Destination: Thailand

A scene of five friends sitting at a Taksim Square cafe plays back in my memory. I’m sitting with four beautiful and accomplished young women who are hilarious and lovely. I’m complaining about my job, we’re reliving tales of old boyfriends, and each of us is taking turns soaking our bread in each other’s dishes. This is a good memory.

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Photo courtesy of Cassie, and my goodness, that’s an amazing coat.

However, the memory is not complete. As I drool over my friend’s dish of manti, further down the street nears the life-changing sound of a Turkish protest.

I lean over the railing to see a sea of red and roaring young people. Their voices are deep, they are loud, they are unanimous.

And for the life of me, I wish I knew what they had been saying.

After our lunch, we weave through the hordes of young people, a sight that foreshadows what happens seven weeks later, protesters are at the Square again, this time against tear gas and a violently oppressive police force. Read Cassie’s account of the protests.

Flash forward.

Next week I am set to touch down in Bangkok, where the world is again on its side in protest. I’m not a journalist, hardly an activist, but this time, I will at least be able to understand the language a bit. This time, I hope I’ll be able to understand more than what’s going on in my bread basket. From what I can tell…here’s what I’m getting myself into:

Meet the King, King Bhumibol Adulyadej or King Rama IX

At age 86, the King has spent 67 years on the throne. He’s been doing well these days despite a few hospital scares in recent years for which the Thais have dedicated much love and concern. To say that the King is revered in Thailand is an understatement. A nearly infallible figure, the measure of deep reverence and respect for the king exists in Thailand in a way that us Americans can not even fathom.

For the King’s birthday on December 5th the anti-government protesters agreed to a day of peace and the King addressed the nation’s situation:

“Our nation has always been in peace for very long time because there is unity in our nation,” King Bhumibol Adulyadej said. “Each of us performs our duties in a harmonious manner for the sake of our country…Every Thai should realize this, and perform their given duties to benefit the broader public (CNN).”

This is how the king rules: Constitutional Monarchy

In 1932, the Thai military dissolved the absolute monarchy, replacing the government with a constitutional but keeping the King — Constitutional Monarchy (think England). Under this government, the King of Thailand has ceremonial powers but is restricted by the constitution and expected to remain politically neutral. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government and the ability to pass legislation is in the power of the Parliament (the House of Representatives and the Senate).

1932 was not the final say in the democratic process: 1976 and 2006 saw changes in power between the government and the military (coups) but through and through, the King has maintained his great symbolic power.

The king has so far restrained from making political decisions outside of his control (like appointing a new PM) despite pressures to do otherwise.

This is Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra

Photo courtesy Gerd Seidel via Wikipedia Commons

At the head of the Pheu Thai Party, the current majority party, she draws much support from Thailand’s rural northern areas (Roi Et is a part of Thailand that I will be visiting specifically). In July 2011, she won the PM seat with 265 seats for her party (159 for the opposing Democrat Party).

The first female Prime Minister of Thailand, she won the elections as a former business woman with little experience in politics. Her election platform sought to empower women with education and to bring reform to the rural poor (subsidized healthcare programs and village-development funds to promote small businesses); however, the major brouhaha over Prime Minister Yingluck comes from not her policies but from her family —

Hello Thaksin Shinawatra,

The older brother of PM Yingluck who is currently he is in self-imposed exile after he was overthrown in a 2006 coup and convicted of political corruption in 2008.

While Thaksin was in power he used his telecommunications background (he was already a billionaire) to design policies to help the rural poor raise the minimum wage and receive healthcare benefits. This won him legitimate and widespread support. He is credited with rapidly dropping the poverty levels in Thailand.

However, during his term a war on drugs left 2,800 people dead in 3 months. Numerous accounts of money laundering and various abuses of power scar his time in office. In 2010, 90 people were killed in an anti-government protest, reportedly under his watch. Thaksin is still wildly popular and loved by the people.

The opposition to the government suspects the ousted Prime Minister of wildly manipulating Thai government today. And though she claims to be independent, PM Yingluck is seen as a puppet in the hands of her older brother by the opposition.

Read an account of the rural poor by Nicholas Kristof:

“In a trim garden outside her pink plaster house, 62-year-old Amnuay Warayot recounted her past life. Before moving here, she lived in a slum by the trains, where electricity and water were hard to come by and the wooden homes were no match for the northeast Thai rainy season. The man who gave her all this, she tells me, has won over her heart. His name is Thaksin Shinawatra, and he’s the former prime minister.”

