The Last Decade


Ten years ago, in 1998, Thailand was still struggling with the impact of the financial crisis and what was perceived to be the do-nothing Democrat Party government. Many thousands had lost their jobs and, depending who you believe, were either received in rural heartlands thanks to the outstanding kindness of the Thai people or were forced to suffer under or full unemployment as an alternative to entering risk-taking labour – or some of both, of course.

Thailand had never had a democratically-elected government which had either ruled on its own or served a full term. Money and personality patronage politics dominated the country and the elite interests maintained a strict hand on who would be permitted to taste any amount of actual power. Economic development, based on low-labour cost manufacturing and export-oriented growth had permitted the argument that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ even when it was demonstrably clear it was doing no such thing but was ensuring a constant supply of new workers willing to work in factories and maintaining downward pressure on wages.

Apart from a few small parties, there was next to no ideological content in the manifestoes offered by the leading parties and it was difficult to fit a cigarette paper between any of them when it came to substantive issues.

Much of this has changed in the last decade and while it has not all been wonderful, some of those changes are certainly worth celebrating. Irrespective of opinions about Thai Rak Thai, it is indisputable that the electoral success of the party (and the very broad coalition that initially sustained it) has changed the grounds on which parties can be elected (when elections are permitted, that is). The pro-poor and redistributive elements of Thai Rak Thai have now become the centre ground over which ideological arguments rage – the quality of the discourse is still generally low but it is possible to improve it. Increased and identifiable ideological positions are the best way to reduce the influence of money politics and vote buying.

The rural poor have been given a stake in the future of the country and seem determined to keep it, if they are permitted to do so by the same elite interests whose grasp on the throat of power has been reinforced by certain recent events.

Poverty continues to be reduced and more and more poor people have the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families – not all will be able to take those opportunities of course but they should still be provided. The sky has not fallen as a result.

Damage Caused by Right-Wing PAD Mob Will Take Years Just to Measure


The damage done to Thailand by the actions of the anti-democracy mob will probably take many years to measure and years more from which to recover – and that is not to mention the deaths and injuries the mob has directly caused already (and the many more likely to come, alas).

There is also the economic cost: more than 1.5 trillion baht has been wiped off the share prices on the index of Stock Exchange of Thailand alone. Foreign investors have been postponing decisions and actively moving away from Thailand. The tourism industry is suffering considerably with foreign arrivals down 30% on normal, attributed to the actions of the armed, right-wing PAD mob holding the country to ransom.

The normal business of government has been delayed and disrupted – running a modern, complex country is a difficult and time-consuming business and requires the best minds in government devoted to it – this was the reason the junta gave up military rule in 2007, not because of any desire for a return to democracy or any pretence at ‘reform’ but because even the jackboots realized they were simply not up to the job any more. Military juntas could get away with years of kleptocratic misrule in the 50s, 60s and even the 70s and beyond – but not today.

Perhaps the worst damage has been to the reputation of Thailand and the Thai people. Few people outside the country can imagine why the Thai people, so many of whom were killed in the desperate fight for democracy and freedom, seem to be happy to see democracy sacrificed for the sake of the vanity of criminals like super-rich media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul, a coterie of dangerous military types and a few thousand ‘useful idiots.’

Thais at the Olympics Update


Gold medal winning weightlifter Prapawadee Jaroenrattanarakoon has returned to Thailand and has gone back to Chiang Mai to rest. There is some discussion of why she came home early, who controls her fate and so forth. I wrote before of the financial motives which underline the ambitions of athletes here and their desire to reward their families one way or another.

She remains Thailand’s only medal winner from the first week of the Olympics but hopes remain for some other boxers and taekwondo merchants – what is a taekwondo person called? Fighter? Athlete? Worapoj Phektum, who won a silver in Athens four years ago, is through to the last eight of the 54 kg weight event after defeating Italian fighter Jahyn Vittorio Parrinelli 12-1, which sounds fairly conclusive. He goes on to fight a Cuban in the next round and Cubans are generally the strongest in the event, especially since they are all classified as ‘amateurs.’ However, Sailom Adi and Pichai Sayota were both beaten.

