Swift justice in Thailand

In Thailand, official status or political power usually provides a reliable shield against criminal prosecution, conviction or punishment for any wrongdoing. So astonished Thais were mesmerised on Tuesday by the imprisonment of three election commissioners, convicted of misconduct during controversial April elections.

The commissioners – all allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister – include a powerful police general and a former senior interior ministry official, and they had been resisting intense pressure to resign. Their unusually speedy conviction and sentencing appeared motivated by the judges’ desire to clear the way for independent commissioners to run elections due in October.

Still, even after the men were sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, sceptical Thais could hardly believe that they would spend a night in custody. Only after an court of appeal in the early evening rejected their bail applications did the public really seem to believe they were heading for lock-up.

Thai television reporters breathlessly reported on the prison vans carrying the officials to jail; the fact that they would have to wear blue prison uniforms like other inmates and preparations being made for their cells.

It’s all been quite a show. The looming question now is how long they will really spend inside.

Family row

In the run-up to this week’s gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Syed Hamid Albar, Malaysia’s foreign minister, has lashed out at Burma’s military rulers with unusual ferocity.

First, Syed Hamid told regional legislators that Asean, which controversially accepted Burma into its ranks in 1997, was deeply frustrated by the country’s lack of political and economic reforms. In an even more startling departure from the quiet diplomacy once reserved for members of the so-called “Asean family”, Syed Hamid reiterated many of his complaints in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.

In both forums Syed Hamid griped that Asean had long defended Burma internationally – urging other countries to be patient with the junta – but that the generals had not co-operated, nor done anything to help themselves. While Asean was paying heavily for its association with a pariah regime, the generals were “indifferent” to its efforts on the regime’s behalf.

The sudden spleen probably stems from Syed Hamid’s ire over his March trip to Rangoon as an Asean envoy.

On that trip, Senior General Than Shwe, Burma’s supreme leader, spurned the Malaysian minister’s request for a meeting and barred Syed Hamid from meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained pro-democracy leader. Two months later, Than Shwe received Ibrahim Gambari, the United Nation’s political chief, and allowed him to meet Ms Suu Kyi.

Syed Hamid is still referring to Burma as part of “the family”. But it’s clear that there is now plenty of bad blood between these relatives.

Not to point fingers

Peter Mandelson, Europe’s top trade negotiator, was in acerbic form on Tuesday as he surveyed the wreckage of the suspended world trade talks in Geneva.

Who was to blame? Mandelson has little hesitation in pointing the finger at the Bush administration:

“The US showed no flexibility at all,” he said.

The Americans had offered too little and expected too much, he said. “This is not my idea of leadership.”

Referring to the Bushies’ idiosyncratic world view, Mandy stuck in the knife: “They seem to be saying to the rest of the world: we are right and the rest of you are isolated.”

But just in case all this sounded a bit negative, Mandelson then became statesmanlike. “This not a time for recrimination,” he intoned. Of course not.

Charmed, he’s sure

During a fiery broadside against the proposed US-UK extradition treaty last week, an Irish-American community leader warned Richard Lugar, the senator, and his colleagues not to be swayed into ratifying the pact by “women with charming British accents”.

The speaker was referring to Baroness Scotland, UK justice minister, and Margaret Beckett, foreign secretary, whom Tony Blair, British prime minister, dispatched to Washington two weeks ago to woo US lawmakers into approving the treaty.

No official word from Lugar, who speaks the nasal Hoosier dialect of his Indiana constituents, on whether Scotland’s polished BBC-reader elocution or Beckett’s mild Derbyshire drawl were sufficiently enchanting to win over the foreign relations committee chairman.

But to date no US senator has spoken out – in any argot – against the treaty.

Irish ire

John McCain, the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, has been visiting Wall Street fairly regularly lately. And in typical fashion he has not been shy about sharing his opinions.

McCain was the special guest at Monday night’s Irish America Wall Street 50 celebration at the New York Yacht Club, once the hang-out of men from the Morgan and Vanderbilt families. There, amid plenty of jokes at the expense of the English, McCain managed to get in a dig at the French during his speech on immigration reform – a hot-button issue with Irish groups.

McCain contrasted America’s “open approach” to immigration with that of Europe and in particular with France’s “closed society”, which resulted in Muslim youth periodically “burning thousands of cars”.


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