Saturday, July 26, 2008

Standoff mired in history

Thai Takes

PERCHED on the edge of a 525m-high cliff that divides Thailand and Cambodia is the ancient Hindu temple of Preah Vihear, which has become the setting of a border confrontation between the two countries.

Days after Unesco designated Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site on July 8, Bangkok and Phnom Penh deployed hundreds of heavily-armed soldiers around the contentious temple that the Thais call Pra Viharn.

Ownership of the 900-year-old temple has been in dispute since the French withdrew from Indochina in the 1950s. In 1962, the International Court of Justice awarded the disputed temple, easily accessible only from the Thai side, to Cambodia.

At the centre of the military build-up is a 4.6-square-kilometre overlapping area around the temple that is claimed by both countries.

The build-up began on July 15 when three Thais protesters (who Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej described as “crazy guys”) jumped over a barbed-wire fence to cross into the area, vowing to reclaim the temple that they say belong to Thailand.

Cambodian guards detained the protesters and Thailand sent its troops to retrieve them.

The military standoff between the two neighbouring Asean countries, according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, a military analyst at Chulalongkorn University, centres on three key issues:

> The listing of Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site;

> Domestic instability spurring nationalism fervour in both countries (in Thailand, the Samak government is facing a concerted campaign by the People’s Alliance for Democracy to bring it down, and, in Cambodia, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party is seeking a fresh mandate in national elections tomorrow); and,

> The weakening of Thailand’s national unity and the strengthening of Cambodia’s national unity and economy giving Phnom Penh the confidence to push for territories over which it has long-standing disputes with Bangkok.

The number of soldiers currently amassed in the vicinity of Preah Vihear Temple varies with which government spokesman you talk to.

Cambodia says it has deployed 800 soldiers against 3,000 Thai soldiers while Thailand claims to have 400 men facing 1,700 Cambodian soldiers.

And depending on which day you read the newspapers, the situation on the ground fluctuates from “an imminent state of war” (to quote Cambodian foreign minister Hor Namhong) to a picnic.

On July 18, AFP reported that Cambodian and Thai soldiers pointed their weapons at each other for the first time over a tense land dispute on their border.

Four days later, Thai foreign ministry spokesman Tharit Charungvat told Reuters: “It is a peaceful military stand-off. It is like a picnic. They chat together and lunch together.”

Will this military standoff lead to war?

Unlikely, says Panitan. “(Thailand's and Cambodia’s) top commanders have agreed to solve the situation without using any force,” he notes.

However, he acknowledges that, “on the ground, it is not easy to control the troops”.

“Hopefully,” he adds, “there will be no untoward incident such as an unknown militia attacking (the other side).”

Or, a careless statement, which can escalate tensions between Thailand and Cambodia.

In 2003, a false report in a Khmer newspaper quoting a Thai actress as saying that Angkor Wat belonged to her country sparked anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh. The Thai embassy and Thai businesses were torched.

One cool cat in the armed standoff is Samak. On Wednesday, the Thai prime minister predicted that tensions would ease after Cambodia’s general election tomorrow.

“After the election they will soften their stance, and talks will be easier,” Samak said.

“Everything is being done with an eye on the July 27 polls, and I need to keep quiet so as not to discredit prime minister Hun Sen.”

The next day, Thailand and Cambodia agreed to send their foreign ministers to Siem Reap next Monday to discuss a resolution to the border conflict.

Interestingly, Thailand is without a foreign minister as Noppadon Pattama was recently forced to resign for mishandling the Preah Vihear temple issue.

Panitan, the military analyst, warns that finding a resolution is not going to be an easy task, because Bangkok still does not have a real plan for an exit strategy.

“Who will withdraw their troops first?” he asks.

“Will it be a bilateral withdrawal? If it is a unilateral withdrawal, the other side can claim they are victorious.”

(Published in The Star on July 26, 2008)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

When lying in a coffin isn’t so bad


A MOVIE trailer for a Thai supernatural thriller starts with a mass funeral for the living where believers slip into coffins that are then nailed shut.

And a television journalist reports: “In the province of central Thailand this morning thousands of people turned up for a bizarre ritual called Non Loeng Sadorcro which literally translates as sleeping coffin get rid of bad karma.”

Did Ekachai Uekrongtham, the writer/director of The Coffin that premiered in South Korea on July 10, concoct a bizarre ritual so that he can weave it into his movie of two characters facing terrifying experiences after lying (separately) in a coffin?

No, a Thai ritual where believers lie in a coffin to get rid of bad luck or to prolong life inspired him.

“It is a story that I was keen to tell as it deals with one of my greatest fears – death. Not so much my death but the death of my loved ones,” explained Ekachai, who also directed Beautiful Boxer.

His intrigue with the ritual began three years ago when he read an article in a Thai newspaper about thousands of people attending a death ritual for the living.

“How was it possible that you have to go so ‘near’ to death in order to prolong your life? It seems like a contradiction,” he said, adding that at that time he also had difficulties in dealing with his father’s death.

