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The year of living dangerously – Thai protesters utter the unthinkable

Tim Newton

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The year of living dangerously – Thai protesters utter the unthinkable | Thaiger

OPINION

An estimated 10,000 anti-government protesters packed Bangkok’s Democracy Monument and the roads either side on a warm Sunday afternoon, calling for democratic reform, changes to the NCPO-written constitution and for the dissolution of parliament. They also spoke about the country’s head of state, questioning the institution.

Even a few months ago this would have been considered an absolute no-go topic in Thailand. Apart from hushed conversation behind closed doors, Thailand’s monarchy is not up for public discussion and the position of Monarch is held in the highest respect, but not by everyone.

Sunday’s protest was the biggest pro-democracy rally since the Thai military seized power in May 2014 in a soft coup. Almost daily demonstrations, started by secondary and tertiary students across the country a month ago, are now attracting a much broader cross-section of society. And the crowds are getting larger.

Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha has acknowledged the protesters and even offered to meet with them, but hasn’t. He’s even conceded that the Constitution could be reviewed, but nothing has happened as yet. So the protests continue to gather broader support and the Government are probably hoping the rainy season starts getting wetter again, soon.

The protests couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Prayut government, still picking up the political pieces after a cabinet reshuffle, trying to cope with an economy suffering the ravages of an earlier 2 month lockdown and a tourist industry without any tourists. Then again, the country’s opposition forces may be sensing the moment of weakness and are making a decisive move.

The topic of the country’s Monarch has been a no go topic for, well, forever. Even though the absolute monarchy ceased in 1932 in another soft coup by a new Democratic government, the position has retained its emotional appeal for the Thai people, particularly through the work of the the former Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He took on the position of the people’s King with a quiet resolve and was regularly seen traipsing through mud, checking out irrigation projects or heading ‘up country’ to meet the people. His 70 years on the Thai throne lasted through 29 prime minsters, 12 military coups, countless regional conflicts, the threat of Communism, the Vietnam war and the impact of modernism on the previously agrarian Thai economy.

Upon his passing in 2016, King Bhumibol’s son, Crown Prince Maha Vachiralongkorn, ascended the Thai throne… the 10th King of the Chakri dynasty. Rama X was crowned in May 2019 during 3 days of celebration, pomp and circumstance.

Just a year ago the very thought of any Thai openly questioning the role of Thailand’s Head of State would have been completely unthinkable. Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws prevent criticism of the Thai King and other members of the Royal Family. But it’s also been a topic that is NEVER discussed in polite or public conversation. Now the murmurings behind closed doors have, unthinkably, spilled out onto the streets.

One of the leading protesters Anon Nampa, a human rights lawyer, says the protests are now reaching beyond Bangkok and are more than just a student rabble.

“I am so thrilled to see a lot people turned out to join the protest today. The movement has gone beyond just the youth group. As you see there are more older people, and some of them even attended the protest with their family.”

Anon was arrested and detained on August 7 on sedition charges relating to an earlier protest he had attended. Out on bail, and warned to tone down his rhetoric, he continues to make the same calls for reform.

“I am not afraid, I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. The court granted me bail, I should not repeat the same offences but it doesn’t mean I can’t exercise my rights under the constitution.”

Anon’s open discussion, and criticism of the Thai Head of State is the first time these comments have been made in a highly public forum, and widely reported. It should also be noted that his comments have not been personal but aimed at the position of the Head of State and the powers provided by the Constitution.

Whilst the government and police are, so far, being broadly tolerant of the unprecedented comments, most agree that it is only a matter of time before some grey line would have been crossed and Anon, and others, will be rounded up for “attitude adjustment”… usually a reasonably polite meeting with Army leaders to “pull your head in”.

With darker economic times ahead, Thai people are looking for changes to their circumstances. The trust in the leadership of the Bangkok establishment, along with the support of the Army, is wavering. The quasi-democratic government has just gone through a rocky cabinet re-shuffle and is scrambling to get a handle on a post-Covid economy and figuring out how to safely re-open the borders for general travel. The last thing the government wants right now is to negotiate with a comparatively small group of protesters with demands they are unlikely to entertain.

The last part of the demonstrators’ shopping list – changes to the Thai monarchy – would even be difficult for Prayut and his conservative MPs to say out loud. Most Thais, of the older generation, don’t even have the vocabulary to discuss these issues openly.

