Monthly Archives: December 2008

Bon Voyage Shane Sweeney

It’s been a bittersweet X-mas. An old friend, erstwhile hippie bon vivant / artist/musician/cosmic raconteur par excellence Shane Sweeney, finally passed away from liver cancer. Am on the road right now, so no pics yet. But here is a letter to him I hope someone reads out at the cremation tomorrow: Dear Shane, Bro, I am so sorry I can’t make it to your last party coz I am in Bandung with the Rinpoche, the whole thing has been planned months ago so I can’t let them all down. Anyway I figured what with your fondness for the Invisible Tibetan Opera you’d forgive me. I can’t tell you how glad I am to have seen you those few short hours before you left us, to have that last hour with you alone, talking so openly and frankly in that crazy warm way that was your signature. To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect, but you exceeded all of of expectations anyway! Yeah, you know what I mean. Sure there was a bit of initial fear (as if most of us wouldn’t have any at a moment like that). But then that spirit of adventure of yours, that big heart of yours, shone through. (Like all those conversations we had over the decades when you ended a big rave with a twinkle in the eye and came right down to earth again with a mirthful cackle). When we cut all the bs in the first minute that morning, that’s when I knew: you really were ready. I left the house that morning feeling so grateful to you for that, and everything everything else you shared over the years. We’re gonna miss you Shaney, you were such an original. Catch up with you later! Bon Voyage. (for friends of Shane: in ‘comments’ there are messages from Eve and Davina)

Nat Geo Society trashes copyright

The sad outcome of the photographer Jerry Greenberg vs National Geographic Society case is really giving photographers the chills. Basically, although NGS was supposed to return the copyright of his extensive works with them after publication for initial use, they then used them on a “108 years of NG Magazine” CD compilation and which reportedly made $70 million on it. Although most of us thought it was pretty airtight in that the rights were to be returned after initial use (long before there were CD ROMs etc) the US courts sided with NGS. So Greenberg is out of pocket some $200,000 and has spent 11 years trying to defend a principle which most of us believe in. The Supreme court is refusing to hear an appeal. A black day for creatives. Shame on NGS.

picking up the pieces

Now the whole Suvarnabhumi thing is recent history, and last weekend the Democrat party managed to secure a majority alliance of MP’s that were formerly affiliated to Thaksin’s PPP.It was all suspiciously fast and easy. How doth the wind blow this way and that. But they have yet to form a government, and most educated Thais are a bit cynical about the whole thing. One political observer on Thai TV point blank came out with “It depends on who pays more…” which in the States can only be matched by the disgraced Governor of Illinois on TV sound bite when asked about his attempt to sell Obama’s senate seat: “Go ahead and tape my phone calls, be my guest..” For a leader who has been under investigation for 6 years and had just been arrested at 6am that’s pretty bald faced. On the Thai side of rotten corruption issues, Thaksin is in Hongkong, back from the Cambodian side of the border, perhaps smarting that his reincarnated party didn’t pick his sister for leader (or perhaps that was orchestrated too, tho she looked a trifle surprised and left clutching her very expensive looking handbag). But there is next weekend, when he plans to address a Red Rally by videophone linkup. Strap yourselves in, investors. Back to Bangkok – last night at dinner, a friend who works in an executive positon at an exclusive 5 star hotel here told me that they had 7%occupancy, and for the whole month of December a projected 19% occupancy. In the middle of high season. Ouch. Personally my own book projects in Thailand have also been put back on the furthest backburners – who can blame the publishers. I will try and push ahead with personal projects for the time being but I have to say that a cold front has hit the economic climate here which is saddening. It does beg the question, even if there is a political solution that the Thai people will swallow, what are they going to do about the long term damage to their credibility as an Asian Tiger? The timing of all of this could not be worse considering the global context. And not only economically. Take tourism. Western governments (and people for that matter) are so quick to get paranoid – the UK issued a ‘most dangerous place to visit’ ban on Thailand – for what? A basically silly, non-violent occupation of the airport which seemed like it was foregone collusion (no typo): riot police defending the airport simply melted away, the Airport Authorities pretty much closed the airport down on their own (it actually wasn’t one of the demands of the PAD protesters!!!) but left the power and aircon on for a full week (comfortable protest), and so on. Then we had the slightly puzzling spectacle of Major General Chamlong, one of the PAD leaders “handing back the airport” in an official ceremony, with AOT officials smiling (well it is the land of smiles). rio-h-dec08024a.jpgWhat with Mumbai and Greece, this was a holiday. What gives, UK government?

