Viktor Bout’s extradition case
The trial of alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout on charges of money-laundering and fraud – new charges pressed this year by US prosecutors when they feared they may fail to secure extradition with initial terrorism charges- started on October 4. Following a request filed by public prosecutors with Washington’s support, the Criminal Court decided on October 5 to drop the new charges, closing Viktor Bout’s case and therefore creating the conditions for his extradition to the United States where he is to be tried on charges of terrorism. On October 8, Viktor Bout’s lawyer filed an appeal against the Criminal Court’s ruling, which was accepted by the Court of Appeal, further delaying the process of his extradition to the United States, to the great displeasure of US officials. On October 13, the US Ambassador, Eric John, invited Mr. Abhisit to discuss the matter, who reportedly declared “But I told him [Eric John], as per the principle of Thai laws, a final decision on the Viktor Bout’s issue rests with the government, to exercise its executive authority."(The Nation, 14/10)
The United Nations-Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited Thailand on October 26. About the military crackdown on protesters during last April-May that led to 91 deaths, he declared "This is a Thai issue and the issue will be resolved by Thais (…) The [reconciliation] committees have shown openness in their work. They are even continuing their work with the international community and have sought international assistance in technical and specific matters. (…) I do hope that all issues will be addressed in a transparent and participatory manner." (Bangkok Post, 27/10). Many protesters gathered in front of the UN headquarters where Ban Ki-Moon was holding talks with UN officials. They included red-shirts sympathizers, calling on the UN to oversee the investigation into the deaths arising from the April-May riots, yellow-shirts, calling on the UN to get involved in the resolution of the border dispute with Cambodia, and supporters of democracy in Burma calling on the UN to ensure that upcoming general elections in Burma (November 7) are free.
ASEAN and ASEM summits
Abhisit attended two international summits this month, namely the 8th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), held in Brussels from October and the 17th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), held in Hanoi from Oct 28 to 30. Both summits addressed the need for better international cooperation on the stability of the financial and currency system.
The Thai-Cambodian relationship experienced a month of growing distrust between the two nations, not so much over the ongoing border dispute but above all over the allegation made by Thai officials that Cambodia represents a safe haven for hard-line anti- government supporters.
Preah Vihear border dispute
The People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) continued opposing the 2000 memorandum between Cambodia and Thailand on the resolution of the border dispute around the Preah Vihear temple on grounds that the MOU refers to a French colonial-period map that does not support Thailand’s land claims along the border. The memorandum forms the basis of the negotiations undertaken in the framework of the Joint Border Committee (JBC) between the two countries. Ahead of the parliamentary ratification of JBC meetings minutes, scheduled for November 2, the PAD is calling for a protest in front of parliament.
Red shirts’ alleged training on Cambodian territory
On October 2, police arrested in Chiang Mai 11 red-shirt supporters who were allegedly training to launch anti-government violent actions. Mr. Kittichai, one of the 11 arrested men, reportedly declared that the group was training since September 7 in Chiang Mai after having received arms training in Siem Reap along with 28 other individuals. On 11 October, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan denied that any red shirts had been trained in Cambodia, calling the allegation made by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) a "made-up story to blame Cambodia". Despite promises of cooperation exchanged between Hun Sen and Abhisit Vejjajiwa, at the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels early this month, as well as at the ASEAN 17th meeting at the end of the month, new suspicions about Cambodia’s protection or negligence vis-à-vis the Thai government’s hunt for red-shirts emerged. Indeed, on October 28 the Thai Foreign Ministry revoked the passports of nine fugitive red-shirt leaders believed to be hiding, for most of them, in Cambodia. The case of Arisman Pongruangrong was much-discussed in the press, where declarations of Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh denying that Arisman was hiding in the country responded to DSI claims that he entered the country on a Cambodian visa.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva visited Myanmar on October 11, where he met with his counterpart, Thein Sein. Abhisit said they discussed the need for Myanmar’s cooperation in verifying the nationalities of and registering migrant workers in Thailand. Thailand and Myanmar also agreed to jointly develop a deep sea port at Myanmar’s Dawei. It was reported that Italian-Thai Development Pcl expects to soon sign a contract worth 400 billion baht to develop the port, including work on railways, roads, industrial estates, a refinery and a steel mill.
