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)