Asia in Review Archive 2021
Date of AiR edition
30 March 2021
Myanmar: Fears of civil war grow after series of airstrikes causes thousands to flee to Thai border
(lm) While the death toll among protesters in Myanmar rose dramatically over the weekend [see article in this edition], about 10,000 residents from territory in the country’s southeast controlled by the Karen ethnic minority fled to a safe zone near the Thai border following two days of airstrikes by the army. What is more, Myanmar’s ethnic minority groups are increasingly putting aside their differences, indicating the possible formation of a federal army. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times 1]
Over the course of two days, military jets bombed territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s two dozen ethnic armed groups that have been fighting for decades to gain more autonomy from Myanmar’s central government. The air assaults were the most significant attack for years in the region and came in retaliation for an attack by the KNU on an army post near the border. [Bangkok Post] [The Irrawaddy]
Since December, fights between the military and the KNU have flared again, after the group in 2015 had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the central government, along with several other insurgent groups [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. Since the coup in Myanmar on February 1, the hilly border region between Myanmar and Thailand has once again become a refuge for other opponents of the military regime.
On March 28, then, fighting erupted between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), another armed ethnic group, in the jade-mining area of Hpakant in the northernmost state of Myanmar. While there had been several major clashes between the KIA and the military in the past, both sides were in the process of negotiating a ceasefire agreement in the leadup to the military coup on February 1. The military’s governing body, the State Administrative Council, has announced to continue the peace process with ethnic armed organizations, but the KIA said it would support the protesters and refused to recognize the military regime [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. [CNN]
The tension at the frontier comes as the leaders of the resistance to last month’s coup are calling on Myanmar’s armed ethnic minority groups to band together and join them as allies. So far, these groups – which make up about one-third of the country’s population – have only committed to providing protection to protesters in the areas they control. But with the bursting of the militias’ defense belt bursts looming, an increasing number of the ethnic armed groups aligns itself with the protesters. [South China Morning Post 1]
Lending further weight to the distinct possibility of mass demonstrations cascading into civil war, three insurgent groups in a joint letter on March 30 called on the military to stop killing peaceful protesters, adding that they would be willing to “cooperate with all nationalities who are joining Myanmar’s spring revolution in terms of self-defence.” [South China Morning Post 2]
Speaking against this backdrop, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on March 29 the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting the Myanmar junta, telling reporters “there is probably no one to support the use of violence against the people”. The prime minister also defended his military’s decision to send representatives to attend the “Armed Forces Day celebrations” [see article in this edition], saying Bangkok had to maintain a good rapport with the military junta. [Deutsche Welle] [Khaosod English] [Nikkei Asia]
Earlier the same day, Thai authorities denied allegations by activist groups that more than 2,000 refugees, who had tried to enter Thailand had been forced back across the river, despite ongoing aerial bombardment. Moreover, authorities also said it was government policy – nota bene: Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, and its asylum law refers to “illegal foreigners” who can be arrested and deported at any time – for the army to block refugees at the border and deny reporters and aids groups access to the area. [The Straits Times 2]
30 March 2021
Thailand: Coronavirus sends online sex abuse soaring
(lm) Cases of online sex abuse in Thailand have significantly proliferated under COVID-19, as many families struggle to make ends meet while minors are at home and online, putting themselves at risk of being sex-trafficked. Campaigners say police had received almost 170,000 domestic tipoffs about online child sexual abuse last year, a rise of more than 40 percent as compared to 2019. [South China Morning Post]
Last June, the police-led Internet Crimes Against Children (TICAC) taskforce had warned that child cybersex abuse cases were approaching a record high. To enhance authorities’ ability to tackle the trend, child rights experts have repeatedly urged the government to establish the necessary legal framework for the criminalization of child sexual abuse online and the effective prosecution of offenders. [AiR No. 25, June/2020, 4]
30 March 2021
Thailand: 19 lawmakers currently investigated for serious misconduct over alleged public land encroachment
(lm) A total of 19 lawmakers from various political parties are currently being investigated for serious misconduct over alleged public land encroachment, according to the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). Firebrand activist and Secretary-General of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, Srisuwan Janya, had asked the NACC to investigate the MP. [Bangkok Post 1]
The fate of Pareena Kraikupt, a lawmaker from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) is said to have put the other MPs being investigated on edge. The Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders on March 25 stripped Pareena of her duties over a pending reserved forest encroachment case. If found guilty, Pareena could see her political rights revoked for up to 10 years; but she will be barred from contesting elections and assuming political positions for life under Section 235 of the Constitution. [The Bangkok Post 2]
30 March 2021
Thailand: Appointments of four new minister confirmed by King Rama X
(lm) Appointments of four new cabinet ministers – two ministers and two deputy ministers – were confirmed in the Royal Gazette published on March 23 after being endorsed by King Rama X. The Gazette also announced the departures of three minister that had to leave office after being convicted by the Central Criminal Court for their role in the extended 2013 street protests that eventually culminated in the 2014 coup by then army commander Prayuth, ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. [Bangkok Post 1]
Prime Minister Prayit Chan-o-cha the following day defended the appointments of the new cabinet ministers, notably Education Minister Trinuch Thienthong, who has been criticized for her lack of experience in running educational affairs. Trinuch is the niece of senior Pheu Thai Party lawmaker Sanoh Thienthong, who played a supporting role in the rise to premiership of Banharn Silpa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Thaksin Shinawatra and Surayud Chulanont. [Bangkok Post 2]
30 March 2021
Thailand: Constitutional reform moves stall, leaving Prime Minister Chan-o-cha with stronger position
(lm) While the protest movement against the government is increasingly losing momentum [see article above], Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha signaled this week that he was easy about the course of events in Parliament where moves have floundered to amend the 2017 Constitution, despite what appeared to be a parliamentary victory for the opposition. [Thai Examiner]
Amendments to the Constitution had been pursuit in Parliament via two bills – a government-sponsored referendum bill and an opposition-backed constitutional amendment bill – that were supposed to have been merged into one in the process of legislative scrutiny. But Thailand’s Constitutional Court (CC) through a ruling on March 11 sent a clear signal that the bill was unconstitutional, ruling that Parliament has authority to write a new constitution only on the condition that a public referendum be conducted prior to and following the amendment process [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3].
As a direct result of the ruling, the opposition-sponsored charter amendment bill on March 17 failed to get the support of a majority of members of the House and at least of one-third, or 84, of the Senators, as required as per Section 256 of the Constitution. Prior to the vote, Parliament’s legal team had suggested to suspend the third and final reading of the bill pending a referendum, but the opposition Pheu Thai Party insisted on proceeding with the vote, arguing that the bill did not pertain to aspects stipulated in the CC’s ruling.
What is more, Senators have already voiced concerns about Section 9 of the government-sponsored referendum bill, which authorizes both Parliament and the public to initiate a signature campaign calling for a referendum to be held on a given issue with approval from the Cabinet. Lending further credence to the argument the prime minister and his government appear to end up in a stronger position, an extraordinary parliamentary session scheduled for April 7 and 8 will be postponed, as the Office of Council of State – the government’s legal advisory body – is yet to consider the final wording of Section 9. [Bangkok Post 1] [The Bangkok Post 2]
Against this backdrop and with just two years left before the next general election, time appears to be running out for any bid to seek wholesale charter changes. Calls are therefore growing to amend the Constitution on a chapter-to-chapter basis without touching issues that require a referendum, but this may prove quite difficult as the government appears be in control of the process. The focus has now shifted to the Democrat and Bhumjaithai Parties, both of which campaigned on a platform of altering the Constitution during the 2019 election. [Bangkok Post 3]
What is more, firebrand activist Srisuwan Janya lodged a petition with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) early last week demanding a probe into the 206 MPs and two Senators who had voted to pass the amendment bill on March 17. Srisuwan, who is the Secretary-General of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, has also sought action against eight political parties whose MPs voted for the bill on grounds of alleged ethical misconduct. [Bangkok Post 4]
30 March 2021
Thailand: Police file fresh round of charges after anti-government protesters hold peaceful rally
(lm) Hundreds of protesters gathered on March 29 to defiantly repeat their calls for reform of the royal institution and the release of suspects arrested and detained on lèse-majesté charges, a day after police had cleared a protest camp near the Government House in Bangkok and detained nearly 100 protesters for breaching public health measures against the coronavirus. [The Bangkok Post 1]
Moreover, thousands of anti-government protesters returned to the streets in Bangkok on March 24, days after one of the most violent demonstrations since they began last year [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. The rally was called by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a faction of a broader protest movement that started last year and has three core demands: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government, for the constitution to be amended to make it more democratic and the monarchy to be reformed to make it more accountable. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times] [The Thaiger]
While the rally ended peacefully, police are preparing to take legal action against 21 protesters, possibly including for violating the lèse-majesté law, which makes criticizing, insulting or defaming the king or other key royals punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Since last November, at least 76 activists involved with the protests have been charged with similar violations. [Bangkok Post 2]
The rally was held a day before prosecutors were to decide whether to accept sedition and lèse-majesté charges against 13 other protesters in cases relating to a rally held outside the German embassy in the capital in October last year [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. Eight other protesters, who are already being held in pretrial detention in lèse-majesté cases, have been denied bail to prevent them from playing any active role in the ongoing protest movement. [Bangkok Post 3] [Bangkok Post 4]
Separately, a group of human rights advocates led by a former member of the National Human Rights Commission on March 26 petitioned the Central Administrative Court over police’s handling of a demonstration near the parliament complex on November 17, when security forces deployed tear gas and water cannons. At least 18 people were injured, marking the most violent confrontation since a youth-led protest movement had emerged in July [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3].
23 March 2021
Thailand: Further clashes between protesters and police
(nd) On another pro-democracy rally on Sunday, police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse protesters, injuring dozens, arresting at least 20 for insulting the monarchy and breaching public gathering laws. [Voice of America] Meanwhile, 16 core members of the Khon Kaen, a faction of the anti-government Ratsadon group, answered charges in connection with anti-government rallies. Protests started last year and have raised unprecedented calls to reform the Thai monarchy. [Bangkok Post] In a statement issued after the protest during which journalists were shot with rubber bullets, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) urged the authorities not to use force on working journalists. [Prachatai 1] Parallelly, Amnesty International called on Thai authorities to drop all charges against children and to investigate authorities’ excessive use of force against protesters. Since the protest started in 2020, at least 24 children have been charged, even with Article 112 (Lese Majeste Law), Article 116 (Sedition), carrying lengthy prison sentences, for peacefully expressing their opinion and assemble, violating the rights to fair trial and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). [Prachatai 2]
23 March 2021
Thailand: Thai woman charged by US court
(nd) Thai national and former executive of defense contractor Glenn Defense Marine Asia has plead not guilty in US court proceeding charging her with participating in a conspiracy to submit fraudulent price quotes. The defendant alongside two others who were already sentenced in 2017, is accused of submitting false claims of more than $5 million to the US Navy. She was extradited from Thailand to the US. [Chiangrai Times]
23 March 2021
Thailand: Court to review CCTV material upon activist complaint
(nd) Following complaints by activist Arnon Nampa that jail officials tried to remove him and other political detainees from their jail cell late at night, a Thai criminal court announced to review CCTV footage. Correction officials said they were trying to isolate individuals who had been in court on Monday for Covid-19 tests, which they refused due to the unusual time.
A pre-trial hearing on Monday ruled 22 pro-democracy activists will be tried together on Lese-Majeste and sedition charges. [Benar News]
23 March 2021
Thailand: Activist granted political asylum
(nd) An anti-government activist was granted political asylum in the United States. She fled Thailand in 2017 after she was charged with royal defamation. Her status effectively means she is unable to return to her home country. She was one of another eight Facebook users abducted from their homes in 2016 by security officers for organizing satirical pages targeting PM Prayut Chan-o-cha. [Khaosod]
23 March 2021
Myanmar: Rising death toll and more international efforts to pressure the military
(nd) Lawmakers from the National League for Democracy (NLD) have urged the largest foreign-owned oil and gas companies to suspend business ties with the military regime, saying the money earned will be used to reinforce human rights violations. Per month, Myanmar receives earnings of about US$75 million to US$90 million from oil and gas sales, paid through state-owned company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE). In an effort to cut the junta off these supplies, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), the Burmese government in exile representing the NLD, sent a notice to France’s Total SE, Malaysia’s Petronas, Thailand’s PTT and South Korea’s POSCO, criticizing them for their failure to condemn the coup, and urging them to suspend their tax payments. [Irrawaddy 1]
Also, CRPH is negotiating with Karen National Union (KNU), Restoration Council of Shan State and Kachin Independent Army (KIA) to form a federal army to protect the protesters. They have cleared all ethnic armed groups from the terror list. In light of the growing violence, so far peaceful protesters started to use self-constructed weapons, such as molotov cocktails, and built barricades from tires, bricks or bamboo. [FAZ in German]
Meanwhile, the efforts of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) spreads virally, with a “social punishment” campaign against the families of senior members of the regime. On social media, protesters identified names, addresses and other personal information on relatives of the military generals, and urged people to shun and shame the individuals, and to boycott their businesses. [Frontier Myanmar 1]
Four employees of a private bank were detained for allegedly inciting people to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM). [Irrawaddy 2] Due to the ongoing strikes, companies struggle to pay salaries amid closed banks. [Nikkei Asia 1] With an ongoing strike, the military has fired officials from the Foreign Ministry and has pressured banks to reopen in an effort to avoid an economic collapse. [Frontier Myanmar 2]
With the junta using more excessive force, the death toll rose to over 250 and reports of at least 5 cases of torture in detention have surfaced. Internet shutdowns let information spread slowly. Protesters erected barricades in the streets, which were set on fire making Yangon look like a battle zone. [Asia Times 1] In an effort to intimidate citizens, security forces randomly opened fire in residential areas and at individual residences. Shortages of food and drinking water continued, hinting at a looming humanitarian crisis. Adding to internet blackouts, phone services were cut off in some areas. Protesters reported they refrain from forming groups, which are randomly attacked and shot at by the police.
The military continued to target journalists and closed down the last independent newspaper, The Standard Time Daily, following 7Day News, The Voice, Eleven Myanmar, and the Myanmar Times. Private media outlets have been operating in the country since 2013, after the lifting of the ban on independent media since 1962. [Radio Free Asia 1] Police also continued to raid homes in search of protesters; over 2,000 people have been arrested. [Radio Free Asia 2] To mark the one-month anniversary of the protests, activists organized a car convoy, others lit candles, joined by Buddhist monks. Reportedly, members of the security forces were attacked and died, as well as two policemen during protests. After security forces have occupied more than 60 schools and university campuses in 13 states and regions, Unicef, Unesco, and private humanitarian group Save the Children, issued a statement condemning the occupation of education facilities as a serious violation of children’s rights. [South China Morning Post 1]
Following the attack on Chinese businesses on Sunday, an unsigned editorial, published on the website of state-run CGTN network, suggested that China might be “forced into taking more drastic action” in Myanmar if its interests are not more firmly safeguarded. The editorial added, “China won’t allow its interests to be exposed to further aggression. If the authorities cannot deliver and the chaos continues to spread, China might be forced into taking more drastic action to protect its interests.” China is deeply involved in Myanmar’s economy and shares a 2,200-kilometer border, which is of interest for Chinese infrastructure projects giving it a corridor to the Indian Ocean. [The Diplomat 1] Inter alia, China is extracting minerals in Myanmar, whose shipments have delayed significantly, making a global price rise likely. China controls 80% of the world’s rare earth mineral supplies. [Asia Times 2]
According to experts, the systematic crackdown on the Rohingyas executed by the military since 2017 is just postponed and likely to restart, possibly turning protests into a “prolonged crisis”. Recently hired Canadian-Israeli lobbyist for the junta, Ari Ben-Menashe, said the military want to repatriate Rohingyas. [Voice of America]
Sam Rainsy, exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Indonesian lawmaker Fadli Zon, Philippine Senator Kiko Pangilinan, former Singapore Deputy Speaker Charles Chong, and former Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya signed a statement urging all ASEAN nations to unite in sanctions against Myanmar and to end impunity. The politicians criticized the “impotence” of ASEAN amid the human rights abuses, and suggested to suspend Myanmar’s membership in the regional bloc. [Benar News]
In some of the strongest comments yet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo urged the violence to stop immediately and to press current chairman of ASEAN, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, to call an urgent meeting. [Reuters] Following Indonesia and Malaysia’s joint push for an urgent high-level meeting of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will visit Brunei, before going to Malaysia and Indonesia. [Channel News Asia]
The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 11 individuals linked to the coup in Myanmar. The EU already had an arms embargo on Myanmar, and has targeted some senior military officials since 2018. Stronger measures are expected in a move to target the businesses run by the military, mainly through two conglomerates, Myanmar Economic Holdings and Myanmar Economic Corp. [Nikkei Asia 2]
According to Thai media, the Royal Thai Army had supplied 700 sacks of rice to Myanmar army units on Myanmar’s eastern border allegedly on the orders of the Thai government. The commander of the task force denied it and said it was regular trade. Residents told a Reuters reporter the crossing was not a normal trade route. The allegedly supplied army units were cut off by forces of the Karen National Union (KNU), who have pledged allegiance to the protest movement. [Bangkok Post]
Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating an anti-corruption law, with a possible prison sentence of 15 years, adding to four previous charges with other offences. [South China Morning Post 2]
The influential, Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (Mahana), a government-appointed body of Buddhist abbots, urged the military to end violence against protesters. It was submitted to the Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture. The statement mentioned the CDM, which would greatly benefit from support by Mahana. As a rather conservative organization, the clear cut with the military is significant, according to analysts. It might unleash monastic opposition, which has historic precedents. [The Diplomat 2]
Ousted lawmakers of NLD are exploring if the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate crimes against humanity committed by the military since the coup. Following the toughening crackdown, hundred have fled Myanmar to bordering Thailand, which has prepared for a big influx of refugees, as well as to India. [South China Morning Post 3]
16 March 2021
Thailand: Constitutional Court rules on referendum on constitutional amendment
(nd) According to a Constitutional Court ruling, proposals for constitutional amendments have to be brought for a vote before the people through a two-tiered referendum by parliament. Until now, an amendment draft already passed two parliamentary readings and was supposed to be voted on next week. During one of the readings, a majority voted for seeking a Constitutional Court’s ruling on the issue. MPs were unsure whether the ruling forced them to drop the current draft or have a parliamentary vote on it and then present it for a referendum.
