Junta backtracks on plans to bottleneck Thailand’s internet traffic through a single gateway after online backlash
Imagine this: you are being awarded for something you haven’t done but you go to the reception gala anyway because it’s too tempting to miss the limelight. That’s what happened last Tuesday in New York, when Thai military Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha – during his week at the United Nations’ General Assembly – received the “ICTs in Sustainable Development Award” by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s IT and telecommunication agency.
Alongside nine other countries, the ITU awarded ”Thailand’s ICT Policy Framework” as ”an exemplary model for the development of an effective telecommunications/ICT Regulatory environment,” according to a statement on the ITU website, listing off several ICT policies that have happened over the past 15 years under various governments – in other words, well before then-army chief Gen. Prayuth launched the military coup of May 22, 2014, toppling the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The statement also highlighted the ”National ICT Master Plan”, a policy blueprint introduced in 2002 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (Yingluck’s brother) that also saw the creation of the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT). It’s that same MICT plus the current cabinet that made headlines for all the wrong reasons again in the past few weeks, as a proposal to control Thailand’s internet traffic by introducing a single gateway was made public.
The public response was unsurprisingly negative. Thailand’s internet-savvy population feared not only even more online censorship and content filtering under military rule, but also a decrease in the speed and stability of Thailand’s internet infrastructure, since all traffic would be squeezed through said single gateway.
And in a rare display of civil disobedience and dissent against the military junta, internet users hit back on Wednesday evening:
To express dissent – and highlight the vulnerability of government systems – a community of online gamers opposed the government’s plan to police all internet traffic knocked offline websites of several state agencies, including the telecommunication ministry.
No sophisticated hacking seemed involved. Instead it was conducted using a simple yet reliable method to cripple targeted web servers. Activists circulated messages on Facebook last night urging supporters to mass-click and refresh the websites of specific government agencies at 10pm in what proved a successful bid to bring down services – a common method known as a distributed denial of service attack, or DDoS.
“Today after 10pm, people who are united to oppose the single gateway system will launch a symbolic attack by method of DDoS, which is a symbolic method [of expression], since it is a method that everyone with a mobile phone and internet can do,” the post reads. “It is a demonstration of the power of the people.”
“Cyber Activists Bring Down Govt Sites to Protest ‘Single Gateway’“, Khaosod English, October 1, 2015
During the night from Wednesday to Thursday, practically every website ending with a ”.go.th”-domain was targeted and at least seven government websites went offline amidst the constant barrage of mass refreshes, among them the MICT itself, the Ministry of Defense, the Government House, the military’s Internal Security Operations Command and the state-owned telecommunication companies TOT and CAT Telecom.
Thai government websites are comparatively easy targets, loaded with malware, generally unstable and using a form-over-function-approach to design (read: copious amounts to crude flash animations). The MICT website was reportedly accessed 100,000 times on Wednesday night alone compared to the daily average of 6,000 – the takedowns were a clear warning shot not to mess with a population that’s not only very active online, but also seems to have better IT capabilities.
— Kaewmala (@Thai_Talk) October 1, 2015
Nevertheless, as the websites slowly came back online Thursday, officials were scrambling to control the damage, both virtually and publicity-wise. And this is where things got even muddier. Newly-appointed ICT minister Uttama Savanayana reiterated that the single gateway is still just an idea at this point and the government will ”never restrict or interfere” with the internet access and freedom of its citizens. Furthermore he called the public to stop calling the proposal ”single gateway”, despite the fact that that word showed up several times in the original cabinet orders.
Apart from Uttama, other officials cited more, often contradictory reasons for the Thai military government to look into a ”single gateway”. The whole range goes from…
…”filtering and blocking unwanted content”…
The plan to reduce internet gateways was initially proposed by Pol Gen Somyos Pumpanmuang, the chief of the Royal Thai Police, in June 2015. He reasoned that through a single gateway system, it will be much easier for the state authorities to monitor, filter, delete, and intercept information on the internet that could be deemed inappropriate.
