PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

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Justice by any other name

Published September 28, 2016 by SoClaimon

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Justice-by-any-other-name-30296149.html

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

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The controversial chairman of the National Human Rights Commission explains why he is right for the job

Appointed by the coup-installed legislative assembly in a country that’s under the extraordinary rule of a coup maker, the new National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has understandably been met with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Add to that the commissioner’s background as a high-ranking government official and the scepticism goes up another notch. Just how much of a “rights advocate” can the new commissioner be?

Such questions, says NHRC’s chief What Tingsmith, do him a grave injustice.

“Why would I not fit here?” he asks. “I have a long history working in the judicial sphere. My last position before taking the human rights commission’s chair was as a senior judge in the Supreme Court, which when compared to the executive branch, puts me at the same level as ministers. The last salary I earned at the Court was the same as the PM’s,” the rights commission chair says firmly, determined to counter the criticism of his suitability.

To the critics who say high-profile government officials just do not understand the daily hardships faced by ordinary people and thus cannot possibly protect their rights, the 65-year-old veteran judge says, “In the courts, everything is about protecting the people’s rights. We protect life and keep people from illegal imprisonment. If those are not human rights, I don’t know what are.”

What, who was born and raised in a rural area of Na Bon, Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, earned his law degree from the prestigious Chulalongkorn University then worked for the Ministry of Labour and the Bank of Thailand when he was in his early 20s. Despite a low-level education that saw him receive high-school certification from a non-formal education institution, he won a Fulbright scholarship to study for his Masters of Law at the Southern Methodist University in the United States just two years into his career. On his return he quickly climbed the career ladder and was appointed to the bench not long after its 30th birthday.

What is however quick to point out that these outstanding achievements were not in themselves sufficient to propel him into the position as the NHRC’s chair.

“I worked hard for this. This isn’t about luck or coincidence. I started preparing in 2007, almost 10 years before I won the appointment,” he says.

That was the year when he realised that being a senior judge in the high court with a recognised expertise in intellectual property law was simply not enough. And so he returned to law school, Thammasat University this time, to study public law.

“There are more than 100 Supreme Court judges across the country. That is more than enough for the judicial branch. I wanted to specialise in a more limited field, somewhere I could be more useful. A position in one of the independent agencies was my aim.”

The veteran lawyer reached his goal last year when he was appointed by the National Legislative Assembly to chair the NHRC for a term of six years.

“Actually, any position in one of the independent agencies would have met my ambitions. Maybe the Constitutional Court, but the NHRC is fine, too. There are only seven of us, which is far fewer than the Supreme Court.”

While the panel was selected under the coup-installed extraordinary rule where human rights violations are rampant, What is quick to brush off suggestions that strings were pulled to give him the top position.

“I followed the correct procedures throughout, submitting my application to the NHRC office then sharing my visions and proving my credentials with the selecting committee.

“I did everything on my own. In addition to taking classes at Thammasat, I also have written academic papers relevant to this job. And I made it,” he says proudly. “I made it even to the chairmanship.”

Independent agencies are frequently slammed by observers and scholars for damaging the checks and balance system.

The human rights commission, however, is an exception and is both respected and relied upon in the fight against the state.

The last two commissioners were highly respected “rights fighters”‘ with an excellent reputation in civil society and among activists as well as ordinary people.

What admits that the NHRC has presented a professional challenge, saying that at the beginning of his mandate, he was affronted that he knew no more about human rights than most NGO workers.

Last month, he came under fierce attack after refusing to allow activists to read a statement on human rights during an event in Thailand’s troubled South. The group demanded that he resign from his post and be replaced by someone more familiar with rights issues such as an NGO worker or activist.

“Why do NGO workers have to be more appropriate than government officials? I bet they don’t know half of what I know yet they are so judgmental,” he says. “I’m telling you, if I didn’t have what it takes, I wouldn’t be here.”

After several months of hard work, What feels his acceptance has grown. “Some of my critics have already apologised to me,” he says.

He also dismisses the scepticism, pointing out that he has made sacrifices in terms of both convenience and money to work at the NHRC where the work is harder and the salary no better.

“Each month the judges are required to write a number of reports. I prepared enough papers to last seven months,” What says. “I could have spent those seven months relaxing at home not working but still receiving a salary on par with the PM. I chose not to, leaving it all behind for the NHRC.”

