Archive for April, 2015

April 22, 2015

Thailand plays the Russia card

Thailand plays the Russia card

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

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On April 7-8, Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian prime minister to visit Thailand in 25 years. The Russian leader’s visit to Bangkok was excessively publicized both to the benefit of Russia in expanding its presence in Southeast Asia, and to that of the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocho who took advantage of Medvedev’s high profile visit to legitimize his regime.

While in Thailand, Medvedev signed a number of bilateral agreements with his Thai counterpart, for example, to combat drug trafficking, boost investment and develop Thai energy sector. The two countries were ambitious in their goal to double annual bilateral trade next year to $10 billion.

As reported by the Russian media, around 0.9 percent of ASEAN exports are services to Russia and 2.8 percent of Russian exports are services to ASEAN. Thailand is the leading ASEAN nation trading with Russia at $2.3 billion, leaving far behind Vietnam with $609 million and Singapore at $364 million. Thailand hopes Russia will buy its over-produced rubber. On top of this, it expects to attract more Russian tourists. In 2014, Thailand drew 1.6 million Russian tourists. But so far, the total number is down 8.6 percent this year.

What is more important than the strengthening of diplomatic ties between Thailand and Russia is the fact that Medvedev’s trip to Bangkok came at the time when the Prayuth regime has been heavily criticized by certain Western governments and international organizations. They have condemned the Prayuth government for replacing martial law with sweeping security powers for the military, as an obstacle to the protection of the people’s rights.

Prayuth’s statement perfectly reflected the perception of Thailand vis-a-vis the game of international politics in which his country has been dealing with different great powers. Prayuth said, “Friends prove their worth when one is in trouble. Friends will help and understand,” purportedly to praise the Russian friendship at the expense of the United States, which has taken a harsher stance against his regime.

In response, Medvedev replied, “Thailand is a close friend in the Asia-Pacific region and we have long diplomatic relations. In two years we will mark our 120 years of relations.”

Preparation for Prayuth’s visit to Moscow, which could take place within months, is already underway. It is noteworthy that most Western nations have applied travel bans against top Thai military leaders. So Prayuth’s trip to Russia could be seen as a big slap in the face of these countries.

In Thailand, the exploitation of Medvedev’s visit to consolidate the position of the government has continued. A Thai government spokesperson has confirmed that Thailand will consider buying military weapons from Russia. This news is likely to irritate the U.S., which has long been an arms supplier for Thailand. In reality, however, Russia has always been an alternative source of military equipment for Thailand.

Ten year ago, when Thailand was under the Thaksin Shinawatra government, the country’s ties with Russia were strong. President Vladimir Putin became Russia’s major arms salesman and sought to expand arms sales with Thailand. His efforts was welcomed by Thaksin, who agreed to buy a dozen Sukhoi-30 fighter jets from Russia worth $500 million. In 2015, Russia has subtly engaged itself in Thailand’s political situation to regain its political foothold, a move that has chilled U.S.-Thai relations.

But the renewed friendly relations between Thailand and Russia must be analyzed in the context of the turbulence in the Thai domestic politics. Since the coup of May 2014, an army of Western nations, including the U.S, Australia, and EU states, has imposed soft sanctions against the military junta.

To lessen the impact of Western sanctions, the Thai military government has turned to its neighboring countries to seek their endorsement of its regime. Powerful dignitaries from Myanmar and Cambodia all paid visits to Thailand while offering their support for the military government. China, in particular, is playing the role of a legitimacy provider to the Thai junta, which to a great extent has permitted Thailand to withstand outside pressure.

Now Russia is following in the footsteps of China and some of Thailand’s friends in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But this will only further deepen the level of competition among foreign powers in regards to their relationships with Thailand. Already the U.S. has retaliated, stepped up its criticism of the shrinking of democratic space in Thailand and the continued abuses of human rights there.

In Washington’s latest move, President Barack Obama finally announced his nomination for U.S. ambassador to Thailand, after the post remained vacant for six months. But his choice of Glyn Townsend Davies, the former U.S. special representative for North Korea Policy, has raised many eyebrows.

