Saturday, March 29, 2008

Help is just a whistle away

Thai Takes

NEXT time when you hear someone whistling on an isolated beach in Thailand don’t immediately assume it is a wolf call.

It might be a female tourist desperately in need help.

Two days after the shocking murder of a Swedish woman in the island of Phuket on March 15, Thai Tourism Ministry distributed safety whistles – shaped like the symbol commonly used to designate women (a circle above a cross) – to female tourists as part of its campaign to increase security.

It is debatable whether a whistle could have saved 27-year-old Swedish tourist Hanna Charlotta Backlund, who was stabbed to death in broad daylight while walking alone at Mai Khao, a secluded beach on the northern tip of Phuket.

Backlund’s murder is one of the recent killings of foreigners visiting Thailand that grabbed international media attention.

The list includes:

> Chetn Dadhwal, a 24-year-old Indian, who was trying to stop a fight during a Full Moon party at Koh Phangan on March 22;

> A 23-year-old Japanese woman, Tomoko Kawashita, who was murdered in Sukhothai Historical Park during the Loy Krathong water festival during an attempted robbery on Nov 25 last year; and

> Russians Tatiana Tsimfer, 20, and Liubov Svikova, 25, who were shot dead while they were sitting in beach chairs on Pattaya’s Jomtien Beach on Feb 25 last year.

The murders, according to the Bangkok Post, “come as a wake-up call for the Thai authorities, who seem to show no concern about the shortage of investment in the tourism industry or the political will to improve the safety of tourists”.

Quoting tourism experts, the newspaper reported that people only travelled to destinations that they feel safe in.

“Thailand owed much of its reputation as the region’s tourist hub to its safety record,” it said on Sunday.

The tourism industry generates the largest amount of foreign exchange for Thailand, raking up more than 500 billion baht (RM51.5bil) last year and accounting to about 6% of its gross domestic product. Last year, Amazing Thailand attracted 14 million visitors.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects the number of arrival to increase, forecasting this year’s income to be 800 billion baht (RM82.4bil).

Have the killings put a dent in Thailand’s tourist arrivals?

“A little bit,” says Jim Pollard, an Australian, who is in charge of the expatriate page in Daily Xpress, a Thai English-language tabloid.

“But not to a crisis point.”

“Fortunately, the police managed to quickly get the fellow who murdered (Backlund). That probably limited the damage (to the Thai tourism industry),” he said.

On March 19, after a three-day manhunt police arrested a 31-year-old Thai labourer Akaradech Tangae, who confessed that he tried to rape Backlund.

“But she resisted and I had to kill her,” he told the police.

Police described Akaradech as a peeping Tom who “loves to bring friends to this remote and quiet beach to look at naked tourists swimming or sunbathing.”

Asked whether there has been a surge in the number of foreigners killed in the country, Pollard, who has been living in Thailand for nine years, says: “Frankly those things happen here off and on, and it is not unusual.

“The murder of a pretty, young girl (Backlund) in Phuket in broad daylight is unusual. But many deaths of foreigners in Thailand do not get international coverage.”

With that explanation, the expatriate added: “I’m off to do a story on a Finnish man who was killed by his Thai minor wife in Pattaya.”

According to Pollard, one of Thailand’s most notorious tourist murders is the strangling to death of 24-year-old British backpacker Kirsty Sara Jones in a guesthouse in Chiang Mai in 2000.

The case is still unsolved even though it was reopened several times.

Included with the Thai Tourism Police-issued whistles are safety pamphlets warning female sunbathers not to wear revealing swimsuits.

“Many tourists, particularly those from Europe, come here to enjoy the beaches. They tend to choose a quiet spot away from other people, take off the bikini and sunbathe. That’s when the attackers strike,” Choochart Suwannakom, commander of the national Tourist Police, told the Bangkok Post.

Many disagree that wearing skimpy swimsuit attracts rapist attack.

But just to be on the safe side, when you visit Thailand perhaps you should pack a whistle together with your bikini.

(Published in The Star on March 29, 2008)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thai soap ‘The Air Hostess War’ may end in court battle

Just a soap opera: A scene from the steamy Thai soap opera ‘Songkram Nang Fah’ (The Air Hostess War) where Cherry (left) and Rin (right) are choosing shirts for Ning, the two-timing pilot.

Thai Takes

A SCENE from the controversial Thai soap opera Songkram Nang Fah (The Air Hostess War) showed catty flight attendant Cherry fighting with her colleague Rin for the affection of a two-timing pilot.

In another scene, after sleeping with Rin’s husband, Cherry called Rin to inform her of the tryst. There’s also a scene of Cherry placing Rin’s baby on a moving escalator.

