Saturday, October 15, 2005

Thailand's southern violence and human rights

In today's Bangkok Post, an excellent observation was made by Charan Ditha-apichai of the National Human Rights Commission in an article entitled "Critics urge govt to listen to southerners":

"...the key to solving the southern violence [is] respect for human rights, and that would not cost a single baht. The government had already spent 10 billion baht on its initiatives for the deep South and [have] been unable to solve the problem...".

Would it be too much to think that PM Thaksin will take this advice on board???

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Friday, October 14, 2005

Shwe Gas Pipeline in Burma

Today, protests are being held at South Korean embassies around the world, as well as at the headquarters of Daewoo, in opposition to the construction of the Shwe gas pipeline from Arakan state in northwestern Burma, through Bangladesh, and onto India. Daewoo heads an international consortium investing in the project.

Protestors fear that the new pipeline will imitate the controversial Yadana gas pipeline and the serious human rights abuses associated with that project, including forced labour, rape, forced relocations, and murder. Given the record of the Burmese military junta, it is hard not to expect the same sort of abuses occurring at other major construction sites, including the Shwe gas pipeline. Increased militarisation of the project area to provide "security" will no doubt result in a marked increase in human rights abuses as the military uses the project as a cover to increase control and dominance of this predominantly ethnic minority border region. Indeed, reports of human rights violations in the project area are already starting to appear.

The project has the potential of becoming the Burmese junta's single largest source of revenue, entrenching dictatorial rule (almost half of government expenditure is tied up in the military) and weakening prospects for democracy and respect for human rights. Needless to say, there has been no consultation process and local communities have no say in the project.

I would have thought that Unocal's recent out of court settlement, in which local Burmese villagers accused the US oil company (now taken over by Chevron, who are facing a similar case in relation to their operations in Nigeria) of complicity in gross human rights violations, would have been enough to deter other companies and national governments from entering into business deals with the Burmese military... To be sure, the villagers' victory is a milestone in the fight for universal human rights, yet the fight must continue.

For further information, check out the following links:

Earthrights International

Shwe Gas Movement (and sign the petition!)


Oilwatch SEA

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14th October anniversary

Today is the 32nd anniversary of Thailand's democracy uprising back in 1973, now called Democracy Day.

Remembering those who died should give us time to reflect on the state of Thailand's democracy today, under attack by the autocratic tendencies of the current Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But also a cause for concern is the political apathy dominating Thai students today compared to those of 30-odd years ago. I find it appalling that so few textbooks mention the incident or give it the coverage that such a significant event in Thai history deserves:

"None of the high school textbooks explained explicitly the political change, considered one of the most significant revolutions in Thailand, said Thamrongsak Petchlert-anan, a lecturer at Rangsit University's Social Innovation College."

An editorial in yesterday's Bangkok Post lamented:

" are we to stoke the fires of democratic passion in our youngsters who, if not utterly consumed with computer war games, have their eyes fixed on reality TV programmes, sending streams of SMS to get their votes counted as if there were no tomorrow."

"...And it is not only about fighting against all sorts of hi-tech gimmicks that keep our children in a comfortable cocoon of passive individualism that divorces them from other people's suffering...It is also about fighting for a proper place for pro-democracy events in our national memory."

"Meanwhile, the powers-that-be continue to suppress our children's questioning minds with a militaristic school system while brainwashing our young into believing that money, material possessions and social status are the ultimate goals in life."

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Terror and the role of the TNI

Since the latest Bali bombings, there have been calls for the TNI to play a greater role in the country's "war on terror". Such a move should be considered very carefully, given the TNI's atrocious human rights record and its own links with terror. Some also view such a move as a setback to the country's reform process, where responsibility for internal security has been handed over to the police.

A recent article published by the Jakarta Post entitled "Military fight against terrorism could be the terror in itself" talks about the plan to reinstate regional intelligence bodies:

"Under the New Order, the military-dominated Regional Coordinating Intelligence Agency (Bakorinda) played a major role in quashing government critics along with the more violent insurgents."