”Thai authorities to step up surveillance via ‘single internet gateway’”, Prachatai English, September 23, 2015
…to ”improving IT business”…
(…) Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom (…) and the vice president of the NBTC (…) admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.
The general, however, said that the primary purpose is actually increase the competitiveness of the IT sector in Thailand (…)
”Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015
…to “saving costs”…
ICT Minister Uttama Savanayaya told reporters that it was a misunderstanding that the project was about national security; rather he said it was purely an economic measure simply to reduce Internet access costs and ISPs could use the single gateway or not as they choose. It would also free up ISPs from security costs as the government would take care of IT security on their behalf.
”Thai ICT minister defends single gateway initiative”, TelecomAsia, September 25, 2015
…”anticipating cyber threats”…
[PM’s Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana] said the measure was being studied because the government anticipated several types of cyber threats, including hacking of government’s websites and spreading of rumors and false information to discredit various institutions.
”Suwaphan says govt studies single Internet gateway to prevent cyber threats”, The Nation, October 1, 2015
…and finally to ”won’t somebody please think about the children?!”
“The prime minister is worried about children and young people who use technologies and the internet without an appropriate framework or scope, and he has asked related agencies to come up with measures,” he said.
”ICT minister vows to ‘never curb rights’”, Bangkok Post, October 1, 2015
No matter what the reasons are and even if the officials eventually get their stories straight, the Thai military government seemingly has underestimated the public’s response to the single gateway plans. However, this won’t stop the junta’s efforts to monitor, filter and censor any online content it sees as a threat to its narrative. As highlighted last week, this is not the only measure or proposal concerning IT policies and the biggest of them all, the Cyber Law bills, are not yet even passed.
As the United Nations have declared unrestricted access to the internet and freedom of expression online a human right in a 2011 resolution, the Thai military government is already running afoul of this principle and would do so even more if it actually realizes all of its proposals.
h/t to several readers
Thai police are confident that they have arrested the main suspect in the deadly Erawan Shrine bombing – just in time for a certain official…
IT’S an equation with many unknown variables that the Thai police have been dealing with since August 17, when the deadly bomb attack at Bangkok’s popular Erawan Shrine killed 20 and injured over 100 people, followed the next day by a similar attempted bomb attack at Sathorn pier in which nobody was harmed.
The investigation started off slowly and the authorities were caught as much off-guard as most observers, since the scale and severity of the attack didn’t fit with any domestic groups that oppose the Thai military government. With only some grainy CCTV footage, dozens of witness accounts and many arrest warrants against unknown men, Thai authorities often contradicted themselves in their hunt for the perpetrators.
Two weeks after the bombing, the police arrested Mohammed Bilal (aka ”Adem Karadag”, the name in a fake Turkish passport he was carrying), and Yusufu Mieraili, identified as a Chinese Uighur from Xinjiang province. Despite initial reluctance, the focus was swiftly put on the Uighur angle. Members of the ethnic minority from western China often have to flee abroad from state persecution. In July the Thai military government deported about 100 Uighur refugees to China amidst international protest and in what is being widely regarded as the military junta cozying up to Beijing.
After several weeks of more contradictory police statements, from more fruitless accusations (the police implicated 17 suspects in total), suspects having already fled the country, to the Turkish embassy strongly denying having been ever been contacted by Thai police, the police suddenly turned to their first arrest Mohammed Bilal (aka Adem Karadag) as their main suspect after reviewing CCTV footage, again. Despite initially denying the allegations (his lawyer says that he came to Thailand days after the bomb attack), it was reported that both he and Mieraili confessed to involvement, with the former being the one who planted the bomb at the shrine.
