Saturday, September 27, 2008

Steamed bun the latest rallying cry

Thai Takes

NOW that former Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is history the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has a new villain to vilify.

Take this for PAD-style vilification: “In her past life, she must have made merit by offering salapao (steamed bun), that is why her face looks like two salapaos.”

That was heard at Bangkok’s Government House, which the PAD have seized, a few hours after parliament elected Somchai Wongsawat as prime minister on Sept 17.

The khunying (Thai slang for a woman which the Lonely Planet characterises as having “Imelda Marcos helmet hairdos, jewel-toned Thai silk and thick pancake make-up”) with cheeks resembling salapaos is now the PAD’s favourite figure of hate because she is married to Somchai.

And - this is what makes the blood of the PAD supporters boil - she possesses the same DNA as Thaksin Shinawatra, who is numero uno in its list of villains.

“Blood is thicker than water” has become the cliched mantra of the anti-government protesters, as Thailand’s current first lady is Thaksin’s younger sister.

On the day her husband became the country’s 26th prime minister, Yaowapa, a businesswoman and politician, announced she would assume the role of a housewife.

But not many Thais are convinced she will play a homely role, saying she has politics in her blood.

Yaowapa was an MP and also a leader of the powerful Wang Bua Baan (Blooming Lotus) faction in Thai Rak Thai (TRT), the party Thaksin led. And she was also an adviser to her brother when he was Prime Minister.

In the 2007 elections, she could not contest for PPP (a TRT reincarnation) as she, together with 110 TRT executives, were banned from politics when the Constitutional Court dissolved the party for violating election laws.

Her 61-year-old husband is a political neophyte.

In September 2006, Somchai, who was one of Thailand’s top bureaucrats, retired from civil service. And in 2007 - during the military rule following a bloodless coup that ousted Thaksin - he entered politics, becoming the PPP’s deputy leader.

He was elected an MP in the election held on Dec 23, last year.

His elevation as prime minister is a Thai record - the shortest-serving MP to become premier.

Unlike the razor-tongued Samak, who is fond of vilifying opponents and journalists (for example, “Who did you fornicate with last night?”), Somchai is soft-spoken and amiable.

If not for his marriage to a Shinawatra, the new prime minister would probably be the darling of the anti-Thaksin media (that distinction now is held by Opposition Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the very handsome Democrat Party leader).

Being the brother-in-law of Thaksin is a good enough reason for the PAD, which has appointed itself as the country’s political guardian, to reject Somchai as prime minister.

“If Samak was Thaksin’s proxy, Somchai is even more so,” declared Suriyasai Katasila, a PAD spokesman.

“They are related, and this is not acceptable to us. It captures the essence of what we are protesting against, that Thaksin’s regime is still in power.”

While Samak, the former prime minister, would have found something sharp to say, Somchai responded: “It is undeniable that I am close to as well as related to him, but it depends on what position I take when I assume the job.

“The public can keep a close watch on me to see whether or not I work in favour of or for the benefit of a relative. My past record has proved that I work in an honest and straight manner.”

The other Wongsawat who is closely watched is the prime minister’s 27-year-old daughter Chinnicha, an MP from Chiang Mai province, where Yaowapa’s hometown is.

On Wednesday, Senator Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, who was responsible for Samak’s disqualification as prime minister for appearing in a TV cook show, petitioned for a graft probe on Chinnicha for allegedly concealing 100 million baht (about RM10mil) in her asset declaration.

If the National Counter Corruption Com-mission decides to prosecute her, and she is found guilty, Chinnicha will be repeating the fate of her auntie - Pojaman, Thaksin’s wife. (In July, Pojaman was found guilty of tax evasion following a case Ruangkrai had initiated.)

And that will be another incentive for the PAD to vilify the Shinawatras and Wongsawats.

(Published in The Star on Sept 27, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Worrying similarities but encouraging differences


IS THAILAND South-East Asia’s Pakistan? That was the heading of an article in The Economist magazine published in the middle of December 2007 during the Thai election held 15 months after the military ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Economist justified its heading for its piece on Thailand’s election with: “Pakistan is not the only Asian country where a dodgy military regime is running a general election under dubious electoral rules in the hope of keeping out a similarly dodgy civilian whom it overthrew.

“The difference is that unlike Bena­zir Bhutto in Pakistan, the exiled Thak­sin is not being allowed to take part in the vote himself, and there may be slightly more hope that things will come out right in the end.”

Since then I’ve been wondering whether Thailand is really South-East Asia’s Pakistan. I had the opportunity to shoot the question to three top Pakistani editors who I had lunch with in Lahore in Pakistan last week.

“It is somewhat correct,” said Arif Nizami, the founder of The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper which is an Asia News Network (ANN) member.

