Thai-Saudi diplomatic relations
Following the promotion of Pol Lt Gen Somkid Boonthanom from the Police Region 5 commander to assistant police chief, Thai-Saudi diplomatic relations became tense as Somkid has been charged in connection with the disappearance in 1990 of Saudi businessman Mohammad al-Ruwaili. Shortly before that, the Saudi charge d’affaires made public declarations of anger and frustration over Thai officials’ and government figures’ assertions that the Saudi embassy is misinformed or misunderstands the situation, and seemed to reject various Thai explanations as to why Somkid’s appointment was legitimate. Diplomatic tensions peaked in the third week of September when, ahead of the haj pilgrimage period, the Saudi Embassy recalled the visas granted to almost 400 Muslim Thais. Thai officials involved in organizing Thai religious pilgrims desperately insisted that the visa issue was unrelated to the diplomatic row. Tensions later eased after Pol Lt Gen Somkid finally turned down the promotion on September 22.
Viktor Bout’s extradition case (Thai-Russian and -American diplomatic relations)
Viktor Bout’s case, hitting the headlines last month, did not receive much media attention this month. No new developments occurred in the extradition case, for which the next hearing is set for October 4. However, on September 4, two Pheua Thai MPs, members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs met Bout at Bang Kwang Prison. According to the committee,Bout suspects the Court of Appeals' decision to overturn the lower court's ruling on his extradition case – ruling that he would be extradited to the US - might have something to do with his decision to not call Sirichoke, a close-aide to PM Abhisit, after their meeting in Bang Khwang. Viktor Bout confirmed that Democrat Songkhla MP Sirichoke Sopha met him on April 15 and gave him his mobile phone number in an attempt to check if Thaksin had links to arms trafficking. Bout reiterated its call for the government not to link his case to Thai politics. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva publicly declared late in the month that the extradition decision, as an executive matter, will ultimately be decided by him, though he wants to see the outcome of the legal process. He conceded that the decision will probably affect Thailand’s relationship with America and/or Russia.
Thai-Cambodian diplomatic relations
Tensions with Cambodia seemed to ease this month and were not discussed much in the media. Hun Sen was quoted on September 2 urging the Parliament to approve agreements made by the foreign ministers of the two countries in order to help solve the border problem. The agreements referred to the setting up of a joint committee to look into the redeployment of the armed forces, real action on troop redeployment at the area near Keo Sikhakiri Svarak temple and Preah Vihear, and the joint de-mining of the areas. Prime Ministers from both countries met in New York at the occasion of the UN General Assembly and confirmed their agreement on a peaceful and bilateral solution to the border dispute.
United Nations General Assembly
Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiwa attended the opening ceremony of the 65th UN General Assembly on September 23 in New York. He took the opportunity of being in New York to reassure foreign investors about the situation in Thailand, especially the political crisis, the delays in holding the auction of 3G licenses, and the legal and environmental issues pertaining to the Map Ta Phut case.
Thai-American diplomatic relations
Thai Prime Minister joined the second ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting in New York on 24 September 2010, at Barack Obama’s invitation. Quoted in the Bangkok Post on September 2, the American President declared "The US recognizes the big shift from the West to the East after the global financial crisis. Asean can play a modulating role in the emerging strategic landscape in East Asia."
Emergency decree and security issues in Bangkok
From August 31 to September 28, a total of 11 bomb incidents have occurred in Bangkok and its surrounding provinces, claiming no lives but causing a few injuries. Targets included State-run TV Channel 11 (31/08), Nonthaburi Mall parking lot (8/09), Public Health Ministry parking lot (9/09), Supawadee tower in Dusit (21/09), a grocery store in Yannawa (24/09), the Royal Turf Club in Dusit (26/09), the Attorney General’s office (27/09). Bombs also went off in other provinces including Chiang Mai (09/09, 13/09). The incidents have prompted security authorities to beef up security in Bangkok. The Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) is keeping 464 spots in the capital prone to attack under watch round the clock, deploying about 15,000 security personnel from the 1st Army Region, the Metropolitan Police Bureau and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The emergency decree, subject to renewal on October 5, is likely to be lifted in many provinces but will be renewed for Bangkok. The government expressed its will to keep the emergency rule in Bangkok at least until the end of the year.
