Something is lost in translation in Thailand where armed anti-government protesters are able to readily access bullet-proof vests and other ballistic and personal protective equipment (PPE), in addition to guns, yet journalists and volunteer medical personnel are forced to break the law if they want to work with increased safety.
In 2010 at least two of the people killed while seeking shelter in Watt Pathum Vanaram were volunteer medical personnel (See: Bangkok red-shirt protest crackdown May 19, 2010 photo special (gallery)), while the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has recorded 10 journalist deaths in Thailand since 1992, including two foreign journalists shot dead by the Thai army in 2010.
Over the years hundreds of others have been injured. Most recently veteran photo-journalist James Nachtwey was shot in the leg covering a violent street gun battle between anti-government protesters led by rebel Buddhist monk Buddha Issara and pro-democracy supporters at Lak Si on the outskirts of Bangkok, just one day before the February 2, 2014 Thailand general election.
Late last year a volunteer nurse was shot during anti-government protests, while recently a 37-year-old volunteer nurse was arrested for carrying a bullet-proof vest in her car while traveling to the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) rally site.
No permits ever issued for PPE
While anti-government protesters are able to source and wear their protective body armour with impunity, journalists or emergency medical personnel who wish to abide by Thai law find a snail-paced bureaucratic system that has not issued a single license for these items to a journalist in the past 27 years and professional associations that appear unperturbed that their members are forced to break the law in order to work safely.
The importation and possession of protective clothing such as bullet-proof vests, ballistic helmets and gas masks is covered by the Thailand Arms Control Act which defines “arms” as “weapons, weapons accessories, chemical substances, biological substances, radioactive substances or devices or instruments which may be used in combat or warfare”.
The Act also states; “No person shall order, import, produce or possess arms without license granted by the Permanent Secretary for Defence” and goes on to state that those who breach the Act “shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of not exceeding five years or to a fine of not exceeding fifty thousand Baht (Bt50,000 / US$1,545) or to both”.
The processing of licences under the Thailand Arms Control Act is performed by the Materials Control Division (MCD) of the Thailand Defence Energy Department (DED), a branch of the Royal Thai Army (RTA). The same RTA that over the years has been blamed for the shooting deaths and wounding of numerous journalists and even more civilians.
Following the violent clash between anti-democracy protesters and police last December during which at least one photographer was hit by a “rubber slug” fired from a 12 gauge shotgun and two police officers were fatally wounded the author and other journalists wishing to comply with Thai law and work with some degree of safety approached the DED to apply for the necessary licences to import and possess protective clothing.
As items such as “bulletproof” vests, gas masks and kevlar helmets of varying quality are readily available at stores specialising in military and police clothing and equipment behind the Ministry of Defence (MOD), as well as at Bangkok’s internationally renowned Chatuchak weekend market, the expectation was that licensing would be a mere formality – fill out some forms, produce our media accreditation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and pay the necessary fee. How wrong we were.
John Le Fevre submits first ever application for bulletproof vest use
When the author and another photographer went to the DED to apply for our licences we were told by Colonel Benjaporn, the officer in charge of the MCD, “there was “no system in place for journalists to possess such items” and “no journalists have ever applied for a license before”. Two foreign journalists wanting to import protective ballistic clothing was clearly a conundrum and venturing into uncharted waters and we were politely told to go away, we could not even submit an application.
However, when told that there “are another 100 journalists going to be coming here wanting the same thing”, the Colonel and his team of his subordinates took the matter more seriously.
In a three-hour long meeting the other photographer and I pointed out that “the protesters have got body armour and gas masks, as well as guns. That two police were shot where we were working last week and that two journalists were killed in Bangkok in 2010, with several others seriously injured. ‘Bullet-proof vests’ and gas masks can be purchased from stores a five minute walk from the Ministry of Defence”, we said.
Although our explanations were met with sympathy, Colonel Benjaporn told us “if journalists and the protesters are wearing them the police should arrest them. While a blind eye mind be turned most of the time, if someone makes a complaint to the police they should investigate and charge the person”, he added.
He also said that under section 30 of the Thailand Arms Act a “competent official” (police) can “search, detain, seize or attach arms” and “summon those people” to see if they comply at any time.
Necessary protective clothing for journalists
After several hours of discussions during which the two of us took the stance that we were entitled to apply for a license as the items are necessary protective clothing for journalists working in Bangkok reporting on the political unrest, or in covering the southern insurgency, it was eventually agreed that we would be allowed to submit an application as a “test case”.
Under Thailand’s Arms Control Act protective ballistic clothing is treated the same as munitions and explosives, with the list of documents required in support of an application extensive.
Even the storage security requirements are identical and require a visit by DED staff who photograph all access points to the premises and the entire path to the location where the equipment will be stored.
