Thai Flight Attendant Stirs Honey's Nest

A Thai member of Cathay Pacific’s cabin crew has stirred up a social media hornet’s nest in Thailand when she revealed her extreme dislike of one important Business Class passenger – the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. She ended upon the front page of several Thai-language newspapers.

The flight attendant, known as “Honey Lochanachai,” posted on her Facebook page a photo of the manifest, the list of passengers on board a Cathay flight bound for Hong Kong on Nov. 25. The flight originated in Bangkok. Browsing the names, Honey came across Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s daughter.

It would be an understatement to say Honey is not fond of the Shinawatra family. The remarks she posted on her Facebook page have gone viral in Thailand, highlighting how deeply divided the country remains over the former premier, who was deposed in a coup in 2006 but who continues to run the place by remote control through his sister, Yingluck, the current prime minister, and through a handful of senior advisers from his pre-2006 government.

“I have heard that the Shinawatra family often uses Cathay Pacific to travel to Hong Kong. I never expected that (Paetongtarn) was on board today,” Honey wrote. “I immediately told my flight manager that I could not work knowing that the daughter of my enemy was on the plane. The manager was kind to reassign me to be in charge of other sections.”

She continued: “I also called my personal advisor asking if it would be all right to throw coffee at Paetongtarn, but was told that this could breach Hong Kong’s law. I was so angry and could not come to terms with the failure of last Saturday’s anti-government rally in Bangkok.”

The rally she referred to was organized to attempt topple Yingluck’s Pheu Thai government on the grounds that the prime minister was simply her brother’s puppet. Thaksin himself has referred to her as his “clone.” Honey thus is one among many Thais who continue to use Thaksin to justify a myriad of anti-government actions and policies, legitimately or otherwise.

“Initially I made another plan with the help of my colleague on the flight who was also an anti-Thaksin to slander Thaksin in front of his daughter before the plane landed in Hong Kong,” Honey wrote on Facebook. “But I gave up. I could not stop crying realizing that we will have to continue to fight with ‘bad peoples’.”

These private notes on her Facebook page were shared among pro-Thaksin groups and were widely distributed during the following days. Many wrote to complain about what they considered an unethical act in revealing the details of passengers in public. It broke the trust of those who use Cathay’s service, they said.

The Bangkok Branch manager of Cathay Pacific was apologetic about what was regarded as staff misconduct. The company issued a statement saying, “We take this matter very seriously and immediately began an investigation upon receipt of the allegations. With a comprehensive investigative process, it may take several days to complete.”

As an indication of the continuing controversy over Thaksin, however, it is instructive. During a failed no-confidence motion filed by the opposition Democrat Party against Yingluck and some of her ministers last week, for instance, Thaksin’s name was mentioned more often than that of his sister. The Democrats took every opportunity to connect Thaksin with any alleged wrongdoings by the government. At one point, one Democrat Member of Parliament referred to Thaksin more than 40 times during her short speech.

Many of the anti-Thaksin individuals are also devout royalists. It was reported that Honey, in her spare time, often joined right-wing yellow-shirt demonstrations. The yellow-shirt movement has been known to adopt a pro-monarchy agenda and at times politicized the much-revered institution in order to protect its own political interests.

But for royalists like Honey, the fight against Thaksin is believed an act of protecting the monarchy. They have successfully created a new discourse. But by promoting this kind of thinking, the monarchy too has become a polarizing institution.

From this view, Honey’s Facebook page simply reflects a deeper conflict between the royalists and the Thaksin factions. During the recent anti-Thaksin rally, one leader, the retired Thai Army Gen. Boonlert Kaewprasit, proposed that for Thailand to move forward, the country must be “frozen” for five years, in order to allow “bad politicians” to retire and “good politicians” to enter the political scene. Presumably, the bad ones are those like Thaksin. Boonlert also said that he had no faith in democracy. He wanted to return political power to the King. Honey’s Facebook page attests to the fact that she is apparently a supporter of Boonlert.

Should the latest move by the anti-government group, or Honey’s angry outburst be considered an act of desperation? In the past year, the Yingluck government has performed rather well in terms of implementing a number of populist programs inherited from the Thaksin era. These programs aim at winning the hearts and minds of its supporters in far-flung provinces.

Honey and Boonlert may fear that as Yingluck has become more confident, she could come to dominate the political and economic space as her brother had done most successfully. And quiet likely, the drama on that Cathay flight to Hong Kong might simply reflect how many middle-class Thais continue to fear the Shinawatras as their enemy.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.)