Monday, June 30, 2008

The executive vs the judiciary?

Obviously by "executive" I mean the Prime Minister and his cabinet, not the de facto Head of State, HM King Bhumipol.

Casual observers could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at Thailand's judiciary over the last month or so. After all, it was highly impressive for the Supreme Court to wrap up the "cake" (see what I did there?) case so quickly and with a conviction at that. And then, no sooner had they done that, the Administrative Court ordered an injunction against further action in the ongoing dispute of land around Preah Vihear which happened to be big news at the time.

But there is more interesting background to this situation. Thailand's court system is similar to the UK model. The administrative courts are those of the first instance and are the Criminal and Civil courts. Next up is the Appeals Court and then the Supreme Court. The Constitutional Court is a separate body with a different selection procedure.

The judiciary have been prominent in Thailand's political roller coaster for some time. Ever since the Constitutional Court's narrow decision in favour of Thaksin Shiniwat upon his taking of office in 2001, weary eyes have been cast between the legislative, executive and judiciary. Perhaps none more so than during the CC's decision to nullify the election of April 2006. The brave decision was made shortly after members of the Election Commission had been sentenced to jail for dereliction of duty by the Criminal Court.

After the coup of '06, Jakrapob Penkair claimed to have telephone recordings that exposed interference in the Court's decision to convict the EC commissioners. Penkair claimed the recording implied interference by Privy Councillor Prem Tinsulanonda.

Also after the coup, it was highly conspicuous that the junta ordered constitution increased the retirement age for court judges and changed the selection process for judges (a move which the Samak government have attempted to reverse).

Not long after the draft constitution began to take shape, the Constitutional Court disbanded the Thai Rak Thai party in a move which some claimed was politically motivated (however, the decision was certainly just).

And now, with many of the corruption charges against Thaksin and his family seemingly taking an eternity to reach court by moving steadily, the pastry gate scandal and the Preah Vihear temple affair have been resolved quickly.

What to make of this? It can't help but be noticed that the pastry gate affair, the PV temple affair and the PAD protests (which the court also made a decision on today) almost form a script for the next junta to use:

"In the interests of national security, the Council for the Protection of the Kingdom of Thailand with HM The King as Head of State has no decision but to step in and prevent the sale of Thai land by the People Power Party. Due to the protests lead by the PAD and the attempted interference in the judicial process by dark forces, we believe this decision is the only way to prevent Thai land being sold by dark forces, against the will of the people and the constitution of Thailand".

It must be noted however that the Courts of Thailand - particularly the Constitutional Court - have an image of being cleaner that the other two branches of government. Looking back, I can think of only one decision that appeared to disagree with my amateur understanding of Thai law. That case would be the Thaksin Shiniwat asset concealment case and, interestingly, a judge later admitted he had been "unsuccessfully lobbied" during that case. However, it is open to speculation as to how much influence and pressure is applied to the courts and by whom.

Whatever the reasons, expect the judiciary to continue to play a pivotal role as the ongoing political saga continues over the coming months. It gives me no pleasure to say that I predict a coup - with a speech resembling the example I just gave - around Christmas time this year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pastrygate - Thaksin's lawyers wot dun it

Bangkok Post

It's interesting that the whole case was resolved so quickly. It's also interesting that Thaksin's lawyers - highly educated, experienced and well aware that 2 million is chicken feed to Thailand's hi-so, would apparently try to bribe judges with such an amount in daylight.

Very interesting.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear is a pleasant place to visit. The temple was the subject of a long running dispute between Thailand and Cambodia as to which nation the temple lies in (as it is actually on a border) and the ICJ judged it belonged to Cambodia.

That was years ago, now the temple is being used as yet another political football, since Cambodia's request to list the temple as a World Heritage site. When the Samak government rightly agreed to cede the temple (rather late) the nationalistic - some might say jingoistic - element of Thai culture was played up.

The opposition screamed that Thai land (all the few hundred square feet of it) was being "given up".