Opposition parties as well as the youth-led pro-democracy movement have been calling for the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to reform the 2017 charter, which favors the military and helped Prayuth to stay in power following the 2019 general elections. Parliament has been working on changing Article 256 in order to enable a constitutional amendment. The draft stipulates 200 Constitution drafting members be elected from constituencies nationwide, sparing sections dealing with the monarchy. [Benar News]
16 March 2021
Thailand: Economic repercussions of pro-democracy protests
(nd) Both demonstrations by pro-democracy activists as well as though police actions against them continued over the past weeks. The co-leader of the protests remain in custody over lese majeste charges, carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years. Still, unprecedented calls for monarchy reform resume, resulting in the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to intensify its crackdown on protesters.
With respect to economic repercussions, especially Thailand’s status as a foreign direct investment destination, the initial negative effect of the conflict seems to have worn off, with investors returning. Still, the protest movement exposes Thailand’s systemic political instability, which could deter foreign investors in the future.
Thailand’s tourist-dependent economy was severely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. But according to analysts, the biggest downturn since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis is likewise connected to the political tension and insecurity, both with respect to foreign and domestic sources.
For the return of investor confidence in the last quarter of 2020 and first of 2021, analysts cited the rollout of the vaccination program, government incentive packages, and the creation of special economic zones like the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC). Additionally, foreign investors were offered a host of tax and duties exemptions particularly in high-tech sectors like robotics and biofuels. While politicians have tried to downplay the significance of the protests and align it with the normalcy of a certain amount of political unrest in the country, the youth-led movement still poses an unprecedented challenge to the monarchy, with a possible greater impact than previous political unrests.
Another factor is the competition from neighboring Southeast Asian countries — particularly Vietnam and Indonesia — who offer political stability and attractive investment incentives, such as lower wages. [The Diplomat]
16 March 2021
Regional meeting to discuss situation of migrants in the pandemic
(nd) According to a recent statement by a senior UN official, stigmatized and stranded migrants should be vaccinated promptly and valued for the region’s economic recovery. The Asia-Pacific’s migrant workforce comprises 40 % of the world’s migrants. Due to the pandemic, many lost their livelihoods, strander due to closed borders, facing discrimination and xenophobia, or were forcibly returned to their home countries. Due to their dense living situation the nature of job primarily in the service industry, migrants are specifically vulnerable to a Covid-19 infection. Thailand’s foreign minister Don Pramudwinai admitted that misinformation and insensitive messaging resulted in a widespread believe that migrants were a threat to public health, cutting them off access to health services. In December, a rise in Covid-19 cases at the country’s largest sea food market in Samut Sakhon, home to a large number of migrants from Myanmar, was blamed on foreign workers entering illegally.
The meeting, which was held in Bangkok, aims to identify challenges in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a non-legally binding intergovernmental agreement struck in 2018, a first ever UN global approach to international migration.
In the wake of the coup in Myanmar, both India and Thailand have so far closed their borders for Myanmar refugees, potentially in violation of international law, which states to return no one to a country where they are likely to face persecution, torture, or other serious harm. [Benarnews]
16 March 2021
Thailand: Plans to expand prison space amid protests
(nd) To counter challenges to correctional facilities amid the rise in political prisoners due to the ongoing pro-democracy protest, Thailand considers an expansion of prison space. Many prisons are congested with protesters. Protesters raised yet unprecedented demands, like a monarchy and constitutional reform as well as the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 382 people, including 13 minors and 58 charged under the lese majeste laws, are currently facing charges in conjunction with peacefully protesting. Charges under lese majeste include online postings brought by the newly introduced Cyber Crime Unit. UN criticized the surge in charges for lese majeste and a decline in freedom of expression. [The Diplomat]
Meanwhile, co-leader of the protests, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, announced he would go into hunger strike until he and the other co-leaders are granted bail. Six other activists are charged under Article 112 and were refused bail multiple times. [Benar News]
16 March 2021
SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020
(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)
Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.
23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]
9 March 2021
Thailand: More activists charges as protests continue
(nd) On Monday, 18 more activists were indicted by the prosecutor for participating in anti-government rallies last year. The youth-led pro-democracy movement has tabled once tabooed subjects such as a monarchy reform, prompting charges under the country’s strict lese majeste laws. Three were charged with sedition and lese majeste, the other 15 protesters with sedition and breaching a ban on public assembly. [Reuters] [Bangkok Post] On Saturday already, hundreds of protesters defied a gathering ban to protest the bail-less detention of the co-leaders of the movement. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters, injuring 10 protesters and 26 policemen. [South China Morning Post]
9 March 2021
Thailand: Facebook to remove Army-linked accounts and pages
(nd) Following Facebook’s removal of 185 accounts and groups linked to the Royal Thai Army, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced an investigation by the Army into the matter. According to the social media platform, the removed pages violated its policy against government interference, by engaging in information-influencing operation on behalf of a government entity. They originated in Thailand and targeted domestic audiences in the South, where the army faces an insurgency movement. The issue of army information operations has preoccupied activists, who filed a suit against the Army, as well as parliamentarians. Lawmakers from oppositioning Move Forward Party accused the army of misusing funds to discredit critics of the government. [Channel News Asia]
9 March 2021
Thailand: Popstar and activist burns King’s portrait
(nd) Thai popstar and pro-democracy activist Chaiamorn “Ammy” Kaewwiboonpan was arrested for allegedly burning a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn during a protest rally demanding the release of four protest leaders. Ammy admitted to the allegations. If charged under the lese majeste laws, he could face imprisonment of up to 15 years. If charged for arson of government property, the maximum penalty is death. Ammy’s move happened during a pro-democracy demonstration on Sunday by the group “Restart Democracy,” or REDEM, who later clashed with the police. [See also AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1] Thailand was downgraded in U.S.-based Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2021” report for its fierce crackdown on protesters. [Benar News]
9 March 2021
Thailand: Death penalty for Pattani bombers
(nd) Six men were given the death penalty by the Supreme Court for a string of bombings and attempted bombings in central Pattani in 2016. Four others were given life imprisonment and 36 in jail respectively. The explosion killed one person and injured 20. The men were also charged with illegal assembly to commit a crime and colluding to amass firearms for the purpose of acts of terrorism. [Bangkok Post]
2 March 2021
Laos: Thai court to reject appeal concerning Pak Beng dam
(py) A Thai court denied to hear an appeal on a case concerning Laos’s Pak Beng dam project. In 2017, two Mekong resident groups filed a petition to retract an environmental assessment performed by Thai agencies. Meanwhile, Laos’ government issued a decree, which requires all hydropower operators to inform authorities whenever dam reservoirs reach maximum storage or when river levels downstream fall to a critical level. [Voice of America] [Benar News]
The Pak Beng Dam project, developed by Chinese Datang Overseas Investment Co., Ltd, is one of several Chinese-related developments and business projects in Laos that has triggered a Chinese language education boom. In 2018, Chinese investments accounted for 79 percent of all Foreign Direct Investment in Laos. [Radio Free Asia]
2 March 2021
Thailand: Excessive use of force of police criticized
(nd) On Sunday, a protest rally headed for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s residence inside the 1st Infantry Regiment base clashed with the police. The police used rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas against the protesters. 33 were hurt, 22 arrested and one police man died of a heart attack. The police were criticized for again using violent force against protesters. [Bangkok Post] Prayuth defended the police, stating the measures were in compliance with international standards. [Chiangrai Times]
2 March 2021
Thailand: Further charges and more refused bail for protest leaders
(nd) The Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) is likely to open investigations into Facebook posts made by two already detained anti-government protest leaders, Parit Chiwarak and Arnon Nampa. Along with other co-leaders of the ongoing street protests, the two are facing inter alia charges under the strict lese majesté laws.
