Sunday, March 30, 2008

Don't worry!

"I've already assured the Prime Minister that there will be no coup. If there were, I would be the one taking responsibility for it."

Army Chief Gen Anupong Paojinda 30/3/2008 (link)

"Whenever soldiers get involved in politics,it seems that the nation's problems begin to escalate and become worse. Military officers, accordingly, must step back from politics. With that firm and clear stance, I assure everyone that there definitely won't be a coup"

Sonthi Boonyaratkalin 18/5/2006 (link)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Samak: the good, the bad and the ugly

So this is Songkarn and what have we done?

Well, if your name is Samak Sanderejev and you are Prime Minister of Thailand, you have done quite a lot. The PPP have been a busy bunch since they finally entered office in January (almost a month after they actually won the election) and to the surprise of many, they have actually done some things quite well. Here's my little review of the good, the bad and the ugly from Mr Samak.

The Good:

1) The idea of legalising casinos. It's been heavily opposed in some quarters but the reality is that legalisation of gambling is progressive and correct. In a country where people who want to gamble already do so and Jao Phoa already have their casinos up and running, it is only practical to make the business and maybe even take some tax money for good causes.

2) Expedition of mass transport projects. OK, so we all know that there is a direct link between high budget transport construction and financial kickbacks. Still, the City of Angels is desperately crying out for an extended transport network, and the new government seem serious about getting it speeded up, whatever the reasons for the eagerness may be.

3) Refusing to negotiate with terrorist leaders in the deep south.
It may well be a face saving measure to mask the fact that intelligence sources cannot trace these people anyway but that is irrelevant. Samak is absolutely correct when he says that the government should not negotiate with people who "kill their own" in the most brutal manner possible.

4) Tax breaks. With the plummeting dollar and rising costs of living adding to an economy that had already been stagnant since the coup the tax breaks should be the perfect catalyst to get people out spending again.

The Bad:

1) Transferring good officers.
I've heard people say "Well nobody protested when the junta bought in their own people" which may be true. But the key point here is that Seripisuth Temiyavej and Dr Siriwat Thiptaradon were good at their jobs. It may be normal for a new government to bring in new people, but is it right to let the public suffer when the 'new people' are bought in under false pretences and most likely are not as skilled as their predecessors?

2) Starving the AEC.
If anybody was in any doubt who has come out smiling form the struggle between the junta and the PPP, they only had to read today's story stating that the Assets Examination Committee are "requesting public donations". The PPP were never going to allow the AEC to continue their work, and they have achieved this by starving them of funds. As such, it is likely that politicians who did something wrong will not be prosecuted.

3) Disrespecting the victims of the 1976 massacre AND the victims of the Burmese Junta.
And this, sadly, nullifies any achievements of K. Sanmak. When he told a CNN reporter that "Only one person was killed" and compounded this by expressing sympathy for the Burmese Junta because "They are Buddhists" one can only wonder what was going through his mind. By reinventing history and showing such blatant disregard for the rights of his own people, Samak send us a reminder that for all the rhetoric and progressive manoeuvres, he is still the same person inside.

Monday, March 17, 2008

To Kavi Chongkittavorn

Dear Khun Kavi,

Thank you for your article in today's Nation entitled "Curry nations of the world must unite to save the spice!". Whilst I enjoy your pieces on a regular basis, I felt that today's piece was not only short of your usual high standard, but actually very assumptive and unfair.

To try and be as concise as possible, I'd like to quote a few extracts from your article and explain why I disagree. I hope this isn't too ill mannered.

The UK without curry is the UK without food. The possibility of this happening is high if the UK Home Office does not ease its immigration rules.

This simply isn't true. There is already a very large Asian community in the UK and many of them already have well established curry houses. A tweak in immigration rules is not going to send them all packing.

Some observers say the restriction is specifically aimed at Bangladeshi chefs who began entering the country in large numbers a decade ago.

Which observers are these? What possible grounds can they have for such a claim?

Now, with more unskilled workers from Eastern European countries, the UK is limiting its intake from other parts of the world, and adding the requirement that applicants speak English. It is as if they need to speak English to prepare a curry. Cooking is not about diplomacy.

New questions are also being raised as to whether chefs from other countries, such as China, Thailand, Japan or others have to speak English too. The language requirement can easily be construed as a discriminatory immigration measure aimed at curbing the influx of unskilled foreign workers.

