TIME Thailand

Thailand’s 87-Year-Old King Makes Rare Appearance

Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images Thai well-wishers hold portraits of King Bhumibol Adulyadej while waiting in front of Siriraj hospital in Bangkok on May 5, 2015

Thais lined the roads along the route, chanting "Long live the King!"

(BANGKOK) — Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a rare public appearance Tuesday to mark the 65th anniversary of his coronation.

All television stations carried the event live, as the 87-year-old monarch emerged in a wheelchair from a Bangkok hospital, where he has taken up residence, and was driven through the capital’s historic district to the Grand Palace.

Buddhist monks led prayers as the king watched, before an audience of government and royal officials.

Thais lined the roads along the route, chanting “Long Live the King!” The palace had not announced if Bhumibol would appear for the ceremony, but crowds had gathered in anticipation of seeing the monarch. Tuesday was a national holiday.

Bhumibol has been hospitalized since last October when he had his gallbladder removed. It was the latest ailment and hospitalization for the king, who has faded from public life over the past several years and on rare outings looks visibly frail and does speak publicly.

Thais hold great affection for Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. He was crowned on May 5, 1950, after coming to the throne in 1946 following the death of his elder brother.

While he is constitutional monarch with no formal political role, Bhumibol is widely revered and regarded as the country’s sole unifying figure. Many regard his as a father figure, and his December birthday is also designated as Father’s Day in Thailand.

Bhumibol’s near-disappearance from public life has coincided with a decade of political instability in Thailand. Worries about the king’s health and succession have contributed to the instability.

The heir apparent, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not command the same respect and affection as the king.

Open discussion of the monarchy is constrained by a strict lese majeste law that makes criticism punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

TIME Thailand

U.S. Lets in Thai Fish Caught by Slaves Despite Law

Ngwe Thein, 42, on Nov. 28, 2014, has been living on an island near Benjina, Indonesia for three years, after being forced to work on a fishing trawler with inadequate food and little or no pay
Esther Htusan—AP Ngwe Thein has been living on an island near Benjina, Indonesia for three years, after being forced to work on a fishing trawler with inadequate food and little or no pay

The U.S. has not enforced a law against forced-labor goods due to loopholes

(WASHINGTON) — In its first report on trafficking around the world, the U.S. criticized Thailand as a hub for labor abuse. Yet 14 years later, seafood caught by slaves on Thai boats is still slipping into the supply chains of major American stores and supermarkets.

The U.S. has not enforced a law banning the import of goods made with forced labor since 2000 because of significant loopholes, The Associated Press has found. It has also spared Thailand from sanctions slapped on other countries with weak records in human trafficking because of a complex political relationship that includes cooperation against terrorism.

The question of how to deal with Thailand and labor abuse will come up at a congressional hearing Wednesday, in light of an AP investigation that found hundreds of men beaten, starved, forced to work with little or no pay and even held in a cage on the remote island village of Benjina. While officials at federal agencies would not directly answer why the law and sanctions are not applied, they pointed out that the U.S. State Department last year blacklisted Thailand as among the worst offenders in its report on trafficking in people worldwide.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the plight of about 4,000 forced laborers in Thailand’s seafood industry can no longer go unheeded.

“There have been problems with systematic and pervasive human trafficking in Thailand’s fishing fleets for more than a decade, but Washington has evidently considered it too hard to find out exactly what was happening and is not taking action to stop it,” he said. “No one can claim ignorance anymore. This is a test case for Washington as much as Bangkok.”

Hlaing Min, a 32-year-old migrant fisherman from Myanmar who worked around the clock for more than two years before he ran away, also begged the U.S. for help.

“Basically, we are slaves — and slavery is the only word that I can find — but our condition is worse than slavery,” he said. “On behalf of all the fishermen here, I request to the Congressmen that the U.S. stop buying all fish from Thailand. … This fish, we caught it with our blood and sweat, but we don’t get a single benefit from it.”