He then listed both countries’ similarities: coups, military rule, free press and fight against militancy (Muslim separatists are waging a guerilla war in southern Thailand and one of the major current news in Pakistan is the military offensive in Bajaur tribal region).

“But Thailand’s economic is big (com­pared with Pakistan’s),” Arif noted.

And as if agreeing with his statement, electricity at Lahore’s most upmarket hotel, Pearl Continental, went out.

The frequent blackouts during the lunch meeting illuminated the fact that Pakistan is facing an energy crisis. It also gave me food for thought as to whether Thailand is Asean’s Pakistan, energy-wise. It is not - as in my two years living in Bangkok, power outage is rare.

Two days before my conversation with Arif, in Bangkok which was under emergency rule, my ANN (of which The Star is a founding member) colleagues jokingly warned: “Be careful of suicide bombers.”

Their warning was justified, as Pakistan is second only to Iraq in the number of suicide attacks. (Last year, nearly 1,000 Pakistanis were killed in suicide bombings.)

Worried (a bit as I am going to be a daddy soon), I, however, laughed it off saying that Lahore (which Lonely Planet describes as “Pakistan’s cultural, intellectual and artistic hub”) is safer than other major cities in the country, which The Economist labelled as “the world’s most dangerous place”.

I don’t get such warnings or teasing when I travel to Thailand’s Chiang Rai, Ko Samui or Nong Kai.

Except in February last year when I visited Pattani, which is one of the three provinces in Thailand’s restive south. “Don’t get shot,” my colleagues told me.

Their concern was justified as at that time at least two people were killed a day in the south, making the insurgency there the most lethal conflict in South-East Asia.

In Lahore, after my lunch conversation at Pearl Continental, in an autorickshaw (which is similar to Thailand’s tuk-tuk), while passing the heavily-guarded mansion of Lahore’s former chief minister, I men­tally listed the differences between Buddhist-dominated Thailand and Muslim-majority Pakistan.

Pakistan has the nuclear bomb. Thailand doesn’t.

Political assassination is a real threat in Pakistan. The latest victim was twice-prime minister Bhutto who was killed on Dec 27 last year.

Thaksin has claimed there were several attempts on his life - an explosion on a jet that he was minutes from boarding in 2001 and a car bomb plot in August 2006. But only die-hard Thaksinites took the billionaire’s claim seriously.

On my flight back to Bangkok, Thai Airways was flying below capacity, stressing the fact that Amazing Thai­land’s political chaos was causing inter­national arrivals to drop by 70%.

Pakistan knows how bad publicity frightens tourists.

The country, according to Lonely Planet, has been on the brink of being tourism’s “next big thing” for so long.

“But every time the country seems to be gearing up to refresh the palates of travellers jaded with last year’s hip destinations, world media headlines send things off the rails - again,” the guidebook noted.

It’s unfortunate. Like Thailand, Pakistan - especially Peshawar and Quetta which I visited in 2001 - as a travel destination is amazing.

(Published in The Star on September 20, 2008)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Still no solution

Thai Takes

ON THE day the Thai government was left hanging in limbo when the Constitution Court ordered Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign, Chaturon Chaisang, a politician widely respected for his democratic credentials, gave his take on the tense political situation in Thailand.

Speaking frankly, the 52-year-old Chaturon, a former deputy prime minister in Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration, painted a gloomy picture of the Thai political landscape.

Here are some excerpts from his two-hour talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Tuesday evening.

On who is likely to be the People’s Power Party’s candidate for Prime Minister:

There are still many (potential leaders) but not many will last. I anticipate that in less than two months the PPP and its coalition partners, Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya, will be dissolved and about 140 MPs will be banned from politics.

Article 237 of the constitution provides for the dissolution of a party if an executive member is found guilty of violating the election law and the party is found in complicity.

(On Thursday, the PPP picked Samak again as its prime ministerial candidate despite misgivings by some of its coalition partners, and Samak has accepted the nomination.)

On the immediate future:

Whoever becomes PM, it will not help solve the crisis. Samak’s disqualification (the avid chef was convicted and removed from office for receiving money for hosting cooking shows after he took office) is not a big deal because the problem has gone beyond that.

Even if the next PM dissolves parliament and there is an election and PPP, which Samak heads, wins, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) will still protest against that new government and continue to insist on “new politics” (where 70% of the MPs should be appointed).

Even if the Democrat party (the sole opposition party in parliament) wins the next election, the losing side will do the same thing as the PAD is doing. This is because this country is not ruled by law.

On why the PAD is allowed to occupy Government House:

There’s this logic in Thai society that once there is violence in this country, the government – especially if it is an elected government – has to take responsibility and has to go.

And the military decided to remain neutral after Samak declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on Sept 2. This is a country where an elected government does not have enough power.

