Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stir over girly calendar

Thai Takes

WHAT’s Thailand’s 365 days of lust?

It is a controversial 2010 calendar featuring nude models whose bodies are painted to cover their assets. The titillating calendar was produced to promote Leo beer, a low-end alcoholic beverage manufactured by Singha Corporation (owner of iconic Thai beer, Singha).

The Leo calendar has attracted uproar from the Thai Public Health Ministry, Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco Consumption Control Committee, the Friends of Women Foundation and feminists. It also led to the resignation of a Singha heiress.

So, what so controversial about a beer calendar featuring photographs of women, whose modesty is virtually covered up by paint?

Well, Section 32 of Thailand’s Alcohol Beverage Control Act 2008 prohibits the advertising of alcohol drinks, their brands and trademarks in a way that encourages consumption, directly or indirectly.

Deputy Public Health Minister Manit Nopamornbodee, as reported by Bangkok Post on Thursday, criticised claims by the brewer and the calendar publisher that the calendar was for sale, not for distribution.

“It is against the law whether it is for sale or for distribution. The calendar carries a logo of the alcohol product and people understand that message,” he roared.

Outside the Prime Minister’s office in Bangkok on Thursday, the Friends of Women Foundation protested against the distribution of the calendar it labeled “Nude Calendar”, “Sin Calendar” and “Lust Calendar”.

Its manager Chadet Chaowilai said many brewers exploited women as sex objects for the sake of their business.

“Such negative tendencies have contributed to the problem of sexual violence against women,” he said, adding that “companies, including Singha, should give up their old marketing strategies and move towards more creative ways to promote their products and adopt a sense of corporate social responsibility”.

Yesterday, the Bangkok Post editorialised: “The argument by the calendar publisher, former supermodel Methinee ‘Lukked’ Kingpayom, that the calendar was made for sale, not for free distribution, is for fools.

“The use of girly calendars as a promotional tool for alcoholic beverages has been around long enough that people understand exactly what is going on without any need for spurious explanations.”

The hot, hot, hot Leo calendar brought heat to the Bhirombhakdi family that controls Singha Corporation when a Singha heiress brought them to work – the Government House (Thai Prime Minister’s office).

On Wednesday, Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, a 23-year-old daughter of the executive vice-president of Singha Corporation, took out two boxes of calendars from the trunk of her BMW and distributed them at the Government House in Bangkok.

Government House officials (including deputy government spokesmen Phumin Leetheeraprasert and Supachai Jaisamut), MPs, police and journalists (covering the Government House beat) lined up to accept Chitpas’ generosity and within a few minutes, about 200 copies were snapped up.

(For the record: the two spokesmen denied taking the calendars, claiming they were only passing by.)

The next day, to accept responsibility for distributing the calendars inside the August compound of the Government House, Chitpas resigned as a political appointee at the PM’s secretariat office.

In her resignation letter, the heiress explained that she did not intend to distribute them.

“I brought along the calendars because some friends want to have them,” she said, as quoted by The Nation.

“Many reporters saw the calendars and wanted them. So, I gave them to everyone. I admit that I did not think that this would turn out to be a big deal. This happened because of my recklessness.”

“I’m upset that the incident affected not only my family and me but also many senior people whom I respect. I myself will take full responsibility for this by resigning from position in the PM’s secretariat.”

Chitpas said she would take the incident as a lesson, and hoped that in the future, she would be given another opportunity in politics.

Democrat MP for Songkhla Sirichok Sopha, a personal secretary to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, according to the Bangkok Post, said “the stir over the nude calendar had affected the reputation of the government as it was distributed at the Government House”.

He, however, denied the Democrat-led coalition government pressured Chitpas to resign, saying she made her own decision.

Probably the only good thing coming out from Chitpas’ generosity is the recipients have something to look forward to when they peek at the Leo calendar.

(Published in The Star on Dec 19. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A pawn in the vicious political ball game


IF you are a pawn caught in the middle of a political dogfight between the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government and the double team of Thaksin Shinawatra-Hun Sen, what will happen if you are caught in Cambodia passing Thaksin’s flight schedule to a Phnom Penh-based Thai diplomat?

Answer: The Phnom Penh Municipal Court will sentence you to seven years in jail and a fine of 10 million riels (about RM8,200).

Siwarak Chotipong, a 31-year-old Thai engineer working for the Thai-owned Cambodia Air Traffic Ser vices (Cats), was found guilty on Tuesday by a Cambodian court for espionage (stealing information relevant to Thaksin’s flight plan to Cambodia).

“Obtaining the flight schedule was very important for the Thai government, but it severely endangered Thaksin,” Judge Ke Sakhan said, reading the verdict against Siwarak. “It also affected the national security of Cambodia.”

Thaksin’s flight schedule was “sensitive information” as Thaksin is now a high-ranking Cambodian government adviser, said Phnom Penh court deputy prosecutor Sok Roeun.

“His flight schedule is not a simple document like a wedding invitation,” he said.

The court hearing was held as relations between the two neigbouring countries hit an all-time low.

Thailand withdrew its ambassador in Phnom Penh after Cambodia appointed Thaksin as economic adviser. And in retaliation, Cambodia recalled its ambassador in Bangkok.

The “sad truth” of the court verdict, according to the Bangkok Post in an editorial on Thursday, is Siwarak is “a mere pawn caught in the middle of a vicious political ball game between the Democrat-led government and Thaksin, with Hun Sen openly taking the latter’s side”.

“Therefore, it should not be surprising if the victim’s mother, Simarak na Nakhon Phanom, has opted to seek help from (Thaksin) and (the pro-Thaksin political party) Pheu Thai chairman General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, instead of the Thai Foreign Ministry in seeking a royal pardon from Cambodia for her convicted son,” editorialised the English-language Thai newspaper.

According to The Phnom Penh Post, a royal pardon was a likely scenario in the intensely politicised case.

It quoted Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak as saying that there were likely “politics being played behind the scenes” for Siwarak’s release.

Ou Virak said the case was a “major embarrassment” for Thai Prime Minister Vejjajiva and “it presented the opportunity for Hun Sen to either seek rapprochement with Abhisit or lend further support to Thaksin and Pheu Thai”.

“The question is: what message does the Cambodian side want to send, and which side are they going to pick?” Ou Virak said.

However, the Bangkok Post editorialised: “For now, it does not really matter which side will eventually get the credit for resolving this unfortunate human drama so long as the victim is brought home. What really matters and is indeed very disturbing, is that the ongoing political feud has become regionalised and gone many steps too far.”

But tell that to the Democrat, the backbone of Abhisit’s coalition government.

Democrat Party spokesman Thepthai Senpong was surprised that Simarak was seeking a royal pardon for her son through the opposition party Pheu Thai.

“I’m surprised by Simarak’s decision to help her son without asking for the Foreign Ministry’s assistance, because this is not in line with international practice,” he told the media. “I wonder if Thaksin, Chavalit and Hun Sen have more prominent roles than the Cambodian king.”

In politically-divided Thailand, Sirivak’s role in the diplomatic row, unsurprisingly, has taken a political dimension.

In a column called “Ask The Editors” in The Nation, an English-language Thai newspaper, Tulsathit Taptim wrote about the far-fetched theory that Siwarak was “in fact a (pro-Thaksin) red-shirted agent who was ‘planted’ as a Thai government spy so that he could be arrested on charges of espionage in order to embarrass Bangkok and allow Thaksin play a heroic saviour”.

“Those believing this theory have forgotten one key factor: Siwarak was allegedly acting in liaison with the Thai Embassy, which, appropriate or not, wanted him to find out what Thaksin was up to on his controversial arrival in Phnom Penh.

Without this embassy connection, it might have been plausible that Siwarak was a double-agent on a mission to humiliate the Thai government,” Tulsathit wrote.

Spy or not, Siwarak is clearly a pawn.

(Published in The Star on Dec 12, 2009)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Languishing with hope


LATELY I have been receiving letters via e-mail from “Bangkok Hilton” – the nickname for Bang Kwang Central Prison in Thailand, one of the most notorious prisons in the world.

The e-mail contained a scanned letter stamped “Censored” (by the Bang Kwang authority). The letter – which I call “love letters from Bang Kwang” – was written cursively in a polite but firm tone.

“Greeting, how are U doing? It’s been a while since UR last reply. Hope U are o.k. Actually I don’t want to bother U but as I said, U are the only one we have for media,” wrote Dennis Ooi in a letter dated Nov 13.

I met the 30-year-old Penangite in Bang Kwang late last year.

He was charged with importing drugs in 2003 after selling 700 Ecstasy pills to a Thai contact who turned out to be an undercover policeman. Not knowing how to read and write the Thai language, Ooi claimed that he was made to sign an admission so that a death sentence would be reduced to a life term.

He said that although his brother paid a Thai lawyer 1.5mil baht (about RM150,000) to represent him in court, the lawyer did not turn up.

Ooi felt it was unfair for him to languish in prison for 50 years for signing a sheet that stated he imported drugs. He also said that the Thai prisoners and prison wardens did not like Malaysian prisoners.

Malaysian prisoners, according to him, got the idea for a prisoner transfer treaty from Nigerians who serve a minimum time in Thailand and return home to serve their remaining term.

“We feel sad when we see them go home. We are serving the same sentence but they get to go back because their government has a transfer treaty with Thailand,” he said.

His plea – to be incarcerated in a Malaysian prison – was a front-page story in The Star on Dec 29.

Ooi wrote the letter because a Malaysian embassy official visited some Muslim inmates before Hari Raya and told them last December that Malaysia will negotiate with Thailand a transfer treaty to enable prisoners to finish their jail term in their homeland.

“We ask you again to write an article about our wish to go back before the meeting in December,” he appealed.

In his second letter, which I received on Nov 25, Ooi asked if I knew when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak would visit Thailand.

