News from Bangkok: 26 March 2012

While Toshiba is planning to build a new plant (because the old one got damaged during the floods of 2011), this time in a different, less flood-prone location, 32 provinces in Thailand are now suffering from drought.

Meanwhile, the Thai Ministry of Transport is promising free car inspections till April 12. Why? Because they want to reduce the number of accidents on Thailand’s roads during the songkran festival season.

More people die on Thailand’s road during the four-day holiday than during a comparable time-frame in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

That’s a pretty bad statistic, and if you want the concrete numbers, there are here:

During the seven deadly days of Songkran,  last year, road accidents killed 271 people nationwide, down 24.93% compared to 361 deaths in 2010, according to the Road Safety Centre data. However, that is the official count and government officials are notorious for fluffing their counts.

During last year’s celebrations road accidents dropped 8.56% from 3,516 to 3,215 accidents. Also, the number of injuries also dropped by 8.57% or from 3,802 to 3,476 injuries.

The single most common cause of fatalities? Drunk driving.

Apart of that, the Thai Finance Ministry raises its growth forecast to around 5.5% (up from 5% earlier this year) and predicted that interest rates will raise.

Thailand’s finance minister, said […] the baht should weaken to a range of 32 to 34 a dollar to help exporters. The currency traded at 30.78 today.

However, whether that’s based on plans or wishful thinking is not clear.

And the World Bank has released a report that states that skills shortages have become Thailand’s biggest obstacle to doing business and they’ve published a couple of recommendations on how to improve this situation.

Drug Busts in Bangkok (September)

The Bangkok police announced what its anti-narcotics operations achieved between August 30-September 12.

  • 277 drug addicts were admitted to the rehabilitation program.
  • Nearly 4,000 suspects were arrested on drug-related charges.
  • The number included 2 major narcotics producers and over 300 dealers.
  • Nearly 700 suspects were arrested for illegal possession of drugs and nearly 3,000 users were arrested.
  • Nearly 30,000 methamphetamine pills, 11 kilogram of powdered methamphetamine, nearly three kilograms of crystalized methamphetamine and 43 kilograms of cannabis were confiscated.

For a more complete showcase check out this TAN Network article.

Also, it’s worth to remember what drug rehab and drug detention centers in Thailand are like.

New BTS Line in Bangkok

The new “purple line” of the BTS system in Bangkok is scheduled to open 2014 and will serve north-eastern Bangkok. The estimate costs run into 50bn baht. For more details read: Bangkok Mass Rapid Transit-Purple Line, Bangkok, Thailand

Tracking down the people who are responsible for the bombs in Bangkok

After the grenade attack on Friday night (around 11:30 pm) at Pratunam near the Rajprasong intersection (nobody got hurt).

According to the DSI the people who plan and finance the attacks are using new methods so that they can’t be tracked down. In particular, they now use couriers who enter the Thailand from other nations who carry money that is used to pay the people who do the bombings. This is done so that cash withdrawals or wire transactions do not reveal clues about who might be financing it. However, it is not clear how they obtained that information.

DSI director-general Tharit Phengdit also claims that the people behind these bomb attacks are the infamous “men in black” who were blamed by the government to be responsible for a lot of the violence during the April/May 2010 protests.

“They have now gone underground after they are no longer accepted as being part of the [red shirts’] political movement,” he said.

However, again, no evidence or explanation has been given how they have reached at that conclusion.

Source: Police investigate grenades in Pratunam

Politicians Behind The Bombings?

Police Chief Pol Gen Wichean Potephosree announced that they have DNA evidence that links politicians to the recent bombings in Bangkok. This is a rather surprising statement.

Although one could argue about what’s the most surprising thing about this revelation. Some people might be tempted to say they are not at all surprised about the possibility of politicians being responsible for the bombings, but rather that the police publicly announces that.

The Police Chief revealed this information after meeting with Deputy Prime Minster Suthep Thaugsuban. However, they did not reveal any names of politicians involved, and they also didn’t clearly say what kind of evidence they have.

