Sunday, December 31, 2006

Predictions from a pollster

Thai Takes

Who do Thais believe: the fortune-teller or the pollster?

“I don’t know. We need to do a survey on that,” said Noppadon Kannika, when quizzed on the subject.

His answer is typical of a man who makes a living taking and interpreting public opinion polls. Noppadon is the director of Abac Poll Research Centre at Bangkok’s Assumption University.

What he knows, without conducting a poll, is that a fortune-teller’s prediction is based on mystical power while a pollster’s is on data.

Noppadon’s forecast three days before the Sept 19 military coup was spot on. Leading Thai language newspaper Thai Rath quoted him as saying that there would be chaos such as a coup de tat if the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra did not step down.

Six days before the end of 2006, I sat down with the utterly deadpan man to get his Thai takes on this year and the next.

What has been the most significant event in Thailand in 2006? I would say, and I believe my fellow Malaysians would agree, the smooth-as-Jim-Thompson-silk coup.

Not for Noppadon. His is the June celebrations for the Thai king’s 60th year on the throne. Abac survey found 92% of Thais were happy during that month despite political impasse (anti-Thaksin demonstrations) and economic crisis (rising petrol prices) wracking their country.

In June, the people’s reverence for the king made them forget their problems.

“They perceived the king doing everything for the people. For example, many royal projects have touched their lives,” Noppadon explained.

The Thais’ happiness level for that commemorative month was the highest in 2006. However, their exhilaration was shortlived. The next month, reality rumbled back into their minds.

The silky coup, according to the 40-year-old pollster, was the second most significant event.

A month after the military grab for power, Abac Poll released a survey that Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont’s administration enjoyed a better image than the Thaksin government. Thais, however, were unhappy as the interim government was acting too slowly on people’s problems and allegations of Thaksin’s corruption.

For 2007, Noppadon predicts the unfolding of a situation that will not be good for the nation.

“We will have a strong people’s movement organised by the previous government around March. But it will lose momentum the following month as it will be the festive month of Songkran (Thai New Year),” he noted.

However, the mobilisation of the masses against the interim government will pick up again in May, which is an idle month for most Thais who take a break from farming.

Noppadon said his prediction of the people’s movement was dependent on two factors – King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom many Thais regard as semi-divine, and the performance of the Surayud administration.

“Most Thais will not go against the king’s wishes,” he explained.

The deep south?

“The southern Thailand situation will continue,” predicted Noppadon. “No one can solve it absolutely as we don’t have a good system to solve the problem.

Will the coup makers deliver an election next year?

“No, the year after next. The new constitution will not be ready (until late 2007),” he said. “Looks like the coup makers’ promise to leave after one year will not materialise.”

Will the exiled Thaksin launch a political comeback?

The billionaire who, based on an Abac Poll, still commands 20% to 25% support from Thais, has two options.

“The Chiang Mai-based politician can utilise his financial might and political influence, especially from the country’s north-east to force a return to power,” said Noppadon.

“Or, Thaksin can negotiate with the coup makers to settle his family’s slew of corruption charges. And then he will make a comeback when there is a new constitution and conducive political climate.”

In terms of gross domestic happiness, Thais can look forward to the year-long celebration of King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on Dec 5.

“That will be the beautiful scenario for next year,” Noppadon noted.

However, the pollster also worries that ugly political turmoil lurks in 2007.

(Published in The Star on Dec 31, 2006)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Same, same ... but different

Fake The North Face jackets sold in shops in Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker district, reminded me of Bangkok.

Seeing The North Face, which specialises in outdoor clothing and equipment lines, was like deja vu. A few days before I flew to Kathmandu in Nepal for an assignment, I had seen similar counterfeit jackets in Bangkok’s MBK (Mah Boon Krong) shopping mall.

And walking through the overcrowded streets of Thamel, which was teeming with hundreds of restaurants, guest-houses, internet cafés, travel agencies and shops, I felt as if I was strolling through the packed Khao San road, which is Bangkok’s backpacker district.

The pirated Casino Royale DVDs, the Red Bull t-shirts, the Tibetan handicrafts retailed in Kathmandu and Bangkok also served as reminders that Nepal and Thailand share certain similarities.

Yes, Nepal and Thailand are two distinct countries. The differences are as obvious as a Nepali rupee and a Thai baht.

Nepal has a majority Hindu population while the Buddhists dominate Thailand. The country, which has the Himalayan mountains as a backbone, is landlocked while the country flanked by the Andaman sea has world-famous islands.

There is a gap between the purchasing power of Nepalis and Thais. Just compare the price of their two leading English newspapers. The Kathmandu Post costs Rs 3 (RM0.15) and The Nation 25 baht (RM2.50).

And although Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city, Bangkokians’ English proficiency is limited compared with the Nepalis residing in the developing-world city of Kathmandu.

Take the example of my experience in the genuine The North Face outlet in Siam Discovery Centre, which is one of the high-end shopping malls in Bangkok. Communicating with the attentive salespersons was frustrating as they could only speak limited English.

At the authentic The North Face outlet in Thamel, it was the opposite. The helpful salespersons spoke British-accented English and habitually used the word, “shall”.

Now for the similarities. Thailand and Nepal can proudly claim that in their nation’s history, they have never been colonised. Both countries have a monarchy.

The present kings of Thailand and Nepal ascended to the throne because bullets killed their brother. However, King Bhumibol Adulayadei is revered in Thailand while King Gyandendra is reviled in Nepal.

The 238-year Nepal monarchy may end next year when Nepalis decide on a new constitution. To paraphrase a famous saying, the writing is on the wall for Nepal's royal family.

Well, if you enter any building in Nepal, there are not as many portraits of King Gyandendra as compared to that of King Bhumibol in Thailand.

There’s no escaping Thailand in Kathmandu. There are shops offering Thai food and even ancient Thai massage.

The only difference was the “Gent for gent and lady for lady. That’s Nepali rule.” In other words, unlike Thailand where women are allowed to massage men, in Nepal, masseurs are only allowed to massage their own gender.

That’s an indication of how conservative Nepal is. Or, in the point of view of a conservative Nepali, how “free” Thailand is.

“Freeeer,” said a 29-year-old Nepali, who dragged the word as if to make it more “free” when asked what he thought of Bangkok.

His eyes twinkled when he spoke of his wild experience in Patpong.

“It is not like in Kathmandu. At 10pm, our nightspots are closed,” said the man who was on the flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu.

But as I walked at 2am to my hotel in Thamel, a nightspot blasting the distinctive music which drives dancers wild, made me recall what my Nepali friend had told me.

“Kathmandu can be wilder than Patpong,” he said, and quickly added, “That’s what my friends told me.”

I wouldn’t know. Although I saw a nightspot called Go Go Bar in Thamel, the 1°C nights of Kathmandu persuaded me that the electric blanket on my bed was more appealing.

In bed, I debated whether Nepal’s namaste (traditional Hindu greeting) was similar to Thailand’s sawatdee. It must be somewhat the same as Nepalis and Thais bring their hands together at chest level in greeting.

In this globalised world, Nepal and Thailand are like the slogan on the t-shirts hawked in Kathmandu and Bangkok, “Same, same ... but different.”

(Published in The Star on Dec 24, 2006)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What’s cooking, Mrs Balbir?

Thai Takes

At about 9,000m above ground, on the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu, it was a pleasant surprise to find something Malaysian-made when lunch was served.

Was it the spicy prawn rice which had connection to a Malaysian? The mixed fruit? Salad? Bun? Or naan?

It was the scrumptious naan. And a 50-year-old Malaysian, Mrs Balbir, who is the official caterer of Indian cuisine to the airline, prepared it.

