Friday, September 28, 2007

A Land Apart - Reporting from Thailand's Red Zone

This is the latest trailer for my documentary film that should be done in about 4-6 months. Its still a rough draft, but the general idea is there.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Last Gasp of Resistance

"Despite the growing picture of a nation at peace pursuing its economic fortunes, out in the remote tropical rainforest of the Annamite Cordillera, a handful of armed Hmong remain. They are the remnants of the “secret army” paid by the US and led by Vang to fight against Vietnamese and Laotian communists."

I have recently had an article about General Vang Pao and the Hmong insurgency in Laos published at the Asia Sentinel.

Please click here to read the full article.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Hello Kitty and Thai Police - Together at last!

This photo was nicked from but I, along with almost everyone who is following this story, will be eagerly scouring the Bangkok streets to take a souvenir photo of the real thing.

Thai police don't have a great reputation. And, as numerous critics might argue, their ongoing corrupt and violent antics certainly don't deserve a good reputation.

But Hello Kitty might help.

Officers guilty of "failing to report for duty, parking in a prohibited area, fighting, or being the subject of a complaint about poor service" would earn the above pictured Hello Kitty arm band.

Acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division, Pongpat Chayaphan, told the Bangkok Post that ''This new approach is intended to engender a feeling of guilt and discourage them from repeating the offense.''

I would like to suggest a couple of other offenses, ones that I have personally witnessed, that should also win a cute pink kitty arm band.

  • For arresting the victim of a violent beating instead of the group of thugs that dispensed the beating. I am beginning to think this is actually common practice as I have seen it a few times times.

  • For taking 50-100 baht bribes from taxi drivers.

  • For giving an on the spot 'fine' of 2000 baht to a tourist near Khao San road for littering. (the fine was bartered down to 1500)

  • For drunk driving. Very common.

  • For drinking whiskey on the street with motorbike taxi drivers before both police and taxi drivers ALL get on their bikes and drive away.

  • For charging me 100 baht to fill out a report of a lost phone.

  • And for one of my favorite memories of Thai police; For drunkenly throwing a police helmet in the street while in a rage for not being bribed enough by a motorist.

This list could actually go on and on but I think the point is made.

I was tempted to add; For wearing skin tight uniforms while being comically overweight but I think half that problem rests with the department's decision to outfit their force with 'painted-on' tight uniforms.

Hello Kitty arm bands will certainly make for some humorous jokes at the expensive of the police but it does take the focus away from the a very serious crimes that Thai police are involved with.

But lets not venture into the real world now and look forward to spotting the first Thai cop sporting Hello Kitty pride. สวัสดีตำรวจ!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lao Coup Loses the Plot

Old tank, probably left over from the 1987 border war with Thailand, in a school yard in the southern town of Savannakhet.

General Vang Pao, the revered leader for many of Laos’ ethnic Hmong, and 10 other defendants who were charged with conspiring to overthrow the Lao government were freed on bail in the US on Saturday. General Vang and his fellow conspirators are now confined to their homes awaiting a trial that will not just prove their guilt or innocence but is revealing how America’s Secret War in Laos is still affecting the Hmong today.

Parts of the conspirators plot even sound a little familiar to events in Laos over 30 years ago.

The plan, if successful, would have seen arms acquired in the United States going to Hmong ‘freedom fighters’ struggle against communists in Laos. Court documents even suggest that some of the would-be coup makers believed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “was preparing to assist the Hmong insurgency once the takeover began.”

The U.S. based revolutionaries had been seeking to purchase military hardware, ranging from Ak-47 and M-16 assault rifles to claymore mines and stinger missiles, which would be shipped to remote locations in Laos and Thailand for a broad based uprising against the government.

But the Secret War style plot came to an end when the arms dealer was, in fact, an undercover agent with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The plotters were the subject of an elaborate sting operation and are now facing a variety of serious charges including conspiracy to violate the US neutrality act and conspiracy to possess missile systems. Charges that could lead to life sentences for those accused.

The Sacramento District Court indictment against the defendants claims that Laos “is a sovereign nation with which the United States has been at peace at all times relevant to this indictment.” And herein lays the unfortunate irony of the defendants’ position. What made General Vang a heroic ally of the United States 30 years ago now makes him a criminal.

Although the court does not see history as relevant to the legal proceedings, the complicated relationship between the Hmong and the United States it is important in understanding why a band of aging rebels didn’t seem to be overly concerned with the legal consequences of a large scale arms purchase and talk of overthrowing a foreign government.

Since the US retreat from Vietnam in 1973 history has judged the war as both a geopolitical and human disaster. Although the North Vietnamese technically won, the human cost was nothing short of profound. In Cambodia, the neighbouring war spilled over creating a fettered breeding ground for an ideological sickness that lead to a horrifying genocide by Khmer Rouge cadres.

In Laos, American’s pursuit of North Vietnamese troops using the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail, inspired a robust and morally questionable bombing campaign. Approximately two million tons of bombs transformed the neutral country into a pockmarked ruin that can make the unfortunate claim of being the most heavily bombed nation on earth.

And then there is the history of General Vang and a 30,000 strong secret army. The CIA had raised and equipped the army, comprised mostly of ethnic Hmong, to fight a brutal war in the jungle against the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists known as the Pathet Lao.

General Vang, whose bravery during the war is often talked about in near legendary terms, and the Hmong army greatly assisted America’s war effort. Although the exact numbers are not known it is estimated that at least half of the Hmong army were killed while fighting in American service.

When America retreated from Indochina in 1973, support for the secret army came to a close and America’s Hmong allies were left to an uncertain fate. Abandoning the Hmong has been the source of a fierce moral debate because, unlike the American’s who could return home, many Hmong would become permanently displaced.

When the Pathet Lao took over Laos in 1975 the Hmong that sided with the Americans during the war were viewed as traitors by the new communist government. The lucky ones, like General Vang, were flown out of Laos and settled in the United States.

The unlucky ones, about 200,000, fled across the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand. While most were eventually settled in the US thousands still remain in Thai refugee camps today.

Human rights organizations, like Forum-Asia, have repeatedly warned that Thailand “disrespects the principle of non-refoulment and protection of asylum seekers” and has been forcibly repatriating the Hmong to Laos. Unconfirmed, yet persistent, reports of refugees arrest, disappearance, and murder at the hands of the Lao government have been an ugly characteristic dogging the controversial repatriations.

Even more unlucky were the Hmong who sided with the Americans yet remained in Laos after the communist takeover. Thousands disappeared into re-education camps or back into the jungle where they have kept a low level and increasingly bleak insurgency against the government that continues today.

Although media access is severely restricted in Laos a few journalists have made the risky journey to meet the remaining fighters and their reports create a tragic picture of an intractable conflict. Roger Arnold, a photographer who witnessed the Hmong insurgent’s plight first-hand in 2006, says that the Hmong fighters “are caught in a difficult situation; if they surrender they are likely arrested or worse, if they flee to Thailand they will just get deported.”

Back in the United States, the court has dismissed the history between the Hmong and the United States but it is certainly important in understanding why dreams of overthrowing the Lao government remain.

There is little doubt that many American based Hmong have supported the insurgency in Laos but it is certainly not a unified effort by the whole community and is certainly not without controversy.

For those that support the coup d’etat or the insurgents, the struggle to liberate Laos and the Hmong is a noble cause. Long running rumours of human rights violations in Laos – torture, rape, summary executions, and even chemical weapon use – as well as Thailand’s repatriation of Hmong refugees must provide ample justification to prolong the fight.

Yet continuing the struggle is a catch-22. As long as overseas Hmong continue to dream of revolution and provide material or moral support for their long-suffering brothers in the jungles there will always be a barrier between the Hmong and the Lao government.

Human rights organizations have already begun warning that the coup plot could inspire a violent crack down on Hmong in Laos. Although many Hmong did not side with the Americans during the war and have been active members in the Lao government and business community such coup plots cast a dark shadow of suspicion over the whole Hmong community.

Yet the coup shadow is not just cast over the Hmong in Laos but over the Hmong refugee camps in Thailand and over the Hmong community in the United States. Thailand has already announced a new round of forced repatriations of Hmong refugees and many Hmong-Americans have been trying to remind the public of the positive contributions their community makes to America.

Looking at the details of the actual coup plot there are serious doubts about the ability of the aging rebels to carry out their plan. Although the ATF agent’s sworn affidavit testifies to the legitimacy and determination of the defendants the court’s evidence is less than convincing.

Government Exhibit 1 is a “comprehensive plan of action” authored by one of the defendants and details how the alleged coup was to unfold. Yet the plan, unfortunately titled “Operation Popcorn” – POPCORN is an acronym for Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation – reads more like a badly written action movie than serious plot for revolution.

In essence, the plan envisioned a small force slipping across the border from Thailand to deliver a quick and fatal blow to the government in Vientiane. At the same time, Hmong in the highlands would descend from their mountain hideouts and take control over the provincial capitals.

But the plan contains almost comical errors under examination.

For example, to “bring down the power leaders” the plan assigns 50 so-called “rangers” at five “rangers” per target. Yet the to neutralize all the targets listed – “communist politburo members, President, Prime Minister and top levels of government officials,” “Defence Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Interior and other cabinet members,” “Chief of police, commanders of security force, special forces, etc” – clearly requires more rangers than the plan allocates.

Even rounding up all 12 members of the small communist politburo, even if the coup makers had the necessary detailed travel schedules, home and work addresses, as well as physical descriptions, would require 60 rangers and presumably would not be a simple task.

Yet the most questionable element of the plot is the assumption that the Lao government would easily fold under attack and that the majority of the population is already at the brink of revolt. “75% - 80% (of citizens are) ready to rise up” claims Operation Popcorn.

Grant Evans, a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and author of numerous books on Laos, says that the plot “is total fantasy.
Laos is as stable as it has ever been. There is zero support for any coup.”

Even General Vang’s defence attorney,
John Keker, argued the ‘fantasy’ angle at the bail hearing. The attorney has pointed out that the plot was “lacking any realistic planning, money or support" and questioned the role of the government’s ATF agent in helping create the plot for the Hmong.

Whether or not the coup plot is viable or simply the work of daydreaming generals might not be the most important question raised by the court case. What might be more relevant is the direction that Hmong in Laos, Thailand, and the United States are heading.

It seems clear that General Vang and his band of would-be-rebels remain firmly anchored in the past. Their direction forward is an increasingly anachronistic return to the past in an effort to heal the damage inflicted on the Hmong during the Secret War.

Yet who the Hmong were and what was happening in Laos 30 years ago is not the same today. Many of the younger generation of Hmong-Americans have little to no memory of the war and General Vang’s politics hold little relevance to them.

The Cold War ideology that had divided the world and was violently fought over in Laos has also changed. And it is specifically this change that seems lost on the coup plot.

While some might view the arrest and upcoming trial of General Vang as another betrayal of the Hmong there will also be many who will question whether Secret War logic has any place in Hmong’s future.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Peace in the South?

Chinese and Thai fortunes at a temple in Pattani. I suppose the rationale for choosing this picture is that answering questions on southern violence involves a particular kind of prognostication.

'hobby' said:

"Your film looks interesting - when will it be released? Also, if it's not a spoiler, I would interested in your thoughts on the following":

  • "what the average southern Muslim think of the extremists?"
  • "how to get the southern situation under control?"
  • "how a lasting peace can be achieved?"
The above questions, asked by a reader at Bangkok Pundit, highlights some of the core problems facing a resolution to the crisis in the deep south. Although I am not sure how qualified I am to answer, I will try to summarise what academics, politicians, and southern residents have told me:

  • 'hobby' asks: "what (does) the average southern Muslim think of the extremists?"
I have put that same question to a many southern Muslims over the last two years and most have answered that they simply dont believe the ideology of Islamic extremism and certainly do not agree with the use of violence. For the majority of Muslims that I have talked to the use of violence is unacceptable but the use of violence in the name of Islam is nothing short of abhorrent.

Yet there certainly is a noticeable level of religious ideology that is finding acceptance, particularly in closed rural villages. Terminology from the Koran, like kafet which means infidel and used when talking about non-Muslims, has been creeping into mainstream use. (to read more on this term and extremist ideology please read the post called 'The Coming Jihad')

In closed villages the fear of authorities (military and police) has been exploited by extremists and villagers are more likely to be open to or accept extreme ideology.

I think its due to a lack of options. If the authorities have shown a history of violence and can not be trusted, an alternative source of power/legitimacy can be found in religious extremism.

But, what we need to keep in mind is that extremism and violence is accepted by very small percentage of southern residents. The overwhelming majority of residents wish for peace and have no sympathy for extremists. (for more information on the mood in the south, May Tan-Mullins' essay 'Voices from Pattani: Fears, Suspicion, and Confusion' in 'Rethinking Thailand's Southern Violence' edited by Duncan McCargo is very helpful)
  • 'hobby' asks: "how to get the southern situation under control?"
The short answer is simply justice. The need for Justice is because southern residents have been caught between a violent state and violent separatists.

Years of military and police abuse in the south has broken the trust that must exist between authorities and the population.

State authorities are simply not trusted because justice for state-sanctioned crimes are never addressed.

Dr Pechdau Tohmeena (พญ เพชรดาว โต๊ะมีนา), daughter of Haji Sulong, told me that her family has always known the specific government officials that killed her father yet some 50 years on, there have never been charges laid.

Not only can the same be said about the missing Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelahphaijit, but the whole issue of Tak Bai needs to be addressed. 76 deaths while in police/military custody (85 total) and not a single person held accountable...not even then Fourth Army Region commander General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri. Tak Bai without criminal charges is an insurmountable barrier between the south and the authorities.

But its not just the authorities that need to be restrained. The militants have proved themselves to be capable of absolutely savage violence and that violence is just as often focused upon the Muslims as the Buddhists.

If the government forces can not protect the general population by arresting those causing the violence they simply can not regain the trust
of southern residents.
  • 'hobby' asks: "how a lasting peace can be achieved?"

No one really seems to know but there are symptoms that need to be taken into consideration that could make a lasting peace possible.

Justice has already been mentioned but it should not be undervalued. With out justice there will be no trust and without trust there will always be rebellion.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand, prominent academic at Thammasat University and member of the National Reconciliation Commission, has argued that an alternate understanding of 'Thailand' might address some underlying grievances in the south. How are southern Muslims, who are also ethnic Malay, supposed to feel about the political state of Thailand when Thai nationalism continues to reinforce the myth that the Thai state represents only ethnic Thais and Buddhists?

The militants will also need to be dealt with. This is not to suggest more violence, which while be inevitable in dealing with extremists, but the root causes of how and why some people in the south adopt and attempt to propagate extremism needs to be better understood.

Other issues such as corruption, the failing economy and reliance upon 'conflict industries', as well as serious education issues all need to come together in a more realistic solution to the crisis.

But the resolution, if there is one, is a generation or more away and it certainly requires more political solutions than hard line military solutions.

Hope that answers your questions 'hobby'.

Oh, and the documentary film should be out in about 5 months. I will certainly post more information when I have a better idea of an exact date, cheers.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Indonesia's Religious Frontline

There used to be an article I wrote about three Christian women imprisoned for proselytizing in Indonesia posted here.

The article has now been published as a lead story at the Asia Sentinel.

Please click here to read the full article.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

สมน้ำหน้า or น่าสงสาร?

Pro-Thaksin/Anti-Junta protesters at Sanam Luang on June 15th, 2007.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s political future has been dealt another serious blow with the Assets Examination Commission’s (AEC) decision to freeze his bank accounts pending a series of investigations into alleged corruption.

The decision, effective immediately, will place 21 bank accounts and approximately Bt 53 billion (US $1.6 billion) in suspension until the outcome of five separate charges are investigated.

The debate that the AEC decision will now inspire can be aptly summarized by two popular Thai phrases; สมน้ำหน้า and น่าสงสาร.

สมน้ำหน้า, or som nam nah, can roughly be translated as ‘it serves (someone) right’1 and there are bound to be thousands of people uttering the phrase with unrestrained glee as they hear of the AEC decision.

Thaksin’s tenure, in the eyes of numerous critics, was characterized by his habitual abuse of power and his obscene wealth is certainly fueling his critic’s anger.

The most notorious of allegations, and certainly instrumental in Thaksin’s overthrow, was the sale of his telcom giant, Shin Corp, to the Singapore based Temasek.

The deal netted Thaksin and his family Bt 73.3 billion and, much to the fury of the critics, went 100% untaxed.

Thaksin is accused of using his position as Prime Minister to manipulate tax laws in the transaction which suggests that his position as a political leader was more about advancing his own business interests than working for the betterment of the country.

For those in the som nam nah camp, the Junta has finally taken off their kid gloves and begun to dismantle Thaksin’s political/financial foundation.

Last week’s decision by the Constitutional Tribunal to disband Thai Rak Thai and ban Thaksin from politics for five years, coupled with the investigation by the AEC, are going to be serious, if not fatal, decisions for the future of the former Prime Minister.

For those saying som nam nah, Thaksin certainly had this coming and the decision by the AEC will be welcome, if not long overdue.

And then there is the other camp.

น่าสงสาร, or nah song san, is translated as ‘it’s a pity’ and the 10,000 plus demonstrators on the Bangkok streets venting anger at the Junta and waving pictures of Thaksin are certainly thinking this way.

For Thaksin’s supporters the AEC decision will be viewed as the further prosecution of their rightfully elected leader.

Thaksin’s popularity, particularly the rural poor who benefited from his 30 baht healthcare scheme, is undisputed.

His success, overwhelmingly proved at the polls, was not simply through populist policies but also orchestrated by his personal popularity.

The fact that he was Thailand’s richest business man seemingly holds no contradiction as self-professed champion of the rural poor.

Thai politics has always been plagued by corruption so why should rural voters, whom have been given unprecedented political attention and pro-poor policies, be fussed about corruption-as-usual?

Now that the AEC along with the Constitutional Tribunal, who were both created by the Junta, have implimented serious efforts to permanently remove Thaksin his supporters will certainly be saying nah song san for their former leader.

More importantly than expressing their pity will be the possibility that they will express their anger.

As previously stated, the streets are teeming with anti-junta/pro-Thaksin supporters and they could turn their sympathy for Thaksin into a serious expression of anger on the streets in the coming days and weeks.

Some, like the editor of the english language daily The Nation, Tulsathit Taptim, are even speculating that Thaksin could instigate a dangerous game of brinkmanship and attempt to start a full scale violent revolt against the Junta.

What the som nam nah and nah song san arguments reveal is how deeply polarized the country is over the former Prime Minister and in Thai politics in general.

The recent decisions against Thaksin, by both the AEC and the Constitutional Tribunal, look more likely to result in further political chaos in the short term than pave the way for national political reconciliation in the long term.

But there is one last group who don’t fall into either camp and their expression might be อะไรก็ได้ or arai ga dai.

Arai ga dai means something akin to ‘whatever’ and there will certainly be some Thais expressing this sentiment.

Bt 53 billion might seem like a lot of money but, as both critics and supports concede, it is widely assumed that Thaksin has transferred ample funds from the country and can live comfortable ‘whatever’ the outcome of the AEC investigation.


1 สมน้ำหน้า or som nam nah is actually an idiom with a more abstract etymology than simply meaning 'serves (someone) right'. Som means appropriate, nam means water, and nah means face. The appropriate (som) word is literal but the water (nam) and face (nah) are not. I initially thought it meant tears but, in fact, it stems from an older - before the arrival of the mirror - concept. The water and face idea is actually an expression of gazing upon one's own face (told to me as looking into the water inside a freshly split coconut) in the reflection of water during a time of soul searching. So, som nam nah really means something like; the appropriate self refection of one who is faced with a conflict of their own creation. Either way of understanding it, it makes an endlessly comical statement when employed at the inconvenience of friends but it makes and even harsher attack upon one's enemy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Chaturon Chaisang: Second Class Citizen

Chaturon Chaisaeng at the FCCT.

Khun Chaturon Chaisaeng, acting leader of the now dissolved Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, greeted the assembled press at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand this evening with the opening remarks;

"Thank-you for allowing me to use my freedom of speech…one of the last freedoms I have left."

Although the general ban on political parties, which began after the September 19th coup d’etat, has recently been lifted, Chaturon and 110 other members of TRT have been banned by the Constitutional Court from politics for the next five years.

Yet beyond being banned from participation as a political candidate or even a member of a political party Chaturon and TRT seem to be at risk of losing their freedom of speech also.

T-ITV (formerly I-TV until the junta-installed-government decided that a television station not controlled by the military or government was a bad idea and launched questionable legal action and took over the station three months ago) was scheduled to interview Khun Chaturon for a new talk show until the office of the Prime Minister intervened.

A senior staff member with T-ITV informed me that the station was threatened by a government official who said "if they (reporters) interview someone we don’t like" the station’s staff salaries would not be paid.

Since the government take over three months ago the staff have not been paid.

The government has promised that next week the long overdue salaries would be paid but it seems that I-TV must self-censor its broadcasts if they plan to get paid and stay on air.

During Chaturon’s press conference he claimed that the coup and the recent Constitutional Tribunal’s decision are part of the same effort by the military to dismantle the enormous electoral power that TRT commands.

"One can not help thinking that it had all been planed" claimed Chaturon.

What the military establishment wanted all along was to disband the TRT and create a "weak coalition (between the) democrats and the military" claimed Chaturon.

If the junta was sincere about seeking a return to democracy then freedom of the press is essential and freedom for citizens, even those banned from political office, to speak is implicit.

Khun Chaturon is a banned political actor yet he is still an influential figure whose opinion could add to a healthy political discourse in a proper functioning democracy.

Yet, as the ongoing crisis demonstrates, Thailand is not only far from a functional democracy but also appears to be heading in the wrong direction.

Chaturon claimed that the junta was "determined to destroy us (TRT) from the beginning" and he might be right.

Many have questioned the Constitutional Tribunal’s black and white exoneration of the Democrats and the political assassination of the TRT.

Now, if the junta continues what appears to be the persecution of the TRT, they are at risk of permanently derailing a return to Thailand’s once fragile democracy.

Worse yet, by persecuting a political party with 16 million voters, the junta could create political martyrs that will certainly look to the future to exact their revenge.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Victors Justice = Dictators Justice

Although it is common knowledge that some protesters at the Anti-Junta Pro-Thaksin rallies are being paid ฿300 baht (about $10 usd) to attend, the enthusiastic support from many protesters seems genuine. The Thaksin supporter pictured here was crying during Thaksin's June 15 speech to supporters.

Thailand’s historical Constitutional Tribunal verdict has just been handed down and it appears that ‘justice’ was based upon the persuasive barrel-of-a-gun commanded by the military dictatorship rather than a step towards resolution to the political crisis.

The Democrat party escaped unharmed while the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party was dealt a death sentence. TRT has been dissolved and their executives barred for five years in politics.

The legal debate whether the judgement was politically motivated will take time to emerge yet the immediate consequences are easier to understand.

The Democrats, whom have mustered a rather ineffectual opposition to the TRT, are now positioned to dominate a politically decimated election landscape. The newspapers are already hailing Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as the next Prime Minister.

The future of the political juggernaut TRT, whom command upwards of 16 million voters, seems final.

The acting leader of TRT, Chaturon Chaisaeng, in an emotionally charged post-verdict statement, claimed that the decision was "unacceptable" and that "The country is now under a dictatorship."

He might have a point.

The junta has been singularly obsessed with erasing former Prime Minster Thaksin’s questionable legacy from Thai politics and the Tribunal’s ruling might be understood as the last nail in the TRT coffin.

Backing the Tribunal’s decision is the up-coming draft constitution. Replacing the popular 1997 ‘people’s constitution’ that the junta resigned to the rubbish bin when seizing power, has been described as decidedly ‘anti-Thaksin’ and a legal way of removing Thaksin and his TRT from political office.

So what about the backlash, particularly the TRT supporters?

That is what everyone is asking. Businesses are planning to close, people are talking about stalking up on food, and rumours that floods of TRT supporters are aiming for Bangkok are ripe.

Tomorrow will be a fresh, and possibly violent, day in Thai politics. A day in which the country’s most popular political party has been dissolved by a military dictatorship and the electorate will come out to express their anger.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Judgement Day

How will the military react to large scale angry street protests? No one is sure because, so far, they have been very small. Yet tomorrow's uncertainty could force the junta to act.

The only thing certain on the eve of Thailand's historic constitutional ruling is that it is a perfect recipe for chaos.

Tomorrow the Constitutional Tribunal will hand down its verdict on the conduct of the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and Democrat parties in last April’s elections.

TRT is accused of fronting smaller parties in place of a legitimate opposition because most political parties had boycotted the elections. The Democrats, in turn, are accused of luring TRT into electoral fraud by encouraging small parties to accept TRT funds and fill the required opposition role.

Although shady elections are the norm rather than the exception the current crisis is threatening to see both the TRT and the Democrat parties disbanded and their executives barred from running for public office for five years.

The consequences of dismantling the country’s two main political parties is fraught with long term consequences but the short term consequences are what most are worried about now.

TRT alone has 16 million supporters and their reaction to a negative ruling has the very real potential to be expressed with violence.

Yet it isnt as one demensional as only TRT supporters as there are various factions with grievances to express. Anti-Coup protesters, whose strength and ferocity has been steadily growing, are likely to gain further support from the Tribunal ruling. The legitimacy of the junta is already weak but the dissolution or punishment of mainstream political parties is certain to bolster the numbers of protesters waving anti-coup placards.

Mixed into the equation is the consistent threat of politically motivated bomb attacks in the capital. Since the New Year’s Eve bombings there have been at least two more attacks and foreign embassies have been issuing near-monthly warnings that a new wave of attacks is immanent. Already, bomb squads are on the prowl around shopping centers, transportation hubs, political party headquarters, and the Constitutional Tribunal building.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s highly revered monarch, has already expressed his wishes that this political crisis will pass without bloodshed but his outlook was somewhat bleak. He warned the tribunal judges to "make a right interpretation (of the law) or the country will be doomed" yet he said that any decision they make will still result in heavy criticism.

One of the few leaders that might be able to scale down the potential violence is the former Prime Minister. Yet any plea for calm from Thaksin is unlikely. Although he is prone to populist rhetoric claiming love for his country he knows that blood in the streets does more to damage the image of the military than his TRT party.

In preparation for massive protests the Council for National Security (CNS) has deployed a 15,000 strong security force in strategic locations across Bangkok and setup road blocks in the provinces to stop protesters from entering the city.

On another front, the military has been deployed to TV and newspaper stations. Although initially it seemed to suggest a crackdown on the already restricted media it actually falls in line with the climate of coups. The soldiers are ‘guarding’ the media outlets in case a rouge faction of the military – obviously unhappy with the Tribunal’s decision NOT to dissolve TRT and/or the Democrats – decides to launch a fresh coup.

Although there is now way to know if violence will be ignited on the Bangkok streets tomorrow and what that chaos might actually mean for the country it could be a preferred outcome of some in the military.

The junta, when justifying last year's coup d’etat, claimed that they were duty bound to intervene because ‘unprecedented divisions in society’ would lead to prolonged political violence. If violence does erupt, the junta can use the same logic they used to seize power but this time to extend their time in power.

Initially, such a senario might seem a bit farfetched yet one worried reporter at Thailand’s T-ITV reminded me that the junta in Burma has been using that same excuse to remain in power since losing the general elections there back in 1990.

Tomorrow might just be a point in history that illumiates the true motives of those in power. The military has, since their coup, maintained that they will return power to the people. If the junta does not capitalize upon tomorrow’s expected chaos then they might actually be telling the truth about Thailand’s return to democracy.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Climate of Coups

Troops reading the paper on top of their tank the morning after last year's coup. The newpaper's headline reads 'สนธิยืนยัน' or 'Sonthi Confirmed' meaning that General Sonthi Boonyaratglin was confirmed as coup leader.

Since the September 19th 2006 toppling of Prime Minister Thaksin there have been consistent rumours that another coup d’etat is looming.

The following is a typical scenario of how new coup predictions emerge.

On February 5th The Nation newspaper was reporting on the speculation of a new coup.

Troops from Thailand’s Second Army stationed in Nakhon Ratchasima were rumoured to be on their way to Bangkok under the orders of a rogue military commander and the Junta leader, General Sonthi, was in full denial mode.

A well connected academic from Mahidol University called me that evening and reported that General Sonthi was seeking to consolidate power and would launch a coup against the junta's own installed government.

Apparently that is a bit of a Thai tradition when it comes to coup history here.

Another phone call from an acquaintance at a European news agency casually asked if I had seen large numbers of troops or heard any gunfire or loud explosions.

My apartment happens to be near the Information and Communications Technology Ministry – which controls broadcast media capabilities – so the question was not that far-fetched.

The next day, a journalist from Thailand’s I-TV called and reported that the event was more of a 'coup-lite’ because infighting in the junta almost erupting into open hostility but either a power-sharing compromise or a barrel-of-a-gun compromise had been reached before actual fighting began.

Although most people seem to agree that something happened, no one is sure exactly what that something was.

Mixed into coup prognostications are ongoing bomb threats.

On April 11th the Canadian embassy sent sms messages (mobile phone text messages) to their nationals claiming that "Canadians should exercise caution and monitor local news due to reports of possible bombings in and around Bangkok between 11-17 April."

The New Year’s Eve bombings, despite convincing evidence pointing to insurgents in the deep south, are still being blamed upon ‘elements of the old regime’ so the threat of fresh bomb attacks further fuels the climate of political instability.

The latest coup rumor began yesterday evening with a phone call from an academic asking if I had ‘heard anything of another coup?’

To which I replied; ‘Just the usual rumors, what have you heard?’

‘I heard from a friend with police contacts who claims that between the 1st and the 5th of next month (May) the police will be keeping their families at home and preparing to retreat at the sight of large military movements. They (the police) are convinced something is about to happen.’

On the night of the last-year’s coup the police did, indeed, retreat from sight as they are closely aligned with the previous government so the rumor does contain some intriguing details.

So, once again, the forecast is suggesting a high probability of political turmoil and chances of a coup.

Whether another coup is imminent will only be answered over the next week but the consistency of the rumours is an undeniable reflection of the turbulent political climate and the lack of confidence in the junta.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dogs Don’t Give Birth to Humans, Coups Don’t Give Birth to Democracy

Immediately after the September 19th coup d'etat a considerable number of foreign journalists and academics in Bangkok showered praise upon the new military leaders.

Thaksin’s divisive and failing policies coupled with his grotesque arrogance were too much for most and anything, even the strong arm of the military toppling a democratically elected government, was deemed preferable to his prolonged tenure.

One of the few initial, and rather vocal, voices opposing the junta was Professor Giles Ungpakorn of Chulalongkorn University.

About a week after the coup Giles gave a particularly spirited attack against the junta while it was still unfashionable to do so.

While Bangkok's residents were still lining up to have their pictures taken with the flower draped soldiers Giles was at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand reprimanding the assembled foreign media and pro-junta academics.

Supporters of the coup were ‘tank liberals’ he claimed and rhetorically questioned whether academics that supported the coup would “all burn their Comparative Politics books and scrap all courses on ‘democratization’ in favor of teaching military science and tank maintenance?”

Giles’ academic wrath has now been focused into valuable new book titled A Coup for the Rich – Thailand’s Political Crisis.

The book is certainly ‘hot of the press’ but it’s not exactly for sale. It seems that Thailand’s supposedly prestigious Chulalongkorn University has opted for self-censorship and the school’s bookstore will not be selling the book.

What makes the book particularly worth reading is both the fact that its banning reflects the pathetic state of press freedom in Thailand as well as its blunt and open critique of Thai politics.

Giles lashes insightful criticism on almost everyone. The military, the pu yai (upper class), and even the monarchy are fair game.

Such criticism is not just refreshing in a country where open political discussion is extremely curtailed but it is essential if Thailand is to solve the on-going political crisis.

What Giles does best though is bring a clever, spirited, and serious challenge to Thailand’s increasingly confined political space.

His unprecedented questioning of the monarchy is nothing short of breath-taking.

In a climate of fear where any rational questioning of the monarchy has the very real possibility of leading to a prison term it is important to have an academic brave enough to raise important issues that are essential elements to resolving Thailand’s political quagmire.

The book does have flaws though. Giles follows a rather strict socialist ideology that tends to lionize the poor as free from the bigoted villainy of the upper class. Unfortunately, humanity's capacity for bad behavior spans all classes so poverty doesn't automatically result in higher morals values as the book often suggests.