“Wow!” I thought, “Even though he is incarcerated he even knows that his Prime Minister is visiting Thailand.”

I e-mailed that Najib would be visiting Bangkok on Dec 7 and then Narathiwat in southern Thailand on Dec 8 and 9.

I also told him that I would only be able to visit him the second or third week of December as I was off for a Manila trip.

I received on Dec 2 via e-mail a letter from Ooi. And he was worried that my article on his and other Malaysian inmates’ wish for Malaysia to sign a prisoner exchange treaty with Thailand would only see print after Najib’s Thai tour.

Ooi is not the only Malaysian in a Thai prison hoping Najib will discuss with Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a treaty that will see them return home.

Last year, I visited a 40-something Malaysian woman in a Bangkok women’s prison as both she and her husband were convicted for credit card fraud.

She enthused that she and her husband – who is jailed in the nearby men’s prison – was excited as they could celebrate Hari Raya in a prison in Malaysia.

“A Malaysian embassy official told us that he had read in a Malaysian newspaper that Malaysia and Thailand had signed a prisoner exchange treaty.

“And because our crime is not serious, we will be one of the first to be sent home,” she said in a posh accent which betrayed her high society background.

She was crestfallen when told the report was inaccurate.

Perhaps Najib’s visit – which Bernama described as “four years after hitting the lowest point in their otherwise excellent bilateral ties, Malaysia and Thailand are on the brink of a historic milestone as their top leaders meet in the kingdom” – will change the prisoners’ lives.

(Published from The Star on Dec 5, 2009)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Name change and man of mystery

Thai Takes

IS TAKKI Shinegra, a globetrotting man of mystery, Thaksin Shinawatra?

The Thai vice Foreign Minister Panich Vikitsreth thinks so.

On Wednesday, he alleged that Thaksin’s name on passports issued by Montenegro, Nicaragua and Uganda was “Takki Shinegra”. And the name change, according to Panich, is making his ministry’s attempts to extradite the self-exiled former Thai prime minister — who fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption passed in absentia — difficult.

However, Thaksin, who is arguably Thailand’s Twitter king, tweeted in Thai that “it’s useless for me to change my name since many people know me. I walk in department stores in any country and many people come to greet me”.

“I still use my old name but don’t say I’ve done a sex change. It can’t be helped as you guys are so stupid to revoke my Thai passport that you have no way to trace me through non-Thai documents,” added the billionaire politician, referring to the revocation of his diplomatic passport by the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government.

This week — which is the first anniversary of the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts’ seizure of two Bangkok airports — Takki Shinegra was just a sideshow to two political dramas in Thailand.

Today, the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts were supposed to launch street protests — which they proclaimed to be the biggest show of force — in the Thai capital to force the collapse of the Abhisit government.

Anti-Thaksin forces criticised the planned rally as inappropriate as it was too close to King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 82nd birthday on Dec 5. Ironically, these critics were silent when the Yellow Shirts seized Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport from Nov 25 to Dec 3 last year.

The seizure not only crippled the Thai tourism industry but was also “inappropriate” as it was held too close to the King’s birthday.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who is also the Democrat Party’s secretary-general, alleged that the Red Shirts were recruiting foreign workers to participate in their street rally. And Thepthai Senpong, a democrat party spokesman, had a noteworthy method of sifting non-Thais among the Red Shirt protesters.

The authorities, according to him, will check the protesters’ national ID and those without one would be detained and asked to sing the Thai national anthem.

The Abhisit government also imposed the tough Internal Security Act (which allows the military to impose curfews, operate checkpoints, restrict movements of protesters and act fast if the rally turn violent) from Nov 28 to Dec 14 in Bangkok as it claimed it feared a repeat of the April violence.

In April, the Red Shirts (or, according to the Red Shirts leaders, agent provocateurs masquerading as Red Shirts supporters) turned Bangkok into a battlefield (i.e. hijacking military tanks and petrol tankers and torching public buses).

Two people were killed in the mayhem which was Thailand’s worst political violence since the bloody Black May uprising in 1992.

Facing pressure, the Red Shirts backtracked. “We Red Shirts want to express our loyalty to the king by postponing the rally indefinitely. We will meet to map out our stance after the middle of December,” Veera Musikapong, a Red Shirt leader, told reporters.

If Bangkok was a no-go zone for the Red Shirts, Chiang Mai, the stronghold of the Red Shirts and hometown of Thaksin, was a Thai city that Prime Minister Abhisit could not visit.

The Prime Minister cancelled his plan to preside over the closing ceremony of the Thai Chamber of Commerce annual conference because a pro-Thaksin protest leader made an indirect threat against his life on a community radio station.

“I am sure I will be safe if I go but others including the protesters, security officers and seminar participants may have problems because some protesters want to cause problems,” said Abhisit, who recently returned from Qatar.

After Abhisit’s Qatar visit, worried Thaksin loyalists tweeted to the self-exiled politician based in Dubai their concern that Abhisit had asked Middle East countries to extradite him.

Takki Shinegra, ermm, Thaksin, responded: “I would like to invite Abhisit to eat camel meat here so that he will have a better understanding about things.”

“The government should stop bothering other countries (about me),” he added. “Abhisit should also find time to visit all other member countries of the Asean because it’s a tradition.”

(Published in The Star on November 28, 2009)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The invisible elephant


SO what is really happening (politically) in Thailand?” a visiting American academician specialising in South-East Asian politics asked me.

Instinctively, I glanced to my left and then to my right. It was a habit I picked up whenever I was about to discuss the most taboo subject in Thailand.

On my right in the hip Bangkok cafe was a farang (Thai for “Westerner”) in a business suit with a cliched sexy Thai girl, while on my left were two Thais deep in conversation.

Looks like the coast is clear, I thought. And in a hushed tone I told her what was whispered among Thai political watchers but not discussed publicly, as they did not want to risk charges of lese majeste (a French phrase for “insulting the monarchy”). In the past two years, several people have been jailed for lese majeste.

In 2007, Oliver Jufer, a 57-year-old Swiss, was found to have spray-painted photographs of the King while drunk. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, but subsequently he was pardoned by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

In 2009, Harry Nicolaides, a 41-year-old Australian writer, was charged with lese majeste for a passage in his novel which briefly mentioned the “romantic entanglements and intrigues” of a fictional Crown Prince.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail. Eventually, he received a royal pardon and was released.

In August this year, 46-year-old activist Daranee Chancheonsilapakul (nicknamed “Da Torpedo” for her fiery oratory) was jailed for 18 years for making a series of inflammatory speeches at pro-Thaksin Shinawatra “Red Shirt” rallies. Her remarks, according to The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, “were against the 2006 coup but laced with offensive references to the monarchy”.

I also discussed with the academician the recent controversial interview that self-exiled billionaire politician Thaksin gave to The Times (of London). The Times published the text of the interview on Times Online after Thaksin issued a statement saying that the newspaper’s report was “distorted” and “untrue”.

The Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government had banned the Thaksin interview, warning it would take “appropriate action” against media organisations that reported the content of the ousted prime minister’s interview which was “offensive to the royal institution”.

Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya told the media in Bangkok: “I would like to say that Thaksin’s interview violates the monarchy, which is the country’s main institution.”

“I wonder what the hidden agenda was that caused him to make this inappropriate move,” Kasit said, adding that the Justice Ministry would consider whether to charge Thaksin with lese majeste.

On the day I had a chat with the American academician, the police arrested Thatsaporn Rattanawongsa, a 42-year-old Thai radiologist, for allegedly spreading rumours about the King’s health which resulted in a plunge in the Thai stock market in October.

Last month, the stock market plummeted (at one point by 8.22% on Oct 15) over speculation about the health of King Bhumibol, who will be celebrating his 82nd birthday next month. The revered king, who is regarded by most Thais as a demi-god, has been hospitalised for two months for various ailments.

Thatsaporn was the fourth person arrested for damaging national security by posting false information online. In early November, three other Internet users were arrested on the same charge.

One of them was Teeranun Wipuchanin, a former UBS employee. Teeranun had translated a Bloomberg story and then posted it on Prachatai, a popular Thai-language online forum.

“Everybody on that day wanted to know what caused the market to fall. The stock market had already dropped and we did the translation in the evening,” she said.

Interestingly, as Bangkok Pundit in (a Thai political blog) pointed out, the Bloomberg story merely reported that the stock market dropped on speculation over the King’s health.

“Umm, there is a difference between reporting a rumour and reporting an analyst’s opinion that rumours are making the SET (Stock Exchange of Thailand) fall – most people don’t even dispute the fact that the rumours were making the SET fall, but simply reporting this as opposed to the rumour is verboten (forbidden),” he blogged.

There’s an elephant in the room, but either Thais can’t see it or they are afraid to talk about it publicly.

(Published in The Star on November 21, 2009)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A method in Hun Sen’s madness?

Thai Takes

POP quiz: Why did Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen poke Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the eye by hosting the latter’s arch-rival Thaksin Shinawatra in Phnom Penh and rejecting Thailand’s request for extraditing his guest who faces a two-year jail term back home?

(a) Hun Sen was already in politics when Abhisit was still a child.

(b) Hun Sen is not worried about the Abhisit government shutting the Thai-Cambodian border as Cambodia would reciprocate by not allowing even one pig to cross the border.

(c) In 2008, Thailand’s exports to Cambodia were worth about US$2bil (RM6.75bil) while Cambodia’s export to Thailand was only US$90mil (RM303.8mil).

(d) Abhisit should not fear if Thaksin resides in Cambodia, as Hun Sen had appointed other foreigners (for example, Lee Myung-bak before he was elected South Korean president) as economic advisers.

(e) The self-exiled Thaksin has been travelling around the world, and Abhisit has not taken any action against countries the billionaire visited.

