Our top 10 stories in a year that will be hard to forget

Our top 10 stories in a year that will be hard to forget

Over the past year 'Spectrum' has reported a wide range of issues to give readers valuable insights. Our reporter ambushed the monk who helped Leicester City to their shock English Premier League title to get an exclusive. Another reporter blended in with Chinese yuppies in the new business district of Bangkok to find out why they decided to migrate to Thailand. Two reporters did a series of stories on the Tiger Temple by hanging out with the veterinarian, monks and national park officers to listen to all sides. We were determined to find the truth. Last month we also went up to Chiang Mai to talk to Hmong girls wrongly accused of stealing a British tourist's watch. Here are the top 10 stories in another exciting year of reporting.

In the dollhouse: the luk thep craze

The craze for luk thep reached its peak in January when Thai Smile Airways announced it would let passengers purchase extra seats and meals for their dolls.

The wide-eyed dolls, or "angel children", had been popular for some time then, with frequent public sightings of people -- mainly women -- babysitting them. Celebrities were also known to carry around luk thep, claiming they brought them good luck.

The Thai dolls may not look much different from the once popular Blythe dolls. But what made them different was people's avid devotion to taking care of them.

This is due to owners' conviction of the dolls' supernatural powers, a fact that academics explain as stemming from Thais' long-standing animist beliefs.

In Spectrum's Jan 31 edition, Sinchai Chaojaroenrat, a religion and philosophy academic, stated: "Worshipping ghosts through figures made from clay or wood was very popular back in the old days. Now the materials have changed to metal, aluminium and rubber. But no matter what form it takes, the belief is still the same."

To uncover the origins of the doll, Spectrum travelled to Nakhon Pathom to meet Master Ohm Mahamontra, a famed fortune teller, who claimed to be able to imbue regular dolls with a supernatural spirit.

It was a spooky assignment for our reporter -- the master's residence was once described as housing hundreds of souls locked away. When stepping inside, the floorboards creaked eerily and made for a creepy ambience.

Hundreds of dolls were laying out around the house, some still waiting for Master Ohm to bring them to life.

The dolls each bore an individual look and dress, and those with extra details would later be sold at a bigger price.

Luk thep owners, especially young female entrepreneurs, told Spectrum that they felt their well-being and spirits improved after they began babysitting the doll.

Doll craze: Master Ohm Mahamontra, top left, recites an incantation for luk thep at Mahamontra Palace in Nakhon Pathom. The dolls are supposed to bring good fortune, wealth, blessing and protection from harm if owners take good care of them. PHOTOS: EPA AND BANGKOK POST ARCHIVE

When the story was published, luk thep was still all the rage. Many people could be seen carrying the dolls in public.

It wasn't just old-fashioned people, but young celebrities who treated luk thep as a must-have accessory, akin to a Louis Vuitton bag.

It can also be compared to the kuman thong, a baby amulet treated as a lucky charm in Thailand. Legend says they contain the ghostly spirit of unborn children.

But unlike kuman thong, luk thep look far less creepy.

People can show off their doll in the same way children brag about Furby dolls to their peers.

Not long after Spectrum published its story, the luk thep hype seemed to die down quickly -- in part because some owners were ridiculed for carrying the doll.

Nowadays, very few luk theps can be seen in public. However, some owners may still babysit them at their home.

The craze seems to have shared the fate of Jatukam Ramathep, a round talisman that enjoyed popularity around a decade ago but has virtually disappeared since.

Regardless, Thais will continue to generate holy object crazes to cope with life's insecurities.

In the meantime, several luk theps have ended up abandoned in temples.

Their owners appear to no longer want them, but their superstitious beliefs remain.

Zika spreads net

Since last year, the Zika outbreak has become one of the most prominent diseases in the modern world's history. Even though it is not deadly, its effects are dangerous to many people, especially pregnant women.

A 4-month-old baby born with microcephaly is held by his mother in front of their house in Olinda, near Recife, Brazil, February 11, 2016. (Reuters photo)

After the Zika virus originated in Central America, it finally made its way to Thailand earlier this year. A flat red rash is one of the virus's first obvious symptoms. But for many people, it simply won't show.