The controversial human rights commissioner also emphasises his love for and belief in justice.

“I decided to study law more than 40 years ago. Why would I have done that if I didn’t love justice?” he asks. “I value it highly. But my justice is by no means arbitrary.

“There must always be ground rules or laws that we have to follow. Otherwise people would do what they want and not care about the potentially harmful consequences.”

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Setting the record straight

Published July 24, 2016 by SoClaimon

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/politics/Setting-the-record-straight-30291281.html

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

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Veteran journalist and editor Suchada Chakpisuth explains why she is shocked at the way the media bend the truth

A veteran of the publishing world with a career that goes back more 30 years, Suchada Chakpisuth has long held firm to a code of ethics under which the media must always embrace accuracy and remain impartial.

Her non-profit foundation, Thai Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism [TCIJ], an independent, online investigative news provider founded in 2011, has faced several challenges in its short life, not least the cutting off of its funding in 2014 after it reported that a food conglomerate had bribed journalists.

The allegations, which Suchada, 61, was able to back up, saw TCIJ’s main sponsor, a state agency, cease all support. The affected media organisations were also furious, insisting that they did not receive bribes and calling her an “outsider” who did not understand normal practices between the media and the corporate world.

Yet through it all she stood firm, continuing to report news in depth and cover “untold” stories.

“The media must dig out the facts behind stories. It cannot just cover general events,” she says.

The bribery brouhaha eventually blew over though not before Suchada decided to downsize the TCIJ and move its office from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Sponsorship resumed, though this time from international organisations, which agreed with her ideology.

“I have no idea which local organisations would support my mission to report hidden facts and raise people’s awareness of suspicious activities in our society,” she says.

“My commitment to telling things as they really are was born during the October 6, 1976 massacre of protesting students at Thammasat University.

Suchada was among the hundreds of students stuck in the university when it was engulfed by military and paramilitary forces following media reports that a play staged by student protesters the previous day had mocked a member of the Royal Family. Those reports, she says, were “totally distorted” yet taken at face value, leading to an assault the following morning at dawn, killing several students and injuring many more. “Some were beaten until they died then strung up on trees,” she says.

Suchada, who was in her first year at Thammasat’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, was one of the performers in the play. “So I knew the reports were untrue. The play looked at the case of two anti-dictatorship activists who were beaten to death who were hanged after putting up posters against ex-PM Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. We knew the offenders were state officials but they were never brought to justice.”

Like many of her fellow students, Suchada was able to escape the gunfire by jumping in the adjacent Chao Phraya River and also like them fled into the jungle where she would stay for five years. There she became very sick and it wasn’t until 1983 that her health had improved sufficiently for her to return to Bangkok. The political situation had eased and she was able to return to Thammasat where she chose a newspaper major for her Bachelor’s agree.

“I wanted to be a journalist to experience how journalists work and answer my own questions as to why some journalists feel they have to distort the news,” she says.

“It was then that I realised just how powerful the media is. Years have passed but I still feel pain when I see the media reporting false information.”

In 1985, Suchada set up the magazine “Sarakadee” (“Documentary”) with support from an entrepreneur, The magazine still exists today.

“I think magazines are far more powerful than news media. With artistic pictures and beautiful language, they can reach readers very easily,” she says,

After six years as chief editor at “Sarakadee”, she left to set up the children’s magazine “Dino-san”, which was recognised with several awards before being forced to shut down when the Asian economy went into a meltdown eight years later.

Her interest in kids and education grew as a result of “Dino-san” and Suchada went to work researching alternative education, namely home schooling, learning from folk wisdom and other institutions in addition to traditional schools. Her study, which was funded by the Thailand Research Fund, led to the recognition of alternative education, and it was eventually enshrined in the 2007 Constitution.

In 1998, she also became involved in the “Midnight University”, a virtual university offering free public education. It was shut down following the 2006 coup.

In 1999, Suchada joined with non-governmental organisations in setting up the “Prachatham” news agency, which covers news of the poor and marginal.

“I left Prachatham to found the TCIJ, because I wanted to make hidden facts public,” she says.

Throughout her journalistic journey, she has heard many complaints about the quality of the national mass media including accusations of taking sides and failing to report facts.

“My research clearly shows that reporters rarely dig deeper when the facts are doubtful and only cover events on a daily basis.

