Asian Correspondent » Saksith Saiyasombut & Siam Voices http://asiancorrespondent.com Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.2 Prostitution: Thailand’s worst kept secret http://asiancorrespondent.com/133956/prostitution-thailands-worst-kept-secret/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133956/prostitution-thailands-worst-kept-secret/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2015 03:08:05 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133956
Sex workers wait for customers in a red light district in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

Sex workers wait for customers in a red light district in Bangkok. Pic: AP.

By James Austin

You could be forgiven for thinking if you were new to Thailand that prostitution was a market aimed solely at foreign tourists and fund-dumping expatriates. The garish lights, garish hook-ups, and garish whispers in the night have become iconic, a thing of holiday myths, books, films, and for many who don’t live here deceitfully representative of an entire culture. But Thailand’s lusty epithet of a land of salacious, often mendacious smiles, is a foreign concoction, and within these borders most citizens I think don’t taint themselves with that brush.

It’s said that about US$16 million from Vietnam War foreign soldiers’ pockets went towards the Thai sex industry, the catalyst of what gave Thailand its seedy image. But the industry, apropos tourism, is hardly even the tip of the iceberg.

A lot of women, and men, in Thailand sell sexual services for money. Siamese 50 satang brothels were popular in the early half of the 20th century, while the ragingly popular arb ob nuad (soapy massage) has been around since the 1940s. Only over the last few years has the full-body massage (no penetration) become extremely popular, with new houses of supposedly ill-repute opening and closing – as is often the case with the service orientated industry in Thailand – all over the country. There’s also now what is referred to as the business of sidelines, which is young girls, supposedly of a more pure status, selling themselves online. It’s no secret; in this report by the Kinsey Institute, “90% of the [Thai] male participants had had sex with a prostitute and 74% had lost their virginity with a female sex worker.” It’s no secret, but Thais tend to be discreet about the matter. You should know that prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960. Still, it’s estimated to be worth US$6.4 billion a year in revenue, a large part of the country’s GDP, according to black market research company Havocscope.

(READ MORE: Opinion: Sexual hypocrisy is alive and well in Thailand)

In 2004, Dr. Nitet Tinnakul, while working at Chulalongkorn University, said that the sex industry in Thailand involved 2.8 million people: 2 million women; 20,000 adult males, and 800,000 minors under the age of 18. Dr. Nitet explained that this number includes those indirectly involved in the industry, including cleaners at establishments, accountants, and even corrupt policemen receiving kickbacks from bars.

I interviewed Dr. Nitet a few years ago for a story I was writing for ‘Citylife’ magazine. He told me that women in Thailand, “become prostitutes for economic reasons, and lack of education…It can’t be legalised as society still doesn’t accept it. Women can’t admit they do it, it’s a loss of their dignity.” While much has been said about not making the women, the ones who choose this occupation, victims, it’s likely the case that economic hardship is the grounding for this kind of what I imagine to be difficult work. Thai women historically have been used as chattel. F.A. Neale’s book, ‘Residence in Siam’, written in the late 19th century, explains that he witnessed fathers taking their unmarried 13 year old daughters, “having reached their expiration date”, to their shops to be “ sold to the highest bidder”, or even “sold to Arab merchants”. Dok Kaew, the practice of selling off a daughter at a young age to a male buyer – although not available until she came of age – was evident in Thailand until the ’90s. Modern prostitution, while often decried by those a long way from ever understanding it, is at least empowering when we consider what befell many poor Thai women in the past.

Footage of a bargirl giving performing fellatio on a customer in Pattaya has upset a lot of people this week. Image via MCOT.

Footage of a bargirl giving performing fellatio on a customer in Pattaya has upset a lot of people this week. Image via MCOT.

So it really should come as no surprise to anyone in Thailand that many women’s bodies have been, and still are, a commodity. But this last week it seems the nation was shocked by a moment of lewd candidness after a Thai sex worker in the city of Pattaya was caught on camera fellating her Korean John. The aptly named Pol.Col. Sukthat Pumpanmuang, superintendent of Pattaya Police Station, said that the couple would be charged with public indecency, as was reported by Khaosod. In the same story the director of a hotel association, Sanpetch Suphabowornsatient, said that a government response should be to campaign and educate people, “about the good culture and tradition” of Thailand. He added that, “Right now, Thailand is trying to promote the Thai way of tourism, and Buddhist way of tourism… Thailand is a Buddhist country, yet nowadays men and women express themselves in a way that causes damage to image of the country.” The offending bar was shut down for 10 days, and life in Thailand’s worst/best tourist destination, even though “tarnished”, goes on as normal.

(READ MORE: Thailand anti-vice efforts target prostitution and corruption)

Whether a cash industry should be equated with Buddhism is something all Buddhists might ponder. Even so, Thai tourism and those that profit from it have banked on Thai women being poor enough to become part of a diaspora leaving the fields and doing the epitome of physical work in the city, and the fact there are enough virile, and non-virile, tourists coming to abate their sexual frustrations. There is a niche, and Thailand, like many other countries, fills it. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The shock is not because something has happened that we thought didn’t exist, it’s because the worst kept secret, for a lurid minute, was captured on camera and has caused some folks to blush.

It’s commonly known, from Chiang Mai to Pattaya, that establishments breaking the prostitution law must pay heavy kick-backs to the local police. This is another of Thailand’s worst kept secrets. Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has rhetorically stated time and again the need to address the moral fabric of the country. But what of the economic fabric of the country? A large percentage of the country’s revenue comes from tourism, and billions of that money is spent on sex tourism. Cracking down on women doing their jobs, often focusing on the meager foreign part of the business enterprise, only hurts the people at the bottom of the food chain. Thailand needs prostitution, as things are, because a lot of people are reliant upon it. Perhaps if a crackdown is deemed necessary, then it should not be a crackdown not on sexual morality, but on capitalist morality; a crackdown on the police cracking down; a crackdown on hypocrisy. Thailand must start to accept what it has become. Crackdowns and ethics rhetoric are facepalms to the real world. Prostitution was born out of poverty; if there’s anything that requires the great leader’s attention, it’s just that: lack of money for the majority. A paid-for blowjob is negligible in itself, but in the wider scheme of things, it’s a big deal.

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

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In the wrong skin: Thailand needs to come to terms with ‘white power’ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133825/in-the-wrong-skin-thailand-needs-to-come-to-terms-with-white-power/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133825/in-the-wrong-skin-thailand-needs-to-come-to-terms-with-white-power/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 02:22:47 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133825
An unidentified Bangkok shopper looks on while seated near an advertisement for skin lightening products. Pic: AP.

An unidentified Bangkok shopper looks on while seated near an advertisement for skin lightening products. Pic: AP.

By James Austin

The whitening phenomenon in Thailand, i.e. the use of cosmetic products to whiten the skin – and now we can include beauty apps that might obviate the use of whitening products, for the online face at least – often seems to beguile the visitor from the West, or at least cause them to smirk at outlandish items such as underarm whitening deodorant. But before we smirk, we might look at our own seemingly strange habits.

A commenter on a BuzzFeed post showing the magic of the much cherished Beauty Plus app (‘Top 1 Photo app in Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Taiwan!’ according to itself) wrote: “So sad that white girls want this ‘tanning filter’ and non-white people are still trying to look pale…I don’t get it.” In answer to her not getting it some co-commenters expressed that we, the consumers, under the duress of the producers and their side-kick marketeers, will always be sold what we don’t have. In parts of the grey West: tans, and in hotter climates: pale skin. But perhaps more broadly, we are all sold one thing we don’t have enough of: status.

