Author Archives: Varintorn Daniel Sukwanitkun

Infancy to Adolescence

Political Coming of Age In Thailand. A Blog about recent political crisis in Thailand.

Living in media blackout America is problematic. While it’s easier to get news about Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie is easier, getting news from around the world is harder. Which is why I’m proud to be a former newswire reporter, I always like to believe that TV correspondents make entertainment while newswires makes history. The political rumblings in Thailand have been a long time in coming. Even when PM Taksin was elected to his first term many cosmopolitan Bangkokians did not like this man, the self styled CEO-PM annoyed and ruffled to many feathers with his rhetoric. While his antics gave him some amazing approval ratings in the rural areas of Thailand, his popularity in Bangkok was 50/50 at best. But Taksin isn’t your normal businessman, his prior appointments in the Thai government demonstrates that he is as good a politician as he is a businessman.

There is no denying that he is by far and large the richest man in Thailand, there is also no argument that his policies, idealistic at best, are more innovative than his predecessors. The biggest knock on him is corruption and cronyism. Before we can discuss Taksin we have to first understand democracy in Thailand in the last 15 years or so. Thailand is in the infancy of democracy and having some success and by infancy I mean it is barely a hundred years old give or take a few military coups, the Japanese regime during WW II. We begin in 1992 during the bloody May demonstrations we see that Thailand was trying to shed a military regime and install a democratic elected government. Here’s the problem with Thai politics, it’s dirtier than the khlongs in Bangkok. Newspapers are owned and run by bigwigs in Thai political parties, news stations that are biased and also owned by the same bigwigs. And let’s not even begin on the downright censorship in the neutral media in Asia (Far Eastern Economic Review, TimeAsia, AP, et al.). Democracy wins out after the King intervenes and new elections were called with the Democrats taking the Parliament.

Now picture 1997-1998 the Asian economic flu hits Asia first Japan, the Nikkei dropping and brokerage companies and banks claim bankruptcy. Then cascading almost overnight economies all over Asia are on a downward spiral, Thailand’s government at the time tried desperately to strength the baht against the dollar and by doing so drained most of the gold reserves of the country rather than letting the baht float and have the market set its own exchange rate. Millions lost their jobs, the baht’s value was down to nothing and the government was unable to fight off the resulting economic disaster. The result was a bailout by the IMF and World Bank to the tune of 17 Billion Dollars in the initial payment. (Thailand has paid off this debt in 2002 five years ahead of schedule thanks to a resurgence in the Asian economy anchored by China)

Fast-forward to 2000 and Thai Rak Thai party platform which is compromised of former members of the New Democrat Party and Chart Thai Party and so forth and enter Taksin Shinwatra (the US equivalent would be Ross Perot running for President always good for a laugh). They meaning politicians and voters all followed the money and promises of a new Thailand and new policies that would help Bangkok and rural Thais. He ended up winning the election in a landslide and Thai Rak Thai would end up with 377 seats of the 500 parliamentary seats available. The list of Taksin’s promises was long and albeit they sounded good; in reality they were disasters waiting to happen. Yet his one idea that didn’t fail outright which won him his support in the rural areas was his million baht tambon program which promised millions to Thai villages to build the local economy. Well I guess if you spread enough money around you’ll get popular. Yet his other plans, such as the 30 baht medical plan, his policy regarding Thai banks to loan money out at a small interest rates to small businesses and encouraging personal loans to buy TVs, cars, refrigerators and other appliances created a debt to many households with no way of paying the loan. Another policy was shifting financial deficits into a government Small Asset Management portfolio, which in essence hides the debt until it can be paid off, like a write off of sorts. My personal favorite idea was to buy a piece of an English football team (Liverpool). Aside from the fact that I’m a Man United fan, shouldn’t the money go to hospitals? Schools? Job creation?
His public policy is also something left to be desired with problems in the South to the deaths of the Muslim protesters and the subsequent violence afterwards. His social policy in the South seems more akin to pass the guns and ammunition and let God sort them out. It’s no wonder in last years election Thai Rak Thai won no seats in the Southern Provinces. While the South has always been problematic and worldwide paranoia after 9/11 helped shaped this paranoia, the unrest in the South could easily be avoided if Taksin just swallowed his pride and said, “You know? My bad, I’m sorry.” His all out war with the news is also a concern especially after blacklisting two journalist from the Far Eastern Economic Review who wrote an unflattering story about him, to which he levied the charge of les majeste on the journalist banning them from the country. It seems Prime Minister Taksin is living proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

