Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

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

It was the speech everybody had been waiting two years to hear, but few in the international community immediately recognized it.

Last month, Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra traveled to the 7th Ministerial Conference of the Community of Democracies in Mongolia where she discussed the importance of democracy, good governance, and her perspectives on Thailand’s turbulent politics over the past decade. In particular, she defended her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, who was Thailand’s Prime Minister until being deposed by a coup in 2006.

The speech generated an intense domestic reaction, with Opposition personalities calling Yingluck a liar. As expected, netizens actively shared their views as well, but it was Thai Rath cartoonist Chai Rachawat who posted the most controversial remark by uploading a photo of Yingluck with this caption on Facebook: “Please understand that prostitutes are not bad women. Prostitutes only sell their bodies, but a bad woman has been wandering around trying to sell the country.”

Rachawat was quickly and widely criticized for insulting women and for portraying Yingluck as evil. In response, he claimed in a Bangkok Post interview that he did not insult anyone.

“What I meant was prostitutes are not evil because they sell themselves, not the nation,” he said. “However, a woman who sells the nation is evil. I did not label the prime minister as a prostitute.”

Despite this clarification, Yingluck still instructed her lawyers to sue Chai for defamation. In addition, Chai was charged with violating the Computer Crimes Act. This is the first time in Thailand that a prime minister has sued a citizen for leaving a comment on social media. It is common in Thailand to penalize netizens who insult the Royal Family, but not those who offend government officials.

Rachawat’s case has since become a cause célèbre involving media freedom and Internet rights. Human rights watchdogs noted that Chai was sued on World Press Freedom Day.

The perceived persecution of Chai seems to have emboldened Opposition groups to mobilize against Yingluck’s government. Out of nowhere, a so-called Thai Spring movement has emerged, urging citizens to express their frustration against Yingluck by signing an online petition.

This brings us back to the original issue: Yingluck’s controversial speech. So what exactly did Yingluck say that provoked Chai and others to insult her? For a start, maybe her kind words for brother Thaksin did not sit well with those who see him as an abusive and corrupt leader.

“An elected government which won two elections with a majority was overthrown in 2006,” she said in Mongolia. “Thailand lost track and the people spent almost a decade to regain their democratic freedom.”

She continued, “Thailand suffered a setback and lost international credibility. Rule of law in the country was destroyed… The people felt their rights and liberties were wrongly taken away.”

Further, her criticism of Thailand’s Constitution and political system probably angered some factions of the ruling elite:

“It is clear that elements of anti-democratic regime still exist. The new constitution, drafted under the coup leaders led government, put in mechanisms to restrict democracy,” she said. “A good example of this is that half of the Thai Senate is elected, but the other half is appointed by a small group of people. In addition, the so called independent agencies have abused the power that should belong to the people, for the benefit of the few rather than to the Thai society at large.”

Curiously, Yingluck cited the Arab Spring and the ongoing transition in Myanmar as examples of democratic movements. She also credited “people power” for her electoral victory. But these two points were overshadowed by Yingluck’s strong words against the Opposition.

On another level, perhaps the speech was controversial because it was the first time that Yingluck has clearly articulated her stance on divisive issues like Thaksin, the 2006 coup, the violent crackdown on the Red Shirts in 2010, and constitutional reform.

For some analysts, the speech revealed the true Yingluck. For critics, it exposed her as a mere puppet of her brother, who is living in exile outside Thailand. Yingluck may have spoken in Ulan Bator last month but perhaps her real target audience was her constituents, including enemies, in Bangkok.

No doubt, this speech will be remembered for a long time and it will be used by various political factions to advance their agendas. For better or worse, Thai politics has been energized by Yingluck’s speech.

Written for The Diplomat

On the Taiwan Diplomatic Crisis

If news reports correctly reflect public sentiment, it seems fair to deduce that worry and frustration are rising in the Philippines amid diplomatic tension with Taiwan, triggered by the tragic killing of a 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman by members of the Philippine Coast Guard on May 9 in Balintang Channel.

Angered by the incident, Taiwan has made four demands: a formal apology, compensation, punishment for the guilty officers, and fishing talks. Taiwan has since stopped issuing work visas to Filipinos and has conducted military exercises near Philippine waters.

To make matters worse, Filipinos, especially politicians, did not immediately recognize the political and subsequent economic blowback of the May 9 shooting as their attention was focused on the May 13 midterm elections.

Taiwan’s military drill did not bother many people, but the economic sanctions alarmed Filipinos eager to work or do business in Taiwan, which is the Philippines’ ninth biggest trading partner. There are 87,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan, mainly in the manufacturing sector.

Accurate or not, news reports about Filipinos being harassed or harmed by angry Taiwanese has caused further anxiety, prompting some to ask if the government has a contingency plan or reintegration program for migrant workers who will be forced to return if the tension escalates. Further, Taiwanese tourists were reportedly leaving the Philippines in large numbers, hurting travel operators. The Taiwanese are among the top foreign visitors to the Philippines.

President Benigno Aquino III was quick to issue an apology on behalf of Filipinos, but this was rejected by the Taiwanese government as insincere. Taiwan failed to appreciate that Aquino extended the apology even before a formal probe of the incident began.

A delegation sent by the Taiwanese government to conduct an investigation in the Philippines released a report describing the May 9 shooting as an act of murder, further inflaming public opinion in Taiwan. Naturally, the Philippine government dismissed the conclusion and insisted that the investigation of the incident is not yet finished.

Further complicating matters, the Philippines cannot accede to a joint investigation due to its adherence to the “One China” policy. It is hoped, nonetheless, that the recent announcement of a “cooperative probe” between the two countries could help to break the diplomatic impasse.

So far, the Philippine Coast Guard is sticking to its story that the shooting was an act of self-defense after the Taiwanese fishing boat allegedly tried to cause its patrol boat to crash. But if reports are true that the shots fired were excessive, Coast Guard officials must then adequately explain this course of action.

Without prejudging the probe, perhaps the officials involved in the tragic shooting hoped to erase public doubt about the Coast Guard’s readiness to assert the country’s sovereignty in its territorial waters. In recent months, the Coast Guard was criticized for failing to prevent a Chinese fishing boat and a U.S. naval ship from entering and damaging Tubbataha Reef, a protected marine habitat. Consequently, many Filipinos view the Coast Guard as ineffective at patrolling the country’s waters and keeping the nation safe from smugglers, traffickers, poachers, and illegal fishers.

Was the alleged excessive force used against the Taiwanese fishing boat a deliberate act meant to prove that the Coast Guard can ward off illegal intruders from entering Philippine waters?

Hopefully, the probe will lead to justice for the slain Taiwanese fisherman. Filipinos also hope that the nation’s damaged relations with Taiwan can soon be repaired so that economic cooperation can resume.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Coast Guard must ask itself why it has utterly failed to prevent intruders from entering its waters– or successfully arrest them—and further, why it has failed to protect the country’s territorial integrity without igniting a diplomatic row.

Written for The Diplomat

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