The tan, or pallour, is proof of status, or enough money to accrue leisure hours. Whether there’s an intrinsic beauty to skin colour is not for me to say, but our choices concerning beauty and fashion to some degree have probably been advanced to us by our environment.

People weren’t always keen on being brown(er) in Western Europe. Prior to the industrial revolution, when the serfs did their hard labour outside in the highly unpredictable (but predictable enough if you were out every day of your life from childhood to often an early death) English sun, being tanned was seen as a rather symbolically scummy ailment. That’s part of the reason why the upper classes from the 16th to 19th centuries risked their lives using whitening treatments, just as some English folks risk skin cancer from tanning on Thai beaches and in Birkenhead tanning salons in the present (cases of malignant melanoma in the UK have shot up over the last 30 years).

Ladies and gents of the esteemed class, before farms gave way to factories as a means of mass production, would go to great lengths to look as though they lived otiose lives, piling ceruse (white lead powder) on their faces; something that if it didn’t kill them, it certainly made them weaker; or applying the highly toxic and sometimes deadly compounds of mercury chloride and mercury sulphide to increase pallour and rouge, respectively (mercury is found in banned whitening products in Thailand and other countries today). According to Bill Bryson’s book ‘At Home: A short History of Private Life’, English women, and men, in their quest not to look like the savage masses in the 19th century would even drink diluted arsenic, as well as wear clothes that damaged their internal organs and giant hairdos that might contain a cornucopia of burrowing creepy crawlies. Bryson writes that the one thing that pushed styles and fashions into obscurity was when the working class copied the rich; at that point the rich abandoned their big hair and sartorial masochism. Pale skin, however, took centuries to go out of fashion. Tanned skin, popularized by bronze babes on exotic beaches, became the must have skin in the early 20th century.

So we might not feel so surprised when we see vast lines of whitening products on the shelves of Thai pharmacies and appearing on the scrolls of Facebook pages. ‘White power’ may have lost some of its sheen in the West, but in Thailand and beyond it is still in its heyday. This has caused some amount of controversy, mostly concerning more nefarious products containing known poisons that have at times seared the skin from unsuspecting women’s faces, but also because of the arrantly unfashionable way some Thai skin products companies have advertised their pseudo-magic formulas. These range from face whitening to vagina bleaching. In one such ad, probably the most insulting of a very bad bunch, Verena L-Gluta Berry Plus advertises its so-called beauty drink by showing an unhappy black bear speaking to a pale-skinned female doctor who explains to the bear that it took millions of years for its kind to evolve into a white bear. Fortunately, she tells the sad bear, with the use of beauty drinks evolution can happen overnight. Proof of this is her father’s appearance in the office; he has dark skin, and is actually Negroid. Needless to say the ad proved to be lusterless among some of the critical Thai population, but that didn’t prevent many more ill-thought out ads containing ridiculous prejudicial notions following it. The advertising, which often shamelessly exploits people’s (mostly women) insecurities, are part of a growing trend. Global research says the skin whitening industry in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East is booming, and may be worth an estimated $23 billion by 2020.

When I asked groups of upper high school students in Chiang Mai why they thought that whitening treatment was so prevalent in Thailand they didn’t correlate the phenomenon with money or status, rather they told me because it was just beautiful, or “not dirty”. Only one student said it might be linked to Thailand’s mimicking of Japanese and Korean fashion trends; trends that depict eternally happy pale faces perpetually in love with life. The girl (actually born in Korea) who said this had a good point, and was well aware of the artificiality propping it up, something Thai writer and feminist Kaewmala wrote about in a 2012 on the Thai beauty issue. That Thai girls (including, ironically, Korean girls) are going to extraordinary lengths: adding lotions, donning masks, fixing noses, sharpening chins, trimming lips and filling in mouths, to look like the ideal version of a Korean ‘pretty’ girl. As most people in Thailand have tanned skin, and other looks that might be said to be aligned with their geographical gene pool, might have caused some amount of psychological despair, despair that can perhaps be managed with expensive cosmetics or apps that plunder personal information. For much of the Thai population their face just isn’t in, while at the same time social media and the age of the selfie has put everyone’s face on the map.

In a story on Thailand’s selfie obsession, which focuses on the selfie as narcissism in the negative, but also as a kind of self-assertion of a lost identity in the positive, Kaewmala says that the selfie obsession could be a result of, “the exterior self and want to be in control [due to] sensitivity about self-image,” adding that among most Thais, the “interior self as individuals and society has been badly neglected.” Perhaps the preponderance of beauty treatments and their near-by-hand apps is ironically technological development leading to a less developed place in time. Less awareness, consequentially, leaves more people open to exploitation.

Image via ThaiZoom.com

Image via ThaiZoom.com

Dr. Wayne Deakin, writer of the paper Occidentalism and Cultural Commodity Fetishism, who is currently writing a book on Hegel, Marx and the Thai State, explained to me what he thought of ‘white power’ in Thailand:

The Thai discourse of whitening fashion is a displaced form of colonialism, colonialism at a strange précis, as opposed to imperialism or hegemony, where there are gains for foreign powers. Here, a colonial discourse of white privilege has been in effect internalized – the sense of class, privilege and creed exhibited by colonial powers. As Derrida once put it, a ‘white mythology.’ Thais have themselves absorbed this into their culture.

The privileged class is white, just as they were in Victorian England. But, white is rarely construed just as privilege, as a tan isn’t. We equate it with innate beauty, or style, which is much harder to criticize, because we think it is not some form of environmental manipulation. Rather, it’s a kind of fortunate birthright. Deakin explains, invoking the philosophy of Roland Barthes, how this has come to be.

In Marxist arms this is a form of commodity fetishism, where something has been appropriated as natural, however the true process behind this discourse is hidden, or mystified. The white signifier (symbol) acts as what structuralists call a second-order signifier – it takes on a second meaning which is more than cleanliness or virginal – it signifies not working in the fields but in a government or administrative post, a class signifier and a signifier of colonial power internalised by the modern Thai self-discourse.

Do whitening products actually work?

In an article I wrote back in 2007 when I first thought about the reasons for this phenomenon, Suthiwa Viboonsunti, a pharmacist at the Chiang Mai Public Health Office for consumer protection, told me this: “Creams cannot make a dark skinned person white, they can only really prevent you from getting darker if they contain UV protection.” She went on to say that while many of the products on the black market were dangerous, products approved by Thailand’s food and Drug Administration (FDA) were not harmful. She also stated that mercury and hydroquinone, both banned toxins found in whitening products, still often end up on vendors’ stalls. These days we might replace stall with Facebook page. I wrote in the same story, “It is estimated that mercury-based ingredients or hydroquinone sell for about 800 baht a kilo.”

Palangpon Kongsaeree, Associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry at Mahidol University told Asian Correspondent that the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) in Thailand has estimated that around 20% of all whitening products contain dangerous toxins. Although he added that, “Personally, this figure is underestimated as the preliminary screening is not very effective.”

The reason, he says, that dangerous chemicals are used is because, unfortunately, nothing else works. The approved products, ones that have passed rigorous testing, don’t do what they say on the tin, so to speak. He tells me that, “Non-dangerous products like those counter brands are not effective and, if any, would take a lot longer time to see the whitening effect.”

Hazardous chemicals find their way past the testing procedure because everything else, according to Palangpon, is ineffectual. He developed a testing kit for harmful chemicals after he says that he found the MOPH’s testing procedure was not conclusive and gave, “a lot of false negative results”. He adds that, “This is abused by those cosmetics industries that put a lot of mercury, etc. in the products… Well, lots of money is out there.”