It is, in a sporting sense anyway, a pity that there is no women’s boxing because that would lead to some more medal prospects for the Kingdom – those little Thai women can be very fierce, as many of us are aware.

The Bangkok Post is running a story about those women cheerleaders from the Opening Ceremony who sang, clapped and danced for several hours in what seemed to be rather trying weather conditions. Apparently they had to strip naked as part of the audition process, at least according to the Beijing Daily which is the source of the story. It will be interesting to see how much of a backlash there will be about China here – nationalism is all the rage in the media at the moment but criticizing the Chinese is always dangerous as they have very long memories.

3G Technology by 2012, Maybe


3G technology may finally be coming to Thailand, as the government has agreed in principle to a 29 billion baht (around US$900 million) investment. The plan involves building and opening 5,220 ‘base stations’ around the country which will enable anyone to log on to the internet from anywhere using a mobile broadband device (no, I don’t really understand how it all works – ask an engineer or a teenager).

Either TOT Public Co., Ltd. or ACP Mobile Co. Ltd. will be selected to lead the investment. The first is publicly-owned and would seem to be a sensible choice – not sure what ACP is – a quick search does not reveal anything. Perhaps a new venture by an existing company? In any case, expect a vindictive court to rule the whole thing illegal and unconstitutional in about five years.

Well, last time I went to Japan (last year, in fact, Kyoto as it happens), my mobile phone would not work and people (in polite Japanese style) rather sneered at the limited technology I had – so does 3G mean that I will have to upgrade my phone and computer and, more significantly and expensively, those machines owned by wife and number one daughter? The plan suggests that the technology will not be available until 2012 anyway, even if it is on schedule which is probably an optimistic hope.

One thing about opening dates here in Thailand is that, some time prior to the event, people will select a suitable opening date based on how auspicious various astrologers believe it to be – the opening is then scheduled for that date and must go ahead, irrespective of whether the particular project is anywhere near finished. This can lead to some embarrassing events when dignitaries solemnly declare open (complete with nine chanting monks) sites on which significant construction is still taking place (although workers can expect a day off).

Grand Theft Auto Banned; Troublemakers


The Grand Theft Auto IV game has been banned in Thailand after a young man of 18 has, apparently and allegedly, killed a taxi driver to obtain money – thereby recreating a scene in the game. The man’s name has not been released but he might face the death penalty for the murder.

There have been a number of complaints about violent computer games recently – well, to be honest, there have been a number of complaints about a wide range of modern cultural phenomena, on the (wholly unfounded) basis that the whole of Thai society is going to hell in a handcart. The prurient right has received more power since the demonstrations of 2006. A number of those protestors sought to dress up their greed and hatred of the democratically-elected government with some kind of moralistic posturing. That unfortunate tendency has remained prominent and, in the current climate, no one is in any position to point it out too forcefully.

That does not mean that there are not bad things going on, of course. There are reports every day of people holding up convenience stores, involved in smuggling drugs rings and all kinds of crime. I am not sure if any of that is as bad as deliberately trying to stir up racial hatred, which is the new wheeze of the anti-democracy mob (and their shadowy etc and so on). At least the PM is stirring on this one and I think Thai society as a whole would understand the mobsters are going too far with this. Research recently reported shows that the majority of people, for example, prefer the government to go ahead with its democratically-mandated policy to amend the junta’s charter, since otherwise the whole political situation is likely to come to a grinding halt or worse.

There are no links in the body of this blog because the network has gone down – not sure how much time I will have later to rectify the problem.

Is the Monkey Head the Man to Lead Thai Football Forward?


The recent results from Wimbledon show that at least some Thai athletes are capable of competing at the very highest level. In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the boxing team brought back one medal of each denomination and hopes are quite high for a similar level of success. Women boxers have also been successful in world title fights at the lightest weights, while the Olympics also witnessed victories in the women’s weightlifting competition. Not every sport is going to be successful, of course, given the average build of Thai athletes and the level of support available – but the victory of Spain in the Euro 2008 Championship showed that being shorter and slighter than opponents need not be a critical disadvantage.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that the Thai (men’s) football team has seemed to be going backwards in recent years. The just concluded World Cup 2010 Qualifying Campaign ended in five defeats and one meaningless victory, while the Kingdom was defeated in the final of the last Southeast Asian championships by Singapore – while countries such as Vietnam in particular are showing real promise of involvement. Despite the corruption in Vietnamese football (well, Vietnam as a whole to be honest), the domestic league is quite competitive and nationwide and that is making a significant improvement.

