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Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Brunei has a white tiger in its tank
It's time to take Geography 101 about Brunei. Until recently, nobody here cared too much about this country. Suddenly, it turns out to be one of the most popular destinations for Thai politicians.
Why is this country so attractive, despite minimum efforts on tourism promotion? Why should it do that when Brunei is rich in oil and natural gas? It has more than enough to make it one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia.
If you ask people in Thailand about what they think about when talking about Brunei, most of them will say it is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Brunei has been part of the Asean family since 1984 and plays a minor role in the grouping. That's OK given its size of only 5,765 square kilometres and manpower of only about 400,000.
Brunei is part of Asean because it's here in Southeast Asia and it wants to contribute to this region. It might be too harsh to talk about the importance of Brunei this way, but that's the way it is.
But there's one thing that nobody _ except Banharn Silpa-archa _ knows about Brunei. That country also has white tigers. And the de facto leader of the Chartthaipattana Party has a vision to equip Bung Chawak zoo in his Suphan Buri home province with them.
Before July 3, Mr Banharn might not have been interested in the beast. Bung Chawak is already a popular place with plenty of animals and fishes to see.
But when the party he engineers turned out disappointingly in the poll with only 19 seats, the banned veteran politician knew how to bargain for cabinet seats in the government to be chaired by expected incoming premier Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party.
He knew white tigers were there and he also knows there are more than tigers there too. ``I just happened to go to Brunei to see white tigers,'' he told reporters when being pressed about his trip to the country two weeks ago.
His main mission was to order white tigers to roam at the zoo in Suphan Buri.
By the way, Thaksin Shinawatra happened to be there and Mr Banharn made the trip worthwhile by stopping by his place for a meal.
Of course, the two didn't talk about white tigers.
But the Suphan Buri man insisted that politics wasn't on the menu as well. ``Politics was not discussed. A question of positions was not raised,'' he said.
Let's pretend that what he said is true. In that case, people in Suphan Buri should love him more. In times of political wheeling and dealing, Mr Banharn still puts his priority on how to better the zoo over how to get more cabinet slots for his party which is likely to get only three and is on the verge of losing the lucrative Tourism and Sports Ministry now commanded by his younger brother, Chumphol, to the Phalang Chon Party.
``If we get five seats, what will be left for other parties? Three will be enough,'' he said.
The truth is with Pheu Thai swooping 265 seats, other parties don't have much to bargain with. Is it up to Ms Yingluck? No. It's up to the generosity Thaksin is giving to other coalition parties. That's why a meal in Brunei for Mr Banharn was very crucial and perhaps much more important than white tigers.
Given the generosity of Brunei to allow Thaksin to stay there from time to time, it will not be a big surprise that the country will emerge as Thailand's close partner in the region after Ms Yingluck gets a chance to work at Government House.
Brunei will be high on the list of countries in Asean she will visit after Cambodia.
It's traditional for new government leaders to get to know other colleagues in the nine other countries.
It's no secret Thaksin was hopping between Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei's capital, even before the election to map out Pheu Thai's political strategy.
And it's quite amazing that no one in this Democrat Party-led government bothered asking for cooperation from the Asean partner at least not to let him in as he uses the country as a base to map out political campaigns for Pheu Thai and subsequently play a key role in the forming of a new government.
Yet, looking on the bright side, at least with Thaksin there, Thailand knows Brunei more than ever. And thanks to Mr Banharn, Thais know where to see white tigers.