Asian Correspondent » Saksith Saiyasombut & Siam Voices http://asiancorrespondent.com Asian Correspondent Wed, 27 May 2015 15:00:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1 Game of Thrones’ master swordsman takes on a very different teaching role in Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/133142/game-of-thrones-master-swordsman-takes-on-a-very-different-teaching-role-in-thailand/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133142/game-of-thrones-master-swordsman-takes-on-a-very-different-teaching-role-in-thailand/#comments Tue, 26 May 2015 03:36:14 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133142 Miltos Yerolemou in Game of Thrones

Miltos Yerolemou  plays Syrio Forel opposite Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones star Miltos Yerolemou talks to James Austin about his upcoming role in Star Wars VII and how he brought tears to the eyes of his students in Thailand

IT’S a hot, oppressively humid summer evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital. British actor Miltos Yerolemou, who plays Syrio Forel, master sword-fighter in Game of Thrones, and will play something, or someone, in the upcoming Star Wars film, has just sat down with me at a wine bar off the city’s recently requisitioned trendy hub, Nimmanhaemin.

Yerolemou has a prepossessing sort of look; he actually could be someone straight out of a fantasy flick. His hair is a shock of chaotic black curls that looks like a nest of springs hanging out of a recently whacked-with-a-mallet cartoon cuckoo clock; he has a mild, disarming demeanor, is somewhat boyish in appearance, and so with the mad hair and the black beard he might best be described as looking something like a cherubic pirate.

“Your name please,” asks the young girl serving us, so she can separate the bill.

“Miltos.”

“Huh?”

“M-I-L-T-O-S.”

Game of Thrones is big in Thailand, but not that big.

“I think my mum had a dream that I would be born at sea,” says Yerolemou, whose mother was due to give birth when she and her husband took a two-boat journey from Cyprus to Southampton. His mother’s dream didn’t come true, and Yerolemou was born in South London. During his childhood he says he had no ambition to be an actor, his parents wanted him to be what he calls a “good Greek boy”, envisioning their son as a lawyer at some later date. “My dad owned a fish and chip shop,” he says, “which I worked in from the age of 12 to 21.” A job, he adds, that was hard, but the sweat, tears and cooking fat were somewhat alleviated by his regular trips to the cinema with his dad to watch Bruce Lee films.

Although he never saw himself as an actor he explains that he always had a fondness for acting and drama, but it wasn’t until a university professor, and actor, convinced him to quit his law degree and study Performance Arts that he decided to change course. He was first awed by experimental theatre, admiring the likes of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and French playwright Antonin Artaud, both of whom he says, “Blew my mind”. It wasn’t until he made a play with David Harewood (CIA’s deputy director in the series Homeland), in Molière’s The Misanthrope, that Yerolemou says he had ever acted on a stage set with props. “I’d never done a play with furniture,” he says laughing, “with ashtrays, diluted Coke.”

At this juncture in his career he started working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at times playing characters that tried to kill people with swords, something that would serve him well in the future. “I was already friends with Nena Gold, the casting director for Game of Thrones, and Star Wars. She had followed me around the fringe circuit when I was doing little plays.” Gold asked him to read for Game of Thrones, although at first for the part of Lord Varys.

Miltos Yeremelou.

Miltos Yeremelou.

“They were looking for a lot of actors,” he explains, “I was asked in the audition if I could do sword fights… That was one time in an actor’s life that he wasn’t lying about what he’s put on his CV.” Yerolemou landed the part of Syrio Forel and trained with choreographer William Hobbs, who he has a great admiration for. “I had a natural aptitude for dancing,” explains Yerolemou, but Hobbs helped personalize Forel’s style of fighting. “He comes from a character’s point of view,” he says of Hobbs, explaining that Forel’s style of fighting had to be congruous with the character’s personality. The decision was to have him fight in an “effortless” way, and at no point, says Yerolemou, did he, or his student Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), ever use stunt doubles.

Coming out of theatre and working on a film set was a big change for Yerolemou. “Film is slow,” he says, “it’s very technical… on stage once the play starts the director has no control at all. You learn to pace yourself in film, go through make-up, put on costume, maybe sit for hours, waiting, and waiting, playing games on your phone, watching TV, and trying to stay focused, stay in character. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to stay focused during the wait and the repetition.” He says that many actors know there won’t be a wrap on the first take, and so often bring their A-game to the third or fourth take, “cooking it up” as he calls it, until what occurs is, “that moment of truth”.

Life after Death

“We knew the books were successful,” he responds when asked about the popularity of the series (HBO’s most popular show ever), “but no one knew it would become the phenomenon it did.” He reflects, and adds, “I guess when you’re name-checked in The Simpsons you know you’ve gotten into people’s subconscious.”

Speaking about his Star Wars gig, Yerolemou says: “It’s not really a job where you ask any questions.” He didn’t divulge if he’ll be wielding a lightsaber instead of a sword in seventh part of the franchise, because he can’t say much about it. He does say however that the film, “Lives up to its expectations,” and that it’s in, “very safe hands,” explaining that director J.J. Abrahams has, “gone back to emotional storytelling.” Many of the actors not only won’t say much about the script, but actually don’t know much, as they were only given their parts of the script to read.

“We shot at Pinewood. I’d be sitting on set next to aliens, animatronics; only a little bit of blue screen was used.” He called the experience a “mouth opener… a virtual reality adventure ride,” in which he felt like he was inhabiting another world, a fantastic environment, replete with, “tiny little thing strutting past my feet.”

‘Not Today’

Yerolemou has been working with Prem Tinsulanonda International School (PTIS) in Northern Thailand, leading acting workshops while extolling the importance of creativity in education, after being invited by an old friend from his theatre days, Alex Soulsby, the programme’s director.

When asked before in interviews if he would be up to the task of being a teacher, the short-lived profession of his character Syrio Forel, he replied that he is maybe a little too “unconventional” and “easily distracted”, but tells me he has a passion for sharing his acting knowledge with children, especially opening their minds to Shakespeare. So passionate in fact that a rendition of a Capulet scene he performed for the kids in Chiang Mai had some of the children in tears.

“I get carried away sometimes, wanting them to understand powerful emotions; the emotional truth… I scared the shit out of the kids.” It’s not just a play, he tells his students, “It’s alive!” His workshops are unplanned, unconventional, he says; his persona in the classroom is intermittently, “strict, generous, like a dictator, playful, weird”.

Miltos teaches kids at Prem ....

Miltos leads an acting workshop at Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Chiang Mai.

He says of teaching, “You have to go with them, find a way to help them express themselves, to lose their inhibitions. You have to take risks; the most important thing is to approach life with fearlessness”, mirroring the gestalt education Forel imbues his student Arya Stark with, concerning that most precious and tenuous gift in GoT – life; ‘Not Today’. Does he relate to his Forel? “Oh, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a lot of synchronicity. I believe everything my character talks about,” he replies.

And with that we talk about Thailand and his, “chili fetish”, to which his fearlessness might have recently been compromised after he made the mistake of asking a local street food vendor for a spicy Papaya salad pet mak tam hai salop (so hot it will make you faint). “What was it like?” he asks rhetorically, “Do you remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Shrine and the burning face.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is due for release December 18.

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The profitable and problematic Thai lottery http://asiancorrespondent.com/133121/thailand-lottery/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133121/thailand-lottery/#comments Mon, 25 May 2015 06:08:03 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133121 Thailand's lottery...

Thailand’s lottery…

By Thitipol Panyalimpanun

While Saraphee Rukthong was looking at a termite hill in her house, a black cobra snake popped its head out from the hill. Many would have led and called for help, but Saraphee saw it as a sign of good fortune and instead made the snake an altar. As soon as people in nearby villages found out about the snake, they traveled to her house to pray and gaze at the cobra  trapped in the termite hill. They believed such bizarre sight must mean something, and if they looked hard enough  winning lottery numbers might be revealed to them. After rounds of interpretation, these lotto lovers decided that “10” would win the two-digit prize.

Although the number turned out to be, of course, “34″, Saraphee, the cobra and their visitors all contributed to the success of the Thai lottery industry – the monopolistic cash cow that the junta wants to whip into line.

Fueled by superstitious beliefs as well as dreams of overcoming poverty overnight, lottery is a big business in Thailand. Around 19.2 of 67 million Thais buy the government lottery, totaling 76 billion baht (US$2.3 billion) last year, according to the Family Network Foundation’s secretary Wanchai Boonpracha. Unlike in most countries, where the government’s lottery office licenses and monitors the lottery business, the Thai Government Lottery Office (GLO) itself prints and sells the tickets to distributors. Thanks to strict laws that forbid any gambling activity and makes the government lottery feel like the only legal casino, the GLO has been pocketing 28% of the profits, around 13-14,000 million baht annually in the past several years, for the state.

Outside the law, though, underground lotto or huay dealers around the country have been operating with 4-5 times larger cash circulation, around 4-500,000 million baht per year, according to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, dean of the College of Social Innovation RSU. Using the numbers drawn in the official lottery, these dealers offer better prizing, credit purchases and more betting options. Since you can open a small underground lotto business with just a notebook and a pen, they are all over the place, and an effective crackdown is impossible.

That was part of the rationale behind the Thaksin government implementing the “aboveground huay” during 2003-2007, allowing the consumers to pick their own 2-3 digit numbers rather than having to rummage through the regular 6-digit tickets where the numbers are already chosen. Although it did put a dent in underground lottos’ business and doubled the GLO’s revenue, this profitable format was ruled against the law, deemed as accommodating lottery addiction, and eventually cancelled. The GLO has since continued with only the traditional lottery.

While that “aboveground huay” model was illegal and ethically questionable, the traditional lottery business model also stinks. The public has always been suspicious of how the GLO deals with the sales margins and profits behind the curtains. Contract distributors are believed to have been bagging easy profits by selling to smaller distributors, who then sell to vendors at the bottom of the chain, who then bear higher costs for lower profits.

Recent probes by three investigative news agencies, Isra News, TCIJ and ThaiPublica, cast even more suspicion on the roles of the three biggest long-term contract distributors. With their big lottery quotas and business allies, they have an almost monopolistic power in the market and can influence the lottery retail price, Dr. Sungsidh told Thaipost. Their secret to their longevity through a decade of regulatory efforts has nothing to do with luck, but a strong connections.

Dealing with the Thai lottery has always been problematic because it means balancing the weight of a significant revenue source, the ethical issues of endorsing gambling, and pressure from powerful politicians. That’s why when the junta under General Prayuth Chan-ocha vowed to solve the lottery price problem a month after last year’s coup, the public couldn’t wait to see what it was going to achieve. The junta then appointed its own man Maj Gen Apirat Kongsompong as the chair of the GLO’s board, and after months of no results, the general came out to confirm there are price-fixing parties who are connected with people in the GLO but chose not to reveal any names.

Earlier this month, the junta reignited its attempted reforms by evoking the Section 44 to put more people from the government on the GLO’s board and introduce a new profit model that will include a new charity fund for social development managed by the new board committees. General Prayuth also declared anyone selling lottery tickets above the regulated 80 baht (US$2.40) will face jail.

Like gazing at a snake stuck in a termite hill, the junta exercising its absolute power on the price of lottery tickets, which are not necessity goods, may seem like a misplaced effort. On the other hand, though, it could indirectly force contract lottery distributors to play by the rules. In any case, the junta, like every Thai, knows well the inflated lottery price is just an end product of a faulty system that needs a true solution backed by the courage to to implement an accountable, transparent structure. Otherwise, the money will just change hands. Just like gambling, power is addictive, and without consciousness, both usually come to an ugly end.

About the author:
Thitipol Panyalimpanun is a Thai writer from Bangkok who writes mainly about art, films and culture. He is now based in New York City, where he pursues a master’s degree in publishing at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ThitipolP.

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One year on: Future looks grim under Thailand’s ruling junta http://asiancorrespondent.com/133069/one-year-on-future-looks-grim-under-thailands-ruling-junta/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133069/one-year-on-future-looks-grim-under-thailands-ruling-junta/#comments Fri, 22 May 2015 00:45:00 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133069 A Thai soldier stands guard in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok after the military seized power on May 22. Pic: AP.

A Thai soldier stands guard in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok after the military seized power on May 22, 2014. Pic: AP.

When Pink Floyd’s vocalist and bassist Roger Waters wrote the 1979 rock classic ‘Another Brick in The Wall’, he was thinking about the authoritarian teaching and rote learning he encountered in his school days that would produce, in his opinion, more proverbial bricks in the wall of mental detachment.

I recently came across somebody online pointing out the difference between a teacher and a professor: a teacher makes sure that students learn, a professor on the other hand (ideally) only points them to the general direction and leaves it up to them once they encountered the ”fountain of knowledge”. He then went on to say that a government should be similar to the professor’s job, which creates a free environment where discussions can be held and ideas can flourish. The current Thai government is more like the teacher that not only decides what we have to learn, but also when and how.

And boy, what a teacher we have right now!

It’s been exactly a year since Thailand’s military has launched the country’s 12th successful coup, toppling what was left of the embattled and besieged government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was the end of over half a year of anti-government protests that eventually morphed into anti-democracy rallies, but it was just the beginning of Thailand under martial law and military rule. On that day, we saw the death of Thai democracy as we knew it.

While martial law was revoked earlier this year (with the now already infamous Section 44 in its place instead), the military junta still has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and is busy re-writing and revamping almost everything about it.

The blueprint of the country’s political future is being drafted in the next constitution. But all signs show that this charter does nothing but constitutionally enshrine the steady regression of democracy by massively curtailing the powers of elected governments or otherwise leave the door open for extra-parliamentary interventions. Amidst these legislative changes, The Economist has aptly called it a “baby sitter’s-charter”.

