Category Archives: Politics

For a Triumphant Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hard Work Is Just Beginning

First published Vice News, 13 November 2015

The Aung San Suu Kyi landslide in Myanmar is even bigger than forecast. As more results come in following historic general elections last Sunday, her National League for Democracy Party (NLD) has 80.5 percent of elected parliament seats, just two seats shy of the 329 needed to form a majority government, and is likely to get them since only 82 percent of the vote has been counted.

At the state and regional levels, the party led by the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner fared almost as well, winning more than 77 percent of seats announced thus far. But the challenges ahead for a triumphant NLD will be tough. The party will now have to adjust quickly and carefully from its long-held opposition to government – a position in which it will still have to deal with a military faction keen to protect its privilege after decades of ruling through a junta.

The incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party, the military’s political proxy, is facing humiliating losses nationwide, mostly to NLD candidates. From commanding three quarters of the elected seats in the current parliament, it has just 10 percent now. The rout is so bad that, in one particularly surreal case, an NLD regional parliament candidate managed to defeat his USDP counterpart despite the severe disadvantage of having died two days before the vote.

But the country’s first openly contested nationwide poll in 25 years has been anything but a dead-man-winning sham. In fact, the world is congratulating Myanmar for pulling off a remarkably free and fair election, compared to Myanmar’s past.

“This was a hell of a step forward for the democratic process”

The European Union’s chief observer in the country, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, told reporters in Yangon that “the process went better than many of us expected beforehand.” Daniel Russel, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was blunter: “This was a hell of a step forward for the democratic process,” he told reporters.

But, he added, “now comes the hard part.”

For the NLD members involved in negotiation talks with outgoing parliamentarians and the military, the euphoria of election success is quickly fading as the problems of a budding democracy take center stage, particularly over nominations for the next president.

“We can’t shout “Yeah, we win!” because then the loser may get angry and the situation could become a lot harder for us,” Kyi Pyar, 36, an NLD candidate who just won election to the regional parliament, said in her office in downtown Yangon. “I knew during the campaigning that we would win in this constituency. I’m now focused on what is next,” she said.

After decades in opposition, there are worries within the party that the public’s high expectations for an NLD government may lead to impatience when it comes to the capacity for quick and real change.

“I have heard some people say ‘OK, Daw Suu [Kyi] won. I will give [the NLD] one year to see what she can do.’ But our country has been destroyed over the past 50 years!” Kyi Pyar said.

The military that’s been in charge until now still has 25 percent of seats in parliament, an unelected quota mandated by the 2008 constitution drafted under the junta’s regime, and Kyi Pyar fears it may use that influence to “disrupt” the work of the incoming government.

“I think this collision of interests is going to shape the landscape after the election. And through that, the next five years,” David Mathieson, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in Myanmar, said.

“We have to build bridges between the civilian [representatives] and the military,” Kyi Pyar said.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s first political move after the election has been a conciliatory one. On Wednesday, she published a call for “national reconciliation” talks with Myanmar’s army chief, the president and the parliamentary speaker.

“For the sake of the country’s dignity and the well-being of the people, it is paramount that their will, expressed through the November 8 general elections, be fulfilled in a stable, peaceful and correct way. With regards to this, I would like to request a meeting next week that is aimed at national reconciliation,” she wrote on the NLD’s Facebook page.

Shwe Mann, the parliamentary speaker and another high-profile loser in the elections, quickly responded on his Facebook page, saying he’d help facilitate that meeting. Later that day, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s Office released a statement congratulating Suu Kyi’s success in the polls and agreeing to “do what is best in cooperation with the new government during the post-election period.”

The Obama administration, which holds Myanmar’s opening up to democracy as a major diplomatic coup, wants a peaceful transfer of power. It hopes to have strong ties in the future with this resource-rich country of 53 million, with a booming economy and a growing appetite for imported goods.

In a statement after the election, US Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that a “credible” transition was now needed, hinting to reform of the 2008 constitution and the ongoing human rights violations, particularly towards the Rohingya Muslim minority by extremistBuddhist factions.

For newly-minted democratic lawmakers like Kyi Pyar, the next few months will be vital in picking the next president and cabinet, even though the next government will take office only in April next year.

“We have a lot of priorities,” she said. “This [next] government will have a lot of burdens and many are linked together. National reconciliation is important, but so is the next president, so is economic development, so is educational reform, so is reaching peace” in the country’s ongoing civil war.

