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)