Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wikileaks Thailand cables tell #thaistory

Andrew MacGregor Marshall*, formerly a journalist for Reuters, has published #thaistory based on the contents of diplomatic cables released originally obtained by WikiLeaks. The story should reveal many details about the inner workings of Thai politics including revelations about the role of the palace**.

Any public discussion of these matters in Thailand is prevented by the lese majeste law. In the prologue to Part One of #thaistory Marshall notes that, "Discussion of  the reality  among Thais  is  relegated  to private conversations or oblique  references using coded imagery and parables. The truth about the palace's enormously influential role in Thai politics and economics cannot be uttered openly in public."

In an article in The Independent Marshall discusses some of the reasons why he resigned from his job at Reuters in order to publish #thaistory. The money quote is, "Thailand is sliding backwards into authoritarianism and repression. And one stark indication of this is that just saying it is illegal."

Part One of #thaistory is now available online as a pdf file. I have only read part way through it, but it explores in detail the life of King Bhumibol and is based on a number of academic sources as well as the diplomatic cables.

Part Two should be released tomorrow (24 June). According to a tweet from Marshall, "Part 3 (events from 2006 coup to 2010) and 4 (conclusions and predictions) will be online within a week." I will update this post with links as they become available.

The cables the story is based on are being published on Marshall's website WikiLeaks cables from Thailand can also be found at thaicables.

*Andrew MacGregor Marshall who published #thaistory should not be confused with Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Marshall who writes for TIME and other publications. Andrew MacGregor Marshall tweets at @zenjournalist. The other Andrew Marshall tweets at @journotopia.

** I use the word "palace" not just to refer to the royal family, but to describe in more general terms how the monarchy is used, manipulated and appropriated by a range of players in the Thai political scene.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

More on lese majeste and Amnesty International

Lese majeste is a topic I have mentioned frequently on this blog. As Thailand waivers between dictatorship and dysfunctional democracy the spectre of the lese majeste law is ever present. It continues to be used as a political tool to limit free speech. 

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) held a forum discussing lese majeste on 24 May 2011. Speakers at the event included David Streckfuss, Sulak Sivaraksa and Ben Zawacki of Amnesty International (AI). Political Prisoners in Thailand (PPT) has a report on the event. According to the report Zawacki presented a new AI position on lese majeste.

He was followed by Zawacki, who despite presenting an account of AI’s position on lese majeste that was meant to suggest continuity, concern and activism, essentially outlined a new position. He said that everyone on lese majeste charges and/or convicted is considered a political prisoner (tell that to the U.S. State Department!) and that if there is no evidence of inciting violence or “violent words” or “intent,” then each person convicted is then a prisoner of conscience. This is a new statement on lese majeste. The most recent AI country report on Thailand concentrated on the Computer Crimes Act and not lese majeste. AI, and Zawacki in particular, have been under enormous pressure form activists and bloggers (PPT included) to come up with a credible position on lese majeste.
PPT goes on to note that Zawacki faced some criticism during the question time. Zawacki responded to one of the questions by attacking the questioner. This led PPT to write, "If AI is to ever resurrect its already shattered mantle in Thailand, the next step is to remove Zawacki and appoint someone who is able to address vital human rights issues with transparency and openness."

Andrew Spooner recently published an excellent interview with David Streckfuss on the topic of lese majeste. Spooner asked Streckfuss about whether things might have been different if Amnesty had taken stronger action on lese majeste in the past. Streckfus responded,
Who knows what might have happened had Amnesty International taken a more forceful stance from the beginning. The main question now is how will Amnesty International make up for lost time and reclaim a modicum of respect from many activists and academic groups in Thailand — and abroad — who have quite rightly criticized the organization for taking a more consistent and forceful stand on the issue of lese majeste which, after all, as a matter of the right to freedom of expression, has traditionally been a core issue for Amnesty.
I just sent another e-mail to AI questioning their policy on lese majeste in Thailand. Sadly I don't expect a reply. However, I did remind AI that as it advocates the universality of human rights there is no room for exceptionalism in dealing with lese majeste cases in Thailand. 

Update: Siam Voices has a report about the FCCT forum which provides more details. 

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thailand's media not free: Freedom House

According to Freedom House's latest annual report on Freedom of the Press, Thailand's press is now classified as "Not Free." Thailand was ranked 138th in the world compared with 124th position last year. Freedom House wrote:
Also in 2010, additional pressure on the media in politically turbulent Thailand led to a four-point score decline,  from 58 to 62, and a status downgrade to Not Free. Key factors included the use of the restrictive new Computer Crimes Act to punish online expression, a continued increase in lèse-majesté prosecutions, and periodic violence between political factions that caught journalists in the crossfire and led to censorship of media outlets.
The downgrade is not surprising considering the deaths and injuries to journalists during the protests in May 2010 and the continuing use of lèse-majesté as a tool of political repression.

The downgrading of Thailand's status is part of a long-term downward trend in press freedom in Thailand. Thailand's media was classified as free in the period from 1999 to 2002. The graph at the top of this post shows Thailand's decline from 2005 to 2010. It doesn't show the additional decline in 2011.

*More details available at Freedom of the Press 2011 Survey Release.

Friday, February 18, 2011

New documentary about the red shirt movement

A new documentary, Enter The RED Shirts, by Aphiwat Saengphatthaseema explores the red shirt movement in Thailand. An eight minute preview of the documentary is available on Vimeo and embedded above. Sulak Sivaraksa is among the people interviewed in the documentary.

In the description of the video Aphiwat writes:
For over seven years, from 2004- 2010, I documented and witnessed the red shirt’s political struggle on Rajadamneon Road, the road famous for having been hosted Thai political contexts etched on it for a long period of time. The road is also a landmark of political symbol, where it hosted many political struggles and egalitarianism between the people, on one hand, and the state on the other. The data and footage collection sprang from my personal interests to document historical events, without event knowing what the future would bring or if there would be the “red shirts” entering the scene on the political struggling on the road in Thailand.
Perhaps the documentary may help answer some of the important questions asked by Andrew Marshall in his recent report about the April-May 2010 protests.

Friday, October 22, 2010

New book about lese majeste by David Streckfuss

Lèse majesté is a topic that I have often written about on this blog. A post I wrote about David Streckfuss and lese majeste is also one of the most frequently read posts on this blog. David is one of the foremost experts on this topic which many people are afraid to even discuss. His opinions are authoritative and he has recently published a new book. I haven't had the chance to read Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté (Rethinking Southeast Asia) yet, but C.J. Hinke at FACT has written a review of the book. He writes:

David Streckfuss, a human rights expert on Thai political and cultural history, finds that the heart of the longstanding and ongoing lèse majesté debate rests in the country’s defamation law. This truism concerns not only academics who are constrained from speaking freely but also ordinary citizens.

Truth on Trial in Thailand details a 110-year trajectory of lèse majestéprosecutions, “sedition and treason, the press and cinema, anti-communism, contempt of court”, and libel since 1900. This censorship centres on the legal and cultural concept min phraboromdechanuphap––หมิ่นพระบรมเดชานุภาพ.

Also of interest is an interview with David Streckfuss recently published on Prachatai (also on New Mandala). A quote from the interview:

2) Some Thais claim foreigners do not and cannot really understand Thai society. Is your book yet another example of a portrayal of Thai society from a 'naive' outsider's perspective?

These days, I’m not so sure that anyone really understands what’s going on in Thai society—Thai or foreigner. The discourse on Thailand and Thai-ness has drifted into terra incognita and as such perhaps no one has a privileged perspective any more. As for the book, I think it does pretty well in appreciating and characterizing the historical roots of “Thai” perceptions of the truth. The conclusions the book draws are a descriptive analysis of this very “Thai” system confronting modern, largely universal legal norms and human rights discourse. I wouldn’t argue that the book’s perspective is “the right one.” It is merely one perspective, but one that I hope will resonate for some who live in Thailand—both Thai and foreigner—and who sincerely want the best for this country and its people.

The number of lese majeste cases has increased dramatically in recent years. According to Hinke's review, "765 persons were prosecuted for lèse majesté between 2006 and 2009—an average of almost 191 per year—a spectacular increase over the immediate previous decade when there was an average of just five new cases per year." As I have noted previously major international human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International have been reluctant to speak out about the issue. It is essential that journalists, bloggers and human rights activists continue to shine a light on this issue, especially as lese majeste is being used as a political tool to suppress freedom of speech in Siam.

*This post contains affiliate links.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Monks, protest, nonviolence and violence

Image by Damir Sagolj/Reuters via The Big Picture.

