Thailand: Days That Shook Asia
It was like a scene from a Kurasawa film—noble faces of the poor, their eyes staring to the distance. Thousands of people on the barricades in Bangkok were determined and ready to die defending their nation against the brigands, but in today’s Thailand, the brigands are the rich elites.
The nature and context of the rebellion was lost in Western media coverage, which was biased toward defending the Thai system, a hybrid of feudalism and monarchy supported for decades by the U.S. and its allies. This support remains no matter how many coups had turned a notion of Thai democracy into a sad joke, no matter how censured Thai media is, no matter how unjust the social system of this nation. Despite proof that the atrocities in the recent uprising—at least 27 dead and 1,000 injured—were committed by government forces, the U.S., British, and Australian media wrote about "deadly protests."
Thaksin Shinawatra, telecommunication billionaire and founder of the political party Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), became prime minister in 2001. His market-oriented pragmatism seemed progressive compared to the policies of the country’s ruling elites. He insisted that for Thailand to compete with China, Europe, and Japan, it needed healthy and educated workers and farmers. During his rule, the quality of education improved dramatically and Thailand introduced universal health care—30 baht (less than $1) per visit—one of the best in the developing world. Rural poverty was reduced by half, a tremendous boost for the majority, but an unforgivable crime in the eyes of elites (the "chosen few"). Thaksin was seen as a national hero by have-nots and an archenemy by the elites.
However, Thaksin Shinawatra was by no means a determined defender of the poor. During his time in office he did not hesitate to "clean" the streets of Bangkok during the APEC meeting in October 2003, basically deporting the homeless to military barracks in the countryside in order to impress the visiting U.S. president and other foreign leaders. His war on drugs cost at least 2,000 human lives (probably many more), some of whom were homeless victims of death squads. During his reign, the conflict in the predominantly Muslim South escalated to the brink of civil war.
But he was popular and Thailand was becoming more egalitarian. So, in 2006, the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s reign, a military junta calling itself the Council for National Security overthrew Thaksin’s government while he was abroad. The coup was inspired by the Yellow Shirt movement that defends monarchies and elites. Since the elite structure and the monarchy were not in danger, the U.S. and the West did nothing. No major international organization left Bangkok and no sanctions from abroad were imposed. (Compare it to the coup in Fiji, which endangered Australian interests that led to both sanctions and an enormous media campaign.)
Thailand’s allies were used to the countless military coups. Though never a real democracy, because the country was for decades a staunch anti-Communist warrior and ally, it was awarded democratic status by Western media.
What followed is well-documented: military rule, then a brief return to "democracy" in which the pro-Thaksin party won again, then Thaksin’s brief return home, followed by further exile, then the Supreme Court banning of his ruling party on February 26, 2010, and seizure of 46 billion baht of Thaksin’s frozen assets. The former prime minister became a nomad, living in Dubai, returning to Southeast Asia via Phnom Penh, allegedly holding Montenegrin citizenship. All that time, his supporters stubbornly refused to give up, regrouping and rearranging their bases and strategies, finally uniting under what is now known as the Red Shirts.
Capitalism Versus Feudalism
In Thailand, as in some of Southeast Asian countries, a hybrid of feudalism—royalism and capitalism—is firmly in place. For elites, the critical goal is to retain their exclusive social and economic position in a society with an enormous gap between the rulers and the majority. It is not just money, it’s also their exclusive status. For that, they are willing to fight, manipulate, and even kill thousands.
There is almost no interaction between the elites and the poor (still the majority) in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia, except on a strictly master-servant level. The classes (or more precisely the castes) do not mix socially or frequent the same establishments, except when maids and nannies carry shopping bags and toddlers behind well-groomed couples strolling through Jakarta and Manila shopping malls. Rich and poor go to different schools, hospitals, shops, and restaurants. They take different modes of transportation and get news from different sources. While almost all poor Thais are monolingual, many members of the elite speak fluent English, having been educated abroad. The Thai monarch, for instance, was born in the United States and educated in Europe, mainly in Switzerland.
The Thai establishment is counting on the fact that no writer, above all one who is based in Southeast Asia, can publish an uncensored account of what is happening in Thailand. Those who dare to speak and write critically end up in prison. On the other hand, Thailand offers great rewards to those who choose silence or who report the official line.
