Saturday, December 29, 2007

Haggling to form government has begun


WHO is bluffing? People Power Party (PPP) secretary-general Surapong Suebwonglee who said three parties have agreed to join the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra party in forming a coalition government or Democrat Party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban who says he does not believe the PPP has already recruited several allies to form a government.

Worapol Promigabutr, Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology, believes Suthep is the one bluffing.

“People like Surapong would not call a bluff in public. His statement is real,” said the 50-year-old sociologist, adding “in Thai politics, Suthep is known to bluff”.

In post-election Thailand, bluffing is the name of the game as the two main political parties – PPP (with 233 MPs in the 480-seat parliament) and Democrat Party (165) – woo Chart Thai Party (37), Puea Pandin (24), Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana (nine), Matchima Thipataya (seven) and Prachaj (five) to a multi-partner marriage.

So far, depending on who is not bluffing, the three smaller parties – Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana, Matchima Thipataya and Prachaj – have accepted the PPP’s proposal.

However, there are several potential landmines ahead of the Samak Sundaravej-led PPP as his party steps to the altar.

Will the junta, who ousted Thaksin 15 months ago, intervene? How many PPP MP-elect will the Election Commission (EC) disqualify? Will there be chaos in the form of massive anti-Thaksin rallies against the birth of a PPP-led coalition government?

These questions are valid to Worapol.

There is a faction in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that is itching to launch another mass movement against Thaksin. Behind the scenes, there are powerful people who are lobbying the EC to drastically reduce the number of seats the PPP won. There are elements in the military that are uneasy with the election result.

But the academician contends that there is a consensus among non-political powers such as the military, business circle and NGOs to allow the PPP to form the next coalition government.

“This current equation (233 seats) will give the PPP the government. But also crucial is consensus from these groups,” he explained.

The military is on neutral gear as it is divided into two factions – the coup leaders and commanders who have evaluated the situation and have decided to remain impartial.

“Two days after the election results were announced, we have not observed any extraordinary movement from the army,” said Worapol.

Most factions in the Thai business circle will not oppose a PPP-led coalition government although some businessmen had convinced the army to launch last year’s Sept 19 coup.

“After 15 months of a military-installed government, the private sector has come to a conclusion that coup leaders such as General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin have limited experience in a globalised world,” said the sociologist.

As for the predicted post-election chaos, there was none as anti-Thaksin groups were unable to mobilise their supporters. The financial support from the business circle is not flowing into these groups.

As for the pre-election concerns that the PPP will be banned, Worapol said that scenario is “now near impossible to happen”.

“The EC has announced that in general the election has been free and fair,” he said, adding “the announcement signals that there is some kind of agreement behind the scenes”.

The academician does not see any drastic disqualification of PPP candidates. So far the EC has announced three “yellow cards” to disqualify three of the party’s MP-elects in Nakhon Ratchasima allegedly for vote buying.

“They will win the seats again,” he predicts, “as their seats are located in the Thaksin heartland in the northeast.”

(According to EC regulations, elected candidates given yellow cards could re-contest in a by-election scheduled on Jan 13.)

On Jan 4, a day after the EC finalises its investigations on electoral fraud, the PPP will provide details on its coalition government. And Worapol won’t be surprised if the coalition government included Chart Thai Party or Puea Pandin.

Nevertheless, the academician said that it was too early to conclude that the Democrat Party will be the sole opposition party.

Certain powerful elements will want either Chart Thai Party or Puea Pandin to join the Democrat Party to balance the power of a PPP-led coalition government.

(Published in The Star on Dec 29, 2007)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Chaos before calm can reign

Thai Takes

TOMORROW, Worapol Promigabutr, a 50-year-old Thai academician, will mark an “X” against the number 12, the party list ballot paper for Zone 6.

Twelve is the number drawn by Samak Sundaravej, the leader of the People Power Party (PPP), on Nov 14 during the lot drawings for party-list candidacy.

With the ‘X’ against 12, Warapol is voting for the PPP in the zone consisting of Bangkok, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan.

For the constituency seat, he can vote for three MPs to represent him in Bangkok constituency 1 (or is it constituency 2? It is all too confusing for him with the recent realignment of constituencies). “I don’t remember their number or name but I will vote for anyone with the PPP,” declares the associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

To Worapol, it is not who he will vote for but what he is voting against that is more important. He is backing the PPP, which has promised to bring back self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, because he opposes the coup that ousted the former prime minister on Sept 19 last year.

“I have to tell myself again that I believe in democracy and not in coups. We cannot allow a small number of people to steal sovereignty from the people through the barrel of a gun,” he declares.

His decision, he clarifies, is not based on a personal bias against any political leader.

“Personally, I know many people in almost every political party. For example, Abhisit (Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party) and I have worked together previously.”

The Democrat Party will not get his vote because he believes a clique within the party is linked to the coup makers.

How will Thais vote tomorrow? There are about 45 million eligible voters.

Most of the votes in the country’s north and northeast regions will go to the PPP, which is a pro-Thaksin party.

“The people from these two regions are poor by Bangkok standards. And they are impressed with the Thai Rak Thai (Thaksin’s disbanded party and the predecessor of the PPP) because in the party’s five years in power its policies have helped them,” explains the academician.

In Bangkok, Worapol believes the Democrats will not win as many seats as it expects. Some sections of the middle class, he observes, have grown unhappy over the coup as, on a micro level, the Thai economy is not as good as what the military-installed interim government is propagating.

“Many are saying that if they do get a one-month bonus, they would still be happy. They are trying to downplay their expectations. These middle class voters will be in a confused state on Sunday,” he says, adding that most of the Thai capital’s working class are partial to the PPP.

The south will remain the Democrat Party’s stronghold. “Through the process of socialisation, southerners will not vote for another party,” explains the sociologist.

Worapol predicts the PPP to win most of the 480 seats up for grabs – 400 MPs to represent Thailand’s 76 provinces and 80 party-list MPs).

But whether the PPP will form the next government will depend on the expected horse-trading between political parties in what is seen as an inconclusive polls. And there are many likely scenarios.

“Any party that can get Banharn Silpa-archa (the leader of Chart Thai Party) can be in a secure position for at least a year. But Banharn will ask for more and more,” he figures.

Worapol isn’t sure why Abhisit is so confident his party will team up with Banharn’s Chart Thai Party to form the next government. “Abhisit’s terms (that he becomes prime minister) will not be to Banharn’s interest,” he notes.

The possibility of a coup in case the PPP forms the next government is slim, according to Worapol. “Right now there are different factions within the military. The clique of coup makers has gotten smaller and less powerful,” he says.

However, the academician thinks that before the prime minister is named in parliament, chaos will rein.

Whatever the outcome, Worapol hopes future coup makers will learn that they cannot move Thailand back to the Cold War era.

(Published in The Star on Dec 22, 2007)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Banker fights vote buying


THE luxurious jet-black SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) looked out of place in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s biggest slum. So did its occupant Korn Chatikavanij, the former head of JP Morgan Securities (Thailand).

But Korn is a familiar face as his campaign posters are all over the slum. And as the chief architect of the Democrat Party’s economic policies, the 43-year-old politician is a regular feature in the Thai media.

Asked why a former investment banker was contesting in a slum area, he explained that the new constitution lumped Klong Toey and some other districts into his original constituency, which included Sathorn, Bangkok’s financial district.

Korn acknowledges that his background as a financial wizard may not attract the voters of Klong Toey (which represents one-fifth of the constituency seat he is contesting), as it is Bangkok’s “dirtiest” district.

“The bulk of its population are slum dwellers, who are susceptible to buying and selling of votes,” said the Democrat Party deputy secretary general, who quit JP Morgan in October 2004 to run and win Bangkok Constituency 7 (Yannawa-Sathorn) in the February 2005 Thai polls.

Nevertheless, he is hoping the voters will find his long-term economic vision to improve the slum more enticing than short-term monetary inducement.

Even if his opponents succeeded in buying votes in Klong Toey, Korn is confident of winning Bangkok Constituency 2 (Yannawa-Sathorn-Bang Kor Laem-Klong Toey and Wattana) seat as “clean votes” from the other four districts would dilute “bought votes.”

Vote buying, according to Korn, has become more sophisticated, compared with the old days where cash was dished out the night before the polls.

Now they do it in all kinds of ways, he notes.

“For example, in the slum communities there is a lot of unofficial money lending, as the people don’t have sufficient credit worthiness to access loans through the formal financial system,” he explained.

“So loan sharks typically become canvassers for political parties.

“And all they need to do is waive a month's interest so no cash changes hand (making the transaction untraceable).”

The canvassers can find out whether “bought votes” have been delivered as ballot counting is conducted at individual polling station (representing about 700 voters).

Asked whether the Democrat Party engages in vote buying, the straight talking Korn responded with an emphatic no.

“I should caveat that by saying we make it clear that if we or the election commission find evidence of vote buying by our candidates, they will not have any support from us.”

Asked on the difference between campaigning in 2005 when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in power and now with Thaksin in self-exile after last year’s Sept 19 coup, Korn said there was not much difference as the People Power Party (PPP is the re-incarnation of Thaksin’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai) has succeeded in keeping Thaksin’s name in the forefront and Samak Sundaravej's (PPP leader) on the radar screen.

“If it were a choice of between Abhisit Vejjajiva (Democrat Party leader) and Samak for prime minister, we would win hands down. But for most Bangkokians and northeasterners the issue is still Abhisit versus Thaksin, which is a harder fight,” he explains.

Reminded that he was tipped to be the next finance minister, and asked if he was excited about the prospect, Korn replied: “Not really, to be honest.”

And then he quickly added: ‘If the party does get to form the next government, and I am entrusted with (the post) .... those are two big ifs.

“There is really no honeymoon period for Thailand,” he continued.

