Saturday, April 28, 2007

Bracing for a very fiery year after Songkran


The wet fun of the Thai new year has given way to fire in the bellies of protesters.

AS THAILAND celebrated the beginning of a New Year, Bangkok turned into a battleground that pitted mothers against daughters, Thais against tourists and pedestrians against policemen.

Armed with buckets, garden hoses and water guns, the combatants drenched anyone within splashing distance in the Songkran (Thai New Year) tradition of spraying water to wash away bad luck and usher in a prosperous new year.

In a month that is ron maak maak (Thai for very, very hot), the celebration helped take the heat off the 37°C days.

And the five-day holiday of liquid fun presented a reprieve as well to the military-installed government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who is facing political heat in the form of bombings and bomb threats in Bangkok, rumours of a counter coup, pressure to resign and a sluggish economy.

However, Thais are not so naive as to hope that the long fun-filled Songkran weekend would douse their country’s sizzling political turmoil. When the water-based festivities ended, another element re-ignited. Fire.

Fire in the bellies of diverse protesters with contrasting interests. Despite Surayud’s promise to hold an election in mid-December, the political rallies are set to get bigger than those in the six months following the coup.

On Wednesday, The Nation newspaper reported that General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, chairman of the Council for National Security (CNS, as the military junta which overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra calls itself), warned the Surayud government about “volatile political development” over the next two months.

“There will be all kinds of mobs to increase pressure and create confusion. So, the government should be alert and find ways to handle that,” a source quoted Gen Sonthi as saying.

Gen Sonthi, who is army chief, pointed out that the Assets Examination Committee (AEC) was set to wrap up investigations into politicians from the previous administration, and the Constitution Tribunal would rule on electoral fraud cases filed against Thaksin’s political party Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and the country’s main opposition Democrat Party.

The Constitution Tribunal will decide on May 30 whether the two political parties should be dissolved for committing election fraud and their executives banned from politics for five years.

On Wednesday, in the sweltering heat, hundreds of saffron-robed monks and Buddhists marched with nine elephants to the Thai parliament to demand that Buddhism be enshrined as the national religion in the new post-coup constitution.

They ended their sit-in protest on Thursday.

But Thongchai Kuasakul, chairman of Thai Buddhism Promotion Foundation, cautioned: “If we know for sure that Buddhism is not enshrined in the Constitution, we will resume large-scale protests both in Bangkok and the provinces to campaign for the rejection of the new Constitution.”

Another group fired up to organise anti-coup demonstrations is the maverick broadcaster People’s Television (PTV), which is operated by supporters of Thaksin.

“PTV will organise its next rally right after the Songkran holiday, coordinating with other anti-coup groups to demand the return of democratic rule, and hopes to draw a bigger crowd for its May rally,” PTV rally organiser Jatuporn Prompan said.

“From May onwards, conditions will be ripe to sway the public to oppose the government and the Council for National Security.”

Adding fire to the raising political temperature is the plan by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which before the September coup organised anti-Thaksin rallies, to stage protests against the government.

“We wonder if the CNS is behind the PAD creating political turmoil so that it can cite this as the reason to stay in power,” TRT spokesman Kuthep Saikrachang asked.

And, as if protests in Thailand were not enough, a group of Thais in London plan to demonstrate at the Thai embassy on May 4 against the current leadership, to urge them to return democracy to the people.

According to, a pro-Thaksin website, Thai expatriates living in the United States, China and Japan also plan similar protests.

It's only a few days into the Thai New Year, and there’s already a raging feeling that mass street protests are making a comeback.

But this time with fiery consequences.

(Published in The Star on April 28, 2007)

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Pageant where the prettiest flock to


A TELEVISION spectacle that is watched by millions of viewers across Asia, the Miss Tiffany’s Universe beauty contest, has come a long way since its inception 10 years ago.
In 1998, Tiffany’s Show Pattaya Co Ltd could not convince Thai television stations to broadcast its inaugural pageant.

“At that time Thailand was still a closed society which did not accept transvestites on the television,” explains Alisa Phanthusak, Tiffany’s Show Pattaya Co Ltd assistant managing director.

The following year, the franchise holder bought airtime from iTV, a Thai television station, to screen the pageant live in Thailand. That broadcast blasted the obscure beauty contest into an international headline grabber.

“That year, we were on CNN. We also received coverage from news service such as Reuters,” recalls Alisa, the 32-year-old daughter of the owner of Tiffany’s Show Pattaya.

On why the event caught the world’s attention, she says: “It is unique. It is a show by girls who are not a girl and who are prettier than a girl.”

The pageant received a further publicity boost when Asiaweek, the now defunct newsmagazine, invited its readers to judge who was prettier – Miss Thailand Universe 1999 Apisamai Srirangsan or Miss Tiffany’s Universe 1999 Pattareeya Siringamwong.

“They said Miss Tiffany’s Universe was prettier. Can you believe that?” exclaims Alisa, who is a member of Thailand’s constitutional drafting assembly.

