TIME Thailand

The Military Vows to Rule Thailand Until 2016 and Ramps Up Political Purges

Poompanmuang, chief of Royal Thai Police, stands among antique Buddha statues that were seized during an investigation into Chayaphan, a former commissioner of the Central Investigation Bureau, at a military base in Bangkok
General Somyot Poompanmuang, chief of Royal Thai Police, stands among antique Buddha statues that were seized during an investigation into former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayaphan, at a military base in Bangkok on Nov. 26, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

News comes as Justice Minister announces "indefinite" imposition of martial law

Thailand may be ruled by a military dictatorship until 2016, a senior junta official has revealed. His comment came as a purge of political rivals intensified in the Southeast Asian nation.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, Thai Finance Minister Sommai Phasee said elections “may take, maybe, a year and a half.” Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha had previously vowed to hand power back to the people before the end of 2015.

“Everything depends on the road map, so we must see first if the road map can be completed,” explained Sommai. “Elections take time to organize.”

The news comes after Thai Justice Minister General Paiboon Koomchaya revealed martial law would remain “indefinitely.” He also disclosed that police top brass had been detained for corruption offenses involving tens of millions of dollars.

Former Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) chief Pongpat Chayapan and 16 associates were charged this week with various embezzlement offenses — including operating gambling dens, hording cash and gold, and taking bribes from oil smugglers — as well as insulting the nation’s revered royal family.

Thailand has the world’s strictest law governing lèse majesté, or royal defamation. Under Article 112, sentences range from three to 15 years’ imprisonment and human-rights activists frequently say the legislation is used as a tool of political oppression.

However, it is “quite unusual for lèse majesté to be used against high-ranking police officers — against their own people,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scientist at Japan’s Kyoto University.

Analysts say the latest arrests are evidence of Prayuth fortifying his position rather than tackling corruption. A staunch royalist, the 60-year-old appears to be targeting the institution of the police, which is known to back the powerful family of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

However, others say the purge is more related to the sensitive subject of royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, beloved by Thais, will be 87 on Dec. 5 and is ailing. His heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not command anything like the same veneration.

Bhumibol is also the world’s wealthiest monarch, worth an estimated $30 billion, and many ascribe Thailand’s ongoing political tribulations to jostling for control of this vast treasure chest.

Deposed CIB chief Pongpat is known to be close to the Crown Prince — he frequently wears a pin with a photo of the royal couple’s son, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti — and three of his associates arrested Wednesday are relatives of Vajiralongkorn wife, the Royal Consort Princess Srirasm, including her brother, Natthapol Akkharaphongpricha.

There are many conflicting theories about what is happening. Some suspect it could be a schism within the royal family itself, or even an attempt by the nation’s new leaders to cloister Vajiralongkorn from powerful allies. However, Srirasm comes from humble means — she’s a former waitress — and so the targeting of her kin could be an attempt to expunge the more rakish elements of the Crown Prince’s circle before the succession.

What’s indisputable, though, is that “this is about using Article 112 as a political weapon to undermine political opponents,” says Pavin. “I don’t think this is as simple as being just about corruption, not at this point in Thai politics.”

No matter what the cause, some say the opportunity to root out bad apples should not be missed. “We should take this opportunity to clean up all the corrupt police,” Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former Thai brothel owner now enjoying a coda as an anticorruption politician, tells TIME. “If we cannot trust the top police like Pongpat, then how can we trust the rest of the Thai police?”

That said, there’s little evidence that Thailand’s military government is best placed to administer this remedy. Over the past six months of military rule, habeas corpus has been suspended, strict censorship imposed and hundreds of people threatened and imprisoned for trivial acts of defiance — like giving the three-finger salute used in The Hunger Games movies.

Meanwhile, General Prayuth’s younger brother — assistant army chief Lieut. General Preecha Chan-Ocha — was recently revealed to have amassed $2.5 million in net assets. He has not been investigated.

Asked whether top military generals are also corrupt, Chuwit chuckles nervously. “This is Thailand,” he says, “there is corruption everywhere.”

