Thailand and Singapore – crises and…opportunities in 2015

Some interesting news and insights from two Southeast Asian countries.

Exclusive: Who's Really Behind Thailand’s Erawan Shrine Bomb Blast?

Experts investigate the Erawan shrine at the site of a deadly blast in central Bangkok, Thailand, August 18, 2015. Image Credit: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

First, in Thailand, Shawn Crispin writes in The Diplomat exploring the possible deeper background, the players, and ultimately the causes of the Bangkok Erawan Shrine bombings, in ‘Who’s Really Behind Thailand’s Erawan Shrine Bomb Blast?

A security adviser with access to Thai intelligence reports says agents outside of the police are pursuing leads that indicate extensive Thai involvement in what appears on the surface to be a foreign-executed attack. Local intelligence cited by the adviser indicates that the plot was planned for over one year, before the Uyghur deportations but likely after the military’s May 2014 takeover. The adviser says the apparent Thai actors have concealed their identities in various ingenious ways, including the use of Internet-based communication applications that are knowingly difficult, if not impossible, for local intelligence agencies to track and detect.

Then, in Singapore, two different views of the Singaporean General (parliamentary) Elections with similar broad conclusions: see “No easy win for Singapore’s PAP” in The Diplomat again, and “In staid Singapore, a national election that could change its course” from the South China Morning Post.

No Easy Win for Singapore’s PAP

Image Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su

“Bring the [ruling party’s lightning sigil] home”, states one placard above…because, you know, it was like a spy out in the cold, or stuck fighting senseless wars in a foreign land, or lost like sheep wandering a desert for 40 years…oh sorry, those are real issues.

Both articles conclude that the ruling PAP will form the next government.

Let’s then look at some of the main none-too-subtle differences, either by omission or commission/contradiction, and my token critique particularly of the SCMP article, in brackets.

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Sovereignty Without Territoriality?

A reference to James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed and Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation here.

Dart-Throwing Chimp

The concentration of manpower was the key to political power in premodern Southeast Asia… This overwhelming concern for obtaining and holding population at the core is shot through every aspect of precolonial statecraft. What Geertz says about Balinese political rivalries—that they were “a struggle more for men than for land”—could apply equally to all of mainland Southeast Asia. This principle animated the conduct of warfare, which was less a grab for distant territory than a quest for captives who could be resettled at the core… Early European officials were frequently astounded by the extremely vague demarcation of territories and provinces in their new colonies and puzzled by an administration of manpower that had little or nothing to do with territorial jurisdiction… As Thongchai Winichakul’s insightful book shows, the Siamese paid more attention to the manpower they could summon than to sovereignty over land that had no value in the absence…

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Somebody get this man a Tiger*

Or alternatively, whatever passes for a good ‘national’ alcoholic brew in Burma/Myanmar.

A letter to the online letters section of the state/ruling party-aligned Singapore broadsheet The Straits Times has called out other commentators’ flawed observations (and also the newspaper itself – see letter farther below) on Aung San Su Kyi’s relationship-building with countries in Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

A Michael Seah wrote in to share his views, published on 26 June, that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean or ASEAN) did not deserve any special priority to be visited by ‘The Lady’ as a newly-elected (and freed from house arrest) member of the Burmese parliament.

The link to it is here. This letter with the heading “Asean cannot claim sole credit for Myanmar reforms” is reproduced in full, in case the link expires:

THERE is a difference between seeking investment opportunities for Myanmar and recognising the political right of its people to a fully elected democratic government.

Mr Cheng Seng Poh’s letter (‘Asean’s quiet diplomacy deserves credit’; last Saturday) and Professor Kishore Mahbubani’s commentary (‘The Lady should look to Asia, not Europe’; June 18) seemed to focus on Asean’s achievements and opportunities, but missed the wider point of the need to establish and strengthen Myanmar’s political institutions.

Telling Ms Aung San Suu Kyi to look to Asia and Asean for economic opportunities may be correct. However, the realities on the ground – a military-dominated Parliament and hundreds of political prisoners still in jail – cannot provide an environment that co-exists with economic investments.

Ms Suu Kyi is correct in first seeking support for political reforms to ensure that when the economic reforms bear fruit, the people and not its long-corrupt political junta get to benefit.

Asean cannot itself claim credit for Myanmar’s current reforms under President Thein Sein. It is more likely that the Western spotlight on Ms Suu Kyi helped as well.

Ms Suu Kyi was a highly visible political prisoner of conscience. Myanmar could not get rid of her without incurring international condemnation. That Ms Suu Kyi is today her nation’s international champion is largely due to the impact of Western attention.

Asean may have urged economic and political reforms, but the grouping’s governments also have their own political baggage. Asean nations cannot be the ideal models for the democracy Ms Suu Kyi seeks.

In her speech to British parliamentarians, Ms Suu Kyi called for assistance to strengthen Myanmar’s parliamentary practice and development. In her Nobel lecture, she asked the world not to forget the political prisoners still in jail.

The Straits Times should publish these speeches in full.

Who among Asean’s national leaders visited her or invited her for an official visit? Therefore, let’s not begrudge the fact that she chose to visit Europe before any grand tour of Asean and Asia.

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Roads to Tahrir Square (1)

The intent and direction of this post initially started out as something quite different from what I’m intending it to be now. Originally drafted with the title ‘The Top Five: A quick list…or not quite’ (yes, what an uninspiring, anti-climatic title), I’ve now changed it to the title you see here to better reflect the thrust of the piece.

Some events have superseded the ones I’ve described below, but this does not mean that the essence of the news or information is dated in any way.

This post also ‘launches’ two new tags-cum-categories: Regime Watch and PAP regime watch, for reasons that will be self-explanatory further here and as I post more pieces.

Even as Egyptians ask where their revolution went, and return to Tahrir Square after the acquittals of key Mubarak-era officials and a look at the “real power struggles in Egypt”, I give an overview of the key events of 2011.

Coming across a few blogs that have given their ‘best of’, ‘worst of’, or ‘most memorable’ …etc. lists, I’m inspired but less ambitious.  I don’t think I have any lists in my mind that can be strictly categorised as best things, worst things, or anything else.

But taking a (very belated) look back at 2011, it’s clear that momentous events have occurred. I attempt here to present broad themes that reflect the significant issues of the year just past – some with my particular take on them when I’m able to.

This is not a neat listing of my Top Five for 2011, but rather a compilation of reports, analyses, books, blog posts, web articles and video summaries,  grouped variously by subject or theme into five sections, with some overlap. Perhaps readers can identify common threads.

  • One. The American Empire (Project) With the Obama administration more than halfway through its first term, the troubles in the Middle East still brewing, and international security issues at a high (some would say inflation of threats, e.g. Iran’s nuclear programme), I first draw attention to Tom Engelhardt’s American Empire Project. It investigates the notion or reality of the US ’empire’ through a series of books and its website.

Of these, I’ve only read Blowback by Chalmers Johnson, but I already have The Complex: How The Military Invades Our Everyday Lives by Nick Turse on my to-read list (and in my possession).

‘Empire’ by Al Jazeera was a televised discussion featuring both Engelhardt and Walt. It’s a pretty good one, but I felt that the host was too eager to press his points about American ’empire’ and ‘business’, and didn’t let Walt and his colleague a fair-enough airing of their views. Watch it here:

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“Thai women are fighters” – for World Press Freedom Day 2008

In 2003, Thai media rights activist Supinya Klangnarong was sued by former Thai prime minister’s Thaksin Shinawatra’s Shin Corp over comments quoted in a Thai newspaper. She never imagined the case would be drawn out over three years and have possible far-reaching repercussions.

This was an impression I received from watching the documentary of her saga, “The Truth Be Told: the cases against Supinya Klangnarong”. It was shown at this year’s 21st Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) recently. The first public and international screening outside of Thailand, the film was only previously shown in Bangkok to a private, invitation-only audience last September.*

Supinya had stated in the Thai Post on 16 July 2003 that Shin Corp had benefitted through favourable government policies, as it was politically connected to the Thaksin government and suffered from conflicts of interest. Because they claimed that Supinya’s allegations adversely affected Shin Corp’s stock value and credit rating, the conglomerate sued both her and the newspaper for criminal and civil libel. The latter suit sought 400 million baht (that’s about 18.2 million Singapore dollars, give or take a few hundred thousand) in compensation.

Photo from Poakpong

Director Pimpaka Towira showed key snapshots of her life throughout the years of her trial, culminating in the Criminal Court throwing out the criminal suit in March 2006 and Shin Corp dropping the civil suit in May that same year. For the former lawsuit, the court ruled that the article in the Thai Post was presented in good faith and in the public’s best interest.

The film actually has a subtler but more powerful underlying theme – that of an activist fighting for media reform to put power into the hands of the ordinary people; to control national resources such as radio and television broadcasts, from production to consumption. The timing of the screening in Singapore was incidentally appropriate for this year’s World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, and as expressed by the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) focus this year – empowering people through media freedom and access to information.

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Commentary on Southern Thailand: Media should take up role of bringing peace to the region

A special highlight:

My friend and colleague Pokpong Lawansiri wrote this commentary jointly with another political activist. It was sent to some English-language media based in Thailand (although to the best of my knowledge, none have featured the commentary or published excerpts or used the information in any way, so far).

Southern Thailand
: The media bears the role of ending friction and bringing peace to the region

By Pokpong Lawansiri and Kwanravee Wangudom

With the situation in Southern Thailand continuing to deteriorate, made especially clear through the recent killings of nine people when their van was en route to Yala Province yesterday, the media bears the responsibility to maintain a culture of understanding, not a culture of hatred and vengeance.

Upon presenting these issues in the media, words or phases such as the “Muslim separatists” or “Malay Insurgents” are used carelessly without realising that these terms can lead to hatred and stigmatisation of Malay-Muslim populations.

There is also a misunderstood view on the role of human rights organisations – which have been assisting the victims and those affected by the ongoing conflict in the region – regarding the slow response toward this atrocity. Questions were raised as to why human rights advocates did not raised their voices promptly on this particular incident.

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