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Aussie Envoys Fail to Back Phuketwan Versus Thailand's Military

Aussie Envoys Fail to Back Phuketwan Versus Thailand's Military

Thursday, November 6, 2014
PHUKET: While Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was entertaining friends at the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday, I was sitting in Phuket's Immigration headquarters for four hours, waiting for my ''criminal visa'' to be renewed.

On Monday, I spent three hours at Phuket Provincial Court, awaiting permission to temporarily regain my passport so I could present it the following day . . .

At the end of the marathon, about the same time as the drunks at the races were enjoying the deepest of slumbers, I was generously granted an extra months' stay in Thailand.

I will have to go through the ordeal all over again on December 3 and 4.

My precious passport remains the property of the Australian Government. It says so inside, in capital letters.

But the Australian Government is not prepared to fight for its rights the way that the British Government did earlier this year.

I am now forced to deal with the problems created by being on a ''criminal visa'' in Thailand because the Australian Government chooses not to speak out on the topic of media freedom here, or to demand its rights the way that the British Government has done in the case of migrant labor activist Andy Hall.

Thailand's draconian criminal defamation laws, coupled with the Computer Crimes Act, are being used against us both, along with my colleague at Phuketwan, Chutima Sidasathian.

While British envoys have won back Andy Hall's passport simply by asking the court to return it, Australia and its ambassadors in Thailand have shown a marked lack of assertiveness, to put it mildly.

The charges laid by the Royal Thai Navy against Khun Chutima and I are clearly trumped up and designed to stop Phuketwan from continuing its award-winning coverage of the exodus of the Rohingya people from Burma, through Thailand.

If Andy Hall's paid and unpaid work on behalf of migrant laborers in Thailand makes him a human rights defender and qualifies him to have his passport returned, then the non-profit-making coverage by Phuketwan of the Rohingya - the most persecuted people in the world, according to the UN - certainly puts Khun Chutima and I in a similar category.

Phuketwan took real risks in reporting the inhumane ''pushbacks'' by the Thai military in 2009 and we continue to face what amounts to a vendetta by some misguided officers in the Royal Thai Navy.

Our central philosophy is that Burma must stop pushing the stateless Rohingya into the sea, forcing them to seek sanctuary in Malaysia, Indonesia . . . and Australia.

We even thought the Australian Government might agree that what we were saying was right, that the boats should be stopped before they sail.

Apparently not.

In the 11 months since the spurious charges were laid against Phuketwan's journalists over republication of a 41-word paragraph by Reuters, a paragraph that later formed part of the news agency's Pulitzer-prize winning coverage of the Rohingya, the Australian government and its ambassadors have not mustered a single word of support in public, beyond motherhood statements.

While Andy Hall has the clear backing of the British Government and possession of his passport enables him to travel overseas with minimal problems, the journalists at Phuketwan have been left to swing.

Of course, Australian officials say, the issue ''has been raised with the Thai Government.'' But precisely who? Prime Minister Prayuth or a lowly civil servant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Whether we have the endorsement of the Australian Government or not, Phuketwan will continue to cover the human trafficking of the Rohingya and other boatpeople through Thailand, as a matter of principle.

Principle is not a horse starting in the third race on Oaks Day.

Before returning my passport to the court today, I noted the words: THIS PASSPORT REMAINS THE PROPERTY OF THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT.

In the interests of principle, it may be time those words were removed.

What Others Say

United Nations
''Criminal prosecution for defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of the press,'' said Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. ''International standards are clear that imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty for defamation.''

Human Rights Watch
''The Thai navy's lawsuit is a reckless attempt to curtail journalists' reporting on alleged human trafficking by its officers,'' said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. ''Unless the government withdraws the case, its impact will be felt far beyond those reporting on abuses against the Rohingya - and could have a choking effect on all investigative reporting in Thailand.''

Reporters Without Borders
"It is intolerable that journalists are being prosecuted for just doing their job by relaying information of general interest that had already been made public," Reporters Without Borders said. "Bringing charges under the controversial Computers Crimes Act in a defamation case is indicative of the critical state of freedom of information in Thailand and amounts to an attempt to gag the media. We support these journalists, who are facing a jail term, and we call for the immediate withdrawal of these proceedings."

Committee to Protect Journalists
''Rather than shooting the messenger, the Royal Thai Navy would be better suited launching an internal investigation into the serious allegations of abuse that have been raised,'' said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. ''This type of legal intimidation aims ultimately at discouraging media reporting on allegations of serious human rights abuses.''

Chris Lewa, director of the rights group the Arakan Project
''Thanks to the fair investigative reporting by the Phuketwan journalists, the involvement of various Thai agencies in the massive smuggling and trafficking operations of Rohingya refugees and their related miseries is no more a secret. Rights groups should unite to call on Thailand to quash these defamation charges.''