Her theory on why Miss Tiffany’s Universe is prettier than Miss Thailand Universe is that it is a beauty pageant which attracts Thailand’s prettiest transvestites but not necessarily the country’s prettiest women.

Transvestites in Thailand feel that they are undervalued, she explains. And they are motivated to participate in a beauty contest so that they have an opportunity to show off their beauty.

Perhaps the other reason might be a surgical blade?

“No, no,” protests Alisa. “Like her,” she says, pointing at Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2006 Ratrawee Chirapraphakun (pix), “she did not do anything to her face.

“The only surgery she had was breast augmentation and sex change. Most of them are born pretty. It is only their body which is male. And I think they take care of themselves more than a woman would.”

To the reigning Miss Tiffany’s Universe, comparing the titleholders of the two beauty pageants is like comparing an apple with an orange.

“Miss Thailand Universe looks more natural as she is a woman while Miss Tiffany’s Universe doesn’t have a natural womanly look. And when you look at her (Miss Tiffany’s Universe) you know she’s a transvestite,” explains Ratrawee, who is 23.

Miss Tiffany’s Universe is a spin-off from the world-famous Tiffany’s Show, which is a transvestite/transsexual cabaret show in Pattaya, a beach resort about 110km southeast of Bangkok.

Tiffany’s Show, which was established in 1974, had organised an in-house beauty pageant solely for its transvestite performers. In 1998, it opened up the contest to katoeys (Thai for transvestites) in Thailand.

One of the hiccups of the inaugural Miss Tiffany’s Universe was the winner refused to do media publicity because she did not want anyone to know that she was a katoey.

In 2001, transvestites outside Thailand clamoured to join the pageant and the organiser allowed international participants to contest. But it was chaos, linguistically.

“Even though they (Korean and Japanese contestants) were very pretty they could not win because of the language barrier,” recalls Alisa.

The experiment lasted for two years and the organiser reverted to limiting the pageant exclusively to Thais. And it launched a Miss International Queen beauty pageant for international transvestites and transsexuals in 2004.

The stature of Miss Tiffany’s Universe grew to a point where every Thai transvestite and transsexual knows that winning the title is a ticket to fame.

“It is the most famous pageant in Thailand and everyone wants to win it,” says Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2006.

The past winners, according to Alisa, have become actresses, models or television game show hostesses. The most famous winner is Treechada Petcharat, who was Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2004 and Miss International Queen 2004.

On May 11, in Pattaya, the Miss Tiffany’s Universe beauty pageant will celebrate its 10th anniversary and Thai viewers can tune in live to watch Thailand’s most beautiful ladyboy win a Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

(Published in The Star on April 21, 2007)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Historian campaigns to rename Thailand Siam


THE view from Bangkok’s Thammasat University of a wooden rice barge floating down the Chao Phraya River evokes a scene from a postcard of Siam.

The image is enhanced by the antique architecture of the university, which was inaugurated in 1934 when Thailand was called Siam.

On a Tuesday afternoon, at the office of the South-East Asian Studies Programme at the university by the river, a 66-year-old historian who was born two years after Siam was renamed Thailand passionately talks about his one-week-old campaign.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, the programme's senior adviser and lecturer, wants Thailand to be renamed Siam.

Two weeks ago, Charnvit’s decades-long “Siam not Thailand” passion was re-ignited when he pondered on the violent conflict in his country’s restive southern provinces.

“Thailand means the land of the Thai (an ethnic group). That is a narrow definition as there are more than 40 ethnic groups in the country, including Thai (who make up 80% of the kingdom’s 65 million population), Chinese, Hmong, Akha, Karen, Laotians, Khmer and Mon,” explains the historian who is of Mon and Teochew blood.

“The people in the south do not think that they are Thai. They consider themselves Malay or Pattani people. If we want our country to be more inclusive, the name Siam is more appropriate.”

Charnvit, however, admits that a name change is only a small step towards resolving the Muslim insurgency in the south.

Internationally, won’t a name change be confusing?

“You’ve heard of Siamese cat or Siamese twins but you’ve never heard of a Thai cat,” quips the former rector of Thammasat University.

“Thailand has been in use for 68 years, but Siam was used for thousands of years.”

Historical records state that the Chinese referred to the country as “Sian,” which was sometimes spelled as “Hsien.” Siam is an anglicised spelling.

On the meaning of “Siam,” the prominent historian says some people claim it means “dark.” But he disagrees, guessing that it is just a name of a place.

During the rise of militarism, Nazism and fascism, Prime Minister Phibul Songgram changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand in 1939 on the grounds that “we are the Thai race, but ? the name Siam does not correspond to our race.”

However, Charnvit contends that the change was because the nationalistic government had militaristic and expansionist ambitions.

A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit states that a military lecturer claimed that the Burmese, Annamese, Khmer and Malay were all of “original Thai stock” and should be united with Siam.