The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said, “A career diplomat, Davies is expected to put his knowledge of crisis diplomacy to good use in the context of Thailand’s uncertain political landscape. Expect Davies to continue calling on the Thai military and interim government to restore democracy and show support for the civil and political rights of the Thai people.” This will surely further put U.S.-Thai ties under strains.

Although the political drama in Thailand is far from over, Medvedev’s trip to Bangkok allowed a convenient break for the junta from the heat. Russia has helped raise the Thai military’s confidence in prolonging its rule of Thailand. But Moscow’s move, unfortunately, will not improve the Thai political situation either now or in the long run.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.


April 22, 2015

‘Sin City’ wildlife raids a start but what about the long-term?

‘Sin City’ wildlife raids a start but what about the long-term?

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10th April, 2015

On March 31, 2015 the Vientiane Times reported that four restaurants at Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ) had been shut down and illegal wildlife products confiscated and burnt, following the release of EIA’s Sin City report.

Subsequent accounts suggest it was a multi-agency response and, on the face of it, it was a welcome and encouraging first step from the Laotian authorities. The remain questions, however, as to the impact and scope of the effort and what is planned in the long-term.

For example, why would the authorities burn the evidence they presumably need for prosecutions? It’s not clear if they have filed any charges and are planning to take anyone to court.

It wasn’t just restaurants that were raided; footage from Laos TV shows authorities in the Golden Triangle Treasure Hall gift shop where two stuffed tigers, seven tiger skins, one leopard skin and vast quantities of ivory had been documented by EIA and partner Education for Vietnam (ENV). Yet it’s not clear if the ivory, stuffed tigers and other illegal wildlife products from this shop were destroyed as well.

Likewise, it’s not apparent from the stills and video footage available whether the tiger skeletons from the vats of wine in restaurants and retail outlets in the GT SEZ Chinatown were also destroyed.

Burning wildlife contraband at the GT SEZ, screengrab via Laos National TV

Burning wildlife contraband at the GT SEZ, screengrab via Laos National TVContrary to the assertion in the Vientiane Times that local people had supplied the wildlife that was confiscated and burned, the stuffed tigers had come from China and six of the seven tiger skins had been trafficked from Mong La in Myanmar, with the source of those tigers possibly India, Thailand and Malaysia.

As a Party to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Laos should have taken action to help determine the source of the tiger parts before destroying them. In July 2014, the 65th Meeting of the CITES Standing Committee adopted a recommendation requesting Parties making seizures of tiger skins to take photographs of the stripe patterns (an identifying feature as unique as fingerprints) and share them with countries maintaining stripe-pattern profile databases of wild tigers, such as India. In this way, efforts can be made to determine origin and shed further light on the transnational criminal networks involved. It is not clear if the authorities in Laos implemented this action, or if DNA samples were taken of the tiger, ivory and other wildlife products before they were burnt.

It is also not clear if the Laos authorities are investigating associations between the Chinese business individuals engaged in illegal wildlife trade at the GT SEZ and their contacts in China and Myanmar, or whether any financial investigations are under way to help map those connections.

Officials seal a business in the raid on the GT SEZ, screengrab via Laos National TV

Crucially, there have been no reports on what is happening to the live bears and tigers at the GT SEZ, or what action is being taken to end tiger farming – again, consistent with Laos’ commitments under CITES. It was clear from our engagement with the live animal enclosure manager that the intention is to expand its operations to industrial-scale production of tiger bone wine. There was no mention in the media as to what action, if any, Laos is taking to prevent this. Officials seal a business in the raid on the GT SEZ, screengrab via Laos National TV

Laos is currently subject to CITES trade suspensions for failing to submit an adequate National Ivory Action Plan and the recent law enforcement action may be a sign of a willingness to act when under the spotlight.