Following the weekend, as both prime suspects have been paraded around in public crime re-enactments (again!), Thai national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung concluded with certainty on Monday that Mohammed Bilal is the main suspect behind the deadly Bangkok bombing of August 17, 2015. As for the motives, Thai police said this:
“This case is conclusive,” said Royal Thai Police commissioner-general Somyot Poompanmoung. “The perpetrators are part of a human smuggling network” in retribution for the Thai government’s crackdown on a human trafficking network.
However, Somyot and other top officials clarified the group was likely hired by others and links to vested political interests could not be ruled out. Authorities have given few clues about other political motivations for the attack, however outside analysts have suggested it could be linked to the country’s internal political divisions.
Detonators, ball bearings and other evidence recovered from the debris around the shrine and an alleged second bombing attack at a pier match materials found in two raided apartments, police told reporters at a Monday briefing.
“Thai Police: Foreign Suspects Confess to Bombings“, Voice of America, September 28, 2015
Not only are Thai authorities blaming human traffickers for the attack, but are also introducing a domestic angle by implicating a militant member of the red shirts, the group aligned with the former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, both toppled in military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
Min Buri is also where a bomb exploded in 2014 during the height of anti-government street protests, killing two men transporting it by motorcycle. Police said that bomb was partly made by Yongyuth Pobkaew, who was previously given a suspended, one-year sentence for a 2010 bombing which killed four people northwest of Bangkok in Nonthaburi province.
Thai authorities have alleged a radical cell of the Redshirt movement was behind both incidents. Police said Yongyuth purchased materials used for the Erawan Shrine bombing. A warrant for his arrest was issued on Friday but police said his whereabouts were unknown. (…)
Speaking at today’s televised press conference, police chief Somyot also told reporters that domestic Thai politics could not be ruled out as a motive. “We cannot rule out politics,” he said. “We are not falsely accusing anyone here. My words are based on evidence.”
“Police Link Bomb Attack to Uighurs, Deep South and Thai Politics“, Khaosod English, September 28, 2015
Evidence that we still have yet to see, as Somyot is about to retire later this week as National Police Chief, handing over the job to his successor Pol.-Gen. Chakthip Chaijinda (rumored to have been chosen by the even-more-hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan).
Thai police are patting themselves on the back – since they are also cashing 3m Thai Baht ($84,000) in reward money meant for the public following the arrest of Karadag – just days before their chief’s retirement, considering the case to be solved while still leaving lingering doubts unanswered. The authorities have consistently avoided calling the deadly attack an act of terrorism, partly so as not to scare away even more tourists, as many foreign nationals are among the victims. And whether or not criminals – who mostly operate well hidden from the public – were behind the bombings as a direct “revenge” on the military government’s crackdown on human traffickers (triggered by a discovery of a mass grave earlier this year) also remains to be seen.
In a country under military rule and a notoriously corrupt police force, the investigation of the worst attack in the history of Bangkok was largely undermined by constant contradictions being spouted and the lack of transparency displayed by the authorities (and then harrying the media for highlighting their discrepancies). Public confidence is unlikely to increase after the latest developments, as the Thai police are seemingly trying to square the circle with their suspicion on the perpetrators behind the bomb attack. The equation remains with many variables, waiting to be resolved.
Plans by the Thai military government to restrict the country’s internet traffic through a single gateway has raised concerns not only in the IT community, but among a public who fear authorities will easily be able to control what they can see and what they can not.
It seems that outages of major online platforms have had some unfortunate timing lately. Shortly after the Thai military launched last year’s coup – the country’s 12th – Facebook was suddenly not accessible for anyone in Thailand. While the period offline was no longer than a hour, the outcry by its over 30 million users nationwide was loud, suspecting an online shutdown by the new rulers in order to clamp down on dissenting voices.
Fast forward this past Thursday night: another Facebook outage, and similar outcry – only this time those were heard around the world as the site itself was down for a couple of minutes for everybody. But again some Thai users might have been startled by this incident, as it happened shortly after news emerged that the Thai military government wants to siphon all incoming internet traffic through a single gateway – effectively emulating China’s ”Great Firewall” in order to filter unwanted content.