Well, you get the picture that Cherry is the bitchy villain in the lakorn (Thai for soap opera).

Imagine if the viewers assumed that you’re the inspiration behind the villain.

A 44-year-old Thai Airways flight attendant can, as she was identified as Cherry, when her photograph was posted on a Thai website about a month ago.

“Upset, angry ... everything,” relates the stewardess, who wished to be known as 'Cherry' as she did not want to compound her ordeal by revealing her name, when asked how she felt when she saw her visa application photograph on the Internet.

The stewardess, who is not a lakorn fan, watched some episodes of The Air Hostess War after friends and relatives informed her that the bad character is supposed to be based on her.

“(When I watched it, my impression was) that’s not me. I did not do anything like that. She made up the story,” she said.

The “she” the stewardess referred to is Airky, the author of a 200-page semi-autobiographical bestseller that became the inspiration for the steamy lakorn that tells the story of a flight attendant, Rin, whose marriage with Ning, a pilot, was destroyed by Cherry.

Songkram Nang Fah, which bubbled into controversy on Jan 21 when flight attendants urged the Thai government to axe the primetime drama series because it showed stewardesses wearing short skirts and fighting while in uniform, ended recently.

But for the real-life characters, their life began to unfold into a soap opera.

On March 7, the police arrested 52-year-old Airky for defamation after Cherry lodged a report accusing the writer of posting her photograph on the Internet and damaging her image as many believed she was the inspiration behind the villain.

Airky, however, denied the accusation and she was released on bail.

It was not all cheery for Cherry after the posting of her photograph.

“My friends from my university days who had never contacted me started calling me asking whether I did the bad things (the villain) did in the soap opera,” revealed the stewardess on Wednesday after returning from a flight from Stockholm.

“Those who don’t know me think that I behave like the Cherry in that soap opera. But my family and friends – particularly Thai Airways senior flight attendants – know the truth and they are supportive of me,” she said.

She then showed two inspirational greeting cards (“the sun will shine again soon ... you’ll see”) she received from her colleagues on that day.

“But junior flight attendants (who do not know Airky because she quit as a Thai Airway cabin crew in 1995) are wondering whether the gossip is true. And some of them are gossiping behind my back.”

Most Thai Airways passengers are oblivious that Cherry is linked to a villainous character.

But there are some passengers (especially fans of Songkram Nang Fah) who jokingly ask the airline’s cabin crew “is the pilot of this plane Captain Ning?”

On Airky’s motivation to write the novel, Cherry, who two years ago married 55-year-old Ning, who divorced Airky about a decade ago, said:

“This story is more than 20 years old. I don’t know why she wrote the novel. Maybe she is envious that I have a happy life. And that I had a wedding reception (when she married Ning) while she did not have one.”

Has she ever been involved in a catfight with Airky? “No, no fighting, no slapping. That’s not my personality,” said the demure Cherry.

“Do you think there is such a person in this world who does bad things all the time. It’s just a soap opera.

“It’s not real life when you have a pregnant stewardess fighting with another pregnant stewardess.”

The Air Hostess War final episode ended with Rin divorcing Ning and marrying another pilot. This real-life drama, however, may have a court battle ending.

(Published in The Star on March 22, 2008)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Not everyone in this city is an angel

Thai Takes

WITH exotic Bangkok as the setting, the US-led arms sting had a plot that imitated a Hollywood thriller.

Victor Bout, a 41-year-old Russian businessman who inspired the character Nicholas Cage played in the 2005 film Lord of War, was closing a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a five-star hotel.

The Colombian rebels turned out to be agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Agency, and Bout, one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, found himself taken into custody on March 6.

Bout, Chhota Rajan and Kumaran Padmanadan, what do they have in common? All were arrested in the City of Angels.

In 2002, Indian underworld don Chhota Rajan was shot in his Bangkok apartment.

And in a scene that could be inspired by a Bollywood movie, the wounded gangster, held in a Bangkok private hospital, escaped by climbing out the window using knotted bed sheets.

On Sept 10, 2007, Kumaran – or KP, the chief procurer of arms of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – was believed by many, including the Sri Lankan government, to have been arrested in Bangkok.

However, while in Thai custody KP allegedly “disappeared”.

Why does Bangkok attract criminals such as Victor Bout?

“Easy to blend in (the large Bangkok population helps), easy access to transferring money and finding accommodation, cheap cost of living and good transit hub,” reasoned Bangkok Pundit, an anonymous blogger who comments on Thai politics and the insurgency in southern Thailand in

“People base themselves in Bangkok for its friendly local environment (more importantly, questions are not asked) and access to others in their local community,” explained the blogger in an email.