The AP investigation tracked fish caught by slaves to the supply chains of large food sellers such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, as well as popular brands of canned pet food such as Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. The companies all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps to prevent it. While some human rights advocates say boycotts are effective, many U.S. seafood companies say cutting off all imports from an entire country means they no longer have any power to bring about change.

During a recent visit to Jakarta, State Department Undersecretary Catherine A. Novelli was asked what the U.S. would now do.

“I’m sure that your public would be concerned that the fish that they ate came from a slave,” said an Indonesian reporter.

Novelli’s response was quick.

“In the United States we actually have a law that it is illegal to import any product that is made with forced labor or slave labor, and that includes fish,” she said. “To the extent that we can trace … where the fish are coming from, we won’t allow fish to come into the United States that has been produced with forced labor or slavery.”

However, the Tariff Act of 1930, which gives Customs and Border Protection the authority to seize shipments where forced labor is suspected and block further imports, has been used only 39 times in 85 years. In 11 cases, the orders detaining shipments were later revoked.

The most recent case dates back to 2000, when Customs stopped clothing from Mongolian firm Dong Fang Guo Ji based on evidence that factory managers forced employees, including children, to work 14-hour days for low wages. The order was revoked in 2001, after further review found labor abuse was no longer a problem at the company.

Detention orders that remain in place can have mixed results.

In 1999, Customs blocked hand-rolled unfiltered cigarettes from the Mangalore Ganesh Beedie Works in India, suspecting child labor. However, the AP found that Mangalore Ganesh has sent 11 large shipments of the cigarettes to Beedies LLC of Kissimee, Florida, over the past four years through the ports of New York, Miami and Savannah, Georgia. Beedies LLC said the cigarettes go straight from the U.S. ports to a bonded warehouse, and are then exported outside the country.

To start an investigation, Customs needs to receive a petition from anyone — a business, an agency, even a non-citizen — showing “reasonably but not conclusively” that imports were made at least in part with forced labor. But spokesman Michael Friel said that in the last four years, Customs has received “only a handful of petitions,” and none has pointed to seafood from Thailand. The most recent petition was filed two years ago by a non-profit against cotton in Uzbekistan.

“These cases often involve numerous allegations that require extensive agency investigation and fact-finding,” he said.

Experts also point to two gaping loopholes in the law. Goods made with forced labor must be allowed into the U.S. if consumer demand cannot be met without them. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to prove fish in a particular container is tainted, because different batches generally mix together at processing plants.

Former Justice Department attorney Jim Rubin said Customs can’t stop trafficked goods without the help of other federal agencies to investigate overseas.

“You can’t expect a Customs guy at the border to know that a can of salmon caught on the high seas was brought in by a slave,” he said.

The U.S. response to Thailand is also shaped by political considerations.

For years, the State Department has put Thailand on the watchlist in its annual trafficking report, saying the Thai government has made efforts to stop labor abuse. But last year, after several waivers, it dropped Thailand for the first time to the lowest rank, mentioning forced labor in the seafood industry. Countries with the same ranking, such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea, faced full sanctions, and foreign aid was withheld. Others, like Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe, faced partial sanctions.

Thailand did not: U.S. taxpayers provided $18.5 million in foreign aid to the country last year.

“If Thailand was North Korea or Iran, they’d be treated differently,” said Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re a key ally and we have a long relationship with them.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, when the U.S. needed Thailand’s help in the Vietnam War, the country “got a pass on everything,” Kurlantzick said. Then Thailand’s record on human rights gradually improved, along with its economy. That changed dramatically in 2006, when the military first ousted the prime minister. It declared martial law and then overtook the government again last year.

In response, the U.S. condemned the current regime and has suspended $4.7 million in military funding to the Southeast Asian nation.