Reconciliation and amnesty
Pheua Thai released a statement on September 5 in support of a five-point reconciliation plan proposed by party deputy leader Plodprasop Suraswadi. The proposal was aimed at resolving political conflicts peacefully, forgiving one another, avoiding the use of violence, demonstrating allegiance to the monarchy, and beginning the reconciliation process immediately. Thaksin twitted on September 8 that he supported the reconciliation effort. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, however, expressed concern that an amnesty would worsen the conflict.
Meanwhile, Bhumjaithai party’s endeavour to push for an amnesty bill was very much discussed in the media. According to the party spokesman, the bill would grant amnesty to general protesters but not to the leaders of the PAD and the UDD (Bhumjaithai spokesman Supachai Jaisamut explained that the amnesty is meant for ordinary protesters who broke the law with good intent, but not for masterminds, leaders, and people who committed criminal offenses, especially terrorism or acts against the monarchy). Amnesty also would be given to members of the government forces involved in the dispersal of protests and to police and army personnel of all ranks, including police chiefs and the army's top commanders. Facing opposition from the ruling Democrat Party and the opposition Pheua Thai Party, the bill is unlikely to be passed by the Parliament and Bhumjaithai is now aiming at gathering names of 50,000 eligible voters to support the bill instead of seeking support from MPs.
Along these various attempts to bring about reconciliation in the country, Sanan Kachornprasart, deputy Prime Minister and chief adviser of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, emerged as a potential mediator between the reds and the yellows. Having held talks with both groups, Sanan said he favoured a broad amnesty, including the 111 executives from the Thai Rak Thai party dissolved in 2007 and the 109 executives from the People Power’s Party dissolved in 2008. The press speculates that Sanan’s push for reconciliation is part of a strategy to emerge as a credible PM candidate for the next general elections.
Next general elections
Prime Minister Abhisist Vejjajiya reaffirmed in various occasions his stance on not holding general elections as long disorder remains in the country. Therefore, the emergency decree in Bangkok will not be lifted before the end of the year or the beginning of next year. Abhisit said in an interview with American CBNC on 24 September that if there is no unrest over the next six months, the government was ready to hold a fresh general election. However, general elections could occur earlier than planned by the government if the Democrat Party is dissolved by the Constitution Court.
Democrat Party dissolution cases
In September, the trial of the Democrat Party caught much media attention. The Democrat Party is accused by the Election Commission of not using the Bt29 million it received from the Election Commission's political party development fund to produce campaign boards, as it declared, and to have received a secret donation of 258 million baht.
The last hearing in the case of the Democrat Party has been scheduled for October 18. If found guilty, the party faces dissolution and the party executives involved in the case could be banned from politics for 5 years. At the end of the month, rumors spread that the Democrat Party was getting ready for an eventual dissolution. Abhisit Vejjajiva would then lose the premiership and the coalition government could collapse. Suthep Thaugsuban, deputy Prime Minister, is one of the few Democrats who would be spared by the 5-year ban, which makes him the favorite potential premier. He resigned from his post in late September to contest a by-election to be held in Surat Thani (Suthep’s home province, but not his home constituency) on October 30. Under the current Constitution, only a MP can become Prime Minister. Suthep resigned from the House in 2009 in the face of an Election Commission accusation that he unconstitutionally held shares in a prohibited business, though the Constitution Court dropped the case when Suthep left the House. Two other potential replacement premiers are Chuan Leekpai, former prime minister and chief adviser of the Democrat party, and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij.
Pheua Thai Party
The Pheua Thai Party organization was discussed in the media over the month, due to Yongyuth Wichaidit’s resignation as party leader on September 10. It was reported that Thaksin wanted Pol Gen Kowit Wattana, a former national police chief and former interior minister, to take the Pheua Thai leadership to solve the party’s reported problem of MP’s defections to Bhumjaithai party. Some party members have complained that Yongyuth is not suitable because he his not an MP and therefore cannot lead the party in Parliament. Ahead of the general assembly of the party scheduled for September 14, Kowit was expected to apply for party membership and be elected as party leader. Meanwhile, six Pheua Thai Mps were reported to have travelled to Moscow on September 11 to meet Thaksin to discuss the political situation and to oppose the appointment of Kowit. Kowit finally declined the offer and Yongyuth was re-elected on September 14 with overwhelming support from party MPs (267 to 6, with four abstentions). A new party executive committee was appointed along with a new team of party spokesmen.