IT’S OVER – FOR NOW….

Tuesday morning the 2nd December I went out to to the Supreme Administrative Court of Thailand, way out on the way to Don Mueang airport on the outskirts of Bangkok. Today was the much awaited verdict of the the Constitutional Court, which had to move its venue here because the roads to the proper location were blocked with protesters. The surprise move seemed to have worked, instead of an ocean of red greeting me it was more like a pond. Even though they managed to block the road the court is on. There were probably only about 400 people there, the vast majority of whom seemed to be motorcycle taxi drivers or posers. But they worked hard to put a bit of drama into, and big flag waving has become a staple. dsc_3847.jpg.dsc_3896.jpg

They were there to protest because they pretty much knew the verdict would be against them, that the PPP would be disbanded, and that would mean that government would go into caretakership. The PAD also knew that Somchai would go. So why did they have to put everyone through this? Just to have an ensured victory?

Tuesday evening at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand. Korn Chatikavanij, one of the Democrat Party seniors was asked to give an assessment of the economic damage. It was not a pretty picture, in short Thailand is going to have to start to rebuild international confidence from a negative position. Though still youthful looking he does know the business end of the economy, before entering politics he headed JP Morgan in Thailand.

The evening was dominated by another party stalwart, MR Sukumband Paribatra who is their candidate for Bangkok governor in the coming elections. I must say that he said little of real substance regarding his platform, but did so eloquently. He talked a lot about bringing the smiles back to Thai peoples faces, but offered little of substance as to how he was going to that. Both gents were British educated and had an enviable command of politcal speak.

But in reality it’s not over. A new party has been founded to accommodate the continuation of exiled Thaksin’s agenda. And eventually there will be another election, so the question mark remains. One very relevant question came from the floor was why there is no effective representation for labor or farmers, why there was no parties for them, and why all the political parties were built more around personalities rather than the interests of its members. A pointed question, seeing as Sukumband is from a royal family.

Bangkok: Reds vs Yellows

Thailand’s airport authorities (AOT) are not amused. They have been losing around 50 million baht (about US$ 1.4 million) a day over the last four days, and the economic repercussions go much, much further. Yet strangely enough, they left the power on, the air-conditioning going full blast, and even the muted muzak stayed on. Even if the siege ended today, 6 days later, it would take them 2 days to clean up, reboot systems, and have aviation officials give an all clear. So far the only headway AOT has made has been to get PAD to allow aircraft to be transferred to other airports, a result of what AOT’s director calls “begging, not negotiating”.

The export and import industry are set to have lose around 80 million dollars by one estimate. Some businesses who make their profit on ‘last-minute’ stock manufacturing orders or fresh produce import and export have already gone bust. And those manufacturers who export have lost credibility as their high season orders get stuck.

On a personal note, more touching was the plight of some 400 Muslim pilgrims from southern Thailand who have been hoping to go on the HAJ. They have paid up 145,000 bahts (US$4,200) each, a minor fortune for these villagers, and have very little recourse to alternative means of transport. They all expressed their disappointment in the government’s lack of action on their behalf, not to mention the lack of any reliable information, though by Friday, 4 days into their ordeal, they were promised that they would be flown out “soon”. Though how that was to happen was not clear for days.

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Unlike the tourists, they were not bussed to hotels in Bangkok. The terminal became their home away from home. The last time I saw them, on Saturday, I asked them how they felt. They replied in Malay: “Ya, biasa saja. Kami dapat makan (gratis) tiap hari, terima kaseh. Allahu Akbar”. (“We’re ok, everything is ok. We get free food everyday, thank you. God is great”. Finally on Sunday their patience was rewarded – they boarded buses in orederly fashion, off to U-tapao, where they would have to wait at least until midnight for their Iran Air charter flight.

During these last days the stand-off between the PAD and the government was further complicated by rumours swirling through the capital about a possible army coup. Army commander General Anupong coming out and urging PM Somchai Wongsawat, newly returned from the APEC meeting in Peru, to resign and for the PAD to pull back from the airport had little effect except to fuel more speculation. On Thursday tanks rolling through the capital were called a “display for cadets”. Meanwhile PAD protesters at the airport, seemingly impervious to all rumours, dug in deeper. Perhaps they were encouraged by the news that the army had refused to back up any police action after PM Somchai declared both Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports as areas of emergency.

