Saanrat "Lydia" Wisutthithadato Not Thaksin Shinawatra's Part Time Lover

Philip Golingai

It's been a year since the former Thai prime minister was ousted in a bloodless coup and despite stringent efforts by the military junta to black out news of the former strongman, the media-savvy Thaksin Shinawatra has found novel ways to remain in the Thai public eye.

On September 7, I received several urgent phone calls from my editors in Petaling Jaya requesting the photograph of Thai pop singer Saanrat "Lydia" Wisutthithadato.

On that day in Bangkok, the 20-year-old Lydia declared she was not ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's gig (a Thai slang for part-time lover).

Nothing like a sex scandal to rouse the news instinct of my editors, I thought.

For The Nation senior political writer Weerayut Chokchaimadon, Lydia's press conference allowed Thaksin to slip through the Thai media barricade that the junta installed to prevent the self-exiled politician from telling his side of the story to his compatriots.

The next day, The Nation front-paged the sultry pop singer's book launch and her revelation that despite being overthrown in a coup, the 58-year-old billionaire possessed a good sense of humour. The Lydia story also stole the limelight from the newspaper's other front-page article, "Thaksin moved billions abroad".

Since the night of the Sept 19 coup last year, when Thaksin's television broadcast from New York to declare a state of emergency was cut off by the military, the junta muzzled the former prime minister's access to the Thai press.

One year later, freedom of expression in Thailand, according to Freedom House, a US-based watchdog, has plummeted from partially free in 2006 to non-free in 2007. Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom watchdog, downgraded the country's press freedom from 107 to 122 this year.

For example, early this year, when he could not respond in the Thai media to the junta's slew of allegations against him, the former premier gave interviews to the international media including Time (he was on the Feb 12, 2007 cover of the magazine's Asian edition) and CNN (most Thais were unable to watch as it was blocked from airwaves).

"When Thaksin appeared in the world press, the Thai media could not turn a blind eye on him," explained Weerayut, adding that Thaksin hired three major American public relations and lobbying firms to manage his image.

It is crucial for Thaksin to remain in the public's eyes in order for him to claim legitimacy among Thais. The twice-elected prime minister needs to tell them that it is unfair for him to be overthrown and he is innocent of corruption and lese majeste (a French expression meaning "insulting the monarchy") charges.

"If Thaksin does nothing, he would be forgotten and everyone would say (the coup) was justified," explained the political writer.

The deposed politician's latest manoeuvre to overcome the media blackout, observes Weerayut, was through "Thaksin ambassadors" such as Lydia, Sunisa Lertpakawat, the 32-year-old author of Thaksin, Where Are You?, and Chanvit Pholchivin, Thailand's national soccer team coach.

A few days after her sensational press conference, Lydia appeared on Thai entertainment television programmes to turn a sex scandal into an opportunity to discuss the goodness of Thaksin.

The junta, notes Weerayut, does not realise that Lydia's positive spin on Thaksin is reaching the constituents they've been preventing him from accessing.

"The military - that is not media savvy - is only concerned about (positive) Thaksin stories appearing in news programmes such as CNN or BBC," he added.

Like Lydia's book (Lydia ? Here I am!), Thaksin is the hero in Sunisa's book that offers a glimpse of the daily life of the self-exiled politician in London. "The book humanises Thaksin as it shows that even a strongman can be an ordinary person," said Weerayut.

"It created a lot of sympathy for Thaksin. And the public's reaction was you've (the junta) kicked Thaksin out but don't kill him (figuratively) as that's not the Thai way," he added.

The local media have also run stories about Chanvit's experience chaperoning three Thai national football players who were invited for a trial with Thaksin-owned Manchester City. The message indirectly conveyed by the coach is: although Thaksin is away from Thailand for one year, he is still doing something for Thais. Who, I wonder, will be the next Thaksin ambassadress to slip through the military-issued barbed wire that encircles the Thai press.


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