Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Bangkok’

Degrees of Theft

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 22nd December, 2009

Every evening in Bangkok, as I walk from Sathorn to Silom to have dinner, I pass a sacred tree, which juts out into the pavement, the base of its trunk painted white. Ranged around it are scores of votive offerings, most of them tiny model elephants. They’ve been there as long as I can remember and they are never moved, though sometimes they get dusted with white or red powder. It would be unthinkable for anyone to steal one, even though they just sit there, day and night. Looking at them this evening, I was reminded of the time, years ago, when I sailed to Abu Simbel on the first cruise boat to operate on Lake Nasser. I stayed overnight on the vessel and went for a late night walk round the little settlement that serves the temple. The day trippers had long since flown back to Luxor or Cairo, but thousands of statuettes and other souvenirs were still laid out on tables near the site, not guarded by anybody. The following morning, when I asked some of the vendors whether they weren’t woried that someone would steal something during the night, they looked at me as if I was mad.

In the one case, it is religion that preserves the votive elephants in Thailand; it would be a form of sacrilege to remove them. But in the other case, it is a matter of honesty — and community spirit — albeit rooted in a moral principle backed up by the force of Koranic scripture. Moral strictures can be very strong, which is why, I suppose, so many people (including me) were scandalised when robbers pinched the iconic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign from the entrance to Auschwitz concetraion camp. Mercifully it was quickly retrieved, though cut up into three sections. But when it comes to burglaries in a country like England — whether from houses or gardens or cars — often the stolen goods are not retrieved and one wonders about the mentality and morality of the people who thieve. I have lost count of the number of times our window boxes — full of plants — have been nicked from the living room window-ledge during the night and have ceased wondering what happens to them. Petty theft is so common — and considered so trivial, including by the police — that it is shrugged off as part of modern society. But this is not just a matter of material losses, either great or small. Theft is a violation of people, often unknown, individually or collectively — which is why most religions speak out so strongly against it. And it is one reason why ‘modern societies’ like Britain need to to regain their moral compass.

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Suan Pakkad Palace Museum

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th August, 2009

Suan Pakkad PalaceSurrounded by high rise buildings, busy roads and elevated railway lines, the Suan Pakkad (‘Cabbage Garden’) Palace complex is a small green oasis in hectic Bangkok. The former residence of the late Prince Chumbhot Paribatra of Nagor Svarga — one of the numerous grandsons of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) — features eight linked traditional wooden Thai houses displaying extensive collections of antique furniture, porcelain and other artefacts from South East Asia, China, India and the West. In one corner of the compound stands the fine Laquer Pavilion, a 17th century contruction which was originally part of a temple on the Chao Praya River near the historic city of Ayudya. The Prince had it transported to Bangkok as a 50th birthday present for his consort, Pantip. Unusually, the home was opened up to the public by its royal inhabitants as they believed other people should be able to enjoy their carefully-collected treasuers. Nowadays, the complex — which includes a modern arts centre and archaelogical museum — is owned and operated by the Chumbot-Pantip Foundation, one of Thailand’s largest philanthropic bodies.  The Paribatra family’s most famous scion these days is Sukhumbhand, the Democrat Governor of Bangkok and former Chaimran of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD).

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Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Pungent Birthday Bouquet

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 4th August, 2009

Abhisit VejjajivaThe UK-born Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, turned 45 yesterday and as is the custom in these parts, he received presents from his political colleagues as well as from friends and family. The latter were comparatively modest: an iPod from his wife and a panda doll (sic) from one of his children. A rather embarrassed-looking fellow minister handed over a large bouquet of flowers, in which blue hydrangeas were prominent. This gesture seemed almost as much a tribute to the fact that the PM is still in office eight months after his controversial accession to power, following the political unrest in Thailand last December. I was in Bangkok then as well, and at the time many pundits doubted whether he would manage to keep his Democrat-led coalition’s act together.