“Some journalists do not question or critically think about suspicious events surrounding our society. They do not report critical issues, corruption, the state’s abuse of power, and many other affairs that are hushed up.

“How can the media function as the county’s watchdog when they ignore what matters to the country or promote the state’s abuse of power?”

“That said, I do understand

the limitations of the media. It’s a kind of business. To survive in the market, it has to focus on sales volume and profits. It has to care about advertising income. So they tend not to report facts that might negatively affect their sponsors.”

The rapid growth of the media industry since 1992 and the rush to recruit journalists to meet the demand led to many reporters coming from other fields of studies in addition to journalism, she says.

“And they are not trained to be critical journalists. I don’t blame the journalists, although the problem of the media stems from the way they report. The journalists are products of Thai education system. So if we want to reform the media, we must reform education and other systems in the society simultaneously.”

Apart from covering news, the TCIJ also holds an annual project called “TCIJ School”. Organised for the past three consecutive years, it aims to build media literacy in participants and produce quality investigative coverage.

“I hope to see journalists cover investigative news, question what is uspicious and report it, so that our society progresses. And I also hope that the next generation sees through the media’s tricks and are not fooled by false news like I have witnessed in the past.”

The art of perseverance

Published May 16, 2016 by SoClaimon

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/The-art-of-perseverance-30285495.html

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

Despite more rejections that he can count, sculptor Banjerd Lekkong achieves his dream of an international exhibition

Disillusioned by repeated rejections to his pleas for help from his fellow Thais, sculptor Banjerd Lekkong decided to look to overseas and raise his profile on the global stage.

And he’s been successful too, becoming the first Thai artist to be selected by a US gallery to exhibit his works in New York.

He first exhibition, “Metamorphosis: Banjerd Lekkong, a Solo Exhibition” is slated to run at the Agora Gallery in New York from May 20 to June 9.

“I’m so happy and satisfied. My art works were once regarded as pieces of metal wreckage but are now fine art,” says the 47-year-old artist who was born and raised in Nakhon Ratchasima, the son of a couple who owned a garage.

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Banjerd fell in love with steel as a kid and recalls being fascinated by old buildings as well as Thai mystical figures, the result, he says, of living near the ancient stone temple of Prasat Hin Phimai, and devouring the stories of the Ramayana.

Trained as an architect, he started to meld his other two passions – steel and Thai-style art in 2003 – selling his metal artworks under the brand Lekkong Sculpture.

A mass of swirling shapes and billowing lines, Banjerd’s metal sculptures express both vitality and tenderness.

They tell stories from the Hindu religion in a very specific way through pieces that are both single-character depictions and entire, multi-player tableaux.

Fifteen of his sculptures, including depictions of Singha and Hanuman, and other images from the Ramayana featuring unique aspects of Thai art and literature, have been selected for the exhibition at the contemporary gallery in the centre of New York’s Chelsea art district for three weeks.

The New York shows comes at the end a long and arduous road Banjerd has been forced to follow in trying to have his art works recognised.

The economic downturn in 2003 forced Banjerd, who is also an architect, interior designer and contractor, to leave his business behind and instead pursue his childhood dream.

For the past 13 years, Banjerd has spent a considerable amount of time touting his portfolio around public and private organisations in Thailand but to no avail. No one bought his ideas.

“I’ve struggled from the beginning to find approval or support from public agencies,” he laments.

His ideas and the image drafts of his sculptures were not enough to win the approval from Commerce Ministry when he first submitted a registration for copyright. The ministry wanted to see his real art piece.

“I did not produce my work at that time because I was afraid it would be copied by others,” he explains.

He was also turned down by a bank when he sought a loan to fund his project.

“They asked, ‘if anything happens to you, who will repay the loan’?” Banjerd says.

Almost out of money but still determined to sell his sculptures, he started going around art centres asking for a place to display his work and was turned down every time.

That’s when he decided to go international.

“Since my works did not attract people in Thailand, I set new goals. I’m determined to have my works sold in hard currency. People who come to see or buy my art works should be attired in suits and ties,” says the bitter but determined artist.

“Some people warned me against dreaming too big but I’ve always believed I could do it,” he says.

Over the past two years, Banjerd has contacted several galleries and museums in Singapore, Vietnam, some European countries, the UK and the US in an attempt to have his work exhibited.

It took Agora just three weeks after receiving Banjerd’s portfolio to inform him that the gallery would welcome his works at the gallery.

