Saturday, October 25, 2008

‘Democrazy’ fever brings troubles to polarised Thailand


TWO Sundays ago, a naked 40-year-old radio DJ rambled near a market in Sattahip, about 30km from Pattaya, repeatedly shouting “I’m dying.”

Lately, according to his colleague, Montree Jitwimolprasert has been behaving weirdly and often using improper words while hosting his radio programme.

“He told everyone that he hates the colour red. He hates red clothes,” Suraswadi Prasarnnil, who is Mon­tree’s superior, told the Bangkok Post.

She added that the DJ acted weirdly after witnessing the violent street battle between police and yellow-clad People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in Bangkok on Oct 7 that saw two Thais killed.

“He talked about a bloodbath and how his fellow protesters were hurt. He told us that he saw blood and people losing their limbs,” Suraswadi related.

It looks like Montree has a bad case of the “yellow fever”.

In polarised Thailand, the colour “yellow” symbolises the PAD (an anti-government movement that sees red in anything connected to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai premier who was ousted in a 2006 coup) while “red” represents the pro-government supporters.

The PAD crowd has a jaundiced opinion of Thaksin, blaming him for anything negative that happens to them or their country.

For instance, they claim Thaksin was behind the gun battle between Thailand and Cambodia along their disputed border that killed one Thai and three Cambodian soldiers on Oct 15.

However, Thai army chief General Anupong Phaochinda described such claim as “unfathomable”.

Thaksin is even blamed for the most unfathomable matter.

Take the example of my 30-something Thai friend who is such a die-hard PAD member that he packs a truncheon to an anti-government event just in case there’s an attack from the police or the pro-government supporters.

The other day his newborn baby had a very, very mild case of jaundice and guess who he blamed? Thaksin.

“I blame Thaksin for everything bad,” he said, as a matter of fact.

Although the PAD declared victory after the Supreme Court on Oct 21 sentenced Thaksin, who is in self-exile in London, to two year’s in prison for corruption, it would not end its protest.

It will continue its illegal occupation of Government House (the Thai prime minister’s office) until it ousts the People Power Party-led coalition government, which is pro-Thaksin.

Salang Bunnag, a former deputy police chief, has vowed to evict the PAD from Government House which it has besieged since Aug 26.

His game plan is to seal off the prime minister’s compound with 1,000 retired policemen (to do the job that the police could not) and cut off food and water supply to the protesters for three days.

“I’ve tried my best to avoid doing this. If asked to choose between the country and morality, I will choose the country. If I go to hell for doing this, so be it,” he was reported as saying.

Guess who the PAD is blaming for Salang’s plan to retake Government House? Thaksin.

“I do not believe Salang is planning the (retake) for his own purposes; somebody is no doubt pulling strings behind the scenes. Whether it is the prime minister or ex-prime minister Thaksin Shina­watra I would not know,” PAD coordinator Suriyasai Katasila told The Nation.

Salang is not the only anti-PAD supporter who has gone public with his strategy on how to counter any move to overthrow the government of prime minister Somchai Wongsa­wat.

In case of a coup (which is highly likely after army chief Anupong went on television on Oct 16 to urge Somchai to resign), army major-general Khattiya Sawasdiphol vowed to welcome tanks with Molotov cocktails instead of roses that were offered to the soldiers after they deposed Thaksin without any bloodshed.

“The use of Molotov cocktails against tanks has been practised widely, but never in Thailand,” Khattiya told The Nation.

“This will be the first and only time that the people have threatened a counter-coup, if tanks roam Bangkok streets. Tanks usually used in military coups, attached to the Fourth Cavalry Battalion, are old and vulnerable to catching fire.”

In discussions with Thais on why DJ Montree acted weirdly, the anti-PAD crowd said it was an indication that in Thailand, the second “c” in “democracy” has been replaced with “z” - democrazy.

