Monday, January 26, 2009

Abhisit the Monster - a creation of whom, or what?

khikwai has an excellent blog on The Abhisit Tragedy
Bangkok Pundit is also taking the opportunity to run strongly on similar themes.

I agree Abhisit's handing of the Rohingyan refugee treatment issue has been very disappointing (to put it mildly).

From where I sit, the way Abhisit has handled Rohingya matter looks very much like how a certain popular predecessor would have acted, so I wonder can Abhisit's action all be put down to him being a captive of his military masters, or are other factors also at play?

I doubt Abhisit's Eton/Oxford education is one such factor, nor is the Democrat Party ideology such a factor, but could Abhisit (in a misguided way) be giving the thai people what he thinks they want?

Has Abhisit, the politician, 'learned' something from the way Thaksin retained immense popularity after brushing aside many human rights abuse controversies (which were mainly raised and championed by foreign media and organisations)?

Whatever Abhisit does, he will be criticized.
Some will criticize because they are on the opposing side of the fence politically/ideologically - that's to be expected, and should be taken in his stride as it's just what oppositions do to try to remain relevant.
Others will never be able to accept how he came to power, as it does not fit within their notion of 'democracy' - that too is understandable, but is easily deflected in the context of thai political practices.
Many criticize him for failing to punish the PAD leaders - IMO, it's not up to him to do such things as politicians should not interfere with the legal processes - all Abhisit can reasonably be expected to do is request that the legal authorities pursue the cases expediently, without fear or favour.

My biggest criticism of Abhisit is that he is taking away hope.

Kasit as Foreign Minister, the website crackdown, and the Rohingya refugee issues are glaring examples that Thailand has another leader who puts vested interests before simply doing the right thing.

Shame on you Abhisit for taking away hope that a Thaksin, Samak, Somchai is not as good as it gets.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Signs that the red shirts (pro-democracy?) activists have lost the plot

Exhibit A:

The Nation Red-shirted people raid Santi Asoke branch in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai - Some 150 red-shirted supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra raided the Chiang Mai branch of Santi Asoke Buddhist sect to hunt for Chamlong Srimuang.
They raided the Phupha Nam Fah Monastery at 1 pm.
They stormed through a police barricade, which was formed 20 metre before the monastery's entrance.
Some 100 elderly people, women, children and Santi Asoke monks gathered at a pavilion and remained in silence during the raid by the angry protesters.
Some monks were standing still and the lay flowers were sitting in meditation without responding the shouts and aggressive acts of the protesters.
Some protesters hit some monks at their shoulders with "feet clappers".
The protesters raided the place following rumours that Chamlong Srimuang, a co-leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy, visited the monastery Thursday night.
They dispersed nearly an hour later after searching through the place and did not find Chamlong.

A low blow attacking monks.

Exhibit B:

The Nation Red shirt protesters call for Singapore and Burma to boycott Asean Summit

Red shirt protesters who are loyal to ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra called for leaders of Singapore and Burma to boycott the upcoming Asean Summit in Thailand.
They rallied in front of both embassies on Friday and submitted petitions to the leaders through representatives of the embassies.
The protesters waved banners and posters, written in English, criticising Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, his government and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya.
Thailand will host Asean Summit in Hua Hin next month. It had rescheduled the summit several times due to street protests.
Veera Musikapong, Jakrapob Penkair and Nuttavudh Saikue, who were hosts of controversial Truth Today TV programme, a pro-Thaksin Shinawatra media outlet, were among leaders of the protesters.
Reading the petition, Jakrapob said that Abhisit Government was not real representatives of Thai people. Moreover the appointment of Kasit had against the public's views as he joined the protesters after they seized the airports.
"We support Asean, but could not support the (Thai) government that had no legitimacy to administer the country," he said.
A Burmese diplomat received the petition from Jakrapob.
Later the red shirt protesters marched to Singapore Embassy on Sathorn Road and submitted the petition to the embassy's first secretary, who said that Singapore could not get involved in the matter because it was internal issue.
However he will forward the petition to Singapore government.

Just great - demanding those two bastions of democracy to boycott the Asean summit.

Caution: Both stories came from The Nation, so make of them what you will!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Ethical Travel

There has long been a debate about the ethics of travel to Burma - does it help the dictators, or do the benefits trickle down to the people?

I wonder, why does there not seem to be such a debate for travel to Thailand?

