Saturday, January 26, 2008

The people’s guard dog


ALONG a hectic Bangkok highway there’s a billboard showing the angry face of Chuvit Kamolvisit, his left eyebrow raised and his right index finger pointing accusingly.

The message, in Thai, proclaims: “This country doesn’t want people like you who don’t keep your word and are unclear with your moves.”

“The message is for a person who lies to the people. Most people – 80% to 90% – know who this person is,” says a smiling Chuvit, who is famous outside Thailand as the massage parlour king who unsuccessfully ran for Bangkok governor in 2004.

His billboards, Chuvit says, reflect the public’s thoughts. “I am the middleman to bring out that message,” he explains.

Last week, Chuvit put up three billboards in the Thai capital after he got wind that Banharn Silapa-archa, the leader of Chart Thai Party, would ditch the Democrat Party to join the coalition government of People Power Party.

“Banharn keeps on reminding society he’s as slippery as an eel,” laments the 46-year-old politician, who resigned as Chart Thai deputy leader just before the Dec 23 Thai polls as he disagreed with Banharn’s decision to place him second on Chart Thai’s party list for Bangkok constituency.

The first time the maverick politician used billboards – each costing RM20,000 to RM30,000 a month, to advertise his political messages – was in 2004.

His 2004 billboard showed a less angry Chuvit. Through the years, the politician said, his facial expression on his billboards have gotten more and more angry.

At that time, his message, in Thai, read: “Choose Chuvit to be governor of Bangkok,” with word “governor” marked out and the word “servant” written underneath.

That year, the owner of massage parlours such as Emmanuelle and Victoria’s Secret plunged into politics after going public about having to repeatedly bribe hundreds of police officers in order to protect his business.

The billboards idea came from a friend who told him that a picture spoke louder than 1,000 words.

Chuvit’s facial expression on his billboard is atypical of Thai political posters – a smiling politician surrounded by smiling children. His trademark is an aggressive expression.

“People have told me to smile. But I want to show I’m angry. I want them to know that my message is serious, and that I’m not kidding,” he explains with a cheeky smile.

Since 2004, the Chuvit billboard has been a much-awaited event in Bangkok. There’s even an English-language, Thailand-based blog,, keeping track of them.

In June 2006, there he was with his arms stretched out and saying: “I love you. Let’s love each other. We are all born in Thailand.”

In November 2007, although he was not contesting in the Thai election because of Banharn, he installed a billboard featuring a fierce German Shepherd facing an equally fierce Chuvit.

His message read: “I’m a guard dog for the country. When you cheat, I’ll bark. When you’re involved in corruption, I’ll bite you.”

His favourite is a January 2005 billboard showing a fuming Chuvit clutching a sledgehammer with the message: “Quash the cheating people, expose the evil people, and do not fear the influential!”

“At that time nobody could do anything against Thaksin (Shinawatra, the then Thai prime minister). My message was we would not compromise just because of his money,” recalls Chuvit, who later won an MP seat for Chart Thai in the 2005 Thai polls.

Contrary to speculation that his latest billboard is inspired by a desire to run in the 2008 Bangkok governor's race, the man who was born in the city’s Chinatown says:

“No, the last time I ran, I used 25 million baht (RM2.6mil) and that does not include expenses that I paid for without receipts.”

On the accusation from some people that he bankrolled the billboards because he sought fame, the politician says: “But I am famous enough. Everybody knows me.”

What Chuvit wants is a little bit of respect. “People respect me for paying for something (billboards) without asking for their votes,” he says. “People are bored with politicians who lie just to get their votes.”

His next billboard? “Wait and see!” growls Chuvit.

(Published in The Star on Jan 26, 2008)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Invisible hands still at work


IN POLITICALLY uncertain Thailand, if things go well for the People Power Party, it should be heading a new government next week.

“Things are now more predictable,” declared Jakrapob Penkair, chairman of the PPP’s foreign affairs committee, on Tuesday.

“The House (of Representative) is expected to convene by Jan 22 as scheduled and the Speaker will be chosen, then the Prime Minister. And the Cabinet will be appointed by royal command,” he predicted confidently.

Jakrapob had not been that confident in the seven uncertain days following the Dec 23 Thai polls.

“It was shaky then,” he reminisced. “It was like living in a rocky boat. Because someone was rocking the boat.”

Although the PPP had won the most seats and had locked in three small-sized parties – Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana, Matchima Thipataya and Prachaj – there was fear among the leadership that hostile invisible hands could still sabotage it.

And their fears materialised.

The invisible hands, alleged Jakrapob, called the Election Commission to instruct it to issue the PPP, which is a pro-Thaksin Shinawatra party, as many red and yellow cards as possible.

Candidates issued red cards are banned from the by-elections, along with their parties, while those with yellow cards are allowed to re-contest.