"...[What is] worrying is the return of secret abductions, detention without trial, torture and the extra-judicial killings of those who are deemed militants or a threat to the state."

he irony of Indonesia's transition to democratic rule is that greater freedoms have seen extremist groups flourish. No one wants a return to the dark days of the New Order regime, yet there is huge pressure from Western countries on Indonesia to "crack down" on extremist groups. Will this also result in a crackdown on individual liberties and legitimate dissent, as has been the case in the West?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

ASEAN countries still refused access to Hambali

Two years after Hambali's arrest in Thailand, the US still refuses to grant investigators from various Southeast Asian countries access to the accused JI operative.

Doesn't the US want to strengthen security cooperation in the region? Makes you think what could have been... Even if access would not have led to the arrests of the two "suspected masterminds" of the most recent Bali bombings (who's to know?), in any case it still may very well have prevented them from occurring. Again, who's to know?

"Analysts said Hambali's testimony could have resulted in stronger prosecution cases against militants and given Indonesian investigators a better general overview of how Jemaah Islamiyah operates."

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Chirmsak Pinthong's latest book

I like this guy's line of thinking...

(from today's Bangkok Post)

Chirmsak's latest book blank


The latest publication by Chirmsak Pinthong, a senator whose books have lambasted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is a little more offbeat _ the pages are only about 5cm wide, and blank. Mr Chirmsak said Khwam Dee Khong Thaksin, or "The Good Deeds of Mr Thaksin'', is empty because he wanted the public to fill the pages by writing to his publishing house, Watch Dog Co Ltd, or to parliament, outlining the good deeds Mr Thaksin has done over the years.

He said he would hand out copies of the book to everyone who buys his regular-size paperback at the national book fair at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre, which starts today. The paperback talks about electoral fraud.

"I've been prevented from expressing my views through regular mass media channels, so I will do so through a smaller apparatus,'' he said. "Since I love public participation so much, I will only act as editor and let the public fill up the mini-book, as it is more creative that way. Don't sue me, Mr Thaksin _ I'm afraid,'' he joked. Mr Chirmsak promised to produce a larger book if enough people write in. However, he did not want genuine supporters of the prime minister sending in their praise without providing names and addresses.

"I am giving the public until Nov 5, and I will continue to do this every year until Mr Thaksin is no longer prime minister,'' he said. Khwam Dee Khong Thaksin is the 13th book to be written or edited by Mr Chirmsak since the success of his 260-page Roo Than Thaksin or "Seeing Through Thaksin''.

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Irene Fernandez

Albeit a little belatedly, I would like to congratulate veteran Malaysian human rights activist Irene Fernandez on winning the 2005 Right Livelihood award, popularly known as the alternative Nobel prize.

Fernandez is the founder and director of Tenaganita ("Women's Force"), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur that works tirelessly in promoting migrant worker's and women's rights. She's not very well liked, so to speak, by the Malaysian authorities and in October 2003 was sentenced to one year in prison for publishing "false news" after a high-profile seven year trial. Her movements remain highly restricted.

In her own words (in today's Asia Times):

"We only live once...That is why life is precious for each one of us. Life is nurtured, protected, secured but for more and more people, life is being threatened. As globalization grips us, inequalities sharpen, and the divide between the north and south increases. Poverty is one major factor that threatens life."

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Thaksin's Outbursts #1 - Malaysian Protesters and the UNHCR

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is well known for his emotional outbursts on a range of issues, but especially towards his critics, the media, and civil society in general. Often criticised for his autocratic tendencies, he's famous for his grand declarations of single-handedly solving the country's problems. A classic example is his pledge to end poverty in 6 years, crude populism at its best. When civil society groups such as the Assembly of the Poor offer constructive criticism or make alternative suggestions, Thaksin lambasts them for their audacity in thinking they have a right to participate in national debate on ways to eradicate poverty (see also here). Thaksin, it seems, is a saviour who is never wrong. We do things his way, or do nothing at all.

So I've decided to start an ongoing series highlighting Thaksin's outbursts, which if it weren't for the serious implications for Thailand's hard won democratic freedoms, would be amusing in their outrageousness and absurdity.


Recently, Thaksin has pleaded with people not to talk about the southern unrest, making the usual appeal to patriotism and popular nationalism. Apparently we should look the other way and pretend nothing is going on, while the Thaksin government continues its hardline crackdown while enjoying Royal Decree immunity for its actions.

When Malaysians held a protest yesterday outside the Thai embassy in Kuala Lumpur in solidarity with Thai Muslims, Thaksin was reduced to outright abuse, another favourite trick of his when he hears something he doesn't like:

"Thaksin accused the protesters of being in league with the guerrillas.
“Their movement has clearly shown that they came from the same gang as the insurgents,” he said. “The protesters are supporters and members of insurgent factions, and the activities they carry out are coordinated with the insurgents.”"

And this:

"Thaksin said the protesters “are sympathising with the insurgents instead of feeling pity for innocent Thais who are daily victims of killing”."

And this from today's Bangkok Post:

"He [Thaksin] said the activists belonged to the "same pack of villains'' as the rebels. "Those petitioners are all bandits. I can make the accusation without the slightest doubt. They operate as a gang,'' he said."

Demonising dissent will not work in the long-term. Most people will realise with just a cursory glance that the protestors are sympathising with the innocent Muslim victims of Thai government agression (remember Tak Bai? Krue Se?) and not the insurgents (or are they rebels? or bandits? or villains? or gangs? or guerrillas? or troublemakers?), whose Buddhist victims they obviously also feel pity for.

The UNHCR is also subject of another round of criticism, with Thaksin warning the organisation "not to allow itself to play into the hands of troublemakers." I think the UNHCR has more integrity than that... (see here and here)

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

After Bali, Thailand is on full alert

It seems that Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is finally starting to pull his head out of the sand and realise the "southern insurgency" is no longer (if it ever was) a domestic issue but a regional one:

Thailand goes on full alert

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he put Thailand's major tourist spots on full alert yesterday, hinting of links between Muslim militants in the south of the kingdom and the terrorists who staged the latest Bali bombings.

“We have something (information) that causes us to be very cautious and call a full alert,“ the prime minister said in response to a question about how Thailand was reacting to suicide bombs on the Indonesian resort island of Bali that killed 26 people on Saturday.

Except to say that plainclothes security officials would be dispatched into the tourist areas, Thaksin didn't provide details of the alert or the information which prompted it.
Key tourist spots in Thailand include the island of Phuket, the seaside resort of Pattaya and several sites in the capital.

Thailand is battling its own militants in southern Thailand and Thaksin has so far characterized it as a domestic issue not tied to regional or international terrorism. More than 1,000 people have died since the separatist insurgency erupted early last year.

But the prime minister changed his tune on Monday.

“By (geography) it seems that they are far apart but actually along sea routes Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are close. These people (terrorists) are commuting and rotating around in the region,“ he told reporters. “These people have been moving among these countries for generations. They have close connections and links. Their linkages come from relatives, friends and they used to go the same schools.“

He said the alert was ordered because of such links.

Last week, a security adviser to Thaksin said that Indonesian fighters are involved in the southern insurgency.

“I have warned the authorities concerned several times about Indonesian fighters sneaking into the region but they have ignored it,“ General Kitti Rattanachaya told The Associated Press, saying the militants infiltrated from the Indonesian province of Aceh.

In another recent AP interview, a veteran Thai rebel leader warned that militants from Indonesia and Arab nations might join the Thai fight for a separate Muslim homeland if the government continued a crackdown against the southern Muslims that is provoking a new generation of fighters.

