Sunday, November 21, 2010

Paradise Postponed

The elections that were supposed to have been held in Thailand this month have vanished into a haze generated by the bad intentions of the Kingdom's ruling elite.  There were widespread expectations, which I shared, that riots would follow any postponement of the people's next chance to elect a representative government after three popularly elected prime ministers in a row were tossed out of office.

But not so far. There are multiple theories to explain this.  The most obvious reason is that a lot of people were killed in the last demonstrations -- riots, from the government's point of view.  Thais killing Thais in the nation's capital is not a frequent occurrence in a country that prides itself on consensus, civility, and harmony.  The Red Shirts were expecting opposition, but no one anticipated that so much blood would flow in the streets.

Another reason is that the Red Shirt leaders -- those who aren't in jail -- are in hiding.  Lots of towns, especially in the general region of Bangkok, are under heightened surveillance -- "martial law" might be an overstatement, but not by that much.  So this is not a climate in which travel or large meetings are easy.

This is very un-Thai.  There has been no apology from the government, no official attempt at rapprochement. The lid has been kept on good and tight.  It's as though the policy is to isolate the opposition and hold it down in the hope that it will splinter under pressure into disagreeing factions that will eventually natter each other to death.

The movement has always been less monolithic than it looked from the outside.  Although the government was probably correct in charging that the rebels were funded for some time by Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications mogul who attained the prime minister's office only to be overthrown by the coup, not all the Red Shirts or Red Shirt sympathizers actually supported Thaksin.  The issue was always broader than Thaksin or any individual politician: At root, it was simply about whether democracy actually exists in Thailand, whether the people have the right to vote in the government of their choice.  Three times now, the power elite has tossed out of office prime ministers who had won the largest share of the popular vote.  The current prime minister, Abhisit, won the office through legislative manipulation of the shadiest kind.

And now a new wave of revolutionary sentiment seems to be building, critical of the entire government, including the previously sacrosanct institution of the monarchy.  Thailand's lese-majeste laws are vigorously, even aggressively, enforced.  It has been a byword for decades that Thais at all levels of society hold the monarchy almost sacred.  Some people question whether the talk of this new anti-monarchical sentiment is real or whether it's disinformation designed to isolate the rebels from the populace at large.

Whatever the situation, the Thai people deserve a chance to cast their votes, and the power elite sooner or later will have to loosen its grip.  The question is how much damage will be done to the ties that hold the nation together, and how high the cost could be in Thai lives.


  1. Tim,

    Your piece risks crowding the masthead of MIE with words on the order of "Pulitzer Prize Winning..." Extraordinary job. "60 Minutes," eat your heart out.

  2. Thank you very much, Jeff. It's such a sad situation, and I've loved the country and the people for so long.

  3. I can tell that you do, and that's what ultimately will make a difference.