Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tanks in the night spark coup talk

Thai Takes

TWENTY-TWO V-150 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) rumbled into the streets of Bangkok on Monday night. And – not surprising for politically-jittery Thailand – the immediate assumption was the military had launched a coup.

It turned out that the APCs were decommissioned from an operation in the country’s restive southern provinces and were on their way via Bangkok to Pathum Thani (a town north of the Thai capital) for maintenance.

The next day the military apologised for causing panic and for not informing the public about the movement of the APCs.

It also denied that the army would stage a coup.

“It is out of fashion to talk about a coup,” said army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

On the contrary – thanks to recent events (such as the crack in the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led coalition government and the mysterious slap-in-the-face grenade attack on the office of the Army Chief General Anupong Paojinda) and conjectures (involving surprise, surprise Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup) – it is once again fashionable to talk about an imminent coup.

This week Thai English-language newspapers ran coup-related news articles (No impending coup, Anupong insists) and opinion pieces (Coup, what coup? and Full circle to another military coup?).

The Nation also Tweeted: “Here’s one for 2day: A 14-yr-old nephew of Pojaman’s told his school friends to ‘get out of Bkk’ on Feb 26. (Translated: Here’s a rumour for today – A 14-year-old nephew of (Thaksin’s former wife) Pojaman told his schoolmates to “get out of Bangkok” on Feb 26 (which is the day the Supreme Court decides on the 76bil baht (RM7.6bil) that was seized from Thaksin after the 2006 coup).

But a coup by an Abhisit-friendly military against the Abhisit-led coalition government? Mind boggling.

But this is Thailand. And there is such a thing as a “friendly” coup.

In his Friday column in the Bangkok Post, Abhisit’s cousin Suranand Vejjajiva, who served in the Thaksin Shinawatra Cabinet and is now a political analyst, wrote:

“The general analysis among political pundits is that, with pressure over the verdict on Thaksin’s 76bil-baht assets case to be handed down on Feb 26, the Red Shirts (a pro-Thaksin movement) could escalate their rallies and become uncontrollable.

“Riots could turn violent and there would be sabotage. The top brass have been dissatisfied with PM Abhisit and the Democrats in controlling the situation. There have been signs lately that they are distancing themselves from the government.

“Given the circumstances, if another putsch is to be carried out, it could be the first one in history with the intent of getting rid of the opposition rather than to overthrow the government. It is Thaksin who is the target, not Abhisit.

“Thaksin is viewed as a nuisance, and definitely a threat to the military’s security if he ever manages to stage a comeback. In addition, Thaksin is still widely popular, with polls indicating that if an election were held today, Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party would win more than 200 seats, if not an absolute majority in Parliament.”

The anticipation of a coup is the thing that I will miss the most when I end my stint in Bangkok as The Star’s Thailand correspondent (which began a month before the Sept 19, 2006 coup). Almost every other month since I’ve lived in Thailand, tongues have wagged that a coup was imminent.

Though the political pundits and fortune tellers have been wrong on their coup predictions, Thailand has seen:

a) A judicial coup (the court removed Pro-Thaksin Samak Sundaravej as Prime Minister for moonlighting as a chef in a television cooking show).

b) A TV coup (army chief General Anupong – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – appeared on television to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law and Samak’s successor).

c) Several “silent” coups (including the Abhisit-led government declaring a state of emergency to allow the military to crack down on the Red Shirts protest during Songkran, the Thai new year, in April 2009).

Today as I fly back to Kuala Lumpur, I wonder whether there will be a coup in Bangkok tonight.

(Published in The Star on January 30, 2010)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Explosive rumour is true after all

Thai Takes

AT AROUND 3am on Jan 15, an M79 grenade was fired into the compound of the Thai Army headquarters in Bangkok, landing near the office of Army chief General Anupong Paochinda.

The Thai authorities kept silent about the attack until the media broke the story a week later. In fact, as late as Thursday, Defence spokesman Thanathip Sawangsaeng had claimed that ill-intentioned people were trying to create chaos by circulating such a rumour.

Later that day, Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd acknowledged that the “rumour” was indeed true.

However, he said the army was not trying to cover up the attack but that nobody had asked about it.

According to Sansern, as reported by the Bangkok Post, a grenade was fired from an M79 grenade launcher into the sixth floor of the headquarters building, damaging a kitchen next to a fitness room.

“The grenade was likely launched at night because no one heard the sound of the explosion,” he said. He, however, denied that the blast occurred near the office of the Army chief.

Sansern said the army believed the attacker was not trying to injure or kill anyone but was trying to seek publicity.

“I talked to Gen Anupong, and he was not worried about the situation, nor did he feel humiliated. But he insisted that action must be taken under the law.”

The M79 grenade launcher, according to a report in The Nation, is the weapon of choice in recent attacks on political enemies.