(f) The Red Shirts (a pro-Thaksin movement) support Thaksin’s appointment as Cambodia’s economic adviser, but the Yellow Shirts (an anti-Thaksin movement) don’t, while the other Thais are indifferent.

(g) Although Abhisit warned Hun Sen not to become a pawn in Thaksin’s game, the Cambodian premier is nobody’s tool.

(h) Thaksin is not Cambodia’s tool. Hun Sen really wants to employ Thaksin’s experience to help in Cambodia’s economic affairs.

(i) Hun Sen wants to tackle the origin of the Thai-Cambodian spat, which started when Thaksin was ousted as Prime Minister in a coup on Sept 19, 2006.

(j) Thailand has obstructed Cambodia’s bid (to declare Preah Vihear, a border temple which both Cambodia and Thailand claim is within their territory) and has the nerve to say that it has nothing to do with Cambodia.

(k) Hun Sen received two-thirds of the vote in the Cambodian parliament, whereas Abhisit “stole somebody’s chair” to seat himself in the prime minister’s chair. And Cambodia cannot respect someone who claims other people’s property as his own.

(l) Abhisit is so buried in problems himself that he may not survive politically. He has problems with all the neighbouring countries (Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Myanmar); in southern Thailand; and Yellow Shirts, Red Shirts, Blue Shirts, White Shirts and Pheu Thai (the pro-Thaksin opposition party).

(m) Thaksin is Hun Sen’s friend and a friend “cannot feed friends to the tiger”.

(n) In the past, Khieu Samphan and Noun Chea (of the Khmer Rouge) were allowed to live (given refuge) even though Thailand had signed a pact not to support the Khmer Rouge.

(o) All the above.

The answer is (o), all of the above. That’s what Hun Sen told journalists on Nov 8 at Phnom Penh airport, after returning from the Mekong-Japan summit in Tokyo.

At an official dinner there, Abhisit said he did not speak to his Cambodian counterpart because they were seated at quite a distance and there was a vase between them obstructing his view.

What did the Thai media think of Hun Sen’s explanation of the diplomatic spat which has brought relations between the two countries to an all-time low, since the 2003 burning of the Thai embassy and other Thai properties in Phnom Penh after a Thai actress was falsely reported as saying the Angkor Wat temple complex belonged to Thailand?

According to Ploenpote Atthakor, a Bangkok Post journalist, “Hun Sen, playing the Thaksin card, can take a break from questions he has been facing at home about border issues with Vietnam.”

“The arrival of Thaksin (in Phnom Penh last Tuesday) also deflects the attention of Cambodians from the ongoing trial of former Khmer Rouge cadres. After all, Hun Sen knows fully well that without a strong political opponent, his PM’s seat is more secure compared to the shaky one Abhisit is sitting on,” she opined yesterday.

In an editorial on Thursday, the Bangkok Post said there was method in Hun Sen’s madness (to some Thais, Hun Sen is mad to provoke Thailand by appointing a Thai fugitive as his economic adviser).

“As a shrewd politician and the longest-serving prime minister in this region, Hun Sen must have carefully calculated the positive and negative consequences of this game of brinkmanship he is playing with Thailand,” the newspaper editorialised.

(Published in The Star on November 14, 2009)

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Roxanne walks on the wild side

Thai Takes

NO. 10, Roxanne Fonseka, Malaysia, the announcer said, and the 20-year-old Malaysian strutted his stuff during a rehearsal of the Miss International Queen 2009 at the Thai beach resort of Pattaya.

Roxanne (not his real name) was among 21 contestants, from countries like Brazil, China, Japan, Philippines, Nepal and the United States, competing to be the world’s most beautiful transvestite/transsexual at Tiffany’s Show in Pattaya (reputedly the world’s largest transsexual cabaret) on Halloween night.

The Penangite was in Pattaya because he wanted to end his cross-dressing fetish with a bang. “Next year I plan to end my life as a drag queen – which means a guy who turns into a woman for just one night,” he revealed.

Pulling down his blouse to expose his scrawny arms, he said, “I plan to go to a fitness centre, build up my body so that I have a male body and then work as a flight attendant.”

Life as an occasional drag queen can be a drag, Roxanne said.

“Malaysia – unlike Thailand and the Philippines – is not open to transvestites, and they tend to look down on pondan and Ah Kua (Malaysian slang for transvestite).

“It will be very difficult for me to make a living,” said the only son of a rich businessman. “I know, as (at the age of 17) I’ve opened a gay massage centre (in Penang).”

“Next year when you become a ‘guy’, will you be a heterosexual or homosexual guy?” I asked.

“I will be a bisexual guy,” revealed the Malaysian, who lives in Thailand as he’s learning Thai from his sleeping dictionary (a 29-year-old closeted gay Thai man who wants to be a politician).

When he was 12 years old, Roxanne, who was studying in a boys’ school in Penang, found out that he was attracted to his handsome classmate.

“And I was thinking, ‘Do I like him, or do I want to be like him as he was handsome’.

“After much thought, I found out that I liked him,” he recalled, adding “I’ve had girlfriends too.”

When he registered for the Miss International Queen pageant, the 182-cm “twink” (which Urban Dictionary defines as an attractive, boyish-looking, young gay man) thought he had a shot at the title, as he was “tall” and “a natural beauty.”

“But when I saw the competition I found out that I couldn’t compete with them, as almost all had plastic surgery, hormone injection and undergone a sex change operation, whereas I am just a guy with make-up,” he explained.

Roxanne has not gone for plastic surgery or hormone injections, as in the future he does not want to face the ugly consequences of transforming into a woman.

“Most of my sisters (slang for transvestite) who are in their 40s regret changing their sex. Yes, you look sexy and beautiful when you are in your 20s, but not in your 40s,” he explained.

To prepare for Miss International Queen, Roxanne competed in three katoey (Thai for transvestites) beauty pageants in Bangkok.

He budgeted RM10,000 (for make-up artist, hair dresser, national costume, evening gown, shoes, accessories and RM1,000 for registration fee) for the pageant.

Where did he get the money?

“I lied. I got it from my parents who told me not to cross-dress in Thailand,” he revealed with an apologetic smile.

On the eve of the pageant I asked Roxanne, who had been participating in Miss International Queen activities for five days, how the experience was.

“It is quite pressured as everybody is beautiful. At first I was enjoying it, but then some contestants tried to sabotage me,” he said.

For example, Roxanne was told that his RM800 evening gown was ugly and its colour (yellow) was not suitable.

“Everybody who enters a pageant knows that yellow and red are the most attractive colour on stage.

“Miss Venezuela wore yellow and she won Miss Universe 2008, and she has the same skin colour as me,” griped Roxanne.

“Don’t you think that jealousy is the reason for such statements?”

On Halloween night, he failed to make the cut for the top 10 finalists. Haruna Ai, a 37-year-old Japanese television host who competed in Miss International Queen 2007, was crowned the world’s most beautiful katoey.

“Perhaps I should compete again next year. And I’m planning to bring a TV crew just like Haruna,” emailed Roxanne.

(Published in The Star on November 7, 2009)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hun Sen’s jibes raise speculation

Thai Takes

IN an editorial cartoon, The Nation’s cartoonist Stephff answers a question that has recently been bugging Thais – What is really wrong with Hun Sen?

Last week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen offered political asylum to Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006.

Thaksin has been in self-exile after fleeing Thailand in 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term on corruption charges.

Two days later, after arriving in Thailand to attend the Asean Summit, Hun Sen embarrassed Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva again when he announced that he would offer Thaksin a job as economic adviser.

On Thursday, Stephff’s cartoon showed an “alien” resembling the square face of Thaksin bursting out of the guts of a grimacing Hun Sen, with the “alien” holding a foot-clapper (the symbol of red-shirted pro-Thaksin supporters) confronting a terrified Abhisit.

The why as to Hun Sen’s recent Thaksin lovefest, according to the French cartoonist, is: “The horrible truth: Hun Sen was only a host body ….”

Stephff’s take is ha-ha funny. But it is a bit too far-fetched. I prefer The Nation’s military expert Avudh Panananda’s take. “It was a hoax perpetrated by Thaksin and Hun Sen to overshadow Abhisit’s Asean Summit,” he said.

Avudh does not believe the Cambodian’s declaration that the former telecommunications tycoon is his “eternal friend”.

“It is a myth that Thaksin-Hun Sen ties go back decades. The two were never close before Thaksin came to power in 2001,” he said.

In an article in The Nation, the writer gives a historical perspective of the two leaders' relationship.

“At the peak of Thaksin’s popularity in 2003, Hun Sen wanted to lessen Thai domination in the wireless communications business.

“He pushed for the granting of a licence to a Japanese operator,” Avudh writes.

“This led to a failed coup in Phnom Penh. Cambodian leaders, particularly those in the Hun Sen camp, had lingering (suspicions) about the involvement of certain Thai figures.

“Soon after, Hun Sen fanned the Cambodian backlash on a Thai television actress. This in turn led to riots and the torching of the Thai Embassy,” Avudh says.

“To this day Thaksin and Hun Sen still cast suspicions on one another, although they have been boasting about their buddy-buddy ties for mutual gains.”

After the Asean Summit that ended on Oct 25, Thaksin again stole the limelight from Abhisit, who badly wanted to use the meeting of Asean leaders to atone for the abandoned summit in Pattaya in April.

On Tuesday, Surapong Towijakchaikul, an MP from the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party claimed that during the summit, Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah stayed in Thaksin’s seaside home instead of the official accommodation provided by Abhisit’s government.

Surapong, however, did not provide any evidence to back up his claim, which was intended to show that the Sultan was close to Thaksin and not to Abhisit.

Was the claim another hoax to embarrass Abhisit? Probably. The following day Kongkiart Natthavong, the head of security in charge of protection for the Sultan of Brunei, denied that the Sultan stayed in Thaksin’s home.