(This is because of the large number of tourists, leading to a sort of multiplier effect – once you have criminals here, and others see it is good, more and more come ad infinitum).

“Bangkok is a logistics centre and air hub, there is widespread corruption, there are many ways to get out of the country, and it is a centre for counterfeit currency and fake passports,” an analyst familiar with security issues and intelligence circles told The Straits Times.

“Thailand is a laissez faire country with many land and sea borders. For a price, you can do a deal, so long as you don’t touch the locals or harm the country. It’s a haven.”

In an editorial on Monday, The Nation wrote “... it’s not difficult to figure out why men such as Bout, along with international freedom fighters, terrorists and smugglers of drugs and people have a tendency to fall in love with the splendour of Bangkok.

“After all, we have lax financial regulations, dubious immigration regulations and plenty of outlets for top mafia bosses to lie low and be entertained in all sorts of ways.

“Too often, Thai officials turn a blind eye to their activities until pressure from some foreign government becomes unbearable. Bout is a case in point. If the United States didn’t ask for him, the Thai police probably wouldn’t have moved in on him.”

The Nation continued: “While it is easy to blame foreigners for putting Bangkok on the international map as a major destination for criminals, the Thai government is not entirely blameless.

“We need to overhaul the entire system, starting with immigration to the police officers on the street, as well as strengthen the entire justice system to ensure that enforcement is applied uniformly across the board.”

On whether stereotyping Bangkok as Asean’s criminal capital was unfair as other cities such as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta or Singapore also have their fair share of visitors with criminal links, Bangkok Pundit, whose previous job had a great level of interaction with those who got into “trouble”, said no.

“Thailand has a greater number than almost any other country. You have people working as drug couriers, escorts for people smuggling gangs, and document forgery including credit cards and travellers cheques.”

In its editorial on Bout, who is also known as Merchant of Death, The Nation wrote: “He was not the first and he won’t be the last of his kind found in Thailand.”

(Published in The Star on March 15, 2008)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Sultry debut for Bangkok freesheet


THERE she was, sultry pop star Sarunrat “Lydia” Visutthithada splashed in a compact-sized newspaper with the headline: Why I love the Shinawatras.

What a way to introduce Daily Xpress – Thailand’s first ever English-language freesheet newspaper.

On Wednesday, Nation Multimedia Group launched the Daily Xpress. With print order of 100,000 copies a day it is the largest-circulation English daily newspaper in Thailand.

And on the same day, the 37-year-old The Nation, an English-language broadsheet, was transformed into a newspaper whose core content is business-related news.

“We’re shifting the core content from general and political news to business news because current politics for many people is a boring issue,” said The Nation/Daily Xpress president Pana Janviroj.

“Our strategy is to rethink The Nation to meet our readers’ evolution and needs. But while changes have been made, what have been preserved are the credibility, substance and essential insights that are The Nation’s trademark.”

Added Daily Xpress editor Tulsathit Taptim: “The younger generation of sophisticated readers is a largely unfulfilled or untapped market as far as the English language media is concerned.

“And we hope Daily Xpress, with its focus on lifestyle, human interest news, talk of the town events, entertainment, and fun, will help serve their needs for a new kind of media.”

Nation Multimedia Group, according to Pana, who is also the executive director of Asia News Network (an alliance of 16 newspapers including The Nation and The Star) said the group aimed to segment its content to suit how, when and where people actually use its publications.

“For example, subscribers can read The Nation in the morning for its focus on immediate business and political information to plan their work lives, and then use Daily Xpress at their leisure during the day to plan their social and lifestyle activities,” he said.

“And there will be no duplication of content between the two segments so whether you are reading for work or leisure it’s always fresh and relevant information.”

The Nation’s transformation is driven from the changes in the way people consume news – half of the world’s newspapers now come in compact size, and half are freesheets.

“We can say media innovation is the heart of the freesheet. The growth of English-language newspapers in Thailand was limited because there were only two players (the other is the Bangkok Post),” he said.

“And while the consumption of news is unlimited, most choose to get it from the Internet and television. These have been the influences behind The Nation’s transformation.”

Mario Garcia, a world-renowned newspaper designer who has designed more than 500 newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, The Nation and The Star (2007), designed the Daily Xpress.

With a friendly and attractive format featuring big, lavish pictures, striking headlines and concise news stories, the Daily Xpress targets readers aged “plus or minus 30”.

Readers should be able to finish reading the freesheet in around 20 minutes.

“The stories will be short, to the point, and geared to people on the go. There will be plenty of small bites of encapsulated information,” the 60-something newspaper designer told The Nation.

