Friday, February 19, 2010

Thais are not Smiling

Listening to a Thai government spokesman defend the rule of law is like listening to Tiger Woods defend marital fidelity, observed political science professor Federico Ferrara lasted night at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok. Ferrara, who teaches in Singapore and has a blog called KhiKwai (translated as "buffalo dung"), has just published Thailand Unhinged, a strong critique of "Thai-style democracy" (he calls it "a fraud") which probably is too imflammatory to be sold here. The cover, by celebrated Thai artist Chatchai Puipia, is a horrifying parody of the cliched "Siamese Smile." Ferrara followed another academic, Panitan Wattanayagorn, currently on leave to work for the Abhisit administration, who described a 37-page security plan to prevent violence during the next seven days before the Supreme Court makes its much-anticipated decision about Thaksin Shinawatra's 76 billion baht of frozen assets. "Peace and order is our aim" he told a skeptical crowd of journalists and expats, and said the government was ready to negotiate "with any group." But he was questioned by Simon Montlake from the Christian Science Monitor on the unprecedented "hype about World War III" surrounding expected protests by red shirts over the government's double standards in dealing with the poor and disenfranchised. "This is a critical transition period," Panitan said, an observation with which all sides can agree.

Ferrara, who rarely minced words, said the "scare mongering" and "demonization every day" of anti-government forces, "is from an old playbook," but he agreed that Thailand, "with tension high now," is at a "critical juncture, a dire time." In fact, it's as if "the Reichstag is about to get burned down" (recalling the takeover of the Nazis in Germany in 1933). Ferrara said he became interested in Thai politics when he heard that the military pledges loyalty to the king but not to the government. This reminded him of 2,500 years ago in Italy when the army refused to fight for the patricians. Recent statements by Privy Councilor Prem recalled for him Mussolini's doctrine of fascism, but he said the yellow shirt leaders Chamlong and Sonthi were not as sophisticated as the Italian dictator. "The future of the country does not belong to the military," Ferrar said. "They should get the hell out of politics."

Unlike other politicians exiled by the frequent military coups in Thailand, "Thaksin didn't go away quietly," commented Suranand Vejjajiva, a former cabinet minister in Thaksin's administration and currently a columnist for the Bangkok Post. He is also a cousin of Prime Minister Abhisit "who doesn't speak to me any more." After the street violence of nearly a year ago, Suranand said, the reds have learned their lesson and "mainstream reds will stick within the law." But he said the language being used by authorities is similar to that from 1976 when many anti-government demonstrators were killed. Since then, however, "even the yellow shirts have helped to raise the political consciousness of Thais." Suranand said he was surprised at how "'double standards' caught on so quickly" and helped to highlight the injustices in Thai society. Taxi drivers, who get stopped by police and have to pay fines, can see this. It's not the BMWs and Mercedes Benz owners that are being stopped at check points." Suranand claimed he was now neither red nor yellow, but pink.

Sean Boonpracong, international spokesperson for the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, the red shirts), wanted to hear from Panitan if the "check points" mentioned in the 37-page security document would be "road blocks" designed to prevent movement of protesters to join the expected million-strong march this month to challenge the government. Panitan quickly responded that residents of Bangkok would get very upset at having their notoriously bad traffic made even worse by police and army road blocks, and told Sean (they grew up in the same town) that the reds would be able to pass freely (much skepticism all around once again). Sean also commented that the governments offer of negotiations was a new development, but one not mentioned during Abhisit's year in office.

The room was packed at FCCT's penthouse headquarters with even more people than recently present for Olivers Stone's rant about the secret history of the U.S. Their interest was no doubt fueled by uncertainties about the future of Thailand. On the one hand, Bangkok seems very quiet and the inflammatory headlines in the newspapers make little sense. The reds have made their points non-violently for the last year, unlike the yellow shirts who closed down operations at Government House for six months and shut the airport, causing extreme damage to a country which relies on tourism. No greater example of double standards in Thailand exists. Demonstrations by yellow shirts were largely ignored by the army and the police, leading to the fall of two pro-Thaksin governments, and to date no one has been prosecuted or jailed for the many laws broken by that movement. I don't know what will happen this week, but I believe if any violence occurs it will not be because of the mainstream democracy movement. In Thailand, much violence has been caused by the invisible "third hand" elements. It remains to be seen if they will come out of hiding.


Anonymous said...

Khun Will,

I agree with the speakers completely. Thailand is undergoing an extremely critical transitional period. Ideally, 'real' democracy will be at the other end of this tumultuous tunnel. I don't believe that Thailand has ever seen democracy, not in 1932, and certainly no other time after that. When democracy is exercised by the people (read: all the people, not just the BKK middle class) it is deemed 'illegal' through political shenanigans.

Political awareness and engagement can only have a positive long-term effect of the health of my country. I just wish there were ways to transition that won't damage the image of the country because we are desperately dependent on tourists -- who, might I add, are not as forgiving about political transitions during their holidays. I look forward to a true democracy someday. In the meantime, I'm going to take public transit and avoid the areas around the old city. Ugh.

And no, we Thais are most certainly not smiling through this.

Frowning but hopeful.

Federico Ferrara said...

Just a few clarifications:

1. I never questioned that the military should be loyal to the king. I said that it's obvious that the military should be loyal to the head of state. What I criticized was how Prem could at the same time incite the military to be disloyal to the government; especially in a supposedly "representative democracy," where the government is assumed to represent the nation.

2. The quote from Mussolini I used is the following:

"Fascism is opposed to Democracy, which equates the nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of that majority; nevertheless it is the purest form of democracy if the nation is conceived, as it should be, qualitatively and not quantitatively."

I used it to illustrate the point that Prem wasn't the first to come up with the idea that the will of the majority is irrelevant and governments elected by majority rule are unworthy of the army's loyalty.

Anonymous said...

It is sad to read such article. We would expect fairest and wise statement from writer or "journalist of your level.

I just read a propaganda article without any real and fair analysis of the situation.

You may and should critic the "political game" like the Thais named it.
I don't see how your article is helping the Thais or Thailand, your country of adoption to get any better?

Reading so much article on internet from foreigner who write with the wrong or incomplete assumptions will for sure support the fact that "Thais are not smiling.

Anonymous said...


thanks for details on FCCT meeting

also thanks to Federico for straight speaking.
(although I bet that from now on he would face certain obstacles in "Land of Smiles" after talking about military and their de-facto boss. but then, I guess Federico already realized the potential consiquences ...)

as for Anonymous

apparently it is the same one who has made personal attacks on Federico at New Mandala blog. and I suspect very much that he is either one of PAD (since he was so outraged about comparison of Sondhi & Chamlong with Mussolini) or perhaps even the hired by MICT bot.

it's truly amazing the swiftness and proficiency (to scan the blogs) with which such guys act - they are able almost INSTANTLY unleash hate and smearing campaign on internet.

this is one thing UDD certainly lacks: the PC literacy (or even fluent enough English) and adequate usage of internet (on international level) to counteract the whole huge Propaganda machine (Amart, army, MSM, etc) poised against them.

to win UDD have to learn to be AT LEAST as fast as these PADsters.

therefore it is good to see that their spokesman Boonpracong was also present at FCCT.