The short term effects of using creams or lotions containing mercury he says can result in serious facial skin problems, although he says that, “We are more concerned about the long term effect to internal organs like kidneys that will affect directly the country’s limited clinical treatment budget.” Of long term negative effects he says that consumers pay little attention, just as the English did when scores of the upper classes ended up dying or suffering serious internal injuries.

You might think that using the imperative ‘need’ in the title is hyperbolic, but notwithstanding the biological hazards some of these treatments may cause, it’s the psychological damage, prejudice, and even monetary implications that are of greater concern. In this white-obsessed nation not being low class, or being seemingly civilized (the need to be siwilai, as some scholars write), has often been attached to looking the right way: white. Comedic memes used to depict idiocy in Thailand often show a dark skinned, snub-nosed rural looking type with bad dental care. Similar misdirections and unsocial behavior appear in the West with ‘chav’ or ‘white trash’ memes, but in Thailand if you bring up the subject of skin colour in any school classroom you sense a palpable fear among most of the students. The force is strong. At a time when the country is already fractured between the so-called educated class the mostly rural class, the skin whitening business has a very dark underside. The beauty aspect of it all is verily skin deep, and so just as I did the other day, Thai teachers might want to ask their students what it actually means. After explaining to students much of what I have written in this article, the topic of skin colour didn’t seem as threatening. Some students seemed quite elevated by the fact they weren’t the first citizens of a country to damage their bodies to receive approval.

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

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Did Thai university reject transgender lecturer because of an Instagram post? http://asiancorrespondent.com/133794/did-thai-university-reject-transgender-lecturer-because-of-an-instagram-post/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133794/did-thai-university-reject-transgender-lecturer-because-of-an-instagram-post/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 02:34:41 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133794
Kath Khangpiboon. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

Kath Khangpiboon. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

By Alexandra Demetrianova

One of the most renowned and liberal universities in Thailand, Thammasat, has stood behind its original decision to not accept its graduate Kath Khangpiboon as a lecturer at Faculty of Social Administration. The rejected appeal comes despite the fact that the Faculty has fully supported Kath, as its alumni and previously an external lecturer.

The 28-year-old transgender woman has been fighting her case at Thammasat for months now after the University Board Committee rejected her application because of social media posts they viewed as not “acceptable for a Thammasat lecturer”. Miss Khangpiboon hasn’t followed the “ethical principles of Thammasat lecturer”, it said. The body also rejected claims by Kath that the latest decision was based on her transgender identity.

But Kath Khangpiboon is not only a transgender woman, she is also one of the most prominent and well known LGBT activists in Thailand and Southeast Asia. As a co-founder of Thai Transgender Alliance and one of the first openly transgender academics at Thammasat University, Kath sees the committee’s gender discrimination. But she’s not giving up: “I will take further legal steps at the Administrative Court of Thailand. In the courts my case could take months, or even years, but I am determined to go all the way to Constitutional Court.”

The LGBT activist and academic graduated from both Bachelor and Master programs with specialization in gender at Faculty of Social Administration and continued teaching there externally.

Social media activity isn’t officially part of the criteria considered in applications for lecturer positions at Thammasat, and Kath claims this was the first time the university has used this argument.

“I believe it is about my gender, as I am the first openly transgender person to apply for a position of lecturer at Thammasat,” she said. “I have information that some conservative people from my faculty and university have collected the data from my private Instagram account as evidence against me.”

The inappropriate posts included a photograph on Instagram of lipstick in shape of a penis; a present from Japan which Kath wore for Halloween party.

“I am an LGBT activist – I talk about gender, sex and sexuality in public in order to educate people and raise awareness.”

Kath often attends national as well as regional LGBT and UN conferences to talk about transgender and LGBT issues in Thailand. She’s written numerous academic articles on the topic, both in Thai and English. As the co-founder of Thai Transgender Alliance she often appears in Thai and international media as a source, expert and transgender woman.

Thailand is often portrayed as one of the most liberal countries in the world when it comes to LGBT issues. However these claims are rather stereotypical, as activists regularly point out. So far, there is no effective law in Thailand recognizing discrimination based on sexuality and gender. Though the LGBT civil society is large and very active in Thailand, legal protection of sexual minorities remains a challenge. Recently, the military government has proposed the inclusion of gay and transgender rights in the new draft of the Thai constitution.

Although the document would not be passed democratically – by an unelected body appointed by the military junta of General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has toppled democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra over a year ago – it would be a major victory for the LGBT community.

Such constitutional inclusion could be a way for transgender people like Kath Khangpiboon to defend themselves legally against discrimination. However, much more needs to be done for the general acceptance of transgender people in Thailand.

“We desperately need a law protecting transgender people from physical, sexual violence and other forms of discrimination – like work and profession – similar to what I’m going through right now. But that’s just the start, the government needs to focus on social development, human security, legal, educational and health issues,” she said.

One of the many issues for transgender people in Thailand remains the stereotypical acceptance – they often end up working in the entertainment, fashion, beauty and sex industries. For trans people aiming at other professions, the road can be rocky just like for Kath.

“Society should accept us as equal citizens without conditions,” she said. “Transgender people should be allowed to study openly at schools and universities. We have to create a strong policy to help all LGBT people have equal opportunities, mainly in employment. Policy makers in the government should create policy based on gender sensitivity and provide social service directly to LGBT people.”

Recently Bangkok University became the first in Thailand to officially allow students wear school uniforms based on their gender preference. Guidelines for male, female, trans women and trans men uniforms were published to portray appropriate uniforms for all genders and sexual minorities.

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Thailand’s uneasy reliance on Chinese tourists just keeps getting bigger http://asiancorrespondent.com/133675/thailands-uneasy-reliance-on-chinese-tourism-just-keeps-getting-bigger/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133675/thailands-uneasy-reliance-on-chinese-tourism-just-keeps-getting-bigger/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 02:25:36 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133675
Chinese tourists pose for a photograph at the main entrance to Chiang Mai University. Pic: AP.

Chinese tourists pose for a photograph at the main entrance to Chiang Mai University. Pic: AP.

By James Austin

A Thai friend of mine remarked the other night after to returning to Chiang Mai from her studies in New York that out of all the changes she had noticed in this fast growing city it was the pervasion of Chinese tourists that surprised her the most. We have seen over the last few years a statistical growth which has transformed the city and brought with it a new economy. The tourism demographics are a changing, and while a third language has started to adorn restaurant menus and public bathrooms around town, there has been a barrage of controversy concerning how Thailand’s rising star of tourism conducts itself.

In spite of what opinions we might hold about the influx of tourists from China and the purported traits they bring with them, Thailand has become heavily reliant on its new guests. As MasterCard chief economist Yuwa Hedrick-Wong put it recently in a Reuters article, the many countries benefiting from Chinese tourism must “diversify”, and not become too dependent on one demographic in terms of tourism revenue.

At the same time, not focusing on Chinese tourists would suggest poor business acumen. While there has been an increase in Russian tourists to Thailand over the years – followed by a decrease due to the weakening of the ruble in 2014 – China is the only market that stands out. Diversification might be at the epicenter of all intelligent, sustainable business models, but with Chinese spending power and the will to spend overseas being what it is, one could hardly be blamed for focusing towards the Divine Land for your business growth.

