewers in Thailand saw their regular programs interrupted Wednesday evening for an official statement. First came a statement from the Royal Gazette declaring that King Bhumibol Adulyadej had approved the removal of martial law throughout* the country, effective immediately. This was widely expected, as Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha asked the King for permission earlier this week and it was just a matter of time for it to be granted.

Martial law was declared shortly before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago on May 22, 2014. It gave the junta far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship.

“There is no need to use martial law anymore,” said the royal announcement on the evening of April 1. Thankfully it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, and what followed instead was no joke either.

On Tuesday before the announcement we already talked about Article 44 of the military-installed interim constitution that will be utilized from now on to “maintain peace and order”. The section gives prime minister Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, very far-reaching powers to issue any order to maintain what he thinks is “national security” and “public unity” for an indefinite amount of time with no political or judicial oversight.

The TV announcement Wednesday also included “Order Number 3/2558″, issued by Gen. Prayuth as head of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta formally calls itself.

The communique (which can be read in its entirety here and translated into English here) lists 14 regulations which stipulate that every military officer ranked Lieutenant or above is tasked to be a “Peace Keeping Officer” (sic!), authorized to summon and detain suspects without charge for up to seven days, seize and search properties without warrant, ban public gatherings of more than five people, and censor the media, among other actions, without any liability. (A detailed critical analysis can be read here.)

So why has martial law been lifted, when replacing it with Article 44 only strengthens the junta’s grip on power? One main reason is that martial law has discouraged a lot of tourists and foreign investment to come to Thailand.

Another argument is that martial law has been one of the main points of contention by foreign governments, as they have repeatedly called for its repeal as a first step back to democratic civilian rule. But as reactions from abroad have shown, nobody’s buying the junta’s alternative.

The European Union published a statement saying Wednesday’s orders ”does not bring Thailand closer to [a] democratic and accountable government.” A representative of the U.S. State Department expressed concern ”that moving to a security order (…) will not accomplish any of these objectives,” while calling for ”a full restoration of civil liberties in Thailand.”

But the strongest response came from Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who wrote this borderline scathing statement:

Normally I would warmly welcome the lifting of martial law – and indeed strongly advocated for it to be lifted in Thailand, (…) But I am alarmed at the decision to replace martial law with something even more draconian (…) This clearly leaves the door wide open to serious violations of fundamental human rights. I appeal to the Government to ensure that these extraordinary powers, even if provided for by the Interim Constitution, will nevertheless not be exercised imprudently.” (…)

The NCPO Order issued on Wednesday also annihilates freedom of expression.

UN Human Rights Chief alarmed by Thai Government’s adoption of potentially unlimited and “draconian” powers”, United Nations Office High Commissioner for Human Rights, April 2, 2015

This is the second strongly worded statement by the UN this week alone after they criticized Gen. Prayuth’s threat to execute reporters critical of the junta.

The Thai military government already anticipated such criticism from abroad, as for instance deputy prime minister Wissanu Kruea-ngam argued that Article 44 is “the best option” to regain international confidence while still maintaining national security. Meanwhile his colleague, deputy prime minister, former army chief and the junta’s (nominal) number two General Prawit Wongsuwan lashed out against critics, saying that “no real Thai is afraid of Article 44″, but only foreigners. His advisor Panitan Wattanayagorn urged the United Nations’ officers to “study the text carefully.” Gen. Prayuth himself on the other hand simply shrugged it off when asked by reporters.

One thing is for sure given the reactions: there’s hardly anybody that is being hoodwinked, anybody being bamboozled or anybody being led astray by this nominal change, as many see right through the junta’s gambit – if it ever was supposed to be one.

*Note: Martial law has been in effect in the provinces Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and parts of Songkhla at the South border since 2004 and is not being affected by the latest or any other previous NCPO order.

Assuming absolute control: Thai military junta revokes martial law, but…

02 April 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on April 1, 2015

UPDATE [April 1, 2015]: Martial law has been officially lifted, according to a Royal Gazette statement televised (full PDF in Thai) on Wednesday evening at around 9.40pm local Bangkok time. As widely expected, Article 44 of the interim constitution is being referred to instead along with orders for every military officer with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and above to “maintain peace” and those ranked below acting as their assistants, authorizing them to summon, detain suspects, confiscate and enter premises without a warrant. More details about Article 44 in the original story below and an English-language summary on the additional stipulations of the order can be read here by legal expert Verapat Pariyawong.

