Friday, November 25, 2005

gov severely restricts alcohol sales in thailand

Want booze in Thailand? Now you can only buy it from 11am-2pm, or 5pm-midnight. The only real change is that previously, alcohol sales were permitted until 2am. The midday rule has been in effect for some time.

Midnight ban on alcohol now in effect

The Nation, November 18, 2005

All stores as well as venues serving drinks across the country have to stop selling alcohol at midnight, instead of 2am, effective as of yesterday, the Excise Department said.

The two daily periods when alcohol for personal consumption can be sold are 11am-2pm and 5pm-midnight, director-general Utid Tamwatin said. These hours do not apply to transactions in wholesale quantities.

The sale of liquor would also be banned starting next year at specified places including mini-marts at 10,000 gas stations nationwide, stores in school campuses and places of religious worship, he said.

Incidentally, there are time restrictions on the sale of cigarettes as well, though these have yet to be publicized.

The popular arguments against the new law center around it being 'bad for tourism' as well as an 'unreasonable restriction of personal liberties.' Let's take a look.

Bad for tourism: Believe it or not, I don't think most tourists come to Thailand for the drinking. It just isn't that big a deal. The lager louts on Patong barstools are the most visible type of tourist, but for every one of them, there is undoubtedly a whole family of family vacationers safely tucked in bed by 12 at their upmarket hotel. Which type of tourist would Thailand rather have? It's doubtful you can encourage both.

Although I am sure many regular tourists will have an annoying 12:15am moment at 7-11 (it happened to me this week), I don't think this is going to be a major issue except for the drunks. And frankly, Thailand has had enough of the drunks. Shift the entertainment focus away from booze, trannies, and cheap hotel rooms, and you will see a boost in tourism revenue, not a decline.

Restriction on personal liberties: Well, if we are going to ban drunk driving and heroin sales, then the only remaining question is not whether the government has the authority to moderate individual behavior, but rather, where the line is. The new law goes further than we have seen in Thailand, but arguably this is not a case of the government wildly overstepping its bounds.

At the end of the day, it's hard to argue on the side of cigarettes and alcohol, even if you're someone like me who indulges in both. There just isn't any upside to them, though they are a nice consolation if you've missed the boat on a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.

But I do wonder if the new laws (which are meant to curtail consumption) will simply push much of that activity indoors, or further down the back alleys of Sukhumwit and Thonglor. There will also be an effect beyond the bars, as a good part of the nighstcape here like the late night eateries and markets depend on bar clientele. For many who make a living at these non-bar businesses, the employment alternatives are scarce.

The police will undoubtedly make some cash in bribes during the transition period, but over time that will dry up as the law becomes solidified, just as the 2am closing time became a hard rule in most police districts several years ago. Sure, exceptions will remain, and a few more cops will be spotted driving BMWs, but that in itself is not sufficient reason to oppose the law.

In any event, let's hope some good comes of the hassle and we see a drop in drunk driving deaths in 2006.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

This is a translated excerpt of recent Matichon (Thai newspaper) article that made its way into my inbox:

Matichon editorial: Thai-style working - November 14, 2005

...Many times we see ministers who put forth ideas thoughtlessly and without information and the facts to support their views. When nobody agrees with the idea it is canceled easily. This is different from solving problems with analysis ... if nobody agrees, it should be proved and confirmed and not so easily canceled.

The idea to solve the problems of the deep south put forth by the Interior Minister or his related persons each time--such as setting up cable TV or migrating people to the area or even Minister of Social Development and Human Security’s idea to solve youth problem by motorcycle racing or pointing spotlights at hotels--may have good intentions, but it is to easy. When there is an objection, their answer is that they are just giving suggestions. This clearly shows the efficiency of government thought...

The article prattles on for a bit but that is the most instructive part.

This practice of ministers tossing out "suggestions," with no analysis or forethought, instead of actually governing, is the central problem with the current administration. It reflects a broken political process as well as an immature understanding of leadership.

And the suggestions themselves are frankly so idiotic that regardless of their "spontaneous" nature they call into question the suitability of such people for high public office. Some knowledge of public policy on a lower level needs to be reinstated as a requirement for anyone picked to fill a cabinet level post. It's time to get back to basics on that one.

coup rumors, lack of a press office

Thaksin needs to form a press office immediately. Deputy ministers and various underlings offering off-the-cuff statements to the press is the number 2 cause for this adminsitration's PR woes. The number 1 cause being, of course, off-the-cuff statements by Thaksin himself. A press office would solve both problems.

from The Nation

POLITICS AND THE SET: Coup rumours don’t sit well with investors

Published on November 24, 2005

Market drops five points as Cabinet ministers refute Phumtham’s assertion. Coup rumours dealt a severe blow to the stock market yesterday, and efforts by a number of Cabinet ministers to come to the rescue was too little too late. Investors yesterday sold stocks after Deputy Transport Minister Phumtham Wechayachai sparked concern over political risks when he claimed to have learned of a coup plot.