“We have a lot to do. We need to win back the confidence of international and domestic investors and the business community.

“And that means sending the right signals over issues which have caused confusion.

“For example, the move towards capital control by the Bank of Thailand and the move towards amendment of the alien business law by the current government. We think neither benefited the Thai economy.”

If the Democrat Party forms the next coalition government, some Thais are salivating at the prospect of Thailand being led by the dream team of Korn and 43-year-old Abhisit, who is his childhood friend and Oxford classmate.

Abhisit and Korn – the party’s “new generation” - will not look out of place among world leaders.

(Published in The Star on Dec 15, 2007)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Stumbling to the polls

THIS week Thai newspaper cartoonists had a field day lampooning Prachai Leophairatana, who is bumbling in the race to be Thailand’s next prime minister.

On Wednesday, a Bangkok Post editorial cartoon showed a man resembling Prachai tumbling over a hurdle (marked “share price manipulation”) that was in front of another hurdle (marked “Dec 23 Election”).

On Thursday, The Nation’s Stephff drew Prachai stumbling inside a giant shoeprint with the caption: “Following in Thaksin’s Footsteps (with less political talent)”.

It was indeed a humbling week for the petrochemical tycoon.

On Monday, the Criminal Court sentenced the founder of TPI Polene to three years in jail after finding him guilty of stock manipulation.

Nevertheless, his fleeting political career was not in jeopardy as he could still contest the polls pending appeal.

The following day, Prachai dropped a bombshell. He announced his resignation as the leader of Matchima Thipataya Party (Middle Path Party), his withdrawal as a candidate in the Dec 23 Thai polls and his retirement from politics.

However, Prachai, who is on bail, made a U-turn hours after the announcement. In a second press conference, he announced that he would reconsider his decision.

And on Thursday, the 64-year-old novice politician announced that he would lead Matchima Thipataya, a minor political party, in the forthcoming elections.

“All party members have given their moral support to my leadership, hence I will continue to serve them,” he told the media.

Why the flip-flop?

“Yes, he resigned on Tuesday. But many people did not want him to resign,” explains Narong Piriya-anek, a Matchima Thipataya Party spokesperson, in a phone interview on Thursday.

“If he did not remain as party leader, many of our candidates contesting in the elections would lose.

“If he resigns, millions of posters and leaflets with Prachai’s photograph would have to come down and we don’t have time to adjust (to print alternative posters and leaflets) as we only have 18 days before the elections.”

Narong also revealed that Prachai changed his mind because “he is the only party leader who can bring prosperity to Thailand”.

But how about his resignation on Tuesday?

Narong the spin-doctor explained that Prachai made the decision because he did not want to “hurt the party”, and adding: “Not many leaders would dare make such a bold decision (to resign).”

Prachai, who is Thailand’s biggest corporate debt defaulter (in excess of 150 billion baht or RM16bil) during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, is a newcomer to politics.

When the businessman decided to cut his teeth in politics in September, the Thai media compared him to his archenemy Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Both Thaksin and Prachai had made personal fortunes as business tycoons and were not averse to spending huge amounts of money to create new political parties to serve as their vehicles to high political office,” The Nation editorialised on Wednesday.

“They did so by the use of patronage and the power of the purse string to lure incumbent MPs or veteran politicians that stand a good chance of winning in elections into their new parties – which became political forces overnight.”

But that is where the similarities end. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide in the 2001 elections, making him prime minister in his first attempt. Prachai, however, is leading a party with the potential to implode anytime.

Last week, for example, Prachai threatened to dissolve the party, which he took over on Nov 11, instead of paying 60 million baht (RM6.6 million) he claimed was being extorted from him in exchange of updating Matchima Thipataya’s records to reflect leadership change.

The extortion claim was one of the many troubles afflicting Prachai who was described as “just a kindergarten student in politics” by his former political bedfellow Snoh Thienthong (the leader of Pracharaj, a minor political party).

Is Prachai politically naive? “He is not a politician. He is a businessman who doesn’t understand the behaviour of Thai politicians, who are very difficult to deal with,” explains Narong.

Asked whether the fumbling politician had a chance of winning an MP's seat, Narong said: “One hundred per cent.”

However, especially since his conviction, Prachai’s prospect of becoming an MP is fast crumbling.

(Published in The Star on Dec 8, 2007)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bangkok turns yellow to honour the unifying force


ON THE morning of June 9, 1946, Rama VIII was found dead with a single gunshot to the forehead. With the mysterious death of 20-year-old King Ananda, his 18-year-old brother ascended the Chakri throne to become Rama IX.

Rama IX was born on Dec 5, 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts, making him the only king ever to be born in the United States. He was named Bhumibol Adulyadej, which means ‘Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power’, by his uncle, Rama VII (King Prajadhipok).

King Prajadhipok was the half brother of Bhumibol’s father, Prince Mahidol, who was the 69th son of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

Starting today, most Thais will be adorned in yellow (the colour which symbolises Monday, the day he was born) to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on Wednesday.

The king, who is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is a revered figure in Thailand.
Proof of his subjects’ veneration is in the photographs of King Bhumibol put up at almost all homes in the kingdom.

On a recent trip to an Akha (a hilltribe) village in Chiang Rai, which borders Myanmar and Laos, it was amazing to see snapshots of King Bhumibol snipped from newspapers and magazines adorning the walls of the bamboo huts.

Amazing, as the villagers were granted Thai citizenship only in the last few years, after a stateless existence in the golden triangle (an area encompassing Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, which used to be the world’s largest producer of opium).

“He is my king,” Ake Chume, a 50-year-old Akha man, declared when I asked about the photographs. Playing the devil’s advocate, I asked: “But what has he done for you?”

“My king’s royal project has helped me,” he explained.

It is easy to speak to rural folks like Ake about their adoration for their king.

But when it comes to some Bangkokians, the royal subject turns into a hushed whisper of coded conversation.

Take the example of my chat with an American-educated 20-something Thai who insisted we used a “nickname” to refer to her king as she was afraid the breakfast crowd in the trendy Sukhumvit cafe would know who we were whispering about.

Even Thai academics are hesitant to discuss their king in public.

For instance, at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), Thongchai Winichakul, who is the most feted modern Thai historian, spoke intriguingly about how Prince Vajiravudh (Rama VI) succeeded his father, King Chulalongkorn.

The US-based historian, however, politely told the audience that he would not discuss the hottest topic revolving the current monarchy – the succession.

“We are in the penthouse of the FCCT but we are still on Thai soil,” he said on the night of Nov 20. Later he explained that lese majeste (a French expression which means ‘insulting the monarchy’) hung over the head of academics and journalists who were critical of the royal family.

Nevertheless, Thongchai, a former student leader who was detained for two years after the bloody Oct 6, 1976, military crackdown on students, acknowledged that there were Thai thinkers such as Sulak Sivarak who have not filtered their views on the monarchy.

A few days before last year’s Sept 19 coup, I had a filtered conversation with a respected Thai historian who I was meeting for the first time. Amazed that the Thai capital turned yellow on Mondays, I asked him why Thais adored King Bhumibol.

In polarised Thailand, he explained, the king is a unifying force. Using history, he gave an example on how the king unified his kingdom during one of its most polarised periods.

On May 18, 1992, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a coup leader who had just appointed himself prime minister, ordered his men to shoot at demonstrators led by opposition politician Chamlong Srimuang, killing and injuring hundreds.

Two days later, as Thailand descended into chaos, a 9.30pm television broadcast showed Suchinda and Chamlong kneeling in front of King Bhumibol who scolded the two. Within hours of the royal scolding, the soldiers returned to their barracks, and the demonstrators to their homes.

This vision, the academic noted, bolstered the image of the King Bhumibol, who at the last count has reigned over 17 Thai constitutions, 18 coups and 24 prime ministers.

(Published in The Star on Dec 1, 2007)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Granny showgirl makes comeback


IN THE intense campaigning for the Thai polls on Dec 23, what’s a sensible question to ask a 52-year-old Tiger Show performer who recently came out of retirement?

Do you want Thaksin Shinawatra back as prime minister? I asked Krissana Makrasa, who in the past two weeks has performed tricks (such as opening Coca-Cola bottles with the most delicate part of her body) in a go-go bar at Bangkok’s Nana Entertainment Plaza.

“No, because he does not like Tiger Show. I support those who support my job,” the granny revealed last Sunday in a cafe along Sukhumvit road that is teeming with campaign posters of smiling candidates vying to be a Member of Parliament.

Krissana is referring to the social order campaign then prime minister Thaksin launched in 2001 to clean up Thailand’s risque image. As a consequence, the Tiger Show – which Urban Dictionary defines as “in Thailand, a special sex show involving a number of acrobatic displays” – became virtually extinct.

When army tanks rumbled into the Thai capital on Sept 19 last year to oust Thaksin, Krissana didn’t grumble as she hoped the coup would herald change. That year her life crumbled after her 34-year-old English boyfriend of 16 years left her.

“I was hoping to return to my former job as there was nobody to take care of me financially. And I have a big responsibility to provide for my family (her 27-year-old daughter and six-year-old grandson),” she recalls.

In the early 1980s, after divorcing her Thai husband, whom she labelled as a “butterfly”, Krissana journeyed 56km from her home province of Nakhon Pathom to unfamiliar Bangkok to seek a better life.

“At that time I was as naive as a scarecrow,” she recollects.

In Patpong, Bangkok’s then infamous red-light district, she found a job performing gymnastics and ballet in the nude.

“I was embarrassed, but the money was good,” recalls Krissana, who as young girl taught herself ballet and gymnastics from watching television.

The top earner in the go-go bar was a Tiger Show performer. And Krissana studied the necessary tricks so she could make more money.

“At home I imitated what she did on stage. At first it was so difficult. Then I realised that if I contracted my abdominal muscles there was ‘wind’ in my stomach which I could use to blow out a dart,” she explains.