Perhaps this is a better way to describe how the Thai military junta government rules over the country: Not only is it like a bad teacher that expects its students only to obediently memorize the stuff, but also like an overbearing nanny overlooking us on every step.

And no other person exemplifies this “teacher-nanny-in-chief”-dom than junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Driven by what I once described as “compulsive loquaciousness”, Gen. Prayuth sees himself forced and challenged to say something about everything, no matter how ill-advised or confrontational it comes across. Same goes for his weekly TV addresses every Friday night (in a total of 40 hours of airtime since last year).

But it’s not only the former army chief himself who has delayed his retirement. Several other military officers have become either junta members, cabinet ministers, or more often than not both – mostly old men who may or may not have been good at commanding troops, but so far have failed to command the country to their liking.

The economy is at best floundering. But the military junta and their supporters have not realized that they are not part of the solution but an essential part of the problem – a delusion that has befallen them for a year now.

This week also marked the 5th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protesters. Back then, at the very early beginning of my blogging career, I said that “the worst isn’t over – the mess has just begun”. Unfortunately, it seems that I was right.

In the past decade, there has been no real sincere, lasting effort from both sides of the political divide to repair the gaping wounds in the nation’s fabric. Instead, it has been covered by exactly the same “blanket over the ever-increasing rift and [blind preachings of] ‘peace, love and unity’ until the next escalation” that I warned about in 2010 – and what we got since then were more escalations and more blankets. But at this point, the wounds are wider and deeper.

It is this political short-term memory loss and cognitive dissonance that has led Thai democracy astray, weakened and easy prey for those firmly not believing in it and adamantly opposing. It is quite sobering to see those in command of the 2010 crackdown now ruling the country.

The near-term future looks rather grim. The junta has recently approved a referendum on the country’s next constitution, but at the cost of delaying possible elections until September 2016 – and even that is not guaranteed, as Gen. Prayuth threatened to stay on if the charter is rejected.

The past 12 months have contributed truckloads of bricks in the mental wall that has been growing and growing in this political crisis, making it even more difficult and daunting to tear it down.

In May 2010, I expressed my doubts that a lasting change towards a more open, free and democratic Thailand will happen anytime soon.

Five years and a military coup later, I’m still waiting.

________________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Rohingya crisis highlights ASEAN’s unwillingness to tackle thorny issues http://asiancorrespondent.com/133057/rohingya-crisis-highlights-aseans-unwillingness-to-tackle-thorny-issues/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133057/rohingya-crisis-highlights-aseans-unwillingness-to-tackle-thorny-issues/#comments Thu, 21 May 2015 04:32:03 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133057 Boats anchored off the coast of western Burma, where many of the refugees come from. Pic: AP.

Boats anchored off the coast of western Burma, where many of the refugees come from. Pic: AP.

By Daniel Maxwell

The tragic plight of the Rohingya migrants adrift off the coasts of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesian has brought ASEAN’s shortcomings and its unwillingness to tackle difficult issues firmly into the global spotlight. In recent days, pledges of shelter and humanitarian support from some ASEAN nations have finally been made as mounting international pressure forced ASEAN leaders into action, but only after hundreds of migrants had already lost their lives and ships overladen with starving refugees began to be rescued by local fishermen. Were it not for the international publicity this crisis has received, these refugees may well have been conveniently ignored by some of ASEAN’s leaders.

With an estimated 25,000 Rohingya refugees having fled Burma since the beginning of 2015 and as many as 10,000 refugees still adrift on the Andaman Sea, this crisis is quickly becoming the largest of its kind in the region since the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people in the late 1970s. For the past few weeks, ships laden with desperate migrants have been pushed between national waters as Southeast Asian nations attempt to avoid dealing with this pressing humanitarian crisis. But despite ASEAN leaders’ attempts to distance themselves from this crisis, the reality is that it is the product of ASEAN governments’ non-interference policies and their avoidance of difficulties issues.

The source of this humanitarian disaster is clearly Burma’s state-sanctioned discrimination against the ethnic Muslim minority who are denied citizenship, denied education and detained in conditions likened to open-air prisons. Burma refuses to accept responsibility for the exodus of the Rohingya and has even gone so far as to criticise its ASEAN neighbours for not providing humanitarian assistance to the desperate refugees.

In response, ASEAN member nations have been quick to point the finger of blame back at Burma, but none of the Southeast Asian nations are able to pressure Burma on its systematic mistreatment of the Rohingyas. ASEAN’s policy of non-interference has allowed Burma’s military government to continually act without retribution or consequence and there are no signs the military leaders are going to change their ways anytime soon.

Thailand’s own military leader Prayuth Chan-ocha has planned a regional meeting to discuss the issue, but with Burma threatening to boycott the talks there seems little hope the root of this problem will be tackled. Thailand’s timing of the meeting also raises questions over its sincerity to resolve this issue promptly. The regional meeting was announced on Friday, May 15, and scheduled for May 29 – a full two weeks later. An issue of such urgency, in which lives are being lost daily, may perhaps have deserved a somewhat more immediate response.

Thailand has also been quick to claim that the refugees had no interest in coming ashore in Thailand. The country’s media went on to report how the navy provided the refugees with ‘ready meals’ and graciously repaired their ships. The reality is that the boats were simply made operational enough to reach their next destination, a neighbouring ASEAN country from which they would be once again turned away. While it’s true that Thailand was not the primary destination for most of these migrants, it would be naïve to consider the country a passive party in this tragedy because the escalation of the crisis can be traced directly to international actions against ‘irregularities’ in Thailand’s fishing industry.

Reports of Rohingya migrants being sold into slavery and forced to work in Thailand’s fishing industry have been documented by NGOs and human rights groups for a number of years now. In April this year the EU threatened Thailand with a seafood import ban unless it cleaned up the industry. In response, Thailand’s prime minister vowed to crack down on slavery in the region and no sooner had these investigations started than numerous trafficking camps and mass graves of Rohingyas were discovered in Thailand’s southernmost provinces. A number of individuals were arrested as it came to light that local officials and influential individuals had been working with human traffickers in the region. This crackdown led many of the traffickers to simply abandon their most recent human cargo at sea, leaving as many as 10,000 migrants adrift on rickety boats across the Andaman Sea. These long established and previously uninterrupted criminal networks of human trafficking were another difficult issue that ASEAN had been unwilling to tackle. It was only a reaction to international pressure and the threat of financial loss, in this case the EU’s ‘yellow card’, which forced regional governments to reluctantly react. Despite its pivotal role in this current crisis Thailand refuses to offer the Rohingya refugees shelter, a decision that has led to further international criticism.

The first glimmer of hope for these unwanted boat people came from the Philippines, which has a record of welcoming refugees going back to the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people. On Tuesday the Philippines offered to accept Rohingya refugees, though it remains highly unlikely these poorly maintained and overcrowded could ever negotiate the passage from the Andaman Sea to the Philippines.

On Wednesday, after intense criticism of their attempts to push the refugees back to sea, Malaysia and Indonesia issued a joint statement declaring that they would provide temporary shelter and humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya boat people. Malaysia and Indonesia had been the primary destination for most of these refugees who were hoping to escape religious persecution in Burma and practice their beliefs in freedom.

With the ASEAN Economic Community opening at the end of 2016, this tragedy has raised questions about ASEAN’s legitimacy while highlighting its apparent lack of leadership and its unwillingness to tackle difficult humanitarian issues. For an organization founded to ‘promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law…. and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter’ (principles which include respect for human rights), the manner in which ASEAN leaders have fumbled through this crisis paints the picture of an organization with fundamental shortcomings. Charles Santiago, chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, explains how important a successful resolution to this crisis is for the organization, ‘This is a test for ASEAN, for ASEAN’s sustainability. Its legitimacy will depend on this and how it is resolved’.

About the author:
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and working in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s. An English literature graduate from the University of London, Daniel previously worked with the publishing company EMAP before relocating to Asia. Found elsewhere: Maxwell’s Notes
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Thai junta allows constitution referendum, delays elections even further http://asiancorrespondent.com/133020/thai-military-govt-to-allow-constitution-referendum-delays-elections-even-further/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133020/thai-military-govt-to-allow-constitution-referendum-delays-elections-even-further/#comments Wed, 20 May 2015 02:00:25 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133020 Pic: AP

Pic: AP

Thailand’s military government has said it will hold a referendum on its draft constitution. However, it’s not without a catch  – or several for that matter.

The issue of whether or not letting the Thai people decide on the draft for the country’s 20th constitution has resulted in some clearly drawn battles lines among Thailand’s governing bodies.

On one hand, members of the civic society, the sidelined political parties (likely afraid for their own professional future), the military junta’s National Reform Council (NRC) and even the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) have all been vocally in favor of a referendum.

On the other hand, the military government itself has been hesitant about the idea and even scolded the pro-referendum groups. It also insisted that the power to call for a referendum ultimately lies with the junta and the cabinet – both of which happened to be headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

(READ previous coverage: Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say?)

This back-and-forth came to an end on Tuesday:

Thailand’s military junta has decided to hold a referendum on the draft of its new post-coup charter, although details of the ballot’s options remain unclear. 

The decision was reached in the joint meeting between the junta and the Cabinet at the Government House today.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who chairs both the junta and the Cabinet, said his government will ask the interim parliament he appointed to amend the current constitution to allow for a referendum, which is not mentioned in the charter’s present form.

“Once the constitutional amendment is done, we will immediately proceed with the referendum,” Gen. Prayuth told reporters today. “Our duty is to make the law that allows for the procedure. As for the procedures themselves, they will be left to relevant agencies. The referendum will be the duty of the Election Commission.”

Junta Approves Charter Referendum, Leaving Details for Later”, Khaosod English, May 19, 2015

So, it sounds pretty straight-forward so far: Section 46 of the current interim constitution needs to be amended to mention the possibility for a referendum on the next constitution and has to be approved by the junta’s ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

The decision whether or not to hold a referendum has to be made before the draft constitution is approved in August by the National Reform Council (NRC) – however, if the NRC rejects it, the whole process would start anew again and the issue becomes irrelevant until a new draft has been drawn up (as illustrated here).

However, there’s this potential catch though:

“The NLA all agrees that a referendum should be held,” deputy president Peerasak Porchit said yesterday. “A public referendum should not be focused on whether to adopt or reject the whole constitution, as it may prevent good elements [from being implemented]. 

“However, voting on articles that are crucial would not be too difficult for the general public to understand,” he said.

Referendum should ‘focus on key charter points’”, The Nation, May 5, 2015

It is not known at this point if people can vote on the whole constitution draft or just on certain sections, which we don’t know at this point either.

There’s another catch:

“The referendum will take three months to put together. It will likely delay the roadmap,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha told journalists. The junta, which came to power in a coup last May, was initially due to approve the new constitution and organize elections in early 2016.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam explained that a referendum in January would need another several months “to amend various laws,” promising that elections would be held “not more than 90 days after.”

At the earliest it will take place around August or in September,” he added.

Thailand constitutional referendum to delay polls until August 2016”, Deutsche Welle, May 19, 2015

That’s another delay of elections after the military junta initially aimed for late 2015, before the time window was moved to sometime ”early 2016” – which shouldn’t have surprised anybody back then and shouldn’t surprise anybody now.

And then there’s – you guessed it – yet another catch:

General Prayut Chan-o-cha said Tuesday he would stay in power to oversee a new drafting process if the draft constitution was rejected by the public.

He said a new process would automatically begin if the current draft was rejected, either through a referendum or by other means, including by the international community.

Prayut vows to stay if draft charter rejected”, The Nation, May 12, 2015

A cynic might say that the military junta is holding the next elections to ransom in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote in the constitutional referendum – and they wouldn’t be wrong to think that. It is evident again that the military government has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and can move the goal posts (in this case until the next elections) as much as it wants to.

__________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul discusses his latest film ‘Cemetery of Splendour’ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132991/apichatpong-weerasethakul-thailand-cemetary-of-splendour/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132991/apichatpong-weerasethakul-thailand-cemetary-of-splendour/#comments Tue, 19 May 2015 01:27:53 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132991 Apichatpong Weerasethakul. (Picture: kickthemachine.com)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul. (Picture: kickthemachine.com)

By Isaan Record

Northeastern Thailand rarely features in internationally acclaimed cinema, but the region has been the setting for filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s beautifully allusive and atmospheric films for years.

Apichatpong grew up in the Northeast and graduated in architecture from Khon Kaen University. He then proceeded to study cinema at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In his films, Apichatpong creates mesmerizing images and nonlinear plots that often blur the boundaries between reality and imagination. While his work eludes any clear political leaning, Apichatpong cultivates a vivid interest in the margins. He often focuses on characters who rarely make it on Thai screens, like homosexual soldiers and migrant workers.

This fascination with borderlands and his enchantment with Khon Kaen have kept luring him to the Northeast. He once referred to the region as “the most precious treasure” of filmmaking possibilities in Thailand, and he wondered whether Isaan’s energy is “the backbone of contemporary Thai society and culture”.

After Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, and the hour-long Mekong Hotel from 2012, Apichatpong now returns with a new feature set in the Northeast.

Cemetery of Splendour (Thai: Rak Thi Khon Kaen) tells the story of a middle-aged woman who cares for a group of soldiers who contracted a mysterious sleeping sickness. Apichatpong calls the film a “very personal portrait” of his hometown Khon Kaen and “a rumination of Thailand, a feverish nation.”

This week, Cemetery of Splendour had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The Isaan Record talked to Apichatpong about childhood memories, Isaan dreaminess, sinking ships, dinosaurs and the Northeast’s communist past.

