Thursday, May 20, 2010

Frowns in the Land of Smiles:

Thaksin Shinawatra was the old Prime Minister from 2001-2006. He got thrown out on Sept 19th, 2006 by a military junta after prolonged pressure from protesters known as the “yellow shirts”, composed of intellectuals, yuppies, artists, progressives, etc. Yellow, incidentally, is the color of the King. Thaksin, the richest man in Thailand, had a slush fund of several billion dollars that he had accumulated in offshore banks (he was the one that bought the Manchester City soccer team while he was in exile in England). He set up most of his accounts in his children’s names; one was actually a dummy corporation entitled “Ample Rich”. They eventually got rid of Thaksin for tax evasion, after he funneled billions of dollars of profit from the sale of a telecom company (which was made wealthy by use of public lands) into offshore dummy corporations.

Thaksin was originally from Chiang Mai in the north, and when he was PM he made a lot of concessions to the poor peasants, especially in the north, which were partially effective in reducing their poverty. The poor love Thaksin, as he was really the first politician that ever gave them the time of day. He actually could care less about them or their problems; they are but a political tool to him. The progressive agricultural programs of the King and Queen have been much more effective in helping the plight of the poor farmer: converting Hilltribe farmers from growing opium to high value conventional crops, establishment of agricultural research stations country-wide, pushing for organic agriculture and limiting the use of pesticides and genetically-modified crops and seeds, development of alternative crops (coffee, cut flowers, fruits such as peaches, apples, pears, etc, wine grapes and vineyards, etc.).

So Thaksin is gone, disgraced, and in exile all over the world: first England, Japan for a while, Dubai, and now Cambodia. All the while he has been scheming to get back into power. Cut to 2008 when PM Samak Sundaravej is fired by the Courts for illegally taking a salary from a cooking show while in the seat of PM (he was a popular chef, but not supposed to be making money that way). On Dec 2, 2008 Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother in law, gets elected but is quickly kicked out and all three government parties are banned for election fraud, setting the stage for Abhisit to take office as PM.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the current PM (elected Dec 2008), is Eton and Oxford-educated, and from a wealthy, powerful Thai family. The UDD (United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) poor came into Bangkok from the hinterlands, especially from Isaan and the north, to demand the resignation of Abhisit, while supporting the return of Thaksin. They all donned red shirts, in the same manner as the yellow shirts previously. This had been building up for several years; you may remember when protesters took over and occupied both airports in Bangkok for weeks, virtually shutting down tourism. It all came to a head in early April when entrenched protestors and the army started having armed conflicts, with accusations flying back and forth about use of weaponry, grenades, etc.

Abhisit eventually conceded to hold new elections in November, but the protesters didn't agree to leave Bangkok after the concession as they had promised, so Abhisit reneged on that offer. Thaksin, from outside the country, is reputed to be funding mercenaries that are fighting with and for the red shirts, using grenades and other explosives, killing police, etc. The Thai general that had joined the red shirts as their ‘military adviser’, Seh Daeng, was shot in the head by snipers (assumedly, pro-government) last week and killed, setting off violent protest for two days.

The King and Royal family have been, for the most, part strangely silent. All they have to do is say the word, and the protesters would kowtow to their demands, but the Royal Family tries to stay out of political situations whenever possible. Many Thai friends thought that the government should go in and forcibly remove the red shirts, using violence if necessary. The protests by the UDD were destroying the Thai economy, and most Thais hate Thaksin with a passion, except the red shirts, of course.

The last time I was there we had heard about a bombing that happened just a few minutes after we had passed through an intersection near Pak Kret, in north-central Bangkok. We were eating later that night at this seafood restaurant famous for its crab in crab egg sauce (delicious!) and one of the guests in our party, a Thai air force general, got a cell phone call and then announced to the group that we should leave, because the military was getting ready to set up road blocks to counteract the precursors of this current red shirt movement. On my tuk tuk ride back to my hotel, you could see armored personnel carriers setting up in key intersections downtown. While we were down south in Krabi the next few days, there were a bunch more bombings in BKK, and we saw some of that aftermath. The difference then was that life went on as usual...this time not.

After weeks of hundreds getting seriously injured and 70+ deaths, the red shirts disbanded yesterday and slipped into the shadows as the Thai army went in to rout them out. Later that day, the red shirts started over 30 major fires all over the city, burning Bangkok’s biggest shopping mall, Central World, as well as numerous banks, hotels, stores, and shopping centers, even the stock exchange.

Who knows where this will all end. My guess is that we haven’t seen the last of the red shirts, or the last of Thaksin. There have been some 18 coups since 1932, there is still great disparity between rich and poor, and corruption remains a big problem. All that aside, Thailand is one of the best places on earth, with the friendliest folks. It is “The Land of Smiles”.
Mick Vann ©

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