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Alexandrea Lee and Catherine Darin

Six months after Thailand’s martial law is imposed discontent stirs across diverse factions.

BURIRAM -- Sitting cross-legged in a bamboo hut, concealed by tall corn stalks, the 62-year-old man seems at ease, enjoying passion fruit and a cigarette. Yet, the laughter leaves his eyes as he casts furtive glances towards the sound of every vehicle that rumbles past.  

“I am afraid that once you leave,” Lun Soisot nervously admits, “the military will come and ask what we were doing.”

Lun was a rice farmer before the military arrived in his village and evicted everyone from their homes and farmland.

Lun knows too well what happens when the military takes special interest in a person. The military arrested  Lun and other community leaders in Kao Bat Village, who protested the junta’s decision to evict villagers from Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary in July. Paitoon, his son and a local activist, has also faced arrest and is now on the run.  

Lun and his son are just two of the estimated hundreds of grassroots leaders that have been arrested, threatened, and harassed by the junta that seized power in the May 22 coup.  

The reach of martial law

Martial law, instituted two days before the coup, has maintained a tight grip over Thailand - outlawing political meetings of five or more people, prohibiting criticism of the junta, and charging civilians in military courts.  

The crackdown on opposition, through a series of arrests and detentions, has discouraged any attempts to speak out against the military regime. These tactics have kept Thailand remarkably quiet for the last six months.

The post-coup calm has been particularly unusual in the Northeast, which is a stronghold for the Red Shirts, a pro-democracy movement allied to deposed former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The Red Shirt’s lack of organized resistance suggests that martial law has been effective in silencing dissent.

As of November 30, the organization iLaw documented 626 cases of persons apprehended under martial law, 340 of which led to arrest.  

The vast majority of those apprehended were pro-democracy politicians, academics, activists, and journalists in Bangkok publicly summoned by the military soon after the coup.  

The military has focused much energy on suppressing opposition here in the Northeast as it is the heartland of the Red Shirts. While there’s ample anecdotal evidence, exact statistics on those affected by martial law in the Northeast are hard to come by. As many as 130 people in the region have been affected by martial law, according to iLaw, and upwards of 50 who have been formally arrested. But there are dozens if not hundreds of students, community activists, and university professors who have been unofficially “invited” in by the military for a chat, harassed at work, monitored, and threatened.

‘We fear for our lives’

Martial law and the fear of the junta’s formal and informal intimidation tactics may explain why a unified resistance movement has not formed.

Alongkorn Akkasaeng, Assistant Dean at Mahasarakham University’s College of Politics and Governance, felt his work impacted by martial law when he was called in to speak at a military base. “The experience has caused me to be more careful in what I say and write,” he explains. Many of his colleagues have been called in and continue to be called in, and so “everyone is quite aware that they are being monitored by the military.”

Last month, five students from the activist group “Dao Din,” borrowing from the movie “The Hunger Games,” raised three fingers directly in front of Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha when he was visiting the Northeast for the first time.

The students were immediately arrested. As their protest and detention attracted national and international attention, the military decided to release them without charge. But even after their release, the students have been persistently harassed and monitored by the military, driving some students to move out of their homes. “We fear for our lives,” stated one of the students in an interview with the Bangkok Post.

But more than anti-coup groups have been affected by martial law. The junta’s decrees, such as Order No. 64 that authorizes the military to evict communities from their land for the sake of national forests, has embroiled rural communities. Faced with the loss of homes and livelihoods, grassroots-level activists are the latest victims of martial in Thailand’s Northeast. The widespread repression of rights to freedom of assembly and expression has severely limited their ability to advocate for community rights.

It was reported in Prachatai on December 16 that almost 1,800 warrants have been issued against farmers on charges of trespassing into forest areas. Activists claim that if the junta continues its eviction polices, as many as 30,000 Isaan people may be affected.

‘Leave my family alone’

Kridsakorn Silark, an activist working with dam-affected communities in Ubon Ratchathani province, has similarly been summoned and harassed for speaking out against the military’s human rights violations.

On November 18, the military asked Kridsakorn to deactivate his professional Facebook page, on which he had publicly asked the junta to cooperate with dam-affected villagers, as well as his personal account that he used to express his pro-democracy opinions.

Kridsakorn proudly shows off his controversial Facebook page, on which he posted a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi: “You should never let your fears prevent you from doing what you know is right.”

Claiming that he had forgotten the account password, Kridsakorn kept the page up and dodged the military’s calls.

After three days of evasion, however, Kridsakorn received a call from his mother; military officers had begun to harass her, calling every ten minutes and eventually showing up at her house. Kridsakorn realized he had no choice but to meet with the military.

“I was very angry. They can do anything they want to me, but leave my family alone,” he snapped.

At the meeting, officers forbade Kridsakorn from writing anti-coup declarations and from posting anything on his Facebook critical of the junta.