However, the U.S. still includes Thailand in military exercises, and the country is considered a critical ally against terrorism. A U.S. Senate report in December detailed how top al-Qaida suspect Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded, slammed into a wall and isolated at a secret safe house in Thailand as part of CIA interrogations in 2002. And in 2003, a senior al-Qaida operative was arrested outside Bangkok after more than 200 people died in a Bali nightclub bombing.

The U.S. also wants strong relations with Thailand as a counterweight to China, whose influence is growing in the region.

Along with the State Department, the Labor Department has also flagged seafood from Thailand year after year as produced by forced labor in violation of international standards. Department of Homeland Security senior policy adviser Kenneth Kennedy referred to discussions for an action plan on labor abuse in Thailand that began in the fall.

“I think the U.S. government recently has realized that we need to pay attention to this area,” he said. “We need to address conditions that have been reported for years and that are in the public minds and in the public eye very much.”

Thailand itself says it is tackling labor abuse. In 2003, the country launched a national campaign against criminal organizations, including traffickers. In 2008, it adopted a new anti-human trafficking law. And last month, the new junta government cited the fight against trafficking as a national priority.

“This government is determined and committed to solving the human trafficking issues, not by words but by actions,” Deputy Government Spokesman Maj. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said. “We are serious in prosecuting every individual involved in the network, from the boats’ captains to government officials.”

However, a Thai police general on a fact-finding mission earlier this month to Benjina declared conditions were good and workers “happy.” A day later, Indonesian authorities rescued more than 320 abused fishermen from the island village, and the number of workers waiting to be sent home has since risen to more than 560.

Under United Nations principles adopted in 2011, governments must protect against human rights abuses by third parties. However, some local authorities in Thailand are themselves deeply implicated in such practices, said Harvard University professor John Ruggie, who wrote the principles, known as the “Ruggie Framework,” as a U.N. special representative. Also, Thailand’s seafood industry, with annual exports of about $7 billion, is big business for the country and depends on migrant labor.

Migrant fishermen rescued from Benjina were bewildered to learn that their abuse has been an open secret for years. Maung Htwe, a 26-year-old migrant worker from Myanmar, did backbreaking work for Thai captains in Indonesian waters over seven years, earning less than $5 a day, if he was lucky.

“Sometimes I’m really angry. It’s so painful. Why was I sold and taken to Indonesia?” asked Htwe, who was among the workers rescued from Benjina. “If people already knew the story, then they should have helped us and taken action.”

TIME Thailand

The Thai Junta Has Replaced Martial Law With an Equally Draconian Security Order

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gets in his car after the merit-making ceremony on the occasion of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's birthday at Sanam Luang in Bangkok
Damir Sagolj—Reuters Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gets in his car after the merit-making ceremony on the occasion of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's birthday at Sanam Luang in Bangkok on April 2, 2015

The Land of Smiles appears to be sinking further into dictatorship

Martial law has been lifted in Thailand, but replaced with a sweeping new security decree that grants virtually identical powers to the junta.

On Wednesday, King Bhumibol Adulyadej gave his much-expected rubber stamp to General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s decision to invoke Article 44 of the nation’s interim constitution, by which “acts deemed harmful to national peace and stability” may be curbed.

Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams decried the Southeast Asian nation’s “deepening descent into dictatorship” since the May 22 coup d’état.

“Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand by the junta leader to replace martial law with a constitutional provision that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers,” he said in a statement.

The new order grants powers to the military to arrest anyone for suspected crimes against Thailand’s powerful royal family, as well as those who are deemed to be jeopardizing national stability or violating the orders of the junta. The military has also been granted powers to seize assets, censor the media, and detain suspects for up to seven days without charge.

Anyone found guilty of flouting the order faces a year imprisonment.

Since seizing power, the military has also used — under the guise of protecting the royal family — the nation’s draconian lèse majesté law to target critics and political opponents.

On Tuesday, businessman Theinsutham Suthijittaseranee, 58, was jailed for 25 years for allegedly posting defamatory comments on Facebook concerning the monarchy.

