Thaksin Ok Bai (Thaksin Get out)
Since late last year, Bangkok has been the site of continuous demonstrations calling for the resignation of popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This appears surprising, as Thaksin won an electoral landslide little more than a year ago, while his party Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai) continues to hold an absolute majority in parliament. Indeed, opposition parties have little to do with this popular uprising.
Nevertheless, daily protests have brought the business of politics to a standstill and are causing a clearly beleaguered Thai PM to release daily resignation denial bulletins. Thaksin has called a snap election for 2 April to reaffirm his legitimacy (and is likely to win by another huge landslide), but opposition parties have called for a boycott.
While demonstrations continue, the military releases daily bulletins avowing that no soldiers will be used against the demonstrators. The king's advisor called for calm a few days after a bomb blew up a guard house in front of his residence. "The Nation is at risk," he said with customary gravity.
How could it happen? Or rather, what is happening in Thailand - tiger economy, staunch Western ally, the world's favorite holiday playground? Is this the end of democracy in the kingdom, or the beginning? Or is there no such thing as progress, only cyclical movement?
PM Thaksin, one of the richest men in the world, is no stranger to controversy. Long admired by the least educated sections of Thai society for his populist schemes, as well as by the international media mainstream for his supposedly sound free market economic policies, the PM is accused of introducing a culture of cronyism and nepotism into Thai politics that is audacious even by South East Asian standards.
Thaksin has had ample opportunity and motivation to do so. Much like embattled Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Thaksin controls the country's media. The result: Writing the truth has become more difficult and dangerous for a Thai journalist than for a Cambodian one. Thailand's long record of press freedom has seriously slipped in the past two years.
But it was a recent tax-free sale of Thaksin's telecommunications company Shin Corp to Temasek, a Singaporean government-owned company that has sparked the latest massive protests amongst the country's middle class. While it was by no means the first time that Thaksin appeared to use his political connections (and they could hardly be better) to further his business interests (a Thai journalist just won a multi-million libel court case brought by Thaksin's company for claiming just that), the deal involved a couple of billion dollars. Thaksin was judged greedy.
Thailand is at a crossroads economically, politically and philosophically.
In Bangkok, one of Asia's largest shopping malls has just opened. It sells luxury cars and in its basement, there's a fish tank full of sick-looking sharks that have gained their privilege of residence through corporate sponsorship. The roads around the shopping centre are clogged with traffic 24 hours a day. Smartly dressed young business people swish from BMWs into AC offices, bars, clubs, cinemas or brothels. Bangkok looks like it's booming its own brains out.
Out in the sticks, it's a different story. Thai farmers earn an average of a $100 or so a month for growing environment depleting monocultures, only to spend it on drink (virtually tax free) and gambling, and then sell their daughters into the sex industry to keep the man from bashing their heads in. To add to this volatile mix, there are more than a million stateless minority people living in village slums, harassed by authorities and getting poorer by the day. People trafficking, drug-smuggling, gun-running and every other nefarious activity imaginable continues to contribute significantly to the nation's GDP. Monks, formerly a moral guide in the community, are caught between repeating conservative doctrine designed to keep people in their place and selling fake lottery numbers.
Not everyone is like this - there are plenty of people in Thailand who try to lead normal decent lives - but it's a common enough pattern. Times are hard.
So it's no wonder that the poor don't care about morality in politics. This week, Thaksin promised freedom from poverty for the entire nation within three years, while handing out cash to poor villagers on TV. No one earning $100 a month for back-breaking farm work is going to argue with that. No one too poor to buy their kids a decent pair of shoes would think such comments or gestures vulgar.
Higher ideals may not have much to do with the middle-classes' call for the PM's resignation either. Most of the leaders of the demonstrations shared a metaphorical bed with Thaksin until recently. Most of the demonstrators voted Thaksin in the past, or for someone just like him. His political strategies, on the other hand, have been consistent if nothing else.
The Thai people had little objection to Thaksin's 2003 War On Drugs which led to more than 2,500 extrajudicial killings by the police; nor do they complain vociferously about the continuing troubles in the country's south, where more than 1,200 people have died in clashes between security forces and local Muslim youths, including a massacre in October 2004 in which 86 people were suffocated in the back of military trucks.
Against the backdrop of this vaudeville revolution, only the Royal family appears to be engaged in peace initiatives. Only the Thai monarch, much revered by his people, seriously demanded an investigation into the drug related killings two years ago. He is still waiting. But right now, he is likely to have other things on his mind: the nation is waiting for the king to make his move, to save the day, hoping that he will pull his subjects out of the political quagmire once more and guide them into a brighter future, ultimately shouldering the nation's burden, because the nation is politically out to lunch. He's done it at least three times in the past; in 1973, 1976 and 1992, mass demonstrations erupted against governments at least as despicable and nasty as the current one. In those days, ruthless leaders found it easy to massacre hundreds of demonstrators and only the king managed to stop the blood-letting. But in those days, students and workers fought for democracy. Today they fight against it. What happened?
Some academics and monks claim that money-driven values and the mushrooming of the so-called 'mall culture', imported from the West, have killed ethics and moral direction in Thailand.
Thaksin, who graduated in Texas, represents this free market trend towards a completely privatised corporate and unaccountable economy. After all, the Thai tycoon was in court on several counts of asset concealment (he passed the shares of his companies to his butler, maid and chauffeur) at the time of his first election to power in 2001. What's more, autocratic Asian politicians are currently benefiting from a windfall of impunity blowing in from the West. The United States' current journey into its self-created moral wilderness frees any old dictator from the shackles of human rights, accountability and truth. If Bush can form the perfect symbiosis between government and big business, circumventing both his electorate and the law and killing a couple of hundred thousand people in the process, an Asian demagogue with a little imagination should have no trouble following suit. Around the world, it's boom time for secret jails and bags over the head. Against such a global backdrop of noble diplomacy, Thaksin's democratically enshrined right to rule Thailand should be safe.
Nevertheless, unless there's a crackdown, the protests are likely to continue. Military governments in 1973, 1976 and 1992 were toppled by similar popular movements. In fact, the Thai people are following a long-standing tradition to try and remove a government when it is deemed too outrageously repressive and self-serving. Thaksin probably fits that bill, but there is little alternative in his wake.
With Thaksin's fall, democracy would win - and lose. Toppling Thaksin by demonstrations will not solve Thailand's political problems. He needs to be tried in the courts. His opponents allege that he owns the courts and therefore take to the streets. It's Catch-22.
What's more, the demonstrators field no leaders with mass appeal, and the constitution is too weak to keep the next self-serving politician from power. Thailand has never had a culture of party politics where different political choices imply different ideologies. That explains the reticence of the opposition parties; after all, all they want is a piece of the cake and any political reform would be just as damaging for them as for Mr Thaksin.
As some readers might have noticed, political opinions have been virtually bred out of politics in the West, where all parties are more or less the same. So why and how would Thailand adopt a meaningful democratic system that has been rendered obsolete in the West?
Most importantly, the majority of the Thai electorate cannot afford the luxury to care about these finer points of government. They want more to eat, more security, more money.
Thaksin has enough money to feed everyone in Thailand with somtam (a delicious and popular Thai salad dish) for two months. That might be a start. But he is unlikely to take a charitable route. Always a wily politician, he has hired a Cambodian witchdoctor instead, to curse the demonstrators. That should do the trick with his supporters.
While presumably calling up every demon from hell to get rid of the demonstrators, the PM continues with his daily announcements that his opponents - who now include most of the country's academics, revered monks, some senators, part of the business community, well-known artists and veteran activists - are all idiots or that the demonstrations are a conspiracy by the underground lottery mafia.
A daily paper recently published a report on how the political woes of the Thai nation have caused tensions in many families because politics is discussed openly at the dinner table. This apparently has led to arguments amongst family members. Clearly, the paper warns, this is a dangerous and disturbing development. Politics belong to the politicians in Thailand. Between ordinary human beings, harmony rules supreme. Counting out the idiots on the street, one suspects that the rest of Thailand is desperately trying to find a way to get back to that ancient status quo. With or without Thaksin.
Maybe the king can help?