In Thailand, meanwhile, the FA of T have vacillated between appointing foreign and Thai managers of the football team and have not given any of them enough time. Since the reign of Peter Withe, when it really looked like the team could make the next step forward, things have stagnated or actually worsened.

The new manager seems set to be former Everton and England midfielder Peter Reid, widely and rather cruelly known among football fans as ‘Monkey Heid,’ owing to an unfortunate physical resemblance. Reid, it is said, has ‘fallen in love’ with Thailand after some gigs here working for satellite TV, although it is also true that he seemed to have little prospect of getting a new managerial job in the UK. Reid’s managerial career has been mixed (his playing career was excellent). Initial success at Manchester City and Sunderland was not matched at Leeds and Coventry. He has a reputation for playing quite a rigid long-ball 4-4-2 game which seems unsuited for Thailand – unless the FA of T can start naturalizing some tall centre-forwards born overseas – while his reputation for falling out with players appears to be an accident waiting to happen in a system such as is found here. Still, he is old enough to have matured and achieved wisdom as a manager and let us hope that he can identify players willing to play for him and a system under which they can flourish.  

The Poverty of Public Discourse (Not Just a Rant about Newspapers)


One of the frustrating things about living in and writing about Thailand is the low quality of the media and of public discourse. Consider this story, from the official government news website, entitled Poll: Public ponders possible ways to break political impasse.” This concerns a poll conducted by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University Poll – i.e., with students for interviewers. 1,266 individuals were, apparently, interviewed.

The beginning of the story runs: “Marginally over one-fourth — 28 per cent — of the Thai public look to the dissolution of the House of Representatives as an appropriate way for a political breakthrough to help ease the country’s conflicts and to end the ongoing protests aimed at bringing about a change of government, according to a new survey.”

That is not the most obvious way to begin such a story, especially by an official news agency which is, presumably, in support of the legally elected government’s mandate to uphold democracy in the country. Would it not be better to say that more than 70% reject the anti-democracy movement’s demands that the government be brought down on the basis of various contested court decisions? Suan Dusit does not, so far anyway, produce results as prejudiced as those emanating from ABAC Poll – part of Assumption University.

Newspapers are little better, if at all. Of the two English language dailies, the Nation has becoming an increasingly shrill and unbalanced hater of the pro-poor People’s Power Party and its predecessor, Thai Rak Thai. The Bangkok Post, to which I subscribe, is becoming increasingly worse with the casual bigotry and subjectivism of its supposed news coverage. This story about the removal of Public Health Minister Chaiya Sasornsab because of a decision by the Constitution Court contains a number of contentious statements posing as objective truth and this egregious sentence: “As minister, Mr Chaiya was a lightning rod of controversy as he took action that effectively halted and tried to reverse so-called “compulsory licensing” of drugs – the fancy term for busting patents so that the government does not have to pay intellectual property charges.” So-called? A fancy term that encapsulates in two words what the writer (who prefers to remain anonymous, which is scarcely surprising) uses an American colloquialism and 14 clumsily chosen words to explain only in part? No wonder people find it so difficult to formulate coherent intellectual positions on anything. Bah, humbug. And they steal taxis from under the nose of patient, diligent, long-waiting people standing in the rain. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

 

It’s the Economy, Somchai


The Stock Exchange of Thailand’s index fell more than 1% yesterday and is down nearly another 11 points as things stand this afternoon. The Nikkei index in Japan has suffered its longest losing streak in 54 years. Both national and international factors have been identified – internationally, the biggest issue remains concern over what is happening in the USA. The interdependence of the world’s financial and trading systems is now so great that what happens in one place affects what happens around the world. And what happens in the world’s biggest economy is particularly significant for local conditions. We occasionally get stupid people writing in to the Bangkok Pot and elsewhere complaining of foreigners poking their noses into America’s election, as if these obvious facts were not true.

