It is a staple Thai dish that you will not find in any recipe book on the countryâ€™s famous cuisine. And yet for connoisseurs of modern Thai history a â€˜coup in hot â€˜n spicy soupâ€™ is a very special delicacy indeed.
Less than a month after the Thai military took power by ousting the government of Premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a â€˜happyâ€™, bloodless coup all indications are this favourite national dish is being cooked once again.
Stirring the pot are a diverse range of actors from pro-democracy student activists and academics to taxi drivers and rural supporters of Thaksinâ€™s Thai Rak Thai party. Discontent over imposition of martial law, the composition of the new â€˜handpickedâ€™ National Assembly and contradictory policies introduced by the new regime are providing the heat required to complete the cooking process.
All this is still happening on a slow, burning fire but once in a while the flames leap upward.
On October 1, for example, as soldiers posted on a key
Later on talking to reporters Nuamthong Praiwan, the 60-year-old taxi driver, who broke three ribs in the high-speed crash and was put on a respirator said, â€œ I will do it again if I get another chanceâ€.
To understand the poignancy of this suicidal act of defiance one has to consider that displays of such extreme passion even on personal issues, let alone political ones, are very rare in
But these are not normal times in Thailand and that Nuamthong chose to do what he did is just one small indication of the simmering social volcano the country is sitting on â€“ never mind the guns â€˜n roses images flashed around by the global media.
Even more ominously, in some districts of northern and north-eastern Thailand, strongholds of the Thai Rak Thai, there have been reports of several state-run schools â€˜mysteriouslyâ€™ burning down. Nobody has claimed responsibility but the arson is believed to be the work of Thaksinâ€™s supporters or simply those who have bad memories of the Thai militaryâ€™s long history of misrule in the countryâ€™s past.
Protests against the coup, though not as dramatic as ramming a taxi into a tank or schools on fire, have also been steadily picking up steam among the Thai intelligentsia.
“The military dumped the constitution drafted by the people, so we are burning the charter issued undemocratically by them,” Chotisak On-soong from the Students Activities Information Resource group told Thai media. A dozen labour representatives also showed up later in black clothing to denounce the military.
The Council for Media Reform (CMR), a platform of academics, journalists and activists who fought for greater media freedom under the previous Thaksin Shinawatra regime, also held a protest at
The CMR has also criticized the presence of military â€˜monitorsâ€™ at television stations imposed after the coup and the resulting climate of fear among media personnel.
In the northern Thai city of
A day after the protest, the website of the â€˜
The National Security Council (NSC), as the military junta calls itself has asked for a ban on political web boards found to contain â€˜provocativeâ€™ messages. Other anti-coup websites have also been closed for containing criticisms of the new military regime.
There is obviously quite a diversity of motives among those opposed to the coup, though what binds all of them is a clear rejection of dictatorship in any form as a â€˜solutionâ€™ for the problems of a budding electoral democracy.
Taxi drivers, who number a couple of hundred thousand in
Early on after getting elected to power in 2000 for example the Thaksin government cracked down hard on urban mafias that collected â€˜protectionâ€™ money from the capital cityâ€™s motorcycle taxi drivers, helping them increase their monthly income. For regular four-wheel taxi drivers it offered easy loans to buy their own vehicles and cushioned the impact of rising oil prices by making available cheaper substitutes like liquefied petroleum and natural gas.
All this together with the fact that Thaksin â€“ attempting to create an electoral base among the rural poor- poured money into health, education and employment schemes in Thailandâ€™s impoverished northeastern provinces, from where most taxi drivers hail, made him a hero among them. After all â€“ none of the numerous regimes that held power in Thailand before Thaksin thought of taxi drivers as worth paying any attention to – let alone helping them.
Far from the world of ordinary taxi drivers, for the protesting academics in Chiang Mai and student groups in Bangkok, the military coup, is a severe blow to the development of a mature democratic polity in the country. Many of them were strong critics of Thaksin but now the feel the coup, justified by its backers in the name of preventing â€˜social divisionsâ€™ and â€˜restoring democracyâ€™, is a throwback to the dark old days from Thailandâ€™s authoritarian past.
The new interim Charter imposed by the military for instance does not provide at all for accountability of the new regime to any independent body let alone the general public. The coup makers have also unilaterally announced several decrees that have a big impact on the freedoms of the population.
Coup orders, like the ban on any political gathering with more than five participants, have become law without any debate and can be undone only by fresh legislation passed by a future Parliament. The current interim charter and the various decrees issued by the military junta will remain in place for another year, at the end of which the coup makers have promised to hold national elections.
A few words are due here about the 1997 Constitution, which was written with wide public participation and is easily Thailandâ€™s most democratic charter to date (the country has had 17 constitutions in seven decades and is now preparing to write the 18th one).
Among other progressive clauses it allowed the public to recall members of parliament, initiate impeachment of bureaucrats, ministers and even officials of the Supreme Court. It also set up a variety of institutions that were supposed to provide independent oversight of government functioning with substantial powers to make corrections wherever required.
There were some serious flaws with the 1997 Constitution though, an important one being the disbarring of candidates without a university graduate degree from becoming members of parliament. In a country where a majority lives in the countryside but only a privileged few have the means of going to college that clause more than anything else gives away the deep bias that the â€˜liberalâ€™ framers of the Constitution had against ordinary â€˜illiterateâ€™ Thai folk.
The disdain of the urban middle classes in Bangkok for rural Thai folk- whom they contemptuously call â€˜village foolsâ€™ – comes from the highly elitist nature of Thai society under which only a handful of â€˜educatedâ€™ and â€˜culturedâ€™ people are supposed to know what is â€˜best for the countryâ€™. While Thaksin was rightly accused of trying to â€˜buyâ€™ support from the poor, his conservative opponents – as a matter of traditional â€˜rightâ€™- expect the masses to keep them in power without getting anything in return.