Mrs Balbir has come a long way since her salad days when she arrived in Bangkok from Kuala Lumpur as a matchmade bride for Mr Balbir, a Thai Indian, 31 years ago.

In the 1970s, Harvinder Kaur, which is Mrs Balbir’s maiden name, learnt to cook north Indian food from her husband Vinder, and Thai dishes from the streets.

At the Bangkok market, clutching a Thai cookbook, the KL-born woman interacted mostly by sign language with the fishmongers and vegetable sellers to learn Thai cooking and the Thai language.

Picking up north Indian and Thai cooking came naturally to Harvinder as both were similar to Malaysian cooking – Indian and Malay food.

But in Bangkok, she couldn’t cook Malaysian food as tastily as in Kuala Lumpur. For example, when she cooked nasi lemak, one of her favourite Malaysian dishes, the ikan bilis and cili padi bought in Bangkok were different from those in Kuala Lumpur.

“Mother nature grows them differently,” explained the big-hearted Malaysian.

In the mid-1970s, Harvinder opened a north Indian restaurant called Mrs Balbir in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 11 because she wanted an outlet to release her creative energy. Then, it was one of Bangkok’s handful of Indian restaurants.

She entertained the idea of opening a Malaysian restaurant. She, however, abandoned it as she could not find the necessary ingredients in Bangkok. And there weren't enough Malaysians living in Bangkok for her to establish a core clientele.

In her 31 years in Bangkok, Harvinder remembered only four Malaysian restaurants opening in the city. The first to spring up 25 years ago was a shop that was like a “hole in the wall”.

“The food wasn’t good but we all (Malaysian expatriates) were so desperate for nasi lemak and laksa that we gave the guy (a man who wore sarong) business,” said the operator of

However, the proprietor closed shop as he sold his food “too cheaply”. The next Malaysian restaurant also suffered the same fate as it could not attract enough business.

Aunty Malaysia, another outlet which opened three years ago, was forced to cease operation when the building it was housed in was torn down due to some political mess.

Last month, during the Malaysian Club’s Hari Raya celebration in Bangkok, the members were ecstatic when a Malaysian woman, Georgette, announced the opening of her Kopitiam restaurant.

“We went ‘oh ... at last,” as she guaranteed that it would be a real Malaysian restaurant,” recalled Harvinder.

A word of caution for budding Malaysian restaurant owners. Unlike the thriving Japanese and Korean restaurants in cosmopolitan Bangkok, there is negligible demand for Malaysian food from Thais.

Thais, noted Harvinder, like food which has fresh herbs. They, she explained, do not appreciate Malaysian and Indian food because they do not like anything with ingredients that are not fresh, like curry powder.

But what about green curry, a famous Thai dish?

“Green curry is made of pounded fresh herbs like green lime leaves and coriander,” she explained.

Harvinder should know. She has been teaching Thai cooking for 25 years. It all started because there weren’t many English-speaking Thai cooking teachers. And her added advantage was that she was able to substitute ingredients which were not available in their home country.

Among her students are musician Sting’s chef Joseph Sponzo, and Ainsley Harriott, a British celebrity chef.

Her other claims to fame are: A television show in UBC, Thailand's largest pay television operator, called Bangkok Spice with Mrs Balbir; and she is a former food presenter for Star Plus’ Travel Asia.

And how many Malaysians can claim that the food they cooked was served 9,000m above ground?

(Published in The Star on Dec 17, 2006)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The two faces of Patpong

Thai Takes

My 65-year-old mother made the sign of the cross in rapid succession as we walked by Bangkok’s Duangthawe Plaza (Boy Plaza), which is also known as Soi Kathoey or Patpong 3.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because I was afraid. They were dragging you (into a nightspot),” she replied.

The “they” she referred to were touts – some in drag – who were aggressively promoting nightspots such as Dream Boy, Future Boys and The Boy Bangkok.

As the names suggest, the nightspots were gay go-go bars.

Later, a few metres away at Patpong 1, I had to drag Marilyn, my 22-year-old sister, out of the NaRaYa store.

Patpong is one of my sister’s favourite Bangkok attractions for two reasons: NaRaYa, sought for its silk handbags, and the night market, renowned for fake Red Bull t-shirts and pirated Casino Royale DVDs.

Welcome to the two faces of Patpong: It is an internationally renowned red light district and also a shopping heaven.

And to most Malaysians, it is not at all like Bukit Bintang. Or to be precise, Bukit Bintang is not Patpong.

Recently, Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said it was unfair to view Bukit Bintang as another Patpong. The Bangkok tourist spot was dragged into controversy when Jasin MP Datuk Mohd Said Yusof likened Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle to sex areas such as Patpong.

From the point of view of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Mohd Said has got his comparison wrong, as Patpong is “no longer the Patpong of the past”.

“That was a long, long time ago,” explained Vunsadej Thavarasukha, TAT advertising and public relations department executive director.

“Thirty years ago, yes, Patpong was famous as a red light area where tourists can do ‘monkey business’.”

But now, Vunsadej insisted, most of the go-go bars have shifted elsewhere (i.e. to Nana Plaza at Shukumvit) and Patpong is a place where family-orientated tourists come for food, shopping and music.

A Malaysian who regularly visits Bangkok agreed with Vunsadej’s observation.

“Patpong is slowly catering to families too. There are obvious signs – live music bars and good restaurants – that some parts of Patpong are turning away from the sex industry,” observed the 20-something yoga instructor, who declined to be named. She did not want to be associated with Patpong as it has yet to shed its sleazy reputation.

“I’ve lost count of how many go-go bars and massage parlours exist in Patpong. Outside most of the go-go bars, you can see skimpily dressed females sipping beer and trying to attract customers,” she explained.

Tell that to Vunsadej.

Without batting an eye, he replied, “Yes, we still have go-go bars in Patpong but it is very rare.”

The executive director was more forthcoming on the history of Patpong. He instructed his staff to e-mail a Wikipedia entry.

The online encyclopaedia stated that Patpong got its name from the Patpongpanich family who owned most of the property in the area.

In 1946, the family purchased an undeveloped plot of land on the outskirts of the city.

They constructed a road – Patpong 1 – and several shophouses, and another road – Patpong 2 – was added later. Today, both roads remain privately owned.

By 1968, a number of nightclubs had set up in the area. And during the Vietnam War, it became a R&R (Rest and Recuperation) spot for US troops.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was Bangkok’s premier nightlife spot and was famous for its sexually explicit shows.

In the late 1980s, the Patpongpanich family rented out small lots in the middle of Patpong 1 for a night market.

It is this night market that the TAT wants Patpong to be known for.

“What Bukit Bintang does not have is the night market. Tourists are attracted to Patpong as there is a place where they can bargain and buy things,” said Vunsadej.

For the yoga instructor, the night market is a Bangkok must-see that she would bring her mother to, but not the go-go bars.

“It will be too embarrassing if my mother asked me what a Ping Pong show is,” she said.

“And she’ll get a culture shock seeing Thai men trying to hustle customers into bars.”

Go-go bars or not, swinging by Patpong is never a drag.

(Published in The Star on Dec 10, 2006)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Coyote girls feel the heat


She shook her head once, twice, three times. Then the 69-year-old Culture Minister smiled and said, “No, I don't think so.”

She laughed and then repeated, “I don't think so.”

Khunying Khaisri Sriaroon's “no” was in response to the question, “if you were 18 years old, would you have been a coyote girl?”

In Bangkok, at the minister's meeting room that was artistically decorated with Thai oil paintings, Khaisri explained why she did not think so.

“That's an example of how we are made rotten by Western civilisation,” said the Khunying, a Thai royal title given to women.

