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)