When I first saw the image above on The Big Picture a couple of weeks ago I was deeply disturbed. Without knowing more details about the exact circumstances the photo was taken in it is hard to know exactly why the monk has been restrained. However, the anguished expression on his face clearly shows that he is deeply suffering.

Of course this raises the question of if or how Buddhist monks should participate in mass protests and political movements. I think there are four possible circumstances in which the monks might have participated in the protests.

(1) The monks went to the protest hoping that their presence would have a calming effect and discourage immediate acts of violence.

(2) The monks went to the protest in support of greater democracy and justice and society. They were concerned about addressing issues of structural violence.

(3) The monks were caught by advancing troops and engaged in acts of self-defense to protect themselves and protesters.

(4) The monks were actively involved in the protests and this included joining other protesters in carrying out acts of violence.

Of these four possibilities I believe only the last is unacceptable behaviour for a monk. Others may disagree and say that monks should be apolitical and removed from society. However, standing by silently in the face of injustice is just supporting that injustice. It is the responsibility of monks to come out of the temple and work for a more democratic and just society. Although of course they should use nonviolent means that are in accordance with the Buddha Dharma and their monastic vows.

Sanitsuda Ekachai has written her own thoughts in the Bangkok Post. A quote follows.

What roles should monks play in this politics of hate?

Traditionally, monks are expected to stay out of politics, which led to their general silence against injustice and their inaction for social change. The cleric elders have adopted this stance. But indifference could not be right, could it?

What does Buddhism say about the roles of monks in politics?

Both the yellow and red shirt movements have monk supporters to legitimise their causes. But according to the monastic code of conduct, monks are barred from being makers of strife, disputes and quarrels as well as being the messengers of rulers and politicians. In other words, participating in political rallies is a no-no.

So what can monks do in times of conflict? The story about the Buddha's intervention to stop a war over a water feud is illuminating. He does not take sides. Nor does he evade the problem. Instead, he offers words of wisdom to trigger the conscience of both sides.

This is why there is still a glimmer of hope. Although anger and hatred refuse to subside and the principle of free speech is still ignored by all parties, the non-violence movement led by Phra Paisal Visalo shows our society has not totally lost touch with humanity and the core Buddhist values. This voice of reason and compassion needs to be heeded to prevent future violence and war. If ignored, we just have to prepare for another nightmare.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bangkok explodes

After several tense weeks of protesting by the Red Shirts in Bangkok the situation exploded into violence on Saturday 10 April 2010.

Twitter is providing a steady stream of updates. The following are mostly people working in the media based in Bangkok. Please check the tweets from the following list or see my Asia news list on Twitter.

According to tweets from tulsathit, Hiroyuki Miramoto, a Japanese reporter for Reuters, has been killed. The exact number of deaths is uncertain at this point but it seems several Red Shirt protesters have also been killed by gunshot wounds. More than 100 people have been injured. This includes both Red Shirts and soldiers. Also a report from Prachatai says two foreign tourists were injured and "One was shot at the chest after having shouted 'Fuck You!' to the soldiers."

Updates on blogs from Bangkok Pundit and New Mandala.
Nirmal Ghosh, Bangkok correspondent for the Straits Times, also provides excellent reportage on his blog. The Big Picture on also has an amazing collection of photos, but these are from before the major outbreak of violence on 10 April.

I will update this post with more more links as further reports come through.

Update: The latest report from The Nation says 8 dead and 486 injured. The Nation reports 5 people killed.

Update 2: On Sunday morning more detailed reports are coming through. Bangkok Pundit has a foreign press round-up of Saturday's violence. Current reports say 15 dead and over 600 injured. The Nation has a Chronology of Black Saturday. Prachathai has a list of the 15 dead. Eight are civilians, one is a Japanese national, three are military and three unknown.

Eyewitness account of vaitor, a foreigner who was shot in the arm. Includes photos and video. On New Mandala a report from Nicholas Day titled War at Khao San.

This event also highlighted the value of Twitter as a news source. Richard Barrow tweets: "Only with the help of Twitter yesterday were non-Thai speakers able to find out what was going on."