“Thailand’s return to democracy remains uncertain as the junta retains tight grip amid the unending climate of fear,” says Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained Thai lawyer and visiting scholar at the University of London. “Martial law may be lifted today, but Thailand remains deeply sunk in unchecked military rule.”

TIME animals

Watch This Adorable Baby Elephant Have the Most Fun in a Bath Ever

It's like Dumbo before he learned to fly, only way cuter

Your dog or cat may hate bath time, but this baby elephant absolutely loves it.

In a video purportedly taken at the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace & Royal Kraal in Thailand, the lumbering calf half-dives, half-falls into a tub barely big enough for him … four times.

The way he stumbles around, much to the delight of his giggling audience, makes it seem like there’s an alcoholic content to the liquid in that tub.

The little tusker even grabs the hose in his trunk and playfully runs away, but not before leaving behind a rather nasty surprise.

Read next: Watch 2 Koalas Embroiled in a Herculean Wrestling Match

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Thailand

Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra Impeached by Junta-Backed Legislature

Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra greets in a traditional way as she arrives at Parliament before the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom —Reuters Ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at Parliament before the National Legislative Assembly meeting in Bangkok on Jan. 22, 2015

The country’s first female Prime Minister is also facing criminal charges after being banned from Thai politics for five years

Thailand’s military-stacked legislature voted en masse on Friday to impeach former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed through a court ruling days before the kingdom’s armed forces launched a full-scale putsch on May 22.

The junta-backed National Legislative Assembly voted by a margin of 190 to 18, with 11 absentions, to impeach Thailand’s first female Premier over a controversial rice-pledging scheme her administration passed after her landslide victory at the polls in 2011.

However, the ill-fated plan, which paid farmers above market prices for their crop regardless of quality, backfired and blew a $15 billion hole in the Thai economy.

On Thursday, Yingluck derided her impending impeachment and accompanying five-year banishment from the kingdom’s political landscape as a violation of her “basic rights,” during an address to the country’s Parliament.

The 47-year-old has kept a low profile since General Prayuth Chan-ocha seized power and launched an unprecedented campaign to bridle dissent and quell a half-year of polarizing, and often deadly, street demonstrations.

Following Friday’s vote, analysts say the political persecution of Yingluck and her supporters will likely calcify the ever widening divide in the country between the rural and working-class masses, who largely back the populist Shinawatra political machine, and the royalist establishment based in Bangkok.

“They are trying to ban these people from politics for as long as they can so that there’s basically no opposition to whatever the military junta and its allies are going to do politically for the foreseeable future,” Saksith Saiyasombut, a Thai political analyst and popular blogger, tells TIME.

Yingluck also faces a maximum of 10 years in prison after the country’s attorney general pledged Friday to indict her for negligence and abuse of power over the same botched rice scheme.

The impeachment and imminent criminal prosecution of Yingluck now runs the risk of enraging the Shinawatra clan’s partisan supporters, better known as the Red Shirts, who have remained largely dormant in the wake of the coup and its accompanying crackdown.

“This will only exacerbate the political schism we have right now,” says Saksith.

Thailand has been bogged down in unceasing episodes of political discord since Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, was first removed from power during a bloodless coup almost a decade ago. Political parties deemed loyal to Thaksin have been deposed through two putsches and three controversial court decisions since 2001, despite being undefeated at the polls.

“Today Yingluck joins her brother as another ‘undying political martyr,'” says Verapat Pariyawong, a Thai legal expert and visiting scholar at the University of London, by email. “While the Shinawatra camp may face some difficulties in the coming years, it has now become even more difficult for millions of Thai people to move beyond them.”

TIME Thailand

Tourists Are Reporting a Dramatic Surge in Harassment by Thai Police

A tourist policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khao San road in Bangkok
Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters A policeman stands guard as tourists walk along Khaosan Road in Bangkok on Jan. 19, 2012

The Land of Smiles? How about the Land of Shakedowns?

