Saturday, December 27, 2008

It’s confirmed, there’s trouble brewing

Thai Takes

LATELY, Saranrat “Lydia” Wisutthithada, the Thai R&B singer with a sultry face, has been in distress because the public has become fascinated with her stomach.

“Since last month, whenever I leave home, people look at my stomach, not my face, and asked if I am pregnant or whether I have had an abortion,” a weeping Lydia said on national television early this month.

“People call my mother and ask her constantly. My whole family is tense.”

The 21-year-old singer’s “pregnancy” ordeal started after celebrity fortune teller Mor Krit Confirm (whose trademark is ending his predictions with the word “confirm”) confirmed that Lydia was pregnant.

Mor Krit’s prediction fanned the soosip (Thai slang for gossip) on Lydia and the nature of her relationship with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who recently divorced Pojaman, his wife of 32 years.

The tabloid speculated that Thaksin had split up with the mother of his three children so that he could marry Lydia and raise her baby.

The singer, however, denied the soosip, saying she was in contact with Thaksin (whom she calls “dad”), and she was definite that the billionaire politician was not interested in tying the knot with her.

That is not the first time Lydia had to deny Thaksin-related soosip. On Sept 7 last year, the singer caused a stir in the region when she declared that she was not his gig (Thai slang for part-time lover).

Mor Krit (whose real name is Sukrit Patumdhsriwiroj), 23, is an aggressive celebrity upstart who is in a hurry to be famous. And he claims to have accurately read the fortunes of 40,000 people.

He became famous when he “confirmed” that a little-known Thai actress Amita “Nan” Chinsumrej was not pregnant although she herself claimed that she was.

Later, a tearful Nan confessed that she had made up the story about her having given birth to a baby girl so that she could become famous and also to publicise her kiss-and-tell book.

However, on Dec 15, Mor Krit’s fortune telling abilities deserted him when he could not “confirm” what would happen to him on that day.

The fortune teller, who claimed that 50 out of his 53 forecasts on high-profile people were accurate, was invited to speak about his Lydia pregnancy prediction in an event organised by a Thai gossip newspaper in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall.

At the event, he was verbally attacked by Lydia’s mother, Sansanee.

“Who asked you to tell her (fortune)? Who gave you permission?” Sansanee demanded, according to the Bangkok Post.

“I am just doing my job,” he replied meekly into his microphone.

“Well, I’m doing my job as her mum, too (protecting Lydia),” Sansanee said.

Mor Krit quickly apologised, giving her a wai (a respectful Thai greeting).

But Lydia’s mother was not satisfied, and shouted: “If you’re sorry, then get down on your knees.”

The fortune teller was about to kraab (Thai for prostrate) himself in front of Sansanee but the organiser quickly hustled him off stage.

The next day, Mor Krit had an inkling of what was coming. He had read his own stars, according to the Bangkok Post, and he could see himself giving evidence in his defence (in a legal suit).

Confirmed. Lydia filed a 50 million baht (RM5mil) suit against him over the “pregnant” forecast.

So far, Mor Krit’s defence for his “mistake” is that the media read too much into his prediction.

“All I said was that there is a chance she could get pregnant. I didn’t say with certainty that she was pregnant,” the Bangkok Post reported him as saying.

In a television interview, the fortune teller said that week was his worst in his life. He had become famous, but at a price.

“My whole world has changed and I feel as if I hardly know myself anymore,” he told the host.

“People say I am sarcastic, arrogant, poorly brought up. I have cried many times and lost sleep,” said the fortune teller.

Mor Krit also admitted he never thought that his prediction that Lydia might be pregnant might cause so much distress to Lydia.

And he “confirmed” that he would like to apologise for his inaccurate prediction.

(Published in The Star on December 27, 2008. Photograph of Lydia courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Planning a coup? Here’s how

Thai Takes

PSST, do you want to bring down a democratically-elected government? Here’s a blueprint on how to install a squeaky clean politician whose party does not have an overall majority in parliament as prime minister.

While the targeted prime minister is out of the country – say, in New York to address the United Nations general assembly – get the military to launch a coup.

Call it “Happy Coup”. Impose martial law and install a former general as prime minister.

But that’s not quite enough. A military junta can’t rule forever; the civilised world demands an elected leader.

Before the election, get the court to dissolve the most powerful party (the only party to have won an outright majority in your country’s political history) and – for good measure – ban its 111 executives, including the ousted prime minister, from politics for five years.

Oops! Your party failed to win the election although it outspent the reincarnated party of the disbanded party by three to one.

Mai pen rai (Thai for “don’t worry”). It’s not your fault. Voters – especially the poor from the north and north-east – don’t understand democracy.

Although your party has only 166 MPs (in the 480-MP parliament) propose the squeaky clean politician as prime minister. Don’t be too disappointed, however, when MPs from the reincarnated party and its five coalition partners vote in for a loud-mouthed prime minister.

Four months later, unleash a movement (give it a name with democratic sounding words like “People”, “Alliance” and “Demo­cracy”) to attack the government for being the puppet of the deposed prime minister.

Don’t forget to storm Government House (the prime minister’s office).

Don’t worry when the prime minister declares a state of emergency as the military will refuse to enforce the rule of law. Plus you have sen (Thai for “connection”) to a powerful invisible hand.

Despite losing his office, the premier still clings to power. It’s time for a judicial coup. Get the court to remove him from office for moonlighting as a chef in a television cooking show.

For the second time, propose the squeaky clean politician as prime minister. He loses again? Ah, the ruling party has the numbers.

But, mai pen rai, as the newly elected premier is a brother-in-law of the deposed prime minister, this will legitimise the anti-government movement’s claim that a puppet government is running the country.

Now for a TV coup. Get the army chief – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – to appear on television, demanding that the prime minister resign, as surely somebody must take responsibility for the bloody clash between the police and the movement with the democratic-sounding name.

The army chief’s demand is ignored? It’s time to close an airport or two.

Mai pen rai. When the government declares emergency rule at the besieged airports the invisible hand will order the soldiers to refuse to enforce the rule of law.

The stubborn government is still clinging to power? Well, it’s time for another judicial coup.

Dissolve the ruling party and its two coalition partners for electoral fraud and ban 109 of the executives – including the prime minister and 29 MPs – from politics for five years.

Let’s look at the latest numbers now. The disbanded ruling party has 219 MPs and its five coalition allies 65, compared with your party’s 165. Mai pen rai. For the sake of national unity or a lucrative Cabinet portfolio or 40 million baht (RM4mil), there are parliamentarians who can be persuaded to support your coalition government.

If the politicians still need persuasion, arrange for the army chief to “advise” them in his home. But make sure they know the location of the general’s house. If not, a military escort will have to fetch them at a nearby petrol station; and those pesky reporters will find out about this super secret deal.

On the eve of the parliament vote, lock the parliamentarians whose loyalty you’ve secured in a safe hotel. And don’t forget to confiscate their handphones so they do not receive any calls topping up the price of loyalty.

Congratulations, your coalition has won a slender parliamentary majority (235 votes to 198). Now your squeaky clean and very handsome politician is a prime minister.

(Published in The Star on December 20, 2008)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Helmet hairstyles no longer hi-so

Thai Takes

TYPE “hi-so” in The Nation’ – search box, and you’ll find some 160 entries.

The page features “New, mega rich hi-so superstars of the Thai economy”, “Hi-so wives and mia nois (Thai for minor wives)”, “Hi-so crowd”, “Hi-so denizens” and “Hi-so parties”.

What’s hi-so?

“Not that easy to define any more,” says Thailand Tatler editor-in-chief Naphalai Areesorn.

“In the past it used to be the family you come from which set your social status,” she explains. “And in Thailand – which is a country with a royal family – we have established families that can trace their line way back to the initial days of the Chakri dynasty.”

Now, Naphalai continues, there’s new money – especially during the Thaksin Shinawatra days when many Thais became rich.

And there’s the social climber.

Usually they are the wannabes who incessantly patronise high society functions and get themselves photographed ceaselessly (because they are eccentric or dress outstandingly) and then sort of get themselves into the hi-so circle, although their “background is not quite what it should be”.

For a description of a hi-so, return to the first page of The Nation’s search result and click on the article “Two women take over husbands’ political roles”, which was published on Jan 12.

Towards the end, the article states: “Pojaman (Damapong – her maiden name, which she reverted to after divorcing Thaksin Shinawatra) might look like any rich madam with her big hairstyle, neatly cut dress and designer handbag.

“She also loves to shop at upscale department stores. But what makes her stand out from the hi-so crowd is the strong political network she has built since the premiership of her husband.”

Well, the days of big hairdos are gone. The khunying (Thai slang for a woman which Lonely Planet characterises as having “Imelda Marcos helmet hairdos, jewel-toned Thai silk and thick pancake make-up”) has now gone modern.

“The khunyings have lowered the height of their hair,” adds Naphalai, who joined Thailand Tattler as a contributing editor when the magazine was launched 17 years ago.

Being a hi-so comes with a certain look.

“Don’t forget, within this crowd, there is a lot of keeping up with the Joneses. If you – especially a hi-so wannabe – want to be accep- ted by them, you have to look like them,” explains Naphalai, who is the perfect source to give the low-down on Thai high society.

Designer dress is a must. “If it is not designer wear, then it must be (made of) Thai silk,” she adds.

A must-have accessory is designer handbags – at the least, Hermes’ Kelly or Birkin.