IR: How is your personal relationship to the Northeast reflected in your films?

A: Most of my films are more or less based on my memories from my time growing up in Khon Kaen. The landscape around and also the architecture. I prefer to depict the mood of Isaan, I guess it’s also the charm of the region.

My grandfather was from China and he relocated to Nakhon Sawan, so my father is actually from there. And my mom is from Bangkok, she is also from a Chinese family. After they graduated as medical doctors, they chose to live in Khon Kaen, to work at the hospital there. At that time nobody wanted to go to the Northeast.

When I was a little boy, I spent most of my time around the hospital. We lived in the doctor’s housing unit in the hospital area. And most of the doctors were from somewhere else and not from the Northeast.

I wasn’t really conscious about featuring the Northeast in my films in the beginning. I was more interested in borders. For one of my first films, I was interested in the Thai-Burmese border. I always was fascinated by the act of crossing borders.

It was only later when we had more of a budget that I started to feel that I wanted to move my films closer to Isaan.  About half of Syndromes and a Century was shot in the Northeast. And Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was about 95% shot in Isaan, in Khon Kaen and Loei Province. My newest film Cemetery of Splendour was shot completely in Khon Kaen.

IR: You are quoted saying that when you were younger you tried to hide your background of being from Khon Kaen. How has that changed over time?

A: Yes, it has changed a lot. When I was younger, up until my 20s, when I was trying to get into architectural school, I went to a tutoring school for architecture. I would say that I was from Khon Kaen, and people would laugh. But that would never happen now. It has changed quite a lot, in a good way. There are still some bits of resentment, but less than before.

For many people too, like Jenjira Pongpas, my regular actress, while she was living in Bangkok, she worked for a woman who supplied extras for TV and movies – supporting casts. And one of Jenjira’s jobs was to help them get rid of their Isaan accents. She taught them how to properly speak central Thai.

Continue reading at The Isaan Record

Cemetery of Splendour (Thai title: “รักที่ขอนแก่น”) premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18.

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About the author:
The Isaan Record is run by a small team of journalists based in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Follow us on Twitter @isaanrecord or friend us on Facebook.

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The state of LGBTI in Thailand: Tolerated, but still not quite accepted http://asiancorrespondent.com/132954/the-state-of-lgtbi-in-thailand-tolerated-but-still-not-quite-accepted-2/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132954/the-state-of-lgtbi-in-thailand-tolerated-but-still-not-quite-accepted-2/#comments Sun, 17 May 2015 02:40:26 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132954 LGBT Flag

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

It pays to be welcoming and tolerant – that piece of mundane everyday wisdom especially applies if you’re the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). In one of its few moments of actual good marketing, the TAT launched ‘Go Thai. Be Free’. a couple of years ago. The campaign is specifically aimed at lesbian and gay travelers and Thailand can pride itself as a destination that is rather liberal towards the LGBTI community – or can it?

Despite Thais being able to express their different sexual identities publicly and without fear of persecution, the country is still not quite at the point where everybody is fully included, as many are still facing obstacles and discrimination in their lives and change is coming at very slow pace.

Ironically, we may say real change under the current authoritarian military junta government, a regime generally more known for promoting sanctimonious moralist and traditionalist ”values”, which has passed of the Gender Equality Bill and potentially the Civil Partnership Registration Bill.

The Gender Equality Bill, which was passed in March, aims to outlaw: “Unfair discrimination among the sexes’ means any act or failure to act which segregates, obstructs or limits any rights, whether directly or indirectly, without legitimacy because that person is male or is female or has a sexual expression different from that person’s original sex.” It is the first of its kind in Thailand to explicitly recognize gender diversity, but rights groups have criticized exceptions stipulated in the draft concerning education, religion and ”public interest.” These parts have been removed from the final version.

A rather long history has been behind the campaign for marriage equality, starting back in 2012 and gained an unprecedented bi-partisan push in 2013 well on its way being passed, before eventually getting lost in legislative limbo due to the political crisis and the subsequent dissolution of parliament in late 2013.

This issue was picked later after the military coup exactly a year by the junta’s fully-appointed ersatz-parliament in form of the Civil Partnership Act, which defines “civil partnership” as “two persons of same sex who have registered under the bill,” and includes stipulations including property rights between partners and rights in case the partnership has ended.

However, this bill is also not without its problems:

Superficially, civil partnerships seem to enjoy the same rights and status as heterosexual marriages under the Family Act. However, when looked at in detail, the bill does not entitle homosexual partners to raise children. Moreover, the minimum age of those allowed to register civil partnerships is 20, while for the heterosexual marriage it is 17.

Unlike the Civil Solidarity Pact in France, which allows either opposite-sex or same-sex couples to register for civil partnerships, Thailand’s draft civil partnership bill is for homosexual couples only.  

Anjana Suvarnananda, head of Anjaree and a renowned LGBT rights campaigner in Thailand, considers this bill as yet another form of discrimination, which puts homosexual couples into a different category and as a result, they enjoy different rights from opposite-sex couples.

Same-sex marriage may come true under Thai junta”, Prachatai English, October 9, 2014

Not only the controversial fine print in the bill, but also the general political situation led to debate in the LBGTI community. On one hand it would be a unprecedented watershed moment towards marriage equality in Thailand’s history. However, on the other hand, given how problematic it could be for future elected governments to amend or pass new laws because of the military junta’s political ”reforms”, it could mean an imperfect marriage equality bill that is very unlikely to be amended in the near future.

But the problems for the LGBTI community are facing are not only of legal or political nature, but more often than not they run much deeper, especially when it comes transgenders. Social critic and Siam Voices contributor Kaewmala said in a 2012 interview:

Compared to many other societies, yes, Thai society is quite open in day-to-day treatment of people with different sexual orientations and gender identities. (…) We have transgender people working prominently in shopping malls, in customer services, in beauty, entertainment and sex venues. But that’s pretty much where most of them are. Very few of them are in regular jobs, often not because they don’t want to, but the opportunities are limited. They are still discriminated against widely in terms of employment. Their opportunities are even officially restricted, in particular in government, police and military jobs. Military service regulations still include “katoey” as a prohibited disease and hence disqualifies anyone who is a katoey to apply for jobs in military service. Only months ago that the official branding of transgender people as “having a permanent mental disorder” on the military conscription exemption paper was finally put to stop. This paper has been the biggest obstacle for transgender people for a long time and has prevented them getting jobs, visas, doing legal transactions, etc.

In short, socially there is a fair amount of tolerance for people with different sexual identities but they are still lots of problems and unfair treatments going on based on attitudes and laws and official regulations in this country, most particularly concerning transgender people. It’s not all peaches!

On ‘100% Thai manliness’ and the reality of LBGT in Thailand”, Siam Voices, June 7, 2012

And systematic discrimination already starts very early, as a joint-study by UNESCO, Plan International and Mahidol University found out:

Nearly one-third (30.9%) of self-identified LGBT students reported having experienced physical abuse, 29.3% reported verbal abuse, and 24.4% reported being victims of sexual harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Around two-thirds of victims said they did not report these incidents or even talk about them with anyone.

The report paints a troubling picture of the impact of this bullying has on teens. Nearly one-quarter (23%) of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression were depressed, as compared to only 6% of those that had not been bullied at all. This depression can lead to self-harm. Most alarmingly, seven percent of those bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression reported having attempted suicide in the past year.

Media Release: Study shows Thai schools have a long way to go in promoting acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and school safety”, UNESCO Bangkok, November 29, 2013

Unlike most of its regional neighbors (except for Vietnam, which recently decriminalized same-sex marriages), Thailand has a head start on LGBTI issues, but it must not rest on its laurels.

There are no reliable statistics (yet) on what percentage of the Thai population identify themselves with as LGBTI, but there’s really no point denying anymore that people of various sexual orientations are part of Thai society and all efforts should be made to include everybody in this society (and any other societies around the world for that matter), regardless of what somebody identifies as and who somebody choose to love.

May 17 marks the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT)

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Transition to ‘autonomy’ leaves Khon Kaen University facing an uncertain future http://asiancorrespondent.com/132780/transition-to-autonomy-leaves-khon-kaen-university-facing-an-uncertain-future/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132780/transition-to-autonomy-leaves-khon-kaen-university-facing-an-uncertain-future/#comments Wed, 13 May 2015 03:20:45 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132780 Image from Khon Kaen University's website.

Image from Khon Kaen University’s website.

By The Isaan Record

On Friday, Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly (NLA) passed bills to privatize Khon Kaen University and three other higher education institutions. The continuing privatization of Thailand’s universities raises concerns among student activists and academics who warn of soaring tuition fees, exclusion of lower income students, and too much power moving into the hands of too few.

As Thailand remains under military rule, many question the timing of the recent push to transition more universities from a public to a so-called “autonomous” status.

In addition to Khon Kaen University (KKU), similar bills were passed for Thammasat, Kasetsart, and Suan Dusit Rajabhat Universities.

University privatization plans have been the target of student protests in recent months. Students from Thammasat University recently presented a petition with 2,702 signatures to the NLA, calling for more transparency in the privatization process and student participation in the university’s affairs.

In early April at KKU, a student activist climbed onto the roof of the campus’ centrally-located Complex to roll out a banner featuring the message: “Khon Kaen University Company Limited – University President-Dictator.” He was calling to oppose the government’s push to turn the public university into a privatized institution.

The initiative for an autonomous university system began in the 1990s and accelerated due to pressure to privatize public services from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.

Since then, 15 universities out of 185 tertiary education institutions nationwide have transitioned to the autonomous system, almost always accompanied by student protests.

Once made autonomous, universities leave the state’s bureaucratic system and set up their own administrative and budgetary structures. All decision-making power on management and financial matters as well as personnel and curricula policies is held by the university council.

Continue reading at the Isaan Record

________________________
About the author:
The Isaan Record is run by a small team of journalists based in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Follow us on Twitter @isaanrecord or friend us on Facebook.

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Thailand’s post-coup constitution: Will the people have a say? http://asiancorrespondent.com/132825/thailands-post-coup-constitution-will-the-people-have-a-say/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132825/thailands-post-coup-constitution-will-the-people-have-a-say/#comments Tue, 12 May 2015 01:08:27 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132825 A Thai soldier stands guard in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok after the military seized power on May 22. Pic: AP.

A Thai soldier stands guard in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok after the military seized power on May 22. Pic: AP.

Thailand’s draft for the next constitution is still subject to heated debate. But  the hottest issue at the moment is whether the Thai people will actually have a say in the next charter via a referendum.

It’s been almost a month now since the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) presented the fruits of their labor with the new draft that will become Thailand’s 20th constitution (download the draft and English translation here, more analysis in the coming weeks) – that is, if it actually survives the coming weeks and months.

Since a military coup ousted the popularly elected but embattled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra almost exactly a year ago, Thailand’s military junta government is trying its absolute best to ensure that this draft, and with it its singular vision about the country’s political power structure, is written into law with minimal changes.

After the previous military coup of 2006 that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra the Constitution of 1997 was scrapped. Instead of what was widely regarded as the “People’s Constitution” that pushed Thailand towards democracy, the interim government drew up the 2007 Constitution. It included stipulations like a two-term limit for the prime minister, a half-appointed senate and easier processes to impeach the government.

Curiously, and specified in the 2006 interim constitution, the then-military junta put this draft to a referendum and launched a far-reaching PR-campaign (knowing well that it controlled the airwaves, see more examples herehere, and here) calling on the people to vote in favor of it. Eventually, the referendum in August 2007 went in favor of the constitution with 58 to 42 per cent (turnout: 57 per cent) and elections were held later that year in December – only for another Thaksin-associated party to come to power (and later repeated in 2011 with Thaksin’s sister Yingluck).

Now, with the 2007 version thrown into the bin again, another Shinawatra government toppled, and the military tightening its grip on power, a new draft has been drawn up by the junta’s all-appointed Constitutional Drafting Committee and the question many are asking is if there will be a referendum again?

There were signs as early as one month after the coup that the military is against a referendum this time. Then later in October – with the country still under martial law – National Reform Council (NRC) member Chai-Anan Samudavanija had this rather singular take on the issue:

Once the constitution had been drafted, he saw no need for a national referendum, because there weren’t any clearly conflicting issues.

“Usually, a referendum is required when opinions are split between alternative options; whether society wants A or B. However in the current situation, those alternative options aren’t apparent, therefore, a referendum is not necessary.”

“Public endorsement of the constitution can, instead, be demonstrated through the absence of public dissent,” he pointed out.

‘Fewer MPs would mean less corruption’”, The Nation, October 13, 2015 – via Bangkok Pundit

The referendum issue flared up again in March when the sidelined political parties from both sides of the spectrum (the ousted, Thaksin-associated Pheu Thai Party and the opposition, ‘Democrat’ Party) started to become more vocal:

In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Pheu Thai legal experts, led by Pongthep Thepkanchana and secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, insist a referendum must be carried out — and the public should be given a choice of an alternative if they don’t like the one currently being written.

Asking the public to simply accept or reject the new charter is not enough, they say. The voters should be given options and allowed to pick a version of a charter — for example the 1997 version — if they disagree with the coup-sponsored draft.

The experts’ suggestion is in line with what the Democrat Party has proposed, but the Democrats called for the 2007 version (…) to be one of the choices. (…) [Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva] outlined his support for a referendum in a previous interview with the Bangkok Post, saying it will not only ensure the legitimacy of the new charter, but it will also help quell any suspicions the charter has been designed to allow the coup-makers and other bodies set up after the coup to prolong their hold on power.