What the heck was the 'Deputy Transport Minister' thinking when he told the press a coup was in the works? Whether correct or not (apparently not), when would it be appropriate for someone in his position to make such an announcement?

This is the same ministry, by the way, that proposed closing off major streets in Bkk to accomodate illegal motorcycle racing earlier this year.

Process determines outcome, and when you have such an unprofessional process of news desimination in the country, political instability and investment shocks are going to be the natural result. As quoted elsewhere, investors can handle economic instability but seldom tolerate political instability. The sad thing is, this form of political instability is totally avoidable, if the current administration would take basic steps to professionalize its leadership of the country.

Those who continue to talk vaguely about Thaksin being 'good for business', without offering any specifics, take note.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Thaksin refuses to answer critics, cites astrology

Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, has refused to answer questions or speak to the press until the new year, citing astrological reasons. The astonishing timeline for his refusal to speak was skipped over in the otherwise decent article below.

How would you feel about investing your money in a country with such Mickey Mouse antics?

PM's astrological silence 'irrational'

The Nation, Nov 21 , 2005

The vice-president of the Thai Journalists Association yesterday challenged Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to answer reporters' questions if he was serious about building a knowledge-based society.

Pattara Kampitak dismissed as irrational Thaksin's claim that he could not speak to reporters because "Mercury is not in an auspicious orbit now".

"The PM is confusing our children with his unreasonable rationale,'' he said.

Thaksin was obliged to answer questions on issues such as the use of state aircraft for personal purposes and the Egat privatisation plan, he said. He should also encourage debate on political and social issues and allow government officials to disclose public information, Pattara said.

"The PM does not like criticism and he does not accept different opinions. He wants to speak by himself and does not like to be asked questions. His management is not good for a democratic country," he said.

Pattara said he would continue to ask Thaksin questions through the media even though he refuses to answer them.

"The public will decide and judge his refusal to answer the media,'' he said.

endangered animals on the menu in Chiang Mai

The Chiang Mai Night Safari has backed down from its earlier promise to serve up endangered species at the zoo restaurant. I'm still going to take a little dig at this stupidity, however.

A pet project (no pun intended) of PM Thaksin Shinawatra, the Night Safari was designed to boost tourism in his home province. Its management proudly displays many of the hallmarks of Thaksin's self-styled "think quick, act quick" governing philosophy whereby poorly vetted ideas are put on display and then quickly retracted in the face of withering public criticism.

Several other ideas in the "think quick, act quick" category from the past year:

1) The Education Ministry's plan (now aborted) to arm southern teachers with old handguns as a means of improving security after several teachers were killed in ambushes by insurgents. This was not requested or supported by the teachers' union, and most members lack any military training or willingness to participate. It was also pointed out that being armed is little defense in the case of an ambush (duh). In all likelihood, more teachers would have been killed in order to steal their weapons. This idea was retracted.

2)The Transportation Ministry's idea to close off major streets in Bangkok for night racing by teenage motorcyclists. This was in response to longstanding complaints by residents about police inaction regarding the racing. Even the police came out against this 'solution', however, and after a few days the idea was retracted.

Anyway, back to animals... that's what I really want to talk about

Thaksin traveled to Kenya recently with the aim of securing African animals for the Safari. In turn arrangements were also made to export Thai exotics, many of them also on endangered species lists, to Kenya. How this will benefit the animals, being traded between 2 third world countries half a globe apart, remains to be seen.

Although the Night Safari has changed its mind, it is still instructive to look at what was said. An excerpt from The Nation:

Visitors offered daily buffet of lion, tiger, elephant and giraffe meat; conservation groups outraged.

Lovers of “wild” cuisine are in for a treat when Chiang Mai’s Night Safari opens next year, project director Plodprasop Suraswadi said yesterday. Visitors to the park’s Vareekunchorn restaurant will have the option of tucking in to an “Exotic Buffet” of tiger, lion, elephant and giraffe, for just Bt4,500 a head.

The zoo will be outstanding, with several restaurants offering visitors the chance to experience exotic foods such as imported horse, kangaroo, giraffe, snake, elephant, tiger and lion meat.

We will also provide domestic crocodile and dog meat from Sakon Nakhon province,” Plodprasop said at a press tour before Thaksin presided over the soft opening

The Thai press did their usual job of running quotes and skipping the analysis, but it seems clear to me this menu was designed to appeal to Chinese visitors, not Westerners. I cannot imagine many Westerners (though there would be some) supporting such an establishment.

Thaksin (ethnically Chinese himself) is kissing way too much Chinese ass these days. It brings to mind the recent agreement with the Chinese ICT ministry to 'cooperate' on internet censorship. Thaksin's ICT Minister even took that opportunity to applaud the Chinese model and issue some pronouncements in defense of it. Amazing.

KFC in Thailand

What the heck is wrong with KFC in Thailand? Looks like they're having some sourcing problems, of late-- that's the only way to explain some of the idiocy we've seen. To wit:

1) They take coleslaw off their menu, easily one of their most popular items and often the only reason to eat at KFC, since fried chicken is ubiquitous here and we certainly don't need another 'restaurant' serving it up. No, when you went to KFC, you were often there at least partly for the coleslaw, since that's not the kind of thing you're likely to find anyplace else.

So now it's gone. No hab, mai mee. Were cabbage and mayo too hard to get? They did replace it with something, some kind of tuna-corn-carrot dish that looks and tastes remarkably like catfood. They keep pushing it but nobody's buying.

2) Zinger burgers. After a heavy advertising campaign promoting this product, they are now periodically 'out' of Zinger burgers. At least that is what I was told several times, most recently 21 Nov, 8pm Thai time, at both KFC outlets at Central Bangna. How is this possible? Imagine walking into a McD's and being told they are out of Big Macs. This is a routine occurence with KFC here in Bkk. Previously, I just chalked it up to the fact that past a certain point in the evening (about an hour to an hour and half before closing) the Thai employees have already packed up the food area in preparation for leaving. If your order requires them to unpack anything, you will be cheerfully sent on your way with a smirk and a shrug. KFC is like most Thai run businesses in that there is no effective middle management and what passes for employee training is conducted on a ad hoc basis, if at all.

But anway, this Zinger 'shortage' seems to be different than just a couple of lazy frontline monkeys in spiffy KFC gear (proud in uniform, they are) refusing to make a sandwich. Like a mouldy chicken nugget picked apart by ants under your living room sofa, perhaps we are witnessing the disintegration of KFC in the Happy Kingdom.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Sondhi, Lumphini, and lese majeste

Sondhi Limthongkul, political activist and media mogul, has been taking some hefty swings at Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra recently. This weekend he staged a huge anti-government rally at Lumphini Park, and has been relentlessly critical at his 'Manager' website . The PM has responded in Singaporean fashion by filing libel suits against Sondhi no less than 3 times in the past month. Rumor has it there will be a fourth suit filed by the end of the week. The ruling Thai Rak Thai ('Thai Love Thai') party has been successful in getting a lower court order to shut Sondhi up, though Sondhi has refused to abide by the order, becoming more vocal and strident in his criticism every day.

I suspect the reason Sondhi hasn't been arrested already is that the gov is leery of making a Nelson Mandela type political martyr out of him.

One point that Sondhi has been keen on making is Thaksin's alleged desire to assume a monarchical role, displacing the current and much revered king. As evidence, he points to a recent debacle involving the PM conducting a religious ceremony at the Grand Palace, something the king usually does. Much hay was made about Thaksin sitting in or near the place reserved for the king. You can see a shocking photo of what all the fuss was about here.

Frankly, I chalk this up to a Thai penchant for focusing on irrelevant superficialities one 'logic step' removed from the real question, which is: Regardless of where he sat, is it really the role of the PM to be conducting any religious ceremonies at all?

Sondhi also handed out yellow shirts at the Lumphini rally, which I guess was a reference to the 'people power' of the Aquino revolution that removed Marcos from power in the Philippines in the 1980s. Somewhat troubling, however, was the fact that shirts were printed in Thai to read: We will fight for the King.

Thailand has a law known as lese majeste, which came about when Thailand shifted to a constitutional monarchy under King Rama VII. Although most Thais will tell you (incorrectly) that the law states that it is illegal to say anything bad about the king, the law is actually much more sophisticated than that. Roughly paraphrased, the law states that it is illegal to make an statement or take any action that might result in the monarchy being drawn into controversy. Put another away, it is simply illegal to draw the monarchy into any controversy, period. Whatever your politics, Sondhi is clearly in violation of this law, and his violation is deliberate.

