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)

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Fears of a bloody outcome


ON TUESDAY, an editor from The Nation newspaper confessed that Thailand’s political volatility was giving him a massive headache.

“Last night, I met (a minister) and military intelligence officers (separately) and they all tell me that there will be bloodshed in the next few days,” he said.

“The repeat of Udon Thani?” I said, referring to the July 24 bloody attack by Khon Rak Udon (People Who Love Udon) against the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demonstrators in Udon Thani, a northeast city about an hour’s flight from Bangkok.

“Yes,” replied the editor who sunk his forehead on a stack of back issue copies of The Star piled up on my desk.

Yet again a rumour of bloodshed, I thought. Bloodshed is the second favourite rumour circulating in Thailand after “the military will stage another coup”.

To find out the possibility of violence during the weekend, I made an appointment to meet up with Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology Worapol Promigabutr who in the past had patiently explained (sometimes by drawing a diagram on an A4 notepad) to me the intricacy of Thai politics.

“Very likely,” Worapol told me on Thursday.

“Tomorrow (Saturday ), parliament will reconvene and the Samak Sundaravej government will push to rewrite the 2007 constitution. Tomorrow the PAD will do what they have been doing every day but it will escalate its protest by increasing the number of protestors,” he noted.

Anti-government protestors from outside Bangkok, he explained, will find it affordable to travel to the Thai capital because of the government’s anti-poverty scheme to counter the soaring cost of living. Starting yesterday, for six months Thais can travel for free in non-air conditioned trains and buses.

Also taking advantage of these free rides will be supporters of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DADD), which on July 22, 2007 attacked the residence of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda as it believed he was behind the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra.

Today, the DADD is expected to organise a huge rally at Bangkok’s Sanam Luang, about 2km from the PAD street protest that is close to the Government House, which is the seat of the Thai government. The DADD rally will be its first since the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party won the most seats in the Dec 23, 2007 election.

“These two protests which are not far from each other and the Udon Thani incident are making Thais nervous that there will be bloodshed this weekend,” Worapol noted.

“They (especially those who lived through either “May 1992”, “Oct 6, 1976” and “Oct 14, 1973” political bloodshed in Bangkok) are in near panic.”

Will there be bloodshed? “There is highly confidential information that I am waiting to receive. And in order for me to confidently predict whether there will be bloodshed or not I need that information,” he said.

The information the sociologist needs is whether any faction of the military will support either the DADD or PAD if violence broke out when the two groups clashed.

“The group that is secure it has the military’s backing will bay for blood,” he said.

On the benefit of violence, Worapol said the DADD hoped to end the PAD’s prolonged street protest while the PAD wanted to discredit the Samak government for failing to prevent bloodshed and use it as a pretext to call for a coup.

He added that both the PAD and DADD have agent provocateurs who are skilled in rousing a mob into violence.

“It only takes a minor incident such as the burning of a car to stir up bloodshed,” said the 51-year-old sociologist, who as a first year Thammasat University student experienced mob mentality during the 14 Oct 1973 student uprising against the military dictatorship of Field Marshal Thanom where the military killing 77 people.

Yesterday morning, I received a phone call from Worapol who said the latest information he received was the PAD is likely instigating violence today.

“This weekend’s clash will be larger than that in Udon Thani but it will not encourage a coup,” he added.

On Monday, the sociologist will analyse this weekend’s protests in order to predict whether in the next two weeks violence in Bangkok will escalate to a bloody level.

(Editor’s note: Yesterday at noon, Worapol called to inform that the DADD had cancelled its rally scheduled for today because it feared that there would be violence if it proceeded with its plan.)

(Published in The Star on August 2, 2008)