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March 22, 2015

Behind Thailand’s coup is a fight over the king and his successor. But it’s hush-hush.

Behind Thailand’s coup is a fight over the king and his successor. But it’s hush-hush.

June 7, 2014

Author:Phuong Nguyen,CSIS, Washington

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Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej takes pictures during the royal ploughing ceremony in Bangkok. The king has semi-divine status after almost seven decades on the throne. (PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s hard in Thailand to have a meaningful discussion about the country’s most meaningful institution: the monarchy. Laws ban any criticism of the king. Salacious palace intrigue is off-limits. So is any exploration of what may be the ailing king’s final major decision: his succession.

But it’s the uncertainty over that power hand off that forms the silent backdrop to Thailand’s intensifying political instability.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has semi-divine status after almost seven decades on the throne, but his son, the crown prince, is far less revered. Many scholars outside Thailand say the political tug of war in Bangkok is really a competition to hold power when the king passes away, a moment when Thailand could have at least a partial power vacuum.

“It’s like a musical chairs game,” said Ernest Bower, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When the music stops — when the king dies — whoever has power gets to organize the next steps.”

For most of the 20th century, the Thai king was a guarantor of relative political stability — a unifying force amid coups, constitutional changes and bloodshed. When needed, he could call dueling faction leaders before him and chastise them. The bloodshed would stop.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower welcomes Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit to Washington in 1960. (AP)

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Queen Sirikit, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and Princess Ubolratana sit on the steps of Chitralada Palace in 1955. (AP)

This time around, though, the king appears too frail to play such a role and has not been seen publicly since a May 22 coup. The military takeover — endorsed near the end of May by the palace — came after seven months of street protests against the Thai government, which was led at the time by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a member of Thailand’s most divisive political family. Yingluck’s party — which has the critical backing of her older brother Thaksin Shinawatra — remains popular in the rural north but is loathed by elites in Bangkok. Those elites often describe themselves as royalists.

Thaksin-supported candidates have prevailed in every national election since 2001, but in almost every case those leaders have been ousted in dubious judicial rulings or military coups that have the support of the wealthy Bangkok establishment. Those who oppose Thaksin say he has allowed rampant corruption and consolidated power among his family and friends. The most vicious charge of all is that Thaksin so covets power, he poses a threat to the monarchy.

Some experts say that the military could seek to hold power until the king’s death. Thailand’s new military ruler, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has a reputation as a staunch monarchist and has warned that violations of the lèse-majesté law — a broad rule that bans anything offensive against the monarchy — will be heard in military, rather than criminal, courts.

A working king

Thais pay homage to the king in ways both big and small. His face is on every coin and banknote. Massive golden-framed portraits hang in front of office buildings, in restaurants and along highways, portraying different periods in his life. Before viewing movies, Thais stand for a royal anthem. The king is described rarely by name: “His Majesty,” Thais say. The best-selling book in Thai history is a lighthearted biography written by the king about his favorite dog.

Born in Boston, where his father was studying medicine, King Bhumibol inherited the throne at age 19 after the mysterious death of his older brother. He arrived in Thailand at a time when the monarchy’s power appeared in decline. The king managed to reverse this with what Thais viewed as a lifetime of selfless acts. He visited far-flung rural areas wearing common clothes, a camera slung around his neck. He bankrolled thousands of royal projects, many that aimed to help villages improve their agriculture and irrigation. Famously, he was never seen smiling; he projected leadership as a somber task.

“I would say he is a working king,” said Sakarindr Bhumiratana, who has been involved for three decades with royal development projects. “Each night on television you’d hear of him being somewhere in Thailand — somewhere far away, somewhere in great need. He was there, looking to help people.”

With his health in decline, King Bhumibol has retreated to the coastal Klaikangwon Palace, whose name means “far from worries.” His condition is treated as a state secret, as is the palace role in politics. Technically, the king is a political bystander, able only to approve or veto decisions made by the parliament. In rare public cases where the king has intervened, Thais have almost always come to view his moves as selfless, the sagacious decision of somebody duty-bound to his people.