Readers, please don’t try the dart trick at home. “If you don’t concentrate 100%, accidents can happen,” she warns.

Wasn’t the Coca-Cola bottle trick painful? I asked.

“The first time it hurt a little bit. But I did not need to see a doctor,” she says, proudly. “I had to practise, practise and practise.”

Her lucky break came when a Tiger Show performer called in sick. On the night of her first public performance, to overcome embarrassment and stage fright, Krissana pretended that she was alone in a toilet.

And a star was born. Subsequently she learnt more than 100 tricks, earning about 150,000 baht (RM16,300) a month.

After performing for seven years the star quit, as her English boyfriend disapproved of her job. He promised to support her financially.

Last year, the couple broke up after a fight over his excessive drinking and smoking. In financial straits, she wanted to make a comeback.

“But I couldn’t because of Thaksin,” she recalls.

The opportunity to come out of retirement came three weeks ago when Krissana stumbled onto her former mama-san, who offered her a job, as the Tiger Show was now allowed with the change of government.

Surprised that the go-go bar recalled a veteran who possesses a body that has seen better days, I asked the granny why it didn’t hire younger performers.

According to her, Tiger Show performers are now a dying breed following the crackdown six years ago.

“How can a girl learn when she has never seen a Tiger Show?” she asks.

Buoyed from her roaring comeback, Krissana hopes the next government will not allow the Tiger Show to become extinct.

(Published in The Star on Nov 24, 2007. Photograph by Vera Mopilin)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A tough call to make

Thai Takes

WHEN the dust of the Dec 23 elections settles, one out of the 480 MPs will be Thailand’s Prime Minister. Here’s the latest on the party leaders who may become first among equals.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, Democrat Party

If the Democrats form the next government, this 43-year-old Oxford graduate will become Thailand’s youngest prime minister in the post-war period.
On Thursday, when asked why the Democrats’ campaign poster often depicted him with villagers, the Newcastle-born politician retorted: “Am I a farang (Thai for Westerner)?
“I have always cherished Thai culture even thought I spent 10 years of my life abroad.
I am a shy and quiet person, hence I may appear a bit awkward whenever I meet with my constituents.”
His campaign battle with the other frontrunner in the premier race is dubbed ‘Beauty and the Beast.’
Of course, beauty is the handsome Abhisit. While the Beast is ....

Samak Sundaravej, People Power Party

His party is the re-incarnation of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai. And Samak, who was deputy prime minister three times and Bangkok governor for four years, has turned the elections into a verdict on last year’s coup on the 58-year-old Thaksin.
As expected, the burly and outspoken politician (‘My mouth speaks my mind’) is the most venomous among the party leaders.
For example, the 72-year-old politician spat out an arcane Thai phrase (sep methun, which means fornicate) to avoid a journalist’s question about his party’s infighting.
However, there is a method behind Samak’s brashness.
“While rival party leaders are tailoring their messages for the sophisticated middle class, Samak is busy talking loudmouth to woo the working class and villagers,” wrote Avudh Panananda, The Nation’s political writer.

Banharn Silapa-Archa, Chart Thai Party (Thai Nation)

The 76-year-old former prime minister has declared that he would put his country first before personal grudges. This was in response to Samak’s provocation that he reverse his declaration two weeks ago that his party would support Abhisit as the next PM.
In September 1996, the Democrat-led opposition launched a censure motion against the Banharn administration, calling for his disqualification as prime minister because his father was not a Thai citizen.
And Samak reminded Banharn that several parties – except Samak’s – stabbed him in the back during the censure motion.

Suwit Khunkitti, Puea Pandin (For the Motherland)

In Suwit’s recently launched autobiography Pen Pai Dai Ta Jai Soo (For his country, one man will achieve the impossible), the US graduate wrote that he was sorry to leave the country as he could have competed with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the governorship of California.
His qualifications to become the Thai numero uno? “I’ve been deputy prime minister five times, I’ve been the head of seven ministries, in parliament I was twice chairman of standing committees, I’m involved with economic and social-development programmes, science technology, social issues, agriculture and even justice,” croons the 50-year-old former Thai Rak Thai executive.

Prachai Leophairatana, Matchima Thipataya (Thai for the Middle Path)

The 64-year-old tycoon was Thailand’s biggest corporate debt defaulter (over150 billion baht or RM16bil) during the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
A sample of Prachai-nomics: to stimulate Thailand’s economic growth, he promised to launch mega-infrastructure projects such as the Kra Isthmus canal scheme, which will cut across southern Thailand to enable ships to bypass the Straits of Malacca and sail directly to the South China Sea.
Prachai backed the unsuccessful long-running Yellow protests to oust Thaksin as prime minister.
He has no lost love for Thaksin. “Thaksin was cleverer than Hitler,” he declared on Tuesday in reference to the massacre at Krue Se and Tak Bai in southern Thailand.

Or none of the MPs might be PM. Renowned Chiang Mai fortune teller Warin Buawiratlert does not foresee a politician taking the position of prime minister.

He predicts that only an ex-soldier can be the next leader. He warns that political difficulties after the polls could prevent the formation of a new elected government.

Even the military-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont expects Thailand to have a new government only in February.

With no one party winning an absolute majority, it could take a month to negotiate a coalition government.

(Published in The Star on Nov 17, 2007)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The A to Z of Thai polls

Campaigning for Thailand’s first general election since last year’s coup kicked off on Wednesday. Here’s the A to Z of the Dec 23 Thai polls.

A IS for Abhisit Vejjajiva, the 43-year-old Oxford-educated politician who is tipped to be Thailand’s prime minister, if his Democrat Party can persuade the smaller parties to come into a coalition government.

Banharn Silapa-archa, the 76-year-old former prime minister and leader of the Chart Thai Party, is expected to have a say on which party will form the next government. He also has an outside chance of becoming PM again.

Constitution: Under Thailand’s new constitution, the number of elected Members of Parliament is 480 (80 party-list MPs and 400 constituency MPs). Forty million-plus voters will cast two ballots, one for local candidates and a second for party-list candidates who are meant to represent the political parties’ platforms.

Democrat Party: Thailand’s oldest political party is the front-runner in the race to form the next government.

Election Commission vows to be politically neutral.

Free and fair elections. Many are doubtful.

General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin: The 61-year-old coup leader, who is now deputy prime minister, has declined to rule out another coup if the People Power Party (PPP), labelled as ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s ‘nominee’ party, forms the next government. Sonthi will announce his political plans on Monday.

Horse-trading will be at its peak among politicians once the outcome of the elections is known.

I’m with Abhisit,’ says Banharn, in dismissing reports that he could ditch his coalition partner if the PPP wins the most seats in the elections.

Junta: The military junta, which ousted Thaksin, is in command of one-third of the country (still under martial law), raising the question on how free and fair the elections can be.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej: The Thais’ mood for elections perked up when the 79-year-old revered king was released from hospital after more than three weeks of medical treatment.

London is where the 58-year-old Thaksin is living in self-exile. He is believed to be a major financier of the PPP.

Matchima Thipataya Party is the political vehicle of 63-year-old tycoon Prachai Liewphairatana, who has announced his willingness to join a coalition with anyone as long as he is in government.

Numbers game: Depending on whom you listened to, the PPP and the Democrat could win more than 100 seats each. The Pua Paendin Party might obtain 50 to 70 seats, and the Chat Thai Party 40 seats. Matchima and Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana Party are seen grabbing 20 to 30 seats each, and Pracharaj less than 10 seats.

Outright poll majority, which Thaksin’s TRT managed to win in the 2005 polls, is unlikely in this elections.

PPP, the reincarnation of Thaksin’s disbanded TRT, can win the most seats, but not form the next coalition government if it fails in political horse-trading.

Quotable quote: “Who did you fornicate with last night?” Samak Sundaravej asked of a female reporter in an attempt to skirt around an embarrassing query on his party’s infighting over its Bangkok candidates.

Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana Party, like other TRT splinter groups such as Puea Pandin and Matchima Thipataya, is hoping to enter into a government coalition with the Democrats.

Samak Sundaravej: The 72-year-old PPP leader, who served as deputy prime minister in several governments, is seen as a proxy of Thaksin. He has vowed to bring Thaksin back to Thailand ‘with full honour’. He could be Thailand’s next premier.

Thai Rak Thai: The tribunal court found TRT guilty of election fraud in the April 2006 polls (which were later annulled). It disbanded the party and barred 111 TRT MPs, including Thaksin, from Thai politics for five years.

Uncertain and Unclear: No matter who wins the election, the outcome is unlikely to put an end to the country’s political uncertainty.

Vote buying is widespread especially in rural constituencies, where the people are poor.

War of words: A shouting match between Thepnimit Kongjan, a Samak admirer, and Vichan Santivorakul, an Abhisit fan, turned deadly on Thursday.

X-factor: The unknown factor that can influence the possibility of a possible dark horse candidate becoming PM.

Yes votes’ in the Aug 19 national referendum on the army-backed constitution indicated where the Democrats would obtain their seats (south and Bangkok). And the ‘No votes’ showed strong support for Thaksin in northern and north-eastern provinces.

Zones: Under the proportional representation system, there are eight zones or groups of provinces, with each area to be represented by 10 members of parliament (MPs).

(Published in The Star on Nov 10, 2007)

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dim sum the Malaysian way


MAI kow jai (Thai for don’t understand) was the impression of a Malaysian dim sum cognoscente when he sampled chicken feet at a coffee shop at Bangkok’s Chinatown.

“I did not like the taste of the kai kiok (chicken feet). Thais do not understand the subtleties of cooking dim sum,” said Peh Teik Hok, a 35-year-old dim sum chef with Ocean 52, a trendy restaurant in the city.