Pheu Thai backs charter referendum”, Bangkok Post, March 16, 2015

These calls were repeated by both parties and have been echoed in the most unlikeliest of places, as both NRC member Alongkorn Polabutr and even the CDC’s chairman Borwornsak Uwanno voiced their support for a vote by the people.

However, the military junta government is still staunchly against this and put some people back in their place:

“The CDC needs not say anything because a public referendum is neither the matter nor duty of the drafting panel,” Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngarm said. “It is the matter for the cabinet and the National Council for Peace and Order to decide.” (…) “The CDC’s job was finished once it completed drafting the new constitution,” Mr Wissanu said.

Govt lashes out at CDC, NRC for referendum remarks”, Bangkok Post, April 30, 2015

However, junta leader and Prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on the same day that it’s not up to him but the CDC and NRC to decide whether or not to hold a referendum. The question here if he was either referring to himself as the prime minister or the leader of the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta is officially called, since both positions are occupied by him – in the same way many positions are in the NCPO and in the cabinet.

Meanwhile, civil society groups are speaking up on this matter, while academics, activists, students, NGOs and alternative media organizations have launched their pro-referendum campaign with the unveiling of the website prachamati.org (the Thai word for referendum), providing a forum where users can debate and vote on crucial parts of the draft constitution – because that’s exactly what’s currently not happening in the real world.

We can expect a pretty clear schedule in the coming weeks: The cabinet and the junta (essentially the same people) submit their comments to the CDC by May 25. Then the CDC has until July 23 to amend the draft and send the final version to the NRC, which has two weeks to review and approve by August 6 – or not and then start the whole process all over again.

The issue of whether or not to let the Thai people vote on the new constitution is yet another thorny one for the military junta, which doesn’t like leaving anything to chance (or rather choice in this case), most evidently illustrated by the junta’s threat in case of a referendum to delay the future election even further into 2016.

__________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Pressing questions after human trafficking grave found in southern Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/132655/pressing-questions-after-human-trafficking-grave-found-in-southern-thailand/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132655/pressing-questions-after-human-trafficking-grave-found-in-southern-thailand/#comments Mon, 04 May 2015 22:30:13 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132655 Thai rescuers carry a dead body to a hospital in Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Friday. Pic: AP.

Thai rescuers carry a dead body to a hospital in Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Friday. Pic: AP.

Thailand’s military government is facing new pressure following the discovery of a mass grave in the country’s south, where dozens of bodies, presumably victims of human trafficking, were buried. Police have made several arrests linked to the crime and the Thai junta has vowed to take action.

The shallow graves containing 26 bodies were discovered by Thai authorities on Friday in Songkhla province, deep in the jungle near the Malaysian border and is believed to be part of a camp where up to 400 trafficked migrants were held for ransom and confined to 39 bamboo huts. Some survivors were found at or near the camp. On the possible cause of death, a Thai police officer stated:

“From initial forensic investigation at the site there are no marks on the bones or breakages that would suggest a violent death,” Police Colonel Triwit Sriprapa, deputy commander of Songkhla Provincial Police, said. “It is likely that they died from disease and malnutrition.”

Bodies from mass grave in Thailand jungle camp ‘didn’t die violently’“, South Chinese Morning Post, May 4, 2015

Thai police also have yet to confirm that the migrants were Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority that have been denied citizenship in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) and targeted in violent persecutions by extremist Buddhists over the past couple of years, resulting in hundreds being killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. This has driven thousands to flee the country, many via the Andaman Sea in the hope of reaching Malaysia or Indonesia, but often illegally cross into Thai territory. These risky boat trips are mostly facilitated or intercepted by human traffickers, who then hold these refugees for ransom from their relatives or force into them into labor to pay off their debts.

That these cases have become so rampant and busts like the one last week are so rare is due to many factors: on one hand Thai authorities regard these migrants as illegal economic immigrants and not as refugees. Also they in some instances have failed to report such activities based on a technicality. Even worse, some Thai officials themselves were directly involved in human trafficking as well, with few consequences (see Siam Voices’ coverage in 2013) – other than going after those reporting on these shortcomings.

This has partly contributed to Thailand’s poor anti-human trafficking record, resulting in a downgrade by the U.S. Sate Department last year and more recently being put on a watch list by the European Union because of slaves on Thai fishing boats (see here, here and here) – which could result in a trade ban for Thai seafood products.

The methods of the traffickers have become more sophisticated, as fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Francis Wade wrote:

[…] it’s worth remembering how [Thai] officials have aided and profited from a trade suspected to be worth up to $250 million annually. With the rising profits has also come a greater sophistication in the trade: the boy who watched fellow travelers being pitched into the ocean said he only managed to survive because his boat had a desalination plant that supplied fresh water to his and other vessels carrying trafficked Rohingya. As Phuketwan notes, the clampdowns on onshore trafficking sites have moved the industry further “offshore”, and onto floating camps where the smugglers’ bounty is held until the next link in the trafficking chain running from Burma (Myanmar) to Thailand is ready to take them. Until demand is curtailed, traffickers will keep coming up with new ways to ensure the industry stays afloat.

Rohingya deaths: String of mass graves stretches from Burma to Thailand“, by Francis Wade, Asian Correspondent, May 1, 2015

Also, a survivor who managed to escape captivity told The Nation about the conditions in these camps, saying the 26 bodies may only be the tip of the iceberg:

(…) this survivor said he had heard that more than 500 victims were killed at various camps holding human-trafficking or kidnap victims along the Thai-Malaysian borders. “I’ve also heard that thousands of Rohingya migrants were at those camps waiting for promised jobs or for ransom to arrive,” he said.

This survivor said he was lured out of Myanmar’s Rakhine state six months ago by an offer to find him a job in Malaysia. He ended up in the same camp as Kazim, where between 700 and 800 migrants were held. “My mum had to sell our family’s land to pay for my ransom. That’s why I am still safe,” he said. (…)

The survivor from the camp said that during his time there, between 17 and 20 people were killed. “They were either shot or clubbed to death,” he said. He said victims whose relatives could not afford the ransom would be fatally attacked or left to die.

Survivor believes more than 500 killed in camps“, by Krissana Thiwatsirikul, Mary Bradley & Somjit Rungjamrasrassamee, The Nation, May 4, 2015

Thai authorities said on Monday that four suspects have been arrested in connection to the mass grave, among them a local administrative official, two police officers and a Burmese man. The latter is reportedly already known to the police as a human trafficker and his arrest is hailed as “huge”, according to the provincial deputy police commander. Four other suspects are being sought.

Meanwhile, after inspecting the scene with the National Police chief over the weekend, Thai army chief General Udomdej Sitabutr has pledged to “punish” local authorities if illegal smuggling of Rohingyas take place in their respective jurisdictions. This was followed later that day by an order to transfer local police officers to inactive posts, among them the police commander of Satun province, high ranking officers of the border town Padang Besar’s police station, and the border patrol police.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and international inquiry. That is not very surprising, since it expresses skepticism towards the Thai authorities – given that they have been aware of human trafficking actions for years, but have failed to act upon it with some even enriching themselves with it – and their ability to completely clean up their own ranks.

_____________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Thailand: Public assembly law creates new hurdles for political protests http://asiancorrespondent.com/132633/thailand-public-assembly-law-creates-new-hurdles-for-political-protests/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132633/thailand-public-assembly-law-creates-new-hurdles-for-political-protests/#comments Mon, 04 May 2015 01:06:20 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132633 Pic: AP.

Pic: AP.

In the past decade, Thailand has seen fair share of political protests. As color-coded groups staged prolonged, large-scale street rallies, politics frequently more often took place outside than inside its usual institutions. Many of these protests went on for several weeks with varying degrees of impact on public life as major public areas (Rajaprasong Intersection in 2010 and 2014, Democracy Monument), numerous government buildings (even Government House itself in 2008) and even Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (also in 2008) have been occupied. And many protests have also sparked violent incidents (sometimes deliberately provoked), some resulting in deaths as protesters have clashed with security officials – or in the case of the red shirt protests of 2010 – the military.

The last major demonstrations we’ve seen were the anti-government protests of 2013-14, which lasted almost half a year and brought parts of the capital Bangkok to a grinding halt – not to mention halting political discourse, deliberately creating a deadlock in which the military could easily launch the coup of May 22, 2014.

Following that hostile takeover and the declaration of martial law, the military junta outlawed public gatherings of more than five people. But even after its recent revocation has effectively banned any protests, as the infamous Article 44 still gives the junta near-absolute power.

Then, the military government’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), passed a law on Friday that seeks to regulate future public protests:

People seeking to stage a public protest must inform authorities 24 hours in advance, and others who think they create public nuisance may petition the Administrative Court or courts of justice under the new public assembly law passed on Friday.

The law also prohibits public gatherings in the 150-metre radius of the royal places of Their Majesties, those of the royal family members, and residences of regents/royal guests. A public rally cannot be held on the premises of Parliament, Government House and courts unless authorities arrange a spot for it. (…) Other places deemed off-limits include embassies, consuls and international agencies.

The law requires a rally organisers to notify police officers supervising the area they would like to use as the rally venue at least 24 hours before the assembly. They must also tell authorities the purpose of the gathering and how long it will last.

New public assembly law passed”, Bangkok Post, May 1, 2015

The bill was in the works since August last year after a proposal by the Royal Thai Police was approved by the cabinet in late November. The draft bill passed its first reading in the NLA with an overwhelmingly unanimous 182-0 vote in late February. The core components, such as the 24-hours notification and no-go areas at key government buildings, were left untouched until the final vote by the NLA. Other restrictions include a ban on loudspeakers between midnight and 6am, a requirement of protesters to stay at the site between 6pm and 6am and (obviously understandable) a ban on weapons at the rallies (a more detailed list can be found here).

Any violation of these restrictions is enough for the police officer charged with overseeing the protest (in most cases the commander of the police station which has been asked for permission) to declare the protest “illegal” and seek an order to disperse at the civil or provincial courts.

Protesters that refuse to leave despite being ordered by the police could face up to a year in jail and/or a maximum fine of 20,000 Baht (about $600). Other punishments include up to 6 months prison and/or 10,000 baht (about $300) for protesting without police permission, also up to six months for the rally organizers for any stage-related violation (loudspeakers after midnight, “inciting” speeches) and up to 10 years imprisonment for carrying weapons, trespassing and damage, making threats and causing harm to others and any disruption of public service and utilities (e.g. water and electricity).

That’s a lot of obstacles for future protests. Furthermore, declaring most key government buildings such as Government House and Parliament off limits is understandable given that these sites have been besieged and occupied before, but it also prevents some protesters – the smaller, non-obstructive kind – from certain symbolic acts, such as handing petitions to politicians. That is if they even get this far.

The first hurdle that organizers have now to face is asking the police for permission, which could look like this in practice:

If the police station chief says no, we have the right to appeal to his boss. And if the boss says no too, his judgement will be deemed final. But we can still appeal to the court against the ban.

By then, I expect many affected groups which want to have their voices heard through protest will become frustrated and may scrap their planned expression of discontent. Another scenario is that a planned protest will lose steam because instead of protesting, the people involved will be forced to waste their time in courtroom battles.

Also, which police station chief – who will likely be of police colonel rank – will say yes to a protest in his area of jurisdiction at the risk of being reprimanded by his boss? So, there is a likelihood that rejection will be the norm.

Harsh laws on public gatherings a blow to democracy“, Bangkok Post, May 4, 2015

As usual with laws and regulations in Thailand, it’s not the exact wording that is the problem but the motivation that it was written with. A certain fatigue of political protests regularly descending into chaos is understandable, however one should take the circumstances of the bill’s creation into consideration. There has been absolutely no input by the public and the draft was waved through with few to no changes.

One must also not forget the military junta’s general disdain to any display of public dissent, including rallies concerning environmental issues. The new law could give future governments – and possible extra-parliamentary forces – a handy tool to curtail political protests.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Sanctioned sadism: Thai universities’ barbaric hazing culture http://asiancorrespondent.com/132574/thailand-university-hazing/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132574/thailand-university-hazing/#comments Fri, 01 May 2015 03:09:37 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132574 Images of hazing rituals at Thailand's universities are regularly shared on social media. Image via Facebook.

Images of hazing rituals at Thailand’s universities are regularly shared on social media. Image via Facebook.

“It’s like being in hell,” said one university student, describing the feeling of taking part in one of Thailand’s notorious, and seemingly intractable, university hazing rituals. The practice of hazing in Thailand, which goes under the acronym SOTUS (Seniority: Order: Tradition: Unity: Spirit), or Rab Nong (welcoming the young), is thought to have originated in Kasetsart University in the late 1940s, modeled on hazing at Cornell University and other universities in the US. Cornell has now prohibited hazing; in Thailand it’s incorrigibly recurrent in many universities.

In Chiang Mai this month senior students at Chiang Mai University came under the spotlight after it was revealed that new students, freshies, had been beaten sometime between April 17-19. Pictures of their bruises, albeit not severe, appeared later on social media. The university avowed to investigate and punish seniors, likely reenacting their own freshman welcome, only if they did it, “without approval from the university,” according to a report in Khaosod. However, approved SOTUS, and its unapologetically fundamental criteria of often violently introducing new students to the university and its hierarchy, will no doubt remain intact, as it is a consequence of a wider culture that pervades the Thai ethos: that of entrenching young minds in a hierarchical order.

Students during hazing at worst might be stripped naked, beaten, sexually harassed, forced to crawl through dirty water, even killed (though you would think accidentally), and at the very least, in the negative, be shouted at and humiliated. At times hazing might look more like university sanctioned sadism than it does a warm welcome.