With so many tricky issues, and despite her awareness of the delicate task of implementing reform while resolving civil-military mistrust, Suu Kyi has remained unequivocal when it comes to the topic of leadership and the next president: She may not reign, but she will rule. Barred from the presidency by the 2008 constitution, she has said before the election that she would be “above the president” in the new Myanmar.

Such rhetoric may prove inflammatory to the military, but Suu Kyi remains the symbol of the struggle against the dictatorship, and the international face of Myanmar, despite recent controversy over her refusal to get involved in the plight of the persecuted Rohingya Muslims. Whatever her role in the country’s new democracy will be, there’s no denying that her party’s stunning victory and the smooth running of the election have been a resounding success for the 70-year old Suu Kyi.

Leafing through a number of newspapers littering her office desk, Kyi Piar let herself smile as she held one with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on the front page. “Maybe”, she said, “I’m just a pessimist.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, elections, Politics, Rights

Myanmar’s First Free Election In Decades All Depends On The Military’s Mood

First published on Buzzfeed News, November 7

YANGON, Myanmar — Daw Kyi Pyar was just 9 years old, but she had followed her father to downtown Yangon, where tens of thousands of students, ochre-robed monks, doctors, street vendors, and others were gathered for a rally.

Not far away, 34-year-old Ko Ba Myo Thein, who worked as a clerk in the agriculture ministry, stood under the shade of the 2,500-year-old Sule Pagoda and shouted slogans against the very government that employed him.

It was August 1988, and those six-week-long protests later became known as the “8888 Uprisings,” the conclusion of which would mark the bloody end to a bloody dictatorship which had ruled the country for 26 years. A new military government would take over just as a new pro-democracy party was formed — the National League for Democracy (NLD) — headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had herself emerged from the uprising as an icon of democratic change in the country.

Kyi Pyar says she remembers the uprising. “I was just a primary school student, how much could I know about democracy and human rights?” she said. “But still, I supported my father and all the people around me in the rally.”

Nearly 27 years later, both Daw Kyi Pyar and Ko Ba Myo Thein now find themselves working side by side in a cramped office, still just a few blocks from Sule Pagoda, but in slightly different capacities — today they stand as NLD candidates in the historic general election that will take place on Sunday.

Nearly 25 years after the last freely contested multiparty elections, the weight of expectations for the Nov. 8 poll has brought international attention to Myanmar and a giddy energy to the small NLD office in downtown Yangon. On the floor, a group of young volunteers sit patiently, waiting to see how they can help. All around them the room is plastered with either the red and gold of the NLD flag or the smiling face of Aung San Suu Kyi.

“She inspired me in 1988 and she inspired me today,” says Ko Ba Myo.

Daw Kyi Pyar is running for a seat in the region’s local parliament, while Ko Ba Myo Thein looks to represent their constituency in the Burmese parliament’s Upper House. Both have strong chances of winning, but they recognize that historical precedence makes no guarantees for a peaceful transfer of power post-election.

Myanmar’s last “free” multi-party election was held in 1990, two years after 1988 uprisings. The results were overwhelming, with then newly formed NLD claiming 392 of the 492 seats. The fallout, however, was just as extreme, as the military government annulled the results, arrested hundreds, and sent thousands more underground.

Aung San Suu Kyi herself would spend 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest — and her peaceful, pro-democratic rhetoric earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

Daw Kyi Pyar remembers that her father, an outspoken and well-recognized activist, was detained on several occasions. “But he was never imprisoned,” she said, hinting at multiple escapes from authorities. “Maybe because he was a very good runner.”

Ko Ba Myo Thein was less lucky. After the uprisings, he found himself becoming more politically active. While continuing his job as a clerk, he befriended a number of student activists, including NLD members. “I thought if I could help the activists from my position, then why not help them?” he said.

In October 1990, and like so many others, the military government discovered his activities and arrested him along with his new activist contacts. Four months later, he was sentenced to seven years in the notorious Insein prison, just north of Yangon.

Now 61, his almost sleepy demeanor and hushed voice belie his history as a political agitator. While in prison, he managed to create so much trouble that his sentencing was extended by another 12 years.

“When I was in prison, I knew I would be politically active,” he says. “I had a lot of time to think and read.”

Not long after his release in 2010, Ko Ba Myo Thein would see his country suddenly open itself to the world after decades under a policy of isolation.

An election that same year was boycotted by the NLD, which led to a quasi-civilian government under the majority Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), mostly made up of old military hands now in civilian garb. But the new government began enacting hard reforms and liberalizing policies that caught the eyes of their regional neighbors and the wider international community.

The government granted amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, allowed some — though not many — journalistic freedoms, and laid the groundwork for the multi-party election that will take place on Sunday.