The idea was conceived by the military government right after it took over power last year (among other ideas like a national social network), but it wasn’t until August this year that things were set in motion:
On 4 Aug. the military government approved the plan, and on 27 Aug. issued an order to the ministry tasked with regulating the internet to make it happen, according to cabinet meeting records.
“The Ministry of Information Communication Technology is hereby instructed to speed up the aforementioned issue and report any progress to the prime minister by September 2015,” read the 27 Aug. cabinet minutes of the gateway project.
”Junta Readies ‘Great Firewall of Thailand’”, Khaosod English, September 24, 2015
Furthermore, Thai netizens recently discovered a related cabinet resolution from June 30, ordering the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology (MICT) to report what laws need to amended in order to realize a single gateway and report back by September 4.
Amidst these revelations, Thai authorities were forced to justify these plans and ultimately revealed the primary purpose of the gateway:
According to BBC Thai Service, Gen Settapong Malisuwan, the president of CAT telecom under the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) and the vice president of the NBTC, on Thursday, 24 September 2015, admitted one of the purposes of implementing the single internet gateway system is to filter information and ‘inappropriate’ online materials from overseas.
(…) the CAT president added that national security is also one of the underlying reasons to the plan in order to make it easier for the state to crackdown on cyber crimes, saying that even the US has implemented such system.
”Single internet gateway increases IT capacity and national security: Thai authorities”, Prachatai English, September 24, 2015
The NTBC vice president further defended in the same interview with BBC Thai the proposal, saying that it would actually ”increase” the competitiveness of Thailand’s IT sector against its neighbors, providing ”incentives” for private internet operators to log onto what it euphemistically calls a ”digital hub”, seeing itself as the center of Southeast Asia’s online connectivity.
From a business standpoint, it’s doubtful how you could increase competitiveness by bottlenecking all of Thailand’s online traffic, effectively risking to cripple broadband speed, and also making state-owned CAT Telecom the sole monopolizing gatekeeper again, harkening back to the early days of Thailand’s internet connections.
Though, what dominates in the arguments by the authorities is the emphasis on ”national security”, the need to monitor internet content and to censor it when they feel it’s necessary. While that mentality has often been expressed by several MICT officials under different governments (see here, here, here and here) in the past, this has become the leading doctrine in the Thai military government’s IT policy.
Under the military junta, the media are under its watch (especially online), it has blocked more than 200 websites deemed a threat to national security (source) – and has ordered internet providers to censor on sight – and reportedly also procured software to intercept encrypted SSL-connections and additional hacking and surveillance software – all that solely to go after Thais that are dissenting against the junta. Last week, the outspoken journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk was detained by the military for a second ‘attitude adjustment’ reportedly for a critical Facebook post (shortly after his release, he has been forced out at The Nation newspaper). In August, a military court sentenced two Thai Facebook users to a record 30 and 28 years in prison respectively for allegedly insulting the monarchy online.
Furthermore, the Thai military government is in process of passing its so-called cyber laws, a set of bills aimed officially at “preparing Thailand for the digital economy”. But it also includes passages that enables widespread online surveillance, prosecution against intermediaries (e.g. website owners) and more legal uncertainty, benefitting the state more than Thai online users. The single internet gateway is very much in line with the Thai military government’s hawkish policies, as it also wants to conquer the cyberspace as well.
UPDATE [Sep 15, 2015 – 17:35h local Bangkok time]: Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk as well as former Pheu Thai Party MPs Pichai Naripthaphan and Karun Hosakul have been released from military detention.
Two opposition politicians and a journalist are among a new wave of detainments by Thailand’s military government. A sign of things to come?