''We wish the Royal Thai Navy would clear its reputation by explaining precisely what is happening to the Rohingya in the Andaman Sea and in Thailand,'' Phuketwan said in a statement released in response to the charges. ''By instead using a controversial law against us, the Navy is, we believe, acting out of character.''

Bangkok Post
The action makes the navy look like a bully, and gives the impression the admirals would like to intimidate the media. Instead of defending the navy's honor, the criminal defamation suit holds it to question. Instead of silencing the media about the story - concerning the navy's role in the mistreatment of Rohingya boatpeople - the lawsuit repeats it, to more people and at greater length.

Morison said: "The navy's action over one paragraph has created a perfect storm. If the navy proceeds with the case, the Rohingya issue is now tied up in their action against media under a controversial

In the meantime, calmer seas mean that even more Rohingya are expected to attempt the treacherous journey in the weeks ahead. Nothing could gladden the traffickers more.

Barb Burg, Reuters' (former) global head of communications: ''Our story was fair and balanced and Reuters has not been accused of criminal libel.''

Bill Barnett (The Phuket Insider)
The issues which have drawn Phuketwan into this fray are profound and disturbing. There should be no need to wax over reality and respect needs to be given to those who stand up for the helpless who cannot help themselves.

Andrew Drummond (Investigative Journalist)
We should all support journalists who are doing a difficult job here
under laws which best suit a totalitarian state.

Excellence in Human Rights Reporting, Investigative Reporting awards
In 2010 the Phuketwan team shared the Society of Publishers in Asia Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting and a second Award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting, both with the South China Morning Post newspaper. Judges said of the Excellence in Investigative Reporting award: ''An excellent series that uncovered serious government abuses and had a material impact in correcting them. Exclusivity. Strong reporting. Hard-hitting piece with international implications.''

Of the Excellence in Human Rights Reporting award, the judges said: ''Excellent investigative work that exposed serious human rights abuses of oppressed people. Intrepid reporting of a hidden subject. This is a high-caliber series buttressed by solid on-the-ground reporting and great pictures. All militaries are challenging subjects for investigative reporters and Thailand's is no exception. The team clearly went to great lengths to get sources, break news, and provide the details that prodded the government into action.''


Comments have been disabled for this article.


How can we (readers) concretely support you? Any idea or suggestions?

Posted by Sam on November 6, 2014 17:46

Editor Comment:

Not really, Sam. Maybe turn up at the trial in July.


Some one, no many should feel Ashamed hoW Your Government let's you down. The funnecessary thing is other embassies/consuls are asking the same question. What policy is blocking them from action. $$$ AUD issues, many of them $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.is also called Self_Intrest/protection and Dirty Politics.

Posted by phuketgreed on November 6, 2014 18:04

Editor Comment:

Embassies are capable of dealing with simple issues but something unexpected tends to leave them struggling. The fact is, the Bangkok embassy defers to Canberra and often doesn't get satisfactory answers. As a journalist, I've often been told to seek an answer to questions from Canberra. Often they say: ''We'll get back'' . . . and never do.


I admire your work on the coverage of the Rohingya and many other issues. But I don't like your comment on the non-profit making coverage of this issue. You run a news site for profit making, which also includes delicate subjects. Nothing against profit making, everybody needs an income. I admire your courage to cover subjects the Thai press fails to take up. But please, don't call it non-profit making, as it's counter productive to the subject you raised. Just omit such comments and continue your way of reporting, which I consider very positive.

Posted by Werni on November 6, 2014 18:23

Editor Comment:

We don't have an income worth mentioning, Werni, which is why i mentioned it. Politicians struggle to understand altruism.


May be some clerks back in Australia felt sore on PW comments on AUS refugee policy, and advised further up in a hierarchy to be immune to requests for a help on this case?

For me it looks the most important is to garner support from Thai public, not only from Thai activists or lawyers - they are niche, and even more can be labelled as elitist supporter.
This case ultimately is in the interest of wide Thai public as it concern HR on Thailand soil.
However I have no idea how realistically it is possible to make this case owned also by Thai masses; also because of prejudices and mild chauvinism of society toward guest workers.

Australian MFA and NGO vocal support is essential too, to make the case visible internationally. There could be potential in respect of NGO to do more, and MFA door after persistent knocking can finally open.

Obviously what counts less, and probably may irritate Thai officials, is a support of local foreign long-term residents - of course we support PW in the case, but whether this support may not appear counter-productive, as with regular labeling in such situation by authorities to be not enough grateful to the country etc.etc.

Posted by Sue on November 6, 2014 18:29

Editor Comment:

We can and will cope without the Australian Government but as you say, we will need to explain the issues to all Thais between now and July, when the trial resumes.


