Saturday, May 30, 2009

A new colour in Thai politics


IF YOU had ever wanted to slap Sondhi Limthongkul, the co-leader of the yellow-shirted movement that gained international notoriety when it shut down Bangkok’s two airports last year, now’s your chance.

“Slap my face with your shoes if one day I take any political position,” Sondhi was quoted by The Nation, a Thai English-language newspaper, as having said when the PAD (or People’s Alliance for Democracy as the yellow-shirted movement is officially called) was protesting against the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

On Monday night, at a sports stadium near Bangkok, tens of thousands of PAD supporters unanimously voted (by standing up, clapping their hands and cheering loudly for two minutes) to set up a political party.

PAD co-founder and former Bangkok governor Chamlong Sri­muang, said the movement initially did not have any intention to become a political party.

But, he added, it could no longer tolerate the old political system after a group of politicians wanted to amend the military-drafted 2007 constitution for their own personal gain.

The PAD is not only reversing its promise not to accept any political position, but is also changing its trademark colour.

On May 24, at its first general assembly, the PAD announced it was changing from yellow (marking its support for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose birthday colour is yellow) to yellow and green.

“Green represents a pollution-free environment and clean politics,” Sondhi, who survived an assassination attempt on April 17, told the yellow-clad crowd.

“Yellow is the colour of His Majesty the King.”

In 2006, controversial media mogul Sondhi launched the PAD to oppose his former pal Thaksin, then the prime minister. Its massive street protests paved the way for the military to oust Thaksin in a September 2006 coup.

The yellow-shirted protesters returned to the streets last year after the pro-Thaksin People Power Party won the December 2007 election.

Through a 193-day street protest (that included the seizure of the prime minister’s office and two airports in Bangkok) it was instrumental in toppling two prime ministers aligned to Thaksin.

The movement’s decision to enter the electoral fray is “undoubtedly a plus for Thailand’s overall political climate”, opined M.L. Nattakorn Devakula, a news analyst at Newsline, a Thai television programme.

“It certainly is a breath of fresh air in that it will no longer be out on the streets in such an active fashion as in the past,” he said in an e-mail.

The PAD will be a force to be reckoned with in Thai politics, noted Nattakorn.

“What the yellow-clad movement has been able to accomplish in the past is indeed proof that its leadership and organisation cannot be underestimated,” he noted.

The PAD also has two influential media outlets (both owned by Sondhi) – ASTV (a satellite television channel obsessively watched by millions) and (a highly popular news website in Thailand).

“Through these media outlets, and perhaps a supporting cast of all newspapers and websites under the Nation Multimedia Group PLC, the PAD will be able to campaign vigorously and effectively as a political party,” he noted.

“Because of this, expect them to garner quite a popular mass following.”

In the short term, according to Nattakorn, the new party (which is still yet to be named) will eat into the voter base of the ruling Democrat party led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, its long-term impact is still unpredictable.

“Though the PAD’s ways can grow on you, its antics in the past do not necessarily help. Do not expect the views of the PAD – ultra right-winged politically and ultra left-winged economically – to resonate on the campaign trail immediately,” said the political commentator.

“A large Democrat base in Bangkok may have at some point found themselves disapproving of Thaksin’s politically monopolistic tendencies, but Bangkokians are also not about to be so trusting of an unreasonable set of labour union activists, formerly bankrupt media manipulators, heartbroken academics, mass-mobilising movers, and ostracised failed politicians.

“To sum it up, the yellow party will definitely be a strong additional colour to the (next Thai election) but unfortunately it will not galvanise voting support so quickly as to replace the Democrats.”

It will be interesting to see how the formidable street protest movement fares at the ballot box.

(Published in The Star on May 30, 2009)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kids pining for long-lost dads

Thai Takes

WHENEVER Keigo Sato, a nine-year-old Thai, saw Japanese tourists at Wat Tha Luang, a riverside temple in Phichit, about 345km north of Bangkok, he would ask them “Do you know my father?” And the boy would show them a faded photograph of a long-haired, bare-chested 30-something Japanese man wearing a pair of sunglasses.

The answer from the tourists visiting the temple where Keigo’s Japanese father and Thai mother had married was: “No.”

In 2000, Keigo’s mother, Thipmontha, who as a teenager ran away from home to work in Bangkok in a job that exposed her to the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, returned to Phichit with her Japanese husband, Katsumi Sato, to tell her family that she was pregnant.

A couple of months later, she turned up at her hometown again, abandoned the baby with her family and returned to Bangkok. Three years later, Thipmontha and Katsumi visited their son Keigo.