“In the past, Thai girls used to dress properly. But now they are not careful with the way they dress as they imitate what they see on the Internet and TV.”

Coyote girls are scantily-clad young women who perform the so-called coyote dance moves that are sexually suggestive.

The coyote dancing craze blazed into bars and pubs in Thailand after the release of the movie Coyote Ugly in 2000 which depicted the lives of female bartenders who performed sexy dances in a New York bar to entertain patrons.

In late October, the coyote girls howled into controversy when the Thai Queen expressed her concern after watching skimpily-dressed women dancing inappropriately during a celebration to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent on television.

Queen Sirikit sent a letter to the Culture Ministry saying, “Any shows or performances organised in association with any Buddhist festival should be held with respect for Lord Buddha and Buddhism.”

The ministry then pushed for a new ministerial regulation that would ban students under 20 years of age from working as scantily-clad product presenters and dancers at public events. The proposal, however, was found to be impractical, as many students became coyote dancers to finance their studies.

“Coyote dancing is a profession,” explained Khaisri. “It is a way to earn money. She can do that (dance sexily) and dress like that (in skimpy outfits) inside places like a bar but not in public places.”

The controversy was a baptism of fire for Khaisri who was appointed minister on Oct 8 shortly after the Sept 19 coup. Initially, she was reluctant to accept the heavy burden of becoming the Minister of Culture.

Khaisri told Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont that she was too old for the position. “But he told me it was only for one year. That's why I accepted it,” she said.

The third oldest Thai minister, she also accepted that the Cabinet comprised of old gingers. In the early days of Surayud’s administration, they were called the Ban Bangkhae Cabinet. Ban Bangkhae is a well-known home for the elderly.

The average age of Surayud's Cabinet is 63 years, which coincidentally is his age.

“Most of us are very old. But each comes with experience,” said Khaisri, a respected scholar who is the former president of Siplakorn University, the first university in Thailand devoted to Fine Arts.

The minister wanted to promote traditional lifestyle with special emphasis on the King Bhumibol Adulyadej's concept of sufficiency economy.

“Surayud’s policy is to focus on self-sufficiency and the happiness of the people more than the GDP (gross domestic product) numbers,” she said.

Thais, she pointed out, had become “consumptive consumers”.

“They've become greedier. They live a life where they consume everything and they dress, eat and behave like a Westerner,” she said.

“We are too much influenced by Western civilisation that we've lost our Thai way of life.

“In the past, we used to live humbly and contentedly. We did not need too much money. It is time to bring back that concept to the Thai people.”

Khaisri admitted that back in the good, old days when she was 18, she was a naughty girl.

“I used to swim and climb trees like a boy,” she said. But she was not as naughty as a coyote girl.

(Published in The Star on Dec 3, 2006)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

An American journey through realm of spirit houses

Thai Takes

Inside the shrine, which resembled a Thai-style wooden house, were two 10cm-tall figurines of an old man and an old woman. Porcelain miniatures of elephants, horses and servants, and offerings of a can of Fanta Red, candies and sliced betel nuts were placed outside this shrine.

Next to it was a shrine that resembled a pint-sized Khmer temple. It housed pra chaimongkon, a 15cm-high golden angel figurine holding a moneybag and a sword.

On the compound of Evergreen View Tower Condominium in Bangna, a Bangkok suburb, Wanida Yahata, who was a few footsteps away from her workplace, stopped in front of the shrines. She pressed her palms together near her chest and bowed to them.

Wanida, 22, a receptionist at Evergreen View Tower, would wai (a respectful Thai gesture of thanks, apology or greeting) whenever she passed the spirit houses.

Why the wai?

“I ask the spirits for good things to happen to me,” she explained.

Except in the Muslim-majority south, spirit houses are ubiquitous in Thailand, and most houses and buildings have them.

“(An uninitiated foreigner) wonders why Thais have this little dollhouse in front of every building and why they pray to it,” noted American Marisa Cranfill, who is in the midst of pre-editing a book titled, Invoking the Land Gods; Understanding the Thai Spirit House.

They also find it very mysterious and that there's something powerful in there, she added.

Mysterious? Perhaps that was why the Beckhams in their June 2003 visit to Thailand bought several spirit houses and had them shipped to England.

Hopefully, the Beckhams knew that the main purpose of a spirit house is to provide a space for the land god to reside in and to take care of the land. “Or for the angel to come and protect the land,” explained Cranfill, 29.

The spirit house with the angelic figurine was called san pra poom. And Thais paid reverence to the golden angel.

“They see it as a benevolent compassionate force that will bestow its grace and goodness to them,” Cranfill said.

The spirit house with the old couple was called san jao thi phoon. It housed the land god.

“The Thais' relationship with the land god is very personal because it affects their daily life,” Cranfill explained. “You give the land god what it likes and it will give back good things. It is like a bargain.”

Ignoring or treating the spirit house disrespectfully might bring all sorts of trouble, she warned. “You may have a bad dream or sickness or something unlucky might happen, like a flood or fire.”

Cranfill was 16 years old when she became fascinated with spirit houses.

“I liked the way they looked,” said the American who has travelled constantly to Thailand since she was 12. Her mother owned a silk business in Bangkok.

Two years ago, her fascination turned into a journey to find out more about spirit houses.

As there was little anthropological information on spirit houses in English-language books, the Thai-speaking Cranfill travelled extensively throughout Thailand and Laos to learn about the subject from shamans.

She learnt to perform the rituals required when erecting a spirit house and discovered that the Thai reverence of the spirit house came from the harmonious blend of indigenous Thai, Brahmanistic Indian and Buddhist beliefs.

“This blend is what makes spirit houses so mysterious yet so fascinating,” said Cranfill.

This assimilation is successful in the spirit house tradition, as it harmoniously blends all three views or ultimate realities of three religions, yet and at the same time maintains spiritual value, meaning and satisfaction for the participant on each level.

“Even more interesting is the ability of the spirit house to endure and adapt in modern cities,” said the fashion designer who runs a clothing company called Marisa Baratelli and shuttles between Los Angeles and Bangkok.

When the real estate industry in Thailand is booming, the spirit house-making industry also thrives.

Cranfill's coffee-table book will have contemporary academic content and about 100 photographs taken by her 30-something Californian friend, Frank A. Fuller, a Thailand-based photographer.

For a year, the two journeyed throughout Thailand in search of spirit houses that were set in a background that was worthy of photography.

(Published in The Star on Nov 26, 2006. Photograph courtesy of Frank A. Fuller)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Working his way to zero

Thai Takes

His heart literally about to explode like a bomb, Vikrom Kromadit grabbed two shotguns and embarked on a one-hour drive from Bangkok to his hometown Kanchanaburi to kill his father.

“It was like a war in my heart. My father had just shot my brother in the head and I wanted revenge,” said Vikrom, who is No. 29 on Forbes’ list of Thailand’s 40 richest, recalling his mad mood 18 years ago.

On that murderous night, the traffic out of Bangkok was at a crawl.

“During the slow drive, I was thinking that if I killed my father and then myself, what good would it bring? Who would take care of my family after that?” recollected the chairman of Amata Industrial Estates, the largest industrial-estate developer in Thailand.

“If traffic had been smooth that day, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” said the ever-smiling 53-year-old man.

Vikrom immortalised his homicidal intention in the opening chapter of his autobiography Pom Ja Pen Khon Dee (Be a Better Man: Dreaming of My Younger Days), which was launched last month.

“It is in the first chapter so that people will know about my bad character first. A son going to kill his father is a bad thing,” said Vikrom, who is the eldest of the 23 children of a sugarcane plantation owner.

“I want my readers to learn from my past, which has a lot of mistakes and bad things,” said the author, who is divorced and does not have any children.

