Story by: FROM SOMEONE CLOSE
I first met Jakrapob Penkair when he stepped off a Greyhound bus in the town of Harrington, Delaware, a whistle-stop 30 minutes from my home in Maryland.
Jakrapob was en route from the Monterrey Institute to begin his first semester at Johns Hopkins SAIS in January 1993. My dear friend and mentor, Dr. Wiwat Mungkandi had made the introduction, and asked that I help guide Jakrapob to SAIS. Dr. Wiwat had insisted that this was the most brilliant student that he had ever taught, and that Jakrapob had the presence and oratory skills of the great Anand Panyarachun. Jakrapob was a Fulbright scholar who had been misdirected to Monterrey, and it was decided that SAIS would be the perfect school instead.
On the ride from the bus stop to my house, we passed through the fertile truck farming region of Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. We commented several times about the prosperity of farm families in America and the poverty of their counterparts in Thailand. It came as a surprise to Jakrapob that with few exceptions, American farm families can be counted as solidly middle class. As I related tales of local lore, it was clear that this skinny young man with horned rimmed glasses possessed unusual powers of observation.
My family had many Thai guests visit our house in rural Maryland during the years following my return from a Peace Corps assignment in southern Thailand. Jakrapob had little in common with any of them. The only similarity that my family noticed was his propensity to take hour-long showers, use up all of the hot water from our ancient water heater, and manage to flood the bathroom floor. Friends with whom we would later stay joked about his excessive use of water; I explained that it was an inescapable Thai ritual. Jakrapob quickly identified the cultural differences between America’s west coast (where he had been studying for only four months) and the east coast. The questions which he asked were both perceptive and probing. I was quite enthralled, since I had known many Thai people whom had lived in America for decades, but did not understand their adopted country. These people were able to function and even prosper, but never understood the spirit of the place. Jakrapob was the exception; he captured the whole picture at once.
Our guest stayed with us for three weeks and my family became quite attached to him. To say farewell, my grandmother, who was 82 at the time, took us to lunch at a wonderful local restaurant, called the Tidewater Inn. Jakrapob talks about the turtle soup to this day; he was already showing an appreciation for the finer things. During his stay, we were entertained at the homes of several friends and relatives, some of whom were rather well to do. Jakrapob seemed fascinated by the lifestyle of these people. Endless questions were posed about the origins of their wealth, and the criteria used to determine social status in my part of America.
We were able to find an apartment in Washington. The spring term at SAIS began and I stayed in Washington for another week. The topic of the day in the world of international relations was the break up of the Soviet Union. Jakrapob and I attended an evening lecture, where it was the general consensus that Glasnost and Perestroika would lead Russia to an era of liberal democracy. Jakrapob insisted that these forces were a mere aberration in Russia’s long history of xenophobia. I had never seen such intellectual curiosity exhibited by a graduate of a Thai university. Jakrapob’s ability to grasp situations of which he had no empirical knowledge clearly set him apart.
Jakrapob was very popular at SAIS, and did well academically. Fred Brown, a retired diplomat, was running the Southeast Asian studies program, and would send glowing reports. During my subsequent visits to Maryland, Jakrapob would visit my family, often accompanied by Wibul Khusakul who was attached to the Thai Embassy in Washington. Wibul would become Jakrapob’s boss upon his return to Thailand.
While Jakrapob was a student at SAIS, I had the opportunity to meet his family at their home near Don Muang Airport. The family patriarch (and I don’t use this description loosely) was a retired pilot for Thai Airways. Capt. Chamlong Penkair had transferred from his position as an air force pilot in mid-career; this was a standard move to assure financial security for one’s family. Capt. Chamlong had a strong personality and strong opinions to match. He was most loquacious by Thai standards, and I began to see the origins of his son’s oratory gift.
The family did not love their son, but rather they worshiped him. While visiting Capt. Chamlong on one occasion, I was quietly taken to the upstairs of the family home. This alone was most unusual in Thai society. I was shown Jakrapob’s living quarters and library. There was an aura of solemn pride on the part of the father. Jakrapob was the typical academically gifted child of a middle class Bangkok family. You can be assured that he never helped take out the trash or keep up the family’s well manicured lawn. All emphasis was placed on gaining entrance to one of Thailand’s prestigious universities. For many Thai families, the social status derived from a child’s admission to, and ultimate graduation from one of these public universities cannot be exaggerated. The Penkair family was no exception.
Jakrapob’s mother was a mild mannered woman, who seemed to be completely in awe of, and overwhelmed by her husband. Coming from a civil service background, her retired brother-in-law had served as governor of several provinces. Captain Chamlong had four children from his first marriage; Jakrapob was the first of two children from the second marriage. The youngest child, a daughter, has been plagued by emotional problems since she was a small child, and Jakrapob has always been most protective of her.
After graduating from SAIS in 1994, Jakrapob returned to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok. He was assigned to the Department of Public Affairs which seemed most appropriate considering his ability to write persuasive commentary. I visited him at his office several times and we enjoyed several quiet lunches together. By the second year of his return from America, Jakrapob complained that his talents were not being utilized properly and that he anxiously awaited his first overseas posting. I told him to be patient, and that he would surely be happier when living abroad. It was at this point that he confided to me that he didn’t not see the diplomatic corps as his ultimate career. He confessed that despite his keen interest in foreign affairs, he preferred to live near his family. I was surprised, but not shocked.
Shortly after our last lunch at the ministry, what I now see as the seminal event which would pave the way for Jakrapob’s journey over the next decade was to occur. He had told me that he hoped to be assigned to Washington as his first foreign post, and that he was by far the most qualified junior officer for the position. Instead, the assignment was Brussels. While far from being a hardship position, it was not acceptable to him. A few weeks later, Jakrapob’s boss called me to say that Jakrapob was away from his job without leave, and refused to get in touch with the office. His superior prevailed upon me to have him come to work, or face severe disciplinary action. I told Jakrapob to resign from the ministry. If he was so distraught, he could certainly find a more appropriate career path.
I was later to learn that Jakrapob’s confrontation and subsequent resignation from the ministry caused a furor. Never had such a junior officer exhibited such bold behavior at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Later, Jakrapob would relate to me the inside story of his drastic response. A young woman whom had graduated from the Faculty of Liberal Arts of Chulalongkorn University had been given the position in Washington which he coveted, and Jakrapob insisted that she had obtained the position through family connections. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is prone to nepotism, but no doubt less so than other government agencies. Nonetheless, Jakrapob’s complain was justified. His reaction was however, excessive. A strong sense of entitlement was beginning to appear, which I would see prosper over a period of time.
Jakrapob set up a media consulting firm which focused on public relations, advertising and talent search. He was able to find time to help me conduct research and translate documents for several consulting projects in the late 1990s. We had time to discuss one of our favorite topics, Thai society’s resistance to change. Having never lived outside Bangkok, Jakrapob seemed fascinated by my stories of living in remote provinces. I suggested that he find a way to spend time in a small town in order to broaden his understanding of Thailand. He answered that he would like to have such an opportunity, but that would take him away from his parents. Always the family came first.
Each of our conversations now dominated by the role of ‘sak-di-nah’, or feudalism, which permeates Thai society. Upon being sent to southern Thailand in 1997, perhaps the most startling observation that I made was the all pervasive power and prestige of the bureaucracy. I had certainly seen uniformed military and police officers in America, but I was taken aback to see civil servants in khaki; status was further discerned by the amount of gold braid on one’s shoulders. These bureaucrats were both respected and feared by ordinary citizens. It was best to avoid contact with these symbols of authority, if at all possible. I was appalled at the way these people used their status to exploit the general population in every way imaginable. I also reminded Jakrapob that most of my understanding of rural Thailand was based on my time in the south. Later I would spend two years in the northeast, where villagers were even more deferential to government officials. Jakrapob insisted that society had to change. I couldn’t have agreed more, but the specific route to change rural Thailand remained nebulous to me. Not so to Jakrapob, he said he would precipitate change through the media.
I asked about the option of radical education reform, Jakrapob replied that this was too slow. The targets of change were not children but rather their parents. One question which remained unanswered was whether Jakrapob’s obsession with injustice focused on society as a whole, or was it a personal crusade? He expressed admiration for the great poet and revolutionary from the northeast Jit Poomisak. I was skeptical that Jakrapob could understand the poetry of this humble man of peasant background. But who was I to judge? He said that he wanted to use the media to let village people know about the outside world. For several years Jakrapob hosted an early morning television talk show which focused on international events, which was one of the most popular broadcasts at the time.