TIME Malaysia

Malaysian Court Legalizes Muslim Cross-Dressing

A judge called the law 'degrading, oppressive and inhumane'

An appeals court in Malaysia Friday struck down a law prohibiting Muslim men from wearing women’s clothing, calling the ban “degrading, oppressive and inhumane.”

“It has the effect of denying the appellants and other sufferers of GID [gender identify disorder] to move freely in public place,” Judge Hishamudin Yunus said of the ban, according to the BBC.

Though Malaysia technically allows for freedom of religion, many Malaysian states mandate Shari’a law for Muslims and maintains a separate court system to enforce it. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are not readily recognized in the country.

Aston Paiva, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the decision was a significant step forward.

“This will be a precedent. This court binds all other high courts,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

[BBC]

TIME indonesia

New Indonesian President Jokowi Talks Tough With Fading Power Australia

Indonesia's new President Widodo shouts "Merdeka" or Freedom at the end of his speech, during his inauguration in Jakarta
Indonesia's new President Joko Widodo shouts "Merdeka," meaning freedom, at the end of his speech, during his inauguration at the parliament's building in Jakarta on Oct. 20, 2014 Darren Whiteside—Reuters

Indonesia's newfound chest-thumping may simply be a fledgling administration's efforts to win domestic approval, but is nonetheless indicative of shifting powers in the region

Two days before his Oct. 20 inauguration, new Indonesian President Joko Widodo, gave Australia a stern warning not to test the territorial sovereignty of the world’s largest archipelago.

“We will give a warning that this is not acceptable,” Jokowi, as he is widely known, told Fairfax Media in reference to half a dozen incursions into Indonesian waters last year by Australian navy ships turning back boats full of predominantly Middle Eastern asylum seekers. “We have international law, you must respect international law.”

Bolstering Jokowi’s message, Indonesia’s new Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi — the first ever female in the role — confirmed on Wednesday a departure from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s principle of “thousand friends, zero enemies” to national interests first.

“To uphold our political sovereignty, what we must do is preserve the sovereignty of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia,” Retno said at her first press conference. “We’ll do this firmly and clearly.”

The interception one day earlier of a Singaporean passenger aircraft over a well-traveled flight path that cuts through Indonesian airspace may be indicative of Jakarta’s new hard-line stance. Indonesian fighter jets forced the aircraft to land and pay a $4,900 fine — despite protestation from the Singaporean owner, ST Aerospace, that it had been using the route for a number of years without the need for prior clearance from Indonesia’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

However, these messages must be read within the context of Indonesia’s time-honored political melodrama, where tough talk against meddling foreign powers is par for the course. It’s also an easy and predictable way for new administration to score political points on the home front. “I think Jokowi’s warning to Australia was made for domestic consumption rather that advocating a nationalistic tone in foreign policy,” says Philips Vermonte, head of international relations at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

Indeed, Jokowi’s apparent double standards when dealing with Chinese incursions in the fish- and gas-rich waters of the Natuna Islands, on the northwest coast of Indonesian Borneo, seems to demonstrate diplomatic nuance rather than a new era of nationalistic fervor.

As recently as March 2013, armed Chinese ships bullied Indonesian patrol boats into releasing Chinese fisherman caught trawling illegally near Natuna. China has also included parts of the waters around Natuna within its so-called nine-dash line — its vague southern maritime boundary, adding Indonesia to the long list of countries it’s dueling with over aggressive claims to some 90% of the South China Sea.

In April, Indonesia’s armed-forces chief General Moeldoko penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal promising to strengthen Indonesian forces on Natuna and prepare fighter jets to meet “any eventuality.”

But two months later, during a presidential-election debate in June, Jokowi claimed Indonesia had no beef with China. In later interviews he adroitly turned the burning strategic problem with China on its head, suggesting Indonesia could serve as an “honest broker” vis-a-vis the Middle Kingdom’s disputes with other countries in the South China Sea.

This should not, however, be understood to mean the new Indonesian administration will be pushovers. Its soft stance on overlapping territorial claims with China is obviously linked to the fact that China is Indonesia’s second largest export trading partner. Australia, meanwhile, barely makes the top 10.

The lesson, it seems, more concerns shifting regional power than newfound Indonesian belligerence. “Australia needs to understand that Indonesia’s place in the world is growing, while it is not,”
 adds Professor Tim Lindsey, director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at the Melbourne Law School. By current estimates, he adds, Indonesia will have world’s seventh largest economy in around a decade and the fifth largest by 2050. “Australia’s current policies of turning back the boats doesn’t seem to factor in any of that at all,” says Lindsey.

“I think Australia would be advised to take [Jokowi’s latest about naval incursions] warning very seriously, and that it would be unwise to look at it in narrow terms by saying, ‘Their navy is very small so it’s not a valid threat,’” opines Antje Missbach, a research fellow at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences in Melbourne. “There are many ways Indonesia could make a point without involving its navy.”

Moreover, she adds, “Look what happened last time Australia offended them,” referring to when Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Australia for six months following revelations by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden that Australia had spied on Yudhoyono and his wife.

Speaking to TIME, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says, “It is not the government’s policy to incur Indonesia’s waters” and blames past incursions on the opposition government it replaced following the September 2013 general elections. “[We’re] working closely with the new government of Indonesia on people-smuggling issues and we are optimistic about initial responses,” Morrison says.

Optimism is one thing; keeping out of your neighbor’s backyard is another altogether.

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok

Read next: Australia’s Top ISIS Militant Killed: Sources

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia’s Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim Awaits Sodomy Appeal Verdict

MALAYSIA-POLITICS-OPPOSITION
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim addresses the media after a meeting with senior Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) leaders in Subang Jaya on Aug. 17, 2014. Manan Vatsyayana—AFP/Getty Images

The 67-year-old's conviction has been slammed by human rights groups as "politically motivated"

Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim returns to court next week to learn whether he will be jailed on sodomy charges.

On Tuesday, Malaysia’s Federal Court will hear Anwar’s appeal of his March conviction for engaging in homosexual acts, charges both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say amount to “politically motivated persecution.”

Speaking to TIME on Friday, Anwar said his chances “didn’t look good.”

“Most of Malaysia does not believe that I will get a fair trial or a decision based on the facts of the law,” he said. “But I want to show young people that [my conviction] is a small price to pay in the struggle for freedom and justice.”

Anwar was originally arrested on July 16, 2008, after a former male aide alleged the pair had engaged in consensual sexual relations — criminalized under Malaysia’s colonial-era “sodomy law.” The High Court then acquitted Anwar on Jan. 9, 2012, ruling that DNA samples vital to the prosecution case could have been contaminated.

On March 7, 2014, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced Anwar to five years imprisonment. The hearing was originally scheduled for April but was curiously moved forward a month. This meant Anwar was disqualified from running in the Kajang district state assembly election on March 23.

Phil Robertson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has urged the Malaysian authorities to drop the case or risk making a “travesty of the country’s criminal justice system.”

“Prosecuting Anwar for something that should never be considered a crime shows how far the government is prepared to go to remove a political opponent,” he said.

Anwar’s imprisonment has been stayed during his appeal, but if convicted he faces five years in prison plus a mandatory five-year prohibition on running for office, effectively ending the 67-year-old’s political career.

Malaysia’s May 5, 2013, general elections saw the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition led by Anwar win 50% of the popular vote. However, this only translated to 89 parliamentary seats due to the “first past the post” electoral system. (The incumbent National Front coalition government of Prime Minister Najib Razak gained 47% of the vote but 133 seats.)

Anwar and independent observers have alleged electoral irregularities and widespread gerrymandering, and thousands took to the streets to demand an investigation. Najib’s administration strenuously denies any impropriety.

TIME Malaysia

A Guy Held a Dog-Petting Event and Got Death Threats From Muslim Hard-Liners

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Malaysia-energy-da
A boy plays with dogs outside his long house in Nahajale, Malaysia's Sarawak region, on Sept. 25, 2011 Mohd Rasfan—AFP/Getty Images

Hard-liners in Malaysia insist he “should be stoned to death” because dogs are considered unclean

A Malaysian social activist has received death threats and torrents of online abuse for organizing a dog-familiarization event that religious conservatives claim insults Islam.

More than 1,000 people attended the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event in the affluent Bandar Utama neighborhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to learn about Islam’s views on canines and become familiar with the animals, which are a source of fear for many Malaysians.