But it is not all about international designer labels. The in-thing is high-end made-in-Thailand labels such as Asava (a new brand by a designer who is in the hi-so circle), Disaya or Munchu’s.

Ostentatiousness separates the Thai hi-so from her southern counterpart, the Malaysian socialite.

Thai hi-so tends to be more ostentatious, observes Naphalai, who is familiar with the Malaysian social scene as she lived in Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s when her father was Bangkok Bank manager.

“Thais tend to show off. Malaysians – and I know some very wealthy Malaysian Chinese – don’t seem to care so much about having to put up with appearances,” she observes. “The wealth is there but Malaysians do not have the need to display their wealth.”

How ostentatious is the Thai hi-so?

She’s dripping with the biggest stones in a social function that does not require her to wear all the jewellery in her safety box.

“When one piece of jewellery is enough to draw attention, there are people who wear jewellery on their ears, neck, wrists, fingers … everywhere,” laments Naphalai. “In Thailand being frugal is not always considered a positive value.”

Eeeem, sounds like the Mak Datins (who are Malaysia’s equivalent of the khunyings).

The other difference is that Malaysian socialites are less fashionable than their Thai counterparts.

KLites tend to dress more simply than Bangkokians, notes Naphalai, who does not consider herself a hi-so.

A hi-so, she adds, is very quick to own the latest trend so that she can wear it and show it off.

(Published in The Star on December 13, 2008)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The lull before another storm

Thai Takes

ON TUESDAY, the Thai constitutional court dissolved People Power Party (PPP) and its two coalition partners, forcing out Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s government.

And the next day, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ended its eight-day occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport.

An end to Thailand’s protracted political crisis?

No. The razor-edge tension in the Land of Smiles dissipated on Wednesday because the kingdom looked to celebrating King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 81st birthday.

“There is less tension now,” a worried journalist from The Nation conceded on Wednesday. “But we don’t know what will happen next.”

What happens next will depend on the political trade-offs now being hammered out.

Theoretically, MPs from the dissolved parties (PPP, Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya) and their coalition partners (Puea Pandin, Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana and Pracharaj) can still form the next government, even though the court banned 109 executives of the disbanded parties from politics for five years.

PPP, a re-incarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT), which the constitutional court disbanded in May last year, still has 218 MPs (out of its original 232) who are not banned from politics because they are non-executives of the party.

Most of these MPs are expected to join Puea Thai (For Thais) which PPP established in anticipation of a negative court decision.

So far, all six coalition members – including the reincarnated parties of Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya – have vowed to stick together and form the next coalition government.

These parties have a combined 282 MPs (315 before the dissolution) compared with 165 MPs from the Democrat Party, Thailand’s sole opposition party in parliament.

A Puea Thai-led coalition government is not a done deal, however. Getting in the way is intense politicking.

For example, a faction from the now defunct PPP called the Friend of Newin Chidchob has threatened not to support the nomination of a prime minister who comes from PPP.

“We haven’t yet decided which party we will join. The only condition we have is that the next PM should not bring any more conflicts to the country,” Cherdchai Wichienwan, an MP from the disbanded PPP, told reporters after attending a meeting chaired by Newin (a banned TRT politician whose 80-year-old father, Chai, is the House Speaker).

On Thursday, Kiartikorn Pakpiansilp, an MP from the disbanded Matchima Thipataya, became the first MP to abandon the defunct PPP-led coalition when he joined the Democrat Party.

His defection gives rise to the Democrat’s hope of cobbling together a government with party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister. The party is lobbying MPs and political parties to ditch the Puea Thai-led coalition for it.

w“The Democrats are trying hard to form the next government but they are unlikely to succeed,” opined Worapol Promigabutr, Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology.

The academician noted that there was also a concerted effort by a political force in Thailand which he calls the oligarchy (politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen) to block a Puea Thai-led coalition government.

Like most Thais, Worapol does not see an end to the Thai political conflict.

If the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai formed the next government, there would be turmoil.

The PAD, which ended its marathon 192-day destructive street protest on Wednesday, has warned:

“If a proxy government of the Thaksin regime is set up again or if there is an attempt to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash the wrongdoings of those in the Thaksin regime, to benefit politicians, or to lessen the power of the King, the PAD will return.”

And if the Democrat Party formed the next government, there would also be turmoil.

“The red-shirt protesters (the anti-PAD and pro-PPP government supporters) will do a PAD and organise street protests against a Democrat-led government,” Worapol predicted.

For the moment, political turmoil is on hold until after the king’s birthday.

The mood in Thailand, however, turned sombre on Thursday when King Bhumibol failed to deliver his traditional birthday address. On the eve of his birthday, the king was mildly sick – a throat infection.

Unfortunate, as his subjects were eagerly anticipating his advice on the political crisis that has brought down a government and closed two Bangkok airports.

(Published in The Star on Dec 6, 2008)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

High cost of a stand-off

Thai Takes

FOR a man who might or might not be stranded in Seoul, Suwat Thongthanakul was sympathetic to the anti-government protesters who shut down Bangkok’s international airport.

Watching the latest report on the siege of Suvarnabhumi Airport on CNN at 10pm on Wednesday in his hotel room in the South Korean capital, he admitted that the closure was inconvenient as he was uncertain whether his Friday flight to the Thai capital would take off.

But the National Press Council of Thailand president understood why the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had seized Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday night.

“You should not ask me what happened but why it happened,” said Suwat, who then gave a 20-minute lecture on ‘new politics’, echoing the PAD’s view that the corrupt Thai electoral system had allowed politicians to buy their way into parliament.

“The (Thai prime minister) Som­chai Wongsawat government is corrupt. And this is the only way we can pressure his government to resign,” explained the editor, who travelled to Seoul to attend a journalism conference organised by the Korea Press Foundation (KPF).

But how about the damage to Thailand’s international image and to its economy especially as tourism contributes to 14% to the country’s GDP?

“You have to look at the big picture,” said Suwat, while drawing an imaginary ‘big’ circle with his finger.

“If Somchai and Thaksin remain in power, the country will be in bigger trouble.”

The PAD had alleged that billionaire politician Thaksin, who is the brother-in-law of Somchai, is the puppet master controlling the government.

“But what about the country’s image?” I reiterated while CNN was broadcasting images of frustrated passengers stranded at Suvarna­bhumi, the world’s 18th busiest airport which handles about 700 flights daily.

Suwat, the editor-in-chief of Manager Weekly, a business magazine which is part of PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul’s media empire, replied: “I understand the passengers’ frustration because I myself might be stranded in Seoul but this (fallout from the airport closure) will be temporary as eventually the tourists will come back.”

Thailand experienced bloodshed during the anti-government protests in 1992, 1976 and 1973 but the kingdom bounced back from those incidents, he added.

Still, the PAD’s seizure of Suvarna­bhumi comes at a costly price. The closure of the airport at the beginning of Amazing Thailand’s high season could cost the tourism industry about 100 billion baht (RM10bil) for the next six months.

Another Thai journalist who is stuck in transit at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, fails to see Suwat’s “big picture”.

In an editorial in The Nation yesterday, Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote: “This is a most irresponsible action by the PAD. It’s wrong to target an airport in any civilised society.”

“It will have far-reaching consequences, not just for this writer but for thousands of Thais and foreign tourists who have been held captive,” Pravit opined.

“It will adversely affect the already suffering tourism and travel industry. Thailand’s reputation as a reliable air traffic hub and as a tourist destination has been severely tarnished.”

During Wednesday’s dinner, the airport closure was the main topic of conversation among the journalists who attended KPF’s journalism conference.

Some of them wondered how the authorities could allow the PAD to take over two airports (on Thursday, the PAD stormed Bangkok’s Don Muaeng airport).

Suwat explained that if the police used force which resulted in bloodshed the public outcry would force the government to resign.

However, by Thursday’s breakfast the Mumbai terrorists’ strike had blown Suvarnabhumi from their minds.

“Now the world has forgotten about Thailand,” a Filipino journalist told me.

“Well, not me,” I replied.

“I need to get back to Bangkok as I’ve got a potential coup story to cover and a six-week-old baby to kiss.”

That Thursday, Suwat was making plans in case the PAD was still in control of the Suvarnabhumi airport and Don Muaeng airport on Friday.

He could fly to Phnom Penh and then take a seven-hour bus back to Bangkok. Or he could remain in Seoul and incur additional expenses.

Yes, an airport closure can be inconvenient. But for Suwat, what’s a travel delay if it meant the end of a Thaksin-proxy government and the beginning of a “clean” political system.

(Published in The Star on Nov 29, 2008)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conspiracy theorists having a field day

Thai Takes

HERE’S one of the unofficial versions on how Thaksin Shinawatra became a wasband (which defines as “a woman’s ex-husband”).

According to Jatuporn Promphan, an MP from the ruling pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP), the main reason the former Thai prime minister divorced Pojaman at the Thai Consulate in Hong Kong on Nov 14 was he wanted to return to politics.

“Thaksin and his wife had decided earlier, after the coup d’etat in 2006, that they would separate if he decided to return to politics. It is a promise between them. So they have decided to part now that Thaksin will return to politics,” he told The Nation.

“However, their divorce does not mean that they are no longer in love,” Jatuporn added.

On the day the Shinawatras split legally, over dinner in Hong Kong, Thaksin shocked his close friends, including PPP MPs, when he told them his marriage of 32 years had ended.

Thaksin, according to the Bangkok Post, told them, “(We divorced, so that) my wife and children would not have to keep moving from one place to another. From now on, I won’t have to be worried about them. I have no choice. Even though I’ve stopped, they (his political enemies) did not stop killing me (politically).”