“It was my duty to accompany him and I had to go everywhere with him. I must know if he goes to other places,” Kongkiart said.

Then came the Abhisit government’s revenge.

On Wednesday, the government announced it would strip Thaksin of his royal awards (the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant and the Most Illustrious Order of King Chula Chonklao) and police rank (lieutenant-colonel, from his days in the police force from 1973 to 1987).

Though the Abhisit government is denying it, many political pundits see the government’s latest campaign against its arch-rival as tit for tat for Thaksin’s recent publicity stunts.

The billionaire politician’s response was classic Thaksin.

He Twittered: “This can be expected of this government ... If they could use the law to kill me, they would have done so a long time ago.”

“Theoretically, the law-enforcement side is created to maintain peace and justice. Law must be enforced fairly and equally, but the government opts to exercise the law to serve a political goal,” he wrote.

It would not take long for the “alien” resembling the square face of Thaksin to strike back.

(Published in The Star on October 31, 2009)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Between friendship and politics

Thai Takes

WHAT can an eternal friend, who happens to be the Cambodian Prime Minister, do to help his self-exiled billionaire politician buddy?

If you were Hun Sen, you would offer to build a beautiful home in Cambodia for Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

In Phnom Penh on Wednesday the Cambodian premier told Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, the puu yai (Thai for “senior elder”) of the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party, that he was prepared to host Thaksin, who fled Thailand in August 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

“I consider Thaksin as my eternal friend. Cambodia will welcome him to stay here for anytime.

“I make the house available for him at any time if he decides to visit Cambodia,” Hun Sen told reporters after meeting Chavalit.

“Though I’m not Thai, I’m hurt by what has happened to him. My wife even cried on knowing about it and has the idea of building a home for Thaksin to come and stay honourably,” he said.

“We have been great friends since Thaksin was a businessman, and the relationship has remained the same since he entered politics,” Hun Sen said.

In Thaksinlive, Thaksin tweeted in Thai: “I have to express deepest thanks to Prime Minister Hun Sen for saying in public that I am his friend.

“I also would like to thank him for arranging me a house.”

However, Thaksin — who is currently staying in Dubai — did not say whether he would accept Hun Sen’s offer.

In an article yesterday, The Nation reported that relations between Hun Sen and Thaksin go back nearly two decades when the Thai was “an up-and-coming businessman trying to align himself with important people.”

“It started with lucrative business contracts in the area of telecommunications, with the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh. At the time Hun Sen was top man on the hill,” wrote Don Pathan, The Nation’s foreign editor.

Hun Sen’s invitation to Thaksin came two days before the Asean summit, where Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva will be hosting him and other Asian leaders in Hua Hin, Thailand.

A Bangkok Post editorial cartoon yesterday succinctly illustrated the consequence of the undiplomatic invitation: Hun Sen’s right arm warmly welcoming a delighted Thaksin, while his left hand was rudely slapping a flustered Abhisit.

On Thursday, Veera Prateepchaikul, a former Bangkok Post editor, wrote:

“A shrewd politician, the Cambodian prime minister should have realised that his receiving of Chavalit at this juncture and his remark about Thaksin would embarrass if not offend the Thai government, Prime Minister Abhisit in particular.”

“But he didn’t seem bothered and appeared willingly to play into Chavalit’s political game,” he opined in the Bangkok Post.

Ever the statesman, Abhisit on Thursday told journalists he had no hard feelings towards Hun Sen.

The Thai premier said he believed his Cambodian counterpart was mature enough to differentiate matters and had no intention of interfering in Thailand’s internal affairs. He added that he would not raise the matter with Hun Sen during the Asean summit.

However, Abhisit said his government would seek Thaksin’s extradition if he ever set foot in Cambodia.

“Once Thaksin enters Cambodia the extradition process will begin. If Cambodia fails to comply with (the) treaty, that would be another story,” he said.

Don’t bet on that happening.

“If Thaksin decides to come and stay closer to home, he can rest assured it won’t be a walk into a trap,” The Nation opined yesterday.

“First and foremost, the one who invites him and who would be his host is the most powerful man in Cambodia, thus the chance of Thaksin being stabbed in the back and extradited is virtually zero.”

The article continued: “Combine the apparently heartfelt message with Hun Sen’s stormy relations with the current Bangkok leaders, an extradition request should either bounce back to the senders or head straight to diplomatic oblivion.”

Yesterday, Hun Sen’s invitation took a twist.

Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith claimed that it was untrue the Cambodian premier would allow Thaksin to have a permanent home in Cambodia. He added that Hun Sen was misquoted by the media.

Perhaps Thaksin can shed some light on this latest twist in his next tweet.

(Published in The Star on October 24, 2009)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chavalit soldiers on

Thai Takes

THE military has the famous saying that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away”. But in Thailand, where generals can become the prime minister, it may be more accurate to say “old soldiers never die nor do they just fade away”.

One recent example is General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a 77-year-old soldier/politician who was Thailand’s prime minister from 1996-1997.

On Oct 2, Chavalit made a political comeback of sorts when he was named Pheu Thai Party’s puu yai (Thai for “senior elder”). With Chavalit’s appointment as puu yai of Pheu Thai (the reincarnation of People Power Party, in turn the reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai), Thaksin Shinawatra hopes the opposition party — “headless” from its formation in December 2008, it had only been led by a stop-gap leader — will now be able to take on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s shaky coalition government.

A Wikipedia background check showed Chavalit to be a former army chief and politician who, since 1988, had been in and out of various Thai Cabinets (under different prime ministers during Thailand’s era of weak coalition governments).

He was deputy prime minister/defence minister from 1988 to 1991, interior minister from 1992 to 1994, and deputy prime minister/defence minister from 1995 to 1996.

As the leader of New Aspiration Party (which has since merged with Thai Rak Thai in 2001) he became prime minister on Nov 25, 1996. He resigned on Nov 6, 1997, in the face of pressure due to the Asian financial crisis.

His most recent foray into the Cabinet was on Sept 24, 2008, during the administration of Somchai Wongsawat, the prime minister in the People Power Party-led coalition government.

However, Chavalit resigned as deputy prime minister on Oct 7 last year to accept responsibility for the bloody government crackdown on the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt protesters who besieged parliament.

“I have decided to resume my political activities because I can no longer allow the unprecedented social divisions to persist,” he said on Oct 2 after submitting his Pheu Thai party membership application.

What do the political pundits think of Chavalit’s return?

“Because it lacks baramee ( translates the Thai word as ‘charisma’ and also ‘a person with clout, influence and respect’), Pheu Thai has brought in Chavalit as party adviser,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“Chavalit was prime minister during the economic maelstrom in 1996-97 and was seen as an inept, serial fumbler. His only credit perhaps was a willingness to resign from the army to enter the political arena in the late 1980s, thereby playing by the rules.”

Thitinan eplained that Pheu Thai did not have much of a talent pool to dip into after its “main talents” were banned from politics following the dissolution of its two predecessors — People Power Party and Thai Rak Thai.

“Pheu Thai’s appointment of Chavalit is intended to increase baramee for the party and in behind-the-scenes manoeuvres,” he added.

According to Suthichai Yoon, The Nation’s group editor-in-chief, “Big Jiew’s (Chavalit’s nickname) record isn’t so convincing.”

“But Thaksin is apparently running out of candidates to help him lead his Pheu Thai Party,” he wrote on Thursday.

“Even the Democrats seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude instead of giving their usual cynical take against the old soldier who refuses to fade away.”

“The hype about Chavalit coming out of retirement is much overrated,” wrote Avudh Panananda, The Nation’s military expert, on Tuesday.

“The presence or absence of Chavalit is irrelevant. What matters is how fugitive ex-premier Thaksin intends to work his political magic by propping up Chavalit.

“Judging by the numbers of political pilgrimages made from Bangkok to Dubai, Thaksin is the undisputed playmaker of the Pheu Thai Party. Even Chavalit made the trip to meet the man in Dubai before teaming up with the main opposition party last week.”

Thepthai Senpong, Abhisit’s spokesman and a Democrat MP, only had harsh words for the Grand Old Soldier.

“Chavalit is like an old and decrepit car, fit to serve only the Pheu Thai Party, even after being overhauled,” Thepthai was reported as saying.

It will be seen whether the self-exiled Thaksin’s political fortunes will change now that his party has a baramee.

(Published in The Star on October 10, 2009)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Is this Bangkok, or mere cliches?

Thai Takes

GUESS which city fits this description: “... A teeth-rattling cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro (name of city), dodging rickshaws and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change.”

If I was to guess, I would guess ... ermm, I’m thinking of the capital of an Asean country but I better not say it out loud as this nation is literally at war with my host country, Thailand. Another guess would have been any city in South Asia.

Surprise, surprise I’m wrong. It refers to Bangkok where I’ve been living for the past three years. And “a teeth-rattling cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro Bangkok, dodging rickshaws and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change” is not something I’ve experienced in the Thai capital.

But that’s how Mark Ebner characterised Bangkok in his article “The Last Days of David Carradine” in the September issue of Maxim, a men’s magazine.

Ebner, who has been covering crime and Hollywood for 20 years, was in the Thai capital to “follow in Carradine’s steps and try to reconstruct his final days” that ended up with the 72-year-old Kungfu icon dead in a Bangkok hotel room on June 4.

The article, which Patrick Winn described in (a news website) as “riveting, perfectly paced and dripping with detail”, was loaded with fantasy, however.

“Journalists on assignment in Bangkok often turn out amazing prose. It’s a glittering, messy and alluring city that tends to inspire,” wrote Winn, an American journalist living in Bangkok.

“Trouble is, out-of-town reporters have a tendency to rely too heavily on the fantasy Bangkok they imagine on the plane ride over. The city offers a feast of clichés: lurid sex, prowling transsexuals, low-lives who’ll kill for cheap.”

