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The Great Firewall of Thailand

First published with Al Jazeera America, October 7, 2015

Tucked away in a coffee shop near Central Bangkok, Phannee Naksuk rushed behind her counter, sprinkling cinnamon on the foam of an iced latte that was beginning to wilt. All around, her dozen customers were stuck on smartphones or laptops, their faces illuminated in faint blue light inside the shady shop.

“This is normal,” she said, noting the near silence of her customers. “Some people come in, order one drink and then just sit and work for hours. When I opened up 11 months ago, I knew I had to have Wi-Fi. Customers just expect it now.”

Phannee’s business reliance on a decent Internet connection is part of the reason why she is so troubled by a recent government proposal to alter the very framework of the country’s Internet.

Thailand, whose Internet currently connects to the world wide web through multiple points, or gateways, is now considering consolidating all the gateways into one central government-controlled point. A move, the government says, to allow for easier monitoring and interception of materials deemed inappropriate.

“Why does the government want so much control over the people?” said Phannee.

Last week, as Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, stood to receive the UN’s ICTs in Sustainable Development Award in New York, fierce opposition was already growing at home, as details of the proposed change began picking up momentum online.

News of the proposal had first emerged a week before, after a Thai programmer spotted the development in a legally-binding cabinet order and spread it on social media. The wording and suggestions made in the order are explicit.

In Section 1.2 of the June 30 Cabinet Resolution, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology [MICT] is told it must proceed with “implementation of a single gateway to be used as a device to control inappropriate websites and flow of news and information from overseas through the internet system.”

The proposal has since become popularly known to many in the country as “The Great Firewall of Thailand” in a nod to the strict control that China’s party has over its own Internet services.

By international standards, Thailand’s Internet is already considered heavily policed, with its contentiousComputer Crime Act of 2007 and an estimated 110,000 websites blocked as of 2010. Freedom House stated the country’s internet was “not free” as of 2014.

Opposition voices now state that the latest move indicates an attempt by the government to once again monopolize control of the Internet, a stricter stance that generally held sway before the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) formed in 1998 and began the slow process of liberalizing the country’s Internet.

‘Why does the government want so much control over the people?’

Many netizens are incensed at the proposal, saying that it also opens the door to uninhibited, unchecked censorship, as well as creating a single point of failure, where the entire country’s Internet could go down in one fell swoop. As of Monday afternoon, an online petition opposing the single gateway attracted nearly 146,000 signatures.

Arthit Suriyawongkul, coordinator of the Thai Netizen Network, an Internet freedom advocacy group, said that he’s specifically worried about the possibility of pre-existing legal safeguards being bypassed, leading to unfettered data collection and blocking of information.

“Under the current system, for example, law enforcement has to produce a court order to the Internet service provider [whenever it wants] to block or collect data.” Arthit said. “The proposed single gateway means… [the Government] has a single point of control. With this unchecked power, it is likely to be abused.”

There have been acts of online opposition. Last week the “Anti-CAT Tower Mob” group decided to act, calling on its 129,000-plus Facebook fans to target specific government websites in a simple DDOS (Direct Denial of Service) attack. Thousands of computer users began visiting official government websites while constantly refreshing the page, thereby causing them to crash.

At one point over half a dozen government sites, including the MICT, the Ministry of Defense, and the main government website, were down.

In response to the symbolic cyber-attack, Thai Police announced that those targeting Government sites could becharged under Article 10 of the Computer Crime Act and spend up to 5 years in prison. The website, which allows users to continually refresh websites at preprogramed intervals, was blocked.

A slew of government officials shortly thereafter took to the public sphere in an attempt to allay fears over the proposal.

At a press conference, the Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Uttama Savanayana, stressed that the single gateway was intended to increase Thailand’s competitive edge in the online economic sector.

“The government does not have a plan to implement these things, but just to study it, to look after the youth.” Uttama said. “Don’t worry that Internet freedom will be taken away.”

This statement echoed those made by many other ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Prajin Juntong, who said the Government and MICT “are studying the possibility of this plan, because there is a lot of information flowing in and out.”

