Grenades on the streets of Bangkok. People shot dead. This is literally unprecedented in the history of the kingdom. There have been demonstrations and coups before, but never like this.
The conventional wisdom in the corridors of power was that all the rebellious Red Shirts -- mostly villagers in from the countryside -- would pack it up and go home for the riotous Thai new year festival called Songkran. The government figured all they had to do was hold out for a few weeks, and Bangkok would empty as everyone headed back up north, where the festival originated hundreds of years ago. Surprise. Everybody stayed.
This is a big deal. For all the drunkenness and water-throwing, Songkran is a major holiday. Far-flung families come together to pay respect to elders, to make promises to loved ones. Everyone visits a Wat to pray and be blessed by monks. They pour scented water over images of the Buddha. Every train in the country is full. But not this year. This year, everything is different.
The country faces literally unprecedented change.
In my 2009 book, BREATHING WATER, one character gives another what he calls "The idiot's guide to the coup." Since all this began -- in a manner of speaking -- with the coup, let's look at it for a moment. And to understand the coup, you have to go back to 1762.
That was the year the Burmese burned the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya for the umpteeth time, and an ambitious general went downriver, persuaded seven families to lend him an enormous amount of money, and began to build Bangkok, pausing to declare himself king along the way. Here's why that event was the beginning of everything. First, descendants of those seven families -- all Thai-Chinese, light-skinned Bangkok residents-to-be -- have held power ever since. Second, the general's name was Thaksin.
The light-skinned Thai-Chinese of Bangkok have run the show for almost 250 years. From this power elite have come the kingdom's political and military leaders, even many of its religious figures. The brown-skinned non-Chinese Thais outside Bangkok worked the land, got soaked for the benefit of the rich, and pretty much did as they were told.
Until another Thaksin, a communications billionaire named Thaksin Shinawatra, bought enough votes -- from the poor -- to be named prime minister. Thaksin is Thai-Chinese from Bangkok, and light-skinned, but he was never a member of the power elite. His claim to the office was pretty good -- he was the first prime minister in history to win a majority of the popular vote -- and he went on to become the first prime minister in history to serve a full term. And then the first to be re-elected without wandering around in the political wilderness between terms.
But he was imperious, a born unilateralist in a society based (at least on the surface) on consensus. And he made two big mistakes. First, he sold his company for billions of dollars to the Malaysians and used an obscure tax dodge to avoid paying a penny to the country of which he was the leader. This infuriated pretty much everyone and led to corruption charges. Second, he left the country to pay state visits elsewhere. In his absence, he power elite made its move. Tanks hit the street, government house was seized, and Thaksin's political party was outlawed.
The power elite held an election. The people voted in one of Thaksin's allies. The power elite deposed him and held another election. The poor gave their votes to another of Thaksin's intimates. The power elite tossed him, decided the hell with elections for the moment, and bought off just enough members of Thaksin's outlawed party to grab the majority in the national assembly. They then appointed a nice, good-natured telegenic young man named Abhisit to be prime minister.
There were riots. Red shirts materialized and took to the streets. Yellow shirts, loyal to the power elite, arose to oppose them. Things heated up and then, this being Thailand, cooled down again.
Not for long, though. The red shirts are back, and they mean business. As the poor see it, they've voted three prime ministers in and all three have been booted out. The red shirts are poor and relatively dark-skinned, and they're mad as hell. They want a say in the way the country is run. The nation's rice farmers, who are often one bad crop away from sending their daughters down to Bangkok to work in a bar, would like a seat at the table when a handful of light-skinned Thai-Chinese meet to decide the world price of Thai rice and to identify the minuscule percentage of that price that will be paid to the farmers.
And to ratchet up the tension even higher, the nation's beloved king -- the moral, ethical, and even spiritual center of the nation -- is 82 years old. Most Thais are terrified at the prospect of losing a beloved father, one who, they feel, has always protected them and had their welfare at heart. The King of Thailand is in fact a great man, and his loss, should he pass away, will cause almost unimaginable grief. It will be a national tragedy.
But it's one of two. Because it's also a tragedy that neither Thaksin's group nor the power elite really has the welfare of the people at heart. What's actually at stake is the river of corruption money that flows through the kingdom -- billions of dollars a year. No matter what the people want to believe, the fight at the highest levels of power is over who gets to hold the scoop. The Thai people deserve much, much better.
Tim -- Sunday