Bangkok Says Goodbye to Cheap Pad Thai – CBC The World this Weekend

BANGKOK – The Queen of Thai street food, Bangkok’s Jay Fai, was awarded a Michelin star last year. But for the rest of the city’s hawkers, they may be forced out of work in a push by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to clear the streets.

17,000 Bangkok hawkers have lost their licenses since 2014. The BMA assured those on Khaosan Road would be allowed to remain, but all that changed since a street food ban was put in place there on Sept. 25. Pictured above is Yada Pornetrumpa, leader of the Khaosan Street Vendors Association.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018.

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Overcoming a government crackdown on social media in Laos

Influential Facebook users, pejoratively referred to as net idols, are facing retribution for their online posts.

Keoxomphou Sakdavong points out fake news tools

Journalist Keoxomphou Sakdavong points out fake news tools as she teaches university students [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

VIENTIANE, Laos – Inside a packed lecture hall at the American Centre in the capital Vientiane, 60 National University of Laos students sit surrounded by framed posters featuring inspirational quotes by American icons Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou and Steve Jobs.

On the screen at the front of the room, Vientiane Times journalist Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her US embassy-sponsored event, How to Spot Fake News, by broadcasting on Facebook Live from the manicured lawn outside the hall.

“Fake news is created by all,” Sakdavong, 41, told students in attendance as she entered and began her presentation and slideshow.

“In Laos, people believe what they read automatically and share it right away without thinking of the negative impact it may have on others,” the journalist added.

A common refrain used in Laos – a communist country with no media freedom – is “if you don’t give us any information at least fake news is better than no news”.

Anan Bouapha, the 31-year-old founder of Proud to be us Laos – the country’s only LGBT advocacy group, said: “A lot has changed in the last two months since the dam collapse. People are becoming more vocal.”

Laotians turned to Facebook when news of the floods last July was slow to trickle out from government sources. Thirty-nine people died and 97 are still missing following the dam collapse in Attapeu province, according to officials.

Many believe the death toll is higher, but have no way to verify these claims. Journalists who stray too far from their official sources are usually silenced or pressured to resign.

Aid workers and individuals working for NGOs, and those working for the UN, have been too afraid to make public statements about Laos since the forced disappearance of community development worker Sombath Somphone from a Vientiane street nearly six years ago.

One former journalist in the capital admitted he was forced to leave the profession for pursuing stories the government was uncomfortable with. Human rights and democracy are two taboo subjects often dealt with using careful language.

Pressure is not only put on journalists. 

Now, influential Facebook users in Laos, pejoratively referred to as “net idols”, are facing retribution for their posts.

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her FB Live chat with U.S. embassy staff Phonesavanh Sangsomboun at American Centre Vientiane

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her Facebook Live chat with US embassy staff Phonesavanh Sangsomboun at American Centre Vientiane [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Phijika Boonkwang, president of the Vientiane United Football Club, was forced to resign last month after posting a Facebook Live video criticising the poor state of a road leading to the national football federation in Vientiane.

Boonkwang compared the muddy, unpaved, road to one in Attapeu, where she was involved in the humanitarian response. Boonkwang was accused of harming the reputation of Laos and conducting inappropriate activities on Facebook, according to the US-funded Radio Free Asia.

“You can’t post anything about the government, anything that could harm national security, or anything that could put government agencies in trouble,” said Laotian activist Soupha Rawady. “She said please don’t mistakenly think that this road is in Attapeu. This is in Vientiane. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Boonkwang later apologised in another video post for “using the wrong words to express her desire to see the road conditions improve”. But the damage was already done. She reported to Vientiane police earlier in September.

Freedom of expression online seemed to be tolerated in Laos, but the policing of the internet is becoming more common, as many have received invitations to meet police, or face criminal charges.

Boonkwang has more than 46,000 followers on Facebook. 

Around 60 percent of people in Laos, a country of around seven million, are under 25 years of age.

“Before you say something or do a live video you have to think about our national image. That’s what the [government has told] all online users,” Bouapha said. 

In 2014, the government issued a decree criminalising online criticism of its policies. 

Charges of criminal defamation can be levelled against anybody. This legislation requires all social media accounts be set up using real names and identities.

“If you post something that is against the law you can be jailed,” said Rawady.

In 2016, three Laotians living in Thailand were charged for criticising the government online.

They were arrested once they returned to Laos to renew their passports and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 years at a secret trial in April 2017, according to Radio Free Asia.

Souliyo Vongdala in Vientiane.jpg

Souliyo Vongdala in Vientiane runs the Laotian news portal Muan, meaning “fun” in English [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

An unverified Facebook page called “Support Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith” has 188,000 followers. Laotians believe its run by the prime minister’s office to highlight his hands-on approach to politics and national development.

In a post last month, Prime Minister Sisoulith called on experts to reveal the truth behind the dam collapse in Attapeu. Many viewed this as a critique of his government’s inaction.

“[Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith] shares many things about people complaining about the government, or blaming government agencies or officials. I like it,” said Rawady. “He’s quite liberal compared to the previous [prime ministers]. There are many things he needs to do, but he’s doing the best he can so far.”

The Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters without Borders, ranks Laos near the bottom of its 2018 World Press Freedom Index (170 out of 179 countries).

The US-based Freedom House states Lao media is not free and internet service providers are controlled by the state. 

Only 18 percent of Laotians are online but this number has grown in urban areas.

Sakdavong says Laotians are subscribing to Facebook every day to access news and information. But with an adult literacy rate lower than the regional standards – 79 percent in Laos – media and digital literacy are lacking.

“It’s important to check the source of the news you’re reading online,” Sakdavong warned students at the American Centre. “You need to think more critically about what you see on Facebook.”

She was careful not to discuss misinformation emanating from southern Laos following the dam collapse in Attapeu. She doesn’t want to be accused of “harming the reputation of the nation” as was the case with Boonkwang.

“Facebook is an independent platform and you can record live and say whatever you want to say,” said Bouapha. “Laos media consumers don’t watch national TV. People from all walks of life prefer to use Facebook every day.”

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her How to Spot Fake News talk at American Centre in Vientiane.jpg

Keoxomphou Sakdavong begins her How to Spot Fake News talk at American Centre in Vientiane [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Souliyo Vongdala, 27, runs the Laotian news portal Muan (meaning “fun” in English). Its Facebook page has over 179,000 followers. He works closely with government agencies to combat the spread of fake news on Facebook.

“We were not taught in school to think or critique. We were taught to remember,” Vongdala said. “We lack critical thinking skills. I think it’s concerning.”

A government crackdown on social media in Laos is unlikely to be as severe as in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where cybercrime laws and ministerial decrees are used to jail dissidents.

Facebook users in Laos with “net idol” status could be considered a concern to national security, but will most likely be monitored by authorities rather than detained by them for their posts.

Back inside the American Centre lecture hall, Sakdavong shares some final words with the students.

“Be very observant and pay attention to details.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Malaysia detains Hassan Al Kontar after removing him from airport

Al Kontar, 37, had been living in Kuala Lumpur International Airport since March, after being denied entry to Cambodia.

Hassan Al Kontar at KLIA2 sleeping area

Malaysian police transferred Al-Kontar to the immigration department [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

BANGKOK – Syrian refugee Hassan Al Kontar was arrested on Monday by Malaysian police for remaining in a “forbidden area” of Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s terminal two.

Al Kontar, 37, had been living inside KLIA’s domestic transfer lounge since March, after being denied entry to Cambodia and sent back to Malaysia.

The Syrian refused to seek asylum in Malaysia and decided to remain at the airport. Many view this move as a protest against Malaysia’s arbitrary detention of refugees and it not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention.

Al Kontar turned to social media to share his story of a life in limbo.

He first arrived in Malaysia in October 2017 after being deported from the United Arab Emirates, where he had lived for 11 years, avoiding Syria’s devastating war and compulsory military service.

Al Kontar pleaded with UAE authorities to be sent to Malaysia, one of the few countries that allow Syrians to obtain visas on arrival.

Six months in an airport

He overstayed his Malaysian tourist visa last March and paid a penalty fee before attempting to depart. Then Al Kontar ended up at KLIA terminal two domestic transfer lounge, where he spent the last six months looking for options.

A group of Canadian volunteers filed a refugee sponsorship application to Canada on Al Kontar’s behalf on April 25, 2018. The processing time for a refugee application to Canada is 23 months and there is no guarantee he will be accepted.

Canada Caring Society started an online petition to call on Canadian Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen to allow Al Kontar to go to Canada on humanitarian grounds until his refugee application can be processed.

Al Kontar has family in Canada and friends and supporters there have found him a job. His Syrian passport expires in January 2019.

Malaysian police transferred Al Kontar to the immigration department. It stated it would contact the Syria embassy to facilitate his deportation from Malaysia.

The UN refugee agency’s Malaysia office is aware of Al Kontar’s arrest but has been unable to comment on specific cases.

Supporters inside Malaysia fear he will be placed in immigration detention until deportation, where conditions have been referred to as “torture-like” by SUHAKAM, Malaysia’s human rights commission.

Al Kontar’s Canadian lawyer Andrew Brouwer was unavailable for comment.

Published @AlJazeera

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Laos’ Sombath Somphone – Southeast Asia Dispatches

VIENTIANE – Six years ago, Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone disappeared from the streets of the capital, Vientiane.

Among the people left without answers about what has happened to him, is his wife Shui-Meng. Adam Bemma speaks to Shui-Meng about her thoughts all these years later.