Phokhai Saengrojrat, a student at Pathumthani Technical College, died after reportedly being forced to consume an alcoholic drink and soon after having his face pushed into the sand at Sai Noi Beach in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province, after which, reports say, he suffocated. The boy’s parents later told the press that they wanted the loss of their child to be the last time such a thing happens due to hazing. There have been other deaths. In 2008 a student from Uthenthawai University died from injuries sustained during a hazing session. Photos and videos, students claimed at Chiang Mai University, are not allowed during these rituals, but since of the arrival of social media hazing has thankfully been scandalized to an almost effective degree.

A short film called ‘Vicious Cycle’ (below, with English translation), made by Thai students, demonstrates the brutality of the hazing ritual. Anti-SOTUS social media pages, which have gained thousands of followers, have been set up in an attempt to give the barbarity of SOTUS some public attention, and yet, in spite of such a prevailing negative backlash to this ordained university culture, it continues.

The Ministry of Education has stated that students are under no obligation to attend such rituals, and has laid down guidelines, which include: “Morally follow acceptable traditions and the culture of society”, and “No harassment both physically and mentally”. The National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRC) has in the past made some progress, it seems, working with universities on human rights issues concerning hazing, and yet, the practice goes on.

The student who compared SOTUS to a living hell wrote on the Anti-SOTUS Facebook page that students at Maejo University in Chiang Mai, infamous for its severe hazing rituals, had been given some commandments to adhere to (hundreds of students protested against SOTUS at Mae Jo in 2011).

1) Respect Maejo law as the law of the Kingdom itself.

2) Do the right thing. Do what the seniors tell you.

3) Finish your sentence with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ every time when you address an upperclassmen.

4) Upon hearing Maejo’s anthem you must stand to attention, heads down and salute.

Students report that often peer pressure, and fear of being ostracized, is one of the reasons they attend the hazing rituals. One philosophy major told Chiang Mai CityNews, “The seniors will tell all the other students not to talk to you. Freshmen don’t want to be separated, so they do it. Many students don’t want to do it, but they are too afraid to say anything. We want to be able to make a choice; our hope is that soon it will change.”

There are students that support the ‘tradition’, even in the face of protests, and others state that SOTUS had given them strength and confidence, admiration for the institution, with one student writing on an Anti-SOTUS Facebook page, “SOTUS made me love my university forever. It stuck with me for life.”

SOTUS is by no means always a reprehensible activity, devoid of good intentions, plagued by violence. It is, as can sometimes be seen on university campuses, a little bit of fun. But even so, the nature of SOTUS has an underlying, unequivocal, prerogative: to oppress an individual’s freedom. Thailand’s newspapers often lament the lack of critical thinking among individuals. In truth, they should be chastising these university rituals, because that’s where critical thinking is hammered out of students before they even pay their book fees.

Outspoken academic at Chiang Mai University, Tanet Charoenmuang, now retired, wrote a paper called, ‘Shouting – The Creation and Inheritance of Dictatorship in University’, outlining how SOTUS impinges on human rights and freedom, stating that students conditioned in the hazing system, “in my mind, are victims of a dictatorship system.” This was before Thailand had a real, unambiguous dictator.

Let us compare some of the above commandments at Maejo University to some of Prayuth’s 12 Core Values, which students are asked to recite each morning at school.

  1. Upholding the nation, the religions and the Monarchy, which is the key institution: (Respect Maejo law as the law of the kingdom itself).
  2. Being grateful to the parents, guardians and teachers: (Do the right thing. Do what the seniors tell you).
  3. Maintaining discipline, respectful of laws and the elderly and seniority: (Finish your sentence with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ every time when you address an upperclassmen).
  4. Putting the public and national interest before personal interest: (Upon hearing Mae Jo’s anthem you must stand to attention, heads down and salute).

Because SOTUS is consanguineous with a hierarchical, dictatorial system, it is absolutely undemocratic. SOTUS is not anomalous, confined to bad boys and girls within the grounds of academia; SOTUS is ingrained in Thai culture, dare I say, it’s Thainess, or at least one of the more negative aspects of the nebulous umbrella term that is very reductively supposed to define all Thais. Getting rid of SOTUS is a good idea, but it’s not ideal, because what brought it into being is bigger than what happens on campus.

Image via Facebook.

Image via Facebook.

Hazing rituals are not only evident in academia. The Thai army, as is shown in lurid photos on the NoConscript Facebook page and can be seen in videos that occasionally surface on social media, seems to have its own form of hazing, which usually seems to entail highly abusive enforcement of homo-erotic acts on conscripts. In the video highlighted the young soldiers laugh, but their treatment is far from amusing – maybe laughter is the best mechanism to assail such oppression, as children are apt to do reflexively sometimes when forced into a corner.

As with SOTUS, humiliation and the liquidation of dignity seems to be the modus operandi of the senior oppressors. Again, this is to preserve the status regimen, simply, to put people in their place, and while the army’s thoroughly nasty didactic approach to conditioning might be more severe than what we see in educational intuitions, it’s all part of the same ethos: to weaken individuality and enforce a belief in a carefully structured hierarchy.

The oppressed, once endowed with authority and seniority, become the oppressors, and as the students who made the video so perfectly put it, the Vicious Cycle continues. And it won’t end until the hierarchy itself is deconstructed in the minds of Thai people.

About the author:
James Austin
is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.

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Compulsive loquaciousness: Thai junta PM goes off script at media gala dinner http://asiancorrespondent.com/132545/compulsive-loquaciousness-thai-junta-pm-goes-off-script-at-media-gala-dinner/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132545/compulsive-loquaciousness-thai-junta-pm-goes-off-script-at-media-gala-dinner/#comments Thu, 30 Apr 2015 03:00:20 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132545 Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP.

Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP.

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.

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About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Foreign teachers in Thailand hope for stability amid education overhaul http://asiancorrespondent.com/132549/foreign-teachers-in-thailand-hope-for-stability-amid-education-overhaul/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132549/foreign-teachers-in-thailand-hope-for-stability-amid-education-overhaul/#comments Thu, 30 Apr 2015 02:19:12 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132549 Pic: Daniel Maxwell.

Pic: Daniel Maxwell.

By Daniel Maxwell

On April 17, a number of senior civil servants at the Teachers’ Council of Thailand (TCT) were removed in a dramatic move by Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to kick start the nation’s desperately needed education reforms. The TCT had been responsible for professional development, academic standards and the issuing of teaching licenses. With Thailand’s education system showing few signs of improvement over the past decade, the reaction to this bold move was largely positive.

And it wasn’t just parents that accepted this news with little objection, many foreign teachers were relieved to hear that the current leadership of the TCT had been shown the door. For many the TCT has been a thorn in the side with their ever-changing policies which had teachers jumping through hoops on a regular basis.

Ensuring the quality and appropriateness of individuals who are entrusted with educating Thailand’s youth is clearly an essential task that cannot be neglected. Most people would agree that background checks and monitoring individuals who work in schools is essential – teachers and language instructors need the appropriate knowledge, skills and temperament to work in schools. But what had frustrated and often infuriated foreign teachers was the inconsistent and rapidly changing manner in which these measures had been introduced and enforced.

Over the years, the policies from the TCT have complicated the hiring of foreign language instructors. This has been at odds with the Ministry of Education’s policy of encouraging schools to employ native English speaking teachers to support a communicative approach to foreign language learning. It sometimes appeared that the education departments were working against each another with one department encouraging foreign teachers while the other department was restricting their ability to work legally.

The Thai Ministry of Education has sought to increase the numbers of native English speaking instructors to facilitate language learning since a push to improve English language standards was initiated with the National Education Act 1999. The exact number of foreign teachers working in Thailand is difficult to accurately answer as explained in a rather amusing post on this teaching forum. It’s unlikely that any agency has a truly accurate figure for the number of foreign teachers in Thailand but estimates exist and the numbers are significant.

On Thailand’s leading TEFL website www.Ajarn.com there were 3,494 job ads in 2014 – with the average advertisement offering three positions that put the number of teaching vacancies on Ajarn.com alone at over 10,000 positions last year. Add this to the number of teachers recruited by agencies and organization such as CIEE who alone send as many as 1,000 American graduates to Thailand each year to teach English as a second language. Then take into account the number of teachers allocated positions as part of their TEFL/TESOL course and let’s not forget the international school sector which educates over 60,000 students and employs over 5,000 teachers. Finally, remembering that there are thousands of teachers who actually remain in their positions year after year and it’s no surprise that estimates for the number of foreign teachers working in Thailand lie between 30,000 and 50,000. All these foreign teachers are entirely dependant on the TCT’s approval before they can apply for work permits and annual visa extensions. With so many foreign nationals at the mercy of the TCT’s fickle decision making, it’s hardly surprising it has been seen as a thorn in the side.

The demands of the TCT have varied from year to year ranging from the sensible and idealistic to the downright unrealistic. Their two most debated policies have been the TCT Thai Culture, Ethics and Language Course and the TCT Professional Knowledge Test.

TCT Thai Culture Ethics and Language Course

The actual thinking behind the Thai Culture Course is solid – all foreign teachers working in Thailand should have a fundamental understanding of Thai culture – that makes perfect sense. However, as has often been case, the manner in which the policy was implemented and enforced, displayed a lack of planning and common sense.

The TCT Thai Culture course could only be provided by a small number of institutions that had gained permission from the TCT to administer the Culture Course. It is interesting that the welfare, education and assessment of thousands of Thai students is entrusted to schools across the country, but these same institutions were not trusted with the delivery of a simple 20-hour introductory course to Thai culture. Institutions wishing to administer this course required ‘special approval’, something that led some online teacher discussions to label the culture course as another strategy for increasing the coffers in the tea fund.

Furthermore, many of the teachers who completed this course came away complaining that they had not actually learned anything new about Thai culture, although it may be useful for teachers fresh off the plane. The experiences of one teacher in a blog entry from 2008 make for good reading and provide an interesting insight to what the actual course covered.

The Thai Culture course, which was first introduced in 2006, has been suspended and restarted almost as many times as Britney Spears’ pop career. It was last suspended in 2013 amid  romours of irregularities among some of the course providers.

TCT Professional Knowledge (PK) Test

The TCT PK test was introduced as a route for teachers without internationally recognized teaching qualifications, such as B.Ed., M.Ed., PGCE etc., to demonstrate their capability as foreign language instructors and gain that illusive teachers’ license – again a good idea, in principal.

The assessment consisted of five tests which were offered on an annual basis. The tests were in fact an English translation of the multiple choice assessments that Thai teachers are required to take and included a number of questions not necessarily relevant to foreign teacher such as – ‘which offences can disqualify you from your pension?’

These annual assessments were seen by many as further hurdles to job security and not actual achievable realities. This view is reinforced by an interesting account of a teacher that actually completed and passed the entire series of assessments – much to the fascination of the TCT officials who had never encountered a successful examinee.

Another teacher who successfully completed these tests was rewarded with a 3-year license to continue teaching at her present school – a lot of time and effort for a reward that could have been achieved by simply getting a couple of waiver letters.

The TCT’s Culture Courses and Professional Knowledge tests are now both on hold – there is uncertainty as to whether they will be restarted or whether these qualifications will even remain valid, leaving the teachers who have spent time and money on obtaining these ‘qualifications’ with further uncertainty.

There have been countless other innovations from the TCT over the years and even within the last 6 months there were two new policies which further infuriated teachers hoping to work legally in Thailand.

University Degree Verification Letters

In September last year it was announced that foreign teachers would require an additional document from their university to authenticate their university degree. This letter needed to be sent directly from the university to TCT offices. It’s hardly surprising that most teachers were unhappy about having to spend more time (and money) recertifying their university documents and few had faith that the TCT would be able to successfully process verification letters from tens of thousands of teachers arriving directly from foreign universities.

The Thainess Course

No sooner had the dust begin to settle from the verification letter policy than there was news of a new 40-hour course to ensure that teachers correctly understood the concept of Thainess. This new course would supersede the TCT’s previous Thai Culture Course, meaning all foreign teachers would need to spend more hard earned money and an entire week on a training course to learn about Thainess.

Amusing as this merry-go-round of policy changes may be for onlookers it has become stressful and disconcerting for individuals whose livelihoods stand at the beck and call of civil servants at the TCT. One teacher working at Catholic school in Bangkok’s suburbs summarized these realities:

“I have a family here and I feel really insecure with the ever-changing demands from the Teachers Council. I’ve taken the Culture Course and some of the PK tests but they’ve been suspended now and just the other month there was talk of a new course we all need to take. It’s so frustrating. I know teachers who have left Thailand because of all this nonsense but I don’t want to do that so I have keeping jumping through the TCT’s hoops ….I’m really hoping for greater stability in the future.”

About the author:
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and working in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s. An English literature graduate from the University of London, Daniel previously worked with the publishing company EMAP before relocating to Asia. Found elsewhere: Maxwell’s Notes
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‘Handy happiness': How glitzy malls are taking over life in Bangkok http://asiancorrespondent.com/132350/handy-happiness-how-glitzy-malls-are-taking-over-life-in-bangkok/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132350/handy-happiness-how-glitzy-malls-are-taking-over-life-in-bangkok/#comments Thu, 23 Apr 2015 02:25:24 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132350 The Siam Paragon mall alone reportedly uses almost twice as much power as the entire province of Mae Hong Son. Pic: AP.

The Siam Paragon mall alone reportedly uses almost twice as much power as the entire province of Mae Hong Son. Pic: AP.

By Thitipol Panyalimpanun

Tourists in Thailand searching for the real Bangkokian’s lifestyle experience needn’t shop at Jatujak Market, have pad thai on Khaosarn Road or go clubbing in Nana. Just go to malls. Bangkokians go to malls.