Mastercard’s 2014 Global Destination Cities Index recently ranked Bangkok as the second most visited destination in the world after London. Spend a few days this hedonistic metropolis and you’ll soon understand why, for it offers an almost unbeatable mix of culture, edgy nightlife, cheap shopping, comfortable hotels, warm weather and — who can say no? — Thai cuisine.

But since the May 22 coup d’état that saw the ouster of a democratically elected government and martial law declared across the country, many tourists and expatriates in Bangkok have fallen prey to a criminal practice. The victims have little recourse when reporting incidents to the police, because the perpetrators are police officers.

“If you go to Sukhumvit Road, you can see the police looking for tourists who are smoking or drop a cigarette butt, then they ask them for their passport and make them pay 2,000 baht [just over $60]. I see this happening all the time,” says anticorruption politician Chuwit Kamolvisit.

“[And] when the tourists come out of Soi Cowboy [a notorious red-light area], the police ask them if they’ve had drugs and then make them do a pee test on the side of the road. If they don’t want to do the pee test, they have to pay 20,000 baht [about $610].”

Being a former brothel owner, Chuwit’s word isn’t exactly gospel in Thailand. But his claims are apparently corroborated by dozens if not hundreds of first-person reports in the form of local newspaper articles, complaints to embassies, blogs and social-media postings. Some believe that the coup, by disrupting traditional avenues for corruption, has forced aberrant police officers to look for new targets.

On Dec. 10, British Ambassador Mark Kent tweeted, “Met Tourism Minister this morning. Covered range of issues, including reports of stop and search in Bangkok.”

The Twitter feed of Joe Cummings, the former Lonely Planet author who practically ​put Thailand on the backpacker map, is riddled with stories detailing police harassment and extortion. “Random police searches of foreigners in BKK is getting bad,” reads a typical entry dated Dec. 6. “Many reports of innocent tourists forced to pay bribes.”

Then there’s this scathing letter to the editor by tourist Reese Walker published Nov. 29 in the Bangkok Post: “Stopped, frisked and searched. When we asked what reason was for the search, police simply laughed at us. The police even asked my fiance to perform a urine test on the side of the road … [We] won’t be recommending other people to visit Thailand based on two frightening incidents of what we believe to be racial profiling.”

Walker’s letter gives me a real sense of déjà vu because when I was assignment in Bangkok last month, I too became the victim of a police shakedown.

It was Christmas Eve and I was at the upstairs area of a terrace bar in the Silom Road area having a late-night drink. At around 2 a.m. I called it a night and descended to the ground floor. There I saw half a dozen police officers searching the premises and interrogating the bartender, who was handcuffed on a chair. An officer detained me straight away. “What’s going on?” I asked, identifying myself as a journalist.

He made a menacing fist at me, which convinced me to pipe down.

About 15 minutes later, another police officer produced a bag of white powder, shook it near my face and accused me of buying it. I emphatically denied the claim. Meanwhile, other police officers began helping themselves to drinks from the bar. When the bartender protested, they kicked him in the shins.

Eventually, a police officer took me outside where a Thai woman told me if I paid the equivalent of $15,200, I would be released. I told her I hadn’t done anything and would not pay a cent. I was taken back inside, where officers had now detained another four Westerners present at the bar. They then took all five of us in taxis to a nearby police station without a word of explanation.

Over the next four hours we were individually forced to undergo urine tests for drugs, during which a policeman standing guard in the lavatory taunted me by saying, “You cocaine.” Images from popular books and a TV series on the notorious Bangkwang Central Prison penitentiary, the so-called Bangkok Hilton, flashed through my mind.

Next we were taken to a media room with powerful fluorescent lights. Exhausted and disheveled, having not slept the entire night, and with our urine samples lined in front of us, we were photographed in a setting that made us look guilty as sin.