This is the part I find most outrageous. Cooking may not be about diplomacy but immigration certainly is. I feel that much of your article is examining English immigration and its laws from a Thai perspective. The problem with this is that the UK is in a very different social situation to Thailand.

You imply that a request for immigrants to speak English is in someway discriminatory. Actually, it is also important to protect immigrants. Unlike Thailand where Immigration supplies English speaking staff and documentation (albeit imperfect) , the UK, for obvious reasons, uses its native language. Immigrants must sign contracts in English, they must declare taxes on English documents and they must be protected by laws which are specified in English. If immigrants cannot understand any of the documents they sign, the "unskilled" immigrants you speak of are at huge risk of being cheated and exploited.

I also think that perhaps you are unaware of the concern over immigration and population control in England. For the purposes of this letter I just want to inform you that the UK is about half the land size of Thailand with a very similar sized population. There are also concerns about cultural tensions due to the very high level of immigration (far higher than Thailand). In this context, I hardly think it's unfair to request that immigrants speak a little English.

It took decades for the Thai government to work out details with the UK government to ensure that Thai chefs can work in the UK without harassment.

Thai immigrants in the UK can receive far greater government benefits and rights than immigrants moving in the opposite direction.

Only Thai tourists would opt for cherry roast duck in Soho or Chinatown........

Still, Thai chefs are in big demand in the UK. In the past few years, Thai cuisine has made its mark on the UK food scene..................

There are nearly 1500 Thai restaurants, including nearly 400 pubs, mainly in London and Edinburgh, which serve Thai finger-foods such as chicken satays, fried spring rolls, shrimp cakes, etc. In this case, it is not the usual dull oil-soaked fish and chips that draw in clients but exotic Thai appetisers

Doesn't the first statement contradict the other two? I'm confused.

Therefore, curry nations must unite and fight for their right to have their chefs cross borders to serve clients and tourists their delicious spicy dishes. It is quite ironic that the authorities in the UK are keen to kill this golden goose.

Catering may be a big business but it is not a 'golden goose'. Financial services and trading are core to our economy. Tourism is also a key factor but catering is only one fraction of that industry. I would also point out that Chinese food accounts for a big portion of our culinary trade.

In summary I feel you may have misunderstood the context of the situation concerning chefs in the UK. Thailand has far lower levels of immigration, and the foreign communities here are subject to greater restrictions than those in the UK. Requesting that foreigners learn a bit of the local lingo in either country but especially the UK is completely fair in my opinion. Indeed, a "language and culture" test is being introduced byImmigration in Thailand for foreign teachers.

Thank you again for your articles, I look forward to reading more of them.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

The argument for legalised casinos

There's been a lot of debate in the media recently concerning Samak's suggestion that he may introduce casinos into Thailand. The main objection to this idea seems to be that it's "against Buddhism" or morally wrong in some other form.

Well, I'm no fan of Samak of course but I actually support the idea of legalised casinos. Let me give my response to some of the objections.

It's against Buddhist practice.

As a keen admirer of Buddhism myself, I'm not sure I agree. The Buddha himself was always keen to stress that Buddhism should not be a dogmatic philosophy, or one dominated by hierarchy or doctrine (which is why we see relatively few acts of violence or power struggle from the Buddhist communities). Still it's true that gambling is discouraged in Buddhist ethics, but then so is consumption of drugs (alcohol), sexual promiscuity and lying. If we truly enforced all of these, how many of us would be legal? My point is that legalised casinos is not a sign of some great moral corruption or an abolition of Thai values. It's simply allowing people to make a choice.

It will encourage more people to gamble.

Make no mistake, people in Thailand who want to gamble already do. For a start, we already have legalised gambling with the national lottery. Secondly, almost any Thai knows where his/her nearest illegal gambling den is, who the Jao Pho is and how much it costs to "keep it open". So just because the practise is made legal, will thousands more rush out to irresponsibly gamble away their cash? I'd say it's no more likely than people rushing out to buy a copy of the new Tata Young album because it's available on an original CD instead of a copy.

It sends out the wrong message

Actually I think its ends out the right message. Instead of the government patronising people by effectively saying "Gambling is wrong and you must not do it" , it is saying "You can make the choice to gamble or not, but you must be an adult and of sound mind". Where is the 'wrong message' in that?

It's just to make money for the politicians

Of course it is.And of course the politicians will be very keen to "negotiate" with the casino companies when they vie for a licence. But the reality is that the phu yai have been making money from gambling dens for a long time now. The only difference is that legal gambling will generate tax revenue and at least some of that sum should go towards schools or hospitals or so on.