Under the current system, for example, law enforcement has to produce a court order to the Internet service provider [whenever it wants] to block or collect data. The proposed single gateway means… [the Government] has a single point of control. With this unchecked power, it is likely to be abused.

Yet these assertions about the single gateway seem to contradict the legally binding order that was made public at the very beginning. Such inconsistencies have only managed to add to the overall confusion on what the status is on the proposed single gateway.

Multiple requests made by Al Jazeera for an interview with a member of MICT were unanswered at the time of publication.

Supinya Klangnarong, Commissioner at the National Broadcast and Television Commission (NBTC, the successor to the NTC), said that all she knew about the proposal was what she had read online or in the news.

“It’s been very unclear from the government itself. As someone working at NBTC, we have not been informed…I haven’t seen any papers or had any meetings.”

She expressed confusion as to why the government would propose the single gateway, considering its recentpledge to become a regional hub for digital economy and the negative effects such a move could have on the private sector.

“I think most of [the private digital companies] may leave or give up. Only some of the industries with close connections to the government would agree to this proposal, but then you hurt diversity and the freedom that you need to thrive.”

At suggestions of the increased efficacy in security and surveillance, Supinya considers it simply unfeasible.

“Even if you go back to a monopoly and make freedom of expression worse, trying to control all the information, it’s just not realistic!”

“In Thailand we have a [saying]: ‘It’s like riding an elephant to try and catch a grasshopper’.”

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The North Coast 500: Scotland’s Answer to Route 66

First published in Quartz, October 6, 2015 – please click the link for photos

The Scottish Highlands is one of the most sparsely populated regions in the world; at 9.1 people per sq km (23.6 per sq mile), it’s less dense than all but a handful of US states (pdf), and all but the northernmost parts of Europe. Now the tourist board responsible for the northern part of the Highlands is promoting the area’s get-away-from-it-all charm by launching what’s being dubbed Scotland’s answer to America’s historical Route 66: The “North Coast 500”.

The move feels like it’s in line with Scotland’s recent bid for independence. The Highlands have always been a draw for tourists, but a large share of them are other Scots (pdf). Getting more outsiders to visit would help the region’s delicate economy in any future bid for secession.

Pro-independence graffiti from the 2014 Scottish referendum. The majority ended up voting “No.”(Amanda Mustard for Quartz)
Starting and ending at Inverness Castle on the North East coast, the NC500 encircles the four counties of the North Highlands on 516 miles (830 km) of existing roads. “It’s not new, but it is new,” explains Quintin Stevens, a board member of North Highland Tourism. “People before would be in Inverness and say, alright we’ll go to the west coast, or we’ll go to John O’Groats, but they would never have said, let’s do the whole coast.”

Driving the route, it doesn’t take long to understand why National Geographic Traveller just just listed the NC500 on its list of 101 things to see and do in the world.

The North Highlands account for one-fifth of Scotland’s area but only 3% of its population. And half of those people are within the Greater Inverness area. Once you leave Inverness, you are truly on your own.

All along the route are relics from the past, from abandoned estates to ruined castles to the ancestral homes of different Scottish clans. At Foulis Castle, just north of Inverness, you can stay the night atop the remains of a 15th-century gun-port tower. The next morning you could be treated to a guided tour, of both the “old dungeon” and the new on-site biomass facility, by none other than the next in line to the thousand-year-old Clan Munro.

Further up the east coast, you’re flanked on one side by a stark shoreline that blends into the North Sea—whose falling oil revenues are one of the big worries for would-be Scottish secessionists—and on the other by the purple patches of heather moors. The Highlands dominate Scottish agriculture, but just 6% of the land is used for crops and fallow; the spongy bogs, saturated soil and harsh rocks make most of it unsuitable for much other than rough grazing.

Yet despite the bleakness of it all, the peculiarly Highland phenomenon of crofting (small-scale farming), which evolved after the turbulent “highland clearances” of the 18th and 19th centuries, is still alive and well. Some 62% of agricultural holdings in the Highlands are smaller than 10 hectares (25 acres), and nearly 18,000 crofts can be found today, mainly in the Highlands and the islands.