Reportedly, comments deemed a violation of the Computer Crime Act still occurred on their Facebook accounts, however, even after they were detained. According to the NGO Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) the Criminal Court again denied bail for the two and two other other co-leaders of the protests. They have been detained for the past 14 days and will remain indefinitely until the trial is over, or bail granted. [Bangkok Post] [Prachatai]
2 March 2021
Thailand: Unidentified men at protests not clarified
(nd) Weeks after about 40 unidentified men next to security forces cracked down on protesters, both police and the defense ministry state they have no knowledge about their identity but would be investigating. The men were next to riot police and not driven out by the police during the operation. Reportedly, many demonstrators and observers saw similar unidentified men working closely with security officers in previous rallies, having been nicknamed “Minions”. Activists reinforced that deploying unidentified men in plain clothes is not in line with international standards of handling crowds. [Khaosod]
2 March 2021
Thailand: Three cabinet members convicted by Criminal Court
(nd) On Thursday, three ministers in Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s cabinet were convicted by the Central Criminal Court in Bangkok for their involvement in the extended street protests that eventually culminated in the 2014 coup by then army commander Prayuth, ousting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The cabinet members – two ministers and a deputy-minister – all received prison sentences, the maximum was seven years. They had to leave office, for the constitution foresees them being barred from office if convicted for a criminal offense. Besides the three, 26 other members of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), often referred to as Yellow Shirts, were convicted. The group was led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, a prominent Democrat party member and royalist, who was sentenced to five years. The defendants were found guilty of sedition, trespassing, and instigating strikes. [Nikkei Asia]
23 February 2021
Laos: Chinese company sets to begin studies for iron mining
(py) A Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Laotian province Xaysomboun and China’s Tai Xan Meng Sion-Lao Minerals Corporation earlier this month allows the Chinese company now to begin feasibility studies in the area, while local residents and environmentalists worry about polluted rivers and fields.
Though on paper, residents are often ensured safety from pollution and side-effects of the construction, infrastructure projects in Laos have been notorious for not keeping their promise with Laotians displaced and unheard.
The backlashes of mega-projects, especially dam constructions, also go beyond the border. Lately, a Thai NGO, Fair Finance Thailand, has called on several Thai financial institutions to withhold loans for the Luang Prabang dam project until a risk-mitigation study is done. Laos’s recent economic growth has been mainly due to concessions to China, Thailand and Vietnam for natural resources. Not long ago, Laos had asked China to restructure its debt and rejected the IMF’s loan, China could pressure Laos to make more concessions of its natural resources. [Radio Free Asia] [South China Morning Post 1] [South China Morning Post 2]
23 February 2021
ASEAN member states tighten grip on cyberspace
(nd) The Thai government issued a warning not to break the law using the audio social media app Clubhouse. The Digital Minister said authorities were watching Clubhouse users and political groups if information was distorted and laws potentially violated. The app quickly developed into a discussion platform about the monarchy, despite the topic raised by student protesters still a fierce taboo, and whose criticism is punished harshly. Many Thai users registered following Japan-based critic of the Thai palace, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and joined the app. He gained more than 70,000 followers in his first five days on the app. His Facebook group, Royalist Marketplace, was shutdown in August 2020, only to reopen and attract 300,000 followers the next day. The government’s crackdown on protesters has regularly included charges under cybercrime laws, mostly on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The app gathered popularity quickly and was blocked earlier this month in China after thousands of mainland users joined discussions often censored in China, including about Xinjiang detention camps and Hong Kong’s national security law.
Last Wednesday, Indonesian authorities announced the app had to register as an Electronic System Operator (PSE) to seek permission to operate, and could be banned if it fails to comply with local laws. Indonesia has previously banned Reddit, Vimeo, and many pornography sites. [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen last week signed a sub-decree to enable the creation of the country’s long-planned National Internet Gateway (NIG), a Chinese-style firewall, which possibly gives authorities even more powers to crackdown on online free-speech. All internet traffic will be routed through a single portal managed by a government-appointed regulator. All internet traffic metadata shall be stored for 12 months and can be assessed by the authorities.
A telecommunications law from 2015 already gave significant powers to request user traffic data from internet service providers to the authorities, and the criminal code and the “fake news” legislation were used to crack down on government critics. All these efforts, however were reactive and put in after a post, despite blockages of websites, that could be circumvented via VPNs. The NIG enables a preventive action, mounting up to censorship.
Since Cambodia is unlikely to provide a national alternative to the popular social media platform Facebook, the authorities will have to force the platforms to abide by its rules. By having a single gateway for all traffic, Cambodia might have significant leverage over the social media website, being able to threat to shut them off. Such a tactic worked well for Vietnam.
Indeed, the timing is suspect. The NIG is expected to be launched next year, which in mid-2022 will see local elections, and general elections in 2023. The ruling party dissolved its only opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017. Leaders are in exile and mostly hindered from returning to the country, not even to face charges in ongoing court proceedings. [Asia Times]
In Thailand, analysts commented that the Thai cyberspace has become highly politicized after the coup, with the addition of legal tools to enable a broad and deep surveillance.
The Computer Crimes Act was enacted in 2007. Already in 2015, a “cyber warfare” unit was founded with the military, and the Technology Crime Suppression Division with the Royal Thai Police. The Ministry of the Digital Economy and Society was established in 2016. According a WikiLeaks documents, the military unit was setup with the help of an online surveillance firm and installed broad tools to collect data. The military was accused in 2016 of buying decryption technology to monitor private communication on social media. A 2017 report claimed hackers worked for the government between 2016 and 2017 to block media sites, WikiLeaks and websites that provide tools for censorship circumvention. A new cybersecurity agency and hacker training center were setup in 2018, further enabling control of online content. In 2019, a “anti-fake news center” was opened in Bangkok, employing 40 full-time staff to monitor and forward discussion in possible violation of the Computer Crimes Act to the Technology Crime Suppression Division. Officers working for the Digital Economy and Society Ministry can request computer data from service providers without a warrant. According to a Comparitech survey on privacy protection published by the end of 2019, Thailand was ranked among the lowest in the world.
In the Malay-Muslim-majority southern provinces the state’s system of surveillance is even more sophisticated, collecting DNA-samples for a DNA databank to fight insurgencies. In 2020, phone numbers were registered using a facial recognition system, and failure to register cut the individual off service. Phones have been used to set off bombs. Later, it was announced that the 8,200 security cameras in the southern provinces could be fitted with a facial recognition system and be run with artificial intelligence (AI) in the future, similar to the system in China. The UN criticized this development in 2020. [The Diplomat]
23 February 2021
Thailand: PM survives no-confidence motion
(nd) Following a second non-successful no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and nine ministers, hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament. The first such motion was in February 2020. The lawmakers took the expected vote after a four-day censure debate. Prayuth’s coalition holds a majority in the lower house. The opposition brought the motion over the government’s mishandling of the vaccine roll-out and economic policies. Over 1.000 protesters, led by United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration, a student group under the umbrella of the broader Ratsadon or People’s Movement, gathered in the evening in front of the parliament, while earlier in the afternoon a group calling itself the “Progressive Red” gathered near the Democracy Monument. [Reuters] [Bangkok Post 1]
In Khon Kaen, about 300 anti-government protesters gathered to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his cabinet, a new constitution, an overhaul of the royal institution as well as the release on bail of four leaders of the People’s Movement now being detained at the Bangkok Remand Prison. Among the protesters were members of the Kong-Chi-Mun and Dao Din groups as well as students from various educational institutes, joined by red-shirts from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). [Bangkok Post 2]
16 February 2021
Thailand: Pro-democracy protests resumed
(nd) On Saturday, pro-democracy protest resumed to the streets, covering the Bangkok democracy monument in red cloth and calling for the lese majeste laws to be abolished. Due to a spike in Covid-19 numbers before Christmas, the protest’s momentum slowed down. The bail-less detention of four co-leaders refueled the movement. In the evening, they marched to the Royal Palace, awaited by barricades, barb wires and riot police, who then clashed with protesters. Tear gas cans were found although police denied its usage. Eight were detained, on multiple charges, including defiance of the emergency decree, and 20 wounded. Additionally, the police got under attack for the alleged attacking and beating of a volunteer medic, a video of which trended on Twitter under the hashtag #policebeatingmedic. The protest will be resumed next Saturday.