Source: DNA evidence links politicians to bombings: Police Chief (MCOT)

Bangkok under Communism

What would Bangkok be like now if Thailand had undergone a successful Communist revolution? Of course, the answer to the question depends to a considerable extent on how the revolution took place, the nature of the ideology of the victorious revolutionaries (i.e. more Marxist-Leninist or Maoist), how much opposition there had been and so forth. These issues would have had a direct effect on the treatment of those who opposed the revolution: for example, if there had been a long and desperate struggle, such as in Vietnam and Cambodia, then the opposition could expect some harsh treatment – at best, thousands (maybe millions) would have fled overseas to establish resistance, government in exile and so forth from other countries (many would have suffered predation in the same way that Thai pirates attacked, raped and robbed so many Vietnamese boat refugees). At worst, large-scale re-education and labour camps would have been established and, no doubt, many would have died in their confines.

As for the city itself, it seems likely that many existing monuments and buildings would have been re-dedicated to other purposes; while new monuments to Communist leaders and victories would be found. Development of the city would have been lower overall, presumably, although public housing projects and public transportation systems might be better or at least more extensive than they are now.

What would have happened to the ethnic Chinese people in the city? Ethnic Chinese suffered under the Cambodian and Vietnamese revolutions, which initially received support from the Soviet Union. If the same pattern were repeated in Bangkok, many thousands of Sino-Thais would have found themselves persecuted and probably driven out of the country, with their capital (since Chinese are regularly accused of becoming rich at the expense of others around Asia). Russian and Russian-trained engineers would have increased the industrial estate systems, although foreign investment and ownership would presumably have been outlawed and factories would be present at the peripheries of the city as they were then. Collectivisation of agriculture would presumably have failed but not before the creation of large, central markets where goods would have been made available. Some wats may have survived but in reduced conditions.

Bangkok after Colonization

Thailand or Siam as it then was known was never formally colonized, unlike its neighbours Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. If it had been, what would the impact have been on Bangkok?

To answer this question, it is necessary to look at the changes made to other capital cities, such as Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Phnom Penh, Vientiane and Rangoon (Yangon). These cities were all subject to colonizing forces, the first three under French influence and the last under the British. These all became colonial capital cities (Saigon was a regional capital city rather than a national capital city, because Vietnam under the French was for long divided into three parts). What are the characteristics of a colonial capital city? First, it should be located on the coast because it was sea transport that represented the principal means by which goods accumulated in the colony could be relocated for consumption in the imperial centre. So, the capital of Burma under the British was moved from Mandalay in the north to Rangoon on the southern coast.

Second, the city centres were divided into zones depending on residence requirements. Superior land would be reserved for the colonizers and those privileged clerks and servants of the ruling class. The native people would be restricted to particular zones away from the great monuments and symbols of power. Further, according to the French pattern of urban development, the areas in which the poor lived must be properly regulated and easily accessible to the police and other state authorities: so, as in Phnom Penh and Vientiane, a grid system is created and comparatively wide streets or boulevards created to join individual blocks. This made it much more difficult for political dissidents or criminals to hide from the state and its representatives. Riots and demonstrations can be contained or suppressed as required.

Finally, new classes of intermediaries would be created: the clerks, police, civil servants and others through which the imperial power can control a much larger population of local people resentful of foreign control. The British used Indian troops and Sikh and Nepalese Gurkha police; the French used Chinese or semi-Francophone Vietnamese. These people were given special privileges and acted as a buffer between the local people and the Europeans: if there was violent resistance, it was mostly aimed against these intermediaries.

So, in the case of Bangkok, there would have been no need to move the location, since it is located next to a port. However, the main commercial and government centres would have been moved nearer the port; possibly the royal institutions would have been relocated to a peripheral area where they would have appeared less important. The higgledy-piggledy sois and sub-sois that now characterise Bangkok would all have been eradicated and a grid system superimposed upon the ‘native’ Thai areas. Between these two parts of the city would have been an intermediate zone dominated by the Indian, Vietnamese or Chinese (probably Indian) people imported to administer the colony and which would now be running the country rather than the Thai aristocracy. These people would have been the recipients of violent protest, almost certainly, in the post-colonial period. Depending on how the independence process was handled, which is an imponderable question, a successful Communist revolution would have been more or less likely.

