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)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Two fevers grip Thailand

ON Thursday, the Bangkok Post carried an editorial cartoon with the title “Just a fever!!!” A blindfolded handsome Thai man (resembling Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva) was groping the tail end of a black cloak worn by the Grim Reaper. A thought bubble above the man’s head showed a “panda” while the Grim Reaper with H1N1 written on its cloak was thinking “death”.

The cartoon illustrates the two fevers gripping Thailand.

Since the unexpected birth of a panda in Chiang Mai Zoo on May 27, Thais have been infected with panda fever. The Thai newspapers carry daily updates on the baby panda’s progress.

The Thai media also publish daily reports on A (H1N1)-related deaths and infection. Since May 12 when Thailand reported its first infection on its soil, Thais have been worried sick about the disease which has claimed 25 of their countrymen’s lives.

These two news items have somehow managed to push the country’s scorching politics out of the minds of most Thais.

Anyway since the tumultuous April riots (by the Red Shirts or the Thai military depending on which side of the political divide you are on) there has been relative calm in Thai politics.

So it was interesting to read yesterday the opinion piece of Thanong Khanthong, the editor of The Nation.

“I heard that the people in green uniforms (euphemism for the Thai military) are making some unusual movements in preparation for something big,” Thanong wrote in his Friday column called “Overdrive”.

“Many people are also feeling worried about the solar eclipse that will take place on July 22. The solar eclipse is seen by some as a bad omen for countries directly affected by it.

Most people also would like to know whether there will be any serious political incidents between now and July 22, and beyond.”

Thanong consulted his favourite astrologer to find out what to expect from the eclipse. “It’s gonna be pretty bad,” the female astrologer told him. “It will adversely affect the astrological sign of Cancer. We don’t know whether it will hurt Abhisit or Thaksin Shinawatra (the self-exiled former prime minister). Both are Cancer. Either could get hit.”

The editor also told his astrologer that he “smelled” a coup as the military was making unusual movements. “If the military were to stage a coup, they should do it now. The alignment of the stars is on their side,” she said.

The astrologer also warned: “But in the period before or after the eclipse, the water element would create problems. I don’t understand why Abhisit has decided to host the Asean summit in Phuket, surrounded by water. His advisers should have consulted the stars first.”

“Putting astrology aside,” wrote Thanong, “we are indeed reaching another treacherous front.” And he pointed out that the police had identified those involved in the assassination attempt of Sondhi Limthongkul, a core leader of the Yellow Shirt movement.

“But we aren’t sure whether the arrests will go as far as the top level of the plot, or whether there will be a joint operation against those holding power. This is one of the reasons that the military is making these unusual movements,” he added.

Curious to know whether there was any substance to Thanong’s anticipation of political turmoil around July 22, I e-mailed outspoken political commentator M.L. Nattakorn Devakula.

“Absolutely nothing will happen on the 22nd of July, except for the solar eclipse. Thailand’s politics is now at a stalemate after the Red Shirts took the political conflict to the point of brinkmanship during Songkran (the Thai New Year which falls in April),” Nattakorn replied.

“From this point on I am sorry to say we are not likely to see any exciting developments. That means no coup, no parliament dissolution, no civil war. The only thing that is intriguing right now is who tried to kill Sondhi.”

The political commentator added: “This current administration will last for quite a while simply because if a general election was to be held today the Peua Thai Party (a pro-Thaksin party) would win.”

I too have my own prediction. On Wednesday, the Red army will descend to the Thai capital as Liverpool Football Club is playing Thailand at Bangkok’s Rajamangala stadium.

(Published in The Star on July 18, 2009)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Flu-conscious Thais on high alert

Thai Takes
By Philip Golingai

Thailand’s A (H1N1) casualties are among the highest in Asia. Should Thais be worried?

The bad news is this week alone the number of deaths doubled to 14. In the last five days there were seven reported deaths from the new strain of influenza that claimed the life of its first Thai victim on June 20.

The good news is Thailand is at Level 2 on the World Health Organisation (WHO) alert level (0.1%-0.5% fatality rate of all confirmed cases). Thailand’s rate is at 0.4, or four deaths out of every 1,000 infected patients. As of yesterday, the number of infected cases totalled 2,924, of whom 2,815 have fully recovered.

“There are now 14 A (H1N1)-related deaths in Thailand, should Thais be worried?” I asked Dr Kumnuan Ungchusak, a senior expert in preventive medicine in Thailand’s public health ministry, on Thursday night.

“Yes, the number of deaths is increasing every day, but you have to compare this with how many people are infected with A (H1N1),” Dr Kumnuan explained. “The probability of dying from this new strain of influenza is not significant when compared with the seasonal flu (which has a 0.75%-1% fatality rate).”

Try telling that to Vichuta Prawittkarnh, a 33-year-old digital business development manager. She’s alarmed at the daily reporting of A (H1N1)-related deaths. “I think I have a chance of getting A (H1N1) as it is all around us. I hope if I get it, I will not die,” she said.

Vichuta’s fear is a reflection of the concern Thais – especially those living in the cities – have of this “frightening disease”.

There’s also good news/bad news to their concern over the flu outbreak, which WHO declared a pandemic on June 11.

The good news – Thais are more aware of A (H1N1) and are educating themselves on proactive prevention. For example, Vichuta’s mother would remind her to wash her hands after using public facilities.

The bad news, however, is that some Thais are too concerned.“Healthy people with mild symptoms will rush to hospital for treatment; they overload the health service,” noted Dr Kumnuan.

To counter A (H1N1), the Thai government has adopted two major measures – reduce the mortality rate and slow down the spread of the virus.

"Patients with underlying health issues (such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer) should seek medical treatment and receive the antiviral drug as soon as they develop flu-like symptoms or have a high fever," said Dr Kumnuan. "Doctors should not wait for lab results to confirm the infection first."

He added that the public health ministry found that of the first 11 Thais who died of A (H1N1) nine had underlying health issues.

On Thursday, the Thai Cabinet ordered private tuition schools across the country to close for 15 days starting on Monday in order to curb the spread of the flu virus.

"The ministry of public health found that these schools - which is usually crammed with students – as a major source for the spread of A(H1N1)," explained Dr Kumnuan, adding that the ministry also found that students were one of the most susceptible groups to the new strain of influenza.

The cabinet also asked owners of net cafes to cooperate with the government by closing their businesses during the same period so as to help curb the virus spreading.

Is the Thai government handling the A (H1N1) competently? No, according to the opposition Puea Thai Party. It has demanded that Public Health Minister Witthaya Kaewparadai resign because he “lacked experience and had failed to deal with the flu outbreak”.

However, according to Dr Samlee Plianbangchang, WHO director for South-East Asia, Thailand’s preventive measures against the spread of A (H1N1) is on the right track.

Dr Samlee, as reported by Thai News Agency, said it was not correct to say that “the spread of the influenza in Thailand was more severe than in other countries although the number of people who succumbed to the new virus strain is higher than in any other country in the region”.

“The number of fatalities vary, depending on the reporting system and how effectively measures are put into practice,” he explained.

“Should the system be efficient, the number of patients and victims might show up as being very high. Conversely, the number of new cases and fatalities is very small in some countries because they may not be monitoring their situation appropriately.”

Looks like Thais have little reason to worry about being misled on the flu statistics.

(Published in The Star on July 11, 2009)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Thaksin mania lives on as Red Shirts go two-up against govt


THE score so far for Thailand’s recent by-elections is: Thaksin Shinawatra 2; Democrat-led coalition government 0.

Last Sunday, the Puea Thai Party (the successor of Thaksin-backed People’s Power Party and Thai Rak Thai) clobbered Chart Thai Pattana Party, a member of the seven-party ruling coalition, in Si Sa Ket province. A week earlier, Puea Thai thumped Bhum Jai Thai Party, another coalition member, in Sakon Nakhon province.

Two constituencies out of 400, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, “should speak little”.

“However, in a turbulent and fluid body politic, what happened in Sakon Nakhon and Si Sa Ket bears several immediate repercussions,” Thitinan wrote in the Bangkok Post on Tuesday.

The political analyst argued that “it reaffirms that Thai Rak Thai (TRT) fever, which should have been extinguished when the party was dissolved more than two years ago, is resilient in the face of the military coup of 2006, a coup-induced constitution, party dissolutions and various other coercive side measures to overcome the TRT platform”.

Thitinan also pointed out that if Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party’s objective “is to retake power after the next election, its coalition partners’ resounding defeats do not augur well for the ruling party”.

Should the Democrats be worried about these two defeats?

“It is far too early to tell because in the last by-elections at the end of January the coalition won almost all of the seats (which became vacant when the court banned PPP and two other parties). So the public sentiment is continuously changing,” countered Democrat Party spokesman Buranaj Smutharaks.

However, Pitch Pongsawat, a Chulalongkorn University political lecturer, pointed out that Thaksin was not actively involved in January’s by-elections.

By and large, Buranaj added, the results really reflected local sentiment more than approval or disapproval of the Abhisit government because his (Abhisit’s) major economic stimulus packages were only passed last week.

For example, he said, government funds were not yet disbursed to benefit the people, suffering through the political and economic crisis, especially in the impoverished north-east region (which is Thaksin’s stronghold and where Si Sa Ket and Sa Sakon Nakhon are located).

But still, the by-election results show that the self-exiled Thaksin is back, politically.

“You can’t deny the fact that Thaksin is still actively exerting his influence on the course of events in Thailand. For example, during the April riots, he explicitly called for more people to take to the streets while the riots were in full swing,” noted Buranaj.

But why is Thaksin, who was overthrown in a 2006 coup, still popular?

“Well, you can’t underestimate the power money has in determining populist movements in Thailand. We can still see a clear continuation of his political activities through his different vehicles – UDD (United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, also known as the Red Shirts), Puea Thai and his former political affiliates who are banned from politics,” the spokesman said.

But is Thaksin still popular?

“Oh yes, but I think people are also realising the (shifting) rhetoric of the movement supporting Thaksin. The UDD said it opposed dictatorship and then it said it wanted to bring down the privy councillors (advisers to the Thai king) and then last week it wanted to bring back Thaksin (through a royal pardon signature campaign) so that he doesn’t have to face his trials,” Buranaj said.

“It is really a movement using majoritism (pressure through people power) to overrule the rule of law.”

But isn’t Thaksin just “doing a PAD” (People’s Alliance for Democracy, also known as the Yellow Shirts, which seized two Bangkok airports and the Prime Minister’s office when the PPP-led coalition was in government)?

In reply, the spokesman gave the standard answer: The would be no double standard in the way Abhisit’s government deals with the two colour-coded street movements.

On the constant media reports that Abhisit’s coalition government was unstable, Buranaj said: “Many of these rumours are spread by Puea Thai which still can’t find a party leader.

“In Thailand’s constitutional democracy the leader of the opposition is essentially a prime minister in waiting in case the government (collapses).”

Well, 2-0 is not a bad result for a leaderless party.

(Published in The Star on July 4, 2009)