The unseen element also asked certain individuals to file allegation against the party so that it would be dissolved. Certain media opined that if the PPP formed the government Thailand would fall into chaos again.

And the invisible hand tried to impede the process of forming a government so that even PPP supporters would be discouraged.

When the invisible hands could not kick the party, they kicked those who mattered to the party, Jakrapob said.

“They pinpointed the personal problems (corruption charges) of individuals like Thaksin, Potjaman (Thaksin’s wife) and Samak (Sundaravej, the leader of the PPP) so that it would lead to the failure to set up a government,” he alleged.

Asked who the invisible hands were, the outspoken Jakrapob replied: “I cannot say, as it is illegal to talk about it in this country.”

Around Jan 1, the shaky PPP boat became steadier.

“We took the boat to stable ground. What we did was put the spotlight on the invisible hands – to show what they were doing – and they retreated,” he recalled.

“Their meddling now is not that intense compared with the first week.”

Behind the scenes, the PPP courted two medium-sized political parties – Chart Thai Party and Puea Pandin.

“At first Chart Thai and Puea Pandin were reluctant to join our coalition. Probably they listened to the voice of the invisible hands a little bit too much,” he said sarcastically.

The process is vintage Thai political negotiations.

“Chart Thai is a typical political party that tries to be the government at any cost,” he revealed. “That is fine, we can understand that. That is just one degree of slipperiness.”

Chart Thai, he said, demanded the “usual old things” – certain Cabinet portfolios. And Banharn Silapa-archa, the Chart Thai Party leader, asked whether the PPP would allow him to be prime minister.

“We said: ‘Hell no, Samak will be prime minister.’ But Chart Thai posed no problems for us. It (the negotiation) was over very fast,” he said.

The negotiation with Puea Pandin was more complex. “It was six-degree slipperiness. Puea Pandin was set up to defeat a populist party such as PPP,” he said.

On Wednesday, after the 15-day mourning period for the Thai king’s elder sister the late Princess Galyani Vadhana had passed, Puea Pandin confirmed it would join the PPP-led coalition.

The following day, Chart Thai and Puea Pandin jointly announced that they would be part of the coalition, leaving the Democrat Party as the sole opposition party.

Banharn said the two parties joined the coalition for the sake of the country because without the two parties, the coalition would lack stability.

However, even with the formation of a PPP-led government, Jakrapob is certain Thailand will remain politically unstable.

“A showdown (with the invisible hands) is looming,” predicted the firebrand politician who has vowed to sacrifice his life to change Thailand’s power equation.

“I expect a civil war in a year or two.”

(Published in The Star on Jan 19, 2008)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Where the prettiest women are men

Thai Takes

KAVI Chongkittavorn hollered “I have the sex DVD” when he popped into the office on Monday. Kavi, who is The Nation assistant group editor, was referring to the sex DVD that brought down former Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek.

Later, in a nearby cafe in Nation Tower in the Bangkok suburb of Bangna, Kavi expressed his surprise that Dr Chua had admitted he was the man in the secretly-taped sex video.

“From the Thai point of view that is an incredible, remarkable behaviour. Because in Thailand, you will never admit you have an affair,” he explained.

“Promiscuity is discreetly kept behind the door. Even if it comes out in the open, you will never admit to it. That’s Thai hypocrisy – or what we know as double standard in Thai male chauvinistic society.”

More scandalising to the veteran journalist was that Dr Chua resigned from his ministerial and party posts.

“I’m very surprised a sex scandal can destroy a politician as that is not the case in Thailand,” he said.

“I think all Thai politicians probably have extra-marital affairs somewhere every day of the week,” said Kavi, with his devilish Jack Nicholson eyes gleaming. “But nobody cares as it is a private affair.

“Even if it were made public, people would not say anything and it would not lead to a resignation.”

The difference between Thailand and Malaysia in terms of moral standards, according to Kavi, is that Thais tolerate their politicians’ extra-marital relationships.

“Malaysia is an Islamic society and a sex scandal is treated seriously. In Thailand, we are much more flexible as we are not a restrained society,” he explained.

“In Malaysian politics there is a certain moral line that you don’t cross. But in Thailand that moral line is a bit broader.”

On how the Thai media would have covered a local equivalent to the Chua scandal, Kavi said it would appear on the front page for a few days.

“It won’t be very long as an admission would end all discussion,” he explained.

On what editorial he would have written, Kavi, who is one of The Nation’s opinion writers, said he would take the position that in the Thai context the minister should not resign because his personal misconduct had no bearing on his job.

Nevertheless, he added, a Thai politician should resign if he were the Minister of Morality. “But in Thailand nobody has used good family values as a political platform. If a politician does that and gets caught in a sex scandal he would be punished for being a hypocrite,” he noted.

In Thailand, even when promiscuity has been videotaped, no one had fallen from grace.

