YANGON—To borrow from a favourite line by Captain Willard in “Apocalypse Now,” sometimes the bullshit piles up so fast in Thailand that you need wings to stay above it.
The “bullshit” in this case—as in the 2008 and 2010 rounds of political gridlock in the kingdom—is the braying and sloganeering of both “red shirt” and “yellow shirt” sides in a series of anti-government demonstrations and pro-government pushback rallies that have once again turned fatal with the death of a protester in Bangkok on Saturday.
For someone who spent more than three years in Thailand a decade ago, it has been painful—and more than a little ironic—to witness the unraveling of Thai democracy from the “safety” of its western neighbour. Unlike Thailand, Myanmar is a former totalitarian wasteland whose last breath of true democracy was in 1962. Today, its leaders continue to stumble into the post-dictatorship era with a parliament and constitution disproportionately influenced by, and slanted toward, the military.
Across the border, Thailand has long since eclipsed Burma as the “ricebowl” of the region and remains the tourist jewel of Southeast Asia and its second largest economy. Long celebrated for its constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, Thailand was once the envy of its regional neighbours; a model of governance for Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and even Vietnam. But that was before the 2006 military coup. Seven years, and a third round of violent anti-government demonstrations and bi-partisan confrontations later—events that include the storming of ministry offices, an airport blockade, torched shopping malls, several deaths and injuries, and a thoroughly discredited political and judicial system—there is little to envy in the polarized landscape that has become Thai democracy. Sadder still, it’s hard to think of anyone who’s looking good throughout all this.
Two significant portions of Thai society remain deadlocked in a hostile battle of wills and mutual class hatred: the urban educated elite and middle class who comprise the “yellow shirt” opponents of Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai government and her billionaire brother Thaksin, and the mostly rural poor Thaksin supporters who comprise the pro-government “red shirt” movement. This is a civil war for the soul of the nation, and neither side can claim to be squeaky clean.
If one were to judge purely in terms of parliamentary elections, the Red Shirts would appear to have the high ground. Say what you will about the Shinawatras (and we will, in a moment), 15 million voters sent Yingluck to the prime minister’s chair in July 2011, and Thaksin-backed parties have won the previous elections with significant majorities. It can also be argued that Thaksin’s “one product, one village” and other populist policies helped bring millions of rural poor out of poverty. Even in discredited exile, the former Thai Rak Thai (“Thais love Thais”) leader remains the kingdom’s most popular prime minister since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. So the “red shirts” can argue with some validity that the coup that ousted him was a dark day for Thai democracy.
However, the “red shirts” wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to their hero. After the coup, Thaksin was sentenced in absentia to two years’ imprisonment for corruption. Politically influenced though these charges may have been, they did not arise out of thin air. At the time Thaksin first came to power in 2001, Thailand was renewing its efforts to tackle crooked politics and had recently established an anti-corruption commission and constitution court to deal with widespread graft and bribery in politics. Once in power, Thaksin walked right into the ethical doggie-do by failing to disclose his assets and by further feathering his nest with a number of dubious business deals arranged by his wife Pojamarn.
Furthermore, for all his populist appeal, Thaksin’s 2003 “war on drugs” was hardly a model of good governance. His shoot-to-kill policy for drug dealers resulted in some 2,800 extrajudicial killings, drawing international condemnation. As did a series of ill-advised morality campaigns that trampled on civil liberties while sweeping through the country’s bars and nightclubs. As did the perception that Thaksin could afford to buy his election wins by throwing his billions around. There’s also a homophobic and xenophobic element to the pro-Thaksin “red shirt” crowd (as witnessed by their shutdown of a gay pride parade in Chiang Mai) that diminishes their claim to the moral high ground. Meanwhile, their hero spends his time jet setting between Hong Kong and London and Dubai, directing his sister like a puppetmaster and organizing his supporters to rally and agitate at considerable risk to their own lives while the billionaire telecom mogul enjoys the comfort of exile.
The “yellow shirts,” of course, pounce on all this with unexamined self-righteousness. What they fail to recognize is how their own sense of entitlement makes a complete mockery of participatory democracy. All Thais respect their royal family and particularly revere King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning living monarch. However, the yellow shirts—whose power base is the Bangkok bourgeoisie—appear to believe they have a direct line to His Majesty and think that only the educated, urban elite should decide how the country should be run. They do themselves and the palace no favours by ignoring the results of the 2011 elections and demanding that the hapless Yingluck (who appears ill-equipped for the PM’s job) be replaced by an unelected royal council. What kind of message does it send to Thai youth that if you don’t like an election result you can simply seize control of government ministries and departments in Bangkok, occupy 19 provincial offices, and hold your breath until you turn blue?
Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat Party Deputy Prime Minister—who along with former Democrat Party leader and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has been charged with murder for ordering the 2010 crackdown on protesters—describes his plan to rid Thailand of the Thaksin clan, democracy be damned, as a “people’s revolution.” He swears “before the sanctity of Buddhism” that he’s not in it for personal gain. What a sanctimonious windbag. Suthep would better serve Thai democracy—and Buddhism, for that matter—by shutting the hell up. Instead, he is said to be hoping for an escalation of protests, or even another coup, before Thursday (December 5) so that the national holiday on His Majesty’s eighty-sixth birthday will not be marred by conflict.
In a perfect world—that is, if they really cared about the cause of Thai democracy—there are a number of ways that the various parties in this political clusterfuck could guarantee His Majesty a happy birthday this year. First, Yingluck could recognize her small victories of the past week—surviving a non-confidence motion, holding the army back during the office occupations—by withdrawing the controversial amnesty bill that prompted the latest round of demonstrations in the first place. (The amnesty bill would have pardoned Abhisit’s murder charge for the deaths of protesters in 2010, but it is widely regarded more as a tool to get Thaksin back into power.) Abhisit could put a muzzle on Suthep and end all occupations of ministry and provincial offices, so that government could once again be up and running.
And what of Thaksin himself? If he had a conscience as large as his bank account, he would first send a videotaped message to the Thai media urging non-violence by all Thais, including his supporters. Then, if he were a real man (instead of a tycoon-in-a-fortress), he would voluntarily end his long exile by flying home to Thailand to face the music—and possible martyrdom. By surrendering to authorities and going to trial for the charges against him, he would reduce tensions in the country by refocusing the public’s attention on anti-corruption law. If a case could be made that the charges were unfair, his lawyers could argue it and his supporters could rally to his cause. If not, the whole process would reinforce the rule of law in Thailand and show that the system works. It’s all in his hands, really.
But “TIT”—This Is Thailand—where no one likes to lose face. So it is dreaming in technicolour to imagine such scenarios.