Saturday, December 27, 2008

It’s confirmed, there’s trouble brewing

Thai Takes

LATELY, Saranrat “Lydia” Wisutthithada, the Thai R&B singer with a sultry face, has been in distress because the public has become fascinated with her stomach.

“Since last month, whenever I leave home, people look at my stomach, not my face, and asked if I am pregnant or whether I have had an abortion,” a weeping Lydia said on national television early this month.

“People call my mother and ask her constantly. My whole family is tense.”

The 21-year-old singer’s “pregnancy” ordeal started after celebrity fortune teller Mor Krit Confirm (whose trademark is ending his predictions with the word “confirm”) confirmed that Lydia was pregnant.

Mor Krit’s prediction fanned the soosip (Thai slang for gossip) on Lydia and the nature of her relationship with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who recently divorced Pojaman, his wife of 32 years.

The tabloid speculated that Thaksin had split up with the mother of his three children so that he could marry Lydia and raise her baby.

The singer, however, denied the soosip, saying she was in contact with Thaksin (whom she calls “dad”), and she was definite that the billionaire politician was not interested in tying the knot with her.

That is not the first time Lydia had to deny Thaksin-related soosip. On Sept 7 last year, the singer caused a stir in the region when she declared that she was not his gig (Thai slang for part-time lover).

Mor Krit (whose real name is Sukrit Patumdhsriwiroj), 23, is an aggressive celebrity upstart who is in a hurry to be famous. And he claims to have accurately read the fortunes of 40,000 people.

He became famous when he “confirmed” that a little-known Thai actress Amita “Nan” Chinsumrej was not pregnant although she herself claimed that she was.

Later, a tearful Nan confessed that she had made up the story about her having given birth to a baby girl so that she could become famous and also to publicise her kiss-and-tell book.

However, on Dec 15, Mor Krit’s fortune telling abilities deserted him when he could not “confirm” what would happen to him on that day.

The fortune teller, who claimed that 50 out of his 53 forecasts on high-profile people were accurate, was invited to speak about his Lydia pregnancy prediction in an event organised by a Thai gossip newspaper in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall.

At the event, he was verbally attacked by Lydia’s mother, Sansanee.

“Who asked you to tell her (fortune)? Who gave you permission?” Sansanee demanded, according to the Bangkok Post.

“I am just doing my job,” he replied meekly into his microphone.

“Well, I’m doing my job as her mum, too (protecting Lydia),” Sansanee said.

Mor Krit quickly apologised, giving her a wai (a respectful Thai greeting).

But Lydia’s mother was not satisfied, and shouted: “If you’re sorry, then get down on your knees.”

The fortune teller was about to kraab (Thai for prostrate) himself in front of Sansanee but the organiser quickly hustled him off stage.

The next day, Mor Krit had an inkling of what was coming. He had read his own stars, according to the Bangkok Post, and he could see himself giving evidence in his defence (in a legal suit).

Confirmed. Lydia filed a 50 million baht (RM5mil) suit against him over the “pregnant” forecast.

So far, Mor Krit’s defence for his “mistake” is that the media read too much into his prediction.

“All I said was that there is a chance she could get pregnant. I didn’t say with certainty that she was pregnant,” the Bangkok Post reported him as saying.

In a television interview, the fortune teller said that week was his worst in his life. He had become famous, but at a price.

“My whole world has changed and I feel as if I hardly know myself anymore,” he told the host.

“People say I am sarcastic, arrogant, poorly brought up. I have cried many times and lost sleep,” said the fortune teller.

Mor Krit also admitted he never thought that his prediction that Lydia might be pregnant might cause so much distress to Lydia.

And he “confirmed” that he would like to apologise for his inaccurate prediction.

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Planning a coup? Here’s how

Thai Takes

PSST, do you want to bring down a democratically-elected government? Here’s a blueprint on how to install a squeaky clean politician whose party does not have an overall majority in parliament as prime minister.

While the targeted prime minister is out of the country – say, in New York to address the United Nations general assembly – get the military to launch a coup.

Call it “Happy Coup”. Impose martial law and install a former general as prime minister.

But that’s not quite enough. A military junta can’t rule forever; the civilised world demands an elected leader.

Before the election, get the court to dissolve the most powerful party (the only party to have won an outright majority in your country’s political history) and – for good measure – ban its 111 executives, including the ousted prime minister, from politics for five years.

Oops! Your party failed to win the election although it outspent the reincarnated party of the disbanded party by three to one.

Mai pen rai (Thai for “don’t worry”). It’s not your fault. Voters – especially the poor from the north and north-east – don’t understand democracy.

Although your party has only 166 MPs (in the 480-MP parliament) propose the squeaky clean politician as prime minister. Don’t be too disappointed, however, when MPs from the reincarnated party and its five coalition partners vote in for a loud-mouthed prime minister.

