Carving into the smelliest stories of the year

Carving into the smelliest stories of the year

From the political arena of football administration to the floodplains of downtown Bangkok and the iron-clad corruption-free Hua Hin monument, controversy was out of the ballpark in 2015.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there was a large field of candidates for Thailand's least sought after honours, Spectrum's Durian Awards. (Everyone loves it ’til they're on it.) The sheer number of honourable mentions hints at the tough time we had carving through the spiky outer layers and getting down into the smelliest, juiciest bits inside.

As always, we strive to avoid the usual suspects who are perennially annoying, and look instead for those who were especially prickly or got up our noses for specific reasons.

Here are your winners for 2015.

10.The stone durian

For services to sport in Siam
Worawi Makudi

Like the stone monoliths of Easter Island being toppled by drunk frat boys on spring break, the leaders of the world’s most powerful sporting body, Fifa, fell with loud thuds in 2015.

Down went the big Swiss cheese, Sepp Blatter, his descent made lighter by the two million francs he’d slung to European supremo and sidekick Michel Platini, also pushed from his neighbouring plinth.

After decades of indifference Fifa’s ethics committee had no choice but to act. US-led investigations into multimillion-dollar bribery schemes have so far resulted in 41 indictments in dozens of countries, mainly in the Americas.

But in the sights of the ethics committee was also the largest immovable object in world sport; El Gigante, otherwise known as Worawi Makudi, erstwhile president of the Football Association of Thailand (FAT).

Like the majestic giant statues built by the Moais, Worawi has stood for what seems an eternity as the face of Thai football. With his large forehead and pouting lips, Worawi has puffed up bullfrog-like and spat threats of litigation back when accused of wrongdoing in the past.

Things were no different when Fifa’s ethics people came knocking at FAT’s door in mid October, suspending him for 90 days for a breach of ethics and postponing the vote for a new president. Worawi croaked his innocence. Could it be possible that El Gigante was about to be upended by the ethical boys’ sacred cow-tipping?

But they underestimated what Worawi truly represents, and that is the spirit of Siam sport. And by that we don’t mean any individual, company or organisation, but the ethos of an entire sporting nation, irrespective of side issues such as rigged elections, lucrative TV rights and dubious majority shareholdings in the local league. The little guy; courageous, confident in his own domain, and ready to fight back against the injustices imposed by the non-Thai world whatever the odds or evidence.

Triumph? Comeback? He has a street brawler’s chance. In late November, the Fifa-appointed “normalisation committee” announced Feb 11 as the new date for the FAT presidential poll. The last day to submit applications is Jan 11 — a few days after Worawi’s suspension is completed. The gutsy little fighter — the true essence of sport in Siam — could still be there when the dust settles and all the other false idols lay broken on the ground.

Well played, sir. You are what Thai sport and society truly represent.

9.The Crumpled Metal Durian

For services to road safety and dramatic arts
Anna Reese

You might remember her from such B-grade blockbusters as The Tsunami Warrior and Brown Sugar 2, but Anna Reese put in the performance of her life this year as a guilt-ridden cop killer in this direct-to-television drama.

On June 26 the Thai-English actress rammed her speeding black Mercedes into the rear of a police car parked beside a frontage road in the Prawet area. Pol Lt Naradol Wongbundit would never wake up from the nap he was taking inside the vehicle.

In early reviews, critics attacked the plotline as derivative, noting that it borrowed heavily from the original series penned by Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya and his Ferrari back in 2012. But Reese managed to inject new energy into her role as apologetic antagonist, and her character produced enough twists in the days that followed to keep even the most seasoned lakorn viewers rapt in suspense.

She refused to be arrested at the scene of the crash, yelling loudly that she was "not ready”. Whether that had anything to do with intoxicating substances or genuine trauma will never be known — Reese also refused to submit to a blood test until more than 12 hours later, when she finally surrendered to police. Witnesses said they saw her car racing a motorcycle which sped off after the crash, although it seems police had not taken Gen Prayut’s directive to learn from the fictitious detectives of Blue Bloods, as they showed little appetite for investigating the death of one of their own.