The government-appointed constitution amendment committee, chaired by Sombat Thamrongtanyawong, said on September 23 that the panel agreed on six changes to the charter:
- to have any international treaty approved by Parliament, including treaties that might have wide-ranging social and economic impact.
- to have more MPs - 500 from the current 480. Each electoral constituency would have one MP only, with 125 party-list MPs.
- to have additional selectors for appointed senators.
- to forbid sitting MPs from taking up positions as advisers or secretaries to cabinet members.
- to bar MPs and senators from interfering with the executive branch.
- to end the penalty of party dissolution, unless the party committed an extreme offence such as trying to abolish the democratic system or was a threat to national security, as it would be unfair to have a whole party dissolved if certain party executives broke the electoral law.
Investigation into the deaths of April-May 2010
The investigation into the killings of 89 people during the violent incidents of April-May 2010 is stalled. Though the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has already received autopsy results of the 89 people killed, DSI chief Tharit Pengdit announced on September 20 that the DSI has yet to decide if the information can be made public. Although twelve DSI committees are currently working on the case, and despite earlier statements that the work would be completed within 45 days, the administration is now unable to display any results or announce any timeframe at all. According to the DSI chief quoted on September 2, priority will be given to the investigation into the killings of six people at Wat Pathumwanaram, of Maj-Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol or Seh Daeng, Japanese photographer Hiro Muramoto and Italian reporter Fabio Polenghi.
Theft of ammunition
32 rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), about 8,000 bullets for M16 rifles plus a quantity of M60 bullets were reportedly stolen from a military installation in Lop Buri on September 7. On September 29, more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition for M16 rifles were found in Lop Buri. The serial numbers of the ammunition are now being examined to check whether it is the lot stolen from a military arsenal in Lop Buri.
The plight of teachers in the three southernmost provinces received much media attention throughout the month, as teachers’ representatives travelled to Bangkok following the death of two of their colleagues on September 7 in Narathiwat. The two deaths bring the number of teacher’s casualties to 137 since 2004. 32 teachers from the Teachers Federation in the South met the Prime Minister and presented him a list of demands including: for the Prime Minister or his representative to preside over the funeral rites of the dead teachers as a means of giving moral support to their children and remaining teachers; for children of slain teachers to have the automatic right to government jobs; and for the pension fund of each dead teacher to increase seven-fold and the signature of a memorandum of understanding between the army and local schools to provide for the former to guarantee the safety of the latter. In response to their demands, the Cabinet approved on September 14: to raise the “war zone” monthly allowance from 2,500 to 3,500 baht; life to increase insurance coverage from 500,000 baht to one million baht; to guarantee low-interest loans for teachers and tax incentives. Also, the grades of the dead teachers will be upped by two rankings.
Casualties in the far South amounted to at least 17 people throughout the month, including two soldiers (1/09 in Yala, 3/09 in Yala), a suspected insurgent (3/09, Yala province), a village chief (4/09, Pattani province), a Malaysian national (4/09, Pattani province), two teachers (7/09, Narathiwat province), a school janitor (7/09, Pattani province), a defence volunteer (9/09, Yala province), a security guard (15/09, Yala province), among other villagers (7/09, Pattani province, 15/09, Yala province, married couple on 22/09, Yala province, and four villagers on 18/09 in Narathiwat).
On September 18, four Buddhist villagers were shot dead and their houses set ablaze. According to the Narathiwat governor, the four slain Thais were the last group of non-Muslims who lived in Ban Hu Tae Yua Lor village of Narathiwat province.
- Freedom of the press and freedom of expression (lèse-majesté): Throughout the month, the silencing of opposition media continued. Magazines Red Power and Fah Diew Kan came under threat while Chiranuch Premchaiporn, director of independent online newspaper (already shut down) prachatai.com, was arrested at Suvarnabhumi Airport on 24 September (upon returning from a conference on internet freedom in Hungary) on allegation of lèse-majesté and violating the Computer Crime Act—she was soon released on bail. Earlier this month, Wiset Pichitlamkhen was also arrested at the airport for posting on-line comments deemed offensive to the monarchy.
- Freedom of expression: The Thai foreign ministry blocked Paris-based human rights activists (FIDH) from holding a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) about human rights in Vietnam scheduled to take place on September 13.