But a lecturer and special adviser at Naresuan University’s ASEAN Community Studies, Paul Chambers, says the cat is now out of the bag.

“It is important to understand that, with a large group of demonstrators demanding monarchical reform, the cat is out of the bag for the first time, meaning that henceforth monarchical reform is a valid demand for Thai demonstrators.”

And now that certain words and ideas have been publicly voiced, they can’t be unsaid. That grey line has already been crossed.

Continued calls for reform to the position of Thailand’s Head of State would be highly divisive and could alienate large swathes of Thais. And it would limit the sympathy of the broader Thai populous for the student’s push for more general democratic reform.

There is also a limit to how hard the students can push their demands. As it is, the protests have been largely peaceful, even joyous. But police and officials have been looming on the fringes, monitoring faces and recording the comments made. Both the government and the protesters fear a violent push-back or a military crackdown. Anti-establishment protests have turned ugly in the past… no one wants a return to Thailand’s darker days of political reform. The government also realise any crackdown would likely draw more sympathy to the protester’s demands and weaken the government’s position.

At this stage the Thai PM Prayut has said he was “worried and concerned about this movement” but has warned protesters against involving Thailand’s monarchy in their list of reforms.

“I feel for our children, youths and university students and I also share their parents’ worries too. But there must be a vigilance about violations, I think people won’t tolerate it and allow an incident like this to happen again.”

Thailand’s inequality between the rich and poor, the ongoing divide between the Bangkok elite and the agrarian north and north east, a stale economy trying to recover from the impacts of Covid-19 lockdowns, and the circumstances that led to Prayut being in the top job, all weigh heavily on the otherwise eternally patient Thai psyche.

There’s still a third of 2020 to run and, if the past 8 months are any indication, it has already proven to be the year of living dangerously for Thailand. And all that could merely be a rehearsal for the months to come.

The year of living dangerously - Thai protesters utter the unthinkable | News by Thaiger The year of living dangerously - Thai protesters utter the unthinkable | News by Thaiger The year of living dangerously - Thai protesters utter the unthinkable | News by Thaiger

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Tom Horn Hatlebrekke

    Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at 5:09 am

    The cat is out of the sack. Not going to be easy to put in in again

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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2012. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for nearly 40 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program, presented 3,900 radio news bulletins in Thailand alone, hosted 450 daily TV news programs, produced 1,800 videos, TV commercials and documentaries and is now the General Manager and writer for The Thaiger. He's reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue.

Coronavirus (Covid-19)

A Thailand Covid update that you won’t read in the news

Tim Newton

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A Thailand Covid update that you won’t read in the news | Thaiger

Tim Newton goes through some of the moving goal posts regarding Thailand’s Covid situation RIGHT NOW. Vaccines for expats, what will happen after Songkran, provincial restrictions, new quarantine requirements. Reading the tea leaves and reading between the lines, Tim provides his personal opinions on many issues expats and foreigners in Thailand are worried about at this time.

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Opinion

Tourism developments threaten Cambodia’s forests and coastline

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Tourism developments threaten Cambodia’s forests and coastline | Thaiger
Chinese developer Yeejia has cleared large areas of once-forested land in Cambodia’s Ream National Park for its tourist resorts / Photo by Roun Ry for China Dialogue

The following story is by Danielle Keeton Olsen and Roun Ry for China Dialogue, a nonprofit focused on environmental news related to China and Asia.

“Before when we wanted to eat, we just went and caught some fish, but now it’s nothing like before, as all the natural resources have disappeared,” says 68 year old Sen Chantha who lives in a coastal hamlet within Ream National Park in southwest Cambodia. His house faces the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

The mangrove forests, wetlands and rocky coasts that supported abundant wildlife in the park have also attracted opportunistic developers. Cambodia’s government has granted development rights for mass tourism resorts leading to deforestation and the drainage of ecologically vital mangroves.

“On the way out, you will see many big trucks clearing land all over the place… They’ve started clearing about four kilometres away, and they’ll probably come here,” says Chantha, who has lived in Prek Trabek village since the early 1990s. As forest cover has disappeared, Chantha has become a campaigner, keen to defend his community against a Chinese developer backed by the Cambodian elite.