And so to the apathetic yawns of the viewing audience, the final act in the Reese drama descended into dull cliche. The actress got in touch with her religious side, entering the nunhood and sacrificing all of her worldly possessions — for a week. “I'll take responsibility the best I can,” she said, before forking over to the victim’s family an unspecified but presumably large sum of cash.

On July 1 she attended Pol Lt Naradol’s funeral, where she later claimed his ghost possessed one of the mourners and told her Reese was forgiven, all but ending plans for a sequel.

Honourable Mention: Orachorn "Praewa" Thephasadin na Ayudhya

In yet another rousing victory for the Thai justice system, the unlicensed teen driver whose negligence led to the deaths of nine people on a Bangkok expressway in 2011 had her legal appeal thrown out.

Shattering long-held perceptions of class bias in the judiciary, the Supreme Court said Praewa must accept fault, and serve out her full punishment of precisely zero days in jail.

8.The Redacted Durian

For services to art and morality
The National Censorship Board

Marketing a film on a small budget can be a major challenge, particularly with Thai social media users perpetually distracted by photos of cats and obscure Korean desserts.  

Fortunately, in 2015, the nation’s great purveyors of conservative uniformity over at the Culture Ministry were only too willing to lend a helping hand to struggling Thai artists.

When Arbat first landed on their desk some time around early October, the censors got excited. They pored over the script and identified all of the most interesting and artistically pertinent scenes — and decided to add extra emphasis with their trusty black highlighters.

But the job was only half done. To really promote the film, a bit of reverse psychology was in order. Too dangerous, the censors told audiences. Too much violence and sex and alcohol. Your adult minds just wouldn’t be able to handle all this reflection of reality.

And so it was that Arbat was banned, catapulting it overnight from relative obscurity to an almost certain commercial success.

Audiences were tantalised as director Kanittha Kwunyoo leaked details of the scenes that were to be cut. But they were also confused: young monks involved in sex acts and drinking alcohol — that sounded a whole lot like art imitating life, and none of the country’s cultural custodians seemed too worried about pursuing actual monks behaving badly.

The film centred on a misbehaving youth whose parents force him to be ordained, hoping the monkhood will straighten him out. The film, Kanittha said, is about being aware of the consequences of karma.

But a message like that would “destroy” Buddhism, according to five religious organisations lobbying the censorship board to ban the film. “Although our group has not seen the entire film,” they said, “it’s blasphemy.”

Kanittha eventually relented and cut a few minutes from her movie. Thanks to all the media coverage, people knew enough to fill in the blanks anyway.

A subtle rebranding was also enforced by the chief marketing engineers at the Culture Ministry, with the title changed from Arbat, which specifically refers to monastic sin, to Arpat, which has no discernible meaning.

Originally expected to make about 10 million baht, Arpat went on to score 30 million at the box office in its first week and raked in more than 50 million baht throughout its run in cinemas.

The strategy was so successful that there was only one Thai film-maker who declined the Censorship Board’s marketing expertise: Palm d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He’s used their services before, back in 2006, but was less than satisfied with the end result.

Honourable Mention: The International New York Times

The criticism in this space will probably be removed by our printer.

7.The zombie durian

For an afterlife on the run
Juree Jan-ngam

In planning her death, Juree Jan-ngam forgot one crucial detail: there was no funeral.

Everything else was in place. A public health official, a rescue worker, an acting abbot and Juree’s two daughters were all allegedly involved. A village headman checked her face, hands and feet and found the body was “cold” before asking for a death certificate. There was no mention of whether the woman, who had been convicted of murder but released on bail pending appeal, was breathing or talking to him at the time.

