Living under a dictatorship is hellish.
Thais are Fit for King and Queen, but not Democracy
By Terence James C.
Believe me brother, it is hard living under the Thai dictatorship, and its been only a week since the army took control. Like turning on the radio, and all of them are broadcasting the same interview from the army PR saying things like “One of the reasons for throwing out the civilian government is because of rampant corruption, but to be fair we have to bring the cases to court and see if they are truly guilty. The army can not make that determination. It’s up to the judges.” That is a joke in its own but the sad reality is that the army just appointed all the judges to the corruption panel.
Well you would think Thai people would be smarter than that. But they aren’t. Most Thai greeted soldiers with flowers. And boy are these coup leaders smart. In front of the coup HQ, they use really beautiful army gals to keep first line security. So pretty are these army girls, people stop their cars and hop down for photos op. Here in Bangkok, where the average income is higher than the average income in most ASEAN countries, where modern condominium rocks the skyline, where broadband internet and WiFi are all over the place, where it boast film festivals, music festivals, fashion week and another million signs of a modern cosmopolitan city like futures and commodity markets, in one stroke of a general’s hand, tanks rolled in and Bangkok is back in the boondocks-political activities are ordered suspended, no more political web-boards, newspapers under censorship, and all the regular trimmings of dictatorship. Tanks and men in uniform and army gals in tight uniforms everywhere. “Keep up the smiles”, the army issued an order to all first line people.
Yes, it was bloodless. But people, all internet chat rooms and web-board, like Pantip Rajdunnern Room, where about 50,000 pro deposed civilian government Thais converge everyday, well it and everyone else are closed down, by military orders. So you say it is bloodless, but billions of Thais brain cells are currently off-line for good. My bet is that in a year, the average IQ of the Thai people will drop a whopping 20 points. This is no joke, James Clark, a long time Thai residence who works for the Thai government in promoting Open Source Software said there is really a major problem about Thai education system because it does not product critical thinking graduates, but students who memorizes well. Now a short supply of critical thinking is going to be a major problem for Bangkok, because the army has convinces Thailand’s free press, to stay focus on building “harmony”. So you figure the press is the last hope for critical thinking in Thailand. But the reality is that it has also shut down. Giles Unpakorn, human rights activist led a small rally against the coup, and he says afterwards, he was swamped by interview requests by foreign news agencies, but “not a single Thai press wanted one.”
Well it really is even harder than that, brain cells are important, but these days playing the stock market is a right of everyone. Except in Thailand where it has turned nasty, because the former Thai Prime Minister and his supporters, are all businessmen with companies in the stock market. So don’t hate me but I dabble in the stock market. I know about fundamentals, technicals, flow of capital, governance and all sort of theories, but the theory of Coup on stock prices is new to me. I mean sure, stock will react bad at first, but then its profits that drives prices. Well in Thailand, any company with connection with people in the previous government, are heading to the bottom quicker that the Titanic. The mood is, the army will likely not let these rich folks go on being rich for long, because like they say “money last longer than bullets and bravados”. So if left alone, they will return to politics for sure.
So I wrote Giles a short e-mail message and asked him, “Are the Thai people crazy or what because I don’t get it.” The educated class has so strongly and loudly protested the deposed civilian government for being a dictator, trying to influence independent bodies by stuffing it with cronies are so many other charges. Then the military took control, and has gone far beyond the civilian government in curbing freedom, but the intellectual class-championed by a media tycoon, turn around ane say all these are “necessary to rid of the influences of the civilian dictatorship.” I considered myself an intellectual, but the saying most intellectuals are stupid rings a bell here. But really, Thais do support this coup and no amount of bell ringing is going to get through. In front of military compounds, hawkers pop up stores selling flowers to army well wishers. Trucks load of energy drink like the famous Red Bull, is donated to the army so they can keep watch and take care of themselves at night. Parents take their children to take picture with tanks and machine gun mounted jeeps. Newspapers say the love affair between the army and the Thai people remain as sweet as the first day of the coup. Up north, birth place of civilian prime minister, it’s a different story. The city of Chiang Mai is wrapped tight.
Its been a long journey down the road of democratic oblivion in Thailand. A Media tycoon opened salvos against the government. The momentum just kept building up from there. Snap elections was called to demonstrate support for the government. All major party knew how popular the government was, choose to boycott the election, with all sort of reasons and turned to call for the King to install a government instead. After the election, the government won a landslide. Bangkok press reported instead how many no-votes there were. Only the European Magazine Economist came out in support of the elections results and pretty much trashed the media tycoon. Its was an eye-opening article. But Thais don’t give a damn about the Economist. Charges of election wrong doing came from all corners. In the end the King said he would not appoint a prime minister and that a one party election was questionable. He told the courts to fix things, make it right. A campaign to trash the election started immediately. Election Commissioners were sent to jail. Mass circulated Thai Rath daily said, “These commissioners should resign, it is a lock-in judgement because the courts wants to clear way for a new election”. So the first scapegoat went to jail. Men with respect in their 50 and 60s with long distinguish careers in government.