That any thief would need to walk past hundreds of thousands of baht worth of computer, communications and photography equipment in order to look for and steal a kevlar hat that they are unaware of is irrelevant. Why a ballistic jacket would be of more value to a thief than a laptop computer or camera when the former can easily be purchased is something that is also lost in translation.
Included in the documents required to be submitted with the application to legally import and / or possess ballistic safety equipment in Thailand is: a Thailand police criminal background check of the company director, a power of attorney, and the home address and passport photo pages of the company’s director(s) and attorney. Documents that even staff journalists let alone stringers and freelancers have no hope of obtaining.
After seeing the comprehensive list of documents and sensing the process was going to be long and drawn out, the photographer who attended the meeting with Colonel Benjaporn and I opted for the more traditional route. He got on a plane, flew to London, purchased his protective clothing and flew back to Bangkok with his new bullet-proof vest packed in his suitcase. Clearly something most Thai journalists can’t afford to do.
Why it is that journalists and emergency services personnel working in Thailand are unable to quickly and effortlessly obtain items of protective clothing while protesters are able to easily arm themselves with assault rifles and grenade launchers and top of the range ballistic protection gear is also lost in translation.
No support from Bangkok’s FCCT
The conundrum gets worse. For 57-years Bangkok has been home to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), which bills itself as “a professional association for foreign journalists based in Thailand” whose main goal is “to promote and protect the rights of the press in Thailand and across Asia”.
Since its foundation and growth to what it claims is now “Southeast Asia’s oldest and largest press club” the country has seen seven successful and two failed coup d’états with dozens of journalists shot, blown up, or killed while covering the events.
Despite boasting on its website that every Thailand prime minister since 1981 has addressed the club it was only early this year that it made any statement regarding the legal availability of protective clothing for journalists – an entire four paragraphs! – and this only after the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) raised the issue (IFJ Urges Thai Authorities to Allow Journalists to Obtain Body Armour) in a letter sent to caretaker prime minister and Minister of Defence, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Similarly the 14-year-old Thai Journalists Association (TJA), which claims to be “the main organisation that promotes… the protection of members of the press” and who has seen many more of its members injured or killed since it was founded, has been equally mute on lobbying for journalists’ to be able to work safely and legally.
While the TJA might consider the bullet-proof vests made from discarded x-ray film or those available for less than $100 at Chatuchak market to provide adequate protection for its members, ballistic tests have shown they provide almost no protection.
What’s not lost in translation though is that the majority of Thai and English language publications, as well as all major international news agencies, have a supply of bullet-proof vests which meet international ballistic standards and which are pulled out of storage every time Thailand’s political merry-go-round fires up.
As if by coincidence at the same time as the author was attempting to submit his license application the Bangkok Post published The – sometime dangerous – lives of news photographers wherein its photo editor Sarot Meksophawannakul said “During the 2010 red shirt protests, those who went out were well equipped and prepared for danger. We equipped ourselves with everything – helmets bulletproof vests and gas masks – but even with all that, we really didn’t feel safe at all”.
Journalists subject to prosecution
If the information supplied by Colonel Benjaporn that “no journalists have ever applied for a license” is accurate the numerous photographs showing foreign and Thai media and medical personnel wearing ballistic-wear is alarming, subjecting them at any time in the future to prosecution should the “blind eye” be opened.
That major media organisations should allow their staff to be placed in a position where prosecution is subject to the vagaries of individual police or changes of political office is also lost in translation.
In 2010 it was widely rumoured that there was a “bounty” of Bt50,000 (US$1,550) for a dead foreign journalist and Bt20,000 for a dead Thai journalist. Journalists covering the 2010 protests were shot at from areas outside of the control of the red-shirts on numerous occasions, including this author who felt the wind of a bullet as it rushed past his face on one occasion, and had others fired centimeters in front of his feet on another.
The word on the streets during the more violent clashes over the past five months has been that the same bounty is back, with several well-meaning Thai business people passing on warnings to be careful.
Whether such a bounty is real or simply another Bangkok rumour is difficult to authenticate, but given the large number of firearms and grenades – both propelled and thrown – that have been used at various times over the last five months the risks to journalists is very real.
Until PPE laws for medical staff and journalists become more realistic and less bureaucratic they will continue to be just another accessory packed by “fly in” news crews sent to cover Thailand’s frequent political upheavals and which often remain in the local bureau long after the “fly-in” team has left.
A breach of human rights
Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia Division deputy director Phil Robertson said he was unaware that licenses were required for ownership or importing protective clothing by journalists or anyone else, or that such licensing was controlled by the RTA. “If licences are required and they’re not being issued it is something we would need to discuss further internally”, he said.
Unesco (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture) Bangkok, the United Nations (UN) agency charged with monitoring press freedom globally was equally unaware of the requirement.
