Vietnam’s battalions of ‘cyber-armies’ silencing online dissent

‘Force 47’, thought to be 10,000-strong, seen as government’s online enforcers as new cyber crime law takes effect.

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Vietnam has a population of 96 million, with more than 60 million people having their presence on the social media platform Facebook [File: Luong Thai Linh/EPA]

HANOI, Vietnam – Wearing his trademark black fedora, human rights defender Anh Chi updates his YouTube audience on the situation in Dong Tam village, 40km (25 miles) southwest of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, the site of a recent deadly dispute over land.

Anh Chi is among the few social media-savvy activists, who are trying to push the boundaries of delivering news and analysis straight to the Vietnamese public. But these days, their voices are increasingly becoming muted due to government restrictions.

The deadly January 9 incident in Dong Tam is a case in point.

According to the authorities, three police officers and 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh were killed after local residents clashed with police in the early hours of that day.

The dispute, over agricultural land next to a military airport, shocked the country.

But afterwards, Vietnam’s cyber-army, also known as Force 47, was deployed to counter the content on social media platforms deemed critical of the way the authorities handled the situation.

The authorities also arrested three activists over posts made in relation to the dispute, while Facebook users faced restrictions.

“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content,” Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director, said in a statement.

“Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponised by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind. This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression and a clear attempt to stamp out dissent.”

‘Force 47’

Vietnam’s Force 47 is run by the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to hack anti-government websites and spread pro-government messages online, and is believed to be at least 10,000-strong.

Anh Chi, the pen name of 46-year-old Nguyen Chi Tuyen, knows the ministry’s tactics well. He has created videos criticising Force 47, and has expressed concern about the impact of a new cyber-law that came into effect at the beginning of the month.

“I strongly oppose the many articles in it that violate freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and basic human rights,” he said.

Digital rights campaigners accuse Vietnam of attempting to replicate China’s “Great Firewall”  by regulating and censoring the internet  with the cybersecurity law.

Neither Google, which owns YouTube, nor Facebook has complied with the legislation, which requires the American tech giants to open local data storage facilities inside Vietnam by January 1.

The Asia Internet Coalition, a lobby representing Facebook and Google, said the legislation was a step in the wrong direction for the country’s growing digital economy.

The law states that “it is prohibited to use cyberspace to prepare a post and spread information that has the content of propaganda opposing the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, or anything that offends the nation, national flag, national emblem, national anthem, great people, leaders, notable people and national heroes”.

Growing marking of 96 million people

As Vietnamese searched for more information about what happened in Dong Tam a week ago, some Facebook users reported receiving the message online: “Due to legal requirements in your country, we have restricted access to your profile on Facebook. This means that other people in your country cannot see your profile, and may not be able to interact with you over Messenger.”

Vietnam has a population of 96 million. With more than 60 million Facebook users, it is the platform’s one of the fastest-growing markets.

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Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam near the bottom of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 176 out of 180 countries listed [Luong Thai Linh/EPA]

“Facebook is the main source of independent news now in Vietnam,” said Trinh Huu Long, a co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“The government has been working with Facebook to try to control content posted by dissidents and independent voices,” he added.

Searches for protests in Hong Kong have also been affected. Many, like Anh Chi, blame the cybersecurity law for the filtered information.

“They know people in Vietnam are active on social media, and they follow the news, especially with what’s happening in Hong Kong every day,” he said. “The government fears that one day people in Vietnam will join such protests.”

‘No free press’

Bao Trung, 37, started his own Facebook page called “Bao Sach [Clean Newspaper]” with five other independent journalists in 2019. The whole team used to work for the state-run media.

“Most of the people in Vietnam have Facebook accounts. Anybody can be a reporter now with a smartphone,” Bao Trung said. “I think it’s impossible for the government to control online news and information.”

Vietnam’s dispute with China over its claim on the islands and energy-rich waters in the South China Sea is also sensitive.

Vietnamese people have long viewed their northern neighbour as a threat. In June 2018, there were nationwide protests against the cybersecurity and special economic zone legislation because they were seen as favourable to Beijing.

The authorities reacted quickly to end the protests, which activists described as the biggest in Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.

Vietnam’s cybersecurity law stipulates that social media platforms must allow the authorities access to local user data. The government has even pledged to create its own Vietnamese platform to rival Facebook, although its attempts have failed.

‘People’s journalist’

The Ministry of Public Security claims the cybersecurity law is needed to stop cyber-threats and attacks against Vietnam.

Independent journalist Pham Chi Dung was arrested last year and is still under investigation without formal charges by police in Ho Chi Minh City.

Anh Chi does not seem bothered by such threats. He had a blog on Facebook for nine years until he switched recently to YouTube. But with a decade of political activism under his belt, he calls himself “the people’s journalist”.

In a country where state institutions, from citizens committees, to the military and newspapers refer to themselves as “the people’s [nhan dan]”, this claim may ring hollow with his audience – which he said ranges from local street vendors to government civil servants.