Some time after dawn we were presented with a typed document — in Thai — and told to sign it. At this, I drew a line and demanded to speak with the Australian embassy. Only then did our tormentors back down, casually informing us we’d all passed our drug tests and would be released — if only we signed on the dotted line. I did so, but I also scribbled, “This is not my signature” on the document before walking back onto the steamy streets of Bangkok at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day, traumatized but elated to be free.

During my detention, I identified myself as a journalist many times and asked for an explanation. None was given to me. After my release, I wrote to the official email address of the Thai police, but it bounced back. I copied half a dozen other government agencies, including the Australian embassy in Bangkok, which is supposed to have a police-liaison unit, but the only reply I got was from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which said the following:

“The Royal Thai Government and the Royal Thai Police have no such policy to detain, harass, abduct, threaten and drug test Western tourists in Thailand. On the contrary, the Royal Thai Government recognizes the huge importance of tourism and safety for all foreign tourists is an on-going priority for the country.”

One would think that would be the case. Tourism receipts and indirect tourism activity account for 15% of Thailand’s GDP — making it the largest sector in the economy. So why would police be allowed to make omelets from Thailand’s golden eggs?

The most popular theory is that low-ranking street cops, some of whom earn as little as $1 an hour, are seeking out new sources of income, because the military-led government has begun cracking down on the street vendors who were the former targets of police shakedowns. Foreigners make convenient prey because they can be intimidated and, compared with the local population, are relatively wealthy.

“This explanation says the takeover has placed the police, traditionally at odds with the military, in some sort of frenzy amidst proposed restructuring that is likely to deeply disrupt the way the police have operated — both formally and informally,” says Thai political analyst Saksith Saiyasombut.

But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai political scholar based in Japan who has had his passport revoked for criticizing the military-led government, thinks the practice has, paradoxically, a social-order element to it. Demanding random drug tests from some tourists, or asking for cash for a dropped cigarette butt, the thinking goes, shows other tourists that Thailand’s new rulers want to shed some of the seedier aspects of the country’s image abroad.

“The coup makers came with a mission. And that mission is to rebuild an orderly and clean society,” Pavin says. “They believe that by appearing to be serious about cleaning up society and creating an orderly atmosphere, it will attract more tourists. They even bizarrely announced a new campaign, Tourism and Martial Law, to promote the idea that society under martial law is pleasant.”

He adds: “It will not work, because they don’t understand either the logic of tourists or indeed the economy of tourism.”

Bangkok may have had 16.42 million visitors last year. But that number is down nearly 2 million compared with the previous year, with the drop attributed to the declining ruble and corresponding fall in the number of Russian tourists. Increased fear of flying in the wake of the Malaysia Airlines tragedies has been proffered as another reason, as has general uncertainty about the coup. If action isn’t taken to rein in the Thai police, tourist numbers may fall further still.

Read next: Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

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TIME Thailand

Thai Prisoners May Soon Be Catching the Fish on Your Dinner Plate

Christophe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images This picture taken on Sept. 20, 2013, shows fish in crates after they were unloaded from a trawler at a port in Pattani, southern Thailand

The Thai government wants to send chain gangs to sea

Dozens of labor and human-rights groups have condemned a plan by the Thai junta to use prison labor on fishing boats, which are already notorious for violence, human trafficking and slavelike conditions.

The coalition of 45 international organizations has penned an open letter to Thai army chief Prayut Chan-ocha, who has run the Southeast Asian nation since staging a coup d’état on May 22, urging him to end a pilot project that sends prisoners out to sea. Much of the fish, shrimp and shellfish caught ends up on dinner tables in the U.S. and Europe.

“Thailand cannot run from the trafficking problem in its fishing fleet,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, one of the signatories. “And sending prisoners to sea will not address the systematic, pervasive labor problems in Thailand’s fishing industry.”

Currently, migrant workers from Burma (officially known as Myanmar) and Cambodia comprise the bulk of workers on Thai fishing vessels. Systemic abuses have been widely documented with many workers receiving little or no pay, getting traded from boat to boat so they never see land for years, and, in the very worst cases, simply tossed into the sea when they inevitably fall ill.

