On the cover of the Journal of Asian Studies

The Journal of Asian Studies, where I am an advising editor, published a photo I took on its cover of its most recent issue.

It’s an image an image that I took in May, 2008 from a bridge overlooking the Sai River, which sits between Thailand and Myanmar. On the right are bustling tourist and trinket shops in the Thai city of Mae Sai. On the left are hollowed out buildings of the Myanmar city of Tachilek. You can cross the border from Thailand into Myanmar by foot by paying US$10 or 500 Thai Baht and leaving your passport with Myanmar officials until you re-enter Thailand.

on the left, Myanmar

You can also find two essays on Myanmar in the May, 2012 issue of the Journal about the fascinating politics and history of that country.

yellow shirts see red

Sondhi Limthongkul

When people ask me about Thailand — particularly, if it is safe to visit — I tell them that the political turmoil that has plagued the country for several years has not amounted to violence.

That story has, of course, changed. A friend told me that on her way to the airport in Bangkok on Tuesday, a group of people put shopping carts in the road, blocking the taxi in front of hers. They beat the driver with wooden bats as her own taxi driver swerved out of the way. Certainly, the time of peaceful demonstration, where power changes hands in bloodless coups and elections is over.

Thailand’s protester-in-chief, Sondhi Limthongkul (above), was attacked by gunmen today. The Bangkok Post reports that the media mogul has survived the attack. He was injured by shrapnel to the head from over 100 rounds that were shot at his vehicle. Images of his injuries (left) were published in the Manager Daily, a newspaper Sondhi owns.

Sondhi is a former journalist and owner of the major media company Manager Group. Once a close friend to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, he is now  the leader the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the principal group that staged huge protests and agitated for Thaksin’s ousting in a 2006 military coup. When Thaksin-aligned leaders were elected in 2007, Sondhi took centerstage again and led yellow-shirted protests that shut down Bangkok’s major airports. Sondhi’s agitation ended when the current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was apointed, but Abhisit is now the target of pro-Thaksin red shirt protests which have devolved into riots and confrontations with soldiers at Bangkok’s busiest intersections.

I interviewed Sondhi for AsiaMedia in 2006 and I can remember vividly his outspoken confidence about his place in Thai history. He used his money and influence and media company to publish boldly on Thaksin’s alleged corruption, calling his work “new time journalism” which required a certain amount of activism in the face of serious threats. From the transcript:

AM: What do you say to people who say that this new time journalism isn’t really journalism?

SL: What makes them think that they are real journalism? Time changes, things change. New factors — how do you report news in a country which is completely non-transparent, in a country where semi- or unofficial censorship happens? How do you do it? How do you get the other side of the story?

Let’s say you’re doing a story on corruption, all right? You’re doing a story on corruption and then you pose a question to the people involved, in charge, and they deny it. They say, ‘That’s not true.’ Are you going to believe in what they say, or are you going to go and dig in more? And once you go and dig in more, you’re going to find a lot of sources. And all of those sources are scared to death. They say, ‘Don’t quote me.’ Give me a reliable source who wants to withhold the name. Once those reliable sources who want to withhold the names happens more than two, three, four, five times, you begin to question, are they really your source? You see? So this is the dilemma.

So each society, each country has different ways of doing things. People who are actually critical of what I’m doing are getting too used the way Western media has been displayed. Right here, you can go to the computer and punch some name on it. There’s some basic background or in-depth background coming up. Or you want to talk to the mayor on official record, the mayor will speak to you. But you want to talk to the mayor of Bangkok on official record, and they will say that’s not true. So it literally shut the door. So you have to go on your own. When you go on your own, you are acting like Spartacus because you have to roam around with no direction. You find somebody and you talk to them, and they look around, they look up, look down.

Literally, when I fought Thaksin, my phones have been tapped. I’ve been using five phones. I mean, how could a prime minister tap my bloody phone? This is not happening here [in the United States]. Even though the Bush administration has asked Congress to give him the freedom to tap suspected terrorists — even at that statute, you guys were making a hue and cry.

Look at me. My life has been threatened. There were literally assassination attempts on me. How do you explain this to some guy who is sitting by the Hudson River and writing a story? You guys are used to the rule of law. But there seems to be a rule of law, but only in names, in words, but not in action in Thailand.

Thailand’s army chief has said that he believes no protesters have been killed as soldiers cracked down to end the current unrest. But the state of emergency continues in Thailand and reactions to the attempt on Sondhi’s life are still coming.

Thailand news editor faces computer crimes charges

In Jan. 2008, the Computer Crimes Act was about six months away from taking effect in Thailand. It was part of the Internal Security Act, a complicated series of laws that were passed just before the leaders of a military coup held elections to restore democracy to the country. In Bangkok, journalists and web entrepreneurs were worried. Their main concerns were, first, the vagueness of the law, and second, the requirement that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, log web usage. In essence, the ISPs had to be able to report who was doing what and saying what online, but exactly what information was to be logged was unclear.