Rights threatened

Chantha’s family is one of more than 100 in his village engaged in a years-old conflict over land with the Chinese company Yeejia Tourism Development, whose concession surrounds their homes. The company has allowed them to remain in the area, but severely restricted their space to live and work.

55 year old Choeun Trop says Yeejia has taken part of her land and stopped her from collecting rattan from the forest.

Over the past 2 or 3 years, officials from the company have monitored her community tightly, at one point requiring members to carry identification cards and barring outside visitors, she says.

Trop’s son, then 16, is now in jail after joining a protest against Yeejia during which some protestors dismantled a guardhouse at the entrance to the company’s concession.

“We’re poor. It’s been very difficult, and we couldn’t ask anyone to help,” she says. She tried to enlist the support of 2 Cambodian human rights organisations, but both told her they could not intervene. “I cry and cry, and if I cry too much, I’m afraid I will faint again, and no one will take care of my son. My son cries because the situation inside the prison is terrible, and he has a very small space to sleep.”

Forests and wetlands

Ream National Park covers 34,000 hectares of diverse landscapes that include the Prek Toek Sap estuary, low-lying mountains, miles of mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs and parts of two islands.

General forests cover 55% of the land, while mangroves take about 7%. A vital ecosystem for biodiversity, mangroves support many plants, fish and crustaceans, and the fisheries they nurture feed local people.

Elsewhere in the park, remote areas of dry forest, covering 13%, could still conceal one of the last populations of rare wild cattle known as kouprey, according to a 2006 report by University of Copenhagen ecologist Robert Schmidt.

When Ream was established in 1995, it faced significant levels of commercial logging and fishing – at least one-third of its area had already been heavily changed as a result of resource extraction.

Finding ways to stop this was one of the new park’s main concerns, and international organisations, including the Asia Development Bank and the United Nations, were deployed to help find solutions.

Internationally funded projects concentrated on developing a management plan for the park and on training park rangers. Opening the park’s headquarters in late 1998, the then-environment minister, Mok Mareth, promised Ream would be a “role model” for protected areas in the country.

But although the funded projects did manage to end commercial resource extraction, illegal logging and fishing continued to flourish, with corrupt police, navy officers and fishermen combining forces to plunder the park. Then, when international funding ended in 2000, the park was left with very little financial support.

Several reports at the time recommended ecotourism as a way to fund the park. In one from the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia, published in 2001, academic Thanakvaro Thyl de Lopez outlined a “dream park” scenario, in which revenue would be generated through nature-driven tourism, allowing local people living inside the park to continue using its resources in a sustainable way.

But the report warned that this scenario would require the support of international donors, at a time when their programmes had not been renewed due to “lack of interest”.

Developers descend

With the promise of sustainable tourism starting to fade, commercial tourism stepped in.

In June 2008, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed decrees granting concessions to two companies – Yeejia, and Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development.

Yeejia was given rights over 3,300 hectares of the park, an area they named Golden Silver Bay. When reporters visited the concession in January 2021, they found around a dozen half-built hotel-sized structures, most flanked by Cambodian guards. Outside one of them, a sign reads Qin Yue Ream National Coast in both Khmer and Chinese characters. Further in, patches of newly-paved road led to clearings where rows of identical off-white cottages stood out against the raw, red earth. Another road opened out onto a fresh construction site, where excavators were levelling a hillside, the roots of the remaining trees dangling over the manmade cliffs.

The other company, Evergreen Success & Asia Resort Development, was given a concession of 2,377 hectares.

Evergreen Success is tied to Hun To, a nephew of the prime minister, who has been investigated by the Australian authorities in connection with drug smuggling and money laundering. According to a 2012 report in The Age newspaper, To was of interest to Operation Illipango, an Australian investigation into heroin concealed in Cambodian timber shipments. Plans to arrest To were derailed when the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh cancelled his travel visa.

Powerful connections

To has since become a co-director of the Lixin Group, a Taiwanese construction and property company that has already developed a hotel in Sihanoukville under the US-based brand Wyndham.

Lixin is heavily promoting its “New City” development in Ream National Park. An advertisement on the resort’s WeChat channel from September emphasised the eco-tourism side of the project. But plans for the resort include massive developments inside the park, from a golf resort and a horse racing track to casinos and hotels, all flanked by mangroves.