- Migrant worker’s rights: Nearly 1,000 legal migrant workers in Khon Kaen Dechapanich Fishing Net factory protested for almost a week in early September to fight for their right to the legal minimum wage and the right to keep their passport.
- Presumption of innocence and right to a fair trial (Emergency decree and arbitrary detention of red-shirts) Red-shirts detained throughout the country are still denied the right to a trial and their names and numbers being secretly kept. The only list of detainees released so far are those of key members and red-shirt leaders who face terrorism charges. Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that he suspected the number of red-shirt protesters detained across the Kingdom to be close to 1,000. On August 31st, the regional NGO Asian Legal Resource Center has written to the UN Human Rights Council, currently chaired by Thailand, that the extended use of the emergency decree infringes on the State party's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The NGO calls for the Council to urge that Thailand provides full access not only to family members and lawyers of persons detained in connection with the recent political unrest in the country, irrespective of whether they be detained under the Emergency Decree or under ordinary criminal law, but also to international monitors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and extend an invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary Detention.
Red-shirt rallies were organized in major cities throughout the country to mark the fourth anniversary of the military coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra on September 19, 2006. Despite the emergency decree being still in force in Bangkok, the biggest turnout was at Bangkok's Ratchaprasong Intersection where 10,000 people reportedly joined the rally. Organisers presented several demands, including - 1. Release all UDD suspects arrested in connection with their political activities; 2. Reform of the judicial system by introducing a trial by jury; 3. Reform the economy by revoking the excise tax on oil, reducing value-added tax from 7 to 5 per cent, and collecting heritage and property taxes at a progressive rate to fund state welfare; 4. Implement land reform to distribute land to farmers and planters, guarantee farm prices, and increase wage for labourers.
The rally was also meant to commemorate the 91 people who died during the protests on May 19 this year.
Also, the anniversary was the occasion to reflect on political developments since the coup. While most journalists of the Bangkok Post and the Nation analysed or quoted analysis of the current political unrest as a direct consequence of the coup, former Army chief General Sonthi Boonyarattaglin, who led the coup, admitted that the failure of the post-coup government to continue Thaksin’s economic policy accounted for the polarization of the country.
On September 7, the Senate has approved the budget bill for the next fiscal year after 25 hours of debate over two days. The upper house voted 96 to 13 to approve the bill with 19 senators abstaining and five deciding not to vote.
New appointments to public posts were proposed in all administrations throughout the month, as the annual reshuffle will take place on October 1 as usual. The nominations to the top posts both in the army and in the ministry of interior have caught much of the media attention on the subject.
Reshuffle in the army
On September 2, General Prayuth Chan-ocha was appointed to succeed Anupong Paojinda as new Army Chief. The new military line-up - comprising 550 generals will assume office on October 1. All four regions of the Army will see top commanders elevated and appointed. Maj-General Udomdet Sitabutr will lead the First Army Region and Lt-General Thawatchai Samutsakhon is to become commander of the Second Army Region. For the Third Army Region, Lt-General Wanthip Wongwai is the new commanding general and Lt-General Udomchai Thamsarorat is to lead the Fourth Army Region.
Reshuffle in the Ministry of Interior
Mongkol Sarasajja, nominated to take the post of permanent secretary of the Ministry of Interior under criticism of nepotism, will not assume its function from October 1 onwards as initially planned. The delay has caused some friction between Bhumjaithai Party (which controls the Interior Ministry and backs Mongkol) and the Democrat Party. Until the completion of a graft inquiry involving Mongkol, deputy permanent secretary for the interior Kwanchai Wongnitikorn will be made acting permanent secretary.
Reshuffle in the police
Pol Gen Wichean Potephosree was appointed as the new national police chief, succeeding to Pol Gen Pateep Tanprasert, due to retire at the end of the month. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, quoted by the Nation on September 7, said Pol Gen Wichean was nominated because he responded well to the government's orders and had no political affiliations.
Office of the Auditor-General
On September 10, the House of Representatives voted 292 to 10 against the draft bill on state auditing, paving the way for a redrafting. The draft bill was considered as giving too much power to the Office of the Auditor-general by allowing it to prosecute suspected offenders. As of now, the Office of the Auditor-General is only authorised to investigate irregularities involving state spending, not to mete out disciplinary punishment or press criminal charges. Anyway, the current saga involving Jaruvan Maintaka, 65-year old former auditor-general who refuses to step down and Pisit Leelawichiropas, the successor she nominated, does not depend on whether or not a law on the office of the auditor-general can be passed, but on the decision of the Administrative Court. On September 10, the Administrative Court rejected a request for injunction from the Office of the Ombudsman on grounds that the agency was not the damaged party and had no direct involvement with the matter. Later in the month, Pisit himself filed a petition with the Administrative Court. The matter is now before the court.