“Freedom can’t be maintained if we’re not willing to defend it.” That’s what Pravit Rojanaphruk tweeted on Sunday afternoon before his feed went unusually silent. On Monday he was reported to have been detained by the military government to undergo what it calls “attitude adjustment”. The journalist for ‘The Nation’ newspaper, known for his outspokenness in his articles and on social media alike, seemed to know what was coming, tweeting on Saturday:
He is now at an undisclosed army base, without access to a lawyer. It is unknown how long he will be held and also initially why. This has sparked a flurry of criticism against Pravit’s detention. Whether it’s from his newspaper ‘The Nation‘, its parent company, the Thai Journalists’ Association, or international organizations like the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand and Reporters Without Borders – all have condemned the arbitrary action by the military junta and called for his immediate release. The Nation Group’s editor-in-chief Thepchai Yong said: “There is no justification whatsoever for his detention. If the military believes he has done something wrong, there are normal legal channels to deal with it.”
This was not the first involuntary visit to the generals for Pravit, as he was summoned three days after the military coup of May 22, 2014 among hundreds of politicians and other dissidents (see photo below). Following his six days in custody, he described the ordeal as “surreal” in an interview with Asian Correspondent. While the facilities at the army camp were reportedly comfortable and all detainees were treated respectfully – at times even “cordially” – Pravit suspected that it was all part of “psychological warfare” by the military and that his group were treated better than others. Furthermore, he said military officers attempted to gain information on other persons, including academics and foreign journalists, that are perceived to be critical of the Thai military. Pravit, like many other former detainees, are reportedly under regular observation by the authorities since their release.
Spokesmen for the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the military junta formally calls itself, released statements in a piecemeal fashion over the course of Monday explaining Pravit’s detainment, first saying that the journalist “disseminated information” in a fashion that could cause “misunderstanding” – a standard claim to shut down any criticism against the military rulers – while at the same time admitting that there has been no such proof yet. Then, another spokesman stated that the main reason for Pravit to be taken into custody was a “provocative and decisive” Facebook post, but stopped short of specifying which one and why. Because it was a Facebook post, the junta makes the
pedantic distinction that Pravit was summoned “as an individual, not as a journalist”. The same spokesman also estimates that he “may be detained from three to seven days” and is expected to sign an agreement with the junta again not to violate their orders or otherwise be charged with sedition.
Pravit’s ordeal is the latest in a new string of detainments as two politicians of the toppled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party – namely former energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan and former MP Karun Hosakul – are being held at undisclosed locations by the for almost a week now after both men were vocally critic of the military government’s policies. The NCPO says they will be released later this week after the necessary “attitude adjustment” (in case of Pichai his seventh) required to make them “stop making remarks” deemed harmful to the military’s “national reconciliation” efforts. Earlier this month, authorities revoked the passport of former education minister Chaturon Chaisang, who also criticized the military government.
These incidents come at a peculiar time for the military junta, which has refrained from mass-scale summons this year, relatively speaking (they are still regularly targeting grassroots anti-junta activists). However, as the recently rejected constitution draft has effectively extended the military’s authoritarian rule by at least another 7 months and democratic elections are delayed to as late as June 2017 (one and a half years later than promised after the coup), the generals seem to be even more sensitive of criticism. Deputy junta Prime Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan has warned that anybody “slandering” the NCPO will be “called into army camp”, as “now is not the time” for that.
Junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha – who’s about to leave for the United Nation’s General Assembly in order to make the international community “know him better” – further emphasized the government’s low-to-zero tolerance stance last week, lashing out at journalists in his usual mercurial and sardonic demeanor, and threatening to silence every critic by jailing them “again and again”. “I’m just going to tape their mouths shut,” he added – just like second time-detainee and journalist Pravit did to himself before his first “attitude adjustment”.
As investigations around the Bangkok deadly bomb attacks continue, the Thai police paraded a main suspect around the scene of the blast in a public reenactment. But why is this odd practice still being carried out?
