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.

TIME East Timor

A Harsh Media Law Threatens East Timor’s Budding Democracy

Second Round Of Presidential Elections Held In East Timor
Taur Matan Ruak speaks to the press during the second round of the Presidential elections on April 16, 2012 in Dili, East Timor. Pamela Martin—Getty Images

The law will be "the death" of Timorese media, says a press union boss

Journalists and human rights activists are urging the President of East Timor to scrap a bill deemed a serious threat to press freedom, warning that the nascent democracy could be heading toward renewed authoritarianism.

A former Portuguese colony, East Timor, or Timor-Leste, only won independence from neighboring Indonesia in 2002 following a bloody civil war. Since then, despite being desperately poor, it has enjoyed a remarkably open society.

This is poised to change, say activists, with the implementation of the Media Act, passed by parliament on May 6 but yet to be ratified by President Taur Matan Ruak. The 57-year-old liberation hero has asked for the Court of Appeal to review the legislation’s constitutionality, but critics claim it should be immediately expunged.

“The media played a crucial role in East Timor’s long struggle for independence,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The President should tell parliament that a media law that stifles free expression won’t get his signature.”

The long struggle that secured East Timor’s independence claimed some 100,000 lives and left the newly liberated population of one million people in abject poverty. Most East Timorese rely on cash crops, mainly coffee, to buy imported rice. A four-month “hungry season” — the period between crops — is an annual ordeal and nearly half of local children are underweight.

However, East Timor boasts abundant oil reserves and petrodollars have begun flooding in. Unfortunately, this opens the door to graft, the exposing of which brings media into direct confrontation with venal officials.

“What we’ve seen in the last few years is more attention to scandals and corruption,” Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert with the Center of East Asia Democratic Studies, tell TIME.

Although the Media Act explicitly enshrines “freedom of the press” and prohibits censorship, several provisions would permit government interference with journalists. Rather than the self-regulation favored by media advocates, an official Press Council, staffed by state appointees, would have the power to “grant, renew, suspend and revoke” media credentials. “The law will be the death of [Timorese] journalists,” Timor-Leste Press Union President José Belo told UCA last month.

Around half the adult population of East Timor is illiterate and Internet access is minimal. Newspapers are mostly available only in the capital, Dili, with most rural people getting news and current affairs from radio and TV. If a government was able to influence broadcast content and put pressure on journalists, it would stand a good chance of disseminating its messages unchallenged. The Media Act already proposes to require journalists to “promote the national culture” and “encourage and support high quality economic policies and services.” Such provisions are open to interpretation and abuse, claim critics.

“Journalists, including freelancers, took great risks and made enormous sacrifices while reporting during the darkest days of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor,” said Kine. “The government should recognize that journalists are an indispensable front line against human rights violations, corruption, and abuses of power. Donors should urge the government not to undermine the media’s crucial role.”

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia Is Becoming a Global Hub For Internet Scams Preying on the Lovelorn

IAC Will Turn Match Dating Service Into a Separate Business
The Match.com website is displayed on laptop computers arranged for a photograph in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The ease of obtaining visas, opening bank accounts and arranging money transfers are all part of Malaysia's newfound criminal appeal.

Lax student visa regulations and a high-tech banking system has made Malaysia a global hub for Internet scams, according to U.S. officials, with money being swindled out of unwitting Americans and Europeans by racketeers prowling online dating sites.

The conmen typically hail from Nigeria or Ghana and dupe lonely, middle-aged men and women from the U.S. and Western Europe through matchmaking services like Match.com, reports Reuters. A dozen new cases are reported to the U.S. embassy in Kuala Lumpur every week, with scam complaints forming four-fifths of new work for duty officers.

“This is a serious issue hurting many Americans financially and emotionally,” said a U.S. embassy spokesperson. “We would hope that through publicity more Americans would be made aware of these scams.”

While most Internet users have received — only to swiftly mock and discard — some crude Nigerian scam emails, these tricksters are more sophisticated, and slowly build trust as a budding romance ripens. Then the request for money comes, normally a relatively small amount at first; but once the hooks are in, the victim struggles to turn down subsequent heftier demands without admitting to having been hoodwinked.

“Some victims find it very hard to break away from the relationship, even when they’ve been told it’s not real,” says Professor Monica Whitty, an expert on Internet fraud psychology. “So the criminal admits to scamming the victim but says that they also fell in love with them at the same time, and they get back into the same scam.”