ORGINAL STORY

The good news: the Thai military junta may soon lift martial law, which has been in place for nearly a year. The bad news: it will be replaced by something worse that could give junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha much more power.

You know there’s a problem when even Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NRHC) makes a stand. The normally tepid and toothless paper tiger of a human rights watchdog criticized the military junta’s plans to replace the still ongoing martial law with something even worse.

Martial law was declared before Thai military staged a coup almost a year ago, which gives them far-reaching powers to detain people without charges, send them to military court, ban public rallies and political seminars, and impose stringent media censorship. The interim constitution was put in place shortly thereafter in July 2014.

Needless to say, the military government’s handling – or rather mishandling – of civil liberties under martial law has drawn heavy criticism, especially from many foreign countries, who demand the repeal of it.

Developments this week suggest that martial law will likely be indeed revoked. However – and this is what has alarmed the NHRC, among others – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta formally calls itself, plans to replace it with this:

Section 44. In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which undermines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, whether that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay.

Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) – Unofficial translation

In layman’s terms, the head of the junta General Prayuth Chan-ocha can issue any order he thinks is appropriate to ensure what he thinks is “national security”, ”public unity and harmony” or ”public peace and order”, without any judicial and political oversight other than to immediately report to the fully-appointed, military-dominated ersatz-parliament (the National Legislative Assembly) and the Prime Minister – who happens to be General Prayuth Chan-ocha as well. A practical and handy carte blanche.

General Prayuth himself said on Tuesday that he has asked King Bhumibol Adulyadej for permission to lift martial law. Though this is seen as something of a formality.

Ever since the hostile power takeover last May, the military government has been in tight control of nearly every aspect of the Thai political discourse (e.g. the junta’s constitutional drafters are wrapping up their work on a new full charter soon). So it is not surprising that they want to maintain that for the short and mid-term future, while at the same time trying to pacify the criticism against them by doing away one of the main issues.

The problem is that the same critics (including this blog) see right through this move and are now concerned that Article 44 gives Gen. Prayuth unprecedented, nigh absolute powers to do nearly everything and also for an indefinite amount of time, regardless of the junta’s much purported “reform roadmap” to return “true democracy” to Thailand sometime soon.

Many observers have drawn a comparison to Article 17 of the interim constitution of 1952, which contains some very uncanny parallels…

. . . whenever the Prime Minister deems it appropriate for the purpose of impressing or suppressing actions, whether of internal or external origin, which jeopardize the national security or the Throne or subvert or threaten law and order, the Prime Minister, by resolution of the Council of Ministers, is empowered to issue orders to take steps accordingly. Such orders or steps shall be considered legal.

—Article 17, Interim Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, 2502 B.E. [1952 C.E.]

From: ”Article 17, a Totalitarian Movement, and a Military Dictatorship”, by Tyrell Haberkorn, Cultural Anthropology, September 23, 2014

This section was created during the dictatorship of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958–1963) and later used frequently during the equally ruthless rule of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963–1973), both of whom authorized a total of 76 executions based on this passage.

The junta is currently busy trying to convince people that history is not going to repeat itself. The chairman of the National Legislative Assembly Pornpetch Wichitcholchai has urged the Thai people to simply ”trust” Gen. Prayuth, while the deputy PM and effectively the junta’s number two, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, has assured that the law will only be used for protection against “ill-intended elements”, and effectively told the NHRC to buzz off.

Meanwhile, his more cantankerous and (nominal) superior Gen. Prayuth had a hard time himself dispelling criticism and ended up chewing out yet another reporter at a press conference on Monday, singling out a Channel 7 journalist (an army-owned TV channel, no less) while insisting that he’s not angry – and that on heels of him quipping last week that he would “execute” critical reporters.

His promise to use the law “constructively” is to be met with skepticism, since civil liberties have taken a nosedive since the coup almost 11 months ago and Article 44 seems to be Gen. Prayuth’s catch-all solution to nearly all problems. He has already indicted that he will utilize it rather creatively, resolving issues concerning forest encroachment and apparent safety issues of Thailand-based airlines which have led several Asian countries to ban new flights after the International Civil Aviation Organisation raised concerns.

The question is not so much if Gen. Prayuth is going to (ab)use the power bestowed on him by Article 44 – the fact that he has these powers and he sees the need to still have them in the first place to cement his rule is more worrying.