“They use the same ingredients – cinnamon, anise star, ginger, split onion – as dim sum chefs in Malaysia. But the flavour of Bangkok’s kai kiok is too strong compared with Kuala Lumpur’s,” explained Peh. “This is because Thais know what to put in the dish but they do not know how much to put.”

The chef also gave a thumb’s down to the coffee shop’s other dim sum fare such as har kau (the size of the prawn inside the steamed dumpling was very, very small) and siew mai (the dumpling only had pork and no prawn as it was sold “cheaply”).

His yam cha session in Chinatown was part of Peh’s mission to research on Bangkok’s dim sum palate as he was creating a dim sum menu for Ocean 52, which is in lebua, a luxury hotel.

Here’s his tasting note. The Bangkok-styled dim sum has a distinctive Thai flavour – spicy and strong. It taste dissimilar from KL’s dim sum that has a light flavour (similar to the Hong Kong dim sum).

The dim sum served in Bangkok’s five-star hotels is arooy (Thai for delicious) as it is exactly like that in Hong Kong because the chefs are from ? Hong Kong.

However, Peh complained that the dim sum selection in the five-star hotels was limited. “It is mostly prawns,” said the chef, who loves to fill his dumplings with fish and duck.

Peh is genetically engineered to love dim sum. He comes from a family that used to own a dim sum restaurant in Ipoh. “As a child I ate dim sum everyday,” said the chef, whose first dim sum sifu (master) was his father, Peh Kim Hong.

He left the family-owned restaurant to work as a dim sum chef in the Shangri-La Hotel Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Marriott Hotel and Yauatcha, the stylish London restaurant that is popular with celebrities.

Last year, Peh was headhunted by Ocean 52, a restaurant with a bird's-eye view of the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok, to transform dim sum dining in the Thai capital.

When asked why a Malaysian chef was picked for a cuisine that is synonymous with Hong Kong, Peh responded with a smile. “The Hong Kong chefs are from the old school. They insist on cooking Hong Kong-style dim sum,” he explained.

“What style does a Malaysian dim sum chef have? If my boss wants a hot and sour dish – which is popular in Europe - I’m prepared to create it.”

Ocean 52’s brief was: to create modern dim sum dishes with an Asian flavour. And in February, Peh experimented, referring to his old recipes for inspiration.

It was a trial and error process. In the end, Peh dished out 16 dim sum dishes that were uniquely his. For example, seabass wrapped in rice paper filled with cream sauce. The 280 baht (RM29.50) dish is simply delectable.

His favourite dish is Mooli puff with dried scallops and prawns (280 baht). “It has a light taste and a delightful smell. And it is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside,” he said.

It took him about two weeks to perfect the deep-fried dish. At first he used spring rolls. But it was not perfect. So he tried using flour but it tasted normal. Then he used glutinous rice. “That’s how I got the soft and hard texture,” he recounted.

His menu is not strictly modern. There is also traditional dim sum such as the 280 baht har kau (with fresh and big-sized prawn) and Shanghai chicken dumpling (140 baht or RM14.70)

“You still need to offer the old style as some customers demand a familiar taste,” he said.
Modern or traditional, for Peh all his dim sum are his babies. “I’m the one who makes them,” said the dim sum lover.

(Published in The Star on Nov 3, 2007)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Bloggers fisk for answers


ON SEPT 2, the Bangkok Post reported: “(Thai) Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said yesterday the general election scheduled for Dec 23 could be postponed if “other factors” were taken into account.”

That night, Bangkok Pundit posted: “What are these ‘other factors’ that General Surayud is referring to? Shouldn’t the media be asking hard questions and demanding a better explanation? Was he referring to the same thing as General Sonthi (Boonyaratkalin, the Sept 23 coup leader)? No doubt the Bangkok rumour mill will not stop.

“Can one surmise that if the Bangkok media don't ask, it is because they know it surrounds a certain subject that we can’t discuss? Or are they just too lazy or subservient to Surayud?”

Welcome to fisking, which is a blogosphere slang that means taking apart – sentence by sentence – someone’s story and pointing out where it is wrong.

And fisking is a favourite technique of Bangkok Pundit, an anonymous blogger who comments on Thai politics and the insurgency in southern Thailand in
Blogging incognito allows the blogger to comment on most matters without worrying about consequences.

“For example, Thailand isn’t Burma, people can criticise the government. For a small fish like me, I’m worried that someone in the government might take a dislike to what I write and use laws such as the Computer Crime Act and lese majeste against me,” Bangkok Pundit explained.

The blogger’s fear is justified.

Recently, two Thais were arrested by Thai authorities under the Computer Crime Act for making comments deemed offensive by the monarchy.

Asked who Bangkok Pundit is, the blogger replied: “A person who works in South-East Asia and spends a large amount of time in Thailand.”

For the record, contrary to speculation by some of his readers, the blogger states that he/she is not under the payroll of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister.

Though shielded by anonymity, Bangkok Pundit rarely blogs on the royal family.

“Which is disappointing as there are so many rumours (about the royal family) and commenting will shed some light whether they are true or just patently false,” explained the pundit.

“Sometimes, I try to provide some cryptic comments but there is so much danger – you can be charged under lese majeste.”

Bangkok Pundit started the blog because he/she found the level of political news reporting by English-language Thai newspapers such as The Nation and Bangkok Post not up to standard.

“They do have good coverage. But there are times when their coverage is lacking compared with what the Thai-language newspapers report,” said the news junkie.

Blogging is also an outlet for Bangkok Pundit to express political views, as face-to-face discussion on the subject in polarised Thailand (that is divided into Thaksin lovers and haters) can turn ugly.

“I’ve friends whose sole source of news is the Manager (Phuchatkan Rai Wan, a Thai-language daily newspaper founded by anti-Thaksin media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul) and they think that Thaksin is the reincarnation of the devil and to comment that the coup was maybe not the best thing will see us end up in an argument,” the blogger said.

Since Bangkok Pundit’s first posting, Stupid Test Message (a trial entry), on Jan 24, 2005, the blog has grown bigger than the blogger expected.

On average, the blog receives 300 to 500 readers a day and during “live” blogging on breaking news such as the plane crash in Phuket, it hosted 1,500 to 2,000 visitors.

“It is growing. Sometimes I hear people commenting about my blog without knowing who I am. That’s strange,” the blogger said.

On the impact of the blog, which is among the handful of English-language blogs on Thai politics including The Siam Sentinel (, Thailand Crisis ( and Thailand Jumped the Shark (, Bangkok Pundit acknowledges it is minimal.

“But not to overstate my importance, the calibre of my readers are those who follow Thai politics closely from Washington DC and government agencies in US and other countries, and Bangkok-based diplomats and journalists,” the blogger explained.

What’s the political pundit’s take on the date of the Thai general election?

On Thursday, the blogger e-mailed: “As it stands now, I would say there is an 80% chance that it will take place on Dec 23.”

(Published in The Star on Oct 27, 2007)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Outpouring of love for the people’s king

Thai Takes

"MY KING is in that building. I don’t know which room or which floor, but I’m told that my king is there," said Satpal Singh, a 48-year-old Thai Sikh, pointing towards a 16-story building in Bangkok’s Siriraj Hospital.

Satpal Singh was among the hundreds of Thais who had gathered at the hospital courtyard on Tuesday afternoon to pray for the quick recovery of the royal occupant in an undisclosed room at Siriraj.

Last Saturday, the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was rushed to the hospital after complaining of weakness in his right leg. An MRI examination detected inadequate blood flow to the left lobe of his brain.

The night Satpal Singh received news that his king was hospitalised he immediately prayed that nothing untoward would happen to the monarch. “I also prayed that if I had merits, I would donate all my merits to him,” recounted the Sikh.

Like most Thais, Satpal Singh, who was born in Bangkok, has an undying devotion to King Bhumibol who will celebrate his 80th birthday on Dec 5. When asked why he was so devoted to the king, he replied: “Have you seen him face to face?”

Thirty year ago, Satpal Singh had a brief encounter with the king who was visiting a Hindu temple in Bangkok. “I can’t explain what happened when I saw him for the first time. It was like seeing God on earth,” he recalled. “The King has a resplendent face which touches my heart.”

The businessman also said the Thai king has his people’s interest at heart. “He lives life not for himself but for the people,” he explained.

Satpal Singh went to Siriraj because he believed it was his duty as a Thai. “I have to be here to pray to God so that my king will recover soon,” he explained.

Asked why she travelled 60km to be at the hospital, Benja Changsewok, a 57-year-old Thai woman who teaches French, said: “If you ask anyone here that question, you will get the same answer. It is because we love him and we will die for him.”

On why she loved King Bhumibol, the world’s longest reigning monarch who celebrated his 60th year of ascension to the throne last year, Benja explained that he is a self-sacrificing father.

“My king works 24 hours a day for his people,” declared the woman, with religious-like fervour.

At the courtyard, a sea of well-wishers were singing an impromptu song that extolled the king as a god as well as his thousands of royal projects to help Thais. Others laid garlands as an offering to the statue of Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, the king’s father.

Upon the order of the king, whose general condition on that day was described as stable, 1,000 packets of food and bottles of drinking water were distributed to the well-wishers.

Since the king’s admission to the hospital, more than 100,000 high-profile figures – army generals, ambassadors, celebrities, monks and politicians – and ordinary people visited Siriraj to offer their best wishes.

Most of the visitors wore yellow, the colour which symbolises Monday, the day the king was born.

In addition to yellow, according to The Nation newspaper, pink is now becoming very popular among Thais after it was reported it would bring good health to the king.

The emblem commemorating the king’s 80th birthday incorporates a pink ribbon for with characters on it dedicated to the auspicious occasion.

As of Thursday, in its sixth statement on the king’s health, the Royal Household Bureau reported that he was able to stand for longer period with the help of a walking stick.