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With a decade of political activism under his belt, Anh Chi calls himself ‘the people’s journalist.’

“I choose to spend my time on YouTube rather than Facebook because Vietnamese people are busy with work,” he said. “They have smartphones, so while they’re working they can listen to the story rather than having to read.”

Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam near the bottom of its 2019 World Press Freedom Index at 176 out of 180 countries listed. Freedom House labels Vietnam as “Not free”.

The 88 Project for Free Speech in Vietnam states there are 276 activists currently in prison, while human rights group Defend the Defenders monitored the cases of 36 convicted in 2019.

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In 2019, Bao Trung started his Facebook page called ‘Bao Sach’ (Clean Newspaper) with five other independent journalists.

Vietnam’s government disputes these statistics, but under the country’s legal system they already have several laws to prosecute online dissenters.

Many fear the cybersecurity law is just another layer – a way to deter people even from questioning the government.

Anh Chi is unbowed, saying he will continue to speak out. He dedicated an entire episode on his YouTube channel to Le Dinh Kinh, the elderly man killed in Dong Tam last week.

“If they want to arrest anyone of us, they can do it. There are many laws in the penal code to use against us,” Anh Chi said. “We’re ready to defend our human rights. That’s our challenge and our mission.”

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‘Pushing boundaries’: The rise of Samizdat publishing in Vietnam

Liberal Publishing House publishes and distributes books Vietnam’s government does not want its citizens to read.

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Vietnam’s publishing industry is tightly controlled by the government [File: Kham/Reuters]

HANOI, Vietnam – Inside a cramped room in a secret – and temporary – location in northern Vietnam, a printer whirs to life, spitting out sheets of paper covered in text.

Neat piles are stacked on nearby tables and a man wearing an air respirator places one of them into a machine that cuts and binds the pages to a cover.

“The dampness in the room has caused the paper to crease. This isn’t good,” said the editor in chief of Vietnam’s Nha Xuat Ban Tu Do – Liberal Publishing House – as he flipped through the newly-printed book.

In Vietnam, as in the former Soviet Union, such publications are known as Samizdat – the illegal copying and distribution of books – and are banned by the government as “anti-state” activity. Under Article 117 of Vietnam’s criminal code, anyone involved in Samizdat risks a jail term of 20 years. The Liberal Publishing House editor prefers not to share their name.

The publishing house was founded last February in Ho Chi Minh City by a group of dissidents as a direct challenge to the government’s control of the industry and to bring the non-fiction work of Vietnam’s growing crop of dissident writers to the nation’s readers.

“Every printing house in Vietnam is controlled by the government. We had to buy our own printing press to do it clandestinely,” said Tran Ha, Liberal Publishing House’s founding member, who asks that we use a pseudonym to protect their identity.

Immediately after the press was set up, Ha had to move it from Vietnam’s largest city to an undisclosed location due to pressure from police trying to shut it down and arrest them.

“We’re unable to stay anywhere for a long period of time or our work may be revealed. If we’re discovered even the community will be at risk,” added Ha.

‘Dangerous and damaging’

The government has long censored and controls its media and publishing industries and imposed tight restrictions on them.

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Liberal Publishing House has published dissident author Pham Doan Trang’s latest books Politics of a Police State and Non Violent Protest. [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

The Law on Publishing prohibits “propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” the “spread of reactionary ideology” and “the disclosure of secrets of the [Communist] Party, State, military, defence, economics, or external relations.”

Liberal Publishing House has published 11 books from eight authors during the past year on politically sensitive topics including China’s role in Vietnam and controversial legislation on Special Economic Zones. It has also released a legal handbook for jailed activists.

It is the first Samizdat in Vietnam to launch a website and Facebook page.

“We have tens of thousands of readers despite police repression and state censorship,” Ha said. “Many of them are members of the Communist Party.”

There is no way to verify these claims, but in October, Vietnamese authorities cracked down on Liberal Publishing House, its distribution network and readers.

In November, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch released a joint statement calling for an end to the intimidation and harassment of people either associated with the publisher’s activities or trying to obtain copies of Samizdat books.

According to Amnesty International’s Vietnam campaign team, police have questioned nearly 100 people for either owning or reading books printed by Liberal Publishing House.

“They know how dangerous and damaging [Samizdat publishing] is to their regime,” said Trinh Huu Long, a democracy activist and co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam.

“By printing books, they can make independent information look professional and legitimate to readers. If they can hold it in their hands they trust it more. It’s valuable.”

Clandestine network

Walking along popular bookshop-lined streets in either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi it is easy to find and buy copies of Western and Vietnamese literature banned by the government since reunification in 1975. While some illegal books are smuggled into the country, most are photocopied versions of the originals.

But finding Samizdat books written by Vietnamese authors in Vietnam itself is difficult so press freedom activists have started a support network to help keep Liberal Publishing House operational.

