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Two Bombs

There were two bombs on Monday. The one in Britain killed at least 22 people and injured 120 as they came out of a concert at Manchester Arena. It was carried out by a suicide bomber named Salman Abedi and claimed by ISIS. The other was in Thailand, and injured 22 people at a military-linked hospital in Bangkok; nobody has claimed responsibility yet. But what happened afterwards was very different.

In Manchester they just kept calm and carried on. The Scottish band Simple Minds went ahead with their scheduled concert at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on Tuesday night, and 80 percent of the people who had bought tickets showed up for the show. Lead singer Jim Kerr told the audience they would all have “felt cowardly” if they didn’t play, they had a minute’s silence for the victims, and then they rocked.

The response was similar all over the country. Flags were at half-mast everywhere, and they even temporarily halted the campaigning for the national election due on 8 June, but NOBODY suggested that the election should be cancelled. That would be not just be craven; it would be ridiculous.

It was different in Thailand. Nobody died in the Bangkok attack, and the bomb was clearly not intended to kill people. It was timed to mark the third anniversary of the most recent military coup, and the likeliest perpetrators were a sidelined faction in the army (although the authorities will probably blame it on pro-democracy activists).

But the leader of the military junta, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, went completely over the top. When he seized power in 2014, he promised elections in 2015. Using various pretexts, he has pushed them down to 2018, but he is now having second thoughts about the whole idea. “I want everyone to think,” Prayuth said. “If the country is still like this, with bombs, weapons, and conflicts among people … can we hold an election?”

OF COURSE they can hold elections. Why would the occasional bomb stop that? As for “conflicts among people”, those are inevitable in any society, and elections are the way you settle them (at least temporarily) without violence. Prayut is just nervous about holding an election because it might embolden all the supporters of democracy who have been frightened into silence.

He really shouldn’t be nervous, because he has rigged the game pretty thoroughly. The new constitution, ratified last month, makes it practically certain that the military will choose every government even if there are free elections.

Prayut is taking a somewhat subtler approach than the people who succeeded in provoking a military intervention by endless, often violent demonstrations in Bangkok. They thought the best way to ensure that the government stayed in the right hands would be simply to ban the poor from voting entirely, but Prayut realised that this was bound to offend contemporary sensibilities.

The new voting system makes it almost impossible for any single party to win a majority of seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. And the upper house (senate), all of whose 250 members are directly appointed by the military, will have a leading role in choosing who forms the new government unless there is a single clear winner in the lower house.

Thailand has been trapped in a cycle of civil unrest and military intervention since the first left-wing, populist government was elected in 2001 under the leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra. The elite and the urban middle class were appalled by his diversion of government resources from their own interests to those of the rural majority and the urban poor, and they sought military help.

The first military coup came in 2006, but when the soldiers tried to legitimise the government by holding elections under a new military-written constitution, Thaksin’s party won again. He went into voluntary exile after that, but his party, under various names and various leaders, just kept on winning the elections.

The party, now called Pheu Thai and led by Thaksin’s younger sister, was driven from power again by the military coup of 2014. Now Prayut Chan-o-cha and his fellow generals are trying once again to devise a constitution that would keep the “wrong” people from winning elections. In theory it looks pretty Thaksin-proof, but Prayut is clearly getting cold feet about testing it in practice.

The problem is that if the pro-Thaksin voters are disciplined enough – and they probably are – then they could beat the new voting system by splitting into several parties but running only one of them in each constituency that they have a chance of winning. Then reunite those parties in a coalition when the National Assembly meets, and you have an instant majority government and no call for intervention by the military-run senate.

Monday’s bomb in Bangkok may indicate increasing divisions in the army. Even some of the soldiers must be having doubts about the military’s ability to keep permanent control of the country’s politics, and also about the autocratic ways of the new (and widely unpopular) king. The next turn in the long saga of Thailand’s quest for a genuine democracy may not be far off.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Prayut…sensibilities”: and “The problem…senate”)

What’s Wrong with Southeast Asia?

Thirty years ago most of Southeast Asia was run by thuggish dictatorships. Then the Philippines showed the rest of the world how to get rid of the dictators without violence, and its non-violent example was watched and copied around the world. But now the thugs are coming back where it all started.