As reported in Spectrum on Feb 7, there has been no proper study on how many people in Thailand have been infected with the Zika virus, which was first documented here nearly four years ago. Hospitals are generally more concerned with cases of dengue fever, which has almost identical symptoms but is considered far more dangerous.

Smoked out: Fumigation near Wat Bua Kwan in Nonthaburi gets rid of disease-carrying mosquitoes. PHOTO: Tawatchai Kemgumnerd

The World Health Organisation last week declared Zika a public health emergency in South America, where in Brazil alone more than 1.5 million people are believed to have been infected with the virus.

Chariya Sangsajja, an infectious diseases expert, told Spectrum that 100,000 people were infected with dengue fever in Thailand last year, with 10% of those considered serious cases. Of those serious cases, there was a 1% mortality rate. By contrast, fewer than 10 Zika cases were recorded last year, with no serious health repercussions for any of the patients.

In Thailand, if a patient arrives at a hospital showing symptoms of Zika -- fever, rash and muscle and joint pain -- doctors will often check only for the dengue virus; tests for Zika are costly, require specialised equipment and are often seen as unnecessary.

There is no widely available test for Zika infection. As it is closely related to dengue and yellow fever, it may cross-react with antibody tests for those viruses. To detect Zika, a blood or tissue sample must be sent to an advanced laboratory so that the virus can be identified through sophisticated molecular testing.

"This is why Zika is difficult to track," said Dr Nipon Chinanonwait, director of the Bureau of Vector Borne Diseases. "It has never been seen as a deadly disease that needs to be treated."

The cost to check for Zika in Thailand is around 2,000 baht per patient, and only a handful of hospitals across the country are equipped to run the tests. Even then, the virus will only show up in test results if the blood or tissue sample is taken within a week of infection.

When Thailand reached the rainy season when mosquitoes can easily grow, the situation seemed to get worse. By September, the Zika infection rate had increased, especially in the Sathon district of Bangkok and provinces including Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nong Khai and Chanthaburi.

The overall number of infected patients was 314. Within this number, there were 33 pregnant women carrying the virus but all of them gave birth with no effect on their babies. Despite fear of the Zika virus, it actually did no major harm to any Thai patients.

Towards the end of September, the Ministry of Public Health announced that it had spent at least 20 million baht on tests for the Zika virus on patients. The announcement was followed by a statement that the Zika situation was under control, at least for the time being.

NCPO reclaims the streets

Some might perceive omnipresent street food and pavement vendors as part of Bangkok's charm. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), however, thought that some of these vendors might have gone too far in occupying public spaces.

The BMA, with the backing of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), this year took decisive action to clean up many streets. The task seemed to be simple but it was not as it involved certain influential groups of people and some senior municipal officers. The NCPO reasoned that the clean-up was part of the attempt to combat corruption and bribery.

It is too early to judge whether the NCPO has been successful, but the move did transform some streets into uncluttered areas that Thai people were not familiar with.

At the start of the year, more than 2,000 street vendors at the legendary Klong Thom market were finally moved to a new location after a long fight, protests and the government's negotiation with vendors and shop owners.

In addition, as reported on May 22 in the Bangkok Post Sunday, street food vendors located along Sukhumvit Soi 38 were also ordered to move out from the area. The main purpose was to keep the street cleared of any vendors that had illegally set up stalls for decades. As part of Thai culture revolves around food, the order sparked anger among many Thai people, especially those who rely on affordable street food that is easy to find.

In August, well-known Bangkok food areas where locals and foreigners like to go in the evening, including Siam Square, Silom, Pratunam and Nana, also faced the same fate after long negotiations with the BMA.

More than 12,000 street vendors who illegally occupied the pavements for many decades finally received eviction orders to clear the areas where they had set up stalls to operate their businesses.

The vendors protested to the BMA and the NPCO, complaining that it was the only way they could make the living.

Many people on social media, on the other hand, agreed with the clean-up because they wanted to walk on unobstructed streets. Some netizens pointed out that vendors at these prime locations were not poor. They were in fact quite well off and able to rent space in other locations to sell their goods.

To date, almost every busy area in Bangkok has been cleared up and the pavements are no longer occupied by street vendors. In general, Bangkokians can enjoy more pleasant streets, while many vendors have been moved to new locations.