So a new election date was set. But problem, the media tycoon threathened to stage mass continuous protest against the return of the prime minister to Thailand-he was in the US to address the UN. And an assassination attempt on the PM led to all corners of high military involvement. Things look bad, and then the military took control, citing many things that are wrong. They needed the King support and blessing. So the coup leaders went to the King. Meanwhile, Asia Commission on Human Rights made a statement urging the King not to legitimize the coup. But the King had to. Polls showed 80% of Thais supported the coup. Eventually, the King gave blessing. Of note though, army tanks did take position around the palace gates right after the coup. Who would ever harm the Thai King is a question, so why the tanks. So between the tanks and the poll, the Thai King, who has always championed democracy, caved in.
So where for Thailand and Bangkok from here. Giles say he doesn’t believe the military promise on anything. Personally I don’t know. On one hand, it takes guts for this coup leader to choose an interim constitution written by the Suchida Regime 15 years ago. This is just tasteless really because people died protesting the Suchinda dictatorship. Then seeing the generals all puff up in their outfits for the ceremonial receiving of the blessing from the King and it is really hard to imaging these folks handing back power to the people in one year like they promise. They admit they have been planning the first coup in Thailand in 15 years for 9 months. So to let it go in 12 month, man it takes rock solid guts to bet on this one. Maybe Giles is right to start protesting now instead of when the one year expires. And the depth of the clean sweep is so very profound. Any police or military close to the civilian government, is being systematically, assigned to inactive posts. All media people supported of the deposed civilian government have been taken off air with some under house arrests, according to some reports. Tanks are stationed outside many corporate HQ that belongs to the people in previous government. So looks like a dig in for the long stay.
So the case against the previous government must be pretty air tight right. Well in fact, after five years in power, no courts have found anyone guilty of corruption. Yes that will change now for sure. Many Thais will say after these future corruption rulings comes out against the deposed government, that “the verdict justifies the coup”. Not too many will venture into what some international press are saying like “prepare for the biggest lie ever told by the Thai courts”. One lawyer for the deposed government told international press, “please at least invest in having these future courts proceedings and rulings translated, and have your legal department look at them. Don’t believe me?, the Thai Rath mass circulated daily just said today in comment, “The courts have set their sights on guilty rulings, it will be hard for the previous government to escape”. One international law firm said, “the junta is really stuffed with smart lawyers and they will convince everyone.” And boy, the list of lawyers in the junta’s hand are very impressive indeed.
And yet with all this going on, international credit rating agencies say Thai credit rating is solid. I hate to do battles of the wits with the likes of Moodys and Standard and Poor, but man, “you guys talk about structural reforms like it is religion”. The junta is going to make a laughing stock of the Thai judicial system, and look at the stock market, what do you think is going on here in Bangkok. And lastly, what about the bonds of corporations belonging to the people in the deposed government. I hate to see a down grade, since I am also a Thai. But please, don’t tell me everything is normal.
Here lies the gut of the problem for Moodys and Standard and Poor, the junta is going to lead the drawing up of the next constitution-not the interim one, bit the one for the promised election in a year. And guess what “no more strong government in Thailand”. Back to the old-style “gentlemen’s agreement politics” where the upper class of the Thai society ultimately controls government. How’s that for structural reform? Does any body remember the days where Thailand changes government about as often as baby’s diapers? Here is a key record, the deposed government of Thaksin, was the first government in Thai political history to stay in power for the duration of the term. Amazing Thailand isn’t it, gyrating between the love of strong government, to weak government, to dictatorship, in a never ending circle.
So do I have a theory why Thailand got to this point. Actually, when the media tycoon said he will keep staging mass rally against the government, even if it won the election, that was a danger sigh to democracy. When political parties boycotted elections and called for the King to install a new prime minister, that was danger. When privy councils to the King, started to attack to government, that was a danger sign. When academics, call for the military to step in, that was danger. When the Bangkok press, remembers only about critical thinking but not responsibility, and attacked the government on every angle, that was danger. There were many other danger signs, but no Thai in the capital cared. One prominent Chulalongkorn University academics, Thailand best rated, but nowhere on international scale sums it all up, “corruption and bad ethics, are worse than dictatorship”. Then this academic, went to questioned Giles on why he staged a rally against the dictatorship, and then criticized Giles. Giles also hates the deposed government. I asked him, “don’t the record of the deposed government impress you at all, especially a Marxist like you.” And I mentioned a few successes, like shrinking the number of poor from 14 million to 7 million, like instigating universal health care for all Thais, like making capital available to the poor, like making student loan widespread, like shrinking the gap between the rich and poor in Thailand-something never happened before in Thailand, and the excellent management of the economy? Giles simply said the deposed government, was “hell bent” on capitalism, materialism and growth. And all of that came with a cost in-terms of “government ethical standards”. Giles say the poor are corrupted by all the “populus” policies, and their votes have been sold. Country folks were ridiculed by Bangkok as being “buffalos, stupid, poor, ill-informed” and so many other. Thailand Development Research Institute, that’s right folks, the highly respectable institution, said, “All the accomplishments of the deposed government was nothing, any government could have achieved it,” It only forgets that there have never been a government out of Bangkok, who gave a damn about the poor before Thaksin. How far did Thaksin go in combating poverty? To the extent that it registered all the poor people of Thailand and separated out the root caused of each to be poor and go on fixing the problem one poor family by one poor family.