Supporters help ship books within the country. Readers across Vietnam place an order and decide a location from which to collect the books which are delivered by motorbike-taxi drivers – rather like ordering food online.

“A lot of those shipping our books have been trapped by police officers pretending to be readers interested in buying copies. They order a book from us online and set a place and time to have the book delivered to them,” said Ha.

“We’ve had two of our staff arrested and one was forced to confess.”

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A Samizdat book from Vietnam’s Liberal Publishing House whose readers are mainly from the country’s remote and poorer areas [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

Liberal Publishing House has begun to distribute digital versions of their most popular books to help pay for the costs associated with publishing physical copies.

‘Pushing boundaries’

Nguyen Quang A, 73, has been challenging state censorship under his SOS Squared Library for 20 years. He has published dozens of banned books in physical and e-book format and was the inspiration behind the Liberal Publishing House’s Samizdat operation.

“I gave up printing paper books,” Quang A said. “My objective is not to be a hero fighting against the corrupt censorship system. It’s just to discuss ideas.”

Ha said the feedback its Vietnamese readers give Liberal Publishing House reflects the hunger people have to know more about public policy in Vietnam.

“I think Liberal Publishing House is pushing the boundaries,” said Dinh Thao, a 28-year-old activist living in Hanoi. “In the past, [Samizdat] publishers would rather print translated books, but now they publish books from Vietnamese authors inside the country. These are the kinds of books I like to read.”

Bestselling copies of dissident author Pham Doan Trang’s latest books Politics of a Police State and Non Violent Protest sit on the table at Liberal Publishing House’s Samizdat printing facility.

While Hong Kong’s protests have continued into their eighth month, books on the subject are scarce in Vietnamese. Liberal Publishing House’s next release will shine a light on anti-China protests in Hong Kong and those that took place inside Vietnam in June 2018 – the biggest protests since the end of the Vietnam War.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from Vietnamese readers about the Hong Kong protests,” said Nguyen. “Our readers are coming from some of the most remote and poorest areas of the country.”

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No Progress or Answers on Enforced Disappearances in Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand – Porlachi “Billy” Rakchongcharoen went missing in 2014. At the time, the land rights activist had been assisting Karen villagers with a lawsuit against the authorities in Phetchaburi province, 190km southwest of Bangkok, who had evicted and burnt down their homes.

Five years later, his skull fragment was discovered by special investigators in a burnt oil drum. It’s renewed efforts from civil society to hold perpetrators of torture and enforced disappearances accountable.

Billy’s wife Pinnapa Prueksapan broke down into tears when she heard the news. She’s been fighting for justice over the last five years. But Thailand has no law against torture and enforced disappearance, which means that enforced disappearances are not officially recognised as a criminal offence.

It’s a situation that’s painfully familiar for Angkhana Neelapaijit—she’d also brought such a case before the courts 15 years ago, after her husband, human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, disappeared in Bangkok in 2004.

“After my husband disappeared, five police officers were arrested. Some eyewitnesses saw police push my husband into their car and nobody has seen him since,” Angkhana tells New Naratif.

“My husband’s case was the first time in Thailand a victim’s family took it to the court. Unfortunately, after 11 years, the Supreme Court of Thailand reached a verdict. It said there was no evidence and it acquitted all the accused.”

Today, Angkhana Neelapaijit is a leading voice in the country calling for laws that can take action against torture and enforced disappearances.

Missing in Thailand

According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance, there are 82 unresolved cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand, dating all the way back to 1980. Thai academics have researched thousands of disappearances prior to this date.

Under international law, enforced disappearance refers to the forcible abduction, arrest, or detention of someone, followed by a refusal to acknowledge or address that person’s fate or circumstance. This leaves people who have been disappeared outside the ambit of the law, as it becomes very difficult to press a case or seek answers.

Thailand has been a state party to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) since 2007. It has also been a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED) since 2012. But it has yet to adopt any law criminalising torture or enforced disappearance.

Over the last 10 years, Angkhana and other Thai civil society actors have been lobbying for an anti-torture and enforced disappearance bill. They’ve made some progress. In 2016, while the country was still under the rule of the military junta, Thailand’s Ministry of Justice teamed up with civil society to draft the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act.

Many Thais were expecting this bill to become law. But it was dropped from the slate of bills passed by the National Legislative Assembly—known as the junta’s “rubber stamp” parliament—before the March elections.

“No reasons were given by the [legislative assembly] as to why this bill disappeared from the agenda right before the election,” says Sanhawan Srisod, Thailand team leader and legal advisor at the International Commission of Jurists.

“It took time to form this new government [following the March elections] and now nobody is talking about the bill.”

“I encourage other victims to stand up for human rights”

Following her husband’s disappearance, Angkhana went on to set up the Justice for Peace Foundation in 2006 to advocate for access to justice and to end impunity in Thailand. From 2015–2019, she served in the Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission, but resigned ahead of the completion of her term. She said that, due to restrictions and an unsupportive work environment, she could no longer perform her duties effectively.