A study by Pasuk Phongpaichit and two colleagues estimated that in 1996, the profits from illegal casinos in Bangkok alone amounted to anywhere from 27, 286 to 134, 780 million baht! And those figures are over ten years old! Just think how much a fraction of that money could help schools or libraries.

So that's my take. I try to look at emotive issues from a pragmatic point of view, and in this case all the practical arguments seem to favour legalisation. What do you think?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Is 'The Nation' still truly independent?

'The Nation' has given itself a makeover. It is now more akin to the UK 'Financial Times'. The new layout is good but......

Yesterday Lydia gave us a gooey description of her relationship with the Shinwatras. Today's front page gives us a run down of Charoen Siriwattanapakadi with certain details missing that TN would once have let the public know about.

It looks to me that the Nation now has a case of 'greng jai' due to all its new sponsors and market, and has given up some of its journalistic integrity and exposure of corruption. That means only Prachatai is left.

Are my fears justified?

What is Chamlong thinking?

This was a piece I wrote a while back and I never got around to posting it. As Pundit has pointed out some highly critical articles on the PAD lately, I thought this article was worth throwing into the mix:

I've long singled out Chamlong Srimuang as one of my favoured Thai politicians. Chamlong has a history of taking unusual and often brave stances on issues when his peers have simply chosen to jump ship and/or switch sides. For example, he was a key leader in the protests of 1992 against the military dictatorship of Gen Suchinda, even going as far as a public hunger strike. Chamlong of course, received a reprimand from His Majesty The King for his outspokenness against Suchinda and his power ploys.

Srimuang has a military background but unlike most veterans he has chosen to remain aloof from most military politics and instead focus on his religious group, the Santi Asoke affiliated "Dharma army". The group - labelled as 'strange' or even 'cult like' by some - are representative of Srimuang's values, including his celibacy and his vegetarian diet. In my opinion, Chamlong's religious stance is not cause for concern but, conversely, is actually what makes him better than most other politicos. It enables him to take a tougher stance on corruption and cronyism.

But I must confess, I'm getting concerned. When Chamlong first entered the anti-Thaksin group known as the PAD, (People's Alliance for Democracy) it was an excellent move. At that time the leader Sonthi Lithimongkul had provided funding and important contacts to facilitate the group's activism but supporters were only too aware of some of Sonthi's shortcomings, such as the fact that a far from squeaky clean businessman was protesting against another businessman's dodgy deals.

Cynics had suggested that Sonthi's ego would not allow another leader to share power or media time and that this would limit PAD clout. All that changed when Srimuang stepped forward to become joint leader and announced ( in reference to his former partnership with Thaksin) "Thaksin was my mistake". A politician admitting his mistake? Another reason why this man is different.

But my doubts surfaced after the 2006 coup, when Chamlong accepted a position on the Constitution Drafting Committee for the junta. At the time it seemed that perhaps Chamlong and PAD leaders were looking to protect the interests of Bangkokians in the new constitution, but when PAD personnel including Chamlong slowly lost their voice over time, it did not bode well.

And now things are looking even bleaker. The PAD have announced their plans for possible protests at the return of Thaksin Shiniwatra to Thailand this week, and, sitting at the front row of a PAD press conference was none other than the general himself.

Why is this a bad thing? Simple, it's a tactical calamity. While there can be no doubt that the PPP have already raced to subvert justice and ensure a clean return for Thaksin - who will no doubt renege on his promise to interfere in politics - for the PAD to launch protests now would be suicide and simply play into the hands of their opponents. PPP members will play it up as "undemocratic" and "not helpful to reconciliation". Neutrals or undecideds will view it as trouble causing and, most importantly, the protests will attract far fewer activists than last time. When the PAD last hit the streets, many were indignated by the S[h]in Corp sale by Thaksin. This time the only interest is in seeing what happens after he returns. The PAD will receive far less funding, support and interest than last time and as such it will be seen as far less of a democratic movement and more like one of those infamous "invisible hands" we so often hear politicians talk about.

And this is where Chamlong becomes important. The general is held in high regard by many Bangkokians as integral and reasonably honest and open in his movements. For Chamlong to play along with what promises to be mutated and possibly self defeating protests by the PAD will lead many to question his motives. It will be suggested that he has lost his influence or integrity that won him popular support in the first place, and the PAD will go down with him.