But it is not just lovelorn Americans who are being swindled; other foreign embassies in Kuala Lumpur are dealing with similar complaints, reports Reuters. Whitty says that at least 500,000 U.K. citizens have fallen prey to such “sweetheart scams” since the phenomenon was first reported around 2007.

Slightly more men than women are duped by fraudulent lovers, but men are less likely to seek recompense out of embarrassment.

“Some people mortgage their houses to pay these criminals,” Whitty says, “but often the devastation they feel is more about the loss of the relationship than the money — of realizing they’ve been duped.”

And worryingly, such scams appear to be growing more common; last year, U.S.-based IT security developer SOPHOS ranked Malaysia as sixth globally in terms of cyber crime threat risks, as the total cyber crime bill topped $300 million. The ease of obtaining visas, opening bank accounts and arranging money transfers are all part of the nation’s criminal appeal.

“Scammers are increasingly using targeted social engineering attacks against their victims due to the extremely high success rate,” Ty Miller, an Australian security expert and founder of Threat Intelligence, tells TIME. “This not only affects individuals, but also organizations.”

Awareness and technology are key to tackling this scourge, says Miller, who is running a fraud-prevention course in Kuala Lumpur in October. “Techniques can be deployed that allow malicious individuals to be tracked,” he says, “which as time goes on will build intelligence to unveil the identity of the perpetrators.”

Amirudin Abdul Wahab, CEO of CyberSecurity Malaysia, an agency under the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, says all involved nations must share information and jointly investigate cases according to agreed procedures and technical processes.

“Various authorities from the various countries involved should work together rather than blaming each other,” he said by email. “These countries need to synergize their efforts, in order to effectively address this scam problem.”

TIME southeast asia

Elephants Are Tortured and Trafficked to Entertain Tourists in Thailand

An elephant lifts a tourist during a show in Pattaya, Thailand on March 1, 2013.
An elephant lifts a tourist during a show in Pattaya, Thailand on March 1, 2013. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images

That obligatory elephant ride and selfie relies on a bloody trade in tormented animals

Wild elephants are being captured in Burma and mentally broken through savage beatings as traffickers seek to profit from a lucrative trade to Thai tourist parks, claims a new report.

According to wildlife-advocacy group TRAFFIC, poachers in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, corral elephants into jungle pits, after which older animals are slaughtered and the more valuable young ones tortured into submission before being trafficked over the porous border to entertain tourists vacationing in the self-styled Land of Smiles. (Formerly, elephants in Burma might have been put to work in the logging industry, but recent curbs have put this trade under threat.)

Sangduen Chailert, popularly known as Lek, has worked in elephant conservation in her native northern Thailand for 20 years. “When they catch a wild baby elephant, some [poachers] told me that in the jungle it’s like a killing field,” she tells TIME. “To take one baby they must kill the mother and the aunties, and it is very risky for the baby as it’s difficult for them to survive without their mothers.”

Thailand vowed to clamp down on the trade in February 2012, yet as elephants can be registered and microchipped anytime up to the age of 4, there is ample opportunity for young trafficked animals to be passed off as locally reared.

“There are gaping holes in the current legislation, which do little to deter unscrupulous operators passing off wild-caught young animals as being of captive origin and falsifying birth and ownership documentation,” said Joanna Cary-Elwes, campaigns manager for Elephant Family.

Healthy young elephants typically fetch more than $30,000 in Thailand, according to TRAFFIC. Venal officials often facilitate their illicit movement across Southeast Asia, even shipping them as far as China or South Korea after giving the animals new identities in Laos.

Lek, who was named one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, says educating tourists is vital to combat the trade at the source. Some 6,500 elephants currently live in Thailand, around 2,500 of which are wild-caught.

“Tourists want to see the elephants painting and doing lots of things, especially riding,” she says, but “tourism work is actually the most disturbing to the elephant” as “when logging they only work for part of the year.”

The TRAFFIC study says up to 81 live elephants were illegally captured for sale to the Thai tourist industry between 2011 and 2013. Lax implementation of current antitrafficking provisions means the current plod across the mountainous Thai-Burmese frontier may soon become a stampede once again.

“Unless urgent changes are made to outdated legislation and better systems are introduced to document the origin of elephants in tourist camps and other locations across Thailand, things could quickly revert to their previous unacceptable state,” says Chris Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s regional director for Southeast Asia.

