Thursday, September 4, 2008

One Night in Bangkok

Bangkok, Oriental setting, and the city don't know that the city is getting... remember that tune?
(If not, look at the bottom of everything on the right hand side and click)
Anyways, what's up in Thailand? In case you missed it, protesters have taken to the streets en masse to demand the resignation of current Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Nearly two years after an unexpected military coup deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a time that included 15 months of benign military rule, the drafting of a new constitution, and a general election which returned the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) to office, Thailand has seen a week straight of demonstrations led by the PAD (People's Alliance for Democracy) under the leadership of Sondhi Limtongkul (his website here) and Chamlong Srimuang.

The main bone of contention is the perception that the current government is no more than a proxy of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The PAD also led demonstrations that preceded the 2006 military coup which forced Mr Thaksin into exile. The difficulty I'm having with the present situation is there doesn't seem to be a clear answer as to who are the good guys and who are the badies. The demonstrators have seemed desperate, the government self-controlled and the military awkwardly shy about the new powers just given to them on September 2nd when the PM reluctantly declared a state of emergency following clashes between pro and anti government forces. What is clear is that the division between city folk and those from the country is reaching a boiling point.

This crisis began more than a week ago when thousands of PAD supporters took to the streets of Bangkok and forced their way into government buildings. Protesters also went on to shut down airports and rail services. A call for a general strike Wednesday demanding the prime minister step down failed to garner enought support, but the protest leaders were given a face-saving hand by the army chief Anupong Paojinda, who promised not to use force against anti-government demonstrators.

While fighting against the perceived corruption of the present administration with it's links to Thaskin, what the demonstrators really want is a return to the status quo, that which existed before the Thaskin government. The PAD leadership is composed of businessmen, generals and aristocrats who are not demanding new elections, which they would lose, but “new politics”—in fact a return to old-fashioned authoritarian rule, with a mostly appointed parliament and powers for the army to step in when it chooses. They argue that the rural masses who favour Mr Thaksin and Mr Samak are too “ill-educated” to use their votes sensibly. This overlooks an inconvenient electoral truth: the two prime ministers had genuinely popular policies, such as cheap health care and farm credit.

This is a nation that can't seem to make up its mind, forward or backward. They love their king, who has near god-like status. His 60-year reign has seen 26 prime ministers and 17 military coups. While per capita income has increase 40 fold, the gap between rich and poor, between the urban and rural population, has widened. The king is seen as the great defender of peace and democracy who comes to the aid of the people when needed, and as they did in 2006, the PAD are playing on fears that the current government has republican leanings. King Bhumibol's health has been poor of late which has added to the tension due to the uncertainty of succession. Although there is a prince in waiting, there is also a 19-member Privy Council of senior advisors to the king who wield power in designating a successor according to the constitution.

The constitution is another sticking point. A new one, the 18th since 1932, received a yes vote from 58% of the population at the end of last year. Among other things it limits executive powers and pardoned the 2006 coup leaders. The newest constitution moved more power back to the military and judiciary and opened up the possibility of the prosecution of Thaksin supporters. In addition, any party linked to corruption by top executives could be dissolved by the courts. Therefore when Mr. Samak moved to change the constitution it was seen as an effort to protect his party and the former ruling party of Thaksin from court decisions such as the one against Samak's foreign minister. The constitutional court ruled that FM Noppadon Pattama violated the Constitution by signing a joint communique with Cambodia concerning the latter's bid to list Preah Vihear temple as a World Heritage Site without parliamentary endorsement. The temple sits astride the two nations and the move was seen as one that would help the businesses of Mr. Thaksin who has many holdings in Cambodia.

A word or two about Thaksin Shinawatra. He became a billionaire by building his telecommuncation empire in the 80's. His political career began with his founding the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party in 1998. He swept to power in 2001, soundly defeated the incumbent Democrat Party (many of whose members now belong to the PAD) and became the first Thai prime minister to lead an elected government for a full term. The poor loved him for his cheap medical care and debt relief, his nationalist platform and his contempt for the "Bangkok elite", while big business also liked him for his CEO style of government and his "Thaksinomics" policies which created a new boom in the country where the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s began. Trouble came from his governments suppression of the news of an outbreak of bird flu, criticism over the violent deaths of more than 2,500 people during a crackdown on drugs in 2003, Thailand's Corruption Commission found he had failed to declare all of his wealth, and he was also criticised over the government's handling of the upsurge in violence in the largely Muslim south. He came through all this unscathed until his family's decision to sell its shares in one of Thailand's biggest telecom groups, Shin Corp to Singaporean interests in early 2006. It netted his family and friends $1.9bn, but anger stemmed from the fact he and his family had avoided paying taxes and had passed control of an imortant national asset to foreigners. Large scale street protests were followed by a snap election call, which was boycotted by many, then he stepped down, only to return a few weeks later in May. Finally, while he was attending a UN conference in September, the military seized power. Mr. Thaksin moved to the UK, bought the Manchester City football club and then after his allies won election, returned to Thailand in February of this year swearing he had no wish to return to politics. However, opponents didn't believe him and the courts who have more power owing to the new constitution pursued the cases against him and his family vigorously, to the point where it appeared he was headed to jail, therefore he left the country again. Gone, but not forgotten, and definitely not without influence in the present government.

So, while the country faces real problems, rising prices of fuel and food, a falling currency, the two sides in this political crisis are playing a back and forth game. The latest move by the PM called for a referendum asking a range of questions including whether the government should resign, whether it should dissolve parliament and what people thought about the ongoing protests. It will possibly take as much as six months to organize. The PAD dismisses this as a stalling tactic, continuing their occupation of government buildings while the government continues to bus in supporters from rural areas ensuring more conflicts similar to the clashes seen on Tuesday night. Like many revolutionary movements before them, the PAD have their colour, in this case yellow to symbolize their unity with the king. However unlike the other coloured revolutions, this movement is pushing to restrict voters rights. “The PAD gives democracy a bad name,” Sunai Phasuk, of Human Rights Watch, said. “It's not about democracy, it's about narrow nationalism. It could turn back the clock and make the progress Thailand has made in the last two decades meaningless.” In July it announced a “New Politics” that would reduce the number of elected MPs to 30 per cent, with the rest appointed by business and trade organisations. This would be a little like the liberal coasts in the US claiming the poorly-educated folk in the middle of the country aren't smart enough to vote, so their votes should be replaced by corporate heads and union leaders. Many conspiracy theorists argue that those in power in democracies try to keep the people stupid (see FOX 'News') it appears the PAD want to take the next step.


dmarks said...

This grips me more than would a muddy ol river or reclining buddha.