The king has almost never allowed himself to be seen in public with generals and politicians, who were seen as far less virtuous and whose power was fleeting by comparison.

Thaksin’s rise and fall

Thaksin rose to prominence in Thailand as the king transitioned into a less public role. Elected as prime minister in 2001, Thaksin was the first Thai politician to seek to curry favor with the countryside, providing low-cost health care and debt forgiveness to a previously disenfranchised group of voters. The result: A multi-billionaire telecom tycoon became the voice of the masses.

Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 military coup and lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, graft charges awaiting him back home. In recent years, Thaksin has been portrayed by many in Bangkok as a puppet master, controlling his political party — and most recently, his sister.

Thaksin has long proclaimed his adoration of the king. Opponents see it differently. A 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks, described one monarchy loyalist as saying that the “King’s health and mood remained poor ‘primarily because of Thaksin’ and the challenge Thaksin posed to the stability of the country.”

Whatever the case, Thaksin has carefully tried to cultivate a good relationship with Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn — something that could play to his advantage after the succession. Thaksin opponents have for years expressed concerns about his intentions, saying he wants to become Thailand’s first president, with more executive power than he had as prime minister.

“He wants total control,” said Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and ambassador to the United States. “He wants to put the royal family in a golden cage.”

Thaksin has defended himself against all such charges, saying they are politically motivated, and has filed a series of defamation suits against those who have criticized him, including Kasit.

In Thailand, discussing Thaksin’s feelings about the monarchy is fair game, a topic not protected by lèse-majesté. But blogs and foreign accounts that detail Thaksin’s relationship with the prince are blocked. No tabloids serve up delicious gossip about the monarchy’s inner workings. Even academic work about the monarchy is severely limited.

Over the years,theenforcementoflèse-majesté law has waxed and waned. But recent governments have aggressively pursued cases, warning that even “liking” material considered offensive on Facebook could lead to charges. As a result of the restrictions, the Thai monarchy remains a “black hole,”said PavinChachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University.“You are not supposed to talk about anything,”Pavin said. “Well, anything but glorification.”

4 things to know about Thailand’s military coup(0:51)

After months of violence, Thailand’s military went from declaring martial law to seizing control of the government. Here are the facts to know. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)
Chico Harlan covers personal economics as part of The Post’s financial team.


March 19, 2015

This Laos Resort Serves Rich Tourists Tiger Meat and Fresh-Killed Bear Cubs


This Laos Resort Serves Rich Tourists Tiger Meat and Fresh-Killed Bear Cubs

By Hilary Pollack

March 19, 2015 / 3:00 pm

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No matter where you go on Earth, the rich are subject to all kinds of buyable privileges that seem outlandish to the common person. It could be something as simple as paying $450 for a bottle of Smirnoff that would otherwise retail for less than a tenth of that price while trying to live large in a nightclub, or as lavish as hopping on a caviar-stocked private jet to an island resort.

But in Laos, the wealthy have other decadent means of blowing their cash—and an investigative report has revealed that they’re extravagant in very controversial ways.

According to a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency, numerous ritzy resorts in the Southeast Asian country have been capitalizing off the sale of exotic meats and specialty food items. We’re not talking Wagyu beef here, either; this is a veritable smorgasbord of endangered species and other illegal game, from tiger bone wine to pangolins to bear paws.

The epicenter of these specialty attractions is in Laos’ Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, which the EIA has dubbed “Sin City” and “a lawless playground.” The tourist area is run by Hong Kong’s Kings Romans Group (which has an insane 99-year lease) and is primarily patronized by the wealthy Chinese. And according to company records, though the area is replete with expensive restaurants and a massive casino, the primary business of the Kings Romans Group (KRG) is the raising of livestock “other than dairy and poultry.”