(The new government of retired General Surayud Chulanont and the 250-member National Assembly handpicked by the coup makers for example, has hardly any representation from among rural Thais or urban workers and is instead packed with military men, bureaucrats and sections of Thai civil society who opposed the previous government.)
Another problem with the 1997 Constitution was it never took into account the possibility of the emergence of a powerful political party with a charismatic leader who could dominate all democratic institutions. The rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2000 created precisely such a situation, unprecedented in the usually fragmented Thai political scenario.
Thaksin, with full domination of both the parliament and the senate, of course took full advantage of the situation by packing all supposedly independent institutions with his own people. Few things that Thaksin did were â€˜unconstitutionalâ€™ because those interpreting the text were very often under his governmentâ€™s influence.
Despite such loopholes and flaws the 1997 Constitution, many activists in Thailand feel, can be the only basis for any new Constitution that the military rulers may have in mind. The prospects of getting anything even like the old one however appear remote.
The coup makers have proposed a complicated plan of handpicking a Constitution Drafting Assembly that will come up with a new Constitution within six months, hold public hearings and even a national referendum. The catch is that if the Thai people say â€˜Noâ€™, the authority to decide the shape of Thailandâ€™s 18th Constitution reverts back â€“ quite ominously- to the military junta.
Irrespective of how the new Thai constitution finally looks like it is becoming clear that mere tinkering with the paperwork is not going to solve the problems of Thailandâ€™s fledgling and highly unstable electoral democracy. One of the less discussed reasons for such fragility of democratic institutions is the complete absence of any left political party in the country.
Anyone surveying the spectrum of political parties in Thailand currently can easily see that every one of them is a right of centre front for one business lobby or the other. This has led to an obvious imbalance in the countryâ€™s electoral democracy, which stands on just one â€“ right- leg and falls down at the slightest political or social provocation.
A popular left party â€“ even garden-variety social democrats â€“ openly taking up issues of the rural and urban poor, youth, women and workers will not only provide a much-needed counterweight to the forces of conservatism but also put Thai democracy on a much stronger foundation. Thailand can learn a lot from the South Korean struggle against authoritarian rule over the past three decades in this regard.
However anything â€˜leftâ€™ is still a sensitive subject in Thailand, which has a long history of anti-communism dating even prior to the US war on Vietnam, which obviously shifted policies further rightward.
Thailandâ€™s first Prime Minister Pridi Banomyong, was ousted by the Thai military way back in the late thirties for advocating an allegedly â€˜communistâ€™ economic policy of land reforms and state planning.
Thailand did have a communist party, like many other countries in the region, but it turned into a low key armed insurgency only in the early fifties after being banned and prevented from functioning openly. The threat of a â€˜communist takeoverâ€™ has been a bogey for the Thai military and conservatives to murder their opponents, suspend democratic rights and stay in power ever since.
In October 1976 a right-wing coup killed hundreds of students accusing them of being â€˜Marxistsâ€™, an event that ironically succeeded in pushing them into the arms of the underground Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) that till then had very limited presence among the urban intelligentsia. The CPT, however collapsed in the late seventies under the weight of its own contradictions, a pro-China organization operating from pro-Vietnam Laos.
Interestingly the lack of a functioning left party has not meant the complete absence of a left agenda or activities in the countryâ€™s politics either. For what Thailand got in the absence of an organized left is what can only be called a â€˜dispersedâ€™ left.
There are former left activists for example, in academia, in the media, among artists and in the dozens of NGOs that have mushroomed in the last two decades. Many of them are doing outstanding and very creative work to further the rights of ordinary Thai people and create greater democratic space.
There are left-wingers in some of the mainstream political parties also, either there as pure opportunists or misguidedly trying to â€˜manipulateâ€™ the system for public good. Several former student radicals for instance were among the advisers driving Thaksinâ€™s populist schemes, whose success clearly shows the need for organizations that systematically take up issues of the poor. (The new military appointed government, in an interesting imitation of Thaksinâ€™s much-criticised â€˜populismâ€™ has announced free healthcare for Thais in place of the earlier of scheme providing medical treatment at just 30 baht (80 US cents) per visit.)
Of course there were left wing critics of Thaksin and his advisers too, many of whom took to the streets against his governmentâ€™s authoritarian behaviour and alleged corruption. On many other occasions in the countryâ€™s past also the â€˜dispersed leftâ€™â€™ has played a key role in fighting for democratic norms.
Even sections of Thailandâ€™s traditional institutions take up left issues from time to time. After the 1997 Asian economic crisis that hit Thailand hard the Thai monarch for example promoted the concept of a â€˜self-sufficient economyâ€™ and criticized growing consumerism and economic policies that desperately sought export-led growth without considering it social consequences.
In other words Thailand is faced with the amazing situation where there seem to be leftists of different shades all over the place but not a single left party to give electoral expression to their ideas and aims.
A new left party in Thailand (more than one is also welcome to add some diversity!) need not of course be a copy of anything that existed in the past but one based on a better reading of the social, economic and very importantly â€“ cultural- setting of Thailand. Maybe it could even be something like what the Buddha, the worldâ€™s best known social revolutionary before Jesus Christ, would have set up if he were around in Thailand (he is certainly missing from the local monasteries!).
As public opposition to the Thai military grows over the next year and its illegitimate new regime dissolves into a slow cooking soup, some of Thailandâ€™s more visionary activists can work on making sure it turns â€“ with the right ingredients and temperature- into a very tasty Thai dish.
Satya Sagar is a writer and video maker based in New Delhi. He spent over a decade in Thailand during the nineties and can be reached at [email protected]