It does not stop there. The NCPO is said to be planning another crackdown on street vendors nationwide. Even though the plan has not yet been confirmed, many people have started to make complaints because many provinces mainly rely on tourists for their businesses and protesters argue that street vendors are an attraction that makes Thailand unique.

Clashes in the clergy over Somdej Chuang nomination

Somdej Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn was once considered the most likely candidate to take the vacant supreme patriarch position. Widely known as "Somdej Chuang", he assumed the "Somdej" title, the second ranking to supreme patriarch, longer than any other monks before him. Belonging to the Mahaniyaka sect, he is the presiding abbot of Wat Pak Nam Phasi Charoen, or Wat Paknam.

After the passing of the late supreme patriarch Somdej Phra Nyanasamvara of the Dhammayut branch in 2013, it was expected that the new patriarch would be a member of the Mahaniyaka branch.

in the hot seat: Somdej Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn grabbed headlines earlier this year when his nomination for supreme patriarch was contested by claims of tax fraud and ties to Phra Dhammajayo. Pornprom Satrabhaya

Then on Jan 5, the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) nominated Somdej Chuang as the country's 20th supreme patriarch.

However, a slew of issues unfolding in the months that followed raised questions about his suitability for the job. For one, he was accused of being involved in a luxury car tax fraud case. And prior to that, people had also questioned his long-standing ties to the controversial Phra Dhammajayo, who was ordained at Wat Paknam.

On March 6, Spectrum ran a cover story titled "Supreme Showdown". While it proved difficult to get direct quotes from Somdej Chuang, who maintains a low-key presence, Spectrum managed to interviewed two outspoken monks representing extremely opposite views on the contentious Buddhist figure's nomination.

steer clear: Somdet Chuang, the once supreme patriarch nominee, was linked to a luxury car tax evasion scam. PHOTOS: Pornprom Satrabhaya

One was Phra Buddha Isara of Wat O Noi, who expressed a strong opposition to Somdej Chuang's nomination, although he himself is a Mahaniyaka monk. He stated his concern about the monk's illegal possession of a luxury car, as well as his alleged ties with the Wat Dhammakaya sect, which he called a political tool of Thaksin Shinawatra.

The other monk we interviewed was Phra Methee Dhammacharn, secretary-general of the Buddhism Protection Centre of Thailand, who avidly supported the candidacy of Somdej Chuang.

In our interview, he stated that the government should not intervene in the supreme patriarch selection process because clerical affairs should be kept separate from those of the state. The SSC alone is fit to select the patriarch, he said. He also said that allegations about Somdej Chuang's ties with Dhammajayo were politically motivated.

In any case, his chances at becoming supreme patriarch seemed out of the question by the time the Department of Special Investigations ruled in late July that a vintage luxury car under his possession was illegally imported.

After the ruling, Somdej Chuang's name seemed to disappeared from the news. Still, he continued to command unwavering respect from his followers who flocked to Wat Paknam to meet him.

He has also made appearances at various religious functions to pay tribute to the late Rama IX.

Now that Somdej Chuang has dropped out of the picture, speculation over who will take the top position has been renewed.

Besides the nomination, however, the bigger question remains about how to reform the Buddhist governing body to make decision-making processes more transparent and resonate with the needs of everyday Buddhists.

Tiger Temple's secrets raided, leading to roars of outrage

A raid of the controversial Tiger Temple unveiled new discoveries back in May. Long-standing suspicions of animal mistreatment ended in the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation's (DNP) removal of 137 tigers from Wat Phra Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno in Kanchanaburi province.

The tigers were relocated to the DNP's facility in Ratchaburi province in June. The removal was the outcome of many investigations into claims of the temple's abuse and illegal trafficking of animals.

On April 10, Spectrum reported that one of the temple's tiger caretakers had reached out to present her side of the story.

Chatraporn "Jang" Tamthong looked after the dozens of tigers she'd raised herself. She described having a close relationship with the tigers, regularly feeding them by hand.

On Feb 23, during the investigation's early days, the DNP moved five tigers to their Ratchaburi facility.

Ms Chatraporn said her "heart was broken" when the first set of tigers were taken away.

"These tigers were raised by humans and they're used to close contact with humans," she said. "I don't know how they're going to be treated in their new home."

After a long, drawn-out battle between the Tiger Temple's legal team and DNP officials, the remaining tigers were removed in early June.