Little Green Bus Devils

I wonder whether other aficionados of traffic on the mean streets of the Big Mango will agree with me that it is the little green bus devils that are the most dangerous – dangerous for the poor customers clinging to their metal rails and vulnerable to all kinds of shock and awe – and dangerous to all other road-users as the drivers lurch from lane to lane on a nearly but not quite random basis? Well, as from today, the little devils are supposedly banned, after the period during which their operators were given grace to find alternatives has elapsed.

There is expected to be a rally today of those of the 700 buses who have not got around to making the replacement will be able to voice their opinions about the transportation policy of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.


Bangkokians will know full well how popular the Blackberry has become in the Big Mango. Why the popularity? According to Gregory Wade, Managing Director of Research in Motion, there are three reasons:

“Why are the Thai people so attracted to BlackBerry? Why is it so popular? What sets Thailand apart from other markets?,” Wade asked the audience.

His answer was threefold*. First was social media. Thailand has 13 million people using social media of which 2 million are using Facebook. Sixty percent of mobile Facebook access is done through a mobile device. People are moving, people are mobile, people are multi-tasking.

Second is localisation. The BlackBerry has a localised product set, not just the phone, complete with applications that are Thai enabled.

Third is the aspiration of Thais who love their celebrities and want to emulate them, using the same phones as these social influencers.

“This is an example of a unique element in Thailand that has taken hold, whether they are societal influencers, business influencers or celebrity influencers. Thai people love to adopt the latest technology. They want to adopt the latest and greatest design, setting the trend,” he said.”

I think it is not controversial to say that Thai people like new trends, technological or not and many will emulate the great and the good. I will also make the observation that, in underground railway stations, passengers approach the glass wall that separates train from people and I can confirm that at least 70%, men as well as women, will check their appearance both from the front and from the back.

* I just said that.

Setback for BMA in War against the Poor and Ugly

A setback for the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority and its plan to recreate Bangkok as a picturesque, working class-free zone as residents of Ratchaburi have told them where to place the 10,000 pigeons they were planning to ship out from the city. Local residents were concerned about what the pigeons would eat, the spread of avian flu and what Khun Somchai Obviouslymadeupname said about ‘nasty city ways’ and ‘unwanted urchins.’

Ban Mankong

According to Dr Sopon Pornchokchai, President of the Thai Appraisal Foundation, writing in the Bangkok Post:

“Providing security of tenure for slum-dwellers where land is scare, and too expensive for others to afford, should be reconsidered. In fact, slums can be relocated to provide better use of land for the slum-dwellers themselves, for other members of other poor communities and for other people in the city without creating disparity.”

Dr Sopon is writing about the Ban Mankong or Secure Housing Scheme under which a small number of people squatting in slums have had their residence exchanged for (very) low cost housing units on the same area. He criticizes the scheme on the basis that more money could have been made through normal property development (with some profits of course diverted towards the poor), that the density of housing is too low for a city like Bangkok, that it privileges a few slum dwellers and, therefore, disadvantages others and so on. His approach is rational, technocratic and apparently based on the belief that the urban planning system in place is fundamentally sound but contains a few flaws which may be resolved through technical efficiency.

In reality, of course, the phrase ‘slums can be relocated’ will strike a chill into the heart of those who have seen it happen in Phnom Penh, for example, or in the run up to the Olympics in Seoul and elsewhere. While it is rational to argue that the poor will benefit more from moving to another location with access to better services and so forth, the problem is that the poor are disenfranchised (in Bangkok there are almost certainly classified as migrants and therefore quite literally cannot vote for representatives of the place where they live) and subject to silencing – if they are removed from their homes (as the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration would like to do with many street vendors, for example, on efficiency, hygiene and aesthetic grounds), then they will just be discarded onto a (possibly quite literally) rubbish dump.


Entrepreneurs of Ladprao

As part of my exciting rock’n’roll lifestyle, I will a couple of days a week walk from the office here to the Carrefour supermarket on Ladprao Road. The other day I was doing just that very thing but a little later than usual and I noticed that more roadside space had been opened up for street vending.

(I also noted how many people park their cars on Ladprao in the evening, thereby causing unnecessary hold-ups: punishment for first offence, impaling.)