Yeejia’s rise in Cambodia has also depended on elite contacts. Company chair Fu Xianting’s resumé includes time in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and then in state-owned companies, one of which brought him to Cambodia for a conference on agricultural machinery and light manufacturing.

According to a 2016 Financial Times investigation, Cambodia’s Council of Ministers revoked Fu’s concession in Ream after concerns about forest clearance from environmental groups. But Fu, who has close personal ties to Hun Sen, met with the Cambodian leader and obtained his support for continued development.

Yeejia’s development plans for Golden Silver Bay range from casinos and luxury hotels to a conference centre and medical rehabilitation facilities. Its WeChat social media presence shows it is advertising to Chinese developers seeking a slice of Cambodia, as well as to tourists. In November, Yeejia held a small ground-breaking ceremony with Zhonghai Tianhong Real Estate (Cambodia), which has leased 4 hectares of land from the developer on a 99-year lease – the same timespan as Yeejia’s 2008 concession within the park. This is despite the fact that, according to Cambodian law, concessions cannot be sold to another company without a new contract being drawn up with the government.

Neither Yeejia nor Lixin would respond to requests for comment from China Dialogue.

Ongoing destruction

Beyond the bulldozers currently clearing land in the name of tourism, illegal logging for timber has continued in Ream. Chantha, the community activist, says the state-employed park rangers conduct frequent patrols, but will release loggers who pay them. Chantha has accompanied the patrols and claims to have witnessed bribe-taking.

According to the 2001 de Lopez report, about half of rural households inside the park engaged in illegal logging in the past. Chantha and other villagers admit to cutting trees for their own use before Yeejia officials stopped them.

But things are different now. “The Ministry of Environment officials blame the community for deforestation, but it’s not us,” he says. “It’s someone outside and hired by some oknha (tycoons) or rich businessman to come clear land here.”

Meanwhile, the coast of Ream and the rest of Preah Sihanouk province is also under threat. Ouk Vibol, director of conservation in Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration, says overfishing is a significant challenge, with trawlers scooping up whatever fish they can find, destroying seagrass beds in the process. The loss of mangroves due to the park’s tourism developments is also having a big impact on fish stocks, says Ouk.

“If you destroy one habitat, there are real negative impacts on the species that move from one habitat to another.”

Just outside the national park, a little-known Chinese–Cambodian company, Canopy Sands Development, has undertaken a massive coastal reclamation project on 427 hectares granted by the Cambodian government. The company was formed one month before it received the land. Its shareholders also chair powerful companies in Cambodia, including Prince Group, whose China-born director, Chen Zhi, has obtained Cambodian citizenship through his investments.

This and other developments along the coast, which once boasted waters teeming with lucrative squid, crab and fish, have changed local fishers’ lives.

Docking just north of the Canopy Sands development, 27 year old Chan Ra says he has to be very careful where he drops his fishing lines. The traditional gear he uses to catch squid is made with large shells strung out along a line. The squid nestle into the shells for shelter without the need for bait. The shells are durable but expensive and are often damaged by the sand-dredging boats filling the Canopy Sands area, says Ra. There are still some squid to be found close to the shore, but the fisher says he has to travel further to catch crabs.

Ra lives mostly on his boat these days, because another company has been reclaiming land from the sea on the bay where he used to live. “Before we could reach home by boat, but now they’re filling it with land,” he says.

Ra has had to move three times due to development projects. Like many local people, he built a home without procuring an official land title – a requirement that was seldom enforced until land prices began to climb.

Nowhere is safe

32 year old Nam Then runs a small shop selling sundries on a hillside a couple of kilometres from the entrance to Yeejia’s concession. He has not been directly impacted by the long-running dispute between local people and the Chinese company, whose concession overlaps their customary land. But he shares his neighbours’ concerns and attends meetings about the issue at the Ream commune office.

“We share information around the community,” he says. “We are the same people who have the same affections. I am also living in one part of the community, just in a different area.”

In June last year, the government finally allocated land and promised titles to the three communities in the park affected by Yeejia’s concession. Details have yet to be worked out, however. Then keeps a plastic folder full of documents showing the outlines of plots. Some families are missing out, he says, but he and others are watching the process closely.

Then moved to his current home and shop in 2007 after Ream Naval Academy – part of a military branch that is caught up in controversies over Chinese versus US access – decided to expand into the land near where his family lived.