TIME southeast asia

A Young Girl Kept as a Slave for 5 Years in Thailand Wins Landmark Damages

Illegal Myanmar Immigrants Make Living In Rubbish Field in Thailand
An illegal-immigrant boy from Burma works at mountains of rubbish in Mae Sot, Thailand, on July 18, 2013 The Asahi Shimbun—Getty Images

Sold as a 7-year-old, she keeps the spotlight on the dangers faced by the estimated 4 million migrant workers in Thailand

A 13-year-old Burmese girl who was tortured for five years by a Thai couple who treated her as a slave has finally been awarded $143,000 in compensation by a local court, ending one nightmare but throwing the spotlight on the plight of countless other vulnerable migrants who suffer similar abuse.

The victim, who was just 7 years old when she was sold into slavery, must live with horrendous scars over half her body after she was regularly drenched with pots of boiling water for perceived disobedience. (The extent of her disfigurement can be seen on this Thai news report, but be warned — the images are distressing.)

The girl, an ethnic Karen known as Air, says she was kidnapped while her illegal-migrant parents were working in sugarcane fields in northwest Thailand. She was then sold to a Thai couple who made her work as a maid and sleep in a dog kennel. Air says she escaped once and summoned the police, only to be returned to her abusers, who allegedly cut off the tip of her ear as punishment. The girl eventually escaped successfully on Jan. 31 last year.

“The couple is still at large, but lawyers will investigate all of the employers’ properties to compensate her,” Preeda Tongchumnum, the assistant to the secretary general of the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation, told the Irrawaddy. “She cannot make a 100% recovery, but the doctor will help her to move her body like any other person.”

Although Monday’s award must be deemed a victory of sorts, the uncomfortable truth remains that the girl’s plight mirrors that of many of the estimated 4 million migrant workers in Thailand, who toil with virtually no legal safeguards and are often exploited by venal officials.

Compounding matters, the couple accused of torturing Air — identified as Nathee Taengorn, 36, and Rattanakorn Piyavoratharm, 34 — skipped town after they were inexplicably released on police bail despite facing seven serious charges. Local media reports alleged the pair had “influential” connections. The police have yet to offer an explanation for Air’s claim that they returned her to her captors after her first escape bid.

Such official indifference to the plight of migrant labor has contributed to the U.S. State Department’s decision last month to relegate Thailand to the lowest rank of its Trafficking in Persons report — putting the self-styled “Land of Smiles” on par with North Korea for its inability or unwillingness to protect workers from abuse.

“There cannot be impunity for those who traffic in human beings,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to mark the report’s release. “Whether it is a young girl trapped in a brothel or a woman enslaved as a domestic worker or a boy forced to sell himself on the street or a man abused on a fishing boat, the victims of these crimes all have names, all had families.”

Sadly, all four of the examples citied by Kerry are commonplace in Thailand, which has long been a hub for migrant laborers fleeing war, poverty or political persecution in less affluent neighboring countries. The Thai fishing industry has come into particular scrutiny recently.

This already dire situation has been further complicated by Thailand’s military coup on May 22. Fears of a crackdown prompted an exodus of more than 250,000 mainly Cambodian workers, although the junta insists that by requiring all companies to “submit comprehensive name lists of their employees” it is now working to prevent “illegal activity, drugs, crime, unfair employment and bodily harm.”

Such assurances have not convinced human-rights activists, though. “Migrant workers make huge contributions to Thailand’s economy, but their daily life is unsafe and uncertain, and they face abuses from many quarters,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, calling for the junta to “reverse this [exodus] disaster by quickly putting into place genuine reforms that would protect migrant workers’ rights, not threaten them.”

TIME Thailand

If There’s Going to Be a Thai Civil War, Isaan Will Be Its Front Line

Red Shirt supporters practice self-defense as they attend a Democracy Protection Volunteers Group camp in Udon Thani province, in Isaan region of Thailand, on April 3, 2014 Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images

Resentment toward Thailand’s latest military coup is palpable in the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand, reinforcing a long-standing sense of ethnic separateness among its Lao-speaking people

The folk music of Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region is known as morlum and it follows a familiar theme. Typically, a young, wet-behind-the-ears girl or boy leaves the emerald rice paddies to move to the big city. Once there, facing exploitation, social estrangement, and heartbreak, the protagonist yearns for the pastoral wholesomeness of their birthplace.

It’s a tale many in Thailand’s largest region can relate to. “When you live in upcountry Thailand, everywhere you go — your neighbor’s house, restaurants, the market, taxis — that’s the music that they play,” says singer Christy Gibson, who grew up listening to morlum and its close relative luk thung after moving to Isaan with her parents at the age of 6, and is one of the few foreign musicians to have made it in the Thai mainstream.