So what is the brouhaha all about now? Why is Thailand on the verge of a potential showdown? Money. As simple as that: money. I never said Taksin was dumb he’s a smart man. During his term his policies both economic and foreign have benefited big business in Thailand, more specifically his company. The 1.3 billion dollars, (that’s US dollars)sale of his Shin Corp by his “family members” to Singapore went through and guess what…no taxes. Reminds me of how hid his money prior to his first election and about 500 million baht was in his chauffeurs account….I digress. His other policies include a satalite deal with China and India and sales of his stocks that went tax free. His idea of privatization of the utilities monolpy in Thailand is also a gimme to his friends in big business. In the past the military would get involved, third world politics is whoever has the military has the government. Sometimes the military would split amongst themselves, however in Thailand today no such luck, Taksin’s appointments to the head of the military in Thailand are old friends of his from his days in school and on the job as a police officer. But is there a chance of violence breaking out? Taksin cannot risk the pr disaster not to mention the sudden halt of foreign investment. His dismissal of the parliament and a call for elections 3 years ahead of schedule means he is willing to let the voters decide their destiny, however he has support of two/thirds of the country’s population in the rural area which he demonstrated by bussing them in as his rallying troops.

The problem isn’t Taksin although it may seem I am biased and I am, its the country’s laize faire attitude on corruption from the bribes we give to cops to the payoffs to politicians and the freebies at massage parlors, government corruption will plague Taksin and everyone else who comes into office, until the laws that govern the country are more than words it can never be a real democracy. They will always wear a “mai pen rai” mask and in the end it’s the people who suffer the most. The ones without voice and wealth, they are the people who are in essence Thailand. Laws must be considered more important than the men who committed the crime regardless of their status or wealth in society. I still have several friends still based out of Bangkok in the AP and Reuters and a few others at different publications and the general feeling is that while it may seem quiet now history has shown things can escalate quickly. The ouster of several past leaders in the S.E. Asia area the last 6 six years has shown that peaceful demonstrations can quickly become full fledge revolutions.

The glaring problem in the “land of smiles” is the small hypocrisies that many people in Thailand are willing to overlook. It’s the small cracks in the system that essential weakens the whole foundation. News outlets and more importantly media outlets must be free and independently owned, anti-trust laws must be enforced, anti-graft laws must also be enforced. Once that occurs, you can begin the process of checks and balances and of leading the country forward. I also think we should kick the multi party system out because having coalition governments seems more problematic than a two party system but that’s for another debate. In the end Thailand will survive like it always has and will of course struggle through with democracy like we all do. Winston Churchill was right, a democracy is the worse form of government possible but it is the only one that works. Change is often painful and in world politics it is downright scary but Thailand must go from infancy to adolescence in regards to a democracy.

Laid Back Bangkok

I’ve back in New York for awhile now and the longer I am here the more I miss the simplicity of Bangkok. Let me explain simplicity. On those days when I was in Bangkok and not on assignment, I loved how Bangkok, an Asian cosmoplitian city, still has a laid back slow vibe. It comes from the people I suppose, but even things like business meetings seem informal and long; more leisure than professional in some aspects. I can remember how it can be mid-day and in the sois around my apartment building would be quiet. Main roads aside like Phaolyothin and Sukumvit and Silom, the side streets would be calm. Now I’ve been a city boy all my life, living in NYC and a few months in London and Paris, I’ve never strayed far from cities, trees scare me lol, Bangkok seemss less chaotic. (not the traffic). In Manhattan with the exception of the Village, everyone here seems rushed and always on the go, but in Bangkok not so. I love the “mai pen rai” attitude of people there the live and let live mentality that puts Thai’s acceptence of everything way ahead of liberal NY. And that is what seperates Thailand from other parts of the world.