The democratic revolution in the Philippines in 1986 was quickly followed by the non-violent overthrow of the generals in Thailand in 1988(though they continued to intervene every few years), and then by the fall of Suharto’s 30-year dictatorship in Indonesia in 1998. By then the example had also spread through the rest of Asia (democratic revolutions in Taiwan and South Korea and even an attempt at one in China).

The democratic wave swept across the rest of the world too: Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, South Africa in 1994, a large number of Latin American and African countries in the past quarter-century, and even a brave (but failed) attempt at democratisation in several Arab countries. More people now live in democratic countries than in dictatorships.

But in the cradle of the non-violent revolutions, things are going backwards. Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, is a self-proclaimed murderer who boasts about how many people his death squads kill. “If you are corrupt, I will fetch you using a helicopter to Manila and I will throw you out,” he declared in December. “I have done this before, why would I not do it again?”

“Duterte Harry” (as he is called in homage to Clint Eastwood’s film portrayal of lawless cop “Dirty Harry”) was elected to the presidency with a massive majority last year, and he is still hugely popular with ordinary Filipinos. But this is not democracy; it is populist demagoguery of the most extreme kind.

About 8,000 suspected drug dealers and users have been killed by police and vigilantes, with Duterte’s warm approval and encouragement, since he was elected last June. And the fate of Thai democracy is equally disheartening, although the strongmen there wear military uniforms.

Thai democracy, deeply polarised by a long-running political battle between the urban middle class and the rural poor, fell to a military coup in 2014. Two years later, the Thais ratified a constitution that grants the army permanent power over the political system, including the right to appoint all 250 members of the Senate. And even so the military have now postponed the promised election from this year to 2018.

Indonesian democracy still survives, and the latest president, Joko Widodo, is a genuinely popular figure of unimpeachable honesty. In the 2014 election he saw off his opponent, a former general and ex-son-in-law of the old dictator Suharto, with ease. But there are signs of rising extremism in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

The hard-line Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), which demands a sharia state in a country where 15 percent of the population are not Muslim, has been leading violent demonstrations against Basuki Purnama, the ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. He is facing spurious charges of “insulting Islam”, but the FPI’s real objection is that non-Muslims should not hold positions of authority over Muslims.

There is clearly support for this view among some of the capital’s Muslims – and to make matters worse many senior military and police officer have had close links with the extremist organisation. Indonesian democracy is certainly the healthiest in the region, but it faces serious threats.

And then there is Burma, the latest convert to democracy in Southeast Asia. After half a century of almost continuous military rule Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize-winning leader of the democratic opposition, is finally the effective leader of an elected civilian government.

But she still operates under a military veto, and she has to close her eyes to the brutal attacks on the Rohingya, a Muslim minority that the army and other Burmese ultra-nationalists insist is not really Burmese at all. The army is using this conflict to burnish its own nationalist credentials and undermine the fledgling democratic government, and “The Lady”, as she is universally called, dares not defy it.

There is no country in Southeast Asia where democracy is really secure, and in most cases the main reason is the overweening power of self-serving military and police forces. Power struggles between the old political and economic elite and “new” politicians like Widodo in Indonesia and the brother and sister Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand, both overthrown by military coups, play a large role too.

But there are many other new democracies with over-mighty militaries and privileged elites that do not want to let go, and yet the failure rate is significantly lower everywhere else except the Middle East. There may be some common cultural factor that unites the Southeast Asian countries, but it’s unlikely: they are variously Buddhist-, Christian-, or Muslim-majority.

So what’s the matter with them? Maybe it’s just bad luck. After all, they aren’t actually a statistical sample.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“About…uniforms”; and “There…threats”)

Brazil Impeachment

Q: What’s the difference between the coup that overthrew the elected government in Thailand in Thailand in 2014 and the coup that has now removed the elected government in Brazil?

A: The coup-makers in Thailand wore uniforms.

The Brazilian Senate has just voted 55 to 22 to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. She will be suspended for the next 180 days while the same body tries her on the charge of understating the size of the budget deficit before the last election.

If two-thirds of the senators find her guilty, she will be permanently removed from office. Since they have just voted to impeach her by a bigger majority than that, we may take it for granted that she is a goner.

