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Special Report: A nation at the crossroads

Legacy Phuket Gazette



Special Report: A nation at the crossroads | The Thaiger

Special Report

PHUKET: As Thailand begins a new year, the country finds itself at a crossroads. What seems to be at stake is not only the future shape of democracy in this country, but whether it will even remain a democracy at all. This should worry all those who care about the future of Thailand and its people.

The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) is determined to bring down Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. They want to uproot the Thaksin regime and replace it with a “People’s Government”. They want a People’s Assembly to serve as the legislative branch of this brave new administration, and to draft legislation that would reform Thailand’s political system.

They insist that they are not anti-democracy, but support a cleaner democracy – one not corrupted by capital.

The group, led by former deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban and several old faces from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, claim the Constitution allows them to do this. Article 3 of the charter says sovereignty of the country “belongs to the people”.

The government, they add, has violated Article 68 of the Constitution, which says that no one should try to overthrow the system of constitutional democracy with HM The King as head of state. Because the current government says it will not heed the judgment of the Constitutional Court, which struck down its recent Senate amendment, the administration is no longer respecting the Constitution, and has thus lost legitimacy, the PRDC claims.

Once Ms Yingluck has resigned, an eventuality the PDRC is plainly aiming to achieve, there will be a power vacuum. The PDRC then wants to invoke Article 7 of the charter, which says that when no part of the document seems to apply to the situation, the country should follow conventional democratic practice.

Since the country has been ruled by appointed prime ministers before, this would allow the head of the Senate to appoint a new premier, who would in turn bring in a new government of technocrats – “good people”, using the protesters’ term of choice.

A new People’s Assembly would then replace the Parliament. Its 400-strong membership would comprise 300 representatives from professional organizations, and 100 appointed by the PDRC. This assembly would then set about “reforming” Thailand’s corrupted political system.

The PDRC is right to say the system is in need of reform. Politics remains deeply corrupt. Vote buying, as the protesters claim, is indeed rife. But to claim that Pheu Thai buys elections entirely through the purchasing of votes, as the PDRC has claimed, is to grossly oversimplify the situation. The reality is that – for all his serious flaws – Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxies are the party of choice for millions of Thais.

A further oversimplification is the suggestion that only one party engages in vote buying. All the parties play the votes for notes game. Studies have shown that some voters take money only from the party they intend to support, while others take money from every party, then vote for their preferred candidate anyway. Paying for votes is the price you pay to play the game, as academics Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongphaichit have argued. It does not guarantee victory.

One further cause for caution is the leader of the protests himself. Those who have lived in Phuket long enough may remember a little of Suthep Thaugsuban’s questionable record. In 1995, as Agriculture Minister, he was responsible for the SorPorKor 4-01 land reform scheme, in which the deeds to plots of empty land were supposed to be distributed to poor farmers around the country.

In Phuket, an investigation revealed that 11 of the island’s richest families were among the recipients of this property. The accusations had enough credibility – and seriousness – to bring down Chuan Leekpai’s Democrat government. This fact should serve as a strong signal that this conflict is driven by a lot more than just revulsion to corruption.

To lose faith in democracy at this point in Thailand’s development would be a mistake. The system is highly flawed. But one has to wonder what kind of reforms the PDRC might carry out that could somehow ensure that when democracy is restored – within about 18 months – it is suddenly, miraculously clean.

The PDRC claims to be a peaceful movement, and so far the protests have been relatively free from violence. But those observers who support the principles of human rights and free speech have good cause to wonder what kind of reforms Mr Suthep and his fellow leaders have in mind – reforms that we are led to believe will succeed in cleaning up Thai politics where others have failed.

A nation does not make a better democracy by abandoning democracy.

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Phoenix design failures – Forensic probe begins

Kritsada Mueanhawong



Phoenix design failures – Forensic probe begins | The Thaiger

Now that Phoenix has been hoisted, successfully, from 45 metres below the surface of the Andaman Sea, the next phase begins as forensic experts, engineers and naval architect pour over the wreckage to find clues and prepare reports for the forthcoming court cases.

The Tourism and Sports Minister, who has been in Phuket all weekend overseeing the operations, along with Maj Gen Surachete Hakparn, says the probe aims to clarify a number of matters and focus on who can be held responsible for the boat’s sinking on July 5.

The wreckage is now at a boatyard in Rassada, the area is off limits and under 24 hour guard.

At this early stage of the investigation police say the boat was not built to specification and used, amongst other things, an unsuitable converted engine from a 10 wheeler truck. They also mentioned a water pump, used to remove any water from the vessel, to be inadequate and smaller than would have been required.

A number of Chinese media and Li Chunlin, Consul General at the Chinese Embassy in Thailand, were also present during the weekend as the boat was raised and moved back to Phuket for examination.

Khun Weerasak says he hopes Chinese tourism will return to normal after the investigation is complete and the case resolved. He says his office is satisfied with the government’s efforts to get to the bottom of the core issues and implement measures to ensure everything is done to avoid a similar incident in the future.

26 year old Woralak Ruekchaikal, the Thai owner of nominee company TC Blue Dream, the company which operated the Phoenix, and the vessel’s chief engineer Onchan Kanhayothi, were arrested on charges of recklessness causing death and and injury in the week following the tragedy. The chief of Phuket’s marine office was also removed from his post pending the investigation.

Phoenix design failures - Forensic probe begins | News by The Thaiger Phoenix design failures - Forensic probe begins | News by The Thaiger Phoenix design failures - Forensic probe begins | News by The Thaiger

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Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier

Kritsada Mueanhawong



Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | The Thaiger

The Phoenix is now under 24 hour security guard at the Rassada Pier while waiting for a suitable tide to bring it up into the shipyard.