The tourist PR describes Thailand as the "Land of Smiles." The reality is one of extreme brutality, with the country as a service station for soldiers, businesspeople, foreign press, and foreign NGOs. This colonial/feudal system was developed by the West with Thai collaborators around the beginning of the Vietnam War, when Thailand became an important base for U.S. forces fighting in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, with the Thai military dutifully serving its superpower patron. Thai soldiers were sent to Southern Vietnam, and Thai airports were used for the secret bombing of Laos and for the notorious operations of Air America. To serve U.S. troops, tens of thousands of poor Thai women, mainly from the North, were moved to the brothels of Pattaya and elsewhere. Fierce repression of communists and other leftists was carried out. Some of those accused of being communist guerilla were burned alive in petrol barrels.
As a reward for playing a signature role in the Vietnam War and maintaining a pro-market bastion in Southeast Asia, local elites got away with repeated coups, gross violations of human rights of its minorities (some not even allowed to hold Thai citizenship), and despicable treatment of refugees in its territory (particularly more than one million refugees from Burma).
Standoff Or Revolution?
Red Shirts view the newly-installed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as being elevated to his position through the barrel of the gun. He is holding power illegitimately and should resign as soon as possible, dissolve parliament, and call for a new and, this time, democratic election. This has been their demand since March, when they occupied a major part of the Ratchaprasong area, known for its luxury shopping malls, boutiques, and corporate headquarters. Since then, the government has declared a state of emergency and there have been clashes between government forces and protesters, which has claimed 27 lives. Red Shirts are distributing documentary films showing images of the state’s brutality, so far almost universally ignored by international media.
In the beginning of May, Vejjajiva presented his plan for solving the problem: dissolve parliament in September and hold new elections in November. The protesters were not impressed. Any trust between the establishment and the rebels appears to be broken and, as this report goes to print, fresh confrontations between the establishment and protesters seem likely.
At a press conference at the Foreign Corredpondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), explained: "About the Prime Minister: wrong place, wrong time, on the wrong side of the history.… He rationalized himself that he is not just a prime minister, he is a savior of the throne."
Pro-elite and pro-monarchy Yellow Shirts are staging their own demonstrations, urging the government to avoid any compromise and demanding full force be used against the protesters. The prime minister finds himself between two fires, one of them from those who should be his natural allies.
The most important question in this complex situation is: who are the Red Shirts? Are they puppets of an exiled billionaire or true revolutionaries ready to spill blood for social justice in their country?
After spending endless days on the barricades, I came to conclusion that what first started as a demand for the return to power of Thaksin Shinavatra, eventually became a demand for justice and democracy. As days passed, there were fewer portraits of the deposed prime minister and more and more red stars on protesters’ hats. The demands were for justice and democracy.
Official propaganda claims that Thaksin is paying protesters to occupy the center of the city, but 60-year old Tutu (who wanted to be identified by her first name only), finds this claim ridiculous: "There is absolutely no proof that substantial funds come from Thaksin. There is some financing of refreshments, but even that is rare…. We are here because we want Thailand to be free and because we want true democracy for all, as well as social justice."
Does she support Thaksin? "I do, but there are many who don’t. We are here because we want social change, with Thaksin or without him."
The occupation of the shopping center in the commercial district is a great show of social and civic awareness by protesters. Not only do activists keep the place reasonably clean, they take care of the garbage and keep each other’s spirits up. They sleep there, watch television and films, give each other Thai massages, and cook meals. All this happens at the entrances to Chloe, Dior, Versace, and LV stores which were never attacked or looted.
Meanwhile, the rich are riding their luxury Sky Train above protester’s heads. Down below, the hands and feet of women are marked by hard labor in the fields and sweatshops; clothes are traditional and very simple. One of the streets occupied by the protesters is near a plush elite hangout, the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. As people sing and give speeches about social justice on Ratchadamri Road, 100 feet away, behind barricades, walls, and checkpoints, the rich are playing golf.
It all feels like a calm before the real storm. Red Shirts are standing guard at the makeshift barricades. Some of them may die soon for the social justice of their people. Without realizing it, they may also die for Manila and Jakarta, places with even more terrible inequalities—places where the elites educated and trained in the west are fully in control of their socially-devastated nations.
Several years ago, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano told me: "The most terrible crime that could be committed against the poor is to steal their hope. It is even worse than murder. Because hope is often all that poor people have left."
In the last years, hope was stolen from the Thai and other Southeast Asian poor. It seems that a day of judgment for that crime is approaching.
Andre Vltchek, novelist, filmmaker, and journalist, lives and works in Asia and Africa. Author of many books, his latest, Oceania, describes U.S., Australian, and New Zealand neo-colonialism in Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia.