Thailand Election Drama Unfolds – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – Almost five years since the military seized power in a coup, Thailand is finally gearing up for its latest general election on March 24.

Many Thais fear the election will not be free and fair as the military junta has founded its own political party to keep former General Prayut Chan-ocha on as prime minister of Thailand.

This has pitted pro-democracy parties against pro-military candidates in an election seen as a foregone conclusion to many observers. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches on Monday, March 11, 2019.

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Political drama in Thailand as long-delayed election nears

Constitutional Court to meet next week as Thai Raksa Chart faces ban over Princess Ubolratana nomination.

Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich holds up an application for Princess Ubolratana to run as prime ministerial candidate. The party now faces a ban [Athit Perawongmetha:Reuters]

Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich holds up an application for Princess Ubolratana to run as prime ministerial candidate. The party now faces a ban [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Bangkok, Thailand – With Thailand’s long-delayed elections just over a month away, a court ruling is expected to deal a major blow to parties loyal to ousted ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and tip the scales in favour of the country’s military government – even as many voters appear weary of the generals after five years of army rule.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday is expected to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart following the party’s shock but failed nomination of Princess Ubolratana – the king’s older sister – as its candidate for prime minister in the March 24 polls.

Pheu Thai, the main pro-Thaksin party, may also later find itself be guilty by association, according to political analyst Supalak Ganjanakhundee, managing editor at The Nation.

“It may not be too difficult to link the two parties together. Some members of Thai Raska Chart came from the Pheu Thai party,” he said. “I anticipate the military will find some measure to block Pheu Thai [before the election] because it’s seen as a threat.”

The Pheu Thai party declined to comment.

Two weeks ago, Thai Raksa Chart stunned Thailand when it put forward Princess Ubolratana, who became a commoner after marrying a US citizen in 1972, as its candidate for prime minister.

Although Ubolratana returned to Thailand after getting a divorce, and is now known as a TV star and actress, the monarchy is said to be above politics and is protected by strictly enforced laws on lese-majeste.

Thailand’s Election Commission swiftly disqualified her candidacy, saying the nomination was unconstitutional and hostile towards the monarchy. The move came after King Vajiralongkorn said it was “improper and highly inappropriate” for a royal family member to delve into fractious Thai politics.

Meanwhile this week, Thai police said they were also seeking the prosecution of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Future Forward – a party pitched at younger voters making its electoral debut next month – over a speech shared online in June last year criticising the military.

‘Total control’

Parties connected to Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon, have dominated Thai politics for nearly two decades.

But two of the 19 coups that have taken place since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, have replaced pro-Thaksin governments.

Pheu Thai won the last elections in 2011 but was usurped by a coup three years later when the current military government – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seized power from Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin.

Thai Rak Thai Party, Pheu Thai’s predecessor, was dissolved in 2007 following the ousting of Thaksin himself in a coup a year earlier. The party’s next incarnation, Palang Prachachon, was dissolved by the court in 2008.

“We don’t know whether we’ll be able to make it to the polls or not,” said Umesh Pandey, member of the Thai Raksa Chart party.

“We are fighting against a regime that seized power five years ago. They have total control of how things are run.”

After taking control of the country and tightening the military’s hold over politics, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is now trying to also become an elected prime minister through the Phalang Pracharat Party.

The 2017 military-drafted constitution almost assures the generals continued control of the National Assembly.

The 500 members of the lower house will be chosen by both direct vote – 350 seats – and party list – 150 seats – from across the country’s 77 provinces.

The military will appoint a panel to select all 250 members of the upper house so only 126 elected members would need to support Prayuth as prime minister and extend the military’s hold on power.

Red, yellow and orange

Overall, there are 77 political parties that have registered for the polls.

The two oldest are the Democrat and Mahachon parties, but most are newcomers – like Future Forward – hoping to appeal to voters no longer interested in the divisive colour-coded politics of the past.

Future Forward’s orange triangular logo is said to be the result of mixing yellow-shirt royalists and red-shirt Thaksin supporters. Its leader, Thanathorn, a successful business tycoon, has been likened to Thaksin.

“Our main policy is to amend the constitution,” said Sirikanya Tansakun, policy director at Future Forward. “We want military reform to stop this endless cycle of military coups and disruptions in governance.”

Like Future Forward, Pheu Thai’s “Next Gen” and the Democrats “New Dem” social media campaigns are targeting young Thai voters with videos and messages.

They are all vying for the backing of nearly seven million first-time voters to put an end to one of Thailand’s longest periods of army rule, pledging to reverse the military government’s policies.

Chulalongkorn University student Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is one of them.

The 22-year-old made headlines in 2016 after a public spat with Prayuth over his refusal to kowtow along with other university students before a statue of King Rama V.

“I will go campaigning to get more people to vote,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I support the democratic camp. I think young people are definitely going to vote and kick out the NCPO.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Airport Asylum Seekers Find Freedom – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – In the past year Southeast Asia provided temporary shelter to two asylum seekers from the Middle East fleeing persecution. Hassan Alkontar and Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun plead for asylum from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok airports.

They were resettled to Canada. But this has led to a backlash online in Malaysia, Thailand, and Canada — where some feel the two jumped the queue ahead of thousands waiting to be resettled.

But as Adam Bemma tells us, this isn’t the case at all. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, January 28, 2019.

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Threats and abuse: Critics fear effect of new Thai cyber law

Despite revisions, critics fear legislation will be used to stifle debate ahead of elections scheduled for March.

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The cybersecurity law is expected to pass before Thai voters go to the polls in March [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Bangkok, Thailand – Thailand is expected to soon pass a new cybersecurity law which will create a government agency with sweeping powers of search and seizure, triggering concerns for freedom of expression and data security among civil society and business groups as elections loom.

But experts involved in drafting the bill say they have taken their worries into consideration.

“The draft law was criticised for giving too much power to one person,” said Bhume Bhumiratana, one of the seven cybersecurity experts on the bill’s preparation team.

“We’ve reworked the draft to move that power over to a committee,” added Bhume, an adviser to the Thai Ministry of Digital Economy and Society.

“The ability to seize data has been changed to now require a court warrant. The scope of the law itself has been changed from broad language to focus on protecting critical information infrastructure like servers and fibre optic cables.”

Emergency use

The National Cybersecurity Committee will be established once the legislation is passed – expected as soon as this month.

It’s believed that it will consist of up to 15 members, including the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, and will only be able to seize computers and data without a court warrant in the case of an emergency.

But what constitutes an emergency is the sticking point.

“It’s likely that every cyber threat will be considered an emergency, making a court order irrelevant,” said Arthit Suriyawongkul, coordinator at Thai Netizen Network – a digital rights and civil liberties group based in the capital, Bangkok.

The Cybersecurity bill was first drawn up in 2015 following the previous year’s military coup that brought the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to power. It was shelved until Thailand’s rubber-stamp parliament made amendments in 2016 to strengthen the existing law relating to online activity, the Computer Crimes Act.

The government maintains the two pieces of legislation are a tool of law enforcement and regulatory control, and necessary as the country gears up for long-delayed elections on March 24.

With King Maha Vajiralonkorn’s coronation due to take place in May, there were concerns the military government might push the vote back again, after postponing the polls four times over the past five years. The last coronation took place 69 years ago for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But with the March 24 date announced earlier week, the cybersecurity bill is expected to become law before Thai voters go to the polls.

“We’re not saying we don’t want this law,” said Arthit at Thai Netizen Network. “The question is more about accountability and transparency.

“In the past five years, there’s been an abuse of power. If you talk about the monarchy or the NCPO online they count that as a cyber threat.”

Silencing criticism

In its World Report 2019, Human Rights Watch called on the NCPO to stop suppressing fundamental freedoms in Thailand.

The global human rights group noted that hundreds of activists and dissidents had faced criminal charges such as sedition, computer crimes and “lese majeste”, Thailand’s royal insult law under the military-backed government.

Former Thai diplomat and writer Pavin Chachavalpongpun said the NCPO used lese majeste to silence those critical of monarchy and military relations.

Pavin himself has had his passport revoked. And the NCPO even ordered Thai Facebook users not to share his posts.

“The new king doesn’t want more lese-majeste cases, so there’s been a significant drop in the last year. The palace wants cyber laws to be used instead,” he said.

Following the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, the NCPO threatened legal action against Facebook if it did not remove content it said was in violation of lese majeste.

According to Facebook, it only complied with one 2017 request for user data from Thailand’s military government. In 2018, it restricted 285 posts deemed in violation of the same law.

Google meanwhile said the NCPO made requests to remove 9,986 items identified as critical of the government in 2017 and complied with 93 percent of requests made.

The industry association group Asia Internet Coalition, which represents Facebook, Google and other tech companies, wrote a letter to Thailand’s Ministry of Digital Economy and Society expressing its misgivings about the law.

The group added that a data protection bill, also before parliament alongside its cybersecurity counterpart, does not meet international standards on data privacy.

Abuse risk

Even those who know the legislation well have concerns.

“Data protection won’t be enforced fairly,” Bhume said. “It will cover most businesses but has exemptions for several government agencies,” he added.

“Everyone who collects data has a responsibility to protect its users. When a data breach happens, a business may face a fine or pay costs to the victims.”

Still, few Thais are aware of the impending changes to the cybersecurity and data protection laws.

Bhume blames “misinformed” people in the government for wanting to treat cyber threats as national security incidents, and for ratcheting up fear in the media about the need for a cyber warfare unit to defend Thailand from attacks.

“Why the need to seize data? If the goal is to get security stronger then all you need is collaboration and cooperation between the public and private sectors,” he said.

He insists there will still be room for discussion, and even amendment, after it has passed.

With political parties gearing up for the election, and continuing doubts about whether the vote will really be free and fair, Pavin has more immediate concerns.

“I think with the election coming, this [law] could be used for political purposes to go after critics of the NCPO,” he said.

Published @AlJazeera

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Proud to be LGBT in Laos – Southeast Asia Dispatches

VIENTIANE – Anan Bouapha is the founder of Proud to be us Laos, the country’s first LGBT group. He uses his persuasive soft power to establish an advocacy network on behalf of gay, bisexual and transgender Laotians at the Lao Women’s and Youth Unions – two state-run organizations.

Laos is a communist country that views human rights as a western import. This means Bouapha must use cultural relativism to educate Laotians on LGBT rights issues.

This story aired Monday, January 14, 2019 on Southeast Asia Dispatches.

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Vietnam’s Mother Mushroom: ‘If I don’t speak about the future, who will?’

HO CHI MINH CITY (SAIGON) – Vietnam’s most famous dissident blogger – Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known by her pen name Mother Mushroom, spent her first new year in exile barred from ever returning to her home in Nha Trang.

Vietnamese authorities released her from prison last October, after serving two years of a 10-year sentence. She was forced to leave Vietnam with her mother and two children on an airplane bound for the U.S.

Quynh, 39, and her family are all Vietnamese citizens. None had ever been to the U.S. But the mother of two was given the option to remain in prison – away from her kids – or leave the country.

She chose the latter and is now living in Houston, Texas with her family. In 2016, Quynh was convicted of writing “anti-state propaganda” on her personal blog and Facebook account – a charge that leads to lengthy prison sentences in Vietnam.

The government monitors the online activities of known dissidents. Its 2019 cyber law attempts to extend this activity to popular social media sites where criticism of Vietnam’s Communist Party policies is rife. Over 60 million Vietnamese use Facebook.

Vietnamese journalists now living in Europe complain Facebook is censoring posts critical of Vietnam’s government.

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A Free Mother Mushroom campaign cartoon poster.

While in prison, Quynh was awarded the 2017 International Women of Courage award. This hardened her resolve to continue her human rights work.

The 88 Project for Freedom of Expression in Vietnam states there are currently 210 political prisoners with 19 in pre-trial detention waiting for a court hearing. Nine high profile Vietnamese activists have received sentences ranging from 12 to 20 years – some of the harshest punishment handed down in recent years.

Quynh said the conditions inside prison were inhuman. She began writing about injustice like this in her blog hoping never to have to face it herself. Her very first post was a letter to her young daughter, nicknamed Mushroom (hence the pen name Mother Mushroom).

Quynh’s work literally ‘mushroomed’ into activism as she joined calls for a transparent investigation into a toxic spill and marine life disaster in Central Vietnam caused by Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, a Taiwanese company.

Vietnam’s government viewed Quynh’s role in the anti-Formosa protests as a threat to its authoritarian rule. So, it tried to silence her by forcing her into prison then into exile.

But international human rights groups say this has backfired and Vietnam’s reputation was damaged and credibility eroded.

Now Quynh continues her writing and activism online with freedom from fear in the U.S. Many Vietnamese are inspired by Quynh’s story and how she refused to be silenced in the face of repression.

Vietnam’s state-run, and private, media couldn’t report fairly on the case against Mother Mushroom or her legal proceedings.

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A campaign poster that reads: “Like mushrooms after rain, they never die.”

“The [Vietnamese] media didn’t mention her being expelled to the U.S. They only covered her arrest and trial,” said Long Trinh, a journalist and co-director of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“Media organizations are run by the communist party, the army and the police. They report propaganda pieces of news that portrayed her as a traitor, and as a very bad woman.”

Vietnamese human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh knows about the smear campaigns used against dissidents. He faced the same during his trial and imprisonment.

The government requested Le Cong Dinh to leave the country, but he refused and lost his license to practice law.

“Mother Mushroom inspired many people. Most Vietnamese women stay at home to take care of their children,” Le Cong Dinh said. “But she raised her voice and helped the victims of Formosa.”

Quynh said she wants to continue to write from exile and raise awareness about human rights in Vietnam. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, awarded Mother Mushroom with its 2018 International Press Freedom Award.

But Quynh’s most lasting impact is on the future leaders of Vietnam. Kim Tien, 27, is a close friend she trained on how to document and write about human rights violations.

49345047_1011982318986548_8212452961486372864_n“I want to continue Mother Mushroom’s work and activism. When she was in prison I visited her family regularly. I wrote about her situation. I raised funds to help her family,” said Kim, a mother of one.

Diep Ngoc, 25, is a human rights activist. She said the online mushroom cartoons drawn by artists to raise awareness about Mother Mushroom’s imprisonment were “cute” and got her involved.

“To be honest her story is very inspiring because she is a single mom with two kids writing about inequality and injustice,” said Diep. “She’s a strong woman who really cares about her children and the future generation.”

*A documentary film about Mother Mushroom called “When Mother’s Away” can be viewed here.

Published @Medium

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Mai Khoi vs. Vietnam’s Cyber Law – CBC The World This Weekend

HANOI – Mai Khoi is a Vietnamese dissident artist, activist and musician. She’s been called Vietnam’s Lady Gaga for her pop star persona. But recently her music and art has become more like Pussy Riot, the Russian punk protest band.

Mai Khoi is protesting against Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law that would allow authorities to monitor what’s said about it online, giving them the ability to track and arrest dissidents posting their political opinions to social media. She’s even met with Facebook and Google to present evidence of how Vietnam is trying to silence activists online.

This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, January 5, 2019.

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