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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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Bangkok’s Deadly Inter-College Rivalries

First published in Vice News February 6, 2016

Bangkok has a serious student violence problem.

In Thai media, barely a week passes without some mention of bloody brawls between students from the city’s numerous vocational colleges. In 2015, more than 1,000 cases were reported in Bangkok by mid-year, many of them resulting in serious injury and even death.

As the violence has intensified, the issue is now considered a significant public health issue.

Late last month, just a week ahead of the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Rajamangala University of Technology Tawan-ok Uthentawai (simply known as Uthentawai), Bangkok’s metropolitan police preemptively raided its campus and that of the school’s archrival, the Pathumwan Institute of Technology, located a short walk away. The bust produced two handguns and ammunition, 55 knives, six bulletproof vests, and materials for making nail bombs.

On Monday, the day of the anniversary, an incongruously heavy security presence at Uthentawai testified to this darker side of Thailand’s vocational and technical education system. Police officers and military personnel milled about, sniffer dogs patrolled the periphery, and two explosive ordnance disposal technicians stood by the front gate, which was ringed by metal detectors.

Online videos show students from a number of different colleges either ambushing or facing off with one another. They are usually armed with blunt weapons like clubs, but can also have knives and guns. A common setting is along public transportation routes, where students from opposing colleges are most likely to run into one another.

Students have been killed in drive-by assassinations, shot in cold blood on train stations, as well as routinely beaten and chased through the streets of Bangkok. While such a level of violence might seem crazy to outsiders, for those involved, rational thought plays little part in how rival students view one another.

“For me, it was never a question,” explained a former Uthentawai student who left school nine years ago, who asked to be identified as “Gan.”

“If I see someone from Pathumwan, we must fight. And they feel the same towards me.”

Just how the vocational interschool animosity originally started remains a mystery to students and researchers alike.

Nualnong Wongtongkam, a Thai lecturer and researcher in public health at Charles Sturt University, led a team that interviewed 32 students who had been involved in clashes in order to quantify their motivations. Though vengeance figured prominently, it was rarely clear what the students were trying to avenge.

“They don’t know why they have to engage in fighting with other schools,” said Nualnong. “When I ask them why they do it, considering they know there is a good chance they will be injured or maybe even killed, they say, ‘I know that, but if I don’t fight they will chase me anyway, so better to stand and fight.’ ”

Gan recalled his initiation into Uthentawai in 2005.

“This started on day one for me,” he said. “The seniors teach you how to carry a gun, how to conceal a knife from the police, how to love your brothers and how to hate your rivals — especially for us, Pathumwan.”

Once the student is within the fold, he’s among peers whose philosophy is to do almost anything for each other.

“If someone cannot afford tuition, we will all give a little money to help him pay,” Gan offered as an example. “Of course we would also help to pay [bail] if one of our class enforcers is arrested for doing a hit.”

In this culture, it doesn’t take long for the students to build a strong sense of brotherhood. Nualnong thinks this sense of belonging and self-worth is crucial to understanding why vocational and technical colleges have for so long been plagued with hyper-masculine reactive violence.

The perception of vocational colleges in Thailand has long been held as far inferior to that of established universities. The result, she says, is that some students themselves feel inferior and form a strong bond with their classmates, with whom they can readily identify. The resulting insularity is exacerbated by the fact only an estimated 10 percent of vocational and technical college students are female.

But this school spirit in the Bangkok vocational student scene can have an almost tribal effect, with an unquestioning adoption of animosity against rival institutions. This led Gan to regularly change his route when returning home from college, often taking multiple buses even though a direct option was available.

“They [Pathumwan] will watch you for your routes, to know where you live and how you travel after class in case they want to attack,” he said, adding simply, “We would do the same to them.”

An art graduate of Silpakorn University who asked to be identified as “Por” recalled experiencing this menace years ago.

He was having a late lunch after class at a spot near Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s busiest traffic intersections and a major public transportation hub, when he was kicked to the floor from behind. A student from Indara Construction School placed a gun on the table, asking, “Do you want to eat your food, or my bullet?”

“I didn’t know him,” Por remarked with a shake of the head. “But it turned out someone from my school put some graffiti on something of theirs. He saw my uniform and so he picked on me.”

Nualnong’s research has emphasized that the wearing of distinctive uniforms in this hostile atmosphere, as vocational students are required to do, precipitates what would otherwise be easily avoidable fights, particularly on public transport. As a result, there’s a prevalence of anxiety among students traveling alone or in uniform.