I’ll be honest what I miss most is sitting alone in Bangkok. Watching the world unravel before my eyes. I miss the nights in Bangkok where it becomes a neon heaven and the nightlife reinvents the city, good or bad. So I have a question for the readers and bloggers of this site what’s your favorite memory of Thailand? Whats your favorite place and why? Thats a fair question I think. The longer I stay in NY now the more I am realizing I will be splitting my time between here and BKK. There’s just something magical about the Land of Smiles. I guess I’m just trying out figure out what it is….

In A Bangkok Minute

First off I would like thank everyone who commented on my last blog, all of you are as insightful as you are all excellent people. I feel I need to clarify a couple points, first being I am in no way shape or form saying interacial dating is bad, as I said in my post the heart doesn’t see race when it falls in love. Secondly, I need to say that its not so much as not feeling like I belong cause I do, living in NY is the greatest thing in the world, its just that sometimes every once in awhile I realize that its “round eye world” lol I’m kidding I just mean that sometimes I realize I’m the only Asian person in the bar or the cafe as all which is very different than when I was in Asia. Lastly I’d like to say that its very hard to to explain what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes its hard to understand the different experiences one goes through that help shape who they are and what they feel. Now on to something a bit less controversial.

Now I always have a favorite place, in New York its the Temple of Dendur at the MET. In Paris its a bridge the overlooks Notre Dame and in Bangkok its Siam Discovery Center. It reminds me of NY, kinda. I like sitting outside the Au Bon Pain or the Starbucks and just people watch. Its one of my favorite places. I get to watch tourists find there way and hear funny conversations they have, by the way I hate tourists, especially in NY they’re always looking up and crowding the streets and snapping pictures and saying things like, “This is just like in the movies!” “Is that Cher?” I digress, Siam Discovery for me anyways is one stop shopping, I can have my coffee, clam chowder in a bread bowl for Au Bon Pain, then catch a movie at EGV upstairs. And there’s always lots of girls to ogle. Moving on….

I mentioned before about the conversations, and in a Bangkok minute, (not to be confused with a New York Minute, great song by the way) some of the conversations I heard were, (Yes i wrote them for future use in a book) a young man of about 20 was feigning interest in a pair of shoes his girlfriend bought, an English couple were trying to make heads or tails of a map and desperately were trying to find their hotel. A cell phone conversation were a girl was trying to convince the other guy on the line she wasn’t seeing someone else, meanwhile her date was sitting next to her looking disinterested in that arrogant “I’m with her now anyways.” kinda deal. There was a commmotion at the bus stop, a gaggle of high school girls giggling, followed by a bunch of high school boys drooling and all in a span of a minute. Not bad I say.

But in all seriousness, the one thing I loved to do in bangkok was hop on a bus, not one of those air conditioned ones by a regular bus, I’d put on my headphones and just try and get lost in the city (which happened a lot by the way) but arriving in a new neighborhood each one similar but also very different from one another. I love watching people and the city go by in a blur of haze and smog. I wondered of the passengers and what their stories were. Bangkok to me was always a city of stories a city full of mysteries waiting to be discovered. Then it was night and the neon lights would guide the way, then another side of Bangkok rises frm the day’s heat, a little seedier but just as vibrant just as alive as the day’s. Nighttime in Bangkok for me was at the Starbucks on Convent Street near Saladaeng. Across the way was Soi 4 full of club-goers and Soi 2 were transvestites and trans-sexuals mingle with the straight lace crowd and the infamous Pat-Pong district with their go-go dancers and such. Due to my job there and subsequently doing research for my book, I got a chance to speak to all these people, the trannies and the ladies of the night and I heard their conversations and their stories. I got friendly with the street beggars that sat in front of the Starbucks, I got to know the vendors who lined the streets hocking really good fake designer watches and bags. I got to know a watercolor painter who painted my face on a card. Bangkok was more than just a city, a place where I worked, it wasmore than the homeland of my parents, Bangkok was a treasure chest of stories and tales of love and heartbreak, of honesty and betrayal. Bangkok was a contradiction in of itself. And Virgina Wolfe once said “Humans should always contradict themselves”, she would be proud of Bangkok.

So whats the point of this? No point really, except to say, I’ve been blessed and cursed sort of to have been able to experience not only the good of Bangkok but the more….sleazy side of it as well. I’ve been to the illegal abortion clinics, I was doing a story on it, and saw scared girls in there, I sat with girls who should be worried about a date on a Friday night and doing homework are instead walking the streets, I’ve been lucky to sit with everyone in Thailand and hear their stories and pass them on to you and to others. I feel privileged to have had the chance to talk and listen to them, it was a chance for me to look inside their world and see. And like others before me, to be a spectator to life as it unravels in a Bangkok minute.

Perspective From New York To Bangkok

I’m going to dedicate this blog to SiamJai, he asked me two question which actually gave me pause and inspired this blog or rant depending on well, your perspective I suppose. Before I begin I want to thank everyone who’s commented on my blogs and I must I enjoy this site very much, I gice major kudos to the originators of this for having a superb site.

The two questions SiamJai asked me was : ” Do you feel that your place in American society became different now that you discovered your roots? Or do you view the US from a different perspective?”

My answer is that yes I have discovered a new place in American society and yes my views are very different now due to not only living in Thailand but for having the opportunity to travel throughout Asia and the Middle East the last 5 years. Here’s what’s change:

As an Asian Male living in the US I realized that I’m by and larger ignored, I’m not sure if that is so good. While I did enjoy the fact that while in BKK I looked like everyone else, I cannot help but feel like an outcast in the US. I hate to be superficial but the reality is, is that it is hard being an Asian man here. Dating is that much more difficult, the height thing is a pain and I cannot but feel that while I love the US it is still plagued with bad prejudices and sometimes subliminal racism. A few months ago I read a book called the “The Asian Mystique” it was written by a woman I know who is currently who for a time was Asia Editor for BusinessWeek. She’s white by the way and her book is amazing so if anyone has the chance pick it up. In a nutshell, the book explores Asian stereotypes regarding how the world views Asian women and to a smaller degree Asian men. On purely pop culture way Asian men are getting shafted, you rarely see or even hear of sian men being sexy or seen as sex symbols. Yes I will concede that Asian women are, but for what reason? Before I left New York, I never put much thought in this, I never had a problem getting a date, to be honest I always prided myself to the fact that I’ve dated the UN, but I digress. The realities I’ve faced is that no matter how much I try, I’m never gonna fit in and that saddens me. (For those who reading and think I’m crazy, I’m not there are some staggering stats, that are so large it would dominate the blog, but if you want stats let me kow)

I’ve noticed more and more since my return how Asian men are seen as asexual, feminine and basically not attractive. This is being validated by the fact that there is an absece of Asian men and Asians in general in the media. With some exceptions, the percentage of Asians being represented is appaling and when they are, they are usually stereotypes into roles that only re-enforces those stereotypes. Sadly the more I stay in NY the more I realize I do not belong in the US, NY and LA and SF aside or any other areas with a high Asian population, the blatant racism and the subtle prejudices have begun to irk me. Don’t take my word for it, watch a movie, watch tv. Here’s a prime example of what I find, I was on a blind date, and the girl stated, “No offence to you but I only date white guys.” This was even before we ordered the drinks. I said to her ok no problem but why? she said, “Well, I guess it comes down to what people think, what my kids may look like.” To which I replied, “This is a date in a restaurant, not a Vegas wedding chapel.”

Ok, so thats a small piece of what has changed. On a political front, I was shocked how many people I’ve come into contact who have said and I quote, “Wow, 9/11 was a tragedy…but you do know that you deserved it, right?” I realized, “Man, people hate us.” Not like normal hatred like Man U fans and Liverpool fans or Yankee fans (go Yanks) and Red Sox fans, but a geniune, “you got what you deserved” mentality.

Since I’ve been back I’ve withdrawn into this little world where all the flaws, all the “stereotypes” have consumed me. Like it or not I’ve realized its gonna happen and I can’t stop it. I’ve been resigned to the fact that Asian men will never be in vogue or trendy. I did, SiamJai, discover my roots, it made me more conscience of who I am, it gave me a chance to see myself from two different perspectives, on the one hand even while Thailand I was treated a bit differently because I am Americanized and once back I’ve realized that I don’t count.