(Published in The Star on Oct 26, 2008)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A nation divided by politics

Thai Takes
By Philip Golingai

WHAT does a Thai doctor check first?

a) Your blood pressure.

b) Your weight.

c) Your temperature.

d) Your political views.

The answer is “d” if your doctor is from Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok.

A day after the Oct 7 bloody street battles in the Thai capital between the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD) and the police that killed two PAD protesters, about 50 doctors from the Chulalongkorn Hospital announced that they would not treat policemen.

“Today, medical teams of Chulalongkorn Hospital will not give assistance to police officers injured in clashes with PAD supporters. This is a social measure to show that doctors and nurses condemn the violent actions,” said Dr Suthep Koncharnwit.

Up north, 70 doctors at Chiang Mai University’s faculty of medicine declared that they would not treat policemen, Cabinet members and government MPs - except in emergency cases.

Another quiz.

If you are a pilot, will you refuse to fly a passenger because she/he is?

a) Osama bin Laden.

b) A threat to the safety of other passengers.

c) A MP from People Power Party (PPP, the ruling party the PAD love to hate).

d) Sarah Palin.

The answer, if you’re Thai Airways pilot Jakrit Pongsirim, is a combination of “b” and “c”.

The day after the police used tear gas to disperse PAD protesters blockading parliament on Oct 7, Jakrit - in two separate domestic flights - refused to allow three PPP MPs from boarding his aircraft.

The pilot told a Thai Airways panel investigating the incidents that he was compelled to reject the MPs because they could cause trouble as other passengers could become angry if they saw them in the aircraft.

Another quiz.

What does the two incidents tell you about Thailand?

a) The country is so politically divided that it is now Thai versus Thai.

b) A war has erupted between those who clutch hand-shaped clappers (the PAD’s favourite political “weapon”) and those who clasp foot-shaped clappers (produced recently for the pro-PPP supporters).

c) It is all grouchy in the Land of Smiles.

If you are Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, who contested in the recent Bangkok governor race as an independent, your answers are “a” and “b”.

“It is a reflection of the division in this society,” explains the former Democrat Party MP. “And this division has drawn a deep wedge which can be felt even among families, friends and colleagues.”

Thailand is now split between those for or against the PAD (a movement seeking to eradicate what it thinks is the root of all evil in Thai politics - Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup).

The split, according to the 53-year-old politician, is the worst since the 1970s that saw two brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators in the “Black October” of 1973 and 1976.

Thais, observes Kriengsak, are overtly declaring their political affiliation.

For example, those carrying hand-shaped clappers want to make a personal statement that they are with the PAD.

However, it will be too simplistic to colour code Thais into “yellow” (the colour of PAD) and “red” (the colour of the PPP) because there are those who are neither yellow nor red.

Kriengsak estimates that 30% of Thais are pro-PPP, 20% are pro-PAD and the rest - including himself - are caught in the middle.

Those in the middle disagree with the use of violence (from both sides) to resolve the country’s political conflict.

And the neutrals are fed up.

“We wonder when will these clashes end? When can we go back to our normal life?” Kriengsak says.

Final quiz.

On Wednesday, Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rockets and gunfire along their disputed border.

Will this border dispute where two Cambodian soldiers were killed and Thai soldiers captured:

a) Unite polarised Thais to fight against an external enemy?

b) Weaken the government because it will be fighting at two fronts - Cambodia and the PAD?

The answer varies.

Ed Cropley of Reuters says: “A border war with one of Thailand’s traditional enemies would likely rally some support behind the government and army.”

But some political analysts predict another “final battle” between anti and pro-government supporters is looming in Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on Oct 18, 2008)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

‘Clack’, the handy weapon

Thai Takes

CLACK. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack.

The clacking is from Thailand’s latest and hottest political “weapon” - multi-coloured plastic hand clappers (mue tob) that cost 25 baht (RM2.50) each.

And the fury of the mue tob is heard 24/7 at Bangkok’s Government House (the seat of the Thai government) which the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has illegally occupied since Aug 26.