The pro-democracy movement began in July 2020, with protesters calling for a constitutional and monarchy reform and the resignation of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Once a fierce taboo, protesters are also demanding abolition of the royal defamation law. [Voice of America] [Bangkok Post]
16 February 2021
Thailand: Activists denied bail
(nd) Four pro-democracy activists, Parit Chiwarak, Arnon Nampa, Somyot Pruksakasemsuk and Patiwat Saraiyaem, were denied bail on charges under Section 112 of the Criminal Code. The infamous laws have not been used for two consecutive years but were reinvoked last year in a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. The movement demands reforms to the monarchy, the resignation of prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, and a constitutional reform. Section 112 criminalizes insults to monarchy and carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years. According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 55 activists have been charged under the lese majeste laws, with the four activists being the first to actually be tried. Additionally, it is the first time for a defendant to be held on these charges for such a long time without being granted bail. The trials are expected to start next month. [Voice of America] In support of the protest leaders, protesters took to the streets and banged pots and pans, a move taken from protesters in Myanmar, who in turn used the three finger salute. [Benar News] According to protesters, police used tear gas against protesters. [Khaosod English] The detained activists received support from four academic from Thammasat University and Chulalongkorn University, claiming to represent 255 lecturers at 31 education establishments, calling for their release. [Bangkok Post]
In a potentially groundbreaking move, 44 lawmakers of political opposition Move Forward Party submitted a proposal to amend the lese majeste law. The petitioners argue that “honest criticism of the monarchy” shall be allowed in order to ensure freedom of expression, and the laws shall not be used as a political weapon. Also, only the Royal Household Bureau, and not private citizens, shall be allowed to file lese majeste complaints. The amendment needs a majority vote in the military-appointed Senate and the elected lower house, which also features a majority for the army-backed coalition after the disputed 2019 elections. A rival proposal to stop such amendments was submitted by royalist party Thai Pakdee, signed by more than 100,000 people. More than 58 activists are currently being charged under lese majeste laws. [Chiangrai Times]
16 February 2021
Cambodia: Illegal workers unable to register, facing deportation
(nd) Cambodian labor rights groups have urged the government to support Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Thailand harbors more than 400,000 illegal immigrant workers. In an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, Thailand has introduced a registration system for workers to obtain a pink card, which so far 120,000 have applied for. The deadline ran out on February 14, now many face deportation or imprisonment. The registration process is rather complicated and costly (around 10,000 baht, U.S. $300), and scammers made it worse for the workers. The rights groups have therefore called for an extension of the deadline. [Benar News]
16 February 2021
Mekong river level remains low
(nd) Reportedly, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to a worrying low, which could at least partly be attributed to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong also contributed to the low level. Level fluctuation affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation, on which nearly 70 million people rely for their livelihoods.
Last year, China agreed to share dam data with the MRC, and the member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. China notified that following construction the flow will be normalized by January 25. Following a brief rise, the level dropped again in February. [Bangkok Post]
16 February 2021
ASEAN-EU strategic partnership
(nd) The new ASEAN–EU Strategic Partnership, announced in December 2020, not only eradicated the donor–recipient dynamic, but the EU might need ASEAN more than ASEAN needs the EU. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has declared it “no longer a luxury but a necessity”.
Issues of cooperation include the economy, ASEAN integration, COVID-19 responses, sustainable development, maritime cooperation and cybersecurity. But on terms of strategy, they still differ. While both agree on principles like a rule-based international order, multilateralism and free trade, a commitment to human rights and democracy is not a prerequisite for ASEAN.
The EU arguably has pushed more for a strategic partnership than ASEAN did. Still, the EU is a major development partner and ASEAN’s largest donor. For that, the EU might have to focus more on influencing ASEAN norms and values, to shape the partnership according to EU’s terms. It remains unclear whether the EU can reach its goal, to enhance EU security and its defense profile in the Asia Pacific, be granted membership in the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus.
The EU has to first ensure coherence in the bloc’s responses towards ASEAN, and avoid the implication of some members’ unilateral Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific strategies. Also, coherence is needed in relations to the member states of ASEAN. In specific issues, the EU has adopted different stances on member states, such as Cambodia on trade privileges, to Indonesia and Malaysia over palm oil, and stalled FTA talks with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The situation in Myanmar, which both have so far only commented on, can have implications on the future of the strategic partnership. In 2009, FTA negotiations with ASEAN were stalled due to insecurity of how to deal with Myanmar’s human rights record.
Going forward, ASEAN and the European Union will need to find coherence between their values, interregional and regional positions, and divergent interests among their member states. They will have to agree on how to deal with bilateral and regional issues, and how to carve out a space for the new strategic partnership in regional, multilateral and plurilateral arenas. [East Asia Forum]
16 February 2021
ASEAN to have less trust in China
(nd) China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy appears to be unsuccessful, according to a survey by the ASEAN Studies Centre at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. In a poll conducted from mid-November to January with 1,032 people across ASEAN, 44.2% said China provided the majority of help to the region during the Covid-19 pandemic. Still, and despite proactive efforts to secure vaccine deals in the region, 61.5% of respondents said they would choose the US over China in the ongoing US-China rivalry, a rise of 7.9% in support for the US compared to last year. While new possibilities were associated with the incoming Biden administration, many grow increasingly wary of Chinese influence in the region. China was named as most influential economic power in the region by 76.3% of respondents, 72.3% of which voiced concerns thereof. Of 49.1% who named China as the most influential political and strategic power in the region, 88.6% indicated being worried about this influence.
China was also low in terms of trust among global powers: Additionally, some 63% responded to have “little confidence” or “no confidence” that China will “do the right thing” for the global community, rising more than 10% in comparison to last year. Analysts commented, this trust deficit is upward trending. Its economic and military power combined is viewed as a possible threat to sovereign interests. [Nikkei Asia]
16 February 2021
Thailand, China’s Great Wall Motors announces regional production
(nd) Great Wall Motors, a Chinese automobile manufacturer, has announced to build a regional production center for electric vehicles in Thailand. A government spokesman welcomed it as a great honor and commented it correlated the government’s BCG (Bio-Circular-Green Economy) policy, which aims to reduce fossil fuels. The company also donated 500,000 facemasks. [Bangkok Post]
9 February 2021
Water levels on Mekong River along Thai-Lao Border fails to bounce back
(py) End of December last year, Chinese authorities have announced to significantly reduce water levels due to equipment testing at China’s upriver Jinghong Dam. Although the equipment testing was supposed to have ended on 24th January, the water level has not been restored yet. Analysts commented the extreme low might be temporary, with China’s dry season releases usually to begin around this time of year. China has been criticized for creating water shortage for downstream countries, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, through its 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river. China agreed to share its data with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in October 2020. [Radio Free Asia] [Reuters]
9 February 2021
ASEAN, Indonesia to intervene in Myanmar
(nd) Following a bilateral meeting, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced to talk to current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Brunei, to convene a special meeting on the coup in Myanmar.
While ASEAN disposes of a Human Rights Declaration and the Charter calls for the strengthening of democracy, good governance and rule of law, at its core understanding lie the overarching principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Since democracy as such is no prerequisite for the membership in the bloc, its backsliding does not warrant for a response. Such is mimicked in the statement by ASEAN chair Brunei, “noting” the commitment to democracy and the rule of law but calling for a dialogue and the return to normalcy. The Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia referred to the principle of non-intervention and labelled the coup an internal matter. Vietnam called for a stabilization and Malaysia for a discussion to ‘avoid adverse consequences’ of the coup. Indonesia voiced the strongest opposition, referring to uphold the ASEAN charter and use legal mechanisms to resolve the issue. Given the intentionally non-enforceable commitments to democracy in the charter, forging a common stance seems difficult.
Historically though, Indonesia assumed the position of a role model for Myanmar, which according to analysts warrants for a heightened responsibility now. Indonesia itself successfully transitioned from dictatorship to democracy. A significant role within Myanmar’s transition to democracy was assumed by former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Indonesia’s first directly elected president. Besides assisting Myanmar with minority conflicts, drafting of laws and education on democratic institution, the presence of himself and former military allies who turned into democratic reformers were the most obvious message sent. In contrast to current president Widodo, whose agenda is focused on domestic issues, SBY was looking for an international statesman position with a democracy-infused diplomatic agenda. Therefore, some suggested SBY to function as Indonesia’s envoy to Myanmar to advocate credibly for military reforms.
Any intervention in Myanmar is shadowed by a fear of Myanmar gravitating further to China if pressured too much. As well as the muted bloc’s response carries the fear of further coups and authoritarian takeovers in the region. [Reuters] [Benarnews] [East Asia Forum]
9 February 2021
Japan-ADB cooperation agreement on ASEAN energy projects
(dql) In a move to strengthen its footprint in Southeast Asia against China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has reached an agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under which both sides will cooperate on clean energy projects in the frame of the Cleaner Energy Future Initiative for ASEAN (CEFIA), covering areas of renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and other technologies for low carbon energy transition.