In the past decade political protests in Bangkok have been going beyond more traditional locations like Democracy Monument, Sanam Luang and Lumphini Park, with more gatherings in front of popular shopping venues. These malls are where people are. During the recent political turmoil it was not until the protest mobs took to the prime shopping avenues around Siam and Ratchaprasong junction that most people felt unease.

The passion for big shopping multiplexes is huge, too. Siam Paragon, for example, where the ‘1984′-reading and sandwich-eating demonstration took place, was the most tagged location on Instagram, not only in Thailand, but in the world in 2013, and fourth in 2014.

Last month, when Bangkokians were hyped up for the opening of yet another new mall, EmQuartier, columnist Kasiti Kamalanavin felt the need to tell the public how to correctly pronounce the French-cum-Thai name, causing a big social media debate.

Like it or not, if you live or work in central Bangkok, there’s no escaping from these malls. This new EmQuartier only adds to the tally of the 16 malls attached to BTS stations (there are about 30 stations in inner Bangkok). And perhaps there’s not really a reason why you should.

These malls offer an all-in-one solution: One can bank, pay bills, get a haircut, belt out a karaoke song, watch a movie, go bowling, or of course shop. You can even sometimes find a library, a design centre, an aquarium and a zoo. Hot weather also drives people into these air-conditioned building. Some people even abandon their homes in the hot season to enjoy malls’ chilly interiors and cut down on electricity bills. Siam Paragon alone uses almost a double the amount of electricity consumed by Thailand’s northern province Mae Hong Son. It’s not surprising then that the amount of energy needed to power all of Bangkok’s malls is making a serious dent in neighboring Laos’s natural resources, where a good portion of Thailand’s energy comes from.

There are many people in the mall, and there are many malls in the city, at least 60 of them; the number would double if you count community malls and triple with brick and mortar retailers. The high consumer demand for malls is not the only factor that make them so ubiquitous.  Besides the two wrestling mall corporate giants, Central Group and The Mall Group, which own the big aforementioned shopping complexes, many real estate companies jave also entered the market in search of profits. The past several years have seen a glut of new community malls opening in Bangkok –  small-sized, semi-outdoor shopping plazas usually boasting cafes, restaurants, salons and supermarkets. Bangkok now has about 60 community malls, and we won’t see the back of this trend just yet. At least 28 more are set to open in 2015-2016, according to Bangkok Post.

If there’s anything to compete with these malls’ popularity, it must be their parking lots. Since people are unlikely go to malls if they cannot park, capacity for cars has become one of the malls’ big selling points. CentralWorld can cram in 7,000 cars, while down the street Siam Paragon packs another 4,000, both with smart-parking technology assistance and free first 2-3 hours to boot. In this cramped city that everyone seems to drive and complain about congested roads. Our solution in the past decade has been more buildings to absorb more cars during the day, only for them to return to the streets in the evening. IThe response for now is that more and more malls are expanding to the skirts of Bangkok. Will that help alleviate or expand the Bangkok’s traffic problem?

Inevitably, these shopping behemoths are taking their toll on small business. Standalone cinemas are struggling to compete with the big cineplexes, while big-chain retailers are taking their toll on small grocery shops. Parks, zoos, theaters and museums (not that there are many of them) are competing against the convenience of mall culture. The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) is the only recognized cultural venue close to a BTS sky train station. And few Bangkokians would prefer a sweaty trip to the hard-to-access National Theatre, Museum Siam or the National Gallery for a dose of art or culture.

When I interviewed veteran theatre performer and director Nikorn Saetang for BK Magazine, he said, “We were taught to go to department stores on the weekend. It’s handy happiness. It’s also cheaper to watch movies. To watch a play together, a family of three needs to pay B1,500. Not everyone can afford it.” More art exhibitions, live performances and political protests have been taking to malls. Like it or not, this is where we are. The air-conditioned, all-in-one happiness of going to malls, does not seem like a threat, so at least for now that we still embrace it.

About the author:
Thitipol Panyalimpanun is a Thai writer from Bangkok who writes mainly about art, films and culture. He is now based in New York City, where he pursues a master’s degree in publishing at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ThitipolP.

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Will Thai junta’s Education Ministry purge help raise teaching standards? http://asiancorrespondent.com/132313/will-thai-juntas-education-ministry-purge-help-raise-teaching-standards/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132313/will-thai-juntas-education-ministry-purge-help-raise-teaching-standards/#comments Wed, 22 Apr 2015 02:31:26 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132313 Thailand education

Pic: Daniel Maxwell.

By Daniel Maxwell

It’s almost a year since General Prayuth Chan-o-cha came to power in Thailand’s 12th successful coup, but during this time there had been little sign of the promised reforms that Thailand’s education system so badly needs. However, all that might now be changing with signs that this most urgent of issues is finally being tackled.

On April 17 Prayuth, now Prime Minister, exercised the controversial Article 44 of the interim constitution which empowers him to issue any order “for the sake of the reforms in any field… or the prevention, abatement or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security”. The fact that the first use of Article 44, or the “Dictator Law” as its critics have referred to it, was to push forward reforms in the education sector underlines the desperate state of Thailand’s education system.

Prayuth used Article 44 to remove numerous senior civil servants at the Ministry of Education and close not one, but three education boards. Following these changes a number of the officials involved are now being investigated by the Budget Scrutiny Committee.

These upheavals in the Ministry of Education were signaled by two orders issued by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), order 6/2558 and order 7/2558. These in turn removed the Education Ministry permanent secretary Suthasri Wongsamarn and replaced her with Assoc Prof Dr Kamjorn Tatiyakavee.

The orders also removed the board members of three education boards:

  • the Teachers Council of Thailand (TCT),
  • the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Education Personnel and
  • the Business Organisation of the Office of the Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Educational Personnel.

These education boards where then dissolved by NCPO order 7/2558. The work of these boards is now the direct responsibility of the Education Minister, Admiral Narong Pipatanasai, giving him unprecedented power to implement changes and reforms. Deputy government spokesman Maj-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd explained that these actions were taken to streamline education reform and were not politically motivated.

The Teachers Council of Thailand was responsible for teacher training, teacher development, the licensing of teachers and the setting of professional standards. It’s generally agreed that any improvement in the Thai education system needs to start with improving teaching standards so the removal of those individuals who have consistently failed to implement improvements is arguably a good place to start.

This news is also likely to be welcomed by many foreign teachers working in Thailand who struggle on an annual basis to bend to the ever-changing demands of the TCT, which issues teaching licenses.

The Office of Welfare Promotion Commission for Teachers and Educational Personnel (OTEP) was established by the Teachers and Educational Personnel Council Act B.E. 2546 during Thaksin Shinawatra’s first term as Prime Minster. The board was created to “support the activities within the organization, to provide facilities and benefits, and to protect the rights of teachers and educational personnel. In addition, the organization will also encourage teamwork, maintain pride, and support educational research. Also, the organization will support education management including preparation for lesson plans and provision of teaching materials.” On occasion the actions of this department had caught the attention of the DSI for possible misuse of funds.

For all Thailand’s education problems the one thing that has not been missing is funding. Thailand spends a huge amount on education, equal to 20 per cent of the national budget, which, according to research from Mahidol University, is the highest in the world. But these funds have done little to raise education standards with Thailand’s educational rankings showing no sign of improvement. Following this cull of high ranking civil servants at the Ministry of Education, it’s likely that any suspected misuse of funds will be closely examined.

The culture of paying for promotions, which was recently exposed in Thailand’s police force, is also believed to be growing within the education system and the removal of senior officials could be aimed at rooting out corruption throughout the ministry.

Few would disagree that Thailand’s education system requires a radical overhaul if it is to compete with neighboring countries in both Southeast and East Asia. Removing inefficient and possibly corrupt leaders is clearly an important step but the question for teachers, students and parents is what happens now?

Reforming the Thai education is a monumental task. Teacher training and the adoption of modern, child-centered teaching pedagogies are clearly a priority as is an overhaul of Thailand’s outdated multiple choice national assessments. But simple issuing directives and approving new policies is not guaranteed to bring about genuine changes in classrooms across Thailand.

Thailand has a wealth of dedicated educators that genuinely care about raising standards in the country. There is also a new generation of Thai teachers coming into the sector that is willing to embrace modern teaching techniques, but without clearly leadership the situation in classrooms is likely to remain unchanged. What the Thai education system needs is a team of knowledgeable leaders who can inspire teachers to embrace change and make a genuine start towards raising education standards.

About the author:
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and working in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s. An English literature graduate from the University of London, Daniel previously worked with the publishing company EMAP before relocating to Asia. Found elsewhere: Maxwell’s Notes
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Rape in Thailand: Stop blaming the victims http://asiancorrespondent.com/132217/rape-in-thailand-stop-blaming-the-victims/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132217/rape-in-thailand-stop-blaming-the-victims/#comments Fri, 17 Apr 2015 02:21:37 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132217 Pic: AP.

Pic: AP.

By James Austin

The Thai New Year Festival has come to an end, the streets are eerily quiet, and online news media is mopping up the aftermath of the festival’s more negative impact on society. This year, arguably, was a stand-out out year for official extremism concerning safety initiatives, with Thai people being exposed to a very long list of crackdowns relating to: water-squirting weapons, alcohol consumption, dangerous driving, and “improper dances or performances that do not reflect Thai culture”.

In terms of crackdown success there was reason to rejoice; the use of water-squirting weapons that might cause a victim to feel slightly aggravated was down. However, not surprisingly, there was still a lot of road accidents and deaths, in fact, in spite of the rigorous crackdowns, this was one of the worst years on record for traffic accidents and deaths.

In terms of cultural impropriety, most of which concerns how women dress, or dance, one cannot be sure how to quantify success. Prior to the beginning of the festival, Sin Suesuan, the Director of the Thailand’s Moral Promotion Center, had told the Thai public that women should dress appropriately during Songkran as inappropriate dress could result in sexual assault. This is reminiscent of General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s comments after the murder of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge in Koh Tao, when he said wearing bikinis might not be safe on Thailand’s beaches.

We don’t know how many rapes occurred during this year’s festival. We do know that Samorn Khlangdet, a 33-year-old Thai woman, was brutalized, and murdered, by someone who police now say is a serial rapist, in Chiang Mai. To accord the abject violence of this attack, in any nth of a degree, to a woman’s failings in dressing appropriately, is obscene. But one would think, given the above statements by Thai officials, that the victim was partly to blame.

The 33-year-old victim of a brutal rape and murder in Chiang Mai earlier this week. Image via Chiang Mai City News.

Samorn Khlangdet, the 33-year-old victim of a brutal rape and murder in Chiang Mai earlier this week. Image via Chiang Mai City News.

Thailand’s Ministry of Culture criminalized ‘underboob selfies’ in March, stating that offenders could face up to five years in prison for an offense. Such acts are seen as un-Thai behavior, despite a globally renowned status as a country pervaded with illicit sexual activity, which is open-air and is prevalent in many of the county’s tourist hotspots; or despite the fact that the majority of newspapers and magazines when you walk into a convenience store are painted with scantily clad women. Sexuality, the allure of almost naked women, is Thai, as much as it is global. In fact, toplessness in Thai provinces was the norm until government ministries outlawed it in the early 20th century, so saying that nakedness, or near nakedness, does not conform with Thai traditions is hogwash. If anything, it’s a purist attitude to dress code.

“The ministry tried to create a new culture that was more ‘civilised’, and attempted to obliterate the old culture,” said Chiang Mai historian ajarn Vithi Phanichphant on the subject of toplessness and other Thai norms, in an interview with Citylife magazine. We might ask if women were raped more frequently in the past, or if modesty has incurred more sexual violence… or perhaps, in a more rational light, that rape is a man’s problem, his own unethical deformity, that unfortunately has been obscured behind a lot of victim blaming.

This banner appeared on the Thai Ministry of Culture website in 2010.

This banner appeared on the Thai Ministry of Culture website in 2010.

In an interview with Asian Correspondent, feminist and cultural critic Kaewmala said, “The short phrase ‘sexual assault due to inappropriate clothing’ is so heavily loaded with so much of why sexual violence continues to be a serious problem in Thai society. It shows the blame-the-victim attitude is pervasively held, persistent and deep-rooted, especially among authorities. Despite the modern, sometimes even risque clothing you see Thai women wear in mainstream media and social media, at the core Thai society is still very conservative, if at times schizophrenic. Ultimately Thai women are still held responsible for their own safety, no matter what.”

She asks is it, “more effective to at least also restrain the perpetrators from unleashing their primitive instinct?” adding, “The flip side of telling women to dress modestly to protect themselves from harassment and rape is telling the potential molesters and rapists it’s not their fault when they harass and rape.”

Would the perpetrator of the recent rape and murder in Chiang Mai feel some mitigation concerning his actions after reading the ‘moral authorities’ extol their cultural wisdom relating to alleged female impropriety? Do Thai women feel like they are caught in some kind of trap, a contradictory compliance that at once compels them to be attractive, sexy, but at the same time tells them being so is un-Thai and runs them the risk of being assaulted, or even killed?

Men are attracted to women, and on a daily basis most virile men might see someone who they would like to enjoy a sexual experience with, oftentimes with a woman who is sexually attractive due to her physicality, or even what she is wearing. But we expect this, it is healthy, and normal, but to equate this often non-mutual mental, ephemeral infatuation, to a reason for enacting a despicable violent act that takes away a woman’s freedom and her rights to feel safe, is tantamount to justifying it as a byproduct of social order. In Thailand women are still seen as the problem for a man’s perhaps most unequivocal failing at being good, and acting ethical in spite of his sometimes impulsive sexual urges. All rape campaigns should be aimed at men, and their failings to act in a humane way.