The bureau also said the monarch’s body temperature had come down to normal, and the inflammation in his large intestine and pain in his right waist reduced.

Though it is assuring news, most Thais are still worried about the frailty of their king, who has suffered a number of ailments including a heart problem and lumbar spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal canal resulting from aging).

And the royal succession, which is a sensitive subject rarely discussed openly in Thailand, is in the anxious mind of King Bhumibol’s loyal subjects, millions of whom wear wristbands inscribed with “Long Live the King.”

(Published in The Star on Oct 20, 2007)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Thai Shiraz up there with the best


ROWS of grape vines. Rolling hills. Cool breeze. The locale could be a vineyard in Napa Valley in California or Barossa Valley in South Australia.

But it’s in Thailand’s Khao Yai wine region. To be exact, PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, which produces award-winning wines made from grapes grown in the tropical latitude of 14.3°N.

Like Brazil, Thailand is in the New Latitude wine regions, which are outside the traditional winemaking countries located at the 30th and 50th parallels in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, about 140km north-east of Bangkok, is a 320-hectare plantation situated 300m to 350m above sea level at the edge of Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s oldest and most popular reserve.

About 80 hectares are utilised for growing Shiraz, Tempranillo, Chenin Blanc and Columbard grapes.

The winery is the pet project of Piya Bhirombhakdi (the winery's name is taken from his initials), who is the scion of the Singha beer family. The idea to produce Thai-made wine came soon after Piya (pix) successfully grew table grapes in the 1980s in his Khao Yai plantation.

Encouraged, the publicity-shy Thai tycoon imported vines of grape varieties used for making wine. Subsequently, he produced wine in a lab and found the quality ‘not so bad’.

In 1989, he established a winery simply because “I like drinking wine”. And his multi-million baht ‘hobby’ – the largest winery in South-East Asia, producing 120,000 bottles a year – bore fruit. PB Khao Yai Reserve 2002 won a Silver medal with 86.9 points in the Shiraz class at the world’s second largest wine challenge ‘awc vienna 2006’ in Austria.

“The prize was a big surprise for us as our winery was only eight years old and there were many other Shiraz wines in the world,” relates Piya.

One of the factors to the winery’s success in the business of turning grapes into wine in the tropics, according to Joolpeera Saitrakul, its assistant winery manager, is grafting.

For example, the rootstock – which is from Brazil and very tolerant to Thailand’s soil condition and weather – is grafted with a Shiraz variety from France.

“If you use a grape vine from France, it might not grow or produce good quality grapes in Thailand,” explains the 27-year-old winemaker.

Khao Yai’s climate – 10°C to 15°C in November and December – is also suitable for grape cultivation.

In Thailand, the big challenge for the Piya, the new latitude vintner, is imported wine (which in the kingdom is sold cheaper than Thai wine because of government tax).

Piya is sure that Thai wine connoisseurs consume his wines. PB Khao Yai Reserve Shiraz 2001 is sold around 470 baht or RM50 and Pirom Khao Yai Reserve Tempranillo 2004 is about 880 baht or RM94.

But, he acknowledges that new wine drinkers prefer sipping imported wine.

“They rather pay for a well-known foreign brand as they are not sure of our wine quality,” he says.

According to Piya, the best way to convince Thais and the world that his wines are as good if not better than the established brands from the Old World (France, Italy and Spain) and New World (Australia, Chile and United States) is for them to taste it.

“You can place many advertisements, but they wouldn’t know its quality until they try it,” he says.

But the international reputation of Thai wine is not helping PB Valley Khao Yai Winery.

Joolpeera notes that made-in-Thailand wines are still relatively unknown as the country produces less than 1% of the world’s annual output. And Thai wines have a reputation of not being up to international standard.

“Some Thai wines have an oxidised taste as they are produced using table grapes,” he admits, but quickly added: “PB’s wines can compete with established wine brands – 100%.”

Easy to drink. Fruity. Basically a New World wine. That’s Joolpeera’s tasting notes on the award-winning PB Khao Yai Reserve 2002.

Try it. You might fall in love with this tropical wine.

(Published in The Star on Oct 13, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Vera Mopilin)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Case of the vanishing Tiger


SRI Lankans in Colombo are puzzled over the whereabouts of Shanmugan Kumaran Tharmalingam (a.k.a Kumaran Pathmanathan), chief procurer of arms of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The Sri Lankan defence ministry website stated that “reliable sources from Thailand reveal that LTTE’s chief for cross-border terrorist activities, Kumaran Padmanathan, alias KP, has been arrested in Bangkok on Sept 10.”

However, Thai authorities dismissed the report, saying they were not aware of the arrest, if any was made. And Thai police told the media that a thorough check showed that the last time it arrested any LTTE member was in 2003, and he was extradited to Sri Lanka on Aug 15, 2007.

The local newspapers in the teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean are awash with speculation of KP’s supposed disappearance while in Thai custody.

The latest, by the main opposition United National Party, alleged that the Sri Lanka Government had facilitated his release as it had a pre-presidential poll deal between the president and the LTTE.

KP is some sort of an enigma in the conflict-ravaged country where the government is engaged in a two-decade-long military operation to tame the Tigers fighting for a separate homeland and who control areas of the north.

“He is a master of disguise,” said Rauff Hakeem, Sri Lanka’s Posts and Telecommunications Minister, who shared Ramadan delicacies with me at his Colombo residence. However, Rauff, who is the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, said he was not aware of KP’s present whereabouts.

According to F. Rovik, who is a lawyer with R-Senter, a Norwegian human rights organisation, KP travels widely “with more than 20 passports to his name, and possessing the ability to pass himself off as a middle class Tamil.”

It is believed the 52-year-old Sri Lankan, who is the second most wanted man in Sri Lanka (number one is LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran), has obtained Thai citizenship and is married to a Thai woman.

In India, he is wanted for his alleged role in Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.

There is no surprise in Sri Lanka that KP’s supposed detention is in Thailand as the LTTE has a colourful existence in the kingdom, which is about 2,200km from northern Sri Lanka.

For example, when the Phuket Marine Police arrested LTTE agent Christy Reginold Lawrence on April 9, 2000, he led them to his shipyard where they found a half-built mini submarine, which could accommodate two to three people.

The Sri Lanka Government revealed that it was similar to a submarine it seized from the LTTE in Jaffna in the early 1990s.

The Tigers, Rovik noted, have been active in Thailand for two decades, using the country to acquire weapons and train cadres and as a transit point for weapons smuggling.

“LTTE has established several front companies and has a broad net of contacts in shipping, military and the police as well as among arms dealers.

“The front companies include shipping companies, trading firms, restaurants and hotels,” he wrote in a published report Peace in Sri Lanka: Obstacles and Opportunities.

Rovik wrote that Thailand’s long coastline, porous borders, modern infrastructure, corrupt officials and a history of gun running since regional conflicts of the 1950s, make it an ideal location for weapons traders and buyers.

“Experts say that some of the arms sold in Thailand are rusty leftovers from the Cambodian conflict, but brand new weapons are also freely available, either smuggled from China or obtained illegally from legal manufactures,” he noted.

“There are more than 10,000 trawlers and other vessels roaming the Thai seas, making it difficult to monitor weapons smuggling.”

He added that the Tigers' front companies and sympathisers in Bangkok had an extensive logistics network.

“Munitions have moved not only through Phuket but also Ranong and Krabi on the Andaman cost, as well as Sattaship on the Gulf of Thailand,” he pointed out.

However, Rovik said LTTE had very limited support, if any, among Thai politicians or the public in general.

“The fact that they have operated in Thailand for so long is purely due to corruption and liberal Thai policies,” he explained.

Whether Thai policies are liberal or not, the fact is KP remains as elusive as ever.

(Published in The Star on Oct 6, 2007, in The Statesman on Oct 10, 2007 and in The Brunei Times on Oct 11, 2007)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

‘Ambassadors’ of Thaksin


ON SEPT 7, I received several urgent phone calls from my editors in Petaling Jaya requesting the photograph of Thai pop singer Sarunrat “Lydia” Visutthithada.

On that day in Bangkok, the 20-year-old Lydia declared she was not ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s gig (a Thai slang for part-time lover).

Nothing like a sex scandal to rouse the news instinct of my editors, I thought.

For The Nation senior political writer Weerayut Chokchaimadon, Lydia’s press conference allowed Thaksin to slip through the Thai media barricade that the junta installed to prevent the self-exiled politician from telling his side of the story to his compatriots.

The next day, The Nation front-paged the sultry pop singer’s book launch and her revelation that despite being overthrown in a coup, the 58-year-old billionaire possessed a good sense of humour. The Lydia story also stole the limelight from the newspaper’s other front-page article, “Thaksin moved billions abroad”.

Since the night of the Sept 19 coup last year, when Thaksin’s television broadcast from New York to declare a state of emergency was cut off by the military, the junta muzzled the former prime minister’s access to the Thai press.

One year later, freedom of expression in Thailand, according to Freedom House, a US-based watchdog, has plummeted from partially free in 2006 to non-free in 2007. Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom watchdog, downgraded the country’s press freedom from 107 to 122 this year.

For example, early this year, when he could not respond in the Thai media to the junta’s slew of allegations against him, the former premier gave interviews to the international media including Time (he was on the Feb 12, 2007 cover of the magazine’s Asian edition) and CNN (most Thais were unable to watch as it was blocked from airwaves).

“When Thaksin appeared in the world press, the Thai media could not turn a blind eye on him,” explained Weerayut, adding that Thaksin hired three major American public relations and lobbying firms to manage his image.

It is crucial for Thaksin to remain in the public’s eyes in order for him to claim legitimacy among Thais. The twice-elected prime minister needs to tell them that it is unfair for him to be overthrown and he is innocent of corruption and lese majeste (a French expression meaning “insulting the monarchy”) charges.