Ok pai Somchai (Thai for ‘get out Somchai [Wongsawat, Thailand’s prime minister]’),” a PAD leader shouts on the stage which faces the maligned front lawn of Government House, and automatically hundreds of yellow-clad supporters clack their clappers in unison.

The mue tob has become the symbol of dissent against Thaksin Shinawatra (the former prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup) and the People Power Party (PPP, the pro-Thaksin party which won the Dec 23, 2007 election).

The made-in-China clappers, according to PAD urban legend, were excess stock from the Beijing Olympics.

It has become trendy as it eases the strain on the hands and vocal chords of PAD protesters, who clap and cheer/jeer incessantly at Government House.

“It has become a handy yet powerful weapon, with a size that makes it easy to carry around, ready for use anytime, anywhere,” PAD coordinator Suriyasai Takasila told the Daily Xpress, an English-language tabloid.

At about 10am in Bangkok on Sept 29, the newly-elected prime minister found out how “handy” the mue tob was for anti-government supporters.

While Somchai was giving a speech at his alma mater Thammasat University, two alumni whipped out their clappers, clacked them, shouted “Return Thammasat’s dignity to us”, and exited abruptly.

The prime minister, The Nation newspaper reported, “apparently turned pale and ended his speech, saying he might have talked too much about his personal life”.

About 100 minutes later, in front of Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall, two middle-class women clacked their mue tob while shouting “Somchai, betrayer, get out”.

Inside the mall, five other women armed with clappers heckled the premier who was campaigning for a PPP Bangkok governor candidate.

Later, Somchai, who is Thaksin’s brother-in-law, told journalists that he was not angry with the PAD hecklers, but he would like Thais to be more rational.

Since then it has become a trend for PAD supporters to “clack” at the premier whenever he made a public appearance.

The clacking is also heard at non-PAD events.

At a campaign rally for the (recently-concluded) Bangkok governor race, Democrat Party supporters used the political “weapon” of the PAD to cheer for Apirak Kosayodhin (the Democrat candidate who was re-elected governor).

And Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva’s adoring fans, who are also PAD supporters, have asked him to autograph their clappers.

It is not surprising to political pundits that some of the supporters of the Democrat Party (Thailand’s sole opposition in parliament) are PAD protesters.

They believe some Democrat politicians are working hand-in-hand with PAD leaders to bring down the PPP-led coalition government so the party can be in power.

The mue tob is not only used against the PPP-led coalition government but also against those who dare go against the PAD.

A handful of anti-government protesters clacked furiously at anti-riot police in front of the Border Patrol headquarters when PAD co-leader Chamlong Srimuang was detained on Oct 5.

The PAD protesters were furious that Chamlong - who left the human shield protecting him at Government House to vote in the Bangkok race - was arrested on three serious charges, including treason.

The PAD supporters also brought out their clappers when they besieged parliament the following night.

But the clappers were no match for tear gas.

That was what the PAD supporters found out when the police fired tear gas to break their blockade of parliament on Tuesday.

“Why do they use tear gas to disperse us? We didn’t have any weapons to fight them. We have only hand clappers,” Ubonwan Boonyoprapas, a 47-year-old woman, told The Nation.

Probably the tear gas temporarily blinded Ubonwan, as some PAD protesters were armed with iron bars, slingshots, pistols and homemade explosives known as ping-pong bombs.

Not to be out clapped by the PAD, supporters of the PPP plan to produce their own clappers - shaped like the sign language for “I Love You.”

If that happens, the War of the Multi-coloured Plastic Clappers could erupt in Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on October 11, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Simply spoilt for choice

Thai Takes

WITH seven newsworthy contenders and nine others making up the numbers, Bangkok folk have their choice cut out. Who will you vote for in the Bangkok governor election?