Several measures have been considered in an attempt to address the bloodshed, from no longer accepting students with tattoos or piercings, to considering universalizing uniforms or abolishing them altogether, sending rival students to army-run boot camps — even introducing a free student auto repair service, launched by police last month, to occupy their time and keep them out of trouble. But no formal studies have assessed the effectiveness of such provisions.

This should soon change, as the increasing severity of attacks forces officials to respond to the issue more thoroughly and preemptively, beyond the conducting of police raids for weapons. Innocent bystanders and commuters find themselves caught in the fray and risking injury, and the belligerence can also target teachers. “It takes courage and determination to be in our shoes,” remarked a hairstylist instructor at Samut Prakan Vocational College not long ago.

“Now anyone on the streets can be injured from their fighting,” said Nualnong. “It’s not just the students anymore.”

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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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Thailand’s Multimillion Dollar Insect-Farming Sector

First Published on November 21 on Vice Munchies

A rising chorus of chirping crickets greeted Aunt Jai as she lifted the blue mosquito netting off the concrete pens outside her house. Bubbling away with enthusiasm, she quickly pointed out every little detail of her modest cricket farm.

“Those are the breeders… These are the young house crickets… There you can see some of their eggs, if you lift that cassava leaf…” For a 62-year-old, she is shockingly nimble, bouncing around between each of her 15 concrete pens, proudly showcasing the insects that have brought her so much success.

She laughed and made a sweeping gesture to the tens of thousands of crickets around her. “I used to be just a normal farmer!”

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Thailand, like many countries, has a long history of eating insects, or what is called “entomophagy.” But while many of these countries have seen a decline in insect-eaters—due in no small part to insect-eating’s negative portrayal by the West—Thailand’s insect-eating community has actually grown and diversified beyond historical levels, thanks to a changing perception of insects as food.

Today, Thailand is praised by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as “one of the few countries to have developed a viable and thriving insect farming sector” with “more than 20,000 insect farming enterprises … registered in the country.” The sector now constitutes a multi-million-dollar frontier of farming; it is growing so quickly that it continues to outpace academic research and government oversight.

With only two years’ experience, Aunt Jai is among the new wave of Thais entering the insect-farming industry. Yet, unlike some other farmers, she was not aware of its potential, instead setting out with the simple goal of sating her daughter’s cravings.

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“[My daughter] absolutely loves to eat crickets, so I thought I would buy some cricket eggs and try and rear some for her,” she recalled with an incredulous giggle. “I didn’t know what would come next.”

After receiving a small batch of various cricket eggs in the mail, Aunt Jai placed them in a small blue box and, having never been taught how to rear crickets, struggled to raise them through three months of trial and error. Eventually, she made her breakthrough and started rearing several cycles of crickets. Two months later, word of her crickets was spreading in her rural village near Don Chedi, just 80 kilometers northwest of Bangkok.

“People were coming to my farm and asking to buy some of my crickets,” she told me. Aunt Jai immediately realised the potential of her side project. “It cost me 3,000 THB ($91) to start, and after five months I had managed to make back my money, plus an extra 20,000 THB ($610)!”

She quickly invested another 100,000 THB for the 15 large concrete blocks that make up her farm today. “Today I’m making over 20,000 THB selling around 200 kilos of crickets per month. Next year, I want to double the size of my farm and begin selling to wholesalers in Talad Thai.”

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Talad Thai, on the outskirts of Bangkok, is the country’s largest wholesale and retail market, located on nearly 200 acres of land. Walking amongst the hundreds of various wholesalers is a dizzying, glorious exposure to the sheer variety and quantity of foodstuffs available in Thailand.

Mountains of pumpkins shade their wholesalers from the sun, while gourds, lemons, potatoes, and tomatoes line walkways. Onions, forests of green herbs, and bundles of garlic hang off tables. Omnipresent in the humid air is that subtle sting of dried chillies in water and vinegar.

Talad Thai, and markets like it, are a common step in the supply chain of medium- to large-scale insect-farming enterprises. With this one-stop solution, farmers suddenly find it possible to sell in bulk to a wider consumer base. Talad Thai alone generates an average monthly income of over 300,000 THB ($9,150) per month through insects.