But the event’s planner, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, has now been forced into hiding after hard-liners insisted he “should be stoned to death.”

Traditionally, dogs are considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam as they are thought of as dirty. But while conservatives advocate complete avoidance, moderates simply say Muslims should not touch the animal’s mucous membranes — such as the nose or mouth — which are considered especially impure. Even if that happens, they say, there is a special cleansing ritual that can be followed.

How to touch dogs in an Islamic way was the point of the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event. Although officially haram, many Malaysians own dogs for security, partly because of a worsening national crime wave. (Malaysia’s Selangor Islamic Religious Department, an influential clerical body, says that Muslims can own dogs as working animals, for security, hunting and other functions.)

Siti Sakinah, an NGO worker, attended the event with her children in order to “overcome their fear and to learn that dogs are also creatures created by Allah that need love and care,” she told the Malaysian Insider.

On Thursday, respected Malaysian human-rights campaigner Marina Mahathir wrote an op-ed in the Star newspaper defending Syed Azmi and slamming the “ignorance” of those orchestrating the hate campaign.

“I didn’t realize that kindness is now considered despicable but then the world has turned upside down,” she wrote. “Never mind that the intention of those who attended was to learn about one of God’s own creatures and how to treat them kindly.”

The dog debate in Malaysia is in fact nothing new. In colonial times, local people were forced to deal with an alien influx of dogs brought by British planters and officials, which in turn made the pets fashionable among many prominent Malays, including royals.

At this time, a vibrant and largely cordial discourse thrived between the kaum tua (old conservatives) and kaum muda (young moderates) about how to handle dogs. The issue was even documented in a book by celebrated American historian William R. Roff.

Today, however, this polarity is hugely politicized. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has brazenly fostered religious conservatism to win the ethnic Malay vote, and some of those attacking Syed Azmi say that he is part of a Zionist plot.

One Facebook user’s comment — as reported by the Malaysian Insider — illustrates the level of paranoia in the hard-line camp. The user said the dog-familiarization event was part of “a Jewish agenda to Christianise Muslim-Malaysians through subtle measures.”

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert based in Kuala Lumpur for the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, tells TIME that the conservatives “have been dominating the discourse and want to continue imposing their perspective.”

Marina argues that the storm has been cooked up by authorities attempting to maintain control. After all, she asks, “how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?”

Read next: Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

TIME indonesia

Joko Widodo Sworn In as Indonesia’s President and Faces These 5 Challenges

Incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, is greeted by outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a visit at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Oct. 19, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

The political outsider will be under fierce pressure from the outset

On Oct. 20, Indonesia inaugurates its first President truly of the people. Joko Widodo, known commonly as Jokowi, is unique in Indonesian presidential history because he comes from neither a politically elite nor a military background. Raised in a riverside slum, Jokowi ran a furniture-exporting business in the heartland city of Solo before he successfully ran for his hometown’s mayor in 2005. Two years ago, he was elected governor of Indonesia’s chaotic capital, Jakarta. Although he prevailed in the July presidential election against old-guard candidate Prabowo Subianto — a former general once married to the daughter of Indonesian dictator Suharto — Jokowi, 53, faces numerous challenges as he helms the world’s third largest democracy:

Political Gridlock: Jokowi may have claimed the presidency, but parliament favors Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition, which last month controversially blocked the direct election of governors, mayors and district chiefs. Instead of a popular vote, local legislatures will pick these leaders, preventing the rise of figures outside the political establishment, like Jokowi. Democracy advocates are strategizing how to roll back what some criticize as a legislative coup.

Economic Slowdown: With the commodity boom waning, Indonesia’s recent 6% annual growth looks harder to maintain. Jokowi promises 7% growth by 2018 by moving Indonesia up the value chain, improving logistics and positioning the world’s largest archipelago nation as a global transport hub. But will the populist President resort to the kind of resource nationalism that will spook foreign investors?

Religious Extremism: Indonesia hasn’t suffered a major terrorist strike since 2009 when a pair of luxury Jakarta hotels were targeted by suicide bombers. But it only takes one attack to shatter the sense that Indonesia has tamed a band of radicals who are trying to hijack the moderate, syncretic Islam that has long flourished in the world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation.