There are gift shops with names such as Golden Triangle Treasure Hall and Fantasy Garret displaying tiger skins, stuffed tigers, ivory tusks, rhino horn shavings (which are sometimes snorted or added to beverages), and leopard skins, as well as restaurants advertising “sauté tiger meat,” pangolin, and snake dishes. When pressed, vendors told EIA investigators that their suppliers were local tiger farms, or even admitted that they were illegally trafficked in from other neighboring countries—knowing that there would be few or no repercussions.

According to the EIA’s report, “The blatant illegal wildlife trade by Chinese companies in this part of Laos should be a national embarrassment, and yet it appears to enjoy high-level political support from the Laos Government, blocking any potential law enforcement.”

Perhaps the most egregious business in the block is a restaurant called God of Fortune, which specializes in yewei—a Chinese term for exotic meat that translates to “wild flavor.” There, undercover investigators observed the sale of bear paw, turtle, Tokay gecko, and snake; jars upon jars of (purported) tiger bone wine; and visible cages containing live pythons and bear cubs, which the staff said could be killed and served upon request.

A nearby “zoo” is populated with dozens of bears and tigers—making it no secret that its “attractions” will eventually turn into meals for the hungry tourists.

The EIA points out that tigers, with a wild population of only a few thousand, are “perilously close” to extinction, and the bear trade in Laos has been on the rise in the past few years due to increased demand for bear bile—valued for medicinal applications in China, Korea, Laos, and other nearby countries. Current laws permit the trade of second- or further generation bears that were bred in captivity, but the “lawlessness” of the GT SEZ creates an environment that fosters illegal breeding, trading, and capture of animals.

The EIA and other conservation and animal welfare groups stress that these types of businesses and tourist zones send a confusing message to consumers, implying that the consumption of these animals is legal and acceptable.

Laos has been under pressure for years to tighten its restrictions on illegal wildlife trade and put an end to its inhumane bear bile farms, which have only been a growing problem due to rampant smuggling of the specialty product overseas. But with the money pouring in from tourists in areas such as the GT SEZ, it’s hard to clean up the trade without ruffling feathers.

As Jeremy Hance of  The Guardian points out, “As China—and much of East Asia—has experienced a runaway economic boom, snorting powdered rhino horn, displaying tiger skins, or purchasing ivory has become a way to flex one’s power and wealth.”

These bear cubs, tigers, and other animals will only make their way out of Laos’s Sin City if the demand for them diminishes—and when the cash stops flowing.

March 18, 2015



STRICT EMBARGO until 00:01 GMT on THURSDAY, MARCH 19, 2015


LONDON: A resort complex tucked away in Laos and marketed to Chinese gamblers and tourists is a hub for trade in illegal wildlife products and parts, a new report reveals.

In Sin City: Illegal Wildlife Trade in Laos’ Special Economic Zone, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) documents how the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ) in Bokeo Province has effectively become a lawless playground.

The complex comprises a casino, hotel, shops, restaurants, a shooting range and massage parlours, and visitors can openly buy endangered species products including tigers, leopards, elephants, rhinos, pangolins, helmeted hornbills, snakes and bears – smuggled in from Asia and Africa.

Undercover investigators from EIA and its partner Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV) documented restaurants with endangered species on their menus, from ”sauté tiger meat” and bear paws to reptiles and pangolins; one business kept a live python and a bear cub in cages, both of which were available to eat on request.

And the complex has ambitious plans for the manufacture of tiger bone wine. EIA/ENV found four tigers at the GT SEZ in mid-2014 but by February 2015 the number had risen to 35; a senior keeper revealed the goal is to acquire a total of 50 females for breeding to increase the population to 500 tigers within three years and to 1,000 in the long term to produce tiger bone wine for consumption at the GT SEZ and for export to China, via Yunnan.

