The 10 most outstanding news events of 2014, as selected by The NatIon's editorIal staff
May 22 coup, an epochal event
LESS than two weeks before the coup, an Army general insisted that staging a military coup “won’t end things”.
The officer was Army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha who staged the May 22 coup as leader of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and later became prime minister.
It seemed since then as if the new Prayut was trying to prove the old Prayut wrong, but with uncertain long-term results.
Today, there exists a semblance of peace under martial law, imposed for more than seven months now with no end in sight and no guarantee of national reconciliation.
A new “permanent” constitution is being written that will, for the first time in two decades, allow non-MPs to become prime minister.
There’s no more pretence of civilian supremacy. The military is back big time, playing a special role in politics and society with many from its ranks appointed as cabinet members – on top of the continued existence of the NCPO with widespread powers under Article 44 of the post-coup provisional constitution.
Many wonder how long the generals will stay in power, with some doubting an election would take place even in 2016, as promised.
A major exodus of anti-coup as well as pro-Thaksin Shinawatra intellectuals and activists and the establishment of an anti-coup movement abroad also made things more unpredictable.
Some torture allegations have been made against the junta but with no clear proof. Even United Nations secretary- general Ban Ki-moon was willing to meet Prayut for an hour earlier this year.
All these events and more without doubt made the May 22 coup arguably the most important event in 2014 and likely to be important for the future of Thailand, possibly for many years ahead.
Yingluck’s fall from grace
Since late last year, political pressure had been on ex-PM Yingluck Shinawatra with protesters taking to the streets in great numbers after a government-backed bill for blanket political amnesty sailed through the House of Representatives.
Her decision in early December 2013 to dissolve the House failed to end the anti-government street protests led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which continued for another five months, until the May 22 coup.
Despite the increased political pressure, Yingluck remained firmly in her seat as the caretaker prime minister. She called on her political enemies to contest the February 2 general election, which was later marred by protests. The Constitutional Court in March nullified the inconclusive election because it was not organised on the same day throughout the country, as required by law.
Yingluck’s fall from grace began when the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in February charged the then-PM with improperly handling her government’s loss-making and corruption-plagued rice price-pledging scheme. The anti-graft agency also sought her indictment for criminal negligence in connection with the rice subsidy project, which is estimated to have inflicted losses in excess of Bt500 billion on the country.
Yingluck’s actual decline from power took place in early May, just a little over two weeks before the military coup, when the Constitutional Court ruled that her Cabinet’s decision to transfer National Security Council secretary-general Thawil Pliensri in 2011 was unconstitutional. As a result, Yingluck and nine other members of her Cabinet were removed from office.
She was briefly replaced as caretaker PM by Niwatthamrong Boonsonpaisan, who had served as her deputy and was the commerce minister. After the coup, Yingluck was in military detention for a short period and later had to seek permission from the junta before leaving the country. The NACC is still going after Yingluck with a bid to pursue a case of criminal negligence against her at the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders.
The surrogate pregnancy scandal
The plea for help in August by Thai surrogate mother Pattaramon Chanbua for her Down syndrome baby Gammy, left behind by an Australian couple, struck a chord in Thai society and led to a discovery of nine babies in a raid of a condo in Bangkok’s Lat Phrao district days later.
The nine babies, found to have been fathered by wealthy Japanese businessman Shigeta Mitsutoki, brought fresh scrutiny of Thailand’s unregulated market for surrogate mothers. Mitsutoki – believed to have fathered at least 16 surrogate babies – reportedly wanted to have 1,000 surrogate kids.
Subsequently several fertility clinics – including Dr Pisit Tantiwattanakul’s All IVF clinic – faced probes for: operating a medical facility without proper documentation, neglecting to supervise medical personnel at the clinic in medical regulations, and having doctors who allegedly violated Medical Council regulations.
This scandal in turn led to a separate discovery of Israeli couples with 50 children born through Thai surrogates. The children would remain in Thai authorities’ custody pending legal action. Hundreds of foreign couples were in limbo, as Thai authorities prevented them from leaving with their surrogate babies.