Democrat Party’s Dissolution case
The biggest story of the month is undeniably made of the many unfolding developments in the trial of the Democrat Party at the Constitutional Court.
The alleged offence occurred ahead of the 2005 general elections, at a time when Abhisit was deputy party leader. The party is accused of misusing a Bt29 million grant from the Political Party Development Fund, a public fund granted to political parties and managed by the Election Commission. The Election Commission filed a complaint against the Democrat Party in May.
On October 18, the Constitution Court set the deadline to receive verbal closing statements of both parties as November 29. The next day, Abhisit was one of the four last defence witnesses. The Democrat Party submitted his written closing statement on October 28 and will appoint a representative to present the verbal closing statement on November 29.
The ruling is, in all likelihood, expected for November 29 or early December, and will decide on the fate of the Democrat Party (its dissolution), and all the board members at the time of the alleged offence (including current Prime Minister Abhisit).
In the context of accusations against the reign of “double-standards” in the judicial process, the outcome of the trial of the Democrat Party will surely have a major impact on Thai politics. Ruling political parties close to the red-shirt movement were dissolved in 2007 and 2008 and their executives including former Prime
Minister Thaksin Shinawatra banned from politics for five years, destabilizing parliamentary politics and accentuating the political crisis which reached its climax on April-May 2010. A “not-guilty” verdict in the Democrat Party’s case would likely deepen resentments and distrust of the judicial system, at least on the red-shirts’ side, especially after this month which saw the integrity and neutrality of the highest judicial authority of the country come under strong fire. Indeed, the denunciation of double-standards was propped up by the release of video clips showing officials and judges of the Constitutional Court allegedly talking about strategies to clear the Democrat Party. The first five videoclips released on YouTube on October 15 show contacts between judges and the Democrat Party. One of the video clip shows Democrat Party MP for Ranong Wirat Romyen (also on the party’s legal team for the dissolution trial) discussing with Pasit Sakdanarong, Secretary to the President of the Constitutional Court, Chat Cholaworn about the Democrat Party’s ongoing trial. Pasit was immediately dismissed as Secretary to the Constitutional Court President (October 18) but his interrogation could not proceed as according to immigration authorities, he flew to Hong Kong on October 13 and has not returned to Thailand since. According to media accounts, the videos were uploaded from a location in Hong Kong on October 15. Two weeks later, new videos were posted from the same account allegedly showing judges and officials discussing how to deal with a rumour that a court official application exam was leaked to certain candidates, in advance to the testing.
Throughout the month, links between Pheua Thai party, the red-shirt movement and the overall security situation in Bangkok came under scrutiny after a powerful bomb exploded in a Nonthaburi apartment building on October 5. The explosion killed four people and injured eight others. Police reported that the explosion occurred while a bomb was being assembled in the room; the occupant of the room, redshirt guard Samai Wongsuwamn, was therefore believed to be the prime suspect. Police produced a disembodied arm with Samai’s fingerprints to show that Samai died at the scene.reportedly chased Central Institute of Forensic Science director Porntip Rojansunan and her team off the site when they went to collect evidence at the request of Nonthaburi’s governor; Supakit said the site was under police supervision. Kasi Ditthanarat, a businessman who took Samai to the mentioned room, was found to have received a money transfer of 50,000 baht from Wasa Theprian the day after the explosion. Wasa was a secretary to the House committee on anti-money laundering and counter-narcotics, committee chaired by a Pheua Thai MP, Wisut Chai-narun. The investigation into the case was given to the Department of Special Investigation. Nonthaburi police chief Pol Maj Gen Supakit Srijantaranont
As of October 31, the Emergency decree remains in force in four provinces, namely Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan and Pathum Thani. The decree was renewed on October 5 for another three months by the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES).
A seminar on special security laws was held by the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Cross Cultural Foundation at Chulalongkorn University on October 11. At this occasion, Thai human rights specialist Vitit Munthaborn said in substance that the use of security laws by the government paved the way to many excesses not in line with the respect of human rights. Niran Pitakwachara, National Human Rights Commissioner, called for the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency situations to be immediately dissolved to provide for a reliable and trustworthy inquiry into the deaths of the 91 people in the April-May events. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said at the same seminar there were 184 red shirts currently being detained in prisons, with 25 reported as missing.