“The message I gave to the gallery was that my art pieces are one-of-a-kind and limited in terms of numbers [of pieces]. No one can copy them and they are truly my own style,” the sculptor says.

Finding financial support to the tune of Bt3 million for his first ever solo show in the Big Apple also proved problematic.

He submitted a funding request to around 20 organisations and individuals, including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha through the PM’s Office but only one firm bothered to reply, and that was a rejection.

But Banjerd persevered though he admits that there were moments he regretted for having chosen to produce Thai art that he thought would represent Thailand in the world community.

As the deadline approached for Banjerd to tell Agora whether or not he would exhibit his sculptures at the gallery, lady luck decided to smile on him.

Last December, despite being fed up at doing the round of potential sponsors only to be kicked back every time, he walked into the offices of Boon Rawd Brewery office to take back his portfolio after twice submitting a request to Singha Corp.

It turned out that its executives were going to consider his request that particular day. Banjerd was accorded an impromptu interview with Santi Bhirombhakdi, president of Singha Corp, and other executives, which lasted about 30 minutes.

One executive asked the artist how the country would benefit from his exhibition, Banjerd replied without hesitation that “Thai artists should never finish [their careers] at country level but should aim for the world stage.

“Later, Khun Santi told other executives to let me go to the world stage,” he says with a proud smile.

Now that his efforts have finally earned him the prize, Banjerd is urging Thai state agencies not to turn down new ideas from Thai youths.

He doesn’t have great expectations from his show at Agora, saying he will be happy if he sells just one work.

“The gallery has set the price of my 15 creations from US$10,000 to $200,000,” he says.

“Agora will be the first step on my ladder to success.

After the New York trip, Banjerd, who plans to exhibit his art pieces every year or 18 months around the world, will be looking to arrange exhibitions at international museums.

“Fine art displayed in museums is world-class. I won’t be disheartened. I will keep submitting my works to well-known museums. If I succeed, it will be an honour for the country. I will make the impossible possible,” he says with a grin.

 

A shot in the arm

Published May 15, 2016 by SoClaimon

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/A-shot-in-the-arm-30285035.html

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

More than 30 years have passed since Dr Sutee Yoksan began his painstaking work into developing a vaccine against Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease that is now affecting more people than ever before.

The top researcher and director of the Centre for Vaccine Development at Mahidol University, Sutee, then a doctoral degree student, started work on the vaccine in 1980 at the invitation of Dr Nat Pamornprawat, Mahidol University’s rector at that time.

“Thailand is the pioneer in dengue vaccine research and development. It was initiated by Dr Nat, who wanted to use our scientific knowledge to benefit vaccine research in developing countries. That was a very new idea at the time,” Sutee says.

“Dr Nat suggested we should develop a vaccine that could prevent all four types of dengue in just one dose. That meant researching each type of vaccine and combining them into one universal immunisation. He did not allow us to bypass any process, so our study was long and arduous but also very worthwhile.”

Sutee explains that the team started by raising the virus in a primary dog kidney cell and then generating a weaker virus that would be unable to cause illness but would instead teach our antibodies how to deal with dengue virus.

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In 1984, after four years of research, the prototype of the first set of dengue vaccine was completed and the World Health Organisation (WHO) was invited to inspect and review the vaccine prior to testing on humans. Clinical trials commenced a few years later and ran through 1993.

“We tested the vaccine on 500 Thai volunteers and also 20 American citizens, as the vaccine passed the United States’ Food and Drug Administration standards for testing in the USA,” Sutee says.

But the vaccine had problems. “It was found to be only 75-per-cent effective in preventing all four types of dengue infection. The patent for this vaccine was then granted to Pasteur Merieux Serums & Vaccins, as the predecessor of Sanofi Pasteur was known,” Sutee explains.

“During the 1990s we also let the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention use our prototype to continue vaccine development using genetic engineering methods, as we were still uncertain which vaccine development method, cell culture or genetic engineering, was best,” he says.

“On our side, we worked on second and third sets of vaccines from 2004 using the cell culture technique and completed that in 2009. It was then that we were forced to face up to the fact that Thailand did not have the advanced technology required to produce the vaccine,”

The path towards success was never going to be been easy given the obstructions that bar Thailand from being able to produce a dengue vaccine using its own technology.

