29 November 2008

Politics airport-style

This week, headline news was made when Thai protesters arrayed against the elected government seized and occupied Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports, cutting the capital off from international air links. What is fight all about? Full essay.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the incisive exposition of the theatrical drama that is now being played out in Thailand. No one doubts that the PAD "thugs" are being orchestrated by vested business interests. It is really surprising how a small "army" of such "thugs" numbering about 30,000 can bring the country to its knees. This is NOT a popular uprising.

Equally surprising is how the police and the army stood by whilst the tourism industry, one of Thailand's economic pillars totters on the brink of collapse. There were even reports of police manning road blocks to the airport running away when sighting advancing PAD supporters. This alone separates banana republics or monarchies from real first world countries.

Losing the one man one vote election, the PAD wants to tweak the electoral process by having parliamentarians appointed. Reminds me of a wise man saying that Baby boomers should have two votes against the youngsters' one because the matured voter is more responsible!

Anonymous said...

Very insightful. Thanks for sharing.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Political events can seem surprising and irrational if we don't fully comprehend the dynamics. That's why I try to explain them. Even closing an airport is not an irrational move if we understand that the aim of the PAD is to make the country ungovernable. Now they are talking about closing seaports too.

I think the airport seizure may be over quite quickly, but its conclusion will actually mean worse is to come. This is because the next event to watch out for is a judicial decision expected on Tuesday 2 December. In all likelihood, the PPP (and maybe its coalition partners) will be declared illegal based on some technicality, effectively toppling the Somchai government. The courts are generally pro-PAD/Royalist.

This creates an even bigger vacuum, and hotheads from the PPP may well call out the "red shirts" to fight. The military may then have no choice but to take over, but even so, whether they can exercise control when tempers fray all around the country, is an open question.

This story may well look more and more like Nepal's. There, King Birendra's assassination led to King Gyanendra who dismissed parliament and tried direct, royalist rule with army support. It was resisted by a wide cross-section of people. After a few years and after Nepal's economy went downhill, the monarchy itself was swept away.

Will Thailand's future look like this? After Bhumibol is gone, would the Thai people begin to think the next king (current Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn) worth keeping?

Personally, the only way out of the mess I can see now is for the Crown Prince to speak up for the democratically elected government and disabuse the PAD of any hope of victory for its undemocratic aims. He should tell the PAD, "I don't need you to do this for the Chakri Dynasty". He should tell the army and police to take orders from the democratically elected government. At least that would align him with the majority of the Thai people, and cement his relationship with his subjects for his own reign to come.

But what chance of this? I'd say virtually nil. So it's probably downhill all the way, faster and faster.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Oh, this reminds me of the 1981 failed coup in Spain. Like Thailand, Spain was experiencing a transition from the autocratic Francoist order into a modern democracy, which the old guard found extremely chaotic and destabilising. A coup was attempted in March 1981, led by Lt.Col Antonio Tejero Molina, to install a military regime led by General Alfonso Armada, and to roll back the democratic reforms. They might have thought the king would have appreciated their plan, since the king himself had been named by General Franco before the dictator's death as his successor. The young King Juan Carlos knew that that would be no solution for Spain's future, and he saved democracy when he personally telephoned various regional commanders and insisted that they respect and obey the democratically-elected government and not join the rebellion.

yuen said...

I see Yawningbread has a long memory, but so do I, and what I remember is less optimistic about what the Thai royal family might do.

More than 20 years ago the Thai princess visited Singapore. It was rumoured that she would be a better heir than her brother. I have no idea how correct that might be; however, I saw the following in TV news:
She was at an award ceremony of some kind and about to hand out prizes; the first recipient came up the stage, and as is usual on such occasions, seized her hand to shake it...

The princess visibly changed colour; when the second recipient came up, she held the prize in two hands, handed it over, and immediately started clapping; there was therefore no chance for the recipient to shake her hand...

So indeed she was shown to be smart and able to rise to the needs of the occasion; the incident also reveals something about how the Thai royal family sees its place in the world. I wondered at the time how long they could keep this up.

