Saturday, January 27, 2007

Thaksin’s lawyer steadfast in his support despite threats


AFTER lawyer Noppadon Pattama received the intelligence report from a reliable source in a Thai government security agency, his client provided him with three bodyguards and a bullet-proof car.

The source told Noppadon on Jan 7 that unless he quit as ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s legal adviser, his life would be in danger.

Since becoming Thaksin’s legal adviser in October, the 45-year-old lawyer found instant fame in Thailand, speaking on behalf of his client “to provide explanations and facts.”

Verbal abuses and death threats came along with fame.

However, he ignored them, thinking they came from people with mental problems or who disliked Thaksin.

Nevertheless, in December, he changed his handphone number as the threats got to him.

“I was depressed around that time,” he disclosed. “I couldn’t understand why in a civilised world when you disagree with someone, you couldn’t debate it, instead of making death threats.”

Then, early this month, he received a warning about an attempt on his life.

This time he took the death threat seriously as it came from someone well connected.

“And around that time the situation regarding the ex-PM was getting intense,” he explained, referring to the accusation that Thaksin was behind the New Year's Eve co-ordinated bombings that ripped Bangkok, killing three Thais.

Concerned, Thaksin advised his lawyer to take the intimidation gravely, and facilitated security measures for him.

It is not unusual to receive death threats in Thailand.

“Sometimes the killing occurs, sometimes it doesn’t. You never know,” Noppadon said. “Somchai disappeared and we don’t know what happened to him.”

He was referring to prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit who went missing on March 12, 2004, after disclosing that police had tortured his clients.

On Thursday, in an interview in a Starbucks cafe along Rachadapisek Road in Bangkok, a jovial Noppadon revealed that he was feeling safe now. But it was not because of his security personnel.

“I can sense that national reconciliation is on the way. And the top generals are no longer hostile to the idea of Thaksin returning home subject to certain conditions,” he explained, as his inconspicuous bodyguards lurked in the shadow.

The British-educated divorcé peppered the interview with his funny remarks; for example, “Seriously, I do have a bullet-proof car. But I hope it is also bomb proof” and “Now I change the place where I sleep but I still retain the same sleeping partner.”

He can sleep better now. For the last two weeks he has not received any death threat.

Threat or not, Noppadon does not regret taking the job, which he described as an honour and a “once in a lifetime experience.”

He accepted it to repay a debt of gratitude to Thaksin who appointed him natural resources and environment vice-minister shortly after the Bangkok MP switched from the Democrat Party to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT).

“I never abandon my friends during hard times,” said the protégé of Thai former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, who is the Democrat Party adviser.

Probably Thaksin has no regrets hiring Noppadon as a Thai newspaper described him as “smart enough to comment on Thaksin-related issues to ensure the continuation of the former premier's news shelf life.”

On Jan 10, the Council for National Security (the official name of the coup makers) ordered broadcast media to cease airing views defending Thaksin and the TRT party.

“It is unfair. When the government makes an allegation against my client, I don’t have the same tool to counter it,” protested the lawyer.

Asked how Thaksin was doing, Noppadon, with a cheeky grin, said, “unemployed but happy.”

“Thaksin is in Tokyo. Last night (Wednesday) he had sushi and Kobe beef. And he is flying to Beijing tomorrow (yesterday),'' he revealed.

On why Thaksin visited Thailand’s neighbours – China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore – he said: “Now that he is unemployed, he wants to take the opportunity to travel, play golf, shop and meet up with old friends.”

Noppadon is not aware of any plan by Thaksin to visit his good friend Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia.

“You should develop a good golf course, and he will visit Malaysia,” he quipped.

(Published in The Star on Jan 27, 2007. Photograph courtesty of The Nation)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lost and loving it


One of the top things to do in the City of Angels is to get a Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok, go to Chinatown and get lost.

LAST Sunday, on a hot afternoon, a 68-year-old American found herself lost, looking for the Bangrak Museum, which was listed in “as this year’s most special find”.

“I remembered the address from the website but I couldn’t find it,” related the Californian. “If I had my map (Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok), it would have been easy to find.”

Well, even Nancy Chandler needs the Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok (alias the Market Map and Much More) to find her way in the labyrinth of the Thai capital.

Nancy doesn’t mind getting lost, however.

For her, it’s an adventure. She’s the type of person who would explore a soi (Thai for lane) if she sees something interesting at the end of it.

The artist probably found herself in the graphic art business when she got lost in the Sanam Luang weekend market during her early Bangkok days when she relocated to Thailand in 1969.

“Maybe at the back of my mind, I thought there should be a better map of this place,” she recalled.

In 1974, Nancy was a one-woman business producing cards and maps, and it grew to a 14-person team led by her 30-something daughter Nima.

Since 1997, Nima has been doing most of her research for the maps while her California-based mother, who visits Thailand for two months every year, draws the images.

