Tensions between the two countries, which seemed to have eased at the end of last month at the occasion of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations, hit the headlines with renewed intensity this month. Seven Thais were arrested by Cambodian soldiers on December 29 for allegedly crossing the border at Khok Sung District in Sa Kaeo and intruding a military zone on Cambodian territory. The group claimed to have gone to the area to look into local villagers’ complaints that Cambodians were encroaching on Thai land.
They include Veera Somkwamkid, one of the leading members of People’s Alliance for Democracy, and coordinator of the Thai patriots Network, former vice minister for foreign affairs and Democrat MP for Bangkok Panich Vikitsreth, Samdin Lertbutr and Tainae Mungmajon of the Santi Asoke sect, and Kitchaponthorn Chusanasevi, Narumon Chitvarattana (Mr. Panich’s aide) and Ratree Pipattanapaiboon (Mr Veerat’s secretary). They appeared on January 6 before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Two of them were granted bail, posted by the Thai embassy, on January 13 while the other five still remained detained at Prey Sar prison.
On January 14, the New Politics Party (the formal political vehicle of People’s Alliance for Democracy) went to Government house to submit a letter to the Prime Minister to ask for the revocation of the 2000 memorandum of Understanding between the two countries on the Thai-Cambodian border.
On January 15, 199 Cambodians arrested by immigration police in Bangkok were sent back to Cambodia without court proceedings.
On January 18, Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, Kojpollathorn Chusanasevi, Panich Vikitsreth; Samdin Lertbutr and Tainae Mungmajon were released on bail. The five were sentenced on January 21 to nine months suspended jail-term and a fine.
On January 20, Mr Veera, who had previously been arrested by Cambodian authorities for illegal entry, was denied bail. Panich Vikitsreth’s parliamentary status may now be in question following his conviction in Phnom Penh Municipal Court; the Constitution stipulates that MPs lose their membership in the House upon being sentenced by final judgment to a term of imprisonment, regardless of suspension, though with exemptions for offenses of negligence, petty offences, and defamation.
The arrest and continued detention of Mr. Veera prompted members of the People Alliance’s Democracy and Thai Patriot Network, a splinter group of the PAD, to demonstrate outside Government House, obstructing Phitsanulok Road and Rajadamnoen Nok Avenue, for his release. They demanded that the government withdraws from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, revoke the memorandum of understanding on border demarcation signed in 2000, and expel Cambodian people from disputed territory in the vicinity of Preah Vihear temple. Blaming the government for mishandling the case, they vowed they would not end their protest until Mr. Veera and his aide returned to Thailand. PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang reportedly has threatened that demonstrators may occupy Government House as they did in 2008. PAD and the PAD and the Thai Patriots also arranged a small demonstration in Sa Kaeo, near the Thai-Cambodian border, but local residents opposed the demonstrators, blaming them for upsetting the relationship between Thailand and Cambodia and disrupting cross-border trade.
Tensions seemed to escalate as the government decided to conduct a military live-fire exercise near the disputed area of Preah Vihear after Thailand demanded that Cambodia remove a stone tablet carrying a message in Khmer reading, according to the Pnom Penh Post “Here! is the place where Thai troops invaded Cambodian territory on July 15, 2008.” The tablet was installed in front of Wat Kaew Sikha Khiri Sawara temple, about 300 metres from Preah Vihear. The tablet was removed on January 27, but almost immediately was replaced by a new one reading “here is Cambodia,” which further upset some Thais. This second tablet was also soon removed after formal Thai protests, but a Cambodian flag was later reportedly raised over the same temple.
On January 31, the PAD filed a lawsuit against the prime minister, his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon for violating Articles 119 and 120 of the Criminal Code related to the protection of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In accordance with the proposal of the government-appointed committee headed by Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, president of the National Institute of Development Administration, the change in the number of MPs was scrutinized by a joint ad hoc parliamentary committee composed of 45 committee members, of whom 19 were Democrat MPs, 15 were from other political parties, and 11 were senators. No Pheua Thai Party member joined the deliberation as the party decided to boycott the entire process, refusing to consider any charter revision option other than going back to the 1997 Constitution. On January 11, they voted to reduce the number of constituency MPs from 400 to 375 and increase the number of party-list MPs from 80 to 125.
Based on the results of the last general elections, common belief is that majority vote in the constituencies favors the Pheua Thai party as compared to the proportional party-list design which relatively advantages the Democrat Party.
