How Singapore became a role model in the fight against Zika

First broadcast on AAM 4 November, 2016. First published PRI’s the World 23 November, 2016

When Singapore became the first country in Southeast Asia to report local transmission of the Zika virus this past August, it’s fair to say the region, and the world at large, was surprised.

While it may not be a shock to learn that someone within the hot and humid environs of Southeast Asia had contracted Zika, Singapore was a surprising place for it to crop up.

After all, the tiny island nation has an established reputation for being clean, rich and organized (as well as autocratic). Compared to the region, it’s quite low on mosquitos.

Thanks to a hugely successful program to control mosquito populations, first launched in the 1960s, densities of the insect in Singapore are but a fraction of those in neighboring countries.

Professor Eng Ong Ooi, the deputy director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program at Singapore’s prestigious National University, says the success of control measures is clear from dengue’s tiny prevalence on the island.

He says only 20 percent of the population under age 20 has had a dengue fever infection. In other nearby cities, the prevalence is much higher.

“If you go to Bangkok, if you go to any other Southeast Asian cities, then that number is probably nearer 80, 90 percent,” Ooi says.

Yet paradoxically, Ooi also thinks the small population of mosquitos in Singapore can exacerbate the potential for outbreaks. “Any introduction of a virus, when it hits the small populations of mosquitos the chance of getting an outbreak is actually much higher than anywhere else.”

Combining this with the city-state’s longstanding role as a hub of international trade and finance, Ooi thinks the potential for a Zika outbreak was more pronounced than many accepted.

Singapore’s first cluster was in a small, residential area demarcated by the roads Aljunied Crescent and Sims Drive. Within a month, 298 separate infections were identified in the area.

Outside a small salon at the center of the hot zone, a woman who asked to be identified as Lee has been meeting up to chat with her friends almost every day for years. She says that while she was aware of the outbreak from newspapers and TV, the reality of a Zika outbreak really hit home when she watched patients flow into the clinic across the street.

“So many patients sick,” Lee says, as she begins to scratch herself and mimic feverish shivers. “Here the doctors know so many people, itchy … with fevers.”

Yet despite the potential for an ever-worsening situation, not even two months later, the neighborhood cluster was cleared.

Ooi explains that much of the mosquito control for Zika followed Singapore’s longstanding policies for dengue. On the streets, fogging and fumigation increased markedly. Flyers and public service announcements reiterated calls to remove potential sources of standing water, under penalty of fines. Volunteers made the rounds to ensure nobody could declare ignorance of the problem.

Chiang Heng Liang, Citizen’s Consultative Committee chairman for the region, spoke of going door to door and providing explanatory leaflets on Zika in four languages, as well as passing out free mosquito repellent.

“[In ] any country … the citizens all have to be ready for an emergency or crisis,” Liang says. “You all have to be ready to spring into action. In order to get that going, you have to be a bit more organized.”

After a short pause, he adds the caveat, “but I don’t think there are that many countries that are as organized as Singapore.”

With just over 5 million residents on a single island, it’s easier for Singapore to reach everyone than it is for a country like Brazil, which has a sprawling population of 200 million.

But the swift and successful response of the Singaporean government and grassroots organizations earned the country praise from the highest echelons of public health. The World Health Organization almost immediately called Singapore a “role model” for its handling of Zika.

Professor Eng Ong Ooi, the deputy director of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program at Singapore’s National University.

Credit: Photo by Amanda Mustard / America Abroad.

 

Yet for Ooi, learning from Singapore involves far more than a “copy and paste” of its mosquito control and public health policies.

“I think Singapore is under no illusion that what is done by us can be done by most other countries with dengue or Zika,” he explains, highlighting the small population, hefty legal structures, and a “centralized” government.

“I think the kind of information that is still useful is ‘What works?’ You might have to tweak it, but the strategy is the one to go after.”

For example: “What is clear is that if you go after the larvae and the immature stages of the mosquito that seems to work quite consistently wherever you go.”