Last year, during the Songkran (Thai New Year) holidays, Thipmontha returned home because she was ill.

But before she died of her illness on April 3, the 33-year-old woman’s final message to her son was: “Wait for your father at the ordination hall of Wat Tha Luang and you’ll see him.”

Since then, according to the Bangkok Post which front-paged Keigo’s plight on May 12, hardly a day goes by without Keigo waiting for his father with a photo at the ordination hall and praying to the deities to grant him the wish of seeing his father some day.

The Thai and Japanese media pounced on the story of Keigo’s search for his father.

His story tugged the heart of the Thais, including the Thai Queen and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya. Donations poured in for the boy who lives with his 35-year-old aunt and 60-year-old paralysed grandfather and earns a living selling fish feed at Wat Tha Luang’s pier.

The Phichit Residents Association promised to give him a 10,000 baht (about RM1,000) scholarship every year until he finishes college. Boon Rawd Trading offered three air tickets for Keigo to reunite with his father.

Three days after Keigo‘s plight was highlighted, the director of Phichit’s Social Development and Human Security Office was abruptly transferred to another province for failing to help the boy find his long-lost father.

On May 13, Kasit ordered the Thai embassy in Tokyo to contact the Japanese government to obtain information on Keigo’s father.

The minister also asked the Immigration Department and Thai tour companies for help.

“Essential data should be kept at airlines and the Immigration office. They must have immigration details. Information nine years ago is not too far back to recover,” he said.

The Japanese embassy in Bangkok confirmed that a Katsumi Sato (now 31 and living in Tokyo) married Thipmontha in 2000 and they divorced in 2004.

Katsumi, according to the Japanese embassy, admitted Keigo was his son.

On May 16, the Japanese embassy, however, informed Keigo’s aunt that Katsumi was not in the hurry to meet up with his son as he was uncomfortable with the publicity.

When told that his father would not come to Thailand but would make a personal phone call to him, Keigo cried.

“Dad doesn’t love me,” the tearful boy told reporters. “I just want dad to come to me fast. I don’t want anything else from you. I don’t want your money … Please let me hug you. … I want to have a father like all the other kids. And I want my friends to stop teasing me for being a love child.”

Keigo’s search for his father inspired Narumi Hamada, a 18-year-old Thai/Japanese from Chiang Mai to find her Japanese father whom she has not seen for 15 years.

Twenty years ago, Narumi’s mother, Sangwan Bamrung, met Ryoichi Hamada, a driver at Toyota Motor Thailand in Lamphun, a province about 670km north of Bangkok.

Subsequently, Sangwan, who worked for a computer spare parts company, stayed with Ryoichi in Japan.

After four years there, she returned to Thailand to give birth to Narumi. Ryoichi visited his wife and daughter a couple of times in Thailand and then disappeared.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Narumi said she wanted to know whether her father was still alive.

The big question in Thailand is: Will there be a happy ending for Keigo and Narumi?

(Published in The Star on May 23, 2009)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

There’s a new awakening in Thai society

Thai Takes

THITINAN Pongsudhirak, a Thai political lecturer, believes space for intellectual honesty is tightening in Thailand.

This tightening space, which Thitinan likened to a box, has a ceiling – lese majeste (insulting the monarchy). From the bottom pushing up there’s an “effective longstanding official indoctrination”.

And on the sides compressing the box are the military, the Democrat-led coalition government, and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, better known as the Yellow Shirts).

“This space is shrinking,” said Thitinan, an associate professor of international political economy at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalong- korn University.

In the past three years the space for misbehaviour (seizure of airports and prime minister’s office in Bangkok and scuttling of the Asean Summit in Pattaya) has expanded and the space for proper behaviour has tightened.

“I operate within this space. So no fireworks tonight,” he said, before speaking on Political reform in Thailand at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok on Wednesday night. The audience comprised mainly foreign journalists and diplomats.

To ensure that there were “no fireworks” that night at the FCCT, which he described as “a bit of a pit for controversy and trouble” (in reference to a lese majeste case filed against Jakrapob Penkair, a Thaksin Shinawatra loyalist, for comments made in an FCCT event in 2007), Thitinan’s wife and friends showed up to make sure he behaved.

What we are seeing in politically turbulent Thailand, according to Thitinan, is a grand transition – a quest for a new and workable equilibrium in Thai society.

“Certainly everyone accepts that this is not a normal time,” the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand’s leading think tank on foreign affairs, said.

“The Prime Minister (Abhisit Vejjajiva) said this is not a normal time. He wants normalcy. Everyone wants normalcy.