But despite making up a third of the population, the people of Isaan — who share a culture and language closer to neighboring Laos — have for centuries been second-class citizens to the inhabitants of Bangkok and central provinces, who often are descended from Chinese stock. And although it is the rice-bowl of a country that, until recently, was the world’s largest exporter of the grain, the region has historically suffered from chronic underdevelopment.

As a result, local people traditionally headed south to Bangkok or the country’s tourist zones to work as taxi drivers or construction workers, often returning home to help at harvest time. Many women, weary of toiling under the hot sun for a pittance, ended up working in the sex industry.

In recent times, though, Isaan has experienced a comparative upturn in fortunes, with new investment transforming the area into a manufacturing hub. In the villages, rickety wooden houses are being rebuilt in concrete, with shiny pickup trucks parked outside. In the cities, glitzy shopping malls, boasting ice-skating rinks and global coffee chains, are the hangouts of spiky-haired teens in fashionable streetwear.

The upshot? “Isaan people have become cosmopolitan villagers who have sophisticated understandings of themselves as Thai and as participants in a global labor force,” says Charles Keyes, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and author of a recent book on Thailand’s northeast.

But not is all well. The successive ousting of Isaan-backed governments by the Bangkok-based political establishment is reinforcing the sense of ethnic difference and consolidating a political identity for Isaan alongside its cultural and linguistic ones. And following Thailand’s latest military coup on May 22, many Isaan people are calling for greater autonomy — even independence.

“There’s a generalized anger at the military government,” says David Streckfuss, an American scholar based in the Isaan city of Khon Kaen, who has studied Thai culture for over 25 years. “Civil war is never a plan, it’s an outcome of bad choices,” he adds. But “it’s not unimaginable, as there is so much pent-up anger.”

Isaan identity, just like morlum, has long been distinct. “Isaan migrants tend to live together, to speak Lao with each other, to listen to Isaan popular music, and, most of all, send money to relatives at home,” says Keyes. “Identification as khon isaan, northeastern people, is a primary identity even for those who have lived outside the region for years.”

Colonialism has fed this dynamic. Once the French gained control of Lao in 1893, they quickly noted that those living across the Mekong also spoke the same language as their new subjects, and attempted to unite all Lao under Gallic rule. Siam, as Thailand was then known, took umbrage and in 1904 reclassified all ethnic Lao within its borders as Thai — “just an inferior sort of Thai,” explains Streckfuss.

Nearly a century later, the differences were still great enough for telecoms mogul Thaksin Shinawatra to make a political career out of them. Though he was not born in Isaan and was in fact of Chinese descent (his mother came from a Hakka family and his great-grandfather was a migrant from China’s Guangdong province), Thaksin shrewdly decided to champion the region’s rural poor. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001 largely on their votes, in return for which he initiated populist policies such as microfinance loans, fuel subsidies and universal health care.

But Thailand’s entrenched elite soon tired of this parvenu, accusing him of buying votes from gullible bumpkins and even of angling to replace the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej as the object of popular adoration. Despite an unprecedented re-election in 2005, Thaksin was ousted in a military putsch the following year. He was convicted of corruption in absentia — charges he insists are politically motivated — and remains in exile.

“He’s a businessman, sometimes insensitive to social plights, but that’s the extent [of wrongdoing] that I’ve seen,” Thaksin’s former spokesman, Jakrapob Penkair, told a recent luncheon meeting at Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. “If he has committed any crime, it is the crime of being naive — of believing that Thailand was already a democracy.”

Thaksin’s popularity in the northeast has endured despite his ousting, and parties he backs have won every election this millennium, only to be removed twice by the military and three times by the courts. A popular movement, colloquially known as the Red Shirts, developed to demand his return — and a reciprocal royalist Yellow Shirt movement emerged to resist it.

The color-coded rivalry between them has convulsed Thailand for nigh on a decade now, with sporadic bloodletting claiming scores of lives and leaving thousands injured. This, in turn, has intensified the antipathy between the capital and Isaan. This became especially bitter during the six-month-long Shutdown Bangkok demonstrations that began last November, when Yellow Shirt protesters demanded the ousting of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, on the pretext that the northeasterners who elected her were too stupid to be trusted with the vote.

“In February, I was hearing 20-minute rants about the history of the Laos and how they were repressed — how [the Thais] came up on horses and put chains around our necks and dragged us away,’” says Streckfuss. This newfound pride wasn’t about identifying with fellow Lao people across the Mekong, he adds, “it was anti-Bangkok.”

