What Obama Missed in Indonesia

President Barack Obama’s visit to Indonesia was cut short because of volcanic ash, but what he missed was an annual tradition that says a lot about a country relatively unfamiliar to most Americans. Indonesia marks Heroes’ Day every Nov. 10 to commemorate extraordinary service to the nation.

Among those considered this year for addition to a list of national heroes was the late Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately known by Indonesians as Gus Dur. If Obama’s trip to Indonesia was an opportunity to introduce Indonesia to Americans, getting to know Wahid would have been a good place to start.

Read on and comment at the Huffington Post.

Global Lives #3: Anka Lee’s Hong Kong Perspective on Tiananmen Square

Anka on Star Ferry
Anka Lee on the Star Ferry in Hong Kong

It’s June 4th today. 20 years ago, in Tiananmen Square in Beijing a huge protest movement was violently suppressed. The numbers are disputed, but hundreds, if not thousands were killed in clashes with the military. Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4 Incident, or just Six-Four — whatever you call it, the event had a big impact on Anka Lee. He was just a kid then, but he remembers the day well. He was born in Hong Kong and was nine years old that summer in 1989. He talks about his memories and the city where he was born in this episode of Global Lives.

Anka wrote an essay about Tiananmen and his Hong Kong connection. You can find it on the back page of Time magazine’s June 8 international editions. UPDATE: Time put Anka’s story online here.

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Global Lives #3: Anka Lee’s Hong Kong Perspective on Tiananmen Square

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.]