TIME Thailand

Thai Children Break World Record for Dressing as Christmas Elves

Students gather to break the Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of Christmas elves outside a shopping mall in Bangkok on Nov. 25, 2014 Chaiwat Subprasom—Reuters

Largest gathering ever of Santa's little helpers near Bangkok

Santa’s little helpers are getting busy in Thailand’s capital Bangkok.

On Tuesday, 1,792 children dressed in matching red, green and white hats and T-shirts and pointy plastic ears to break the Guinness World Record for the largest Christmas elves gathering, Reuters reports.

The previous record was set when 1,110 little elves got together in Wetherby, England.

“I’m happy to have helped break the world record and steal the title from England,” said 11-year-old Theerathep Noonkao, who attended the event in his wheelchair.

While predominantly Buddhist, Thailand breaks out the holiday sheen every year, as shops and hotels widely decorate for Christmas.

[Reuters]

TIME Thailand

Thai Cinema Chain Pulls New Hunger Games Movie Because of the Three-Finger Salute

Thaialnd Hunger Games
An anticoup protester gives a three-finger salute as soldiers keep eyes on him from an elevated walkway near a rally site in central Bangkok on June 1, 2014 Thanyarat Doksone—AP

The gesture is synonymous with opposition to the Thai junta

One of Thailand’s main theater chains has pulled the latest installment of the hit Hollywood franchise The Hunger Games after five students were arrested for flashing the three-finger sign of dissent from the film at military dictator General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The salute has become synonymous with opposition to Thailand’s May 22 military coup. A spokesman for Apex cinemas told the Bangkok Post on Wednesday that the company had dropped the sequel, Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, as “we feel our theaters are being used for political movements.”

The decision comes after Prayuth was speaking in Khon Kaen, a city in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region where the family of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra maintains fervent support. Five students showed up sporting T-shirts that read “We don’t want the coup” and made the three-fingered “District 12” salute at the junta leader before being arrested.

Prayuth appeared to laugh off the challenge to his authority. “Well, that’s it. But it’s O.K. Go easy on them. We will take care of the problems. Any more protests? Make them quick,” he said, according to the Post.

The students were released later that same evening and ordered to report to the military with their parents the next day. Later on Wednesday, 11 students were arrested at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument for staging a picnic in solidarity with those detained in Khon Kaen. (Thai students often disguise their protests as picnics by handing out food.)

“I’m surprised something like this hasn’t happened much earlier given the general discontent with the regime,” David Streckfuss, an American scholar of Thai history based in Khon Kaen, tells TIME.

According to the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy — an anticoup student group that had offered 160 free tickets for the movie premiere to anyone who could answer the question, “In what ways is the Capital in the Mockingjay is similar to Bangkok?” — Apex canceled the movie after receiving a call from the police. A spokesman for the cinema denied it was under any pressure when speaking to the Post.

Thailand’s 18th military coup since 1932 has seen more than 200 academics, activists and journalists arbitrarily detained for up to a month, according to Human Rights Watch, and strict censorship imposed. Some of those voicing criticism from abroad have had their families threatened and passports revoked.

In addition, the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has documented “hundreds, possibly thousands” of people in the northeast who have been “summoned, monitored, followed and harassed by the military,” says Streckfuss.

TIME Crime

FBI Looking Into Laws About Body Parts Shipments

Thailand Human Parts
Thai police officer shows a picture of a tattooed human skin which was found in a package of a U.S. tourist, during a press conference at Bangpongpang police station in Bangkok,Thailand. Monday, Nov. 17, 2014 Sakchai Lalit—AP

Shipment from Bangkok included an infant's head, a baby's foot and an adult heart

(LAS VEGAS) — U.S. investigators are trying to determine whether any laws were broken by two American tourists who police say tried to ship preserved human parts from Thailand to Las Vegas.

FBI spokeswoman Bridget Pappas said Monday that investigators are aware that Ryan McPherson and Daniel Tanner were questioned after Bangkok police confiscated the three packages labeled “toys.”