In March this year Chinese tourists travelling into Thailand amounted 679,660 people, which was 26.84% all international tourists; 29% of tourists were Chinese in February, and 21% in January – almost as much as all European tourists put together, and a much higher number than all tourists travelling from the Americas. In 2014 Chinese tourists visiting Thailand was by far the highest nationality (4.6 million or 18.66% of 24.8 million tourists in total), followed by Malaysian and Russian nationals. Tourists from the UK amounted to 909,335 in 2014, a number that has been more or less steady for the last 10 years, but even back in 2006 was still below China’s 1,033,305 arrivals.

Chinesetouristschart

In 2014 China’s outbound tourists for the first time ever equaled 107 million of its citizens, a rise of 19.49% form 2013, according China’s National Tourism Administration. Compare that to 10 million outbound tourists in 2010. According to a report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch that number looks likely to increase to 174 million outbound tourists by 2019, with an expenditure of an estimated $264 billion. And it’s thought that only around 5% of the ‘world’s biggest spenders’ hold a passport.

John de Kreij, who owns the Sleep guesthouse in Chiang Mai with his Thai wife started his business at about the time of the Chinese tourist explosion. He told Asian Correspondent that during the low season 70% to 80% of his occupants are Chinese. “I think we wouldn’t survive without them,” said de Kreij, adding, “I just spoke to a lady who works for a zip line company and she was telling me the same thing; that 70% of their customers at the moment are Chinese.”

(READ MORE: Thailand doesn’t have a Chinese tourist problem: the problem is resentment, and racism)

It’s good news for the Sleep guesthouse then that Thailand’s Tourist Authority (TAT) has projected that by the end of 2015 a record six million Chinese tourists will have visited Thailand. There have been 2.69 million Chinese arrivals in the first four months of the year, according to TAT, spending an average of 6,346 baht (US$188) each day compared to the average daily expenditure of foreign tourists of 4,950 baht.

While the initial spike in Chinese tourism numbers was partly due to the 2012 Chinese blockbuster movie, ‘Lost in Thailand’, the momentum doesn’t seem to be stopping. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has recently begun a marketing campaign directed at China’s largest micro-blogging website, Weibo, focusing on Thailand’s travel and tourism services and products. ‘Lost in Thailand’ may have been the catalyst to the Chinese influx, but the focus now is how to get the Chinese to stay in Thailand.

Jaffee Yee, a Malaysian born veteran publisher, turned his focus to the Chinese market in 2013 when he launched something of a novel idea at the time, his Chinese language magazine for Thailand, Nihao. Yee told Asian Correspondent, “I first conceived the idea to launch a Chinese travel mag for Thailand during 2011-12 when Chinese visitors to Thailand began to surge past the traditional #1 market source Malaysia. I realized there was no existing Chinese language magazine and there was a clear market niche.”

A Chinese tourist rides on a bicycle during a tour in downtown Chiang Mai. Pic: AP.

A Chinese tourist rides on a bicycle during a tour in downtown Chiang Mai. Pic: AP.

Yee is currently working on a property and travel magazine targeting the Chinese of Greater China and Southeast Asia to be launched in the last quarter of 2015. Speaking of the cash crop and the danger in putting all your eggs into one basket, Yee says, “It’s always dangerous to rely too heavily on one market; the risk of a crash is unpredictable as with any natural disaster. A good example is impact of the disappearance of the Russians in Pattaya, a town that has been heavily dependent on this single market source in the past.” What if MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) affects the market, he asks, “The Chinese may simply stop travelling and stay home.” Coincidentally, Thailand confirmed its first case of MERS shortly after the interview.

It seems, as was reported by Reuters, that some people riding the wave of Chinese tourism are doing so with “gritted teeth”, with many people that accommodate Chinese tourism complaining of bad behavior. In view of the (mostly) innocuousness of these well-reported misdemeanors perhaps Thailand might appreciate this boom a little more and be careful not to lose a nose to spite its own often beguiling face.

At Sleep guesthouse in Chiang Mai they welcome what has been the main source of their economic survival, and are open-minded about what is perceived as unworldly or ungainly behavior. “I would say most of our Chinese customers are really nice and most of the incidents we had were based on cultural misunderstandings,” says de Kreij. “My wife and me talked about this the other night. That most people don’t realize that without them here the economic situation in Chiang Mai would be totally different.”

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

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Fighting the junta from abroad: Struggle goes on for Thailand’s political exiles http://asiancorrespondent.com/133635/fighting-the-junta-from-abroad-interviews-with-thailands-political-exiles/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133635/fighting-the-junta-from-abroad-interviews-with-thailands-political-exiles/#comments Thu, 18 Jun 2015 04:13:54 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133635

I got out of the country… so that one day my stories could be forgotten… so that I could go back home again.

A Thai soldier mans his machine gun atop a military vehicle outside the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO) after soldiers were sent in to seize the center Tuesday. Pic: AP.

A Thai soldier mans his machine gun atop a military vehicle during last year’s coup. Pic: AP.

By Asanee Waree

Hundreds of political asylum seekers have fled Thailand to escape the pursuit of the Thai military regime since last year’s coup. Renowned activists like Aum Neko and Jarun Ditthaapichai have shared their stories of exile, highlighting the threats to their lives. But for lesser known exiles, the choice to speak out is fraught, and tempered by hopes of a quiet return.

The danger of living in military-ruled Thailand

Game, a 19-year-old student, lived in fear of his safety before he escaped from military-ruled Thailand. “I was afraid… My family was afraid. My friends were afraid,” he said. “They didn’t even want to talk with me because I’m targeted.”

Game was at risk of arrest for performing in ‘The Wolf Bride’, a university play deemed offensive to the Thai royalty – a lese majeste crime that carries a sentence of 3-15 years in prison. Two of Game’s friends were sentenced to 5 years in prison for taking part  in the play.  In fear of facing the same fate as his friends, Game went into hiding, eventually crossing the border into exile .

Game’s experience was one of necessity: Once his fellow performers were arrested, he had no choice but to leave the country or face arrest. “I didn’t want to be a mover or an activist,” Game said, and he cannot seem to believe that he was forced into exile as a mere teenager.  He was only months away from turning 20, and feels like “just a kid who had to exile himself”.

Game’s fear is  shared among all the exiles who gave interviews. There is Bua who also participated as an actor in the ‘The Wolf Bride’ and expresses similar concerns to Game. Bua describes how the military issued arrest warrants for actors like him in various localities and how he had no choice but to leave the country “to preserve my rights and freedom”.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, center, is escorted by Thai corrections officers upon arrival at a Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this year at his trial for his involvement in the play 'The Wolf Bride'. Pic: AP.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, center, is escorted by Thai corrections officers upon arrival at a Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this year at his trial for his involvement in the play ‘The Wolf Bride’. Others involved in the play have fled Thailand. Pic: AP.

Then there are Khun-Thong Fai Yen and Jom Dok Mai Fai, who are part of an exiled music group that aims to inspire people to take political action from abroad, and Anucha, who is a professor and acts as an English translator for political activists in exile. Both Khun-Thong and Jom say that they fear for their safety. Jom Dok Mai Fai felt the threat quite clearly. Last May, he was thrown in jail right after the 2014 military coup for just getting together with a group of friends to talk politics. He had contravened the military regime’s “absurd law” that prevented more than five people from collectively engaging in a political gathering. Anucha is more ideological, saying that political activists like him did not leave Thailand to simply escape from the dangers of dictatorial actions but to “fight back” against them.

Living Conditions

Life in asylum was more of a choice for Khun-Thong, Jom and Anucha’, all self-identified “activists”, yet not an easy one. Khun-Thong has to live on a US$100 per month stipend which goes towards food, water, and electricity – a far cry from the $1,000 per month he used to earn in Bangkok playing music.