As it is, supporters of the disgraced and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — known as the Red Shirts, for their distinctive apparel — are keeping up the pressure against the government. According to a report in the Bangkok Post, their birthday gift to Abhisit was a candle set in human excrement. Subtle, or what? Meanwhile, they have been collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures on a petition to get Thaksin pardoned for past irregularities, which would enable him to return safely. All of which the political mission I am on for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the Thai capital this week particularly timely and interesting.

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Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd August, 2009

Bangkok MetroNoel Coward famously wrote that in Bangkok, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Actually, all the alley mutts I have seen have been well asleep in the shade long before then. But walking back to my hotel at lunchtime today reminded me just how hot and sticky the Thai capital is at this time of the year. It is exactly 40 years since I was last here during August and I can endorse the verdict of many guidebooks on the subject: don’t!  But if you have to — as I do, as I will be working here over the coming week — there is still much to see and enjoy. And at least some of the city is now accessible by either Metro or Skytrain,  both of which are ferociously air-conditioned (eat your hearts out, London commuters).

Disconcerting numbers of Thais are wearing hygeinic facemasks. One might think this is to avoid the traffic fumes — tuk-tuks are particularly polluting — but it appears that a collective mania has seized the place over swine flu. Everyone stared at me when I sneezed on the Metro this morning, but it was only the air-conditioning, honest.

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Thaksin Calls for Revolution

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th April, 2009

thaksin-shinawatraThe exiled, ousted Thai politician Thaksin Shinawatra has declared that now the Thai army has tanks on the streets of Bangkok, ‘it is time for people to come out in revolution.’  Thousands of his red-shirted supporters brought chaos to the Thai capital over the weekend and forced the cancellation of a planned summit of leaders from the 10 ASEAN (South East Asian) countries in the coastal resort of Pattaya. They are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was voted into power by the parliament in December, and has now imposed a state of emergency. Thaksin was removed from the premiership in 2006.

The Red Shirts have become increasingly violent in their anti-government protests, setting fire to buses, attacking government cars and throwing missiles, including petrol bombs, at police. But in return, the army has gone out onto the streets, firing live rounds into the crowds, as well as into the air, causing dozens of injuries. Fatalities are certain if the confrontation does not stop and there must be a likelihood of the military making a coup d’etat, as they have done on various occasions in Thailand’s recent history, unless some semblance of calm is restored. For the time being, Abhisit says he is hanging on in there, but his political position is perilous. And he can hardly complain about the Red Shirts taking to the streets, as the rival, conservative Yellow Shirts, who brought Bangkok’s airports to a standstill four months ago, as well as camping out in the capital’s administrative area, were larely responsible for the chain of events that brought him to power.

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Freedom of Expression in Thailand

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th January, 2009

king-bhumibol-1    One doesn’t normally think of Thailand as a repressive society, especially not in comparison with some of its neighbours, particularly Burma. But there is one striking feature of the Thai legal framework that sticks out like a sore thumb: its laws on lese majesté. Criticism of the monarchy is illegal and can land the unwary into deep trouble, as the  young Australian writer, Harry Nicolaides, has discovered to his cost. He has just had a three-year jail sentence confirmed for writing a few lines about a dissolute fictional Thai Crown Prince in his novel, Verisimilitude. He has already been in detention for five months and had originsally been sentenced to six years. No wonder he has described the whole affair as an Alice in Wonderland experience — especially as his novel sold precisely seven copies.

According to the BBC’s correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head (who is facing lesser, unrelated charges of lese majesté himself), it is not clear why the authorities have dealt so severely with Harry Nicolaides, who says he has suffered severely in prison, but there has been a rise in similar cases taken out against Thai nationals as well, as the military (amongst others) seek to protect the image of octogenarian King Bhumibol and his family. The King is genuinely revered by most Thais, which makes the current laws and their stringent appplication somewhat unnecessary. Moreover, sending people to prison for expressing views about the monarchy — even in fiction — is only going to heighten the debate about the Thai succession and the future role of the monarchy, which has been one of the side-effects of recent political turmoil in Thailand. As far as the international community is concerned, the new Liberal-led (Democrat Party) government in Bangkok will now come under scrutiny regarding its response to this situation.