The temple staff describes being devastated, saying they had long enjoyed a close bond with the cats.

Walking with beasts: Visitors walk alongside a tiger at the Tiger Temple in March 2016. The staff, including around 15 monks, was criticised for profiting off the animals' mistreatment for commercial gain. Amanda Mustard

But Thanya Netithammakun, the DNP's director general, made it clear that their ownership of the wild cat is illegal, and their emotional attachment is irrelevant.

"Just to be clear, the tigers are not theirs [the temple staff's] to keep," said Mr Thanya. "They cannot own wild animals."

On the third day of the removal operation in June, officials found evidence that seemed to confirm old accusations of illegal trafficking when they found the frozen dead bodies of 40 tiger cubs, alongside some bears, deers and buffalo.

The tigers now live in the DNP's designated wildlife protection area, where they are kept in small cages -- a stark contrast to the temple's living conditions, where the cats were able to roam freely in the large exhibit area.

The current area offers little room for their daily exercise.

One concern Ms Chatraporn raised was that the tigers will not receive enough human interaction in their new homes. She worries that this will inflict stress on the tigers.

"I gave them a hug and pet them every day," she said. "At least they knew they were loved. But I don't think DNP officials would do that. They don't know the tigers the way I do. The tigers will never get the same love as when they were with us."

A DNP animal expert, who asked not to be named, told Spectrum it's important to note that tigers are wild beasts with animal instincts, regardless of if they have been nurtured by humans. They don't need human beings to pet or love them.

They might experience an adjustment period in their new environment, but they will slowly adapt, said the expert. It's in their nature.

However, a few days months ago, the DNP confirmed, that one tiger, among the first five to be removed back in February, has died from a disease it suffered with before it was moved.

However, the change in environment and stress of moving may have worsened its illness and, ultimately, triggered its death.

As sea temperatures rise, Thailand sees coral bleaching

Mass coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef this year triggered international attention towards the severe impact of climate change. The worst-ever bleaching event was caused by the El Nino climate cycle that began around the middle of 2014. Two-thirds of corals in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef died.

Preservation: A boy collects dead pieces of coral to make a barrier designed to prevent waves from causing more erosion on Mae Nam beach on Koh Samui. photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Bleaching is caused when water is too warm, forcing corals to expel the algae living in their tissues and turning them white.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported earlier this year that bleaching had occurred in a greater area than ever before, stretching from the South Pacific to the Caribbean.

In the middle of this year, the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources recorded high sea temperatures of between 32 and 33 degrees Celsius in many coastal areas. The highest temperature for Thai waters this year was recorded on May 11 at 33.85C.

Severe bleaching was reported in the Gulf of Thailand. Ma Prao Island in Chumphon was the worst affected with up to 80% of its coral bleached.

Bleaching was also reported around Koh Samui. It spread to the Andaman Sea, affecting more than 50% of corals in Racha Yai, Racha Noi and Mai Ton islands off Phuket coast as well as parts of the Phi Phi Islands in Krabi and Hat Chao Mai National Park in Trang. Of the 81 sites that suffered bleaching, 48 were classified as critical.

Similar to the global situation, the NOAA survey shows that Thailand and Southeast Asia are likely to see more frequent and severe coral bleaching in years not associated with El Nino.

"As we have raised the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, most of the excess heat has been absorbed by the ocean. That raises the baseline temperature of the ocean, making it easier for smaller climate anomalies to cause mass coral bleaching," said Mark Eakin, coordinator of the NOAA's Coral Reef Watch.

The 2016 bleaching has raised concerns for coral recovery among local scientists and biologists.

Thailand experienced mass severe bleaching in 2010, damaging 70% of corals in the Andaman Sea. Between 30% and 95% of the affected coral died.

In some highly touristic areas such as the Phi Phi Islands, only 1% of bleaching corals could recover because they were disturbed by intense human activities and water pollution that worsened the problem from a warmer sea.

At a snorkelling spot on Koh Khai off Phangnga, only 20% of coral could survive six years after the 2010 bleaching. The island has welcomed more than 40 tourist boats a day in peak seasons. The boats throw their anchors onto the reef below. Tourists are reported to damage corals.

