The red shirts are back.
Crowds of anti-government demonstrators, estimated at 100,000, gathered in the streets of Bangkok last week to protest what they see as the government's repeated dismissal of popularly elected prime ministers and their replacement with a member of the ruling elite.
This all started when Thaksin Shinawatra (the first name is pronounced, with some poetic justice, toxin) bought the prime minister's office by the simple expedient of paying millions of poor people to vote for him. He announced a national program that included lots of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of the Kingdom's poorest, and settled in for a long, comfy reign.
But then he made the mistake of leaving the country. He was waiting to meet with then-U.S. President George W. Bush (talk about contagious karma) when he learned that tanks were rolling through the Bangkok night, and he was out of a job.
Thaksin was the richest man in Thailand, but not a member of the elite club that has ruled the country for centuries. Once in office, he wielded power like an autocrat -- like, I suppose, an executive. But then he made an unforgivable blunder: he sold his firm, one of the biggest in Thailand, to a Malaysian company -- thus injuring national pride -- and, having made billions in the deal. he took advantage of a massive tax loophole to avoid paying a penny in tax to the country he was heading. The elite held a coup, and it was bye-bye Thaksin.
And then they held another election, and the people voted for one of Thaksin's allies. The elite kicked him out, too, and held a third election, and once again a Thaksin associate was elected. This hapless individual became the only leader of state in history to be deposed for making an omelet on television. He accepted some paltry sum to make his special (apparently, really tasty) omelet, and the power elite invoked a law that prevents Thai prime ministers from making any money other than their salaries. It's a mystery to everyone how most Thai prime minsters manage to retire so richly.
Thaksin was kicked out in 2006, and there were riots as people wearing red shirts and supposedly representing the poor, poured into Bangkok and took to the streets. Soon they were opposed by crowds in yellow shirts -- yellow being the color associated with the day on which the much-revered king of Thailand was born. Things simmered down after a while, and a guy named Abhisit, a member in good standing of the ruling elite, became prime minister.
But then Thaksin started agitating again, this time from neighboring Cambodia, and the red shirts reappeared. This time they turned to a new tactic: black magic.
Blood was drawn from red shirts and sympathizers, and demonstrators splashed buckets of the stuff around the prime minister's office while a priest chanted spells. This isn't the first time Thaksin and his followers have turned to the dark arts; Thaksin himself is reputed to have participated in magical rituals intended to keep him in power until he died. And his ally, Cambodian strong man Hun Sen, offered a helping hand by cursing Abhisit, the current prime minister, in rather sweeping terms: "Let magic objects break your neck, may you be shot, be hit by a car, may you be shocked by electricity or shot by misfired guns."
But the yellow shirts have their own magicians; they've staged several rituals aimed at overcoming Thaksin and his supernatural allies.
Much Thai magic, I'm happy to say, is gentler in nature. For example, the spirit house.
These beautiful little structures are intended to offer a home to any spirits that might be displaced by the building of a house or office structure, and miniature offerings of water and rice (and sometimes wine and whiskey) are made regularly. Here, as in so many other ways, the contrast is apparent between the basic nature of the Thai people and that of many of those who rule them.
Tim -- Sunday