The crofters’ sheep and shaggy Highland cattle, free to roam around and occasionally blocking roads, are likely to become the only regular faces you will encounter on the route; you may be lucky even to see the crofters themselves.

Not that there’s any shortage of human contact if you look for it—from the scarecrow festival in Brora, to the “glamping” domes of Loch Tay and the basic port of Ullapool. But even then, there’s an intimate, laid-back feeling to it all, reminiscent of simpler times.

Onwards from the sheer cliffs by John O’Groats, the UK mainland’s northeastern tip, the route turns west along the roof of Scotland before entering the large registration county of Sutherland. Here the vistas are of lochs, empty white beaches and rivers, and the land is punctuated by mountains that shoot a kilometer high, penetrating and shaping the clouds. (The geological similarities between these mountains and the Appalachians in north America were among the early evidence for plate tectonics.)

The arresting remoteness and isolation of the route only truly become apparent when you find yourself suddenly faced with another car. Most of the 516-mile route is a single-lane road. With any quantity of visitors, traffic would be a problem, even with the multitude of “passing places” along the route. Yet while cars are overwhelmingly the dominant mode of transport, it’s still possible to drive for hour after hour without seeing another soul.

Turning back towards Inverness, the stretch of road from the Applecross peninsula in West Ross invites a final breathless drive across the precarious mountaintops, and a stop for a last taste of what is considered some of the finest seafood in Europe, before the road widens and traffic picks up again. After a few days in the Highlands’ other-worldly isolation, it’s easy to see why more people should come—and also to hope that not too many more do.

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Saudi-Thai Relations and the Blue Diamond Affair

First published with Vice News October 2, 2015

Some 25 years ago, a lowly Thai gardener found himself working in a grand palace in Saudi Arabia, half way across the world from his home village. Kriangkrai Techamong mainly tended the lush palace grounds, but every now and again he found himself employed in janitorial duties. It wasn’t flashy, but he was earning more than he would at home and was even able to send a little money back to his family. At the time, his predicament was fairly common. Over 200,000 Thai nationals were working in Saudi in 1989, and millions of dollars a year were being sent home in remittances.

But Kriangkrai himself wasn’t earning that much. So he decided, in either a moment of madness or a poorly planned plot, to make the most of his situation. One night he crawled up through a second story window and into a palace bedroom, busted open a safe, and stole around 200 pounds of jewelry worth approximately $20 million, allegedly among them a highly prized 50-carat blue diamond.

What followed was a twisted tale of heist, assassinations, corruption, and diplomatic acrimony that continues to this day; now referred to simply as the “Blue Diamond Affair.” Last week, Abdalelah Mohammed A. Alsheaiby quietly resumed his post as chargé d’affaires in Bangkok after a year-long protest at what Saudi had considered just the latest injustice stemming from that original heist. Nearly 26 years after Krungkrai’s moment of madness, it’s clear the affair is far from over.

Back at the palace, Kriangkrai stuffed his newly acquired possessions into a vacuum cleaner bag and sent the goods back to Northern Thailand via DHL. Not long after he too left.

Unsurprisingly it didn’t take long for the prince to notice that something was amiss, and after putting two and two together, the Thai authorities were notified of the theft. By this time Kriangkrai was back in his home province of Lampang, and struggling to sell his stolen wares. A local jeweler, Santhi Sithanakan, had caught wind of the incredible collection, contacted Kriangkrai and bought the bulk of the illicit goods at a fraction of their true value.

Kriangkrai was soon after caught by the police, and through him, Santhi the jeweler. Lieutenant-General Chalor Kerdthes, who had led the investigation, headed a delegation to Saudi to return the stolen goods. It seemed the story of a bold and ill-planned heist had come to a swift, but expected conclusion.

Yet upon inspection of the returned jewels, the Saudis noticed two things: most of the gems were fakes, and more importantly, the 50-carat blue diamond was missing altogether.

