Hong Kong FCC in Controversy Over Thai Coup Speakers

Two former presidents of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong and others have expressed private dismay to Asia Sentinel over a move by the club to drop one of two opponents of Thailand’s coup for a speech scheduled for June 26 and to substitute a former spokesman for former Democrat Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, a backer of the coup.

Last week the FCC said Robert Amsterdam, who is considered a personal flack for former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and Jakrapob Penkair, a former journalist and spokesman for the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – Thailand’s Red Shirts – would speak on “The Fight for Thailand’s Democratic Future.”

However, the club put out a second release shortly after, saying Panitan Wattanayagorn, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University and former spokesman for Abhisit, would be substituted for Jakrapob, raising suspicions that the Thai consulate may have demanded the change.

After months of political chaos fomented by Abhisit’s Democrats and Bangkok elites and royalists against the popularly elected Pheu Thai government headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, Army General Prayuth Chan-ocha stepped in on May 22 to declare that the army had taken over the country and that dissent was not going to be tolerated. Foreign correspondents have been harrassed and intimidated.

The Thai government since has put on an all-points press across the globe, among other things vainly asking governments to return 28 vocal dissidents opposing the coup. It has also indulged in a kind of psywar campaign, trying to put the best possible face on the junta.

Asked why the luncheon speech had been turned into a debate, Tara Joseph, a journalist with Thomson Reuters and a member of the FCC Board of Governors as well as the committee that selects speakers, told Asia Sentinel by email that: “As the Thai political situation is a contentious topic, several people within the club (including board members) raised the issue of whether the original two speakers speaking at the event were too partisan.”

“Whoever said FCC speeches had to be fair?” asked one critic. “In that case 50 percent of them at least would need people taking opposing positions. Next up the FCC has Anson Chan as a speaker. (Chan is a staunch member of the pro-democracy movement and a critic of the government). On this basis it won’t be long before the FCC caves into a demand for a government spokesperson to make it ‘fair’.”

Asked if the Thai consulate put pressure on the FCC to change speakers, Joseph only said that the consulate general “suggested a speaker to join the talk,” and that the event committee decided “he would provide a valuable different perspective. We also checked with the two original speakers if they would share their time with him. Jakrapob Penkair dropped out of the event but Robert Amsterdam agreed to speak with Panitan Wattanayagorn.”

Whether Jakrapob jumped or was pushed is unclear. Joseph just said he had “dropped out” in response to email questions.

Jakrapob has been a subject of charges under the Thai government’s lèse majesté laws and went into hiding in 2009. He lives in exile in Cambodia. He was one of the 28 people overseas for whom arrest warrants were issued Monday in Bangkok.

The talk was organized in good faith, with the goal of holding as fair an event as possible, Joseph said. “Really there was no harmful or political intent on behalf of the FCC to provide any particular opinion on the topic. I hope the event is well received on Thursday.”

The coup has been widely criticized by democratic governments including the United States, the UK and Australia for ousting a democratically elected government and cracking down dramatically on public dissent and journalistic freedom, raising questions in the former FCC leaders’ opinion why it needed to be defended in a club dedicated to press freedom and free debate.

The change in speakers hasn’t hurt attendance, Joseph said. “Since the new arrangement was announced to members, we have had double the number of sign ups and the FCC is proud to host an event with such strong speakers.”