No one was quite sure how the law would or could be applied, just that it was the kind of law that could be used quite easily for political rather than security purposes. Chiranuch Premchaiporn told me then that this scared her more than Thailand’s infamous lese majeste laws, which accord steep punishments for anyone who insults the King. If she was accused of lese majeste, Premchaiporn said with her ubiquitous smile, at least the King could pardon her.

Premchaiporn is the editor of a pioneering news website, Prachathai. Today, her site reports that she was arrested and then granted bail for violating the Computer Crimes Act. According to the BBC and the Thai daily newspaper The Nation, police officers arrested her on Friday afternoon and confiscated hard drives from Prachathai‘s offices in Bangkok. Premchaiporn’s alleged violation is allowing lese majeste comments to appear on the site in discussion boards. She has reportedly been charged under Article 15 of the Computer Crime Act, which makes it illegal for anyone to support or consent to Internet posts that violate criminal codes or present a threat to national security. She faces a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.

“When the joke became true, [it was] a bit of a shock,” Premchaiporn wrote in an email. “Our lives will go on and this charge won’t stop me from doing what I need to do.”

A series of lese majeste charges filed in recent months have called into question Thailand’s committment to freedom of expression. Two weeks ago, an Australian author was pardoned after spending seven months of a three-year sentence in prison. Political scientist Giles “Ji” Ungpakorn left the country after being charged with lese majeste for his book about the 2006 coup. BBC reporter Jonathan Head (who inicidentally wrote one of the first English-language reports about Premchaiporn’s arrest) is currently facing three charges of lese majeste for comments he allegedly made to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Bangkok.

Being charged under the Computer Crimes Act, however, presents different challenges than being charged with lese majeste because it has not yet been applied against individual news reporters. The law has been used so far most often against pornographers and to temporarily shut down websites, including YouTube and Prachathai. Two of Prachathai‘s web board users were arrested and then released in Aug. 2007 for comments they made about Thai royalty, but the government never brought charges against them.

The Asian Human Rights Commission and the Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized the action against Premchaiporn and Prachathai as a threat to free expression.

[See my past entry about Bangkok, the elections and the Computer Crimes Act. For more on the Computer Crimes Act, see Don Sambandaraksa’s Bangkok Post article, reposted by Freedom Against Censorship Thailand.]

silver linings

I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for about a month to pursue projects and travel. (Lucky for me, slow blogging is in for 2009.) For most of the last few weeks, I have been in Sri Lanka, meeting people and learning about their lives. For its beautiful sunsets, delicious varieties of tea and wild elephants, there is little escaping the fact that this is an island at war. Colombo’s one-way boulevards are littered with army and police checkpoints, where heavily-armed “vigilance committees” question travelers and check ids. Sometimes the soldiers and officers are serious and to-the-point; sometimes they are conversational, like a welcoming committee with machine guns.

On the first day of the new year, even on the heels of a year marred by bloody wars and financial crises, it is customary to look for a silver lining. After all, we have our health. When you are on a tropical island, the impulse is the same. We’re here — why not sun bathe?

One weekend, I was lucky that some friends of a friend took me along to a villa retreat in the south of the island. The drive along the west coast takes you past small towns and resorts and some of the most untouched beaches you can imagine. Our hosts rented out a three-bedroom house, a beautiful property with beach access and a pool on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We had strong coffee and grilled fish and lounged in an outdoor living room, where the walls facing the ocean are forgone in favor of natural breezes and a spectacular view. Reading gave way to naps on the veranda, regulated by the rhythym of the ocean. A dip in the pool followed by a glass of chilled wine cooled the afternoon heat.

But on our first afternoon of relaxation, the quietness of our light conversation by the pool was cut by a large crash and the sound of speed breaking through the air. Our heads turned up; I didn’t see anything between the tips of the coconut trees that framed the sky. My better-informed companions said the sound was a MIG fighter jet from a nearby airforce base. Seven minutes later, I read on my phone that there was an air strike up north, where the heaviest fighting is taking place.

While I was in Sri Lanka, beach-going tourists were stuck at Bangkok’s airport, cordoned in or out by yellow-clad protestors, and globe-trotting visitors to Mumbai were struggling with terrorist attacks on hotels. I went for a holiday in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, and ran into some pretty big protests that took place along a row of popular hotels. I watched the crowds of sign-wielding dissentors and riot-gear-ready police with an elderly Japanese woman who had emerged from her hotel confused and scared about the sirens and the surprisingly loud crashes that come from canisters of teargas.

The absurdity of tourists in the middle of conflicts not their own is exceeded only by the absurdity of so many acts of violence happening in the world today. Still, we seek that silver lining, the chilled wine on the patio that gives us respite from a war or a crashing housing market or a political battle. We celebrate a new year to help us get through the serious tragedies or mundane hardships of the last one. And we hope that the next time we celebrate, things will be better.

boating around Borocay

So happy new year, wherever you are. (Boating in the Philippines, around Borocay.)

ways to cross a border

These are kids in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They live in a town called Tachilek, on the border of Thailand. I met them in a mosque — a very small mosque on a sidestreet in the town. There is a lot of dispute about the position and treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country. I was happy to meet these boys — the one in the middle was particularly funny, meditating like a Buddhist monk but holding a slingshot in his hand. I don’t think they get many visitors.