Meanwhile in Thailand, rumors were spreading in the local press that photos at a charity gala showed a number of bureaucrat wives with new diamond necklaces: necklaces bearing a striking resemblance to those stolen from the palace. This was the start of Saudi’s assertion that Thai police and the elites had siphoned off the jewels for themselves.

Riyadh acted quickly, dispatching three diplomats and a businessman with close ties to the Saudi royal family, Mohammad al-Ruwaili, to investigate. On February 1, 1990, the three diplomats were assassinated in Bangkok. Just a few days later, al-Ruwaili went missing, presumed murdered.

While links are often drawn between the jewelery theft investigation and the four murders, a classified 2010 US cable sent from Bangkok stated that the Saudi diplomat murders were “almost certainly… part of a Saudi feud with Hezbollah.”

Yet the Saudis, while acknowledging the possible Hezbollah link, nonetheless suspected that Thai police were involved with the murders. Riyadh quickly reduced the number of Thai workers in the country. From over 200,000 Thai nationals in 1989, mass deportation meant there were just 10,000 by 1991. At the same time, Saudi all but stopped trade between the two countries, and they downgraded their diplomatic relations and recalled their ambassador, instead sending over the straight-talking and tenacious chargé d’affaires, Mohammed Said Khoja, to continue investigating.

Khoja was an incredible character of a man, determined to solve both the mystery of the missing jewels and the murders of his fellow countrymen in the most provocative and outspoken manner. He claimed that whosoever illegally handled the blue diamond would be cursed, a claim which resonated with a lot of Thais, many of whom wear protective amulets and prescribe to similar views of hexes and curses.

He was also unashamedly quick to call out Thailand’s national police. In a 1994 interviewwith the New York Times, he explained that his gun, a chrome-plated .38-caliber Smith and Wesson which never left his side, was for protection not from Hezbollah or ” international terrorists,” but from the Thai police, who were “bigger than the government itself.”

Earlier that year, the wife and 14-year-old son of Santhi the jeweler, were suddenly found dead in a car. The Thai police stated the two had died in a car crash, but Khoja was having none of it. “This was not an accident,” he told the Washington Post. Santhi had earlier reported he had received a phone call telling him his wife and child were abducted, and he had paid a 2.5 million Thai baht ($68,000) ransom demanded for their safety.

Under pressure from the Saudis, the Thai police continued their investigation of the accident and a few months after the deaths, Lieutenant General Chalor, who had led the initial heist investigation, was charged with orchestrating the abduction and pre-meditated murder of the wife and child. With the ransom collected, it appeared that it was easier to just kill them off and stage an accident than risk being identified later on.

Nonetheless, while in prison Chalor maintained his innocence while playing in a band and recording songs, including a Thai cover to Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock. His death sentence was upheld in October 2009 but four years later, he was freed to little fanfare.

As time stretched on and Thailand’s 20-year statute of limitations began looming over the heads of the investigators, pressure mounted. In one final push, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations reopened the case of al-Ruwaili’s disappearance in early 2010, just one month before the 20-year limit and with news of an apparent breakthrough. Five policemen were indicted with al-Ruwaili’s abduction and murder.

So when, in March last year, all five were acquitted due to a lack of evidence, the tension was palpable. “Thai-Saudi relations likely to worsen after murder acquittals” read oneheadline. A member of the Riyadh monitoring committee who was present for the verdicttold reporters, “Saudi Arabia has never even been given clarification on the death of our four diplomats killed in Bangkok, let alone seeing justice served.”

After contacting the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, VICE News was asked to have its questions vetted, and after multiple phone calls no one was made available for comment. Meanwhile, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told VICE News that no comment could be made on “even a broad approach” to the two countries’ relations, as the situation remains “really quite sensitive.”

Such precautions and worry do not suggest the most amiable and open of relations, yet the reinstatement of Alsheaiby does signify that they have at least thawed a little. With Thailand’s economy continuing to flounder, every extra trade deal is a boost, and Saudi, who were the first of the GCC member states to establish full diplomatic relations with Thailand in 1957, would be a major target for Bangkok. Yet without knowing what Saudi’s plans are in the near future, the degree of “sensitivity” needed in speaking on the topic suggests that the 25-year-old saga continues to force a tightrope walk of bilateral diplomacy.