But such criticism is limited. Not only has Giles initiated essential political dialogue that Thailand is starving for, but he initiates dialogue with a comedic flare that is often absent in the academic world.

While scolding the international media for our lackadaisical challenge to military rule he gave a wily smile and reminded us that dogs don’t give birth to humans, should we expect coups to give birth to democracy?


*As far as I know the only place to buy Giles' book is still from his office in the faculty of political science at Chulalongkorn. If anyone know's another source, please leave a comment and let us know.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Coming Jihad

Muslims praying at the opening ceremony of a new mosque in Pattani province. 2006. (This photo is in no way supposed to suggest that the people pictured are in any way associated with violence or extremism)

Since Siam (Thailand) annexed the Sultanate of Patani (roughly the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat) in 1902 there has been a constant rebellion against Thai rule.

The local population is comprised of Malay-Muslims and they have long resisted the efforts of Thai-Buddhist governments to control them.

A key characteristic of the resistance was the use of ethnic nationalism to fuel anti-government sentiment.

But the power that ethnic nationalism once harnessed has now ceded to a much more powerful fuel of rebellion. What is now fuelling the conflict is a virulent interpretation of Islam that is not just preaching a division between Thais and Malays but is preaching jihad.

Back in the 1970s insurgent groups like the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) ideologically oriented their struggle on a sense of being different from Thai, of being ethnic Malay.

In their struggle they either drew upon glorifying the old Sultanate of Patani to demand independence or looked across the border in an irredentist attempt to join Malaysia.

Yet recent incidents in the deep South reveal that religious extremism has now infiltrated the South and has replaced Malay ethno-nationalism.

The so called ‘Krue Sai’ incident in April 2004 was one of the first incidents that academics, politicians, and those watching the Southern rebellion were given a dramatic example of the new extremism.

105 Malay-Muslim youths died in coordinated attack on at least 10 military/police locations scattered across the three contested provinces.

In the aftermath of the clash a document called Jihad De Patani was found at the scene and it is a manual for jihad.

The document’s English name is Circle at Patani and it contains a vocabulary imported from the battlefields of holy war. For the first time in the Southern conflict the Thais are referred to as kafir (pronounced like ‘kafet’ in Thai) which is Arabic (كافر) for infidel or non-believer.

What had once been a conflict defined between ethnic Malays and ethnic Thais has transformed into a definition between religious groups. In addition to defining each opposing side in religious terms is the introduction of the term monafiq.

Monafiq is the English equivalent to hypocrite and is used to refer to Muslims who work with the kafir Thai.

Those Muslims that work with the Thai state have now been labelled as traitors to their faith.

Some might argue that the introduction of religious terms is inconsequential or a mere detail in a war but it should be noted that these terms have been employed in numerous jihads around the world.

In Afghanistan the Mujahadeen declared jihad against the kafir (Russians) and successfully beat a world superpower. The Mujahadeen are not exactly a home grown organization as much as they are a world-wide religious ideological organization that includes Malay-Muslims from Thailand's deep South.

As Dr Wattana of Prince of Songkla University explained it “I think the idea of jihad, of fighting back the kafet (kafir) is become so popular and powerful in explaining what happened to many problems of many Muslim countries.

So these Mujahadeen come back to Malaysia and Thailand and start their own war.” To such jihadists Patani is not Thailand but it is part of Darussalam - the land of Islam and the kafet Thais are invaders.

Now new ‘separatist’ organizations like the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi, (which is an Islamic offshoot of the aforementioned BRN) and theGerakan Mujahideen Islami Pattani (GMIP) which, like their name suggests is comprised of former Afghan veterans, are capitalizing upon the psychological power of winning a jihad against kafir like the Russians in Afghanistan. If Islamist fighters were successful in fighting the Russian kafir in Afghanistan then why won’t they be successful in Southern Thailand?

The trouble for Thailand is that the former inept bungling of the Thaksin government blamed Southern violence upon ‘common bandits’ until denying the reality of rebellion in late 2004 became an obvious and ridiculous lie.

Now, the current governing Junta would lose enormous credibility if they admitted that their efforts to stem the rebellion is actually a struggle against jihadists.

The first sign of the coming country-wide jihad were the nine coordinated New Years Eve bombings that shattered the 2006 celebrations in Bangkok.

The junta quickly tried to blame Thaksin's ousted supporters but politically-unbiased evidence clearly points to the South. Now Bangkok is on a daily ‘bomb threat’ alert.

The rebellion in the deep South is moving north but its not the same old rebellion of the past, now its jihad.

* Please note - Pattani spelled with two ‘T’s is a Thai government spelling while Patani with one ‘T’ is often associated with the way the name is spelled in the local Jawi language and sometimes an expression of sympathy with separatism. Each oranization's name is presented with their spelling while my own use follows the more common double T spelling but is not meant to demonstrate any political leaning.