Instead of listening to his marital and political woes, an anti-Thaksin journalist told me that the MPs should have apprehended the “fugitive criminal”.

The billionaire politician is on the run. Last month, a Thai court sentenced him – in absentia – to two years in jail for conflict of interest in a Bangkok land deal.

So far the “homeless” Thaksin, who is currently in Dubai, has publicly kept mum about his divorce.

News of the shocking legal break-up spewed a slew of theories on why the couple headed for splitsville.

It is a cunning financial plan to protect the Shinawatras’ wealth – which is mostly under Pojaman’s name – in case Thaksin is found guilty in a major corruption case which will be tried next month.

It will allow Pojaman to appeal to the British government to reconsider its decision to revoke her entry visa so that she can live in London and raise her three children there. (The British government reportedly revoked Thaksin and Pojaman’s entry visa because of the former prime minister’s jail sentence.)

The least conspiratorial of the theories is that Thaksin and Pojaman are really at odds. Perhaps the simple explanation is it’s a Viagra divorce (wordspy: “a divorce granted on the grounds that a husband is behaving aggressively or unfaithfully after taking Viagra or some other anti-impotence drug”).

Thaksin is not the only Shinawatra who is having “marital problems”.

If a 25-minute video clip featuring Thai prime minister Somchai Wongsawat (who is married to Thaksin’s younger sister Yaowapa) is to be believed, his marriage is on the rocks.

The “smoking bed” (wordspy: evidence of sexual misconduct by a politician or other public figures) that was posted on and website of anti-Thaksin newspapers last month shows a man resembling Somchai in four video footages.

There’s the man in a red Mercedes-Benz picking up a woman (who is not Yaowapa) in front of a convenience store and they later dined at a restaurant.

There’s the man and a woman (who is not Yaowapa) in a black BMW heading to a love motel.

There’s the man having lunch with a woman resembling Yaowapa.

There’s the man and a woman (who is not Yaowapa) buying a refrigerator in a HomePro department store.

Nothing really scandalous about the video footages which were taken before Somchai became premier.

However, Chamlong Srimuang, a co-leader of the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy, thinks otherwise.

“This is a serious issue because he is accused of using office time to hook up with a woman,” he said. “For this type of allegation, leaders of other countries would have resigned, if they had been accused.”

Early this month, Somchai admitted he was the man in the video but “only in some parts”. The video clip, according to him, has been partly doctored to discredit him. Well, that’s the Thai prime minister’s official version and so far he is not yet a wasband.

(Published in The Star on November 22, 2008. Photograph of the Thaksin family courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Explosions, hexes and romance

Thai Takes

CARE to play Russian roulette Bang­kok-style?

Here’s how to play the game.

Go – during the wee hours of the morning – to Bangkok’s Government House, which the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has illegally occupied since Aug 26.


Most of the time nothing untoward will happen. But – if fate decides to pull the trigger – an explosive device will come shooting in.

That’s what happened on Nov 11.

At around 3.25am an explosion occurred about 50m from the stage where PAD leaders spew their venom against Thaksin Shinawatra (the former Thai premier ousted in a 2006 coup), Samak Sundaravej (a former Thai premier who recently flew to the United States to seek treatment for liver cancer) and anyone partial to the Shinawatras.

The blast – which may have been caused by an explosive device fired from an M29 projectile or M79 grenade launcher – injured several anti-government protesters.

It was the fifth bomb attack in and near Government House since Oct 30.

The Nov 11 attack came despite PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul’s spiritual effort to keep evil spirits off ground zero of the alliance’s campaign to oust the ruling coalition led by People Power Party (PPP), which is seen as pro-Thaksin.

On Sunday, dressed in white, Sondhi – who the Bangkok Post described as looking on that sacred occasion “more like a sorcerer than the head of the anti-government movement” – sprinkled holy water around the compound of Govern­ment House.

“My dear brothers and sisters, this is a sacred activity.

“My revered masters told me to perform this ritual to counter evil spirits and to clear this area (to pave the way) for our triumph,” the English-language newspaper reported him as telling the PAD crowd.

The ritual, the Bangkok Post added, “was held after the PAD was targeted in a series of bombings by unknown assailants that injured some of their guards”.

It was not the first time Sondhi, a media mogul and Thaksin’s arch rival, performed a spiritual rite to counter the black magic seeking to destroy the PAD.

On Oct 29, in a speech broadcasted live on his ASTV satellite television network, Sondhi claimed that for many years, evil people used black magic to suppress the power of some of Bangkok’s holiest sites such as the City Pillar, the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V and the Emerald Buddha. He then described how his team – masters and adepts – rectified the “suppression”.

“The (base of the) Equestrian Statue is like this (Sondhi draws a hexagon with his hands) with the statue inside,” The Nation reported him as saying.

“Tacks had been inserted at the six corners so that the statue of the revered king could not emit its power. We drew out the tacks from all six places.”

Sondhi continued: “I must thank the women of the PAD because after (the tacks) were pulled out, to ensure they would not be replaced, sanitary napkins from menstruating women were placed on the six points.”

“Experts said the spirit adepts were furious because they could not send their spirits back as their magic was rendered ineffective.” (Menstrual blood, in Thai superstition, is believed to have great destructive power.)

What to make of Sondhi’s revelation?

For Thammasat University political scientist Prajak Kongkirati, the rituals are aimed at boosting the PAD supporters’ morale by making them believe they are waging a holy war.

“These kinds of spiritual activities are very much needed at a time when a political or social movement faces declining support from the public,” he told the Bangkok Post.

“The leaders have to do something to lift the demonstrators’ spirits.”

But Prajak warned: “An obsession with the supernatural could tarnish the image and lessen the credibility of the PAD, which could be seen as an irrational movement rather than a powerful group of people who produce solid evidence about the government’s flaws.”

But it is not all dangerous and supernatural at Government House. There’s also romance.

On the day of the Nov 11 bomb attack, two PAD supporters – who met at the anti-government rally and subsequently fell in love – tied the knot at Government House.

Hmmmm ... at the protest site you can also be struck by Cupid’s arrow.

(Published in The Star on November 15, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Elephants fight, ants get squashed

Thai Takes

WHAT would you do if your beautiful dream got squashed in a battle between two political elephants?

If you were Kangsadan Wongdu­sadeekul, a 21-year-old transvestite beauty queen, you would respond like the perfect woman.

This year Kangsadan was supposed to represent her country in Miss International Queen 2008 (Thailand’s international transvestite beauty pageant) after she was crowned Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2008 (the most sought after beauty pageant title for Thai transvestites) in May.

However, the on-going battle between the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the People’s Power Party-led coalition government has indirectly trampled on her dream to compete against aspiring transvestites around the world including Malaysia – echoing the Thai proverb which says, “In a battle between elephants, the ants get squashed”.

Miss International Queen 2008, which was due to be held in October and then deferred to November, has been cancelled (or in PR-speak postponed to 2009) as the political turmoil in Bangkok takes its toll on tourist arrivals.

Nevertheless, Kangsadan (and the future Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2009) will be competing in the Miss International Queen 2008/2009 pageant that is scheduled for early October next year.

How did Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2008 react to the postponement?

“She took it like a woman. Like all women she is not satisfied with herself, as she wants to be perfect when she competes,” said a translator while the teary-eyed katoey (Thai for transvestite) checked out her eye shadow on a vanity mirror inside her Prada purse.

“She feels the postponement will be an advantage, as it will give her time to improve her English, looks and outfit.”

Looking pretty, Kangsadan nodded her head when the translator said: “She’s happy the pageant has been postponed.”

The translator, however, quickly added: “But don’t tell that to Alisa.”

At the next table was Alisa Phanthusak, whose family owns the world-famous Tiffany show, a katoey cabaret show in Pattaya, a beach resort about 110km southeast of Bangkok.

Earlier, Alisa, the organiser of Miss Tiffany’s Universe and Miss International Queen, admitted feeling “terrible” that the international pageant had to be “postponed”.

“But we had to take this painful decision because international tourist arrivals dropped after the government declared emergency rule (on Sept 2, after a Thai was killed when anti and pro-government groups clashed on the streets of Bangkok) and several countries advised their citizens not to travel to Thailand,” she explained.

At first the organiser postponed Miss International Queen 2008 to late November this year thinking the political struggle between the PAD and the government in the Thai capital would end by then.

But after two PAD supporters were killed and nearly 500 injured when the anti-government demonstrators clashed with the police outside parliament in Bangkok on Oct 7, Alisa realised the political instability would continue even through Thailand’s high tourism season (October to March).

To paraphrase the Thai proverb, in a battle between political elephants, Thailand’s tourism industry (not exactly an ant as it contributes 14% to the country’s GDP) gets squashed.

Take the example of the Tiffany Show. The audience for Pattaya’s must-see transvestite cabaret show (usually attracting 2,000 guests a day) has dropped by 50%.

“This is the greatest crisis for tourism in Pattaya since I’ve been in the business for the past 10 years,” the 34-year-old businesswoman said, adding that the downturn was unfair as Pattaya was a long way from the epicentre of the political turmoil in Bangkok.

How about sending her international katoeys (since the transvestites – who Alisa described as “risk takers” and “more optimistic than the average tourist” – were dying to strut their stuff at the pageant) to the warring political groups with the message to “make love, not war”?

“One of my sponsors suggested organising a Miss International Queen rally in front of Bangkok’s Government House (which the PAD is illegally occupying) as a PR gimmick,” she related.