Over the years, the Nancy Chandler name has become synonymous with maps of Thailand (Bangkok 23rd edition and Chiang Mai 16th edition). Both editions are must-haves for tourists and residents.

One of the top things to do in the City of Angels, according to the Thai Airways in-flight magazine Sawasdee, is to get a Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok, go to Chinatown and get lost.

The maps, Nima was told by some people, were “too colourful, too cluttered with so many things on it”.

And she told them: “Walk down that soi and tell me that it is not. They are all colourful; they are all cluttered with little shops everywhere.”

The Nancy Chandler’s hand-lettered detailed guides are not your usual “male-oriented, straight line, driving kind of map”.

Her maps introduce off-the-beaten-track kind of places like Wong’s, which is a Bangkok joint “for lovers of old-time rock n roll”.

“Our maps are more personal than the average maps. We tell you where you can find a very good noodle shop,” Nancy said.

The map company is able to dish out personal opinion as it refuses to accept advertising or “tea money”.

Its Bangkok map indicates the city’s usual suspect of attractions (Jim Thompson’s house, Wat Phra Kaew, Siam Paragon shopping mall and Chatuchak weekend market).

And it also reveals – in Nancy’s words – “something that tourists wouldn’t normally know about when reading a guidebook”.

Something out of the way such as the Bangrak Museum (Bangkok Folk Museum) which is an “old home, displaying the artefacts of daily life in the past”.

Or, in a soi in old Bangkok which you think is a dead-end lane but there’s “the small but very quaint Arun Residence, offering five rooms overlooking the river and Wat Arun”.

Nancy encourages tourists to get lost in the streets of Bangkok.

“If you look out of the window, all you see are high-rise buildings. You could be in Hong Kong or Singapore,” she said, pointing at the window in her Bangkok office.

“But using a good map with walking instructions, you can grasp the essence of Bangkok.”

The city’s essence, according to the artist, is chaos in terms of city planning. Next to a skyscraper, she said, will be a little hovel which houses a tailor shop.

“It is like you throw everything into a pot and you stir it and you pour it out. That’s sort of Bangkok’s charm,” she noted.

The easiest place to get lost in Bangkok used to be Chatuchak. Now, Nancy revealed, it’s Siam Paragon. “It’s huge. I’ve got lost there,” she said, laughing.

Personally, the mapmaker does not like the new malls, as “usually they have to chop off old buildings to build them”.

“It is a place where most people get lost but we’re not going to do a map on it,” she said.

(Published in The Star on Jan 20, 2007)

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Bangkok still on edge


More violence is expected in the Thai capital over the next two months.

THE two-minute walk from the Asia News Network office to the 7-Eleven store in The Nation Tower in Bangkok is normally a straightforward event.

But since the deadly bomb attacks that ripped through Bangkok on New Year's Eve and last week's bomb hoaxes and counter-coup rumours, there are now military checkpoints at the entrances to the 40-storey building owned by The Nation newspaper.

At the main entrance, soldiers and security guards armed with portable metal detectors rifle through personal belongings of people entering the building.

And at the adjacent Evergreen View Tower, the building management announced last week that it was checking all vehicles entering the condominium block.

These are visible signs that terror has struck the mind of Bangkokians after coordinated blasts in nine areas claimed three Thai lives on Dec 31.

With that as a backdrop, I was in two minds after reading an e-mail from “Thai Takes” reader Alice Tan from Malaysia. “I'm planning to travel to Bangkok this weekend for a short holiday. Could you let me know the situation in Bangkok? Is it safe to travel or should we cancel our holiday?”

It was a difficult question to answer. In fact, it was easier to answer similar e-mail enquiries from Malaysia sent the morning after the Sept 19 coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

At that time the gut feeling was that there wouldn't be any bloodshed. And indeed it was a “Happy Coup” where smiling civilians presented roses to the soldiers.

This time it is a Bangkok on edge. And political analysts are calling 2007 “Thailand's Year of Living Dangerously.”

Even the military-backed interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is expecting more violence in Bangkok over the next two months.

Last week, he warned the public to be alert and prepare for a new threat to their lives after the deadly bombings.

In the eyes of Chai Rathchawat, an editorial cartoonist from the Thai language tabloid Thai Rath, the new threats to the lives of Thais have amusing consequences.

His cartoon “Be optimistic after bombing in Bangkok” showed several situations: a husband smiling because his shopaholic wife is now staying at home; a one-baht coin is now more valuable because it can be used for public phone calls to inform of a bomb scare; and the sale of Buddhist amulets has increased.

His cartoons revealed that Thais, who are known for their mai pen rai (Thai for “no worries”) attitude, are worried about when and where the next bomb will explode.

And it is not only in the funny pages where their fear is apparent.