He adds that what “needs to go hand-in-hand with this government-based, top-down control is community engagement. … If you don’t change habits then … this cycle goes on and on.”

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Thailand begins a year of mourning after the death of its beloved King

First published with LA Times 14 October, 2016

Thailand awoke Friday to grief and uncertainty as it began a one-year official mourning period after the death of the country’s beloved monarch of 70 years.

The highly revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, died Thursday at age 88 after years of illness and was considered a rare unifying figure in the country’s recent tumultuous history.

A national holiday was declared as leading newspapers and news websites published in monochrome, movies and concerts were rescheduled and all television channels were airing the same tributes to the late king, the world’s longest-ruling current monarch.

State officials and other civil servants were told to maintain an official mourning period of one year. The government asked Thais to avoid wearing bright colors or hold any festive events for 30 days.

The king’s body was moved Friday from Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok to the Grand Palace for a royal bathing ceremony. Lining the procession route, thousands of Thai mourners clad in simple black or white clothing waited patiently beginning in the early morning to pay their respects.

Among those partaking in the bathing ceremony was Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the only son of the late king, who was expected to take over the throne from his father.

But no date has been set for a coronation. The leader of Thailand’s ruling junta, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, told reporters that the crown prince had decided to delay his enthronement to “take time to express sadness with the people nationwide for the time being.”

The delay meant that Thailand was without a king for the first time in 70 years. The head of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulaninda, will act as regent.

Prem and the crown prince have had an acrimonious relationship over the years, sparking further speculation about the king’s succession — talk of which remains a taboo subject due to vaguely worded laws that prohibit any discussion seen as insulting to the monarchy.

Yet in quiet conversations and online forums, the thrice-divorced Vajiralongkorn is widely seen as a playboy ill at ease with the highly public role his Massachusetts-born father played for decades.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders advocacy group released a statement calling on the junta “not to restrict reporting, and not to crack down on all those, including journalists and internet users, who comment on King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s death … and its consequences.”

Thai officials were still grappling with the impact of the king’s death on the country’s economy, 10% of which comes from tourism. The Thai stock market rose more than 4% in morning trading in a sign of confidence in the economy.

Though some establishments in Bangkok closed early after news of the king’s death, in the northern city of Chiang Mai, many businesses were operating as usual. Along the narrow streets, hawkers beckoned throngs of tourists while bars and shops remained open and as brightly lit as the day before.

Some Thais found more personal ways to express their grief.

“I wore black not because of Prayuth [asking it of the people] but because I wanted to show my grief myself,” said Tong, who manages a wine bar in the old square and goes by only one name.

“The king was like my father. I wanted to cry.”

Tong said that although she agreed with the call to avoid loud music during the 30-day mourning period, many neighboring bars were avoiding the more severe prohibitions expected of them in order to continue attracting tourists.

“We rely on them,” she said. “If they come and we are all quiet or closed for long, I think then it’s also not good.

“So we go to our own wats [temples] and pray in private.”

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Bridging the language divide in Thailand’s strife-torn deep south

First published with the Guardian 24 August, 2016

For Ismail Jamaat, a science teacher at Tanjung primary school, going to work can feel like entering a war zone. During the past decade, his government school has endured three firebomb attacks. In 2013, Ismail, along with scores of schoolchildren, witnessed the murder of his friend and colleague Cholathee Charoenchol by masked gunmen in the school cafeteria.

Tanjung is one of more than 1,200 government schools in Thailand’s so called deep south, where a deadly sectarian conflict between ethnic Malay Muslims and their Thai Buddhist countrymen has left more than 6,500 dead since 2004. With nearly 200 teachers assassinated and 300 government schools razed over the past decade, education in the region is a critical issue.

Ismail Jamaat has taught at Tanjung primary school for 29 years, many of them marred by violence
Ismail Jamaat has taught at Tanjung primary school for 29 years, many of them marred by violence.

