Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Burma’s Amyotha Hluttaw (Upper House) and Pyithu Hluttaw (Lower House) have been holding sessions since January 31, but it wasn’t until two weeks ago that members were allowed to question government ministers. The transcript of the meetings published by the state-owned paper New Light of Myanmar provides a peek inside the parliament.

So what have we discovered so far? As expected, the debates were non-antagonistic in a parliament dominated by the junta-backed party. Meanwhile, the minority had to submit questions in advance, which allowed government ministers to prepare well-researched reports on all issues raised by opposition MPs.

But the statistics and other information given by the junta’s ministers also turned out to be unexpectedly useful in determining the true situation in the country. And, rather than improving the image of the new government, they quite surprisingly ended up validating fears about the continuing suffering of Burma’s citizens under the insane and brutal leadership of the junta.

For example, the minister for agriculture and irrigation may have assured the parliament that most of the agricultural dikes and dams that were destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and Cyclone Giri last year have already been rehabilitated, but his report also highlighted how the junta’s denial about the scale of destruction was misleading. We also learned that 37 percent of the dikes in Ayeyawady and Yangon regions and in Rakhine state are still damaged, as are 46 percent in An township, and 42 percent in Yanbye township.

Yet despite the slow pace of reconstruction efforts in the Nargis-hit regions, the government had the audacity to boast that ‘rescue and rehabilitation tasks have achieved success’ and that other countries are using Burma as a model for their post-disaster efforts.

This isn’t all. The health minister claimed that Burma is providing free medical services for the poor, while the finance and revenue minister argued that increasing the salaries of government personnel isn’t a priority because wages have already been raised nine times since 1972.

A close examination of the transcript of proceedings also provided a better understanding of the junta’s censorship network. Asked by an MP to explain why a manuscript submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) hadn’t been approved, the information minister was forced to outline the necessary procedures for manuscripts to be published in Burma. It was made clear that a manuscript first has to be scrutinized by junior PSRD officers before being submitted to the deputy director and then go to the division director for approval. Following this, the relevant division submits the material to the appropriate ministry for comments.

The final decision is made by the information minister. It’s easy to understand now why there are only five newspapers in Burma.

The bicameral parliament may be an institution that’s manipulated by the junta, but so far it has been providing us with junta-sanctioned reports about the deteriorating conditions inside the country which the pro-democracy movement could use to push for more democratic and substantial reforms.

Written for The Diplomat

Thai PM’s Citizenship Woes?

It was always public knowledge that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had had dual Thai and British citizenship since he was born in Newcastle, England and studied in Eton and Oxford before finally returning to work and live in Bangkok. But everybody had simply assumed he’d renounced his British citizenship long ago, especially since becoming a public official in 1992.

That’s why Abhisit surprised many when he admitted in a parliament session last month that he hasn’t yet given up his British citizenship. In a transcript from that session, Abhisit is quoted saying:

‘…You ask have I ever formally renounced my British citizenship, I admit I have not renounced my British citizenship because it is understood legally that if the nationality laws are conflicting, the Thai law must be used.

‘My intention is clear. I was born in England but I consider myself a Thai. I studied in England but I intended to return to work and live in Thailand, to work for the country’s interest and didn’t think of anything else.’

The prime minister’s dual citizenship wasn’t a huge issue in the past since it doesn’t make him ineligible to run for public office. Besides, Thailand’s Nationality Act clearly states that a person is a Thai citizen as long as he is born to a father or a mother of Thai nationality, whether within or outside the Thai Kingdom.

However, as a British national, Abhisit can be brought to trial for allegedly committing crimes against humanity. And now that he’s openly admitted his British citizenship, the opposition is expected to actively pursue its case against the Thai leader.

It was the opposition who first questioned Abhisit’s citizenship because they intend to bring him to the International Criminal Court over the violent dispersal of anti-government Red Shirt protests last year, which resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. Thailand hasn’t yet ratified the ICC Statute, but the United Kingdom has been a signatory of the treaty since 2001.

Robert Amsterdam, the lawyer for ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, explained in his blog that he filed the case in the ICC because he distrusts Thailand’s justice system. He wrote: ‘Given Thailand’s long history of granting state officials complete impunity for massacres of this kind, and the ongoing attempt to whitewash this most recent incident, the ICC still represents the best hope to bring Thai generals and politicians to justice.’

There’s no doubt Abhisit’s forced admission of his British citizenship will likely continue to be exploited by his enemies, who want to dominate this year’s elections.

But at least he can rest assured that if his government is ousted in the future, or if his party loses in the polls, he can always leave Thailand and reside in Britain.

Written for The Diplomat

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