Four months later, unleash a movement (give it a name with democratic sounding words like “People”, “Alliance” and “Demo­cracy”) to attack the government for being the puppet of the deposed prime minister.

Don’t forget to storm Government House (the prime minister’s office).

Don’t worry when the prime minister declares a state of emergency as the military will refuse to enforce the rule of law. Plus you have sen (Thai for “connection”) to a powerful invisible hand.

Despite losing his office, the premier still clings to power. It’s time for a judicial coup. Get the court to remove him from office for moonlighting as a chef in a television cooking show.

For the second time, propose the squeaky clean politician as prime minister. He loses again? Ah, the ruling party has the numbers.

But, mai pen rai, as the newly elected premier is a brother-in-law of the deposed prime minister, this will legitimise the anti-government movement’s claim that a puppet government is running the country.

Now for a TV coup. Get the army chief – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – to appear on television, demanding that the prime minister resign, as surely somebody must take responsibility for the bloody clash between the police and the movement with the democratic-sounding name.

The army chief’s demand is ignored? It’s time to close an airport or two.

Mai pen rai. When the government declares emergency rule at the besieged airports the invisible hand will order the soldiers to refuse to enforce the rule of law.

The stubborn government is still clinging to power? Well, it’s time for another judicial coup.

Dissolve the ruling party and its two coalition partners for electoral fraud and ban 109 of the executives – including the prime minister and 29 MPs – from politics for five years.

Let’s look at the latest numbers now. The disbanded ruling party has 219 MPs and its five coalition allies 65, compared with your party’s 165. Mai pen rai. For the sake of national unity or a lucrative Cabinet portfolio or 40 million baht (RM4mil), there are parliamentarians who can be persuaded to support your coalition government.

If the politicians still need persuasion, arrange for the army chief to “advise” them in his home. But make sure they know the location of the general’s house. If not, a military escort will have to fetch them at a nearby petrol station; and those pesky reporters will find out about this super secret deal.

On the eve of the parliament vote, lock the parliamentarians whose loyalty you’ve secured in a safe hotel. And don’t forget to confiscate their handphones so they do not receive any calls topping up the price of loyalty.

Congratulations, your coalition has won a slender parliamentary majority (235 votes to 198). Now your squeaky clean and very handsome politician is a prime minister.

(Published in The Star on December 20, 2008)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Helmet hairstyles no longer hi-so

Thai Takes

TYPE “hi-so” in The Nation’ – search box, and you’ll find some 160 entries.

The page features “New, mega rich hi-so superstars of the Thai economy”, “Hi-so wives and mia nois (Thai for minor wives)”, “Hi-so crowd”, “Hi-so denizens” and “Hi-so parties”.

What’s hi-so?

“Not that easy to define any more,” says Thailand Tatler editor-in-chief Naphalai Areesorn.

“In the past it used to be the family you come from which set your social status,” she explains. “And in Thailand – which is a country with a royal family – we have established families that can trace their line way back to the initial days of the Chakri dynasty.”

Now, Naphalai continues, there’s new money – especially during the Thaksin Shinawatra days when many Thais became rich.

And there’s the social climber.

Usually they are the wannabes who incessantly patronise high society functions and get themselves photographed ceaselessly (because they are eccentric or dress outstandingly) and then sort of get themselves into the hi-so circle, although their “background is not quite what it should be”.

For a description of a hi-so, return to the first page of The Nation’s search result and click on the article “Two women take over husbands’ political roles”, which was published on Jan 12.

Towards the end, the article states: “Pojaman (Damapong – her maiden name, which she reverted to after divorcing Thaksin Shinawatra) might look like any rich madam with her big hairstyle, neatly cut dress and designer handbag.

“She also loves to shop at upscale department stores. But what makes her stand out from the hi-so crowd is the strong political network she has built since the premiership of her husband.”

Well, the days of big hairdos are gone. The khunying (Thai slang for a woman which Lonely Planet characterises as having “Imelda Marcos helmet hairdos, jewel-toned Thai silk and thick pancake make-up”) has now gone modern.

“The khunyings have lowered the height of their hair,” adds Naphalai, who joined Thailand Tattler as a contributing editor when the magazine was launched 17 years ago.

Being a hi-so comes with a certain look.

“Don’t forget, within this crowd, there is a lot of keeping up with the Joneses. If you – especially a hi-so wannabe – want to be accep- ted by them, you have to look like them,” explains Naphalai, who is the perfect source to give the low-down on Thai high society.

Designer dress is a must. “If it is not designer wear, then it must be (made of) Thai silk,” she adds.

A must-have accessory is designer handbags – at the least, Hermes’ Kelly or Birkin.

But it is not all about international designer labels. The in-thing is high-end made-in-Thailand labels such as Asava (a new brand by a designer who is in the hi-so circle), Disaya or Munchu’s.

