Saturday, April 24, 2010

Seeing Red

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


  1. I'm not sure I'd describe the Thai elite as light skinned Thai-Chinese. The Thai elite that I met did not describe themselves as Chinese in any way and thought of themselves as pure Thai, even thought they may be mixed. It is not a good thing to be considered Chinese there, I don't think. They consider the Thai Chinese as a separate entity. But what do I know? I've been away from the place for umpteen years.

  2. It seems so many of the recent posts in your separate countries are tragedies--South Africa murder, ash and fire over Iceland, rain and death in Brazil, riots and corrupt government in Thailand. That being said, I am truly greatful for this global look.

    Now to this specific post...

    It doesn't seem any of these so-called leaders speak for the people, but it also doesn't seem the people are willing to give up, even though they ARE willing to live with a certain amount of corruption.

    So what is next? Is there a prediction here? And, if the king does die, who inherits the throne?


  3. Tim

    This is such an interesting post.I am much more aware of the politics of Thailand now than before I started reading! So you can see that I knew verrrry little. This is probably a dumb question, but do you have to be careful not to wear a red or yellow shirt out in public? It seems like it could be dangerous. Keep on educating us.


  4. Tim: I found an article by the Harvard Asia Pacific Review dated 2002 - "Multiculturalism in Thailand? Cultural and Regional Resurgence in a Diverse Kingdom."

    It talks about the resurgence of ethnic awareness in Thailand - among the Lao in the Northeast, the Chinese through the country, and the Muslims in the south of Thailand. About people now open about their part-Chinese ancestry, for instance, whereas before (I was there till 1985) it was considered disloyal to country to describe oneself as anything but "Thai," regardless of ethnicity.

    Your readers might find this article interesting. Multiculturalism in Thailand:

  5. Are the Thais protesting in favor of Thaksin and his party or against the blatant disregard of the will of the people as expressed in the outcome of the election? Is the election of a member of his party a means by which Thaksin controls the government from outside its borders?

    When reading the description of the coup in BREATHING WATER, I thought it courageous of the author to be so clear about Thaksin and the entire political situation. To write about those who have the power to do something about an American who lives in their country and writes less than positively about the power elite, seemed risky. It is rare for a fiction writer to use the real name of a political leader in terms that are less than glowing .

    That the people of Thailand love their king is clear in the books. That he is 82 is an added complication to the political struggle. Does he have a successor who will have the loyalty of the people by reason of his succession? Is the king above the political fray? Can he do anything to calm the situation before it escalates further?

    The New York Times is carrying a front page article about the situation in Thailand. It describes the emergence of a new, supposedly grass roots group, calling themselves the "no- colors or the multi-colors" who are supporting the prime minister, Mr. Abhisit. They are against the red-shirt demand that the parliament be dissolved in thirty days. They proclaim their allegiance to the government and to the monarchy.

    Where do the yellow shirts stand or have they been absorbed by the no-color group?

    Blessings on the Thais people that they may get the government and the treatment they deserve.


  6. Hi, all, and thanks for the comments.

    Book Dilettante -- Most Thai-Chinese don't identify themselves as such publicly, and for good reason. There's a long, melancholy Southeast Asian traditions of pogroms against the highly successful Chinese -- tens of thousands killed in Indonesia and Malaya (as it was called then) -- in fact Thailand is the ONLY country where the Chinese have never been persecuted.

    The reason for that may be the foresight of King Rama VI who, in the early 20th century, passed a law forcing all Thais of Chinese descent to adopt Thai names or leave the country. This brilliant piece of royal policy allowed them to sort of fade into the general population. (And most of those who privately self-identify as Thai-Chinese have some Thai blood; a very small minority has remained ethnically purely Chinese.) But the Thai-Chinese have been the country's power elite and have dominated the country's economy, for centuries now.

    The multiculturalism article is fascinating. I'd argue that the emergence of ethnic awareness is part of the current Thai tragedy. King Bhumibol fought it successfully -- especially in the Muslim south -- by stressing that everyone was, after all, Thai. And he carries such personal moral and ethnic weight that the stresses subsided for several decades.

    Michelle, as someone who wants to return to Thailand, I'm not going to speculate on the future of the monarchy. It's a very sensitive subject and fiercely guarded by lese-majeste laws. Here's an extraordinary piece from The Economist that you'll find interesting:

    Michelle, it's probably safe for a farang, or foreigner, to wear any color. (Yellow, by the way, was chosen because it corresponds to the day of the week on which the King was born, although the King has never endorsed their cause.) But I have to tell you, for all the effort it takes to put on a different color in the morning, I'd do it.

    Michelle, corruption is simply the lubrication that keeps government running in most of the world's countries; Thailand is no exception. In China it's guanxi, which means connections but which also traces the path of influence in a downward direction and money in an upward one; in America it's called lobbying or campaign finance or Rod Blagojevich or political junkets. I've even argued that corruption can be a force for the good since it attracts to government the brightest and most capable people, who might otherwise go straight into the private sector.

    I'm only half-kidding.

    What the future holds for Thailand is completely impossible to foretell. It could be anything from a miraculously peaceful transition to a broader-based government, to a military coup, to anything in between. And it's all tragic, because the Thai people are among the world's best and sweetest.

  7. Sorry about the repeated "Michelles" above. Just sloppy.

    Also, I have to say that as long as my original post was, I could have doubled its length without ever straying from the topic.

    And I'm absolutely FURIOUS about the almost complete failure of the American media to cover this political open-heart surgery in a country that's been a good ally for decades and decades. Maybe we'll get a week when Lindsay Lohan doesn't do anything or there won't be a debate about Mrs. Obama's clothes or nobody will attribute homosexuality to someone who hasn't even been named to the Supreme Court yet, and we could get these events some goddamn space.

  8. Fascinating post. I'm over here following you from Michele Emrath's Southern City Mysteries blog.

    As for the American media covering this? I wouldn't hold my breath. They completly ignored the Rwandan genocide which killed between 800,000 and a million in one hundred days in 1994. I don't think much has changed about their perspective in the intervening years.