Dirty Bureaucracy: Jokowi won votes because of his pristine image and his anti-corruption campaign in Solo and Jakarta. He boasts of having cleaned up the once graft-ridden process by which government permits and licenses were granted. And he helped expand government coffers by enhancing tax collection. Can Jokowi promote transparency in a country notorious for corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency at every level of government?

Ethnic Relations: While mayor of Solo and governor of Jakarta, Jokowi picked deputies who happened to be Christian. In Jakarta, his No. 2 was also Chinese, an ethnicity that has suffered from race rioting. Although the sprawling island nation has maintained remarkable harmony given the diversity of its inhabitants, human-rights groups worry about a recent uptick in ethnic and religious intolerance.

Read this week’s TIME cover on Jokowi’s inauguration here.

TIME Philippines

Imelda Marcos Has Had Part of Her Art Collection Seized

TO GO WITH AFP STORY "Lifestyle-Philippi
Former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos is seen in her apartment in Manila on June 27, 2007. Romeo Gacad—AFP/Getty Images

Authorities claim artworks were bought with embezzled state funds

A number of art works belonging to Imelda Marcos, wife of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, have been seized by authorities, who claim they were bought with embezzled state funds.

Works by Picasso and Gauguin are believed to be among the pieces still in the former First Lady’s possession, reports the BBC, as is Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Authorities are keen to trace the other artworks.

The 85-year-old Marcos, who was elected to the Philippine congress in 2010, has repeatedly denied her estimated $10 billion fortune was acquired illicitly.

Ferdinand Marcos ruled the Philippines from 1965 until his ouster in 1986. He died three years later.

[BBC]

TIME Malaysia

Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

Protesters raise placards during a prote
Protesters raise placards during a protest outside a mosque in Shah Alam, near Kuala Lumpur, on Nov. 4, 2011. The demonstration was to urge the government to give recognition to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community AFP/Getty Images

Harsh interpretations of Quranic law are being used to justify violence against transgender people in particular, activists say

Growing religious conservatism is threatening LGTB rights in Muslim-majority nations across Southeast Asia, say activists, with a new report claiming serious abuses against Malaysia’s transgender community.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published I’m Scared to Be a Woman: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Malaysia. The document makes serious allegations of physical and sexual assault committed against transgender people while in official custody.

Malaysia is a 60% Muslim nation where 13 of 15 states have invoked Shari‘a law to ban transvestism among Muslim men; three states also prohibit women “posing as men.” The statues are loosely defined and leave gaping loopholes for abuse, venality and vindictive prosecution, says HRW.

“Malaysian authorities frequently abuse transgender women at the expense of their dignity and in violation of their basic rights,” Boris Dittrich, LGBT-rights advocacy director at HRW, said in a statement. Malaysia’s Religious Department and other state officials have license to do “whatever they like” with transgender women, he added.

The 73-page report includes testimony from 42 transgender women, three transgender men and 21 other medical professionals, legal representatives, activists and outreach workers.

Victoria, a transwoman from Negeri Sembilan state, told HRW she was “completely humiliated” when Religious Department officials photographed her naked while under arrest in 2011. “They were rough,” she said. “One of them squeezed my breasts. One of them took a police baton and poked at my genitals.”

Gender-reassignment surgery was once available in Malaysia, but rising Islamic conservatism led to a ban issued by the National Fatwa Council in 1982. Thus many transgender people undergo medical transitioning in neighboring Thailand, but this leaves them in legal limbo upon their return.

Such problems are not limited to Malaysia. Brunei recently adopted a Shari‘a penal code, with draconian sanctions such as death by stoning for adulterers and flogging or even death for homosexual acts. The code applies the death penalty to both Muslims and non-Muslims in the case of adultery and sodomy, says the International Council of Jurists, despite official claims that non-Muslims will not be subjected to Shari‘a.

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, the semiautonomous state of Aceh is also adopting increasingly harsh interpretations of Shari‘a. A draft bylaw announced this week would punish anal sex between men and “the rubbing of body parts between women for stimulation” with 100 lashes. The law would also apply to non-Muslims.