One of the most important things readers would learn from the book is that even rich families have problems, he said.

“When you read about the bad things that happened in my family, would you want to repeat them?” he asked rhetorically.

Vikrom then revealed that when he was young, his parents constantly bickered because of his father’s many wives.

“One night my mother ordered me to get the girl who my father denied having an affair with. And my father told me not to go,” he said, recalling an incident that happened when he was 19.

In his hesitation to obey two contrasting orders, his hot-tempered father ordered his two bodyguards to restrain Vikrom. And he beat up his son.

“That was the first time I wanted to kill him,” Vikrom said.

During a one-hour interview at his Thai-styled penthouse in Bangkok, he was animated as he reeled off volatile anecdotes about his life.

Like the one where he scuffled with a Tibetan undertaker who went amok in Tibet last year.
The story ended with Vikrom, who was armed with a Swiss Army knife, disarming the Tibetan of his long undertaker knife.

“As I held him, I wanted to twist his head one round, two rounds,” he recalled excitedly.

Then there was the one about him ordering a gunman from his Kanchanaburi province to kill a “bad man”.

“In my 30 years in business, there were many bad people – lawyers, gangsters, businessmen – who I wanted to be killed,” he admitted. “But believe me, I did not do anything to them.”

Nonetheless, Vikrom was a picture of serenity in a July 2006 article by Forbes, which estimated his worth to be US$140mil (RM512mil).

“Inside a house floating on a lake in one of Thailand’s national parks, Vikrom Kromadit sits quietly with his eyes closed, surrounded by lotus flowers,” the Forbes reporter wrote.

The businessman who plans to donate US$110mil (RM401mil) in stock holdings to the Amata Foundation on his birthday next year spends 10% of his time on business.

“A lot of businessmen do everything by themselves as they don’t trust others. That’s the Chinese-style,” explained Vikrom, who is of Chinese descent. “My philosophy is if I don’t trust my people, then who am I going to trust?”

Vikrom lives like a monk (but in luxurious trappings) to purify his angry mood. He devotes himself to meditating, reading and writing.

So far, he has written three autobiographical self-help books. His next is on his business life and he has recorded his thoughts in books, “as in 100 or 1,000 years’ time, they will still be there”.

“As for me, I’m on the way to zero (death),” said the CEO of Amata, which means eternity.

(Published in The Star on Nov 19, 2006. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Sunday, November 12, 2006

On a mission to save souls – in pubs


Hands gripping a Bible, and with beads of sweat dripping from his clean-shaven head, the 22-year-old American shouted “Repent!”
Looking clearly unrepentant was an elderly tourist who was holding a bottle of Singha beer while chatting with a slinky Thai girl at Big Dogs pub.

Also looking unrepentant was a crowd of bemused and intoxicated tourists who had gathered around the American.

Unperturbed, Henry Thompson continued preaching. To him, the crowds were souls who required salvation.

It was 9.30pm on a Monday and Thompson was facing the entrance to what he perceived as Sodom and Gomorrah.

In fact, it was the Nana Plaza Entertainment Complex on Sukhumvit Soi 4 in Bangkok. The entrance led to the courtyard of an inverted U-shaped, three-storey, terraced building that hosted go-go bars. It was one of Bangkok’s main tourist attractions.

At Nana Plaza, according to the man whose name-card noted his job title as “Servant of the Most High”, every kind of sin (from prostitution to child trafficking and drug dealing to witchcraft) was committed.

And the preacher wanted the sinners at the plaza to repent.

“I want them to go to heaven when they die. I love them. I don’t hate them for what they are doing. I hate the sin. But I love their souls,” explained Thompson earnestly during a break from one of his 10-minute sermons.

Tony Webb took over to continue the 90-minute non-stop preaching session. Webb, an American, moralised in Thai.

“How are you doing? Are you okay?” asked Thompson while approaching a burly black man.

“Man, I hope you are okay,” replied Anthony Alexander, a 27-year-old from Florida who was at Nana Plaza to hang out and rent girls. He, however, understood why the preachers perceived Nana Plaza as an evil place.

“But all involved are adults,” he said while a 25-year-old Thai girl named Jiap waited for her regular.

Alexander said he found the preachers “cocky”. “Preaching won’t be effective here,” he said.

But don’t tell that to Thompson, who has a testimony to relate.

Six months ago, at the same place and same time, Thompson was preaching for 30 minutes when a man opened a bathroom window at the second floor and shouted, “Hey, come up here!”

Webb rushed to the man, who was a 50-something European.

Crying, the man told Webb that 30 minutes earlier he had intended to shoot himself with a Colt 45 as he was facing financial problems.

Before squeezing the trigger, the man said, he had prayed, asking God: “If you are real, show yourself to me.”

And at that very moment he heard Thompson. The man thanked them for saving his life.

Most of the time, though, preaching was a thankless job, Thompson admitted.

At Nana Plaza, Thompson has been yelled at, mocked, laughed, cursed, punched, threatened with a butcher’s knife, and kissed.

“Prostitutes would come to me, grab my arms, press their breasts on me and try to kiss me. But I’m not attracted to them,” he related.

Thompson has been evangelising in Thailand for two-and-a-half years but the authorities have not harassed him at all.

“Sometimes people do complain. But the police usually shake our hands and say very good, as they know what we are doing would eventually stop crime,” said the preacher who lives in Thailand with his 21-year-old American wife Amy and their baby.

But it was different in Minneapolis, United States. “Two weeks ago, two policewomen rudely told us to stop preaching,” said the American who runs

When Thompson and Webb refused, they ended up in jail.

“Praise the Lord,” he said, “as in jail we got to tell the prisoners to repent.”

Thompson occasionally evangelised in Penang, where he observed that “there were some transvestites and prostitutes” in Georgetown. “But it (flesh trade) was looked down upon, unlike in Bangkok,” he noted.

What’s next for him?

“Next is heaven. I’m going to continue this until I die,” he said.

(Published in The Star on Nov 12, 2006)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Now, it’s no to the coup

Thai Takes

Wear black t-shirt
Turn on your main light vehicle
Place black bow on your vehicle
Wear black wristband

That was the message from an ominous 3.26-minute video clip posted on Using the Internet, an unknown group, dCode, urged Thais to defy martial law and stage an anti-coup d’etat rally on Nov 1 at Sanam Luang ground in Bangkok.

At about 11am, hours before the scheduled rally in his office at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, Giles Ji Ungpakorn put on a black t-shirt. His choice of t-shirt colour, however, was unrelated to the protest that he described as “very strange”.

He was suspicious of the characters behind dCode.

“One of the organisers gave flowers to the military junta when the coup took place,” said the 53-year-old Marxist, “and now he is against the coup.”

“Nowadays, I tend to wear black as I’m in mourning for democracy,” explained the lecturer whose office has a flag of his favourite Malaysian political party, the yet-to-be-registered Parti Sosialis Malaysia, hung on the wall.

Three days after the Sept 19 coup, Giles wore a black t-shirt and held a “No to Thaksin. No to the coup” poster at Siam Paragon, an upscale mall in Bangkok. He was part of the first organisation, 19 September Network against Coup d’Etat, to publicly condemn the coup makers.

In an opinion piece in The Nation on Sept 26, Giles wrote: “The one thing that I have learnt over the years, with encouragement from my father and mother, was never to trust a military dictatorship. A coup is not ‘reform’. Dictatorship is not ‘democracy’. The military cannot be trusted. Democracy has taken a serious step backwards.”

The dissenting voice of the son of Puey Ungpakorn – the rector of Bangkok’s Thammasat University during the brutal massacre of student protestors on its campus on Oct 6, 1976 – was the few heard during the early days of the Council for National Security’s military rule.