Then, when the House of Representatives appeared to drop pushes for constitutional amendments, the PAD claimed its campaign to remove Samak would continue due to the Preah Vihear case.

Now, with a censure motion looming, the PPP party's coalition partners are looking for an excuse to jump ship. The Puea Pandin party leader has instructed his MP's not to vote in favour of Samak if he "does not explain the Preah Vihear well".

In other words "distance yourselves lads, we need to be ready to jump if the ship goes down".

It's a shame that a temple is being used in such a way. But that's politics.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Thai Culture Course (How to scam, exploit and demoralise foreign teachers)

I was away from work when the news was delivered, but of course I was already aware of all the rumours. Still, I told everyone: "This is Thailand, don't listen to rumours, believe things when they happen".

But when I received the phone call telling me: " The Teachers Council of Thailand has decided all foreign teachers are required to attend a course in Thai culture, and you will pay for it yourself", I knew I was wrong this time.

Naturally, the news went down like a lead balloon amongst my teaching colleagues. I think the administration at our school knew that, which is why they broke further details into little pieces and fed us day by day rather than in one big hit. The details kept on coming.....the course is eleven thousand bhat, you won't get your work permit renewed if you don't attend, and you'll be doing the course in your free time.

Like everyone else, I protested. I have lived and worked in Thailand for nearly five years. I have a Thai wife and son, I am a member of the Tourist Police and I own property here, surely I must be exempt from the course? Other teachers raised similar protests.

The responding message was delivered in a Thai style but it was clear: shut up and take the course (PDF link). We (The Teachers Council) don't care how long you've lived here. We don't care what qualifications you have. Hell, we don't care if you can speak fluent Thai, drive a tuk tuk, eat som tam and sing Bird Tongchai all at the same time. You will come to the Thai culture course, you will do so in your free time, and you will pay for the privilege. You don't like it? Get out of Thailand.

Oh and by the way, that thousand bhat you paid for your teacher's licence two months ago is now invalid. No refunds.

We tried to keep our spirits up. We planned some pranks and organised a social event after the course. After all, at least our employer said we could wear what we liked. Or at least they did until three days later, when the announcement came: "Actually a phu yai is attending the course so everyone must be dressed in business atire". Like my colleagues up and down the nation, I gave up protesting and accepted the inevitable. I would miss two days of weekend work, take the darn course and forget about it. At least my school was good enough to cover some of the cost.

Day one of the course began with the typical smiles and greetings. The venue laid on a nice little breakfast pack for each of us and well wishers waited at the doors to greet us with: "Hello, thank you for coming!". (Like we had a f***ing choice!)

Included in the impressive bundle of worthless documents we were handed was a collection of CV's for those who would be speaking in the course. It was certainly impressive. Today's speakers included two lecturers from a well known university, tomorrow featured a Thai graduate from Harvard. At least these guys should be red-hot teachers.

So first up on the agenda for day one was "Thai language". Now, I must confess I was feeling optimistic for this. My spoken Thai is below par and I cannot read Thai atall. At least I might get something useful out of this morning.

On comes the lecturer, but her assistant takes the microphone, greets us in Thai and then announces "This is (professor's name) but I will be doing the speaking today". Our "professor of languages" is obviously so unsure of her English that she doesn't want to speak.

The course begins, the first few minutes goes quite well as we run through the different Thai tones and learn how they are expressed in written form. I desperately try to take in and store this complex information. We are fifteen minutes into the class.

The teacher (or rather her assistant) moves on to consonants. We orally repeat every consonant (yes, every last one) three times each. My mind is swimming.

Then we move on to "special cases" (I forget the exact classification). We go over each and every one of them, too. Three times each. My head is hurting. We have now gone at least ten times over the daily quota of new information for the adult language student.