Days after her resignation, Angkhana was named the winner of the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Award, often known as “Asia’s Nobel”. She joins an illustrious slate of previous winners, including Youk Chhang, the executive director of the Documentation Center for Cambodia, and Vientiane Rescue, a volunteer-run group in Laos that responds to thousands of road accidents a year.

Prema-Ja

“I encourage other victims to stand up for human rights,” Angkhana told New Naratif shortly after receiving the award.

“Most victims are scared to come forward. Sometimes they withdraw their cases and the human rights violations continue. We can’t let the perpetrators walk free any more.”

Angkhana’s win, coupled with the tragic developments of Billy’s case, seems to have pushed the issue of enforced disappearances into the public eye again. But renewed efforts to get the bill passed could still run into familiar roadblocks.

Despite elections that took place earlier this year officially ending the rule of the military National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the 2017 Constitution allows the junta to appoint 250 members to the upper house of Thailand’s National Assembly. This means that those responsible for not passing the law before the elections are now sitting in the upper house of Parliament, with final say over any proposed bill voted on by the 500-seat lower house.

The Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act is currently with the Ministry of Justice. The International Commission of Jurists submitted recommendations to the ministry on 20 December. But the group also expressed concerns over the delays in enacting this law, and says that the latest draft continues to fall short of what stakeholders say will need to be done for the country to meet its international human rights obligations.

The issue of non-refoulement

One major concern of the bill raised by human rights groups is the issue of non-refoulement, which refers to the principle of “not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.”

The International Commission of Jurists say that they were informed that non-refoulement had been removed from the bill, because legislators claim that Thailand doesn’t have a custom of forcibly sending refugees or asylum seekers back to their home countries anyway.

But human rights activists point toward troubling examples that might challenge this claim. According to Amnesty International Thailand, one Cambodian was forcibly returned this year.

There have also been other cases that raise red flags: a Lao political activist and a Vietnamese blogger—both of whom were seeking asylum at the UN Refugee Agency in Thailand—recently went missing.

Then there are the cases that occur outside of the country: earlier this year, two Thai asylum seekers in Laos were found dead in the Mekong River. Other Thai exiles in Laos and Vietnam have been reported missing.

Such cases have led to accusations that Southeast Asian governments are collaborating to arrest and return one another’s dissidents.

“When there’s no law, then outlaw actions occur. We see the trend and we hope it doesn’t get any worse,” says Piyanut Kotsan, director at Amnesty International Thailand.

“Cases of enforced disappearance are now taking place between countries in the region. Thailand should take the lead and investigate the cases.”

“How far back are you willing to go?”

Jularat Damrongviteetham is the author of the chapter “Narratives of the ‘Red Barrel’ Incident” in the book Oral History in Southeast Asia: Memories and Fragments. The chapter covers a painful past: 1970s Thailand where the state violently suppressed (real or perceived) communist movements. The “red barrel” in the title refers to the red oil drums used to kill suspected communists; within one community in a southern province of Thailand alone, over 200 suspected communists were incinerated in such oil drums.

“If you start to investigate torture and enforced disappearance in Thailand, how far back are you willing to go?” she asks.

“I think a public inquiry would be good but I’m afraid under this government it would be difficult.”

Thailand’s current government is led by Prime Minister—and former military coup leader—Prayut Chan-ocha. The country’s human rights record has deteriorated under the NCPO regime he’d led. Many believe this may be the reason why the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act was dropped by legislators at the last minute.

Billy’s remains were discovered in an oil drum much like those used against suspected communists back in the 1970s. It’s a reminder that impunity and lack of accountability pervasive then continues today in Thailand.

“We organise an event every year for the International Day of the Disappeared, but we don’t want to keep doing this and getting nowhere,” says Piyanut of Amnesty International Thailand.

“We want something to be done. It’s a good thing that Billy’s wife and children know what happened. But they still don’t know how the case is going to end. And what about the 80 other cases of enforced disappearance?”

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The Independent Outlets Plugging Gaps in Thai Coverage

BANGKOK, Thailand – Thai journalists Hathairat Wist Phaholtap and Yodsapon Tai Kerdviboon sit side-by-side on a couch at the Isaan Record’s office in Khon Kaen, 456km northeast of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.

The small regional news outlet—which only employs five staff members—publishes several local print stories to its website every week, but is now trying to expand its repertoire, and Wist is helping Tai gain more video-making skills.

The duo teamed up for the first time last month to file a Facebook Live report on aid efforts during the flash floods in Ubon Ratchathani that led to 33 fatalities. The Isaan Record, founded in 2011 to tell the stories of northeast Thailand, had been one of the first media outlets on the scene in Ubon.