“Thailand has repeatedly said that it’s committed to end forced labor and human trafficking, but this pilot project heads in precisely the opposite direction and will make things worse,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who also said the initiative “should be immediately scrapped.”

TIME celebrity

Looks Like Beyoncé and Blue Ivy Got to Hang Out With a Tiger Cub

And animal rights advocates are not happy with the photo

Beyoncé, Jay Z & Blue #Thailand

A photo posted by Beyoncé (@beylite) on

In a viral photo that is bound to make anyone who just got back from holiday vacation jealous, it looks like Jay Z, Beyoncé, their toddler daughter Blue Ivy, spent quality time with a tiger cub at the Phuket FantaSea theme park in Thailand.

The above image, which recently appeared on an Instagram account for Beyoncé fans “@Beylite“, may seem like a cute family bonding moment, but it has already stirred controversy.

The London Evening Standard reports Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a wildlife expert for animal welfare charity World Animal Protection, argues, “A tiger is not a plaything,” so animals’ “health and well-being should not be sacrificed for a photo opportunity.”

TIME Thailand

The Draconian Legal Weapon Being Used to Silence Thai Dissent

Pornchai Kittiwongsakul—AFP/Getty Images Thai university student Patiwat Saraiyaem, center, is escorted by prison officials as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok on Oct. 27, 2014

Thailand's lèse majesté laws are supposed to protect the royal family from defamation, but in practice they are being used as a vicious political tool

Barefoot and shackled at the ankles, two Thai student activists shuffled into court this week to plead guilty to insulting the nation’s monarch by staging a play about an fictitious king.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Pornthip Munkong, 25, face up to 15 years in jail under Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, considered the world’s harshest.

The laws are ostensibly protect King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the royal family from defamatory slurs, but are in practice used in vendettas and as a political tool.

The offending content of the play, The Wolf Bride, has not been made public, but it was performed to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a pro-democracy student protest at Thammasat University that was brutally crushed by the then military government in October 1973.

“My boy did not intend to insult the monarchy, he is just an actor,” Patiwat’s father Aiyakan Saraiyaem told news agency AFP outside the court.

Held in custody since their arrests, both students were denied bail, and pleaded guilty in an attempt to avoid further jail-time.

The case is indicative of spiraling political prosecutions in Thailand exacted through lèse majesté, otherwise known as Article 112. In recent years, a bevy of academics, politicians, journalists and even a 61-year-old grandfather have fallen foul of this law. And it has almost nothing to do with safeguarding the Thai monarchy.

It is “political weaponry in the guise of a legal system,” says Jakrapob Penkair, a former Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office, who was accused of lèse majesté over a speech he gave at Thailand’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club that rebuked the nation’s culture of royal patronage. “It encourages people to go berserk.”

This is because lèse majesté cases can be brought by any Thai citizen — no matter what country they reside in, and at any time, against any other individual, Thai or foreign. (Criminal cases, by contrast, are typically brought by a department of public prosecutions.)

This Orwellian culture is fostered by the state. During the tenure of former Democrat Party Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was in power from 2008 to 2011, he appeared on huge billboards asking citizens to “protect the monarchy” by reporting those whom defamed the institution.

And so the vast majority of lèse majesté cases are brazenly political or spurred by personal grudges. Last week, for example, the Democrat Party’s legal advisor filed lèse majesté charges against Suda Rangkupan, a former Chulalongkorn University lecturer and supporter of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, for wearing the color black during December, the month of King Bhumibol’s birth. (Thais traditionally wear his birthday color of yellow out of respect.)

Preposterous as these charges plainly are, most Thais are afraid of, and conditioned against, speaking out. Thai journalists cannot report on cases freely without putting themselves at risk of prosecution, while courtiers appears to be immune.