“If Thaksin does nothing, he would be forgotten and everyone would say (the coup) was justified,” explained the political writer.

The deposed politician’s latest manoeuvre to overcome the media blackout, observes Weerayut, was through “Thaksin ambassadors” such as Lydia, Sunisa Lertpakawat, the 32-year-old author of Thaksin, Where Are You?, and Chanvit Pholchivin, Thailand’s national soccer team coach.

A few days after her sensational press conference, Lydia appeared on Thai entertainment television programmes to turn a sex scandal into an opportunity to discuss the goodness of Thaksin.

The junta, notes Weerayut, does not realise that Lydia’s positive spin on Thaksin is reaching the constituents they’ve been preventing him from accessing.

“The military – that is not media savvy – is only concerned about (positive) Thaksin stories appearing in news programmes such as CNN or BBC,” he added.

Like Lydia’s book (Lydia ? Here I am!), Thaksin is the hero in Sunisa’s book that offers a glimpse of the daily life of the self-exiled politician in London. “The book humanises Thaksin as it shows that even a strongman can be an ordinary person,” said Weerayut.

“It created a lot of sympathy for Thaksin. And the public’s reaction was you’ve (the junta) kicked Thaksin out but don’t kill him (figuratively) as that’s not the Thai way,” he added.

The local media have also run stories about Chanvit’s experience chaperoning three Thai national football players who were invited for a trial with Thaksin-owned Manchester City. The message indirectly conveyed by the coach is: although Thaksin is away from Thailand for one year, he is still doing something for Thais.

Who, I wonder, will be the next Thaksin ambassadress to slip through the military-issued barbed wire that encircles the Thai press.

(Published in The Star on Sept 29, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Yellow with respect


AT BANGKOK’S exclusive shopping mall, the Erawan Mall, a 33-year-old fashionista sported a yellow polo T-shirt which is the quintessential uniform for Thais on Monday.

To those who can’t differentiate between Kevin Kline and Calvin Klein, Wasu Manomaiphibul was wearing one of those ubiquitous yellow fever apparel sold in a talaat (Thai for market).

However, a fashion buff would note the minimalist design of Wasu’s polo T-shirt. And if you looked inside the back collar, you would see a gold foil print with the proclamation “Long live the King” and a “ck Calvin Klein” label.

Designer wear such as ck Calvin Klein and A/X Armani Exchange have stitched themselves into the yellow fever infected Thais since June 2006 when the kingdom celebrated the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ascension to the throne.

Months after the grand June celebration, Thais are still feverish – especially on Monday – over yellow T-shirt or shirt bearing the royal emblem of Rama IX, the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Yellow because the king was born on Dec 5, 1927, which falls on a Monday, a day Thais traditionally marked with that colour.

Wasu, a senior manager with Club 21which represents almost 30 brand names in Thailand, does not see the yellow phenomenon as a fashion statement, but a way for Thais to show their respect and love for their King.

And at the end of last year, to commemorate King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday, Club 21 approached eight designer labels – A/X Armani Exchange, Comme Des Garcons, ck Calvin Klein, Diesel, DKNY, Marni, Mulberry and Paul Smith – to design and produce a limited-edition yellow collection exclusively for the Thai market.

“It was a very good opportunity for us and our labels to show our respect and love for the King,” he says, adding that this year, the company is also celebrating its 12th year in Thailand.

The result: designers based in fashion capitals such as Milan, Paris and New York paying homage to a Thai street fashion.

Comme Des Garcons (a high-end Japanese brand which in French means ‘like some boys’) picked a colour (of course, bright yellow) that it has never used for its classic shirt. Printed on the front pocket of the shirt which retails for 11,900 baht (RM1,294) is “80”.

The designers at Paul Smith created a 4,900 baht (RM534) T-shirt with the print of 80 cameras on the front. During the designers visit to Bangkok, they noticed many photographs of the King Bhumibol clutching a camera and in their research found that the King is an avid photographer.

What’s Wasu’s take on the collection? The designers, note the fashionista, have stamped their brand’s identity on the yellow fever.

For example, he explains, ck Calvin Klein stands for minimalist and the designers created a very basic polo T-shirt with the proclamation “Long Live the King” hidden at the back of the collar.

Paul Smith design always comes with a twist, says Wasu, “that is why at the back of the T-shirt, the designer came up with a special label in gold embroidery which declares “80 cameras for the King”.

The most paeng (Thai for expensive) item in the collection is Mulberry’s ochre-coloured Bayswaters bag. Inside the 45,900 baht (RM5,000) bag is a metal tag embossed with “Long Live the King”.

The response to the limited-edition collection has been overwhelming since they went on sale on Aug 9. For example, all the 200 DKNY bright yellow nylon bags (5,900 baht or RM640 each) have been sold out.

There is a demand because each label has its own loyal customers, explains Wasu, adding that the collection also celebrates their love for the King.

When asked what was so special about the 1,990 baht (RM217) A/X Armani Exchange yellow T-shirt (with “Long Live the King” on the front and at the back the Thai flag) as it looked like a copy of a yellow T-shirt sold at a talaat, Wasu was stumped.

But the fashionista quickly recovered and declared: “At the end of the day with A/X Armani Exchange, it is all about the brand.”

“It’s a fashion item that compels you to walk into the store and buy it. And you can buy this T-shirt only in Thailand.”

(Published in The Star on Sept 22, 2007)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The unfinished coup


HERE'S the report card for the coup makers who ousted former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

C-minus, according to aajaan (Thai for teacher) Thitinan Pongsudhirak.

“Overall, I don’t give it a high grade. But it (the coup) is not a complete failure. Because to have a complete failure means that there would have been violence, sinking economy and military dictatorship.”

“If we had to issue a report card on the one year after the coup,” says Thitinan, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, “we could base it on the coup makers’ justifications for their action.”

On Sept 20, a day after army tanks rolled into Bangkok to seize control of the nation from Thaksin, who was in New York to address the United Nations, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin cited four justifications for the military’s seizure of power.

Coup leader Gen Sonthi listed: social polarisation (Thaksin caused division in Thailand), Thaksin usurped the bureaucracy, Thaksin insulted the monarchy and Thaksin’s corruption.

In an interview a week before first anniversary of the Sept 19 coup, aajaan Thitinan graded the Council of National Security (or CNS as the military junta calls itself) on its performance on the four justifications.

“Now have we reconciled this social division? No, we have not,” he declares. The academician says the result of the Aug 19 national referendum on the army-backed draft Constitution (which 42% of the voters disapproved) reveals that Thailand was still a divided country.

As for the junta’s allegation that Thaksin usurped the bureaucracy (using it to carry out his policies and transferring or demoting bureaucrats who opposed him), Thitinan says the CNS and the government were also using the bureaucrats to carry out their agenda.

On the issue that Thaksin had insulted the King, the political scientist says “it was something they (CNS) cited without substantiating.”

On April 11, public prosecutors dropped charges of lese majeste (a French expression which means ‘insulting the monarchy’) against Thaksin as they lacked solid evidence to prove malicious intent against the King.

It is only on the corruption charge that the military junta had made significant headway.

“They have prosecuted Thaksin (for example, prosecutors claim Thaksin used his position to convince the central bank to sell his wife, Pojaman, a plot of prime Bangkok real estate for the bargain price of 772 million baht (RM83.4mil), a third its estimated value and more than 60 billion baht (RM6.4bil) of Thaksin’s assets have been frozen,’ he noted.

He added “the Thai legal system has been twisted and manipulated in order to prosecute Thaksin to a point where the judiciary has been compromised.”

Despite the military junta’s prosecution of the former Prime Minister to the point of persecution, Thitinan says the Thaksin phenomenon is still alive, however.

“They’ve got rid of him. He is on self-exile. His party (Thai Rak Thai) has been disbanded. And 111 TRT officials including Thaksin are barred from politics for five years. There’s an arrest warrant for him and his wife. But Thaksin is not finished,’ he said.

The latest evidence of the billionaire’s popularity comes from the results of the referendum, Thitinan noted.

“The 42% who voted against the Constitution are concentrated in the north and northeast. And the people from these two regions, which constitute about half of the Thai electorate, are still supportive of Thaksin because of his populist policies (cheap health care, micro credit scheme, free scholarship to study overseas),’ he explained.

Asked why the military junta could not finish off Thaksin, politically, the aajaan says, “The (junta) is aiming at a moving target.

“Thaksin is out of Thailand. But he is still in the news everyday. How do you finish Thaksin?,’ he said with a grin, adding ‘this is an unfinished coup.’

Thitinan does not rule out another coup in the next two or three years. And he tosses out a handful of factors:

The formation of an unstable government after the Dec 23 election, the military remaining in politics, the King is aging (the successor to 80-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej is still unclear), disgruntled elements in the military and Thaksin lurking in the shadows.

(Published in The Star on Sept 15, 2007)

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Where furniture are the stars


TUCKED in Thonglor, a funky area in Bangkok, is an Italian restaurant with furniture that are in themselves famous.

Some of the retro and modern furnishing in Tuba Restaurant have had unnamed roles in Thai movies, magazines, commercials and fashion shows.

Almost all of Tuba’s furnishings are for sale or rent. Supoj Siripornlertkul, the 55-year-old owner of Tuba, launched the restaurant two years ago so that he can have a convenient place to hang out in, as his home is close by.

Supoj’s main business is buying, selling and renting furniture.

“Yes, that chair is for sale or for rent. You can buy it for 6,000 baht (RM645) or rent it for a few days for 30% of the price,” says Supoj, referring to the iconic Eames Shell Chair that I was sitting on.

He had the shell chair repainted shiny purple after he acquired it from a Bangkok second hand furniture dealer.

“Yes, I’ve rented it (the Eames Shell Chair) out. Am not sure to whom, as my staff takes care of that, probably for some movie or fashion shoot or something,” he adds.

Asked to name the Thai movies that his furniture had appeared in, Supoj, who does not encumber himself with the triviality of a purchase or a rental, could only think of Ploy, a 2007 Thai movie written and directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.

But he could remember such names as Greyhound Cafe and True Cafe in Siam Paragon and Khao San road, and Vanilla Cafe in Bangkok, chic restaurants and cafes with distinctive decor he had furnished.

Then Supoj got out of the yellow-coloured Eames Shell Chair he was sitting on to show off his restaurant/furniture store.

He pointed out such iconic chairs as a Harry Bertoiathe Bird Chair, Pierre Paulin Ribbon Chair and Eero Saarinen Womb Chair that are either an original or a knockoff, a Louis XVII cupboard (sold for 500,000 baht or RM53,700 to a woman whose house was under construction) and the Love Chair (a prototype chair resembling a woman’s figure that Supoj designed two years ago).

Returning to the yellow-coloured chair, Supoj reveals that his 20-year-old furniture business “is not doing so good”.

“I’m not serious about this business. It has been like a hobby for me,” explains the businessman who in the last four years has amassed furniture worth 30 million baht (RM3.2mil).

“Whenever I make money from my furniture, I would buy more furniture. I don’t really need money; all I need is this one packet and this,” Supoj, dressed in fisherman pants, adds while pointing at his Marlboro Lights and cup of coffee.

And then the man, who is a minimalist in terms of spoken words, drove me to his warehouse, Papaya, which is about 7km away, to visually explain why Bangkok’s creative directors and interior designer seek his furniture.

During the 20-minute drive, he explains that his 5,000 square metre warehouse is a favourite hunting ground because “when they look for something which is not available in (the mainstream) shops, they will come to mine”.

At Papaya, a beaming Supoj introduced a recently purchased television set, which is probably unavailable in any shop in Thailand.

“I’m sure you’ve never seen this in your life,” he said, pointing something that looks like it came from outer space.

In fact, it is a Televia (a French-made television which was manufactured in the 1950s) that he snapped up for 150,000 baht (RM16,100) on eBay.

The set, which Supoj describes as the most beautiful TV set in the world, is not for sale.

But it can be rented for 30,000 baht (RM3,200).

Nearby, sitting on a rather non-iconic chair, was Meow, a creative director with Matching Studio, which is an award-winning Thai company that produces commercial films.

She was at the warehouse to scout for props for an I-Mobile handphone commercial.

“Papaya has many, many things,” she says, to explain why she is a fan of the warehouse, which resembles a flea market.

The item Meow rented was a sofa, which after the I-Mobile commercial is released will take on a fame of its own.

(Published in The Star on Sept 8, 2007)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Thais swing behind Man City

Thai Takes

A 50-YEAR-OLD Thai man oohed and aahed when Manchester City Football Club faced a relentless onslaught from Arsenal in last week's English Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London.

Watching the match ‘live’ on a giant television screen at the lounge of Novotel Bangna Bangkok, Man City fan Krittidech Chaisingharn was agonising that his team’s defence was being ripped apart by the marauding Arsenal strike force.

So much passion, I thought, for a Manchester United fan (since the era of George Best and Bobby Charlton) who just recently became a Manchester City supporter.

In the 39th minute, there was temporary relief for the agonising man. His face broke into a smile when he saw Thaksin Shinawatra, the new owner of Man City, on television. “Okay, he looks happy,” he remarks.

Thaksin, the former Thai Prime Minister who was ousted in a coup last September, is the reason why Krittidech has added City to the list of football teams that he passionately supports.

“I like him as a Prime Minister. He has helped a lot of people, especially the poor. And I like his policy against drug trafficking,” explains the entrepreneur, who is also the president of the Bangkok Christian College football team, which plays in division two in the Thai League.

However, when asked if it was Abhisit Vejjajiva (Thailand’s Democrat Party leader who is Thaksin’s political rival) who had bought Man City, would he support the club, he responds: “No, I don’t like the Democrats as they’ve never done anything good for the country.”

Well, football or not, Thais are still riven by politics.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha,” laughed Krittidech when Man City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel saved a Robin van Persie penalty in the 65th minute. “Unbelievable,” he shouted.

It had also been unbelievable for him when rumours surfaced around May that Thaksin, the self-exiled billionaire, was buying Man City. “Nobody thought that it would happen,” he recalls.

Thaksin purchased Manchester City for 8 billion baht (RM854mil) in early July, and, in Thailand – where the most supported football clubs are Liverpool and Manchester United – support for Man City, which had been negligible, picked up.

Two months ago, a Thai signing off as Solo1 sparked off a discussion with his post titled Maew City (Thaksin’s nickname is Maew, a hill tribe living close to his Chiang Mai hometown) in, a popular Thai-language website and discussion forum.

That discussion started the ball rolling for the formation of an official Man City fan club based in Thailand. And Kriengsak Wangdulyakiti, a 40-year-old Thai working in Abu Dhabi, volunteered to contact the Manchester City Official Supporters’ Club in England to seek affiliation.

In its first week of existence the interim club’s membership grew to 200, and within a month snowballed to 1,000. One of the fan club’s rules, says Kriengsak, is its members are not allowed to talk about politics.

On Wednesday, The Bangkok Post reported that just three weeks into the new EPL season, City have become one of the most popular English clubs in Thailand.

“It seems that they have more fans in Thailand now than they had during their golden era in the early 1970s,” Wanchai Rujawongsanti wrote. “Many people I know say they have switched allegiance to Man City.”

According to Wanchai, a large number of Thais, who do not have much interest in politics, back City because it is owned by a compatriot who can help Thai football.

In the 79th minute, Krittidech punched his right palm in despair when Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas beat Schmeichel, handing the Blues a 1-0 defeat.

Ah, the agony of a football fan.

(Published in The Star on Sept 1, 2007)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The boss shows the way


AT THE height of speculation on whether Thai coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin would jump into politics, I clicked on The Nation’s new online offering – a video blog – to get an insight.

And there was the head shot of Suthichai Yoon, bald with round glasses, talking – amidst the sound of chirping birds – about Gen Sonthi’s ambiguous political ambition.

The video blog, which was uploaded to The Nation’s website on July 11, was some sort of a historical take for Suthichai, the group editor-in-chief of The Nation newspaper, as it was his first in English.

The homemade 7.5-minute video shot at his Bangkok home by his driver (who is now, according to his boss, “a solid camera man”) was a trademark Suthichai presentation.

“I have my own way. What you see – especially when I am emphasising a point – is only my eyes and lips, so that the audience will take note and think, ‘what the hell does he want to say?’'' explained the man who has a distinctive voice that Thai comedians love to imitate.

The newspaper man, who founded The Nation 36 years ago at the age of 25, produced the video blog “because I am a TV man and I know that compared with print and audio, video is the most effective in drawing people to what I have to say.”

Five days later, Suthichai, who has hosted television news programmes for 15 years, uploaded another video blog to The Nation Blog TV.

Why does the top man in The Nation have to blog in his newspaper’s weblog ( Suthichai explained that with the revolution in newspaper coverage, he had to turn the whole mentality of his newsroom inside out.

Even The New York Times, he said, is finding it difficult to convince its journalists to use the new information technology.

“The top guy needs to show the way. That is why I have decided I would show everybody in The Nation that with a video camera you can produce your own show,” he said.

The Nation’s digital push is a must, said Suthichai, as its younger and middle-age readers are migrating to the Internet.

The newspaper’s circulation (50,000) has been flat for the last two years.

Thus, the man who is for some the Buddha of Thai journalism is trailblazing his newspaper’s digital embrace.

On Sept 1, the group editor-in-chief will sort of officially launch his digital revolution at an editorial gathering. So far, 60% of his staff are into multimedia journalism, as compared with 5% two years ago. And Suthichai is aiming for 99% in the next few months.

“I have pushed them, harassed them,” he said.

“For example, when I meet my journalists along the corridor, I will ask, ‘Have you blogged today?’ or ‘Did you update the website last night?',” he added.

And, with a big smile on his face, the 61-year-old journalist, who is from the typewriter generation, relates how his revolution is bearing digital fruit.

On July 22, his photographer, who now also carries a video camera, captured a clip of the violent mob protesting outside the residence of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the top adviser to the Thai King.

“On that day, it showed the newsroom that when you have a great shot, it is possible for it to go out on our website immediately,” he explained.

“Nearly 50,000 viewers clicked on that video clip,” he said.

There’s also unintended consequence for the digital revolution in The Nation.

On July 21, The Nation’s editor Tulsathit Taptim posted in his blog about missing his chance to meet the legendary Indian actress Hema Malini, whose movie dialogue was dubbed by his mother.

“I almost cried when I read that his parents worked as dubbers. We’ve been working together for more than 10 years but I didn’t know that the Thai voice of John Wayne was his father’s,” said the hard-nosed journalist.

The blogging phenomenon in The Nation is fast catching on. Just as I was about to finish this article, its Life editor Veena Thoopkrajae excitedly showed me a video of her learning to cook Malaysian food, which will appear in her blog.

Published in The Star on August 25, 2007. Photograph courtesty of The Nation)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

D-Day for Thai constitution

Thai Takes

LAST week, seen plastered on a windscreen of a Bangkok taxi was a sticker with the message written in Thai: “We take passengers but not the draft constitution.”

And I wondered whether the taxi driver would pick up the startling Martian-looking promoters who are the government’s mascot in its campaign to encourage about 45 millions Thais to vote in tomorrow’s national referendum on the draft constitution.

If a majority of Thais vote ‘yes’ then the proposed charter would be Thailand’s 18th since the 1932 revolution which saw the overthrow of the absolute monarchy.

