From the new world

The reason for my long trip to Asia was my desire to get to know at least a little part of this continent, together with my interest in the modern history and politics of this region. Furthermore, I wanted to get a better understanding of the protests in Bangkok and the Thai political crisis in general.

The countries Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are often considered to be one region. However, the history, people and temperament of these nations is completely different. One could compare this to the differences and similarities among European states. When we travel through Europe, we frequently encounter the same shops, advertisements and companies. Also South East Asia has some common signs. Bevies of motorbikes are filling the pitted roads  with a lot of street food vendors  along of them. On the markets, people bargain over the price of fishes, noodles, rice, tropical fruits and copied products of European luxury brands. Everywhere, one can Thai pop music and see many children.

Well, talking about all impressions I was able to get would probably last forever. For this reason, I would like to limit my explanations to the topic of the Thai political crisis. In the Czech media, the protests in Bangkok were mainly mentioned in connection with the brutal clashes between protesters and the police, during which more than ten people were killed. But the Thai political crisis is much profounder than that, and - except for small pauses - has lasted for many years now. The whole story about its development is to thrilling that one could use it for the production of a good Hollywood movie. Its name could be “The Asian godfather Shinawatra” or “Limits of democracy”. Let us go through the screenplay:

•    Thaksin Shinawatra: Thai billionaire, prime minister between 2001 and 2005, sentenced for abuse of political function, living in exile in Dubai
•    Yingluck Shinawatra: Thaksin’s young sister, current prime minister of Thailand
•    Suthep Thangsuban: former Secretary-General of the oppositional Thai “Democrat Party”, leader of the current protests.
•    For better selling rates, a young couple in love is included. Their families are of course from opposite political groups. They boy’s family is in favor of the so-called “Yellow shirts”, which support the opposition, and the girl’s family is in favor of the so-called “Red Shirts”, who are advocating the government and defend the Shinawatra family

Based on a true story:

The film would start with a scene in which Suthep would call for a demonstration. This happens just after the government coalition changed a few minutes before voting on an amnesty bill that would allow Thaksin to return. During the next days, the growing demonstrations change into an anti-government-protest. The opposition accuses the leading party “Pheu Thai” of corruption and considers it just a marionette in Thaksin’s hands. The protests keep on growing and become more aggressive every day…

Now a sudden cut. Some episodes from the past have to be shown. Thaksin, leader of the “Thai Rak Thai” party, is the first PM in Thai history who was able to finish his term. He is leading a war on drugs, shifts the attention of his foreign policies mainly to the USA and helps poor farmers with a program in which the government buys their rice well above the market price. These are just the most important reforms of Thaksin. The result is a significant victory of his party “Thai Rak Thai” in the 2005 elections. It looks as if nothing could stop him.

Just a few months later, the Shinawatra family sells its majority shareholding in „Shin Corporation“, a Thai telecommunication giant. Thanks to a new law of Thaksin’s government, this billion deal is conducted without any taxes. In the media, some news about Thaksin trying to concentrate all power in his person appears. Sondhi Limthoughul, a medial mogul, establishes together with some working unions, royalists and some supporters from the army the PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy). The PAD followers protest in yellow colored clothes (with yellow being the color of the monarchy and king Bhumibol Adulyadej). Thus the label “Yellow Shirts” is born. The protests result in earlier-than-scheduled elections, which however are boycotted by the opposition.
The PAD claim that the elections are corrupted and that Thaksin is buying votes from poor people by promoting populist policies. This episode abruptly ends with a military coup, after which a new government is appointed and a new constitution is adopted.

Now, the second episode starts, which one could call “The empire strikes back”. Thaksin, who has come to New York to visit the UN assembly as PM has to leave without any political power. Shortly after, he is even indicted for corruption and abuse of political power. Instead of returning to Thailand, he therefore goes to Europe. While living in London, Germany, Hong Kong and finally as an exile in Dubai, he still participates in Thai politics. The members of his former party found the „People’s Power Party“ and are able to win the elections in 2007. Already in 2008, however, the constitutional court disbands the PPP due to manipulations of the elections. Without calling for new elections, the opposition sets up a new government. Clashes between Thaksin’s supporters, the “Red Shirts”,  and promoters of the Democratic Party, the “Yellow Shirts”, occur increasingly often. During a military intervention in 2010, 80 people die.

Cut. We are in 2011. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, wins the elections with her party “Pheu Thai”. In fact, it is already the third political party Thaksin has established. His two former parties were disbanded and their leaders have been banned from all kind of political activities for years. This is how we return to the amnesty bill, to the beginning of our movie – to the present.

During January 2014, the opposition occupies some of the governmental buildings and paralyses with the “Bangkok Shutdown“ and huge demonstrations the whole traffic in Bangkok. As a reaction, Yingluck calls for new elections, the fifth ones within nine years. These elections resemble the situation a few years ago. The opposition boycotts them and the constitutional court declares them to be invalid, because the electoral process was disrupted by protests.

Now, it is already the beginning of April 2014 and the end of the movie is still very unclear. When I talked to protesters in the center of Bangkok, I felt how strong their determination was and that the situation cannot be solved by superficial reforms. The army has already intervened once with the argument that it is necessary to calm the situation in the country. Being quite autonomous, it has a big influence and the scenario of a takeover might repeat. I think, however, that it this would not lead to peace if the society remains as polarized as it is today.

The split of the population in Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts has also a geographical dimension. The Shinawatra family comes from the northern Chiang Mai province. Some of the reforms of Thaksin’s first government and in first place the controversial rice-program were very advantageous for the poor north-eastern territories. In these parts of the country, most of the population supports Thaksin. On the contrary, the southern part of the country is in favor of the opposition. Similarly to other conflicts, the capital is both geographically and politically somewhere between them. Among the protesters I spoke to, several came from the south of Thailand to protest against the Shinawatra government. This could become a big problem if the groups radicalized further, what could lead to a split of the country rather than to a retreat, what is another possible scenario for the next film.  

The democracy in Thailand has reached its limits. The rule of the majority cannot work if the minority is not ready to accept it. This is especially true for the opposition, which boycotts the elections every time they do not agree. I assume that the king could play a role as a mediator. He could help to solve the crisis if he would get more involved. In Thai streets and households, I understood how the whole society worships and respects him. Unfortunately, Rama the IX. is very old and has not played an active role in politics for years. There are several other possibilities how the story could end.

But no Hollywood film can finish like that. For this reason, a last shot is presented.

The young couple in love sits on the bank of the Chao Phraya river, far far away from all the political problems. Behind them, one can see the scenery of Bangkok, a city where absolutely anything can happen.


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