So, speaking from a Thai perspective, who would be the more useful (or less unhelpful candidate)? In terms of politics and peace, it seems clear that McCain would try to continue the dangerous failed policies of the current incumbent and this would raise the threat of terrorism worldwide, as well as keeping oil prices unnecessarily high. He might also be led into confrontation with China or Russia. It is not clear how much different Obama could be in this respect. To be electable, he will presumably have to navigate towards the middle ground and while his election would drain some of the poison accumulated around the world during the Bush years, it will take some time before confidence can be rebuilt.

In economic terms, the danger is of an inward looking presidency with the imposition of trade barriers. McCain seems to have no understanding of economics at all and would presumably have to hire some outsiders to do the thinking for him, while Obama will be aware of the importance of industrial and manufacturing America to his constituency and the problems that part of the country is facing from loss of competitiveness and outsourcing of activities to various lower-cost developing countries.

For the environment and general social issues, Obama of course is hugely preferable to McCain in setting an example for progress and optimism for the future – although, again, that is likely to be perhaps severely tempered by what he would be able to achieve in office.

It’s the Economy, Somchai


The Stock Exchange of Thailand’s index fell more than 1% yesterday and is down nearly another 11 points as things stand this afternoon. The Nikkei index in Japan has suffered its longest losing streak in 54 years. Both national and international factors have been identified – internationally, the biggest issue remains concern over what is happening in the USA. The interdependence of the world’s financial and trading systems is now so great that what happens in one place affects what happens around the world. And what happens in the world’s biggest economy is particularly significant for local conditions. We occasionally get stupid people writing in to the Bangkok Pot and elsewhere complaining of foreigners poking their noses into America’s election, as if these obvious facts were not true.

So, speaking from a Thai perspective, who would be the more useful (or less unhelpful candidate)? In terms of politics and peace, it seems clear that McCain would try to continue the dangerous failed policies of the current incumbent and this would raise the threat of terrorism worldwide, as well as keeping oil prices unnecessarily high. He might also be led into confrontation with China or Russia. It is not clear how much different Obama could be in this respect. To be electable, he will presumably have to navigate towards the middle ground and while his election would drain some of the poison accumulated around the world during the Bush years, it will take some time before confidence can be rebuilt.

In economic terms, the danger is of an inward looking presidency with the imposition of trade barriers. McCain seems to have no understanding of economics at all and would presumably have to hire some outsiders to do the thinking for him, while Obama will be aware of the importance of industrial and manufacturing America to his constituency and the problems that part of the country is facing from loss of competitiveness and outsourcing of activities to various lower-cost developing countries.

For the environment and general social issues, Obama of course is hugely preferable to McCain in setting an example for progress and optimism for the future – although, again, that is likely to be perhaps severely tempered by what he would be able to achieve in office.

The True Spirit of Euro 2008 Emerges


At least some of the Thai people have embraced the true spirit of Euro 2008 and have opened betting schemes. 99 people have been arrested for illegal gambling activities, although the amount of cash apparently recovered seems a little low. Thais, to generalize, love gambling and there are all kinds of ways in which they can seek to gain instant fortune. Young people are starting even younger, if this research is to be believed. A few years ago, when football was shown on the television people could text in to predict the final score and the man of the match (they don’t show women’s football) – there would be a lucky draw from those who predicted correctly and the winner would receive a new mobile telephone or a buffalo or something. This has all now been stopped because it promotes gambling and, for reasons it would take too long to explain here, we are currently going through a moralistic phase in society, in public at least.

No doubt we will shortly start seeing newspaper stories blaming late night football watching for students falling asleep in class, being disrespectful to parents and teachers and having sex with each other. By this time next week, I would have thought.

Anyway, people use all kinds of pretexts to gamble. Any time a famous person is hospitalized, for example, people try to find out the room number in the hospital concerned and use that number for the lottery. People will use the date on which people die as another message from heaven or just about anything which can be even loosely construed as a sign (it is, incidentally, a bad tactic to follow, assuming that these messages are not genuine because if then umber does come up, you have to share the winnings with all the other people who followed the same sign. Then again, reasons for certain numbers cropping up are often difficult to understand. This is Thailand).