Police say they contained body parts including an infant’s head, a baby’s foot and an adult heart.

The 31-year-old McPherson and 33-year-old Tanner were released. They left Thailand on Sunday and couldn’t be reached for comment.

Bangkok police say McPherson told them he thought the items were bizarre and wanted to send them to friends back home.

Efforts to reach family members or representatives in the Las Vegas area have been unsuccessful.

TIME Thailand

Thailand: Baby Body Parts Found in U.S.-Bound Parcels

Two Americans suspected of involvement have fled country, police said

BANGKOK — Thai police said Monday two Americans suspected of trying to send infant and adult body parts in parcels to the United States had fled the country. A baby’s head, a baby’s foot sliced into three parts, a heart and a “sheet of skin” with tattoo markings were found in parcels on Saturday after staff at a shipping office in Bangkok scanned the packages, police said. The parts were stored in plastic containers filled with formaldehyde and the packages were destined for an address in Las Vegas.

“X-rays showed there were contents similar to human body parts. From our…

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Thailand

Thai Dictator Faces Ire Over Bungled Investigation Into Murder of British Tourists

Thailand's Military Coup Continues As General Prayuth Receives Royal Endorsement
Thai military General Prayuth Chan-ocha speaks during a press conference after receiving the royal endorsement as the military coup leader on May 26, 2014, in Bangkok The Asahi Shimbun—2014 The Asahi Shimbun

The shoddy handling of the case has provoked international criticism

Thailand’s military dictator General Prayuth Chan-ocha is facing fierce protests on his maiden trip overseas, with Thai exiles in Italy rallying Thursday against his May 22 coup, and an indignant crowd expected to gather in London on Friday to protest the botched investigation into the brutal murder of two British backpackers on the resort island of Koh Tao.

Two Burmese casual workers, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21, have been arrested for rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and murder of her friend David Miller, 24, who were found bludgeoned to death on the island’s idyllic Sairee Beach.

The mishandling of the case has made headlines around the globe.

On Tuesday, ignoring a litany of procedural irregularities, Prayuth told representatives from the British and Burmese governments that their role would be “limited to observation” as both nations must “respect our processes,” reported the Bangkok Post.

The investigation has been dubbed “a perfect job” by Thai police chief Somyot Pumpunmuang, but is in fact an “appalling mess” according to Felicity Gerry QC, a prominent British defense lawyer specializing in high-profile sexual-assault cases.

Her condemnation echoes those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Thailand’s forensics’ chief, the U.K. government and the victims’ families.

Reports have emerged that Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun were beaten and threatened with electrocution during interrogation. (The Thai police robustly deny the allegations.)

They were also forced by police into a macabre re-enactment of the murder, which, Gerry tells TIME, is “bound to prejudice everything and does the victim and victims’ families no good at all.”

Tourists have also been allowed to visit the crime scene and the handling of evidence has been condemned.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a witness hearing was called by Koh Samui Court, but the defense team, having just flown in from Bangkok, was permitted just half an hour to meet the suspects.

It was “just enough time to explain what is a lawyer, why you need a lawyer and what does a lawyer do for you,” says Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant labor activist helping to organize the defense.

A request to postpone the hearing to allow adequate time for the defense to prepare was thrown out by the judge, who claimed defense witnesses posed a flight risk, even though the witnesses were employed and legally resident in Thailand — coveted status for migrant Burmese.

“It makes absolutely no sense why, in such a sensitive case, the court would rush hearings and it once again undermines the accused’s right to a fair trial,” says Hall.

Back in the U.K., the distraught families of Miller and Witheridge can only watch and pray. “As a family we hope that the right people are found and brought to justice,” said Witheridge’s family in a statement last week.

TIME TV

The Ellen DeGeneres Show Will Now Be Broadcast in Asia

Carla Bruni Visits "The Ellen DeGeneres Show"
In this handout photo provided by Warner Bros., Carla Bruni chats with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" at the Warner Bros. lot on April 28, 2014 in Burbank, California. Handout—WireImage/Getty Images

The popular comedienne's talk show will air on the same day as its U.S. premiere in Thailand, Malaysia and several other countries

Ellen DeGeneres fans in East Asia will no longer have to trawl the Internet for clips of her show the day after it airs, after Lifetime Asia secured same-day telecast rights in several countries.