This comes just a couple of weeks after Thaksin launched a thinly-veiled attack on the UNHCR, accusing the organisation of being exploited in connection with the 131 Thai-Muslims who fled to Malaysia, apparently in an attempt by insurgents to "internationalise" the problem.

Decades of economic neglect and cultural discrimination by the central Bangkok government, along with the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Thaksin administration to quell the unrest, have already been more than enough to internationalise the issue. Such government attitudes and actions are bound to be used as recruiting tools to attract marginilsed youth as well as extremists from across the region and further a field. The sooner Thaksin accepts this, the sooner regional security cooperation can increase.

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Asia's poor build US bases in Iraq

I just read an excellent article detailing how poverty and the chance to escape it have lured thousands to Iraq for contracting and labouring jobs. Poor pay, terrible and dangerous conditions, mistreatment...

"But Soliman wouldn’t be making anything near the salaries-- starting $80,000 a year and often topping $100,000-- that Halliburton's engineering and construction unit, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) pays to the truck drivers, construction workers, office workers, and other laborers it recruits from the United States. Instead, the 35-year-old father of two anticipated $615 a month – including overtime. For a 40-hour work week, that would be just over $3 an hour. But for the 12-hour day, seven-day week that Soliman says was standard for him and many contractor employees in Iraq, he actually earned $1.56 an hour."

"But there is also a human cost to this savings. Numerous former American contractors returning home say they were shocked at conditions faced by this mostly invisible, but indispensable army of low-paid workers. TCNs frequently sleep in crowded trailers and wait outside in line in 100 degree plus heat to eat “slop.” Many are said to lack adequate medical care and put in hard labor seven days a week, 10 hours or more a day, for little or no overtime pay. Few receive proper workplace safety equipment or adequate protection from incoming mortars and rockets. When frequent gunfire, rockets and mortar shell from the ongoing conflict hits the sprawling military camps, American contractors slip on helmets and bulletproof vests, but TCNs are frequently shielded only by the shirts on their backs and the flimsy trailers they sleep in."

Trouble is, due to little regulation or oversight, these companies are free to exploit the poor, who do not have the luxury of choice. For them, the money is good and the risk worth taking.

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Khmer Rouge Cafe

I noticed this in yesterday's The Nation newspaper:

"Cambodian tourism officials were Friday investigating a cafe in the capital offering patrons an authentic taste of the food served up during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime."

"The six-dollar deal, listed on an "Unforgettable Menu", include rice water served with some corn with salt on the side, a small bowl of an egg-based dessert served only on the anniversary of the Khmer Rouge winning power, and bael fruit tea, which was served to Khmer Rouge officers each day."

"Hakpry Agnchealy said that her brother wanted to start the restaurant after visiting the museum himself as he wanted to show tourists what life was actually like under the regime: "clothes, food, songs and hairstyles".

Living history.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

China learning the hard way

The cruel irony in China's rapid economic growth is that the free market reforms that have spawned it have created a marked increase in inequality within an obstinately communist political system. Chinese leaders are beginning to realise this as a potential threat to stability and their grip on power, as those discontented at being left behind become increasingly vocal.

A similar story can be told for most countries throughout Southeast Asia, where near-dogmatic promotion of market liberalisation has produced ever-increasing numbers of poor communities. Farmers are being pushed off their land by large agri-businesses promoted by financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, with many heading to the cities, finding monotonous and sometimes dangerous labouring or factory work in "export processing zones". With the Doha round of "development" talks currently underway in the WTO having trade in agriculture high on their agenda, civil society groups fear the situation will only get worse. The upcoming Hong Kong ministerial will be crucial, although agreements on tarrifs and subsidies by the US and EU look as far away as ever. Governments ignore the concerns of the poor when planning for national development only at their own peril.

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Bali attacked again

My heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families and friends of all the victims of the latest terrorist bombings in Bali. To the wounded, I wish you a speedy recovery.

For useful background information, check out the International Crisis Group's "Terrorism in Indonesia" section.

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