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King Bhumibol Adulyadej

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Thailand: It’s Quiet Out There

“It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”

In the old Hollywood movies, that’s the line that one of the intrepid explorers utters just before all hell breaks loose in the jungle. But the army chiefs are probably saying it in Thailand, too.

It’s just over a month since the Thai army overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and took control of the country. The elected government, which had faced months of street protests by an anti-democratic opposition movement that sometimes used violence, knew the coup was coming. Indeed, the demonstrations were explicitly intended to cause a military coup. Yet the government’s supporters have remained silent. Curious.

Officially, the army puts this down to popular support for the coup. “Thai people, like me, have probably not been happy for nine years, but since 22 May there is happiness,” said General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the army chief who now rules the country. And his soldiers have been doing their best to prove it, at least in Bangkok, organising street parties that offer free food and drink, music and dancing, even free haircuts and a petting zoo.

Some Thais clearly are happy about the military coup: they take selfies of themselves with soldiers in riot gear in front of big banners that say HAPPINESS. But their clothes suggest that they belong to the prosperous middle class of Bangkok whose constant anti-government demos were intended to trigger the coup, so why shouldn’t they be happy?

Others, generally less well dressed, are a lot less happy. In a striking example of cultural cross-over, some of them make the three-fingered salute that is used as a gesture of defiance by the oppressed population in the “Hunger Games” films when they pass soldiers in the street (although you can get arrested for doing that). But where are the mass protests that everybody expected when the long-awaited coup finally happened?

The Thai army has some dozen coups to its discredit, but the country has been democratic most of the time since the mid-1980s. Politics nevertheless remained largely a game played out between rival sections of the Bangkok elite until the 2001 election, when Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made telecommunications billionaire from humble origins, won a landslide victory.

Thaksin’s government openly favoured the downtrodden majority: the mass of poor farmers in the densely populated north and east of the country, and their children who had migrated to the factories of Bangkok. His welfare policies and cheap government loans began to transform their lives – but they also aroused the bitter opposition of better-off people in Bangkok and the south.

The army overthrew Thaksin in 2006, and he has lived in exile ever since. Every time the generals handed power back to the civilians, however, they voted in another government loyal to Thaksin: most recently, to one led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister after the 2011 election. By then, the conservative parties had concluded that they could never win a free election – so they decided on “reform” instead.

The street protests that began last November were led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which demanded the resignation of Yingluck’s government. The PDRC said it would also disrupt any new elections until a committee of “good people” (chosen by the protesters and their friends at court) reformed the constitution to stop poor or badly educated people from voting. Only then could the right people finally win a “free” election.

That’s still the plan, and the army seems to be fully committed to it: the junta leader, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, says there will be no new elections for up to two years, by which time they will be conducted under a new, “reformed” constitution. So why have the “red shirts” (as the mostly poor supporters of the Shinawatras are known) not taken mass action against the coup, as most observers expected they would? Why is it so quiet out there?

One plausible answer is that the leaders of the “red shirts”, hoping to avoid a civil war, are waiting for King Bhumibol Adulyadej to die. The 86-year-old king generally sympathises with the “yellow shirts” (as the coup’s civilian supporters are known), but he is in poor health. Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was close to Thaksin Shinawatra when he was prime minister, and if he succeeds to the throne the whole crisis might be resolved peacefully

But Bhumibol might linger on for years, or the “yellow shirts” might even try to break the rules of succession and put Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (who favours them) on the throne instead. The disenfranchised majority won’t stay quiet forever. What is lurking silently out there in the darkness is a civil war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Some…happened”)

Thailand: The War on Democracy

4 December 2013

Thailand: The War on Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

It has gone quiet in Bangkok, as the people who have been trying to overthrow the government tidy up the debris that litters the city after the last two weeks of demonstrations. It’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 86th birthday this week, and nobody wants to disrupt it with unseemly scenes of conflict.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is taking an equally low-key approach. The Thai army has removed the barbed wire that surrounded government offices, and protesters are wandering through the prime minister’s offices and picnicking on the lawns while she runs the affairs of state from some other location in the capital. But by next week the Civil Movement for Democracy will be back in action, and the final outcome is not clear.

The main thing that distinguishes the Civil Movement for Democracy is its profound dislike for democracy. In the mass demonstrations that have shaken Thailand since 24 November, its supporters have been trying to remove a prime minister who was elected only two years ago – and their goal is not another election.

“We don’t want new elections because we will lose anyway,” one protester told Reuters. “We want (the prime minister’s family) to leave the country.” If they succeeded in driving Yingluck from power, they would skip the whole business of elections and hand the country over to an appointed “People’s Council” made up of “good men”.

These good men would naturally agree with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban that the majority of the Thai people are too ignorant and flighty to be trusted with the vote. “From a Western point of view, “democracy” is an elected government serving as the people’s representative,” he told The Guardian. “Unfortunately, elections in Thailand do not represent people’s (real) choices because their votes are bought.”

They are “bought” not by bribes but by government spending on free health care and anti-poverty programmes. In most democracies this is seen as part of the normal political process, but Suthep and his supporters, who include a high proportion of the country’s professional and middle classes, especially in the capital, regard it as illegitimate.

The current government has destroyed “the virtues and ethics of the people,” Suthep says, but with time and hard work the unelected People’s Council could make them moral again and “put the country on the path to perfect democracy.” We can even imagine that the poor might eventually become enlightened enough to be trusted with the vote again.

There is a conflict between the interests of the rich and the poor in most countries. In democracies it normally plays out in the electoral competition of right- and left-wing parties, and some compromise (always temporary and contentious) is arrived at via the ballot box. But in Thailand, the rich take to the streets.

They do so because they always lose the elections. In five elections since 2001, the winner every time has been Thaksin Shinawatra or somebody chosen by him. Thaksin is a man of humble origins who built the country’s largest mobile phone provider and then went into politics. He proved to be unbeatable.

His record in power has not been above reproach. He was careless of human rights, particularly in his war on drug dealers (he used death squads ), and his family fortune benefited to some degree from his influence on government policy. But he wasn’t really in it for the money – he was already mega-rich before he went into politics – and he knew exactly what the poor needed. To the horror of relatively wealthy Bangkok and the south, he gave it to them.

He set up programmes like village-managed micro-credit development funds and low-interest agricultural loans. He created a universal healthcare system and provided low-cost access to anti-HIV medications. Yet between 2001 and the coup that overthrew him in 2006, the GDP grew by 30 percent, public sector debt fell from 57 per cent of GDP to 41 per cent, and foreign exchange reserves doubled . He even managed to balance the budget.

Income in the north-east, the poorest part of the country, rose by 41 percent. Poverty nationwide dropped from 21 percent to 11 percent, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS declined. Thaksin even allowed the 2.3 million migrant workers in the country to register and qualify for health cover.

From the point of view of the opposition Democratic Party, all this was just “buying the people’s votes.” When Thaksin won the 2005 election with an increased majority, it conspired with the military to overthrow him. He was then tried on corruption charges, but fled the country before the inevitable verdict and has since lived in exile, mostly in Dubai. But his party, reformed and renamed, goes on winning every time there is an election.

That’s why his sister is now the prime minister. She probably does do what he says most of the time, but there’s no crime in that: the voters who put her there were really voting for Thaksin. And if the current insurrection in Bangkok overthrows her, they will vote for whoever else represents Thaksin next time there is an election. The right in Thailand should really grow up and get over it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 10. (“The current…again”; and “His record…them”)