The segregated nature of education also taps into the deep-rooted grievances that fuel the conflict. Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the deep south identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93% Buddhist overall.

“When you have this feeling that government schools belong to the Thai, and [Islamic schools] are for Patani [the ethnic Malay Muslim population], then what do you think happens?” Ismail asked rhetorically.

He is not alone in believing that the consistent attacks on government schools and their staff are, at least in part, down to the growing divide in the deep south’s education policy, one in which the perception of a threatened Patani identity has stretched to incorporate the language of the classroom.

In an exhaustive 2012 report into the conflict in southern Thailand, the International Crisis Group highlighted the “marginalisation of [deep south] culture, history, religion and language” as a major force fuelling the violence.

The education policy has long embittered the majority Patani-Malay speaking community of Thailand’s four southernmost provinces. As well as consistently producing some of the poorest literacy scores in the country, families in the south see the enforced Thai-language curriculum as an attempt to further marginalise a key facet of their own identity: their own language.

Suwilai Premsrirat, a professor of linguistics at Thailand’s Mahidol University, hopes the pilot programme she launched 10 years ago will provide the long-term solution. The idea itself is simple: integrate the Patani-Malay languages, spoken (at least at home) by 83% of the deep south population, into the classroom.

Written in Jawi, an alphabet based on Arabic script, Patani-Malay languages are completely different from standard Thai. And, unlike in Malaysia, nobody in Thailand is required to learn standard Malay, making the gulf between Thai and Patani-Malay speakers even wider.

With nearly a decade’s worth of research from 16 schools, the results from Premsrirat’s programme, which finished in March, are encouraging. “We consider it a success,” she told Irin. “We want to make it [clear] we respect [Patani-Malay language and culture].”

By Grade 1 (age six to seven), the research showed that on average (across the schools) 58% of the children were scoring 70% or higher in areas of bilingual comprehension, compared with just 18% scoring similar marks in control schools.

By intermingling the various dialects, languages and scripts of the deep south, Suwilai found herself at the heart of the region’s identity conflict. Immediately, she encountered problems from Muslim communities and the central government.

“Some [in the Muslim communities] think this is a way to destroy their Islamic identity,” Suwilai said, referring to the use of Thai characters for Patani-Malay words in kindergarten.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Thai government, which originally asked Suwilai to research a programme, became sceptical of her approach once Arabic script was introduced to the curriculum. She recalled an irate call from a man she believed was from the ministry of education. “I got a phone call … he talked a lot, complaining and saying ‘this is not a good idea’.”

But Suwilai and her team are determined to use the promising research to lobby officials so the programme is rolled out more broadly. “They cannot deny the results,” she said.

For the professor, the biggest obstacle will be whether the capricious politics of Bangkok can remain stable long enough for her team to make their case.

The ruling military junta in Thailand has promised elections in 2017 but the country is being torn apart by a bitter political schism. On one side are the royalist elite, Bangkok’s bourgeoisie, the judiciary and the military, while on the other are loyalists of two former premiers (siblings Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra) from an emerging provincial middle class, supported by the working class, rural voters, and the police.

Four in five of the 1.8 million people living in the Deep South identify as Muslim, in a country that is more than 93 percent Buddhist overall
Thailand is 93% Buddhist but in the Deep South four in five of the 1.8 million people living there identify as Muslim.

If the politicians and the military are not careful, Suwilai worries that the usual machinations in Bangkok will mean a big opportunity is missed to address the ills of the deep south.

Less than an hour’s drive from Tanjung school sits Banbuengnamsai primary school. Palm trees sway outside the windows while in one class a child nervously reads her text out loud to her schoolmates, who occasionally giggle at any mistake. At first glance, it looks like any other government school in rural Thailand.

But as one of the first schools to accept the pilot programme curriculum, the difference with Banbuengnamsai lies in the classroom. In one class the children practise their handwriting, but instead of Thai, the script is Arabic. Above the whiteboard, a photo of the Thai flag is flanked on one side by the obligatory portrait of the Thai king, but on the other by a photo of the Ka’ba, the holiest site in Islam.