While exiled activists in Khun-Tong’s area get housing and living stipends from sympathetic political groups, he is very clear that “no activist can live well here”. It is “almost impossible” to find a job given that he can perform in public and has neither the funds nor the network  to start a business abroad. Due of his economic situation, Khun-Thong considers himself as only “half-free” while in exile.

According to Khun-Thong, he is also an “activist with a burden”. He used to provide the main income for his family. Now his has to struggle to make ends meet while he is exiled. Somehow, Khun-Thong always knew that one day his opinions would force him to leave the country. But this does not take away from the “stress, pain and shame” of not being able to support his family.

Even in exile Anucha, continues to live in fear as the military junta is pushing to apprehend him from abroad. Claiming that asylum seekers like Anucha are terrorists, Thai authorities are trying to aid their extradition process.

Activism from abroad

As members of the “Fai Yen” band, both Jom and Kun-Thong aim to inspire people to take political action through their music. Jom explains that “at the end of the day… hope depends on the people to understand all the facts.”  He produces music as a way to communicate with young listeners in Thailand. “As long as you actively listen and think about what we have to say, you’re already part of our movement,” he says.

The exiles also stay connected to the rest of Thailand via social media. Though Anucha and Bua are quieter, they remain active on social networks and support anti-military movements in Thailand through the Internet. One of the goals of Anucha’s online activism is to encourage Thai people to “fight for their freedom and living”.

He argues that toppling the military regime in Thailand largely depends on the people’s understanding of the hidden political structure in Thai society and their readiness to fight for themselves. Bua sees expressing his thoughts via social networks as his own way of contributing back to society.

Hope for the future

The exiles’ attitudes encapsulate the current atmosphere among Thailand’s activists – stuck between apathy and embryonic protest against the military regime. “I don’t know if [my activism] is worth it or not but at least we have to try our best,” says Jom. But Bua admits that he is scared to oppose the military as he is doubtful of how much can really be accomplished through activism.

Game, for one, would simply prefer to return home. “I got out of the country… so that one day my stories could be forgotten… so that I could go back home again,” he says. But since the way back is blocked, Game recently began working as a disc jockey for an online radio station that takes a stand against military coups. He is now using his position abroad as a “tool to bring about change to Thailand.”

_______________

* Anucha and Bua’s names have been changed for anonymity. Aside from the interview with Anucha, the interviews have all been translated from Thai.

** The exiles’ locations have not been revealed.

*** Asanee Waree is a nom de pleur.

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Food for thought: Inadequate nutrition and educational inequality in Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/133542/food-for-thought-inadequate-nutrition-and-educational-inequality-in-thailand/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133542/food-for-thought-inadequate-nutrition-and-educational-inequality-in-thailand/#comments Mon, 15 Jun 2015 07:32:47 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133542
Pic: Niels Heyvaert, via freeimages.com

Pic: Niels Heyvaert, via freeimages.com

By Daniel Maxwell

Further evidence of inequality in Thailand’s school system made the headlines in recent weeks after separate reports by the Public Ministry of Health and the World Bank. The report from Thailand’s Public Ministry of Health revealed that the average IQ of Grade 1 students in rural areas had fallen to 89 points, 11 points lower than Grade 1 students in urban schools, who averaged 100 points. The World Bank’s report, ‘Thailand’s Economic Monitor’, revealed that one-third of 15-year-olds in Thailand are ‘functionally illiterate’ and that the disparity between education in rural areas and urban areas should be a national concern requiring urgent action.

These recent findings further reinforce the inequalities exposed by results from standardized assessments such as Thailand’s Ordinary National Education Test (O-NET) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in which Bangkok and other urban areas have consistently outperformed Thailand’s rural areas and the Northeast.

While educational inequalities and the failings of the Thai education system deserve to be prioritized in Thailand’s long anticipated educational reforms, there are underlying factors which exacerbate these inequalities and require equally urgent attention. Foremost amongst these is the health crisis which currently inhibits thousands of rural students from realising their full potential –malnutrition and nutrient deficiency.

The link between nutrition and school performance has been long acknowledge by international organizations and national health departments. UNESCO has been urging developing countries to tackle child malnutrition for decades, with the 1984 report ‘Nutrition and Educational Achievement’ concluding “early malnutrition and poor nutritional status among students can, and will have significant adverse effects over school progress”.

Our understanding of nutrition, learning and cognitive development has increased significantly since the 1980s and there is now substantial evidence that insufficient intake of nutrients such as; Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin E, Iron, Iodine and Omega-3 acids, can be detrimental to children’s intellectual development. Recent research has also pointed to the long term effects of poor nutrition during children’s formative years which can result in lower IQs and permanent learning disabilities. The severity of these health issues makes Thailand’s levels of malnutrition and nutrient deficiency a crisis that deserves greater attention than it currently receives.

The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS 2012) complied by National Statistics Office with support from UNICEF found that malnutrition is still prevalent in rural Thailand with stunting affecting 18.9% of children in Thailand’s Northeast. Another indication that malnutrition remains commonplace across Thailand is that 10% of Thai children are underweight, a figure which rises significantly in rural areas.

Thailand’s gross wealth inequalities have left over eight million Thais living in absolute poverty and poverty remains the primary cause of child malnutrition. Other developing countries have successful implemented school lunch programs that ensure underprivileged children receive a nutritious meal during the day. Thailand’s own School Lunch Program does entitle students to a school lunch but unfortunately the food in many school canteens is deep fried and high in sugar. Improving the quality of school meals would be an important step towards elevating nutrient deficiencies, something the Health Department and the Ministry of Education would benefit from tackling together.

Another health initiative that could substantially improve the lives of Thailand’s disadvantaged students is surprisingly simple – ensuring children consume adequate amounts of properly iodized salt. Iodine deficiency is a global health concern, it causes developmental delays and intellectual disability with acute iodine deficiency resulting in cretinism, a condition still found across Thailand. Figures from the World Health Organization suggest that iodine-deficiency accounts for losses of between 10 and 15 IQ points. The prominent British medical journal, The Lancet, identified iodine deficiency as “the most common cause of preventable mental impairment worldwide” and leading health experts estimate that iodine deficiency results in an unnecessary loss of more than 1 billion IQ points worldwide.

Given the drastic consequences of insufficient iodine intake, the scale of Thailand’s iodine deficiency is alarming. According to the 2012 MICS only 71% of Thai households consume adequate levels of iodized salt. This figure drops to 54% in the poorest households. This is also a huge regional disparity with 82% of households in Bangkok and 54% of households in Thailand’s Northeast consuming adequate levels of iodized salt. Unsurprisingly, regions with the lowest IQ averages and weakest educational results are those same areas with the highest levels of iodine deficiency.

At the heart of the iodine deficiency problem lies the production of iodized salt, not Thailand’s levels of salt consumption. As recently as 2011, 90% of Thailand’s salt producers completed the iodization process by hand, a method which has proven to be highly ineffective. When tested by Thai health officials, salt iodized by hand showed inconsistent levels of iodine, with iodine undetected in some samples. The current methods of producing fish sauce, a primary source of salt in Thailand, have also been proven to produce inconsistent levels of iodine.

Since 2011 there have been laws in place which require salt producers to ensure their salt contains iodine levels of 20-40 ppm, the levels recommended by the UNICEF and WHO. However, without cooperation, reliable monitoring procedures and genuine commitment, these laws will fail to improve the lives of children suffering from iodine deficiency.