This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, October 1, 2018.

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Syrian Stuck at Airport Turns to Social Media – Southeast Asia Dispatches

KUALA LUMPUR – Thirty-seven year-old Syrian asylum seeker Hassan Al Kontar uses social media to share his story of life at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Because of Hassan’s posts, volunteers from Malaysia to Canada have taken up his cause.

Adam Bemma met with Hassan at KLIA2. He’s been stuck in limbo hoping to be resettled to Canada with the help of family and friends there. They’ve started an online petition.

This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, September 17, 2018.

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Hassan Al Kontar: A Life in Limbo – CBC The World this Weekend

KUALA LUMPUR – Hassan Al Kontar is a 37-year-old Syrian living at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for six months. Human rights defenders inside Malaysia have advised him not to seek asylum in the country because it’s not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

Canadian volunteers are trying to bring Al Kontar to Canada under the refugee sponsorship program, but he may have to wait for up to two years. They’ve started an online petition.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018.

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Cambodian Writers Tackle Taboo Topics: A Khmer Literary #MeToo Movement

Catherine Harry A Dose of Cath vlogger

Catherine V. Harry, 23, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

PHNOM PENH – “Chbab Srey! Chbab Srey! Chbab Srey! Ahh! ” Catherine Harry exclaims on her weekly video series, A Dose of Cath.

Harry, 23, is referring to the Khmer women’s code of conduct, a set of traditional proverbs, or poems, that promote an extremely conservative view of women in Cambodia.

Her vlog, A Dose of Cath, deals with subjects like gender equality and reaches millions of Cambodians. But now she wants to tackle these taboo topics in her writing.

“This year I have a different focus. I’m actually working on a novel. It’s a monumental task. But as I’ve started writing it I’ve realized how difficult it is to create characters out of nothing,” Harry said.

Two books published this year by Cambodian women writers challenge the cultural norms set out in the Khmer women’s code – taking their titles directly from it.

“It states women can’t dive deep or go far,” said Kunthea Chan, 36, co-author of the new book Diving Deep Going Far, a “reality novel” based on interviews with several of Cambodia’s leading women in government, business, media and civil society.

“In English ‘Chbab Srey’ means how to be a proper woman,” said Thavry Thon, 28, author of A Proper Woman, her autobiography of growing up in rural Cambodia.

Until recently, the Khmer women’s code of conduct was taught to children in school. It no longer is but it’s still very much a part of Cambodian culture, and hard to counter its myths with facts. But these women writers are trying to do just that.

“I have heard about this code since I was young, but because I was too young to know about society and rights, I didn’t think twice about it. I always thought that a perfect woman had to follow the code,” Harry mentioned in A Dose of Cath.

Later on, I’ve begun to rethink the code. I’ve also just re-read the poem in its entirety, realizing that the code is very problematic. It doesn’t value and it oppresses women.”

Harry laughs when she mentions how someone once called her a “sex demon” for discussing sexual and reproductive health on her vlog. But this hasn’t stopped her from using her platform to discuss a variety of subjects from virginity and menstruation to masturbation.

“Cambodian women are supposed to be gentle, docile and are not supposed to talk about sex and yet here I am talking about it in front of thousands of people on social media,” Harry said.

“I get a lot of accusations and backlash against what I’m doing. One of the most common is people accusing me of destroying my culture [and] that I’m setting a bad example for Khmer women.”

Kunthea Chan

Kunthea Chan, 37, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Kunthea Chan thinks Harry is an impressive young woman. She looks forward to reading Harry’s upcoming novel, and thinks it will be a great addition to Cambodia’s growing literary scene.

“For us as women, culture and norms is inside [of] us. These invisible powers are the biggest obstacle for women,” Kunthea said.

After publishing her book A Proper Woman in English, Thavry Thon used her own savings to pay for the Khmer language translation. She even donated 2,530 copies of it to local schools to encourage young Cambodians to read.

“A lot of my friends publish in Khmer now and it sells very fast,” said Thavry. “The movement is starting. My writer friends come together to produce original content and better quality books. We’ve [organized] a writer’s festival. This year it will be in Battambang.”

A Khmer version of Diving Deep Going Far is in the works, according to Kunthea.

“It will be more effective when this book is translated into Khmer so it can be accessed. Cambodians speak English but not everybody can understand, or read, English well,” Thavry added.

Harry felt inspired reading both Diving Deep Going Far and A Proper Woman. There aren’t many books in Cambodia that discuss women’s issues. She’s confident her novel will bring something new to Cambodian literature.

“I’m hopeful that I will finish it this year. The book is actually [written] in English but then it will have to be translated into Khmer,” Harry said. “I find that the book is certainly needed because we don’t get many books that talk about the lives of Cambodian women.”

Published @Medium

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