Five weeks after the coup, however, the voice of dissent against CNS was getting louder and louder.

Some people are beginning to see that the military have lied consistently, observed Giles.

“The military said they would step back after two weeks and yet they are still in the saddle. The military said they would appoint a civilian government and yet they appointed an army man (General Surayud Chulanont) as prime minister,” he said.

More and more people are showing their dissatisfaction with the military, he added.

One dissatisfied voice was that of Thammasat University lecturer Somyos Chuathai, who is a legal expert.

On Nov 2, The Nation reported that Somyos dismissed as unbelievable the CNS leaders’ claim not to perpetuate their power.

“All coup-makers have said they would not stage a coup, and they did. They all said they would not become prime minister – and later they did,” he said in an interview with the Thai Journalists Association.

“After coup-makers tear up the constitution, they normally set up a nominee party to carry on their power. Now that the CNS has overthrown the Thaksin government, it may have to do the same thing,” Somyos said.

“After seizing power this time, this vicious circle is inevitable. I do not believe that after the election, the CNS will step down easily because it has made many enemies.”

Calls for the CNS to step down were heard during the Nov 1 protest, which was one of the largest since the military banned political assemblies. It drew about 200 protestors – dressed in black and wearing black plastic wristbands – who demanded the end of martial law and a general election within two months.

Giles expected the people to organise more protests and social forums to pressure for the immediate return of democracy to Thailand.

But what could people power do as the military had the guns?

“Well, they haven’t shot us yet. And Thai history has shown that when the military shot demonstrators on two occasions (1973 and 1992), they lost (power),” he said.

Prime Minister Surayud should know.

In 1992, he was a commander during the bloody Black May where the military fired at pro-democracy protestors who were demanding for coup-maker General Suchinda Krapyoon to step down as prime minister.

(Published in The Star on Nov 5, 2006)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Thaksin a joy to cartoonist

Thai Takes

On an A4 paper was a sketch of Thaksin Shinawatra’s wife Pojaman, with her Farrah Fawcett hairdo, searching for her lost suitcases on a conveyor belt outside the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. “Here they are! My lost suitcases which never arrived in London!!!” a dialogue balloon exclaimed.

In Starbucks at Patpong in Bangkok, sitting next to stacks of the day’s Thai newspapers, including The Nation that headlined “Pojaman returns without Thaksin”, was Stephff who was pencilling in more suitcases.

Earlier that Thursday afternoon, sipping a big cup of coffee at home, the 42-year-old French cartoonist whose real name is Stephane Peray, had browsed the newspapers and questions automatically popped up in his mind.

“Why would she (Pojaman) return to Thailand?” “Maybe she wants to pack more suitcases and return to London?” and “Maybe she came to pick up the lost suitcases?”

“I remembered Pojaman flew to London last month with a lot of suitcases. And that a lot of bags were lost in Suvarnabhumi. So I combined the two and drew an absurdity out of something real,” explained Stephff, while sketching a cartoon, which involved Condoleezza Rice, Kim Jong-il, Shinzo Abe, Roh Moo-hyun and a nuclear bomb.

The “Pojaman” cartoon was for Stephff’s weekday cartoons for The Nation while the “nuclear bomb” was for newspapers in more than 25 countries.

The Bangkok-based cartoonist, whose cartoons have also appeared in Sin Chew Daily, is no stranger to Malaysia. Lat’s books made him interested in Malaysian life.

Stephff finds many similarities between the middle class in Thailand and Malaysia. “In Lat’s cartoons, there are Chinese who like shopping and new condominiums, which is similar in Thailand,” he said in a thick French accent.

In the last 13 years, he has satirised Thailand, politically, culturally and socially. And his recurring themes are nepotism and cronyism.

“This is a Thai-Chinese thing. Whenever you are in power, you have to share it with your family and friends,” he said. “Nepotism and cronyism are not bad in Asia. They make sense. You are supposed to help your family and friends.”

The cartoonist has poked fun at five Thai Prime Ministers – Chuan Leekpai, Banharn Silpa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Thaksin Shinawatra and Surayud Chulanont.

Who is his favourite prime minister, cartoon-wise?

It is not easy to find something funny about Chuan Leekpai, said Stephff, who was fired from the French navy because he drew a caricature of his “humourless” ship commander.

Chavalit has a particular face that is easy to draw and Banharn has an interesting face.

Thaksin is his favourite.

“Because Thaksin's always has some crazy, funny idea. It is easy to make funny something that is already funny,” he said.

Take, for example, the Thailand Elite Card.

Thaksin’s idea was to sell one million memberships at one million baht (RM100,000) each, which entitled holders privileges including fast-track immigration clearance and multiple entry visa within the first five years of its introduction.

Stephff is missing Thaksin, who is in self-imposed exile in London.

“You can get so many cartoon ideas from him,” said the Frenchman who drew his first cartoon (the insurgency in Thailand’s deep south) for The Nation in April 2003.

“If you get a very honest and wise guy, it would be difficult to find material to make fun of him.”

And that “difficult” person is General Surayud, who the military appointed as Thailand’s 24th prime minister on Oct 1.

“I’ve got nothing bad to say about him. And we journalists, if the world was perfect, are not supposed to exist any more,” he said while his eyes twinkled.

But he is not giving up hope on Surayud.

“It will take some time. At the moment he has been prime minister for 19 days only, so I need to learn more about him,” he said on Oct 19.

One of his favourite cartoons on Thailand is his caricature of Thaksin as a square-faced shark in the animation movie, Finding Nemo. He called his parody “Finding DEMOcracy”.

Thaksin, however, will feature less in his cartoons. “After the coup, I’m going after the new people in power,” he said. “The role of a journalist is to be a counter balance to the government.”

The stately Surayud will be a challenge to skew, however.

(Published in The Star on Oct 29, 2006, Sin Chew Daily, The Statesman, The Nation and AsiaNews)

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Save your blushes, we’re only striptease dancing


Her back on the wooden floor, Kewalin Sukapiboon drew an imaginary circle with her legs that were pointed to the ceiling. Then the 32-year-old nurse caressed herself, starting from her inner ankle until she touched her chest.

“Don’t try too hard. If not, it won’t be sexy,” instructed Busakorn Vorameth, the 35-year-old owner of Rum Puree Dance Studio in Bangkok.

In the swanky studio, there were lots of nervous laughter, “Oh my God” and “ooh” from the seven female students – among them a 50-something company president, three international students and a 30-something farang (Thai for westerner) – when Busakorn demonstrated moves that would stir even a celibate monk.

For the first time in Thailand, a dance studio was offering striptease lessons. And it wasn’t the Patpong fare but New York-style striptease.

Two years ago, Busakorn ventured into a striptease club in New York, watched a dancer perform a striptease and exclaimed, “Wow!” She observed that the stripper’s moves looked simple but to execute them well wasn’t easy.

“If you want to be a good stripper, you really need a good foundation in dance such as jazz and ballet,” said the dance instructor, who at that time taught salsa and belly dancing in New York.

Inspired, the graduate in design studies from Harvard University learnt the art of stripping in striptease schools in New York. In 2005, she returned to Bangkok and set up a dance studio.

In the name of research, she frequented Bangkok’s red light districts. What she saw in the Patpong go-go bars was “sad” and “disgusting”.

“You didn’t actually see them dancing. They stood on stage, gripping a pole and waiting to be picked up. Even if they moved, it was without any feeling or expression,” she explained.

“In New York, striptease is a performance where you pay to see the dancers move and (they are) not naked.”

Three months ago, Busakorn introduced striptease (RM40 an hour) to add something different to her studio’s usual salsa, belly dance, tango and hip-hop classes. Friends, however, warned her to be “careful” as striptease was very controversial.

