BANGKOK – Mermaids took over downtown Bangkok this past Friday, sea shells adorning their long, black silky hair. Was this a case of collective good karma leading to their reincarnation as Thai sea creatures? Might they be alluding to a pristine reality where government corruption is absent and political confrontation is unheard of? Not really. The lovely Thai mermaids were handing out flyers promoting a new US$375 million megamall.
By a simple twist of fate or karma Bangkok was forced to look in the mirror – and contemplate the face-off bound to define its immediate future. Separated by only two Skytrain stops, the masses were to choose between the mobile talk show Thailand This Week, conducted in Lumpini Park by fierce government critic Sondhi Limthongkul and his co-host Sarocha Pornudomsak, or the opening of the new megamall, the largest in Southeast Asia, self-billed as “the glorious phenomenon.” As they left work in the early evening, they decided to choose both.
In his recent speech to mark his 78th birthday, revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej had remarked that “people are getting fed up; they want to see soap operas” – a direct allusion to the fact that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra does not accept criticism, complains about it and slaps his critics with lawsuits. Apart from soap operas, the people also want to shop till they drop – or at least window-shop, as not exactly a multitude in Thailand is able to purchase Zegna suits and Chanel skirts, not to mention yellow Lamborghinis and red Ferraris.
Thaksin dropped all of his six civil and criminal lawsuits against Sondhi and his media companies, but that did not prevent the entrepreneur and at least 80,000 people – or up to 200,000, according to the organizers – from gathering in the park to hear Sondhi’s new corruption allegations.
Once again they were all there – senior citizens, office workers, liberal professionals, students, teachers, businessmen, government employees, whole families. And they were not disappointed.
Before the King’s birthday speech – widely interpreted as crucial to somewhat defuse the bitter confrontation between the prime minister and the journalist – Sondhi had wanted 500,000 people to show up at the park and yell their displeasure at the government. After the November 25 rally, Thaksin said Google Earth photos showed only 8,000 people in the park; in fact there were more than 50,000.
The prime minister has not yet released his new Google Earth estimate. Eighty thousand or 200,000, the turnout was anyway very impressive for this mix of high-tech electronic rally and town hall meeting in the park – a forest of cables connecting a cluster of big screens dutifully scrutinized by a cross-section of the Bangkok urban middle-class. They were shopping as well – but for political enlightenment, while around the park puzzled Westerners and Japanese disgorged by tour buses were frantically chasing the nearest mall.
Once again Sondhi did not disappoint. His new target is Interior Minister Kongsak Wantana. Sondhi essentially alleged that Kongsak, when he was air force commander, lobbied an aircraft procurement committee to buy 12 Russian SU-30 MK fighter jets instead of American F-16s or Swedish JAS 39 Gripens.
According to Sondhi, “it’s all about commission fees.” He charged that in this case the commission, instead of 3%, was 10% – amounting to 3.5 billion baht (roughly US$87.5 million). The deal was supposed to go through after Thaksin met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bangkok in 2003. Coincidentally, Kongsak’s wife used to be a secretary of Thaksin’s wife.
Sondhi said the committee initially rejected the Russian jet fighters. But Kongsak was all for it – pushing to barter chickens in exchange of the jet fighters. The alleged chickens-for-jet fighters deal finally turned into a cash payment deal of 35 billion baht, apparently with a 10% commission.
Sondhi said: “I don’t know who this money went to. But it’s ugly. Thai politics today is not difficult to read. There are only a few players and a few clans [running the show].” Kongsak was later appointed as interior minister – widely qualified as inefficient at best.
The (talk) show must go on, and there’s every indication that Sondhi’s weekly rally in the park will keep delivering – and the crowds may become bigger and bigger. He vows there’s no stopping until a corruption-free administration is in place in Thailand, as well as guaranteed media freedom and a constitutional reform.
There’s no shortage of government officials fed up with the corruption in Thaksin’s government willing to blow the whistle, he promises. “They are sending enough information to me to hold this [weekly] talk show for five years on end.”
This week, for example – while Thaksin is in Kuala Lumpur for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting and the subsequent East Asia meeting – Sondhi will be inquiring about spending by the Government Lottery Office, the use of Thaksin’s official aircraft and the use of the tsunami relief fund raised from public donations. Last week, the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy ranked Thailand as the 7th most corrupt among 12 Asian countries surveyed. Indonesia was ranked the most corrupt, Singapore the least.
The crowds at Sondhi’s mobile talk show, not to mention those that watch by satellite TV or over the Internet, including the substantial Thai diaspora in North America, are not calling for regime change – at least not yet. No barricades. No May 1968 in Paris (when general insurrection broke out across France); this is people power lite. But there are signs of extreme discontent. Farmers are demanding debt forgiveness and 50,000 teachers gathered in front of parliament calling for an end of decentralization. And then there’s the unpredictable window-shop-till-you-drop brigades.
The non-politicized crowds that skirted the park discovered a new Bangkok megamall with an attached state-of-the-art aquarium – complete with giant spider crabs, octopuses, shark feeding, 30,000 “exotic” multinational fish and a deep reef designed as a clone of the deep blue sea, complete with – artificial – coral reefs and plants (thus the mermaids in Bangkok’s streets).
This commercial tsunami is the latest manifestation of the Singaporization of Thailand – and this does not mean only Shinawatra trying to pose as the new Lee Kwan Yew (the former prime minister of Singapore). Juthamas Siriwan, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), thinks the megamall will “strengthen Bangkok’s position as a regional shopping destination.”
According to official data, shopping by overseas tourists accounts for up to 32% of total Thai tourism revenue. Why anyone would come to Thailand to buy real Chanel (instead of impeccable fakes), not to mention a US$1 million Ferrari, is a baffling phenomenon.
Some anti-globalization protesters at the World Trade Organization meeting in Hong Kong this week – a city, by the way, which displays almost as many Chanel boutiques as 7-Elevens – would call it Western neo-colonialism. But when the Thai masses discover their purchasing power only allows them to window-shop, that will be the day when they will blame the Singaporization of Thailand on Thaksin and relocate to Lumpini Park to demand regime change.
Forget government corruption; the fight for the right to brand shopping, now that’s a real revolutionary situation.