As a developing nation with aspirations of leadership within the AEC, Thailand needs to make a greater commitment towards tackling malnutrition and nutrient deficiency. Increased publicity about the long term consequences of poor nutrition, greater availability of nutritious school lunches and measures to strictly enforce the production of iodinated salt, would be important steps towards tackling this crisis. Malnutrition and nutrient deficiency amongst children in Thailand’s rural communities is a social injustice which if left unresolved will result in long term negative consequences. Not only will these injustices continue to inhibit thousands of children from fulfilling their individual potentials, but it will also impact Thailand’s economic competitiveness and ultimately contribute to Thailand’s ongoing social and political unrest.

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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Transgender activist takes on Thai university in battle for LGBT rights http://asiancorrespondent.com/133387/thailand-kath-khangpiboon-lgbt/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133387/thailand-kath-khangpiboon-lgbt/#comments Mon, 08 Jun 2015 03:37:56 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133387

“Thais like to consume transgender people, but are far from accepting them as equal.”

Kath Khangpiboon. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

Kath Khangpiboon. Pic: Alexandra Demetrianova.

By Alexandra Demetrianova

We met in a park in one of the upcoming hipster areas of Bangkok – Banglamphu. She came in a bright white and blue striped dress and colorful accessories. Kath Khangpiboon is an extravagant person by style, an activist and academic by personality. She has hundreds of followers on social media and on the day we met she had just come out of two days civil society conference talks at the UN headquarters in Bangkok. The co-founder of Thai Transgender Alliance frequently campaigns and publicly speaks on gender issues in Thailand and is a well known figure in LGBT rights movements in Southeast Asia.

Kath has studied and taught at Thammasat University, one of the most liberal universities in Thailand and one that prides itself on being founded on democratic principles. After teaching as an external lecturer at the Faculty of Social Work, where she finished her Bachelor and Master’s degrees, Kath attempted to become a permanent member of the faculty. Her application was rejected based on “inappropriate” social media activity and statements. She immediately appealed the decision, saying the rejection amounted to gender discrimination and a crusade by the conservative elements at the university. Kath spoke to Asian Correspondent about her struggle.

What exactly happened at Thammasat University? Why was your application for lecturer rejected?

In my application, they singled out some of my posts on my private Instagram account, when I was a Bachelor student back in 2010. It was a photo from Halloween with a penis-shaped lipstick my friend brought for me from Japan, it was a joke and Halloween costume. They said this was inappropriate for a Thammasat lecturer. Normally the university doesn’t consider social media activity as criteria for lecturer applications. This was only my case. Basically this is the first time that social media activity was used as criteria in approving a Thammasat lecturer. The Thammasat Board Committee meeting decided to use this criteria. I passed everything else. I’m a graduate of this faculty, they approved and read all my articles and academic writing – local and international – I passed my interview and psychological tests. But I am confident I will win this case. My faculty and the dean support me, there are only a few people there who object to me becoming a lecturer. They are taking a long time on this case, in July it will be one year since the struggle started.

But you don’t think this is only about your social media posts? You feel this is about you being transgender and an activist?

Some people in the Board Committee are conservative, they are homophobic and transphobic. I am a transgender and LGBT activist, so I talk a lot about sexuality on social media and in public. I am lucky that I can access media and my faculty supports me. But on the Thammasat Board Committee and at the Faculty of Social Work some professors don’t like me because I was critical to them about the way they teach, or how they see social development in Thailand. There is a group of about five people at my own faculty, I’ve been told they collected data against me on social media. Maybe it’s because I’m pro-democracy, and not pro-coup. Some of the people at TU compared me to Aum Neko and her case of using sexuality to campaign for freedom and LGBT rights. But Aum Neko was more controversial, she meant to be shocking. In reality she’s a very nice person. I am also an activist and transgender, but I use different tools – I write articles, attend conferences and use social media to campaign for transgender rights. They fear this “will become another Aum Neko case”. They’re not interested in who I am, in my articles and my activism. They are judging me by what they don’t like my social media account.

But why you? Aren’t there other lecturers at Thammasat University, who are gay or transgender?

There are a few gays and also transgender. But I am the first one to apply as a transgender for a lecturer position. Other transgender members of the university came out after they joined. They weren’t openly transgender when applying. Even the conservatives won’t tell you or ask you directly… some even refuse to admit that such a thing as ‘transgender’ even exists.

Thailand is reportedly one of the friendliest countries in the world towards gay and transgender people. Is this an illusion?

In terms of LGBT people and their rights? Definitely. The truth is there aren’t only negatives, but we have to look at the overall progress in our country. There is much need for social change and change of attitudes. There is a lack of opportunities in employment, rights from authorities and the government. Access to education is also an issue. That’s why LGBT people in Thailand cannot express their identity, because they aren’t comfortable to be themselves in such a society. I think people have to improve their LGBT knowledge, to make sure that knowledge can help other persons. The society should accept LGBT people as equal citizens without conditions. Starting from the family level, parents have to know how to treat their LGBT child as a human being and help them develop to be confident in their identity. And it continues at societal level in schools and universities. They have to be allowed to study openly without discrimination based on gender. We have to create a strong policy to help LGBT people have equal opportunities, mainly in employment. Policy makers in the government should create policy based on gender sensitivity and provide social service directly to LGBT people. What LGBT people still face in Thailand is a negative attitude and wrong assumptions and stereotypes. If we look at policy and legislature – there is very little to be celebrated there. There is no law for transgender rights and freedom from discrimination just yet.

What are some of the stereotypes and issues that transgender people face in Thailand, despite being painted as ‘widely accepted’ abroad?

Trans people, as well as gays, are accepted in entertainment and in consumer culture… Thai people like to consume and “consumerize” LGBT people, making them into a product of entertainment, fashion, beauty, show business and even the sex industry – just look at how many transgender people work in Pattaya as sex workers. It’s like we are here only for the cameras and the show. My case is an example of how transgender people have a problem being employed in more “serious” professions, if you will. Let’s see if the university committee will allow the first transgender applicant to become a lecturer. I take it as a reflection and confirmation of Thai society’s attitude towards trans people. Often the answer to the question if trans person can be accepted, is their social status.

What about physical safety and the fact that transgender people are more prone to sexual abuse and violence?

In the case of rape, if a transgender person reports a rape, the police won’t even talk them. Because they are trans, they won’t want to register the assault as rape. They blame their identity, they blame the victim… We desperately need a law protecting transgender people from physical, sexual violence and other forms of discrimination.

Recently in January, a clause on gender discrimination was included in the draft of new Thai constitution. If this is passed, it would be a major success for the whole LGBT community. Would you consider it legitimate, even if the process was not entirely democratic?

I will have to accept it, because it will be a result of the efforts of the whole LGBT community and activist network. If I refuse to accept such a law, it won’t be fair to other LGBT activists and colleagues. There would be division and it would also impact developments of other issues. Just look at my case. I’ve been waiting for 10 months to even be heard and answered… The drafting of the new Thai constitution, it is an opportunity to push gender identity into the constitution. But that’s just the start, the government needs to focus on social development, human security, legal, educational and health issues.

You will hear the decision on your appeal by the university Board Committee soon. What if you get rejected again? What’s next for you?

Currently there is no law protecting transgender people from this kind of discrimination… What I can do, however, is claim the time they took to consider my case, which was extraordinarily long. I’ve been waiting for 10 months and they have violated my right to have my case considered in a just manner. Then, I can also refer to the criteria they applied to my case. I am confident I will win, I believe it. And that’s why Thammasat contacted me to be interviewed again.

