Thursday, December 04, 2008

Is It Over Yet?

While hundreds of thousands of tourists, stranded in Bangkok by the takeover of two airports by a fascist mob, are slowly going home after the anti-government demonstrators ended their eight-day sit-it, the political standoff in Thailand is far from over.

On Tuesday the Constitutional Court disbanded three political parties for vote-buying in the 2007 election which returned supporters of exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra to power after a 2006 military coup. It's ruling has been described as a "judicial coup." The law which punishes an entire party for the crime of a single MP and bars its top executives from politics for five years was a product of the most recent military regime and was specifically designed to prevent Thaksin's influence. So while the yellow-clad members of the misnamed People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) declared victory at the airport (although seizing the facilities had nothing to do with the court's decision), their pro-government opponents, distinguished by their red shirts, are not happy.

This strange law, which punishes guilt by association, also permits members of dissolved parties (but not their leaders) from reconstituting themselves under another name. So while the latest prime minister, Somchai Wongsawat, is out of a job and back on the golf course in Chiang Mai, MPs in his now defunct People Power Party are joing the new Puea Thai Party. Mostly Thaksin loyalists, they will meet on Monday to choose a new leader. Meanwhile, an interim goverment headed by caretaker Prime Minister Chaovarat Chanweerakul has ruled out dissolving the House and calling for snap elections unless there is a good political reason for doing so. The next few days will see intense back room maneuvering as conservative royalists and Thaksin populists struggle for power. Hovering over their negotiations is widespread fears of yet another military coup or even a civil war. Is it over yet?

Not by a long shot. Media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, one of PAD's leaders, warned that he's ready to call demonstrators back to the streets at any moment. "The PAD will return if another proxy government is formed or anyone tries to amend the constitution or the law to whitewash some politicians or to subdue the monarch's authority," Sondhi told cheering supporters at Souvarnabhumi. Some have called his movement's actions "a revolt of the middle classes" because it advocates an undemocratic "New Politics" which would disenfranchise the poor and solidify a rule of the elites. Mob rule is not the rule of law. Some commentators have begun to suggest that Thailand is becoming a "failed state," essentially ungovernable, like Sudan.

The forced shutdown of Don Muang and Souvarnabhumi airports was a disaster for tourists and Thai economic interests alike. The Wall Street Journal reports that The Bank of Thailand "slashed its main interest rate by a full point to 2.75% Wednesday, far more than market participants had anticipated, highlighting the central bank's fears of a sharp slowdown in growth. A steady decline in Thailand's inflation rate over the past few months, on falling global oil prices, also helped pave the way for the big cut. Already, official projections of a 4% expansion in gross domestic product in 2009 are being revised down and some officials have suggested growth could fall to zero." The dollar is slowly inching up against the Thai Baht (now 36.5 to $1) which means more bang for my buck. Upwards of 300,000 tourists were forced to spend another week in "the Land of Smiles" waiting for flights home; many will never return. And many more thousands will unable to begin their vacation here as the prime tourist season begins. They'll probably go elsewhere. What happens to the jobs that depend on their visit?

The showdown was temporarily diffused right before the King's 81st birthday. Ill and frail, last month he attended the public funeral of his sister, and two days ago he presided over the traditional review of his colorful troops, televised on all channels. In the past he has been able to mediate between warring factions in his nation. All sides pay him honor, although Thaksin partisans have been accused of seeking to make Thailand a republic. Tonight the King is scheduled to make his annual birthday address and many hope he will give some sign that will help to heal his divided country. His Queen, however, has shown her support for the PAD by attending the funeral of a member, breaking dramatically with the monarchy's traditional distance from politics. I plan a nostalgic visit to the evening birthday celebration on Friday at Sanam Luang with Pim, my ex-girlfriend. Last year we stood among huge crowds of Thais wearing yellow, the King's color, to see the royal couple drive past their subjects in a gold limousine and watch spectacular fireworks.