3G auction of mobile broadband licenses
The 3G auction saga continued, hitting the headlines in a continuous manner over the month. Initially set to take place on September 20 in Hua Hin under the authority of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), the auction event was postponed following an injunction from the Administrative Court not to proceed with the bidding before the National Broadcasting Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) is set up. The NBTC shall be, according to the 2007 Constitution, the relevant authority to organize the auction. To sum up the various developments, the Administrative Court accepted to consider a first complaint filed by the Communication Authority of Thailand (CAT) to delay the auction on grounds that the NTC does no longer have licensing authority under the 2007 Constitution (13/09). It ruled in favour of CAT’s call (16/09). The Telecom Organization of Thailand (TOT) filed a second complaint to the Administrative Court against the NTC for the same reason (17/09). The NBC appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court (19/09) but in vain- the appeal was rejected and the 3G auction delayed until the Constitution Court rules on the NTC’s status (23/09).
The 3G auction has been delayed for more than four years because of political instability as well as questions about the NTC's legal authority to conduct the event. Three companies are eligible bidders, namely DTAC, True Corp and AIS. According to experts quoted by the Administrative Court, it would take at least four years for the 3G networks to be built and cover the whole country. Thus if the 3G auction is not launched soon, True Corp, AIS and DTAC will be affected, as their current concessions will end in 2013, 2015 and 2018, respectively.
In an attempt to solve the deadlock, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij announced on September 24 that the government will speed up the establishment of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) by pushing through a new law which should come into force this year. The government would also look at ways to convert the existing 2G concessions into 3G through the Public-Private Joint Venture Act.
Next, the cabinet approved on September 28 the State-owned TOT’s plan to build a new next-generation mobile network., according to the Information and Telecommunications Minister Juti Kririksh. The government's 3G policy encourages TOT and CAT Telecom to serve as network providers, leasing the network to MVNO (mobile virtual network operators) companies. While the ToT proposal reportedly is budgeted at 19.98 billion baht, ToT apparently had not yet prepared a business plan, nor had it arranged financing (the Ministry of Finance quickly declared it would not guarantee loans for the project). Apparently, ToT’s authority to provide services is being based on the now-defunct State Frequency Allocation panel’s decision to grant the 1,900 MHz frequency band to ToT and CAT Telecom in 2000 (ToT subsequently took over spectrum rights from CAT). TOT implemented the first phase 3G network in Bangkok last year and will complete the second phase expansion before the emergence of NBTC
Map Ta Phut Case
After the Cabinet approved on August 31 the National Environment Board’s list of just 11 activities deemed to have a serious impact on health, quality of life and the local surroundings, down from the 18 activities proposed by the government-appointed Map Ta Phut panel, the Administrative Court ruled on September 2 to resume 74 of the 76 initially halted industrial projects in Map Ta Phut. Many villagers are unsatisfied with the Administrative Court’s ruling, and activists have until October 2 to file an appeal. Meanwhile, under the leadership of the Network of eastern people, rallies against the NEB’s restrictive list of harmful activities were organized in Rayong at the end of the month.
Rise of the THB’s value
The baht appreciated 9 per cent so far this year and it is anticipated that it will continue rising, being traded at 30.33/37 US Dollars on the first of October. While some are calling for an intervention of the Bank of Thailand to counter the rise of the THB due to concerns over export-competitiveness, some urge the government to turn the bath’s appreciation into an opportunity by investing into public mega-projects. Meanwhile, Bank of Thailand governor Tarisara Wattanagase reaffirmed that the baht’s current appreciation is in line with the country’s strong economic fundamentals and additional measures to curb its strength are not necessary (01/09). Ms Tarisa said Thailand's exports had continued to grow despite the baht appreciating faster than other currencies against the dollar and that exports have remained the main driver of the economy this year.
Central World reopening
On September 28, Central World shopping mall reopened after four months of renovation to repair fire damage from the May 19 riots.