Established in 2019, the CEFIA seeks to accelerate the deployment of sustainable energy and low carbon technologies in Southeast Asia. [Modern Diplomacy]
9 February 2021
Thailand: Peace talks with BRN
(nd) After a facilitation by Malaysia, Thailand held online talks with representatives of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Liberation Front, BRN), the main insurgent group in the Deep South, bordering with Malaysia. There was no high-level talk within a year, with the latest one evolving around technical issues of peace talks during the ongoing pandemic. The first direct meeting between Thailand and BRN after years happened early 2020 but was interrupted by the outbreak of the coronavirus. Three days prior to the meeting, a roadside bomb exploded in far-southern, injuring five. The latest lethal attack was on December 7. The insurgency reignited in January 2004, with more than 7,000 people having been killed linked to it. [Benarnews]
9 February 2021
Thailand: Criminal Court revokes decision against Thanathorn
(nd) The Criminal Court revoked its decision with regard to the founder of the Progressive Movement, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Subject was a video containing criticism of the government’s vaccination program, which according to the court’s latest ruling does not violate Section 112 of the Criminal Code. Thanathorn earlier challenged a petition handed in by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (DES) to authorize the removal of the video. The DES is likely to appeal the latest decision. Siam Bioscience received the right to produce AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine in Thailand. The firm was founded by King Rama IX more than a decade ago. [See also AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4, AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]
Meanwhile, United Nations human rights experts condemned the rise in charges under Section 112, highlighting last week’s record sentence of 43 years in prison for a former state employee. Still, dozens of protesters’ charges under Section 112 remain pending. Already late last year, the UN human rights office urged Thailand to amend the law, which was not used for two years but reinvoked in a reaction to protesters criticism of the monarchy. [Bangkok Post 1] [Bangkok Post 2]
2 February 2021
Thailand to deport Burmese migrant workers
(nd) In an effort to contain the recent Covid-19 spike, Thailand deported 158 undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar, with more expected to follow. Despite the central meaning Burmese migrant workers have for the Thai economy, Thailand announced travel restrictions last March forcing thousands of foreign workers to leave the country, with 624 arrest on the Southern border. Following this move, illegal border entries have risen, resulting in arrests of Thai smugglers. The estimated number of illegal migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos is 500,000. End of 2020, the cabinet enacted a program to temporarily legalize such undocumented workers, with nearly 2 million having applied for the two-year extension. [Benarnews]
2 February 2021
Australian-Thailand bilateral relations
(nd) As a joint declaration to enhance cooperation in defense and security, cyber affairs, anti-money laundering and transnational crime, the Australia–Thailand Strategic Partnership was signed late last year. The countries established diplomatic relations in 1952 and were founding members of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. They fought alongside each other in the Vietnam War and managed to establish good relations with Vietnam, mostly through ASEAN, to which Australia became the first partner. During the East Timor crisis of 1999, Thailand was the first Southeast Asian country to support Australia and provide military help. Academic and cultural exchanges remain frequent, with the King of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, who studied at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.
Australia is also involved in regional initiatives, such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), the ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit, as well as a partner to regional counterterrorism initiatives, highlighting their shared geography, as well as similar security threats.
The countries’ interests also overlap with respect to trade and education. Both are founding members of APEC, signed the Thailand–Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) in 2005, the ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA) in 2010, and just recently, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In the current situation, Australia has an interest in political reform in Thailand, according to a recent collaborative Centre of Gravity paper between the ANU and Thammassat University, but moderately so, since Australia overall wants to remain on good terms with Thailand. [East Asia Forum]
2 February 2021
Thailand: Planned summon of Thanathorn’s mother in bribery case
(nd) The mother of opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Somporn Juangroongruangkit, will be summoned by the Crime Suppression Division (CSD) with regards to alleged bribes given to an official at the Crown Property Bureau (CPB).
Somporn was an executive member of the Real Asset Development Company, which manages the disputed Chit Lom land lease. Her other son and brother to Thanathorn, Sakulthorn Juangroongruangkit, is the company’s CEO. He is being investigated in with respect to a separate case. A CPB official and an accomplice were sentenced to three years in prison for taking 20 million baht in bribes and forging documents to enable the company to rent the land without a bidding process. Former Democrat MP Watchara Phetthong complained about the prosecutor’s decision not to indict Thanathorn’s brother in the land lease case. [Bangkok Post]
Thanathorn himself was meanwhile ordered by a court to remove his allegations on social media with regard to the unfair tender process of the production of Covid-19 vaccines, favoring a company which belongs to King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Thanathorn and his Progressive Movement denied the content was illegal and asked YouTube and Facebook to preserve freedom of expression. [See also AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4] [Reuters]
26 January 2021
ASEAN human rights hit by pandemic
(nd) According to deputy Asia director at the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, human rights took a hit amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which highlighted inequalities and vulnerability. Malaysia for instance excluded their 3,5 million migrants and refugees from government aid programs. For a lack of governmental support in Myanmar, some of the overlooked people relied on armed rebel groups for aid instead. In Singapore and partly in Thailand, the virus transmission was blamed on migrants, creating an anti-immigrant sentiment.
Apart from economic differences and hardships, the pandemic allowed to “reinforce” existing policies to target dissidents under the umbrella of health protection, as seen with protesters in Thailand. According to US-based rights advocacy group Amnesty International, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told soldiers and neighborhood leaders to shoot “troublemakers” protesting during community quarantine, furthering the “climate of impunity”, which was set off by his infamous drug on war, resulting in increased killings of activists. In this militaristic atmosphere, police officers were found to have committed abused enforcing stay-at-home orders. [Voice of America]
26 January 2021
Thailand to reject Laos’ report on Sanakham dam
(nd) Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources has rejected Laos’ latest technical report on the Sanakham dam project due to insufficient information on environmental effects and possible compensations for residents. The dam is one of nine large-scale Mekong River mainstream dams forming part of Laos’ economic strategy to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia.” Meanwhile, Laos plans to conduct safety inspections of 79 existing dams on the Mekong. In July 2018, the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoi dam collapsed in, killing 71 people in a flood disaster. The dam projects are controversial, not only with regards to displacement of villagers and environmental effects, but also due to questionable financial and power demand arrangements. [Radio Free Asia]
26 January 2021
German research service of parliament to challenge foreign ministry’s stance on Thailand
(nd) The research service of the German federal parliament, Bundestag, accused the foreign ministry of creating a “lex regis thailandia”, meaning a law specially accommodating for the Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Earlier, the foreign ministry stated the King was not breaching German law and could return any time without a visa. A visa-free entry can be granted, however, to head of states upon invitation, not for private trips. Until he returned to Thailand in October, the King was residing for extended periods in Bavaria. The latest comment of the German federal parliament’s research service might to trigger a new parliamentary inquiry into the matter. [Nikkei Asia] [South China Morning Post]
26 January 2021
Thailand: FBI and Royal Thai Police to enhance cooperation
(nd) In an effort to further enhance criminal prosecution, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Royal Thai Police (RTP) announced to cooperate more on various crimes, including transnational human trafficking and cybercrimes. Past cooperation included the implementation of training facilities, and the creation of the Advanced Law Enforcement Training (ALET) program. The program aimed at enhancing four special, counter-terrorism operation units – Arintaraj, Naresuan, Hanuman and the Special Service Division (SSD) – to deal with special situations. [Bangkok Post]
26 January 2021
Thailand: Opposition to file motion of no-confidence
(nd) A coalition of opposition parties led by Pheu Thai Party filed a motion of no-confidence against 10 cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, which was supported by 208 MPs. Parliamentary officials will take seven days to check the conditions for a constitutional motion, which then will be placed on the House agenda as an urgent matter. [Bangkok Post]
26 January 2021
Thailand: Lese majeste charge against Thanathorn
(nd) High-profile opposition figure and former leader of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was charged under Section 112 for defaming the monarchy. Thanathorn criticized the government for mishandling its vaccination campaign, for the government strategy is almost purely relying on Siam Bioscience company which is wholly owned by the Crown Property Bureau, which manages the king’s personal investment and assets.
The government has ordered 61 million doses AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is manufactured by Siam Bioscience, and 2 million doses of a vaccine made by China’s Sinovac Biotech. Thanathorn argued the deal was non-transparent and Siam Bioscience – as a company with no prior experience in making vaccines – was given an unfair advantage over other companies, instead of negotiating multiple deals to ensure a quick rollout. AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience declined to comment, while a government spokeswoman denied the prosecution was politically motivated. The comments were made at an event by the Progressive Movement titled “Royal Vaccine: Who Benefits and Who Doesn’t?” that was broadcast on Facebook Live, with the group saying section “112 is being used again as a political tool.” [Bangkok Post] [Khaosod English 1]
After the government had sought to indict Thanatorn for lese majeste, the popular opposition politician defended his criticism with no sign of backing down. The minister of heath who also serves as Deputy Prime Minister responded then in for the current government which is used to react rather harsh on criticism to its performance. [Khaosod English 2]
Meanwhile, bail was refused in a historic 43-years-jail sentence for defamation of the monarchy. Between late 2014 and early 2015, the 64-year-old woman shared audio files featuring critical remarks about King Rama IX and then-Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn on the internet. She was facing multiple counts for each share and the lese majeste laws have a minimum penalty of 3 years per count. Her initial sentence of 87 years was lowered to 43 years due to pleading guilty. The activist producer of the content was convicted in 2015 for one count, creating the material, to two and a half years in prison. [Khaosod English 3] See also AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3] [Khaosod English 4]
26 January 2021
Thailand: Early-stage abortion legalized
(nd) Following deliberations in December, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Criminal Code to legalize early-stage abortions until the 12th week when performed by a qualified medical practitioner and in line with the criteria set by the Medical Council of Thailand (MCT).