“We have studied the implementation of Shari‘a in countries like Saudi Arabia, Brunei Darussalam and Jordan to draft this law and we are happy with it,” said Ramli Sulaiman, an Aceh lawmaker who led the drafting commission, reports AFP.

Other states in Indonesia only use Shari‘a for civil matters such as divorce and alimony. But since 2006, an increasing number of districts have issued local ordinances based on Shari‘a to govern social conduct. Although many of these are unconstitutional, the central government often fails to decisively strike them down for political reasons, says Freedom House.

According to Faisal Riza, an activist for the Violet Grey LGBT advocacy group, who hails from Aceh but is now based in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, Shari‘a law makes “society feel free to take action or use violence against LGBT people, especially transgender people.”

Discrimination is “getting worse,” he tells TIME, and is exacerbated by “lack of formal education and job access, so some [transgender people] become sex workers.” Possession of condoms is often deemed evidence of prostitution, leaving another window open for abuse and corruption, as well as hampering efforts to tackle the spread of communicable disease, including HIV/AIDS.

In Malaysia, LGBT activists hope an upcoming court case may give them some legal protection. Following the arrest of 16 transgender women at a wedding party in the western coast state of Negeri Sembilan in June, four applicants are claiming that local Shari‘a law is incompatible with national and constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, freedom of movement and equality. The Putrajaya Court of Appeal is slated to rule on the issue on Nov. 7.

“Malaysia urgently needs to scrap laws that discriminate against transgender people, adhere to international rights standards, and put in place comprehensive non-discrimination legislation that protects them,” said HRW’s Dittrich.

TIME Thailand

What the Murder of Two British Tourists Tells Us About Thailand’s Dark Side

Pictures of killed British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge and a message of support to their friends and families are displayed during special prayers at Koh Tao island
Pictures of killed British tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge and a message of support to their friends and families are displayed during special prayers at Koh Tao island on Sept. 18, 2014 Sitthipong Charoenjai—Reuters

Savage killings on Koh Tao lay bare the dichotomy between Thailand’s palm-fringed image and its underbelly of violence and fumbling justice

The brutal murder of British tourists Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on the Thai resort island of Koh Tao, has reverberated around the world.

Beach cleaners discovered the Britons’ naked bodies 20 m apart by rocks on idyllic Sairee Beach on Sept. 15. A bloodstained garden hoe, commonly used by beachside bars to dig fire pits, was found nearby and has now been confirmed as the principal murder weapon, along with a wooden club.

The existence of two weapons has “made us believe that there are at least two attackers,” the deputy national police chief, Police General Somyot Pumpanmuang, told reporters Monday.

Witheridge died from severe head wounds while Miller died from blows to the head and drowning, according to the Thai forensics department. Although there were signs of sexual activity, investigators have not ascertained whether Witheridge was raped.

Thai police initially blamed Burmese migrant workers (“favorite targets,” in the words of Paul Quaglia, a Bangkok-based risk analyst). “Thais wouldn’t do this” pronounced a leading policeman, and officers started rounding up Burmese laborers for interrogation and DNA tests. Stricter rules for hiring migrant workers across the archipelago were introduced in the wake of the killings with astonishing speed.

But when no evidence emerged to pin the murder on any Burmese, the focus shifted to other outsiders: Western friends of the victims. The spotlight fell on British tourist Christopher Alan Ware, who shared a room with Miller, with police hinting at “a crime of passion.” Ware was arrested at Bangkok’s main airport with his brother James. It turned out that the latter had left Koh Tao the night before the murders and so was above suspicion. DNA tests on a cigarette butt found at the scene have now cleared the former.

Next, suspicion turned to a pair of Thai men that Sean McAnna, a 25-year-old Scottish friend of Miller’s, claims to have witnessed molesting Witheridge on the night before she was killed — an altercation from which she was apparently rescued by Miller. McAnna, a busker well known on Koh Tao as Guitarman, took a photo of the Thais and uploaded it to the Internet, after which he began receiving death threats. He has now apparently fled into hiding in fear for his life.

Police revealed that the two Thais had been interviewed but were released after refusing to provide DNA samples.

“The problem is all the distractions,” Quaglia tells TIME. “The police are getting a lot of not only domestic media coverage but also international, and are under pressure to make statements about progress.”