Juree was found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill pharmacist Riwprae Chotikarn, who was engaged to her son Wikrom. Riwprae and her colleague Adisorn Prateepthut were both shot and killed in an attack on their clinic in Khuan Niang district on Dec 13, 2007. Riwprae and Mr Wikrom were due to be married on Dec 29, but it is alleged Juree thought the bride-to-be was too poor and an unsuitable match for her son.

Narin Janchay, 36, and Jamnong Kongsuwan, 40, were arrested for the shooting, and police soon turned their attention to Juree. Charges were dropped against Mr Jamnong, but the Court of First Instance found both Juree and Narin guilty and sentenced them to death. Both suspects appealed, and Juree’s sentence was reduced to life in prison. But not before she died while on bail — or so authorities were led to believe.

On Feb 27, 2014, Rassamee Jan-ngam presented the Songkhla Provincial Court with her mother’s death certificate, and received a refund on the five million baht that had been put down as bail. She told the court a funeral would be held at Wat Maneesop in Muang district on Feb 28.

The funeral was never held, and when the Supreme Court became aware of this an investigation was launched into the validity of Juree’s death certificate. They discovered the 72-year-old was likely alive and well, like a character from The Walking Dead.

On Nov 17, she turned herself in. Seven others have been charged over the conspiracy to fake Juree’s death.

6.The Waterlogged Durian

For services to khlong boat drivers
Sukhumbhand Paribatra

The Bangkok governor was in Europe when it unexpectedly rained during the wet season.

He jumped on the first plane home, but MR Sukhumbhand was in such a rush that he apparently didn’t have time to pick up that novelty miniaturised gondola from Venice he’d been lusting after.

With City Hall facing attacks from all sides over corruption and overspending, the governor had an idea: why bill taxpayers for another round trip to Europe, when Venice could simply be brought to Bangkok?

And so when MR Sukhumbhand touched down in Bangkok and saw the streets — and even supermarkets — beneath several feet of water, he just couldn’t understand what everyone was complaining about.

But then it struck him — MR Sukhumbhand is no philistine after all. Venice isn’t for everyone, and some of those less cultured street vendors might be more used to spending their vacations in the Dolomites or Central Alps. Being a generous man, MR Sukhumbhand offered a compromise: Bangkok would remain a replica Venice for the foreseeable future, but anyone who doesn’t want to ride his miniature gondola would be kindly escorted — one way only — to the nearest mountain range to take in the clean, dry air.

“It likes to rain when I’m away,” he complained, perhaps helping to explain why Bangkok is one of the world’s wettest cities.

As criticism of his new aquatic wonderland mounted, MR Sukhumbhand showed the political skills of a true veteran and laughed the whole thing off as a big joke. Those silly plebeians in the media simply didn’t understand his quick wit.

But residents in Bangkok, and Democrat Party boss Abhisit Vejjajiva, were not laughing.

In fairness, it’s been a tough year for the embattled governor, whose mother died in September aged 90. One of his deputies was accused of misspending funds for overseas trips and receiving large bribes. A report revealed spending on the BMA’s new headquarters had topped 9.9 billion baht — double the amount spent to build The Ritz-Carlton Residences project, set to be Thailand’s tallest building.

And so even as the monsoon passed, the floodwaters have continued to rise around MR Sukhumbhand, whose political career appears headed for a Titanic-esque fate. Mr Abhisit stands safely on dry ground, life ring in hand, but even he seems more interested in watching the governor drown. It will be a slow, painful death — while the Democrats are plotting to expel MR Sukhumbhand from the party, they must wait for the junta’s ban on political gatherings to be lifted first.

In the meantime, the governor has already marked Bangkok’s next Venice vacation in his diary — it’s due just after Songkran, less than four months away.

Honourable Mention: Suthep Thaugsuban

Like Icarus, it’s been quite a fall for the coup-artist formerly known as Phra Suthep. The anti-corruption whistleblower has publicly disrobed (figuratively speaking) after more than a year in the monkhood, but remains a political outcast. He and MR Sukhumbhand should form a perfect team when they put together their rumoured new party.