The public, she was told, might think her students wanted to be professional strippers. “My students definitely don’t want to be strippers,” stressed Busakorn, whose nickname is Apple.

Her students are motivated to learn to express their feminine self and to appreciate their body. “I tell them they do not need to have a good body for striptease as different women have different sexual points on their body,” said the dancer, who believes a woman should experience stripping at least once in her life.

But surely some of the students take the class for their lover’s pleasure?

“They don’t tell me directly. But I’m pretty sure one reason is to enhance their partner’s life,” she replied with a grin.

Not for Kewalin the nurse, though. Her only intended audience is the image reflected on the mirror – herself.

“I enjoy watching myself dancing,” she said, quickly adding, “with my clothes on.”

She said she takes striptease lessons to unleash the sexy girl inside her. When she performs a striptease, she said, she becomes another person.

“A sexy girl who can do anything she wants. And nobody can take their eyes off her,” she intimated.

Her friends know that Kewalin takes salsa, belly dancing and zouk lessons at Rum Puree, but her striptease class remains a secret. She once told a male colleague and he reacted negatively.

“He thought it was all about me taking off my clothes,” she related.

Though shirts were unbuttoned during the lesson, no one was naked at the end of the one-hour class.

But isn’t that the purpose?

“Eeeeh...not really,” Busakorn said. “But at home, if you are dancing for your boyfriend, then it is up to you.”

Her idea of a good striptease is “when a stripper can arouse a man without touching him”.

Can she? “Yes, some guy told me,” she said, flashing a big smile.

She said she yearns to turn the Patpong go-go dancers into New York-style strippers.

“Stripping is an art. It is not about people looking only at your naked body,” she explained.

If she could get her hands on them, she said, they would possess a dancer’s body and movements.

(Published in The Star on Oct 22, 2006)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Politicians without a cause


Ten minutes into an interview at the posh Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok, Suranand Vejjajiva, who lost his job as Prime Minister’s Office Minister three weeks ago, stood up and walked towards a politician.

Returning to the table, the boyish-looking 45-year-old politician said “he was Minister of Health (Pinij Charusombat).”

“These are all the unemployed ministers who are walking around in hotels,” said Suranand, laughing.

“There was a joke someone told me yesterday, ‘You can meet all the unemployed ministers in departmental stores. They just walk around.’”

Turning serious, he said, “You can’t do political work because they have not lifted martial law.”

Martial law, which was imposed immediately after the military toppled Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government on Sept 19, meant that political activities were prohibited.

“As a politician, I would like to be able to present my views. But under martial law, I have to think: Should I say this? Should I say that? Should I give an interview to you?” related Suranand.

Last week, the media-friendly former TRT spokesman declined an interview request as “the Prime Minister (post) and Cabinet (posts) were not settled.”

Suranand is settling into life after the coup.

“I know that I cannot be a minister or MP all the time. It is not a permanent job,” explained the son of Nissai Vejjajiva, the former Thai ambassador to Malaysia.

“So once the job ends – although by a coup and that is sad – there is a new beginning. There will be elections and I’m sure I can put myself in good public use again.”

Now he has quality time for his family and reading.

“I don’t know if there is any wife who will be happy that her husband is unemployed, but my wife is,” he said, laughing. “She says I should take a rest.”

Suranand, who quit TRT on Oct 2, will be taking a break from politics for the next two months. It will also be a time for him to reflect on his political experience in the last eight years. Then he will decide what to do next, politically.

In the meantime, he has a few things lined up. Write a book on his political experience. Write another book on public broadcasting. Write articles for newspapers. And do public work.

He is also thinking about talking to his former colleagues on what to do next.

“Do we go back and rebuild TRT? Or do we set up another political party?” he said, adding that these questions would be answered next year.

So what are his former Cabinet colleagues doing?

“I talked to a couple of ministers and they are doing the same thing as I am – re-arranging our (furniture at) home,” he said. “Mostly we say ‘We take a rest now but if you do anything, just give me a ring and let’s have lunch (discussion).”

Some of Thaksin’s former ministers are depressed and feel that the coup is not justified.

Suranand has advised them, saying: “That’s life. I don’t agree with the coup but it has happened. And for the sake of the country, we have to move on.”

Some of them are also worried as there have been rumours that the interim government would go through their assets and take action if there are irregularities.

But Suranand is not worried. “When you see my assets you will be laughing. Probably I am the poorest minister in (Thaksin’s) Cabinet,” he said.

Since the coup, Suranand has not spoken to former Prime Minister Thaksin, who is in London.

“I don’t want to bother him. Let him take a rest. But I do pass messages and words of encouragement through (the former prime minister’s secretary-general) Promin Lertsuridej,” he said.

The feedback he has received from London is that Thaksin is relaxing.

“He was in a fighting mode at the beginning of the coup. But now, like what is taught in Buddhism, he can let go. Thaksin wants everything to be on track so that everyone goes back to democracy and the country can move forward,” he said.

At the end of the 50-minute interview, Suranand said he was staying put at the hotel.

“I’m meeting up with the former Health Minister. He’s still around the hotel. He’s walking with his daughter,” he said with a boyish smile.

(Published in The Star on Oct 15, 2006. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Young bride, old groom


The girl in the deckchair was one of the prettiest of Thai girls, young and fresh. Her companion, in his sixties, was powerfully built with greying hair across his chest and back and was wearing tight Lycra swimming shorts.

It was beauty and the beast.

That’s the observation of Ben Farnsworth, the 20-something protagonist in the novel, Thai Girl.

A “young and fresh” Thai girl clinging to a “short, dumpy and almost bald” white man is a common sight in Thailand. Thais call the men tao hua ngoo, which means “old nasty man with a snake on his head”.

What goes through the mind of Andrew Hicks, the author of Thai Girl, when he sees these oxymoronic couples?

“It is often looks awful and obnoxious,” he says. “The ugly sex tourist is a fact.”

Is it fair to say that back home no woman (except their mother) wants these men?

“It is often true,” says Hicks.


“Maybe because they are fat and ugly,” he says.

Then why are they so desired in Thailand?

“The girls are prepared to tolerate an older farang because of his money,” he says.

Before querying the 60-year-old Englishman who is married to a Thai woman half his age, I cushioned some of my questions with “this is not referring to you”. I was sincere, as Hicks is not “short, dumpy and almost bald”.

The tall and trim man can pass for a dignified John Major, the former British prime minister. Hicks, a former London corporate lawyer and National University of Singapore law lecturer, has authored law books such as The Company Law of Malaysia.

Why do young Thai girls marry an old farang (Thai for westerner)?

“Strangely,” he explains, “they can give each other the same thing although they are offering each other something different. Fundamentally, they are giving each other a new life.”

New opportunities open up for a young Thai farmer’s daughter, who has limited prospects, when she marries a farang. And the marriage offers a farang a completely new life.

“I’m divorced, retired and have very little left to do in my life and marrying my Thai wife gives me the whole of her country. I’m no longer an outsider,” says Hicks, who since 1977 has travelled throughout Thailand, jotting down his observations of the interaction between Thais and foreigners.

Their marriage provides the opportunity for his wife, who is a rice farmer's daughter, the opportunity to live between London and Ban Mahachai, her village in Thailand.

But bringing home a Thai wife has a “slight implication”.

“The sad thing in England is when I say I’m married to a Thai, there is a slight implication that I must have met her in a bar, that she must be a prostitute,” he relates.

For the record, three years ago, he met his wife Cat while she was working in a restaurant in Phuket.

The stereotype is unavoidable.

“Sadly, Thailand has earned its sex tourism reputation,” says Hicks, who runs

“From the Vietnam War onwards, Patpong, Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboys and Sukhumvit have been major attractions for sex tourists.”

The traditional Thai girl is the opposite of a go go dancer, however.

“She will return home before dark to look after mama and papa and she is not allowed to see boys,” Hicks says, relating his observations of life in Ban Mahachai, a village near where he lives in Isaan, the arid north-east region.

However, some of the girls are driven into prostitution because of their fear of poverty.

Typically, in Isaan, which is about an eight-hour bus ride from Bangkok, villagers own a small padi field that produces enough rice to sustain them for a year.

“Other than one or two calves, they’ve got nothing else to sell. They hope their children can leave the village to earn money so that they can send home 500 baht (RM50) a month. That (RM50) is what they live on (for a month),” he says.

The young woman faces the terror of letting her parents down. “She will do anything to make sure her parents don’t go hungry,” he says.

Publishing his observations of life in Ban Mahachai is what’s next for the writer. Hicks’ non-fiction book will be titled, My Thai and I.

(Published in The Star on Oct 8, 2006)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The coup that was no secret

Thai Takes

The general’s son knew two days beforehand that there would be a coup d’etat against the Thai prime minister.

So when his friends invited him to accompany his father Prime Minister General Chatichai Choonhavan to Chiang Mai, Kraisak Choonhavan decided to stay at home in Bangkok.

On the morning of Feb 23, 1991, Kraisak told his friends Surakiart Sathirathai and Bovornsak Uwanno that they would not be safe.

“You will be near my father and they may arrest him today or tomorrow,” he recalled telling Surakiart, who is currently favourite in the race for the UN secretary-general’s post.

But his friends thought the military wouldn’t dare make such a move, as King Bhumibol Adulyadej had invited the prime minister for an audience in the northern city.

“I was not as confident as they were,” he recalled, laughing.

At about 10am, a phone call informed Kraisak that the prime minister and top officials including Surakiart and Bovornsak had been detained before their C-130 military plane had taken off at the Don Muang airport in Bangkok.

Though Chatichai had intelligence that a power grab was in play, the premier decided to allow it to happen.

“My father’s past experience taught him that when the entire army wanted to take over there was nothing much you could do,” he explained.

“That was what happened in 1947 when my grandfather launched a coup.”

Two months after Kraisak was born, his grandfather Lt-Gen Pin Choonhavan on Nov 8, 1947, led a coup that brought Field Marshal Phibulsongkhram to power. Pin was also involved in several coups in the 1940s and 1950s.

Kraisak had to live with his grandfather’s legacy. When he returned to Thailand after living abroad for 28 years, he “was not considered an acceptable person among the Thai intellectual circle”.

He found himself completely isolated because of his name – Choonhavan.

The coup of 1947 had a very negative impact among Thai intellectuals as his grandfather had overthrown one of Thailand’s most progressive prime ministers, Pridi Banomyong, who had paved the way for constitutional democracy in Thailand.

But Kraisak was determined to be part of the intelligentsia. A University of London master’s degree holder in political science, he found a lecturing job at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

After 10 years, he regained respect, becoming a “Marxist, neo-Marxist, humanist-Marxist, communist, intellectual, artist, even philanderer” as an Aug 19, 1988, newspaper article labelled him.

Two weeks before the article was published, Chatichai emerged as Thailand’s first elected MP to become prime minister. Three years later, on grounds of alleged corruption, the military ousted him.

During the coup, Kraisak did not fear for his father’s safety. He was confident the coup makers would not kill a prime minister who had been democratically elected.

“The coup makers were people Chatichai promoted and they knew each other personally. In fact, the circle of power in Thailand is very small,” he said.

Kraisak was right. The coup was as smooth as Thai silk without even a single bullet fired.

When he received news that the military had seized political power, he was “a bit relieved that it was all over”.

“I never really liked being the prime minister’s son. People who lobbied for positions or wanted projects gave you such importance. And I felt I did not deserve the privileges bombarded at me. I even felt embarrassed,” he explained.

The trappings of power went against Kraisak’s lifestyle. He preferred a more relaxed life with the Bangkok intellectual circle.

“I enjoy being critical of power rather than exercising or influencing it,” he said.

But he admitted that during his father’s reign, he enjoyed his role in installing peace in Cambodia.

Does the man, whose family history is pockmarked with coups, support the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra?

It was inevitable, said the outspoken 59-year-old Kraisak who was a senator before the fall of Thaksin’s government. “If the military did not act fast, Thaksin would have thrown a coup.

Thaksin would have declared Thailand under emergency law as he has done (previously) in five provinces in the south.”

He characterised the military takeover of the Thaksin government as “one step back, two steps forward”.

“This is the first coup where I don’t have to watch my back,” he added.

(Published in The Star on Sept 24, 2006 and AsiaNews. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Chance for a new beginning

Thai Takes

The Thai prime minister stepped into a C-130 military plane. The aircraft began taxiing but it suddenly halted.

Inside the plane, men in safari suits swung into action, whipping out their pistols and holding the premier's security guards at gunpoint.

There was no resistance and the prime minister sat still.

“I did not expect this to happen to our country again,” the prime minister's adviser said when it became clear the military had seized power.

The year was 1991 and the prime minister was Gen Chatichai Choonhavan.

Fast forward 15 years and Thais are again amidst a rattabarahan (Thai for government killed). It is Thailand's 18th coup d'etat since 1932, the year Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

Like the Chatichai putsch and most coups in Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra's ouster was bloodless – Thai-style.

“It is a happy coup,” said a 50-something Thai feminist joyously as smiling soldiers armed with assault rifles stood close by.

The tanks rolled into the capital and overthrew a democratically-elected government and most Thais were happy. Some Bangkokians took photographs with the soldiers while others handed yellow roses to them.

It was as if a rattabarahan was a way of life in Thailand.

No, said Surin Pitsuwan, Democrat party deputy leader and former foreign minister. “It is not a desirable thing,” he said.

The majority of the people, Surin said, did not accept it as a normal political action “but only in an extreme case like this.”

“I'm not rationalising or defending the coup, but I can well understand the reason it happened,” he said.

The Thaksin government, reasoned Surin, had corrupted and manipulated the checks and balances mechanism, parliament and the constitution, leaving the military with no choice but to overthrow it.

“I approve this coup completely ? for the moment,” said Asda Jayanama, who was the permanent representative of Thailand to the United Nations from 1996 to 2001.

Echoing Surin's view, he said Thaksin, during his five years in power, had corrupted democracy in Thailand.

“In substance Thaksin was a dictator who hid behind a façade of democracy,” he added.

Asked how the world perceived the coup, Asda said: “The outside world's view is simplistic. Because they identify democracy as anyone who comes to power through elections.

“But they never thought that an election can be impure. They never thought that democracy can be bought by politicians,” he added.

Among the minority who oppose the coup was a 25-year old political science graduate who requested anonymity.

“There is a major distinction between democratic progress and ousting Thaksin by coup d'etat. Apparently, many people equate the two and I don't,” she said.

She was not sure how the coup could give a genuine long-term solution to address the fundamental political problems of her country.

“Many don't see (or chose not to see) the power distribution among the vested interest groups, particularly among the Thai elite and the middle class,” she argued.

“Well-educated Bangkokians would rather ignore the lower class because they think poor people are dumb.”

However, Asda was optimistic about the coup.

“Some say that this coup has destroyed democracy in Thailand. But what it has done is destroy the democracy that Thaksin had championed,” he explained.

“The democracy we are trying to advocate – and we hope this government will follow it – is where there's good governance and more people participation,” he explained.

The coup, Surin said, was an opportunity for a new beginning. “I hope the new constitution will solve the loopholes and weaknesses of the old constitution,” he said.

