Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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

Written for The Diplomat

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is seeking apology from those who criticized him in 2012 when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in the organization’s history during Cambodia’s chairmanship.

In 2012, some analysts accused Cambodia, then the ASEAN chair, of blocking efforts to include strong language on maritime disputes in the South China Sea in a regular joint statement so as not to antagonize China, Phnom Penh’s largest trading partner.

Hun Sen discussed the issue in an impromptu speech during a university graduation ceremony on February 5. He claimed that during his meeting with United States Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Cambodia last month, he expressed his exasperation against the unjust accusations hurled against him and Cambodia regarding the failure of ASEAN to preserve its unity in the face of the divisive South China Sea disputes.

“Maybe it is time to return justice to me. I told John Kerry I was disappointed when they [critics] said that Cambodia’s closeness to China was the obstacle to realizing the Code of Conduct in South China Sea,” Hun Sen said.

He added that even when Cambodia was no longer the chair of ASEAN, other countries has also failed to make progress on the issue, including through finalizing a binding code of conduct that has long proven elusive.

“Before Cambodia took its turn, Vietnam and Indonesia were rotating chairs of ASEAN, why couldn’t they realize it? After Cambodia’s turn, Brunei, Myanmar, and Malaysia – did they do it? What could they say about it?”

He described the singling out of Cambodia as an issue of injustice. “Is now not the time that those who attacked Cambodia or me personally apologize to me and repay my justice?” he asked rhetorically.

But during his talk, Hun Sen also hinted his disapproval of a regional agreement to settle the issue.

“ASEAN will not have rights to divide land among them. Vietnam and China would have to sit down and work together. The Philippines and China, or the Philippines and Vietnam, will have to sit down and work out their differences,” he said.

He pointed to how Cambodia and Thailand were able to resolve the dispute over the Preah Vihear temple without involving other ASEAN members.

Finally, Hun Sen cited his long experience handling foreign policy issues. He also asserted that Cambodia is not beholden to either China or the United States

“I was Foreign Minister when I was 27, when some of these analysts were just kids. I wish to reaffirm that the Cambodian foreign policy is independent and sovereign. Cambodia need not seek any country’s input,” he said.

If he is serious about the demand for an apology, perhaps Hun Sen can pursue the matter during the U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands next week. But he should also take note that during Malaysia’s turn to chair ASEAN last year, the group was able to successfully issue a communique which tackled China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.

Thailand’s Junta Has Gone to the Dogs

Written for The Diplomat

A factory worker in Thailand was arrested by authorities for defaming the king’s dog on Facebook.

Before we tackle this bizarre case, we should start with the original controversy: the corruption scandal surrounding the construction of the Rajabhakti Park.

In 2014, the army built seven giant statues of prominent kings in honor of the monarchy. Last month, reports alleged that the project was overpriced and that large kickbacks were given to several officials. The army ordered a probe into the claim but it quickly denied that the project was tainted with corruption.

When this was exposed, many demanded accountability from the junta which seized power in 2014 ostensibly to end corruption in the bureaucracy. To prevent activists and opposition groups from using the park as a staging ground of anti-junta protests, the government ordered the closure of the park for “maintenance.”

But the junta, it seems, was not satisfied with this measure. Last year, on December 8, Thanakorn Siripaiboon was arrested for “liking” and “sharing” an infographic explaining the military’s involvement in the project. Thanakorn was charged with sedition and violating the Computer Crimes Act. The junta warned that other Facebook users who promoted the ‘”anti-government” infographic will be arrested too.

For several days, Thanakorn’s whereabouts were unknown. While his friends were searching for him, a young activist recuperating in a hospital was arrested by the police for committing the same crime. The activist was part of a group which tried to visit the Rajabhakti Park but was blocked by state forces.

It is clear to all that the aim of the junta is to silence the critics of corruption that still persists under its watch. But it has tried to muddle the issue by slapping the activists with a lese majeste case.

On December 14, proceedings in the military court revealed that Thanakorn was also accused of a lese majeste violation. How did Thanakorn insult the monarchy? According to the prosecutor, Thanakorn “shared” a doctored photo of the king on Facebook as well as one that mocked Thong Daeng, one of the pet dogs of the king. Curiously, details of the “illegal” Facebook content were not provided.

If found guilty, Thanakorn can receive a prison sentence of up to 27 years.

This incident once again highlights the need to reform Thailand’s outdated lese majeste law. The law is meant to protect the monarchy but it has been used to justify or hide government repression and other forms of abuses.

Even The Nation, a Thai, English language newspaper, published an editorial describing the lese majeste law as “indefensible.”

“Rather than protecting the institute of the monarchy as intended, the law has been wielded by each successive government in the past decade as a blunt instrument for silencing political opponents,” the editorial declared.

It added that the right to dissent should not be criminalized. “Citizens expressing an opinion, no matter how politically charged, should not be jailed for three years.”

The recent filing of lese majeste cases against government critics and the threat of more cases being filed in the next few days or weeks reflect the deteriorating conditions of democracy in Thailand. While this issue is being deliberated, the former army chief and current prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha wanted citizens to write their salaries and jobs on their national ID cards; a proposal which was instantly rejected by many. Fortunately, the government backtracked. But it showed how Thailand’s leaders could easily tinker with the people’s constitutional rights.

Instead of prosecuting corrupt officials implicated in the Rajabhakti Park scandal, the junta chose to protect its ranks while putting a gag on critics and ordinary citizens who merely wish to voice their opinion.

Meanwhile, in related news, a senior police official is seeking asylum in Australia after investigating the role of high ranking officers in the human trafficking operation in Thailand. Learning from the sad story of Thanakorn, perhaps only few will ‘like’ or ‘share’ this news item in Thailand because it can be interpreted as a seditious act.

Suffice to say, this is a disappointing way to end the year in Thailand.

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