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A Week in Review: August 6-12, 2011

Same, Same but Different?

No matter where on Thailand’s political spectrum you find yourself, there is one point on which anyone who genuinely has Thailand’s best interests at heart can surely agree: Thailand needs change! But is it getting it? Find out here…

If ever a country was in need of a complete overhaul, that country is Thailand in 2011. Still hurting from years of socio-political division and violent conflict, Thailand finds itself in a very uneasy truce surrounded by a minefield of distrust, contempt, hatred and revenge.

Thailand may be out of intensive care, but it is still being kept in for observation.

Reconciliation? The very people prescribing this placebo as a panacea are the very same people who polarised the nation.

If Thailand is to move on from its recent past and forward to a brighter future, change is required from the very top of its head to the very tip of its toes. Real change. Meaningful change. Not some blithe Utopian paint job.

Change is needed at every level of Thai society, from the political system and the parties that pollute it to the misguided voters who unashamedly condone their corruption.

Change is needed in the top-heavy military that sets itself above the law.

Change is needed in the biased and subjective judiciary.

Change is needed in the police force – so ineffective in controlling everyday crime, let alone political riots, yet so brazenly adept at extorting donations to the policeman’s benevolent fund.

But most of all, change is needed in the Thai education system. Even in Bangkok’s most prestigious schools, where parents pay hundreds of thousands of baht to have their children admitted, the education system indoctrinates through rote learning and is so sub-standard that it is closer to social conditioning than to genuine education.

In a letter to the Bangkok Post last week, Richard Lawrence wrote that the Thai education system “produces literate, obedient, deferential workers who know their place and barely understand their rights or know how to think critically, and we should realise that this is most likely its intended purpose”.

So change is needed at all levels of Thai society, and with a new government and the country’s first female prime minister, there are those who believe that change is underway. But those who believe do so more in blind hope than of genuine conviction. Through absolutely no fault of their own, they are the misguided products of the failed education system outlined above.

Last week, the defeated Democrats re-elected Abhisit Vejjajiva as its leader. And while the party has replaced the highly controversial Suthep Thaugsuban as its secretary-general with the inexperienced Chalermchai Sri-on, there is a fatalistic sense of déjà-vu surrounding the party.

The Democrat Party has not won a majority of seats in Thailand for almost 20 years and has become increasingly marginalised by the popularity of the populist policies of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Abhisit may well be the best option for Thailand. He is intelligent and well-educated. And – unlike virtually all of the alternatives – he has no ambition to abuse public office for his own personal gain.

However, he failed at the last election. Despite a blind poll in the Phuea Thai heartlands of Isaan revealing that a majority of north-easterners believed the Democrat Party had the best policies, and despite the unspeakable damage and suffering caused by rioting pro-Thaksin and pro-Phuea Thai red shirts, Abhisit failed.  

Abhisit failed because he may be the best option for Thailand, but most of Thailand doesn’t know that.

To a majority of Thais, Abhisit is aloof, out-of-touch, and even arrogant. In another letter to the Bangkok Post last week, Dom Dunn summed it up perfectly when he wrote: “The Democrats need someone who can extend the party's appeal beyond their traditional middle- and upper-class base and Abhisit has absolutely no skills in this area. In the presence of ordinary people he looks and sounds stiff and awkward, and voters simply do not believe that he has any understanding of their problems, or the solutions they seek.”

And what of the winners? Carried into power on a tide of subsidised euphoria, Phuea Thai has promised so much, but does the new regime really represent change or is it just the same pack of wolves in different sheep’s clothing?

With Yingluck Shinawatra now officially endorsed as Thailand’s first female prime minister, there are grounds for optimism. Unfortunately, those “grounds” are a foundation of quicksand into which the house of optimism is already sinking.

Widely accepted as a proxy for her fugitive brother, Yingluck is not so much a champion of women’s rights in Thailand as she is proof that nepotism and corruption remain alive, well and totally resistant to any illusion of change.

And as Phuea Thai’s first Cabinet was assembled, there was further proof of the power of nepotism in Thailand’s patronage society.

Kittirat Na-Ranong served as president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand during the Thai Rak Thai government and guaranteed the legitimacy of the controversial sale of shares from Ample Rich to Thaksin's son and daughter, Panthongtae and Pinthongtha.

However, when it was later revealed the shares were actually sold outside the market, Kittirat defended Thaksin’s children by stating that they had simply "ticked the wrong box" by mistake when filling in the forms.

Kittirat is Thailand’s new deputy prime minister and commerce minister.

And despite having neither experience nor interest in foreign affairs, Pheua Thai deputy leader Surapong Towijakchaikul has been chosen as foreign minister ahead of a number of career diplomats.

Although his background is in engineering rather than international diplomacy, Surapong does have one “trump card” qualification – he is a relative (albeit distant) of Thaksin.

Known for wearing a Thaksin mask at a rally and for protesting Britain's revocation of Thaksin’s visa, Surapong quickly overcame his surprise at his appointment.

Within a day, he was asking Japanese authorities to issue a special entry permit to Thaksin so that he could visit Japan later this month. Surapong has also refused to rule out reinstating Thaksin’s Thai passport or indeed his diplomatic passport.

And finally, what does Phuea Thai have planned for improving Thailand’s woefully inadequate education system? When major surgery is required, Phuea Thai is prescribing tablets.

Thailand may have a new government, but it looks like the changes it requires have been safely repulsed and the status quo maintained.

Paul Snowdon – August 13, 2011

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