Convinced that the ritual was a good basis for a movie, Ekachai scripted a storyline about two people who performed the ritual.

The Coffin tells the interlinked stories of Chris (Ananda Everingham), a claustrophobic Thai architect whose Japanese fiancee is dying of brain tumour and Sue (Karen Mok), a nutritionist from Hong Kong, who is diagnosed with lung cancer one week before her wedding.

Non Loeng Sadorcro (which literally means ‘Lie in Coffin, Rid of Bad Luck’), according to Ekachai, The Coffin scriptwriter, took off from a Thai practice of giving money to temples to purchase coffins for the poor.

“The practice evolved when donors wrote down ‘I want to transfer the good karma I’ve accumulated (from buying a coffin) to my loved one who has passed away’ on a piece of paper and pasted it on the coffin that they had bought,” he explained.

In the last few years, the ritual took a bizarre turn when donors lie in the coffin (with its lid shut but not completely so that they could breathe) while a group of monks performed death rites on them as if they were dead. And when the donor rose from the coffin the monk read a chant of new life.

“Many participants felt as if they were reborn after the ritual – with all their bad karma buried behind them,” Ekachai said.

“Some claimed that the ritual helped fool the spirits that they’re already dead so they could start their new lives afresh like newborns.”

In his interviews with believers, Ekachai said some told him that they met the spirit of their dead loved ones while they were lying in the coffin. “They told me that they made a connection with the dead,” he said.

The scriptwriter also went through the archives of a Thai TV station, watching a documentary of a man – with a serious heart problem – who even his doctor gave up on his chances for recovery.
“The man claimed after going through the ritual he recovered gradually. And since then he performed the ritual annually,” he added.

Non Loeng Sadorcro detractors brand it as an occult practice.

“Many feel it’s bad omen to lie in a coffin when they’re still alive,” according to a press release issued by The Coffin producers.

“Some said this ritual is nothing but a case of commercialism entering the sacred religious domain.”

Did Ekachai try out the coffin ritual? No. He’s claustrophobic.

And he believes that a coffin is a place where you should only lie once. “I think I am just chicken,” he added, laughing.

At the end of The Coffin trailer, Chris, who is inside a coffin, uses his handphone to light up his pitch-dark surrounding and then you hear anxious knockings as if someone was trying to escape death.

(Published in The Star on July 19, 2008)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Thailand faces judicial revolution


ON A rainy afternoon on Wednesday, strong winds uprooted a big Rajapreuk tree as Thailand’s prime minister Samak Sundaravej arrived at the Government House, the seat of the Thai government.

Reporters covering the Government House beat saw the uprooting of the national tree as a bad omen for the embattled prime minister who had returned from chairing an urgent People’s Power Party (PPP) meeting on how to cope with its judicial crisis.

This week several court verdicts hammered Samak’s five-month-old coalition government.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that former speaker of parliament Yongyuth Tiyapairat was guilty of vote buying in the recent election and banned him from politics for five years.

And if the Election Commission found Yongyuth, a former PPP deputy leader, was acting in his party capacity in the electoral fraud, his party could be dissolved.

If this happened, it would be a repeat to the Constitutional Tribunal decision in May 2007 to dissolve Thai Rak Thai (the PPP’s predecessor) and bar its 111 executives, including party founder Thaksin Shinawatra, from participating in politics for five years.

On the same day, the Constitutional Court ruled that foreign minister Noppadon Pattama acted unconstitutionally when he endorsed Cambodia’s application to have the disputed Preah Vihear temple registered as a World Heritage Site without consulting parliament.

Two days later, Noppadon resigned.

“The country is more important than my political position. Therefore, although I have done nothing wrong, I will take responsibility by resigning,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court disqualified public health minister Chaiya Sasomsap from office for failing to declare that his wife held more than 5% of stock in a private company, within 30 days of his taking office.

Is Samak worried about his party’s judicial crisis?

PPP spokesman Kudeb Saikrajang said Samak told his party executives in the Wednesday meeting that he was unmoved by what had happened to his government.

The prime minister, The Nation reported, told party executives that what had happened to his government was not beyond his expectations.

Samak, it reported, said that despite its election victory, the PPP had been “targeted for demolition” because it was viewed as a tool for Thaksin to regain his political power.

While Samak is “unmoved” with his party’s judicial defeats some political pundits are writing the doomsday scenario for his coalition government.

On Thursday, The Nation gave three possible scenarios.

Scenario I: Samak tenders his resignation as prime minister to pave way for A) a new nominee of Thaksin, B) Banharn Silapa-archa, the Chart Thai Party leader, C) Abhisit Vejajjiva, Democrat leader, or D) a non-elected prime minister.

Scenario II: Samak dissolves parliament and calls for a snap election.

