Wednesday, February 29, 2012

At your service, sir

Deputy Premier Chalerm Yoobamrung is seen here with someone helping him put on his shoes -- sparking wide-ranging comments.

Today, he gave this explanation: "I am already 64. I have a subordinate to help me with my shoes. I certainly won't use a policeman or a soldier on duty to perform that task for me."

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Lady: Thai-Burma inequality must be corrected

(My interview with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon last Wednesday.)

Burmese Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi says there is no real
“economic equality” between Burma and Thailand and the situation must be corrected.
“Real cooperation needs equality. At the moment, economically speaking, there is no real equality between Burma and Thailand. We have got to admit that. Once we get to the situation where our economies are more on an equal level, we can increase the areas of cooperation and exchanges between the two countries. And that would progressively help both of us,” she said in response to a question by The Nation after a meeting with Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan at her residence here last week.
The leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) did not offer details of the state of “inequality” between the two countries. She was suggesting, observers say, that Burma has been put at a disadvantage when it comes to trade and investment between the two countries.
When asked by a Singaporean journalist to elaborate on her earlier statement that she would like to see Burma surpassing every other Asean country, Aung San Suu Kyi’s prompt response was: “Why not? You need to be ambitious.”
She added, somewhat teasingly: “And I’m very happy to think that the other Asean countries are waiting to be surpassed by Burma.”
Would she say that the reform process in Burma is “irreversible?” Aung San Suu Kyi said:
“I do not know whether the army is behind the reform. We do now know where the army stands in regard to the reforms and I’ve always said that until we know that the army is solidly behind the reform movement, we cannot say the process is irreversible.”

Have the sanctions imposed by the West affected the country? She said: “The sanctions have affected the country to some extent. And the present government is very concerned with the removal of the sanctions. If the sanctions have not been effective at all, I do not see why they should worry about them.”
She expects the Western countries to make a decision on whether to lift sanctions or not after the April 1 by-election.
Commenting on speculation that she might be offered a Cabinet post in the Thein Sein government, she said:
“If I take up a Cabinet post, I would have to vacate my seat in Parliament (if I get elected in the April 1 by-elections), and I telling the people that I am not working so hard to get into Parliament simply to vacate my seat.”
What would be the first foreign country that she will visit once she decides to go abroad?
“I’ve always said that the first country I would like to visit would be Norway because of all what they did for us, during when we were going through difficult times. We never forget friends who stood by you during difficult times. This is what I would like to do, but that doesn’t mean that Norway would be the first country I visit. It depends very much on the circumstances.”

Questioned about the impact of the Arab Spring on the Burma’s situation, Aung San Suu Kyi responded:
“What the Arab Spring has taught us is that people everywhere are linked by the love for liberty, fairness, and justice. I think it’s a good revelation that we all share the basic values.”
On how Burma will balance the US, China and Asean in terms of geopolitics, she said:
“This is something we have to work out. Of course, it’s not easy because we are between two most powerful and largest countries in the world and of course Asean is at one side of us and also the West which may be further away, but closely linked. It is not impossible for us to be friends with everybody, to maintain the relationship based on understanding and mutual respect, we all have much to offer one another. Burma has experiences that other Asean countries have not had. So we can share experiences and we have a lot to offer the West. Altough we are still an economically under-developed country, we still can offer spiritual values and culture. So I hope it will be a sharing process.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kittirat: Yes, Setha is a good friend

Setha Thavisin, CEO of Sansiri Property, says he was one of the six to seven businessmen who had met Premier Yingluck Shinawatra on the seventh floor of Four Seasons Hotel recently -- an incident played up by the Opposition Democrats trying to inject some juicy controversy into the incident.

Setha has said so far that it was just another meeting between businessmen and the premier to discuss the country's economic issues. Nothing scandalous whatsoever.

Deputy Premier Kittirat confirmed that the meeting did take place. "Some people say I am close to Setha. That's true. But critics shouldn't have any bias. He is a good man. Why didn't he and the other businessmen go to the Government House to discuss these issues with the prime minister? Well, perhaps they didn't want to be seen to be too pro-government. Why hasn't the premier responded directly to the question? Well, you know the premier doesn't like to argue with anyone..."

Will that put an end to the story? Not for now.

Pheu Thai MP Pracha Prasobdee yesterday challenged the Democrats to go with him to the hotel's 7th floor to see what is really there. He is taking a group of reporters with him and will book a room on that floor so that he can conduct a thorough investigation. Will the Democrats take up the challenge? We shall see.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