The Social Development and Human Security Ministry has pushed forward draft legislation for the protection of children born through the use of assisted reproductive technology (ART). As of late November, the National Legislative Assembly agreed in principle to this bill, hoping it would help regulate ART services, deter commercial surrogacy and combat human trafficking in Thailand. The bill’s key facets include: the applicant couple must be legally wed; the surrogate mother must be related to one spouse and have had at least one child already; and a prohibition on anyone acting as a middleman to collect payment or benefits from a commercial surrogacy.
Rape and murder on a train
The case of the mysterious disappearance of a 13-year-old girl on a southern-route overnight train in early July turned into a nightmare for the country, as it turned out she was raped and murdered by the train’s bed-sheet replacement employee.
The vicious attack and the victim’s young age aroused national rage against the culprits and sympathy towards the victim’s family. It also generated demands on Thai social networks for the death penalty in rape cases.
On July 6, the girl travelled on a train back to Bangkok. Her family filed a missing-person report when she vanished without explanation. After her body was found a few days later in a wooded railway-side area in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Hua Hin district, police launched an investigation. Pressured by the public, police brought to justice the 22-year-old train worker, Wanchai Saengkhao, who raped and killed the victim and threw her from the running train.
In September, Wanchai was sentenced to death for raping and killing the girl. His 19-year-old co-worker, who knew about the crime and helped him cover it up, was given a six-year jail term, commuted to four years after a useful confession.
After pressure to resign to show responsibility for the crime committed by an employee, State Railway of Thailand governor Prapas Chongsanguan was dismissed from his post. SRT also re-introduced “women only” carriages on all overnight trains in the hope to boosting public confidence.
The ‘Uighurs’ ordeal
The arrest of hundreds of Muslim people of unclear nationality in Songkhla and Sa Kaew provinces in March sparked a controversy, while Thailand – in the centre – remained puzzled about what to do with them.
Thailand couldn’t repatriate them, pending their nationality identification by China and Turkey.
The group’s members insisted they were Anatolian-descent Turkish people, while China said they were Uighurs fleeing from Xinjiang region, passing through Thailand for a third country.
US-based Human Rights Watch urged Thailand to ensure the stateless people would not be forcibly returned to Xinjiang and would have urgent access to refugee status determination by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Thai authorities arrested 218 of the refugees in Songkhla’s Rattaphum district and later rounded up another 77 in Sadao district. A batch of 112 refugees was found days later in Sa Kaew province. Most, travelling in families, had sold all their assets to fund the escape.
In early November, it was reported that 146 of 195 such people detained at the Songkhla’s Children and Women’s Home had run away.
Social Development and Human Security Minister Adul Sangsingkeo ordered police to look for the missing to determine their nationalities while also ordering a fact-finding probe into what happened.
As many feared they might be exploited by human-trafficking gangs – as neighbourhood witnesses claimed to have seen vans waiting to pick them up – police believed that, since many reportedly had money and education, they might have hired the vans themselves. Police also believed they were still hiding in the area.
Biggest earthquake in recent decades
A 6.3-magnitude earthquake rocked Thailand in early May, making people realise that the country is not immune to dangerous quakes.
This time, the quake killed two people, injured 23 others and affected more than 50,000 people.
This was the biggest earthquake in Thailand since 1935. While the epicentre was in the northern province of Chiang Rai, the quake was felt as far south as Bangkok, 800 kilometres away, where tall buildings shook for several seconds. Hundreds of aftershocks followed.
In the wake of the event, the public and the authorities once again focused on the need to address natural disasters in the country. Experts have warned that if big quakes hit closer to Bangkok, several high-rise buildings could crumble down and casualties could be huge.
A 1997 ministerial regulation requires that all buildings that are five storeys high and above have earthquake safety measures in place.
The earthquake in May damaged many low-rise structures in Chiang Rai, including the beautiful and well-known Wat Rong Khun, which was seriously damaged, much to the dismay of its founder, national artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
Cambodian workers’ exodus
Just weeks after the military took over on May 22, nearly 200,000 Cambodian workers left Thailand out of fear. Some even gave up their wages because they were far too afraid to stay on until it was salary day.