Scenario III: Samak hangs on but will not last long because A) the Constitutional Court case will rule whether the prime minister’s hosting of a TV cooking show on commercial television was in breach of the constitution, B) he is appealing a libel case that carries a jail term, or C) he faces corruption charges related to the procurement of fire trucks when he was Bangkok governor.

It is not only Samak and his Cabinet colleagues who are swarmed by a litany of litigations.

On July 4, the Supreme Court barred Thaksin, who is seen as the man behind the Samak-led coalition government, from leaving Thailand due to alleged corruption and tax evasion cases involving him and his wife currently before the courts. The billionaire politician also has several cases pending in court.

In an article analysing how Thailand’s political landscape is being altered by the judiciary, an Inter Press Service (IPS) journalist Marwaan Macan-Markar wrote:

“Little wonder why a new expression has been coined and is being advanced within academic and media circles here to describe the judiciary”.

“We are witnessing a new trend involving the judiciary.

“This month’s cases are the latest. It is being called a ‘judicial revolution’,” Thanet Aphornsuvan, dean of the liberal arts faculty at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, told IPS. “The courts are playing a more decisive role in politics than before.”

Some pundits see the judicial revolution as a judicial coup which can do what a coup, an election and street protests could not - uproot Thaksin’s political grip.

(Published in The Star on July 12, 2008)

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Real-life Bangkok romances aren’t typical Western cliches


HERE’S a book to read to avoid the cliches of Bangkok. It is titled Bangkok Blondes and it is a collection of short stories and poems about Bangkok by 14 women writers (13 Westerners and one Thai) who are from the Bangkok Women’s Writers Group (BWWG).

“It is a good book to read before you come to Bangkok as it gives you an idea of real everyday life in Bangkok. And it pays attention to the small things in life,” gushes Anette Pollner, who is the coordinator of BWWG, which was founded in 2000.

Bangkok Blondes, notes Pollner, is different from 90% of the English-language non-fiction books published in Thailand because it is not testosterone-laden with Bangkok stereotypes such as a farang (Thai for westerner) falling in love with bar girls or a farang ending up in prison.

These books (My Name Lon, You Like Me? Even Thai Girls Cry. A Farang Affair), which are written by farang male writers, says Pollner, portray aspects (such as prostitution, drugs, gangster and prison) of Bangkok which are completely different from the experience of the majority of the Thai and farang population in the City of Angels.

“As a resident of this city I feel angry that Bangkok has been misrepresented in a very negative way,” declares the over-40 writer who has been living in the Big Mango, as Bangkok is affectionately known, since 2003.

When Pollner, who describes herself as a citizen of the world, returns to Europe, she is usually asked, “Isn’t living in Bangkok dangerous?” or “Aren’t there many bar girls in your street?”

“When I tell them, ‘No, Bangkok is safe’ or ‘No, in my whole district there aren’t any bar girls’, they don’t believe me because they believe the (cliche-laden) books they’ve read,” relates the farang who lives in Ari, a trendy district.

Pollner’s Bangkok is far removed from Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza, which are Bangkok’s touristy red light area. Her life revolves around the Bangkok Opera (she’s the theatre director), National Museum (she’s a volunteer) and BWWG.

You get the picture. She breathes a cultured, cosmopolitan life.

However, she admits that before visiting the Thai capital she thought it was “seedy, full of bar girls, and you have to be careful not to get shot in the street”.

In 2003, while backpacking around the world, Pollner decided to visit the City of Angels for three nights and found her notions were false.

“My experience was against the cliche – farang women can’t find love in Bangkok. I met my lover here. And he was not a bar boy but someone I could have met in London,” reveals the writer whose story of that romance The Last of the Great White Lovers is immortalised in Bangkok Blondes.

The cliche that love eludes farang women in Bangkok, according to Pollner, is a malicious propaganda by men who visit the city to have sex with bar girls because they could not find a partner back in Europe.

There are Thai-based websites where these men write hate message against Western women who live in Bangkok, she adds.

Ironically, as the manuscript compiler of Bangkok Blondes, Pollner reinforces the stereotype when she include Jess Tansutat’s short story Butterfly Game, which is about how it could be frustrating for Western women living in Bangkok to find real romantic partner.

“The choices for decent men are limited here,” writes Jess, who is a Thai.

“There are several possible factors. Although Thai and Asian men are generally sweet and gentle, they can also be a bit immature and too feminine.

“The ones who are good-looking, dress well and smart can turn out to be the ‘sorry, lady, I’m gay’ type. (Farang guys) are spoilt. Thailand is just a big playground for them.”

Refusing to be drawn into a discussion on whether Jess’s story is a cliche, Pollner points out there are other stories in the book where various authors narrate their relations with men in Bangkok.

For example, Chloe Trindall’s trilogy titled Love Bangkok Style focuses on her romance with a poor Thai boy from a small village in Isaan.

So what’s real everyday life in Bangkok?

In Anna Bennetts’ Ghostbusters, it is speaking to the spirit haunting a farang woman’s new apartment.

(Published in The Star on July 5, 2008)