Perhaps you could mollycoddle Julie Bishop for a new passport as she claimed a while back that Aussie intelligence agencies could supply forged passports.
Hint: wait till her Melbourne Cup hangover has cleared!

Posted by Pete on November 6, 2014 18:37

Editor Comment:

Judging by the good-looking guy she was with at the Melbourne Cup, her head may not clear for months.


Best of luck Alan! (although "luck" should not come into it...) It seems our country has become somewhat self centred and selfish when it comes to helping others, whether individual or group. The Ebola virus is a fine example.

Posted by John Hogg on November 6, 2014 18:55

Editor Comment:

Noel Pearson's fine speech at Gough Whitlam's funeral highlights everything that Australia has lost in being taken over by people who value power and perception above principle.


That lack of response is true to form from a liberal government, especially one with Abbott at the helm!

Posted by coxo on November 6, 2014 19:04

Editor Comment:

Let me repeat the early email exchanges.

December 27

email from Phuketwan to Australian Ambassador and embassy staff

Hello Fellow Australians,

I find it surprising that an international organisation can sort right from wrong and issue a statement while my own country says nothing.

When will I feel proud to be an Australian again?

Alan M.

December 27

email from Australian Ambassador James Wise

Hello Alan

Thanks for your message. Normally, we take up issues like yours with our host government only after the person affected asks us to do so (especially when the case already has a high profile and we can be confident that the host government is aware of it). We would not want to cut across your own plans for managing the way you want to respond to the allegations against you - because, ultimately, how you manage your affairs is your business, not ours.

I will now make sure that the relevant area of the Foreign Ministry is aware of our concerns about your case.

I understand you sent me an earlier message thanking me for the consular support xxxxx has been providing you. For some reason it did not reach me. If it is still on your system, would you please re-send it.

Happy New Year

James [Wise]

December 27

Hello James,

To save too much re-reading I'll cut and paste my first two emails to the Embassy about this issue below. Perhaps I spent too much time beating about the bush. But the second email on December 17 includes the following:

As the case has ramifications for journalists in all branches of the media, but especially the BBC, ABC, Reuters, AFP and Aljazeera, as well as Australian, British and American newspapers, I wonder at what point the Minister may need to familiarise herself with the case? Does Australia always accept unconditionally the application of all laws in all countries, right or wrong? I wonder whether the US embassy and the British embassy share that approach? I see little difference between a US war veteran being held in North Korea and an Australian citizen prevented from leaving Thailand until a particularly specious and unreasonable case is resolved. I actually think a question or two directed at the Thai Foreign Ministry would be an appropriate response. It may be that they know nothing about this case - and would ask some critical questions of the Royal Thai Navy. Is that possible, please?

I am not sure how much more pointed I needed to make the request for some kind of outcry. Perhaps I was too gentle. Sorry. The calls to check how things are going are appreciated.


December 16

Hello [senior embassy staffer] (and Mr Ambassador),

My colleague Chutima Sidasathian and I received an interesting visit at the Phuket office today from a police officer. He brought with him a claim for criminal defamation and the two of us are obliged to attend Vichit Police Station or face arrest at noon on Wednesday. I am told we will have to bring documentation regarding and my passport and work permit, etc, and that the possibility exists that we may have to pay a large sum in bail to avoid going to jail.

I am particularly concerned that the action, from what I hear, may oblige me to stay in Thailand until it is resolved. With an ailing 90-year-old father and a bouncing two year old grandson in Australia, such a restriction could be more than unfair.

Just why this particular captain is bringing this action on behalf of the Thai Navy may become clearer at noon on Wednesday. As you know, the Navy is more likely to react with stoic silence rather than applying a bad law.

The case clearly impinges on media freedoms, and the vast majority of the article in question [link removed] consists of material provided to newspapers across Australia and around the world by the Reuters news agency.

Why Phuketwan should be singled out for persecution remains unclear for now. As you may recall, we've won international awards for investigative reporting and for human rights reporting for our coverage of the Rohingya. We think it's a precedent-setting action.

I would welcome any official observer that the Australian Embassy may consider appropriate, or advice on how to proceed on Wednesday. Feel free to pass on the news of this action to visiting senators etc or others concerned with civil liberties and actions apparently designed to restrict reporting by Australian journalists abroad.

We probably won't be reporting on the matter ourselves or encouraging other media to report until we have spoken to police on Wednesday.


Alan Morison

December 17

Hello [senior staff member],

Thanks for the information. Your interest and the support of the embassy is much appreciated. We intend to present ourselves without a lawyer tomorrow because to go with a lawyer would imply acceptance of what is a bad law. We believe this is an unprecedented case - a person purporting to act for an arm of the Thai military suing two mainstream journalists - and as such we believe a deal of international media attention will come with the case as soon as it becomes public knowledge. I am not convinced that Australia should allow Thai law to be applied to Australian citizens (or any country's citizens for that matter) where the law is so obviously a bad law. As the case has ramifications for journalists in all branches of the media, but especially the BBC, ABC, Reuters, AFP and Aljazeera, as well as Australian, British and American newspapers, I wonder at what point the Minister may need to familiarise herself with the case? Does Australia always accept unconditionally the application of all laws in all countries, right or wrong? I wonder whether the US embassy and the British embassy share that approach? I see little difference between a US war veteran being held in North Korea and an Australian citizen prevented from leaving Thailand until a particularly specious and unreasonable case is resolved. I actually think a question or two directed at the Thai Foreign Ministry would be an appropriate response. It may be that they know nothing about this case - and would ask some critical questions of the Royal Thai Navy. Is that possible, please?

Alan M.


For years I have listened to Aussies go on about them being from the best country in the world and how rubbish the UK is, maybe now some of them will take note that the UK govt does have some balls and will stand up for their citizens. I hope the Aussie govt takes note and does the same.

Posted by Amazing Thailand on November 6, 2014 19:14

Editor Comment:

You certainly wouldn't have heard it from me. Britain and the EU are not nearly as insular and self-interested as Australia in 2014.


The Australian Government did not charge Alan and his associate with defamation under the Computer Crimes Act.

Lets remember that the confiscation of the passport results from action taken under an unjust and abused legal system allowed under Thai laws.
The Thai government made these laws, the Thai courts enforce them, governments are elected by the Thai people, those not elected are forced upon the Thai people by other Thai people.
The problem is the unjust and abused legal system and use of it to ones own benefit against opposing parties.
The blame should be directed at those who allow such law to exist and action taken.
Remove the unjust prosecution and there is no passport issue. Return the passport and the unjust action still exists, albeit with some increased freedom.

Those who feel so strongly, should complain to the Thai government for the absurd laws they allow to be enforced and for confiscating the passport in the first place.

Posted by Manowar on November 6, 2014 20:47

Editor Comment:

The unjust law suit is certainly the main issue but the lack of support from the Australian Government when compared with the British Government in the Andy Hall case leaves Andy free to travel and me a prisoner in Thailand.


Agree Alan but the passport issue is just another attempt to make life difficult for you. I know we have discussed similar issues before but as a general rule, a passport should only be confiscated if there is a risk of non appearance or where no ties to the country exist. Someone in authority has argued and someone has enforced this confiscation which according to your stated intentions would also appear to be unreasonable.
Maybe it's just a case of, we don't like what he printed, we don't think we can win but at least we can make life difficult for the time being.

Posted by Manowar on November 6, 2014 21:25

Editor Comment:

The passport and its release is a matter for the court administrators, separate and not to be confused with the case. There is no conspiracy. The British Government asked for and got its passport back. The Australian Government is not inspired to ask.


Have you contacted the UN's "Special Rapporteur on The Freedom of Opinion and Expression" concerning the case?

Posted by Anonymous on November 7, 2014 00:41

Editor Comment:

Two UN special rapporteurs have sent the Thai Government a memorandum seeking an explanation for the Navy's actions. There was no response.


How does a PM (Abbott) who claims he will "shirtfront" Putin lead a government that repeatedly allows a weak willed response to matters everywhere. The attitude lets not offend anyone seems to have permeated through Australian policy.

Posted by Davemc60 on November 7, 2014 07:22

Editor Comment:

It's the land of the 15-second tv grab. Perception, power. That's it.


i think you are def not an Aussie , the whinging POM is clearly still inside you , a real Aussie would fight this out to the end with or without support from the Govt ....

Posted by chris on November 7, 2014 08:04

Editor Comment:

Being Australian has nothing to do with anything much these days, chris. This generation has no real heroes, only pretenders. But it does make you aware that some politicians shirk issues of principle. The idea seems to be that you should get into really deep trouble so that the noises made in too-late attempts to help at least make prime time. if you are a nationalist - and you certainly appear to be - they need you to wave a flag and smile a lot.


"Being Australian has nothing to do with anything much these days, chris. This generation has no real heroes, only pretenders" - perhaps comment likes this is the reason the Australian Government wants nothing to do with you.

Posted by Phuket Saviour on November 7, 2014 09:08

Editor Comment:

Where you are born is something you can't control, PS. The needs of many real Australians are ignored by this government. I'm in good company. Your opinion is, as usual, based on ignorant guesswork.


I have sent this article to Four Corners to try and provoke a story...

Posted by on November 7, 2014 09:09

Editor Comment:

Thanks.The treatment of the Rohingya in Burma and Thailand is appalling and deserves international attention. I am sure the issues will be well-covered before the trial resumes in July next year.

Thursday April 18, 2024
Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa


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