Coral stress from tourism, pollution and overfishing is not the only factor that has affected coral recovery. Fossil fuels play a key role in increasing carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.

"We must have a renewable energy revolution," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, adding that unless both climate change and local stress are addressed, those working in ocean-related tourism industries will not have careers within 20 years.

The damage is done: A foreign tourist snorkels in warm water near a large bleached coral exposed by the low tide off Koh Samet in Rayong. BARBARA WALTON

Monk's lucky charms fire Leicester to title

Leicester City's English Premier League championship triumph is a fairytale of a small football club that manages to win big with a little help from mythical amulets ... sort of. Of course, the much coveted title was the product of the hard work of the players and manager Claudio Ranieri. But support from the three magic amulets given by a senior Thai monk might also have helped.

Chao Khun Thongchai, a senior monk of Wat Traimit in Bangkok, gave each player three amulets before the start of the 2015-16 season, even though it was unclear how much Leicester players, all non-Thai, would understand the meaning or the value of amulets.

come on, you blues: Buddhist monk Chao Khun Thongchai speaks to the media in May at Wat Traimit after Leicester City moved a point closer to winning the English Premier League title for the first time. Photos: EPA

On the weekend when the English Premier League reached its climax in May, a Bangkok Post reporter met Chao Khun Thongchai at Wat Traimit to see what he would do on the night Tottenham played Chelsea after Leicester had drawn with Manchester United one day before.

Chao Khun Thong's residential quarters in his Bangkok temple was full of Leicester City charms such as gold fabric talisman featuring the ancient Khmer alphabet saying "Never Lose".

"I will meditate during the match. I will concentrate and say prayers for the team. I will send them positive energy," the monk said.

"I won't get excited about the result as I have to stay calm and neutral in order to send my blessings."

His blessings seemed to pay off. Tottenham drew with Chelsea and collected only one point, resulting in Leicester City clinching the top flight's title for the first time in the club's 132-year history.

switching sports: Chao Khun Thongchai blesses players of the Thai national women's volleyball team at Wat Traimit in May. RUNGROJ YONGRIT

At the beginning of the season, the chance of Leicester lifting the title was seen as slim or virtually impossible. Bookmakers set the odds of Leicester winning at only 5,000-1. Leicester, however, snubbed the predictions of all football pundits and even hard-core Leicester fans.

Despite barely understanding the rules of football, Chao Khun Thongchai shares a close spiritual connection with the team.

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Thai billionaire who took over the club, introduced the monk to the team. Vichai had a special "Buddha Room" built in the King Power Stadium for Chao Khun Thongchai to meditate to send his positive energy to all the players.

Chao Khun Thongchai also travelled to England frequently throughout the season to attend Leicester home matches. Prior to kick-off he would walk onto the pitch and bless the ground. Then he and eight other monks would chant and sprinkle holy water on each player before they took the field.

This season champions Leicester have made a bad start to defending their title. The Siamese Foxes are struggling in the bottom half of the table.

On Nov 26, Vichai surprisingly brought Chao Khun Thongchai to pray in the stadium before the game against Middlesbrough. The image of the monk wearing a yellow robe and hood was televised to the astonishment of the British audience.

The game ended in a 2-2 draw, but it was better than another defeat.

Miracles do not happen twice, but a little bit of spiritual support helped one to come true.

The New Chinese migrants making waves

Any news stories about the Chinese grabbed people's attention easily this year. Whether addressing the large number of Chinese tourists -- and their reportedly unruly behaviour -- the building of mega-dams on the Mekong River, the spread of banana contract farming or zero-dollar tours, anything about the Chinese seemed bound to sweep the top spot for most views or shares on social media.

New in town: Huai Khwang district has been deemed the 'New China Town', hosting a wide range of Chinese businesses, from restaurants to tour operations, featuring Chinese-language signage. Photo: Krit Phromsakla Na Sakolnakorn

In September, Spectrum reported that a fourth wave of Chinese migrants were moving into big cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. These new arrivals have a markedly visible presence as new Chinese businesses, from real estate investment companies to tour operations, pop up.

Spectrum profiled the Huai Khwang district, or the "New China Town" as it's widely known. This business district is home to a large number of Chinese restaurants, shops and businesses, which come adorned with Chinese signage, to serve customers in their own language.