“When was the last time normalcy existed in Thailand?”

Answering his own question, he noted that the last time normalcy in Thailand flourished and prevailed was in the 1990s

“(During that period) you can more or less know what to expect,” he said.

“Things were also topsy-turvy but there were certain perimeters, a certain understanding and certain consensus among the Thai elite (monarchy, military and bureaucracy) on how things work and who called the shots. And underneath that there was some manoeuvring room.”

The elite consensus provided Thailand with a long period of political stability (despite various coups). “And this explain why the Thai economy was so successful,” he added.

The elite consensus has now broken down. And Thitinan often asks himself “why has it broken down, and why now”.

“It was bound to break down,” he said. “And my view is that the long boom we had from the late 1980s – except for the 1997-98 contraction – saw economic growth concentrated mainly in Bangkok, resulting in disparity.

“The elite consensus was shaken up because the disparity exacerbated over two decades from the late 1980s. And along came Thaksin, a consummate politician, who exploited this disparity with his patronising, corrupt, populist platform.

“Thaksin never had any intention to promote equality and reduce disparity, it was a means to an end.”

But the unintended consequence of Thaksin’s rule from 2001 to 2006 awakened many strata in Thai society.

Thitinan likened the Thais’ political awakening to a westerner’s first taste of sticky rice and mango. “If you never had it, you would never miss it. But once you’ve had it, you might want another bite,” he said.

“There is a new stratification of people who may want different things and who have different expectations and demands.

“This changed the face of Thai politics, and since then we just have prolonged turbulence.”

The 2006 coup to overthrown Thaksin, the only Thai prime minister to serve a full term, was an attempt to restore the previous elite consensus.

“Suffice to say the coup did not work or has not worked. They (the elite) are still trying, and they may or may not succeed in the end,” Thitinan said.

There seems to be no end in sight for the Thai political crisis, Thitinan conceded.

Looks like the boxed-in political lecturer has to continue to operate in an environment where “fireworks” comments can be deemed dangerous.

(Published in The Star on May 16, 2009)

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Politics takes on a different hue as new group shows its colours

Thai Takes

THE Yellows seized two international airports in Bangkok. The Reds scuppered the Asean Summit in Pattaya.

Guess what’s the latest colour to trouble Thailand, the land of colour-coded political allegiance?

“The turmoil we witnessed during Songkran (Thai New Year) was partly to pave the way for the Blues to emerge as one of Thailand’s largest political blocs,” theorised The Nation editor Thanong Khanthong, referring to the pockets of chaos that reigned in Bangkok last month.

Thanong first noticed the emergence of the “Blues” a day before the Songkran chaos when about 200 blue-shirted men clashed with 2,000 plus red-shirted protesters during the Pattaya summit meeting on April 11.

“A picture in The Matichon (a Thai-language newspaper) showed Newin Chidchob (a banned politician), dressed casually (in blue T-shirt), riding a motorcycle in Pattaya,” he wrote in his blog on Apr 15.

“What business had Newin in Pattaya? Well, he was directing the Blue Shirt protesters against the Red Shirt protesters to complicate the crisis. The Blue Shirt represented a make-belief sideshow.”

When the red-shirted protesters were “allowed” to storm the hotel hos­ting the Asean summit, Thanong suspected “something fishy”.

“The army chief, police chief and deputy prime minister (in charge of security affairs) who were responsible for security were not doing anything,” noted Thanong, the only journalist so far to write extensively on the emergence of this new political force.

Who are in the Blue camp?

Newin, a former Thaksin Shinawatra loyalist, who is the de facto leader of Bhum Jai Thai Party, the second-largest party in prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government. In December last year, MPs loyal to Newin ditched their pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party and switched their allegiance to the Abhisit-led Democrat party.

“We are beginning to see the shape of the Blue camp, which will contend for the premiership. Behind Newin’s Bhum Jai Thai Party are General Prawit Wongsuwan, the defence minister, and General Anupong Paochinda, the Army chief,” Thanong wrote in The Nation on Wednesday.

“General Prawit will serve as prime minister if the Bhum Jai Thai can muster a sizeable block of MPs and strengthen its allies with other blocs such as Somsak Thepsuthin.

“Newin is hoping to sweep Isaan (Thailand’s north-east and Thaksin’s stronghold) as the Red Shirt camp of Pheu Thai has witnessed a sharp erosion of its credibility from the recent political turmoil. About 30 MPs in Pheu Thai are already in his pocket.”

Should Abhisit be worried about the Blue faction? Yes, he said, because they have the potential of forming the largest political party.