So how does this lttle rant do with Thailand, while I was there I went many girls, not just bargirls, but college students from Chula, Kasert and Thammasat who want to date Westerners, not just for money or the chance to get away, but because, wait for it……so they can have babaies. This is almost as sad as middle to upper class college girls who turn tricks for extra shopping money.

The phenomenom of Asian women and non Asians boyfriends and husbands is the fast growing martital trend acording the Census Bureau. It’s the whole, mystique, that idea of a geisha or a Suzy Wong. A friend of mine, who met his current girlfriend online showed me the personal ads put up by Asian women, in their preferences for a mate, espically in the race category, most checked off on almost all of the races except Asian, and Native Americans(but seriously we screwed them over so bad we should throw them a bone).

There’s more to say and I’l probably save it for another time, but I always wonder, “If America annot accet me and Thailand views me as a stranger , where do I belong? Australia maybe?

Everyday on my way too work

First off I want to thank everyone who posted a comment on my first blog that was very cool of you all. Now when I lived in Bangkok Ilived near the Victory Monument. It would have been faster if I had taken a motorcyle to the BTS station but I always enjoyed the walk and being from New York walking is an enjoyable experience. Everyday on my way to work are anywhere actually, I had to walk acrooss the semi-circular walkway to the station and everyday I’d pass beggars on the street. When I first got there evryone warned me not to give and some of them work as gangs collecting thousands of baht each day. Now beggars and homelessness is nothing new for me, if you live in an urban city you this on a daily basis. What I wasn’t ready for were the children. Now I’d rather err on the side of righteousness so no matter who it was begging I’d give money. Usually before I hit the BTS station at the Victory Monument I’d be out of a hundred baht. Usually there was an old woman and old man with a really bad back condition, looks like the Hunchback of Notre Dame type deal. Anyways, I’d go on my way and call it day right? Wrong. The level of poverty in Thailand is staggering especially when I see the little hypocrisies there. I was sitting at a Starbucks at Central Lap Phrao when a small girl, 8 maybe 9 came in wearing a dirty school uniform. This was 1 in the afternoon she should be in school, but instead this small girl was selling stickers to make money. I sat and watched the people in this Starbucks ignore her, including this rather large man about my age with a Tag Heuer watch and really bad shoes shoo her off with a wave of his hand, needless to say I gave her 50 baht for a five baht sticker. I’m not a saint by any stretch of the imagination but there’s something about kids begging, ya know? My Thai friends have said that they’re so use to it that it doesn’t faze them anymore. Poverty Thailand is normal, once again Western eyes and values start kicking in and indignation of Thai society became a daily rant for myself.

My usual hangout wasn’t a bar, it was a Starbucks on Convent Street in the Silom district. For some reason I’d love going there to write and would spend hours writing there, every night around 7 or 8 I’d go out for a cigerette and a man comes by with a baby elephant, Nong Ploy so tourists can feed and take pictures of this baby Dumbo. It was these daily occurences that made me fall in love with Thailand. But also around this time an old woman around 60 or 70 sat infront of this Starbucks to beg, not for money but for food. So here I am in front of a place that charges 100 baht for a venti mocha and the poeple who can afford it walk by her, as if she wasn’t there. She could have been my grandmother if not for the grace of God. So it really annoyed me when PM Taksin announced that he was considering that Thailand should buy a piece of the Liverpool Football Club, now aside from being a Man United fan, Go Devils, this was an absolutely absurd idea. Would it kill them to build homes? Imporve, wait, revamp the educational system, provide better healthcare and his so called 30 baht plan which is a joke by the way. One cannot erdicate poverty, maybe in an ideal utopia perhaps then, but in reality the world is made of the haves and have nots. It is an insult to any country to have shopping centers like the lavish and grotesque Emporium and less that a few city blocks away you have a shanty town. Its a stain on humanity when children are up at 12 or 1 selling flowers to cars parked at a red light. Its a stain on humanity when the socio-economic conditions promote the sex trade because of the sheer desperation that their lives have become. Its an insult to everyone’s intelligence when a former Interior Minister states that the tourist who come to Thailand come for the natural resources and not the sex trade. Poverty breeds desperation and desperation leads society down a slippery slope of cynicism. Its that kind of apathy which leads people to turn a blind eye to the beggars on the streets and why everyday I go to work I give.