Friday, February 02, 2007

The spat with Singapore

Thai students protest outside the Singapore embassy in Bangkok (right) and Thai player Nirut Surasiang leads Thai palyers off the pitch in protest during the match against Singapore (left).

Even 'quick getaway' holiday makers are bound to notice whom Thailand have chosen as their latest rival. The nation state of Singapore has become public enemy number one for Siam in the last few weeks.

Ostensibly, the upset began when Singapore's deputy PM welcomed ousted Thai PM Thaksin Shinwatra into a private meeting. The war of words began with news articles on this side stating that the CNS (Council for National Security aka the military junta responsible for the coup) were "Very unhappy with the actions of Singapore". Thailand cancelled a business conference with Singapore scheduled for the coming days. Singapore quickly responded by releasing a press statement on the national web site. The release said that Singapore was "very disappointed with the response from Thailand" and the visit was "personal" and Singapore "received no prior objections or communication from Thailand about the visit of Mr Thaksin".

It could have stopped there but it didn't. Events took an intriguing twist. The Thai foreign minister publicly announced he had told his Singaporian counterpart "eye to eye" that "Singapore would be held responsible" if they welcomed Thaksin and described the action as "a slap in Thailand's face". Singapore declined to respond.

So far it had all been reasonably congenial and dangerously close to sensible discussion of international affairs. Something told me it wouldn't stay that way and I was redeemed in that belief. Soon after, as mentioned before, the Thai government started releasing bizarre warnings that "phone conversations are being tapped" and "the sale of telecommunications services to Singapore compromises security". The latter statement referring to Thaksin's (who else?) sale of AIS services to a Singaporian government company.

Singapore issued stringent denials to no avail. Paranoia began to spread. Warnings about evesdropping on phone conversations crept in. Suddenly Mr. Somchai began to panic that his weekly order of noodles was being fed back to Singaporian soldiers. A group - a very small group, mind - of Thai students began to protest outside the Singaporian embassy. An effigy of the island state's PM was banned and the students provided the embassy "a deadline of three days to explain Singapore's actions". Yep, it had all gone ridiculous.

In amongst the nonsensical protests and warnings of spies listening to telecommunications transmissions, the junta crept in that they wanted to build a satellite to "protect national security". That satellite would cost a whooping six billion bhat, a budget that would surely raise ire amongst a group of citizens still under martial rule and wary of those in power.

Unless, of course. they have reason to be afraid

Even then, it seemed things would stop there. The military would get their satellite budget approved by the people thanks to fear created by warnings of security lapses (now where did those warnings come from again?).

That was, until the Thailand versus Singapore Asean Cup Final first leg this week. It was one - all and the Thais looked to be setting up a tasty second leg contest. That was , until the Malaysian referee saw a Singapore player fall backwards by himself in the Thai penalty box. A Thai player fell down at the same time - they were both going for a high ball into the box - and the referee awarded a penalty. Immediately Thai players began screaming protests and one player actually pushed he ref twice , which is a red card offence in itself. The ref ignored the protests.

Now, any footie fan has seen this a thousand times. The conceding team will moan, harangue the officials and let the manager make a fuss to the ref after the game. Not so for the Thai players, they walked to the touchline and refused to continue. That's right, the ball was theirs, the other side weren't playing fair so they were taking their ball and they weren't playing anymore. What's more, they were going to tell their moms all about the nasty bullies on the other team.

A video link of Thai players walking off as Singaporean fans chant "goodbye" and "go home".

After twelve minutes - in which the referee would have been perfectly entitled to yellow and the red card the entire squad and forfeit the game - the team came back. The penalty was scored and the damage was done.

The next day my students came to school cursing the ref. Sunday's replay should be interesting.

The whole dispute has become like a soap opera. The closest example in the west of recent years that I can think of was the feud between England and France when France began to refuse the sale of English beef in their shops. The English press jumped on the chance to wave the flag and support British beef. The difference in this newer case is that the CNS jumped on the chance to create fear. Since Machiavelli brought it to light so many decades ago, governments have always learned that fear makes people easier to control. Heck, a president that many Americans are calling the worst ever got himself re-elected on a TV clip of Osama Bin Laden. The Thai junta used the initially cordial disagreement wit Singapore to sign themselves a budget of fifty million bhat.

A group of Thai students decided that as students they must find something to protests about, and nobody in Thailand gets any attention with giving their group a name - in this case it was something like "Students for democracy" and an agenda , in this case it was giving Singapore a 'deadline of three days'. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge supporter of people's groups and the right to protest but burning an effigy outside an embassy and setting a deadline is either for something serious or a sign of a childish protest after attention, in this case it was the latter.

Finally, the actions of the Thai football team. It was a poor penalty decision and as a supporter of a small team myself (when the Saints go marching in!) I know how much it hurts. However, the actions of the players was a joke. I recall that one Thai player actually pulled out from a match in the SEA Games a couple of years back stating he was "too tired". Interestingly, the announcement was made a couple of weeks after Ronaldhino had made a similar decision. The difference was that Ronaldhinio had played a full season, the Thai player had played about four games.

I can't help but wonder if the Thai players, undoubtedly aware of international affairs , had themselves pinned as hereos when they spat the dummy and refused to play on. Actually, they did themselves no favors at all and served to make matters worse. The penalty still stood and the ref had every right to red card an player who refused to continue. It was an unprecedentedly juvenile move and they will be lucky to escape further punishment. I still hope they win in the second leg though.

Thailand has reason to feel aggrieved, it was a very unprofessional move by Singapore to welcome an ousted PM in a diplomatic capacity. What was even more unprofessional was for the Thai junta to release unverified, bizarre and obscure paranoia messages of "threats to security" to escalate a diplomatic spat and encourage a domino effect of juvenile behaviour.

I don't think things will get worse, I do think they will die down. Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later. Nobody is looking an better for this little feud right now.

Photos taken from The Nation , Bangkok Post and channelnewsasia.

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