“The main problem is that the Government Pharmaceutical Organisation (GPO) does not have either the technology or qualifications to produce our vaccine. We have been trying to ask them to reform, but until now we’ve been unsuccessful,” he says.

Another obstruction, Sutee says, is the lack of personnel involved in the vaccine research and production field. “Despite the thousands of new pharmaceutical graduates every year, almost none of them want to work in the vaccine research.

“I’ve said several times that I am happy to train new researchers through learning by doing, but unfortunately no agency has accepted my offer,” he says.

“The upper level of decision-makers are very short-sighted on this issue. They don’t see vaccine research as a priority. We’ve thus had to grant the vaccine patent to Japanese firm, Chemo-Sero Therapeutic Research Institute (Kaketsuken), and to the Serum Institute of India for the mass production of our vaccine,” he says.

Mahidol University granted the vaccine patent to Kaketsuken in 2011 and to Serum Institute of India in 2013. “Our main objective for giving the patent to these two companies is to allow the vaccine to be produced at lower prices,” he explains.

“Both companies are now working on the vaccine testing process and by 2020 we will see the first mass production of our vaccine.I personally feel that an important vaccine like the one for dengue must be cheap so it is accessible to the poor, often the ones who need it the most.”

Now 66, Sutee, who earned his PhD in Pathobiology from Mahidol University in 1989 and also conducted post-doctoral dissertations in immunology with the University of Hawaii and Oxford University, is still working to develop the perfect dengue vaccine.

“We’re also researching vaccines for Japanese encephalitis, Chikungunya fever and Zika fever,” he says.

“Even though I’m past retirement age, I want to carry on working. Developing vaccines requires a long period of time to complete and I am determined to make this world safer from infectious diseases through vaccination technology,” he says.

 

Standing up for our rights

Published May 14, 2016 by SoClaimon

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/politics/Standing-up-for-our-rights-30284555.html

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

Chiang Mai bookstore owner Rodjareag Wattanapanit, who encourages free discussion and debate in her space, becomes the first Thai to win a US “Women of Courage” award

Thailand has long celebrated its successful men and women but it’s unlikely that the country’s current governing power – the National Council for Peace and Order – will be raising its collective glass to Rodjareag Wattanapanit, who last month become the first ever Thai to be recognised with the International Women of Courage Award by the US State Department. The award, which was established in 2007, honours courageous women around the world who selflessly fight for the greater good of society and Rodjareag certainly qualifies, having seen her independent bookshop shut down for about a year after the successful coup d’etat in 2014 for allowing free political discussion and twice being summoned for “attitude adjustment” by the ruling military.

Chiang Mai‘s humble Book Re:public, which Rodjareag co-founded and owns, is no mere bookstore but an oasis for freedom of expression in a society under the thumb of a military regime where some fundamental rights are limited and those fighting for them are threatened by force and law.

“I’ve been following this path for more than 20 years,” the 40-something activist and bookseller tells The Sunday Nation. A graduate of Chiang Mai‘s Payap University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Rodjareag started her working life as a tourist assistant in Mae Salong District, home to the Akha hilltribe people.

That tourism career lasted barely six months. Rodjareag, a native of Mae Hong Son and brought up in a home where her father, a Deputy District Chief, was constantly welcoming tribal people, hated seeing local Akha culture and spirit eroded by commercial greed and resigned from her post.

“I remember as a child waking up to a houseful strangers, all of them tribesmen or so-called marginal people. They were my dad’s friends. Unlike some government employers, my dad was always very friendly and never felt in the least superior to those people. Rather, he treated them all equally as fellow human beings,” she says.

Her next job with a non-governmental organisation was much more suited to her compassionate nature and helped her turn her efforts to empowering villagers in order to ensure the sustainability of the local ways, cultures, and the rapidly deteriorating environment surrounding them.

Among her jobs was a stint with the Centre for People and Forest which successfully introduced the idea of how the local people could help contribute to the preservation of the forests and which gained support from the general public.

The activist continued along her humanitarian path in the NGO world until 2004, when the rampant corruption under the government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra could no longer be ignored.

“I began to touch upon bigger issues like national politics in 2004 or 2005 when people started to demonstrate against the Thaksin’s administration for its corrupt practices under the mask of public policies,” the award winner says.

That interest in politics gradually grew and reached its head, first in 2006 when the military staged a coup to dethrone Thaksin and then again in 2010 when red-shirts protesters were shot on the streets of Bangkok.