Wist has spent the last 16 years working as a journalist in Bangkok. Her career includes stints at Thailand’s leading Matichon newspaper and the Thai PBS television network. She returned home earlier this year to take up a job as an editor at the Isaan Record.

“I left Thai PBS in 2018. I felt I wasn’t being challenged any more,” Wist says. “I was a senior journalist. I could do any story I wanted to and go anywhere, but I wanted to come home.”

New media ventures in overlooked spaces

Isaan is Thailand’s agricultural heartland and a region often neglected by the Thai media. For the past eight years, the Isaan Record has set out to fill the gap, publishing in both English and Thai.

“I want to bring us more international recognition,” Wist says of her publication. “We’re an independent news media that’s quite alternative and progressive compared to the mainstream media in Thailand.”

Its success in covering stories and having them picked up in the national and international media has since inspired others—two new alternative websites are now trying to replicate its brand of journalism.

The Isaan Voice and the New Isaan Movement have begun reporting local news in Thai. The quality of their work has impressed experienced journalists; even Wist admits to checking these newcomers often for story ideas to pursue at the Isaan Record.

Isaan isn’t the only part of the country where independent media outlets are trying to correct the Bangkok-centric skew of the national media industry.

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Chiang Mai, Thailand 501room / Shutterstock.com

In Chiang Mai—known as Thailand’s “Rose of the North”—CityLife Chiang Mai magazine editor Pim Kemasingki felt the same pull that Wist did for her hometown when she returned to Thailand from abroad 20 years ago.

“I do like to show Chiang Mai as it is, which is a city with a huge amount of potential, lots of charm, but also insidious corruption like anywhere else in Thailand,” she says.

But this desire for localised reporting can sometimes come with its own risks. Last year, Pim and CityLife were threatened with prosecution by the Thai authorities for sharing an image to Facebook of Chiang Mai’s Three Kings Monument donning facemasks in a protest against the government’s lack of response to local air pollution. Due to a public backlash online, criminal charges were not filed.

Pim was unfazed and continues to challenge the authorities on environmental issues. She writes and edits all of CityLife Chiang Mai’s stories. The magazine had once been the only regional media in northern Thailand, but Pim has since seen the ebb and flow of online local news websites. Despite this, she thinks that local media start-ups have been overlooked in Thailand’s media landscape.

“Before, it was a slumbering little town. As the city grew there were more issues to deal with and things to talk about,” Pim says. “I don’t see any conversation happening now about the local media.”

Plugging gaps across Thailand

Mana Treelayapewat is vice president at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce School of Communication Arts in Bangkok. He sees the growing amount of online news generated from outside of Bangkok as giving Thais a better understanding of what’s happening in the country’s 76 provinces.

“Chiang Mai and Khon Kaen are two cities where local journalism is improving and stories there are now getting mainstream media attention,” Mana says.

But Thai journalist and senior staff writer at Khaosod English, Pravit Rojanaphruk, is concerned by the lack of news coverage from Thailand’s underreported “Deep South” provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Patani.

“I think regional media is serving local news needs. I think it’s only in the Deep South where local news and alternative media is needed most,” Pravit says.

Former BBC Thai journalist Noi Thamasathien has responded to this need, founding Patani Notes last December to raise more national interest in local stories from the Deep South of Thailand.

“We started small. I wasn’t very sure whether it was going to be successful. Getting people to write is difficult,” she says.

“They depend on other people to report about the area, but I know there [are] a lot of people who want to have media done by and for the local community.”

Wist has big ambitions for the Isaan Record. Bringing her multimedia skillset with her, she’s planning on improving its investigative reports, in-depth features, and daily news coverage of the northeast—a known stronghold of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.

But a journalist like her is a rarity; it’s still rare for Bangkok-based journalists to leave their jobs and relocate to their hometowns in the provinces to find a paid media job.

“Most Thai journalists in Bangkok are not from Bangkok, because there isn’t opportunity available elsewhere,” Pravit says. “Unlike in the US where there are a lot of cities where you can do media work, in Thailand there’s only one. But I think that’s starting to change.”

Before leaving Bangkok, Wist teamed up with Swiss Public Radio and Al Jazeera English to cover the 2019 Thai election. This led her to directly challenge 2014 coup leader General Prayut Chan-ocha while he was on the campaign trail. The video of her peppering Prime Minister Prayut with questions went viral and led to online memes about her hard-nosed approach to reporting.

“I’ve seen three coups in my lifetime and have covered two as a journalist,” Wist says. “Covering stories in Isaan is a new kind of challenge.”

Spreading the word

The Isaan Record wants to build a network of journalists in the north and northeast of Thailand to improve knowledge and coverage of human rights and democracy. To achieve this, it’s teamed up with Prachathai, an alternative news portal based in Bangkok.

“The mainstream media has stringers in each province. We’re a small news portal trying to focus on underreported stories or what mainstream media only sometimes highlights,” says Pongpan Chumjai, executive director at Prachathai.