'Super Agency' and the little people of Ayudhya

The Cabinet on Tuesday set up a “super body” to “integrate” activities of all 16 government agencies related to water, flood and drought under a “single command.” That’s a big story.
But, to me, a bigger story was out there in the field. On the same day, local villagers in certain Ayudhya’s districts went into a renewed panic mode as a heavy downpour had pushed the water level once again to 30-40 centimeters, raising the specter of last year’s disastrous inundation once again.
The immediate question is: How does a grand, huge structure at the national level pacify the hard-hit local people in all the central provinces? How can the local people have confidence in the government in preventing the recurrence of the 2011 unprecedented flooding?
And will tomorrow’s big party to “thank” those who helped the Flood Relief Operations Center (FROC) fight flood send the wrong message that the highly controversial and ineffective operations by the “central command” at the time should be commended – and repeated?
The gap between the national-level political super-structure and the local community’s genuine concern remains a big issue that has yet to be resolved.
The Cabinet’s decision to form the new super agency is supposed to enhance efficiency and ensure that one single “command” will direct the flood-fighting activities. The new body is called National Water Resources and Flood Policy Committee (NWRFPC). It is headed by the prime minister herself.
The recently-appointed Strategic Committee for Water Resrouces Management (SCWRM) headed by the premier (with Dr Sumet Tantivejjakul as chief adviser) will now become an advisory board.
I am not sure where the other much-heralded committee – Strategic Committee for Reconstruction and Future Development (SCRF) headed by Dr Virabongsa Ramangkura – will be placed under the new structure. I couldn’t find it listed anywhere in the new hierarchical chart.
Under that body is the Water Resources and Flood Management Committee (WRFMC). This will be headed by a deputy prime minister.
Then, there is also the Office of the National Water Resources and Flood Policy Committee (ONWRFPC).
It has been explained to me that the top big body serves like a “board of directors” in a business corporation while the second-tier WRFMC will be playing the role of the “executive committee.”
And the third tier Office of NWRFPC is where all the 16 government agencies relevant to water in one way or another will gather. Obviously, they are supposed to follow instructions from the “executive committee” which will in turn formulate their action plans according to the “policies” laid down by the top super body.
My question from real life here is: Once that new structure is in place, how does the situation in Ayudhya reported last week get resolved?
District Officer Rewat Ampawanond of Amphoe Sena, Ayudhya province, told a local radio station:
“Flood water was about 30-40 centimeters at Tambon Huawiang, Sena District, yesterday although the rainy season hasn’t arrived. That’s because of the unseasonable heavy downpour two days ago. It had nothing to do with water being released from Bhumibol Dam and Chao Phya Dam as had been speculated earlier…”
He said the land of Sena and Pakhai districts in this central province is located in low-lying areas. Local villagers had been adjusting their livelihood to the natural environment, and rice farming was done only once a year. For the remaining seven months of the year, they would turn the farmland into natural water holding reservoirs.
In other words, despite lessons learned from last year’s serious flooding, local people have yet to be sure that the national government is capable of understanding their basic concern – and that any overhaul of the organizational structure would be effective enough to inject confidence all the way to the village level.
The flood victims, old and new, obviously couldn’t care less about how the new and old committees will avoid the confusing chain of command. They want a simple answer to the Bt350,000m question: Can 2012 be flood-free for us?
The litmus test will come soon enough – perhaps in the next few weeks.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Urgently wanted: A Water CEO!

Premier Yingluck went on her weekly television programme this morning to announce that she was looking for a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) to run the newly-formed "single command" on floods and drought.

"Anyone can apply for this position. He or she will be the secretary-general of the new body that will work with all government agencies on floods and drought. He or she could be someone from within the government or an outsider," she said.

Premier Yingluck also apologized to the local villagers of Amphoe Sena of Ayuddhya province whose area was flooded last week "due to the lack of coordination among government agencies to alert the local people of the release of water from the dam."

The new Water and Floods National Committee will issue policies while an executive board will run the operations under a "single command." The premier will tour the provinces for five days starting Feb 13 to meet local governors and agencies to map out the anti-flood campaigns.

She says flooding may still occur this year but every possible effort is being exerted to keep flooding at the minimum level.

Last night's grand party at the Government House -- highlighted by the presence of Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda -- wasn't aimed at "celebrating" but rather to ask all parties concerned to be ready to offer a helping hand in tackling possible flooding again this year.

So, get ready!

Friday, February 10, 2012

'Let me serve you, Madame Prime Minister...'

The birthday boy, Suwat Limpatapanlop, was obviously overwhelmed by the presence of so many VIPs at this 57th birthday anniversary party yesterday.

Premier Yingluck was there.Opposition leader Abhisit was also there. And, of course, members of his Chat Pattana Party, were all there as well. Former Premier Thaksin was said to have called him on the phone to wish him many happy returns of the day.

Suwat is one of the politicians banned from politics for five years. He is of course waiting anxiously to return to the fold in May, this year. But then, the veteran politician has proved beyond any doubt that he doesn't need a legitimate political position to exercise influence in the political arena. It didn't matter whether it's Pheu Thai or the Democrat Party, Suwat would always find sufficient room to squeeze into the coalition government.

This picture shows him offering delicious "pork satay" to the premier. "Let me serve you, Madame PM."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Once is not enough

Is this another step in political reconciliation between Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra?

Both sides seem bent on portraying an image of being friendly to each other. Deep down, nobody is quite sure what's really happening.

Privy Council President Gen Prem has agreed to "preside over" the party Friday evening hosted by Premier Yingluck Shinawatra to express thanks to all who played in part in helping Flood Relief Operation Centre (FROC) to help the flood victims.