The new spaces were used by a woman with a stall and a few tables and chairs selling various meals, including what looked like grilled pork neck. Some other entrepreneurs seem to have branched out into grilled Thai sausage and popcorn – not very money-spinning operations in themselves but offering a few extra baht per day which might make a difference in someone’s life – the people in the soi next to ours who so diligently cook chicken and prepared somtam pretty much everyday have been able to buy a car for their family, for example. That might not sound so earth-shattering but it represents I should think quite a big improvement in their lives. So, it is possible for work on the streets to offer a way out of poverty at least under some circumstances.

Of course, the increasing use of space for street vending has other effects, as well – more pressure is placed on public services (relating to hygiene in particular) and pollution (noise, smell, waste) is increased. Increased commercialization of public space is also not to everyone’s taste and, as more vendors have joined that stretch of road adjoining Union Mall, I find I have to walk in the street because the pavements are so crowded and, given the way that some people drive, that is not something I am entirely happy to do.

Still, as Schumpeter observed: capitalism is an endless process of creative destruction and these streets of Bangkok represent capitalism in action.

The Patience of a Boddhisattva

Driving in to the office this morning, we were met by a stream of motor cyclists driving against the traffic over the bridge on Ratchadaphisek Road – police roadblock I surmised with characteristic acuity.

So it proved, therefore: a gang of cops was hanging around at the other end of the bridge ready to nab (for, as some allege, revenue-raising purposes in the run-up to the New Year festivities) motor cyclists illegally using the bridge. They have been there quite often, recently, making this quite a risky short cut but one which plenty of people still seem to be ready to take.

In addition to this, in the course of a single seven km journey, we had the woman walking right across the front of the car without looking anywhere but to the front, the car (a Honda Jazz) pulling out right in front of us and very nearly provoking a crash, the usual Mercedes weaving backwards and forwards through the traffic and taxis illegally waiting by the side of the road for a fare and causing tailbacks.

This is all quite common, if not normal.

How to Ride in a Taxi in Bangkok

When it is raining and in the rush hour and taxis are very scarce, coming and standing two paces in front of me after I have been waiting for twenty five minutes is going to cause an argument. Do you think I can’t see you? Do you?

Even though it might save you a few steps, try to avoid standing on the very corner of a busy soi to flag down the taxi and then in very leisurely fashion get in – by stopping there, the taxi is making a large number of other people wait and might provoke an accident. Despite the enormous effort involved, walk a few more steps away from the junction to avoid this problem.

At the end of the journey, you will be expected to pay some money. Plan ahead for this or else you might find the taxi inconveniencing other people by clogging up the traffic. The taxi driver will help you by turning on the meter so you can have a good idea how much you will have to pay at the end. It is not really necessary to wait until the taxi driver has stopped before starting to look for some money and then counting out the fare to the exact baht in 25 satang coins.

The taxi driver does not want to take eight teenage boys 200 metres down the road. Walk.

Whether getting in or getting out, hurry up.

The Mean Streets of Bangkok

Lad Prao 101 (or Lat Prao or Praw or various other spellings) is the riskiest part of Bangkok – official! Well, according to a report in the rarely reliable The Nation and emanating from the police, 5,365 spots in Bangkok have been identified as risky. I’m not sure how helpful this is (assuming, of course, that the police actually want to be helpful, which is far from certain). Bangkok is no Baltimore and making people feel insecure will serve only to spread stress – perhaps the police are concerned about their budget.

What kind of crimes are involved? Well, I personally know two people who have suffered street robberies in the last couple of years (handbag snatching). We have had another murder of a prominent person but this appears to have been an assassination rather than the kind of thing that most people have to concern themselves with –  while the violence in the South has never spread from that area, if one discounts the army propaganda that persons unknown from the South were responsible for the New Year’s Eve bombings a couple of years ago which most people seem to believe were by some part of the military itself (I simply report what people say, I of course have no opinion on the matter).

On the whole, I have rarely felt intimidated by civilians in the Bangkok streets – it was a different story when Sonthi’s jackboots put an armoured car and armed soldiers outside our office after the disastrous 2006 military coup. A guy tried to scam me when I was going to one wat by claiming it was closed and I should go to some tourist trp shop instead (I just ignored him) and a couple of taxi drivers have tried to pull a fast one (out of the hundreds and probably thousands of taxi journeys that I have taken). I daresay that I pay over the odds for some street market items and so forth but I consider that acceptable.