Victim blaming is not a phenomenon present only in Thailand, although in Thailand perpetrators of the said act arguably seem less aware of their wrongdoing; we know this, because in spite of the tsunami of criticism that follows matters concerned with victim blaming, it occurs again, and again. Thai officials often seem to endorse not Thai traditions, but espouse the primitive nature of the beast.

However, the mindset surrounding victim blaming might be more prevalent than we think, only criticism and activism may compel people in other countries to watch what they say. Still, the song remains the same outside of Thailand.

This month Sussex Police in the UK made a public apology after releasing anti-rape advertising campaigns whose main imperative was on women to stay together on nights out, rather than on men not succumbing to inhumane acts of sexual violence. In the same week an anti-rape campaign focused on victim-blaming, ‘This Doesn’t Mean Yes’, asked to stop blaming the victims. In an article in the London Evening Standard, Dr Fiona Vera Gray of the charity, Rape Crisis, which supports the campaign said, “We want to live in a world where perpetrators of rape and sexual assault are held entirely responsible for their actions, and survivors are believed and supported. A world where everybody seeks active, embodied and enthusiastic consent as the minimum, and respects the human rights of women to bodily autonomy and freedom.”

This statement, if something similar were released by Thailand’s officials, or the moral authority guardians of Thai society, would be a start in accepting how rape has been so terribly been misjudged in Thailand. It might even prevent Thai soap operas, that are religiously watched in almost every household from the Bangkok slums to villages wedged on mountain slopes in the north, to realize that rape victims, in the real world, don’t fall in love with the ones that caused them damage. Where rape in is concerned, Thailand is due a massive paradigm shift.

RELATED: In Thailand, collective responsibility is the best tribute to rape victims

About the author:
James Austin
is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.

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Analysis: US nominates former NKorea envoy as new ambassador to Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/132147/analysis-us-nominates-former-north-korea-envoy-as-new-ambassador-to-thailand/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132147/analysis-us-nominates-former-north-korea-envoy-as-new-ambassador-to-thailand/#comments Wed, 15 Apr 2015 00:25:05 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132147 Glyn Davies. Pic: AP.

Glyn Davies. Pic: AP.

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?

________________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Russian premier visits Thailand: More rubles rolling into Prayuth’s regime? http://asiancorrespondent.com/132001/russia-thailand-medvedev/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/132001/russia-thailand-medvedev/#comments Fri, 10 Apr 2015 02:00:29 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=132001 Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Thai Prime Minister and military leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha during a state visit in Bangkok on April 8, 2015. (Pic: AP)

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) with Thai Prime Minister and military leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha during a state visit in Bangkok on April 8, 2015. Pic: AP.

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?

________________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Thai schools adopt European framework to boost English language proficiency http://asiancorrespondent.com/131944/thai-schools-adopt-european-framework-to-boost-english-language-proficiency/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/131944/thai-schools-adopt-european-framework-to-boost-english-language-proficiency/#comments Tue, 07 Apr 2015 04:32:48 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=131944 Thai students taking an English language examination. Pic: Daniel Maxwell.

Thai students taking an English language examination. Pic: Daniel Maxwell.

By Daniel Maxwell

When Thailand’s new school year begins in May, teachers and schools across the country will begin the process of aligning their English language teaching with the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR). This alignment with internationally recognised language standards is a positive step towards raising the standards of English in Thailand, but it is going to take strategic planning and hard work to realise these goals.

The CEFR for languages was developed by the Council of Europe over more than 20 years before being officially launched during the European Year of Languages in 2001. Since then the CEFR has grown in popularity both in Europe and across the world.

The framework is used to benchmark communicative language ability in reading, writing, speaking and listening. The CEFR is divided into 3 levels; basic users (Level A), independent users (Level B) and proficient users (Level C). The table below summarizes the abilities for learners at each level while the entire framework can be downloaded from the Council of Europe’s website. CEFRThe Thai Ministry of Education has set the following English language proficiency targets for students in Thailand.

  • By the end of Prathom 6 (Grade 6) students should have reached A1 proficiency
  • By the end of Mathayom 3 (Grade 9) students should have reached A2 proficiency
  • By the end of Mathayom 6 (Grade 12) students should have reached B1 proficiency

These targets are realistic goals for a country as dependent on foreign tourism as Thailand. The targets for Grade 6 and Grade 9 are certainly within the reach of schools that emphasise English language learning, but the Grade 12 target of B1 proficiency is ambitious. It will take time and effort before large numbers of Mathayom 6 graduates are able to reach this level.

Regardless of how long it takes before the majority of Thai students are able to realise these goals, there is general consensus among educators that the adoption of the CEFR is a vital step towards clarifying language goals and raising English language standards. Prior to this, the Thai MoE foreign language curriculum has been ambiguous and often interpreted differently from school to school. This ambiguity had hindered efforts to raise English language standards across the country.

The implementation of the CEFR is a step forward, but one that will present numerable challenges. With Thailand’s poor record of implementing educational change there are genuine fears that it could suffer the same fate as other well-intentioned but poorly implemented educational innovations, such as the adoption of student-centered learning in 1999. Two measures that could drastically improve the chances of this policy succeeding are: adequate support and training for English language teachers, and new communicative English language assessments.

So far the support and guidance given to teachers has been limited to one-day training sessions attended by representatives from various school. Many teachers and even some schools are still unaware of what exactly the CEFR is. Without continual guidance and support, the teachers involved in this initiative will be unable to successfully use the CEFR.

Interestingly, a number of English teachers have been getting some firsthand experience of the Common European Framework as part of an initiative to assess the ability of all English language teachers in Government schools. Large numbers of Thai teachers took the internationally recognized Oxford Placement Test in 2014 and it appears the government is keen to ensure all the remaining teachers are assessed over the coming months. It’s not clear whether these results will be made public or what will happen to those teachers that are unable to reach a sufficient level of English language ability. However, this testing of English language teachers could be a positive sign that the government is waking up to the problem of Thailand’s poor English language standards and attempting to rectify the situation.

If Thailand is to seriously adopt a framework for communicative language ability, it will need to develop assessments that can measure these abilities. Currently, the MoE relies on the O-NETs to measure students’ language abilities, but these multiple choice papers are only assess grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension. The benchmarks of the CEFR specify that learners at B1 level can write letters and notes conveying information, verbally communicate using a wide range of language to deal with most situations and understand the main points of familiar matters regularly encountered in work, study and leisure. Multiple choice assessments are clearly unable to assess such skills.

To accurately measure students’ progress in accordance with the CEFR, a new national examination would be required to assess reading, writing, speaking and listening abilities. Any new assessment will need to be flexible enough to allow students opportunities to demonstrate their independent communicative abilities. The assessment would need to be similar in format to IELTS, TOEIC or the Cambridge English assessments. If Thailand were to develop a new form of language assessment, it could have a huge impact on language learning in Thailand. All too often, schools, teachers and parents focus primarily on preparing for high-stakes assessments – teaching to the test. At present Thailand’s high-stakes tests are multiple choice assessments focusing on grammar and syntax. Students spend hours preparing for these at the expense of developing more essential communicative abilities. A test that actually measures communicative ability will encourage schools, teachers and students to adjust their focus towards the development of these more useful skills.

With the opening of the AEC just a matter of months away and Thailand still struggling under a reputation of poor levels of English proficiency, it’s essential that some progress is made to rectify this situation. Let’s hope the adoption of the CEFR is the first of many much need steps towards raising English language standards in Thailand.

About the author:
Daniel Maxwell is a writer and educator who has been living and working in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s. An English literature graduate from the University of London, Daniel previously worked with the publishing company EMAP before relocating to Asia. Found elsewhere: Maxwell’s Notes
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Traditional dress makes a dramatic comeback in Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/131921/traditional-thai-dress-makes-a-dramatic-comeback/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/131921/traditional-thai-dress-makes-a-dramatic-comeback/#comments Mon, 06 Apr 2015 02:10:40 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=131921 Image via

Image via Mezs Mussamont’s Facebook page.

By Thitipol Panyalimpanun

It took Thailand’s Ministry of Industry over a billion baht to try and fail to make Bangkok a fashion capital during 2003-2006. Last week, though, one dress was all it took to spark an almost national fashion agenda – wear traditional Thai dress and fortify our Thai culture.

That dress was not average, though, to say the least. It belonged to Mussamont Jansiri, who inherited it from her mother, who inherited it from her mother, according to the Bangkok Post. The outfit of gleaming Thai silk and detailed textile pattern was the kind that evokes a scene at traditional Thai ceremonies or in a traditional Thai dance. Donning that outfit, Mussamont went shopping before someone took a photo of her and posted it online.

Mussamont quickly became a net idol and received overwhelming praise for her bold fashion statement of being proud of Thai identity. The idea that the old can be the new chic soon summoned many followers nationwide. Celebrities also jumped on the trend. And an online petition for a National Costume Preservation Day began, with over 10,000 signatures now. (Read a comprehensive account of the event by Napamon Roongwitoo, here.)

This is not the first time attires have served Thai cultural and political agendas. Dating back to the reign of King Rama V, the Thai officials’ dress code was developed and modernized in response to the growing Western influence. In the early ’40s, Thai government under Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram issued a Thai international dress code, telling people to stop wearing chong kraben, a lower-body fabric wrap, and start wearing wrap-around skirts, shirts and trousers. Most of the Thai traditional dresses we see today, be it during Songkran Festival or at Thai weddings, are in the styles developed following Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s initiative in 1960 to make them trendier and easier to wear. Recently, in 2011, civil service officials were told to wear Thai-fabric clothing once a week, while some schools ask that students and teachers wear traditional clothing once a week.

Mussamont and her fashion followers were dressing beautiful and very Thai. But the reason wearing it on a simple shopping trip caught much attention was certainly more than just the chic pride of Thai tradition. It is a strange and abnormal sight. There’s a reason why people haven’t been dressing this way in the past several decades. It’s not practical, if also unfashionable. The fact that Thais now wear T-shirt, jeans, tank top and bikinis, imports of Western culture, could also be because these clothes are more comfortable when temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as they often do. The heavier, though beautiful, silk outfits are impractical and uncomfortable by modern standards.

It’s completely true that the dress represents Thai tradition and culture. There is nothing wrong with trying to revive traditions or bring them closer to our current lifestyle. But like most fashion trends, it’s not for everyone. Some ridicule the hype, some doubt if it is fitting, some believe it’s absurd to think that wearing a Thai costume would strengthen Thai culture. The tension between the two fashion tribes was fierce. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a self-exiled Thai associate professor at Kyoto University and frequent commentator on Thai politics, for example, was branded anti-Thai for commenting on the trend as pretentious.

The problem with culture is it’s a vague term. When two anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn tried to define it in 1952, they ended up with a list of over 150 definitions. The word “culture” was also the most looked up word on Merriam-Webster.com in 2014. If democracy is the most confusing word in Thailand, culture is not far behind.

While culture is too vague, Thai culture is too narrow. If we assumed the widely accepted idea of culture as “a society’s way of life” for a minute, the broad concept would tell us that Thai culture is not limited to just Thai traditions. It is not just what is picked out and supported by the Thai ministry of culture. By living, we are naturally shaping the meaning of our culture.

Thai dress may not represent the whole of Thai identity and culture, but the trend and drama it brought reflects very well Thai contemporary society. We are in a culture where most Thais see this trend as a patriotic act. We are in a culture that sees critics of traditions as non-Thai. We are in a culture where righteousness prevails over reason.

While the Thai dress’s comeback took many by surprise, very few will take notice when it fades away. What will remain in the internet cache is the record fast cultural trend. Thai culture may be difficult to define, especially in a Thai democratic way, but while we narrow it down to one strict set of values often called “Thainess,” we are leaving out our compatriots who take the piss out of the fashion comeback. “Nationalism” in Thailand, too, can mean a lot of things. But excluding others because of different opinions should not be one of the definitions, not even when it feels so right.

About the author:
Thitipol Panyalimpanun is a Thai writer from Bangkok who writes mainly about art, films and culture. He is now based in New York City, where he pursues a master’s degree in publishing at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ThitipolP.

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After martial law in Thailand, there is Article 44 – and a backlash against the junta http://asiancorrespondent.com/131870/after-martial-law-in-thailand-there-is-article-44-and-backlash-against-the-military-junta/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/131870/after-martial-law-in-thailand-there-is-article-44-and-backlash-against-the-military-junta/#comments Fri, 03 Apr 2015 00:00:38 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=131870 Thai coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP.

Thai coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pic: AP.

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.

________________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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Assuming absolute control: Thai military junta revokes martial law, but… http://asiancorrespondent.com/131811/assuming-absolute-control-thai-military-junta-to-revoke-martial-law-but/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/131811/assuming-absolute-control-thai-military-junta-to-revoke-martial-law-but/#comments Tue, 31 Mar 2015 23:04:55 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=131811 Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha answers questions from reporters during a press conference at the government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday. Pic: AP.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha answers questions from reporters during a press conference at the government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday. Pic: AP.

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.”

________________________
About the author:
Saksith Saiyasombut blogs extensively about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and works as an international freelance broadcast journalist. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.

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80 lives lost every day: Why are Thailand’s roads so dangerous? http://asiancorrespondent.com/131679/thailand-road-deaths/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/131679/thailand-road-deaths/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 05:39:47 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=131679 A Thai police officer takes photograph of the charred wreckage of a passenger van that crashed in Chanthaburi province last year killin eight people and injuring 13 more. Pic: AP.

A Thai police officer takes photograph of the charred wreckage of a passenger van that crashed in Chanthaburi province last year killin eight people and injuring 13 more. Pic: AP.