That the Red and Yellow Shirt factions are ethnically, linguistically and geographically distinct has heightened fears of armed conflict. In February, before the coup, Red Shirt leader Suporn Attawong announced plans to recruit 600,000 young men across the 20 northern provinces to join a new progovernment Democracy Protection Volunteers Group. Since the putsch of May 22, caches of weapons have been unearthed alongside stores of Red Shirt propaganda materials. Last week, despite the obvious risk of detention, Red Shirt activist Ittipon Sukpaen threatened civil war on his Facebook page. Weapons are freely available in Thailand: according to one 2011 study, the country has an estimated 10 million firearms in civilian hands.

Even morlum mirrors this changing dynamic, though not in the bellicose way one might expect. “Many of the artists I’ve spoke to try to use their music as a vehicle for positive reconciliation,” says Gibson, “to say ‘we are all Thais.’” And that is, of course, true. It’s just that today — just as it was in the past — some Thais believe they are more Thai than others.

TIME Thailand

The U.S. Is Freezing the Thai Junta Out of Military Exercises

A Thai Marine shows how to catch a cobra as U.S. Marines look on during a jungle-survival program at a navy base in Chanthaburi province, Thailand, on Feb. 15, 2014 Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images

Washington gets tough with its longtime ally as junta rides roughshod over human rights

Thailand has been uninvited from the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in Hawaii — the world’s largest international maritime-warfare exercise — this week, in response to spiraling human-rights abuses in the wake of last month’s military coup.

The ban only affects the two or three Thai military observers slated to attend the exercise, nonetheless, in diplomatic terms the snub — to America’s oldest treaty partner in Asia — is a very pointed one.

“We take very seriously the whole human-rights aspect to this coup in Thailand,” U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney tells TIME. “One of the things our government has done is look at our military engagements.”

Washington has already blocked $4.7 million in security-related aid to Thailand, accounting for roughly half its total annual assistance. But more significantly, the U.S. has made it clear that significant progress toward elections must be seen if next year’s high-profile Cobra Gold exercises are to go ahead.

Beginning as a bilateral U.S.-Thai exercise in 1982, Cobra Gold has become the largest military exercise in the Asia-Pacific region. It is held in Thailand annually and involved almost 30 regional players last year. However, 2015’s Cobra Gold is “under review,” says Kenney, and “will be a tough call at very senior levels in Washington.”

The cancellation of Cobra Gold would be hugely embarrassing for Thai army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who on May 22 launched the Southeast Asian nation’s 12th military coup since the end of absolute monarchical rule in 1932. Martial law has been imposed, the constitution suspended, with academics, politicians and activists arbitrarily detained.

“One of our great concerns right now is that these detentions continue — the restrictions on freedom of expression, the martial-law restrictions on freedom of assembly.” says Kenney. “So it is really troubling, [as is] the fact that there’s not clear accountability for who is detained and who is released.”

General Prayuth has insisted that the military will remain in charge for at least a year while urgent “reforms” are enacted. A budget and a list of urgent infrastructure projects are being drawn up, while a draconian “clean up” of everything from petty crime to aggressive illegal taxi operators that target tourists (the so-called taxi mafia) appears to be on the cards.

Washington, however, wants a civilian government in power as soon as possible. “Our focus at this point is encouraging the current governing council of Thailand to move power into civilian hands and stop the restrictive measures,” Kenney says. “We want to see Thailand back in a leadership position as a democracy in Asia.”

The crackdown on civil liberties has led to calls for greater international support from those aligned with the ousted government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her divisive brother Thaksin.

Jakrapob Penkair, a founding member of the pro-Shinawatra Red Shirt movement and a former government minister now living in exile, has helped launch the anticoup Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy, which he says is in discussions with five Western governments about how best to return democracy in Thailand.

“[The West] is more aware [than Asian nations] of the tricks and games that are being played in Thailand now,” he told a meeting at Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong on Thursday. “We have to work from outside in, because no one in Thailand can move as they are being so repressed.”

On Thursday, the BBC published an interview with junta council member Lieut. General Chatchalerm Chalermsukh, who rejected Yellow Shirt leader Suthep Thaugsuban’s claims that military intervention had been planned since 2010.

He also said Thaksin was welcome to return to his homeland and fight a tax-evasion conviction linked to the sale of his telecom company during his tenure as Prime Minister.

Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer who represents the Red Shirts and formerly also Thaksin, said he would “relish” defending his erstwhile client “if it was in a rule-of-law court before an independent tribunal.”