My Black-Hearted Mistake about the New Church Revealed

Apparently I am completely wrong about everything – well, I suppose I knew it all along. I had been complaining about the new church that is being built at the end of the soi – this was a perfectly justified complain to my mind on the following grounds:

Aesthetic – do we really need more churches in Bangkok?

Ideological – the baleful spread of medieval superstition

Practical – where will all the church-goers park their cars? Bangkok people do not walk anywhere (rumour has it they do not even walk upstairs in their own houses) and so there will be even more congestion on Sundays and movable feasts and the like, also weddings. Will there be funerals there? Is there a graveyard nearby or will these be some species of Christian that accepts cremation as an appropriate means for organizing post-death accommodation?

(Also, on practical terms, I am glad it is not a mosque because of the five times daily call to prayer that would entail – did I tell you about my sojourn in Kassala in a new house next to the mosque which had had donated state-of-the-art loudspeaker equipment capable of broadcasting the call to the nomads in the desert many miles away? The donation was in return for racing camels, but that is another story.)

Well, as I say, I have been declared wrong in all particulars since I am reliably informed by She Who Must Be Obeyed (senior and junior versions) that the aura arising from all those prayers will spread out across Ladprao and will bring luck to everyone. And we can use some luck (this being the unspoken subtext).

In any case, the outside of the church is nearly finished, it seems (I am not an expert in building) and the little steeple has some kind of crucifix on the top. Let’s see what brand of Christian they are – I suspect some kind of evangelizing God-botherers (and more importantly neighbour-botherers) since they are the only ones with money these days.

Streams of Blessings

The new church building, if church it is to be, is coming along apace at the end of the soi (helped along by the fact that some kind of metal-cutting gear is employed during weekends and at times of the day when people generally prefer a little peace and quiet). The walls are up and the metal roof buttresses (I don’t know what these are really called – ask a builder or an architect) are jutting up into the air. It should, I suppose, be open for business of whatever sort by the end of the year.

There is, of course, another church along the way down Ladprao Road – it has the title ‘Streams of Blessings,’ presumably because whoever is responsible for branding the place (unless it has come directly as a message from a supernatural, omniscient being (no, me neither)) found it necessary to compete with local religious brands – the Buddhist philosophy offers immediate and so to speak tangible benefits for its adherents. Do good, by giving food to the monks or donating to the wat or going on some pilgrimage for example, and this will have a direct and measurable impact upon the karmic balance of the individual – this in turn has a direct impact on the nature of the form that will be adopted in the next incarnation of life.

By contrast, the Christian churches have as their brand proposition the need to be self-abnegating now with the hope that there will be pie in the sky at some stage in the future – it is a similar message but different from the Buddhist approach which does not require absolute adherence to being good but the need to be good on balance (in other words, a person can behave as badly as desired as long as compensating good deeds are performed while Christians are permanently marked by the taint of sin).

Consequently, there is a need to offer a little extra – the ‘streams of blessings’ which seem to be associated with American Christianity, which seems to me often to have a self-righteous element. In other words, not only do the Christians go around knowing they will end up in heaven but they can also swan about a bit secure in their sense of moral exceptionalism.

Serenity, Now!

Overnight rain means one thing in particular – it is as inevitable as a very inevitable thing indeed. Walking down the soi this morning – having left the house early especially – I had to skirt round the deeper puddles and then the mud where the guys are building what is said to be a church. Round the corner and up to the main road – where a middle-aged woman in somewhat unusual clothes had stopped to wai the statues in the middle of the bak soi – before (followed by two younger women who did exactly the same thing) completely failing to look right before walking across the road and nearly getting smeared into religious jelly by the oncoming traffic. By that time, initial impressions had been confirmed – the traffic was abnormally heavy, the bus stops all had lengthy queues and there was not an available taxi to be seen. Waiting for a taxi in the aftermath of a rainstorm has its distinctive characteristics – first is the opportunity it offers the hopeful passenger to relish the pollution along Ladprao Road (including gaseous, particulate and noise) while having to hop out of the way when a vehicle comes along determined to extract maximum splashage of poor pedestrians. However, there is something more irritating: when I arrived, I stood a couple of steps behind a woman who was already waiting who was in turn standing a little downroad from a couple also apparently waiting for a taxi (and who gave up after just 15 minutes – wimps!). As the time ticked along to a 25-minute wait without one single free taxi passing by, two people came and stood behind me. One was a female university student (they wear distinctive uniforms) accompanied by a fat, stupid-looking boy also in university uniform. After a few minutes I could hear them talking to each other and then, at a snail’s pace, they walked past me and the woman in front of me and took up a position ten yards further up the road with a view to stealing any taxi that came along. Reader, I stabbed them both. Well, no, I didn’t of course but, faced with the choice of confronting the slugs or giving up the whole thing as a bad idea, I swallowed my bile and began to walk down the potholed pavement, dodging all the many impediments of Ladprao Road.