Beginning Oct. 20, The Ellen DeGeneres Show will air in Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, PNG, Hong Kong, Macau, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

“We are hugely excited to bring Ellen to Lifetime in Asia and we strongly believe we add value by broadcasting the show in less than 24 hours from the U.S. premiere,” said Michele Schofield, a senior vice president of programming at A+E Networks Asia.

The show will air at 8 p.m. Hong Kong time on weekdays.

[THR]

TIME Thailand

The Investigation Into Thailand’s Backpacker Slayings Is Officially a Farce

Two workers from Myanmar, suspected of killing two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao last month, stand during a re-enactment of the alleged crime, on the island
Two Burmese workers, wearing helmets and handcuffs, suspected of killing two British tourists on the Thai island of Koh Tao last month, stand near Thai police officers during a re-enactment of the alleged crime on Oct. 3, 2014, on the spot where the bodies of the tourists were found on the island Reuters

Allegations of torture, procedural irregularities and wild speculation in the press: Thai authorities are botching a high-profile murder probe

Murdered British backpacker Hannah Witheridge was finally laid to rest in England on Friday. But 6,000 miles away in Thailand, the investigation into her tragic death, and that of her friend David Miller, whose funeral took place Oct. 3, spiraled further into farce.

The main suspects in the killings, which took place on the Thai Gulf island of Koh Tao, have reportedly claimed that they were tortured into a confession, and public prosecutors rejecting the police report.

“The two victims and their families deserve justice, which will only be possible if there is a fair and transparent process,” says Kingsley Abbott, Bangkok-based adviser for the International Commission of Jurists. Above all, he adds, “the burden of proof rests on the prosecution,” as the “two men must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

On Sept. 15, the bloodied bodies of Witheridge, 23, and Miller, 24, were discovered on the island that is famous among scuba divers and sandal-clad tourists for its pristine beaches and coral reefs.

Burmese nationals Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21, were arrested last Friday and quickly confessed to the double murder. They had apparently worked illegally on the island for a number of years and were driven, say police, by a desire to rape Witheridge after seeing the young British couple canoodling on the white sand.

The Thai authorities then dragged the two suspects to the rocky outcrop where the tourists’ bodies were found for a grisly re-enactment. Wearing helmets and body armor, they demonstrated for assembled media how the bludgeoning, using a garden hoe and wooden stake, took place and prayed for forgiveness. Both could face a death sentence if convicted.

Yet a litany of questions and inconsistencies hang over the investigation. Other than the apparent retraction, proffered by an official at the Burmese embassy, there has been a rejection of the police’s investigation report, with public prosecutors on Wednesday asking the authors to supply “more crucial information,” “fix certain flaws” and make the 850-page document “more succinct.”

Numerous character witnesses have come out to defend Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun and they have no criminal record. Essentially, the case against them hinges on five strands of evidence:

  1. Their Confessions. The most damning evidence in any case is a confession. However, reports have since emerged that Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun were beaten and threatened with electrocution during interrogation. (Other irregular workers questioned have alleged they were alternately offered bribes and doused with boiling water.) It also emerged that the translator used was a Rohingya — a member of a distinct Burmese ethnicity that suffers periodic pogroms at the hands of west Burma’s Rakhine majority, to which the accused both belong. There are unconfirmed rumors that the interpreter, who has since even given interviews, actually participated in the beatings. In addition, upon initially being picked up, neither the accused were apparently provided with a lawyer as they were being questioned under the Immigration Act rather than as part of a murder inquiry. (It is unclear at what stage a legal counsel was eventually provided.)
  2. Three DNA Samples. These were found on two cigarette butts close to the crime scene, two of which — from Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun — are purportedly matches for samples recovered from Witheridge’s body. The third is apparently that of Maung Maung, a friend of the accused who says he was with them drinking beer and playing guitar on the beach shortly before the attack. However, Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, director general of the Central Institute of Forensic Science and the country’s leading forensics authority, on Thursday decried the collection of evidence as a “weak point” and said the police committed a major error when they failed to involve a forensic pathologist.
  3. Maung Maung’s Testimony. This forms the third strand of evidence, although it is no slam dunk. He admits being with his two friends on the beach but leaving them at around 1 a.m. They wanted to keep on drinking, he said, so he went to see his girlfriend. He claims not to have seen any evidence of a crime, according to media reports.
  4. CCTV Footage. This shows the three Burmese riding a motorbike by a convenience store, where they apparently bought cigarettes and three bottles of beer. It corroborates Maung Maung’s version of events, but is circumstantial at best.
  5. Miller’s Cell Phone. It was discovered at lodgings of Zaw Lin, according to police. The device, a black iPhone 4, was apparently smashed and discarded as it did not work inside Thailand. But why would Zaw Lin do that when he could have sold it for at least a month’s salary? And if he was concerned about possible incrimination, why keep it at home?

But there are numerous other threads to tug. Given that Burmese migrants were in the spotlight from the outset, and this pair were well-known on the island and frequently seen in the vicinity of the crime scene, why were they not hauled in for DNA tests and questioning sooner?

In addition, there have been significant procedural irregularities, including allowing tourists into the crime scene before all evidence was collected. CCTV footage has been produced, but with significant gaps, and only from a selection of the many sources available. The defense team will want to examine this all. There is also no complete, undisputed timeline of Witheridge and Miller’s movements prior to the attack. Considering the notoriety of the case, and the victims’ sociable nature in this small community, that is very odd.

Finally, there has been rampant press coverage of the unsubstantiated remarks made by local officials. In the latest, the chief of the prison where the suspects are being held told a reporter Thursday he “is afraid they may commit suicide” because they are “feeling guilty for the crime.”

Thailand does not have jury trials and so the press has free reign to report on ongoing investigations, with the presumption that the sitting judge will be able to discount all speculation and concentrate on the evidence in hand. Even so, it is clearly prejudicial to the suspects to have individuals from such diverse sources as Burmese embassy, the Myanmar Migrant Labour Association and the Thai police, among others, talking openly to the media about what the suspects supposedly think and feel.

“That all these people are coming out and making these statements is incredibly detrimental to a fair trial,” says British labor-rights activist Andy Hall, who, as part of a monitoring mission, has met with the accused, the police, the prosecution team and British Ambassador Mark Kent.

Abbott agrees that normal procedure for a defense counsel would be to stop any further comment. “Our primary concern at this stage is to ensure the two suspects are provided with the assistance of a competent lawyer of their choosing,” he says, adding that whoever is chosen must have “adequate time and facilities to review the evidence.”

Otherwise, we may have to mourn not two, but four lives senselessly lost that night on Koh Tao.

TIME Thailand

Thailand Proposes Tourist Wristbands After Murders Prompt Safety Concerns

Wristbands will contain contact details of hotels if tourists get lost

Thailand’s tourism minister said Tuesday that visitors to the country will receive identification wristbands listing emergency contact information, a heightened safety precaution in the wake of the murders of two British tourists this month.

“When tourists check in to a hotel, they will be given a wristband with a serial number that matches their I.D. and shows the contact details of the resort they are staying in so that if they’re out partying late and, for example, get drunk or lost, they can be easily assisted,” Tourism and Sports Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, who has already approached several hotels about the idea, told Reuters.

Kobkarn added that a “buddy system” that pairs tourists with local guards was being discussed, and that there may be plans for electronic tracking devices in the future.

Concerns over tourist safety in Thailand have increased after beach workers discovered the bodies of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, on Sept. 15 at Koh Tao, a Thai resort island. The brutal slayings—for which no suspects have been identified yet—has prompted discussion over the lack of police presence at tourist destinations like Koh Tao, as well as Thailand’s reputation for both petty and violent crimes involving visitors.

TIME Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TIME Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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