5.The leather durian

For services to family
Peter Corp Dyrendal

Singer and actor Peter Corp Dyrendal takes the prize for lousiest behaviour in the celebrity set, after deserting his wife and two young children for life on the road as a biker.

His wife Ployphan "Ploy" Taveerat set the ball rolling in July when she took to social media, pictured with their two young children, to ask when her meandering husband was coming home to see them again.

"Peter is addicted to work and some of his colleagues. If we wait a bit for him to get over his obsession, he'll remember his kids again. But the kids haven't forgotten their dad. They're waiting for him to come home every day," she wrote, referring to their sons, Panda, then aged 16 months, and Puma, then an infant aged just over a month.

Peter told the media he left home to work on a "big bike" TV series, Ride with Me, in which he and three co-hosts tour the provinces on their motorcycles.

The saga set off a rash of hate sites targeting Peter and his gang. But rather than go back home and clear the air, Peter laid police complaints for defamation against his social media critics — while still staying clear of his wife.

"It’s getting out of control. People are attacking me, the people around me, their families … some of it is not appropriate, because it’s just too strong," he said. In July he was linked romantically to one of his two female co-hosts, Prissana "Annie" Pannyasirinkul, a shareholder in the show who says she has suffered from the bad publicity.

Another victim of saga was a hotel worker in Buri Ram, Bow, who showed Peter the sites on a recent visit, and was pictured getting close to him at a nightspot. As a rash of hate sites targeting the pair flourished, Bow took to wearing shades about town to disguise her identity.

In the early days of the saga, plucky Ploy managed to corner her husband and his manager at their office in Bangkok. She rammed her Toyota into his manager’s motorbike in a desperate attempt to talk to her husband, but the pair managed to flee.

When Ploy was admitted to hospital twice in August with a high white blood cell count, and later a virus, she sent word through Peter’s friends that she was ill. Peter again chose not to get in touch.

In more recent times, Ploy gave up waiting for him to come home, declaring she would give him a divorce if that’s what he wanted. However, last month she welcomed news, which Peter conveyed through the media, that he would send his seniors along to talk to Ploy about their future.

4.The muddy durian

For dedication to ornithology
Arild Hagen

The exploits of national hero and occasional human plank Chat Ubonchinda have become legend. The world watched on in amazement as the 44-year-old fisherman put his body on the line and helped extract Norwegian tourist Arild Hagen from the vacuum of thigh-deep mud in Krabi in October.

Video of the event makes compelling watching, if you're the kind compelled to watch an old man use another man as a lever to get unstuck. And apparently we are, since the clip was viewed more than three million times.

First, Mr Chat sensibly took the expensive camera and tripod to higher ground, then gave Mr Hagen's Chinese wife Guo Yaxiang a hand and took her to safety. Mr Hagen himself proved a trickier obstacle as the mud tried to swallow him up, and Mr Chat decided to lie down on his stomach to let the Norwegian scramble to dry land. It is an agonisingly slow process to view, but undoubtedly more painful for the fisherman who let the birdwatcher climb all over his back.

Mr Chat won fleeting viral fame internationally and lasting acclaim locally, and while he has expressed a desire to move on with his life there may be little chance of that happening. In the immediate aftermath, all Mr Chat wanted was a bath, but instead he has been showered with praise. Tourism Minister and Durian laureate Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul pinned an award on him quick smart, and last month he received a royal decoration on the occasion of His Majesty the King's 88th birthday — an honour that moved him to tears.

But what of the wannabe David Attenborough? There have been, it seems, no awards for him. Mr Hagen also put his body on the line, nearly getting sucked into the swamp-like mud in his valiant effort to snap pictures of birds and mangrove creatures of the Chao Fa dam, he proved his dedication by going back out on the mud only days later. The second time, he and his wife were armed with big plastic buckets to stand in. Mr Chat was nowhere to be seen.

