THE ROVING EYE The politics of shopping
By Pepe Escobar
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
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
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
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
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
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.