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)