Update 3: Latest report from AP says 18 dead, five soldiers and 13 civilians. Nirmal Ghosh on the spiral of violence.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Economist covers the real crisis

The Economist
has published a number of articles over the last couple of years that have pushed the boundaries of what had previously been acceptable in discussions of the Thai monarchy. (See Monarchy is part of the problem: The Economist and The Economist from 1932 to 2009 earlier published on this blog for examples.) Due to the sensitive nature of this topic in Thailand the issues of The Economist containing these articles have not been distributed in Thailand. However, they have still been available via the internet and outside Thailand. The publication of these articles has also had a knock-on effect with other news outlets also becoming more willing to mention the previously unmentionable.

The most recent issue of The Economist contains what is probably the most open discussion yet of the issues surrounding succession in the Thai monarchy. Two articles, The battle for Thailand and As father fades, his children fight, both discuss the succession issue and the challenges Thailand faces in restoring democracy and maintaining stability.

*More analysis available at Political Prisoners in Thailand, Bangkok Pundit, Bangkok Bugle and New Mandala.

Update: The Economist has another article calling for the removal of the lese majeste law.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Amnesty International finally speaks out against lese majeste

In September 2009 I noted the failure of Amnesty International to take sufficient action in response to lese majeste cases. At the time I wrote to Amnesty International's London office to ask Amnesty to take action on the case of Darunee Charnchoengsilpakul (aka Da Torpedo) who in 2009 was sentence to 18 years in prison for lese majeste. In my letter I wrote that Amnesty's failure to take action on this issue undermined the core principle which the organisation stood for, the universality of human rights.

Finally Amnesty International has spoken out on the issue with a statement titled "Thailand: Reverse backward slide in freedom of expression" on its website (via Prachathai). The statement says, "Thailand should reverse its recent backward slide in respect for freedom of expression, as illustrated by the sharp increase over the past ten months in cases under the lese majeste law." It also mentions Suwicha Thakhor and Darunee Chanchoengsilapakul who are both currently serving prison sentences for lese majeste.

The statement says that the lese majeste law supersedes the constitution and "goes beyond the permissible restrictions on freedom of expression provided for under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)." Furthermore it also mentions the 2007 Computer-related Crimes Act. It says the Act has been used to block tens of thousands of websites and this is another violation of the ICCPR.

The statement ends by saying that Amnesty supports the Prime Minister's initiative to review the law and encourages the government to amend the law in line with international standards. The government should suspend the use of the law until changes are made and the government should stop censoring websites on the grounds of upholding the lese majeste law.

It is good that Amnesty International has finally spoken out on this issue. Their previous silence seriously undermined their credibility in addressing human rights issues in Thailand. I hope that Amnesty will also launch campaigns for the release of Suwicha Thakhor and Darunee Chanchoengsilapakul.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2009 INEB Conference

The biennial conference of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) was held in Chiang Mai this month. The conference marked INEB's 20th anniversary. I was involved in organising the conference in Taiwan in 2007 and in Thailand in 2001. I didn't attend this time, but came across a couple of reports online.

Brooke Schedneck, a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, writes about the conference at Wandering Dhamma (also posted on New Mandala). The Clear View Project has a report from Alan Senauke, a long term member of INEB (link via Rev. Danny Fisher). Alan also reports on the Think Sangha meeting that followed the INEB conference. (Update: Priyadarshi Telang from TBMSG's Jambudvipa project also has a report.)

The conference statement below comes from the Clear View Project website.


This week in Chiang Mai the International Network of Engaged Buddhists celebrated its 20th anniversary with a successful conference dedicated to peace and social transformation. As kalyanamitta, more than two hundred socially engaged Buddhists from twenty-five countries – from Asia and the Pacific region, from North America and Europe – joined together for study, dialogue, and dharma practice, committing ourselves to work for peace.

We affirm our deep belief that the suffering of society – war, racism, poverty, gender oppression, destruction of the environment, and cultural degradation – can be transformed into liberation for all beings.

We affirm and have seen ourselves that peace can arise from even the fiercest of conflicts.

Together we confronted critical concerns that affect life on this precious and fragile planet:

• the intertwined disasters of consumerism and environmental destruction;
• the vital need to empower and educate young people;
• the pervasive oppression of women, and all gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered men & women;
• the denial of human rights and meaningful livelihood;
• the need to preserve Buddhism and all traditional culture and religion;
• and the obscenity of war, civil strife, and violence.

These concerns, wherever they arise in the world are our concerns. They are close to our hearts. In the Buddha's way and in the way of every great religion, we know that we must meet this suffering not with faith alone, but with all our efforts and action day by day.

— 17 November 2009

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