I visited Sanam Luang last Sunday to see up close the beautiful temporary temple complex built for the recent funeral of Princess Galyani, the King's beloved elder sister. My friend Mam and I strolled with large crowds through the various pavilions and around the tall central crematorium.
Thousands of Thais were admiring the temporary construction and, like me, taking photographs. It continually amazes me to see that almost everyone today is a photographer: people taking photos of people taking photos... It was a beautiful day. Later that night workers began dismantling the buildings constructed solely for the funeral. Now that the rains seem to have ceased, the weather is cool and humidity is low. For the Thais, this is winter and they wear sweaters and coats. For me it is a delightful summer, blue skies and temperatures in the 70s. The other night I leaned out my balcony window to observe the rare conjunction in the sky of a partial moon topped by the bright lights of Venus and Jupiter. It looked like a celestial smiley face. The universe from its infinite perspective was laughing at the foibles of us earthlings.

Yesterday I learned to my surprise that Christmas vacation has begun. Next week classes are canceled because of Constitution Day, a national holiday (I had been earlier assured that it was not a school holiday). During the following two weeks my monks will go on their annual forest retreat. And the final Wednesday of the year, Dec. 31st, is a scheduled holiday. So I will not see my students again until Jan. 7th. This makes me sad as well as fearful that they will forget all the English that I've taught them in the first six weeks of the 16-week term. We've only gotten through four chapters in the New Headway Elementary text. Yesterday they talked about what they liked to do in their free time (computers, music, videos, shopping), and I played for them Donovan's "Colours" (pointing out that Americans spell it "colors") and had them guess selected words in the lyrics. It was good to see Phra Prasob in the adjoining classroom among the 4th year students I taught last term. An older student, father of a son, he was recently diagnosed with leukemia. It gives me a warm feeling to be recognized and respected now by over a hundred of the orange-clad monks when I go to teach on the third floor every week.

On Monday I took a bus to Mahidol University, only a 20-minute ride from my apartment on the west side of the river, to attended an international conference on "Buddhism in the age of Consumerism." Richard Rubacher, a Little Banger who began teaching a class there this week on Hollywood and the Buddha, met me at International House where he is staying and we took an electric cart across the large campus to the beautiful facility of the College of Religious Studies where the meeting was held in a third-floor hall. We were offered breakfast and later lunch, and we sat with a lovely couple from Australia, Therese and Aung. They are in their first month of a six-month stint as volunteers at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border (Aung was born in Burma). One highlight of the event was the appear of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn who opened the conference and stayed to take notes while listening to keynote speaker Alan Wallace, a Buddhist scholar from California. The security for her visit was elaborate and gave me a chance to view the unbelievable respect for the royal family up close. The unmarried Princess Sirindhorn is very popular with Thais, more so than her brother, reportedly the Queen's favorite, who will probably succeed to the throne when his father dies. We were not permitted cameras or bags and my notepaper was unavailable. A good academic, I understand little without taken notes, so I can't say much about Wallace's talk. I do recall that he said the labels "East" and "West" are no longer useful in matters of religious discourse, or perhaps anything else. We live in a global environment and similarities are becoming more important than differences. I also listened to an excellent Power Point-talk by the Rector of my university, Porf. Dr. Phra Dharmakosajarn, "The Middle Way: An Alternative for Life-Fullment." Buddhism, in their interpretation, offers an alternative to desctructive consumptive values of Euro-America. One day was enough for me, so I missed the talk aby Matthieu Ricard, pictured above with Richard, the Tibetan monk and author from France who has written about happiness from a Buddhist perspective, a topic on which I hope to blog someday soon.

Today is my 90th day in the Kingdom since receiving a visa and work permit and I must go off to the Immigration office to check-in. Every long-term visitor must report his address every three months, but I don't anticipate any snafus. Perhaps the airport closure will reduce the crowds. And now I must come up with an interesting itinerary for my month-long Christmas vacation. Where shall it be, the beach or the mountains?

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