But what we would like to see is tangible evidence of an intelligence-led enforcement response, an effort to investigate the individuals involved in the trafficking of tigers and other wildlife into the GT SEZ and a proactive response to end tiger farming. We look forward to working with relevant national and intergovernmental agencies to encourage a meaningful response in Laos.

EIA recognises that Laos cannot do this alone and, accordingly, Sin City sends a clear message to the Government of China over its responsibility to investigate the roles of Chinese nationals and businesses associated with illegal wildlife trade at the GT SEZ.

So far, our appeal to China to act has been met with silence.

Debbie Banks
Head of Tigers Campaign

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April 17, 2015

May the force be with ANA’s awesome new ‘Star Wars’ airplane – CNN Philippines

May the force be with ANA’s awesome new ‘Star Wars’ airplane – CNN Philippines.

Related: New ‘Star Wars’ teaser trailer released

A rendering of All Nippon Airways' planned 'Star Wars'-themed

The icing on the geek cake?

To coincide with the release, Japan carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) has launched a five-year “Star Wars Project” that includes a new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner painted with an R2-D2 livery, proving yet again that the astromech droid does indeed have the ability to take flight.

The Star Wars-themed plane is due to start flying international routes this fall, says the airline.

The “Star Wars Project” includes a special ANA website that plays the iconic theme song and features videos and photos of the plane.

The promotional tie-in comes ahead of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Due to hit theaters December 18, it’s likely to be one of the biggest box office hits of the year.

It’s the first film in the franchise to be released under Disney’s ownership.

The studio paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012.

World’s largest 787 fleet

ANA was the launch customer for the 787, which entered service in 2011.

With 34 Dreamliners, it currently operates the world’s largest 787 fleet.

The airline has an additional 49 787s on order, says manufacturer Boeing.

Late last month, Boeing announced ANA had finalized an order for three 787-10 Dreamliners, valued at approximately $900 million at list prices.

The order makes ANA the first airline in Asia to operate the entire family of 787 Dreamliners.

This was first published on, “May the force be with ANA’s awesome new “Star Wars” airplane.”

April 13, 2015

Lao New Year

 Lao New Year.

Press Statement
John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
April 10, 2015

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On behalf of President Obama and the people of the United States of America, I am honored to wish the people of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic peace and prosperity on the occasion of the Lao New Year.

The start of a new year is a time to celebrate all we have accomplished and look ahead with hope for the future. I was delighted that the United States had the opportunity to join the Government of Laos in co-hosting the Extraordinary Meeting of the Friends of the Lower Mekong in Pakse this past February. The coming year will be an important one for Laos, and I hope it brings joy to Lao people around the world.

The United States values its important friendship with Laos. May the New Year bring us closer together.

April 3, 2015

Thailand – Known as the “dictator law”, article 44 of the interim constitution

Don’t let lifting of martial law fool you: junta’s slide towards dictatorship warrants stronger stances from the US, EU and Japan whose business and tourism it craves

| Thursday 2 April 2015

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Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends a Buddhist ceremony on Thursday.

Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends a Buddhist ceremony on Thursday. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

This week’s lifting of martial law by Thailand’s military ruler, Prayuth Chan-ocha, looks like a brazen attempt to dupe key overseas allies, notably the US, the EU and Japan, into believing the country is on a return path to democracy. The Bangkok junta, which seized power from an elected government last May, plainly hopes to persuade international investors, trading partners and foreign tourists that it is business as usual in Thailand.

The reality is very different. Within minutes of Wednesday’s announcement, the regime invoked article 44 of the interim constitution that was arbitrarily imposed last year. Known as the “dictator law”, it gives Prayuth the power to override any branch of government in the name of national security, and absolves him of any legal responsibility. In key respects, the scope for abuse is more threatening than martial law.

“General Prayuth’s activation of constitution section 44 will mark Thailand’s deepening descent into dictatorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Thailand’s friends abroad should not be fooled by this obvious sleight of hand … that effectively provides unlimited and unaccountable powers.” In particular, unlawful detentions of civilian opponents looked set to increase, he suggested.

The junta had detained hundreds of politicians, activists, journalists and others whom they accuse of supporting the deposed government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, disrespecting the monarchy or backing anti-coup protests, Human Rights Watch said. Military personnel have interrogated many of the detainees in secret military facilities without ensuring safeguards against mistreatment. Yingluck, meanwhile, has been banned from politics and faces criminal prosecution.

The junta has detained hundreds of people accused of supporting deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, pictured.

The junta has detained hundreds of people accused of supporting deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, pictured. Photograph: Wasawat Lukharang/NurPhoto/Rex

Prayuth is as much twerp as tyrant. His insistence on the incomparable virtues of “Thai-ness” and traditional core values, and his self-proclaimed mission to restore “happiness to the people”, have invited open ridicule, even though the media and institutions are closely controlled. After political gatherings of more than five people were banned last year, university students organised “sandwich parties” – in effect, lunchtime sit-ins. When the idea spread, Prayuth’s military detained the subversive snackers for “eating sandwiches with political intent”.

The former general, who now styles himself prime minister, heads the Orwellian-sounding National Council for Peace and Order. He claims he did not want the job of national overseer, and took it out of a sense of duty. But he is quick to threaten those who question his powers or conduct. Journalists who failed to report “the truth” could be executed, he warned this month. He was not joking.

Like tinpot dictators the world over, Prayuth’s timetable for holding elections keeps slipping. Polls were supposed to be held this year. Now they may happen next year, or later. Meanwhile, the junta, helped by an appointed advisory panel and legislature, is preparing a permanent constitution whose main purpose appears to be to permanently curtail parliamentary democracy and prevent the return of the Shinawatra clan, which has won every poll since 2001.

“The charter includes provision allowing a non-elected official to assume the role of prime minister in times of crisis. The dangers posed to freedom do not need to be spelled out when autocrats brush aside the fundamental principles of democracy in the name of ‘national emergency,’ ‘public order’ and ‘crisis measures’,” said commentator Aron Shaviv.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha after the army declared martial law in May 2014.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha after the army declared martial law in May 2014. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

“The charter also suggests the 200-member senate should be nominated, and not subject to any electoral process whatsoever. And to help promote this thoroughly anti-democratic measure, the junta has enlisted the judiciary, sullying the very bedrock of democracy.”

The prospect of Prayuth’s dictatorial rule being extended indefinitely is not one that is welcomed in Washington. A public row blew up in January when Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state, criticised the lack of democracy. But the Obama administration is conflicted. Thailand is an old and valued ally dating back to the Vietnam war era, which has cooperated on security and military issues, drug interdiction and people trafficking.

More to the point, the US does not want to leave the strategic field open to China in its expanding tussle with Beijing for advantage and influence in south-east Asia. Japan shares Washington’s concern. Its prime minister, Shinzō Abe, recently hosted Prayuth in Tokyo. Abe urged the restoration of civilian rule, but his focus was also on maintaining a strong bilateral business and trade relationship.

China has fewer scruples. “A month after the coup, China assured Bangkok that it would continue to support Thailand’s development and hosted a delegation of senior Thai military officials in Beijing,” said Felix Chang, a Foreign Policy Research Institute analyst.

“More importantly, China won approval for a new railway that will connect Kunming and Bangkok through north-eastern Thailand. Once completed, that railway will tie Thailand’s economy (and interests) more closely to China … In February, Prayuth agreed to strengthen military ties with China,” Chang said.

The EU also has considerable leverage with Bangkok but, like Washington, has failed so far to exert behaviour-changing pressure. EU foreign ministers condemned the coup last June, suspended some official visits, and promised to keep the situation under review.

Prayuth’s regime badly needs European business and tourism, hence this week’s cosmetic and misleading announcement on martial law. As Bangkok’s third-largest trading partner and second biggest investor, the EU, acting with Washington and Tokyo, must quickly decide whether Thailand’s dismaying slide towards institutionalised dictatorship warrants a tougher stance. The answer is fairly obvious.

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