Mrs Hareena, a teacher at the school for 11 years, said the change was a shock, at least initially. “At first, I felt so strange to include [Patani-Malay]! Before, we just taught Thai,” she said.

But it did not take long for Hareena to realise the benefits of the new system. “You can see [the students] are understanding better now,” she said.

Now that the programme is officially over, none of the 16 schools from the pilot are obliged to continue with the curriculum, but Hareena is adamant that they should.

“I want to continue from this point on … We should all continue on.”

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Analysis: Thailand shields tourist trade after blasts

First published with Al Jazeera 16 August, 2016

Bangkok – A series of bomb blasts that killed four people and wounded dozens in tourist towns across Thailand last week shattered the country’s carefully crafted image of laid back beaches and gilded Buddhist temples.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but authorities have been quick to deny any involvement by separatists waging a violent campaign in the country’s far southern provinces.

For some analysts, however, the official rejection of separatist involvement is more about protecting Thailand’s booming tourism sector, which accounts for more than a fifth of the country’s GDP, than adopting a considered approach to the investigation.

“The evidence and the rhetoric are completely disconnected,” Anders Engvall, a research fellow at the Stockholm School of Economics, told Al Jazeera.

Engvall, who has conducted research on the Southern Thailand rebellion for more than a decade, said that regardless of evidence, Thai authorities were likely to deny any link with the violence that has plagued the south of the country for more than a decade.

“Even if you have Thai courts sentencing southern separatists for doing something, [the military] will still say they are not involved,” he said.

The southern region, which the country annexed more than a century ago and which borders neighbouring Malaysia, has been battered by 12 years of violence as Malay Muslim rebels seek greater autonomy in a Buddhist-majority country.

Near daily shootings and roadside bombs in the area have killed more than 6,500 people since 2004, most of them civilians.

Yet, police officials say the bombings and arson attacks that hit some of the country’s best known tourist resorts on Thursday and Friday, including Hua Hin, Phuket, Phang Nga and Surat Thani, were orchestrated by a single perpetrator.

“I can assure you that these current attacks aren’t linked to incidents that have occurred in the Deep South of Thailand,” Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a deputy national police chief, told reporters days after the attacks.

On Monday, assistant national police chief Suchart Theerasawat said that, while the bombs used in the attacks “were related and similar to those found in insurgent attacks in the Deep South”, it was too early to conclude there was any link.

A reflexive exclusion of southern separatist groups from the investigation was also motivated by efforts to contain perceptions of the deadly, yet localised, southern conflict, Engvall said.

“The Thai authorities have been very eager to avoid any type of international involvement in the conflict so they do everything possible to prevent UN or Western nations from getting involved in any way,” he said.

Bloody conflict

In 2004, tension in the so-called Deep South between the majority Malay, Muslim population and their Buddhist countrymen, erupted into bloody conflict.

Bombings, shootings and arson attacks are regular events in the three-most affected provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, as well as parts of Songkhla province.

The violence has mostly been confined to the three provinces, and no attack outside the region of the scale and complexity of August 11-12 has ever been linked to armed groups.

Engvall, however, said a recent vote for a new military-drafted constitution, within the context of floundering peace talks with the separatists in the south, could have acted as a catalyst for more audacious attacks.

“They [the separatists] have gone on for 12 years in isolation with little success. In the first 10 days of August, they did 50 of exactly the same type of attacks in the Deep South and no one cared,” Engvall said.

“They have a motive to go outside and aim further north to achieve their political aims.”

The potential push north comes after military statements that the referendum on the constitution, which gives the army more power in how the country is governed, had passed peacefully.

Other Deep South watchers said similarities in the modus operandi of last week’s attacks with those of the fighters were another reason to consider separatist groups.

Of particular interest to analysts was the use of so-called “double tap” explosions, where two bombs in close proximity explode one after another to target emergency workers responding to the first – an established tactic of Deep South separatists.