By the year 2000, Jakrapob Penkair’s name had become a household word. He moved in circles which included the most established names in the Thai media including Mingkwan Saengsuwan, Sondhi Limthongkul, and Suthichai Yoon. His obvious success caused me to remark that he had made the right decision by leaving the Foreign Ministry. We agreed that he was making a far greater contribution to society than had he been a civil servant. This was also the happiest that I had ever seen him. It was at this time that Jakrapob was to have corrective eye surgery, and the familiar horned rimmed glasses would be part of the past. This new face of Jakrapob would be the symbol of a reinvented persona. Jakrapob was known as one of the only television journalists in Thailand who had substantial knowledge of both international and domestic issues. It was through television that Jakrapob caught the attention of Thaksin Shinawatra, the man who would soon be prime minister, and change the face of Thai political culture forever.
Thaksin Shinwatra was known for attracting talented people by paying high salaries. He shocked the Bangkok business establishment in the early 1990s by hiring world class professionals, many of whom were expatriate Thais. Thaksin sought the highest quality the market could offer.
During the first two years of Thaksin’s administration, Jakrapob was most wary of the former policeman turned businessman. He explained to me that Thaksin’s success was based on a carefully planned and orchestrated public relations charade, which did not have the best interest at heart of the people whom he had promised to serve. I was no fan of this new prime minister, but his was an entirely new perspective for non media savvy me.
The news that Jakrapob had accepted the position of government spokesman for Thaksin’s regime did not surprise me. Always curious, I was sure that he was fascinated by the Thaksin phenomena, and wanted to get a closer look. In addition, Jakrapob later confided to me that he had been well paid. Salary negotiations were reminiscent of the Shin Corp model, and the new government spokesman boasted that he held out three times for a higher salary before accepting the position.
I defended Jakrapob’s relationship with the Thaksin government to numerous colleagues and friends. They said that he had compromised himself by joining Thaksin’s ranks. This was, however, early Thaksin, and there were still many respected figures associated with the Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) such as Visanu Kruagnam and Bovornsak Uvano. From 2001-2005, the TRT was clearly the place to be for the ambitious.
Jakrapob used his position to create cordial relations with the international media, a legacy that continues to this day. Foreign journalists were entertained, and even put up over night at his spacious residence in the Pattanakarn area of Bangkok. I was anxious to know what sort of relationship Jakrapob enjoyed with the TRT insiders. He quickly told me that he was not a dinner guest at the Shinawatra residence, renowned for its expensive wine and lavish entertaining. He insisted that he did not fit in with these people, whom he dismissed as nouveau riche. Concomitantly, I am sure that these people had no affinity for Jakrapob. He was not one of the boys. He did not drink vintage wine, play golf or womanize. He insisted that the little free time he had available was spent reading or visiting his family.
I was invited to a most enjoyable family lunch over the Songkran holidays in 2003 at the old Sorndaeng restaurant in Bangkok. Jakrapob entertained about twelve people, which included his parents and several former professors from Chulalongkorn University. Jakrapob sang several classic Thai songs to the delight of all the guests in the restaurant. He had taken me to dinner several times at this spot and he mused that the place was reminiscent of a vanishing era.
Each time we met, I began to see a personality change that was becoming more pronounced. Jakrapob was quite self absorbed and intense. While he remained quite differential and cordial to me, he seemed to be increasingly preoccupied. These was something causing a great deal of anxiety.
Just before the 2005 election, I asked about Thaksin’s state of mind. Jakrapob replied that he was probably ready to look for a way to step down from the top position, and control events from behind the scenes. He insisted that Thaksin would only negotiate on his own terms. I asked if Jakrapob was in a position to advise or warn the prime minister, to which he replied with an emphatic, “No.” He related that no one gave unsolicited advice.
Jakrapob was promoted to the position of Deputy Secretary General to the Office of the Prime Minister. This move came as Thaksin was being subjected to mounting criticism surrounding the sale of the family shares in Shin Corp to the Singapore government’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek. With increasing political pressure from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Thaksin needed all of Jakrapob’s media connections to control an increasingly volatile situation.
In April of 2006, Jakrapob told me that he expected either an assassination attempt on Thaksin’s life or the army to stage a coup d’etat. I queried as to who would have such temerity, to which he quickly replied, General Prem. He further explained that the former prime minister and privy councilor was growing increasingly impatient with Thaksin. Subtle, and then quite direct requests that Thaksin should resign, were met with disdain.