(Ebner’s plane ride – in his own words - was “23 hours in a cramped China Airlines 747”.)

What does the farang (Westerners) community think of Ebner’s portrayal of the Thai capital?

“It’s not false, but for those of us that have visited BKK (Bangkok’s airport code), it’s just not the real picture,” commented “geriatrickid” recently in’s forum which is popular with farangs.

“Yes there may be limbless sidewalk cripple or two, yes there is choking smog but that’s not really BKK is it?

“I dislike BKK and avoid it as much as possible, but even I can see that the use of the negative imagery is intended to lay the foundation to make (an unflattering impression of Bangkok).”

Another commentator “DP25” sarcastically wrote: “After reading the full article on Maxim it seems quite obvious that the author of the piece has never even been to Thailand.”

However, a forum member called “Danish pastry member” agreed with Ebner’s depiction, saying: “If it was up to me, the picture I’d paint of Bangkok would be a lot less poetic and a lot more nitty gritty.”

“Last time I was in Bangkok, about two years ago, I almost died waiting for a bus. I jest not. Each minute standing at the bus stop was sheer torture, as the fumes from vehicles was horrible.

“How anyone can stand to try to exist in such a hellhole is mind boggling.”

In his article, Ebner pigeon-holed Bangkok as a city where ladyboy (in the writer’s words: “a transvestite prostitute who sounds like a girly-man but would probably kick your ass for saying so”) was a killer or accidental murderer.

And he quoted David Winters (a 70-year-old British who produced several movies with Carradine) as speculating that a ladyboy was involved in the Hollywood actor’s death.

To strengthen his point, Ebner cited Gary Stretch, a British actor, as saying: “A big thing here in Bangkok is that, especially the lady-boys, they’ll go back to your hotel, put something in your drink and then rob you.”

To probe the ladyboy killer angle, Ebner cruised Bangkok’s Nana red light district where he met “a striking-looking child bride” who for 10,000 baht (about RM1,000) “will come back to my hotel, tie me up, choke me and stay the night”.

Instead of cruising Nana, if the writer visited Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) or Thonglor (where the trendy hang out) he would have seen a less clichéd Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on October 3, 2009)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Newin's star rises anew

Thai Takes

ON MONDAY, political pundits in Thailand closely followed the live telecast of the Supreme Court delivering its verdict on the so-called 1.44 billion baht (RM149mil) rubber-sapling corruption case.

A guilty verdict in the case – which involved poor quality saplings, delayed delivery, bid rigging and fraud in a project launched in 2003 during the Thaksin Shinawatra administration – could rock Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s wobbly nine-month-old coalition government.

And as predicted by a defendant (who said he had already received a “signal”), the Supreme Court acquitted the 44 defendants of corruption and malfeasance charges arising from the rubber sapling procurement deal.

Interestingly, even though the other defendants included notable personalities such as former deputy prime minister Somkid Jatusripitak, former commerce minister Adisai Bodharamik and former deputy finance minister Varathep Ratanakorn, all eyes were on Newin Chidchob.

Newin, deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister at the time of the alleged offences, was so cocksure the court would find him innocent that his political party had planned a victory banquet ahead of the verdict.

The 51-year-old political playmaker was a former Thaksin loyalist. He and about two dozen People’s Power Party (PPP) MPs left and formed Bhum Jai Thai after the court dissolved PPP, the then ruling party. This betrayal enabled Abhisit, the Democrat Party leader, to cobble together a seven-party coalition government in December last year.

The not guilty verdict is seen by the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporters as part of the deal to secure Newin’s betrayal. Another alleged deal was Bhum Jai Thai taking control of the influential and lucrative ministries of Transport, Interior (which oversees the Royal Thai Police) and Commerce in Abhisit’s government.

The media reported that Newin was “choked with emotion” following the verdict. He also pledged to “protect the monarchy until my last breath”.

Tulsathit Taptim, The Nation editor, cheekily described Newin’s emotional state as sounding “like a thankful man who didn’t quite know whom to thank”.

“The Democrats must be the ones who don’t quite know how to feel. A guilty verdict would have put Newin in jail, but here’s a man you would rather have on your side when playing politics,” Tulsathit wrote on Tuesday.

“A wounded Newin is highly dangerous and unpredictable. At a normal time, Abhisit would have been happy to have an angry Newin manipulate things from behind bars, but now the Democrat leader should be content with a relieved Newin trying to fulfil his ambitions (to make Bhum Jai Thai a political force to be reckoned in the next election).”

Now that the rubber sapling case is over and done with, political pundits are predicting that Newin’s political career will be on the rise.

“The most significant acquittal is that of Newin, the de facto boss of Bhum Jai Thai. With the noose loosened, Newin is considered the most powerful broker in Thai politics today,” Suranand Vejjajiva, Newin’s former Cabinet colleague in the Thaksin government, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“Although Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary-general of the ruling Democrats as well as deputy PM and government ‘manager’, remains in charge of the present political coordination game, he will have to make way somewhat for Newin.”

Suranand, now a political analyst, continued: “Suthep has even grudgingly admitted that without Newin, the Democrats would not have been able to form the government and Abhisit would not have become prime minister. ‘Without him (Newin), we cannot stay (in power),’ Suthep once remarked.”

But there is still one more rope around Newin’s neck. He – together with 110 Thai Rak Thai (the pro-Thaksin party which was disbanded after the 2006 coup) politicians, including Thaksin and Suranand – have been banned from politics for five years.

But, sooner or later the man whose father (Chai Chidchob, the Thai parliament Speaker) named him for the Burmese leader Ne Win will overcome that hurdle, too.

Newin, who has survived several political pitfalls, is known as the cat with nine lives.

Two days after the Sept 19, 2006, coup which ousted Thaksin, the military detained Newin for 10 days. On the last day of detention, he claimed he was forced to strip down to his underwear.

That was then. Now Newin is seen as the man who could be Prime Minister.

(Published in The Star on September 26, 2009)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The naked truth

Thai Takes

IT IS a sight not many in Thailand will want to see. Thai Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has promised to strip naked if there is a coup today, the third anniversary of the military overthrow of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“I am in charge of security affairs and I have heard of nobody planning a coup. If there is a coup, I will walk naked (as I) step down. I believe no groups (in the military) want to stage a coup now,” Suthep told journalists recently.

No coup, says the confident deputy prime minister. And yet his boss, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) to bar protesters from Bangkok’s historic Dusit district (where Dusit Palace, the Prime Minister’s office and parliament are located) from yesterday until Tuesday.

Abhisit justified the use of the ISA to give the military a key role in maintaining law and order, saying a “third hand” may turn today’s street rally by thousands of pro-Thaksin Red Shirts protesters to mark the anniversary of the 2006 coup into a blood bath.

Pitch Pongsawat, who teaches political science in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, laughs when told about Suthep’s pledge.

“There’ll be no coup for sure this Saturday,” he says. “What has happened now is a self coup.”

“In a sense, when (the Abhisit government) invoked the ISA, the government is preventing people from exercising their right (to protest), which is backed by the constitution. And (Abhisit) has allowed the military to intervene in domestic politics.”

The military has no business getting involved in domestic politics, he added.

The naked truth about the invocation of the ISA, according to Pitch, is that it is a preemptive strike.

In announcing that it wants to prevent a recurrence of the April riots (allegedly) by the Red Shirts, the government is using psychological warfare to discourage Red Shirt supporters (mostly from outside of Bangkok) from converging onto the Thai capital to protest against the Abhisit-led government, the academic explains.

Yesterday morning, the military and police installed concrete slabs and iron barricades around Government House (the Prime Minister’s office) in Bangkok in preparation for today’s protest which the Red Shirts leaders promised would be peaceful and “without weapons”.

Yesterday was the second time the ISA was invoked against the Red Shirts. The first was on Aug 29. But the pro-Thaksin movement – in a cat and mouse game with the government – cancelled its street rally and embarassed Abhisit (for jumping the gun).

“Now it is going to be the norm for the government – as long as they have the support of the Bangkok middle class – to invoke the ISA whenever the Red Shirts plan a street protest,” notes Pitch.

The academic questions whether the government will dare invoke the ISA if the Yellow Shirts (an anti-Thaksin movement) plan a street protest.

“Probably not. If they announce they’d use this law on the Yellow Shirts, more (Bangkokians) will pour into the streets,” he says.

Asked why Thailand is still mired in political turmoil three years after the “happy coup”, Pitch says there are two theories.

“One theory says it is because Thaksin has not stopped intervening in the post-coup process,” he explains. “The second says that the coup cannot change the deep structural problem in Thailand – poverty.

“With income disparity in this country, there is a possibility that certain capitalists can capture the heart of the (poor) people and rework (the current elite) alignment.”

Does Pitch wants to see Suthep naked? After a long pause, the academic says figuratively: “I’ve seen Suthep naked and I’m sick of it.”

“He’s already naked. The military has (launched several ‘silent’ coups in the last three years). For example, the government declared a state of emergency to allow the military to crack down on the Red Shirts protest during Songkran (Thai new year in April this year).”

Will there be a coup today?

Surely, the threat of Suthep stripping naked is enough to convince army chief General Anupong Paochinda not to launch a coup.

“Being an international pariah is one thing,” comments Bangkok Pundit, in his Thai political blog on Wednesday, “but having to see Suthep in all his glory will just be too much ....”

(Published in The Star on September 19, 2009)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Payback time for Abhisit

Thai Takes

NOW that Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has shifted the national police chief to a desk job, Thais are speculating what the Defence Minister, who is the top cop’s big brother, will do next.

The talk is Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan is disgruntled with Abhisit’s decision to cold storage General Patcharawat Wongsuwan after the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) ruled on Monday that Patcharawat violated criminal law during a police crackdown on the anti-Thaksin Shinawatra People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) which besieged parliament in October 2008.