The Pheu Thai party has won every election since 2001.

Meet the Opposition

The opposition to the Pheu Thai party is minority group of Thais who wish to dislodge the government that they see as corrupt and dysfunctional.

These anti-government citizens want a few things:

1. To overthrow Prime Minister Yingluck’s party (Pheu Thai) and the electoral system

Believing the Pheu Thai Party of being controlled by Thaksin, the opposition movement accuses the party of using public funds to secure votes. The opposition wants a complete revamp of the democratic system and for the Shinawatra family and police and officials loyal to the family to leave the country.

The Prime Minister urged protesters to stop and “use the electoral system to choose who will become the next government…I have retreated as far as I can – give me some fairness” (BBC UK).

2. The establishment of an unelected “People’s Council”

The council would be an appointed group of “decent men” tasked with the reconfiguring of the electoral system, putting an end to vote buying practices, and overhauling the police (definition: Oligarchy with a promise and intent on later going back to the democratic process). The council would replace Parliament in which members are select from various professions (NY Times).

While the Pheu Thai government is widely supported by the northern rural Thais and urbanized migrants, the anti-government movement seems to be led by the traditional elite and aligned with the royalist elite. The opposition draws support from Bangkok’s upper and middle classes — civil servants and prominent business families.

From The Economist: “Meanwhile, Mr Suthep seems unaware that the severest critic of appointing a prime minister by this method is the king himself. In a public intervention in 2006, when Democrat politicians were urging him to replace Mr Thaksin, who was then prime minister, King Bhumibol said: ‘Asking for a royally appointed prime minister is undemocratic. It is, pardon me, a mess. It is irrational.’ Wise words to remember on his birthday”.

Meet Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the Opposition

Mr Suthep used to hold a senior position in parliament (Democrat Party) but since his resignation he has led the opposition to the government. He is determined that “the movement will keep on fighting. Our goal is to uproot the Thaksin regime.”

“[The protest movement] cannot allow political tyranny under the guise of majority rule, and crony, monopolistic capitalism to collude to use parliamentary dictatorship to betray the trust of the people” (The Guardian)

Protests began in Bangkok on November 24th.

Here’s just a few reasons why:

1. A proposed blanket Amnesty Bill was introduced by the PM Yingluck’s party mid-November.

The bill was ultimately a pardon of anyone who had committed a political crime since 2004. This bill (here’s the kicker) would have pardoned Thaksin and allowed him to return to Thailand without serving time in jail.

To further outrage it also would have pardoned leaders responsible for the killing of 90 demonstrators back in 2010.

Outrage and extreme opposition to the bill came from both the anti-government and officials inside the government.

Suthep Thaugsuban had this to say: “We will keep on fighting against the amnesty bill and pursue those who are corrupt to the fullest, until the bill is doomed and canceled .”

“[The lawmakers] didn’t listen to the voice of the people. Just because they have power in Parliament, they thought they could make anything happen,” said protester Awat Utchawong, “We have to come out to make the people’s voice louder.” (AP)

Whatever the motives of the proponents of the bill (a sound statement regarding the rationale of the bill was not found in my research), the Senate did reject the bill and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dropped the proposal saying that, “my government will not do anything contrary to the people’s feelings” (NY Times).

2. The Pheu Thai party also proposed an amendment to make the Senate a fully-elected body instead of its current half-appointed seat legislature. The anti-government movement sees the Pheu Thai party as corrupted, and so this proposal is especially outrageous to the opposition because the Pheu Thai party already dominates Parliament. The anti-government movement is boycotting the February 2nd elections because they have no more faith that elections will be free or fair.

3. The opposition movement has accused the pro-government leaders of undermining the King.

Many of Thaksin’s supporters have been convicted of Lèsemajesté crimes — the Thai law that prohibits negative speech against the monarchy and deems such disrespect as treason. Anti-government protesters see this as further evidence for corruption in the government. A few protesters who, like all of Thailand, hold the king in extremely high regard have gone as far as to say that the 1932 coup and abandonment of the absolute monarchy was a mistake.