Instead, officials are laying blame for the attacks on a vaguely defined network conspiring to commit “local sabotage” – phrasing which seems to focus on enemies of the military government who are likely to be aggrieved by the referendum results.

It also indirectly focuses attention on the country’s “Red Shirt” political movement, and those loyal to popular former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thaksin was removed by a military coup in 2006 and his sister, Yingluck, Thailand’s first female prime minister, was removed by the Constitutional Court of Thailand in 2014. The military launched a coup soon after.

While not explicitly named, the Red Shirts have rebuffed the implicit accusations, one leader even threatening defamation lawsuits to anyone trying to link them to last week’s attacks.

Addressing the nation on Friday night, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army commander who now rules Thailand, asked for patience and calm in the investigation.

He discouraged speculation about the possible identity of the attackers before speaking of “bad people” who had been taking action against his government since before the August 7 referendum.

The remarks, again, firmly placed last week’s attack in the context of domestic politics and not the southern insurgency.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist and director at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said there was a need to wait for more substantial evidence before making any conclusions about the tourist town attacks.

But, he conceded, that “there’s a built-in bias to put it to a domestic political problem”.

“Either way we are likely to see more violence, not less,” he said.

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Thailand votes in favour of military-backed constitution

First published with the Guardian 7 August 2016

Thailand has overwhelmingly voted to accept a new military-backed constitution, despite fears among critics that it will undermine the power of the next elected government. The Election Commission of Thailand released its “unofficial” results just hours after the polls closed on Sunday.

With 90% of the votes counted, about 61% of voters had backed the new charter – the country’s 20th constitution since 1932. A 55% turnout fell well short of the 80% the commission had forecast, falling short even of the 57% who voted in the country’s last referendum in 2007.

Wantana Kasetsalee, a Thai parliamentary officer overseeing a polling station in Bangkok’s Ekkamai neighbourhood, told the Guardian there were fewer voters at her station than previous elections, yet she never doubted the outcome, and laughed when asked which way she voted. “Yes! Of course yes, [this constitution is] more useful for the people.”

The commission said the unofficial tally meant some 27.6 million Thais had voted atmore than 95,000 polling stations.

Having taken power in a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had presented the referendum as a major step on its roadmap to “fully functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next government to fight against corruption, while ensuring that the current programme of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning its influence would remain well past its interim tenure.

The NCPO, which toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a coup in May 2014, has stifled the media and banned political gatherings. Ahead of the referendum, political rallies and open discussion about the constitution were banned, and criticism of the draft was made punishable by 10 years in jail. The targeted suppression of no vote campaigners resulted in what Amnesty International called “excessive, unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions.”

On Sunday morning, in the Phaya Thai district of central Bangkok, the interim premier and leader of the NCPO, Prayuth Chan-ocha, cast his ballot before urging the country’s 50 million-strong electorate to follow his lead. “This is about the future of Thailand … let’s create a landslide [turnout] and make history.”

One woman in the crowd interrupted Prayuth, shouting: “Can you manage the country? Can you protect the country?” She was then quickly taken away by security.

Yingcheep Atchanont, a member of the ad-hoc Referendum Watch Network, told the Guardian that while it had concerns, no major voting irregularities had been witnessed by the group. “We have [received] a lot of reports, but they are mostly small things.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said the passing of the constitution “reinforces the trend, not just in Thailand but worldwide, in the popular disenfranchisement with politicians, money politics, corruption”, highlighting both the failures of the old political parties in motivating their supporters, and the NCPO’s spotlight on corruption.

“The military has been astute to capitalise and exploit this popular will against the political class. They’ve had effective propaganda in demonising politicians as being corrupt and corruption being the root of Thailand’s problems,” he said.

Approval for the charter also transfers to an approval of the military junta. “Before [the NCPO] had no popular mandate – they took power by force, and since then they’ve been running on empty,” Thitinan said. “This time, they will claim some legitimacy and go full steam ahead. The danger now is that they will be overconfident.”

