Tag Archives: NCPO

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.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Religion, Rights

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Religion, Rights, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics, Rights

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics, Rights

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

First published in Vice News, 7July 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Politics, Rights