They should think about my personality and work. I was a student activist at Thammasat. I entered the university because I believed in their values and I could see myself as their student and graduate. As a transgender I felt the university was free enough for me to feel safe and comfortable. And that’s why I continued to study Master’s degree there. I did my thesis on gender and transgender issues, I’ve always developed knowledge in this area. They have to think about this as an opportunity to open doors for transgender people, to help create knowledge at Thammasat, to freely talk about transgender identity. If I go to the courts, it will take more than six years, it’s a very long process. But I will try.

Do you still want to go back and teach at Thammasat, despite this struggle?

I am not okay with the way they are treating me, but I have to continue and use this case to declare the state of transgender rights in Thailand. It is not only a fight for my own position at TU, it’s a fight for all transgender people. That’s why I take time to talk about this and won’t let it go. I am just trying to protect their own values – freedom and justice.

UPDATE: Thammasat University’s decision on Kath’s appeal, which was due this week, has been postponed until June 22.

RELATED: India gets first transgender college principal

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Two new museums set to boost contemporary art in Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/133327/two-new-museums-set-to-boost-contemporary-art-in-thailand/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133327/two-new-museums-set-to-boost-contemporary-art-in-thailand/#comments Wed, 03 Jun 2015 02:40:21 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133327
Mai Am is due to open in Chiang Mai next year. Image via MICAM Mai Iam's Facebook page.

Mai Iam Contemporary Art Museum is due to open in Chiang Mai next year. Image via MICAM Mai Iam’s Facebook page.

By Thitipol Panyalimpanun

Lotuses and Buddha images usually spring to mind when Thai art is mentioned. And although such visuals still remain intact in the country, there are much more to Thai contemporary art. While Thai artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook and Korakrit Arunanondchai have made their names in the global art world, very few Thais know what they are about. And that’s only fair, since museums for contemporary art barely exist in the country.

In the next few years, though, Thailand will welcome not one but two new contemporary art museums – much-needed additions as Thai art struggles to engage local audiences and manifest itself internationally.

Buddhism used to be the primary theme for Thai art, thanks to the strong influence from modern artists such as Thawan Duchanee and Prateep Kochabua. Perhaps the most locally recognized artist, Chalermchai Kosipipat, known for his colorful character and white temple Wat Rong Khun in northern Thailand, is a poster boy for Buddhism-inspired Thai art. But as most contemporary Thai artists no longer adopt such influence, it “cannot be used as a consistent reference in exhibitions,” according Brian Curtin, an Irish-born art writer and curator based in Bangkok, who is currently working on a book about Thai contemporary art.

That Thailand doesn’t share the post-colonial histories of most countries in Southeast Asia also makes it harder for international audiences to understand or contextualize Thai art, according to the curator. “The ‘lack’ of a coherent identity for contemporary art in Thailand enables it to be less commodified than its neighbors, and this underlines its relative invisibility on the regional or international art market,” he said.

The challenge in defining contemporary art is also shared across Southeast Asia, and Curtin pointed out how inadequate critical understanding has led to more sweeping labeling. “We can see this, for example, in the appalling exhibition ‘Secret Archipelago’ at the Palais deTokyo this year, curated by Singapore’s Khairuddin Hori. This exhibition pandered to stupid generalizations and stereotypes about the region. We can also see it the lazy, silly use of ‘contemporary’, such as the privately-owned Museum of Contemporary Art in Bangkok which, in fact, doesn’t contain any contemporary art,” he said.

The lack of museums, especially art museums, in Thailand to document its cultural history and educate the public makes it all the more difficult for people to grasp what is going on with Thai contemporary art. Although the very active and accessible Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) has been accommodating contemporary art, it also doesn’t have a permanent collection. The work by most younger contemporary Thai artists often takes shelter in smaller, scattered art spaces, where they are usually left unexposed to the general public.

Last May, though, a number of people in the Thai art scene gathered to discuss the new Mai Iam Contemporary Art Museum (MICAM). The name means “brand new” in Thai and also commemorates Chao Chom Iam Bunnag, the royal consort of King Rama V. Said to open in 2016, the project by collectors Patsri Bunnag and Jean-Michel Beurdeley will transform an old warehouse in San Kanphaeng, Chiang Mai into a two-story art center.

In addition, art collector and patron Petch Osathanugrah has unofficially announced a plan for O Museum, a new contemporary art museum that will house works by Thai contemporary artists alongside the art world’s big names such as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. Situated in the inner Bangkok on a spacious 12,800-square-meter plot, the new art venue will be very accessible via public transport and should be ready to welcome local and international art enthusiasts in approximately 3 years.

The opening of the new museums is well timed. According to independent curator Gregory Galligan, director and co-founder of Thai Art Archives (who is also working a book about Thai contemporary art), huge bids from overseas are being made to “represent” Thai modern and contemporary art, especially without a comprehensive historical collection in Thailand. “It’s very concerning. It’s great to have Thai art overseas, but at what cost to the center?” He added, “Perhaps we can build a coalition of collectors and curators to act as a productive counterforce, where others have their governments tending to this, such as at Singapore, Hong Kong, and now Gwangju.”

In Thailand, though, a recent dispute over a relocation of a museum in Nakhon Pathom between local residents and the Fine Arts Department reveals a failure in national museum administration and insufficient support from the government. As ‘reported in ‘The Nation’, only 93 curators are running 44 national museums, with a very limited budget. On the Nakon Pathom museum row, curator ‎Vipash Purichanont also spoke to ‘Matichon’ about how, “the Fine Arts Department has yet to find its audience,” and that that most exhibitions in national museums are organized in response to the government’s agenda – not what the public wants.

While the much-needed museums are very welcome, the real challenge remains whether they can serve the public rather than just showcasing the collections, suggested Galligan. “Only time will tell if such ‘museums’ offer the public the full, professionally conceived range of services of what is implied in the title. And as I have recently suggested in ‘Art in America’ just this May, if Thailand has only a smattering of private museums without the counterbalance of a great civic museum to fill in their inevitable historical omissions, then that’s an ongoing problem. Bangkok still lacks that kind of historically and curatorially progressive institution.”

This month, the National Discovery Museum Institute is hosting the Museum Refocused conference (May 6 – July 3) to discuss the direction of Thai museums. While all the recent talks and discussions are all positive signs for Thai art and culture, it remains doubtful if anything will materialize. One thing is for sure: changes are clearly needed. And to make them happen, these art and museum professionals will have a lot of work to do.

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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Sports stars, selfies and scandals: English football comes to Thailand http://asiancorrespondent.com/133279/sports-stars-selfies-and-scandals-english-football-comes-to-thailand/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133279/sports-stars-selfies-and-scandals-english-football-comes-to-thailand/#comments Tue, 02 Jun 2015 01:56:24 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133279
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho at a game between Chelsea and Thailand All-Stars in Bangkok, Thailand, Saturday. Pic: AP.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho at a game between Chelsea and Thailand All-Stars in Bangkok, Thailand, Saturday. Pic: AP.

By Daniel Maxwell

With the European footballing year coming to a close, a number of Premier League clubs have already started summer tours across Asia, with Thailand a popular destination.

