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)