Here is a quick list of things that most tourists choose to turn a blind eye to when travelling to Thailand:
- Ill treatment of Rohingya refugees & other minorities
- Nonsensical lese majeste charges against journalists, academics, writers, students etc
- Sexual exploitation including of minors
- Rampant corruption by government officials, military & police
- Military & elites continued disrespect of democracy & general repression of the poor masses
- Lack of freedom of speech (blocking websites etc)
- Environmental/pollution neglect & cover ups

That's just a quick list off the top of my head - I'm sure there are many other things of concern.

I'm not advocating stopping travelling to Thailand - that would hurt too many people who rely on tourism - but I do think tourists need to be more aware of the issues, instead of turning a blind eye just so they can continue enjoying the cheap travel, goods, food, accommodation, sex etc on offer.

My major concern is that tourists, by voting with their feet and turning a blind eye to obvious wrongs, are contributing to allowing those wrongs to continue to be perpetrated.

Of course, it's not only the many tourists who turn a blind eye - most mainstream media are compliant accomplices, and the Australian government performance in the Harry Nicolaides matter also seems to have been very disappointing (from where I sit).

PS. No, Dr T has not paid me to write this - I still think he's a part of the problem, not the solution.

I've been thinking more about this issue, and wanted to clarify that I definitely don't think stopping travelling to Thailand will help make things better, and could risk making things worse.
We need to remember, if it wasn't for the tourists to the
Similan Islands who blew the whistle on refugee treatment, then that issue would have remained buried and would have been much easier to cover up.
Kudos to those tourists for raising the issue, and also to the select media outlets that investigated and pushed the story.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Revisiting a touchy subject

Here is my original review of Paul Handley's 'The King Never Smiles':

"Overall it is a great read, particularly if one is aware of the spin.
The book is clearly well researched, and with my limited knowledge of Thai history I am in no position to dispute any historical facts.
There are enough side comments in the book that lead me to doubt Handley’s declaration in the preface:
“I have never had any purpose but to satisfy my own curiosity and then to tell a more complete story of Bhumibol’s life and tenure on the throne”
Just the title of the book gives some indication of where Handley is coming from.
In his defence, I suppose from a commercial viewpoint it was necessary to have a more controversial theme, because merely regurgitating the 60th anniversary commemoration literature was unlikely to be a best seller even in Thailand, let alone outside.

No pictures are very unusual for a biography of this type – was copyright a factor ? I am sure Handley could have chosen some interesting photo’s of the various players if he had wanted to - has Handley offered any explanation for the lack of pictures in the book?

Handley wants us to accept that the King never smiles as part of the overall grand scheme, but with constant political bickering and people still suffering, why would the monarch want to be seen smiling – It would actually be offensive if the king went about his public duties smiling away, while his countries problems had yet to be alleviated.
We must also remember that the king lost both his father and his brother early in his life, and those events together with having to become monarch would surely have an influence - I imagine being a monarch would be quite a burden.

Another theme in the book is that the image of the king has been carefully cultivated during his reign via an orchestrated propaganda campaign to increase popularity of the monarchy. There may be some truth in that assertion, however in my opinion Handley has overplayed this matter.
He contends that the royal rituals and ceremonies are all part of this grand plan, but rituals are what royals do everywhere around the world (that’s just what they do – always have, probably always will).
For example Handley makes note of the various ceremonies after the death of Ananda as though they were also part of the grand plan, and in doing so he discounts or ignores the possibility that the family & the people felt a genuine sense of loss – in particular it would have been very hard for Bhumibol losing his brother and closest companion/friend.

It is also clear that the royals still had widespread popularity even before Bhumibol’s ascension to the throne - Handley even documents the large street gatherings to greet the young Mahidol’s during their first visit to Thailand, and the large gatherings for Ananda’s funeral ceremonies.

So rather than some grand plan, I think it can more properly be characterized as giving the people what they want – they expect rituals, they want the king to be considered a great man, a musician, sportsman, scientist, inventor, composer – it makes them feel good.

The royal charity works are also characterized as being part of the grand plan, but an alternative view is that the King genuinely wants to improve the situation in the country (the book documents the constant theme in the kings speeches and his preoccupation with droughts, floods, cooperative farming and sufficiency - rather than being a sinister way of advancing himself, I think it is clear that Bhumibol is trying to improve things)

Handley does a good job documenting the political events since 1932 together with the shortcomings of the leading politicians over that time.
Given the various flaws in most of the politicians, it is my opinion Handley has not made a strong case that things would have been any better without having Bhumibol on the scene, and it is fairly obvious that things could have been much worse.

The book also seems to imply that Western style democracy/capitalism is the best system for Thailand, without really making the case as to how things would be any better under that system and whether it would successfully translate to the Thai situation.
In my opinion Handley has failed to negate the King’s vision of unity being better than conflict, and communal work & moderation being better than capitalistic individual desires.