3.The Cardboard Durian

For services to deception

He’s the most dangerous single threat to the Kingdom. A deranged, mysterious individual, and, like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, “the devil himself”.

You’ve seen him before and you will see him again. His head and shoulders in monotone grey, black or white, against a contrasting background. His cardboard cutout visage is usually surrounded by mugshots of real people, bios, timelines and confusing arrows and flow charts. He is the criminal mastermind at the heart of most Thai corruption, murder and political mischief. He is the Unknown Info-Graphic Guy (Uigg).

Uiggy sashayed from 2014 into 2015 with barely a nod of his cardboard head. In March he was depicted as “The Boss” in the 1.47 billion baht embezzlement at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang case sent to the Min Buri provincial court.

Fourteen people were arrested including former KMITL leaders and a prominent businessman, but not Uiggy. He is still out there with Keyser Soze.

Uiggy’s darkest (or brightest) day was when he showed up as the “Unknown Mastermind” of the Aug 17 Erawan Shrine bombing. With more arrows and lines than for the plumbing schematics of Caitlyn Jenner’s new bathroom, Uiggy was at the top of a 22-member infographic of evil-doers. Even above “Ishan”, aka  Abudureheman Abudusataer, aka Kudmmhib, the “Known but Un-catchable Deputy Mastermind Maybe Hiding in Bangladesh”.

Luckily, due to masterful police work, the two main bombers were already in Thai custody and it was only a matter of coming up with a plausible Kevin Spacey-type story.

By November, shape-shifting, manipulative Uiggy was back and his target was the honourable, unimpeachable reputation of the military. He had disguised himself as  “A well known amulet trader” (who has not been named) to skim commissions, sometimes up to 50 million baht, from foundries building statues of former monarchs for the Rajabhakti park project.

Like the scoundrel he is, the “well known, but never named” amulet trader fled (probably) to Hong Kong, leaving the very innocent military members of the Rajabhakti Foundation to face the music. Thankfully, after an exhausting and comprehensive internal investigation they were cleared.

What next from Uiggy? Was he the assassin planning to gun down Thailand’s answer to Lance Armstrong? Is he the “unknown instigator” stirring the pot against the highly credible Koh Tao ruling to discredit a popular government with a 99% approval rating? Is he so powerful that he can mobilise migrant workers in remote border areas, protesters in Yangon, monks across the region and the military leader of a neighbouring country? An infographic awaits (along with quotes from unnamed Thai military sources).

Eventually, just like Chazz Palminteri’s cop in The Usual Suspects, you realise you’ve been duped. There is no Uiggy, there is no Keyser Soze. You’ve been told  fairy tales. The real culprits are skipping down Rama I Rd, scot-free.

2.The Orange Durian

For services to political correctness
Donald Trump

In the depths of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, rotund, tangerine-skinned refugees toil day and night in slave-like conditions to churn out a lucrative line of candy. If you are wise, they say, you will listen to them.

Though he bears a striking resemblance to these Oompa Loompas, few wise people are listening to Donald Trump. If it were up to him, after all, this vital yet underappreciated labour source would be banished, along with their filthy foreign cocoa beans, beyond an improbably large fence. “They’re rapists,” he would squeal, “and some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump’s presidential pitch hardly makes for an entertaining children’s story, even if most experts have dismissed his grasp of policy as being around that same intellectual level. Yet the brash billionaire and his celebrity hair have refused to be silenced in 2015 as they proved a hit with far-right Republican loyalists, lending credence to Winston Churchill’s observation that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

The Donald’s candidacy was announced to a mix of bemusement and outright ridicule way back in June. “I’m the worst thing that’s ever happened to IS,” he said, mispronouncing his home country. He was roundly dismissed as the joke candidate, a crypto-fascist clown who would destroy the Republican Party from the inside as anyone with political leanings left of Hitler looked on in schadenfreudistic glee.

