Saturday, November 29, 2008

High cost of a stand-off

Thai Takes

FOR a man who might or might not be stranded in Seoul, Suwat Thongthanakul was sympathetic to the anti-government protesters who shut down Bangkok’s international airport.

Watching the latest report on the siege of Suvarnabhumi Airport on CNN at 10pm on Wednesday in his hotel room in the South Korean capital, he admitted that the closure was inconvenient as he was uncertain whether his Friday flight to the Thai capital would take off.

But the National Press Council of Thailand president understood why the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had seized Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday night.

“You should not ask me what happened but why it happened,” said Suwat, who then gave a 20-minute lecture on ‘new politics’, echoing the PAD’s view that the corrupt Thai electoral system had allowed politicians to buy their way into parliament.

“The (Thai prime minister) Som­chai Wongsawat government is corrupt. And this is the only way we can pressure his government to resign,” explained the editor, who travelled to Seoul to attend a journalism conference organised by the Korea Press Foundation (KPF).

But how about the damage to Thailand’s international image and to its economy especially as tourism contributes to 14% to the country’s GDP?

“You have to look at the big picture,” said Suwat, while drawing an imaginary ‘big’ circle with his finger.

“If Somchai and Thaksin remain in power, the country will be in bigger trouble.”

The PAD had alleged that billionaire politician Thaksin, who is the brother-in-law of Somchai, is the puppet master controlling the government.

“But what about the country’s image?” I reiterated while CNN was broadcasting images of frustrated passengers stranded at Suvarna­bhumi, the world’s 18th busiest airport which handles about 700 flights daily.

Suwat, the editor-in-chief of Manager Weekly, a business magazine which is part of PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul’s media empire, replied: “I understand the passengers’ frustration because I myself might be stranded in Seoul but this (fallout from the airport closure) will be temporary as eventually the tourists will come back.”

Thailand experienced bloodshed during the anti-government protests in 1992, 1976 and 1973 but the kingdom bounced back from those incidents, he added.

Still, the PAD’s seizure of Suvarna­bhumi comes at a costly price. The closure of the airport at the beginning of Amazing Thailand’s high season could cost the tourism industry about 100 billion baht (RM10bil) for the next six months.

Another Thai journalist who is stuck in transit at Seoul’s Incheon Airport, fails to see Suwat’s “big picture”.

In an editorial in The Nation yesterday, Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote: “This is a most irresponsible action by the PAD. It’s wrong to target an airport in any civilised society.”

“It will have far-reaching consequences, not just for this writer but for thousands of Thais and foreign tourists who have been held captive,” Pravit opined.

“It will adversely affect the already suffering tourism and travel industry. Thailand’s reputation as a reliable air traffic hub and as a tourist destination has been severely tarnished.”

During Wednesday’s dinner, the airport closure was the main topic of conversation among the journalists who attended KPF’s journalism conference.

Some of them wondered how the authorities could allow the PAD to take over two airports (on Thursday, the PAD stormed Bangkok’s Don Muaeng airport).

Suwat explained that if the police used force which resulted in bloodshed the public outcry would force the government to resign.

However, by Thursday’s breakfast the Mumbai terrorists’ strike had blown Suvarnabhumi from their minds.

“Now the world has forgotten about Thailand,” a Filipino journalist told me.

“Well, not me,” I replied.

“I need to get back to Bangkok as I’ve got a potential coup story to cover and a six-week-old baby to kiss.”

That Thursday, Suwat was making plans in case the PAD was still in control of the Suvarnabhumi airport and Don Muaeng airport on Friday.

He could fly to Phnom Penh and then take a seven-hour bus back to Bangkok. Or he could remain in Seoul and incur additional expenses.

Yes, an airport closure can be inconvenient. But for Suwat, what’s a travel delay if it meant the end of a Thaksin-proxy government and the beginning of a “clean” political system.

(Published in The Star on Nov 29, 2008)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conspiracy theorists having a field day

Thai Takes

HERE’S one of the unofficial versions on how Thaksin Shinawatra became a wasband (which defines as “a woman’s ex-husband”).

According to Jatuporn Promphan, an MP from the ruling pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP), the main reason the former Thai prime minister divorced Pojaman at the Thai Consulate in Hong Kong on Nov 14 was he wanted to return to politics.

“Thaksin and his wife had decided earlier, after the coup d’etat in 2006, that they would separate if he decided to return to politics. It is a promise between them. So they have decided to part now that Thaksin will return to politics,” he told The Nation.

“However, their divorce does not mean that they are no longer in love,” Jatuporn added.

On the day the Shinawatras split legally, over dinner in Hong Kong, Thaksin shocked his close friends, including PPP MPs, when he told them his marriage of 32 years had ended.