After all, they had heard rumours that the military would crack down on Cambodian workers. As they were leaving Thailand, the frightened migrant workers – most working in Thailand without any permits – revealed how their family members in Cambodia kept calling to say their lives were in danger.
This exodus also affected many businesses, especially those in labour-intensive industries.
The situation became so bad that both Cambodian and Thai authorities came forward to quash the rumours. Thailand’s Labour Ministry began handing out leaflets in Cambodian language to explain to workers that they were, in no way, subjects of prosecution.
Soon after, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order set up one-stop service centres to register all migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos. Having legal documents means workers can be better protected and Thai authorities can monitor and control the labour situation.
10th anniversary of 2004 tsunami
On December 26, 2004, deadly waves swept through several coastal cities and left them devastated.
As the tsunami hit coastal zones one after the other in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean on that fateful day, more than 250,000 people were killed, 500,000 others injured and more than 2 million displaced.
In Thailand alone, the tsunami caused more than 5,000 deaths and turned the lives of thousands more upside down.
Yet this darkest period was met with an outpouring of kindness as thousands came forward to help the victims.
Relevant authorities also decided to install early-warning systems so as to minimise losses should such a disaster ever happen again. However, 10 years after the 2004 tsunami, not many people in coastal towns are really sure if the system will help them escape the giant waves.
Recent surveys in tsunami-hit provinces such as Phang Nga reveal that the warning signs on beaches are so faded that nobody even gives them a second glance.
It is hoped that this 10-year anniversary of the disaster will revive efforts to ensure that early-warning systems are in place and nobody forgets that very painful lesson.
Koh Tao killings
The Koh Tao double-murder case has taken the police and Thailand by storm – because of the long-standing public doubt over the integrity of the police and the global scepticism over Thai officers’ competence resulting from many previous unsolved killings of foreign tourists.
The gruesome killing of 24-year-old David Miller and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, has strangely drawn sympathy for the two Myanmar suspects from the Thai public, who mourned the victims’ deaths at the same time.
The case attracted interest from authorities in Myanmar and Britain, concerned about their nationals’ welfare. Such interest later turned into a indirect intervention in the jurisdiction of the Thai police and Thailand’s sovereignty when both countries’ authorities made requests to join in the Thai police investigations.
This snowballed later into more intervention by Myanmar, by sending the parents of the accused to Thailand and sponsoring their trip to Koh Tao to gain public limelight. The Myanmar embassy recently issued a statement backed up by interviews with 30 Myanmar workers who spoke to the embassy staff, after they had left Thailand. The 30 men said they were afraid to give their accounts in favour of the suspects when they were in Thailand.
Not long after the killings were discovered on September 15, the two young men were paraded as self-confessed murderers and held in detention. They later reversed their confessions, which they said were made under duress stemming from torture allegedly by police investigators, and, in their own statements, by a Rohingya interpreter during a session.
It was the largest and most dramatic take-down of the high-ranking leadership of a police bureau in local history. Then-Central Investigation Bureau commissioner Lt-General Pongpat Chayaphan and many of his subordinates were transferred in November over allegations of racketeering and intimidation. They were dishonourably discharged in December.
The public has been left intrigued over the truth behind such a large-scale apprehension of a highly respected crimebuster and high-profile policemen by colleagues on an unprecedented scale. But few now feel sympathy for Pongpat and fellow police suspects, given what is unfolding in terms of the colossal volume of assets seized from his 11 homes and dozens of luxury cars, along with items worth more than Bt1 billion seized from the men working under Pongpat.
The lese-majeste offence has been pressed against Pongpat and many suspects – policemen and civilians – for their alleged claims of royal backing in their intimidation of victims, or aggressive debt-collecting and abduction of some uncooperative debtors. The web of scandals has extended to other activities which involved different sets of suspects and alleged crimes that included a number of respectable businessmen, including fugitive Wind Energy Holding president Nopporn Suppipat, who took many in the financial and energy sector by surprise.
The take-down will not stop with nearly 30 suspects, including Pongpat already in custody, but will expand further, with the Royal Thai Police now considering transferring more than 200 officers out of the CIB along with 60 officers from the powerful, CIB-supervised Crime Suppression Division.