The MCT states that an abortion can be sought if it threats the mother’s physical and/or emotional health; if the fetus is known to have abnormalities; and/or if the pregnancy is the result of a sexual assault.
A violation of the law is punishable with a jail term of up to six months, a maximum fine of 10,000 baht or both. A more liberal draft by the oppositional Move Forward Party (MFP) was not admitted by the House. [Bangkok Post]
While abortion is a considerable problem from the perspective of more conservative Buddhism, the Thai society faces a high number of underage single mothers who often struggle hard with their situation. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Thailand which normally keeps a rather low public profile condemned the bill as “an immoral law.” [Khaosod English]
26 January 2021
Thailand: New royalist party formed
(nd) After last year’s anti-establishment protests came with unprecedented calls to fully reform the country’s monarchy, a hitherto rather insignificant royalist civil society group has decided to transform into a political party under its former name “Thai Pakdee” (Loyal Thai) “to defend the royal institution”. The leader of the previously informal citizen group, Warong Dechgitvigrom, who will serve as the new party’s leader, has announced that his party considers as its antagonists the oppositional Move Forward Party, and its associated Progressive Movement Group, as well as the anti-establishment protesters, who, he claimed, were out to topple Thailand’s monarchy.
Whereas, most representatives of the anti-establishment protesters would deny this goal in public, their stated reform demands would, however, amount to a complete reform of the monarchy that would turn Thailand from a country with the monarchy as the single most powerful institution into a ceremonial parliamentary monarchy.
The royalist group’s decision to form a political party was criticized by former Thammasat University law lecturer and politician Piyabutr Saengkanokkul from the Progressive Movement group, their declared political antagonist, to inevitably lead to associating the monarchy with domestic politics. [Bangkok Post]
While the argument refers to the constitutional principle that the monarchy shall remain above politics, the oppositional group Piyabutr is belonging to itself seems to struggle for exactly the right to address the monarchy in political discourse. Moreover, to protect the King and the existing monarchical form of government is a constitutionally prescribed civic duty (section 50), which makes it rather unlikely that the argument will prevent the new party from operating. After another oppositional party, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, has been disbanded for fielding a sister of the King as its prime ministerial candidate with the argument this would draw the monarchy unlawfully into politics in 2019, Piyabutr’s argument might, however, not be meant as a valid legal one but as a hint to what the opposition perceives as double standards in the handling of the “above politics” principle.
The foundation of a new royalist party which envisions the active defense of the royal institution against a current challenge as its main goal, might however, provide a double-edged litmus test for the cause it has adopted if the anti-establishment movement gains momentum and traction again in 2021. Until now, active and visibly displayed public support for the goal to counter anti-establishment protests remained rather thin.
19 January 2021
Myanmar ends concession to Thai-led construction consortium
(nd) A consortium which was led by Thai construction company Italian-Thai Development Public Co. Ltd. (ITD) and was to build the Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Southern Myanmar to transform the region into Southeast Asia’s largest industrial complex was notified by the Burmese government of the termination of their involvement due to its failure to comply with the concession agreement and substantial delays. The project site is adjacent to the Andaman Sea and near the Gulf of Thailand, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans and linking the broader regions with each other, and includes a deep seaport to avoid the crowded Malacca strait for the transportation of goods. It is backed by the Thai government and a priority for the National League for Democracy-led government.
The initial agreement with the Italian-Thai Development Public Co. Ltd. (ITD) dates back to 2008 and was scheduled to be completed in 2015, with Japan being involved at a later stage. Following renegotiations between 2016 and 2018, it was agreed upon that ITD received a concession to develop the initial phase, with Japan becoming a third stakeholder. [Irrawaddy] [Asia Times]
19 January 2021
China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”
(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043.
The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership.
Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”
As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]
For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017.
19 January 2021
Thailand: Volunteer guard allegedly abducted
(nd) A 25-year-old volunteer guard for the protest movement claimed to have been abducted and held for 12 hours for questioning inside a van, inter alia about an antimonarchy sign that was erected during weekend. The police said the it was not an action by police forced and was investigating the incident. Protesters accused the authorities of intimidation tactics. [South China Morning Post]
19 January 2021
Thailand: Anti-government protests resumed
(nd) Last weekend, Thailand’s student-led protests have resumed again after some weeks of break and despite the imposition of yet another emergency law to curb the recent (still moderate) spike in Covid-19 cases. Among other issues, protesters criticized the government’s use of the harsh lese majeste laws after at least 42 of their peers have just been charged under the law. Meanwhile, the police chief announced toughening police action against the protesters while two unknown suspects on a motorcycle threw a so-called ping-pong bomb on a group of anti-government demonstrators, injuring four. [Bangkok Post] [Voice of America]
Moreover, a 25-year-old volunteer guard of the protest movement claimed to have been abducted and held for 12 hours for questioning inside a van, inter alia about an antimonarchy sign that was erected during weekend. The police said the it was not an action by police forces and that it was investigating the incident. Protesters accused the authorities of intimidation tactics. [South China Morning Post]
19 January 2021
Thailand: Reconciliation committee to meet for the first time
(nd) This week the government-sponsored reconciliation committee which is tasked with resolving political conflicts as they are reflected most visibly by Thailand’s resuming street protests has met for the first time without any representatives from opposition parties and protest groups, which both reject the committee for whose mission they see no sincere basis. [Bangkok Post]
19 January 2021
Thailand: Lese majeste laws increasingly fielded against protesters, critics
(nd) Prime Minister General (ret.) Prayut Chan-o-cha has urged various state agencies – the Ministry for Digital Economy and Society Ministry (MDES), the Department of Special Investigation, the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD), and the Foreign Affairs Ministry – to intensify and speed up investigations against online violations of the country’s lese majeste laws. Last week, 41 people were charged under the law for insulting the monarchy. A MDES division meanwhile submitted court-approved orders against Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other websites, requesting to suspend public access to 9,192 posts. [Chiangrai Times]
Moreover, a blogger was sentenced to four years and six months for insulting the late King Bhumibol online. Since he had been in prison awaiting trial for an even longer time alraedy, he will, however, not have to serve the sentence any more. The man announced, however, to appeal the verdict. [Khaosod English]
In another recent case, a former civil servant was sentenced to a record prison term of 43 years and six months for the same charges. After the 2014 military coup led by now Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, she shared an audio critical of the monarchy on the internet. Until this recent verdict, a prison sentence of 35 years given in 2017 to a man for a social media posts hold the record of the longest lèse majesté sentence issued in Thailand. [Channel News Asia]
19 January 2021
Thailand arrests Thai police officers accused of smuggling Burmese migrant workers
(nd) Thailand’s deputy national police chief confirmed that at least 33 Thai police officer were involved in human trafficking on the Thai-Myanmar border. They are now facing criminal prosecution.
He added that another eight civilians who are part of the smuggling gang, which transported the migrants to work in a seafood center in Samut Sakhon, the epicenter of a recent outbreak of Covid-19 outbreak. Samut Sakhon hosts many factories employing migrant workers, especially from Myanmar. [Irrawaddy]
19 January 2021
China’s vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia
(nd) After Chinese company Sinovac announced a 78% efficacy rate during its trials of CoronaVac, Brazilian scientists reported a significantly lower rate of 50,4 %, casting doubt on China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” in Southeast Asia. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold for advised use is 50%. Indonesia’s own trials found an efficacy of 63,3%, with Indonesia’s food and drug agency to be the first in the world to approve use of the Sinovac vaccinations. Despite the high numbers and the prominent vaccination of President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian population is rather reluctant to receive a shot due to concerns over safety and efficacy. [Asia Times]
Thailand and the Philippines have also already purchased doses of CoronaVac, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte criticizing Western vaccination makers for their unscrupulous prices. Vaccinations produced by Moderna and Pfizer-Biontech have shown efficacy rates of about 95%, but are more expensive and have to be transported and stored in costly freezers. Besides the price and its availability, buying Chinese vaccinations will potentially bring more general benefits, with China having already announced it will look kindly on purchasers of its products. [Asia Times]
Despite China being the country’s closest ally and economic patron, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last year to only purchase WHO-approved vaccines, which to date doesn’t include any of the at least four vaccinations produced by China, which prompted observers to state that it will take the country until at least mid-2022 to be able to vaccinate more than 60% of its population. The Chinese government and state media downplayed the efficacy results, but they still raised already existing public doubt over the reliability of Chinese vaccinations, and the more general notion of unsafe and hasty production of vaccinations against Covid-19 generally. Yet, early this week Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen accepted a donation of one million Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, contradicting previous pledges. Hun Sen argued amid a Thai Covid-19 case surge, he cannot afford to wait, and referred to the rollout of the vaccine in China, Indonesia, Egypt and Brazil. [Nikkei Asia]
During his visit to the Philippines, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, US$1.34 billion in loan pledges for infrastructure projects and US$77 million (500 million yuan) in grants. Philippine Foreign Minister Locsin, however, also made reference to the South China Sea dispute. According to observers, in light of the incoming Biden administration, the donation and investment in infrastructure was an effort to present itself as a partner to revive heavy-hit economies in the regions. [South China Morning Post]
12 January 2021
Thailand: Anti-migrant sentiment amid second Covid-19 wave
(nd) Following the latest spike in Covid-19 cases in a shrimp market southwest of Bangkok, the high number of migrant workers were blamed for the cause of a second wave in infections. The virus was able to spread quickly in tiny, congested quarters, comparable to ghetto-like living situations among migrant workers elsewhere in the region. The anti-Myanmar migrant sentiment was further pushed by social media postings, amounting to threats and calls not to treat them. Other, however, remind that the workers have been there before the virus outbreak and supported the already struggling Thai economy.
