Dreams and nightmares in Bangkok: The Star

The leggy teen nicknamed "Mint", who used to work with her garbage collector mother, won the Miss Uncensored News pageant.
The leggy teen nicknamed "Mint", who used to work with her garbage collector mother, won the Miss Uncensored News pageant. PHOTO: THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The week-long break in Bangkok is almost over and, as always, the return to the Thai kingdom's capital where I used to work more than a decade ago has been an enlightening one.

I missed the brightest event which happened two nights ago, though. A brilliant blueish-green fireball lit up the sky as it streaked past and blew up as it came down just before 9pm.

The spectacular meteor, called a bolide, was seen by many in the streets and captured on car dashcam videos.

My friends and I were oblivious to the show as we were too engrossed in the southern Thai dishes in a quaint little restaurant.

Fireballs are known to be produced at high rates during certain years by the Taurid (named after the radiant point from the constellation of Taurus) meteor shower.

It takes place between September and December each year when the Earth ploughs through debris trailing behind the comet Encke.

Every decade or so, there is a "swarm" of larger space particles which can produce fireballs, and astronomers have predicted that 2015 is such a year.

But the most discussed story in Thailand last week was that of the "garbage beauty queen".

The rags-to-riches story of Khanittha Phasaeng, 17, made headlines around the world.

The leggy teen nicknamed "Mint", who used to work with her garbage collector mother, won the Miss Uncensored News pageant.

Immediately after her victory, Mint returned to the shack where her mother Orathai Pormaun, 47, lives and sorts out garbage, to thank her for raising her through many difficulties.

Pictures of Mint kneeling before her mother while wearing her glittering crown, silk sash and high heels went viral and were published in newspapers worldwide.

In a touching tribute to her single mother she said: "What I have today is because of my mother. She and I make a living doing honest work and there is no reason to be ashamed. I will continue helping her to collect and recycle garbage.

"When my name was announced as the winner, it felt like a dream. I was thinking, how can a girl like me be a beauty queen?"

But the dream soon became a nightmare when it was found out that she had lied about her educational background.

In her participation form, it was stated that she had completed Mathayom 6 (equivalent to Form Six), but she had apparently left school after Mathayom 3.

This was discovered when a university offered her a scholarship to enable her to pursue a degree. For days, a debate raged on in social media over her dishonesty.

Just as there were many calls for her to be stripped off the title, there was also an equal number of people rooting for her.

They did not regard the lie as a big sin, especially because she had taken part hoping to win and use the 30,000 baht (S$1,180) prize money to relieve her mother's financial burdens.

As the arguments went on, Mint begged the pageant's organising committee not to disqualify her as she had already distributed the money to her mother and siblings.

She also apologised for the misinformation, claiming that her uncle had filled up the form and she had not checked it.

In the end, contest organiser Somchai Leknoi ruled that Mint could keep the crown and the money, adding that the two runners-up held no grudges against her.

Thanks to the fame and the controversy that followed, Mint has been offered deals on brand endorsement and appearances in TV and film.

Her story has also helped to highlight Thailand's problem of poverty.

Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who leads the country's National Council for Peace and Order, said the number of Thais living in poverty had dropped continuously from 42 per cent in 2000 to 10.5 per cent last year, but inequalities persisted in the country.

For most Thais, however, the return to civilian rule is a more pressing concern as the economy has been badly hit.

Gen Prayuth, who took power after a coup in May last year after a series of violent clashes between the rival "Red Shirt" and "Yellow Shirt" supporters, has promised to hand over power to a civilian government, but only after the country's constitution is rewritten.

But his remarks in Parliament last week has fuelled talk that the military would be in power longer than expected.

"The media writes every day that I intend to cling on to power. I must make it clear. If there is no peace and order, I must stay on," he was reported as saying.

After three postponements to hold fresh elections, the country's national assembly has approved a new draft charter. A national referendum on the charter is expected to be held early next year.

When it took over, the junta promised, among others, to restore the country's economy.

Thailand, however, recorded a dismal 0.7 per cent growth last year and is bogged down in its 11th month of deflation. Disapproval is also rising over the heavy-handed crackdown on dissent.

Thailand has seen the biggest decline in political liberty, with Freedom House ranking it lower than Libya, Sudan and Egypt.

The phrase in vogue is "attitude adjustment".

People who go against the government's line of thinking can expect to be arrested and detained to undergo this "thorough correction process".

Among those who were made to undergo "attitude adjustment" was journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk who was held for three days after which he resigned from The Nation.

Politicians, students and even ordinary citizens have been similarly rounded up to be "adjusted".

Thais who have seen some 20 coups over the past 30 years are hoping for the nightmare to end soon.