“Young people hardly ever buy a newspaper, but they’ll grab one if it’s free and if the design appeals to them,” he added.

Daily Xpress’ masthead is in bright orange. “The colour represents the vibrant city (Bangkok) and its people,” said the CEO and founder of Garcia Media.

What Garcia did when he was hired to design the freesheet was to go on Bangkok’s skytrain and subway to observe Bangkokians’ lifestyle.

“The way people read doesn’t differ much from one country to another, but the differences in culture might be reflected in their colour preference,” he explained.

“For example, people prefer grey or light blue in Scandinavia, while in Latin America they want more sass, including yellow and orange.”

Bangkok’s fashionably dressed young people who are often plugged into an iPod reminded Garcia of their counterparts in New York and London.

In case you’re curious about why Linda loves the Shinawatras, it is because former Thai prime minister Thaksin showered her with love, which she never had from her own family.

“My tough exterior melts when I’m in the embrace of his household, who are my ‘second family’,” the woman, who has denied ever having been Thaksin’s lover, told the Daily Xpress.

(Published in The Star on March 8, 2008)

Saturday, March 01, 2008

On the sidelines, yet inside


ON THURSDAY, Flight TG 603 from Hong Kong landed at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport at about 9.40am. But it was no ordinary flight.

When the passenger who had paid for a one-way first-class ticket came out of the VIP terminal, he knelt to touch his forehead on Thai soil to the cheers of thousands of supporters.

It was a triumphant return for Thaksin Shinawatra, 58, who 17 months ago was ousted in a military coup when he was in New York to address the UN general assembly.

During his self-exile – in between shopping in Hong Kong, golfing in Bali, eating bah kut teh in Singapore and buying Manchester City Football Club – former prime minister Thaksin orchestrated his victorious return to Thailand through the ballot box.

His proxy political vehicle, the People Power Party, won the most seats in the Thai polls on Dec 23 and formed a coalition government that ensured his safe homecoming.

From the airport, Thaksin was whisked to the Supreme Court where he was charged with abuse of power in the purchase of land from a state agency while he was in office, and released on an eight-million-baht (RM860,000) bail.

At an afternoon press conference in Bangkok’s Peninsula Hotel, where he had booked an entire floor to ensure his and his family’s security, Thaksin said he had returned to prove his innocence, not to power politics.

“I will not return to the political stage. I am 59 this year, so I just want to enjoy the last stages of my life with my family, in my country. I will die on Thai soil,” he said.

In an immediate response, former Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, one of Thaksin’s opponents, described his pledge not to return to politics as a “political game”.

“Thaksin will plunge the country into a greater crisis, one that people will not be able to tolerate any longer,” Chamlong predicted.

Many in Thailand share the same view, and believe that Thaksin will make a political comeback.

“Despite Thaksin’s words of resignation and his stated intention of staying away from politics, he is likely to be the PPP-led government’s de facto chief executive,” wrote Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, in the Bangkok Post on Thursday.

“Thaksin’s impulses are to be the first mover, the agenda setter who dictates terms and shapes outcomes.

“Initially, he will try to stay on the sidelines, but as all eyes are increasingly fixed on his preferences, and as PPP politicians and Cabinet members of all stripes flock to him, Thaksin will not be able to help himself but take charge from behind the scenes.

“He also needs to take control to ensure the in-fighting within the PPP and within the coalition government is contained.”

Interestingly, on Thursday, Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee announced that he had appointed Thaksin as an economic advisor, a move that allowed Thaksin to be on the sidelines but yet inside Thai politics, Thitinan noted.

On the morning of Thaksin’s arrival, The Nation newspaper wrote: “The mood in the country will be one of confusion and divisiveness when Thaksin ends his exile.

“Three years of political crisis, a military coup in September 2006, and more recently a general election, have done little to resolve the deep discord in Thailand.

“Thaksin will still find that while half of the country loves him, the other half hates him.

“Nobody knows how the country will handle Thaksin, who is still recognised as the most influential politician in practical terms.”

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which organised the massive anti-Thaksin street protests that culminated in the coup, warned Thaksin not to try to sway the corruption cases against him.

“If we find they are trying to intervene in the judicial process directly or indirectly, we will not sit idly by,” spokesman Suriyasai Katasila warned.

What’s next for Thaksin?

Thanong Khanthong, The Nation editor, wrote that Thaksin would try to create the impression he is the non-elected leader.

“Over the next five years, all the corruption cases brought against him might not lead anywhere. Then he will make a political comeback,” Thanong predicted.

“In the short term, however, political calm will return to Thailand. A political showdown is unlikely to happen soon. But down the line, there will be some bumpy incidents.”

(Published in The Star on March 1, 2008)