But the professor is far from done. She moves on to different letters of the Thai alphabet that produce the same sounds. You guessed it, we have to repeat them three times each. My spirit is broken, I am prepared to tell my captors any secrets they want to make this torture stop as I mindlessly repeat the alien sounds. I have a magazine in my bag, but all the while our boss is walking up and down the hall, checking we are obedient.

For the next hour I fix my eyes on the statue of the Virgin Mary at the end of the hall, reminding myself that this isn't really Hell. Mary finally answers my prayers an hour later as we break for lunch. That was the end of the language session. We had "learned" the entire Thai alphabet and all its idiosyncrasies in one morning.

The afternoon was a little easier. We were handed a leaflet published by the TAT (yes the Tourist board, not the Teacher's board) about Thai food. We had a seminar on Thai cooking, its history and ingredients. I was missing my Saturday job (which helps to pay my many bills) to learn about the ingredients of pad thai. How was this going to make me a better teacher?

Day one ended at four PM. Too deflated to go out, I went home and dreamed of halls full of zombies, repeating letters from the Thai alphabet.

Day two could only get better. Our lecturer (the Harvard grad) was going to use this extortion of our money and time by the Teacher's Council to teach us "professional ethics". A bit like Ronald McDonald teaching healthy eating, I guess.

In fact our lecturer was a nice guy, though I noticed on his CV he was working for the Education Ministry which struck me as a coincidence (we can only guess how much these lecturers were being paid). We started off by being introduced to the Council's code of ethics, highlights of which included "Do not form mafia style groups in school" and "Do not gossip".

But the bombshell was about to come. We were about to be introduced to the new qualification requirements of the teaching council. To the lecturer's credit, he did it wisely. He broke the news ambiguously and slowly so it took us a while to work out was happening, allowing the shock to dissipate.

We were told we had two years to pass a one year course. The course would be done in our free time and cost at least sixty thousand bhat. The only other option was to pass four teaching exams, at two thousand bhat each. The only problem was, from the first batch of people that took the exams, less than five percent had passed.

"This is the rule for all teachers"; said our lecturer, "The Thai teachers must do the same". He neglected to mention how much the Thai teachers had to pay. And what was this one year course? A PGCE? A master's degree? No, it was brand new course dreamt up by the TCT and totally unheard of outside the nation.

I sat in disbelief. As we broke for lunch, my colleague held a piece of paper up to my face. It simply said: "BS".

The afternoon was actually quite interesting, we were given some case studies about ethics and had to offer our own opinions. Still, many people found it hard to concentrate. That was all for day two, our weekend was over, and we had one day still to go.

So after another week at work (guess what the main topic of conversation was?) it was time for the final day, and many of us predicted it would be the worst: Thai dance and music.

Yup, you guessed it, they made us dance. They made all of us wear long golden fingernails and dance around the hall whilst singing the 'Loy Khatong' song. If I were on a drunken night out with Thai friends, or if I were at least making a fool of myself by choice, I would have laughed. But as I looked around the hall during our dance, I realised this folly was part of the plan. By getting us to dance around and act stupid, these people wanted us to forget we were being scammed. In a building with at least two hundred people paying eleven thousand bhat each to take a compulsory course to improve us as teachers, we were dancing around in fake fingernails. It was truly surreal.

As three o'clock came and the dancing stopped, my colleague turned to me and said: "Now they are done humiliating us, they're going to let us go home". And they did, after mentioning that the certificates we had been promised - and which were the entire point of the course - were not actually ready yet, and they couldn't say when they would be available. Thanks and goodbye. I went home feeling violated.

The next week at work more news came out. It seems highly likely that the four exams we had been told about were .....ahem...."purposely difficult" to the point where it seems that the only real "choice" is to take the 60k+ course. Yes, Thai teachers had to do the same course, but at a tiny fraction of the price we were given. Thailand's foreign teachers are in a fix.

Now, I want to make something very clear. I've said before many times that Thailand's foreign teachers are, on the whole, a very imperfect bunch. Any attempt to improve them is most welcome and if I were given a test of my teaching ability and knowledge, I would tackle it with relish.