While Unesco’s director-general, Irina Bokova, publicly condemned the murder of Egyptian journalist Mayada Ashraf early this month and called for journalists to be able “to do their job without fearing for their lives”, when asked whether the organisation would comment on the inability for journalists in Thailand to legally obtain ballistic safety wear the answer was “no”.
According to Unesco PR spokesperson Sylvie Coudray, “Unesco, as an intergovernmental organisation, does not make public statements such as professional organisations or non-governmental organisations. This being said, we are following very deeply the press freedom situation in countries”, she added.
However, Robert Amsterdam, high profile international attorney and the legal counsel advising the Thailand red-shirt (United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD)) movement following the 2010 RTA crackdown on protesters said the denial of protective clothing for journalists and emergency medical personnel “is breaching basic human rights”.
“Journalists and medical staff should be able to perform their work with safety and if the Thai army isn’t allowing that to happen by not granting licences as they are required to do under the Thailand Arms Control Act they are in breach of human rights laws.”
That the FCCT or TJA have taken little interest in the basic human rights of journalists having access to this type of protective clothing is also lost in translation. Clearly dead members pay no dues, but if neither are actively pursuing one of the prime requirements of journalists – the ability to work safely and legally – the purpose of membership also seems lost in translation.
Then again it is possibly understandable given the battle I have had just to get an application accepted. More than three months later the author is still waiting to hear any word on his application. Meanwhile daily storage fees apply to the bullet-proof vest that I and several other people ordered thinking nothing could be lost in translation given how clearly the Thailand Arms Control Act is written.
Journalists working in Thailand are exposed at regular intervals to death and injury while covering the country’s often violent political protests or the ongoing southern insurgency. That the very agency that least wants the media anywhere near their operations is responsible for issuing licences that would make it safer for the media to get close is also lost in translation.
On May 10 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Asia Division deputy director, Phil Robertson, eventually responded to several emails on this matter. His two responses are produced in their entirety below:
Email #1: ‘I’ve discussed this with colleagues and we’re not going to be able to take up this issue. While we work on issues related to weapons, like land-mines and cluster bombs, we have not taken a position about body armour or the right to possess and use it, and government regulation connected to it. I think that you should be working through some of the professional media organisations, like FCCT, and others that are perhaps closer to this issue and representing journalists as a professional body.
Sorry that we cannot be more helpful’.
Email #2: ‘Also, what is TJA [Thailand Journalists Association] doing on this issue? It seems to me that it is their members who are the largest group of journalists out on the potential firing lines, and most likely to need this sort of armour (assuming they can afford it or that their employer will buy for them, which are both somewhat dubious suppositions, but that doesn’t detract from the need).
On December 18, 2013 the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 68/163, The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity wherein item 6 Calls upon States:
“to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference, including by means of: (a) legislative measures; (b) awareness-raising in the judiciary and among law enforcement officers and military personnel, as well as among journalists and in civil society, regarding international human rights and humanitarian law obligations and commitments relating to the safety of journalists; (c) the monitoring and reporting of attacks against journalists; (d) publicly condemning attacks; and (e) dedicating the resources necessary to investigate and prosecute such attacks;”
Journalists killed or wounded in Bangkok
In 2010 two journalists, Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto and Italian photo-journalist Fabio Polenghi, were shot dead by the RTA while covering the Bangkok political protests. Dozens more journalists were wounded. Evidence given to various fact-finding bodies was that the media felt they had been deliberately targeted by the RTA.
Amongst those seriously wounded by RTA gunfire were: Canadian freelance journalist Chandler Vandergrift, The Independent‘s Asia Correspondent, Andrew Buncombe, France 24 TV reporter Nelson Rand, Subin Namchan, a photographer with the Daily Matichon, Chaiwat Pumpuang from The Nation, Netherlands journalist Michel Maas, along with journalists from VoiceTV and Thai PTV to name a few.
Why the RTA, Thailand’s permanent secretary for defence, or its minister of defence desire to force journalists and emergency responders to work illegally or at risk while covering the cycle of armed and violent political clashes is totally lost in translation, as too is the fact that a person possessing a bullet-proof vest or ballistic helmet faces the same penalty as someone caught in possession of a M16 assault rifle or M79 grenade launcher.
How the topic of journalists or emergency medical personnel in Thailand being unable to obtain protective body armour is beyond the bailiwick of HRW when Article 79 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention states: ‘Any deliberate attack on a journalist that causes death or serious physical injury is a major breach and should be deemed a war crime’, is also totally lost in translation.
This article was updated on May 11, 2014 at 11.35am to include the formal position of Human Rights Watch.
Feature photo John Le Fevre
An earlier version of this story was published in The Establishment Post, April 2014 as Thailand’s body armour laws lost in translation
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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