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Page last updated at 15:15 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Honeymoon to nightmare for Thai PM

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

If new Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva thought he was going to get any kind of honeymoon, the events of the past week will have come as a rude surprise.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on 21/1/09
Abhisit Vejjajiva owes his job in part to the military

His government has found itself floundering amid public relations disasters over which it has very little control.

First, the damning testimony from survivors, telling of the brutal treatment given to asylum-seekers from the Burmese Rohingya minority by the Thai security forces, who set almost 1,000 of them adrift on the high seas last month in boats with no motors, and little food or water.

Then the trial of an Australian writer on charges of insulting the monarchy, in a self-published book which sold only seven copies.

The haunting pictures of a tearful Harry Nicolaides, shaven-headed and shackled behind bars as he awaited a three-year prison sentence, has prompted condemnation from around the world of the severity of Thailand's lese majeste law.

Both incidents undercut the promise of fairer, more open and more accountable government made in the new prime minister's early speeches.

Military defiant

Reports that the Rohingya boat people were being dealt with far more harshly than other illegal immigrants began to surface at the end of last year.

But it was only when the BBC and other media were able to speak last week to survivors who washed up in the Andaman Islands and Indonesia's Aceh province that the full horror of what the Thai military is alleged to have been doing became apparent.

Burmese Rohingyas under guard in Thailand
At that moment we understood that, instead of taking us to jail, they intended to send us to high sea
Bangladeshi refugee

Researchers from The Arakan Project, an NGO campaigning for the welfare of the Rohingyas, have managed to speak to a second group who were set adrift by the Thai military in late December.

"We had sailed for about two weeks when we were caught at sea by the Thai navy," one 20-year-old man from Shaporidip in Bangladesh said.

"They stopped us and pointed their guns at us. Then they towed our boat at gunpoint to a hilly island, where we found about 300 other detainees guarded by the army. These people had been captured earlier from two boats. They all looked very weak and hungry.

"We were all kept in one area under the open sky on the hill. None of us could communicate with the army or the navy. Sometimes we were beaten and I was not spared," he went on.

"On the third night on the island, around 10 or 11pm, the army took us downhill to the shore and showed us several boats. We thought that they would take us to the mainland and send us to jail. They pushed us to get on and filled four boats. They gave us two pieces of bamboo and one plastic sheet. At that moment we understood that, instead of taking us to jail, they intended to send us to high sea.

"They tied each of the four boats with a separate rope to a large navy ship and towed us throughout the night and the entire following day towards the west, to the high sea. There was no engine in any of the four boats."

The rope was cut, he said, and they drifted for eight days, before landing, exhausted and severely dehydrated, on the Andaman Islands.

The Thai military's response to these allegations has been to deny that they are even possible.

It's clear the military has undue leverage over the Abhisit government, and this undermines his entire morality-based platform
Thitinan Pongsudirak
Chulalongkorn University

The navy chief told journalists this was so clear no investigation was even necessary.

The local commander of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), which has been holding the Rohingyas, also insisted, against the weight of evidence, that his men had not mistreated the boat people.

No-one should be surprised at the Thai military's defiance.

That local ISOC commander, Colonel Manas Kongpan, was also one of three military officers a court ruled were responsible for the massacre of 32 Muslim men in southern Thailand five years ago.

But no attempt has been made to punish him, or any other officer for alleged abuses in the south.

Blocked websites

Mr Abhisit has this week promised an investigation into the fate of the Rohingyas.

But in the face of such opposition from his military commanders, this seems unlikely to reveal much truth.

Harry Nicolaides in a Bangkok court cell on 19/1/09
Australian writer Harry Nicolaides is hoping for a pardon from the king

In fact the difficulty Mr Abhisit has encountered in getting information from ISOC about another group of 126 Rohingyas it detained last Friday suggests he will get very little co-operation from the armed forces.

For six days the military stonewalled the government - despite the fact that Mr Abhisit is officially the commander of ISOC.

The foreign ministry has struggled to explain to journalists why the government cannot say where the missing 126 boat people are, despite an official request from the UN refugee agency to see them.

On Friday, the government was bluntly told by the local ISOC commander that the 126 had gone.

No-one seems sure where, but the foreign ministry official I spoke to thought they had been pushed back out to sea.

The reason Mr Abhisit can do little about this embarrassing situation is that he owes his job at least in part to the military.

It was pressure from the army commander General Anupong Paochinda in December that helped persuade political factions to desert the previous government and back Mr Abhisit's bid to become prime minister.

"The bargain the Democrats have made with the military is constraining them," says Thitinan Pongsudirak, from Chulalongkorn University.

"It's clear the military has undue leverage over the Abhisit government, and this undermines his entire morality-based platform."

It also gives him few options to address the problematic lese majeste law.

He has acknowledged that the law is sometimes used inappropriately and needs to be looked at, while insisting the monarchy still needs its protection.

But it is the military which is now driving the law's enforcement, with commanders demanding that soldiers and police be more vigilant in detecting anti-monarchy sentiment.

As a result thousands of websites are being blocked, Thailand's first internet blogger has been arrested, a prominent academic has been charged and an unlucky Australian writer languishes in jail hoping his plea for a royal pardon is granted.

These are surely not the headlines Mr Abhisit would have wanted to dominate his first month in office.



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SEE ALSO
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Profile: Abhisit Vejjajiva
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UN awaits Thai reply on migrants
23 Jan 09 |  South Asia
Agents exploit boat people misery
20 Jan 09 |  South Asia
Thailand to tackle migrant claims
19 Jan 09 |  South Asia
Pardon bid for Australian author
22 Jan 09 |  Asia-Pacific
Writer jailed for Thai 'insult'
19 Jan 09 |  Asia-Pacific

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