Though anti-Thaksin, Rodjareag says she is against the seizing of power by any means.

“The democratic process was interfered with and that’s a pity. Had the 2006 coup not taken place, society would have eventually seen Thaksin’s true colours and democracy could have developed properly” she says.

Rodjareag’s bedrock Book Re:public was a product of the rupture of Thai democracy arising from those historic events. The veteran activist says she felt a responsibility, as a member of the society, to at least provide a space for the kind of public discussions essential to a democratic society.

“I didn’t want us to be emotional at the expense of being rational. Society has to be led by reason and knowledge rather than hatred and prejudice,” she says forcefully.

And so the independent bookshop opened its doors in 2011 and has since been a hub for intellectual discussion among young people and academics.

Its work has not only become popular among people in Chiang Mai but it is now also recognised by activists and those interested in politics countrywide, who follow the activities at Book Re:public through such online outlets as YouTube.

Her efforts have quite naturally caught the eye of the military too and she has become a regular at the military-hosted “coffee parties”, as well as being summoned for attitude adjustment twice since 2014, events that led to her being nominated by the US Embassy in Bangkok to receive the women of courage prize.

Rodjareag admits that there is a great deal of pressure on Book Re:public and herself personally but says she considers it vital to carry on promoting human rights, freedom of expression, and democracy.

“I think we need to have the courage to stand up against repression. We do not necessarily need to be infringed or have it happen to us first. Even if there is only the slightest sign of rights infringement, we must immediately stand up and protect ourselves,” she says.

“It’s a matter of justice and injustice. There is no middle path here. If we remain neutral, we are essentially supporting the injustice,” she says, adding that she is determined to carry on her work despite the pressure put on her by the current regime.

At one with his world

Published March 14, 2016 by SoClaimon

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation

http://www.nationmultimedia.com/politics/At-one-with-his-world-30280150.html

PEOPLE IN THE NEWS

Newin Chidchob poses with his sole daughter Chidchanok at the 12 Shiva Garden in Buri Ram province.

Newin Chidchob poses with his sole daughter Chidchanok at the 12 Shiva Garden in Buri Ram province.

Former politician turned football club owner and entrepreneur, Newin “Uncle Ne” Chidchob has finally found true happiness and his place in life

A former wheeler-dealer who once pounded the pavements around Government House, Newin Chidchob, or “Uncle Ne” has he prefers to be known, now spends a great deal of his time clad in a Buriram United Football Club jersey and knee-length shorts sitting astride his favourite big bike and riding the streets of his native Buri Ram.

“I’m happiest here, simply being ‘Uncle Ne’ and chairman of Buriram FC,” Newin tells the Sunday Nation happily as he gazes out over the 12 Shiva Garden, a new park, green space and tourist attraction in the North-Eastern city.

“I now realise that without any [political] post I can give more happiness to the people.”

Newin, who started his political career almost 30 years ago, is known as the man who demonstrated that there are neither permanent friends nor permanent foes – only permanent interests – in politics.

Named by his father after the notorious Burmese General Ne Win, the former politician from Buri Ram played a major role in the collapse of the Democrat-led government, brought his faction to support Thaksin Shinawatra under the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party, before defecting from the party and taking his support away from the-then premier to support Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva in his bid to become prime minister.

He also served as a minister under three prime ministers, Banharn Silpa-archa, Chuan Leekpai, and Thaksin.

In 2007, Newin was banned from politics for five years following the dissolution of the former Thai Rak Thai party by the Constitutional Court ruling. He decided to leave the political arena to devote his life and time to his hometown Buri Ram, 410 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.

Once a backwater province in the lower northeast, the 57-year-old former politician turned the provincial seat into a centre for sport and tourism in just six years.

And he’s most proud of his accomplishments, “not so much of my political career or even the several ministerial posts I’ve held, but of my devotion to my birthplace,” he laughs.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give back to my community. When I first entered politics, my intention was to bring a better life and a better income to my people and now I have accomplished my goal,” he says proudly.

“The 20 years I spent in politics count for nothing compared to the past six years. I can do so much more than as a politician,” he says.

As the president of Buriram United FC, Newin created a number of eye-catching landmarks in Buri Ram, including the I-Mobile Stadium, a Fifa-standard soccer stadium with a capacity of 32,000 seats; the Chang International Circuit for motorsport racing, the first in Thailand to meet FIA Grade 1 and FIM Grade A standards and with a huge capacity of 50,000 seats; and Amari Buriram United, Thailand’s first soccer-themed hotel. The Bt370-million Buriram Castle mall is the latest major project.

