Thailand's political troubles


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Anarchy in the Land of Smiles

As you no doubt are aware from general world news, there has been a lot of unrest lately here in my adopted home of Thailand, aka, Siam. We are okay, as we live a simple life, but there is a lot of unpredictability in the air, as usual. Things have settled down a bit, and I’m hoping to go out and see a movie tomorrow, but I’ll check the local news first.

It’s just an ongoing stumble into the modern age for this beautiful semi-traditional society that has only progressed from absolute monarchy since 1932 and is trying to become a sophisticated nation. (To be fair, please keep in mind that the USA, at a similar age in its own nationhood, was ravaged by an insanely brutal Civil War.) Since 1932, there have been at least 18 constitutions written here, punctuated by military coups (as recently as 2006) and elected governments that never served their full terms until the 21st century. They are trying to get the hang of it all.

There is a class-war, a cultural war, going on between the mega-city of Bangkok and the rest of the country, those rural provinces whose poor folk love the deposed and exiled former PM Thaksin, the billionaire populist. I don’t know where it will end except that the Army will most likely decide in the end. Actually, the Army is one of the most respected democratic institutions in the country because even a poor boy can advance there on merit. (Yet politics is entwined intimately with the Army’s higher echelons.)

The King is old and ill, he has no political power but he has tremendous moral authority here, e.g., in 1992 after the Army gunned down maybe 700 protesters, the King summoned both the Army leader and the demonstrators’ leader to a royal audience in which they bowed before him and he told them both to knock it off and act right. Out of respect for his highly-respected character, they backed off and had new elections.

To make a long recent story shorter: Before and during December 2008 the “yellow shirts” -- i.e., royalists, Bangkok middle classes and upper classes, military and traditional elites, professionals, etc. – had mass demonstrations. They wanted all government traces of former populist PM Thaksin thrown out, and the courts eventually obliged them. Thaksin had been ousted in a military coup in 2006, but his party followers have won all the restored elections since then. The yellow shirts didn’t like this, so they took over Government House and the national airport, stranding tens of thousands of foreign tourists right before Xmas, wrecking the important tourist industry here and putting a million Thais out of work immediately. In their ranks were grandmothers with their grandkids in their arms. In modern Western terms you might call them “Tories.” They got their way.

The courts convicted Thaksin (in absence) of abuse of power and other counts of corruption, and they sentenced him to 2 years in prison. The Thai government has frozen US$2 billion (76 billion Thai Baht) of his huge fortune. He wants it back and he wants his power back. Thaksin’s cronies had won elections since then, but the courts threw them out on grounds of corruption. In the parliamentary re-shuffles, the opposition Democrats formed the present government. The yellow shirts were happy.

As one example of what might well be called an “abuse of power,” consider that Thaksin once ordered a very brutal “War on Drugs,” in which police hit-teams went out and shot dead around 2,500 people in a matter of weeks. Few policemen were hurt in this “war,” making it look a lot like extra-judicial executions.

But lately it has been the “red shirts,” the poor underclass supporters of the exiled Thaksin, who have been shutting the city down, demanding that the present government resign so they can bring home and re-elect Thaksin. Thaksin’s support is mainly in the rural provinces among poor folk, whom he promised many government goodies, and they came into the city via bus and train by the thousands. The red shirts smashed through the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit meeting on 11 April, forcing Asian foreign ministers to escape via choppers. The red shirts paralyzed the city, shutting down major roads, burning buses and threatening to blow up large gas trucks. The police and Army just stepped back and let them run, because they don’t want to repeat the savage suppressions of the past. The Army wants to remain one of the most respected institutions in the country.

Thus tourism and investment took another bad hit. Cancelations of flights to Thailand and of tourist packages have ballooned. Tourism is a mainstay of this economy. The hookers are looking so sad and lonely, it’s a pity, because their usually bright smiles help to make this country’s rep as “The Land of Smiles.”