On the PAD’s next move:

The PAD leaders face serious accusations, at the least illegally occupying Government House (which is the seat of the Thai government), and at the worse, treason.

And if you wear a PAD hat and think (about evading prosecution), one way is to plan more turmoil. As in the past, when there was (severe) turmoil, the (leaders) were granted amnesty following a military coup.

On the root of the Thai political conflict:

The choice is between upholding electoral democracy and elected government or allowing a tiny group of people – selecting among themselves – to run the country.

On the future of Thai politics:

I don’t see any easy and quick solution because society lacks sound foundation in the ideology of democracy. The foreseeable trend is a ‘prolonged conflict’ with a high risk of violence or another coup or both which may have drastic consequences for the country.

On the Thai media and academia:

More than half the Thai media wants the PPP coalition government to fall and they do not want to report on how the rule of law is not enforced in this country.

And what the people in the rural areas (especially in the PPP strongholds in the north and northeast) are saying about the conflict is “very different” from the pro-PAD reports in some of the Thai media.

Many academics are proposing a dictatorial system. Many of them do not believe in elections. They do not believe people can make decisions through voting.

Chaturon, who headed Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai after the 2006 coup until the Constitutional Court banned the party and 111 top executives including him, sees irony in Thai politics.

“Samak has been disqualified by the Constitution Court along with the whole Cabinet because he staged a cooking show on television while PAD leaders facing treason charges continue to occupy Government House,” he noted.

(Published in The Star on Sept 13, 2008)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Still a rollicking party out there


HERE’S a checklist for those seeking to join the “political picnic” at Government House, the office of Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

1) Plastic clapper. This is so you don’t strain your palms each time a People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) speaker shouts “ok pai Samak” (Thai for “get out Samak”) or curses former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

2) Wear anything yellow. It is a colour associated with King Bhumibol, and the PAD claims it is defending the monarchy.

3) Don’t wear red unless you want to be whacked with a golf club. It is the colour of the pro-government Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD).

4) Golf club. This preferred weapon of the thuggish guards providing security to the peace-loving PAD is necessary in case a red-clad protester strays near Government House.

5) Crash helmet. It has become an essential protest gear, especially after the violent clash between PAD and DAAD supporters on the early morning of Tuesday left 55-year-old DAAD supporter Narongsak Korbthaisong dead.

Since the PAD (which razor-tongue Samak alludes to as the People’s Alliance for the Destruction of Democracy) stormed Government House on Aug 26, thousands of Thais are having a “political picnic” on Samak’s once well-manicured lawn, which has since turned into a muddy mess.

And, despite Samak’s declaration of a state of emergency in Bangkok hours after Tuesday’s deadly clash, the defiant PAD storm troopers are still entrenched at Government House, which they have ringed with wire and car tyres.

Even more than 55 hours after Samak’s declaration I can still watch “live” the PAD’s protest on ASTV, a satellite television station owned by a core leader of PAD, Sondhi Limthongkul.

That’s two violations of the emergency decree, which prohibits a gathering of more than five people and reporting of news that terrifies the public.

(In politically divided Thailand, the word “terrifies” is subjective, as what terrifies pro-government supporters may cheer anti-government sympathisers.)

Just in case the state of emergency declaration gives an impression that Bangkok is now a police state, let me describe what I watched on ASTV at 11pm on Thursday.

A sea of yellow-clad PAD protesters – some holding a giant Thai flag and many clacking their plastic clappers – are rocking to a rock band performing on a makeshift stage facing the Venetian-styled Government House.

Yes, Bangkok rocks despite an emergency rule.

Why was there no visible sign of a state of emergency was a question repeatedly posed by foreign journalists to deputy government spokesman Nattawut Saikuar at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Wednesday night.

“Was Samak fooled by the military into signing an emergency decree, as when you announce a state of emergency you expect it to be enforced?” was the first question fired at the deputy spokesman.

Nattawut replied: “The announcement of a state of emergency does not mean force will be used automatically against the protesters, because it is the policy of the Samak government not to use force against them.

“You can’t say that Samak was fooled. If (Army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda, who is also the commander in charge of the state of emergency) uses force, then you can say that he fooled Samak.”

Depending on who you talk to there are several theories on the sabai sabai (relaxed) emergency rule.

“Behind the scenes the military is secretly negotiating with the PAD to pressure them to leave Government House,” a Thai journalist with close links to the military told me.

A PAD die hard embedded at ground zero of the protest said the army would not storm the compound to disperse the crowd, citing protest leaders who told her the military was on the side of anti-protesters.

But the situation in Bangkok can change swiftly.

Just before midnight on Thursday, two of the 100 or so university students marching to Samak’s residence to protest against his government were shot by two men on a motorcycle.

Please make two additions to the checklist – buy personal insurance and write a will.

(Published in The Star on Sept 6, 2008)