The opportunities are certainly there for the taking, as long as platforms are willing to plunge into the breach. Since 2009, Thai authorities have shut down popular community radio stations across the north and south on the grounds that they were affiliated with the “red shirt” pro-democracy movement and insurgent groups in the Deep South.

This has prompted many prominent Thais to turn to popular social media applications like Facebook and Line to consume and distribute local news and information, shunning the mainstream media.

Back on the couch at the Isaan Record office in Khon Kaen, Wist pauses for a moment before wrapping up the mentorship session. She’s got a new idea.

“I grew up listening to radio. It’s important to people in Isaan,” she says.

“Maybe we should start a podcast.”

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After the Easter massacre, Sri Lanka nun heals religious tension

Sister Christine supports survivors in need and Muslims facing backlash following ISIL-claimed attack that killed 253.

Sister Christine supports survivors in need and Muslims facing backlash following ISIL-claimed attack that killed 253.

Sister Noel Christine stands in front of scaffolding set in effort to rebuild St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka – Katuwapitiya, a grief-stricken Sri Lankan village of 600 families, is in the coastal city of Negombo, about 30 kilometres north of Colombo.

On April 21, 149 Katuwapitiya residents died inside its St Sebastian’s Church, according to a recent count by community members, during the Easter Sunday massacre, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.

Almost four months have passed since the attack, which targeted three churches and three top-end hotels, killing at least 253 people and injured 500 – the bloodiest outbreak of violence to hit Sri Lanka since the end of the 26-year civil war in 2009.

Sister Noel Christine had rushed to the scene at St Sebastian’s Church that day to find chaos.

Now, she steps out of a white minivan in Katuwapitiya wearing immaculate blue habits to greet an armed Sri Lankan soldier on guard at the gate of the reopened church.

She is 69 years old and has arrived to gather for mass, hosted by Sri Lanka’s Catholic Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

A large red cross hangs over the entrance to the church, one of the few items that remained unscathed after the bombing.

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People attend the funeral of a husband and wife who were killed in the Easter Sunday attack on St Sebastian’s Church, on April 25, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka [File: Carl Court/Getty Images]

In the aftermath of the attacks, Sri Lankan authorities have used counterterror laws to arbitrarily arrest and detain Muslims. Threats of violence forced refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek shelter at police stations and mosques in Negombo.

In the hours after the violence, Cardinal Ranjith advised Catholics to remain calm and warned them against seeking retribution.

But as they reflect on the period since the massacre, it appears to some Catholics that the Cardinal is not the reconciliatory figure he posed to be.

On June 3, he visited a Buddhist monk in the central city of Kandy who was on a hunger strike for the removal all Muslim ministers in the government. They all resigned promptly.

On July 21, at the commemoration of the bombing at St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, the cardinal told congregants: “The current leaders have failed. They have no backbone. They must leave the government and go home.”

“It was a sad event. So many of our people have lost their loved ones. But the real tragedy is the way victims have been treated,” said Sister Christine, who provides psychosocial and financial support to Katuwapitiya families. “I’ve been seeing to their needs and many of them don’t want to hear the Cardinal talking politics.”

Sister Christine’s acquaintance in the diocese, Father Sarath Iddamalgoda, told Al Jazeera that some clergymen close to the Cardinal have ordered their congregants to distance themselves from the Muslim community. One allegedly went as far as telling Catholics to start rearing pigs.

“As clergymen or women we have one calling, and that’s to stand for justice. In the case of Sri Lanka we have to support minority rights,” Father Sarath Iddamalgoda said. “Unfortunately our church doesn’t do this nationally. But I’m happy we have sister Christine doing it for us.”

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was unavailable for comment.

As well as supporting attack survivors and victims’ families, Sister Christine now spends some of her time trying to heal divisions stoked by Sri Lanka’s religious and political leaders.

As well as talking to members of her own Catholic community in Katuwapitiya, she holds discussions with Buddhists, Muslims and other Christian groups.

“We are calling for justice for the victims of the bomb blasts, but the government isn’t doing anything to help them. These people need to be taken care of. The government still has no plan of action,” she said.

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A red cross still stands on St Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Negombo [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

The prime minister’s office has set up the Office of Reparation to compensate victims’ families. It has compensated them 283.3 million Sri Lankan Rupees ($106m) – one million ($5,650) to each of the 189 families who have made claims.

But Sister Christine said she is aware of cases where families feel forgotten.

“I visited one home where the lady died, and her husband and two children were now without a wife and mother. They had all lived in a small one-bedroom house,” Sister Christine said. “They told me that it was sad a bomb had to destroy the community for the world to know how poor their family is.”

Sister Christine relives the Easter Sunday carnage almost every morning. For two weeks after witnessing the bloodshed, she helped victims in hospital.

‘I wanted to work for justice’

Over the last 40 years, Sister Christine has built trust with every family in Katuwapitiya.

After the attacks, she heard that Muslim refugees from Pakistan, living in Negombo, faced the threat of “retaliatory” attacks and had to be relocated from their homes to local police stations for protection.

She mobilised her network to preach peace.

“We formed Negombo United People’s Alliance. We want Negombo to be safe,” she said. “We have to be good neighbours. If there is a problem arising in a shop or in the streets, we get a call and we go there to stop violence from spreading.”

But she said she now faces discrimination from local Muslims – who also faced threats of violence and arbitrary arrests.

Some Sri Lankan Muslims have refused to assist her, or even serve her in their shops or restaurants, because they disagree with her helping the Pakistani refugees – the majority of whom are Ahmadi Muslim, a persecuted religious minority.

“Some Muslims that we work with believe the Ahmadis are from a lower caste. But there are also certain Catholic nuns and priests who don’t agree with us giving support to any Muslims,” Sister Christine said. “The Pope says we have to be a contradiction to the world of injustice.”

Born into a poor family in the southern city of Galle, Sister Christine’s dream was to become a flight attendant until she met an Irish nun who changed her outlook on life.

She said her life’s work began when a young girl she loved and cared for died.

“I looked after homeless children. After this, I realised I wanted to work for justice,” she said, adding that she has faced a backlash for her activism.

In 2018, she joined protests during Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis – when President Maithripala Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A parliamentary select committee is investigating whether this instability in government contributed to a failure to take warnings of an attack seriously.

“A group of us came together to form an alternative women’s platform. We called it the Fifty Two Per Cent Force. Because we’re 52 percent of the voting population and we are only 4.5 percent in the parliament,” said Shreen Saroor, a Sri Lankan human rights activist.

“Sister Christine hasn’t only just been doing charity work, she’s also working on feminist issues and how to create an alternative way of questioning our political leaders.”

Back in Negombo, Father Sarath Iddamalgoda reflects on his 40 years of community outreach work alongside Sister Christine. The two have fought on behalf of the homeless and impoverished fishermen’s families in Negombo.

They have also been fighting for accountability – not just for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks but for all of those whose voices are being ignored by religious and political leaders.

“I don’t think she’s ever taken a holiday in her lifetime,” he said.

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Sister Noel Christine walks through St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, still being repaired, after the Easter Sunday bombings [Adam Bemma/Al Jazeera]

“The kind of work she does can cause psychological harm. Every person has a limit to the suffering they can internalise. I always tell her she needs a holiday.”

Sister Christine climbs back into the passenger seat of her white minivan for the drive south from Negombo to Colombo. Her habits have a thin coat of dust from spending the day outdoors.

She credits the younger Catholic nuns and interfaith activists for giving her the energy to continue.

“The church has to tolerate me. I’m almost 70,” Sister Christine said. “In Negombo, we have come together as a united group. This will make it easier to reconcile while many are still dividing Sri Lanka.”

Published @AlJazeera

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Caught in Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim backlash, evicted refugees search for safe homes

NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka – Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers in Sri Lanka have spent the past three months searching for safety across the island nation after being swept up in an anti-Muslim backlash following the April terrorist attacks that killed more than 250 people.

More than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers were pushed from their rented homes after attackers struck six churches and hotels around the country.

In the aftermath of the suicide blasts, rights groups say mobs in the coastal city of Negombo – the site of one of April’s deadliest explosions – and elsewhere went door to door pressuring landlords to evict refugees, most of whom are religious minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan, including members of persecuted sects.

Local rights advocates and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, describe a volatile situation where plans to temporarily resettle displaced refugees were met with protests. In some cases, refugee families have gone from safehouse to safehouse only to be pushed out by local authorities.

“Every effort that was made to relocate people was received with a lot of hostility,” said Menique Amarasinghe, the head of UNHCR’s Sri Lanka office.

Roughly 90 refugees and asylum seekers forced from their homes are now living at a government-run facility in Vavuniya, in northern Sri Lanka, where they are under armed military guard. More than 100 other refugees are still sheltering at crowded mosques in Negombo and in nearby Pasyala, afraid to return to the surrounding communities.

Ruki Fernando, a human rights advocate with the Colombo-based Inform Human Rights Documentation Centre, called the Vavuniya facility “a de facto prison”.

“We’ve never had this situation in our history that refugees have been so scared they’ve had to live in camps guarded by armed forces,” Fernando said.

Of the 1,000 people originally displaced, the UNHCR said 228 people are still looking for safe homes, including the 90 remaining in Vavuniya.

The threats facing refugees are part of a larger anti-Muslim backlash that has deepened ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka since the Easter Sunday attacks, which authorities blame on a small group of Islamist extremists claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.

Sri Lanka’s bloody 26-year civil war ended a decade ago, but analysts say the failure to reconcile wartime abuses has produced a culture of impunity that allows ethnic tensions to easily simmer today. Sri Lanka’s multiethnic society includes the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese majority, mostly Hindu Tamils, as well as large Muslim and Christian communities.