Friday the Prime Minister declared an emergency in the Suvarnabhumi area, authorizing the use of force to remove protesters, nothing had changed. Late in the afternoon the news went out that the PM had just sacked his chief of police, General Phatcharawat Wongsuwan, whose anti-Thaksin stance is well known. Meanwhile the word on the streets is that General Anuphong is actually on Thaksin’s payroll, but no confirmation. Of course. Rumour is the order of the day, and confirmation seems to be boring for most people here.dsc_3456.jpg

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PAD has reinforced their barricades. The Army has set up barricades near the airport. For their part police set up check points on all roads leading to the airport and moved in thousands of men around the airport. One media van got shot up at PAD check points early on Monday morning, mainly because Thai journalists have taken to wearing “stop the violence” white T-shirts. Pro government supporters in bright red shirts have come into Bangkok from the countryside, holding a massive rally of their own. Yet by Monday morning there was still no resolution. PAD supporters reiterated their defiance, saying they would fight to the death unles Somchai resigned. Tensions along the barricades mounted, with ugly shoving matches between rough and ready PAD mobs and riot police displaying as much restraint as possible.

On Saturday at least one police barricade was overrun by PAD cadres. The police retreated, leaving behind their shields and some helmets which the PAD guards promptly redistributed amongst their own ‘troops’. dsc_3467.jpgAt the PAD barricades women who look more like office workers pick out batons. I asked one woman in her thirties who was waving hers in the air if she had ever used a baton before, and she sheepishly admitted she hadn’t, “But if we have to we will”.

The mood at the airport is defiant, people keep arriving with golfclubs. But rumours and reports of Chamlong saying that the crisis will end before December 2nd, the King’s birthday seem at odds with the mood, and also Sondhi’s statements that there “will absolutely be no negotiations”. Meanwhile both Chamlong and the police are saying “there will be good news on the 2nd”. Whether they are talking about the court verdict which is expected to outlaw the ruling PPP party is not clear. More rumours in a complicated conflict, in which the only thing is clear is the shirt colour of each side.

Thailand’s tourist industry, already apprehensive over global economic turndown-related cancellations this November, is reeling from the implications of this 6 day shutdown. Thousands of stranded tourists, furious over the slow reaction from the government towards their plight, will definitely not be goodwill ambassadors. There is an estimate of a 50% cancellations these coming months.

6 days after the occupation of the airport began, there are still more than a hundred thousand passengers stranded in Bangkok. There was still huge confusion over what to do, where to go, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand struggled to put some order into the mess. TAT, Thai Airways and other agenicies set up emergency check in points in some of the city’s hotels – but getting the information of where to go was a matter of luck. Scenes at these “city check-ins” were chaotic. Consulate and airline oficials were shouting through bullhorns, passengers had given up queueing and were pressing in a mob-like on to makeshift counters set up with laptops manned by frazzled airline personnel. Multilingual arguments were the order of the day. Those who got checked-in left for U-tapao military airport 190 kms away – only to face more chaos as this Vietnam era airfield, with hardly any commercial facilities, struggled to deal with thousands of impatient travelers.dsc_3672-as-smart-object-2.jpg

Some travelers were very philosophical about it. South African businessman Michael du Pessis was, incredibly enough, told by a Cathay Pacific employee to go back to the airport on Saturday where he was supposed to be picked up by bus. Accompanied by his 70 year old mother, when he realized that he had walked into an even bigger build up of protesters, he remained stoic and smiled: “I guess it was bad information”. On Sunday at the Centara Convention Centre in Bangkok I met Swedish Ana Duneborn, pregnant with her second child and traveling with her husband and two year old daughter, was transiting from Sydney to Sweden – they were supposed to be in Suvarnabhumi airort for two hours. Five days later she could still smile about it: “Look, of course I want to get home. I don’t really want to seem happy, but we were lucky. Because we were checked in, we got free hotel nights. Other people who hadn’t checked didn’t even get that!”.

Whatever negotiations or politcal moves may be going on, it is clear that cadres on both sides are digging in, and there seems to be an inability to resolve situations which can only hurt the country as a whole. One friend of mine edited a Russian TV crews footage of a red shirt manufacturing bombs, apparently screaming invectives at the PAD. In the end the only result of this ‘color coded conflict’ as BBC’s Jonathan Head calls it, is a deepening rift in Thai society, something that the opposing politicians don’t really seem to be willing to anything about. Today, Monday 2:20 an sms update: PAD supporters leaving PM’s offices which they have occupied for 3 months to reinforce their comrades at the airports……