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Malaysia’s Scandal Plagued Prime Minister Just Purged His Cabinet

First published in Vice News July 29

Under mounting pressure over his alleged role in an escalating corruption scandal, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s effort to stifle criticism led him to make sweeping changes to his cabinet on Tuesday, replacing his deputy premier and attorney general among a handful of other officials.

It emerged earlier this month that investigators had reportedly traced almost $700 million dollars in deposits from a government fund called 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) to personal bank accounts that they believe to be connected to Najib. He created 1MDB in 2009 to help attract foreign investment and spur development, but the fund has been constantly plagued by corruption allegations in its short life and is now more than $11 billion in debt.

The prime minister has lately endured persistent calls among the opposition that he resign over the fund’s management, which he oversees as both the head of the Finance Ministry and as the chair of 1MDB’s advisory committee. But on Sunday Najib suddenly found himself being taken to task by none other than his immediate subordinate.

Uneasy about the scandal’s potential impact on the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, which is dominated by Najib’s United Malays National Organization party (UMNO), Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin delivered remarks on Sunday in which he suggested that Najib personally explain the issues surrounding the 1MDB scandal for the benefit of the public.

“We cannot explain properly because even we don’t know the facts. So who is going to tell us the facts? It should be the prime minister, true or not?” he said before a meeting of UMNO delegates.

Though Muhyiddin stressed that he supports Najib, he did not mince words.

“I want to give you a stern warning that if nothing is done now to manage these issues, Barisan will lose” in the 2018 general elections, he said.

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office instructed government officials to refrain from commenting on the scandal.

“All administrative officials including the deputy prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, should wait for the results of the investigation,” it said in a statement. “Rationally, we should avoid making statements that can roil people’s perceptions toward the country’s leadership, government, and UMNO.”

But Muhyiddin found himself replaced the following day in a sudden reshuffle that included the attorney general, who is a key member of a special task force investigating 1MDB.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, speaks during a press conference on the reshuffling of his cabinet. (Photo by Pak Jek/EPA)

“I welcome vigorous debate, and accept and tolerate criticism or even dissent,” Najib wrote in a Facebook post announcing the changes. “However, this process should take place in Cabinet as part of the decision-making process. Members of the Cabinet should not air their differences in an open forum that can affect public opinion against the Government and Malaysia.”

At the same time, he promoted four members of a parliamentary committee that is also investigating the fund to ministerial positions, effectively removing them from the probe.

“The only thing we can infer is that the prime minister is derailing the 1MDB investigation,” Wan Saiful, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a local policy think-tank, told VICE News. “When he chooses to silence his critics rather than answer his critics, then of course people are going to ask even more questions.”

The cabinet shakeup has prompted more calls among the political opposition for Najib’s resignation. The prime minister took down the Facebook post after its comments section was flooded by commenters repeatedly pasting “#najibletakjawatan” (Najib resign), a hashtag that was also trending on Twitter.

It is a theme that influential former prime minister and UMNO leader Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has been regularly promoting in recent months, as he candidly noted again last week on his widely read blog.

“No conspiracy,” he wrote. “Just open declaration to the whole nation that I would like to see Najib cease to be Prime Minister.”

Yet while the government has not yet targeted Mahathir’s blog, other media outlets reporting on the 1MDB scandal have not been so lucky. Najib’s government suspended two publications last week over their coverage of the 1MDB scandal.

Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of the Malaysian human rights organization SUARAM, is concerned that the enforced silence discourages scrutiny and risks misinforming the public.

“This is against media freedom, basic freedom of expression, and against democratic principles,” Sevan told VICE News.

Ibrahim Suffian, program director of the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian opinion research firm, told VICE News that most Malaysians remain unaware of or apathetic to the various scandals afflicting 1MDB. A poll of more than 1,000 voters in March 2015 found that about 70 percent of respondents admitted to knowing “not very much” or nothing at all about the fund.