These intimidation tactics employed by the military are used particularly harshly against those affiliated with the Red Shirt movement.

On the day of the coup, “Daeng” (a false name used for fear of reprisals), a Red Shirt media activist in the Northeast, threw a hard drive of his life’s work into water, knowing what it held could incriminate him under the newly imposed martial law.

The fear that drove him to such extremes remains at the forefront of his thoughts. While being interviewed, Daeng insisted on moving locations several times, convinced that a government spy was eavesdropping nearby.

Daeng spent a month covertly collecting stories on the impact of martial law in the region, especially stories that the junta has attempted to cover up. Daeng has unique insight into the mood of the Northeast.

“People only talk with people they trust.  Everyone wants to talk, though,” says Daeng. “They’re stressed, they’re not satisfied, and they’re angry.”

He tells the story of an unnamed red-shirt DJ in the Northeast. On the day of the coup, 50 soldiers swarmed her workplace, only to find that she was not there.  When they were also unable to locate her at her home, the military held her 10-year-old son hostage. Panicked at the thought of being separated from her son and subjecting him to trauma, she had no choice but to turn herself in.

In addition to threatening family members, the junta has employed other methods to intimidate and blackmail dissidents, such as freezing financial accounts, planting evidence, and extortion through the use of explicit photos.

Of the dozens of people Daeng spoke to, the majority signed an “agreement” with the military, pledging to refrain, under threat of arrest for violating martial law, from attending meetings, expressing political opinions, speaking to the media, or leaving the country.

‘We push forward because we know it is the right thing to do’

Most have adhered strictly to the “agreement” out of fear. However, some who have signed, such as Kridsakorn, insist that signing does not indicate surrender.

“I think I have to be more cautious because I was summoned. But on the other hand, if I do and say nothing, they will feel as if they can do anything. I have to move forward to ensure they do not feel this way,” says Kridsakorn.

Kridsakorn’s cautious defiance is not an isolated instance. Academics, villagers, activists, and Red Shirts across the Northeast have also voiced their resolve to keep fighting, despite the threat of repercussions for speaking out under martial law.

The five Dao Din students continue to be monitored closely by the military. One female student was requested, on December 9th, to come speak to military officers about her group’s activities, over a month after their protest.

She refused to go, reflecting the defiance of the group. They have also displayed their unwavering opposition to the military regime in interviews. Capitalizing on newfound notoriety, the Dao Din students called Thai citizens to action: “We want you to fight,” they said last month in a Prachatai interview. People across Thailand have publicly raised three fingers in support of the students.  

Even Lun, a villager whose name remains unknown to the nation, refuses to give in: “The military tries to stop our movement, but we push forward because we know it is the right thing to do.”

Common ground

Although community activists, like  Lun and Kridsakorn, on the one hand, and Red Shirts on the other, have typically operated separately, the collective oppression under martial law has created an unexpected common cause between the two groups.

Dr. Alongkorn suggests that although community activists and Red Shirts have different ideologies – the former focused on rights connected to their livelihoods and the latter on issues of democracy – they both share a commitment to rights and the value of equality. “In this ongoing struggle,” he says, “[color-coded politics] are secondary.”

“I believe the junta would have something to worry about if these two movements were to find common ground and enjoin their struggles, but I don’t think the junta has quite seen the bigger picture,” he adds.

An academic and former red shirt leader in Khon Kaen also acknowledges the difference in objectives between the two groups. But, Phanwadee Tantisirin adds, “It is democracy and rights that will allow both groups to be able to fight for their cause. We will have to wait to see if these two groups can come together to fight the military government.”

Looking ahead

On December 10, at the Isaan Human Rights Festival in Khon Kaen, villagers, NGOs, students and academics came together to openly express their frustration with how martial law has suppressed their ability to advocate for community rights. The event was one of the first where these different groups were brought together to articulate their common struggle.

Although the military had disallowed organizers of the Human Rights Festival from mentioning politics or martial law, participants were not fazed. One villager asked the crowd, “if we can’t talk about martial law, the NCPO, or politics, what can we talk about?

Whether or not these factions will unify in opposition remains unclear. Yet, the sentiment of individuals from each group does indicate a resolve to continue fighting for human rights and democracy. As the stories of military harassment circulate throughout the Northeast, dissent appears to becoming more and more common.

“The things that have happened within our village and other villages have been spread to everyone, and it has caused fear,” explains  Lun. “The military is making a lot of enemies without even knowing it.”

As  Lun sits on the bamboo floor of the small hut, he asserts his defiance to the coup and commitment to work towards a better Thailand.

“In every movement there has to be someone stubborn enough to get other people to join.  We choose to be fireflies in the forest. We are willing to be small sources of light – even though they’re small, it’s better than total darkness.”

About the authors: Alexandrea Lee studies international studies at Johns Hopkins University and Catherine Darin studies economics at the University of Pennsylvania. They are student journalists who have been studying in Khon Kaen for the past four months.

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