You wouldn’t notice that not too long ago something happened here at this busy intersection in central Bangkok. That’s how cleaned up and restored the popular Erawan Shrine looks like after a deadly bomb attack on August 17 killed 20 people and injured 150. Three and a half weeks later, the Thai police are still hunting for perpetuators of the crime but believe that they have closed in on them.
Despite the rushed reopening of the shrine and an investigation full of contradictions and controversy (most notably the police rewarding themselves the investigation money), the authorities are claiming to have a direction in the search for the culprits and have issued multiple arrest warrants, including who police think is the ‘main organizer’ of the bomb attack.
Thai authorities have also made two arrests within a short period of time: an unknown foreigner on August 29 in an apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok and another man named by Thai police as Yusufu Mieraili, a Chinese national arrested in an attempt to cross the border into Cambodia on September 1 (we reported). The latter was initially presented as the “main suspect”, but later Thai officials admitted that Mieralli is “a conspirator”, meaning the bomber himself (depicted in CCTV footage and police sketches as a young man in a yellow t-shirt), who left the backpack with the explosive device at the shrine, still remains at large.
Nevertheless, Thai police are certain that they have made significant progress with these two arrests (hence why probably the police rewarded the investigation money to themselves despite the ongoing investigations), which explains why they – with the second suspect and droves of media members in tow – came back to Ratchaprasong Intersection on Wednesday morning, the very same crime scene of the bomb attack, to conduct a long-used, yet questionable staple of Thai police work: the public crime reenactment.
Like the reenactment on Tuesday at an apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok, suspect Mieraili was paraded around the area at Ratchaprasong Intersection and Hua Lamphong railway station, retracing his steps he allegedly made on August 17 before, during and after the deadly bomb attack (including handing over the backpack with the bomb to the main suspect). All that happened in public accompanied by a large contingent of police officers, photographers and cameramen.
With the investigation still ongoing and no conviction made in the Bangkok bombing case, why are Thai police still resorting to this very public and, for some, seemingly bizarre method of ‘fact-finding’?
While public crime reenactments are common police procedure in Thailand, albeit usually not at this scale, its effectiveness has been questioned for a while now, despite police officers insisting on its “necessity” for the authorities themselves and also for the public:
A Metropolitan Police specialist said a re-enactment is important for an investigation because each criminal or each gang behaves differently in committing a crime. Details on how criminals commit each crime help the police understand the pattern of a crime. This can help them track down other criminals showing the same behaviour pattern and help reduce the loss of life and property.
Crime re-enactments must be kept for future investigation, he said.
“Legal experts query need for crime re-enactment“, The Nation, June 17, 2014
What is presented here as an argument for collecting intelligence on criminal activity is in reality more a sideshow: during an reenactment, the suspect mostly is instructed by the police to act out how they think the crime took place, practically ‘directing’ the suspects like a movie director regardless whether they’re guilty or not.
Such scenes took place for example in the reenactment of the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao last year (we reported) – another high-profile police investigation overshadowed by doubt – where the two main suspects were brought to the crime scene to confirm the officials’ version. And bizarrely, two foreign journalists among the accompanying media were asked to stand in for the victims.
Bizarrely asked to be “David Miller” in Thai police reconstruction on Koh Tao. Refused. Sky News lady took “Hannah” role.
— Jonah Fisher (@JonahFisherBBC) October 3, 2014
It is these perceived conclusions the police are drawing from these reenactments that is being criticized by rights activists:
Top human rights lawyer and chairman of Amnesty International Thailand Somchai Hom-laor said criminal suspects should be treated as innocent until proven otherwise by the courts, adding that the re-enactment of crime, which often sees an angry mob attacking the suspect, is contradictory to the rule of law and the justice process.
“The re-enactment of crime is like reinforcing that the person has committed crime,” said Somchai, adding that going soft on angry mobs, who seek to physically attack suspects during the re-enactment, is tantamount to encouraging “private vendettas”, which contravene the justice system.