In 1939, the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient presented Thailand’s chief ideologue Wichit Wathakan with a map showing Thai-speaking people scattered across South-East Asia and southern China, wrote Baker and Pasuk. Wichit reportedly exclaimed: “If we could recover the lost territories, we would be a great power.”

To recover his country’s former name, Charnvit launched a media campaign and an Internet petition last week to persuade the constitution drafters to revert to the name used in the kingdom’s first constitution, which was promulgated in 1932.

In 1949 and 1968, constitution drafters discussed the issue of renaming Thailand. And the results, says the historian, was “Siam lost and Thailand won.”

As of Thursday, the week-old petition had more than 565 signatures. Charnvit finds the comments in the website reveals that Thais are no longer suppressing their non-Thai ethnic background.

For example, he reveals, through Thailand’s anti-Chinese campaign during the Cold War, many of his countrymen denied that they had Chinese blood.

Though the number of petition signatories is increasing, the historian is realistic that success is very slim.

“My target is for the drafters of the country’s new constitution to debate the name change but they will probably sit on it,” he explains.

The other obstacle is that most of his fellow citizens were born after Siam was named Thailand. The younger generation is familiar with the word “Thailand” so they probably don’t care about the word “Siam”, he observes.

But the younger generation’s favourite shopping mall is Bangkok’s Siam Paragon, I said, playing the devil’s advocate.

That’s the contradiction, says Charnvit, explaining that Thais use “Siam” occasionally as culturally it means something that has a good tradition.

(Published in The Star on April 14, 2007)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Kingdom pins high hopes on teen beauty ambassador


WINNING the Miss Universe Pageant is not a tall order for a girl recently crowned the most beautiful in Thailand.

Miss Thailand Universe 2007 Farung Yuthithum’s towering confidence soars from her 1.79m stature.

“I feel I have an advantage because of my height. I’m actually the tallest Miss Thailand Universe ever,” purrs the elegant 19-year-old.

Why is it an advantage? I asked the five-feet-ten beauty queen.

Silence. And then the seven Miss Thailand Universe 2007 finalists present during the interview started murmuring among themselves in their native tongue, all the while giggling at my ignorance.

“You know, most Miss Universe winners are tall. And Asian beauty queens are usually shorter than most of the other contestants,” explains 23-year-old Buachompoo Varee, Miss Thailand Universe 2007 second runner-up.

“In this case, we have a tall Thai representing our country and this will bring out something different, something special.”

Miss Universe 2006 Zuleyka Rivera, a Puerto Rican, was 1.75m, adds Buachompoo, who is 1.66m tall.

Farung credits her height – which is above average for Thai women - to genetics (her father who is a provincial prison deputy director is 1.80m tall and her mother 1.69m), milk and a “particular fish that has lots of protein.”

In profiling the Miss Thailand Universe 2007, The Nation newspaper highlighted that the occasional cutting remarks targeted at Farung were “Is that perfectly pointed chin a surgeon’s work?” and “Doesn’t she resemble some of the better looking gender-bending Miss Tiffanys?”

The 33-24-33 beauty views the public snipping optimistically.

“I’m glad they think my face is perfectly proportioned! My mother has sharp cheekbones like me,” she said.

“I’m not against surgery, though. If it makes you happy and others happy, then it’s okay, but it’s not like everyone needs it.”

The tall beauty with high hopes wishes to emulate her two compatriots who were crowned Miss Universe – Apasra Hongsakula in 1965 and Porntip Nakhirunkanok in 1988. And in the Miss Universe pageant in Mexico in May, the towering beauty will convey Thai culture to the world.

“I’ll present the beautiful smile from the Land of Smiles,” says the third-year student, who is an English major at Rajamangala University of Technology in Thanyaburi, Thailand.

“Will English be a barrier for you?” I ask.

Farung, who replied to my first question in English but subsequently allowed the US-bred Buachompoo to translate, says in Thai: “It is not a big deal because when we girls (the contestants) participate in the activities we will somehow be able to communicate. And if there comes a point in the pageant when I need to answer a question, there will be a translator.”

“Is there a secret place where Thai beauty queens are trained to win the Miss Universe pageant?” I query further.

Laughing, she says, “none that I've heard of.”

And the beauty queen, who was described as the quietest Miss Thailand Universe 2007 contestant, will also work hard to unleash her hidden outgoing personality.

“It will definitely bring more attention to my country and make us more well known. The past Thai beauty queens have done the same and hopefully I can take it to another level in terms of my country’s economy and fashion industry,” she says in answer to my question on what difference her winning the title would bring for Thailand.

Farung, who listed Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont as the political figure she admires the most, says other than winning the Miss Universe title, she would like to be an ambassador.

Nineteen years after Thailand clinched its second Miss Universe Pageant, it will also be an honour if the tallest ever Miss Thailand Universe rises to great heights in Mexico.

(Published in The Star on April 7, 2007. Photograph courtesy of The Nation.)