If the draft is rejected, the military junta would then consider and revise one of Thailand’s 17 previous constitutions.

Tomorrow’s democratic process is a consequence of an undemocratic act. On Sept 19 last year, the Thai military toppled the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and ripped up the 1997 constitution.

And on June 28, a military-appointed commission finished drafting a new constitution. Like James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, only a small minority of Thais have actually read entirely the complicated 309-article charter. For those with the attention span of Homer Simpson, the government came out with a cartoon version.

Among the highlights of the draft charter, which needs a simple majority to pass, is the prime minister - who must be an elected member of parliament - is limited to two terms and no more than eight years in office.

It also makes it easier for opposition parties to file censure motions against the prime minister. And it grants amnesty for the coup leaders.

Early this month, The Nation reported that proponents and opponents of the draft charter heatedly debated half a dozen issues for three hours on television.

The proponents argued that a ‘yes’ vote would ensure that democracy returned to the people as in case of a ‘no’ vote junta would continue to exist.

They also claimed that Thais would have more rights under the new charter as it promised to make it easier for the public to recall politicians, amend the constitution and propose new legislation.

While the opponents reasoned that supporting the charter was tantamount to endorsing the illegitimate action of the coup. They also maintained that the senate appointments amounted to betrayal of the people’s right to choose their representatives.

For some of Thaksin’s die-hard supporters, they will vote with their heart. Adisorn Piangket, a leading member a group from Thaksin’s disbanded political party, Thai Rak Thai, urged supporters, “if you love Thaksin, you must vote against the 2007 draft charter.”

“I would like everybody to think of the person who is in exile because if the draft is approved, Thaksin will not be able to return to the country,” Adisorn said.

However, tomorrow’s referendum’s result will probably break Adisorn’s heart. It is likely to be approved.

A recent national survey by Chulalongkorn University found that 78 percent of respondents indicated they would vote ‘yes’ to the charter, even though only 47 percent were satisfied with it.

The survey results is a reflection of the general sentiment in Thailand where most Thais just want the new constitution to be approved so that it would pave the way for elections.

Tomorrow, the focus will be on the margin of victory and voter turnout.

The referendum outcome, says Surapong Suebwonglee, a close aide of Thaksin, should represent a majority vote of more than 50 per cent of the electorate otherwise the result would be inconclusive.

“If fewer than 50 per cent of voters cast ballots, then we don’t feel this is the charter for the entire population,” he said.

While the army-installed interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said that his Cabinet targeted at least 23 million votes from about 45 million eligible voters, Surayud prefers a high voter turn out, as it would indicate that the people approved the coup.

To achieve that, the army-installed government has declared a three-day weekend and convinced bus and train operators to reduce their fares so that millions of Thais could return to their hometowns to vote.

As for the taxi driver, probably he has taken off the anti-charter sticker as the government has warned that it might be against the referendum law.

(Published in The Star on August 18, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Reuters)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

It’s not a Hotel, it’s Home


A TAIWANESE interior designer and I were chatting in the opulent living room of his colonial-style home in Bangkok when a quintet of French tourists walked in.

Ignoring the strangers, Eugene Yu-Ching Yeh continued his explanation on why a stuffed peacock was perched in the room.

The house owner was not curious about the new arrivals as on any given day strangers – who can be trendsetters, tycoons or tourists – would be swimming in his pool, reading in his library, eating in his dinning room or sleeping in his bedroom.

“I make a living as a host,” says Yeh, the owner of The Eugenia, a 12-suite boutique hotel with the tagline It’s not a Hotel, it’s a Home!

Hoteliers have told Yeh that he was crazy, that he could not possibly make money from a hotel with only a dozen rooms.

“I think I understand (the hoteliers’ point of view) as my hotel does not have economies of scale. But I don’t plan to make a fortune from this hotel,” he says. “This is my hobby.”

Asked whether he could get returns from his investment, the host, who prefers hotels where guests can nonchalantly walk barefooted, responds with a smile. “I don’t think so.”

In explaining his business philosophy, Yeh relates an experience at a weekend party at his home in Taipei. “My guests got drunk and then slept in my house, when they woke up the next morning they took a shower and asked for breakfast,” he recalls.

“Now I still throw a ‘party’, but when you open a bottle of wine or order food or go upstairs to sleep, I will charge you.”

But Yeh’s home is not an ordinary home. It costs a ballpark figure of 100 million baht (RM11mil). And Relais & Chateaux, a leading French travel guide, has recognised it as a charming luxury property because its owner is always around to greet his guests.

The Eugenia ( is the interior designer’s long-time dream to showcase his hotel design philosophy which is ‘not everything must be new, new, new.’

Yeh, who has been a Bangkok resident since 1988, however, could not find any client so he decided to build his own hotel.

About five years ago, to get an idea of the hotel he wanted, the 46-year-old Taiwanese travelled to Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City and Rangoon to photograph such beautiful buildings as Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang and the colonial bungalows in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur – all older than him.

On a piece of land in Soi Sukhumvit 31 that he purchased three years ago, he put up a three-storey building that is a combination of late 19th century British and French colonial architecture. It was completed in early 2006.

Some guests, however, have insisted that the hotel was not new, pointing for instance at the chipped tiles in the reception area, which has a zebra skin thrown on the floor. “The tiles were obtained from an old building to give my hotel an old look,” explains Yeh.

To go with the 100- to 200-year-old feel to the hotel, the building is also a repository for Yeh’s antiques that had been languishing in his Taipei warehouse. Other personal items are also part of the decor.

The hotel is named after a beautiful 80-something Vietnamese woman with whom Yeh had a non-verbal exchange of ideas on colonial buildings.

“We did not speak the same language so I never got to know her name. But in my heart I called her Eugenia,” he relates of his encounter with the woman in December 2004 in Ho Chi Minh City.

(Published in The Star on August 11, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cili Padi satisfies authentic craving


WHAT would you do when you can’t find your favourite food in a city you visit frequently? If you were Azizan Ibrahim, a 48-year-old Malaysian, you would launch a Malay restaurant in Bangkok.

One difficulty Azizan faced when visiting his brother-in-law who works in the Thai capital was finding halal food to his liking. Yes, halal food can be found in the Lebanese, Egyptian and Indian restaurants in Bangkok’s famous Arab Street, which is around Soi Nana along Sukhumvit Road.

But Azizan’s taste buds are not used to non-Malaysian halal food. What he craves is typical Malay food – nasi lemak, roti canai and teh tarik.

I pointed out that nasi lemak, roti canai and teh tarik are available at a Malaysian/Thai restaurant called Kopitiam at Thonglor, which is a hip area in Bangkok. But Fahmi Sabri, Azizan’s 25-year-old nephew who lives in Bangkok, quickly remarked that the restaurant might not be 100% halal.

How about the restaurants owned by Thai Muslims? I asked.

I was curious as the hunt for halal food by my Malaysian/Muslim friends who are tourists in this city, where the most popular dishes are som tam (papaya salad) and moo yahng (grilled strip of pork), would usually end up in a fast food restaurant which provides food for thought as they question its “halal-ness”.

Azizan is not a fan of restaurants owned by Muslim Thais.

“Thai Muslim food is different from Malay food. It tastes like Thai food – sweet and spicy. The only similarity is it is halal,” he explains.

Last December, Azizan, Fahmi and their Malaysian and Thai partners decided to open a Malay restaurant. And three weeks ago, they launched Cili Padi – an authentic Malaysian restaurant serving affordable Malay dishes such as rendang daging (60 baht or RM6.90), kari ikan (50 baht or RM5.80) and sambal tumis udang (70 baht or RM8.10).

Cili Padi, which is the second restaurant in Bangkok serving Malaysian dishes, is tucked away on the ground floor of ITF Building, which is along the busy Silom-Narathiwas Road. The location was picked because of its proximity to two major roads – Sathorn, where several embassies including Malaysia’s are located, and Silom, where the world famous tourist destination Patpong is located.

One of the most important elements, according to Azizan, in operating an authentic Malaysian restaurant is the cook.

“We must have a Malaysian who can cook Malay food. If not it won’t be authentic,” he insists. And the cook, Noriza Mohd Tahir, who used to operate a cafe in Shah Alam, Selangor, is Azizan’s wife and Fahmi’s aunt.

“How do you make your food taste like the one back home?” I asked while scooping the nasi lemak (50 baht or RM5.80) that tasted like the one I usually buy on Sunday morning in USJ, Subang Jaya.

It was a valid question as Havinder Kaur – a Malaysian who owns Mrs Balbir, a popular north Indian restaurant in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 11 – had told me that in Thailand she could not cook nasi lemak as tastily as when she prepared it in Malaysia.

“The ikan bilis and cili padi sold in Bangkok taste different from those in Kuala Lumpur,” reasoned the 51-year-old television presenter who is a well-known personality in Bangkok, adding, “it has something to do with Mother Nature.”

Azizan agrees, saying “somehow Malaysian-made curry and Thai-made curry taste different.”

So what he does is board a train from Alor Star to travel for 20 hours to Bangkok to transport ingredients such as belacan (shrimp paste), asam jawa (tamarind) and curry powder.

Authentic or not, Fahmi acknowledges that Malay food is not popular with Thais.

“They find our food too spicy and tasteless,” he says. “For example, my wife who is a Thai hardly eats Malay food as she is used to food that is sweet.”

Cili Padi does not expect walk-in customers who are Thais. The bulk of its clientele will be Malaysians living in Bangkok and also busloads of Malaysian tourists brought in by in-bound tour operators.

So far the restaurant’s loyal customers include personnel from the Malaysian Embassy including the ambassador and a man called Peter, a 70-year-old Malaysian who lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife.

Since finding the restaurant, Peter, who claimed he has not eaten Malaysian food for 20 years, has patronised Cili Padi for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a single day.

(Published in The Star on August 4, 2007)