Rights groups accuse Buddhist nationalists of stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment on social media, and Human Rights Watch says authorities have arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Sri Lankan Muslims using counterterrorism laws.

Mosques become shelters

In seaside Negombo, about 30 kilometres north of Colombo, a suicide bomber killed dozens of worshipers at the city’s St. Sebastian’s Church in April. The government declared days of curfews here in May after mobs attacked Muslim-owned businesses. Local landlords also evicted refugees and asylum seekers like Ahsan Mahmood, a 24-year-old Ahmadi Muslim from Pakistan.

Mahmood fled to Sri Lanka two years ago. Along with 100 others, he has spent the last three months living inside the city’s Ahmadiyya mosque, which sits a few kilometres from the damaged church. Ahmadis are part of a Muslim sect that faces persecution in majority-Muslim countries like Pakistan; about 1,350 of the nearly 1,700 refugees or asylum seekers in Sri Lanka are Pakistani Ahmadis or Christians.

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Ahsan Mahmood, a refugee from Pakistan, has been living at an Ahmadiyya mosque since being evicted from his rented home in Negombo. More than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers were displaced in an anti-Muslim backlash following April terrorist attacks.

Mahmood said he’s now too afraid to leave the mosque because his unkempt beard may raise suspicion. Like the others here, he relies on food donated by religious organisations and humanitarians.

“When I go outside of the mosque I fear what will happen to me,” he said. “If the police stop me I have only two things to show them: my passport and refugee identification. If they don’t accept it, what would I do?”

Refugees search for new homes

With refugees like Mahmood evicted from their homes, the UNHCR said it had no option but to help relocate about 200 of the 1,000 displaced people to Vavuniya in mid-May. More than half have since returned to their communities or gone elsewhere.

“We asked the government to provide a location with security to ensure they were kept safe during this time, with a clear understanding we weren’t looking for a place for them to be kept indefinitely,” Amarasinghe said.

But finding more suitable refuge has been difficult.

Amarasinghe said Vavuniya residents at first protested the decision to move refugees to the area until the UNHCR offered assurances it would be temporary. The government also guaranteed the facility would be under armed guard.

The UNHCR is providing food and healthcare through a local NGO. But the refugees can’t receive visitors or move freely.

Fernando said he tried to help evicted refugee families in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, move to safer areas in May, intending to place them with volunteer hosts in Jaffna in the north. But an attempt to move a single family was met with hostility there as well.

“The host family registered them at the police on the day of the arrival, but the next day senior government officials opposed this,” Fernando said. “The distraught and exhausted refugee family was compelled to travel back to Colombo.”

Rights activists and faith groups are still trying to protect refugees caught up in the backlash. Fernando said the Vavuniya facility is closed to visitors, but he’s trying to help a handful of residents there find better homes elsewhere in the country. In the last month, he said, a number of Sri Lankan families and a church have offered to host refugee families.

The UNHCR is also meeting with police and local government officials in communities that had previously refused to register refugee families. It’s also meeting with local landlords to help more refugees return home or find new housing. The New Humanitarian was unable to reach government officials to comment on the issue.

In Negombo, Sister Noel Christine, a Catholic nun, has become a defender of her hometown’s displaced asylum seekers and refugees.

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Sister Noel Christine walks through Negombo’s St. Sebastian’s Church in early July. An April bombing killed dozens of worshipers who had gathered for Easter Sunday mass.

“These refugees have faced violence in their home countries and have come to Sri Lanka to seek asylum. Now they’ve had to leave their homes again,” Christine said.

Each week, she brings food to dozens of men sheltering at the Ahmadiyya mosque, including Mahmood.

The nun is also trying to heal the divided communities in Negombo. St. Sebastian’s Church re-opened its doors in late July, but the damage lingers for the city’s residents.

“We’re all traumatised,” Christine said.

She’s part of a local group – the Negombo United Citizens Alliance – created to help quell the hostility that followed the attack. “We come to the streets and we tell everyone not to resort to violence,” she said.

But refugees like Mahmood describe a sharp contrast in their lives before and after the April attacks. He said local police and soldiers would occasionally harass him, but life was peaceful compared to the persecution he faced back home.

Mahmood used to worry about his family still in Pakistan; now they fear for his safety as a refugee.

“I pray for Sri Lanka,” he said. “I want it to be like it was before Easter Sunday.”

Published @TheNewHumanitarian

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Sri Lanka’s Tourism Bounces Back After April Attacks – CBC The World This Weekend

COLOMBO – Three months after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, the country’s tourist industry is struggling to rebuild. It has survived tsunamis, civil war and communal violence. 

Many Sri Lankans, whose livelihoods rely on tourism, are hoping they can come back from this too. This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Sunday, July 21, 2019.

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