On Thursday, quoting a close aide to Prawit, the Bangkok Post reported that the Defence Minister was “shaken by the transfer order and took the matter personally”.

Big brother Prawit’s unhappiness with Abhisit “mistreatment” of his younger brother has raised question marks over the stability of the prime minister’s coalition government.

However, Prawit denied on Thursday he would quit his defence portfolio, saying the government and armed forces were still on good terms.

Like a lakorn (Thai for soap opera) plot, the saga of the Thai police chief has countless twists.

The anti-graft ruling was the latest pretext Abhisit needed to get rid of Patcharawat.

In early August, Abhisit ordered the police chief to go on holiday in China so he could appoint an acting police chief.

However, Patcharawat turned up unexpectedly on Aug 8 and reclaimed his post.

Subsequently, the prime minister re-assigned Patcharawat to Thailand’s restive southern provinces on a mission and Wichien was reappointed acting police chief.

Despite Abhisit’s efforts to banish him, on Aug 20, Patcharawat, who is 60 and due for compulsory retirement at the end of this month, still managed to be part of the 11-man police commission to decide on his replacement.

On that Thursday, the prime minister started the day confidently, assuming that Prateep Tunprasert, his choice for national police chief, would be endorsed by the commission which he chaired.

It turned out that the commission rejected his choice by a five to four vote (with two abstentions, including Abhisit’s), which the Thai media described as a “big slap in the face” for the prime minister.

“Political pundits are in agreement that Abhisit’s failure to get his nominee for the police chief position endorsed by the Royal Thai Police board was a slap in the face,” wrote Atiya Achakilwisut of the Bangkok Post.

“What the analysts have not yet decided, however, is how much should the humiliation hurt. Some said it should hurt like a House dissolution. Others believe it to be more of a personal pain, at the level of a PM’s resignation.

“And there are some others, like members of the PM’s own Democrat party, who say the jab was unexpected but it would cause no tangible damage to the PM’s handsome face.”

Then came Abhisit’s payback.

“It is believed the government was keen to push Patcharawat out of the picture so Abhisit could have his own way in nominating (his man) to the top post,” wrote Nattaya Chetchotiros in the Bangkok Post on Thursday.

“Patcharawat was among the Police Commission members who rejected the prime minister’s nomination of Prateep. His vote was interpreted as scoffing at Abhisit’s authority, whose leadership was seen weakened by the episode of the selection of the new police chief.”

On Wednesday, hours after Abhisit transferred him to an inactive post at the prime minister’s office, Patcharawat handed his resignation to the prime minister.

The police chief’s resignation and the NACC decision to implicate him in the Oct 7, 2008, crackdown come days before the third anniversary of the Sept 19 2006 coup to overthrow Thaksin.

“It has been widely interpreted that the ruling against Patcharawat will prompt the police to go further into ‘neutral gear’ especially when it comes to their response to protests and riots because they could go to jail for performing their duty,” noted Nattaya of the Bangkok Post.

The pro-Thaksin Red Shirt supporters plan a massive street protest on Sept 19 to mark the third anniversary of the coup.

On that day, it will be seen whether the police will be “committed” to keep law and order. Or, will the men in uniform shift into neutral gear?

(Published in The Star on September 12, 2009)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Discussing the unspoken

Thai Takes

ON TUESDAY, in a packed conference hall at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, a panel of academics spoke about Thailand’s unspoken.

“We’re going to discuss what is unspoken in Thailand – the sensitive topic of the role of Thai military in politics,” said Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) director Thitinan Pongsudhirak in his opening remarks before the start of a public forum entitled The Military in Thai Politics: What’s Next?

Since the 1932 coup which ended absolute monarchy, the military has been a major player in Thai politics, noted Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow in political science at Germany’s University of Heidelberg.

“There have, however, been but three brief respites from dominant military clout: 1944-47; 1973-76; 1992-95,” wrote the academic, who presented a 101-page paper, U-Turn to the Past? The Resurgence of the Military in Contemporary Thai Politics.

According to Chambers, in 1992, following the bloody Black May massacre, the military was at its lowest point in terms of support from the public and palace.

“Fallout from Black May 1992 represented a massive discrediting of the armed forces in Thai society,” he said, referring to street protests in Bangkok from May 17 to 20, 1992, against the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon that climaxed in a bloody military crackdown.

Then came Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) landslide victory in the 2001 general election.

Prime Minister Thaksin cemented his political grip in the 2005 general election when TRT became the only party to win an outright majority in Thai political history.

“Given the implementation of the 1997 constitution and the 2001-06 dominance of civilian strongman Thaksin across Thailand, civilian control of the military perhaps grew to its highest levels in Thai history,” noted Chambers.

On Sept 19, 2006, the military reversed its loss of political power.

Army Commander Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin launched a coup against Thaksin and established a military government (the first in 15 years).

“The takeover immediately enhanced the role of soldiers in domestic politics,” noted Chambers.

However, the result of the December 2007 general election put a spanner in the military’s plan to dominate politics.

The People’s Power Party (PPP) was voted into power.

“The post-2006 coup military leadership was clearly unhappy with the electoral results – which brought a pro-Thaksin government back to office,” observed the academic.

But the military could not stage a conventional coup d’etat.

“The coup and military government that followed it had been mostly unpopular both domestically and internationally. At the same time, damaging events which occurred under the (military) regime (which failed to solve any political or economic problems) caused the armed forces to be seen in an increasingly negative light,” explained Chambers.

Instead of an outright takeover, the military took a back seat to those opposed to Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s government and indirectly influenced the dismantling of PPP.

According to Chambers, this was done in three moves.

First, the armed forces put little effort into protecting Samak’s government (and later that of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat) from unruly yellow-shirted crowds which occupied the prime minister’s office, besieged parliament and seized two international airports in Bangkok.

Second, the military at least twice called on Prime Minister Somchai to resign. (In an episode dubbed the TV Coup, army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – appeared on television to demand Somchai’s resignation.)

Third, in mid-December 2008, the military indirectly engineered the formation of the anti-Thaksin coalition government of Democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Currently, according to Chambers, the military has found a perfect niche.

“Counselled by (General) Prem (Tinsulanonda, who is a chief adviser to the Thai King and a former prime minister and army commander), working behind the scenes with the generally compliant Abhisit government, and strengthened by the (military-drafted) 2007 constitution, the military has made a U-turn back to 1991 to become Thailand’s crucial clandestine political player,” he wrote.

But the armed forces have an even better deal than the soldiers of 30 years ago.

“They have learned from experience that direct governance will only create negative perceptions of them from society,” the academic explained.

“Instead, indirect domination of civilian governments allows them to augment their autonomy from civilian authority.”

(Published in The Star on September 5, 2009)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Embattled Abhisit pulls out the plug


IF YOU are planning to visit Bangkok’s historic Dusit district (where Dusit Palace, the Prime Minister’s office and parliament are located) tomorrow, think again.

But if you want to experience a Thai-style protest then make your way there. It’s the Thai capital’s epicenter for political turmoil.

The pro-Thaksin Shinawatra Red Shirts are organising a massive street rally there with a double message: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, don’t stall the petition for a royal pardon for Thaksin, and please dissolve parliament.

Sunday’s rally comes two weeks after more than 20,000 Red Shirts marched to the royal offices in Bangkok’s Grand Palace to submit their petition (signed by at least 3.5 million Thais).

They were seeking a royal pardon for Thaksin, who was convicted last year over the sale of government-owned land in Bangkok to his then wife Potjaman (whom he divorced last year).

That much hyped street march, which Thai authorities feared could turn into a bloody mayhem, was peaceful albeit theatrical – the petition was packed in 383 boxes wrapped in red cloth.

But for tomorrow’s rally, Abhisit is not taking any chances.

On Tuesday, the Thai Cabinet invoked the Internal Security Act (ISA) that suspends civil rights and puts the military in charge of law and order. The law, effective from today to Tuesday, is limited to the Dusit district.

“Although the protesters have said the rally will not be violent (like during Songkran in April this year, which saw Thailand’s worst street violence in 17 years), we cannot remain complacent,” Abhisit said in explaining his government’s decision to invoke the ISA.

“A third party might step in to take advantage of the situation. Accidents can happen.”

On Wednesday, Veera Musikhapong, a Red Shirt leader, told a press conference that the anti-government demonstration would not be protracted despite government fears.

“The rally will be peaceful, without weapons ... and after submitting a letter calling for the dissolution of the House and a general election the Red Shirts will disperse peacefully,” he said.

Against such words, Abhisit’s measure looks like an overkill.

The Bangkok Post described it as a “security lockdown” where 3,500 soldiers and 1,950 policemen would be deployed to ensure no public gatherings at Dusit Palace, Government House (the Prime Minister’s office) and Parliament.

At Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Tourism and Sports Minister Chumpol Silpa-archa expressed concern that enforcement of the law would affect tourism.

And the prime minister’s decision to invoke the ISA raises the question whether Abhisit is afraid of shadows.

“Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is facing fear,” Suranand Vejjajiva, who is a former minister in Thaksin’s Cabinet and also Abhisit’s cousin, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

“Whether he will become a victim of his own nightmare, or controller of fear and able to utilise it as a political tool, remains to be seen.

“But suspicions arose when he decided to invoke the Internal Security Act through a Cabinet resolution earlier in the week, and the government’s actions so far during the past seven months have been one of reacting to whatever ousted ex-PM Thaksin is doing.”

Suranand, who is a political analyst, continued: “The question everybody’s asking now is: Is there a real threat to stability? Are the anti-government protesters going to resort to violence, which they are being accused of already?

“The general feeling is that the rally’s objective is to further the psychological warfare the Red Shirts and Thaksin are waging. It is designed to crank up pressure on a weakened prime minister and his coalition government.”