Following the cabinet drama, rumors have abounded that opposition groups might unite with disillusioned Barisan members and advance a vote of no confidence in parliament — a development that would have been unthinkable prior to Muhyiddin’s removal.

Muhyiddin Yassin, Najib’s former deputy prime minister, waves at a press conference following his dismissal from the government. (Photo by Fazry Ismail/EPA)

Muhyiddin “is still deputy president of UMNO,” noted Wan Saiful. “This is someone who could still attract enough numbers if he wanted to.”

But Dr. Oh Ei Sun, who served as Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011, thinks otherwise. The cabinet reshuffle, he told VICE News, “was an act of consolidation of power and support.”

“By purging the cabinet of those who harbor doubts on 1MDB and by extension his leadership, Najib has thus availed himself of a united front in countering the various allegations hurled by Dr. [Mahathir] and the opposition,” Oh remarked.

He stressed the importance of patronage in Malaysian politics, suggesting that votes can be swayed only by those who are already in power. UMNO has dominated Malaysian politics since independence, after all.

“The recent series of events surrounding 1MDB of course imprint themselves heavily on the political scale and on the social fabric,” Oh conceded. “However, it’s unlikely to affect UMNO’s grasp on power in 2018. As long as UMNO is in a position to disburse benefits and favours to its members and rural folk, its support base will remain rock solid.”

“Plus,” he added, “Malaysians have short political memories and forgive handily.”

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Thai Court Orders Release of Pro-Democracy Activists Who Rallied Against the Junta

First published in Vice News, 7July 2015

This morning, Bangkok’s military court ordered the release from prison of 14 pro-democracy activists who have been held since June 26 for rallying peacefully against the ruling military junta’s coup. Though the court rejected a police petition to extend their pre-trial detention, the student activists still face up to seven years in prison for breaking the junta’s laws against public gatherings and “sedition.”

Human rights groups have criticized the junta’s prosecution of civilians through military courts and had pressed for the release of the group, which is affiliated with the anti-junta New Democracy Movement (NDM). While the release order was a rare promising development, a board member of Amnesty International Thailand has also since been charged with sedition for showing support for the 14 students, while the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is also under scrutiny for its coverage of their demonstration.

The activists led a march through Bangkok on June 25. They stopped at landmarks to the country’s 1973 student uprising and the memorial to the 1976 Thammasat University student massacre before assembling at the capital’s Democracy Monument, where they delivered speeches denouncing the military junta, which is known as the National Council for Peace and Order.

“If we are to be punished by the NCPO, we are willing to accept it,” Rangsiman Rome, one of the activists from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, remarked to reporters at the time. “But our acceptance does not mean that we recognize that our actions are illegal.”

The following day, the 14 protest leaders were arrested, interrogated, and remanded in custody.

On the other side of Bangkok, Supinya Klangnarong and her colleagues at the independent National Broadcast and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) received a formal complaint from the military’s media oversight committee asking that they look into Thai PBS’s reporting on the NDM demonstration.

Speaking to VICE News over the phone, she expressed her initial surprise that Thai PBS of all stations had been cited.

“If you compare media, free-to-air TV stations already exercise a lot of self-censorship and won’t violate the law,” Supinya said, though she acknowledged that political pressure had increased the targeting of media outlets. “There have been a lot more complaints based on political reporting compared to before the coup.”

Authorities have cracked down harshly on dissenting voices since the country’s military seized power from the popularly elected government in May 2014. Hundreds of civilians have since been prosecuted in military courts, many of them university students.

The arrest of seven student activists who protested in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen in May drew the ire of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

“The government should open up space for different opinions and expressions as a genuine democracy cannot be driven by force or suppression,” the organization’s executive director said in a statement.

The arrest and detention of the 14 NDM activists the following month helped prompt a wider backlash among local and international human rights groups.