The boat eventually broke the surface just after 3pm on Saturday.

Read more about the Phoenix’s journey back to Phuket yesterday, HERE.

Minister of Tourism and Sports, Mr.Weerasak Kowsurat, Royal Thai Police Deputy Commander Gen Rungroj Saengkram, acting chief of Immigration, Maj Gen Surachete Hakparn, Phuket Governor Pakkapong Tawipat, the Deputy Chinese Consul-General in Songkhla, and Director of the China Consulate-General in Phuket Li Chun Foo, along with Thai and Chinese media, were on location on Saturday to witness the recovery mission and the boat’s rise from the depths of the Andaman Sea.

When the boat reached the surface, officers and media participated in a one minutes silence in respect of the 47 Chinese tourists who drowned as a result of the boat’s sinking.

It took about four hours for the barge to tow the Phoenix from where it was brought up to the surface to Rassada Pier on the east coast of Phuket. The boat has now being seized and is under the jurisdiction of the investigating officer.

No entry or photos will be allowed during the investigation phase. Later the boat will be moved and kept at Rattanachai Shipyard in Rassada for further investigation.

A full montage of photos from the salvage mission below…

Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger  Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The ThaigerPhoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger    Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger Phoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The ThaigerPhoenix under high security at Rassada Pier | News by The Thaiger

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Phoenix returns to Phuket. But will the Chinese travellers return?

Tim Newton



Phoenix returns to Phuket. But will the Chinese travellers return? | The Thaiger

SCREENCAPTURES: Kritsada Mueanawong

The vessel, that is at the centre of Thailand’s dramatic drop in Chinese tourists, will arrive back at a boatyard in Rassada today.

Back on July 5 it headed out for a day of diving near Koh Hei, south west of Phuket. The day was mostly fine although there had been warnings from early in the morning about potentially bad weather developing later. Smaller boats had been warned to stay ashore.

The boat never made it back to Phuket, and out of the nearly 100 passengers, 47, including many children, never made it back either.

The impact of the tragedy was partly softened by the international fascination in the Mu Pa football team who were being rescued from the Chiang Rai cave at the same time. The interest in that story surely softened the potential full media impact of the story. News editors around the world would have thought ‘one story from Thailand is enough’ for the nightly news.

But the story still played out, badly, especially in Chinese social media. In the hours after the full extent of the tragedy emerged, and as the search was still continuing for survivors, the Thai PM Prawit Wongsuwan said the event was ‘Chinese killing Chinese’, (referring to the revelation that the owner of the boat was a Thai nominee company acting on behalf of a real Chinese ‘owner’).

The first attempts at salvage were a sham. Photos send from participating divers showed water tanks and cables in a make-shift effort to refloat the sunken vessel. The attempt was doomed before it even started; the true tragedy being the loss of one diver’s life during the operation which was never going to work.

But after a week of preparations from a Singapore firm, the Phoenix, four and a half months later, returned to the surface with signs that the seabed was already reclaiming the wreckage. It emerged in a well-orchestrated media show, on cue, around 3.30pm yesterday.

Phoenix returns to Phuket. But will the Chinese travellers return? | News by The Thaiger

When it finally reaches the Rassada boatyard there are some key elements police want to check that will finalise their report and become part of the prosecution evidence in the court cases.

Who was responsible for the boat’s sinking? Could it have been avoided? Who set up the company with the local nominee? Was the Captain or crew liable in their duty of care for the passengers on the day? Was the original design of Phoenix ‘fit for purpose’? Who were the officials that signed off on the design and building specifications for Phoenix? Indeed, was the naval architect of the vessel qualified to design such a boat? What was the limit of passengers for the boat? Should Phoenix been out in the open seas that day? Did the company know of the day’s weather forecast? (Even The Thaiger posted a screen-saver of the approaching storm during the afternoon). Was Phoenix carrying the required safety gear and was the safety gear ‘fit for purpose’?

The answers to these and many other question will now be meticulously sought by experts, lawyers and officials. No dates have been set for the court cases at this stage. But it has already been reported that the Captain of Phoenix, the Thai owner of the nominee company, the Phuket Marine Chief and several companies have already had charges brought against them.

At the time it was thought that the Chinese response to the Phoenix boat disaster would be quite swift but things would probably return to normal by the end of the year. In fact the immediate response was not a sudden drop in tourists. The Chinese who had already booked and paid for their holidays at the time, mostly came. But it was the ones who would have been considering a holiday to Phuket in the months after who have had the most effect. And the effect of their decisions to travel elsewhere is what’s being felt now.

The TAT, forever talking up the numbers of Thai tourism, say they expect the Chinese travellers to return ‘by the end of the year’. We will see.

Marine officials and tourist police have established a number of important new measures to improve marine safety around Phuket, including checks of all 24 ports on a daily basis, spot safety inspections, rigorous weather reporting and minimum specifications for all safety gear carried on tour boats.

Supervising the successful salvage, Maj Gen Surachete Hakparn made it clear that the “government is determined to get to the root cause of the incident so that it can remedy and show sincerity to them,” referring to the families of the Chinese victims.

He predicted that once the court cases have been run, convictions made and people have gone to jail, only then will any semblance of confidence might be restored with the Chinese tourists.

In the months since the sinking Chinese travel companies have been sending their customers elsewhere for their holidays. Whether Phuket’s heyday as a Chinese tourism favourite is over is yet to be seen.

Phoenix returns to Phuket. But will the Chinese travellers return? | News by The Thaiger

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November 19, 2018, 2:59 pm
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