On October 13, a team of officials from the Rights and Liberties Protection Department, Ministry of Justice, the Department of Special Investigation, and the National Human Rights Commission and the House of Representatives visited red-shirts detained at Bangkok Remand Prison in connection with the April- May riots. The team intended to interview all 59 UDD supporters but 21 of them refused to meet. Of those who accepted to be interviewed, English-language newspapers reported that 12 complained about injustice, 21 wanted to be freed on bail and three asked for a lawyer. Others mentioned their poor health condition.
Yellow shirts and the judicial process
On October 15, arrest warrants were issued for five key yellow-shirts for their role in the airport blockade of late 2008. Chaiwat Sinsuwong, Veera Somkwamkid, Tonfan Saeng-athit, Somchai Wongwet and Somboon Thong-buran are accused of illegal gathering, instigating unrest, causing damage to the property of others, and damaging and obstructing public roads. Mr Chaiwat and Mr Veera also face terrorism charges.
Next general elections
The eventuality of an upcoming general election, either in the case the Democrat Party would be disbanded by an order of the Constitutional Court, or in the case the Democrat-Bhumjaithai-Peua Pandin coalition would break down, or finally in the case of a dissolution of the lower house, led the main political parties to reflect on their potential candidates for prime minister.
Within the opposition party Pheua Thai, several names were disclosed in the media, notably party list MP Mingkwan Sangsuwan, party leader Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Chalerm Yubamrung, Nonthaburi MP and deputy House Speaker Apiwan Wiriyachai, Pol Gen Kowit Wattana, former deputy prime minister and finance minister Virabongsa Ramangkura.
Within the ruling Democrat Party, Suthep Thaugsuban appears as the best placed to replace Abhisit. His election as an MP on October 30 in Surat Thani (cf. infra.) was described in the press as an obvious proof that Suthep is getting ready to take on the PM’s seat, as according to the Constitution, PM candidates must be elected MPs. Suthep would, in all likelihood, become the next prime minister in the case the Democrat Party is dissolved by the Constitution Court, Abhisit banned from politics for five years and no election called to elect his replacement.
Then, the apparent lack of solidity of the Bhumjaithai-Democrat coalition also revealed a possible weakness of the government. A Department of Special Investigation report has tied Interior Minister Chavarat Charnvirakul, the leader of Bhumjaithai Party, along with his close aides Thani Samartkij and Saksayam Chidchob to alleged irregularities in a 3.49 billion baht computer leasing project; the DSI report is to be submitted to the Nation Anti Corruption Commission. Reports say Chavarat is being pressured to resign. Bhumjaithai backer Newin Chidchob is reportedly upset over the situation, and wants to know why the DSI (which operates under the Democrat-controlled Justice Ministry) is being so aggressive in proceeding with this matter. Newin was quoted as telling Democrat secretary-general (and coalition builder) Suthep Thaugsuban that if the Bhumjaitha leader is bruised, it would be difficult for the party to remain in the governing coalition. There were rumors that Bhumjaithai may pull out and there could be a House dissolution shortly after the King’s birthday celebrations in December, though Bhumjaithai figure Newin Chidchob soon told the party not to fight with the Democrats over the matter. At virtually the same time, however, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was reported saying that corruption will not be tolerated in the coalition, and if Bhumjaithai is uncomfortable it is welcome to leave.
Finally, the prime minister reaffirmed his stance on calling a snap election before his term expires at the end of next year. On October 27, he declared "There will be elections for sure next year. (…) The government has no plan to stay in office and complete its term." (Bangkok Post, 28/10) This categorical promise is however tempered by Abhisit’s exigency of restoring peace and order before the House can be dissolved.
Surat Thani by-election
Suthep Thaugsuban, deputy Prime Minister, resigned from his post on October 8 in order to run for a by-election in Surat Thani. The by-election was held on October 30 and easily won by Suthep; Surat Thani is Suthep’s home province and political base. Preliminary results indicated that Suthep obtained 149,458 votes against the 21,956 votes cast for Voravut Vichaidit of the opposition Puea Thai Party. The provincial election panel reported a low turn-out of 53%.
The process of revision of the Constitution did not go forward this month but rather seems to have been stalled. The recommendations made by the panel on the revision of the 2007 Constitution chaired by Sombat Thamrongthanyawong were sent out to all political parties on the last week of October. Among the proposed changes, the one concerning the change of the electoral system of the lower house is the most sensitive. The panel argues for a 500-member House - 375 from uninominal majority vote and the rest from a single nationwide party-list election system. The Cabinet deliberation about the proposed constitutional amendments is set for November 2.
Violence in the Deep South continued unabated in October.
Casualties amounted to at least 14 including six villagers (Pattani, 5/10, Yala, 6/10, Narathiwat, 25/10, Yala, 29/10), a former TAO chairman (Pattani, 5/10), two soldiers (Narathiwat, 6/10, Pattani, 11/10), four defence volunteers (Yala, 14/10, Narathiwat, 16/10, Yala, 22/10), a retired policeman (Pattani, 18/10,).
On October 16, Deep South Watch released a report about the situation in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. According to the report, some 4,390 people have been killed and 7,139 injured in 10,284 violent incidents over the past six years. Thirty-eight per cent of those killed were Thai Buddhists and about 60 per cent were Thai Muslims.
October 25 marked the sixth anniversary of the Tak Bai incident in which at least 85 people suffocated to death while being transported by the army to a military camp. At this occasion, the Justice for Peace Foundation released a statement calling on the Thai justice system to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Tak Bai incident, for which no official were made accountable so far. The date was marked by a series of bombings across Thailand’s south, though focusing mainly in Narathiwat, reportedly leaving one person dead and 18 injured.
Freedom of expression
The first international conference on human rights in Southeast Asia took place from October 14 to 15. Thailand’s human rights situation was criticized regarding freedom of expression in connection with the lèse-majesté offence, namely the ICT Ministry’s action in blocking sites deemed a threat to national security and the monarchy institution.
Vietnamese scholar-cum-activist Vo Van Ai, key organizer of Thailand's international conference on human rights in Southeast Asia and the Kingdom's representative in the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights, was denied a visa to attend the conference. Late month, the press was in shock when he was denied a visa to attend in Bangkok a conference on Human rights in Vietnam.
Freedom of the press
Thailand was ranked 153rd on the world press freedom index compiled every year by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) [or Reporters Without Borders for English speakers]. It has slipped 23 places. This poor score is mainly due to the death of two foreign journalists during the April-May crackdown operations in Bangkok, for which no one has so far been held responsible. The direct or indirect pressure exerted on the opposition press is also a key factor in the ranking of Thailand’s 2010 press freedom. As an example, it was reported in the news about Red Power magazine, one of many publications supportive of the red-shirt movement which cannot find a printing house due to fear of government harassment.
The third Mekong Youth Forum on Human Trafficking and Migration was held in Bangkok the third week of October. According to the forum, Thailand has the highest number of young victims.
Following a report about the open sale of child pornography in the streets of Bangkok in the October 3 edition of the Sunday Bangkok Post, police officers raided the relevant area, arresting several people. The integrity and morality of officers from the police station overseeing the area was discussed in the press, and an investigation was reportedly launched for dereliction of duty.
Centre for resolution of the Emergency Situations
On October 5, the Cabinet approved the appointments of Defence Minister Pawit Wongsuwon as head of the Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) and new army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as chief of operations of the CRES. Gen Prawit replaced Mr Suthep, who resigned from his cabinet post to run in a by-election in Surat Thani, while Gen Prayuth replaced former army chief Gen Anupong Paojinda, who retired on Sept 30.
Office of the Auditor-general
The saga over the holder of the office of auditor-general saw a critical moment on 19 October when the Central Administrative Court ruled that Khunying Jaruvan Maintaka had to leave her post, as she reached mandatory retirement age on July 5. The court ruled that Pisit Leelavachiropas’s appointment as acting auditor-general was lawful. Jaruvan reportedly said she would appeal (though it was not clear on what grounds) adding that she still considers herself the head of the State Audit Commission and intends to continue going to her office as she has been—subsequently there have been no further reported developments in the situation.
Gen Prayuth, who declared that his duty would be to maintain Thailand's sovereignty and to protect the monarchy, allegedly ordered a reshuffle of more than 200 army officers to deal with “red” elements within the army by transferring them to less active posts. On the other hand, on October 18, New Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha promoted dozens of army officers who had taken part in the April-May crackdown on protesters, claiming 91 lives. The promotion, effective immediately even though the investigation about eventual wrongdoings of army officers during the April-May operations is undergoing, was criticized as a symbol of the Thai army’s culture of impunity.
Natural disaster : floods
The country has been suffering major flooding since October 10, which monopolized much of TV attention throughout the month. The most severe flooding in three decades has, as of October 31, claimed 94 lives and the water level continues rising in various places. Floods have devastated 38 provinces though the situation in 11 has eased, according to the Interior Ministry's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation. The prime minister declared late this month that over a million families were affected. The government has promised a 5,000 baht relief aid to each affected household, along with 600 baht per rai of farmland. Families of the dead are entitled to a compensation scheme of up to 100,000 baht of the victim was the breadwinner of the family. On October 19 the Cabinet approved a flood relief budget of 100 million baht. At the end of the month, the huge amount of relief aid to be distributed and the difficulties in ensuring that the aid goes to the rightful beneficiary raised suspicion of graft. The Public Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) announced its plan to send five teams of investigators to check that the relief money is properly used.
Rise of the THB value
The high value of the Thai currency continued to raise concerns this month. The Thai baht hit a 13-year high of 29.80 baht to the US dollar on October 17 and remained high thereafter. The appreciation is considered as a consequence of excessive foreign capital inflows. In response to growing concerns from export-oriented small and medium enterprises, the cabinet endorsed on October 12 more measures to counter the THB’s appreciation. They include reimposing the 15% withholding tax on interest gains for foreign investors in the local state bond market to limit the foreign capital inflow and speeding up foreign currency investment by government and state enterprises to promote capital outflows. According to the Kasikornbank research unit forecasts quoted in the Asean Affairs on October 29, the Thai baht will reach 28 baht per US dollar next year and keep rising to hit 25 baht within two years. The baht will keep rising next year in line with the weakening dollar, foreign capital inflows and the country's trade surplus. The baht has appreciated by 10.3 per cent to 29.95 to the dollar for the year to date, the second highest among Asian currencies behind the yen. Core inflation this year is predicted to rest at 0.9 per cent, increasing to between 1.8 per cent and 3 per cent next year.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), the new agency to be responsible for allocating frequencies under the 2007 Constitution in replacement of the now defunct National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) operating under the 1997 Constitution, was judged as the sole legitimate authority to hold the auction for the allocation of 3G frequencies to telecom companies. The bill providing for the appointment of its members was passed by the House of Representatives, amended by the Senate and then rejected by the Lower House at its second reading. A joint parliamentary committee is undergoing the revision of the relevant bill, establishing the Frequency Allocation, Radio, Television and the Telecommunication Regulatory Agency.
Suvanabhumi airport car park dispute
On 1 October, a group of armed men reportedly claiming to be associated with a senior army officer occupied the Suvanabhumi Airport car park and began collecting parking fees; the group stayed for several hours before leaving. The incident appeared to be connected to a dispute concerning Parking Management Co., which won the bid to operate parking services on 31 March 2010, and signed the contract on 31 April, though it apparently took over services before the contract was signed. Businessmen Thas Pojanapraphan and Supachai Sathitwimol complained they have been defrauded by a political party, which they did not name (though they identified as the party that proposed the Bangkok Metropolitan Transit Authority NGV bus-leasing project—Bhumjaithai Party). The two say they were approached to invest in Parking Management Co; Thas said he gave 17 million baht for shares and another 20 million baht for a personal loan, and in return was made an authorized director with administrative powers, while Supachai said he invested 240 million baht in return for a promise of a senior post. Both complained that they were robbed of administrative power when the company’s board structure was changed. Transport Minister Sophon Zarum of Bhumjaithai denied the accusations. Airports of Thailand soon decided to terminate Parking Management Co’s concession on grounds that the company failed to honor commitments. Airports of Thailand took over operation of the car parks, and subsequently air force personnel were seen manning the facilities, but not collecting parking fees.