I had planned to visit Yangon (Rangoon) with my friend Anil Kalhan in the second weekend of May, which was incidentally the weekend of the country’s constitutional referendum. Not surprisingly (though, I have to say, I was still a bit surprised) the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore closed its visa section for a few days about a month before our weekend sojourn. And then for the week after that. And the next week too, which was when Cyclone Nargis hit. When we finally got to the visa counter (on now my fourth visit to the embassy) we were told that a visa could not be ready until Monday, the Monday that we were supposed to return to Singapore.

So, our Yangon trip didn’t work out. Not to be deterred, we decided to take the back door to Burma. We went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We wandered around the city and met some people there who told us a lot about what was happening across the border in Burma. Then we went by bus to Mae Sai, the border town on the Thai side and our gateway to a country neither of us had ever seen but were very curious about.

Crossing the border by foot was a strange experience. It should have been a bigger deal than it was. You cross through Thai security, walk on a short bridge over the Sai River, are greeted by a large photo of junta leader Than Shwe, pay 500 baht (we tried to pay US$10, but they didn’t like that our bills had doggy ears), and voila! Myanmar. (Myanmar without our passports, that is. They hold on to them until you return.)

Tachilek and Mae Sai sit inside the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. It’s a place notorious for opium production, hilltribes and the spread of HIV. Not too pretty. But it’s also a place glossed over for tourists — these “dangerous” places have capitalized on their reputations in many ways. So too has Tachilek. The three-wheel taxi drivers have a little route they all follow, showing half-day tourists from Thailand Shan temples, Chinese-style temples and the beauty of the valley where Tachilek rests. Indeed, it is a beautiful country, but one that is conspicuously void of newspapers. Many buildings have satellite dishes, but the televisions we saw were tuned to WWF wrestling from across the border. One week after Cycle Nargis hit, our guide still thought only a few thousand had been killed.

So we wandered around, seeing all the things that all the curious onlookers see and trying to ask questions in between, It is certainly a strange place and one where you don’t speak too loudly, or walk past a polling booth twice, or take photos of referendum posters out in the open. Our guide made that abundantly clear to us. He also made it clear that people in Tachilek didn’t feel that their vote in the referendum was secret — so many voted “yes” to satisfy local leaders. So I took what photos I could — I’m afraid I couldn’t properly capture Tachilek, though.

One Night in Bangkok

Ok — so, I couldn’t help this one.

I was sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, and, well, this is the song that came on the radio. But it was a cover that I can’t find on YouTube. It sounded almost like a love song — but maybe everything in Bangkok has that soft rock feel to it. (They also play a lot of Dido here, which I know at least one of you might appreciate.)

My week in Bangkok coincided with the week leading up to Thailand’s legislative elections, the first since a peaceful military coup in September, 2006. There has been a lot written about the elections, so I won’t spend too much time on it here,except to say that people told me that the ousted prime minister, Thaksin, maintains a lot of support, and they were right. The People’s Power Party, a reincarnation of Thaksin’s dissolved Thai Rak Thai party, took the most seats in the parliament and is looking to form a coalition and create a majority in the goverment. The results of the elections are being contested on several fronts, but it will be interesting to see how the Democrat Party and coup leaders respond, and if Thaksin returns to Thailand, though he has publicly stated that he will not return to politics.

Even if the election is seen as a referendum on the coup, and even if coup leaders and anti-Thaksin politicians lose their seats of power, they have certainly left a mark. On the Thursday night before the election, the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly quietly passed the Internal Security Act, a vague law that gives the military to take action during security crises. The bill was one of many that were being pushed through ahead of the election and activists are calling on those laws t be annulled by the newly elected parliament.

Included in the Act is the Act on Computer Crimes, which establishes many vague new authorities about content on the Internet. The provision that is making journalists and activists most nervous — though this is also a part of the law that many people are not aware exists — is one that will require Internet Service Providers and companies to keep logs on their users and employees activities (see sections 26 and 27 of the Act). They have to be able to match specific activity on the Internet to specific names of people.

Don Sambandaraksa of the Bangkok Post does a better job of explaining this than I do (reprinted here by Freedom Against Censorship Thailand). Companies, including newspapers, have to comply by keeping logs, or face heavy fines for being asked to hand over information they don’t have or aren’t willing to give up.

Internet logs or no Internet logs, Bangkok is truly a fantastic, vibrant city. Below are Muay Thai boxers and a view from the commute out of the city center on a water taxi.



(Also this week, for new music — including my own little tip, which was actually a tip from someone else — and other goodies, check out Asia Pacific Art’s Best of 2007 issue.)