Last week, the Premier League champions, Chelsea FC, touched down in Thailand to meet fans and play a friendly match with the Thailand All Stars. Chelsea weren’t the only Premier league team in the Kingdom last week, Leicester City, also arrived in Thailand to develop their “international, strategic partnership” with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Both teams have strong links with Thailand and receive substantial sponsorship from Thai businesses, but the outcomes of these trips couldn’t have been more different with Chelsea leaving the Kingdom victorious and Leicester City making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Chelsea’s summer tour of Thailand got off to a strong start with a warm welcome at the airport. The Premier League champions provided opportunities for fans to get up close with the Premier League trophy which they were awarded just days earlier. Asian football fans like success and Chelsea’s following in Thailand has grown steadily since the beginning of the Roman Abramovich era. Chelsea’s popularity in Asia is also boosted by a charismatic manager, recent Champions League success, international stars, and a couple of players with pop star appeal.

The friendly match between Chelsea and the Thailand All Stars was also a very diplomatic affair with the Premier League champions winning by just one goal, allowing the home team to hold their heads high after holding their own against world class opposition.

During their stay, Chelsea stars were snapped out and about in Bangkok enjoying the capital’s charms. Manager José Mourinho was spotted bargain hunting at MBK, while a picture of Diego Costa in a Bangkok taxi went viral. Chelsea heartthrob, Eden Hazard, went one better and was pictured hanging out with former Miss Thailand Universe Aimee Kittisara. No doubt their Thai sponsors, Singha, will be more than happy with all the publicity and the chances of seeing Chelsea back in the Land of Smiles next year looks pretty high.

Nice meeting you last night @hazardeden_10 ⚽️⚽️⚽️ #PlayerOfTheYear #aboutlastnight A photo posted by Aimee Morakot Kittisara (@aimeemorakot) on

In contrast Leicester City’s summer tour, which got off to a good start, couldn’t have gone worse. Leicester City received a warm welcome at the airport but without any household names in their line up, they are hardly the type of team that send Asian football fans into a frenzy. Furthermore, while Chelsea arrived celebrating the Premier League title, Leicester City arrived celebrating the fact that they had avoided relegation, again not the kind of achievement to excite foreign fans.

But Leicester City do have an advantage over their southern rivals. They are owned by a Thai billionaire, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, who has invested millions of pounds in the team since 2010.

Keen to boost their popularity in Thailand and Southeast Asia, but without high profile stars or recent competition success, Leicester City were going to rely on their charm and their support for grassroots football projects to appeal to the Thai public – or at least that was the plan.

But on Sunday morning the British tabloid The Mirror published an article in which three members of the Leicester City team, including manager Nigel Pearson’s son, were reported to have participated in a ‘racist orgy’ in Bangkok. The Leicester City players had filmed themselves racially abusing what appear to be three sex workers while they performed sexual acts for the footballers. It wasn’t long before news of this sordid behaviour spread across the internet, appearing on news sites worldwide and Thailand’s own news networks. Football fans on Twitter, Facebook and the Leicester City Fans Forum were quick to condemn the footballers’ abusive behaviour.

Within 24 hours of the news breaking, James Pearson, Adam Smith, and Tom Hopper were reportedly on their way back to the UK ahead of their teammates. Exactly how the club intends to deal with the fallout from this remains to be seen. The club’s Thai owner must be furious after injecting millions over the past five years and just recently having shared a 5 million pound bonus with the team following their survival in the Premiership. The club’s image has now been severely damaged in Thailand and judging by comments on the Leicester City Facebook page, many Thai fans are unwilling to support a team with players that disrespect women in this manner.

It will also be interesting to see if this affects the Leicester City’s ‘strategic international relationship’ with TAT, which has been keen to promote Thailand as a more up-market destination in recent years. The promotion of Thailand’s sex industry is definitely not what the TAT were looking for, but these three footballers, whose exploits were ironically funded by TAT and King Power, have managed to do just that.

Next summer Leicester City may be better off staying at home – or perhaps just bringing a small team of ‘ambassadors’ who don’t abuse women and have some understanding of cultural sensitivity.

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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Infographic: Thai junta leader to cut short ‘boring’ Friday night rants http://asiancorrespondent.com/133246/infographic-thai-military-junta-leaders-weekly-tv-address-to-reduce-air-time/ http://asiancorrespondent.com/133246/infographic-thai-military-junta-leaders-weekly-tv-address-to-reduce-air-time/#comments Sun, 31 May 2015 23:40:46 +0000 http://asiancorrespondent.com/?p=133246
A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha's weekly TV address "Returning Happiness to the Nation's People".

A screencap of Thai military junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s weekly TV address “Returning Happiness to the Nation’s People”.

As Thai military junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha considers shortening his weekly TV addresses, we look how much air time he has already racked up.

Every Friday evening, the dulcet tones of synthesized strings of a pop ballad ring in the program that has been a mainstay on Thai television for a year now, and a man starts talking and talking… and talking about the work he has done in the past week. The weekly spot is part of the Thai military government’s media propaganda routine, replacing the much-loved soap operas that are usually shown at this time.

Since the military coup of May 22, 2014, as part of the junta’s efforts to “Return Happiness” to the Thai people in order to win backs the hearts and minds it has continuously intimidated, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha appears every Friday night at around 8.3opm to address the nation in his show “Returning Happiness to the Nation’s People” (“คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ”).

Weekly programs where Thai prime ministers provide updates about the work of their government are not a novelty, as previous civilian governments have done so before. The main difference is that their programs ran on Sunday on one state-owned TV station. Gen. Prayuth on the other hand appears on nearly all Thai free TV channels on Friday evening, a time slot normally reserved for the “lakorns”, the soap operas that are hugely popular, but can also be rather questionable – so questionable, in fact, that Gen. Prayuth himself offered to write some new scripts himself.

On the program – which is pre-recorded in front of a green screen – Gen. Prayuth discusses the week’s progress of his administration on a variety of issues. On some episodes, he’s joined by other members of the junta or the cabinet to provide their updates. But more often than not, his rapid-fire remarks veer off-script into bizarre side notes and furious tirades (so much so that the English subtitles hardly keep up with him), further cementing his mercurial rhetoric and his compulsive loquaciousness.

And more often than not, his weekly addresses vary in length, but tend to be on the longer side, as our infographic shows:

Those times are soon coming to an end though, or at least they appear to be cut short:

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha is considering cutting the length of his weekly national address by half and may move it out of the prime-time slot. Prayut said yesterday he would try to keep his speech to about 30 minutes during the programme […]

When asked if he watched the pre-recorded programme, the prime minister said: “I do and I feel bored.”

Prayut to rethink time and length of his weekly TV show“, The Nation, May 29, 2015

While the junta leader is seemingly omnipresent on TV, it is not known if a lot of people are actually tuning to hear his words of “wisdom” – it could be possible that the majority actually doesn’t watch, most likely in disappointment at being deprived of their beloved “lakorns”. And TV executives aren’t really happy about this either, considering that these shows score the highest ratings and contribute to the largest advertising revenues:

“It was popular during the first few weeks, but since it’s been a year now, it has lost its appeal,” Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent scholar and TV host, said last week. Forcing all channels to relay the programme could be considered as monopolising information, Sirote said. (…)

The programme, which usually drags on for more than an hour, has impacted the TV industry, he said. The operators all paid a fortune to bid for a spot on the digital TV platform last year in the hope that they could create content and attract viewers. Undoubtedly, airtime was valuable, he said. The operators held the rights to exploit the resources they had paid for, but the programme hosted by the premier prevented them from doing so, he added.

Not every TV viewer is happy with Prayut ‘Returning Happiness to the People’“, The Nation, May 31, 2015

In a related development, the military government’s daily TV show “Thailand Moves Forward”, also aired on all state-owned channels, is getting another 15 minutes of air time.
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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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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

________________________
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)

__________________
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.

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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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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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