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.”

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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.”

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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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Bangkok’s Deadly Bomb Blast

First published in Vice News August 17

A bomb blast ripped through the center of Thailand’s capital Monday evening, killing at least 20 people and injuring over 80 others. The bomb exploded by the Erawan shrine, a popular religious site located in the heart of Bangkok’s teeming shopping district.

“Those who have planted this bomb are cruel. They aim to kill because everyone knows that at 7pm the shrine is crowded with Thais and foreigners,” Somyot Pumpanmuang, Thailand’s national police chief, told reporters. “Planting a bomb there means they want to see a lot of dead people.”

Located at an intersection between two major roads and almost directly underneath Bangkok’s aboveground train system, the shrine is wedged amid several huge shopping centers and a five-star hotel. Thousands of office workers, tourists, and shoppers pass by the immediate vicinity on a daily basis, while hundreds pay their respect at the shrine itself.

First responders and military personnel cordoned off the area shortly after the blast, placing white sheets over the dead. Crime scene investigators and medical staff immediately began scouring the area for evidence and placing markers around suspicious items, while a team of forensic photographers captured every detail of the harrowing scene.

A number of motorbikes were strewn across the street, two almost completely burned by the blast. Chunks of the shrine’s walls littered the intersection, and pools of blood marked with white chalk could be clearly seen from 50 meters away. Body parts were continually being found all around the area, signaled by a rush of police and forensic investigators.

Confusion and chaos still surround the blast, and several medical and military personnel on the scene were unaware of the details and unable to answer questions put to them by VICE News.

“We still don’t know for sure who did this and why,” Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon told reporters shortly after the attack. “The perpetrators intended to destroy the economy and tourism, because the incident occurred in the heart of the tourism district.”

Rumors quickly spread on social media claiming the explosion was the result of a car accident, a motorbike bomb, a car bomb, or several bombs in the area. “It was a pipe bomb… placed inside the Erawan shrine,” the national police chief later told reporters, calling the latest official death toll of 16 “unprecedented.”

Near the Erawan shrine, incredulous Thais and unaware tourists peered past the crowd of police, military, and medical officials toward the blast site. One cordon was positioned so close to the shrine that people in the crowd accidentally kicked evidence markers. Nearly three hours after the explosion, investigators discovered a human foot about 40 meters away from the shrine.

A long-running insurgency in Thailand’s “Deep South” escalated in the early 2000s, but the violence has mainly been contained to that region, and attacks in the capital are incredibly rare. The last major bombing attack in Bangkok occurred in 2006, when a series of bombs killed at least three people shortly after a military coup ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Thai government has cautioned against speculation about who is responsible in the immediate aftermath of the attack, though fingers are already being pointed at loyalists of the former prime minister, and at “ethnic insurgents” in the Deep South.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha reportedly plans to set up a “war room” to coordinate the country’s response to the attack.

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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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