Saturday, February 23, 2008

It’s still an uphill battle


POINTING at his appendicitis scar, a 50-something hilltribe villager Apa Chermue said: “If I still lived up there, I would have died.”

Up there is a three-hour 30km hike from Baan Apa, a village named after its chief, Apa, who is from the Akha community – a minority group living at the mountainous region of northern Thailand which borders Myanmar and Laos.

About 15 years ago, the Thai government ordered Apa’s clan members to vacate their village, which was located on a mountain ridge, in order to protect a water catchment.

Abandoning his self-sufficient life, Apa found living at the foot of the mountain tough.

“The jungle provided everything we needed. We used to hunt wild boar. But here we need money to buy pork,” he explained.

Gradually, Apa found the convenience of living in “civilisation”, as his home was now close to the city and electricity.

For instance, a few months ago, when he felt a sharp pain in his appendix, he was rushed to the hospital in less than 15 minutes, as Baan Apa is linked by road to Chiang Rai city.

“If I had to walk downhill for three hours to seek treatment, probably my appendix would have burst,” said Apa, who owns about 0.8ha of land planted with lychee, longan and pineapple.

Apa is one of the success stories of the Thai government’s relocation of the hilltribe communities from their mountainous dwelling to the lowland. Others – from the Akha, Lahu or Karen communities – face an uphill task adapting to their new environment, however.

“They do not speak Thai, as they grew up speaking their own language. This language barrier is making it difficult for them to integrate with the mainstream,” explained Parisudha Sudhamongkala, the 37-year-old project director of Mirror Foundation, a Thai non-governmental organisation.

“The problem confronting the hilltribe communities is the government’s misguided policies to protect the environment. It does not believe that the people who have been living in the mountain for generations can live harmoniously with nature,” Parisudha noted.

Instead, the government forced them to relocate closer to the city. “The hilltribe folks do not have the skills to eke out a living in the city and this make them an easy target for exploitation,” she said. “They are a source of cheap labour.”

Girls from the hilltribe communities also fall victim to human trafficking. “Some of them just disappear when they are lured into seeking a job in the city,” Parisudha related.

To overcome the problems confronting the uprooted hilltribe communities, the Mirror Foundation ( offers several programmes such as Thai language and HIV education courses and helping them apply for Thai citizenship.

Another project is eco tourism, where villagers turn their house into homestay for tourists to experience a hilltribe lifestyle.

In Baan Apa, a stone’s throw away from Apa’s house is the home of Atu Ayi, a 57-year-old farmer who is participating in the homestay programme.

Unlike the other 35 wooden houses with Akha architecture, Atu’s home is constructed of concrete. He smiled shyly when he explained that his French son-in-law had designed it.

Speaking in simple Thai, Atu told his houseguests that he missed his former village. There, he explained, he had more than 4ha of land. “Here the government gave us only 0.8haWhat can I do with 0.8ha?” the homestay host asked.

Did you plant poppies when you were living at the mountain? I asked, remembering what Parisudha told me about the drug habit of hilltribe communities who lived in the golden triangle – an area in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos which used to be the number one drug producer in the world.

Again, he smiled shyly. “Those days after a hard day toiling our land we took the drug so that we can relive our aches,” he related.

Atu lamented that the villagers were losing their tradition. And he related a story about his nephew not worshiping his ancestral spirit house.

“His wife died from a car accident, and a few weeks later his brother died at the same spot in a motorcycle accident because he refused to respect the spirit,” he related.

(Published in The Star on Feb 23, 2008)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Time to bring sexy back


WHOSE general election is sexier? Thailand's held on Dec 23 or Malaysia's, which is set for March 8?

According to Panitan Wattanayagorn, an associate professor with Chulalongkorn University’s department of international relations, Thais view Malaysia’s general election as “less democratic, less exciting, less fashionable, less sexy, less trendy”.

“We think our election is more exciting,” he added.

On what he thought was the Malaysians perception of Thai polls, Panitan said: “Chaotic, messy, unstable, and not good for the (Thai) economy.”

Thais perceive our general election as less exciting as there is no real political force in Malaysia that can topple the establishment.

“The Barisan Nasional (the successor of the Alliance) has dominated Malaysia’s political environment since 1957,” noted Panitan.

“And the opposition parties are not strong.

“Whereas, in Thailand, the Democrat Party (which is currently the sole opposition party) has governed this country a few times.

“We have a more open political environment, but Malaysia is more stable politically. We are now experiencing instability, and have been for a long time, while Malaysia has been stable since 1957.

“The reformasi movement caused political turbulence but not enough to overthrow the strong Barisan.”