Throughout the crisis precipitated by Taksin's sale of companies to Temasek, the royal family has taken an ambiguous stand. While it was obviously in the country's, and the royal family's, interest to put a stop to the disturbances, it chose not to make such a call to the demonstrators, nor to back the government in ordering the police or the army to disperse them. I believe it is still upset at the lack of subservience the Taksin regime showed during its reign, which was particularly galling during a touchy period. It is therefore unwilling to be seen as supporting a government closely associated to Taksin, even though democratically elected

A few hundred years ago when the now still reigning Chakri Dynasty was in its early days, a great monk prophesized that there will be no King Rama X; the current King, Rama IX, is over 70.

Now I am not superstitious, nor am I a follower of buddhism or monks. Nevertheless, this prophesy is highly relevant to Thai politics, because Thais are serious buddhists. The thought "will this prophesy turn out to be correct?" is in their back of mind. This certainly made the kind of disrespect Thaksin showed to the royal house a much more touchy issue - the royal house also has the thought in the back of its mind "you must be thinking there will be no Rama X".

Anonymous said...

Great article YB.

The sort of censorship about the involvement of the Thai Monarchy even extends to the media in Singapore. And, thai academics here would not dare to say anything critical about the court as well. As for foreign observers, the spectre of being denied access back to the kingdom, and hence jeopardizing their careers has been too big a risk to take for having more honest assessments.

Anonymous said...

Thaksin is no angel. He wishes to implement Spore style of authoritarianism to perpetuate repeated election wins and stay in power.

Anonymous said...

This is what I think. The present political situation in Thailand smacks of racial politics. And the Thai King is not happy about it cos the present PM is Wongsawat, he is Thai Chinese, a "Wong" who has to make his family name sound more Thai with suffixes. The previous PM Thaksin is also Thai Chinese, making him the first Thai Chinese PM. Thaksin usurped Thai King glory status in Thailand once he took over. The Thai King has been working very hard in northern Thailand to create sustainable farming. But when Thaksin took over, the poor in northern Thailand look upon Thaksin as a saviour & a hero diminshing Thai King status.
The very fact that the Thai King has remained silent so far speaks volumes on whom he favours, the military to take power. Why? Cos the military is staffed by Thai Thais, those darker skinned Thais not of Thai Chinese descent.

yuen said...

in fact the lesson is a government that provides good economic performance is not automatically assured of obedient population

Anonymous said...

At the end of the article you noted:

Singaporeans might ask the question: when will it be our turn?

I have been wondering how that play out in the context of Singapore?

Suppose an alternate power centre were to emerged and challenge the PAP, and actually managed to pull off a electoral victory by forming the government. How will the whole episode play out?

Will the civil services and most important of all the military take orders from the newly elected government?

How will the judiciary act, if the ousted PAP decide to use the courts to seek resolution?

Will the PAP supporters come out and besiege Changi Airport?

In Thailand you have a King that is revered but a successor that is, well, not quite up to the mark. In Singapore you have an equivalent that is revered/feared and a successor this is, well, not quite up to the mark too!

So what is going to happen after the Singapore "King" is gone?

The said...

/// Yawning Bread Sampler said...
In all likelihood, the PPP (and maybe its coalition partners) will be declared illegal based on some technicality, effectively toppling the Somchai government. The courts are generally pro-PAD/Royalist. ///

Yes, YB, your prediction has come true...

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai judges ordered Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat's ruling People Power Party (PPP) disbanded on Tuesday after it was found guilty of vote fraud, but party members vowed to "move on" and form another government.

"We will all move to a new party, Puea Thai, and seek a vote for a new prime minister on December 8," Jatuporn Prompan, a PPP MP, told Reuters.

Former minister Jakrapob Penkair said the verdict came as no surprise. "Our members are determined to move on and we will form a government again out of the majority that we believe we still have," said Jakrapob, a close associate of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The Constitutional Court also barred the party's top leaders, including Somchai, from politics for five years, raising the risk of clashes between his supporters and thousands of anti-government protesters blockading the capital's two airports.

The court also ordered two other junior parties in the government coalition disbanded.

Anonymous said...

I am not too sure about this Thai racial politics thingy.

True, Thaksin and his brother in law may be Thai Chinese but so are their protagonists on the PAD side.

The game that is being played out now in Thailand is one where conflicting business interests are using Thai thais as pawns to advance their interests. It is not a sophisticated population and is still very much a third world monarchy. Fiery and emotional speeches by politicians can create blind allegiance to an unfavourable cause. It's more urban, middle-class and those economically better off Thais against the rural, poor and the disadvantaged, Thai thais or Thai Chinese.