The September 2006 coup d’etat would greatly alter Thaksin’s inner circle of confidantes and Jakrapob’s star would rise. The coup would, to a great extent, separate those who had affinity to the Thaksin movement, and those who had either become disillusioned, or had only been interested in personal gains. As Thaksin’s fortunes seemed to be waning, several notables including Surakiat Sathienthai and Pokin Polakul jumped ship. Others such as Sudarat Khayuraphan and Suriya Jeungrungreungkij remained cautiously silent. Jakrapob loathed these people and saw them as opportunistic. He said that Thaksin had been betrayed, and that there had been Prem loyalists in his midst.
Jakrapob was to tell me that he had visited the exile prime minister in London on several occasions. I was told that Thaksin had expressed his most heartfelt appreciation to Jakrapob for his loyalty. My impression is that Jakrapob felt slighted at his earlier exclusion from Thaksin’s inner circle, and this was vindication. After the election of 2007, Jakrapob was appointed minister attached to the prime minister’s office. But this time, he was the vortex of controversy, having been briefly jailed for shouting insults outside General Prem’s official residence. I will add that Jakrapob was now well capable of using four letter words in the Thai language no one imagined he had ever heard, much less chosen to speak in public.
It was decided that John Hopkins SAIS alumni group would host a dinner in honor of Jakrapob’s cabinet appointment in February of 2008. The dinner would be held in a private dining room at the Polo Club. At about five p.m. I received a call from someone who said that he represented the advance party of “Than” Jakrapob. Advance Party? I told the person on the other end of the phone to have “Than Jakrapob” get in touch with me himself, and promptly hung up. I must share with you that the use of the honorific pronoun, “Than”, proceeding the name of high ranking civil servant or politician is part of a sycophantic ritual used to ingratiate, and I find it especially offensive. It is the linguistic quintessence of the ‘sak-di-nah’ system of which Jakrapob has posed as the anti-icon.
The dinner at the Polo Club was uncomfortable for me. I had given up alcohol for Christian Lent, and a glass of wine would have made the evening less tense. Most guests at the table were foreign, therefore the dinner discussion was held in English. I was given the place of honor at Jakrapob’s right. Jakrapob proceeded to tell us that H.M. The King was a good man, but that he had created a monster in a person of Prem. I had heard this litany before, in both public and private. Then the denouncement of the evening arrived when the guest of honor was asked if he felt troubled by reports that his former professors and mentors were disappointed by his support of Thaksin and his criticism of the monarchy. Jakrapob replied that he had decided his own fate, and had no regrets. Once more, the apocalyptic version came into focus!
Finally, the most awkward part of the evening arrived, which would force me to accept the fact that our relationship would never be the same. Jakrapob told the guests that several senior palace officials should be removed. He knew full well of my relationship with these people, and this made it clear that any deference toward me had now vanished. It was a painful, but necessary realization for me. I later was told that he confided his concern for me to several people. This was thinly veiled reference to his mission to destroy the monarchy. If he and his people were successful, I might be in hot water.
Our last meeting was at a reception held at the American Embassy. The encounter was courteous, but we both knew that our relationship was different now. Jakrapob said that he would like to talk to me; he said that I held the answers to many of his questions. He had made reference to this clandestine agenda on earlier occasions.
To be quite honest, I have tried to distance my emotions from Jakrapob since the time of our last meeting. I have heard the incendiary rhetoric used from the UDD stage, and once again in front of General Prem’s residence. Sometimes Jakrapob’s journey seems surreal to me. His visage makes me uncomfortable. There is an almost unearthly quality about him now. As we watched him with the red shirts, he seemed unnatural and self conscious. His pale, almost translucent skin stood in such vivid contrast to the dark complexioned southern rabble, with whom he shared the stage. Jakrapob’s attempt to portray his common touch was a dismal failure.
Jakrapob’s life will never be normal again. In retrospect, his life has never been normal. His quest for knowledge has moved to an insatiable megalomania, and he seems so alone now. From exile, he has said that his struggle to liberate the Thai people will go underground. I have tried to visualize Jakrapob bathing in a loincloth in the jungle, like Jit Poomisak. I wonder about his parents, whom he has always adored.
When I heard the UDD leaders distance themselves from Jakrapob because of his threats of armed struggle, I became angry. He has taken up company with people who could not possibly understand him, and I am sure that they joke about his foolishness. He continues to support his patron, perhaps the greatest travesty in his quest to destroy Thailand’s feudal tradition.
I still have strong feelings for Jakrapob Penkair. He is one of the most amazing human beings I will ever know. He will have a place in history, which I sense has been his goal from the beginning. If Jakrapob returns to Thailand, he may well spend time in jail. I will visit him there.
Story by: FROM SOMEONE CLOSE