Chinese tourists are big drivers of Thai tourism, with over 7.9 million visiting last year -- up 71% from 2014 despite the slowing Chinese economy.

Paying a visit: Despite their slowing economy, Chinese tourists remain important drivers of Thai tourism. Several Chinese have also begun calling big cities like Bangkok their new but temporary home. (Photo by Patipat Janthong)

But the vast influx of visitors has led to complaints about zero-dollar tours -- cheap travel packages presold to Chinese customers, who are then inclined to spend as little as possible while in Thailand. This also gave rise to complaints about tour companies being run via Thai nominees, with customers paying through electronic channels to avoid taxes.

In the first quarter of the year, investment pledges from China jumped fivefold to 5.7 billion baht, a leap from the 1.1 billion baht figure a year earlier. This makes China Thailand's third-largest investor as firms raced to meet a tax break deadline.

Chinese companies have also emerged as potential investors for major development projects in special economic zones and high-speed rail projects.

The Immigration Department lists the total number of Chinese nationals residing in Thailand last year as 91,272. However, academic studies have put the figure as high as 350,000 to 400,000 over the past decade.

Chinese businesses are now set to play a larger role in the economy, leading to a growing phobia among some locals about their influence over Thai interests. Some Thais have complained about the Chinese occupation of land plots that might lead to the exploitation of local resources and loss of economic sovereignty.

However, it's impossible to stop migration movements in today's globalised era. Understanding migrants' intentions may be the best way to come to terms with this.

The fourth wave of Chinese migrants emigrated following ex-president Deng Xiaoping's launching of economic reforms in 1973, which led to rapid growth and a more market-oriented economy.

The demographic tends to be young, comes from a diverse range of places and boasts higher education levels than migrants from previous waves. Women make up the majority of migrants.

They left China seeking"economic opportunity", rather than "economic survival", as previous generations had.

They have not assimilated with the local population to the same degrees as their predecessors.

Several of them plan to return to China once they have reaped the economic benefits of being in Thailand.

"No one can stop the influx of new Chinese migrants," said Yos Santasombat from Chiang Mai University's department of sociology and anthropology. "We will have to create an atmosphere that makes Chinese migrants feel like they are a part of, though not necessarily assimilated, into the countries where they reside."

He criticised the Thai government for not seeing the potential to create such an atmosphere.

"It's important for Thailand to better understand the process, outcome and impact of the flow of migrants so we can adapt skillfully and peacefully to the influx," said Mr Yos.

The Donald Trumps His Opponents

The biggest political upset of the year was pulled off by Donald J Trump. The billionaire businessman-cum-reality TV star won the US election in a historic vote on Nov 8. The move seemed unthinkable to many when the president-elect first put his name in the running.

Those who thought they would soon be able to tune out Mr Trump were to receive a reality check.

The incoming American head of state ran one of the most unconventional presidential campaigns ever seen.

Before entering the race for the White House, Mr Trump had never held political office. Born into a property empire, he grew the family business and built a celebrity brand through the TV show The Apprentice.

Yet in July 2015 he announced to the press from the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan that he was running to be the Republican Party standard bearer for the 2016 presidential race.

Then he offered up his first big promise -- to build a "great, great wall" that would span the US-Mexico border and keep illegal immigrants out. Mexico would foot the bill.

The speech set the tone for the rest of his campaign with a strong "America first" bent.

According to critics, Mr Trump's campaign drew considerably on xenophobia. In September, he promised to deport Syrian refugees, citing potential links to Isis. In December of last year, he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" after the deadly Paris attacks. He called Mexicans "rapists" and accused the Chinese of "raping" the US economy.

Mr Trump not only made enemies across party lines but also skewered fellow Republicans like Jeb Bush and war veteran John McCain while taking aim at the "dishonest and corrupt" media.

Despite the rhetoric, or possibly because of it, his supporters didn't flinch in their support.

Defying codes of political diplomacy, Mr Trump leaned heavily on social media to bypass the mainstream press, often relying on rough and hyperbolic language to reach out to the so-called disenfranchised forgotten by the DC elite.

With globalisation affecting their well-being, he promised to bring American glory back home, from the Rust Belt to the coal-mining states.

Mr Trump's status as a Washington outsider helped him secure the votes of those who felt left behind.

The autumn's presidential debates seemed to put Democrat contender Hillary Clinton firmly in the lead.

This was abetted by the Oct 7 release of a recording in which Trump boasted about how he grabbed women by the genitals.

Nevertheless, on Nov 8, the votes turned in Mr Trump's favour and he won the electoral college vote, surpassing the 270 votes required.

Given the capricious nature of Mr Trump's positions, many analysts struggle to predict his next moves.

But a good indicator of what a Trump presidency will look like can be gleaned from studying the people he has identified for key positions in the White House.

He has tapped Stephen Bannon, the chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News, a known platform for white nationalists and anti-Semites, as his White House senior adviser. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, has also been recruited as secretary of state despite his ties to a Russian oil company reportedly backed by Washington nemesis Vladimir Putin.

Climate change sceptics have also been brought on board, including Scott Pruitt, the former attorney-general of the oil and gas-rich state of Oklahoma, as Environmental Protection Agency administrator. He threatens to undo much of Barack Obama's climate policy.

The vote in the presidential race was no landslide, with Clinton winning the popular vote by almost 3 million, and that means that America will continue to have to navigate its social divides.

It remains to be seen how a Trump in the White House will shape America's fate -- and if it turns out to be great.

Hmong girls get justice

Spectrum helped clear the names of two Hmong girls once falsely accused of being robbers by reporting their side of the story in our Dec 11 edition. The sisters, Dokmai, 10, and Gaolhee, 7, used to go to Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai after school to earn extra income by posing for photographs in hill tribe costumes with tourists.

In the clear: Dokmai and Gaolhee with their parents. The girls have finally cleared their names following theft accusations. (Photo by Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai)

They did this up until late September of this year when international media outlets reported that young Gaolhee had been caught stealing on camera.

Tabloids, including The New York Post and The Sun, circulated the incriminating photo that a British tourist posted on Reddit of herself holding hands with the girls. In the photo, Gaolhee seems to be fiddling with the woman's watch. The caption on Reddit reads: "Girlfriend in the progress of having her watch stolen."

The photo set accusations of stealing flying. All the while, the Thai police tried to seek out the British woman to find out what really happened to her watch. In fact, she had never made a formal charge against the girls for the alleged theft.

In October, the Hmong girls were finally cleared from all allegations after the tourist announced she had found her watch elsewhere.

The Bangkok Post ran an article about the Chiang Mai governor Pawin Chamniprasart visiting their home to comfort the two girls and their family after their innocence was confirmed.

Spectrum followed up a few months later, giving the girls' some time to calm down from the media storm.

Gaolhee, the sister who was wrongly accused, was too young to understand what had happened. However, the incident seemed to have a harsher impact on her elder sister, Dokmai. After the photograph got out, she was told not to go to the temple until the charges were fully cleared.

Throughout the ordeal, the two girls received support from their family and close-knit community in Doi Pui. Right after the news story and accusations first broke out, the village chief spoke to the father and girls himself to ask them if the tourist's story was true. The Hmong community stood resolutely behind the girls and their claims of innocence.

Prior to the incident, several Doi Pui parents would also drop their children at Doi Suthep after school. There they would dress in Hmong costumes and dance as well as talk to tourists. This could earn them a few hundred baht per year.

But seeing Dokmai and Gaolhee's story spiral out of control has left the children feeling scared about going back, fearful that they might expose themselves to another incriminating situation.

The temple abbot and village headman has nonetheless urged them to resume their activity on the temple grounds, insisting that they add a special charm and appeal to the tourist site.

Today Dokmai and Gaolhee live their lives as normal kids. But they don't go to the temple as much as they used to. Once a daily after-school habit, they now only visit on weekends. At a young age, they have learned the hard way that it only takes a photograph taken out of context to ruin somebody's life.

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Thailand confirmed on Thursday it had returned three Iranians jailed over a 2012 bomb plot in Bangkok, in an announcement that came after Tehran freed an Australian-British lecturer imprisoned for alleged spying.


Malaysia leader wins budget vote

Malaysia Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin survived a key test of his leadership on Thursday when he won enough support in parliament for his 2021 budget.


B40bn high-speed train contracts inked

The State Railway of Thailand on Thursday signed five more contracts, worth about 40 billion baht, for work on the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima.