Thursday, April 29, 2010

Showdown in Thailand

Thailand’s embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiwa has said that society can not be changed through intimidation. He was speaking of red-shirt protesters who’ve shut down an upscale hotel and shopping district in the center of Bangkok with their barricades of tires and bamboo poles. Abhisit has also made some serious threats to drive out the protesters by force.

This is beyond ironic since he owes his own tenure to yellow-shirt protesters who shut down Bangkok’s international airport in order to drive out an elected government. The yellow shirts represent the army brass, royalists and the Bangkok elite. They call themselves People’s Alliance for Democracy but they want a majority of parliament to be appointed rather than elected because in a free election they are certain to lose to the red-shirts who represent the masses.

The yellows positively despise Taksin Shinawatra, deposed leader of the red-shirts; at this point he’s more like a spiritual leader and probably financial benefactor. He’s in exile and can’t return without facing a jail term. I have very little respect for him myself; I consider him responsible for mass murder. He campaigned on a pledge to rid the country of drugs within three months of his election and upon taking office he ordered the police to take out a lot of ‘drug dealers’.

In the event 2500 people were summarily executed. According to the police they were all killed in drug turf shootouts. The killings met widespread approval amongst the people. The problem in Thailand is mostly meth which can certainly be a scourge. Even an expat I talked to not long after the killing spree thought it was a good idea; that is, until I pointed out that without benefit of fair trials and the opportunity to defend oneself, it was likely that at least ten percent – 250 people – were either entirely innocent or at most guilty of small time misdemeanors: certainly nothing worthy of death sentences.

The major complaint the establishment had against Taksin was the special treatment he set up for himself when he sold his telecom company, largest in Thailand. He had legislation passed which exempted the $1.9 billion sale from taxes. He was only the richest man in the country, but couldn’t stand to pay his fair share of the cost of government. It also rankled the elite that he sold it to Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, in other words it is now owned by a foreign government.

As a result of the hatred of Taksin on the part of the elite, he was ousted in a military coup in 2006. The problem is that he’s the most popular elected leader in Thai history. He’s the first to serve out a full term in office, the first to be reelected to a second term and the first to win an outright majority in parliament and not need coalition partners to govern.

He accomplished that popularity by being the first Thai leader to take account of the needs of the rural poor and common people in general. It certainly can be argued that he really doesn’t give a shit about the people and that his policies are pure populist vote buying, but that’s neither here nor there, the fact is he did it and the people love him for it.

The first prime minister chosen by Taksin’s party – which was still in power - after the coup was removed by the courts because of a conflict of interest: He hosted a cooking show on TV for which he received a token $50 payment. The second, as mentioned previously, was ousted, essentially driven out of power, by yellow-shirt protesters who shut down the airport until their demands were met.

The big question is why they were so adamant about ousting a Taksin oriented government after Taksin himself was out of the picture. I don’t live there, only in a neighboring country, but I have lived there in the past and have traveled there extensively. Even so, I can’t claim to be an expert on the situation, only an interested observer. At any rate, the only reason I can come up with for the elite’s resolve in removing an elected government is that they couldn’t stand seeing public benefits going to the country’s poor. I know it makes no sense, but that’s the best I can make of it.

The common people of Thailand have found their voice and their strength and are no longer willing to accept the trickle down benefits offered by the elite. Thailand has one of the least equitable societies in this region.

What gets me is how the royalists thought they could use people power to oust a government without expecting the opposition to take the same tact.

Where it stands now is that the red-shirts are demanding new elections. The prime minister has offered to bring up the date of the next election to this December instead of a year December, but the red-shirts are holding firm to an earlier date. How much more basic can you get than ask for an election to replace an unelected government?

There’s one wild card in the mix; Thailand’s ailing king. He is highly revered by the people and if he wished to intervene, the government would be out in a wink. Thailand has very strong Lese Majeste laws which make the least criticism of the king a serious offense. The king is still a strong stabilizing force, but his son, heir to the throne, is widely disliked by the Thai people. When the current king dies, there will be an additional strong destabilizing force in the situation.

I don’t see civil war, but in this volatile mix, almost anything is possible.

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