To borrow a much-used phrase by a 19th-century English politician: ”Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

No laughing matter: Thai junta leader’s renewed threat to media

27 March 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 26, 2015

Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha this week warned that he has power to ‘execute’ critical reporters. Maybe this time he wasn’t joking, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

THE allegations against the four men are severe: they are accused of being in connection to an alleged ”terrorism network” plotting to launch bomb attacks in Bangkok. A blast on March 7 at the Criminal Court (where no one was injured) is being pinned on them. They were held in military barracks for almost a week without charges, in accordance with martial law that is still in force since the military coup almost a year ago.

During the detention these four men were also allegedly tortured into making false confessions, according to human rights lawyers. One suspect said he was punched, kicked and even electrocuted ”30-40 times” by soldiers during interrogations.

Unsurprisingly, the Thai military disputes these allegations as a ”distortion of facts” and army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has threatened legal action after the accusations.

That is in essence an example of how Thailand’s military junta deals with accusations and criticism leveled against them: denial and rejection – so far, so common. But that also comes with a heavy dose of self-righteous zeal to claim the ultimate sovereignty over what they constitute as the truth.

And no one defends this “truth” more vigorously than Gen. Udomdej’s army chief predecessor: General Prayuth Chan-ocha, current military junta leader and also prime minister.

Even the most casual Thai political observer is aware of Gen. Prayuth’s frequent contentious exchanges, especially with the press, in which he is at best sardonic and at worst goes on a tirades mostly ending with threats – and coming from a military man in charge of a government with wide-reaching powers, and with no one seemingly stopping him, this makes it very problematic, to say the least.

Case in point, from earlier this week:

“Our country has seen so much trouble because we have had too much democracy, unlike other countries where the government has more power to restrict freedoms,” Gen. Prayuth (…) told investors and businessmen at a conference in Bangkok today. “Even the media can’t criticize [those leaders], like they do here. I insist that today, we are 99 percent democratic, because I didn’t overthrow democracy at all.”

Gen. Prayuth continued, “I can’t even stop people from opposing me at this moment. If I genuinely had complete power, I would have imprisoned [critics] or handed them to a firing squad. It would be over, I wouldn’t have to wake up at night like this. Today there are some people who love me, but there are also many people who hate me. But please know that I am not doing this for myself. I am here to work for the country.”

Junta Leader Blames Thai Crisis on ‘Too Much Democracy’”, Khaosod English, March 23, 2015

It gets even worse later this week, when Gen. Prayuth had yet another episode in which he scolded reporters for a particularly (from his perspective) annoying question that quickly escalated into a rant accusing everyone not thankful enough for the “freedoms” he permits to criticize him and the junta. But then it deteriorated even more after reporters asked what would happened to media outlets stepping out of line, to which he said this:

“We’ll probably just execute them,” said Prayuth, without a trace of a smile, when asked by reporters how the government would deal with those that do not adhere to the official line.

“You don’t have to support the government, but you should report the truth,” the former army chief said, telling reporters to write in a way that bolsters national reconciliation in the kingdom.

Thai PM Prayuth warns media, says has power to execute reporters”, Reuters, March 25, 2015

He went on to target specific outlets like Matichon by literally pointing at copies of their newspapers and lambasting their coverage (which you can read here in a transcript of the whole tirade by Khaosod English that is – for a lack of a better word – just amazingly mind-boggling).

If there’s still any doubt about what kind of man and what kind of mentality we are dealing with here, then there’s your answer! This is a man ruling a regime under which dissent is outlawed and the media is under constant surveillance.

In an ironically tone-deaf incident, earlier on the same day, Gen. Prayuth he blasted Channel 3 journalist Thapanee Ietsrichai for her investigative report into the inhumane slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats (coinciding with a similar investigation by the Associated Press following similar reports by The Guardian and Global Post in recent years) for the damaging the country’s reputation and summoned to explain herself to the authorities.

As amusing (and admittedly cathartic) as it is to laugh and ridicule the general’s verbal outbursts and this junta’s ineptitude to deal with criticism (as we have extensively chronicled it), it’s no laughing matter and perhaps we should stop treating it as such.

Maybe we should stop portraying Prayuth’s outbursts as amusing one-note anecdotes about somebody’s public anger issues, but rather as the dangerously misguided delusions of somebody who knows no other way to exert power than by abusive force – and more worryingly, is in a situation and position powerful enough to actually do it.