Prayuth has promised elections in 2017.

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Thailand constitutional referendum: all your questions answered

First published with the Guardian 3 August, 2016

What’s happening?

On Sunday, 7 August 40.4 million eligible voters in Thailand will head to the polls in a referendum for a new constitution. More than 200,000 police officers will be deployed at 94,000 polling stations on the day.

What is the voting for?

Voters will be asked two questions requiring simple yes-no answers:

Do you accept the draft constitution?

Should the Upper House of Parliament be permitted to join the Lower House in selecting a Prime Minister?

Why has the draft constitution proven so controversial?

Having taken power after a 2014 coup, Thailand’s interim, military-backed National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has presented a constitutional referendum as a major step on their roadmap to “fully-functioning democracy”.

It claims the new constitution will enhance the ability of the next Government to fight against corruption while ensuring the NCPO’s current program of reforms will not be cut short. However, rights groups say the constitution extends too much power to the unelected NCPO, meaning their influence would remain well past their interim tenure.

Among the most controversial provisions is the NCPO appointment of the 250 seats of the Upper House in the next government. Within a bicameral parliament, an NCPO appointed upper house would mean a military-backed delegation are guaranteed a critical role in the next term. Critics say this could open the door for an unelected, military-backed Prime Minister.

What’s the context?

Since Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the country of 67 million has swept through nineteen different constitutions.

When ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup, Thailand entered a tumultuous political period of coups d’etat and elections, shaped along colour-coded lines of allegiance and protest. On one side are the so-called ‘red-shirt’ supporters, who are typically rural, working class groups and mostly back the Shinawatras. On the other side are the ‘yellow-shirts’, typically more urban, middle-class and firmly against the Shinawatras and their proxies.

In 2014 when demonstrations against Thaksin’s sister, then-premier Yingluck, led to her ouster in another military coup, the NCPO has been in charge of guiding the country back to the next democratic elections.

Who are the major players?

Thailand’s military-installed prime minister Prayuth , the man who spearheaded the military coup against Yingluck in 2014, the NCPO, the National Legislative Assembly and, to a lesser extent, former ‘yellow-shirt’ groups have all been pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote.

Two former prime ministers, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra, have publicly rejected the charter. ‘Red-shirt’ associated groups have also rejected the draft, while a number of student activist groups have been publicly campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.

How has campaigning been going?

Officially, campaigning for the referendum has been banned. The reality, however, has been a targeted suppression of ‘No’ campaigners.

On 21 July, a Red-shirt TV station was closed for 30 days, while over the past month, scores of activists and at least one journalist has been arrested under Article 61 of the controversial Referendum Act. The Act forbids any media from spreading “false information” which might influence voters, but also bans the spreading of “violent, aggressive, vulgar or coercive” information by any individual. Critics claim the imprecise, broad wording of the Act permits the targeting of ‘No’ campaigners.

The UN and multiple ambassadors have expressed concern of the clamp-down.

What is the likely outcome?

Thailand’s polls have proven to be as fickle as most, with the majority having the results looking tight with a small majority for the ‘Yes’ camp. However, the same polls also claim a large majority remain undecided.

With exit polling by media effectively banned, the exact results of the elections will have to wait until official announcements are made, up to three days after the event. However, it is expected a general idea of the result should be clear within hours of the polls closing.

What happens next?

A ‘Yes’ vote would allow the military-backed NCPO to claim legitimacy and prepare for elections slated irrespective of outcome for mid-2017. However, in the event of a rejected charter the NCPO would be obliged to offer another option, which could take months. When questioned about the possibility of a ‘No’ vote in the referendum, Prime Minister Prayuth quipped that he would simply write another one himself.

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Thailand Referendum: fears over fair vote as military cracks down on dissent

First published in the Guardian 3 August, 2016

Human rights groups have voiced concern about an upcoming constitutional referendum in Thailand, saying a ban on campaigning and a crackdown on dissent are preventing Thais from making an informed choice and potentially handing an advantage to the military.