Speaking alongside Jakrapob in Hong Kong, he said “The judges [during Thaksin’s 2007 in absentia conviction] were specifically appointed from a small group of people whose qualifications were based upon their antipathy to Thaksin,” adding that Thaksin “never had any independent review of the allegations.”

TIME Thailand

The Thai Junta Is Offering $15 Rewards for Photos of Anticoup Activity

Activists, with their mouths taped up as a form of protest against the ongoing military rule in Thailand, hold placards during a picket in front of the Thai embassy in Manila
Activists, with their mouths taped up as a form of protest against the ongoing military rule in Thailand, hold placards during a picket in front of the Thai embassy in Manila on June 5, 2014 Romeo Ranoco— Reuters

Just call it the Land of Snitches

Thailand’s ruling junta is offering 500 baht ($15) to anyone submitting a photo of anticoup activities — either taken firsthand or downloaded from social media.

The sinister measure is the latest tool used by Thailand’s military to consolidate power since the May 22 coup — the nation’s 12th successful putsch since 1932. Activists, politicians and academics have been rounded up, censorship imposed and journalists threatened.

“The activities of splinter groups with different views threaten to cause unrest within society,” police general Somyos Phumphunmuang told reporters on Monday. “Army and police officers will only pursue harsh measures against those who are guilty of breaking the law.”

Publicly reading “subversive” literature like George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, flashing the three-finger salute from The Hunger Games or even the proffering of sandwiches — adopted as the latest anticoup protest prop — now invoke the junta’s wrath. Police officers are posing as journalists to infiltrate protest crowds, and even “liking” critical Facebook posts can result in arbitrary detention.

Saksith Saiyasombut, a respected Thai political blogger and commentator based in Germany, tells TIME that the latest measure could spur “crowdfunded witch hunts.”

“It really shows that the junta is not above using their own people against their own people,” he says, “and also not above giving financial incentives to that end.”

In another disturbing development, missing activist Kritsuda Khunasen — who rose to prominence aiding Red Shirt protesters injured during the 2010 military-led crackdown in central Bangkok — appeared on army TV on Monday evening claiming to be “happier than words can say.”

The 27-year-old vanished after she was seized by soldiers on May 28, but now says she “requested” to remain in military custody two weeks longer than the seven-day maximum martial-law detention period for “safety” and to “feel calm by spending more time” by herself.

She was speaking “under duress,” Saksith says. “Some people have compared it to a hostage video … It really shows that she is not at liberty to say what she really thinks.”

Meanwhile, on Tuesday former Thai Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan launched the Organisation of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy to oppose the junta. “The military regime and its conspirators have no legitimate power whatsoever to govern the country’s economy and society,” he said in a statement.

The E.U. has suspended both official visits to Thailand and its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the country.

TIME southeast asia

Malaysia’s Highest Court Upholds Ban on Christians Using the Word Allah

Malaysia Allah Dispute
Muslim women sit in front of a banner reading Allah during a protest outside the court of appeal in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, on June 23, 2014 Vincent Thian—AP Photo

Disappointed Christians decried creeping Islamization as a threat to their religious freedom

Malaysia’s highest court upheld a lower court’s ruling on Monday that denied an appeal by the Catholic newspaper The Herald to use the word Allah, considered the Arabic name for God. The decision made by a seven-judge panel laid to rest a tumultuous six-year court case that catalyzed religious tension in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation.

The case was originally brought in 2007 when the Home Ministry banned the use of Allah in the Malay-language edition of the paper, which dovetailed with a threat to withdraw its publishing permit. Church leaders insist that Allah has been used in religious literature and Malay-language Bibles to refer to the Christian God for centuries.

A 2009 appeal favored The Herald, which argued that Christians had the constitutional right to use the term — a decision that led to attacks on Christian places of worship for several years. Muslims argued that the Christian use of Allah could persuade Muslims to convert and so jeopardized national security. Following a ruling in October that reinstated the ban, Islamic authorities confiscated Bibles that used the word Allah. In January, two petrol bombs were thrown at a Malaysian church.

The federal court’s conclusive ruling on Monday was met with cheers from hundreds of Muslim activists outside the court. Chief Justice Tun Arifin Zakaria told the courtroom that “The court of appeal was right to set aside the high-court ruling,” local papers reported.

Disappointed Christians saw the decision as a threat to their religious freedom, complaining that it was only one example of increasing Islamization being pushed by the 60% Muslim majority. The Herald editor Father Lawrence Andrew told AFP that the judgment failed to “touch on the fundamental rights of minorities.”

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