On July 3, scores of ordinary Thais expressed their solidarity by writing messages of support on Post-it notes along a skywalk in central Bangkok. Days earlier, a group of nearly 300 academics released a statement praising the activists before declaring, “only a tyrant would react using brute force and enforcement of barbaric laws on students using their citizens’ rights to call for reinstatement of internationally-held values and governance.”

In statements released last week, the European Union’s office in Thailand called the arrests a “disturbing development” and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the junta to drop the criminal charges.

“The OHCHR is concerned criminal prosecutions for peaceful assembly and expression that carry long prison terms are not necessary or proportional,” it said.

Yet not everyone feels such sympathy for the activists or their cause. In Khon Kaen, where the seven student activists were arrested in May, some 100 people gathered for the second time in a week to denounce the students detained in Bangkok. Outside the courthouse earlier today, a crowd of pro-democracy supporters roundly booed a middle-aged man who appeared holding up a sign that read: “A good dictator is better than a bad democracy.”

The ruling NCPO has been fairly dismissive of both the international criticism and the activists themselves. Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukontapatipak, the official spokesperson of the NCPO, said that while he understood the objections of international bodies, they “lack a true understanding” of the political context.

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former armed forces commander who was appointed prime minister last August by a parliament that he personally selected, also pushed back.

“Thailand has its own laws to follow,” he said earlier this month. “I’ve not abused my power, nor have I violated anyone’s rights, except for [the rights of] those who refused to play by the rules.”

Despite such bluster, the public relations aspect of the case appears to have had some effect on the decision to release the students from pre-trial detention. Expectations of this were raised after Prayuth himself was recently reported to have said that he had offered suggestions to the “judicial side” on how to manage the case.

“The court’s decision today is just window dressing to reduce pressure,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told VICE News. He sees Thailand continuing to sink further into dictatorship despite the NCPO’s promised “Roadmap to Democracy.”

“Prayuth declared that his orders are the law and violators will be prosecuted in a military court,” Sunai said. “There are rolling repressions on fundamental rights and freedom. Nothing has changed.”

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The Glorious Number One Dish Of Burma

First published in Roads and Kingdoms 19 June 2015

The Glorious Number One Dish of Burma

A trip to Burma can be as expensive or as cheap as you want. To get around the city you could pay a few dollars for a taxi, or just walk, if you don’t mind the crushing humidity.

If you’re traveling further afield, you may want to look at flights, around $100 one way, or perhaps just take a bus for $15. Don’t take any long train rides if you value your sanity/ribs/a linear progression of time. And finally at night, when you’re looking for somewhere to rest your head, you could always stay at the Sule Shangri La for just $355 a night. Alternatively, you could spend $4 a night and sleep in the infamous “Hobbit Cave” of Mahabandoola Guest House.

Choices are a-plenty, and the same divergence applies to food. Yet whereas the others tend to follow some correlation between cost and quality, the same cannot be said for culinary matters.

In my last trip to Yangon, budgetary constraints, which is also just what I call my bank account now, imposed a certain curtailment of my options. I had to eat for cheap. Thankfully, this meant that I was able to enjoy the rather wonderful breakfast option of mohinga.

Wondering around the streets of downtown Yangon in the early morning, it’s hard to miss the mohinga sellers. Almost every corner has a little food stall, and almost any stall with a large metal pot will have it. This is probably because mohinga is cherished as Burma’s national dish, and demand in the morning is high.

“It is number one of course…” This was how one young man sternly responded to my question of where it ranks in Burmese dishes. He seemed genuinely shocked that I had even asked, and I was half expecting him to add “…you idiot.”

A smooth, comforting noodle soup, mohinga is, I recognize, not for everyone. The base, the most important aspect of the dish, is a fish stock that may be too pungent for some. However, the stock varies from stall to stall as each person adds or omits that little something that makes every new plate of the stuff prompt just a flicker of anticipation for the nuanced differences.

At its most basic, mohinga is served with some thin rice noodles, casually grabbed from a large tangle next to the pot of soup, and plopped into the bottom of a small bowl. Next is the soup itself, a mixture of the fish broth, rice powder, onion, and chopped banana stems, which surprisingly retains a touch of its fruitiness. Together, the flavors are delicate and light, perfect for breakfast and thoroughly fulfilling. Oh, and I should add it costs 30 cents a bowl.