“He wanted to have fun with the current political situation and to have a peace (in Thai politics) theme for this year’s pageant.”

But Alisa, who was a member of the now-defunct National Legislative Assembly which was set up after the 2006 coup, is not about to risk her girls.

(Published by The Star on November 8, 2008. Photograph of Kangsadan courtesy of PITON Communications Co)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Bangkok's new police force


IT IS early Tuesday afternoon and a pickup truck packed with government supporters is stuck in traffic near Government House in Bangkok.

Not the safest place to be caught in a jam if you’re wearing a red T-shirt with the slogan “Choose Samak, Love Thaksin” as Government House is PAD territory since the People’s Alliance for Democracy evicted the Thai prime minister from his office on Aug 26.

What do you think happened next?

According to the Bangkok Post, a scuffle broke out between government supporters and PAD guards manning a nearby security checkpoint.

Subsequently, the guards “arrested” the five passengers and hauled them to a PAD stage in Government House.

There they – four women and a man – were paraded to a jeering PAD crowd and identified as supporters of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship’s (or UDD which is a pro-government movement).

The PAD crowd, the Bangkok Post reported, “reacted with fury and tried to grab the five before the guards hustled them out of the grounds.”

“During the chaos, a male guard reportedly punched one of the women, Sombat Khayanchoom­noom, 53, in the face. She fell to the ground with her face bleeding,” the report continued.

(The PAD guards alleged Sombat and the others were carrying petrol, a knife and an axe and intended to attack PAD protesters while the UDD members denied the allegation.)

Introducing Bangkok’s new police force – the thuggish-looking PAD security personnel who are detailed to patrol and protect Government House from an invasion from the police or pro-government supporters.

Inside and around the Venetian-styled prime minister’s office, the guards are the security enforcers – frisking those entering their territory, guarding the PAD leaders and arresting suspicious characters.

There are, according to PAD coordinator Suriyasai Katasila, up to 1,500 volunteer guards patrolling Government House.

And to enforce discipline, he said, those allowed to carry weapons such as batons and sharp-edged metal sticks have to wear a PAD-issued badge.

For the neutrals and those fed up with the PAD, the security guards behave like the title of a Steven Segal movie – Above the Law.

And negative media reports on the guards do not help improve their thuggish image.

On Oct 25, The Nation reported that six PAD guards kicked, punched and threatened 39-year-old Khao Jaengsuk because they suspected him of being a member of an anti-PAD group.

“They tried to force a confession out of me. But I am not in an anti-PAD group. In fact, I had been attending the PAD rally at Government House since early September,” Khao said.

On Wednesday, The Nation reported, PAD guards assaulted Am Daosing, a 39-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, after spotting his vehicle sporting a “Fed up with PAD” sticker.

However, on early Thursday morning some PAD guards found themselves on the receiving end.

A hand grenade was lobbed at a PAD’s checkpoint near Government House, injuring 10 security guards.

Before the bomb attack, PAD guards detained a man, who was carrying a petrol-soaked rag, as he walked to Government House. Shortly after the man’s detention, a motorcycle pillion rider threw a bomb at the guards.

Later, Kattiya Sawadiphol, an anti-PAD army general who advises pro-government protesters, denied that he was behind the attack.

He, however, warned that the PAD would face more attacks and PAD guards would be killed every day if it continued to occupy Government House.

In the future, Kattiya cautioned, the anti-government group might be attacked with heavier weapons such as M79 anti-tank rockets.

He said many groups were dissatisfied that the PAD had become blatant and armed its guards as well as showing disrespect to many senior persons.

In a posting titled “Tit-for-Tat Gang Warfare”, posted: “To me this is part of the escalating tit-for-tat gang warfare (does it not resemble what criminal gangs do?).”

“PAD first ‘started it’ and were seemingly successful so the anti-PAD groups (who seem more disparate than the PAD, but are uniting more against the PAD) are now getting in on the act,” wrote the anonymous blogger who operates Thailand’s prominent English-language political blog.

In an immediate response to the attack, the PAD beefed up its security at Government House to brace for guerrilla attacks from forces, known and unknown.

(Published in The Star on Nov 1, 2008. Photograph courtesy of Club Siam)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

‘Democrazy’ fever brings troubles to polarised Thailand


TWO Sundays ago, a naked 40-year-old radio DJ rambled near a market in Sattahip, about 30km from Pattaya, repeatedly shouting “I’m dying.”

Lately, according to his colleague, Montree Jitwimolprasert has been behaving weirdly and often using improper words while hosting his radio programme.

“He told everyone that he hates the colour red. He hates red clothes,” Suraswadi Prasarnnil, who is Mon­tree’s superior, told the Bangkok Post.

She added that the DJ acted weirdly after witnessing the violent street battle between police and yellow-clad People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in Bangkok on Oct 7 that saw two Thais killed.

“He talked about a bloodbath and how his fellow protesters were hurt. He told us that he saw blood and people losing their limbs,” Suraswadi related.

It looks like Montree has a bad case of the “yellow fever”.

In polarised Thailand, the colour “yellow” symbolises the PAD (an anti-government movement that sees red in anything connected to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai premier who was ousted in a 2006 coup) while “red” represents the pro-government supporters.

The PAD crowd has a jaundiced opinion of Thaksin, blaming him for anything negative that happens to them or their country.

For instance, they claim Thaksin was behind the gun battle between Thailand and Cambodia along their disputed border that killed one Thai and three Cambodian soldiers on Oct 15.

However, Thai army chief General Anupong Phaochinda described such claim as “unfathomable”.

Thaksin is even blamed for the most unfathomable matter.

Take the example of my 30-something Thai friend who is such a die-hard PAD member that he packs a truncheon to an anti-government event just in case there’s an attack from the police or the pro-government supporters.

The other day his newborn baby had a very, very mild case of jaundice and guess who he blamed? Thaksin.

“I blame Thaksin for everything bad,” he said, as a matter of fact.

Although the PAD declared victory after the Supreme Court on Oct 21 sentenced Thaksin, who is in self-exile in London, to two year’s in prison for corruption, it would not end its protest.

It will continue its illegal occupation of Government House (the Thai prime minister’s office) until it ousts the People Power Party-led coalition government, which is pro-Thaksin.

Salang Bunnag, a former deputy police chief, has vowed to evict the PAD from Government House which it has besieged since Aug 26.

His game plan is to seal off the prime minister’s compound with 1,000 retired policemen (to do the job that the police could not) and cut off food and water supply to the protesters for three days.

“I’ve tried my best to avoid doing this. If asked to choose between the country and morality, I will choose the country. If I go to hell for doing this, so be it,” he was reported as saying.

Guess who the PAD is blaming for Salang’s plan to retake Government House? Thaksin.

“I do not believe Salang is planning the (retake) for his own purposes; somebody is no doubt pulling strings behind the scenes. Whether it is the prime minister or ex-prime minister Thaksin Shina­watra I would not know,” PAD coordinator Suriyasai Katasila told The Nation.

Salang is not the only anti-PAD supporter who has gone public with his strategy on how to counter any move to overthrow the government of prime minister Somchai Wongsa­wat.

In case of a coup (which is highly likely after army chief Anupong went on television on Oct 16 to urge Somchai to resign), army major-general Khattiya Sawasdiphol vowed to welcome tanks with Molotov cocktails instead of roses that were offered to the soldiers after they deposed Thaksin without any bloodshed.

“The use of Molotov cocktails against tanks has been practised widely, but never in Thailand,” Khattiya told The Nation.

“This will be the first and only time that the people have threatened a counter-coup, if tanks roam Bangkok streets. Tanks usually used in military coups, attached to the Fourth Cavalry Battalion, are old and vulnerable to catching fire.”

In discussions with Thais on why DJ Montree acted weirdly, the anti-PAD crowd said it was an indication that in Thailand, the second “c” in “democracy” has been replaced with “z” - democrazy.

(Published in The Star on Oct 26, 2008)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A nation divided by politics

Thai Takes
By Philip Golingai

WHAT does a Thai doctor check first?

a) Your blood pressure.

b) Your weight.

c) Your temperature.

d) Your political views.

The answer is “d” if your doctor is from Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok.

A day after the Oct 7 bloody street battles in the Thai capital between the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD) and the police that killed two PAD protesters, about 50 doctors from the Chulalongkorn Hospital announced that they would not treat policemen.

“Today, medical teams of Chulalongkorn Hospital will not give assistance to police officers injured in clashes with PAD supporters. This is a social measure to show that doctors and nurses condemn the violent actions,” said Dr Suthep Koncharnwit.

Up north, 70 doctors at Chiang Mai University’s faculty of medicine declared that they would not treat policemen, Cabinet members and government MPs - except in emergency cases.

Another quiz.

If you are a pilot, will you refuse to fly a passenger because she/he is?

a) Osama bin Laden.

b) A threat to the safety of other passengers.

c) A MP from People Power Party (PPP, the ruling party the PAD love to hate).

d) Sarah Palin.

The answer, if you’re Thai Airways pilot Jakrit Pongsirim, is a combination of “b” and “c”.

The day after the police used tear gas to disperse PAD protesters blockading parliament on Oct 7, Jakrit - in two separate domestic flights - refused to allow three PPP MPs from boarding his aircraft.

The pilot told a Thai Airways panel investigating the incidents that he was compelled to reject the MPs because they could cause trouble as other passengers could become angry if they saw them in the aircraft.

Another quiz.

