Saturday, November 30, 2013

Hatred is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

As I write this post, mobs of anti-government protestors are invading and occupying government offices throughout Bangkok.  Their leader, a former MP named Suthep, has vowed to bring down Thailand's elected government by tomorrow night.  For the past week, marches and demonstrations, marked by the screeching taunt of blowing whistles, have blocked streets and caused chaos in the capital.  Tens of thousands of Thais from Bangkok and the southern provinces have gathered around the Democracy Monument to listen to fiery speeches denouncing the "tyranny of the majority" and calling for an end to elections, and an appointed government under the authority of the king.  They are allied with the Democratic Party which has not won an election since 1992.  What unifies the protestors is hatred bordering on mass hysteria of one man, Thaksin Shinawatra, as well as his sister, Yingluck, currently the country's prime minister.

When I arrived in 2007, Thaksin was already in exile, having been deposed by a military coup the previous year that had been provoked by similar street protests organized by his enemies.  During my first months there was a referendum on a new constitution written by the military junta that passed narrowly.  It was designed to prevent the executive branch excesses of which it believed Thaksin was guilty.  I read the biography by well-respected academics Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit and learned that Thaksin had mixed business and politics in an unethical and sometimes illegal way, a practice common among Thai politicians in the past.  He built the country's first mass political party with populist policies that increased his popularity in the rural north and northeast.  Opposition to his power arose among the traditional elites centered in Bangkok and the 2006 coup, a much used technique in Thailand, cut short his reign.

At the next election, despite the junta, a party allied to Thaksin won easily.  Thaksin haters, now called "yellow shirts,"  put pressure on the government in 2008 by shutting down the international airport for a week.  And when the prime minister was deposed by a court decision because he accepted money to appear on a TV cooking show, his replacement, Thaksin's brother-in-law, was also removed by what has been called a "judicial coup."  After a few MPs changed their allegiance, Abhisit Vejjijiva, leader of the Democratic Party, was declared an unelected PM.  In 2010, supporters of Thaksin and the voters whose decisions had been overturned three times, now called "red shirts," occupied a section of central Bangkok for two months, their goal to force a new election.  Abhisit, with the assistance of Suthep, ejected the demonstrators with brutal force resulting in nearly 100 deaths and a thousand injuries.  Irony of ironies, in the election Abhisit finally agreed to call, he was overwhelmingly defeated by a new party led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluk Shinawatra.

The present crisis began when Yingluk's party foolishly tried to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother back in the country and able to claim his confiscated fortune, but would not have punished Abhisit and Suthep for ordering the killing of red shirt protestors in 2010.  It galvanized the resistance of all factions. However, after the amnesty bill was withdrawn, Suthep declared his intention was now to rid Thailand of the "Thaksin regime," and a week of marches and takeovers at numerous government ministries resulted. The huge government complex at Chiang Wattana in the northern suburbs of Bangkok besieged by over by an estimated 20,000 and most operations shut down, including Immigration where thousands of expats and tourists come daily to apply for visas.  Their pain will cause international grumbles.  But of course Thailand's present troubles are already major news in the world's press and social media.

While discussion of the monarchy is prohibited in Thailand with stringent laws punishing the slightest slip of the tongue, any talk about Thaksin is difficult if not impossible because of the implacable sides.  No one straddles the fence. Yesterday a German expat I've known for some time tried to convince me that Thaksin was the equivalent of Hitler.  When I said he was only a typical corrupt politician whose sins were shared by many others, he shouted at me: "You've been brainwashed!  On Facebook my opinions have been challenged by other expats who believe Thaksin's approval of extra-judicial killings of drug dealers puts him behind the pale.  When I suggested that most Thais accepted this violence at the time, as well as that of Muslims killed while in custody in the south where an insurrection has been ongoing for years, my views were ridiculed.

I borrowed the title of this post from Chris Hedges' book about his experience as a war correspondent, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.  He tells about becoming addicted to hatred of the other and of the eruption of rage at inappropriate times.  Veterans talk of their experiences in warfare as an intense meaningful time when everything made sense, when good was defending your own and bad was the enemy.  Hatred is a primal emotion that distinguished our side from theirs at a time when territory meant survival and loss of it death.  Today the other may be just like us but for something that sets them apart (religion is a powerful dividing force, but support of different sports teams will suffice). Shared hatred can promote group adhesion and identity.  But psychologists also tell us that what he hate in the other might be what we most fear in ourselves (confused sexual identity can be a problem here). And hatred is a bitter pill that often can hurt the hater more than the one hated.

Unlike other large protests in the past, which can be colorful and carnivalesque, I've stayed away from big gatherings during the past week as much as possible.  I see the masses of naive and utopian protestors as riding on a speeding train that is sure to crash, and soon. Given Suthep's uncompromising goal of total victory over the government, there cannot be a peaceful outcome.  Eventually the authorities, police and military, will have to confront the mobs occupying government offices and I'm sure there will be considerable violence. There was a protest in my neighborhood a few days ago at the Ministry of Culture and I walked up to see what was going on. A large police presence prevented anyone from entering the building, and the crowd was largely boisterous but not angry.  They were blowing whistles, snacking from the food carts, and taking selfies against the police background.  Apparently 14 ministries have been targeted like this one.  The anti-government protestors appeared to be mostly white collar and middle class with women in their office uniforms on lunch break.  As I write this, fights have broken out between pro and anti government protestors.

Thais enjoy life and sanuk (fun) is often the standard. Demonstrations, whether of red or yellow shirts, are not unlike a rock concert with lots of music and even dancing between the rip-roaring speeches that never mince words (according to translations I've seen). Even my sister-in-law went last night to sample the excitement.  The yellow-shirt PAD and the Democratic Party have tried numerous times in the last two years to rouse their supporters to come out in the streets to protest against Thaksin and Yingluk but nothing until now has achieved traction.  The amnesty bill did the trick, and now the mobilization has achieved critical mass, enabling Suthep to aim high, the end of democracy as it is commonly manifested in the west and the inauguration of a new form of absolute monarchy.  They may have as many as 50,000 troops to achieve this objective in Bangkok.  But an equal number of red shirts are gathering on the outskirts of Bangkok who will strongly oppose any regime change.  At the last election, over 15 million voted for Yingluk even though most knew her brother might pull her strings.  I doubt that these voters will appreciate being disenfranchised by a street mob unified only by hatred of the man in Dubai.

Until the hatred of Thaksin is discussed, debated, resolved and put to rest, Thailand can never advance beyond the political crises that have paralyzed it over for over a dozen years.

Below: I happened on this mob outside the Royal Thai Police headquarters.  Later it was learned that protestors had cut electricity to the facility and also to the hospital next door.  Soon there will be a response to such vandalism and it won't be pretty.


Anonymous said...

A cogent assessment, Dr. Will!

Sam said...

Good stuff. The hatred for Thaksin goes deeper than corruption. Don't follow the money, follow the influence. Who was he in danger of overshadowing? Ask yourself but don't tell anyone in case you have a slip of the tongue.

Anonymous said...

Ahhhhh & the plot thickens.

Sam said...

A timely message from Nelson Mandela: "Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate."