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)