1) Leena Jungjanja

The heavily made-up candidate’s publicity stunt (to highlight the plight of Bangkok folk who have to bathe in a canal because they do not have any access to tap water) turned ugly when her campaign manager Thirasak Sitanont drowned.

On Sept 25, while the publicity-hungry woman was showing journalists the rashes she got from dipping in the filthy water, Thirasak — who was swimming in the canal — started waving and crying for help.

“But we thought he was pretending, and he was far away from us, posing for TV crews,” the sobbing drama queen related.

It was not the first water-related disaster for the businesswoman who sells beauty products such as pink nipple nourishing cream and stretch mark remover.

A day earlier she fell into a polluted canal near Pratunam Pier while campaigning.

2) Chuvit Kamolvisit

In 2004, the massage parlour king plunged into politics (contesting in the 2004 Bangkok governor election) after going public about having to repeatedly bribe hundreds of police officers in order to protect his business.

He has quit the “flesh trade” to be a politician who can even outdo Leena in terms of publicity antics, especially with his famous trademark “angry face” billboards.

On Thursday, angry as a TV anchorman described him as “unmanly,” the macho politician punched the interviewer in the ear and then stomped on him.

Chuvit’s punchline now is: “I’m crazy enough to hit a TV news host three days before the Bangkok governor election, so I hope you will be crazy enough to vote for me.”

3) Apirak Kosayodhin

The Democrat Party candidate is the incumbent governor.

“Can anyone explain why Apirak is enjoying a commanding lead in polls?” Pravit Rojanaphruk of The Nation asked on Thursday.

“Is it his devilish good looks or is it because Bangkokians are incapable of appraising Apirak’s work or lack thereof over the past four years?”

Pravit criticised Apirak’s four-year performance as governor, saying: “Bangkok continues to be a polluted, traffic-choked capital.

“All attempts to turn it green have been superficial, involving either expensive billboards paid for by taxpayers proclaiming the great plans or small pots of foliage at bus stops and Skytrain pillars that will only become a reason to call for more funds.”

4) Prapat Chongsanguan

If you love the People’s Power Party, which is pro-Thaksin Shinawatra, then vote for Prapat, who is the party’s afterthought candidate.

He unexpectedly quit his 400,000 baht (RM40,500) a month job as Mass Rapid Transit Authority governor to contest for Bangkok governor, who is paid about 60,000 baht (RM6,078) a month.

It seems the political newcomer’s decision was prompted by an order from Thaksin, who skipped bail to London in August to avoid a corruption trial.

5) Kriengsak Charoenwongsak

The intellectual (he has degrees from Harvard University and University of Oxford) announced that if he were elected governor, he would declare war against cockroaches and rats in Bangkok.

“The population of rats and cockroaches is 20 times the number of Bangkokians, and if we don’t deal with it tourists will not visit this city,” he declared.

Kriengsak slammed Apirak for putting up a billboard, which announced Bangkok winning Travel + Leisure magazine’s award as the World’s Best City 2008.

He said the Mercer Consulting 2008 survey, which is based on quality of life, ranked Bangkok 109th (down from 102nd in 2004) due largely to the pollution in the city.

The former Democrat MP vowed to put the City of Angels in the top 20 of the world’s best cities list by 2020.

6) Thoranee Rittheethammarong

The wife of a former Thai ambassador is contesting because “a voice from above” told her to do so.

She’s not campaigning, as “if the heaven wants me to win, then I’ll win.”

7) Warawoot Tharnungkorn

If elected, the co-leader of the pro-government United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship plans to keep Bangkok free of military coups.

8) One of the other nine obscure candidates.

Tomorrow, after 30 days of campaigning overshadowed by national politics — two former Bangkok governors then premier Samak Sundaravej and People’s Alliance for Democracy co-leader Chamlong Srimuang are tussling over Government House — voters in Bangkok will go to the polls.

The PR-savvy Apirak is likely to be re-elected.

(Published in The Star on Oct 4, 2008)