“Acting out crimes is necessary: police“, The Nation, July 4, 2013
Indeed, the main credo of the Thai justice system for the accused seems to be in many cases ”guilty until proven innocent”. In the case of Bangkok bombing suspect, it didn’t help that for some inexplicable reason he was wearing a yellow t-shirt (see photo above) – like the bomber in the CCTV footage – under a bulletproof vest during the reenactments.
These reenactments are normally done after a suspect has confessed of his or her crime – which is noteworthy since Yusufu Mieraili reportedly made one in the apparent absence of any legal representation for him. But in court that shouldn’t matter anyways according to the law:
For criminal cases liable to over five years imprisonment, the court will not consider suspects’ testimony during police investigations, whether confessions or denials. A confession is not enough for conviction and police must provide evidence to prove that suspects committed a crime. If a suspect reverses his confession during a trial, then the re-enactment is meaningless […]
“Legal experts query need for crime re-enactment“, The Nation, June 17, 2014
So, if these reenactments have no weight in court, why are police still doing them anyways?
One possible answer could be the media presence at these events, as police officers often invite them to witness the procedure. In general, the relationship between the Thai media and police can at times result from oddities in form of ad-vertabim crime/police reports to downright ethically questionable actions, such as the premature publication of the victim’s identity. Regardless of the presence of any substantial and hard evidence or the progress of the investigation itself, Thai authorities want to be seen in command, proactive and knowledgable, which not only often results in contradictions, but also what essentially boils down to ritualized PR theatrics such as the public crime reenactment or the also popular victim-pointing-at-the-suspect-at-a-press-conference (this particular incident ended with the victim assaulting her alleged attacker).
Nearly a month after what’s described as the worst attack in Bangkok, Thai authorities are undeniably under high pressure to show results of their ongoing investigation. But it’s high profile cases like these where Thai authorities are sometimes showing results not to resolve a crime but just for the sake of it.
UPDATE (11.00 AM, Sunday, September 6, 2015):
The National Reform Council has REJECTED the constitutional draft with 134 to 105 votes and 7 abstentions. A new constitution has to be drafted and thus a whole new process with an all new committee is set in motion, while the whole timetable to possible future elections will be delayed by at least 6 months. The Thai military junta and the interim constitution (incl. the catch-all Article 44) will still stay in power in the meantime to at least roughly early 2017.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE (Published earlier Sunday morning before NRC vote)
One could say that it’s a sign of dedication if you’re coming to work on a Sunday. Others would say that they have no other choice – which is rather ironic since the very reason they’re currently convening this morning (as of of writing) is about a vote.
The National Reform Committee (NRC) is coming together this Sunday morning to deliberate and vote on the draft for Thailand’s next constitution, a crucial step that decides the political direction of the foreseeable future in the country.
Since the beginning of the year, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) has been busy penning the country’s charter No. 20 after the previous 2007 version (enacted after the military coup of 2006) was suspended after the military coup of May 2014. They were so busy in fact that they needed another month to put on the finishing touches.
Despite all the polish and trimming (from a 315 article behemoth to ‘just’ 285), there are many members of the NRC who are not entirely happy with many of its contents and have already voiced their opposition to it. Does this mean a possible bump in the road back to democracy in Thailand and a sign of trouble for the military junta (which has appointed all NRC members, by the way), which has kept the whole political discourse strictly in line until now?
The answer is rather simple: it doesn’t really matter for them either way!
On one hand, a positive outcome for the draft would constitutionally enshrine the undemocratic nature of the junta’s ‘reforms’ to Thai politics that enables non-elected elements to intervene any elected government at almost any time. One of these clauses is the recently added Article 260, the “Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation” – a euphemism for a politburo-style executive committee co-existing for five years alongside an elected government (still with a 4-year term limit) with powers to take over at anytime in a yet-to-be-defined ‘crisis’ situation. Also, this and other bodies would be created to deter any substantial constitutional amendments that could dismantle these bodies.
On the other hand, a ”no” vote would also come in handy for the military junta since the timetable for this whole drafting process – which took round about 8 months – would start anew as stipulated in the interim constitution. We have pointed out several times that an endless loop of drafting and rejecting would technically be possible and this legislative limbo would be the junta’s Groundhog Day. In other words, the military government would be able to prolong their direct rule.
Either way, the stakes are incredibly low for the military junta.
Also, if the NRC members were really concerned about the undemocratic nature of the draft, they wouldn’t and shouldn’t have agreed to take part in this kabuki theater, as this process only creates the illusion of choice and proper process.
Same goes for the public referendum (in case this draft gets passed) scheduled early next year, which decides when (or rather if) the next election is going to be held. But the people’s choice itself could seemingly become a moot point, since the junta’s law experts ‘just’ happen to discover that it is seemingly nearly impossible to even reach a minimum quota of positive votes for the constitution draft thanks to the wording in the interim constitution, unless that hole get patched pretty soon. And even if everything goes smoothly up until that point, the latest suggestion for new elections is for the end of 2016, which is a whole year later than what the junta originally promised.
Either way, we’ll soon know more about where Thailand’s political future goes next – until that most people would have likely woken up on this Sunday morning.
ConstitutionNet: Last minute add-on to Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Crisis Committee or the long arm of the military
“If I were a woman I would fall in love with his excellency.”
Those flattering words were spoken by General Thanasak, until recently Foreign Minister of the Thai military government, who expressed his adoration for the Chinese Premier at an ASEAN security forum in early August. His counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, stood next to him looking somewhat embarrassed, not knowing what to say. Some would regard this open adoration as a sign of blooming relations between the two countries. After Thailand’s ties to Western countries soured since its 2014 military coup, it quickly pivoted towards China. The statement regarding the Chinese premier also underlines something else: the desire of the Thai military government to assert a more rigid and streamlined control of governance. Reading between the lines, General Thanasak’s praise for China’s “excellency” also pays regard to its form of governance in general. China’s politburo – the supreme policy-making body of the Communist party overseeing governance – has long been criticized for its level of stricture and unrepresentativeness; yet Thai constitution drafters have openly mooted the idea to implement something similar.
Following the military coup in May 2014, the generals who instigated the movement have been looking to cement their vision of a “reformed” democracy. They preach a system free from corruption, cronyism and imbalance; yet they continue to commit these very acts themselves. The junta that formally calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has taken firm control over the political discourse. It has outlawed public gatherings, detained dissenting opponents, and enforced a high degree of media scrutiny and online surveillance. It also oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO unilaterally appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC).
The CDC has worked hard since the beginning of 2015 to draw up a new constitution with the hope that this will be the last one for the foreseeable future. While the draft was originally scheduled to be completed by late July, the CDC was granted a 30-day extension to clarify certain aspects of the constitution. The draft, reduced from 315 to 285 articles, was forwarded to the NRC, which will vote on its adoption in September 5. If the vote outcome is positive, the draft constitution will then be subject to a nationwide referendum in early 2016. This may or may not pave the way for elections sometime at the end of 2016 – a whole year later than what the military junta originally promised. Regardless in which form the draft will be enacted, Thailand’s twentieth constitution could deeply transform the country’s political landscape and have lasting negative consequences due to the changes severely hobbling the powers of elected officials to govern.
Crisis Panel: Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation
Certain features proposed in the constitutional draft, such as the new electoral system or the pre-vetted Senate, have previously been discussed on ConstitutionNet. Additionally, a highly controversial article was added to the draft constitution at the last minute. Article 260 provides for the establishment of the Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation that would co-exist with the elected government. The Committee would have the power to “commit or suppress any action” in the event of a crisis or conflict in the country that cannot be contained. Committee’s non-elected membership and lack of definition on what constitutes a “chaos” or “crisis” appears to be yet another signal of how the Thai military attempts to hold onto power and limit the power of elected officials by constitutional design.