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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”)

Muslim for a Month

4 July 2011

Muslim for a Month

By Gwynne Dyer

Gandhi, born a Hindu, once said: “I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Most people will never achieve such enlightenment (or spout such pious tripe, if you are of a less reverent turn of mind). But such thinking certainly creates an opening for innovative programmes like “Muslim for a Month.”

No, really. There is an organisation that invites people of other religions or none to come to Istanbul and live as Muslims for a month. Well, not a month, exactly: the 9-day “Explorations” programme costs $900 and the 21-day “Ruminations” programme costs $1890.

“We like to think that “Muslim for a Month” facilitates more understanding of a religion which gets a lot of bad press,” explained Ben Bowler, who lives in Thailand and runs similar “religious immersion tours” in Buddhism for the same organisation. “There’s a huge difference in the public perception of Buddhism, for example, and Islam – Islam is thorny, while Buddhism is warm and fuzzy.”

People who think Buddhism is warm and fuzzy would probably benefit from Bowler’s “Monk for a Month” programme in Thailand. People who think that Islam is a religion of hatred and terrorism would likewise benefit from the “Muslim for a Month” programme. Indeed, if all that’s going on here is a simple download of information and perspective, you could argue that every religion should be doing it.

Much of the human race lives in places where two or more major religions co-exist – Buddhists and Muslims in Thailand; Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in India; Christians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews in South Africa. Not to mention countries where up to half the population are non-believers (like Britain and Korea). A crash course in your neighbours’ religious beliefs ought to be part of the school curriculum. In some places, it already is.

But there is still something disturbing about the very idea of religious tourism. Immersing yourself in the prayers and rituals of a religion EVEN THOUGH YOU THINK ITS GOD IS FALSE smacks of condescension at best, blasphemy at worst. And although a sense of politeness prevents most people from saying it loudly in public, religious people generally believe that the gods of all religions but their own are indeed false.

Non-believers go even further. As Richard Dawkins, the world’s leading advocate of atheism, once put it: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that people have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” Fine. That’s a perfectly respectable position to hold. But if that’s what you think, then pretending to pray to Allah as a “cultural experience” is downright disrespectful.

The people who are organising “Muslim for a Month” have the best of intentions. The Blood Foundation is a Thailand-based enterprise whose goal is “to promote the ideal of the sister/brotherhood of all humanity. We operate cultural exchange programs that build bridges of understanding between diverse peoples through the means of shared, authentic experience.”

According to the Blood Foundation, the “Muslim for a Month” programme aims “to foster a spirit of good will and increased mutual understanding between Muslims and the west. It is not the purpose of the program to bring converts to the Islamic faith but rather to strive towards a greater sense of unity among people.”

I believe that that is truly their goal. I also very much like the Sufi tradition of Islam, one of the most attractive forms of religious expression that I have ever encountered, and it is the Sufis who are providing the facilities and the teachers for the “Muslim for a Month” programme in Turkey. But it still doesn’t feel right.

Here’s the thing. Almost all of the “modern” religions that have arisen in the past 2,500 years (and Judaism, which is much older) have sacred texts that are held by the believers to be divinely revealed truth. They are not negotiable or mutually compatible, like the old pagan beliefs were. To believe in any of the modern gods requires the faithful to reject all the others as false.

If Muslim beliefs are right, then Christian beliefs are wrong, and vice versa. If the Sikhs are right, then the Baha’i are wrong, and vice versa. If the Buddhists are right, then the Jews are wrong, and so on ad nauseam.

Why stop there? If the Mormons are right, then all the other Christians are horribly, catastrophically wrong. If any of the other Christian sects (or any of the non-Christian faiths) is right, then Mormon beliefs are downright ridiculous. If the Shia are right, then the Sunnis are wrong, and vice versa. So in a world where something like 90 percent of the population is still religious (though much less in the developed countries), what is one to do?

We minimise conflict by simply not talking about the huge, irreconcilable differences in our religious convictions. (The non-religious play the same game: they rarely challenge the beliefs of the believers either.) It’s not an attractive behaviour, and it doesn’t always avert conflict, but most of the time it works. On most of the planet, we are no longer at each other’s throats about religion.

The world does not need “Muslim (or Sikh, or Christian) for a Month.” Let sleeping dogs lie.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“According…people”; and “Why…do?”)

Mortality and Politics

27 June 2011

Mortality and Politics

By Gwynne Dyer

“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” growled Charles de Gaulle, but French history would have been very different if he had died in 1940 (no Free French government, probably a Communist take-over attempt when France was liberated in 1944) or even in 1960 (no quick exit from Algeria, no Fifth Republic). There are a few people whose absence would really make a difference.