To ratchet up the Red Shirts’ill-feeling towards the Abhisit-led government, an allegedly doctored audio clip of Abhisit’s voice has surfaced. The voice – which sounded like Abhisit’s – ordered officials to use force against the Red Shirts during the Songkran riots in April.

“I have listened to the clip, and it is definitely an edited clip because I had never given out such order,” Abhisit said on Thursday.

Jatuporn Prompan, a Red Shirt core leader, said the prime minister and his Cabinet should resign if the clip (which he described as sounding authentic, as the speech was so smooth) was indeed genuine.

If the street rally turns ugly tomorrow, Abhisit could be forced to order the use of force.

(Published in The Star on August 29, 2009)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

‘Dr Death’ surprised by call from M’sia

Thai Takes

TWO days after the death of Teoh Beng Hock, Thailand’s Dr Death received a phone call from Malaysia. The caller, Tricia Yeoh, who is Selangor Mentri Besar’s research officer, asked Central Institute of Forensic Science director-general Porntip Rojanasunan to help in the investigation of Teoh’s mysterious death on July 16.

“I felt the request was strange as I thought I was only popular in Thailand,” recalled the forensic expert dubbed Dr Death by the Thai Media.

It was only the second time a foreign country had sought the expertise of the forensic expert featured in a 2004 National Geographic documentary titled Crime Scene Bangkok.

The first was three years ago when she was asked to conduct second autopsy on bodies buried in Aceh, Indonesia.

“I was told that they (Selangor government) wanted an independent pathologist as they did not believe in the transparency of the government service … just like in Thailand,” said the flamboyant 54-year-old independent-minded examiner, in reference to the opaque Thai police and Thai forensic experts she constantly contradicted throughout her career.

Porntip agreed to the request after receiving the green light from her boss, the Ministry of Justice permanent secretary.

“I was asked about my professional fee. But I said no. I work for the Government and if there is any payment it should be government to government,” explained Porntip, who sported a multi-coloured retro-punk hairstyle and wore jeans and Dr Martens boots during the interview conducted at her office in Nonthaburi near Bangkok.

However, Porntip could not be in Shah Alam for Teoh’s inquest as she had to be in Bangkok to fight for her institute’s budget.

So she asked the Selangor government to send her the autopsy report and photographs of crime scene and the victim. And she suggested points that could be used to question the Malaysian pathologists.

She also dispatched two staff – a forensic doctor and a crime scene investigator – to attend the inquest.

“They’ve returned and from their report, I have an idea on what happened (to Teoh),” she said.

Depending on her busy schedule, Porntip said she would personally deliver her finding at the inquest early September.

The forensic expert was clueless that the case was a controversy in Malaysia.

“I agreed to help because it is my duty to help,” said the devout Buddhist.

She only found out about it when she met Kuala Lumpur-based Thai Embassy officials during the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) visit to southern Thailand early this month.

“The officials asked me about the case. And I asked ‘how do you know that I’m involved?’ And they said it was a popular case and the newspapers had reported about my involvement,” she said, adding that these officials told her it involved a conflict between opposing political parties.

Porntip is no stranger to controversy.

Her recent brush with controversy was during the inquest of the death of 72-year-old Hollywood actor David Carradine on June 3 in Bangkok.

Her critics slammed her for speaking about the cause of Carradine’s mysterious death.

“I was not involved in the investigation (as it happened in Bangkok which is outside her area of responsibility). But the Thai media wanted to get academic information on what could have happened to Carradine,” she explained.

From the information she received, Porntip concluded that it was not suicide or murder.

“I told the Thai media that it might be an accident. And they asked me how. So I had to explain auto-erotic asphyxiation to them as it is something not usual in our society,” she explained.

Porntip is familiar with auto-erotic asphyxiation as she has personally three such cases involving farangs (Thai for Westerners) in provinces close to Bangkok.

Her first involvement was three years ago. A naked farang was found dead in his bedroom. The man’s hands were tied to the pole of bed and a plastic bag covered his head.

“When I saw the body, it looked like something from my textbook on auto-erotic asphyxiation. It was an interesting case as it is not often for me to see such case in real life,” she said.

On why the Thai police have not released the result of Carradine’s investigation, the outspoken forensic expert said: “they will not announce it as their conclusion will confirm my conclusion.”

(Published in The Star on August 22, 2009)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Living with ‘time bombs’

Thai Takes

IT IS business as usual for Jirayu Tulyanond, a staff member of the Thai Finance Minister, on Monday.

He has several tasks on his to-do list that include planning for Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij’s visit to Thailand’s north-east, attending a meeting on land and property tax, strategising the launch of Thai Khem Kaeng (Thailand – invest for strength) – a 1.5 trillion baht (RM155bil) programme to create two million jobs in three years.

Not on Jirayu’s to-do list, however, is fret over speculation that something big (perhaps a riot or a coup) will erupt in Bangkok on Aug 17.

According to The Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon in his blog, “several po-litical time-bombs are ready to explode in the next week or so – some of which could be defused by (Prime Minister) Abhisit (Vejjajiva), but there are others that could spin out of control”.

And Suthichai listed three “time bombs”.

On Monday, the Red Shirts will file a petition with five million signatures to seek royal pardon for self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra who had been convicted of corruption.

The Nation editorialised that the event is designed to repeat the Red Shirts’ attempt at a People’s Revolution on Songkran Day of April 13, 2009.

“One that day, however, they failed to ignite violence on the streets to the point that would allow a military intervention. The blue camp (aligned to Newin Chidchob) was subdued.”

The editorial continued: “Subsequently, the red-shirted protesters were quashed from the streets. Now they are re-grouping and planning another attack or another attempt at the People’s Revolution for the benefit of one individual.”

On Monday too, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions will rule in the 1.44 billion baht (RM149mil) rubber saplings corruption case involving 44 defendants who were former ministers and senior officials in Thaksin’s government.

One of them is Newin, a Thaksin loyalist who betrayed his boss when he formed Bhum Jai Thai Party to enable Abhisit to cobble up a seven-party coalition government in December last year.

Newin recently denied an allegation that the Bhum Jai Thai Party launched a campaign by collecting millions of signatures to oppose the Red Shirt’s royal petition in an attempt to influence the court in the rubber saplings corruption case.

If Newin was found not guilty, doomsayers predict that the Red Shirts and the Blue Shirts would clash on Monday.

Suthichai’s third “time bomb” is the unfinished affair related to Thai national police chief Patcharawat Wongsuwan. Sondhi Limthongkul, the co-leader of the Yellow Shirts, alleged that Patcharawat had obstructed investigation into the assassination attempt on Sondhi.

Subsequently, Abhisit ordered the police chief (who will be retiring in September) to go for a holiday in China and the prime minister appointed Wichien Pojphosri as the acting police chief.

On Aug 8, Patcharawat suddenly returned from his Chinese holiday and reclaimed his post. Then Abhisit announced that Patcharawat was re-assigned to the Thailand’s restive southern provinces for a mission and Wichien was reappointed acting police chief.

The snub to Patcharawat, conspiracy theorists believe, might lead to a volatile situation as the police chief’s older brother, Prawit, is the Defence Minister. They speculate that the two brothers (and other politicians and men in uniform) might conspire to bring down Abhisit’s coalition government.

I asked Jirayu why he was unfettered about speculations of a coup or a riot on Monday.

“Life goes on for the policy-makers. The petition is another attempt by Thaksin to drum up interest and excitement for his case,” he explained.

Monday, according to Jirayu, would be a non-event just like the promised “big surprise” announcement on Thaksin’s recent birthday. “The big surprise was him opening Twitter and Facebook accounts,” he said.

“From my perspective, the government is seven and a half months in power. It still has the support of its coalition partners and important segments of society such as the bureaucracy, business community and military.”

In a posting titled Mark Your Calendars, Mr Wrigley, an anonymous blogger covering Thai politics and economy in, on Thursday wrote: “August 17th – Petition and Newin Verdict. Could be something or nothing.”

Although Mr Wrigley was more inclined to “nothing”, he cautioned: “It’s Thailand, so always keep you umbrella open for the rain”.

(Published in The Star on August 15, 2009)

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Meet Thailand's sexiest actress


GUESS what Thailand’s sexiest actress doesn’t see when she looks at herself in the mirror naked? Sexiness.

Araya “Chompoo” Hartgett, a 28-year-old lakorn (Thai for soap opera) star, confesses that she is oblivious to her sex appeal.

“I’ve been with myself for 28 years. I take a shower, look at myself in the mirror naked – I don’t know ... I am used to it,” she explains.

“It would be kind of crazy if I said ‘ah, I’m kind of sexy’ while looking at the mirror.”

The readers of FHM, a men’s entertainment magazine, would definitely disagree with Chompoo’s assessment. They voted her Thailand’s sexiest woman in 2007 and sexiest actress in 2008 and 2009. The sexy actress’ nickname is Chompoo (which means rose apple in Thai) because she was very pinkish when born.

She’s a luk kreung (literally half child, a person who is half-Thai, half-European). Her mother is Thai and her father is British.

Eleven years ago, a lakorn scriptwriter approached the then 17-year-old Chompoo, who was doing a bit of modelling, because her production company was looking for a main actress who was half-Thai, half-European.

She told Chompoo that she had heard from her friend that she was good looking and asked her to cast for a lakorn. Immediately after casting (where she acted out a script), Channel 7 (a Thai TV station) signed her up under a five-year contract.

Her first role was that of a nang ek (Thai for heroine) in Pleng Prai (Brilliant Song). And that character – which Chompoo describes as “the good girl who ends up with the good guy” – stuck throughout her acting career.

However, last year Chompoo starred in a dream role – the bad girl. (Like the nang ek, a bad female character is a must in a lakorn. The bad girl will do anything to prevent the nang ek from getting the good guy.)

But she was taking a career-breaking risk. She feared a backlash from her fan base.

“When you’ve been acting the good girl for 10 years it is hard to switch because you wouldn’t know whether your fans would accept you (as a bad girl),” she explains.