The GT SEZ is run by the Chinese company Kings Romans Group, which has a 99-year lease and an 80 per cent stake in the operation. The Government of Laos has a 20 per cent stake in the GT SEZ, declaring it a duty-free area and giving it political patronage at the highest level.

Despite being situated in Laos, the GT SEZ functions more as an extension of China – it runs on Beijing time, signs are in Mandarin, most workers are Chinese nationals and the Chinese yuan is the main currency. Chinese nationals are permitted to visit with just an identity card rather than a passport.

The complex is accessed via a purpose-built 30km road from the nearest Laos town of Houaxay and China City Construction Group, a Chinese state-owned company, has been commissioned to build an international airport, a proposal which has created conflict with local farmers over land rights.

While Laos’ wildlife law enforcement is notoriously weak, there is not even a pretense of enforcement in the GT SEZ.

Debbie Banks, EIA Head of Tigers Campaign, said: “The activities within the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone constitute an intolerable disregard for international law as it concerns the illegal wildlife trade and endangered species.

“The Government of China urgently needs to recognise the immense damage this place does to its international reputation and to take meaningful action to rein in a Chinese company which is, in effect, running amuck with impunity in a neighbouring country with weak governance.

“China also needs to understand and accept that its legal domestic trade in the skins of captive-bred tigers is doing nothing but driving consumer demand – whether that demand is thriving at home or, as in the case of the GT SEZ, conveniently shunted into a neighbouring country.”

The report calls for the Government of Laos to immediately establish a multi-agency task force to tackle illegal wildlife trade at the GT SEZ and across the country, and to seize all illegal wildlife products at the GT SEZ.

It further calls on the Government of China to investigate connections between Chinese businesses and traders operating at the GT SEZ and wildlife criminals operating between Laos, Myanmar and China, and to cooperate with international counterparts to disrupt criminal networks.

In addition, Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) should seek CITES trade suspensions until such time as the governments of Laos and China demonstrate that adequate law enforcement, criminal justice and policy measures are being applied towards ending illegal wildlife trade associated with operations at the GT SEZ.

For information on illegal tiger trade in Vietnam, please contact Douglas Hendrie at Education for Nature Vietnam on or telephone +84 4 6281 5424.


  1. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) is a UK- and Washington DC-based Non-Governmental Organisation that investigates and campaigns against a wide range of environmental crimes, including illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, hazardous waste, and trade in climate and ozone-altering chemicals. More info at
  1. Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV) is an independent national Vietnamese NGO whose mission is to foster a greater understanding among the Vietnamese public about the need to protect nature and wildlife. ENV works closely with Government and partners to strengthen policy and legislation and directly support enforcement efforts to protect endangered species. ENV has led NGO efforts in Vietnam to document the illegal trade in tiger parts and products, including from tigers that have come from captive sources in Vietnam and neighbouring Laos. More info at
  1. Read & download Sin City: Illegal Wildlife Trade in Laos’ Special Economic Zone at

Environmental Investigation Agency
62-63 Upper Street
London N1 0NY
Tel: +44 207 354 7960


EIA-Sin cityEIA-Sin city report 3152015

March 5, 2015

Clinton private email violated ‘clear-cut’ State Dept. rules


Clinton private email violated ‘clear-cut’ State Dept. rules

The policy warns against routine use of personal e-mail accounts.

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Hillary Clinton is shown. | Getty

The State Department has had a policy in place since 2005 to warn officials against routine use of personal e-mail accounts for government work, a regulation in force during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state that appears to be at odds with her reliance on a private email for agency business, POLITICO has learned.

The policy, detailed in a manual for agency employees, adds clarity to an issue at the center of a growing controversy over Clinton’s reliance on a private email account. Aides to Clinton, as well as State Department officials, have suggested that she did nothing inappropriate because of fuzzy guidelines and lack of specific rules on when and how official documents had to be preserved during her years as secretary.

