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.

TIME Thailand

Thousands of Refugee Children Are Suffering in Thai Detention

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Children, part of a group of asylum seekers, sit in a truck as Thai immigration officials escort them to a court in Songkhla, southern Thailand, on March 15, 2014 Tuwaedaniya Meringing—AFP/Getty Images

A prominent watchdog accuses Bangkok of serious rights failings

Significant trauma is being experienced by thousands of refugee children being held in squalid detention centers in Thailand, claims a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The 67-page document, Two Years With No Moon: Immigration Detention of Children in Thailand, was published Tuesday and accuses Thailand of violating children’s rights, impairing their health and imperiling their development.

“Migrant children detained in Thailand are suffering needlessly in filthy, overcrowded cells without adequate nutrition, education or exercise space,” says report author Alice Farmer, children’s-rights researcher at the New York City–based advocacy group. “Detention lockup is no place for migrant children.”

Because there is a lack of legal and other mechanisms by which they can be released, many of the children are detained indefinitely, sometimes for years.

There are approximately 375,000 migrant children in Thailand, say experts, the largest number from Burma, officially known as Myanmar, where thousands have fled the world’s longest running civil war as well as recent pogroms against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Other young refugees hail from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere.

Unfortunately for them, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have functioning asylum procedures. If caught, undocumented aliens run the risk of being put in immigration detention, often in harsh conditions.

HRW researchers say that they found children were being crammed into cells so crowded that they had to sleep sitting up, and that the children were being housed with unrelated adults, risking sexual and physical abuse.

“I interviewed children who were terrified of some of the people they met in detention,” Farmer tells TIME. She claimed that that the conditions violated “the U.N. minimum standards for detention centers.”

“The worst part was that you were trapped and stuck,” says Cindy Y., a refugee detained between the ages of 9 and 12, told HRW. “I would look outside and see people walking around the neighborhood, and I would hope that would be me.” She was one of 41 children interviewed for the HRW report.

Thailand has denied that it is failing refugee children in a seven-page written response to the HRW. “Detention of some small number of migrant children in Thailand is not a result of the government’s policies but rather the preference of their migrant parents themselves (family unity) and the logistical difficulties,” it said.

“The Thai government is trying its best to address and accommodate the needs of migrant children, bearing in mind the humanitarian consideration and fundamental human rights. In addition, it is worth to mention [sic] the Thai officers who work tirelessly amidst all constraints to help sheltering these migrants. Their work deserves understanding as well as recognition.”

The only choice for the refugees is to return to their country of origin — a prospect many cannot countenance for fear of violence, persecution, torture or death — or else wait in the slim hope that they will be accepted for resettlement in a third country. It is a soul-destroying limbo.

“These kids have nowhere to go,” says Farmer, “and ultimately stay in detention indefinitely with no understanding of what will happen to them down the line. It puts a very big burden on the shoulders of some very small people.”

TIME Thailand

Is the Thai Junta Really Going to Jail Sommeliers for Recommending Wine?

TO GO WITH STORY Lifestyle-finance-econo
In a picture taken on July 6, 2009, Nikki Lohitnavy, Thailand's first female winemaker tests her wine at a wineshop in Khao Yai National Park 155km (96 miles) north of Bangkok. PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL—AFP/Getty Images

A threatened booze crackdown hasn't materialized yet, but it speaks of a moral tension in the so-called Land of Smiles

Earlier this week, local officials in the sleepy city of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, called a meeting of media and hospitality industry representatives to outline draconian curbs on alcohol promotion.

All drinking, they said, was to stop at midnight. Advertising and happy hours were to be banned; promotional staff could no longer serve beer while wearing branded uniforms; glasses, ashtrays and any other items sporting brewery, winery and distillery logos were to be removed. Even decorating a pub or trattoria with empty bottles could mean six months in jail — as could “verbal promotion” of alcohol, which could be something as innocuous as a sommelier telling you which wine to try.

“This law was put into effect due to the rapidly growing costs of alcohol to this nation,” Second Lieutenant Taweesak Jintajiranan told the meeting, which was reported in the Chiang Mai City News. “Alcohol-related accidents have increased significantly in recent years. While the government makes 70 billion baht [$2.2 billion] income per year from alcohol tax, the cost to the government is upwards of 150 billion baht [$4.7 billion].”

Predictably, social media erupted with indignation. “No booze sold or consumed after midnight?” wrote one Bangkok expat on Facebook. “Ludicrous in what purports itself to be a world class capital city and something of a nightlife capital.”

As it turns out, none of the proposed curbs on alcohol promotion are new. They are already provided for under a strict interpretation of the 2008 Alcohol Control Act. The act has never been enforced because it is seen as unworkable in a nation that depends on free-spending tourists for much of its income. But the threat of its implementation in Chiang Mai — described by Andrew Bond, editor of travel website 1stopchiangmai.com, as “a local official taking his orders from the junta a little too literally” — has drawn attention to a growing split between the military’s moral agenda and a nation synonymous with cold beer and cheap cocktails.

