Thursday, April 08, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

This morning Thailand is holding its breath, waiting for the next chapter (the final one?) in the ongoing political drama between tens of thousands of anti-government protesters demanding new elections and the embattled administration of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva which--so far--says no.

For almost four weeks, the demonstrators, instantly identified by the color red, have taken their demand to the streets, first occupying the broad Ratchadamnoen boulevard near Democracy Monument in Rattanakosin, the older section of Bangkok, and, for the last week, also sitting in at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Siam where they effectively closed down the luxury shopping malls, Siam Paragon and Central World. Since they claim that the wealthy elites control the government, their message could not have been more clear. The United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has conducted a number of other symbolic operations, like splashing blood donated by their members at Government House, the headquarters of Abhisit's Democratic Party, and on the gate to Abhisit's home. Thousands have ridden in trucks, taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes, flags flying and music playing, through the streets of Bangkok where the residents seem mostly supportive. In the last two days, however, red shirts have invaded the offices of the Election Commission to demand a case against the Democrats be prosecuted more vigorously, and forced their way into Parliament where they disarmed a guard with what they claimed were illegal weapons. Although they left soon after, some MPs had fled in fear out the back.

This was enough for Abhisit who declared a State of Emergency in Bangkok and several surrounding provinces. The Internal Security Act (ISA) declared before the reds arrived in Bangkok March 13, was apparently not working. The reds have thumbed their noses at the ban on the rally near the shopping center where perhaps 60,000 have gathered. And they defied a ban on travel over 11 streets declared off-limits by the government. Every restriction proposed by the government has resulted in an escalation of threats by the reds. Talks between the two sides last week, when the reds called for a dissolution of Parliament and new elections in 15 days and Abhisit proposed nine months, resulted in mostly posturing. Eager mediators have suggested that six or three months is a reasonable time frame, but Abhisit has kept silence.

Last week, I came across an article in Asia Times Online by Danny Unger, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, which attempts to analyze the polarization among foreigners in Thailand which somewhat reflects the divide between Thai political factions. He observes that "in recent months the atmosphere surrounding discussion among foreign followers of Thai politics has featured arrogance, intolerance and a disturbing tide of a sort of political correctness." I've noticed that many foreigners, particularly those who post to the Thaivisa forum, dislike red shirts and defend the yellow shirts who closed down Bangkok's airports last year in an eventually successful attempt to throw out an elected government of politicians loyal to exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Unger believes that "most foreigners who comment on Thailand seem to converge in wanting the country to become a liberal democracy, one in which elections are meaningful policy contests that are not subject to military reversals, in which the law is applied reasonably equally to all. Different foreigners may give more or less emphasis to the values of equality, liberty, or solidarity, but most seem to want something approximating the political systems of Denmark or the Netherlands."

Uncertainty and a lack of understanding, Unger believes, leads foreigners in Thailand to very different conclusions about the country's political chaos, even if they share liberal democratic hopes for Thailand. He cites Mike Montesano, a scholar based in Singapore who concludes that "the foreigners who have not aligned themselves with the red shirts have simply gone native. He refers to 'a long tradition of uncritical attraction to Bangkok's social elites' that leads earnest young American democrats to shed the political values of their youth in a 'daft' embrace of Thai elite perspectives. This abandonment of earlier cherished values is particularly perverse because many of these foreigners have spent time in Thailand's countryside and therefore should know better. Montesano finds this phenomenon of a sort of expatriate false consciousness 'fascinating - and more than a little depressing.'" Unger's argument is a bit muddled and his conclusion is not easy to discern. The question of why expats favor either red shirts or yellow shirts is important, however. I suspect that many who work here yearn for stability and might prefer that the elites continue to rule the country. Perhaps red shirt partisans like me are attempting to relive their radical youth in a foreign climate.

I sent Unger's article to a group of expats I know who meet monthly to discuss issues in Thai and Southeast Asian cultural and politics. One member shared it with an American friend who has lived in Thailand for a long time and raised a family here. Her response, which I read, was an intelligent expression of the elite's position. I do not have permission to print that letter, but here is my comment to my friend on her friend's remarks:

"I thank you very much for sharing ______'s response with me. I've met her and I like her. Great spirit. But because of her connections I would expect her to share their interests.

"What stands out for me from _______ and in other arguments of this kind is that it's all about Thaksin. From all my reading and from walking around the streets with the reds a number of times, I just don't agree. In fact, I think Thaksin is far less important for the reds than the yellows (and I include _______ in this overly-simplified schema). I really do believe that the reds are here in Bangkok because most of them truly want a say in how the country is run; they want the democracy that Thailand has rarely had since 1932. Thaksin is a symbol, like the red color, useful now but not essential forever.

