Thailand for farangs
One of my favourite countries is Thailand. In fact, I think it’s my favourite (well, after New Zealand). Thailand is full of gentle people and truly magnificent scenery. Smiley, happy faces: Thai people always seem to be smiling. I first visited in 2003, then 2004 and 2005 – doing some KM consulting work. The best part of my 2003 trip was meeting a very special person who has since become my “sister”. We email every single day and she came to visit Australia in 2004. I’ve learnt a lot about Buddhism from her and about the culture and politics of Thailand. I speak no Thai and her father speaks no English – but every time I visit, he drives us around Bangkok and has taken us to my favourite temple, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Right now though, Thailand is going through yet another period of political instability, which is sad to see. Another friend sent me photos from outside her office, showing protesters milling around:
This protest has been going on for a couple of weeks now and I always worry that my “sister” will get caught up in it as she travels to work. But she seems to take it all in her stride even when protesters were recently behind her house, congregating and shouting. Living in a country like Australia – the only protest we’re likely to see is a spat over who lost the footy. Australians are a pretty apolitical bunch. We get worked up into a lather over sport but politics….ah, nah.
The Thais refer to foreigners as “farangs” and if you only fleetingly read news of Thai politics, you probably get the impression that there are always skirmishes on the streets or tourists sleeping the night at occupied airports. So today, I thought I’d do Thai Politics 101 for farangs and take a look at the current protests.
As I understand it, the ongoing conflict in Thailand is over former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 bloodless, military coup for alleged corruption and autocratic rule. He was PM from 2001. Thaksin’s supporters have been busy protesting outside government buildings in Bangkok, demanding that the coalition government of current Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, step down or call a new election because they say it is illegitimate and undemocratic. The 100,000 or so protesters wear red shirts and are members of the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). Hitting the streets, the protesters have been clogging intersections near luxury shopping malls and holy shrines. One of the non-violent tactics they adopted the other week was blood sacrifice – spilling human blood on the steps of Government House and Abhisit’s home. I think the PM had to sleep on a military base and he couldn’t attend Parliament. The red-shirts are not anti-monarchists. My friend tells me the demonstration is to repair democracy and to rid Thailand of the “ammat (elite) system”, especially accused General Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of the Privy Council, as the man behind Thaksin’s downfall.
This is all in sharp contrast to the yellow-shirts who protested in recent years against Thaksin. You might recall international news of Bangkok airport being occupied by the yellow-shirts in 2008. Yellow is the colour of Thailand’s beloved King, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (or King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty), who has reigned since 1946. The King was born on a Monday and yellow is also associated with Monday. If you think there are royalists who love Queen Elizabeth II, you’ve seen nothing until you see how much the Thai people love their King. King Rama IX is the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history and the world’s longest serving head of state. Amazing when you think about it. King Rama IX is in his 80s now.
Ultimately, I think the ongoing protest is a power struggle. It’s as simple as that. (Although it has been depicted as a struggle between urban and rural populations, with the rural, poorer areas finding a voice in Thaksin). Thaksin is a very, very rich man. When he was ousted in 2006, he took off in his private jet, landing in Montenegro. Believe it or not, Thaksin is a Montenegrin citizen with a Montenegrin passport. I have no idea how a Thai man becomes a Montenegrin citizen. I also read somewhere that he wanted to purchase a private island off the Adriatic coast but his plans were thwarted as countries thought it none too smart to be seen working against the interests of Thailand. And so Thaksin took off again, lived in London and Dubai for awhile and, in late 2009, ended up in Cambodia where he was working as economic adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (obviously the Cambodians don’t mind being seen working against the interests of another country and have refused a Thai extradition request). Thailand has retaliated by withdrawing its ambassador from Phnom Penh. From his Cambodian haven, Thaksin was busy criticising Thailand’s constitutional monarchy.
But the whereabouts of Thaksin turns out to be an interesting mystery, worthy of a blog post of its own. Recent reports say that he has now left Cambodia; that he was kicked out of the United Arab Emirates; and that he’s been burning up jet fuel as he flies from Sweden to Russia. The UK and Germany, however, say he’s not welcome. My question is: how does someone with millions of dollars in frozen assets get the money to swan around the world endlessly on his private jet? Prior to being PM, Thaksin was a telecommunications tycoon, so the Thai Supreme Court allowed him to keep money earned from his pre-PM days. My other question is: as he touches down in all these countries, does he have a visa? Do these countries, knowing that he is a “fugitive Prime Minister” and that Thailand is eagerly wanting to extradite him, give him a visa? I’m also not sure if he’s still acting as “economic adviser” to the Cambodian PM.
On the other side are supporters loyal to the King, the army, aristocracy and the traditional Democrat Party – all of whom were becoming increasingly concerned over allegations of corruption against Thaksin and the cult of personality growing around him. What I think might happen (and let’s hope it doesn’t) is that Cambodia will become embroiled in the ongoing conflict. Thaksin could quite possibly inflame border tensions between the two countries and is probably pretty miffed that Thailand has frozen his 58 billion baht ($A2.1 billion). He seems to time his visits to Cambodia with red-shirt demonstrations. Tensions with neighbouring Cambodia have centred around the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple, which the International Court of Justice awarded to Cambodia in 1962 but unfortunately didn’t rule over the land surrounding the temple, which both Thailand and Cambodia claim. The temple complex is located near the two countries’ border.
I suppose when in Cambodia, Thaksin has a better chance of commanding and guiding the red-shirts. From around 100,000 protesters, numbers have dwindled to 40,000 or so. I’m hoping they don’t clash with Thai military as things could get nasty. Presumably, they are funded by Thaksin and the protesters are vowing to struggle on.
Thailand is a country living in a constant state of anxiety if you ask me. In 2004, of course, the devastating tsunami hit Thai beaches and tourist spots; the country suffered a military coup in 2006; and ongoing protests have surely impacted tourism and worried foreign investors, concerned about the ongoing viability of Abhisit’s government. If I were there, I’d don a pink shirt and get together a group that calls on both sides to find a resolution and bring some stability to the country. On TV the other day, I saw a program about India’s pink sari ladies. In India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Banda area, the “gulabit gang” (or pink gang) of pink-sari wearing women strike fear into the hearts of corrupt officials and abusive husbands. If you piss off the pink ladies, you can expect a visit from a group of fiery women brandishing sticks and prepared to publicly deal with you and take justice into their own hands. Power to pink!
But oh nooooooooooos: apparently I might be too late with my pink shirt idea. Some 1,000 people in pink shirts assembled this week in Bangkok to demonstrate against the red shirts’ rally. They call themselves the “Silent Power”. So maybe rainbow coloured shirts: rainbow power!