Saturday, May 28, 2011

Democracy's Last Stand?

An election will be held in Thailand on July 3rd and larger than life posters like this one have sprouted on cement telephone polls all over Bangkok.  Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolved the House of Representatives and called the election two weeks ago.  Candidates from his Democrat Party are campaigning against those from the Pheu Thai Party and their recently appointed leader, Yingluck Shinawatra, the attractive but untested younger sister of the fugitive former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.  Although there are nearly two dozen political parties fielding candidates, Pheu Thai and the Democrats are expected to win most of the votes and who's in the lead of this close race depends on which poll you believe.  This is no ordinary election.

Since Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in 2006, the country his been divided loosely between his supporters (called red shirts) and detractors who see him as the personification of evil (led by the vocal yellow shirts).  An election following the coup returned Thaksin partisans to power, but street demonstrations by the yellow shirts and court decisions toppled two successive governments.  Abhisit came to power backed by the yellow shirts, military, royalists, and the Bangkok business elite.  Demonstrations a year ago led by red shirts calling for a new election ended with more than 90 dead and nearly 2000 injured.  The Democrats have never carried a national election while Thaksin was an overwhelming winner twice.   Democrat strength is in the deep south while Pheu Thai claims the hearts of people in the populous northeast.  Bangkok appears to be a toss up.  The yellow People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), disappointed in Abhisit, are urging a "Vote NO" on all candidates in the election and erected this poster at their encampment near UN headquarters.  They want a royally-appointed interim government for several years until the agitation for Thaksin's return disappears ("democracy" is not exactly their forte).  The animal heads on the politicians' bodies are particularly insulting.  Rural red shirts have been slandered as water buffalos and the worst thing you can call someone in Thai sounds like "here," the name for a monitor lizard.  Poster graffiti is also fascinating. I saw one Abhisit poster altered so that he looked like a vampire from a currently popular Thai soap opera featuring a cast of blood suckers.

My Google Reader is filled with speculation from bloggers in Thailand and journalists in Southeast Asia about what will happen.  Most believe that Thaksin will never be allowed to return without going straight to jail and that even if his party earns a bare majority of votes it will never be able to form a Parliamentary coalition government.  The military routinely issues denials that it will stage a coup if the Democrats are defeated, but a renewed war on drug dealers and proposed security measures for polling sites are raising suspicions.  Arrests for lese majeste (the law against insulting the king) have increased dramatically (a Thai-born, American citizen was jailed yesterday) with charges mostly levied against red shirts, causing numerous groups to claim that the government is manipulating the law for political gain.  All parties are emulating Thaksin's strategy of offering everything but the moon to poor, mostly rural voters to win their support in a populist frenzy of solicitation.  Since Thailand's government was declared a constitutional monarchy in 1932, successive administrations, both elected and as the result of numerous coups, have struggled to define a Thai form of democracy.  What's missing in the past has been respect for the outcomes of elections, the cornerstone of any Western democracy.  Pundits worry that if the reds win, the yellow shirts (and perhaps the military) will take to the streets to deny their victory, and if the Democrats win, the reds might do likewise.  It's hard to see a way out of this impasse.

While I try to make sense of Thailand's political system, the "summer" vacation has ended and the new school term is beginning.  I will be commuting to Mahachula's Wangnoi campus near Ayutthaya every Wednesday for the next four months (this photo was taken at the library, looking across to the Rector's office building).  This week, only 6 of my 29 fourth-year students majoring in English attended my first class (it's a tradition to avoid the first meeting).  I'll be teaching the same day as Khun Elsa from the Philippines, and yesterday she told me she was an evangelical Christian and wanted me to visit her church.  I'm still waiting for my visa and work permit renewals but expect to get the needed stamps on Monday, a day before they expire.  Nan begins June 6th as a full-time university student, completing a degree in human resources management.  After three years with the same company, she was fired two weeks ago in an office purge and is taking that opportunity to fulfill her dream to finish a bachelor's degree.  Nan will look terrific in the school uniform of  white blouse and black skirt after losing five kilos with the aid of several packets of little pills given her by the local hospital.  I was not happy about that, since I repeatedly declare my love and support no matter what she weighs, but after determining the pills did not contain speed, I let it go.  Limiting herself to one meal a day probably does more than any pills ever could.  Tomorrow night we celebrate the second anniversary of our first meeting with a dinner at Sizzler's and drinks at a skyscraper bar with a view of the city.  Before her classes begin, she'll go home for a few days to see her mother in the northern province of Phayao.

While Nan is gone, I'll be deep inside of my technological cave.  A few weeks ago I bought an iPad at a discount before the new model was released.  It was a purchase hard to justify because the iPod Touch can do almost as much.  I've been using it to listen to podcasts while I'm traveling, and to try out different apps.  But it is too small to qualify as an e-reader and I'm beginning to lose my resistance to the future of digital books.  So I gave the iPod to Nan and bought the new toy.  My iPad has 3G capability although Thailand has not yet advanced beyond Edge, and I can read email and Facebook posts on the bus.  In addition to iBooks, I got Kindle for the Mac and GoodReader for all my pdf files.  The first book I bought was Nancy Egan's wonderful A Visit From the Goon Squad which I could not find in local book stores.  I downloaded some free titles from Project Gutenberg, and then discovered a cornucopia of pdf, epub and mobi files on torrent sites.  I'm reading Mark Hertsgaard's Hot on climate change and Keith Richard's Life.  Who knew the drug-addled Rolling Stone guitarist could remember so much?  It's a wonderful account of a life loving the blues amidst the madness of pop star fame and fortune.  There are some drawbacks to an e-reader like the iPad.  I like to dog-ear pages and can get high on the smell of paper, and those pleasures are denied me.  I'm learning how to underline and make notes.  The yellow tablet note app that comes with the iPad is great, once you learn how to tap the keyboard.

I've been using the electronic note pad at forums held by the Foreign Correspondent Club in Thailand.  At a recent meeting on lese majeste, I listened to (from left) Buddhist teacher Sulak Sivaraksa, academic David Streckfuss who has written a new book on the law, and Ben Zawicki, chair of the local chapter of Amnesty International who has come under fire for not challenging the Thai government on its drastic curtailing of freedom of speech.  Both Sulak and the entire board of the FCCT have been charged with lese majeste in the past.  At another forum, statesman and former prime minister Anand Panyarachun tried to paint a positive outcome to his work as chairman of the National Reform Committee after the violence of last year, even though his committee had resigned without any of  its suggestions implemented after new elections were called.  At another meeting, three prominent red shirt leaders gave their account of the violence and its aftermath, and one, Jattuporn Prompan, was jailed a week later on lese majeste charges after a speech he made at the anniversary rally May 19th.  The FCCT welcomes expat members in addition to the correspondents and journalists based in Southeast Asia, and its bar and restaurant are highly regarded for hanging out.  Recently a new bagel cafe has opened on the ground floor of the building where the FCCT occupies the penthouse and it has become a destination for deli-starved Western residents.

While the world was waiting for the Rapture promised by a crazy old preacher in the U.S., my oldest friend Mark Detrick died of lung cancer at his home in Laguna Beach, his wife Laury by his side.  He'd been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) for years and received a terminal cancer diagnosis in January.  We talked on Skype in March and traded stories about the past.  I met Mark in junior high school in La Canada and by high school we were best friends.  His stepfather was famed printer Ward Ritchie and the library in their home included a Gutenberg Bible.  We got drunk, smoked cigarettes, chased girls and listened to rhythm and blues records.  Mark dropped out of Wisconsin after his first year and we were students together at Pasadena City College until he talked me in to applying to Berkeley where I was surprisingly accepted.  We shared a tiny apartment, a bed that folded into the wall, and many outrageous adventures.  In junior high, I had a crush on Trudy who loved Mark, and after our first semester as roommates, I was the best man at his wedding to her.  In turn, they accompanied Judy and I to the Justice of the Peace for our marriage, and we all celebrated afterward in Tijuana.  Neither of these marriages lasted.  Mark became a successful orthodontist and met Laury from Belgium at a health club.  They traveled the world during his time away from putting braces on damaged teeth.  During the Vietnam War, Mark was a dentist in the Philippines and hinted that he had done some work for the CIA.  Our politics diverged radically after that and we avoided it during my visits in Southern California to go skiing at his cabin near Big Bear or to a high school reunion.  Recently, Mark and our mutual friend Ernie (whose second wife Joyce just died, also of cancer) gave us a very generous wedding gift which Nan and I used for a trip to Koh Chang.  I shall miss him very much.

Now that the school vacation is over, perhaps I'll spend less time on Facebook and Twitter (although with the iPad I can now get online anywhere at any time).  I'm still amazed that I've been able to connect with so many "friends" from different periods of my life, high school over 50 years ago to the present, from publicity and publishing jobs to students and teachers here at MCU.  I've turned my wall into a private newspaper and fill it with links and comments to news stories, blogs and opinion columns.  Occasionally I throw in a line about the weather or a photo taken of Bangkok from my window.  The stories that attract my interest these days are of Obama and Israel.  I'm deeply disappointed at Obama and I number the Israeli government among the bad guys of this century, along with Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.  While many of the progressive persuasion can agree with me about Obama, my remarks about Israel have drawn passionate objections.  One woman whom I knew in Hollywood 35 years ago decided to de-friend me because of what she perceived as insults to Jews.  And a friend from high school regularly accuses me of anti-Semitism because of my anti-Israel position, and sends me email from his wife's Zionist cousin to show how mistaken I am.  I rather think many of my "friends" have deleted me from their news feeds for being annoying.  I know I only receive responses from a regular few.  One "new friend" in Bangkok, a former war correspondent who detests the red shirts, called me a "self-hating America" and said I was in league with Donald Rumsfeld.  An acquaintance told me he drinks a bit.  I had to de-friend him, however; tolerance has its limits.


Janet Brown said...

Just bought Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad from Kinokuniya Paragon--god that ink on pulp smells good.

Sam said...

Sod's law has the Bagel shop closing at 6:30pm, too early for a leisurely munch before the FCCT meetings which start at 8:00pm

Ivan said...

Hi Doc.

Thanks for some clarification into the Red/Yellow shirt politics. It will be an interesting election and an even more interesting Post election. I agree with your stance on Israel, I think? I guess as far as Obama goes, I like the guy, and as we all saw him move to the center or center right depending on you stance. I am going to give him a pass, as I think he learned real quickly after the health care bill , exactly how much support he was going to get from his base, which was none. I have never seen a president raked over the coals, with hardly a word of protest from his own party? Birthers, Hitler?? His goal is not to be a one term president, regardless of what he has to give up. It is always amazing the difference between the right and left, when Bush was spiraling down, i never heard a word of protest from the right ( they were all in lock step) The left is so diverse, they start fragmenting as soon as they win the elction.
My Fiance and I just finished a local tour of northern Thai, had a great time. Now its back to work having just been re-assigned to Taiwan. The good news is that we have passed all of the 129F hurdles and are awaiting for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok interview, which should go good. K-1 here we come!