On why Thailand had a history of coups, the former foreign minister said this was because previously there was a conflict of interest among factions in the military.

“But that's in the past. In this coup the military took action to save democracy,” he said.

Thailand, Asda added, had had several coups because since 1932 the military had played a leading role in the country's power structure.

Would there be further military takeover in the Land of Coups?

Asda hoped not. “If the present coup leaders do their job well such as ensuring independent bodies – election committee, anti-corruption committee and human rights committee – cannot be bought,” he said.

“With more maturity in Thailand's democracy, it (a coup) will be difficult.”

Hopefully, if not history could repeat itself.

(Published in The Star on Sept 24, 2006)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A struggle to speak English right

Thai Takes

In Thailand, The Lord of the Rings is the rord of the lings.

Thais mix their “L” and “R”, according to Christopher Wright, a 29-year-old British-Thai who wrote two pocketbooks in Thai, Farang Kao Jai, Kon Thai Get Part I and II (English That Foreigners Understand and Thais Know How To Use).

Bad pronunciation is one of the problems Thais have with speaking English, notes Wright.

For example, when a Thai says, “I want to pray at the temple,” he doesn’t pronounce the “R” and it comes out as “pay”. Or he says it with an “L” and it becomes “play”.

Why the mix-up? “This is – and most foreigners do not know about this – because when Thais speak Thai, they make a lot of mistakes in their pronunciation,” he explains.

“In Thai culture, we are sa baay sa baay (happy) and mai bpen rai (it does not matter) in our pronunciation. But in English, the ‘L’ is an ‘L’ and the ‘R’ is an ‘R’.”

The other letter that Thais have difficulty with is “X”. And the mispronunciation is one of Wright’s favourite “X” jokes. Well, it is about a salesman and the word “fax”. And it rhymes with “duck.”

Mispronunciation or not, English is big business in Thailand.

Even the government has got into the act. Last month, the Cabinet approved a baht 2 billion (RM200mil) budget for a four-year project to upgrade the English competency among the Thai people to an international level.

In cosmopolitan Bangkok, where about 10% of its six million population speak fluent English, Bangkokians are finding that loosening their tongue to English translates to a better salary.

“I want to learn English because the multi-national companies pay twice more than local companies. But they want Thais who can speak English,” explains Supitch Buaseng.

The 27-year-old building manager plans to attend a baht 2,600 (RM260) six-lesson English course.

There’s a possibility his teacher may be Hannibal Lecter.

In the wake of last month’s arrest of John Mark Karr, a suspect in the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, an American child beauty queen, the Education Ministry offered to compile a list of foreigners suspected of committing crimes against children.

Why? Because Karr slipped into the education system and taught English for two weeks at one of Bangkok’s most prestigious elementary schools before he was rejected for being too strict.

The Nation reported that some language schools were so desperate to acquire foreign teachers that they didn’t bother with any detailed checking.

That comes to no surprise to Wright. “There is a lot of weird or sleazy farangs (Westerners) teaching English in Thailand,” he says. “Anyone with blond hair who wears a suit can get a job teaching English.”

Surprisingly, a few years ago when the Mahidol International University business administration graduate applied for a English teaching job in several schools in Bangkok, he was told that they only hired native speakers.

“I told them I’m a native speaker as English is my first language. But they told me that they did not want Thai parents to think they were hiring Asian teachers,” recalls the bilingual Wright, whose father is British and mother is Thai.

In Thailand, he adds, it is all about image. When it was pointed out that he looked pan-Asian, Wright says, “I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes.”

However, he prevailed and managed to teach English at schools and universities in Bangkok. With enough experience teaching Thais to learn and speak English, he wrote two pocketbooks in Thai.

The books are about Thai people’s problems with English. “My books answer a question most Thais and farangs love to ask, ‘Why can’t Thais speak English after all their years of learning it in school and at college?’” he says.

The number one reason is that Thais view English only as a subject. “They study it for an exam. They don’t immerse themselves in English. For example, they watch a Hollywood movie with Thai subtitles,” he says.

Next month, his own English school Wright English Club will open in Bangkok. He will teach Thais to speak English, the Wright way.

Or as some Thais (and Malaysian Chinese) will say, “the light way”.

(Published in The Star on Sept 17, 2006)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Yellow's still the in-colour

Thai Takes

Yellow is the new black in Thailand. The fashion statement of the year for Thais are yellow t-shirts bearing the royal emblem of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In June, during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s ascension to the throne, Bangkok was a sea of yellow t-shirts. Rama IX, who was born on Dec 5, 1927, in Massachusetts, the United States, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch.

To the uninitiated, it must be yellow because it is associated with royalty. Wrong. If the king was born on a Sunday, it would have been red. If Tuesday, pink. It is yellow because he was born on Monday, which is traditionally marked by the colour.

Two months after the diamond jubilee celebration, Thais are still feverish over the yellow t-shirt, especially on Mondays. Even fashionable Thai women wear it. Tight.

This week, Natalie Glebova, the Canadian who was crowned Miss Universe 2005 in Bangkok, was photographed wearing a yellow t-shirt and a yellow Rao Rak Nai Luang (We Love the King) wristband in a newspaper article on her role as a brand ambassador for Singha products.

Why is it still in vogue? Supanee Chantasasawat, a 38-year-old sales and marketing director, wears yellow to show her appreciation of her king.

“A man of his status can choose not to be a king of a poor country but to live a private life as a prince in Switzerland where he grew up. But he chose to be a king with a burden on his shoulders,” she explains.

Everyone in her office wears yellow on Monday and Friday. The trend started, she recalls, when the government urged the people to wear it before the diamond jubilee celebration on June 8.

Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, who co-authored authoritative books on Thailand, among them Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, agree that Thais are wearing yellow as a way of showing their regard to the King.

But there is also a political undercurrent in the yellow fever sweeping the country. “Those demonstrating against (Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra) have urged the people to wear yellow shirts,” Baker says.

This is in reference to Thaksin’s “yellow peril” early this year when anti-Thaksin factions encouraged protesters to wear or carry something yellow when they gathered outside the royal palace to demand the prime minister’s resignation.

In a year dubbed “The Year of Non-government” as Thailand has not had a sitting Parliament since February when Thaksin called for elections, some Thais are seeking royal intervention.

“Some people believe the King can act as a stabilising force when politics becomes too conflictual. They believe the king acted in this way in 1973 when students opposed the military, and in 1992 when broad-based street demonstrations challenged the military,” explains Baker.

The yellow t-shirts represent the people’s support, adulation and loyalty to King Bhumibol, says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.

However, he notes that the yellow t-shirts have political ramifications as they show the king has the people’s support.

“The yellow t-shirts come at a time when the country has a prolonged political crisis, so they are seen as an informal reserved power for the king,” he says.

The t-shirts, he adds, are reminders to Thaksin that his authoritarian rule and abuse of power can be checked.

But Thaksin, too, wears yellow under his jacket?

“He has been accused of being disloyal to the king so he has to been seen as supportive of the yellow fever,” Thitinan says.

Not all Thais identify a political message behind the yellow t-shirt.

“They wear yellow because they love the king and they also like Thaksin,” he explains. “That is the essence of the crisis. Many people have divided loyalties.”

Soimart Rungmanee, 26, sports yellow without any political undertone. On Mondays, Soimart wears yellow and it’s sometimes blue on Friday.

The colour for August was blue. As Thais celebrated Queen Sirikit’s birthday on Aug 12, which is also Mother’s Day, blue t-shirts bearing her royal emblem became a fad. It represents Friday, the day she was born.

Perhaps, the next yellow in Thailand is blue.

(Published in The Star on Sept 10, 2006. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)