John Oliver and lese majeste

22 02 2019

Long-time readers may recall that US-based comedian and commentator John Oliver criticized and parodied the monarchy and junta back in 2014.

His comments on the monarchy and the then crown prince were especially powerful.

In a recent interview, Oliver stated: “When there are people so powerful that they seem almost indestructible, having the power to irritate them, at least, feels like something.”

He knows that this makes enemies of the powerful, and mentioning several authoritarian countries, he nominated Thailand as a place he should avoid:

… we did a piece on the royal family in Thailand and it turned out we were subject to a lese majeste law (meaning it is illegal to defame the king or queen). So I think I probably shouldn’t go there.

Academics unsafe

18 02 2019

PPT has posted several times on academic freedom in Thailand, or rather the lack of it, and academic conferences being held in Thailand.

The next major conference we know of is the AAS-in-ASIA conference, to be held 1-4 July, 2019 in Bangkok. Despite earlier restrictions and censorship associated with an earlier AAS-in-ASIA in India, the AAS decided to hold an event in Thailand, and promoting the conference with an array of Orientalist memes about tourism, culture and food..

The claimed reasons for going to Bangkok were stated by the AAS:

Although Thais remain hopeful that their country will have elections (current news reports are suggesting the possibility of early 2019), Thailand currently is ruled by a military junta. Nonetheless, our host partners affirm that holding the AAS-in-Asia conference in Thailand provides support for free academic inquiry in their country. In this spirit, the AAS Board of Directors voted in October 2017 to hold the 2019 AAS-in-Asia conference in partnership with this coalition of Thai universities.

The partners are Chiang Mai, Chulalongkorn, Kasetsart, and Mahidol universities, none of which have recently been at the forefront of the promotion of academic freedom. Several academics, including from Thammasat and Chulalongkorn have had to flee Thailand for fear of arrest for their academic writings that led to repression and lese majeste charges. Others have been threatened by university administrations, assaulted on campus and attacked by the military junta.

In this context, it seems more than appropriate to raise two issues that demand that the AAS Board of Directors reconsider their choice of venue.

First, the AAS has an Anti-Harassment Policy for its upcoming Colorado Annual Conference:

The Association for Asian Studies strives to provide a safe and welcoming conference environment free from bias and intimidation for all participants. The Association has a zero-tolerance policy toward discrimination and all forms of harassment, including but not limited to sexual harassment. No form of discriminatory or harassing conduct by or towards any employee, member, vendor, or other person in our workplace or at AAS conferences or workshops will be tolerated. The Association is committed to enforcing its policy at all levels within the Association. Anyone who engages in prohibited discrimination or harassment will be subject to discipline, up to and including expulsion from the conference site and revocation of membership in the association.  Instances of harassment should be brought to the attention of the AAS Executive Director, who will then consult with the executive officers regarding a course of action.

PPT’s view is that if this policy is to be applied in Thailand, then the Board cannot guarantee “a safe and welcoming conference environment free from bias and intimidation for all participants” and nor can its participating organizations. We know this from the outcome of the International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai in 2017.

Which leads directly to our second point. Prachatai reports on the harassment of foreign academics that has been continuing since that ICTS conference, including of members of the AAS.

It reports that:

Andrew Johnson, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Princeton University, was temporarily detained by the Thai Immigration Police upon leaving Thailand on 10 February 2019.

As it turns out, Johnson is just the first to make this public. Prachatai has of several who have been detained in this way:

Since the military coup in 2014, the military government has implemented several measures to restrict freedom of expression in order to suppress criticism of their rule, which has also affected academic freedom. Other researchers also reported being similarly kept under surveillance and questioned.

It cites the case of Rosenun Chesof of the University of Malaya, ” detained by the Immigration Police 10 times. The first was on 30 August 2018…”. It also mentions Professor Philip Hirsch, “a visiting scholar at Chiang Mai University, has been questioned on what he was doing in Thailand, and Chiang Mai University had to issue him a letter of reference.”

PPT has contacted several scholars over several years about their experiences. We know of one scholar who was refused entry to Thailand and another senior scholar who was semi-officially warned in 2010, by the Thai Embassy in Washington to desist campaigning about lese majeste or face “problems” in Thailand.

We have also been informed that at least 8-9 scholars have experienced harassment when entering or leaving Thailand.

Prachatai states that:

Johnson subsequently tweeted that he was told by the police that they had a list of about thirty researchers “on society, culture, politics” and that they wanted information on where he had been and who he had talked to.

Of course, the harassment of Thailand-based scholars has been far more sustained.

All of this means that the AAS Board will very likely place itself in a situation where it will be in breach of its own Anti-Harassment Policy.

With 3 updates: Regime fails

5 02 2019

In the last few days there have been several events and announcements that point to failures by the military junta. They are among many regime failures since 2014.

First, the regime has failed on corruption. Of course, it came to power, like several past military regimes, to end corruption. As in the past, as now, this has not meant corruption by the military and regime itself.

Second, now shackling and dressing him in prison garb, the regime has failed to end the detention of Hakeem al-Araibi. A recognized refugee, for still unexplained reasons, Thailand is pandering to the monarchy in Bahrain in dealing with Hakeem. He would be a political prisoner in Bahrain, and that’s why he is a designated refugee. Thailand’s regime has failed to comply with international law. He’s now detailed for another few months in a Thai jail when he should be living freely in Australia.

Third, on political prisoners, activist and lese majeste detainee Jatupat Boonpattararaksa has had two charges of illegal assembly dropped by a military court. Similar charges against six other activists were also dropped. The court had no option as these charges became unenforceable several weeks ago. However, others continue to languish in prison on lese majeste and political assembly charges. The justice system under the junta has failed.

Update 1: The Hakeem al-Araibi case has become so bizarre for the regime that it is coming up with completely ridiculous stories to justify its inability to behave according to international norms and law.

First, there’s Thailand’s head of immigration Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn, known by his real nickname, “Big Joke.” He’s dissembled on how Hakeem’s case is different from that of Rahaf Mohamed. It is, but his explanation is ridiculously daft. He says Hakeem’s case is different “because Hakeem had an arrest warrant out for him… [and] Hakeem was the subject of an extradition request…”. Of course, under international law, neither is legitimate. In other words, Thailand’s junta and its officials are acting for Bahrain, but not saying why they are doing this. Our guess is that they cannot say because the explanation leads to the king’s palace.

Second, the “Australian government … urged Thailand to exercise its legal discretion to free a refugee football player who lives and plays in Australia and told a Bangkok court that he refuses to be voluntarily extradited to Bahrain.” Ridiculously and breaching international law, Thai foreign minister, Don Pramudwinai, again stated that “Australia and Bahrain should resolve the issue in discussions between themselves…”. Minister Don seems to ignore the fact that it is Thailand that arrested Hakeem and now holds him. It is Thailand’s responsibility to make a correct and legal decision.

Such a ludicrous statement by a minister would be inexplicable for any normal administration. It is unbelievable that the Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has to point out that “Thailand’s office of the Attorney-General has publicly confirmed that Thailand’s Extradition Act allows for executive discretion in such cases. This was also confirmed by the prosecutor in the context of yesterday’s hearing…”.

Dressing and shackling Hakeem is a part of the junta’s effort to portray him as a criminal rather than a refugee. How much deeper can this regime dig itself into a royalist quagmire?

Update 2: And it gets worse for the junta. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said “he was ‘disturbed’ to see Araibi with shackles on his feet when he arrived at the Criminal Court on Monday.” Talking on national television, he added: “I thought that was very upsetting and I know it would have upset many Australians, and I respectfully reminded the Thai prime minister that Australians feel very strongly about this…”.

Update 3: A potential football boycott of Thailand has begun:

Football Federation Australia announced Wednesday it had scrapped the game against China, a scheduled warmup ahead of next month’s qualifiers for the Asian under-23 championships.

Murderous monarchists VII

1 02 2019

Two recent op-eds on the grisly discoveries of the bodies of tortured, disemboweled and murdered activists deserve wide attention.

One is by Ann Norman at the Washington Post. The author is a member and former director of the Thai Alliance for Human Rights.

She refers to the “disappearance of … three Thai political refugees in Laos” in December, bringing the total disappearances “to five in three years.” These three were among the “40 to 50 active dissidents (and some 200 altogether) living in Laos.”

She notes that the “disappeared” Surachai Danwattananusorn “was one of many regime critics in exile producing YouTube shows skewering the military dictatorship of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha …[and] the corrupt and oppressive Thai monarchy.”

The op-ed reveals that Surachai and his two comrades disappeared around the time Gen Prayuth made a visit to Laos, when “Lao officials told all the exiles to hide before the arrival of Prayuth…. Rumors flew that Prayuth might be bringing a death squad targeting ‘lèse majesté suspects’…”. In Surachai’s case, he “had told his wife there was a $300,000 price on his head.”

Norman compares Surachai’s case to that of Wuthipong Kachathamakul:

[He] … was kidnapped and presumably assassinated in Laos on July 29, 2017, just one day after the birthday of the new Thai king. The rumor among the Thai dissidents was that Wuthipong’s murder was King Vajiralongkorn’s present to himself. Wuthipong was tied up and tasered, and the last words heard from him were “I can’t breathe” – eerily reminiscent of Jamal Khashoggi, whose recent assassination by a Saudi hit squad shocked the world. Wuthipong had complained on his YouTube show that he was being “hunted by the king’s servants.”

She mentions another case that has not received wide media coverage:

One year earlier, on June 22, 2016, yet another anti-monarchist in Laos, Itthipol Sukpan, a 28-year-old pro-democracy broadcaster known as DJ Zunho, was snatched from his motorcycle by unknown assailants and pulled into the woods, leaving behind just one shoe. He was never seen again. Everyone, including his family, believes he is dead.

Her conclusion is as bleak as it is frightening: “It is no longer plausible that these are random killings.”

In the second op-ed, academic Claudio Sopranzetti writes for Al Jazeera.Aon the same grisly topic, also referring to a “pattern of disappearances.” He suggests that “a Thai death squad [is] operating abroad…”.

The similarities in the disappearances of so many with anti-royal profiles is no set of accidents:

All five disappeared activists were adamant anti-monarchists, wanted in their homeland on charges of lese majesty. All five of them were refused refugee status in Europe, Japan, and Australia, despite continuous attempts. And all five refused to remain silent and used social media to amplify and disseminate their dissent from outside Thailand.

Sopranzetti observes that there are “[m]any other activists with similar profiles … still in Laos and Cambodia, [and] abandoned by an international community that refuses to see them as persons at risk…”.

Exiled Thai political activists believe that “these extrajudicial killings are replacing the use of lese majesty in this new royal regime.” He cites one of them who argues that:

Lese-majesty cases have been attracting too much attention, both internally and internationally…. Instead of arresting us, killing us may be a better way to stop us from talking about regime change, republic, and freedom of speech.

Sopranzetti asks: “How many more of them[bodies of exiles] will need to pile up before we start paying attention?”

All the king’s servants III

28 01 2019

The Bangkok Post reports a Royal Gazette announcement on “the structure and jurisdiction of the new Police Royal Guards 904 Division.”

This unit is the newest of the “security” organizations that comes under the king’s control. We first mentioned this new unit, “attached to the Central Investigation Bureau” back in October last year. It will eventually have 1,600 officers.

The latest announcement is about the jurisdiction of the unit’s nine sub-divisions. Essentially, this royal security unit will have nationwide jurisdiction paralleling the regular police.

The relationship with the palace is highlighted by the 904 moniker. It was seen when a group of propagandists from the armed forces and police were identified as “Volunteers Unit 904″ in 2018. The number 904 is derived from the former radio call sign of the king before he was king. Related, male officers associated with the palace, police and military are required to have “904 haircuts,” which are throwback styles that mimic earlier times and/or school children.