In 2008, seven M79 grenades were fired (on different occasions) at supporters of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD or Yellow Shirts as the anti-Thaksin movement is popularly known) who were camped at the office of the Prime Minister in Bangkok.

And in November 2009, PAD co-leader Sondhi Limthongkul was also targeted in an M79 attack. But it missed the target.

The usual suspect for M79 grenade attacks is Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, a 59-year-old military specialist.

In 2008, Khattiya, who despises the Yellow Shirts, warned that if they continued their siege of the Prime Minister’s office, they would be doing it at their own risk.

Soon, grenades were launched at them, killing and injuring several Yellow Shirts supporters.

In November 2009, he made headlines when he slipped into Cambodia to meet up with former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the number one enemy of the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led coalition government.

On Thursday, the military authorised the police to raid Khattiya’s residence in the compound of the 4th Cavalry Battalion in Bangkok. They found an M26 grenade and a 38-calibre pistol with a number of bullets.

Later, police raided the home of Khattiya’s driver, Sergeant Natsit Suwannarat, and discovered more weapons – 32 grenades, 700 rounds of M16 ammunition, three packs of C4 explosives and 13 sticks of TNT, as well as some spent shells.

Khattiya denied that he was involved in the M79 grenade attack as he was not in the Thai capital at the time of the attack. In a telephone interview with The Nation, he said: “Many people dislike Anupong, or maybe some ‘third hand’ wants to create chaos.

“Don’t blame me. You have no evidence to pin it on me. If I had done it, he’d be dead, but I would not do such a thing, because he’s my friend.”

Previously, Khattiya had warned that if he was suspended (over the trip to visit Thaksin in Cambodia and for insubordination in publicly criticising Anupong), he would see to it that Anupong “could not go out on the streets”.

He has since been in conflict with Anupong over the army chief’s role in suspending him from active duty. On Thursday, in a scathing opinion piece in the Bangkok Post, its former editor Veera Prateepchaikul wrote:

“The tightened guard around the army chief following the recent grenade attack may give him a sense of security, but for the public at large the big question remains: how can we feel safe when the army chief himself is unsafe and needs more protection?

“This outrageous incident is a direct challenge to the authority of General Anupong in his capacity as the army commander-in-chief, not to mention a huge slap in the face.”

(Published in The Star on January 23, 2009)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thai food everywhere


THE other day I was eating Thai food in a restaurant in a Bangkok suburb with a Malaysian tourist and my guest was surprised that the dishes did not taste like the ones in her favourite Thai restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Well, now that I’ve tasted this,” the 30-something woman said, pointing at her Tom Yam Kung, “the one in KL tasted very Malaysian”.

Me, being me, I had to gloat over why I brought her to Kratip restaurant in Bang Kapi Mall, about 30km away from the heart of Bangkok’s tourist traps.

“The food here is authentic Thai. If you look around, there’s not a single farang (Thai for ‘westerners’) in this restaurant,” I said.

And then exaggerated, “See, everybody is drinking SangSom (a popular brand of Thai whisky).”

“What’s authentic Thai food?” she asked.

I was stumped. An unsophisticated foodie would say “spicy”. But that would be incorrect as Thai cuisine can’t be boxed in; it varies from region to region.

For example, Kaeng Matsaman Neua (Massaman Curry with beef), a popular southern Thai dish, is similar to the beef curry found in Kelantan, which was part of the Pattani kingdom.

Her question was food for thought. And a few days later, I headed to Bo.lan, a one-year-old fine dining Bangkok restaurant with the catch phrase “Thai food as it ought to be”.

Bo.lan does not dumb down its dishes to cater for the non-Thai palate as it believes that the food it is cooking must be prepared correctly.

A customer insisting on prawn instead of beef for its Green Curry with Beef will be told: “We are sorry sir/madam, unfortunately we are not able to do that today because our green curry paste is made specifically for beef and to use prawn will be incorrect.”

The restaurant’s name is inspired from the name of the co-owners – Bo (the nickname of 29-year-old Thai Duangporn Songvisava) and Dylan Jones, a 28-year-old Australian.

Both chefs previously worked at Nahm (the only Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star) in London.

“What’s authentic Thai food?” I asked Bo and Dylan.

“We were discussing this the other day, trying to pin down what Thai food really is,” said Dylan. “And I believe there are many factors that influence what real Thai food is.

“But it comes down to one thing, and that is the final product. The flavour of the dish dictates whether it is really authentic.

“For example, a real Green Curry is slightly salty, sweet (obviously from the coconut cream) and quite hot (as there is a lot of chilli in the paste). And it is non-authentic if it is salty and sweet but not that hot,” he explained.

“It is done that way (less spicy) because customers don’t want it hot.”

Bo added: “Tom Yam should be spicy. And if a customer comes here and says ‘I want a Tom Yam, but I don’t want it hot (with chilli)’, you can’t call it Tom Yam, you have to call it something else.”

Nodding, Dylan said: “You can’t put a Ferrari badge on a Toyota and call it a Ferrari.”

However, Bo conceded that there were Thai dishes that could be different in terms of spiciness. “Take Som Tam (papaya salad), you can have it with or without chilli.”

As I was curious to know why my friend thought that the Thai food in her favourite restaurant tasted “very Malaysian”, I asked Bo and Dylan for their take on the authenticity of Thai food in restaurants outside Thailand.

“That’s a tricky question,” said Bo. “In general, Thai restaurants abroad cater for the local palate.

“However, I believe that there are restaurants (overseas) such as Nahm which serve authentic Thai dishes.

“And in some restaurants, if you say you are Thai and you want to eat authentic Thai food, they will do it for you.”

But Bo said: “There are also Thai restaurants in Thailand that dumb down their flavour as they cater to tourists or foreigners.

“When a customer asks for the dish to be less spicy, they are more than willing to do so because they don’t want to lose that customer.” But how about the food?”

Dylan answered, “… to the determent of authenticity.”

(Published in The Star on January 16, 2010)

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A peep into Thailand's future

Thai Takes

A THAI fortune-teller predicted that “after a coup the country would have a new prime minister whose name begins with the Thai letter pronounced “Awe”.

In response to that prediction, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said: “There are people who want to bring about violence but it is my and the government’s duty not to let that happen. I reiterate that whoever thinks violence is an answer to this society is thinking wrong.”

Probably Abhisit could dismiss the prediction as it came from a fortune teller. But perhaps he should also read an article suggesting Thailand was in the early stages of a civil war that appeared in Naew Na daily (a Thai journal) on Dec 28.

It is a must-read because Prem Tinsulanonda, the 88-year-old adviser to the Thai King, says it is a must-read. And General Prem, a former unelected Prime Minister and army chief, is a puu yai (Thai for “senior elder”) whose words and action are taken seriously.

For example, when General Prem donned military attire to meet military leaders in his Bangkok residence on Dec 28, Thai political watchers speculated why the retired army chief was in uniform.

And then … the Sept 19, 2006, coup which ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra happened.

However, Admiral Phajun Tamprateep, personal secretary to Gen Prem, insisted that “there is nothing to interpret”, as reported by the Bangkok Post.

“Gen Prem is a soldier and he loves the military profession. He likes to wear the uniform on occasion, and he does so when he deems it appropriate,” Phajun explained.

On the day Gen Prem was in military uniform he told military leaders that an article published in Naew Na daily was “important and a must-read”.

The article, headlined We are in a period of civil war, was written by Chirmsak Pinthong, a critic of Thaksin.

Chirmsak contended that Thailand was in the initial stages of civil war. “On one side is the ‘legitimate government’ of the kingdom of Thailand and on the other side there are the Thaksin forces,” he said, as translated by (a blog on Thai politics).

“They aim not just to overthrow the Abhisit government but to also radically change the system of government, eventually establishing a republic and a dictatorship.”

Chirmsak painted a scenario on how Thaksin would ignite a civil war.

The Thaksin forces, according to Chirmsak, would reject the authority of the Abhisit-led government (which it accused of being illegitimate). For example, ministers could not perform their duties in certain part of Thailand due to hostilities from the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts.

He wrote about the soldiers for hire in the Thaksin forces, referring to Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (a former army chief and Prime Minister who recently joined the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party) and the Class 10 army officers (who are Chavalit’s classmates).

“They are a minority, unlike the police who remain loyal to Thaksin, as evidenced by their failure to investigate the attacks on ‘peaceful PAD rallies, causing several deaths’,” said Chirmsak, a diehard supporter of the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy, an anti-Thaksin movement popularly colour-coded as the Yellow Shirts).

Chirmsak, as colourfully translated, forecast: “The ‘big boss’ is firing off the ‘intercontinental missiles’ that ‘drop from the skies on the Kingdom of Thailand’. Some Red Shirts are the ‘infantry’ creating all the problems in the country.

“Others are the ‘artillery’, using television as their weapon. The Pheu Thai Party in parliament are the ‘cavalry in tanks’, protected by their parliamentary position but causing confusion. The ‘spies’ are the senior government officials who provide secret information, impede and disrupt.

“The civil war has begun but the outcome is not certain, so what can be done?," Chirmsak wrote. "The government is not going to be able to administer the country in any normal manner.

“The government needs to be more aggressive in maintaining the state’s power. The constitution has to be maintained. The power of the judiciary has to be protected so that it can enforce the law.”

(Published in The Star on January 9, 2009)

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Thailand 2009: Take the quiz

Thai Takes

1) WHO is the most adored in Thailand?

a) Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

b) Ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

c) Lin Ping, the baby Panda

2) What fever swept Thailand?

a) H1N1 fever

b) Panda fever

c) Liverpool fever

d) All the above

3) Who shot Sondhi Limthongkul, co-leader of the Yellow Shirts, an anti-Thaksin movement?

a) The military

b) The police

c) Gunmen hired by Thaksin Shinawatra

d) Insurgents from Thailand’s Deep South

e) “a” and “b”

4) Who is Suvanant Kongying (according to

a) Thailand’s most searched for celebrity on Google in 2009

b) Her lavish January wedding was aired on a Thai TV channel

c) She and her husband are tabloid fodder, enjoying a lengthy 10-year courtship after meeting on a soap opera set and dealing with some subsequent mother/daughter-in-law drama.

d) She’s the Thai actress who was misquoted by a Cambodian tabloid in 2003 as saying that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, leading to riots in Phnom Penh and destruction of the Thai embassy in Cambodia

e) All the above

5) What does Keigo Sato (nine years old), Narumi Hamada (18), Masami Hayashi (eight), Nobuhiro Nakyai (11) and Nujarin Tsuchiya (13) have in common?

a) They are Thai/Japanese

b) They are looking for their Japanese fathers who abandoned them

c) Their plight inspired a Japanese to form a Thai-based support group for them

d) All the above

6) Who did Thaksin finger as the invisible hand that masterminded the September 2006 coup?

a) Saranrat “Lydia” Wisutthithada, a Thai R&B singer

b) Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, the adviser to the Thai King

c) Sondhi Limthongkul, co-leader of the Yellow Shirts

7) Who said, “I am in charge of security affairs and I have heard of nobody planning a coup. If there is a coup, I will walk naked (as I) step down. I believe no groups (in the military) want to stage a coup now.”?

a) Army chief Anupong Paojinda

b) Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban

c) Police chief Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan

8) What was Thaksin’s “big surprise” announcement on his birthday?

a) The self-exiled politician promised to return to Thailand to face justice

b) He appeared in a hologram for his birthday party in Bangkok

c) He vowed to become a monk

d) He launched a 100-channel TV station to connect Thailand with the world

e) He quit politics

9) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ...

a) Accused Thailand of preparing a coup against his government

b) Contended that Abhisit “stole somebody’s chair” to seat himself in the prime minister’s chair

c) Appointed Thaksin as economic adviser to Cambodia

d) Maintained that the soured relationship between Bangkok and Phnom Penh will continue as long as Abhisit is Prime Minister

e) All the above

10) Gen Prem Tinsulanonda appeared publicly in full military uniform at his Bangkok residence on Dec 28. To pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party spokesman Prompong Nopparit this means:

a) The former army chief was hosting chiefs of the three armed forces and senior military officers who visited him to wish him Happy New Year

b) The 88-year-old puu yai (Thai for “senior elder”) wanted to feel healthy and strong

c) A sign another military coup is in the making

d) The confirmed bachelor simply loves donning a military uniform

11) What did young Abhisit do – as imagined by French cartoonist Stephff – at Oxford University during a human rights lecture?

a) Furiously take notes

b) Sleep through a lecture on “the oppression of ethnic minorities”

c) Eye a cute farang (Thai for “Westerner”) woman

12) Where in Thailand – as described by International Herald Tribune – does “the well water smell of solvents and when left in a glass overnight turns rust-coloured with algae”?

a) Nana Plaza, a three-storey building, which is home to a dozen go go bars, in Bangkok

b) Babylon, a Bangkok gay spa which TimeOut City Guide to Bangkok lauded as the “most beautiful sauna in the world”

c) Map Ta Phut, an industrial zone along the Gulf of Thailand


1) c – since the unexpected birth of Lin Ping in Chiang Mai Zoo on May 27, Thais have been infected with panda fever. The cute baby panda even has a 24-hour “live” TV programme showing its daily activities

2) d

3) e – Since the April morning Bangkok shooting – where gunmen sprayed more than 100 bullets at Sondhi – arrest warrants have been issued against a policeman and two soldiers

4) e

5) d

6) b

7) b

8) d

9) e

10) c – Prompong said: “Gen Prem appeared in a military uniform shortly before the Sept 19, 2006 coup, and history could repeat itself again.”

11) b – on Dec 28, the Abhisit government repatriated thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers to Laos despite international objections that they could face persecution back home

12) c – 27 villagers from Map Ta Phut won a lawsuit (a landmark for Thailand’s environmental movement) which led to a slew of decisions that stopped US$9bil (RM31.1bil) worth of industrial projects

(Published in The Star on January 2, 2010)