The present PM Abhisit (an English-born Thai educated at Eton and Oxford) ordered a State of Emergency that is still in effect. The Army finally obeyed his orders and chased the red shirts out of town on the 13th and 14th. There was a rifle platoon of the Royal Thai Army on our street on Sunday night, and as I went to the store to get beer and ice they greeted me with friendliness. The residents of Bangkok are largely sick and tired of the red shirts’ violence and their spoiling of the Songkran New Year fun. The Army showed surprising restraint in their use of force, and it appears that the soldiers did not kill a single protestor. Fatalities occurred when local residents resisted the red shirt depravations in their neighborhoods, and the red shirts seemed to have fired the fatal shots, killing a couple of locals downtown.

PM Abhisit seems like an educated and decent fellow, but his perceived problem is that he only gained the premiership through Thaksin’s elected people being thrown out by the elitist courts plus mass defections of parliament members from Thaksin’s faction to his own. The red shirt faction does not see him as a legitimately elected leader. It’s a mess, with Thai society divided in half. If Abhisit can create genuine dialogue between parties, it will be a wonder, but I’ve never yet seen such a corruption-free, intelligent and dedicated politician as him here.

This morning, a “yellow shirt” leader was ambushed and almost assassinated before dawn on a Bangkok street in classic gangland style. Hundreds of rounds were fired at his car from AK-47 and M-16 weapons, but he survived. No doubt it was a red shirt plot. Now the yellow shirts are angry, and they are mobilizing once again.

As I have said, life is almost back to normal, but I will study the situation tomorrow morning before I head into the city. Those bookstores and theaters are just luring me in. Bangkok is quite the town.

.

-Ross Barlow.

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This is a much better report, Ross, than anything I've read over here. You might consider some freelance journalistic work.

The proper way to write a news-story is to tell it in the first few paragraphs then tell it again with more elaboration followed up by the less important details. The idea is who runs it can just trim in from the end to fit the space available. The beginning might reflect and remark on the drama of the situation. What you did do is a very fine piece of writing indeed, appropriate for this Internet context.

Of course I'm not really suggesting you do any of this, but I did want to contrast two different ways of writing dictated by end context.

I hope you also put this up on AtlantisII, where you are justifiably held in high regard by George H. Smith et al. They need quality material.

--Brant

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Anarchy in the Land of Smiles

As you no doubt are aware from general world news, there has been a lot of unrest lately here in my adopted home of Thailand, aka, Siam. We are okay, as we live a simple life, but there is a lot of unpredictability in the air, as usual. Things have settled down a bit, and I'm hoping to go out and see a movie tomorrow, but I'll check the local news first.

It's just an ongoing stumble into the modern age for this beautiful semi-traditional society that has only progressed from absolute monarchy since 1932 and is trying to become a sophisticated nation. (To be fair, please keep in mind that the USA, at a similar age in its own nationhood, was ravaged by an insanely brutal Civil War.) Since 1932, there have been at least 18 constitutions written here, punctuated by military coups (as recently as 2006) and elected governments that never served their full terms until the 21st century. They are trying to get the hang of it all.

There is a class-war, a cultural war, going on between the mega-city of Bangkok and the rest of the country, those rural provinces whose poor folk love the deposed and exiled former PM Thaksin, the billionaire populist. I don't know where it will end except that the Army will most likely decide in the end. [...]

Thailand is another case study for applying Ayn Rand's advice about the roots of war. As explained in her article "The Roots of War" (CTUI 35-43), most men have never rejected the doctrine of fistism, the doctrine "that force is a proper or unavoidable part of human existence and human societies." Until the Thai people reject it, they will continue to "stumble" on. Given your report however, I do not see any intellectual leadership that will get that message out to the "yellow" and "red" shirts.

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A very educational read, Ross! In just five minutes, I've learned more about Thailand's internal processes and players than I could have read anywhere else (that I can think of). As Brant pointed out, the finite box that articles can fit in aren't able to highlight the details like you did.

Thank you!

~ Shane

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