Side note, here’s a place I want to visit: the Democracy Monument, where protesters meet

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The public monument in the center of historic Bangkok commemorates that 1932 coup I mentioned earlier. It was erected by that military dictatorship that took over after the coup, ironically enough. The monument seemingly stands more in commemoration of the seizing of power than of the establishment of democracy. Since the 70’s it has served as a rallying point for activists and the irony continues in the protests today.

Update on the Rallies

February 2nd elections and resignation of the Democratic Party

In early December, Prime Minister announced that elections would take place on February 2nd, 2014. The opposition argues that there is no fairness in elections in Thailand: they fully expect the Pheu Thai party to win again.

Leader of the Democratic Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said that politics in Thailand have reached a “failed stage” and that elections would be useless, the “same old power grabs” (NY Times) and that “the election on February 2 is not the solution for the country…it will not lead to reform.”

On Saturday, December 21st, the Democrat Party (opposition to the PM) announced that their members would boycott the national elections. The members of the Democrat Party had already resigned from Parliament. The last time the Democrats boycotted elections was in 2006, prior to the military coup that ousted Prime Minister Thaksin.

Shootings and the shutdown of Bangkok

On Monday January 13th, the anti-government movement is planning to instigate a government shutdown of Bangkok before the February 2nd elections. They mainly intend to block traffic at crucial intersections; 140 schools will be shut down (Wall Street Journal). They seem to be hoping to bait the military into taking action to restore order (coup). The military has so far had little involvement.

On Saturday, January 11th, seven people were injured in a drive-by shooting targeting anti-government protesters (Wall Street Journal). The shooters have so far been unidentified.

The Thai government is planning to deploy 14,000-15,000 military and policemen to protect the city from whatever occurs on Monday the 13th (CNN).

“The situation in Thailand is tense, volatile and unpredictable. There is a real risk of loss of life and injury unless human rights are fully respected,” said Isabelle Arradon, an Amnesty International Asia-Pacific deputy director (CNN).

So what’s the US doing about it?

In a statement shortly after Prime Minister Yingluck’s announcement of February elections (her resolution to not stand down), the US State Department announced that it “strongly supports” Thailand’s “democratic process” and that it encourages those involved to “resolve political differences peacefully and democratically in a way that reflects the will of the Thai people and strengthens the rule of law” (BBC UK).

On December 19th, protesters gathered outside the US Embassy with handouts in which they accused the American government and media of bias and prejudice (excerpts of the open letter, here: Bangkok Post).

In conclusion:

Most of my sources, were admittedly trusted American and British news correspondents. I shall not call myself a reporter and neither am I convinced that we, separated from Thailand and being barraged by our own political crises, have the whole picture (apologies for any apparent bias) — there must be something more.

But, if I’m to gather up some of my own thoughts:

  • Echoing friends that I shared my thoughts with: I don’t know whether to love the Shinawatras or hate them.
  • The possibility of a minority group of upper and middle class demonstrators dislodging a democratically elected leader is growing worrisome each day. I wonder if here in the US, we have the same provisions in our Constitution to protect the minority in cases where the majority will not. I wonder if in Thailand the Constitution is powerful enough to protect itself from being undermined. The rough course of minorities attempting to influence politics is something Americans are very familiar with (women’s suffrage, religious freedom, same-sex marriage, etc.) — we just need to know more if in the future the US does take a stand. There have been too many cases – Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam – where the US has supported dictators and authoritarian regimes without knowing enough. We need to know more.
  • Thailand has been the model of democracy in Southeast Asia (SEA) and this seemingly Anti-Occupy Wall Street movement of the 1% going against the majority is troubling. I worry that winning votes is becoming a least important criteria for southeast Asian countries.

“The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided” (NY Times).

  • …This part of the world isn’t going away (well, duh, you say, have you tried Phad Thai noodles?). Southeast Asia is personified by the ring of volcanoes surrounding the region — from Burma’s experiments with democracy, to Cambodia’s 30-year recovery from the Khmer Rouge, to actual pirates of the Strait of Malacca, to the threat of terrorism and Islamic separatists in the Philippines and southern Thailand. Southeast Asia is the ring of fire, building and waiting.

—–

In an interview with BBC, one woman from a “red village” (a region in northeast Thailand made up of the working poor) had this to say,

“Well, I know they have more education than me…but at least I understand what democracy is. Those people in Bangkok, who have been to university or studied overseas, how come they don’t understand democracy?” This woman told the BBC reporter that she had left school at the age of 10.

And so, off to Bangkok next week.

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