You are right to think here, where are all the poor people who supported the government? Why aren’t they out in the streets? Well they can’t. The dictator has clamped down on them and all their leaders being watch or under house arrests. All transportation routes are being patrolled. Country folks are being asked, “Why are you going to Bangkok?”
Well, that is the general consensus, the people of Bangkok can’t beat the deposed government on concrete record, so they turned to something hard to pinpoint like “ethical standards” as a rallying cry. It’s amazing to see the people of Bangkok go “all high and mighty overnight”. Isn’t Bangkok the sexiest city in the world, where all sins flies? But boy did the examples of unethical things came flying in. Most of them stuck in the minds of the people of Bangkok exclusively, but laughed at up-country. The people of Bangkok are just freaked out about the previous government meddling with independent bodies, about the rumors of corruption, about how the deposed government treat the poor so well its like buying votes, about Thaksin using legal maneuvers not to pay tax when he sold his telecom empire, and about a million other things, that adds up to be called, “Thaksin System.” And so everything and everyone in Bangkok converged to rid the country of the Thaksin System. And after the coup, rumors started to circulate how all populus policies, root of the Thaksin evil system, will end. Things heated up in the provinces immediately after that, and the dictatorship reversed itself, saying, “all populus policies will stay in effect”. So much for attempt to rid the country of the root of the Thaksin Evil System.
You may ask me don’t I have anything bad to say about the deposed government at all? Well in the states, the supreme court, congress, and other independent bodies, are politicized as well so I don’t see the meddling with independent bodies as a major problem. And the courts were pretty much out of reach of that meddling. Then all along the road to democracy oblivion in Thailand, one group of people stood in strong in support of the government. And that is the relatives and family of those killed in fighting for democracy and against dictatorships of the past. Who am I to know better than these people. They are hurting now for sure, seeing so many of their countrymen greets tanks with flowers, as the bodies of so many who died in previous coup, are still un-accounted for. As for corruption, its Asia and long part of business. Not that it is right, but if every country in Asia took to Thai example of ridding itself of democracy to combat corruption, it will be a continent of dictatorships. I just think it is silly. And for using tax loopholes not the pay tax by Thaksin, which sparked it all and started his downfall, well I wouldn’t imposed my views on you readers. Some say it is normal, others say it is not.
Do I have a way out for Thailand? Actually yes, those who understand Thailand will say that the institution of King, creates a very strong and permanent “right wing” element in Thai society. The Thai King is 80 and has a heart condition. Everyone says it will be difficult for anyone to fill his shoe, in good deeds done for the country and respect he commands. But to me, that also means, Thais better learn to live together under democratic rule, as something they have to do in the medium term. These strong centers for far right thinking, must somehow be marginalized. There are just too many Thai generals, going about thinking about their duty as the Nation, King and Religion, and knows nothing about democracy. Like a military general friend of mine who says all the time, “democracy is just another tool to govern, and there are other tools”. The Thai King is wise, and understands what he perpetuates, and he calls for the Thai people openly all the time to engage him seriously, to criticize him, to challenge him. Obviously, he thinks all that blind submissions are dangerous. Because it means Thais could as easily submit blindly to others, like military generals. But will the Thai people ever let go of tradition and greet democracy as rule of the land, for long-term development, that is an un-known.
All I know is that for now, Thais, wide awake, are waiting for the axe to fall on the deposed government officials. Not a single one questions how “due process” it will be. The deposed Thai Rak Thai government is the target of a witch hunt that will leave it crippled or disappeared all together. That sounds like “madness”. A very popular political party, at grass roots level, is systematically, being destroyed by the people of Bangkok. There is an old Thai political saying that, “provincial folks creates the government, the people of Bangkok destroys it.” One Communist leader says, “behind that saying” is a long and continuous fight for power and resources between the ruling class of Bangkok and the people of rural areas. So I asked this communist leader friend, what’s next in Thailand? And he shrugged his shoulders and said, “the poor had a taste of real hope, and while Bangkok celebrates winning this one with a dictatorship to protect its position and wealth, things will never be the same again.” And brother is he right! News are leaking out daily about what is going on in the provinces, like schools being burned in protest, and my communist friend scares me stiff. Things are so out of whack and out of balance in Thailand, after-shocks will go on for years.
So I have to conclude this short story about Thai politics by saying, “Thais are fit for King and Queen, but not Democracy.”