Two such people seem to be hovering on the brink of death at the moment, though we have no trustworthy medical information about either one. In each case, their death could open the way to civil war. One is Thailand’s King Bhumibol; the other is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

Bhumibol, now 83 years old, has been the king of Thailand since he was 21, and although he is a constitutional monarch his influence is all-pervasive. It has, on the whole, been exercised in ways that promoted Thai independence, calmed domestic political quarrels, and supported the emergence of democracy. He has been the still centre at the heart of the storm for many decades, and he is revered by most Thais.

King Bhumibol has spent most of the past two years in hospital, and few Thais expect him to live much longer (although this is never discussed in public). When he goes, the crown will probably pass to somebody who takes sides in the ongoing battle between “red-shirts” and “yellow-shirts” that has divided Thailand, and has already caused many deaths, over the past few years.

There is an election due in Thailand on 3 July. Opinion polls suggest that, as before, a majority of Thais will vote for the party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Some ninety red-shirts, the mostly poor and rural supporters of Thaksin, were massacred by the army in a confrontation in central Bangkok last year, and the army may try yet again to reject a pro-Thaksin election outcome.

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn was once close to Thaksin and probably still secretly supports him, but he is a playboy who is neither loved nor respected by the public. His mother, Queen Sikirit, sympathises with the yellow-shirts, and is rumoured to be angling for the army’s support to make her regent when her (estranged) husband Bhumibol dies, rather than letting the crown prince have the throne.

If the two royals were to align themselves publicly with the opposing sides in a struggle for the throne after Bhumibol dies, they would substantially raise the probability that Thailand could stumble into a full-scale civil war.

Whereas if Bhumibol can hang on for another year the dispute may be settled at the ballot boxes, with the army grudgingly accepting a restoration of the normal democratic order. He may not be utterly indispensable, but he is pretty important for Thailand right now.

And then there is Hugo Chavez. He is not exactly the “dictator” of Venezuela, as US propaganda often calls him (he has been elected a number of times in free elections), but certainly he is a “strongman” in the classic Latin American style. He comes from the army, he once led an attempted coup, and he is a full-time demagogue. The only difference is that he is a strongman of the left. And he may be dying.

The official story is that Chavez was in Cuba on 9 June, in a private meeting with Fidel Castro, when he suddenly fell ill. Cuban doctors were called in, and immediately operated on him for a “pelvic abcess.” But he is still in hospital in Havana two weeks later, virtually incommunicado.

Chavez is an inveterate user of Twitter, but he has only tweeted once in all that time, to announce that his mother, his favourite daughter and his ex-wife had flown to Cuba to see him. He also reportedly telephoned a meeting of his ruling party’s senior leaders on Monday, but that may not be true. Venezuelans are speculating that his illness may be fatal, and the people close to Chavez are struggling to re-assure his supporters.

If Chavez does recover, he might lose the 2012 presidential election anyway. He will have been in power for fourteen years by then, and the mere passage of time has seriously eroded his power base. He has improved the lives of the poor, but a government with an oil income of bazillions of dollars that cannot even produce enough electricity to keep the lights on is bound to lose popularity.

Should Chavez die now, however, there might not even be a 2012 election. His elder brother Adán, the governor of the state of Barinas, reminded everybody that although the socialist government won power through the ballot box, “we cannot forget, as authentic revolutionaries, other methods of fighting.” And the army, whose senior ranks have been stuffed with Chavez loyalists, might well back a “revolutionary” seizure of power.

On the whole, then, it would be better if Chavez survived and came back to Venezuela, only to lose the election honestly next year. Like King Bhumibol, he is the indispensable man for the next little while. After that, if all goes well, he can die whenever he wants.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Bhumibol…Thais”; and “Chavez…supporters”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Vietnam: What Was It All About?

14 January 2011
                                        
Vietnam: What Was It All About?
                                                         
By Gwynne Dyer

    Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the eleventh congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (12-17 January) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the Party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.

    The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialisation and modernisation with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing Party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialised nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?

    The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were twenty or forty years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite – but they feel helpless to do anything about it.

    In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that  the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.

    Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.

    So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The US government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of South-East Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?

    In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of South-East Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.

    Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.

     As for some vast Communist plot to overrun South-East Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.

    So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.

    To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.

    The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 – or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.

    It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.

    But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is – which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“The nation..it”; and “As for…else”)

If using after 17 January, change the verbs in the first paragraph to the past tense.