Incidentally, recent statements by the military brass expressing their love for the king and threatening to intervene on his behalf also fall into this category of lese majeste.

A few officers attempted to argue around this point by stating that they are duty bound to protect the monarchy. In point of fact, the military takes its orders from the executive branch, and its duty is to uphold the constitution, not any particular institution. It is also certainly not an independent police force entrusted with enforcing domestic laws like lese majeste, or appointing itself arbiter of what is 'good for the people'.

Despite my criticism of Sondhi, it is nice to see Thaksin getting bitch smacked by someone after 5 years of arrogant, reactionary, and generally inept rule. Although I see Thaksin's corruption as mild and barely objectionable by Thai standards, his failure on the policy front as well as his ridiculous Issan vote buying (with public money, not his own) like the 'million baht village fund' or the abortive attempt to purchase a British football team are things that have received inadequate coverage and analysis in the Thai press. The recent moves by Sondhi have actually woke the traditional Thai press up from its mid-afternoon som tam nap and it will be interesting to see if their desperate scramble to appear relevant will result in truly professional reportage in the future.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Thai military threatens private citizen; no comment from the government

Bangkok Post
Top brass warn off Manager founder

The military top brass have expressed dissatisfaction with Manager daily founder Sondhi Limthongkul for his persistent mentioning of His Majesty the King in his
campaign against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, saying their patience has
limits."One day when we can no longer tolerate this, we will have to do something. But I cannot yet tell what it is," Supreme Commander Gen Ruengroj Mahasaranont said yesterday.

Part of the problem with the lip service payed to the concept of democracy in Thailand is that no one in power seems to understand what it is. Imagine a comment such as the above being made by a military commander in a country where democracy is truly in effect. At the very least, there would be immediate censure; even more likely, they would be removed from their post. But here, nothing happens.

The foreign press is unlikely to pick this up, giving safe passage as they do to Thailand on most things. The foreign correspondents based here usually have a vested interest in maintaining their visa status (such as alcholism or a Thai girlfriend) and they manage this by being a lot less critical of the current administration than they would of politicians in their home countries. Just take a look at the resulting coverage in The Economist or the AP newswire service if you have any doubt.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thai literacy levels, fact and fiction

Bangkok Post

Although government figures put the adult literacy rate at 92.6%, an assessment
by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that
37% of 15-year-old students were performing at a level indicative of very low
reading abilities.In mathematics, the OECD report found that only 40% of the
15-year-old student population had basic maths skills, he said.

Anyone who has seen a Thai try to do basic consumer math, such as figuring a percentage (tax or discount) will suspect that this 40% figure is rather high. In a way, I am sure it underlies the reason for lack of tipping here: how could any Thai be bothered to figure 15%? Generally one just tosses some coins on the table, and that's it. Anything more (assuming they could even do it) would be considered "thinking too much," never a good thing, oh no.

But seriously, when you consider that most Thais do manage the equivalent of a 6th grade diploma, it's pretty amazing they come away with so little. Probably better they don't waste more time in school, as this says more about the Thai educational system than it does about the students themselves (who are often wrongly portrayed as stupid and lazy-- although this is the inevitable result, I'm certain they don't start out that way).

For example: I have never met a Thai below the college level who could read a map, work simple multiplication in their head (e.g. 6 x 7), or coordinate a day trip involving more than 2 errands. Even Thai university graduates, especially in the 'soft' disciplines like communication and marketing, are barely up to the challenge. One wonders what they do all day, pantomiming office work and waiting for lunch to come. The guy who fixes my airconditioner is smarter, more capable at reasoning, better educated (vocational school), and a lot less full of himself than most Thai office workers I have encountered.

If you try to open up a business here that doesn't involve topless dancing, you will encounter this in spades.

the beginning of the beginning

Thailand is undoubtedly the most over-romanticized country in the Western imagination. I'd like to do something about that.

This blog is an attempt to counterbalance the generally naive impression of Thailand as "The Land of Smiles" by providing a little fact based commentary.

If you use the term 'LOS' as part of your day-to-day vocabularly, then maybe this blog is for you. Then again, maybe not.

Although my posts will often be negative, I will try to be as specific as possible and to support any criticism I make. This is not for the purpose of justifying myself or this project, I simply prefer the rigors of intellectually honest and responsible argumentation.

Comments will remain off. I can only imagine the crap that would fill up the comments section if I left it an open litterbox for your musings, and the time I would waste kicking around in there myself.

So no, sorry. If you wish to comment, do so on your own blog.