Ostentatiousness separates the Thai hi-so from her southern counterpart, the Malaysian socialite.

Thai hi-so tends to be more ostentatious, observes Naphalai, who is familiar with the Malaysian social scene as she lived in Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s when her father was Bangkok Bank manager.

“Thais tend to show off. Malaysians – and I know some very wealthy Malaysian Chinese – don’t seem to care so much about having to put up with appearances,” she observes. “The wealth is there but Malaysians do not have the need to display their wealth.”

How ostentatious is the Thai hi-so?

She’s dripping with the biggest stones in a social function that does not require her to wear all the jewellery in her safety box.

“When one piece of jewellery is enough to draw attention, there are people who wear jewellery on their ears, neck, wrists, fingers … everywhere,” laments Naphalai. “In Thailand being frugal is not always considered a positive value.”

Eeeem, sounds like the Mak Datins (who are Malaysia’s equivalent of the khunyings).

The other difference is that Malaysian socialites are less fashionable than their Thai counterparts.

KLites tend to dress more simply than Bangkokians, notes Naphalai, who does not consider herself a hi-so.

A hi-so, she adds, is very quick to own the latest trend so that she can wear it and show it off.

(Published in The Star on December 13, 2008)

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The lull before another storm

Thai Takes

ON TUESDAY, the Thai constitutional court dissolved People Power Party (PPP) and its two coalition partners, forcing out Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s government.

And the next day, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ended its eight-day occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi international airport.

An end to Thailand’s protracted political crisis?

No. The razor-edge tension in the Land of Smiles dissipated on Wednesday because the kingdom looked to celebrating King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 81st birthday.

“There is less tension now,” a worried journalist from The Nation conceded on Wednesday. “But we don’t know what will happen next.”

What happens next will depend on the political trade-offs now being hammered out.

Theoretically, MPs from the dissolved parties (PPP, Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya) and their coalition partners (Puea Pandin, Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana and Pracharaj) can still form the next government, even though the court banned 109 executives of the disbanded parties from politics for five years.

PPP, a re-incarnation of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT), which the constitutional court disbanded in May last year, still has 218 MPs (out of its original 232) who are not banned from politics because they are non-executives of the party.

Most of these MPs are expected to join Puea Thai (For Thais) which PPP established in anticipation of a negative court decision.

So far, all six coalition members – including the reincarnated parties of Chart Thai and Matchima Thipataya – have vowed to stick together and form the next coalition government.

These parties have a combined 282 MPs (315 before the dissolution) compared with 165 MPs from the Democrat Party, Thailand’s sole opposition party in parliament.

A Puea Thai-led coalition government is not a done deal, however. Getting in the way is intense politicking.

For example, a faction from the now defunct PPP called the Friend of Newin Chidchob has threatened not to support the nomination of a prime minister who comes from PPP.

“We haven’t yet decided which party we will join. The only condition we have is that the next PM should not bring any more conflicts to the country,” Cherdchai Wichienwan, an MP from the disbanded PPP, told reporters after attending a meeting chaired by Newin (a banned TRT politician whose 80-year-old father, Chai, is the House Speaker).

On Thursday, Kiartikorn Pakpiansilp, an MP from the disbanded Matchima Thipataya, became the first MP to abandon the defunct PPP-led coalition when he joined the Democrat Party.

His defection gives rise to the Democrat’s hope of cobbling together a government with party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister. The party is lobbying MPs and political parties to ditch the Puea Thai-led coalition for it.

w“The Democrats are trying hard to form the next government but they are unlikely to succeed,” opined Worapol Promigabutr, Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology.

The academician noted that there was also a concerted effort by a political force in Thailand which he calls the oligarchy (politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen) to block a Puea Thai-led coalition government.

Like most Thais, Worapol does not see an end to the Thai political conflict.

If the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai formed the next government, there would be turmoil.

The PAD, which ended its marathon 192-day destructive street protest on Wednesday, has warned:

“If a proxy government of the Thaksin regime is set up again or if there is an attempt to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash the wrongdoings of those in the Thaksin regime, to benefit politicians, or to lessen the power of the King, the PAD will return.”

And if the Democrat Party formed the next government, there would also be turmoil.

“The red-shirt protesters (the anti-PAD and pro-PPP government supporters) will do a PAD and organise street protests against a Democrat-led government,” Worapol predicted.

For the moment, political turmoil is on hold until after the king’s birthday.

The mood in Thailand, however, turned sombre on Thursday when King Bhumibol failed to deliver his traditional birthday address. On the eve of his birthday, the king was mildly sick – a throat infection.

Unfortunate, as his subjects were eagerly anticipating his advice on the political crisis that has brought down a government and closed two Bangkok airports.

(Published in The Star on Dec 6, 2008)