Gen. Prayuth’s mere mention of considering the use of execution against critical journalists – twice, no less! – crosses yet another line after so many other lines have been already crossed. Maybe it is time for others to take Thailand’s plight under the military junta more seriously.

ThaiMiniCult’s newest puritan crusade targets underboob selfies

20 March 2015

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 19, 2015

The "appropriate" display of female breasts, according to an actual banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture in 2010.

The far more “appropriate” display of female breasts, according to a banner on the Thai Ministry of Culture’s website in 2010.

Thailand’s overzealous cultural watchdogs made international headlines again this week, and as usual for entirely the wrong reasons. This time, they have targeted yet another apparent online phenomenon:

Thailand’s military government warned women on Monday against posting ‘selfie’ photos of the lower half of their breasts – a social media trend that has gone viral – saying their actions could violate the country’s computer crime laws.

Thailand’s 2007 Computer Crimes Act bans any material that causes “damage to the country’s security or causes public panic” or “any obscene computer data which is accessible to the public”.

The culture ministry said offenders faced up to five years in jail, but did not say how they would identify the culprits.

“When people take these ‘underboob selfies’ no one can see their faces,” ministry spokesman Anandha Chouchoti told Reuters. “So it’s like, we don’t know who these belong to, and it encourages others to do the same.

“We can only warn people to not take it up. They are inappropriate actions.”

Thais warned against taking ‘underboss selfies’“, Reuters, March 16, 2015

Yes, (regular readers know what’s coming next) the self-proclaimed cultural heralds of everything “Thainess” we usually call ThaiMiniCult are once again setting out on their puritan crusade again to safeguard sanctimonious sanctity of what’s appropriate and what’s not.

And even though there’s no concrete evidence that the “underboob” selfies have gotten ahold in the Thai online community, as Yupa Taweewattanakijbaworn admitted to Thai Rath, the director of the ThaiMiniCult’s Culture Surveillance Center nevertheless insisted almost step-motherly that, “Thai culture [as a whole] doesn’t approve public display of scantily clothed [people] anyways.”

Predictably, this (non-)incident was picked up by the international media rather quickly (and due to the fact that an international news agency like Reuters actually wrote about it), further making a mockery of the ruling authoritarian military junta, which has already a tough time to promote itself and its “values” – let alone to foreigners. However, this open vigor by the ThaiMiniCult is not a new occurrence and popped up even before the current military government.

As previously with Buddhist tattoos on foreign skins, mediocre foreign TV-sketches, and whatever that short-lived ‘planking’-meme was, Thai authorities – and especially their colleagues at the Ministry of Culture – always see the need to combat these with a threat to use the law to their fullest possible punishment. It doesn’t make it any better when the law they are citing to clamp down possible offenders with – when these acts of perceived cultural indecencies are made online (and, much to the apparent annoyance of the Thai authorities, anonymously) – is the Computer Crimes Act, which we’ve lambasted in its current and very likely future form.

Also, long-time Siam Voices readers will have noticed by now, most episodes of ThaiMiniCult’s outrage involve the public display of female breasts one way or the other. The most infamous case goes back as far as 2011 when the then-Culture Minister called for a public witch hunt after an online video emerged showing women dancing topless in the streets during the Songkran new year holidays – only then to find out the women were underaged.

Back then, author and Siam Voices contributor “Kaewmala” said in an interview with this author that Thai society “needs to get real” with sexuality and stop hiding behind a “taboo only when it’s inconvenient or causes embarrassment.” In a later article on this blog, she said that the Thai cultural heralds have pathological “mammophobia”. The underlying theme of sexual hypocrisy in Thailand was also picked up by Siam Voices contributor Thitipol Panyalimpanun, who recently wrote that “Thailand put itself into this struggle by positioning itself as noble society.”

It is this holier-than-thou-attitude by the self-proclaimed Thai cultural heralds that leaves easily mockable, mostly because of their overzealousness in protecting whatever their one solid vision of “Thainess” entails, but also their argumentative inconsistency. In an online post that mercilessly mocks this brouhaha, while the ThaiMiniCult has an apparent problem with “underboob” selfies, it hasn’t gawked at Thai magazine and newspaper covers featuring otherwise barely covered female breasts – and never mind that infamous banner (see above) the ThaiMiniCult itself had on their website in 2011…

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