“This [constitution] is there to guarantee [the military’s] place in our political future”

More than 6,000 candidates from a staggering 92 political parties will be vying for seats in the next government, yet the focus still falls heavily on the two main parties: the military-backed incumbent, the USDP and the longstanding opposition, the NLD.

The sheer numbers involved in these elections have tested the capacity of the country’s Union Election Commission — there have been some chatters about foul play — but for many, the elections carry a promise for the first smooth transfer of power by the ballot box since 1960.

In October, Yanghee Lee, the special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, acknowledged the importance of the historic election, but also highlighted its shortcomings.

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Lee urged the international community to support further reforms in Myanmar. In particular, Lee called attention to 760,000 people with temporary registration cards who were disenfranchised, most of them members of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority.

The disenfranchisement of the Rohingyas comes amid a rising wave of caustic Buddhist nationalism stoked by influential groups like Ma Ba Tha, which proposed and pushed “protection of race and religion laws” that the Amnesty International says are “grossly discriminatory,” particularly to the Rohingyas.

But for both Daw Kyi Pyar and Ko Ba Myo Thein, the most critical issues of the election will come immediately after the election.

“The incoming government would find itself in constant conflict with the military,” says Daw Kyi Pyar, who like many others expects a majority for the NLD. Kyi Pyar believes separating the old military figures from the new political arena will be the most important, and dangerous, hurdle for incoming government.

At the core of the issue is the 2008 constitution. The controversial document guarantees a quarter of the seats to the military, effectively giving unelected military figures a veto on any constitutional amendments, while also barring Aung San Suu Kyi from the presidency.

“This [constitution] is there to guarantee their place in our political future,” says Kyi Pyar. “It’s one of the reasons why I think [the military] are happy to hold these elections, because even if the NLD get a majority, they still have so much power.”

Yet like her idol, Aung San Suu Kyi, Daw Kyi Pyar says that to avoid any dramatic events after the election, conciliatory discussions have to take place between the civilian government and the military contingent, especially once the backroom political intrigue over the nominations for the president takes place.

“It will get very, very interesting those few months after we know the results,” Daw Kyi Pyar says. “Who knows what the military will do?”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, elections, Politics, Rights

Hundreds of Thousands of Citizens Won’t Be Allowed to Vote in Myanmar’s Historic Election

First published on Vice News, November 7 2015

Kyaw Min Tun was just a 15-year-old kid in 1997, but he still took to the streets of Myanmar’s capital Yangon to protest the lack of freedoms in the country, which was ruled by a military junta. The demonstration was inspired and encouraged by a leader who, 18 years later, stands poised to lead the nation that used to be known as Burma.

“We were young and upset. We felt completely ignored,” Kyaw said, recalling the protest he staged all those years ago under the golden shade of the iconic 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. “Only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi understood what we, the students and the youth in general, wanted.”

Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s democratic icon and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. As many as 1,171 races are being contested by more than 6,000 candidates spread among 92 parties in the country’s first openly-contested general election in 25 years on Sunday. The spotlight is on just two parties with the most at stake at the national level: Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and the incumbent military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Assuming the election’s aftermath goes smoothly, it will be the first democratic transfer of power in Myanmar since 1960. For regional neighbors and the international community, the vote is a harbinger of the country’s future.

With so much at stake for Myanmar’s 53 million people, the voting itself will be closely monitored, both locally and internationally. In a written statement, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on rights in Myanmar highlighted issues that called into question the “free and fair” nature of the elections, in which hundreds of thousands of citizens will not be able to vote.

There is also the sudden disenfranchisement of some 760,000 people whose temporary voter registration cards have been scrapped. Most of them are members of the long-persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, who have also found themselves targeted by four “protection of race and religion laws” recently pushed through parliament on a rising wave of rancorous Buddhist nationalism.

Still, after more than five decades of military dictatorship and decades of stagnation under an isolationist, paranoid policy called “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” dramatic reforms have taken place in the last five years. Press freedom has been greatly extended, thousands of political prisoners have been granted amnesty, and foreign investment has started flowing into the country.

‘Everyone talks about the changes that have happened, but I only see positive changes for the rich.’

In the eyes of the US administration, the recent opening of Myanmar is considered a major diplomatic coup, a success of a carrot-and-stick policy of dropping and imposing sanctions. The country’s importance to the US was cemented in 2012 when President Barack Obama became the first-ever American leader to visit the resource-rich country, praising the early reforms but warning, “The flickers of progress must not be extinguished.”