“Rational Thais who respect the monarchy no less than the rest are becoming more aware that lèse majesté law is enforced to protect a few privileged commoners lurking around the palace at the expense of the institution itself,” Verapat Pariyawong, a Harvard-trained Thai lawyer who is currently a visiting scholar at the University of London, tells TIME.

Sometimes, an indirect connection with the cause of offense is sufficient. When Ekachai Hongkangwan was arrested in 2012 for peddling pirated copies of an Australian documentary about the Thai monarchy, the fact that that the material was essentially accurate, and that he had no part in its creation, was no defense.

“Because,” Judge Aphisit Veeramitchai explained to the court, “if it is true, it is more defamatory; and if it isn’t true, then it’s super defamatory.” Ekachai was jailed for three and a half years.

Little wonder most people accused of Article 112 either apologize or meekly claim to be misunderstood, rather than attack the lèse majesté laws in the first place. This ensures that there is no public debate on the law.

The scope of lèse majesté has also flourished contrary to the expressed wishes of King Bhumibol. During his birthday speech in 2005, the monarch said, “Actually, I must also be criticized. I am not afraid if the criticism concerns what I do wrong, because then I know. Because if you say the king cannot be criticized, it means that the king is not human. If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him because the king is not being treated as a human being. But the king can do wrong.”

Article 112 is typically deployed with politically expedient timing, rather than at the time of the supposed offense. The former minister Jakrapob made his offending speech eight months before charges were laid; students Patiwat and Pornthip performed their play in October 2013, but were only arrested this past August.

“It’s not about your action, it’s about the timing,” says Jakrapob. “They wait until the moment when you seem most vulnerable.”

So why are students being targeted now? Since Thailand’s latest military coup of May 22, opposition to the new junta government has been brutally quashed. Yet, in recent months, students have become emboldened as public dissatisfaction grows over a slew of scandals, and have displayed great daring by even publicly heckling dictator Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

“They are using the youngsters as an example,” says Jakrapob of the latest charges, “to say that regardless of your age or social background, we will not hesitate.”

And so as protests increase, lèse majesté has followed suit. A study published November by the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights noted 18 cases since the generals seized power, usually tried through fast-track kangaroo courts. These include a radio show host jailed for five years, and a 24-year-old student jailed for two-and-a-half years for posting a Facebook message under a pseudonym. On Wednesday, Internet providers were granted sweeping new powers to remove any content verging on lèse majesté. The junta even pursues those who have fled overseas.

It appears the Thai establishment wants to silence dissent before the delicate time of succession approaches. King Bhumibol is the world’s richest monarch, worth an estimated $30 billion, but is 87 years old and ailing. Many ascribe Thailand’s festering political travails to the wrangling for control of this vast fortune before Bhumibol passes on the crown.

This has already been reflected in the purges of powerful policemen connected to the recently jilted wife of Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, using, among other charges, lèse majesté. The military must maintain a vice-like grip on power to ensure the succession takes place as its powerful backers wish.

“At this very delicate time of transition, they cannot afford to give an inch to anyone,” says Jakrapob, “and the young people worry them.”

TIME Malaysia

Flooding Kills 24 in Malaysia and Thailand

Flood situation worsens in north-east Malaysia
Azhar Rahim—EPA An aerial view of a settlement submerged by floodwaters in the Pengkalan Chepa district of Kelantan, Malaysia, Dec. 28, 2014.

Nearly 160,000 have been left homeless since the flooding began

Flooding in Malaysia and Thailand has killed 24 people and left nearly 160,000 homeless since mid-December, in the deadliest regional flood season in a decade, according to recent reports.

Malaysian authorities said the rain is expected to last at least another week, Reuters reported.

The death total includes 10 in Malaysia and 14 in Southern Thailand.

The news comes as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak visited sites of the flooding following his return from Hawaii on Friday. Razak had been criticized for playing golf with U.S. President Barack Obama during the floods.


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