Why (if at all) Wat Preah Vihear Matters


In the past, Thai kings like their counterparts in Vietnam and Cambodia had little real interest in geographical borders on maps. The land was difficult to cross and the population was thinly spread away from the main urban centres. The power of a king depended on his ability to mobilize an army or the labour to build a monument or a new town. This power largely relied on the king’s relations with princes and governors of other towns.

This changed during the colonial period. The French, colonizing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, started to draw maps of the region and to use western methods to work out who owned what and where. The Thai court went along with this with the usual endless compromising and ‘bamboo diplomacy,’ largely because it seemed irrelevant.

So, we have today’s situation in which the border is uncertain and disputed. Jungle and mountains do not matter much but the situation of Wat Preah Vihear is different. The Cambodian government is trying to get this wat, which is a particularly fine specimen of its type, recognised by the United Nations (in the form of UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site and has submitted a map to the Thai government showing that it is within Khmer territory.

This will be agreed sooner or later since there is little doubt that the wat is actually of Khmer provenance and the Cambodian people are very twitchy about these things – it was only a couple of years ago that a few comments made by a Thai actress supposedly claiming the wat as Thai rapidly led to anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh and the burning of Thai businesses.

While the people may get worked up about who owns the wat, the real issue lies in the Gulf of Thailand. Both sides are aware that there are more reserves of oil and gas to be located in the Gulf in seas which are not definitely allocated either to Cambodia or Thailand. The real importance of the negotiations, therefore, is to act as a precedent for dividing the seas and the precious hydrocarbons lying waiting underneath them.

Another Crushing Defeat


With inflation at a ten year high, the Stock Exchange of Thailand taking another big hit yesterday, problems among the police (and also this), as well as doubts that democracy itself can be sustained, let us turn to the world of sport, which so often gives us reason to exalt in honest endeavour and triumph over adversity.

Or not, as the case may be.

Last night Thailand’s bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was dealt an almost certainly fatal blow – a 3-2 home defeat to Bahrain means the Kingdom now has zero points from three games, which is nine points behind the visitors. The best that can be hoped for now is to win the three remaining games (not very likely) and hope for the best with results elsewhere (also not very likely). Almost certainly Bahrain and Japan will qualify for the next stage of the competition.

Despite all the money and interest shown in sport, especially football, in Southeast Asia, the quality remains disappointingly low. Last night, Southeast Asian champions Singapore were crushed 7-3 at home by not so mighty Uzbekistan. Yes, Uzbekistan are not a bad Central Asian side (although I thought Kazakhstan had more potential in the long run) but to be swatted aside like this is close to humiliating. Can you imagine Qatar or the UAE (which have similar resources) being beaten at home like this? True, those countries play the typically Middle Eastern style which it destroys the soul to watch with the endless murder of football but that is just sensible deployment of resources (and no, not allocation to the referees).

So why is football so bad here, despite the number of people playing it? First, there is no proper national league. Instead, teams from Tobacco Monopoly, BEC Tero and Bangkok University, among others, contest the league. A national league was launched a few years ago but attendances were so low it stopped after one year – yet it offered genuine opportunities for people to support their home town teams. Perhaps Thais would prefer to support Manchester United instead.

Second, the players are not fit enough, both physically and mentally. Last night, the team played spiritedly enough in the first half but then faded in the second.

Third, inconsistent and short termist management. The coach and the coaching structure are relentlessly changed with no thought to long-term development. A few years ago, Peter Withe was in charge and was making real progress – then he was sacked because the FA refused to pay the rent for his apartment. Since then, regression, no matter who gets the chance to be in charge. Sven-Goran Eriksson would understand this.

2. World Tattoo Arts Festival and Exhibition in Pattaya this weekend


This weekend (May 17&18 2008) the Second world Tattoo Arts Festival and Exhibition will take place in Pattaya.

Thailand it’s famous for it’s high quality tattoos, it’s unique style and celebrities like Angelina Jolie and others have visited Thailand just to be tattooed.

More than 100 tattoo artists from all over the world – the USA, Europe, Asia and Australia – will demonstrate their skills this weekend in Pattaya.

Johnny Wong was Thailands first tattoo artist, and it’s his daughter Joy Wong who is now organizing the event.

The first World Tattoo Arts Festival took place in 2006.

You can see pictures from the 1st World Tattoo Arts Festival here.