Another factor are Thai human smuggling gangs collaborating with authorities and facilitating illegal entrance. On December 9, the Thai police arrested three Thai human smugglers and nine illegal Chinese migrants in Chiang Rai province. Those gangs are also active in Myanmar and smuggle humans into illicit industries, like gambling, or under slavery-like conditions.
The exact number of Burmese migrant workers is unknown due to the lack of paper documentation, but estimated to about 3-4 million, with additional 1-2 million from Laos and Cambodia, many of whom lost their job and are now stranded in Thailand since their countries will not let them come back due to their possible Covid-19 danger. Official figures in Cambodia and Laos are low, with only Myanmar showing an upwards rising trend with 130,604 confirmed cases and 2,946 deaths as of January 11, with actual figures presumed to be much higher due to testing and treatment mostly happening in major urban centers like Yangon and Mandalay only. With more superior medical facilities than its neighbors, this also poses a risk to Thailand, and gives further fuel to discriminate against migrants and their ongoing victimization. [Asia Times]
12 January 2021
Thailand, China to notify of river flow hold back
(nd) The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and Thailand reported that China notified its downstream neighbors about its holding back of the Mekong River flow at a hydropower dam on the waterway’s upper reaches for 20 days. The water restriction started on December 31 and the newly introduced US-backed monitoring system already asserted that China had failed to notify downstream countries. The cited reason for the holding back was “maintenance of transmission lines” in its electricity grid, with the flow being gradually restored by January 25. Last October, China agreed to share such water data with the MRC. [Bangkok Post]
12 January 2021
Thailand: Red-shirt leader to file charges against online harassment
(nd) Following social media attacks, Jatuporn Promphan, chairman of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), asked the specialized Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) to charge those who posted or shared false information about him, which amounted to more than 200 cases.
During the Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) election in Chiang Mai, Jatuporn openly supported Boonlert Buranupakorn, who was defeated by Pichai Lertpongadisorn, who was backed by the Pheu Thai Party and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Mr Jatuporn said throughout his campaigning he was attacked with malicious comments and false information about him shared online. He was criticized for abandoning the red-shirt movement and siding with the military, as well as accused of switching sides in an attempt to serve the interest of the military . He insisted the UDD’s mission to fight elitism had been passed on to the youth, referencing the student-led protests, and vowed to bring more charges if the online attacks would not stop. [Bangkok Post]
12 January 2021
Thailand: Enforcement of lese majeste law continues
(nd) In conjunction with the march to the German Embassy Bangkok on October 26 to inquire in King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s legal status in Germany, a group of activists answered their summons over complains filed under the “Lese Majeste” law, which are now increasingly used against pro-democracy protesters. The law foresees a prison sentence of up to 15 years and was not used since 2018.
Once a taboo, the pro-democracy protesters have expanded their demands for a constitutional reform to seeking the resignation of the military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and curbing of King’s powers. A total of 41 people have now been charged under Article 112. The government stated protesters had “stirred up hatred” with divisive proposals containing inaccurate information, which was multiplied by the use of social media. [Reuters]
Additionally, officials started charging protesters for posting and providers for hosting content online, which might violate Article 112, according to the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society (MDES). Under the MDES, the specialized Royal Thai Police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) is tasked with identifying violators, which has in the last quarter of 2020 found 638 URLs violating the Computer Crime Act 2007, with 26 accounts responsible for the majority of them, and nine individuals as account holders. Likewise, the ministry pursued legal actions against social media platform providers such as Facebook and Twitter, with a total of 8,443 URLs considered hosting illegal content, with which the platforms only complied partially. The attorney-general already commented he will pursue the case against Facebook after the investigations conclude. [Bangkok Post]
The protests were put on hold over the holiday season, which is likely to remain due to the recent spike in Covid-19 cases. Political analysts commented that the 41 cases are the biggest use of Article 112 since 2017, when 64 were charged under the previous king’s reign, calling it “an unprecedented escalation of legal persecution” in a very short time. [Asia Times]
12 January 2021
Thailand: No-confidence vote initiation planned
(nd) On January 27 Thailand’s largest opposition party, Pheu Thai, plans to initiate the process for a no-confidence debate against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha and his government due to the “the government’s mismanagement” of its Covid-19 response, causing “damage to the country”. As a result of the recent Covid-19 outbreak, the Thai economy could lose 300 billion baht ($10 billion) in the first quarter, with the consumer confidence index dropping for the first time in three months to 50.1 in December. A record low of 39.2 was reached last April during the first wave of the pandemic.
Depending on either a hard or soft lockdown as response, the economy might contract by 11.3% respectively 4%. Prayuth and five other ministers survived a no-confidence vote last year after weeks of debates. [Chiangrai Times]
12 January 2021
Thailand: Tracking app highly recommended
(nd) In an effort to curb the recent hike in Covid-19 cases, five provinces must use the MorChana position-tracking app, stipulated under regulation number 17 of the executive decree for public administration in emergency situations. Consequently, the intentional concealing of information by not using the app could then be seen as obstructing this effort, which foresees a maximum penalty of two years in prison and/or fine of 40,000 baht. The threat, however, was abandoned shortly after the announcement, which prompted an outcry from civil rights and privacy activists. The app requires the user to allow access to GPS locations, camera, microphone, photo gallery, and WIFI usage data, demonstrating, according to activists, how broad the powers of the Emergency Decree can be interpreted. [Bangkok Post] [Khaosod]
5 January 2021
Thailand: Mother of Thanathorn charged
(nd) The mother of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – leader of the Future Forward Party until its dissolution in February – was charged by the Royal Forest Department for unlawfully owning at least 77 plots of forest land in Ratchaburi including 450 rai in reserved forests.
The case was brought by a Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) MP for Ratchaburi and local people who had applied for community forest land rights documents. Following receipts of payments between 2010 and 2013, the department has evidence to prove the 90-rai plot of land that is in a reserved forest. [Bangkok Post]
5 January 2021
Thailand: Further arrests under section 112
(nd) On January 1, the 38th pro-democracy activist was arrested under the country’s lèse majesté law, charged with selling a calendar using the protest movement’s satirical rubber duck symbol to allegedly mock the monarchy. The arrested was a Facebook administrator of a protest group and was bailed out a day later.
The arrest is widely seen as part of a growing crackdown on protesters by the authorities in an effort to contain the unprecedented protests. [Voice of America]
5 January 2021
Thailand: Music video “Reform” blocked
(nd) A music video, which featured pro-democracy movement band Rap against Dictatorship and their song “Reform” was blocked on YouTube following a legal complaint from the government.
All band members are active participants of the ongoing student-led protests, which are depicted in the video. The video, dealing with current problems in Thailand, including politics, social inequality and the right of protesters to seek justice, was first released in November and has about 9 million views.
In 2019 the band was among the three winners of Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. [The Thaiger]
5 January 2021
Thailand: Pheu Thai members to resign
(nd) In an effort to avoid any fallouts of the Election Commission’s (EC) probe into the role of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the local elections in December last year, at least four Pheu Thai Party executives announced their resignation from the party’s board.
Thaksin had sent messages and letter in support of Pheu Thai Party members running in the local elections in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Local election rules require the candidate to submit a list of all campaign staff members to poll officials prior to election day. A person who writes a letter vouching for a candidate is considered as part of the campaign team. Thaksin was reportedly not listed as campaign staff of at least the candidate for Chiang Rai. [Bangkok Post]
5 January 2021
Thailand: Special unit stepping up Legal Action Against Social Media Providers
(nd) In light of the once-tabooed voicing of criticism of the monarchy, Thailand’s Digital Economy and Society Minister has promised to speed up legal action against social media providers in case they do not remove deemed illegal posts timely. The Digital Economy and Society (DES) Ministry obtained court orders to block 8,440 URLs featuring said content in the last quarter of 2020, mostly on Facebook, with some on YouTube, Twitter and other pages, with 5,025 URLs blocked so far.
Meanwhile, the Cybercrime Investigation Bureau (CCIB) was formed as new part of the Royal Thai Police to specifically deal with cybercrimes [Chiangrai Times]
5 January 2021
ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals
(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.
For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.
Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]