Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-THAILAND: Thaksin Company Courts Controversy

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 15 2005 (IPS) - In the weeks leading up to a court battle over her rights as a citizen, Supinya Klangnarong has grown philosophical, in a Buddhist way, at least. Twice a day, she prays for her adversary, Thailand’s most powerful business empire.

”I have no hatred for them, and by praying for them and for my inner strength in the morning and night I try to maintain my equanimity,” says the 31-year-old media rights campaigner about Shin Corporation, the telecommunications giant which has filed libel charges against her.

This approach grew out of meditation sessions she underwent since March in this predominantly Buddhist country. ”It lasted 14 days and you cannot talk during that period,” she explained during a break between interviews with local and foreign media and meetings with human rights activists interested in her case. ”I felt comfort in this Buddhist outlook.”

She is convinced that a Buddhist approach will see her through the first phase of her case, which begins at the criminal court in Bangkok on Jul. 19 and is expected to go on till October.

It is a case that has brought into relief a range of issues, including the right of a citizen to criticise a company linked to the political establishment, Thailand’s commitment to international treaties it has signed on political and civil liberties and the concerns over conflicts-of-interest between politics and business.

Shin Corporation, which was founded by the country’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and is now run by the billionaire’s family, filed a criminal and civil case against Supinya in October 2003 for allegedly making defamatory statements about the company.

Also facing similar charges is ‘Thai Post,’ the Thai language newspaper that had published the comments Supinya had made about Shin Corp.’s profits being tied to the benefits it had gained after Thaksin became the prime minister in 2001.

This case marks a new chapter in this South-east Asian country’s legal culture. For one, Shin Corp. filed a civil case against Supinya and her co-defendant demanding a staggering 400 million baht (10 million US dollars) in compensation.

That case would follow the criminal case which begins this month, for which Supinya faces a two-year jail term and a fine of 200,000 baht (5,000 dollars) if found guilty.

Thai and foreign media and human rights groups were astounded by such demands, since it was an unparalleled amount being made here by a business giant that had earned a net profit of 9.7 billion baht (242.5 million dollars) the year the libel charges were made.

Supinya’s monthly salary, on the other hand, made from writing presentations at seminars and work as the secretary-general of the non-governmental Campaign for Popular Media Reform amounted to 15,000 baht (375 dollars).

”This case will be closely followed by many people beyond Thailand because Shin Corp. is not your typical business,” Roby Alampay, executive director of the South-east Asia Press Alliance, a regional media watchdog, told IPS. ”It will clarify what leeway and rights a citizen has to question a big company.”

The intertwining of business and political interests has been a common phenomenon in the developing democracies of the region, he added. ”Supinya’s case is the most blatant illustration of this problem,” Alampay said.

Such examples abound in the current Thai government, with cabinet ministers and parliamentarians coming from families – or with close links to – having entertainment, construction and transportation empires.

In fact this case has compelled neither Thaksin nor his family to offer an alternative image, for example, at the opening on Thursday of the new multi-level headquarters of the ruling Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai ) or TRT party, which Thaksin heads.

Potjamarn Shinawatra, the prime minister’s wife, is the owner of the building that will now house the TRT, reports the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper. ”(She) bought the building for 800 million baht (20 million dollars) and has allowed the party to use it as its headquarters free of charge.”

Nakhon Chomphuchat, Supinya’s lawyer, has shown interest in that fact as he prepares to defend his client before a bench of three judges. He is also planning to bring close to 50 witnesses from Thailand and abroad to strengthen Supinya’s case.

They would include representatives from media rights groups in the United States, France and Britain and champions of press freedom from Hong Kong, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

”I want the judges to know that what Supinya said is a comment that any person will say whether in Thailand or in foreign countries,” Nakhon told IPS. ”It is not a reason to file a defamation case.”

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