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Thailand: You Decide

If you believe many of the international media, unarmed peasants are being shot while conducting a peaceful protest for democracy. Other media, however, paint a very different picture of armed thugs terrorising Bangkok. So just what is the truth behind the current political crisis in Thailand? Read both sides and then decide for yourself...

Just as with Thai society, the media have become increasingly polarised about the political situation in Thailand. Unbiased journalism seems hard to come by as reports become increasingly subjective.

One the one hand, the likes of CNN and the BBC play on the David vs Goliath angle and show pictures of old women peacefully protesting for democracy juxtaposed against soldiers lining up their M16 rifles. On the other hand, Al Jazeera and many local media show masked thugs firing M79 grenades and individual soldiers being mercilessly beaten by bloodthirsty mobs.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

Let’s start with the red view.

After Thaksin Shinnawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party was democratically elected into office, he became the first Prime Minister to show any interest in the rural poor of Thailand’s north and north-eastern regions. Unlike previous governments, Thaksin implemented many policies aimed at alleviating poverty, such as One Tambon One Product (OTOP) and the 30 baht healthcare scheme. He also gave each village 1 million baht to spend however they felt would best serve their local community and was hailed as a champion of the poor.

Thaksin went on not only to become the first PM in Thai history to survive a full term in office but also to win a second election by an increased margin. However, he was ousted by a military coup in 2006 because he wasn’t loyal to the wealthy aristocratic families of Bangkok and was threatening the status quo.

Thaksin was later sentenced to 2 years in prison on charges of corruption. However, he managed to flee the country while he was on bail and has since been fighting for justice and a return to democracy while in self-imposed exile. His loyal followers have adopted red as their colour and have been holding peaceful demonstrations demanding that the current government step down because they lack democratic legitimacy.

The red shirts, as they have become known, feel that they are being unfairly censored when they just want elections and a return to democracy. Even though the protesters are peaceful, the government has sent in the army to disperse them and many unarmed protesters have been killed and injured.

Now, let’s take a look at this through pro-government eyes.

Thaksin illegally concealed his assets and then used populist politics and bribes to buy his way into office. Once there, he did everything he could to increase both his grip on power and his personal wealth through media censorship, amendments to the constitution and the appointment of his loyal cronies in key positions within the military, police and judiciary.

Guilty of corruption on a scale considered monumental even by Thai standards and quickly steering Thailand towards a dictatorship, Thaksin simply had to go and was ousted in a bloodless and popular coup.

A number of lawsuits were filed against him and although he was cleared in some, he was sentenced to 2 years in prison for misusing inside information to allow his now former wife to profit from a land deal. He fled the country while on bail and has been living in self-imposed exile ever since. Many countries have refused him entry or revoked his visa.

After a court ruled that 46 billion baht of Thaksin’s assets should be seized by the state because it had been acquired through corrupt and illegal practices while he was PM, thousands of his supporters headed to Bangkok to demand that the government step down so that he could return to Thailand without going to prison, have his assets reinstated, and become President of a new republic of Thailand.

Since the demonstrations began in March, the protesters have illegally occupied large areas of Bangkok’s commercial districts, forcing many businesses in the area to close. They have also intimidated or physically attacked people who oppose them; kidnapped police officers and civilians; set up illegal road blocks; been responsible for at least 42 bomb or grenade attacks; looted shops and ATMs; committed arson; terrorised Bangkok; and killed soldiers, police and civilians.

So who is telling the truth?

There is no denying that Thaksin was democratically elected not once but twice. Populist politics may be cheap vote winners, but they are hardly illegal. Vote-buying, however, is.

There is equally no denying that he was guilty of extreme corruption and abuse of power. It is a strange thing to say that removing a democratically elected government through a military coup was Thailand’s best hope for democracy, but to many, that is exactly how it was. Personally, I believe that a lot of our current unrest would have been avoided if he had been impeached instead.

While his mainly rural devotees readily accept that he is corrupt, they rightfully point out that this is the norm amongst Thai politicians, but Thaksin at least addressed some of their needs. Thaksin was only able to win their support so cheaply, however, because every previous government had almost totally ignored the needs of rural Thais and pampered only to Bangkok’s middle and upper classes.

The red shirts claim that they are protesting for their own rights, yet it is no coincidence that they only began demonstrating after Thaksin’s assets were seized. There is no doubt that Thaksin is funding the red shirts and that these protests are much more about his own revenge than any socialist ideology.

The red shirts claim that the current government lacks legitimacy. However, it was elected by the same parliamentary process as the two previous governments. The red shirts claim to be protesting for democracy, but they already HAVE democracy. The next election is due in January 2012, although the government offered early elections in November 2010 as part of their roadmap. In fact, everything the red shirts claimed to want was in the government’s roadmap, yet still it was rejected. So what is their REAL agenda?

The red shirts claim to be peaceful and unarmed. While there are a number of peaceful protesters at the red shirts’ main camp in Bangkok, there are equally several heavily-armed and dangerous elements who are doing everything they can to incite the soldiers and are prepared to kill to achieve their aims. Several photographs and videos showing this have been circulated on the Internet and some TV stations, and at least 10 civilians, soldiers and police have died from red shirt attacks.

Of course, we may also ask why the army are using live rounds. Why not baton charges, water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets? More than 50 protesters have died during the last 2 months.

Also, the government’s meek surrender of the city has frustrated many Bangkokians who can no longer go to work, whose children can no longer go to school, and whose families can no longer travel safely around the city. As red shirts also openly block roads in north and north-eastern provinces, some people ask whether the government is still in control of the country.

The truth appears to be that they do not want to be drawn into more violence because they know that civil war would be their downfall and an open door to Thaksin’s return.

To the red shirts, Thaksin is their saviour; to Thaksin, the red shirts are merely an expendable asset to be exploited. He cleverly identified their political naivety and then callously manipulated their gullibility for his own personal gain. The real tragedy here is that while many red shirts believe they are fighting for a better life, they are actually setting back any meaningful socialist cause by decades.

Now, you decide which side is worse than the other.

Paul Snowdon – May 18, 2010

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