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Sandy beaches, freedom and fear

By December 19, 2013

Alan Morison and Chutima Sidasathian - 'Brave enough to change'
One morning last week I opened a link of an album shared by my friend Alan, a collection of photos he took at Phuket prison on an early morning surprise check by guards. I marveled at his usual strange angles and surprising shots, including a few of the rows of the prisoners’ flip-flops, lined up in tight rows just outside their equally tight sleeping quarters.

Alan, together with Khun Chutima (“Oi”), covered the story and took the photos – another day of bearing witness to some unpleasant realities of life in tropical Thailand. In their usual quick fashion, the story soon appeared on their website Phuketwan.com.

On December 24, they may revisit this prison, not as reporters covering the scene but as inmates. Facing serious charges under a controversial law, as they describe in their own report, “A captain acting on behalf of the Royal Thai Navy has accused two Phuketwan journalists of damaging the reputation of the service and of breaching the Computer Crimes Act.” The penalty is a maximum jail term of five years and/or a fine of up to 100,000, baht. 



The charge stems from a Phuketwan article published on July 17 that cited a Reuters news agency special investigation on the Navy’s handling of Rohingya migrants.

I’d never heard of the Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic group that’s denied citizenship rights in Myanmar even though some have lived there for generations – until I started working with Phuketwan in late 2008.

They’d had a few tips from their Navy contacts that ever larger numbers of Rohingya men were fleeing Myanmar by sea and entering Thai waters. One officer said he’d hoped the UN could get involved to help with this problem. Alan and Khun Oi started pursuing the story and soon enough made some startling discoveries, which they later reported at length and continue to investigate today.

One of my most memorable moments with Phuketwan was the day an email came in from a source in the Navy that contained the images of Rohingya men being ‘processed’ on a beautiful white-sand beach in the Andaman region following their arrest. Rows of skeletal bodies lined up on the sand in tight rows under military guard is an image one never forgets.

The question of ‘What happens next’ to those captured in Thailand’s seas is one that’s still never been satisfactorily answered, and five years on things seem even less clear.

Nevertheless, Alan and Khun Oi have kept asking the questions, following the leads, doing the things that those who are committed to uncovering the truth are supposed to do.

‘Brave enough to change’ is the Phuketwan motto, which they certainly live by. I’ll admit I was not brave enough, and my short stint with Phuketwan ended in part because I felt I wanted to have a more peaceful life with my family, quite content to write instead about the sunnier side of life in Phuket and Thailand, and not get bogged down dwelling on all the bad things that go on here.

But of course silence does not equal peace. I live in peace, but I also live in fear. Fear not only for the safety and future of my journalist friends but for anyone wanting to speak up or shine a light on something that matters. Thanks to the efforts of Alan and Khun Oi, I and many Phuketwan readers have a fuller picture of life here, the good, the bad and the ugly -- and understand that the white-sand beaches, jungles and sparkling seas of Thailand hold more secrets yet to be revealed.

They are among the few who have dared to look into those murky seas and jungles and write about what they see. I hope they’ll be given a chance to carry on with their work without fear or intimidation.

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