Another week in Thailand, and with it another spell of fatal traffic accidents: Three Chinese tourists died after a bus plunged down a hill in Phuket on March 25, and seven migrant workers from Burma (Myanmar) were killed the day before when the truck carrying them was hit by a train in Chiang Mai. These were the headline-making accidents, on average around 80 people died each day on Thailand’s roads last year. Road tragedies are something we expect to hear about in Thailand on a regular basis, shocking stories made slightly less shocking due to their certain frequency.

Thailand is ranked second in the world in terms of traffic fatalities, with 44 deaths per 100,000 people (5.1 percent of Thailand’s overall deaths), according to statistics from the World Health Organization and The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in the United States.

Perhaps an indicator of just how dangerous Thailand’s roads are is the fact three visitors to the country, who were all attempting to cycle around the world, and were on the final leg of their journeys, were killed after being hit by vehicles in Thailand. Chilean national Juan Francisco Guillermo was killed when he was hit by a truck in north-east Thailand in February this year, and British couple Peter Root and Mary Thompson, were killed when they were hit by a truck in Chachoengsao Province, east of Bangkok, almost exactly one year before. The three cyclists had covered most of the globe before their endeavors were cut short on Thailand’s brutal roads. In the latter case the driver, Worapong Sangkhawat, told police he had been bending down looking for a hat when he hit the pair. He was given a suspended two-year prison sentence and fined around $30.

British cyclists Peter Root and Mary Thompson were killed by a pick-up truck east of Bangkok last year. Pic: AP.

British cyclists Peter Root and Mary Thompson were killed by a pick-up truck east of Bangkok. Pic: AP.

In most parts of the world traffic deaths and injuries are increasing, according to the Bloomberg Global Road Safety Program, and Thailand is no exception. In 2009 WHO reports state that death per 100,000 people was 19.6, and then in 2010, a year before the United Nations with the Thai government introduced its ‘Decade of Action Plan’ promoting and initiating road safety, that number shot up to 38.1. It’s now 44. It’s likely that traffic fatalities didn’t double within the space of a year; the sudden spike may relate to when, and how, the statistics were compiled. It should also be noted that statistics taken inside Thailand only includes victims who died at the scene, while WHO statistics include persons that died within 30 days of the accident.

There are significantly more vehicles in Thailand now than there were in the last decade, which could be a small factor relating to the sudden increase in road deaths. But that doesn’t answer why Thailand is particularly dangerous to drive in, and why, in spite of various police crackdowns and government road safety campaigns, is lack of road safety in Thailand so recalcitrant?

Why aren’t the crackdowns working?

In all the above cases alcohol was not reported to be involved, although it often is. It’s said drunk-driving is to blame for around 26% of road deaths in Thailand, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In an interview with Chiang Mai CityNews, rescue services told the reporter that alcohol was involved in as much as 80% of road accidents.

Thailand has never enforced its drink driving laws to any notable effect. While for the last few years police have somewhat cracked down on driving under the influence, setting up road blocks around many of the big cities, drinking and driving is still normalized behavior. In large cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai party-goers can be seen on any given night drinking, and later driving away from whatever establishment they have been in. In smaller towns too persons under the influence can be seen leaving bars and driving away on any given night.

It’s also taken widely accepted in Thailand that the law applies more to some than it does to others. A stand-out case in this respect is Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, the Red Bull heir, who was charged with drink driving in 2013 when his Ferrari mowed down and killed a policeman in Bangkok. He was never jailed for the offense and its unknown how the trial has progressed. While this is an unusual case, it is widely accepted in Thailand that people with enough wealth to have connections, will be granted some kind of leniency if they are ever pulled over by the police. Harsher drink-driving laws, implemented fairly, would certainly help reduce the number of road accidents in Thailand.

Vorayuth Yoovidhya. Pic: AP.

Vorayuth Yoovidhya. Pic: AP.

Campaigns have been set up to lessen the amount of drink-driving, and posters showing the results of horrific crashes with the ‘don’t drink and drive’ slogan can be seen throughout the country’s streets, but at the moment they don’t seem to be having the same kind of effect that similar, but more shocking campaigns had in western countries in the ’80s. Thailand is a long way from demonizing drink-driving. Also, of considerable note, pertaining mostly to the provinces outside of Bangkok, is that Thailand’s public transport system in the wee hours is virtually non-existent.

Ostensibly in an effort to cut down on the amount of road carnage in Thailand the police have for many years been an almost omnipresent feature in the lives of Thais in the form of daytime roadblocks, previously only pulling motorcyclists over, and fining them (sometimes an on-the-spot-backhander), for not wearing a crash helmet (only 43% of motorcyclists regularly wear helmets), but lately police have also been checking to see if riders have licenses, or even fining them for illegal modifications on their bikes.

There is some controversy surrounding these roadblocks, relating to the on-the-spot fine, but also to their effectiveness in tackling the damage done by road accidents. One point is that any kind of helmet can be worn, and often they are nothing more than a hard hat that you might see on a construction site. Unfortunately a crash helmet that met with standards in most Western countries would be unaffordable to most Thais even if more stringent standards applied to Thailand. Thailand, in the footsteps of Vietnam, could take advantage of the Asia Injury Prevention (AIP) Foundation, in developing low-cost helmets.

It’s widely reported that head trauma of motorcycle riders is the main cause of death, while the WHO repots 74% of fatalities on the road are motorcycle riders. But a question not often raised is how effective are most of the helmets used in Thailand, and also how many perhaps unavoidable deaths involve a motorcyclist being hit at high speeds by a reckless car driver? If police initiatives have focused mainly on fining Thailand’s motorcyclists for not wearing a virtually useless helmet, or not having a virtually useless license, might this be one of the reasons why these crackdowns have not made any significant progress concerning the number of fatalities? Safety initiatives are perhaps not tackling the most relevant problem.

Even if a Thai national does have a license for driving, or motorcycle riding, the test is notoriously easy. Although in 2014 more questions were added to the test to try and improve safety standards, the practical part of the test involves nothing more than seeing if you can actually operate a vehicle. A possible solution, as most people would not be able to afford driving lessons, would be driving education in high school, or at least a more thorough practical, not theoretical driving test.

In the above CCTV footage of vehicle crashes that was released by the Chiang Mai municipality this year to make people aware of traffic accidents, it is evident that most of the accidents are sheer negligence on the driver’s part, perhaps a result of drink-driving, perhaps not. However, it is noteworthy that in one accident in which a motorcyclist dies after being hit head-on by a red car (local taxi), the news presenter puts the cause of death down to the rider not wearing a helmet. Negligence, not helmets, is often to blame.

But how do the police tackle negligence, or perhaps more cynically, gain from it? It’s also evident that many crashes happen when, as is often the norm in Thailand, drivers are running red lights or leaving when the light is not yet green. Cameras at all junctions in Thailand might help reduce the amount of dangerous driving. The release of this footage, however disturbing, has probably been helpful. For many years now Isuzu, the manufacturer of the top-selling trucks in Thailand, have invested in long ‘cultural’ infomercials that can be seen at cinemas prior to the film starting. Perhaps Isuzu are in a position to create something affects the way people think about reckless driving in Thailand.

More than human error

Bus crashes are common in Thailand, and frequently large numbers of people are killed. Regarded as one of the worst accident black spots in the country is the road between Mae Sot and Tak in the north of Thailand. In 2014 alone there were a streak of accidents, all of which consisted of buses leaving the road and falling down steep ravines. The worst of these crashes saw 31 retired government employees die, and a further 20 injured. The driver told police the bus’s brakes had failed on a corner. A month later a truck crashed only 500 meters away from the aforementioned tragedy, killing 14 people. Again, the driver blamed brake failure. It’s reported that in 2013 there were over 300 hundred crashes on this stretch of rugged highway that twists through the mountains on the way to the Burmese border.

The Department Land Transport (DLT) states that to register and use a vehicle as a public bus, the bus must be “stable and strong and is certified by a mechanical engineer”, according to a 2008 report into the safety of Thailand’s public buses by professor Lamduan Srisakda from Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Engineering. The report details the reasons behind some of Thailand’s worst bus tragedies. In most cases it states that often the driver is incapable (or incompetent) of negotiating difficult roads safely, but also once the bus has crashed it does not have the superstructure adequate to protect passengers. The report says that often the roads are dangerous themselves, having not been maintained, something of a problem throughout Thailand, especially in the rainy season.

In most tourist guides it is acknowledged that tourist buses are often cheap, but that they are also often poorly maintained. One of the most hair-raising experiences for any traveler to Thailand might be taking one of the overnight buses up and down country, whose drivers often break the speed limits at almost every section of the journey. Minivan drivers are also notorious for driving at very high speeds, and as this article shows, accidents and fatalities occur often.

As we approach the ‘Seven days of death’, the name given to Thailand’s New Year holiday period in which the country sees the highest frequency of road accidents and traffic fatalities, we might bear a few things in mind:

* The police initiatives to make Thailand’s roads safer have not worked yet, and will likely not work if they concentrate only on fining motorcyclists during the daytime for not wearing helmets. If road blocks are to be enforced, apropos road safety, then alcohol consumption and reckless driving should be the main reason why people are being stopped and charged. The police should invest in safe driving campaigns, and also ‘no double standards’ campaigns.

* All public buses and minivans should be maintained properly and the transport office should clamp down on any companies using vehicles not fit for the road.

* The government should attempt to introduce safer helmets to Thailand at a reasonable cost.

* The Thai driving test should include some amount of practical driving lessons, or driving education should be introduced to Thai schools.

* Public transport running at night should be available throughout the country.

About the author:
James Austin
is a journalist and fiction writer living in Thailand.

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Bangkok book fair draws bumper crowds, but worries remain over Thailand’s reading culture http://asiancorrespondent.com/131673/bangkok-book-fair-draws-bumper-crowds-but-worries-remain-over-thailands-reading-culture/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/131673/bangkok-book-fair-draws-bumper-crowds-but-worries-remain-over-thailands-reading-culture/#comments Fri, 27 Mar 2015 04:05:22 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=131673 Pic: AP.

Pic: AP.

By Thitipol Panyalimpanun

The much-anticipated Bangkok International Book Fair has returned at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center (March 26-April 6). Held annually by The Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT), the big, jam-packed book week has also been setting new attendance records in the past few years. But is its success a reflection or an illusion of Thai reading culture?

Thais’ appetite for books is clearly there, with the waves of people flooding in to browse for new books, buy straight from publishers, meet with authors and get signed copies at the fair. Some stock up their reads for the whole year. The number of visitors has indeed been cheerful for Thai publishing industry: of the country’s total population of 65 million, the book expo welcomed over 2.6m in 2013, 2.8m in 2014, and the upward trend is expected to continue this year. But on the other hand the sales number at the fair dropped 20-30% in 2014, according Siripong Widhayawirot, a former editor at publishing house Matichon, who attributed the plunge partly to economic woes. And the lower purchase rate number is only one of the concerns people have about books in Thailand.

“Thais read only 8 lines per year,” has been so often, and so mistakenly, used to address the reading problem in Thailand. To set the record straight, this is not true. Thais read far more than that. The recent study by PUBAT found that 88% of the Thai population spend in average 28 minutes a day reading, although around 40% say they don’t read books at all; the main reason was the lack of time. Still, most of those who don’t read books do read something else. Non-book readers say they get their news and entertainment content from websites and social media. Still, Thai society does have a reading culture of its own, though arguably a rather weak one from a book-reading perspective.

In 2009, the government made reading a national agenda (In 2012, Thailand’s adult literacy rate stood at 93.5%). And perhaps that campaign was so successful that people prefer reading at home. Only 1.6% in the PUBAT survey prefer to read at a library. Or it could as well be that public reading spaces do not accommodate or facilitate people enough. The National Library of Thailand in Bangkok, for example, is difficult to get to, closed on national holidays and at 5pm on weekend. Some of the Bangkok’s community libraries have the look that would appeal to antique collectors or have a look of a disused bookstore. The common sight of kids reading for hours on the floor at big chain bookstores must mean something is not right.

In 2013, Bangkok was chosen as World Book Capital by UNESCO in effort to promote reading. The officials put up a lot of billboards and activities. They include free reading workshops for children, giving away free books, promoting commute reading as well as a big book alms-giving event. Moreover, there were talks about many projects to build a city library, a Thai literary museum, a cartoon museum and a book and reading research center.

Other parties, though, have been putting in less grandiose and more practical efforts to promote reading. The recent independent bookstore week was started in 2013, with 43 bookstores participating countrywide. ThaiBookSociety.com, a social media network for Thai book people, was launched. The multimedia library TK Park and The Reading Room, a small Bangkok art library, have been hosting talks, reading sessions and film screenings. A few book clubs have also emerged during the past few years. One of the collectives, Unlimited Literature, recently succeeded in crowdfunding its campaign to translate and publish ‘Moby Dick’ in Thai.

Local book enthusiasts are delighted to know that the Herman Melville’s classic is coming along. A book of such quality is always a welcome addition to the Thai book arena where the content available to the readers is limited, and scarce in both diversity and quality. It’s hard to recall what was the last groundbreaking Thai book.

Via whatever medium, reading is important. What one reads may be as important, if not more. We have every reason to celebrate the success of the book fair and we should. But, at the same time, the effort to cultivate reading culture should not be only about increasing the number of book readers. The officials would do better if they start to focus less on such big, conceptual things such as reading culture and more on tangible measures, namely libraries, publishers, writers and readers.

About the author:
Thitipol Panyalimpanun is a Thai writer from Bangkok who writes mainly about art, films and culture. He is now based in New York City, where he pursues a master’s degree in publishing at New York University. You can follow him on Twitter @ThitipolP.

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