Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Red & Yellow But No Green

The challenge is the same but the colors have changed. Thousands of red-shirted anti-government demonstrators have surrounded Government House in Bangkok, the symbolic seat of political power in Thailand. Exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has called for a massive demonstration on Wednesday and 300,000 to 500,000 are expected to answer his call. Oddly enough, Wednesday is a green day according to Thai cultural rules but that color is absent in the current confrontation of forces here. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who came to power several months ago when a similar mob of protesters wearing yellow shirts brought down two prime ministers loyal to Thaksin, went on national television in Bangkok last night to say his government would "take decisive actions" to prevent a civil war.

Street theater so far is the weapon of choice, although there were several deaths as a consequence of the six-month sit-in by members of the yellow-clad People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The current occupation by red-shirted members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has so far been peaceful, but the rhetoric is rising. Gatherings of UDD supporters have taken place at numerous provincial city halls. The PAD is threatening to regroup should any violence take place at tomorrow's mass rally . Thaksin, in video call-ins to his supporters, has upped the rhetoric by accusing the King's Privy Councilors Prem Tinsulanonda and Surayud Chulanont, as well as senior judges, of orchestrating the 2006 military coup that ousted him from power. Thaksin had previously referred to a “charismatic extra-constitutional figure” who had orchestrated his overthrow, and he also called him "The invisible hand." In Thai culture, you don't name the names of your opponents; you take care of conflict quietly behind the scenes, so Thaksin's revelation was upsetting to many. "The unmasking of the invisible hand has raised Thailand’s political temperature, which had visibly cooled in the days after Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was sworn in as prime minister in December," wrote Malaysian journalist Philip Golingai. While the two former generals named have issued denials of what has long been an open secret, UDD groups have been demonstrating outside Prem's house while PAD members have declared they would defend his honor. Thomas Bell, writing in the London Telegraph, says that
The government is in a funk, panicking about how to block the [Thaksin call-in] transmissions. The army is said to be furious: Thaksin has broken the omerta [code of honor in Mafia culture] and the government could not stop him. Commentators say he has gone too far and newspapers are openly demanding censorship to stop the revelations being heard.
The possibilities for a large-scale clash are numerous.

It's a challenge for me to understand the current struggle and I fear oversimplification. Leaders and members of both groups were involved in bloody confrontations with military power in the 1970's and 1990's. Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but nowhere in the world is royalty as influential and powerful as it is here in Thailand where the unavoidable accession to the throne is much anticipated but rarely discussed. The big question is whether King Bhumibol Adulyadej's enormous popularity can be transferred to his successor. Shinawatra's success in getting elected and his populist policies appreciated by Thailand's poor were seen as threatening by wealthy urbanites, the military and the monarchy. He and his supporters have been smeared as republicans and communists by the increasingly conservative yellow shirts who claim to be defending the essential Thai values of Nation, Religion and King. My interest in the idiosyncrasies of Thai Buddhism has led me to investigate other important aspects of "thainess."

Although the 81-year-old King is declared to be above politics, his silence on the current confrontation has permitted both sides to be "more royal than thou." But it is the yellow shirts who carry photographs of the King while the red shirts feature posters with Thaksin's face. If the King's closest confidant, Prem, was involved in the 2006 coup, that could be seen as an improper act for a constitutional monarch. It is the conservative elites and their allies who are pushing for greater enforcement of the draconian lèse majesté law which has snagged the high and the low. Last week a 34-year-old father of three was jailed for 10 years for posting "insulting" pictures of the royal family on YouTube. Reporters in court were told not to take notes and no details of the offensive pictures were revealed. One account said he had merely passed on something he had received. The defendant burst into tears after he was sentenced (originally for 20 years which was halved because he plead quilty). A prominent academic fled to England when he was charged, and "engaged Buddhist" leader Sulak Sivaraksa awaits disposition of his case. The King did recently pardon a jailed Australian writer who made untoward remarks in a privately printed novel with few readers.

It's hard to know what will happen next. The military's coup in 2006 essentially backfired. The administration was heavily criticized for turning back the clock and for inaction on a variety of important challenges. Despite the overthrow of Thaksin, a new party of his supporters easily won key offices in the next election. During the long PAD siege, which included an economically disastrous closure of the international airport, both police and the military ignored governmental orders to stop what was clearly illegal activity. If they now respond to Abhisit's orders to control the UDD, it will prove that the prime minister, who ascended to leadership because of court decisions rather than the desire of voters, is merely their tool as many suspect.

As I write, a rowdy thunder storm is roaring through my neighborhood just before dusk, flooding the streets with rain and creating a riveting sound and light show. The rains have begun almost a month early this year, anticipating Songkran. This popular holiday is officially next Monday through Wednesday but the party will most certainly begin this weekend. Songkran, from the Sanskrit sankrānti for "astrological passage," is the Thai New Year, and it is celebrated by the throwing of water, lots of it. Last year I went to Chiang Mai with Pim where thousands lined the city's street conducting water fights with the passing cars, trucks, tuk tuks, motorbikes and bicycles. I was soaked for three days. Insufficient preparation resulted in my camera being destroyed as well as Pim's mobile phone. But it was lots of fun.

Songran is a social event, and as a bachelor these days I lack a partner with a squirt gun to play shootout at the Bangkok corral with me. So this year I've been planning to visit Koh Chang, the second largest Thai island, which is located near the Cambodian border. But I soon discovered that ridiculous high season rates prevailed with many hotels adding a surcharge for Songkran. I also learned that many of the hotels were fully booked. So much for the much vaunted tourist crisis. So I've decided to stay home, confined to my room with a week's supply of food, books to read and movies to watch. I'll watch the madness from my window and stay dry. But it won't be as much fun.


Anonymous said...

Nice story all around. We will all see what the coming days of political theater reveal.

hobby said...

"But it is the yellow shirts who carry photographs of the King while the red shirts feature posters with Thaksin's face"

That the biggest concern I have with the red shirts - they need to be more realistic about Thaksin and remember (or realize) he had a a dark side as well as a shiny side.

The shiny side was very bright, but IMO the dark side should be seen as enough to exclude him from being PM material.