In the quiet grandeur of Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park, Thant Zin Zaw sits under the shade of a small tree. With two electrical engineering textbooks open, his eyes dart across his notes, and with a pen he adds and strikes out sections of text. His demeanor is immediately recognizable as that of a student with an important exam coming up.

“I feel optimistic for my future and that of my country. Maybe 10 years ago [my studying] would all be for nothing, but I feel confident the jobs will come now,” he said. “As we continue to open up, I feel other countries will begin to truly see us as a partner in the international community, and that would help us all so much. Things are changing fast.”

He laughs when he looks down at his phone. “You know how much things have changed? My SIM card would have cost me over $1,000 just 5 years ago, now it’s $1.”

Along with the expanding telecommunications sector, increased construction, imports and tourism have produced visible changes in Myanmar, whose economy grew almost 9 percent a year on average in the 10 years to 2014. Yet disparities between urban and rural areas grow ever larger. The International Monetary Fund recently said “imbalances have increased significantly over the past year.”

It’s a contrast that has not gone unnoticed by Win Shwe Sin. At 50, she calls herself “too old to be important” but she still yearns to feel something positive from her country’s growing wealth.

“Everyone talks about the changes that have happened, but I only see positive changes for the rich,” she said, reclining on the back of a truck by the Five Religions Temple. For 20 years, she has acted as guard for cars, rickshaws, or bicycles parked on her stretch of road, rarely taking a day off.

“If I don’t work, I don’t eat. I still struggle to buy basic food like rice. I only make 4,000 kyat ($3.10) a day. I need to work to feed myself that day,” she said.

She sees the upcoming elections as a way to greater economic opportunities for all. “Not for me, but for my boys,” she said. “It’s about who is best for the poor and the next generation. My vote is NLD and I have high expectations for Daw [Aung San] Suu Kyi.”

The country’s controversial 2008 constitution has managed to survive modification by opposition parties, still guaranteeing the military a quarter of the seats in parliament, and a place in the heart of the governing body for years to come. And because the next president will be chosen by parliament, the armed forces will maintain a say on who leads the country.

The constitution also contains an article barring from the presidency people whose children are citizens of a foreign nation, which includes Suu Kyi, whose sons hold British passports. That would be the case even if the NLD wins, as is widely expected. It’s a blow for many NLD supporters and an argument for those who say the election won’t be completely free and fair, but Suu Kyi herself has remained defiant, striking an almost combative tone at her final press conference Thursday.

When a journalist asked how she would lead the government considering Myanmar has no prime minister, she answered curtly.

“Who said I’m going to be prime minister? The prime minister is below the president,” she said. “I said I’m going to be above the president.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics, Rights

Myanmar’s General Election Will Put Its New Order to the Test

First published in Newsweek US, 20 October 2015 – print edition Oct 30

Kyaw Wanna Soe, a 40-something newspaper distributor in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, was twitching anxiously. While speaking, he wiped his brow and shifted in his chair. It was summer in Yangon, and that unholy union of heat and moisture was reaching a suffocating climax.

It was unclear whether his obvious discomfort was a result of the soaring temperatures or provoked by contemplation of his country’s immediate future. Asked what ambitions he harbored for Myanmar’s upcoming general elections, he meekly responded, “I just hope they happen without any problems.

“There are a lot of tensions right now,” he continued, pointing to front-page images of protesting students. “So if something goes wrong…” His voice trailed off while he surveyed the maze of newspapers littering his shop floor. “I’m worried for my business.”
While many are optimistic about the November 8 election, others are skeptical, worrying that if there are problems with the election, it could undermine the progress made by Myanmar thus far. Such skepticism was fueled by contradictory reports this month from the Union Election Commission—first that the vote would be postponed, then, 12 hours later, that it would go ahead.

For people like Kyaw Wanna Soe, incidents like these are reminiscent of the ruling elite’s capricious past, particularly the 1990 general election. It was considered the country’s last relatively free and fair one, when the newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD) party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 80 percent of the seats in the parliament. In response, the ruling military regime annulled the results, and many of the opposition candidates went into hiding. Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, and the military retained its grip on society for many more years.

For half a century after the military coup in 1962, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, stagnated under a dictatorial and antagonistic policy called “the Burmese Way to Socialism.” It has been only five years since the country began making serious changes, easing up on the hermetic seal that kept it isolated and embracing both regional neighbors and the international community.

President Barack Obama hailed the gradual opening as a diplomatic coup, the result of a “carrot and stick” U.S. policy of dropping or imposing sanctions as Myanmar’s internal situation evolved. In November 2012, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the country, applauding the start of its “dramatic transition.”
Now Myanmar has reached another milestone, in the form of what the government promises will be a free and fair general election. In reality, this will be a test of whether the country moves closer to democracy or remains a military kleptocracy characterized by cronyism.