The case of Witheridge and Miller has, once again, laid bare the dichotomy between Thailand’s palm-fringed islands and dark underbelly — immortalized in Alex Garland’s 1996 dystopian novel The Beach. Drugs, rape and assault are an unfortunate consequence of Thailand’s reputation for hedonism, and the criminal elements it attracts.

Thailand receives over 20 million tourists each year, drawn by the pearl-white beaches, stunning temples and sumptuous food. The vast majority of them have safe and enjoyable holidays, but a few are not so lucky. A quick scan of English-language news portals for the booming resort of Pattaya — one of the country’s most popular destinations — reveals a shocking litany of muggings, phone snatchings, shootings, stabbings, fatal car crashes, drownings, and more, all involving visitors. Sexual assault and rape, much of it unreported, bedevil Koh Phangan’s world famous full-moon parties.

But far from attempting to address the issues of visitor safety, Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the nation’s self-appointed Prime Minister following a May 22 military coup, has stoked outrage by pointing fingers at the victims. “We have to look into the behavior of the other party [Witheridge and Miller] too,” he said.

In a separate address, for which he has since apologized, he said that tourists “think our country is beautiful and is safe so they can do whatever they want, they can wear bikinis and walk everywhere.” The general even suggested that the only tourists who should feel safe in bikinis were those who were “not beautiful.”

He didn’t mention the fact that eight days after the killing of Witheridge and Miller, not a single suspect has been identified or remains in custody. But nobody familiar with Thailand’s feeble justice system is surprised by that.

TIME Thailand

Thailand’s Military Ruler Grows Increasingly Eccentric but No Less Dangerous

Thailand's Prime Minister Chan-ocha prays before the first cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha prays before the first cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok on Sept. 9, 2014 Chaiwat Subprasom— Reuters

General Prayuth Chan-ocha has become highly superstitious. But as the continued crackdown shows, his eccentricity should not distract from the ruthlessness of the regime

On Friday, Kittisak Soomsri was abducted from outside his teacher-training college in Bangkok. The 47-year-old was a Red Shirt supporter of ousted Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and a critic of the coup d’état of May 22.

Frantic relatives say they received an anonymous telephone call soon afterwards, stating that he had been taken into military custody and would be released after seven days if they kept quiet. Nothing further has been heard and now the junta now denies having him.

“Kittisak Soomsri’s enforced disappearance shows the Thai military’s wanton disregard for basic rights under martial law,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement Tuesday.

The case is a grim reminder that beyond Thailand’s beautiful temples and beaches a totalitarian state is now in operation. As is common with such states, there is also a ruling strongman given to making odd and rambling pronouncements.

Gruff coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has now named himself Prime Minister as well as head of the junta council and chief of the armed forces, has taken to giving regular TV appearances in which he bemoans the state of Thai society and outlines his simplistic, homespun solutions.

He has told residents of Bangkok to each pick up to 20 water hyacinths from the Chao Phraya River to help unclog the iconic waterway. Farmers, he says, should only grow rice once a year to keep the grain’s price up. The poor need to alleviate their woes by “working harder” and the indebted must return to solvency by “stopping shopping.”

If such dictates faintly echo the on-the-spot guidance dispensed by North Korea’s tyrannical Kim clan, then Prayuth’s growing superstitiousness is reminiscent of Burma’s former military rulers, who governed with the advice of numerologists, mystics and astrologers.

In a high-profile speech last week, Prayuth said, “Today, I have a sore throat, a pain in the neck. Someone said there are people putting curses on me.” His solution was to have so much protective holy water poured over him that he “shivered all over.”

Buddha statues and religious idols were deployed to Government House on Monday to ward off malevolent spirits, reports Reuters. And according to a junta spokesman, Prayuth’s desk has now been repositioned according to the Chinese geomantic art of feng shui.

On Friday, Prayuth will outline his one-year plan for returning Thailand to democracy. But critics of the coup are not hopeful. The case of Kittisak — and the hundreds of other cases of alleged extrajudicial detention, torture and other abuses — illustrate that Prayuth is not merely an eccentric. There is real menace beneath his madness.

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