On January 26, a joint sitting of the House of Representative and the Senate passed second reading of a bill to amend Sections 93-98 of the constitution, about the number of MPs, with a vote of 298 to 211.
The day before, a joint sitting of the House and the Senate approved the second reading of a bill to amend Section 190 of the constitution regarding the necessity to get parliamentary approval to sign international agreements. The second reading of the bill was passed with a vote of 343-205. A total of 554 MPs and senators were present for the voting. Parliament President Chai Chidchob set Feb 10 for another joint sitting to vote on the bill in the third reading.
Aftermath of the Constitution Court scandal
Meanwhile, a group of lawyers close to the UDD have filed a complaint with the Election Commission to revive two cases against the Democrat Party for misuse of the EC 29 million baht political development fund allocated for the April 2005 election campaign and for receiving a 258 million baht donation from cement giant TPI Polene Plc. The Constitution Court had dropped the two cases in November and December on grounds of procedural mishandling. Picha Wichitsilp, leader of the group of lawyers, affirmed that the Constitution Court has only considered procedural aspects in both cases and not ruled on the facts, therefore a new ruling is needed.
Detention of yellow-shirts
Chaiwat Sinsuwong and Somboon Thongburan were arrested on January 18 in connection with the seizure of Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports by yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy protesters in late 2008. They both face charges of terrorism. They are leaders of the Thai Patriots Network (TPN), a splinter group of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), whose activity in relation to the claim over Preah Vihearn has caught a lot of media attention this month. They were arrested after they led their supporters in a march from Government House to the Grand Palace and submitted a petition to the King. The petition asked the King to help the seven Thais being tried in Cambodia on illegal entry and other charges. They were released on bail on January 27.
Detention of red-shirts
Several red-shirt leaders are still detained in Thai jails, despite the attempts by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship to obtain their release. On January 4, the Criminal Court denied a bail request to seven red-shirt leaders detained on terrorism charges. The petition was filed by UDD leader Thida Thavornseth. Weng Tojirakarn (Mrs Thida's husband), Korkaew Pikulthong, Natthawut Saikua, Nisit Sinthuprai, Kwanchai Sarakham, Wiphuthalaeng Pattanaphumthai and Yosawaris Chuklom have been detained since May last year in connection with the April-May riots in Bangkok.
The Department of Special Investigations (DSI) has made several attempts to petition the Criminal Court to revoke the bail granted to UDD leader and MP Jatuporn Prompan, but without success.
On January 10, the DSI arrested Sompong Bamgchom for having led a raid on Chulalongkorn hospital on April 29 and for alleged involvement in a bomb attack at Chart Thai Pattana Party’s adviser Banharn Silpa-archa's house on April 25.
The red-shirts, who have vowed to rally twice a month until new general election is held, held their largest rally since the April-May riots on Sunday 9 January. According to the police, between 30,000 and 40,000 red-shirts joined the rally. Other sources indicated that as many as 60,000 people joined the protest at Ratchaprasong and Ratchadamnoen. MP Jatuporn Promphan participated in the rally, possibly in violation of his bail conditions, though he did not made a public address at the main gathering. Thaksin Shinawatra addressed the protesters in a 10-minute phone-in.
Meanwhile, business representatives from the Ratchaprasong area submitted a letter to the government complaining about losses incurred by the UDD rallies. They asked the government to issue regulations on public demonstrations so that demonstrators can protest without having to cause shop closure and financial losses to people working in the area.
Former army chief and coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin was elected new leader of the Matuphum Party at the party's annual assembly on Monday 10 January with 294 votes, replacing Virat Praweenvorakul.
Also, Pheua Thai party announced it will lead a censure debate against the government in February. Party financier Mingkwan Sangsuwan, who apparently has aspirations to lead the party, has been selected to lead the party in the censure debate—the censure motion must name the replacement prime minister should the government be defeated. Prominent Puea Thai figure Chalerm Yubamrung reportedly subsequently avoided censure preparation meetings.
Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, formally declared that she would not enter politics and take up leadership of Puea Thai Party at this time; some factions of Puea Thai had been calling for her to lead the party. Current leader Yongyuth Wichaidit is not an MP and is seen by many as unsuited to lead the party into a general election.
Investigation into the deaths during the April-May riots
On January 20, the DSI, in charge of leading the investigation into the deaths that occurred during the military crackdowns on protestors in April-May last year, told a news conference that it had found that 12 deaths were caused by red-shirts. Thirteen other deaths were attributed to government forces. These included the death of Japanese cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto of the Reuters news agency who was shot at Khok Wua intersection on April 10, three deaths at Wat Pathum Wanaram, a death at Dusit Zoo, and the death of Pvt Narongrit Sala who was killed near the National Memorial on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road. The DSI said it was unable to attribute responsibility for the other deaths, including for the most prominent cases of Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi, and pro-UDD army specialist Khattiya Sawasdipol, shot by a sniper on May 13, as well as Red Cross volunteer Kamolket Akahad, who was shot dead in a temple.
On January 17, two victims of the violence during the April-May red-shirt protest last year - one totally blinded and the other partially blinded - received compensation from the Justice Ministry's Rights and Liberties Protection Department.
Anchalee Vanich was appointed secretary-general to the Prime Minister. That is the first time a woman occupies this prestigious post.
Many appointed senators, including Senate Speaker Prasopsuk Boondet, reportedly intend to resign their seats before 18 February in order to be eligible to be chosen in the process to pick new appointed senators; the process begins on 18 February and is to be complete within two months. It is not procedurally clear whether or not current appointed senators who complete their terms would be eligible to appointed again. The departure of these senators may delay the joint house vetting committee that is currently considering draft amendments to the constitution.
The panel on Political reform and charter amendment chaired by Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, issued the proposal to reform the political structure of the country, switching from a regime based on balance of powers to a regime of strict separation of powers. The new system would draw on strengths of the American presidential system and adopt a strong executive. The lower house would no longer be able to undertake censure motions to force the government to resign and the prime minister would no longer have the power to dissolve the lower house and call for new elections. Half of the members of parliament would be elected on a proportional party-list basis and half in single-member constituencies (as opposed to the current system of multimember constituencies). The political party winning the election on the party-list vote would automatically see its leader become the new prime minister. The new prime minister would be entitled to form his government freely, without taking into consideration coalition politics constraints. Although there would be no more censure motions, the impeachment procedure (related to most severe political faults) would remain and allow a government to be censured, in which case the political party which came second in the election would have its leader become the next prime minister. [In an interview, Dr. Sombat Thamrongthanyawong also said that the Constitution Court should not have the power to dissolve political parties on grounds of corruption but only for serious threats to democracy of the continuity of the State in accordance with the practice of many liberal democracies around the world. The Senate should be fully elected so as to increase its legitimacy and democratic character, while MPs would no longer have to be members of political parties to run for election, so as to reduce the influence of party “financiers” (influential people deciding who can and who cannot run for election under the party banner).
Fatalities included two policemen (January 1, Narathiwat), a village headmen (January 7, Narathiwat) a paramilitary ranger (January 10, Narathiwat), teacher (Pattani, January 15), a woman, (January 18, Pattani), assistant village headmen (January 22, Pattani), old man (January 23, Narathiwat), nine people in an ambush (January 25, Yala)
Manot Chadarat, 37,teacher, killed on the eve of the National Teacher’s day, was the 138th teacher killed in the deep south since 2004.
On January 19, dozens of militants reportedly stormed a military camp in Narathiwat, resulting in a gun battle between security forces and insurgents. Four soldiers died in the attack and 13 were injured, and attackers took military weapons and ammunition before escaping. At least eight suspects were captured in the course of raids conducted by security forces in the days following the attack. The day before that, the Emergency decree was renewed for another three months in the three southernmost provinces.
Since 2004, the death toll in the southernmost provinces is 4,400.
Call to ratify the ICC
At the occasion of the visit to Thailand of Dr Jur. H. C. Hans-Peter Kaul, vice-president to the International Criminal Court, the red-shirts submitted a petition to the ICC about the government’s handling of the riots in April-May. The Court replied that such case did not come under the ICC’s jurisdiction. The vice-president of the ICC called on Thailand, which has signed the Rome treaty but not yet ratified it, to ratify it.
Death of human rights lawyer Thongbai Thongpao
At the age of 84, human rights lawyer, writer and journalist Thongbai Thongpao died on January 24. Fighting for democracy, he was detained without charge between 1958 and 1966 by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, after he visited Communist China as a journalist.
Next general elections
The Prime minister continued to indicate that a general election is likely soon after charter changes are passed. The conditions set by the government to call new elections are threefold: political stability, a strong economy, and the endorsement of the charter changes.
Charter changes are expected to pass their final reading in February.
Government’s social welfare package
The government has announced several measures aimed at improving the quality of life in Thailand, especially of poor people. The “Pracha Wiwat” scheme was approved on January 11 with a budget of about 9 billion baht. The package is being billed as a New Year gift to the Thai people; measures, as summarized in the Nation, include:
1 Freelancers/self-employed people can join the Social Security scheme and enjoy all benefits from July onwards. They will be required to pay less than Bt100 a month.
2 Soft loans will be given to taxi drivers with more than three years in the service. The loans will allow them to buy their own cabs via lease-purchase contracts at a rate cheaper than paying the rent. The government will also provide soft loans to street vendors.
3 Taxi motorcyclists nationwide will be registered to pave the way for their inclusion in welfare schemes. Their stands will have proper corners and a clear price list. The registration will start in March.
4 Starting from April, the government will give more space for roadside stalls. The move should benefit some 20,000 vendors.
5 The government will continue to subsidise cooking gas for households.
6 Free electricity will be provided to about 9.1 million families who use less than 90 units of electricity per month.
7 The government will ensure the price of agricultural produce and food are not too high by efficiently controlling the price of animal feed and animals used for breeding.
8 Businesses will have to transparently report their cost to ensure consumers get the products at a fair price.
9 Crime rate in Bangkok will be reduced by 20 per cent within six months as the government will install more security cameras in remote spots and increase police patrols at risky spots.
Other measures were announced by the Prime Minister during his weekly broadcast on TV, such as:
- Welfare for pregnant women and children from birth till the age of two
- Free milk for pregnant women to improve their health conditions
- Food supplements for pregnant but unhealthy women
- Gifts and counselling for breastfeeding mothers
- 24-hour hotline on the hygiene of mothers and their babies
- Welfare for children aged between three and five years old
- Setting up a centre to encourage private businesses to provide nursery centres in exchange for tax incentives
- Requiring all tambon administrative organisations to operate nursery centres
- Free care for pre-school children of construction workers/employees
- Solving problems facing landless people
- Establishing special economic zones for agricultural sectors
- Boosting educational opportunities among children outside schools
- Giving cash awards of Bt10,000 each to outstanding teachers
- Special grants worth Bt500,000 each to outstanding teachers in remote areas
- Overhauling the judicial and political system to reduce social injustices
To summarize, workers in the informal economy such as motorcycle taxis, street-side vendors and taxicabs could be soon entitled to benefits under the social security system. They will also be granted loans from state-owned banks such as Government Savings Bank. Motorcycle taxis will be legalised to close a loophole so that police and state officials could no longer ask for bribes. Street-side vendors in selected areas of Bangkok will be granted the right to do their trade legally. To reduce the burden of the cost of living on low-income earners, the government will cap diesel price at Bt30 per litre; extend free electricity to those using 90 or less units per month; reduce the production cost of food industry.
Several thousand members of the Assembly of the Poor rallied in Ubon Ratchathani to demand that the government permanently open the sluice gats of the Pak Moon dam, and pay compensation to people affected by the dam’s construction. PM’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey promised on 25 December to seek cabinet approval for the permanent opening of the sluice gates, and said that two sub-committees looking into problems concerning the dam would report findings to cabinet in February.
Each year, the New Year’s week witnesses a high road death toll. Last year, 446 lives were claimed within the 7-day period, while the fatalities amounted to 234 this year, according to the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department with 2,656 people injured.
With regards to last month’s much publicized tragedy in which a 17-year old girl hit a public passenger van killing nine people, the young driver turned herself to the police and was immediately released on bail, without any temporary detention.
3G Services - Telecoms
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) was set up by a law on December 20 last year, to be responsible for managing frequency allocation and grant permits for broadcasting and telecommunication businesses. The regulations for the selection and recruitment of the eleven commissioners have been drafted by the Senate at the beginning of the year.
CAT Telecom awarded two True Corp subsidiaries deals for joint development of 3G wireless broadband services nationwide. The next day, TOT Plc awarded a group led by Samart Telcom and Loxley a 16.29 billion baht contract to build a 3G wireless network covering 13 provinces within six months, and the entire nation within a year. Legal challenges made by TOT and CAT blocked the National Telecommunications Commission’s planned 3G license auction in September, and now TOT and CAT have found partners to offer 3G services on TOT and CAT networks under mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) arrangements.
All 13 districts of Narathiwat were declared disaster areas due to flooding caused by heavy rains.
Marine Parks Closed
National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department head Sunan Arunnoparat yesterday announced that 18 popular diving sites will be closed (apparently effective immediately) to divers for a period of up to 14 months in order to allow the recovery of coral that has been damaged by bleaching. Tourism and dive industry figures were upset.