But a sobering realisation has since dulled the laughter: a narcissistic human bagpipe whose foremost contribution to global culture is the catchphrase “You’re fired” could soon have his finger on a button allowing him to fire something far more destructive.

Yet Trump deserves some credit for still being alive in the Republican race at all, having destroyed the Bush family’s political dynasty and making an factually-challenged creationist neurosurgeon look relatively sane along the way. He has shared insights on life and love: “Tiny children are not horses,” he noted. “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.”

He’s insulted entire nations and mocked a disabled reporter, but he “will absolutely apologise, sometime in the hopefully distant future”. Indeed Trump has seemingly hammered the final nail into his own coffin at least a dozen times, and yet like some maniacal orange anti-zombie, he rises from certain death each time, blood coming out of his … wherever, to feed on the brainless.

The Oompa Loompas like to sing: “If you’re not greedy, you will go far.” But Mr Trump has never been one for cultural sensitivity, so we can only assume he will ignore that advice. And so only one thing is certain: this barrel-mouthed meatball is a special breed of perpetual Durian — and now that he’s been brought inside the stuffy confines of US politics, his stink will linger for decades to come.

Honourable Mention: David Cameron

Because in politics, actions speak louder than words. And while Mr Cameron’s words can often divide, putting that most sensitive of appendages into the rotting carcass of a pig was enough to spark a rare moment of unity, as a chorus of laughter rippled across the globe.

1.The Gold Durian

For an embarrassment of riches
Somyot Poompunmuang

It was a tenure that started and ended under the glare of the international spotlight, but Somyot Poompunmuang’s star was always destined to burn twice as bright for half as long.

Taking over as national police chief in late 2014, he had barely pinned the new epaulettes on when the bodies of two backpackers were discovered on Koh Tao. With the British tabloids and Thai websites playing CSI, Pol Gen Somyot took matters into his own hands. The country’s No 1 crime fighter stood on a pristine stretch of beach on the Surat Thani island, looked around, and declared he would soon get his man. He soon had three, although one was quickly released, and was on the scene as the two suspects re-enacted the crime. The early claims of irregularities in the interrogation would not deter Pol Gen Somyot, who said all officials involved in the case had done “a perfect job”.

Before long, other urgent matters demanded the chief’s attention. Prime among them seemed to be the pressing need to strip former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of his police rank, almost a decade after the exile was convicted and close to 30 years after he left the force. When Pol Gen Somyot dismissed the idea the first time, on the grounds the paperwork was incomplete, you could almost hear the man’s unspoken questions: Why now? Why bother? And most importantly, why me?

That was in early June and the police were arresting and prosecuting an alleged major trafficking network at the time. When September came around and Pol Gen Somyot gave his ascent to Thaksin losing his rank and privileges, he probably thought he was coasting towards his mandatory Oct 30 retirement. It was not to be.

The Erawan Shrine bombing would be Bangkok’s darkest hour, and Pol Gen Somyot’s defining moment. His initial reaction was everything you would want and expect from a top policeman: he was on the scene and about as straightforward with information as was possible in the chaotic aftermath. But as the blast site was cleaned and the days went on, the shine wore off.

With the world’s eyes watching, he offered a three million baht reward for any information leading to the capture of suspects — one million from his own pocket — then proceeded to give the money directly to his own men. It was a stunning an unusual development almost worthy of the gold durian in its own right, and led to headlines like “Thai police chief gives shrine bombing reward to officers even though investigation still unsolved”.

Even as the investigation took another odd turn, with claims of red shirt links, Pol Gen Somyot was unapologetic. “For me, Thai police are the best in the world.”

And with that he left the stage, but retirement promises to be anything but boring. Pol Gen Somyot plans to run against Worawi Makudi as president of the Football Association of Thailand.

He does have the qualifications for running a faction-riven, money hungry and highly politicised organisation. After all, he was the president of the Thai Tenpin Bowling Association.

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