What does the two incidents tell you about Thailand?

a) The country is so politically divided that it is now Thai versus Thai.

b) A war has erupted between those who clutch hand-shaped clappers (the PAD’s favourite political “weapon”) and those who clasp foot-shaped clappers (produced recently for the pro-PPP supporters).

c) It is all grouchy in the Land of Smiles.

If you are Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, who contested in the recent Bangkok governor race as an independent, your answers are “a” and “b”.

“It is a reflection of the division in this society,” explains the former Democrat Party MP. “And this division has drawn a deep wedge which can be felt even among families, friends and colleagues.”

Thailand is now split between those for or against the PAD (a movement seeking to eradicate what it thinks is the root of all evil in Thai politics - Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup).

The split, according to the 53-year-old politician, is the worst since the 1970s that saw two brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators in the “Black October” of 1973 and 1976.

Thais, observes Kriengsak, are overtly declaring their political affiliation.

For example, those carrying hand-shaped clappers want to make a personal statement that they are with the PAD.

However, it will be too simplistic to colour code Thais into “yellow” (the colour of PAD) and “red” (the colour of the PPP) because there are those who are neither yellow nor red.

Kriengsak estimates that 30% of Thais are pro-PPP, 20% are pro-PAD and the rest - including himself - are caught in the middle.

Those in the middle disagree with the use of violence (from both sides) to resolve the country’s political conflict.

And the neutrals are fed up.

“We wonder when will these clashes end? When can we go back to our normal life?” Kriengsak says.

Final quiz.

On Wednesday, Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rockets and gunfire along their disputed border.

Will this border dispute where two Cambodian soldiers were killed and Thai soldiers captured:

a) Unite polarised Thais to fight against an external enemy?

b) Weaken the government because it will be fighting at two fronts - Cambodia and the PAD?

The answer varies.

Ed Cropley of Reuters says: “A border war with one of Thailand’s traditional enemies would likely rally some support behind the government and army.”

But some political analysts predict another “final battle” between anti and pro-government supporters is looming in Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on Oct 18, 2008)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

‘Clack’, the handy weapon

Thai Takes

CLACK. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack.

The clacking is from Thailand’s latest and hottest political “weapon” - multi-coloured plastic hand clappers (mue tob) that cost 25 baht (RM2.50) each.

And the fury of the mue tob is heard 24/7 at Bangkok’s Government House (the seat of the Thai government) which the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has illegally occupied since Aug 26.

Ok pai Somchai (Thai for ‘get out Somchai [Wongsawat, Thailand’s prime minister]’),” a PAD leader shouts on the stage which faces the maligned front lawn of Government House, and automatically hundreds of yellow-clad supporters clack their clappers in unison.

The mue tob has become the symbol of dissent against Thaksin Shinawatra (the former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup) and the People Power Party (PPP, the pro-Thaksin party which won the Dec 23, 2007 election).

The made-in-China clappers, according to PAD urban legend, were excess stock from the Beijing Olympics.

It has become trendy as it eases the strain on the hands and vocal chords of PAD protesters, who clap and cheer/jeer incessantly at Government House.

“It has become a handy yet powerful weapon, with a size that makes it easy to carry around, ready for use anytime, anywhere,” PAD coordinator Suriyasai Takasila told the Daily Xpress, an English-language tabloid.

At about 10am in Bangkok on Sept 29, the newly-elected prime minister found out how “handy” the mue tob was for anti-government supporters.

While Somchai was giving a speech at his alma mater Thammasat University, two alumni whipped out their clappers, clacked them, shouted “Return Thammasat’s dignity to us”, and exited abruptly.

The prime minister, The Nation newspaper reported, “apparently turned pale and ended his speech, saying he might have talked too much about his personal life”.

About 100 minutes later, in front of Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall, two middle-class women clacked their mue tob while shouting “Somchai, betrayer, get out”.

Inside the mall, five other women armed with clappers heckled the premier who was campaigning for a PPP Bangkok governor candidate.

Later, Somchai, who is Thaksin’s brother-in-law, told journalists that he was not angry with the PAD hecklers, but he would like Thais to be more rational.

Since then it has become a trend for PAD supporters to “clack” at the premier whenever he made a public appearance.

The clacking is also heard at non-PAD events.

At a campaign rally for the (recently-concluded) Bangkok governor race, Democrat Party supporters used the political “weapon” of the PAD to cheer for Apirak Kosayodhin (the Democrat candidate who was re-elected governor).

And Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s adoring fans, who are also PAD supporters, have asked him to autograph their clappers.

It is not surprising to political pundits that some of the supporters of the Democrat Party (Thailand’s sole opposition in parliament) are PAD protesters.

They believe some Democrat politicians are working hand-in-hand with PAD leaders to bring down the PPP-led coalition government so the party can be in power.

The mue tob is not only used against the PPP-led coalition government but also against those who dare go against the PAD.

A handful of anti-government protesters clacked furiously at anti-riot police in front of the Border Patrol headquarters when PAD co-leader Chamlong Srimuang was detained on Oct 5.

The PAD protesters were furious that Chamlong - who left the human shield protecting him at Government House to vote in the Bangkok race - was arrested on three serious charges, including treason.

The PAD supporters also brought out their clappers when they besieged parliament the following night.

But the clappers were no match for tear gas.

That was what the PAD supporters found out when the police fired tear gas to break their blockade of parliament on Tuesday.

“Why do they use tear gas to disperse us? We didn’t have any weapons to fight them. We have only hand clappers,” Ubonwan Boonyoprapas, a 47-year-old woman, told The Nation.

Probably the tear gas temporarily blinded Ubonwan, as some PAD protesters were armed with iron bars, slingshots, pistols and homemade explosives known as ping-pong bombs.

Not to be out clapped by the PAD, supporters of the PPP plan to produce their own clappers - shaped like the sign language for “I Love You.”

If that happens, the War of the Multi-coloured Plastic Clappers could erupt in Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on October 11, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Simply spoilt for choice

Thai Takes

WITH seven newsworthy contenders and nine others making up the numbers, Bangkok folk have their choice cut out. Who will you vote for in the Bangkok governor election?

1) Leena Jungjanja

The heavily made-up candidate’s publicity stunt (to highlight the plight of Bangkok folk who have to bathe in a canal because they do not have any access to tap water) turned ugly when her campaign manager Thirasak Sitanont drowned.

On Sept 25, while the publicity-hungry woman was showing journalists the rashes she got from dipping in the filthy water, Thirasak — who was swimming in the canal — started waving and crying for help.

“But we thought he was pretending, and he was far away from us, posing for TV crews,” the sobbing drama queen related.

It was not the first water-related disaster for the businesswoman who sells beauty products such as pink nipple nourishing cream and stretch mark remover.

A day earlier she fell into a polluted canal near Pratunam Pier while campaigning.

2) Chuvit Kamolvisit

In 2004, the massage parlour king plunged into politics (contesting in the 2004 Bangkok governor election) after going public about having to repeatedly bribe hundreds of police officers in order to protect his business.

He has quit the “flesh trade” to be a politician who can even outdo Leena in terms of publicity antics, especially with his famous trademark “angry face” billboards.

On Thursday, angry as a TV anchorman described him as “unmanly,” the macho politician punched the interviewer in the ear and then stomped on him.

Chuvit’s punchline now is: “I’m crazy enough to hit a TV news host three days before the Bangkok governor election, so I hope you will be crazy enough to vote for me.”

3) Apirak Kosayodhin

The Democrat Party candidate is the incumbent governor.

“Can anyone explain why Apirak is enjoying a commanding lead in polls?” Pravit Rojanaphruk of The Nation asked on Thursday.

“Is it his devilish good looks or is it because Bangkokians are incapable of appraising Apirak’s work or lack thereof over the past four years?”

Pravit criticised Apirak’s four-year performance as governor, saying: “Bangkok continues to be a polluted, traffic-choked capital.

“All attempts to turn it green have been superficial, involving either expensive billboards paid for by taxpayers proclaiming the great plans or small pots of foliage at bus stops and Skytrain pillars that will only become a reason to call for more funds.”

4) Prapat Chongsanguan

If you love the People’s Power Party, which is pro-Thaksin Shinawatra, then vote for Prapat, who is the party’s afterthought candidate.

He unexpectedly quit his 400,000 baht (RM40,500) a month job as Mass Rapid Transit Authority governor to contest for Bangkok governor, who is paid about 60,000 baht (RM6,078) a month.

It seems the political newcomer’s decision was prompted by an order from Thaksin, who skipped bail to London in August to avoid a corruption trial.

5) Kriengsak Charoenwongsak

The intellectual (he has degrees from Harvard University and University of Oxford) announced that if he were elected governor, he would declare war against cockroaches and rats in Bangkok.

“The population of rats and cockroaches is 20 times the number of Bangkokians, and if we don’t deal with it tourists will not visit this city,” he declared.

Kriengsak slammed Apirak for putting up a billboard, which announced Bangkok winning Travel + Leisure magazine’s award as the World’s Best City 2008.

He said the Mercer Consulting 2008 survey, which is based on quality of life, ranked Bangkok 109th (down from 102nd in 2004) due largely to the pollution in the city.

The former Democrat MP vowed to put the City of Angels in the top 20 of the world’s best cities list by 2020.

6) Thoranee Rittheethammarong

The wife of a former Thai ambassador is contesting because “a voice from above” told her to do so.

She’s not campaigning, as “if the heaven wants me to win, then I’ll win.”

7) Warawoot Tharnungkorn

If elected, the co-leader of the pro-government United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship plans to keep Bangkok free of military coups.

8) One of the other nine obscure candidates.

Tomorrow, after 30 days of campaigning overshadowed by national politics — two former Bangkok governors then premier Samak Sundaravej and People’s Alliance for Democracy co-leader Chamlong Srimuang are tussling over Government House — voters in Bangkok will go to the polls.

The PR-savvy Apirak is likely to be re-elected.

(Published in The Star on Oct 4, 2008)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Steamed bun the latest rallying cry

Thai Takes

NOW that former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is history the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has a new villain to vilify.

Take this for PAD-style vilification: “In her past life, she must have made merit by offering salapao (steamed bun), that is why her face looks like two salapaos.”

That was heard at Bangkok’s Government House, which the PAD have seized, a few hours after parliament elected Somchai Wongsawat as prime minister on Sept 17.

The khunying (Thai slang for a woman which the Lonely Planet characterises as having “Imelda Marcos helmet hairdos, jewel-toned Thai silk and thick pancake make-up”) with cheeks resembling salapaos is now the PAD’s favourite figure of hate because she is married to Somchai.

And - this is what makes the blood of the PAD supporters boil - she possesses the same DNA as Thaksin Shinawatra, who is numero uno in its list of villains.

“Blood is thicker than water” has become the cliched mantra of the anti-government protesters, as Thailand’s current first lady is Thaksin’s younger sister.

On the day her husband became the country’s 26th prime minister, Yaowapa, a businesswoman and politician, announced she would assume the role of a housewife.

But not many Thais are convinced she will play a homely role, saying she has politics in her blood.

Yaowapa was an MP and also a leader of the powerful Wang Bua Baan (Blooming Lotus) faction in Thai Rak Thai (TRT), the party Thaksin led. And she was also an adviser to her brother when he was Prime Minister.

In the 2007 elections, she could not contest for PPP (a TRT reincarnation) as she, together with 110 TRT executives, were banned from politics when the Constitutional Court dissolved the party for violating election laws.

Her 61-year-old husband is a political neophyte.

In September 2006, Somchai, who was one of Thailand’s top bureaucrats, retired from civil service. And in 2007 - during the military rule following a bloodless coup that ousted Thaksin - he entered politics, becoming the PPP’s deputy leader.

He was elected an MP in the election held on Dec 23, last year.

His elevation as prime minister is a Thai record - the shortest-serving MP to become premier.

Unlike the razor-tongued Samak, who is fond of vilifying opponents and journalists (for example, “Who did you fornicate with last night?”), Somchai is soft-spoken and amiable.

If not for his marriage to a Shinawatra, the new prime minister would probably be the darling of the anti-Thaksin media (that distinction now is held by Opposition Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the very handsome Democrat Party leader).

Being the brother-in-law of Thaksin is a good enough reason for the PAD, which has appointed itself as the country’s political guardian, to reject Somchai as prime minister.

“If Samak was Thaksin’s proxy, Somchai is even more so,” declared Suriyasai Katasila, a PAD spokesman.

“They are related, and this is not acceptable to us. It captures the essence of what we are protesting against, that Thaksin’s regime is still in power.”

While Samak, the former prime minister, would have found something sharp to say, Somchai responded: “It is undeniable that I am close to as well as related to him, but it depends on what position I take when I assume the job.

“The public can keep a close watch on me to see whether or not I work in favour of or for the benefit of a relative. My past record has proved that I work in an honest and straight manner.”

The other Wongsawat who is closely watched is the prime minister’s 27-year-old daughter Chinnicha, an MP from Chiang Mai province, where Yaowapa’s hometown is.

On Wednesday, Senator Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, who was responsible for Samak’s disqualification as prime minister for appearing in a TV cook show, petitioned for a graft probe on Chinnicha for allegedly concealing 100 million baht (about RM10mil) in her asset declaration.

If the National Counter Corruption Com-mission decides to prosecute her, and she is found guilty, Chinnicha will be repeating the fate of her auntie - Pojaman, Thaksin’s wife. (In July, Pojaman was found guilty of tax evasion following a case Ruangkrai had initiated.)

And that will be another incentive for the PAD to vilify the Shinawatras and Wongsawats.

(Published in The Star on Sept 27, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Worrying similarities but encouraging differences


IS THAILAND South-East Asia’s Pakistan? That was the heading of an article in The Economist magazine published in the middle of December 2007 during the Thai election held 15 months after the military ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Economist justified its heading for its piece on Thailand’s election with: “Pakistan is not the only Asian country where a dodgy military regime is running a general election under dubious electoral rules in the hope of keeping out a similarly dodgy civilian whom it overthrew.

“The difference is that unlike Bena­zir Bhutto in Pakistan, the exiled Thak­sin is not being allowed to take part in the vote himself, and there may be slightly more hope that things will come out right in the end.”

Since then I’ve been wondering whether Thailand is really South-East Asia’s Pakistan. I had the opportunity to shoot the question to three top Pakistani editors who I had lunch with in Lahore in Pakistan last week.

“It is somewhat correct,” said Arif Nizami, the founder of The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper which is an Asia News Network (ANN) member.

He then listed both countries’ similarities: coups, military rule, free press and fight against militancy (Muslim separatists are waging a guerilla war in southern Thailand and one of the major current news in Pakistan is the military offensive in Bajaur tribal region).

“But Thailand’s economic is big (com­pared with Pakistan’s),” Arif noted.

And as if agreeing with his statement, electricity at Lahore’s most upmarket hotel, Pearl Continental, went out.

The frequent blackouts during the lunch meeting illuminated the fact that Pakistan is facing an energy crisis. It also gave me food for thought as to whether Thailand is Asean’s Pakistan, energy-wise. It is not - as in my two years living in Bangkok, power outage is rare.

Two days before my conversation with Arif, in Bangkok which was under emergency rule, my ANN (of which The Star is a founding member) colleagues jokingly warned: “Be careful of suicide bombers.”

Their warning was justified, as Pakistan is second only to Iraq in the number of suicide attacks. (Last year, nearly 1,000 Pakistanis were killed in suicide bombings.)

Worried (a bit as I am going to be a daddy soon), I, however, laughed it off saying that Lahore (which Lonely Planet describes as “Pakistan’s cultural, intellectual and artistic hub”) is safer than other major cities in the country, which The Economist labelled as “the world’s most dangerous place”.

I don’t get such warnings or teasing when I travel to Thailand’s Chiang Rai, Ko Samui or Nong Kai.

Except in February last year when I visited Pattani, which is one of the three provinces in Thailand’s restive south. “Don’t get shot,” my colleagues told me.

Their concern was justified as at that time at least two people were killed a day in the south, making the insurgency there the most lethal conflict in South-East Asia.

In Lahore, after my lunch conversation at Pearl Continental, in an autorickshaw (which is similar to Thailand’s tuk-tuk), while passing the heavily-guarded mansion of Lahore’s former chief minister, I men­tally listed the differences between Buddhist-dominated Thailand and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Pakistan has the nuclear bomb. Thailand doesn’t.

Political assassination is a real threat in Pakistan. The latest victim was twice-prime minister Bhutto who was killed on Dec 27 last year.

Thaksin has claimed there were several attempts on his life - an explosion on a jet that he was minutes from boarding in 2001 and a car bomb plot in August 2006. But only die-hard Thaksinites took the billionaire’s claim seriously.

On my flight back to Bangkok, Thai Airways was flying below capacity, stressing the fact that Amazing Thai­land’s political chaos was causing inter­national arrivals to drop by 70%.

Pakistan knows how bad publicity frightens tourists.

The country, according to Lonely Planet, has been on the brink of being tourism’s “next big thing” for so long.

“But every time the country seems to be gearing up to refresh the palates of travellers jaded with last year’s hip destinations, world media headlines send things off the rails - again,” the guidebook noted.

It’s unfortunate. Like Thailand, Pakistan - especially Peshawar and Quetta which I visited in 2001 - as a travel destination is amazing.

(Published in The Star on September 20, 2008)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Still no solution

Thai Takes

ON THE day the Thai government was left hanging in limbo when the Constitution Court ordered Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign, Chaturon Chaisang, a politician widely respected for his democratic credentials, gave his take on the tense political situation in Thailand.

Speaking frankly, the 52-year-old Chaturon, a former deputy prime minister in Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration, painted a gloomy picture of the Thai political landscape.

Here are some excerpts from his two-hour talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Tuesday evening.

On who is likely to be the People’s Power Party’s candidate for Prime Minister:

There are still many (potential leaders) but not many will last. I anticipate that in less than two months the PPP and its coalition partners, Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya, will be dissolved and about 140 MPs will be banned from politics.

Article 237 of the constitution provides for the dissolution of a party if an executive member is found guilty of violating the election law and the party is found in complicity.

(On Thursday, the PPP picked Samak again as its prime ministerial candidate despite misgivings by some of its coalition partners, and Samak has accepted the nomination.)

On the immediate future:

Whoever becomes PM, it will not help solve the crisis. Samak’s disqualification (the avid chef was convicted and removed from office for receiving money for hosting cooking shows after he took office) is not a big deal because the problem has gone beyond that.

Even if the next PM dissolves parliament and there is an election and PPP, which Samak heads, wins, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) will still protest against that new government and continue to insist on “new politics” (where 70% of the MPs should be appointed).

Even if the Democrat party (the sole opposition party in parliament) wins the next election, the losing side will do the same thing as the PAD is doing. This is because this country is not ruled by law.

On why the PAD is allowed to occupy Government House:

There’s this logic in Thai society that once there is violence in this country, the government – especially if it is an elected government – has to take responsibility and has to go.

And the military decided to remain neutral after Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Sept 2. This is a country where an elected government does not have enough power.

On the PAD’s next move:

The PAD leaders face serious accusations, at the least illegally occupying Government House (which is the seat of the Thai government), and at the worse, treason.

And if you wear a PAD hat and think (about evading prosecution), one way is to plan more turmoil. As in the past, when there was (severe) turmoil, the (leaders) were granted amnesty following a military coup.

On the root of the Thai political conflict:

The choice is between upholding electoral democracy and elected government or allowing a tiny group of people – selecting among themselves – to run the country.

On the future of Thai politics:

I don’t see any easy and quick solution because society lacks sound foundation in the ideology of democracy. The foreseeable trend is a ‘prolonged conflict’ with a high risk of violence or another coup or both which may have drastic consequences for the country.

On the Thai media and academia:

More than half the Thai media wants the PPP coalition government to fall and they do not want to report on how the rule of law is not enforced in this country.

And what the people in the rural areas (especially in the PPP strongholds in the north and northeast) are saying about the conflict is “very different” from the pro-PAD reports in some of the Thai media.

Many academics are proposing a dictatorial system. Many of them do not believe in elections. They do not believe people can make decisions through voting.

Chaturon, who headed Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai after the 2006 coup until the Constitutional Court banned the party and 111 top executives including him, sees irony in Thai politics.

“Samak has been disqualified by the Constitution Court along with the whole Cabinet because he staged a cooking show on television while PAD leaders facing treason charges continue to occupy Government House,” he noted.

(Published in The Star on Sept 13, 2008)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Still a rollicking party out there


HERE’S a checklist for those seeking to join the “political picnic” at Government House, the office of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

1) Plastic clapper. This is so you don’t strain your palms each time a People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) speaker shouts “ok pai Samak” (Thai for “get out Samak”) or curses former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

2) Wear anything yellow. It is a colour associated with King Bhumibol, and the PAD claims it is defending the monarchy.

3) Don’t wear red unless you want to be whacked with a golf club. It is the colour of the pro-government Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD).

4) Golf club. This preferred weapon of the thuggish guards providing security to the peace-loving PAD is necessary in case a red-clad protester strays near Government House.

5) Crash helmet. It has become an essential protest gear, especially after the violent clash between PAD and DAAD supporters on the early morning of Tuesday left 55-year-old DAAD supporter Narongsak Korbthaisong dead.

Since the PAD (which razor-tongue Samak alludes to as the People’s Alliance for the Destruction of Democracy) stormed Government House on Aug 26, thousands of Thais are having a “political picnic” on Samak’s once well-manicured lawn, which has since turned into a muddy mess.

And, despite Samak’s declaration of a state of emergency in Bangkok hours after Tuesday’s deadly clash, the defiant PAD storm troopers are still entrenched at Government House, which they have ringed with wire and car tyres.

Even more than 55 hours after Samak’s declaration I can still watch “live” the PAD’s protest on ASTV, a satellite television station owned by a core leader of PAD, Sondhi Limthongkul.

That’s two violations of the emergency decree, which prohibits a gathering of more than five people and reporting of news that terrifies the public.

(In politically divided Thailand, the word “terrifies” is subjective, as what terrifies pro-government supporters may cheer anti-government sympathisers.)

Just in case the state of emergency declaration gives an impression that Bangkok is now a police state, let me describe what I watched on ASTV at 11pm on Thursday.

A sea of yellow-clad PAD protesters – some holding a giant Thai flag and many clacking their plastic clappers – are rocking to a rock band performing on a makeshift stage facing the Venetian-styled Government House.

Yes, Bangkok rocks despite an emergency rule.

Why was there no visible sign of a state of emergency was a question repeatedly posed by foreign journalists to deputy government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Wednesday night.

“Was Samak fooled by the military into signing an emergency decree, as when you announce a state of emergency you expect it to be enforced?” was the first question fired at the deputy spokesman.

Nattawut replied: “The announcement of a state of emergency does not mean force will be used automatically against the protesters, because it is the policy of the Samak government not to use force against them.

“You can’t say that Samak was fooled. If (Army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda, who is also the commander in charge of the state of emergency) uses force, then you can say that he fooled Samak.”

Depending on who you talk to there are several theories on the sabai sabai (relaxed) emergency rule.

“Behind the scenes the military is secretly negotiating with the PAD to pressure them to leave Government House,” a Thai journalist with close links to the military told me.

A PAD die hard embedded at ground zero of the protest said the army would not storm the compound to disperse the crowd, citing protest leaders who told her the military was on the side of anti-protesters.

But the situation in Bangkok can change swiftly.

Just before midnight on Thursday, two of the 100 or so university students marching to Samak’s residence to protest against his government were shot by two men on a motorcycle.

Please make two additions to the checklist – buy personal insurance and write a will.

(Published in The Star on Sept 6, 2008)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Thai-style democracy


MY MISSION on Thursday night was to trespass into the gated compound of Government House, the office of the Thai prime minister, in Bangkok.

Entry, I thought, should be easy as two days earlier thousands of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) storm troopers invaded it to try and force prime minister Samak Sundaravej to resign for allegedly being Thaksin Shinawatra’s puppet.

After passing through a PAD checkpoint near the main United Nations offices, there was a billboard that read “Most Wanted” above police mugshots of Thaksin and his wife Pojaman and “for crimes against the Kingdom of Thailand.”

A giggling 20-something Thai woman made a victory sign as her male companion photographed her in front of the billboard.

Along the one kilometre walk to Government House there were an impromptu night market (selling anti-Thaksin and pro-PAD paraphernalia and grilled squid), men manipulating paper puppets (PAD core leader Sondhi Limthongkul in a superhero costume hammering a Godzilla whose head resembled Samak) and a roadside massage service for the weary protestor.

After 800m, the road was jam packed with people – 95% donning yellow (the colour of the royal family) T-shirts – who were sitting and listening to the PAD speeches or lining up to enter the compound of the prime minister’s office.

At the gate to Government House, PAD guards ordered the crowd to form poo chai (Thai for male) and poo ying (female) lines as the policy of the very organised protest group was: ladies first.

Once inside the compound, the thuggish-looking Srivichai Warriors (PAD militant guards) – some armed with long stick – checked me for weapons.

Mission accomplished. Like thousands of Thais, I had invaded Thailand’s symbol of power.

The other time I was in Government House – where foreign dignitaries are entertained – I had to wear a black suit and a necktie.

And the police allowed me in as I was part of the Malaysian entourage following Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in February 2007.

This time there was no visible sign of the police in Government House.

Instead there were hundreds of boisterous PAD supporters sitting on the soggy lawn listening to PAD speakers. Some of the speakers ominously warned that riot police planned to storm the compound.

Curious to know the protesters’ motivation, I spoke to Tip, a 49-year-old hardcore supporter of the PAD, which she called “my family”.

“It is easy to understand if you have been following what's happened in the past five years,” explained the interior designer.

“The Thaksin government was corrupt. I’m here to make sure Thaksin stays out of politics.”

Wasn’t she afraid that she could be caught in a bloody clash?

“I’m happy (to be here). Everybody here is very excited as we’re waiting for an end. If the police try to arrest us, they will be sandwiched by my family (PAD). That will be our victory,” said a frenzied Tip.

At about 8.30pm, Chamlong Srimuang, one of the PAD core leaders, was seen walking behind Government House after going to a toilet.

Guarding the 72-year-old former Bangkok Governor, who led the 1991 anti-government demonstrations that ended up in bloodshed and the ouster of an un-elected prime minister, were the black-clad Srivichai Warriors.

The guards led Chamlong back to a group of supporters who formed a human shield in case the police tried to arrest him and other PAD leaders, who have arrest warrant out against them for seizing Government House.

As evident by the foul stench in the compound, toilets were insufficient. And a group of women had commandeered a male toilet, forcing men to make some sort of a personal history when they had to pee on the wall of the Government House.

On my way out of the compound, I bought for 100 baht (about RM10) a Ratchadumnoen University (the site where the PAD held its 24-hour street protest for 90 days was dubbed a university as the protestors “learnt” about democracy there) certificate that conferred me a doctorate on new political revolution.

Observing the PAD seizure of Government House was indeed a learning experience.

(Published in The Star on August 30, 2008)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

When virtual crime becomes all too real

Thai Takes

IT is early evening in a Bangkok shopping mall and the youth is in a state of frenzy after engaging in an orgy of violence; he has just stolen a car full of drugs, robbed a bank and murdered a prostitute.

More youths in the video arcade are stealing, robbing and murdering in Grand Theft Auto (GTA), a computer game that allows players to assume the role of an urban criminal.

That snapshot of a typical Thai video arcade, however, has become almost obsolete after a recent fatal episode where life imitated a computer game.

On Aug 3, in the Thai capital, a 19-year-old student, Polwat Chinno, stabbed a 54-year-old taxi driver, Khuan Phokang, about 10 times after his victim fought back with a metal bar when Polwat attempted to hijack the taxi.

Police arrested the teenager at the scene of the crime and charged him with causing death and possession of knives. He faces death by lethal injection if found guilty.

Polwat told the police he copied the robbery from GTA, a game he had been religiously playing for a couple hours daily for the past few years.

“He said he wanted to find out if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game,” said Captain Veerarit Pipatanasak, a Bangkok police spokesman.

