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The F-Word Disturbs Thailand's Election

The F-Word Disturbs Thailand's Election


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's next prime minister could be a "vulgar" and "ultra right-wing" politician who shocked this Buddhist nation when he used the f-word during a boisterous televised news conference on Thursday (November 8) at the start of election campaigning.

"Who did you fornicate with last night?" People Power Party (PPP) leader Samak Sundaravej asked a female reporter representing Thailand's Nation News Agency, while dodging her question about his new party's squabbling.

Mr. Samak's remark was especially sensational because he switched to the ancient language of Pali -- which is considered the sacred language of Buddhists -- to refer to sinful sex, in a phrasing sometimes expressed by Thai Buddhist monks during temple lectures. "Samak Gets Vulgar in Exchange With Media," roared a headline the next day in the agency's affiliate Nation newspaper, which translated the quote into English on its Web site.

Thai media usually describes the combative, snub-nosed, former Bangkok governor as "ultra right-wing."

Mr. Samak's latest outburst increased concern that his possible victory in elections planned for Dec. 23 could spark a fresh round of political confrontation in Thailand, a U.S. military ally.

This Southeast Asian country is run by a military-installed regime, after the army ousted thrice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra during a bloodless coup in September 2006.

The military's focus on playing politics in Bangkok has meant that a worsening separatist guerrilla struggle in southern Thailand, waged by minority ethnic Malay Muslims, has not been solved.

The death toll in the south has spiraled to more than 2,200 dead on all sides since 2004.

In their latest successful assault, Islamist Thai-Malay rebels on Thursday (November 8) placed tires around the base of several telephone signal towers in the southern province of Yala, and set them ablaze, crippling land-line and mobile phones in several districts, police said.

The junta spent much of the past year investigating Mr. Thaksin, his relatives and political allies for alleged massive corruption, human rights abuses, and other charges.

The junta's tribunals issued arrest warrants for Mr. Thaksin and several others.

Mr. Thaksin is sheltered in self-exile in England, where the billionaire telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician has denied all charges.

Unable to bring Mr. Thaksin to trial, or prevent Bangkok's economy from sagging after the coup spooked investors and tourists, the junta scheduled a nationwide election for Dec. 23 to choose a new government.

Mr. Thaksin is among 111 politicians barred from politics, for five years, for alleged election fraud.

To replace him, Mr. Samak hurriedly formed the PPP, and promised to restore Mr. Thaksin's honor, continue his populist, often repressive domestic policies, and go after the coup leaders.

Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin staged the coup when he was Army Commander-in-Chief, and had expressed confidence that by ripping up the constitution and bringing Mr. Thaksin to trial, this country's shallow democracy would be purified.

Gen. Sonthi recently retired from the military and became deputy prime minister, but he and his fellow coup leaders are now worried that Mr. Samak is a revenge-seeking proxy of Mr. Thaksin. "If there is a mistake in this election, the country will undergo changes, so Interior Ministry officials must ensure people have a sense of nationalism to help maintain the current system of constitutional monarchy," Gen. Sonthi instructed provincial governors in October.

"Tell them what to choose and what not to choose," Gen. Sonthi advised officials who were to inspire people to vote.

Mr. Samak's leading opponent at the polls is Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Mr. Abhisit projects an extremely polite, clean, Western-educated poise which makes him popular with foreign investors and Thailand's urban elite.

But the lofty, polished Mr. Abhisit does not connect well with many of this country's struggling, impoverished rural masses who consistently gave Mr. Thaksin most of their votes in exchange for cheap health care, generous loans, and other welfare schemes. No matter which party wins the election, it will probably need to rely on a coalition of smaller parties, creating bottlenecks and confusion while trying to survive and govern, according to Thai analysts.

A victory by Mr. Samak's PPP could be narrow because other parties may shy away from his harsh style of leadership, which threatens to open the wounds of Bangkok's pre-coup conflicts between Mr. Thaksin and his enemies among the junta and its supporters. A win by Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party could also be thin because they are reportedly popular mostly in the south, in Bangkok, and other scattered zones, and would have to rely on other small parties who may have their own opportunist agendas.

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism, and his web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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