Thai soap opera fans obsessively love the nang ek character and fanatically hate the bad girl.

“When fans talk about the good girl, they will refer to her as ‘she’. But when they talk about the bad girl, they will say ‘it or that one’,” she explains.

Playing the bad girl also has financial disadvantages. Actresses playing the villain rarely get offers to do commercials.

In Dao Pbeuan Din (Dirty Star) Chompoo played a bad girl who was jealous of the nang ek. Her character schemed to take everything – wealth, family, boyfriend – from the heroine.

“It went as far as my character killing many people. But in the end – of course – I was punished. I was raped by about 10 men and I went crazy in the end,” she relates. The censor board, however, cut the rape scene.

“I was so mad, as (filming the rape scene) took a day. And I spent lots of energy. Imagine me fighting with 10 guys,” she explains.

And viewers who did not see the censored scene wondered why Chompoo’s character suddenly went mad.

Chompoo’s decision to act the antithesis role paid off. She won Thailand’s Golden Television Award for best actress for her bitchy role in Dao Pbeuan Din. And the actress, who has appeared in commercials for Samsung, Ponds and Wrigley’s, did not lose any contracts.

Early this year, there was a juicy soosip (Thai for gossip) that a politician offered to pay Chompoo to have dinner with him. There was no politician, the actress clarified, but two different CEOs.

“A CEO contacted my manager asking if I would like to do a job – sit down with him for dinner and entertain him – and how much would I ask for,” she relates.

Unclear of the job specification, Chompoo declined.

“I don’t know what he expected. Maybe he wanted to know me better, but he did not have the opportunity. And he thought money can give him that opportunity,” she added.

The CEO should know that in real life Chompoo is a good girl.

(Published in The Star on August 8, 2009)

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Satun, Thailand's tamed south

Thai Takes

HAMZAH Desa, a 42-year-old Thai Muslim, sits cross-legged on the veranda of his one-room wooden house in Kampung Che Bilang in Satun, a Muslim-majority province in southern Thailand.

It’s a typical Sunday afternoon in his village. A handful of villagers wearing tudung (a Muslim headscarf) are buying som tam (papaya salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken) from a street vendor.

“Look at them. The seller is a Chinese Buddhist and the buyers are Malay Muslims,” Hamzah, a community development officer for Kampung Che Bilang, says in Malay laced with a thick Kedah accent.

“That is a sight that is difficult to find in Pattani (a region consisting of three Muslim-dominated provinces — Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani — on the eastern seaboard of the Isthmus of Kra).”

Hamzah then points to the grocery store next door owned by his neighbour, Bunleur Karnsannok, a 62-year-old Chinese Buddhist, as an example of how Buddhists and Muslims in Satun province live side-by-side harmoniously.

“We are like adik-beradik (siblings). When it is Hari Raya Aidilfitri, a Muslim festival to mark the end of the fasting month, we will give Bunleur’s family cakes; when it is Chinese New Year, his family will give us cakes,” he says.

“We are all the same,” echoes the grocery store owner who has lived in the village for 40 years.

The adik-beradik relationship between Muslims and Buddhists in Satun province is in sharp contrast to Pattani region where a separatist-related unrest has killed more than 3,700 people — Buddhists and Muslims — since January 2004.

Satun province, adjacent to Kedah and Perlis, was once part of the Kedah Sultanate.

In a 1909 treaty, the British and Siamese authorities split the northernmost Malay regions of Pattani, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah.

The Siamese secured Pattani and a section of Kedah (now Satun) while the British took Kelantan, Trengganu and most parts of Kedah.

Satun’s provincial capital is called Satun (pronounced “S-toon”), which is approximately 973km southwest of Bangkok. About 70% of its 280,000 population is Malay Muslim.

Pattani Muslims and Satun Muslims have different aspirations, notes tudung-clad Siti Hajar Sasen, who lives in Kampung Che Bilang which, if not for the som tam and gai yang vendor, you would think is a village in Kedah.

The 27-year-old homemaker is married to a 50-year-old Malaysian who owns a halal restaurant in Satun town and exports fish from Ranong in Thailand to Kuala Perlis in Malaysia.

“(The Pattani Malays) want to be separated from Thailand, while we want to live harmoniously with the other communities,” she explains. “We only want peace; fighting against the Thai government will not be good for business.”

Economically, the local population in Satun has benefited from the absence of inter-communal tensions.

Its per capita income is roughly 50% higher than Pattani’s which sees killings related to the separatist movement almost every day.

Siti Hajar acknowledges that she’s comfortable in the Buddhist-dominated kingdom.

“If a Muslim wants to do business and become a millionaire, the government will not interfere. If Muslims want to build a mosque, the government will not interfere. What else do I want?” she said.

Ali Man, a 75-year-old respected Muslim religious leader in Kampung Che Bilang, shares the same sentiment.

“Although we are a minority in Thailand, when we apply for land the Thai government does not care whether you are Muslim or Buddhist,” says Ali, who was dressed in a Baju Melayu, a gift from his brother, a Malaysian living in Kuala Lumpur.

Ali smiles when asked whether he owned huge swathe of rubber plantation. “Alhamdulillah (Praise to God),” he says, “I’m thankful the government does not discriminate.”

There’s also no discrimination in Kampung Che Bilang, according to Hamzah. “Although we form the majority (90% of the 500 households in this village), we don’t force our religious views on the others,” he says.

For example, the Kampung Che Bilang community development committee allows non-Muslims to drink alcohol publicly in a designated zone in the village which has a dockyard serving farang (Western) boat owners.

Does Hamzah wish Satun province was still part of Kedah?

“That is history. In a blink of an eye, my ancestors became Thai,” he says.

“I don’t regret it. When I was born, I was a Thai.”

(Published in The Star on August 1, 2009)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Birthday 'surprise' keeps them guessing

Thai Takes

GUESS whose birthday it is tomorrow? Here are some hints. He is a Thai politician who advocates populist policies. And he is adored by half of Thailand’s population.

No, it is not Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

If you were a Thai political watcher, you would have known that Thaksin Shinawatra would be 60 tomorrow. But what you probably wouldn’t know is Thaksin’s “big surprise” to be announced on his birthday.

On Tuesday, Puea Thai MP Pracha Prasopdee said the self-exiled former prime minister would make a big announcement on his birthday which would surprise the Democrat-led coalition government.

Since Pracha’s revelation, Thais on both sides of the political divide – pro- and anti-Thaksin, Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts – have been speculating on Thaksin’s “big surprise”.

Even Thaksin’s lawyer, Noppadon Pattama, a former Foreign Minister, claimed he was clueless about his client’s announcement even after asking Thaksin’s aides: Thaksin’s classmate General Sumeth Phomanee, Thaksin’s cousin General Chaisit Shinawatra and Thaksin’s younger sister Yaowaret Wongsawat.

The lawyer, however, is certain that the “big surprise” will not be Thaksin’s plan to give 6,000 scholarships.

The billionaire politician had called from Dubai on Tuesday and told his red shirted supporters that Thai students could apply for birthday presents from him by submitting an essay on the topic “Thailand as I dream to see” to his Thaicom Foundation.

“I really doubt whether Abhisit will have the brains to keep up with my move,” The Nation reported Thaksin as having said.

The government claimed it had no interest in Thaksin’s birthday plans.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, secretary general of the Democrat Party, said he was not interested in anything Thaksin might say or do.

Prime Minister Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey said the former prime minister had announced his plan for a “big surprise” because he was fearful Thais would forget him as Abhisit’s popularity had risen after his visit to Buri Ram province in Thaksin’s stronghold in Thailand’s northeast.

However, Suranand Vejjajiva, a political analyst who once served in Thaksin’s Cabinet, wrote in the Bangkok Post yesterday:

“No one knows what this will be, but in waiting for him to tell us, he already has our attention – the most important factor in an effective communications stratagem.

“And it could not have come at a better time. The government of PM Abhisit is now considerably weakened, literally ‘sick with the flu’ and unable to cope with mounting crises.”

So what is Thaksin’s “big surprise”?

Suriyasai Katasila, the secretary general of New Politics Party (the political party of the yellow shirted movement), predicted that Thaksin would declare he would end his political activities after the Red Shirts submit their petition (signed by a million Thais) seeking a royal pardon for the former premier who had been convicted of corruption.

Tulsathit Taptim wrote that theory number seven in The Nation’s newsroom was: “He will become a monk. (We hope this doesn’t happen because the last time an ousted leader in exile took up the saffron robes, it triggered one of the blackest chapters in Thai history.)”

Blogger Meaw & More ( blogged that the self-exiled Thaksin would appear in a hologram for his birthday party.

His prediction is similar to Tulsatit’s theory Number two, which was: “There will be a jaw-dropping state-of-the-art video linkage that will make his well-wishers feel as if he were ‘there’ in person. (Imagine Princess Leia in Star Wars being beamed up for Luke Skywalker by R2-D2.)”

Veera Prateepchaikul, an editor with the Bangkok Post, sarcastically suggested that Thaksin would announce his return to Thailand to face justice.

“Now that would certainly make a front-page banner headline in all newspapers the next morning,” he wrote.

What is definite tomorrow is thousands of pro-Thaksin supporters will be wearing red (a colour associated with the anti-Abhisit government movement) in celebrations across Thailand, while anti-Thaksin protesters will mourn his birthday by wearing black.

A cyberspace campaign, which started as a tweets (July 26, wear black throughout the country), urged Thais to wear funeral black to protest against Thaksin’s birthday celebration.

Guess whose birthday it is on Aug 3? Here are some hints. He is a Thai politician adored by half of Thailand’s population. And he advocates populist policies.

He is Abhisit. I wonder if he, too, would announce a “big surprise” on his birthday.

(Published in The Star on July 25, 2009)