Thaksin, according to the Bangkok Post, told them, “(We divorced, so that) my wife and children would not have to keep moving from one place to another. From now on, I won’t have to be worried about them. I have no choice. Even though I’ve stopped, they (his political enemies) did not stop killing me (politically).”

Instead of listening to his marital and political woes, an anti-Thaksin journalist told me that the MPs should have apprehended the “fugitive criminal”.

The billionaire politician is on the run. Last month, a Thai court sentenced him – in absentia – to two years in jail for conflict of interest in a Bangkok land deal.

So far the “homeless” Thaksin, who is currently in Dubai, has publicly kept mum about his divorce.

News of the shocking legal break-up spewed a slew of theories on why the couple headed for splitsville.

It is a cunning financial plan to protect the Shinawatras’ wealth – which is mostly under Pojaman’s name – in case Thaksin is found guilty in a major corruption case which will be tried next month.

It will allow Pojaman to appeal to the British government to reconsider its decision to revoke her entry visa so that she can live in London and raise her three children there. (The British government reportedly revoked Thaksin and Pojaman’s entry visa because of the former prime minister’s jail sentence.)

The least conspiratorial of the theories is that Thaksin and Pojaman are really at odds. Perhaps the simple explanation is it’s a Viagra divorce (wordspy: “a divorce granted on the grounds that a husband is behaving aggressively or unfaithfully after taking Viagra or some other anti-impotence drug”).

Thaksin is not the only Shinawatra who is having “marital problems”.

If a 25-minute video clip featuring Thai prime minister Somchai Wongsawat (who is married to Thaksin’s younger sister Yaowapa) is to be believed, his marriage is on the rocks.

The “smoking bed” (wordspy: evidence of sexual misconduct by a politician or other public figures) that was posted on and website of anti-Thaksin newspapers last month shows a man resembling Somchai in four video footages.

There’s the man in a red Mercedes-Benz picking up a woman (who is not Yaowapa) in front of a convenience store and they later dined at a restaurant.

There’s the man and a woman (who is not Yaowapa) in a black BMW heading to a love motel.

There’s the man having lunch with a woman resembling Yaowapa.

There’s the man and a woman (who is not Yaowapa) buying a refrigerator in a HomePro department store.

Nothing really scandalous about the video footages which were taken before Somchai became premier.

However, Chamlong Srimuang, a co-leader of the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy, thinks otherwise.

“This is a serious issue because he is accused of using office time to hook up with a woman,” he said. “For this type of allegation, leaders of other countries would have resigned, if they had been accused.”

Early this month, Somchai admitted he was the man in the video but “only in some parts”. The video clip, according to him, has been partly doctored to discredit him. Well, that’s the Thai prime minister’s official version and so far he is not yet a wasband.

(Published in The Star on November 22, 2008. Photograph of the Thaksin family courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Explosions, hexes and romance

Thai Takes

CARE to play Russian roulette Bang­kok-style?

Here’s how to play the game.

Go – during the wee hours of the morning – to Bangkok’s Government House, which the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has illegally occupied since Aug 26.


Most of the time nothing untoward will happen. But – if fate decides to pull the trigger – an explosive device will come shooting in.

That’s what happened on Nov 11.

At around 3.25am an explosion occurred about 50m from the stage where PAD leaders spew their venom against Thaksin Shinawatra (the former Thai premier ousted in a 2006 coup), Samak Sundaravej (a former Thai premier who recently flew to the United States to seek treatment for liver cancer) and anyone partial to the Shinawatras.

The blast – which may have been caused by an explosive device fired from an M29 projectile or M79 grenade launcher – injured several anti-government protesters.

It was the fifth bomb attack in and near Government House since Oct 30.

The Nov 11 attack came despite PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul’s spiritual effort to keep evil spirits off ground zero of the alliance’s campaign to oust the ruling coalition led by People Power Party (PPP), which is seen as pro-Thaksin.

On Sunday, dressed in white, Sondhi – who the Bangkok Post described as looking on that sacred occasion “more like a sorcerer than the head of the anti-government movement” – sprinkled holy water around the compound of Govern­ment House.

“My dear brothers and sisters, this is a sacred activity.

“My revered masters told me to perform this ritual to counter evil spirits and to clear this area (to pave the way) for our triumph,” the English-language newspaper reported him as telling the PAD crowd.

The ritual, the Bangkok Post added, “was held after the PAD was targeted in a series of bombings by unknown assailants that injured some of their guards”.

It was not the first time Sondhi, a media mogul and Thaksin’s arch rival, performed a spiritual rite to counter the black magic seeking to destroy the PAD.

On Oct 29, in a speech broadcasted live on his ASTV satellite television network, Sondhi claimed that for many years, evil people used black magic to suppress the power of some of Bangkok’s holiest sites such as the City Pillar, the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V and the Emerald Buddha. He then described how his team – masters and adepts – rectified the “suppression”.

“The (base of the) Equestrian Statue is like this (Sondhi draws a hexagon with his hands) with the statue inside,” The Nation reported him as saying.

“Tacks had been inserted at the six corners so that the statue of the revered king could not emit its power. We drew out the tacks from all six places.”

Sondhi continued: “I must thank the women of the PAD because after (the tacks) were pulled out, to ensure they would not be replaced, sanitary napkins from menstruating women were placed on the six points.”

“Experts said the spirit adepts were furious because they could not send their spirits back as their magic was rendered ineffective.” (Menstrual blood, in Thai superstition, is believed to have great destructive power.)

What to make of Sondhi’s revelation?

For Thammasat University political scientist Prajak Kongkirati, the rituals are aimed at boosting the PAD supporters’ morale by making them believe they are waging a holy war.

“These kinds of spiritual activities are very much needed at a time when a political or social movement faces declining support from the public,” he told the Bangkok Post.

“The leaders have to do something to lift the demonstrators’ spirits.”

But Prajak warned: “An obsession with the supernatural could tarnish the image and lessen the credibility of the PAD, which could be seen as an irrational movement rather than a powerful group of people who produce solid evidence about the government’s flaws.”

But it is not all dangerous and supernatural at Government House. There’s also romance.

On the day of the Nov 11 bomb attack, two PAD supporters – who met at the anti-government rally and subsequently fell in love – tied the knot at Government House.

Hmmmm ... at the protest site you can also be struck by Cupid’s arrow.

(Published in The Star on November 15, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Elephants fight, ants get squashed

Thai Takes

WHAT would you do if your beautiful dream got squashed in a battle between two political elephants?

If you were Kangsadan Wongdu­sadeekul, a 21-year-old transvestite beauty queen, you would respond like the perfect woman.

This year Kangsadan was supposed to represent her country in Miss International Queen 2008 (Thailand’s international transvestite beauty pageant) after she was crowned Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2008 (the most sought after beauty pageant title for Thai transvestites) in May.

However, the on-going battle between the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the People’s Power Party-led coalition government has indirectly trampled on her dream to compete against aspiring transvestites around the world including Malaysia – echoing the Thai proverb which says, “In a battle between elephants, the ants get squashed”.

Miss International Queen 2008, which was due to be held in October and then deferred to November, has been cancelled (or in PR-speak postponed to 2009) as the political turmoil in Bangkok takes its toll on tourist arrivals.

Nevertheless, Kangsadan (and the future Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2009) will be competing in the Miss International Queen 2008/2009 pageant that is scheduled for early October next year.

How did Miss Tiffany’s Universe 2008 react to the postponement?

“She took it like a woman. Like all women she is not satisfied with herself, as she wants to be perfect when she competes,” said a translator while the teary-eyed katoey (Thai for transvestite) checked out her eye shadow on a vanity mirror inside her Prada purse.

“She feels the postponement will be an advantage, as it will give her time to improve her English, looks and outfit.”

Looking pretty, Kangsadan nodded her head when the translator said: “She’s happy the pageant has been postponed.”

The translator, however, quickly added: “But don’t tell that to Alisa.”

At the next table was Alisa Phanthusak, whose family owns the world-famous Tiffany show, a katoey cabaret show in Pattaya, a beach resort about 110km southeast of Bangkok.

Earlier, Alisa, the organiser of Miss Tiffany’s Universe and Miss International Queen, admitted feeling “terrible” that the international pageant had to be “postponed”.

“But we had to take this painful decision because international tourist arrivals dropped after the government declared emergency rule (on Sept 2, after a Thai was killed when anti and pro-government groups clashed on the streets of Bangkok) and several countries advised their citizens not to travel to Thailand,” she explained.

At first the organiser postponed Miss International Queen 2008 to late November this year thinking the political struggle between the PAD and the government in the Thai capital would end by then.

But after two PAD supporters were killed and nearly 500 injured when the anti-government demonstrators clashed with the police outside parliament in Bangkok on Oct 7, Alisa realised the political instability would continue even through Thailand’s high tourism season (October to March).

To paraphrase the Thai proverb, in a battle between political elephants, Thailand’s tourism industry (not exactly an ant as it contributes 14% to the country’s GDP) gets squashed.

Take the example of the Tiffany Show. The audience for Pattaya’s must-see transvestite cabaret show (usually attracting 2,000 guests a day) has dropped by 50%.