“Looking back at 2007, we didn’t have anything, the people were weak, information systems didn’t exist, and we were living in a military zone, so when you’re trying to protest, there was big pressure (on us),” he says.

The family’s current home is on the other side of the same mountain. They have remained relatively undisturbed since they moved, but, on a morning in late January, Then told reporters that much of the land facing his house had been cleared. He was not sure what for. When reporters passed his house again at dusk, a digger was forging a new road around the mountain, leading back to the naval academy.

When he first moved in, Then recalls: “It was all forest, huge forest, there wasn’t any road yet.” Now, for the villagers of Ream “it’s very difficult, because the houses are all on company land.”

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Tourism

We took a poll in Phuket… re-opening the island in July

Tim Newton

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We took a poll in Phuket… re-opening the island in July | Thaiger

The Thaiger put up a poll on our YouTube channel yesterday. Completely unscientific, but trying to guage some of the viewers opinions about the latest plan, Phuket Sandbox, to open up Phuket, in July this year, as a pilot for future re-openings around Thailand for travellers, without quarantine.

With the government claiming that the plan won’t go ahead unless 70% of the island’s population are already vaccinated against Covid-19, there remains as many questions as there are answers to this plan. What about the expats? What vaccinations will be used? How will the residents be alerted? Who will be the 30% who won’t be vaccinated before July? Where will the vaccinations take place? Which department will manage all the additional ‘vaccination’ paperwork for arrivals? Will passengers still have to apply for visas at the Thai embassy in their country? Will they still have to buy specific insurance policies against Covid-19 before their journey?

At this stage, as a Phuket resident, I have heard NOTHING, nada, zip, zero about this plan. Even searching for information and contacting the Provincial Authority, no additional information is forthcoming. Basically “we haven’t been told yet” was the answer. You’re welcome to add your comments as well HERE.

Obviously it will be great to have some sort of schedule to get ready for re-opening Phuket but vaccinations are only a part of what will be required to make Phuket a viable tourist destination again. But to walk a mile you have to start with a single step, etc, etc.

Here are some of the other responses, out of 280 comments, to our quick poll…

We took a poll in Phuket... re-opening the island in July | News by ThaigerJames
I doubt enough of the folks on Phuket will be willing and able to get vaccinated by July to reach that target.

DaGr8
I have kept in contact with many Thais , some living in the province of Phuket and has not heard anything about this plan, even though the vaccine is being planned for distribution.

Martyn
Doing 70% of residents not good enough. What about everyone else? Most people working there are registered elsewhere. And of course the expats?

Oliver
Will Open Just when the Rain Starts

Lightning
I just don’t see it being sustainable for businesses if you still require to social distance, wear masks and limit the amount of people you are travelling with. More than 70% of Phuket tourists are group travellers. It won’t bring enough numbers in to sustain a business. Open up fully with no quarantine, no social distancing, no masks, no limits on groups, no testing. If these rules are not applied then you can kiss Patong beach and Phuket businesses goodbye forever. But I guess thats what the globalists want right? World longevity? Sustainable environment? Every political move seems based around the World Economic Forum. There is a plan for most countries. Covid is just the gateway to the end goal

Alana
I have not heard anything about where we can get vaccinated here in Phuket. I got an email from Bangkok Hospital to guage interest in the vaccine and the brand you would like to take (last week) but if they are only at that stage of gathering data and ordering vaccines then I don’t think we will reach 70% within 3 months.

Paul
The problem here is other countries are well in front of Thailand on vaccine rollout. And that Burmese undocumented persons problem.. And many older Thais with no ID card. Expect chaos corruption.. and delay. And ideas changing every 14 days. Phuket is finished as a tourist destinations for the foreseeable future. Mal-administration is Thailand’s problem.

Trader
I can’t see that there will be free and open travel until 2022 at the earliest, I hope I’m proven incorrect but at this point I don’t see it.

Shahbaz
Just another ‘plan’/ ‘model’ made out of desperation as a result of missing tourist dollars, the Thai government should implement measures that are genuinely meant for the safety of the Thais and the tourists, not just act out of desperation to get the go go bars rolling again, any step they take should be credible and long term, not one that is going to jeopardise peoples health just to make money 🤔 so no point rushing ✌

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