Alcohol is a major Thai industry. The firm Thai Beverage brews the nation’s iconic Chang beer and Sangsom rum and boasts distilleries in Thailand, Scotland, Ireland, Poland China and France — along with annual profits nearing $1 billion. Boon Rawd Brewery, which produces the popular Singha and Leo beers, enjoys royal patronage and has lucrative marketing deals with English Premier League goliaths Chelsea and Manchester United.

Little wonder alcohol moguls enjoy enormous political sway. The poster-girl of the recent Shutdown Bangkok protests, which culminated in the May 22 coup, was Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, heiress to the Boon Rawd fortune. The photogenic 28-year-old openly called for the overthrowing of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, prompting pro-democracy Red Shirts to boycott Singha and Leo beers in response. A ban on alcohol advertising by the junta she helped install might see her rethink her political loyalties.

There is no doubt that the junta has taken on an increasingly priggish character. It has set about attempting to address “social ills” such as inflated state lottery prices and undocumented migrants. Raids have also targeted sex workers, particularly from the “ladyboy” transsexual community, and this week officials swooped on markets hawking counterfeit and pirated goods.

“The military is trying to legitimize itself as some kind of moral force,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai associate professor for Southeast Asian studies at Japan’s Kyoto University and an outspoken critic of the coup. “But such matters do not concern them at all,” he adds. Pavin suggests that the moral crusade is instead a political trap to goad the nation’s protesting demimonde — what he calls “dark influences” and “godfathers” — out into the open, which then provides further legitimacy for the junta’s grip on power.

There could be another reason. There is a tradition of Thai leaders embracing ascetic Buddhist values after becoming embroiled in bitter tumult. Military dictator General Thanom Kittikachorn famously entered the monkhood in 1976 after the Thammasat Massacre; firebrand Shutdown Bangkok leader Suthep Thaugsuban followed suit immediately after the May coup. According to Pavin, Prayuth could similarly be trying to atone for the sin of seizing power and so “really wants to prove something to society.”

But the reality is that vice is deeply imbued in modern Thailand. Prostitution is officially illegal, but up to two million sex workers toil in the country’s twinkling neon go-go bars and massage parlors. And while alcohol is undeniably conflated with social problems — Thailand’s roads are ranked as the second most dangerous in the world with 44 road deaths per 100,000 people, a quarter of which the WHO says are alcohol-related — even the junta would struggle to make an impact.

The tourism industry is worth up to $60 billion annually, and the nation welcomes over 20 million foreign arrivals each year, drawn by the pearl-white beaches, beautiful temples, fabulous cuisine and, well, the pumping bars.

“I don’t think we’ll see an immediate effect on tourism because Thailand’s reputation for vibrant nightlife continues, whatever the reality is,” says Joe Cummings, author of the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand. What’s more, “Thais are among the most clever people in Asia when it comes to finding legal loopholes.”

There could also, of course, be a domestic backlash. One poll conducted soon after the coup found an astonishingly high 93.5% of respondents approved of the military’s intervention. But petty booze curbs, if enforced, could well turn the tide.

One bar owner in Chiang Mai, who asked to remain anonymous, gave his own caustic assessment. “It won’t last if they ever do enforce it,” he said. “Give it a few months and they’ll have to change the stupid law. Maybe we’ll get some clarification instead of just paying off the cops whenever they want.”

TIME Thailand

Thai Court Drops Murder Charges Against Former PM and Deputy

Former Thai Prime Minister Vejjajiva and his then deputy Thaugsuban arrive at the Department of Special Investigation in Bangkok
Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, left, and his then deputy Suthep Thaugsuban arrive at the Department of Special Investigation in Bangkok on May 14, 2013. Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

The decision will infuriate Red Shirt opponents of May's military coup

Murder charges against former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his erstwhile deputy Suthep Thaugsuban were dropped Thursday. The charges related to a bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in central Bangkok in 2010 that claimed more than 90 lives.

Thailand’s Criminal Court ruled that it could not hear the case as the two accused held public office at the time of the deaths and were acting under emergency powers, reports the Bangkok Post.

Only the Supreme Court could hear the case, the bench added, and the nation’s anticorruption body must decide whether it should be referred upward. However, any decision could take years.

The protesters who Suthep and the Oxford-educated Abhisit stood accused of killing were ardent Red Shirt backers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed in a military putsch in 2006.

Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinwatra was elected prime minister in 2011, but she was removed in another coup on May 22, following six months of fierce antigovernment protests spearheaded by the firebrand Suthep.

Red Shirt supporters of the Shinawatra clan are sure to be incensed by the court’s decision, but have been cudgeled into silence by a raft of extrajudicial detentions and intimidatory tactics by the Southeast Asian nation’s new military rulers.

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