“This is the greatest crisis for tourism in Pattaya since I’ve been in the business for the past 10 years,” the 34-year-old businesswoman said, adding that the downturn was unfair as Pattaya was a long way from the epicentre of the political turmoil in Bangkok.

How about sending her international katoeys (since the transvestites – who Alisa described as “risk takers” and “more optimistic than the average tourist” – were dying to strut their stuff at the pageant) to the warring political groups with the message to “make love, not war”?

“One of my sponsors suggested organising a Miss International Queen rally in front of Bangkok’s Government House (which the PAD is illegally occupying) as a PR gimmick,” she related.

“He wanted to have fun with the current political situation and to have a peace (in Thai politics) theme for this year’s pageant.”

But Alisa, who was a member of the now-defunct National Legislative Assembly which was set up after the 2006 coup, is not about to risk her girls.

(Published by The Star on November 8, 2008. Photograph of Kangsadan courtesy of PITON Communications Co)

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Bangkok's new police force


IT IS early Tuesday afternoon and a pickup truck packed with government supporters is stuck in traffic near Government House in Bangkok.

Not the safest place to be caught in a jam if you’re wearing a red T-shirt with the slogan “Choose Samak, Love Thaksin” as Government House is PAD territory since the People’s Alliance for Democracy evicted the Thai prime minister from his office on Aug 26.

What do you think happened next?

According to the Bangkok Post, a scuffle broke out between government supporters and PAD guards manning a nearby security checkpoint.

Subsequently, the guards “arrested” the five passengers and hauled them to a PAD stage in Government House.

There they – four women and a man – were paraded to a jeering PAD crowd and identified as supporters of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship’s (or UDD which is a pro-government movement).

The PAD crowd, the Bangkok Post reported, “reacted with fury and tried to grab the five before the guards hustled them out of the grounds.”

“During the chaos, a male guard reportedly punched one of the women, Sombat Khayanchoom­noom, 53, in the face. She fell to the ground with her face bleeding,” the report continued.

(The PAD guards alleged Sombat and the others were carrying petrol, a knife and an axe and intended to attack PAD protesters while the UDD members denied the allegation.)

Introducing Bangkok’s new police force – the thuggish-looking PAD security personnel who are detailed to patrol and protect Government House from an invasion from the police or pro-government supporters.

Inside and around the Venetian-styled prime minister’s office, the guards are the security enforcers – frisking those entering their territory, guarding the PAD leaders and arresting suspicious characters.

There are, according to PAD coordinator Suriyasai Katasila, up to 1,500 volunteer guards patrolling Government House.

And to enforce discipline, he said, those allowed to carry weapons such as batons and sharp-edged metal sticks have to wear a PAD-issued badge.

For the neutrals and those fed up with the PAD, the security guards behave like the title of a Steven Segal movie – Above the Law.

And negative media reports on the guards do not help improve their thuggish image.

On Oct 25, The Nation reported that six PAD guards kicked, punched and threatened 39-year-old Khao Jaengsuk because they suspected him of being a member of an anti-PAD group.

“They tried to force a confession out of me. But I am not in an anti-PAD group. In fact, I had been attending the PAD rally at Government House since early September,” Khao said.

On Wednesday, The Nation reported, PAD guards assaulted Am Daosing, a 39-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, after spotting his vehicle sporting a “Fed up with PAD” sticker.

However, on early Thursday morning some PAD guards found themselves on the receiving end.

A hand grenade was lobbed at a PAD’s checkpoint near Government House, injuring 10 security guards.

Before the bomb attack, PAD guards detained a man, who was carrying a petrol-soaked rag, as he walked to Government House. Shortly after the man’s detention, a motorcycle pillion rider threw a bomb at the guards.

Later, Kattiya Sawadiphol, an anti-PAD army general who advises pro-government protesters, denied that he was behind the attack.

He, however, warned that the PAD would face more attacks and PAD guards would be killed every day if it continued to occupy Government House.

In the future, Kattiya cautioned, the anti-government group might be attacked with heavier weapons such as M79 anti-tank rockets.

He said many groups were dissatisfied that the PAD had become blatant and armed its guards as well as showing disrespect to many senior persons.

In a posting titled “Tit-for-Tat Gang Warfare”, posted: “To me this is part of the escalating tit-for-tat gang warfare (does it not resemble what criminal gangs do?).”

“PAD first ‘started it’ and were seemingly successful so the anti-PAD groups (who seem more disparate than the PAD, but are uniting more against the PAD) are now getting in on the act,” wrote the anonymous blogger who operates Thailand’s prominent English-language political blog.

In an immediate response to the attack, the PAD beefed up its security at Government House to brace for guerrilla attacks from forces, known and unknown.

(Published in The Star on Nov 1, 2008. Photograph courtesy of Club Siam)