That the king now has a personal police force that operates nationally should be cause for even greater concern regarding the huge expansion of royal power.

Such expansion is not unrelated to the royal “missing”: a 1932 plaque, a 1932/33 memorial, anti-monarchists and the former public properties now privatized as the king’s. Likewise, these moves are related to the “fear,” growing from a secret prison, deaths in custody, huge use of lese majeste in personalized ways and the torture and murder of anti-monarchists.

Changes made to the Crown Property Bureau and the new powers the king has over property can also be recalled as providing the king with immense economic power.

Even before he has had his coronation, Vajiralongkorn has changed the monarchy in remarkable and foreboding ways.

On the new cybersecurity law

27 01 2019

Thailand’s computer crimes law was enacted by the last junta-installed regime led by Gen Surayud Chulanont, plucked from the king’s Privy Council by the royalist-military junta to be prime minister. One of his regime’s last acts was that draconian law. Surayud returned to the Privy Council.

One of the last pieces of the current military dictatorship will be a new  cybersecurity law. That law will strengthen and extend upon the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. It is feared:

will create a government agency with sweeping powers of search and seizure, triggering concerns for freedom of expression and data security among civil society and business groups as elections loom.

The draft law will create a committee “that it will consist of up to 15 members, including the prime minister and the deputy prime minister…”. It will be empowered to “seize computers and data without a court warrant in the case of an emergency.”

Of course, the question is: What constitutes an emergency? Arthit Suriyawongkul, coordinator at Thai Netizen Network says: “It’s likely that every cyber threat will be considered an emergency, making a court order irrelevant…”. Arthit adds: “In the past five years, there’s been an abuse of power. If you talk about the monarchy or the NCPO [junta] online they count that as a cyber threat.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun noted that heavy use of the lese majeste law by the junta to silence those critical of the monarchy and military junta. He notes that King Vajiralongkorn “doesn’t want more lese-majeste cases, so there’s been a significant drop in the last year. The palace wants cyber laws to be used instead…”. He might have added sedition and other laws that stifle dissent.

Using the existing law and junta edicts, the regime has been active in online censorship:

According to Facebook, it only complied with one 2017 request for user data from Thailand’s military government. In 2018, it restricted 285 posts deemed in violation of the same law.

Google meanwhile said the NCPO made requests to remove 9,986 items identified as critical of the government in 2017 and complied with 93 percent of requests made.

Other, far more draconian measures are also being used to silence criticism.

Murderous monarchists V

25 01 2019

After a couple of post critical of the Bangkok Post, we were gratified to read its editorial today that argued that the torture and murder of  two aides to political activist Surachai Danwattananusorn”need not go down in history as unsolved and unexplained mysteries.” The editorial continues:

Whether they are classified as enforced disappearances or appallingly brutal and seemingly extrajudicial murders, this should not become the new normal for political activists fleeing prosecution at home to Laos or Cambodia.

Of course, both that Thai and Lao governments “need to come up with an explanation for what transpired in these cases.” Well, yes, but these need to be the truth, not fabrications.

For having “criticised the regime and the high institution [they mean the monarchy] on online radio programmes,” they were killed. “[T]he details of the case are quite gruesome. Both men were disembowelled and their stomachs stuffed with concrete blocks, presumably to weigh them down. Their bodies were then wrapped in hemp sacks and a fishing net and dumped in the river.”

The ” government … [has a] responsibility to investigate this case and unearth the truth behind the killing, as well as finding out if Surachai is still alive or has also become a victim of enforced disappearance.”

It seems clear that the Post has a pretty good idea of who is responsible for these grotesque murders and who ordered them: the “murder[s] may have been orchestrated by elements within, or affiliated with, Thailand’s security forces.” Of course, this is “rumour and speculation.”

But almost everyone know that the murders represent a new and grotesque way fo dealing with “lese majeste.”