Previously Buri Ram has attracted only about 600,000 tourists a year, but the football club increased the number up to 1.8 million. With the opening of the race circuit and the community mall Buriram Castle, visitors should surpass 2.5 million people per year.

“These landmark destinations have created jobs and income for people in this city. The venues have increased the value of assets in the surrounding land area by no less than 200 per cent,” Newin says.

The political big gun turned football-club owner has never stopped thinking big. In addition to his determination to make the provincial capital one of the top five visited cities in Thailand, his ultimate goal is to turn into a health and wellness centre for visitors from abroad, and especially the Asean nations.

Today, he says, Buri Ram is almost a complete city of sport. It’s home to the greatest football club in the country and indeed Asean as well as to a racing circuit with international standards.

But these are not enough to convince tourists to stay on after a match or race and enjoy fitness, leisure, and a retreat in the city.

“My ultimate goal is to build the city into a hub of football, motor sport and finally a centre for health and wellness,” he says.

With the 10 Southeast Asian nations forming the Asean Economic Community at the end of last year, Newin has set a target of attracting one per cent of the bloc’s 600 million population – or 6 million visitors a year – to stay in Buri Ram.

If each visitor were to spend an average of Bt5,000, this would bring in at least Bt30 billion per year for the city, he says.

“My dream will become true within 10 years,” he vows.

Not only is Newin investing big in Buri Ram’s infrastructure, he is also working to change the attitudes and mind-sets of its people.

“They now understand that it’s not a case of ‘winner takes all’ but that we win or lose together. When you do something, you mustn’t think or care about whether others will get the same or more from what you have done,” he says.

“What’s important is doing it and feeling happy about it. With that attitude, people will give you their full cooperation,” he says.

“I always tell them resources are limited but creativity is unlimited. Everything that happens here in Buri Ram is created from people’s hearts and hands.”

Asked if he ever misses or thinks about politics and the several ministerial portfolios, Newin doesn’t hesitate. “No,” he says firmly.

“When I watch the political news I always pour ceremonial water and wish the karma of those who remain in politics to be over,” he says, using the Thai religious ceremony of pouring water to dedicate merit to the departed, as a metaphor.

Despite still seeing some of his old friends from his days as a politician, Newin never discusses politics with them. Indeed, he even refuses to talk politics with his dad Chai, a veteran politician who is still active in the political arena. After the 2014 coup, Newin’s father was appointed by the junta as a member of the now defunct National Reform Council.

“If you want to talk about politics, go and talk with Gen Prayut [Chan-o-cha, the prime minister]. Don’t talk to me,” he says loudly and clearly when asked if he thinks an election will be held next year as laid out in the junta’s road map and whether Thaksin’s camp could win the election.

“You’d be better asking me whether Gama [Alexandre Gama, a Brazilian football manager who is Buriram United manager] will extend his contract or not.”

Indeed, Newin appears eager to talk about football.

So what is his view of the outlook for Thai football under new Football Association of Thailand (FAT) chief Pol Gen Somyot Poompanmoung , whom Newin supported to topple the long-time FAT president Makudi, aka Bung Yee?

“Thai football under the new chief will absolutely be better than under his predecessor. I believe that Thai football will return to the top 10 in Asia within four years,” says Newin who has played a major role in scrutinising the football governing body and its chiefs.

The ‘fair’ policies Somyot used in his election campaign early this month are perfect, the Buriram FC owner says.

“They meet the demand of concerned people in Thai football.”

And while politics remain an off-boundary subject, he does however urge all Thais to cast their ballots in the upcoming national referendum for the charter draft scheduled for July.

“It’s the only event in which we can exercise our rights without being called for ‘attitude adjustment’ or arrested by the police,” he says.

In his Buri Ram sanctuary, Newin, who spends most of his time with his football club and other businesses, says he enjoys the feeling of being accepted.

“It doesn’t matter who I am. What’s important is how much people recognise and have faith in you.

“These days I’m absolutely sure that the people in Buri Ram and even in the country love me and have faith in me much more than when I was politician or even a minister,” he says, breaking off the interview to greet a group of young people who want to have their photo taken with him.

 

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