Two days later, the New Era Interactive Media Company, the legal distributor of the computer game series, that has sold about 70 million copies worldwide, removed GTA from sale in Thailand.

It also warned people to be careful about the types of computer games they buy, and urged friends and relatives of gamers to watch their behaviour closely when they were playing.

On the same day, Thai police announced it had banned GTA because of its obscene content.

“The police are empowered to immediately arrest shopkeepers if they find any GTA games on sale,” warned Ruangsak Jaritake, a police spokesman.

A senior official at Thailand’s culture ministry declared the murder was a wake-up call for the authorities, to tackle violence in computer games.

“This time bomb has already exploded and the situation could get worse,” said Ladda Thangsupachai, director of the ministry’s cultural surveillance centre. “Today it is a cab driver, tomorrow it can be a video game shop owner.”

In a knee-jerk response, the Thai Health Ministry immediately released a list of 10 most dangerous games: GTA, Man Hunt, Scarface, 50 Cent – Bullet Proof, 300, The Godfather, Killer 7, Resident Evil 4, God of War and Hitman.

So what do some Thais think of the list?

“The public health ministry quickly assembled a list of Top 10 Violent Games – not by research or reason, but by a quick 'Googling',” derided a Bangkok Post editorial on Monday.

“Bureaucrats accepted the first hit, an obscure list from a local US politician trying to get his name in the newspapers and his face on TV in an election cycle.

“Such a ban is also self-defeating, since new games come on the market regularly. In any case, a police ban is only just another business hitch to the video pirates and shop owners involved in underground distribution.”

On the banning of GTA, the editorial theorises that even if there had been a ban earlier it would not have prevented the taxi driver’s death.

The editorial also said it was most troubling that the authorities and the media quickly and conveniently latched on to the alibi of a confessed, vicious killer.

“They were far too quick to accept the word of Polwat,” it noted. “His claim that the video game GTA made him commit the crime sounds more like a novel legal defence than a credible motive.”

The editorial has a point.

Matt Peckham, who has a blog called Game On in www., does not recall an actual “scene” in any GTA game where someone robs a taxi driver, much less kills one.

“Sure, you can haul people out of cars, then go out of your way to dispatch them, but taxi-killing is neither required nor rewarded. In GTA games, killing is in fact penalised,” Peckham wrote.

Tell that to the Thais gamers, who have now gone “underground” to play GTA.

(Published in The Star on August 23, 2008)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Point of no return?


WHAT would a billionaire fugitive do after fleeing his homeland to dodge a corruption trial? Go shopping.

That is the impression most Thais got the day after Thaksin Shinawatra announced he had fled to London instead of returning to Bangkok for a scheduled Supreme Court hearing in a corruption case against the former Thai prime minister.

On Wednesday, Thai newspapers splashed on their front pages a photograph of the Shinawatras – Thaksin, his wife Pojaman, and their children Panthongtae, Paethongtarn and Pinthongta – shopping in Guildford, England.

While the Shinawatras shopped, Thais pondered on Thaksin’s faxed handwritten three-page statement that gave his reasons for not returning to Thailand after attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

In the statement, the former Thai prime minister, who was ousted in a coup on Sept 19, 2006, explained that he returned to Thailand on Feb 28 after 18 months of self-exile because he thought the situation was improving and he would have the opportunity to prove his innocence and receive justice.

“But the situation got worse and the things that happened to me and my family were like the poisonous fruit of a poison tree,” the 59-year-old telecommunications tycoon wrote.

Thaksin had returned to his motherland – kissing the tarmac at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport – after the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party was voted into power in the election on Dec 23.

“(My political enemies) have no consideration for the judicial system, truth and legal principles. My family and I have been subject to continuous injustice.”

He continued: “My life has been under threat and wherever I travelled I have had to use bullet-proof vehicles.

“This is what I get from giving myself to the nation, the palace and the people with great energy for six years as prime minister (January 2001-September 2006).”

In an editorial on Tuesday, The Nation lambasted the former premier, saying: “... the content of Thaksin’s handwritten statement, read on the state-run NBT television channel, was little more than a bad script for some cheap soap opera.

“We have heard it all before. Besides, this is not the first time that Thaksin has claimed somebody was trying to kill him. But he has never made an effort to provide evidence to back up his claim.”

Nor were Thaksin’s critics surprised that he bolted for London, leaving behind US$2bil (RM6.4bil) in assets frozen by the coup leaders.

When the criminal court convicted Pojaman of tax fraud and sentenced her to three years’ jail on July 31, there was speculation that Thaksin and his wife, who was out on bail, would flee.

“The genuine pain reflected in (Thaksin’s) eyes during the criminal court’s deliberation on his wife’s fate should have told us loudly and clearly about his subsequent move,” wrote Pornpimol Kanchanalak in The Nation on Thursday.

“They can hit him as hard as they want, but he cannot and will not let the one closest to his heart – his kindred spirit – bear the brunt.”

Political analysts are also reading between the lines of Thaksin’s statement especially his declaration that, “When the appropriate time comes, I will declare the truth for all to know. Today is not my day. To my supporters, please continue to be patient.”

Thai Rath, the leading Thai-language newspaper, hypothesised that Thaksin was not giving up politics while thought it was “more of a signal to the elite that they need to be careful, otherwise he will not go down quietly”.

Opposition Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said, “Thaksin’s latest statement clearly told his supporters to await his return.”

To paraphrase the Terminator, Thaksin will be back.

Definitely? Maybe?

According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, Thaksin would be lucky, as he himself had recognised (“Like all Thai people, if I have good fortune I request to die on Thai soil”), to end up in Thailand again.

Thitinan thinks that it is virtually impossible for the politician to return to high power because of his slew of legal cases and the powerful forces that have opposed him since the coup.

(Published in The Star on August 16, 2008)

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Peace vigil, black magic and sabre-rattling over a temple

Thai Takes

EIGHT days ago, Bun Rany, the wife of Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, and about 1,000 compatriots – who included Buddhist monks and government officials – held a peace vigil at the Preah Vihear temple, which is at the heart of a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.

With mists swirling around the mountaintop 900-year-old temple, Cambodians prayed for an end to the military standoff between the two countries that started on July 15.

“We are gathering here to pray to the souls of our ancestors, asking for peace,” said Cambodia’s tourism minister Thong Khon, referring to Khmer kings who built the temple between the ninth and 11th centuries.

“We also pray for success in our defence of our territory.”

That was how the Associated Press, an American news agency, reported the ceremony at the temple, which Unesco recently designated as a World Heritage Site.

How did the Thai newspapers view the Cambodian ritual?

According to The Nation, an English-language newspaper, many Thais living in provinces close to the disputed temple wore yellow to shield Thailand from black magic spells cast by Khmer “wizards” at the ceremony chosen to coincide with a solar eclipse.

“Thai media reports said the mysterious black magic spells cast by Khmer wizards would not only protect the temple but also weaken Thailand. Some astrologers urged locals to wear yellow yesterday to deflect the spells,” The Nation reported on Aug 2.

A news story in The Bangkok Post said the ritual heightened fears among many Thais who thought that it would bring bad luck to their country.

“The anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) leaders last night led thousands of their supporters in a rival ritual to protect the country and block any ill-effects from the Cambodian one. Many Thais believe some Cambodians have expertise in black magic,” The Bangkok Post said in its report last Saturday.

The Deutsche Presse-Agentur German wire service reporting from Phnom Penh said claims published in the Thai media accusing Bun Rany of leading a black magic ritual would not help to diffuse anti-Thai sentiment in Cambodia.

“To be accused of sorcery is regarded as a terrible insult by Cambodians, who regularly kill those accused of it,” the news agency commented in an Aug 3 filing.

If the Thai newspaper reports had insulted Cambodians, wait till they hear Sondhi Limthongkul’s solution to the Preah Vihear dispute.

Sondhi is a core leader of PAD, which is using the Preah Vihear dispute, among other issues, to incite Thais to overthrow the Samak Sundaravej government.

The International Court of Justice awarded the Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia in 1962, and the ruling still rankles among Thais.

Prachatai (, a bilingual Thai news portal, reported that on July 28 Sondhi told anti-government street protestors camped near Bangkok’s Government House, the seat of the Thai government, how he would solve the dispute.

“The only way is to oust (the Samak) government and form a new government through ‘whatever means’, or else the dispute over the Preah Vihear temple and Thai-Cambodian border will never be solved,” Prachatai quoted Sondhi as saying.

Among other provocative statements he made then:

> Push Cambodians back from Thai territory if the dispute cannot be settled through bilateral negotiations; and

> Close all 40 Thai-Cambodian border checkpoints and ban all flights to Phnom Penh and Siam Reap from Bangkok (70% of flights to the two destinations originate from Bangkok).

Sondhi also told the crowd: “Remember my words. Thai foreign minister Tej Bunnag will never be able to solve the dispute, because the policy of this government is to betray the country.”

And as if allegations of Khmer black magic and the provocative statements were not enough to intensify Thai-Cambodian tension, another temple about 130km west of Preah Vihear has emerged as a second border flashpoint.

It started when Cambodia complained that some 70 Thai troops had occupied the 13th-century Ta Muen Thom temple and had barred Cambodian soldiers from entering it.

Those who engage in dangerous talk on Preah Vihear should pay heed to Hun Sen, who said on Wednesday: “We cannot just carve out Thailand to put in the sky or move our land away. We will coexist for tens of thousands of years to come.”

(Published in The Star on August 9, 2008)