Popular shopping areas in Bangkok such as the Chatuchak weekend market and Siam Paragon are less crowded these days and food delivery services are enjoying roaring business, as people are afraid to venture out.

Most of the rubbish bins in the Thai capital have been removed, making my Singaporean friend anxious whenever he wants to dispose of his trash.

Avudh Panananda, The Nation newspaper's military expert and one of its must-read bloggers, gives an insight into the security situation in Bangkok.

“Bangkok is not Beirut. It is low-key political violence,” he said, adding that foreigners were not the targets.

But weren't eight foreigners injured in the blasts?

Unfortunate, Avudh said, as it was unintended. “For example,” he said, “in the Pratunam Pier bombing, the bomber did not factor in that shrapnel would strike three foreigners at the nearby Best Sea Foods Restaurant.”

However, he warned that more political violence such as arson attacks in the northeast of Thailand could not be ruled out.

“The Thaksin issue has not been settled,” he said, adding that this meant Thaksin was a convenient scapegoat when violence erupted in Thailand.

My response to Tan's question: if she didn't fancy worrying whether a loud explosion was from a bursting tyre or a bomb, stay away from Bangkok.

Visit the City of Angels, however, if she believed in fate, because if it was fated, a buffalo would tumble out of the sky and crush her while she walked to a 7-Eleven store in Puchong.

(Published in The Star on Jan 13, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Fragile times in the city


It was a jittery start to 2007 for Thailand as rumours flew about another coup taking place following the New Year Eve bomb blasts.

AS BANGKOK swirled with rumours of an impending coup on Thursday night, a female editor moaned: “Yesterday I was waiting for bombs, today I’m waiting for a coup, tomorrow I don’t know what it will be.”

On Wednesday, soldiers swarmed Thailand’s leading English newspaper The Nation to investigate a bomb threat at the newspaper’s premises in the suburbs of Bangkok.

The 1.18pm phone call that warned “listen carefully, I have set three bombs in your building to go off in three hours”, turned out to be a hoax.

In total, nine sites in the capital and six provinces received bomb threats on that day.

Welcome to a jittery Thailand at the start of 2007.

Since the eight bomb blasts that killed three people in Bangkok on New Year Eve, the country has been hoping for the best and worrying over the worst.

For instance, an explosion was heard outside The Nation building an hour before the bomb threat warning. It was enough to stir anxiety that another bomb – Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil (an industrial blasting agent of 94% ammonium nitrate and 6% petrol) packed with nails and set off by digital alarm clock – had exploded.

False alarm. It turned out that a vehicle tyre had burst on the Bangna-Trat highway that connects Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

Thailand grew more anxious on Thursday night.

Reports of troop mobilisation led to speculation that hardliners among the Sept 19 coup makers, who ousted then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, were about to launch another coup to boost their own power.

At about 8pm, the military made a televised announcement on the Army-run TV5 denying troops were being mobilised with ill intent.

“The army urges all citizens not to believe the rumour and be confident in our ability to control the situation. Army chief Gen Sonthi (Bunyarat-kalin) has given an assurance the situation is normal,” it said.

Still, the coup rumours intensified. The denial seemed to give credence that there was indeed a coup.

Later, Assistant Army chief Gen Saprang Kallayanamitr told a radio station: “My boss has been too nice to those who have ill-intent for the country and the people. From now on, we will adjust our strategy and get tough with those people.”

By 10.30pm, the rumours took another swirl. Word went round that the coup was averted as Gen Saprang was locked in negotiations with his bosses, Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont and Gen Sonthi, at the Army Headquarters.

And that depending on the outcome of the negotiations, Surayud may have to step down as interim Prime Minister because hardliners were gunning for tougher measures against Thaksin.

The scenario echoed the words of Sulak Sivaraksa, a 74-year-old social activist who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, during an interview on Wednesday.

“This Sept 19 is the weakest coup that we ever had. Because in every coup those who have taken power are in real control.

“They assassinate their opponents, put them in jail or exile them,” he noted.

“But these coup leaders have done nothing. Either they are too goody-goody or they don’t know how to exercise power or there is no unity in the army.”

Yesterday, The Nation reported: “Rumours abound about conflicts within the Council for National Security (CNS, the official name of the coup perpetrators) – and between the CNS and the Surayud government – over how to deal with Thaksin. These conflicts reportedly intensified in the wake of the bomb incidents.”

Sulak also noted that if the interim government were efficient, the New Year’s Eve bombing would not have happened.

“Surayud is a nice man. Sonthi is a nice man. The trouble with this country is we have so many nice men; but they are not efficient,” he explained.

An efficient government, he added, would have taken a harder stance against Thaksin who faced a slew of corruption allegations.

On the consequences of the New Year Eve bombings, Sulak said that if there were more bombings, the Surayud government might have collapsed.

“Somebody will kick them out, somebody within the army,” he said before Thursday’s rumours.

(Published in The Star on Jan 6, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)