But I hope I've made clear that I am certain this latest set of events has nothing whatsoever to do with improving foreign teachers. The way the news was broken to us and the incredibly quick set of agreements that have been made between the Teacher's Council and various educational institutions were not hard to figure out. The staff involved in the courses, the dual pricing system and the fact that every teacher had to pay for his/her licence only to have it invalidated without refund by the new rules told its own tale. The ninety five percent failure rate of foreign teachers in the four new exams - in a nation where every student in my school passed a university entrance exam (even the students who cannot understand "Good morning, how are you?") after paying the exam fee - fills me with resentment.

If this was about improving teachers, give us a break. Allow us to take the course of our choice, charge us the same prices as the Thai teachers, don't insult our intelligence with compulsory courses in dancing, take experience and prior qualifications into account, make the exams fair so more than two people out of seventy can pass them and refund the money that every teachers paid for their licence about one month before the new requirements were announced by the same people.

I have to pay tribute to the Filipino teachers. They are paid less than half of the salary we get and nearly all of them send it home to their family in the Philippines as soon as they get it. If the new "requirements" were a kick in the teeth for us, it was a bombshell for them. Yet they handled the course and the further shocks far better than we did, and unlike us Englishmen, they spent a damn site less time complaining about it!

Still, the morale of the teachers has been hit hard and those of us with families are in a very tough position. We either allow ourselves to be blackmailed or we leave.

That said, I can't see how this will work out for the Teacher's Council. There is no doubt that a huge proportion of teachers will leave rather than be pushed into taking the new course and who will replace them? Better qualified teachers? Why would they want to pay for a totally unrecognised course to work in Thailand when other countries will pay them? Travellers and loose cannons? Not likely, and the few that do will be unqualified and untrustworthy.

The only people that are going to feel the squeeze are those with roots here. Most if us work weekends to help with those extra bills and forcing us to give up our free time is impossible.

My message to the Teacher's Council is this: you've had your little money spinner with the "Culture" course, but don't push your luck too far. This game of "Who needs who?" works both ways. We will allow you to toy with us to a point because we love Thailand and want to stay, but as much as you hate to admit it, you need us too. If you insult our intelligence and continually try to milk us like this, it might be you that ends up losing face, families that suffer and the student youth of Thailand that pays the cost of your greed.

Countdown to a redux? has a live update on PAD movements as the group prepare to move towards government house. Key unions have joined the protest and various photos depict lines of riot police making final preparations.

Tensions are high, and amidst all of this Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has helpfully suggested that Samak could resign to ease the situation or a coup could achieve the same.

Of course, in either of these situations we would then need someone to step in and aid “national reconciliation”. Perhaps someone with both military and political experience. Perhaps Mr. Chavalit has someone in mind?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

This could get nasty

The PAD announce a plan to "take" government house.

Samak responds by calling an urgent meeting and confirming the PAD will be blocked by police. Chamlong responds by saying the PAD will simply return.

I'm a fan of Chamlong (I was neutral on Sonthi before, but I will never forget him printing the address of Choksak on his web site) and I abhor Samak, but this is plan wrong.

How can a self proclaimed democratic group "take" government house? For what? What democratic mandate do they have? The belief that they are right? That's called dictatorship.

Keep watching.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Why do people laugh at Thai politics?
Why is Thai politics far more interesting than UK politics?

It's simple, in Thai politics you can have your cake and eat it too.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Score one for the PAD


Samak's comment that he would "disperse protesters with force ('if you want to try to resist, go ahead')" was a botch. Chamlong and co know well that the PM is famed for his temper and ill chosen words.

Chamlong responded to the threat by instructing PAD protesters (did I mention they are back on the streets?) to take cameras with them to the protest to capture any use of force for the world to see.

CNN reported it, and the PAD scored some propaganda points.

Samak left it to the equally charming Natthawut Saikua to spin it as "a tactical move, not a real threat"