Saturday, June 21, 2008

Thailand on the Verge

I wimped out yesterday.

Instead of attending the huge demonstration to unseat Prime Minister Samak, when tens of thousands of yellow-clad protesters surrounded Government House, the political center of Thailand, I took the advice of friends to steer clear of a potentially explosive situation and watched events unfold on my TV set. Like the armchair football fan, I'm sure I could see more of the action than those on the ground. And although there was much pushing and shoving, only a few cuts and scrapes were reported. The expected and feared violence did not materialize. The 8,000 police assigned to protect Government House, were easily fooled by the well-prepared crowd who climbed over barriers and between trucks designed to stop them in order to get as close to the seat of government as possible. There they set up several stages with sound systems and settled in for the long haul. Police adopted a hands-off policy. Civil servants stayed home and essential services were moved to the Defense Ministry headquarters. The besieged Samak Sundaravej is the minister of defense as well as prime minister. But his administration is in trouble after four months in power. Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang, a PAD leader, declared victory in front of Government House. "The PAD movement today is an historic event and a great credit to the country. In the face of such a phenomenon the government will have to get out within a few days," he said.

The street demonstrations, begun three weeks ago, are led by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a loose-knit group united by its hatred of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications mogul who was elected prime minister in 2001 but deposed by the military in 2006 after similar noisy protests. Although Thaksin is back from exile and now faces corruption charges, he has sworn off politics. No one believes him. His banned party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thailand), was given a makeover and emerged as the People's Power Party which overwhelming won an election in December. Samak is widely seen as a proxy for Thaksin and his administration has done little besides advocate changes in the constitution, written by the coup leaders, which would protect Thaksin. The Thai stock market has dropped 15 points since the street protests began, but rose Friday when violence did not take place.

The raucous rallies have been telecast non-stop by ASTV (Asia Satellite TV) which is not included in my True cable package. But the cable at Comsaed River Kwai Resort got it, and last weekend between meditation sessions, I watched what appeared to be a Thai Woodstock with political speeches interspersed between the singing. Tom said his Thai wife has become addicted to watching the rallies daily. She told him that the speeches were quite rude and disrespectful of Samak and the current administration. One government minister has even threatened to ban ASTV. Of course I couldn't understand the message in the speeches, since it was all in Thai, but the fervor and intensity, not to mention the joyfulness with which Thais season all their gatherings, was obvious. Even yesterday, when the demonstrators and the police were in each other's faces, there was much smiling. But it's impossible to forget that in similar face-offs in 1973, 1976 and 1992, many people marching in the streets for change were killed.

I've tried to express my understanding of Thai politics in previous blogs, so I won't rehash those arguments. Suffice it to say that the white hats and the black hats cannot be easily told apart. The great divide is between Thaksin supporters and Thaksin haters. Samak and the PPP were overwhelming elected in a fair election, and PAD would like the results to be annulled in the name of their version of "democracy." They claim the PPP, whose support is primarily among the poorer classes in the north, purchased votes and was elected illegally. I think there is some truth to these charges, but in Thailand vote-buying is common (didn't Bush buy Florida?).

Both sides claim to be acting to protect King and country. Yellow is the King's color, and PAD leaders are fervent royalists. Some say they would prefer democracy to be managed by the military and the monarchy; others question whether this would really be democratic. Samak met with the King the other night when he presented two new Cabinet ministers to take their oaths of office. He was told:
I expect that you will do what you have promised and when you can do that, you will be satisfied. With that satisfaction, the country will survive. I ask you to do good in everything, both in government work and other work, so that our country can carry on and people will be pleased.
Could this be considered support for or criticism of the Samak regime? Commentators had a field day deciphering the enigmatic pronouncement of the 80-year-old monarch, who speaks in very soft tones.

The 73-year-old Samak now has few options. A censure motion by the opposition Democratic Party apparently prohibits him from dissolving Parliament and calling for new elections (which would undoubtedly re-elect PPP candidates). There are increasing calls for him to resign, and suggestions that Thaksin's brother-in-law be appointed interim prime minister, a move that would obviously not satisfy PAD demonstrators. Much of the dissatisfaction with the government is caused by rising fuel and food prices, not to mention rapidly rising inflation, which are caused by outside influences. Farmers, fishermen and truck drivers are threatening to strike. No one will be able to satisfy their demands. The military has pledged to remain neutral. After all, their last intervention (coups d'etat have been common in Thailand) was a failure. But any violence would likely provide the spark for the military to consider staging another coup. "It bodes ill for Thai democracy that a limited and narrow street-based movement has the upper hand in overthrowing an elected government,'' said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

As an America in Bangkok, it is interesting to compare politics in the U.S and Thailand. What impresses me here is the willingness of Thais to respond to their government's actions (or inaction) with their feet. People feel their voice matters, and they raise it proud and loud. What happened to that spirit in America, that belief that injustice could not be tolerated? While the crowd was not always on the right side, at least people once cared about their government and demanded accountability. I remember the anti-Vietnam War movement when college campuses were alive with political activity, and our marching in the streets led to the downfall of two presidents (as well as the martyrdom of Martin, John and Bobby) and the end of the war. Things are much, much worse today and the American public appears apathetic. Obama will make a difference, but he still appears to be a tool of the corporate elite, rattling sabers for Israel like the worst of the right wingers. Only action by the people will save America. A little of the spirit I see alive in Thailand, despite its many challenges, would make a difference.

But the situation here changes hourly. PAD upped its demands and called on the entire Cabinet to resign along with the prime minister. Samak told the press Saturday afternoon that he would not quit, and that he expected to return to work at his office which is currently surrounded by thousands of protesters. He pledged to answer his critics on his weekly television show Sunday morning. Stay tuned...

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