It may be that justice will be subverted, it was grossly twisted for MP Pracha Prasopdee to threaten to "drive PAD members out of the country" in the knowledge that such a move would be unconstitutional, but the fact is that now is not the right time for the PAD to hit the streets again. I hope Chamlong realises this and finds another way to speak for PAD members.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Who is the mysterious man?

Hat tip to Piset from TN blogs.

Note for non residents: the depth of a Thai wai is realtive to your status and the staus of the person you wai to, so a wai this deep is indicative of someone greatly superior to you.

This man should not have been waiing Thaksin, he should have been upholding justice and neutrality and - in reality - arresting him.

Welcome to Thailand!

More attacks on free media by PPP

Hi5 is a networking program just like facebook and it's very popular with Thai people. Indeed, K. Abhisit Vejajaiva is on hi5 and has a very large number of "friends".

There does not seem to be a whole of threat coming from the site but today this article in the Bangkok Post tells us that the site may be shut down.

The Prime Minister’s Office Minister Jakrapob Penkair has ordered the
Information, Communications and Technology (ICT) ministry to keep a close watch
on the use of social networking site after it emerged a Buddhist
monk had been using the site to woo women.

"I am upset by this," he said. "Any sort of misdeed caused by monks results in the deterioration of Buddhism."

Mr Jakrapob has already consulted with ICT ministry officials to lay down
possible measures to ensure that something like this does not recur.

"We are still determining the pros and cons of blocking the site altogether," he said.
A new cyberlaw passed last year would require court permission to block the
site, although the government has broken this law hundreds of times, and several
thousands of websites are blocked without court order or explanation.

You got that clearly? The site that is popular with hundreds of thousands of Thais may be blocked because of one monk allegedly using it to find sex. It would be funny if it wasn't 21st century Thailand.

Shame on you Jakrapob. The same Jakrapob who told The Nation after the coup: "I cannot breathe the air of dictatorship, I cannot coexist with the junta". And silly old me actually believed him, since he always comes across as intense and sincere.

But mow it seems Jakrapob is following in the footsteps of Sittichai, the MICT and all other oppressors of media freedom. Already responsible for shutting down one radio show, Jakrapob now seems intent on imposing PPP muscle on a network popular with teenagers and young voters.

The reality is that PPP resent the internet. Despite their alleged pre election activities, PPP know the net is widely used by non PPP voters and remains beyond their control.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

This is a copy of a message I posted on a facebook group. The group is called "I think our new Prime Minister should go back to the kitchen". The group is full of Thai students who speak English very well i.e. middle and upper class Thais.

Thai students, what are YOU going to do about this?

I'm not just talking about Samak. He is, after all, a democratically elected leader (though that is a worry in itself). I'm talking about this cycle we are stuck in of coup, corrupt government, another coup, another corrupt government and so on.

Why do Thai people tolerate this? Some foreigners seem to think Thai people don't care, but I don't think that's true for most Thais.

For certain, the likes of Samak are elected by Thailand's rural people. These people may be less aware of corruption issues and simply prefer the type of politician who speaks in a down to earth, Thai village style.

But it's easy to see that here on Facebook we have a lot of Thai students who are studying abroad or at a good university or school in Thailand. We're talking middle or upper class here. So these are people that give a damn and have some idea what's going on, so why put up with it?

The general message I get from the "upper" classes is simply: "They are all the same. All Thai politicians are corrupt so what can we do?".

Well actually there are things you can do. The only way to make changes in any country is by getting enough people together. Rulers know that a real threat comes when enough people raise their voice. Thailand has groups such as PNET (People's Network for Elections) , PNAC (Peoples' Network Against Corruption) and all sorts of university groups set up. Giles Unpagkorn, for example, is a leader of a political party that will not run for election for at least ten years. They want to build a solid foundation that does not rely on patronage or quick fixes before they run. These are just a few examples of what's out there for those who want to get involved.

What it really comes down to is how much you care. It's easy to say "They're all the same so what's the point?" then go back to reading Facebook and listening to your iPod, but if you really want to do something to help Thailand, then you can. Any effort makes a difference. Yes, sometimes democratic groups have been placed in harm's way, that's what happens when those in power feel threatened. But it is not in vain, changes have happened and will continue to happen.

So to the Thais who have been lucky enough to be born richer than most of their countrymen, what are you going to do to help?