So while I may have resorted to Mohinga out of fiscal prudence at the start, that’s not the reason I continued to eat it every morning for a week. The stuff is glorious.

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Saving Rangoon: The Battle for Burma’s Ancient and Colonial Heritage

First published in the Guardian 4th May 2015

For more than two decades Moe Moe Lwin watched helplessly as Rangoon, her home city, transformed beyond recognition.

Pavements vanished and the streets became clogged with cars. Beloved cinemas fell to bulldozers and green spaces slowly disappeared.

“We had walked, played and worked all around these beautiful areas, and they had become totally normal, just a part of daily life,” remembers Lwin. “It’s only really when you start seeing these changes [that] you begin to appreciate what you had and what you have … we have a long history of architecture in Burma and a lot of history attached to these streets and buildings.”

With Victorian and Edwardian buildings still punctuating much of downtown Rangoon, the city serves up a dizzying array of buildings; a decaying reminder of Burma’s unique history of colonial occupation followed by decades of socialist isolationism.

Many are more than a century old, their age written in the fading colours, filigrees of damp, and decades of creeping mould that envelop most exteriors. Some maintain the glorious porticos that provide shelter from the rain and sun, but most were destroyed when the streets were first widened in the 1990s.

Between 1990 and 2011, an estimated 35% of downtown Rangoon was destroyed to make way for new development projects: shopping mall and overpriced condominiums and hotels.

The city as Lwin knew it was at risk, so in 2012 she and a number of like-minded conservationists came together to form the Yangon Heritage Trust, which she now directs.

Over the past three years of preservation and advocacy, the group’s aim has evolved from “focusing just on the old buildings to judging the overall liveability of the city – to inform and have more of a relationship with it.”

Earlier this year Rangoon hosted the country’s first-ever Art and Heritage festival.

With the theme “My Yangon My Home”, the festival gave Rangoon locals the opportunity to visualise their city’s future by looking closer at their history and heritage.

“We wanted to show a different side to [the city]. We used public spaces, old heritage sites for the events, so everyone can see,” says Htein Lin, a Burmese artist and activist who co-curated the festival.

And considering the rapid changes the city has already undergone, Lin also notes the timely nature of the inaugural festival.

“With all this construction and demolition of buildings and public spaces, [this] is such a good time to be sharing information about these things – to let people know what they were and what they can be.”

In a small alley dwarfed by the bright red brick of Rangoon’s supreme court, a steady stream of hungry punters order breakfast at a simple street-food stall.

Hidden in the cool shade of the one-hundred year-old neo-baroque edifice, a 22-year-old engineering student polishes off a bowl of Mohinga noodle soup before contemplating the city’s future.

“We think we need to be New York, or Tokyo, or Bangkok,” says Kyaw, echoing the sentiments of his nodding classmates beside him. “But look around you. Why would we destroy this? We could be like a Rome or a Prague instead.”

While such feelings to preserve Rangoon’s heritage are spreading, they are by no means universal.

An older man at the stall is in favour of development. He points out that Kyaw and his friends are too young to have experienced the stagnant years the country spent under the xenophobic “Burmese Way to Socialism” policy.

“He thinks now we need to catch up with the world,” says Kyaw. “Like this is a race or something.”

Back in her office, Moe Moe Lwin understands the different opinions. “Some people have argued ‘this is British, this is not us’. Even some architects think this, but we have been using these places since the British left us over 60 years ago and we have been using it as we wanted. This is a part of our life – we can’t say this is British or Indian anymore.”

With Rangoon’s infrastructure decaying to a level of near collapse, most inhabitants of the city believe that some serious development is necessary. However, the priorities and degrees of development remain in dispute.

“You need to find a balance between developing and saving what’s important. Your pride in the city should be maintained. The people will love it, and the younger generation will feel pride,” says Lwin.

“This is the balance. If you don’t take care of what you have, then you’ll end up with just another big city.”

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