Tucked away in one area of the vegetables section is one of the market’s four insect wholesalers. Somnuek, a 54-year-old wholesaler of insects for nearly seven years, has little time to rest as he and his family work hard to serve their stream of customers.

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“After awareness campaigns from doctors and the UN, I’ve definitely seen the number of consumers go up, which has in turn meant there are more farms to meet the growing demand,” he explained before quickly reaching over to a mound of slightly damp, cold silkworm pupae and calling an older passerby. “Eat this! It’s good for your joints, especially your knees.”

Gesturing to the glistening bowls of defrosting insects, Somnuek estimated that when he started his monthly profits were in the thousands. Now he always tops 100,000 THB ($3,050) per month.

“I import from Cambodia and China and export to different Thai communities all around the world,” he told me. “I have even sold 100 kilos of silkworm pupae to some Thai people in the USA.”

Thailand’s northeast Isan region, and to a lesser extent the more southern regions, have historically made up the bulk of the insect-eaters in Thailand. And while they may still constitute a majority of the consumer market, that base is quickly diversifying and expanding as attitudes change.

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Dr. Yupa Hanboonsong, an associate professor of entomology at Khon Kaen University and a co-author of a 2013 FAO report on insect farming in Thailand, puts this change down to a recent effort in increasing the younger generations’ level of comfort with eating insects.

“We have been throwing food fairs, introducing new recipes, serving them in school lunches, putting the food in nicer packaging, exposing [children] to insects in a more positive way,” explained Hanboonsong. “Through this, we change opinions.”

“Fifteen years ago, this was only seen as something the Isan, the poor, and the old would eat,” said Hanboonsong. “Now, recently I saw a child who was 5 to 6 years old eating insects. I went up to her and asked, ‘Why are you eating insects?’ And she looked at me like it was such a weird question to ask! You know it’s normal to her—she’s just eating it like she would a piece of candy.”

Harn, an 18-year-old from Isan who set up his insect stall in downtown Bangkok, is able to make 20,000 THB per month with a 50 percent profit margin. “I knew I could set up anywhere and be OK,” said Harn, who gets his insects from the nearby Khlong Toei market. “Everyone buys here—all sorts of Thais, Chinese, Western tourists. I used to buy and cook them for myself, but I saw that it was becoming more popular, so I decided to sell them.”

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Back in Talad Thai, Somnuek had also noticed the sudden diversity in consumers. “You get all sorts of people buying here now,” he said. “I even had a pretty famous local actress buy from me.”

The unnamed “pretty famous local actress” apparently bought a few kilos of one of the most prized insects —the bamboo caterpillar. In a nearby stall, these caterpillars were selling for 400 THB per kilo—four times the price of the house cricket. Only available seasonally through harvesting in the wild, the bamboo caterpillar is considered one of the more elegant insects to be seen eating, particularly in North Thailand.

Although the FAO estimates that Thailand has some 200 edible species of insect, fewer than a dozen are regularly eaten. Hanboonsong explains that these insects can be subdivided into two groups: farmed insects (such as crickets and palm weevils) and wild-harvested (such as bamboo caterpillars, weaver ants and giant water bugs).

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For the most part, the wild-harvested insects are only available in certain regions, or during specific times of the year, and are difficult to intensively farm. As such, their scarcity drives their prices up to even beyond that of chicken, pork, or beef. With refrigeration usage on the rise, however, more of these insects are available year-round. (Frozen insects are still fine after one to two years.)

While this is positive for the consumers in the short term, it also means that some farmers have an incentive to harvest at unsustainable levels when they are available. Even at the current rate of wild harvesting, populations of both the popular giant water bug and weaver ant eggs are declining.

“We need to have the farmers join into a big group, so that we can ensure they are taught GAPs (Good Agricultural Practice),” explained Hanboonsong. “As well as changing perceptions on eating insects, we have to ensure good practice with wild harvesting and farming.”

After her months of trial and error, Aunt Jai is more than aware of the risks that come with poor farming practice. “I now ensure it’s not too crowded so as to give them space to breathe and to jump. If it’s too crowded, there is more chance that they will eat one another.”

Yet, even with all the caveats that inevitably follow a sprawling sector that bypasses government oversight and outpaces academic research, Thailand has shown that a successful trade in insects is possible, and the rewards are very real for poor, rural farmers like Aunt Jai. “Crickets paid for this farm. Crickets bought my car,” she said, pointing at a relatively new Toyota. “Cricket farming can pull you out of poverty.”

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