Muhammad Yunus in Bangkok

Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus has opened a micro-finance centre in conjunction with AIT in northern banker. Professor Yunus is world-renowned for his scheme, which aims to tackle poverty reduction through making small loans available for poor people to improve their lives through achieving small but significant and achievable goals.

The Grameen Bank, which is the name of the lending institution, offers low cost loans mainly to women, since it is their experience that women are more likely than men to use the money for the reason stated and not to waste it on other, less productive projects. The bank’s record is impressive in achieving money being repaid on time and people managing to achieve their goals and, thereby, improving their lives.

The Bangkok Centre will be the first of its type outside the Professor’s Bangladesh home and will combine lending facilities with research of an innovative nature aimed at finding new ways of combining sustainable agricultural production with income generation. It all sounds like good stuff.

Inevitably, not everyone believes in the ability of microfinance, at least as practiced by the Grameen Bank, to reduce poverty to the extent that sometimes is claimed. On the one hand, there are people who contest the figures and also wonder whether the poverty reduction is quite as effective as it is advertised as being. On the other hand, there are those who claim that it is not the ability of individuals to borrow money that will make a difference to poverty reduction but the system in which they live and which prevents them from improving their situation. So, in order to reduce poverty (if people really do wish to do that and there are certain influential people who do not seem to wish that to happen) then there must be some kind of radical political change. It is not very likely that such political change will occur in Thailand in the foreseeable future.

The more optimistic view is, not surprisingly, supported by governments and international non-governmental organisations, not least because it suggests they can do some good without compromising their own position and privileges.

Supporting Local Business

I see that Khru Somsri is back in business – you can find her online but I will not advertise – she, assuming there really is a she as the marketing suggests, has several rooms in the subway station at Phahonyothin which I pass through on my way to the Carrefour from time to time. After some delay, she opened up her various classrooms just in time for the PM to order all after-hours schools closed owing to the swine flu outbreak. After several weeks, she is now as I say back in business, although I cannot imagine that this has been good either for her cash flow or the willingness of parents to believe their little darlings are safe outside of their constant monitoring.

Well, good luck to her – it is generally a good thing to see new businesses flourishing and, it is hoped, creating jobs for people. I also notice that a new branch of Asia Books has opened in Central Ladprao, on what I would call the second floor. It is the same space as used to be occupied by a small and I guess independent bookshop which had a very small number of English language books and rarely seemed to have many customers for the Thai books.

Asia Books is a good chain and provides English language books in a couple of dozen outlets mostly in Bangkok – although the comparatively newly opened Kinokuniya shop in Siam Paragon is better than any of those branches I have visited. Well, in the interest of supporting local business (and in no way because I am addicted to buying books and already have a large stockpile I will almost certainly never get to working my way through) I decided to pop in and have a look.

It is quite a small shop, especially for a book shop – around the same as most of the clothes shops in a regular shopping mall. The range of books is not too bad – there are the usual categories (Books on Thailand, Asian interest, food, dek stuff, general fiction and so forth) and, inevitably, some of the shelf stacking seems to have been done on a semi-random basis. However, I managed to find something interesting.

Can it survive and flourish? Over the last year or so, the B2S chains have been developing their English language books and their selection of music, in addition to all the other stock they offer. This Asia Books shop is smaller than the book space that B2S devotes to English language books in the department store a few metres away (although not that much more space).

Is there sufficient demand for another bookshop there? I’d like to think so and I’d like to think their assortments of books could become distinctive. We shall see. Now if only we could get a decent HMV or similar such as they have in Singapore …