Alcohol & Politics: A Volatile Mix in Thailand
March 11, 2012
Bangkok, Thailand - One of Thailand's most powerful politicians has denied accusations that "he was drunk" in Parliament, prompting a lively public debate about alcohol use by politicians and the legal limits on reporting such allegations.
The fearsome, combative Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, in his early 60s, is not a person to be trifled with.
Consider, for example, his job:
Mr. Chalerm is helping to lead an ongoing investigation into bomb blasts in Bangkok on Valentine's Day involving a group of Iranians during their alleged failed plot to assassinate Israeli diplomats.
He is also investigating an arrested dual citizen Swedish-Lebanese man who allegedly stockpiled explosive material near Bangkok earlier this year for Hezbollah terrorists.
Another case being worked by Mr. Chalerm involves the unsolved killing of 10 Chinese on the Mekong River in October during an alleged international methamphetamines smuggling attempt.
Mr. Chalerm wants to build a fence along part of Thailand's border with Burma, to stem the import of methamphetamines and heroin into this country.
In January, he recommended the rapid execution of drug convicts.
So when a female opposition politician, Rangsima Rodrasami, stood up in Parliament on Feb. 24 and accused Mr. Chalerm of being drunk while he was addressing the House that day, her allegation unleashed a firestorm of legal wrangling and sarcastic chatter.
"His face turned red and he was unable to master his tongue movement while speaking," Ms. Rangsima told reporters.
"I was a nurse, and used to clean up messes made by drunks," she said.
Ms. Rangsima said an alcohol-testing device, such as a breathalyzer, should be installed in Parliament to prevent drunk politicians entering the chamber, and she advised the public not to vote for them.
"I had only one or two glasses at a wedding ceremony...and I was not drunk," Mr. Chalerm told reporters.
"The accusation does not damage my reputation at all, because it is normal for a man to drink."
An inner-ear problem, not alcohol, caused him to appear unsteady on his feet, he said.
Mr. Chalerm's colleague in his ruling Pheu Thai Party, Prompong Nopparit, said, "He didn't look drunk to me. I was there near him, and did not smell any alcohol on him."
Mr. Chalerm coyly joked in Parliament that he was actually "intoxicated by love" for Ms. Rangsima, which increased her anger.
Mr. Chalerm, who has Master's degree in law, threatened to sue seven of the biggest Thai-language newspapers, claiming they libeled him when writing about his behavior in Parliament.
Punishment for libel could include two years in jail for any editor found guilty.
On March 1, the Thai Journalists Association criticized Mr. Chalerm's threat to sue the media and suggested he should instead consider suing politicians who allegedly damaged his reputation.
Others agreed with Mr. Chalerm who said the opposition was smearing him because he was attacking their leader, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who lost power in a July 2011 election.
Mr. Chalerm is widely perceived as the government's most powerful politician and much more capable and dynamic than Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Mrs. Yingluck is seen as a stand-in for her fugitive brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is based in Dubai while dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption committed during his five-year administration which the military ended in a 2006 coup.
After the coup, a court seized $1 billion of Mr. Thaksin's assets in a separate corruption case.
Mr. Chalerm is now involved in trying to enable Mr. Thaksin to return home without being imprisoned.
Mr. Chalerm promised "a national reconciliation law which will cover fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra."
Mr. Chalerm is a former police captain with nearly three decades of experience as an aggressive, vocal politician and appears to have successfully deflected the controversy over his use of alcohol.
About 90 percent of Thailand's population are Buddhist, with statues of the Buddha displayed in most government offices, shops, homes, restaurants, schools and elsewhere, while monks frequently warn against alcohol consumption.
But Thais are fervent fans of enjoying "sanuk" which translates as "fun" and is considered a healthy and civilized way to bear life's tribulations.
As a result, alcohol is a popular beverage in this hot, tropical Southeast Asian nation.
Meanwhile, in response to the controversy in Parliament, Thais and foreigners have been publicly swapping tales about the pros and cons of drinking.
Some praise Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill and quote him saying: "Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me."
"The Thai parliament has a total ban on alcohol, even in the club inside the compound, but the U.K.'s Houses of Parliament have a labyrinth of drinking holes snaking off their corridors, including the Members' Smoking Room for Tory drinkers, the Bishops' bar, a Lords bar, a press bar and the Strangers' Bar where politicians and journalists routinely exchange gossip," the Bangkok Post reported on March 4 in a lengthy examination of politicians worldwide and alcohol.
The paper told its readers that America's second president, John Adams, said drinking spirits created people "possessed with devils."
Disgraced U.S. President Richard M. Nixon was identified as one of the worst examples of a politician drinking on the job.
"On Oct. 11, 1973, at the height of the Arab-Israeli war, British Prime Minister Edward Heath had tried to discuss the crisis with Nixon who could not answer the phone because he was too drunk," the paper reported, quoting tapes recorded in the White House.
Mr. Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is heard to say: "Can we tell them no? When I talked to the president, he was loaded."
The paper described how Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, during a 1995 visit to Washington, was discovered by U.S. Secret Service Agents near the White House "standing alone on Pennsylvania Avenue in his underwear trying to hail a cab. Slurring his words, Yeltsin told them he wanted a pizza."
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.
His websites are