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)