Handley offers some positive suggestions (in the last chapter) regarding the need for the monarchy to adapt and remake itself to ensure its survival.
It is obvious that the succession situation needs to be resolved and preferably before Bhumibol passes.
Here’s my suggestion: - Having acquired wisdom with maturity, the prince recognizes that his past actions make him unsuitable to be king and he withdraws in favor of his sister. Brother and sister work together to groom the prince’s children for the role after the princess’s reign ends.

OK that solves the succession issue, now let’s write a new constitution".

The above review was done in April 2007 and was originally posted at comment #33 of this very long thread over at New Mandala.

I generally still stand by my review, however events since the 2006 coup have strengthened Handley's argument.

Some of the recent comments to that New Mandala thread provide some fine examples of why a vision of unity and harmony should not mean conformity.

The Democrat led government would be wise to reconsider it's current blitz on websites etc as that combined with the spate of lese majeste cases risks doing more harm than good for the monarchy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A few questions on notice for Abhisit

1. Why is Kasit still foreign minister? You say you want to promote reconciliation and unity, but how can that be possible when you continue to defend such a divisive foreign minister who actively supported the PAD and even said the airport protests were fun despite the fact that they caused so much ongoing hardship?

2. You have drawn a line between what Kasit said before he was a minister and what he says after, but when Jakrapob was under pressure for what he said before he was a minister, you called on him to resign, saying his "resignation would help reduce tension and division in the country".
Why do you now have a different standard?

3. You say the monarchy needs to be placed above all forms of political conflict, and your government is zealously blocking many legitimate websites and pursuing farcical lese majeste cases against Thais and foreigners, including journalists and academics.
What is your response to those that say such a strategy is actually dragging the monarchy into politics, and the lese majeste laws need to be amended so that they can no longer be used as a political tool?

That's just a start - please add more
(keep it sensible and realistic, otherwise it's a waste of our time)

I am not a journalist, but I have tried to frame the above questions in a way that reduces the wriggle room for skilled politicians.

I would be interested in what people think the expected responses would be.

Q1 & Q2 don't leave much wriggle room IMO, but I suppose on Q3 we might just get the usual 'thats what the thai people want' or 'you don't understand thainess' thrown back at us.
I suppose I would then counter with: Do you really think the thai people want lese majeste laws used as a political tool, and the monarchy dragged into politics?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Why focus on only Thaksin?

I am often accused of focusing on only Thaksin, and ignoring all other possible corrupt practices.

This is what I posted in response to criticism of my latest foray into commenting over at New Mandala and why I ignore suspicions regarding Surayud and Jaravan:

"I do not know enough about the issues to comment, however would not be surprised if many prominent Thai establishment figures had engaged in corruption.

If there is evidence, by all means press for investigation & prosecution of Surayud, Jaruvan and anyone else reasonably suspected of corruption - I commend your efforts.

However, that is not why I choose to devote time to this hobby of commenting on these blogs.

Whether enough evidence is available to prosecute Thaksin, and whether or not he is not the only suspect character in Thai politics is rather besides the point of my arguments - I focus my attention on Thaksin because he is the person that commands significant electoral support, and also has many ardent supporters on these blogs.

Irrespective of whether he can be convicted on any more substantial charges, it is my opinion that there is enough evidence that (an unchanged) Thaksin is not suitable to be PM.
His authoritarian, heavy handed tactics, manipulation and intimidation, tax havens for tax avoidance (if not strictly evasion), mixing government and family business, his various comments when facing valid criticisms, and worse of all the conduct of the drug war and general lack of remorse are the reasons why I consider he is not suitable PM material - he had his time and has done some good along with the bad, but it is my opinion that his days of leading the country should be consigned to history.

If Abhisit, or any of his fellow politicians do similar things, and are ardently supported by the majority of posters here, then rest assured, I will switch the focus of my forays onto this and other Thai blogs - As far as I can see, that time has not yet come.

Democracy lovers, including pro-Thaksinites here, might think that I am just a PAD stooge, but in reality I have never had much time for Sondhi
Hopefully long term readers can recognise that my thoughts have also evolved slightly over the last 2 years, even though I maintain my anti-Thaksin slant, and the hope that the electoral masses will eventually become more discerning."

I look forward to the time we can all move past Thaksin, and turn our attention to other matters.

As for the man himself, I think he should try to reach a settlement and swear off politics, show some remorse for certain events, get on with living his life as a very wealthy man, who will go down in history as contributing to changing Thailand for the better.