More than 40 million voters will head to the polls on 7 August to give their verdict on proposed changes to the constitution that will, if approved, give increased power to the ruling military junta.

However, in the run-up to the vote, the junta passed a new law forbidding campaigning on the issue and also launched a crackdown on activists and the media.

Last month, Amnesty International warned that the Thailand’s controversial Referendum Act, which enshrined a possible 10-year jail sentences for anyone who defies it, was “unjustifiably restricting rights in advance of the referendum”.

More than 20 ambassadors from Europe, US and Canada also issued a public statement last month expressing joint concern about the ruling National Council for Peace and Order’s (NCPO) suppressive actions.

Article 61 of Thailand’s Referendum Act has been specifically targeted for harsh criticism from human rights groups, with its severe penalties applying vaguely to “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth.”

Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Thailand, told the Guardian that such an atmosphere “does not allow Thai voters to make an informed choice.”

In place of open, public debate, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) has instead relied on promulgating summaries of the draft provisions on TV, radio, online and in leaflets.

While they are supposed to be neutral and independent summarisations, Sunai said: “I had the chance to read the publication and it is clearly biased. It is along the lines of NCPO propaganda…In a way the ECT ends up being part of the [vote yes] campaign, while on the other hand we see almost daily suppression of the No vote.”

For Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of local news site Prachatai, the vague remit of the ban on campaigning has hindered her staff members’ ability to effectively report on the constitution.

“Compared to previous votes, this is much different,” she told the Guardian, highlighting a growing sense of fear and self-censorship amongst both reporters and their subjects.

One month ago, Prachatai felt the full weight of the Referendum Act when one of their journalists was arrested and charged while covering the Vote No campaign of the anti-junta New Democracy Movement.

“We are hoping they drop the charge.” Chiranuch said.

Two weeks ago, Peace TV, a TV station supporting the ousted premier Yingluck Shinawatra, was banned from broadcasting for 30 days, thereby missing the immediate build up and aftermath of the referendum.

Despite the strict new laws, some activists are determined to oppose the new constitution.

Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the New Democracy Movement, told the Guardian he is actively campaigning against the constitution, despite the risks.

“The draft process has had no civilian involvement.” He said, referencing the ruling military NCPO appointed drafting committee.

“The main thing it represents is the NCPO, the main thing it will do is prolong the power of the NCPO.”

As a result of distributing leaflets opposing the constitution, Rangsiman and more than a dozen of his activist friends have already found themselves in violation of the Referendum Act and are now facing possible 10-year long prison sentences.

Criticism of the NCPO’s expansive suppression of dissent has been a growing concern since the junta and its leader, prime minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, came into power shortly after Yingluck Shinawatra’s removal in the 2014 military coup.

However, with the long-vaunted constitutional referendum approaching, the NCPO hope a victory deliver a mandate to kick-start their “roadmap to democracy”.

Yet where criticism has been permitted, it has been focused unremittingly on the content of the constitution itself.

Upon the draft charter’s public release in late March, a number of provisions immediately alarmed observers across political divides. Both Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party and their opposition Democrat party have publicly rejected the charter, citing articles which would weaken the elected lower house of parliament while extending the influence of the military.

The junta, meanwhile, has voiced a belief that the draft would provide the country with the means to operate with more stability, while combatting the endemic corruption that plagues the country’s politics.

“[The constitution] essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity,” Sunai said, highlighting the NCPO’s ability to appoint all 250 seats of the Upper House of Thailand’s Parliament. “With [those provisions], it doesn’t matter what else it says about the promotion and protection of human rights because that would not supersede the actions of the NCPO.”

Yet for Rangsiman and the NDM activists, the content of the constitution is almost besides the point. “To be honest, most people are not deciding on the content of the constitution,” he told the Guardian.

“What they are doing is they look at Prayuth and decide ‘Do I like what he is doing, or not?’ That is what this is about.”

 

 

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