As the long evening droned on, it was quite clear that most senators were only interested in the outcome, not the evidence. On several occasions the Speaker even had to tell them to stop talking and put their phones away. This was about politics, not about justice, and the deal was already done.

Two justifications have been offered for this unseating of an elected president, but both of them are pretty flimsy. The first is the legal justification, which is that Rousseff’s government tweaked the accounts a bit to make Brazil’s financial situation look less bad before the last election in 2014.

She did, but which elected government anywhere does not try to put the best face on its figures? Anyway, nobody believes that this is the real reason for her removal from power.

The broader political justification is that she has made a mess of the economy. The economy certainly is in a terrible mess – in each of the last two years it has shrunk by 4 percent, one-tenth of the population is unemployed, and inflation is exploding – but every big commodity-exporting country has been in the same mess since the global financial crash of 2008. The demand for their exports simply collapsed.

Rousseff didn’t create this crisis, but inevitably she gets the blame for it. That, rather than some obscure legal issue, is why nearly two-thirds of Brazilians think she should be impeached. But while she might done better at managing the crisis, in a democracy political questions like this are normally settled by elections, not by impeachment.

The 55 senators who voted to impeach her all know that, but they couldn’t resist the temptation to take her down. Which brings us to the real motive behind all this, and the worrisome comparison with Thailand, where the generals took over in 2014.

The Thais, like the Brazilians, evicted their military rulers from power in the 1980s by non-violent political action. As is bound to happen in a democracy, both countries then developed powerful political movements that demanded a redistribution of wealth in favour of the impoverished half of the population. And in both countries the prosperous urban middle classes mobilised against this threat.

The hopes of the Thai poor were focussed on Thaksin Shinawatra (prime minister 2001-2006) and later, after the military forced him into exile, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra (prime minister 2011-2014). In Brazil the left-wing leader was Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the Workers’ Party (president 2002-2010), and subsequently his close ally Dilma Rousseff (president 2010-2016).

In Thailand the struggle between the rural and urban poor (the ‘yellow shirts’) and the defenders of the economic status quo (the ‘red shirts’) descended into the streets early, and had got quite bloody by the time the generals seized power in 2014. They intervened in favour of the ‘red shirts’, of course, but they seem determined to hold on to power themselves for the forseeable future.

Brazil’s politics have been less violent and the military have not intervened (yet), but it is just as much a class struggle – made more intractable by the fact that in Brazil social class is colour-coded. The white half of the population is mostly prosperous, the “pardo”(mixed-race) and black half mostly poor.

The most important single measure of the Workers’ Party government is the famous Bolsa Familial, a straight cash paymen to those whose income is below the poverty line. To qualify, they must only ensure that their children attend school 85 percent of the time and are fully vaccinated. It has lifted 45 million people, a quarter of the population. out of poverty.

Nobody will admit that this crisis is about ending government subsidies for the poor, but the crowds demonstrating against Rousseff’s government have been almost entirely white. So is the cabinet sworn in by the new interim president, Michel Temer. But Temer is going to have a very hard time running the country.

Outraged Workers’ Party supporters are already being radicalised by the “coup” that has driven Dilma Rousseff from power and the struggle is moving into the streets. Mass demonstrations and barricades are now a common sight, and the protesters will find it hard to resist disrupting the Olympic Games that start in Rio de Janeiro in early August.

Which may provide the excuse for the Brazilian right to welcome the military back into power.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 15. (“As the long…done”; and “The most…poverty”)

2013 Year-Ender

26 December 2013

2013 Year-Ender

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”

Former US president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week – “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished” – nobody laughed.

Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.

“You recognise that you’re going in blind…,” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.

The bloated American “security” industry and its political and military allies call him a traitor and claim that “everybody already knew that all governments spy,” but that is a shameless distortion of the truth. Almost nobody outside the industry knew the scale and reach of what was going on, nor did the US government and its faithful sidekick, the British government, want them to know.

As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.

US district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance programme “almost Orwellian”, and in a 68-page ruling declared that the indiscriminate collection of “metadata” by the government probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution (relating to unreasonable searches and seizures).

Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all: “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” The spooks’ stock response would be that they could have told him, but then they’d have to kill him. The truth is that they snooped on everybody just because they could. It’s called hubris.

This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.

“The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. “Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.” He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.

Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?

We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit: it didn’t always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.

Morsi had won with only 51.7 percent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who had made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.

Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn’t actually do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost, mainly because the economy was still a wreck. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.

Their little pantomime of non-violent protest lasted only two days before the army stepped in and removed Morsi from power. It subsequently murdered about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters in the streets of Cairo to consolidate its rule, while the men and women who had been the heroes of the 2011 revolution cheered the soldiers on. And now these “useful idiots” are joining Morsi and his supporters in the regime’s jails: the counter-revolution is complete.

But it gets weirder: in Thailand, for the past two months, non-violent protestors have been explicitly demanding the end of democracy. They are relatively privileged people, mostly from Bangkok and the south, who bitterly resent the fact that a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished rural majority in the north of Thailand.

Naturally, most of the poor vote for the Shinawatras, who win every time there is an election. In 2006, the rich party (“yellow shirts”) conspired with the army to remove the party of the poor (“red shirts”) in a coup, but as soon as there was an election the Shinawatras’ party returned to power. So now the “non-violent protests” have begun again, supported by the prosperous middle class of Bangkok, and this time they are demanding a non-elected “people’s council” made up (surprise!) of people like them.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded on 9 December by calling an election. But of course the “yellow shirts” don’t want an election, because they would lose it. They have declared a boycott of the vote, scheduled for February, and resumed their demonstrations. Democracy is their enemy, and non-violence is their weapon.

There was a point when it looked like the mass demonstrations in Ukraine that began in late November were heading in the same direction. The protests were originally against President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which was legitimate – and they did deter the president (who was under severe pressure from Moscow) from joining a Russian-led customs union instead.

So far, so good – but the opposition leaders have also been playing with the idea of using the demonstrations in Kiev as a way of forcing the elected president out of power. That has been done once before, in 2005, when the extra-constitutional action was justified by a rigged election, but there is no such justification this time – and it is unwise to make a habit of changing governments this way in a country that is so evenly divided between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east and the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking west.

The outcome is unclear in both Thailand and Ukraine, but non-violence can now also work for the Dark Side.

Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.

In March Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?

And in December a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil-fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan, but this war could end up with killing on a Rwandan scale.

The African continent is emphatically NOT at war, but the band of territory between the equator and about 15 degrees North is in very deep trouble. You can’t just blame all these wars on the fact that the dividing line between Muslims to the north and Christians to the south generally runs through this territory. Mali, after all, is almost entirely Muslim, and South Sudan contains very few Muslims. Maybe it’s just that these countries are all among the poorest in Africa, and the traditional social networks are collapsing under the strain.

The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world – except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.

The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.

As evidence of how little Washington wants to be drawn back into the Syrian mess, there is now an attempt underway to defuse the 34-year-old US-Iranian confrontation by negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, if Iran wants to go on supporting the Syrian regime with arms and money, Washington will not object very loudly.

So the war can go on indefinitely, and it has become a proxy Sunni-Shia war. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims. (Assad’s regime is drawn mainly from the 10-percent Alawite minority in Syria, which observes a deviant form of Shia Islam.)

And the risk grows that all this Sunni-Shia hostility could morph into something like Europe’s 16th-century wars of religion, with Sunni or Shia minorities rebelling in Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.

What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March.

The United States also fell off the “fiscal cliff” in March, but nobody was hurt. Xi Jinping took over as President of the People’s Republic of China for the next ten years (no election required), and “Curiosity”, the Mars rover, found evidence for running water in ancient times on the red planet. It was a busy month.

In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.

In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors. (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 percent to only 3.8 percent. But they probably feel better about it, so that’s all right.)

In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.

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To shorten to 1650 words, omit paragraphs 5 (“The bloated…reasons”); 7 and 8 (“US district…hubris”); 19-21 (“There was…Side”); 25 (“The African…strain”); 27 (“As evidence…loudly”); and 31 (“The United…month”).

A further cut to 1100 words can be achieved by omitting paragraphs 11-18 (“Now…weapon”)