This time, there are several parties running for the parliament’s upper and lower houses, but most of the attention is focused on the two major ones: the NLD, headed by Nobel laureate Suu Kyi, and the incumbent Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), led by President Thein Sein.

“It’s certainly important, and it’s shaping up to be the fairest and most inclusive [general election] since 1990,” says David Mathieson, the senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Yangon. “But,” he adds, “there are still major caveats that need to be factored in.”

For Mathieson, the lack of reform of the heavily criticized constitution of 2008 is one such failure. It was drafted by the old military junta and passed in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Cyclone Nargis. One of the most contentious points lies in Article 436, which requires a supermajority of more than 75 percent of parliamentary votes to amend the constitution. This point, combined with the fact that a quarter of the total seats are guaranteed to the military, means that the generals enjoy a de facto veto over any constitutional changes.

“I would call this is a 75 percent election, because 25 percent of the seats are guaranteed to the military,” Mathieson says. “They have stated they are the guardian of the constitution…. They have made it very clear they won’t countenance any changes.”

One of the more dramatic signs of that came in August when the USDP ousted party chairman and presidential hopeful Shwe Mann in a surprise overnight move. He had disagreed with other party members over a number of issues, including his willingness for constitutional change.

Another controversial article of the constitution bars anyone with a foreign spouse or child from holding the highest office. Suu Kyi’s late husband was a British citizen, as are her children, and critics interpreted that article as tailored to exclude her.

In spite of the constitutional barrier, Suu Kyi sounds confident. At a campaign rally just north of Yangon, she told the crowd, “Make no mistake: Whoever the president is, I will be the leader of the NLD government.”

There is another big factor weighing against a free and fair election: the many citizens who cannot vote.

There are bureaucratic problems, and the Union Election Commission—which oversees registration, campaigning and polling—is badly stretched, says Myat Thu, director of the Yangon School of Political Science. “I’ve been told by people that names are being repeated [on voting rosters], while others are missing. Sometimes a single name appears five times,” he says.

Meanwhile, several pockets along Myanmar’s border regions are still subject to violence that is part of a conflict between the military and a plethora of ethnic armed groups, now in its 67th year. The result has been the displacement of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of the country’s citizenry, either into camps or as refugees. Some estimate at least 110,000 refugees have fled the country in the past 20 years.

A much-touted two-year-long attempt to reach a nationwide cease-fire has just ended in disappointment, with only eight of the 15 invited groups willing to sign with the government. The various conflicts mean that nearly 600 village districts nationwide will have their voting canceled. “There are far more active conflict areas and displaced people now than in 2010. That should be a sobering assessment,” Mathieson says.

Meanwhile, in western Myanmar, the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, has raised doubts over the sincerity of the government’s transition. Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya citizens, referring to them as Bangladeshis and revoking many of their rights. This has left some 140,000 people displaced and wholly disenfranchised. Earlier this year, there was a surge in the numbers of Rohingya fleeing to neighboring countries, many of them risking their lives on rickety boats run by smugglers. Obama, while praising the country’s “courageous process” of political reform, warned that “Myanmar won’t succeed if the Muslim population is oppressed.”

Myanmar’s political elites, including Suu Kyi, were noticeably silent about the crisis, a sign that sympathy with the Rohingya is not politically expedient in Myanmar. Now the Rohingya face more discrimination than ever, partly as a reflexive response to condemnation from abroad, and partly thanks to the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups like the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, known locally by the Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha.

The Ma Ba Tha, led by hard-line monks, has stoked sectarian tensions, particularly toward the Muslim minorities in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. Last year, it proposed four so-called “protection of race and religion laws” condemning Muslims that were swiftly pushed through the parliament. They garnered huge support across the electorate.

“My view is that [the government has] simply just stood back, allowed [the Ma Ba Tha’s rise] to happen and are now utilizing that sentiment for themselves,” says Mathieson.

In recent months, state media have carried numerous reports of senior government officials making offerings to senior monks. Ma Ba Tha figures have praised government officials for the speedy enactment of the new race and religion laws, while explicitly calling on the movement’s supporters not to vote for the NLD.

Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, has rejected such rhetoric mixing religion and politics as unconstitutional. She told supporters she was focused on reconciliation and building a bright future based on democracy. “The past should be something from which to take lessons,” she said, “not something that ties us to anger and grudges.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, elections, Politics, Religion, Rights

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics, Rights