But the 2005 policy was described as one of several “clear cut” directives the agency’s own inspector general relied on to criticize the conduct of a U.S. ambassador who in 2012 was faulted for using email outside of the department’s official system.

“It is the Department’s general policy that normal day-to-day operations be conducted on an authorized [Automated Information System], which has the proper level of security control to provide nonrepudiation, authentication and encryption, to ensure confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the resident information,” the Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual states.

Spokespeople for the State Department and Clinton stressed earlier this week that the agency had “no prohibition” on the use of private e-mail for work purposes.

Clinton said in a tweet Wednesday night that she wants the public to be able to see the emails she has turned over to the State Department in December. But the agency said that a review process that includes seeing if the documents contain personal or classified information could take some time to complete.

The 2005 policy says approved “telework solutions” satisfy the rule, which appears in a section of State Department regulations discussing “sensitive but unclassified” information — an extremely broad category of data. Former officials said a large volume of State Department paperwork and e-mail falls into the category known internally as “SBU.”

The email policy gained some attention when the inspector general issued a scathing report on the tenure of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration as U.S. ambassador to Kenya. The review, which led to his resignation three years ago, faulted him on a variety of grounds: one was having “a commercial Internet connection installed in his embassy office bathroom so he could work there on a laptop not connected to the Department email system.”

Another complaint the report leveled against Gration: “He drafted and distributed a mission policy authorizing himself and other mission personnel to use commercial email for daily communication of official government business.”

A State official who asked not to be named noted that the email issue was just one of a series of serious management shortcomings described in the 2012 inspector general report about U.S. Embassy operations in Kenya.

State Department officials and Clinton aides have offered no response to questions in recent days about how her private e-mail system was set up, what security measures it used, and whether anyone at the agency approved the arrangement. It’s unclear how such a system, run off an internet domain apparently purchased by the Clinton family, could have won approval if the department’s policies were as the inspector general’s report describes them.

Clinton sent 55,000 pages of e-mails from her private account to the State Department in December, after State officials asked Clinton and other former secretaries to provide copies of any work-related e-mail messages so they could be incorporated into the agency’s official record systems.

The former secretary said on Twitter Wednesday, “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible,” Clinton tweeted.


Chelsea Clinton also had an account on the homemade website domain that Hillary Clinton used exclusively for emails during her time as secretary of state, The New York Times reports. The domain name had a server linked to the family’s Chappaqua, New York, residence. But her real name is absent from the email address.

She used her account under the pseudonym “Diane Reynolds,” which the Times reports she often used when checking into hotels.

Longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin also had a account, according to the report, an apparent prized symbol of status within Clinton’s vast network of advisers, well-wishers, and hangers-on.

According to Philippe Reines, another close Clinton aide and former State Department official, Abedin was the only department official other than the secretary to use a account.

Clinton tweeted late Wednesday that she wants the public to see emails from the 55,000 pages she handed over to the State Department.

February 6, 2015

US tells Thailand to restore democracy or alliance is over

Police stand guard outside the US embassy in Bangkok January 28, 2015. — Reuters pic

BANGKOK, Feb 6 — The United States will not fully reactivate its military alliance with Thailand as long as the junta-controlled country refuses to restore democracy, a US diplomat warned yesterday.

“There has to be a full restoration both of the institutions of governance and justice as well as the full restoration of a duly democratically elected civilian government,” the senior State Department official told journalists.

It follows a recent visit by Daniel Russel, the most senior US official to travel to the kingdom since Thai generals imposed martial law and took over in a coup last May.

The United States strongly condemned the coup at the time, with chief diplomat John Kerry calling for a return to civilian rule via democratic elections.

Washington and Bangkok maintain a military alliance dating to the Cold War and the fight against communism in Southeast Asia, notably during the Vietnam War.

US and Thai armed forces remain tightly linked, but the United States cancelled joint military exercises after the coup and suspended a small part of its military assistance to Thailand. — AFP

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