Thailand has been rocked by instability since anti-Thaksin (Shinawatra) rallies started in 2005 and climaxed in a coup against the then prime minister on Sept 23, 2006.

And after 16 months of military rule, Thailand returned to democracy with the Dec 23 polls.

According to the associate professor, the political culture in Thailand is different from that in Malaysia.

“Unlike Thais, Malaysians are less politicised. We have civil society groups that are very active, such as the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which led the anti-Thaksin rallies,” he explained.

“We have small but powerful NGOs which are able to play the role of providing checks and balances to the government.”

Another difference is that bread and butter issues are the priority in Malaysia.

“The economy is placed higher than political freedom,” observed Panitan.

“But for Thais political freedom is valued more than the economy.”

Economically, Malaysia is much better off than Thailand based on the human development index – Malaysia’s per capita income is US$5,000 (RM16,112), while Thailand's is US$2,000.

“When people are better off, they often ask fewer questions, as they don’t want their lives disrupted,” he said.

Isn’t feeding the stomach more important?

“Well, like India and Ghana, that is Thailand’s political culture (more concerned with politics than the economy),” he said.

Asked if Thais were interested in the March 8 polls, Panitan, who was a member of the prime minister’s eminent person advisory board during the Surayud Chulanont interim government, replied: “Not that much.”

“But one thing that may interest the Thai government is the outcome in the northern states (which have common borders with Thailand).”

If Perlis, Kedah, Perak and Kelantan were to come under the control of PAS, the cooperation between the Thai and Malaysian governments on southern Thailand, which has been the scene of a bloody Islamic insurgency, could be affected, Panitan noted.

Thais, he added, had the perception that some Malaysian northern states were not accommodative in terms of detaining Thai militants who cross the border.

“But, of course, that goes the same for the Thais, too.

“To improve the situation (in the south), Thailand must make sure it treats these people fairly and handles the situation in a more balanced way,” he said.

Well, Malaysians, let's make this election sexy!

(Published in The Star on Feb 16, 2008)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Real-life drama flies high



A PREGNANT stewardess catches her pilot husband in a rendezvous with his mistress. The wife snatches the other woman’s handphone and hurls it into a pond. Incensed, the mistress, who is a flight attendant, slaps her rival.

The scene is from:

A) Thai soap opera.

B) Real life.

C) All of the above.

The answer is B. It is a snapshot from the life of 45-year-old retired Thai Airways cabin crew Royreudee Kenny.

The answer could also be C as Royreudee’s semi-autobiographical novel is the inspiration for Thailand’s steamy soap opera Songkram Nang Fah (The Air Hostess War).

However, although the soap opera has scenes of stewardesses slapping each other over a two-timing pilot, the producer has no plans to include this particular catfight.

The soap opera bubbled into controversy on Jan 21 when flight attendant representatives of Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways urged the Thai government to axe the primetime drama series because it showed stewardess wearing short skirts and fighting while in uniform.

In July 2006, under the pseudonym Airky (a combination of “air” and “ky”, which sounds like the Thai word for “old”), Royreudee posted her life story in, a popular Thai websites, to fulfil her dream of becoming a writer.

The granddaughter of renowned Thai novelist Por Indrapalit also felt she was mature enough to write about her life without being ashamed of it.

Her Internet postings became an instant hit in Thailand. And in March 2007 she published her postings as a 135 baht (RM14) novel titled Cheewit Rantod – Ruangjing Phan Comp (The Melancholic Life – A True Story from the Computer).

The 200-page bestseller, which is 95% based on Royreudee’s life, tells the story of a 21-year-old innocent stewardess “Rin” who falls in love with “Ning”, a tall, dark and handsome pilot, in January 1981. Four years later, Ning marries Rin because of an unplanned pregnancy.

In their 15-year marriage, Ning was notorious in Thai Airways for his extra-marital affairs with stewardesses. One of his gigs (Thai slang for part-time lover), “Cherry”, was so passionately in love with him that she set out to destroy his marriage.

For example, whenever Ning was out flying, Cherry would drive to the couple’s house to shout, “I wish you and your baby will die. I wish your baby will have no hair, no ears and no heart,” to Rin who was into her second pregnancy.

In 1995, Cherry, then Ning’s mistress, phoned Rin to tell her about her rendezvous with the pilot. It was then that the six-month pregnant wife rushed to confront them.

“I hurled her handphone into the pond. She tried to slap me but missed. Then she bit me,” Royreudee relates, showing a 13-year-old scar on her left hand. “My husband was restraining me so I spat at her but missed.”

That night Rin was hospitalised as the catfight caused complications to her pregnancy.

After three weeks in hospital, Rin received a phone call from the mistress who hissed: “Hey pitiful woman, how I wish you and your baby would die. Anyway I pity you so I’ve sent your husband to visit you for a while. He is wearing a white polo shirt and in five minutes he will be in your room.”

At that moment Ning entered the hospital room wearing a white polo shirt. Rin sprang from the bed and shoved a table at him. He slapped her, causing her to collapse to the floor.

That night Rin had a miscarriage. After losing her baby, she did not talk to anyone for two years. And she had to seek psychiatric help.

Finally, Rin divorced Ning in 1996, keeping custody of their two children. Two years ago, Ning married his 40-something mistress Cherry and they have a one-year-old child.

“He is still flirting with younger flight attendants. I know as I still have friends in Thai Airways,” relates the former stewardess who quit flying in 1995. “The destroyer is still chasing these girls to destroy them.”

What’s her take on Songkram Nang Fah which premiered on Jan 14?

“It was as if I was watching a soap opera and not my life,” says Royreudee, with a smile. “Many things (in the series) are different from my life.”

(Published in The Star on Feb 9, 2008, in The Nation on Feb 13, 2008 and AsiaNews on Feb 15-21, 2008)

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Steamy soap riles trolley dollies


ON a recent Monday, a flight attendant who is no fan of Thai soap operas was nevertheless stirred to watch the pilot episode of Songkram Nang Fah (The Air Hostess War) because it revolved around her profession.

The first episode told of how a sweet-looking woman became a flight attendant with Air Mekhala, which has “Fly With Love” for its slogan. Except for the stewardess’ extremely short skirt, Thai Airways flight attendant manager Pichitra Taveerat was neutral about the lakorn (Thai for soap opera).

The next day, the 49-year-old woman watched the second episode, as she was curious about how the story would develop. It showed a stewardess entangled in a love triangle with a bitchy colleague over a dashing pilot.

In episode four, a catfight breaks out between the shrieking trolley dollies fighting for the affection of the two-timing pilot.

“The girls were slapping each other while wearing their uniform. The scene was ridiculous, as in real life it never happens,” complained Pichitra, a flight attendant for 27 years.

“I felt like my reputation, my dignity and my profession have been tarnished.”

To make matters worse, her 14-year-old daughter asked if it was usual for cabin crew to fight while in uniform or to beat another woman in a toilet.

“It is not real. Have you ever heard me talk about my colleagues fighting over a man?” she replied. Her daughter accepted the explanation.

However, returning from school the next day, her daughter said: “Mum, all my friends are asking about your career, and they want to know why cabin crew behave in a way that is not typical of a beautiful Thai lady.”

Pichitra’s 23-year-old daughter, who is going to be a stewardess, was more understanding. Although she found the series nasty, as a fan of Thai soap operas she understood that scenes of violence are standard fare to attract an audience.

Pichitra’s colleagues exploded at the lakorn’s ridiculous portrayal of their profession and the sexy skirt – six inches above the knee and with a slit that's too high. They decided to go public to vent their fury.

On Jan 21, Pichitra and flight attendant representatives of Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways demonstrated their anger. They also complained to the Culture Ministry, urging it to axe the primetime programme.

The media attention turned the saucy soap opera into a roeung ron (Thai for hot story) which drew international attention, with foreign media such as Guardian, The New York Times and CNN getting all steamed up.

The cabin crew’s decision to go public also attracted criticism. Some thought it helped boost the soap opera’s rating, while others found the protest frivolous.

“This is not a documentary about the life of an air hostess. It is a fictitious TV series, prone to a bit of exaggeration that teases the imagination,” wrote Outraged Taxpayer in a letter to The Nation.

In a press conference the following day, Exact, which produced the show, apologised for creating ill feelings, but insisted it did not intend to tarnish the image of flight crew.

Still, the damage had been done; the public associated the popular soap with Thai Airways.

Why? “The story is based on my senior,” explains Pichitra.

A former Thai Airways stewardess – using the pseudonym Airky (a combination of “air” and “ky”, which sounds like the Thai word for “old”) – wrote about her husband’s infidelity on the Internet a few years ago.

Airky’s husband, who is a Thai Airways pilot, had an affair with a Thai Airways stewardess.

“She did fight with her husband’s lover, but it was over the phone. There was no catfight. What the soap opera did was add spice to a true story,” Pichitra said.

On Jan 25, in peace talks hosted by the Culture Ministry, Exact agreed to remove fight scenes of characters in uniform, to make the skirts two inches longer and to include scenes showing flight attendants working hard serving passengers.

Like all Thai soap operas, The Air Hostess War controversy has a happy ending.

(Published in The Star on Feb 2, 2008)