“If we were to have an election now, Bhum Jai Thai stands a good chance of becoming a core government party since it can team up with either the Democrats or Pheu Thai,” he said.

In his piece on Wednesday, Thanong also wrote that Abhisit might not last as prime minister beyond October as political pressure on his government had intensified.

“He has Thaksin attacking him from the outside, Newin and coalition partners backstabbing him from inside, the military and police at his neck, and red-shirt protesters hungry for his blood,” he commented.

On who was in control of Thailand, Thanong said: “Abhisit is the prime minister, you have the army, you have the police and you have Thaksin from the outside.

“So nobody is really in charge at the moment. And we have two very powerful institutions – the police and military – which have been with us for a long, long time.

“And when a new government comes in they have to work with (these two institutions). It is not the same as in the US where President Barack Obama, when elected into office, has all the federal agencies working under him. But here we have a very independent military and police.”

Should Thais be worried about the Blues winning the most seats in the next elections?

Yes, Thanong said, as Thailand would return to old-style politics, which he described as “you invest money in the polls and once you have power you try to recoup your investment.”

The prospect is enough to give most Thais the blues.

(Published in The Star on May 9, 2009)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Politics takes a murky turn


IN POLITICALLY polarised Thailand, it is easier to find a tank on the streets of Bangkok than a Thai who is able to give a neutral take on what’s happening to his country.

So I tracked down Paul Quaglia, a Bangkok-based American security consultant, to get his views on the recent events that thrust Thailand into the international limelight. Here’s an excerpt of my interview with Quaglia, the founding partner of PSA Asia Pacific, a security consulting cum risk assessment firm, and a 20-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Is it game over for the Red Shirts (the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra movement which on April 14 ended its three-week street campaign to force the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva after he ordered a military crackdown)?

No, the game isn’t over for the Red Shirts who in many ways tried to mimic the Yellow Shirts (the anti-Thaksin movement) to show that there was double standard in their treatment.

And the Red Shirts have succeeded in a way in showing that there was a military crackdown on them and that their leaders were arrested, while the Yellow Shirts leaders remain free.

I don’t think the political crisis is over because we still got two groups that have the ability to attract people, and a political agenda that hasn’t been fulfilled.

Depending on what happens with Abhisit’s administration for the next few months, we could see more protests from either side.

Will Abhisit last his term?

Abhisit is in a difficult position. He is a terrifically qualified prime minister. He is the right man for this job but he is in it at the wrong time (unprecedented political polarisation in Thailand at a time when the global economic crisis is devastating many South-east Asian economies).

He came in with a coalition government which he has trouble keeping happy – his junior coalition partners have designs on his job, they were sworn political enemies for several years before they defected with encouragement from the army to form this government. Abhisit has to deal with the political realities of his own coalition government.

What is your take on the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok?

Frankly, it was a bit exaggerated by the media. We had taxicabs that blocked off Victory Monument (a busy intersection). It was pretty nasty but it occurred during a holiday period (Songkran, the Thai New Year) where there was not really much traffic.

And we had the Red Shirts congregated at the prime minister’s office and near Victory Monument. But they were not running amok all over town as we saw last year (with the Yellow Shirts) when there were gun fights on the expressways and mobs going to different government ministries.

When the military and red-shirted protesters clashed violently, there were almost as many reporters covering the event as soldiers. There were a lot of tight shoots focusing on burning tyres and NGV trucks which exaggerated the actual width and breadth of the Red Shirt protest.

Yes, there was violence. But it wasn’t Bangkok under siege. A state of emergency was not required to keep peace and order which existed virtually everywhere in the country except (in pockets of Bangkok).

What’s your take on the hit on Sondhi Limthongkul (the co-leader of the Yellow Shirts)?
The how is more important than the why. Historically in Thailand when someone is the subject of a politically motivated assassination, it is done relatively quiet and off the screen. The most recent example is Somchai Neelaphaijit (a Muslim human rights lawyer) who just disappeared. It took a while even to figure out that he was killed.

(Sondhi’s hit) was a dramatic open and notorious assault — three guys in a pickup truck with assault rifles spraying bullets (at Sondhi’s vehicle) at a major intersection (in Bangkok).
The how tells me that not only this was an attempt to shoot Sondhi but also to send a message that someone is willing to take dramatic violent methods to make a point.

And Sondhi, who is no shrinking violet, has been relatively reticent since the assault. He hasn’t said much – no bedside press conference, no finger pointing, no “I am going to get your guys for this”. So I think he himself is surprised and worried at the level of approval that might have been required to have this (the assassination bid) done.

(Published in The Star on May 2, 2009)