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Thailand’s Next Prime Minister?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th December, 2008

abhisit  Yesterday I was one of the guest speakers at a Liberal International/Friedrich Naumann Stiftung conference in Bangkok on ‘Safeguarding Democracy: the case of Thailand and its regional/global impacts’. But the star turn in the morning was Abhisit Vejjajiva, the British-born and Oxford-educated leader of the Democrat Party of Thailand, who will almost certainly become the country’s new Prime Minister tomorrow, providing there is no last-minute hitch in forging a coalition between the Democrats (who are LI observer members and mainly strong in Bangkok and the south of the country) and various other groups. Abhisit (who reportedly made some of the lady Western journalists at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand swoon recently) is seen as the best hope of ushering in a new era of politics in this South East Asian nation, which has known too many cases of ‘brown envelope’ politics — shameless venality and corruption.

In Abhisit’s favour is the fact that the PAD ‘yellow shirt’ pro-democracy demonstrators who paralysed parts of the city earlier this year and closed down the two main airports, is putting a lot of trust in him and his colleagues to clean up the situation. However, it was clear from meetings with PAD leaders that my colleagues and I had this morning that the new government will be monitored just as closely as was the discredited regime of ousted PM Thaksin (who is still trying to enthuse his ‘red shirt’ supporters from his exile in the UAE) and his short-lived successors, so Abhisit will have to make sure that he delivers real change quickly! 

Links: www.abhisit.org and www.liberal-international.org

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The Ghosts of Erawan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th December, 2008

One of the most unsettling things about returning to Bangkok after an absence of nearly four decades is that most parts of the city are completely unrecognisable. The Thai capital was an essentially low-rise conglomeration in the late 1960s, whereas now it is full of skyscrapers and the (very efficient) Skytrain dominates several major arteries. I was hoping to find a point of reference when I went to a meeting in the Erawan Hotel in the main business district, but the old government-owned hotel I knew had been knocked down and replaced with a an anonymous-chic Grand Hyatt edifice that could have been anywhere in the world — except for the Hindu shrine outside.

The shrine was built over 50 years ago, to try to assuage the bad karma brought about by allegedly starting the erection of the original Erawan Hotel on an inauspicious date. All sorts of mishaps occured during the hotel’s construction, including injury to workmen and the sinking of a ship bringing Italian marble for its decoration. So the shrine was erected and the mishaps miraculously stopped. It still attracts masses of worshippers and is sometimes the scene for classic Thai dancing.

Two years ago, the shrine attracted a new kind of notoriety when late one night a manic-depressive attacked a gilded plaster image of Brahma with a hammer. He was immediately set upon and beaten to death by two refuse collectors who happened to be there. It was claimed by some rabble-rousers that the attack on the image had been instigated by the then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, so that the deity could be replaced by some dark force supportive of Thaksin (who was later ousted and now lives in exile). This is just one colourful example of how Thai politics and customs are unlike those almost anywhere else in the world!

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Bangkok Back in Business

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 10th December, 2008

When I landed at Bangkok airport last night, I discovered everything was back to normal. No-one who was uninformed could have guessed that only last week, the place was being occupied by thousands of protestors and that there had even been violent confrontations. Everything is functioning smoothly, it’s all spotlessly clean and hordes of tourists are pouring off planes again. Would Heathrow be able to pick itself up and dust itself down so quickly if it had been occupied by thousands of people for a week? I doubt it.

It’s nearly 40 years since I was last in the Thai capital — five sprells of R and R during my time as a journalist in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — so I have much to (re-)discover. For the moment, I am just gobsmacked by all the huge shopping malls and the modernity of the place. Watch this space!

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