In the early 1990s, for example, there was an infamous video recording of a general in bed with a former Miss Thailand who was not his wife.

Newspapers reported it for two days and then the story disappeared. “Gossip continued but nobody raised an issue,” recalled Kavi.

In the past four decades, Thailand had leaders who led alternative lifestyles. “The public knew. But they did not make a fuss about it because they did not think it would affect the leader’s work, and he kept it in the closet,” he recalled.

On former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's sacking from office and expulsion from Umno in 1988 on several charges of sexual misconduct, including sodomy, Kavi said:

“In Thailand, you can never do that. Even if a politician leads an alternative life, so what?”

“In Thailand, to be gay is to be fun and creative,” he said, adding mischievously, “That is why the most beautiful women in Thailand are men.”

What will bring down a Thai politician? Corruption.

“A good example is (name of a former Thai Prime Minister withheld). He is famous for having many gigs (Thai slang for part-time lover). He loves Grammy singers,” Kavi said, referring to GMM Grammy Public Company Ltd, Thailand’s largest record label.

“But that did not bring about his downfall. What brought him down were corruption charges.”

Well, no sex scandal please, we’re Thais.

(Published in The Star on Jan 12, 2008)

Saturday, January 05, 2008

It’s kiss and make up time

Thai Takes

ON WEDNESDAY, outspoken People Power Party (PPP) official Jakrapob Penkair politely declined an interview request. “Can we do it next week? We cannot talk about politics this week because we are in mourning,” he said over the telephone hours after the death of revered Princess Galyani Vadhana, the only sister of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

On that day, parties announced that they were suspending political activities for a few days out of respect for the 84-year-old princess.

Thai politics – which was hotting up as parties bargained their way into power – has come to a standstill. If the race to nail down a coalition were to end now, the winner would be the Samak Sundaravej-led PPP.

On Monday, PPP (with 233 MPs in the 480-seat Parliament) together with Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana (nine), Matchima Thipataya (seven) and Prachaj (five), announced the formation of a four-party coalition government. Chart Thai Party (37) and Puea Pandin (24) are expected to join the PPP-led government, leaving the Democrat Party (165) in lone opposition.

The swift U-turn by party leaders who hitherto were sworn enemies of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra has all but put paid to the possibility of a Democrat Party-led coalition government.

Snoh Thienthong, the leader of Pracharaj Party, illustrates the maxim in politics that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies.

Snoh ditched Thaksin while the former prime minister was in power, joining the anti-Thaksin rallies and attacking him for being a dictator. “I once raised his (Thaksin) hand on stage and proclaimed him to be the best thing for Thailand. I can’t bear to watch that video now,” he had said.

Nevertheless, in the name of forming a government of reconciliation, Snoh is now in bed with the very party he opposed.

Another politician who wants to kiss and make up with Thaksin is Prachai Leophairatana, the leader of Matchima Thipataya.

Prior to the Dec 23 Thai polls, it was entertaining to watch venomous Prachai condemn Thaksin in a meet the foreign press session. For added venom, the tycoon, who acknowledged bankrolling the unsuccessful long-running Yellow protests to oust Thaksin as prime minister in 2006, compared Thaksin to Hitler.

“Thaksin was cleverer than Hitler,” he had hissed in reference to the massacre at Krue Se and Tak Bai in southern Thailand.

Fast-forward to Monday’s press conference to announce the PPP-led coalition. Prachai humbly declared: “From now on, I’ll stop attacking Thaksin and I will forgo the issues of the past. I’ll also ask every one in my party to stop attacking Thaksin.”

Even Banharn Silapa-archa, the Chart Thai Party leader, now has one foot in the PPP-led coalition. On the first week of campaigning, when dismissing reports he could ditch his coalition partner if the PPP won the most seats in the polls, he had famously declared: “I’m with Abhisit (Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party leader).”

Why the U-turns by the Thai political veterans?

“We are a normal country once again,” wrote The Nation group editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon on Thursday. “The guys making news after the polls are all veteran politicians, several of them over 70.

“They are old hands at the game of negotiating their way into a coalition government. They call one another’s bluff. They issue threats and ridiculous denials.

“They don’t expect you to believe what they say. They simply assume that if they won in the polls, it’s a mandate for them to trample on the intelligence of the whole country.”

Also joining the let-bygones-be-bygones bandwagon is Thaksin himself. On Wednesday, in Hong Kong, the self-exiled politician declared that he harboured no ill will towards the coup makers who deposed him.

The billionaire dismissed speculation that he would seek revenge, saying: “I would invite them to play golf with me. Then, it will be over. What would I get out of it (revenge)? I might feel gratified, but the country would be damaged.”

The only party that has firmly vowed it will not jump into bed with strange bedfellows is the Democrats. Abhisit says the Democrat Party is ready to play the opposition role.

(Published in The Star on Jan 5, 2008)