"I agree that any love they have for him is misguided. He was not a friend of democracy when he was in office. He made himself rich by pulling government strings. He trampled on human rights in the south. And his support of the poor was strategic rather than philosophic. He was corrupt and he was crooked, but often in the tradition that all Thai politicians have used office for their own advantage.

"That said, I agree with (Chris) Baker and Pasuk (Phongpaichit, in their book Thaksin) that Thaksin created a new kind of political party, and by giving crumbs to the rural poor he awakened in them a desire to control their destiny. In the past they had been controlled by Bangkok elites and by rural political bosses. Thaksin, perhaps accidentally, gave them rising expectations (one of the roots historians give for the French revolution). In addition, they are less poor. The economy has created a bit of wealth in the provinces (although the disparity between rich and poor is bigger in Thailand than other Asian countries). Unlike _______, I do not see the Sufficiency Economy promoted with the King's projects to have empowered the rural poor to increase their wealth and power. This is something I would like to know more about, but I think it was designed to keep them traditional and satisfied and not a recipe for social and economic progress. It's a safety valve, like the institution of monkdom which keeps many unemployable males off the streets.

"The only solution for Thailand is for people like _______ as well as the urban middle classes, to be able to speak with the red shirts and the provincial people they (I do believe) represent. Democracy is only possible with compromise. The current standoff might have been avoided had the Democrats and the reds agreed on a dissolution in three months (not 15 days or nine months). What's wrong with calling for an election? The reds feel that their elections have been stolen from them and they're right. The coup and politically motivated judicial rulings put in power an unelected government. _______'s wrong when she says the Democrats represent all sides; Abhisit has traveled very little in the north and northeast where he is not welcome. When _______ says "it is rather difficult to match any western pattern," she is arguing for a "Thai-style democracy" which is not really a democracy at all. The military's 2007 constitution and the (yellow shirt) PAD's New Politics advocate limiting democracy to the elites, until the ignorant rural masses are ready and will not be swayed by rich businessmen like Thaksin. This is not democracy, and not a recipe for one in the future.

"I have been very hesitant about supporting the current demands of the red shirts in Bangkok for I feel that only disaster and violence can result from a protracted struggle with the military and the police. I hope I'm wrong. I wish the middle class residents behind the 1992 protests could make common cause with the reds, but I fear they've pushed them away. Aside from the struggle for Parliament yesterday, a strategic mistake I think, their moves have been symbolic, powerful and non-violent: the splashing of their own blood, the marches through the streets, and now the sit-in at the biggest symbol of wealth and privilege in Bangkok, the gates to the supermalls. How can preventing people from shopping be considered as violence? This is absurd and proves their point about the elite.

These are my early morning thoughts as I wait for the other shoe to drop on the reds."

The photos in this post (if you click on one, you can see a larger version) were taken on Tuesday afternoon when I rode the Skytrain from the river to Siam Square and walked from the station up Rama I Road to the rally site. It was my fourth visit to a gathering of reds since Songkran last year, when it all toured sour with violence in the streets. I think they've learned from that debacle. As before, I was amazed and inspired by the energy, the sounds and the smells. Someone quickly shoved an ice-cold cup of water into my hand. Others shouted for me to take their photo. At a red rally, the country comes to the city with their food, music and welcoming spirit. I felt totally safe. Some people were sleeping while others were up and dancing, waving their foot-clappers to make noise and applaud the speaker who could be heard from the stage as well as from hundreds of satellite speakers. There were portable toilets and even showers. Lines formed for free food. I got there in the afternoon and most people were hugging the available shade. Later I rode on the Skytrain past the rally at dusk and, viewed from up above, Ratchadamri Road past Central World was filled with red shirts as far as the eye could see.


Somchit Srimoon said...

Firstly, To use as a true cross section of expats may be a sad choice of a control group.

I think you have more faith in the political system in Thailand than I do. It is a system here the rich openly states they give money to all viable parties and candidates to ensuring the control is maintained no matter who is officially in power. As if it is any different in "The Sates" were I believe no matter who is elected, the agenda of the super rich and powerful is continued. Supported by the many election promises President Oboma within hours did 180 turns on. Who did he not support from the wall street bangs, which banks did he not support and the Federal reserve is still calling the shots. A change of the puppet, but the puppet masters are the same.

To think it is any different here is not to go "native" but to see the forest for the trees.

hobby said...

The bottom line for me (a farang) is that one side avoids elections by delaying at all costs (or in 2006 boycotting), and the only thing the other side is calling for now IS an election.

That says it all really about which side should be supported, and which should not.