Deputy Premier Kittirat na Ranong was said to have been the link man in this case. He went to see Gen Prem to ask him to be present at the function.

Gen Prem agreed, according to one of his aides, because it's an activity that will benefit the whole country.

The red-shirt leaders, who had until recently declared Gen Prem one of their arch enemies,have not made any official comment on this move.

One Thai columnist suggested that the picture of Gen Prem and Yingluck warming up to each other (they met recently for the first time during a function to commemorate Army Day)is more or less similar to the scene of Burmese President Thein Sein shaking hands with Aung San Suu Kyi!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

What were the top brass doing in this temple?

What are the top brass, present and past,doing at this temple?

According to Matichon Weekly which ran the picture on its latest cover, the military officers were supposed to be attending a religious ceremony to mark the launching of the casting of a huge Buddha image, 108 metres tall and 32 metres wide, at the cost of Bt1,800 million at Wat Or-Noi, Amphoe Kampaengsan of Nakhon Pathom province under the famous abbot, Luang Pu Buddha Issara. The event took place on Jan 27.

The most striking part of the picture was the presence of so many leading army generals: the current army chief, Gen Prayudh Chan-O-cha; his immediate predecessor Gen Anupong Paochind, former Defence Minister Gen Pravit Wongsuwan; former Supreme Commander Gen Somthat Uttanant.

The ceremony became "talk of the town," according to Matichon, because their being together might spark speculation of some sort that could "scare the faint-hearted."

Besides, Matichon Weekly adds, Luang Pu Buddha Issra also has many other prominent followers, one of whom has just made public his call for the military to stage a coup.

I don't necessarily agree that they top brass were gathering there for a political purpose. But then, with Thai society living under a cloud of deep suspicion, any move by any group could be construed as a "plot" against somebody else.

And such a huge "gathering of the big guys in uniform" inevitably raised suspicion of both political and superstitious rumours.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

If the flood hits again, don't blame the 'gurus'

First, there was a rumour that Dr Sumet Tantivejjakul was so frustrated with the Strategic Committee for Water Resources Management (SCWRM) that he wanted to call it quits.
Then Premier Yingluck Shinawatra, who chairs the much-heralded committee that was set up to prevent recurrence of the devastating flood late last year, denied the report, saying that the well-known technocrat serving as adviser to the panel was staying on to help with this highly crucial mission.
Dr Sumet himself has sort of denied the story, saying that he is still advising the committee. “I haven’t attended some of the meetings because I am busy with other things.”
That’s not a straight denial, of course. But it doesn’t speak well for a committee that has been touted to be the country’s highest body to put the big flood behind us, once and for all.
Rumblings from the committee, however, have refused to go away. Most of the unofficial whispers from the committee members are mostly negative.
Then came Smith Thammasaroj, one of the “water gurus” on the committee, who pulled no punches in his public remarks over how messy it has been working with the group.
He made no secret of his belief that if things continue this way, the country will inevitably face another round of serious flooding by the middle of the year. Why? Things have at best been messy.
Smith said the committee had not come up with any concrete plan. “We don’t know where the floodways would be and how we can prevent the overflow of water into the east, west and through Bangkok,” he said.
Smith also complained that the Bt350,000m budget for the whole scheme was approved “within seconds” of the discussion – and there was hardly any input from the technocrats who had been asked to join because of their supposed expertise.
“Therefore, I believe we will face a flood the magnitude of which would be more or less like the big one last year in May or June. While the Bumiphol Dam is about 90% filled with water, we still haven’t started to clear up canals and waterways in Bangok,” the former Weather Bureau chief complained.
Has he quit? Like Dr Sumet, Smith issues a semi-denial. “I am staying on and I hope the politicians will listen more to technocrats like us,” he said.
As if to rub salt into the wound, another member of the committee, former Irrigation Direction General Pramote Maiklad, in a separate forum the following day, made a similar point: The public gets to hear lots of talk about what is being done but, as an insider, he revealed that neither the master plan nor related action plans have been laid down with any clear details so far.
His concern is that for short-term solutions, almost nothing has been learned from last year’s major inundation.
“If we get the same amount of water this year, we will be flooded just like last year. That’s because none of the embankments that were destroyed last time have been repaired to be ready to fight the next flood. A very good example is the Bangchomsri Water Gate which was built along the path that blocks the natural water flow. If water rises again, it will collapse again,” Promote said.
The 24-member committee apparently isn’t working the way it is supposed to. But the huge budget has been approved in support of “the Big Picture” with no detailed action plans to ensure that the money is well spent.
The paradox is that this is a panel that comprises all the country’s top water experts who are complaining that the politicians don’t seem too interested in listening to suggestions from them. Add to that the inevitable “clash of egos” among the “experts,” and you have the recipe for a disaster waiting to happen.
If the Big One revisits us this year and the country drowns once again, you know it’s not because we don’t have a sufficient number of “gurus” or that we haven’t gained enough knowledge from the catastrophic flood last year.
It’s because our political leadership can’t convince our creative minds that they are really up to the task