Thai Politics, Protests and the World’s Cutest PM: Democracy’s a B*tch

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Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra

 A primer for the uninitiated: The Thai political troubles of the last six to eight years revolve around the larger-than-life presence of one billionaire-turned-politician named Thaksin Shinawatra, who was elected Premier a decade or so ago and whose only prior political experience was an appointed one in the regime of some fat-ass general whose name escapes me at the moment. After being declared innocent of some minor corruption charges he was allowed by the courts to serve.

One of his first acts was to limit the competition for his AIS cell-phone company, worth gazillions. Another was to limit public support for the country’s flagship carrier Thai Airways (the better for his Air Asia to flourish). He also declared war on drug dealers with an infamous ‘blacklist’ and orders of ‘shoot to kill’. Unfortunately this list also included some political enemies. Oops, his bad. He also initiated many programs to benefit the poor.

Following other questionable actions and various conflicts of interest within and around the extended family holding his wealth, discontent from the country’s better-educated city-dwellers finally led to protests, then negotiations which culminated in Thaksin’s resignation in 2006. Or so we thought. His cabinet stayed in office, though, and after a month or so of ‘rest’, Thaksin simply walked back in like nothing ever happened. The army then took over while he was at the UN on official bizniz. He returned to face corruption charges, then left again with promises to return. He lied.

Since then the country has been divided politically between Thaksin’s ‘red-shirt’ supporters and ‘yellow-shirt’ opponents, with outbreaks of sporadic confrontation including, but not limited to, a certain noodle shop on Hollywood Boulevard. For the last few years the country has been led by Thaksin’s freely-elected ‘clone’ and sister Yingluck.

The current problems stem from a recent bill that would have made amnesty for exiles a simple matter, including you-know-whom. Yellow-shirt protests have since been ongoing for the last month or so, even though the bill was withdrawn. Although a few people have been killed, police have mostly foregone the use of force.

A few salient points are probably in order:

Point #1: Thailand is one of the weirdest wackiest (many would say ‘wonderful’) places in the world. ‘Ladyboy’ jokes aside, on the positive side this manifests itself in a distinct preference for non-confrontation. For example protestors in the recent events have seized government offices with little repercussion, in order to avoid future recrimination. Cool, huh? Maybe. The leader Suthep even has a warrant out for his arrest, yet continues to give speeches and lead rallies. What gives? During the previous ‘troubles’ of a few years ago, in which many ultimately died, the ‘yellow-shirt’ government responsible for that still has hell to pay. But I digress.

Point #2: Thaksin Shinawatra, focus of all the troubles of the last decade, may be a megalomaniac mogul and white-collar criminal of a sort, but he is a very popular one, at least amongst the working classes and northern rural poor. And not without reason. Borrowing from the Huey Long play book, he instituted many programs in their favor, in addition to serving up heaping helpings for himself. One of the best-known of Thaksin’s populist initiatives is nearly-free universal health care, which has been embraced by all sides subsequent to its establishment. After all, who could oppose universal health care? Ahem…

Point #3: The term ‘elite’ that is most frequently used to describe the opposition yellow-shirts, most accurately describes anyone here who has more than a sixth-grade education, all that is required by law in Thailand, and those six years not especially strenuous: reading, writing, and basic arithmetic the main goal. Cheating is rampant btw.

Point #4: Thailand is a major tourist destination, with some 26 million arrivals in the past year.  ‘High season’ just started, but numbers are way down with several dozen mostly-Western governments advising against it, given the current political stalemate. There aren’t enough Chinese to take up that much slack. They probably think all the protests are a celebration of some sort. They probably are.

Point #5: The girls here are really cute, PM Yingluck included. No, I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but somehow it explains everything. So sue me.

My conclusion: Yellow-shirt protest leader Suthep has overplayed the yellow-shirt hand, this time at least. If they had the moral upper hand before, they don’t now. When red-shirt leaders previously said that they ‘only wanted democracy’, they lied. They wanted Thaksin. What yellow-shirt leaders now want is unclear, apparently a military coup, something these same ‘democrat’ leaders violently protested against in 1992, when many died, a supreme irony, only a week after my first visit.

Bottom line: The only thing holding this country together right now is the highly-revered King, currently age eighty-six and the world’s longest-reigning monarch. His son’s qualifications are questionable.

Prediction: when the King dies, the gloves will come off, and all Hell will break loose. Long live the King!

Final word: democracy is indeed a batch, a batch of contradictions.

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