What just happened in Thailand? Was Thailand not supposed to be a peaceful vacation paradise with perfect beaches and charming smiles? Didn’t we just spend a couple of leisurely lazy days looking at stunning temples and eating delicious street food from the stalls with not a care in the world? (Yes, we did. In 2009, about 11 million foreigners visited Thailand.)
And more importantly: Was Thailand not supposed to be a role model of democracy for neighbors like super poor Cambodia, oppressed Burma and strict Malaysia? Being one of the oldest democracies in the region (since 1932), one of the only countries to actually have fair elections, a constitution drafted by elected politicians and courts, which were somewhat independent, Thailand in the 90s and beginning of this century, took upon her the role as a new, well-functioning democracy. Thailand was even the chair of ASEAN in 2008, and emphasized in this period, her goal of collaboration and linking together the ASEAN countries. It went well.
But not that well. While preaching democracy and coining goals, Thailand’s own carefully build up democracy was slowly crumbling, starting in 2006 with the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra. Not that Thaksin has ever been a hero – he is about as corrupt and egoistical as they come – but he was elected by the people and he did manage to carry out economical reforms that lifted a large percentage of the Thai population out of poverty.
When he was ripped of power in September 2006, Thailand never regained the same legit democracy as it had then. The promised election after the coup took place in 2007 and not surprisingly, the reds won. However, the election results were disputed and soon the mass demonstrations that had proven effective in the Thaksin-case resumed, bigger and bloodier. In December 2008, yellow mass demonstrations secured current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva his seat in Parliament.
It makes good sense that redshirts now came back to claim the Prime minister seat with the same methods – mass rallies. This time, the protesters stayed on for a good two-and-a-half month. And this time, they were prepared for the bloody battles that the military all too soon engaged them in. But this time, the Prime didn’t bulge. Instead, he brought out the heavy artillery and held negotiations with the protesters to a minimum. And that was it. No matter how many bamboo stick you sharpen, they are not going to do you much good when the tanks roll in…
Within the last four years, and certainly in the last two months, Thailand has gone from a potential strong democracy to a political battlefield with no prospect of regaining the role as an example to follow in the region. After 85 deaths, over 1000 injured, 38 burned buildings and not a shred of political solution no one mentions the word democracy today. It’ s not even within reach anymore.
Instead, what we see now, after the streets have been cleared of protesters, is an ugly display of keeping the power at any cost. Despite precedence – in 1973 a crackdown on a student uproar led to the removal of Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn and in 1988 then-Prime Minister General Prem Tinsolanonda dissolved the House and resigned following political unrest – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is NOT going anywhere. Instead, he announces, he will call for an election “when the situation is back to normal”. Meaning never – or at least not until December 2011, when his term is finished.
And in the meantime, he will uphold both the seemingly unnecessary curfew and the state of emergency. And where is the West? Where are we?
It does not take much insight into Thai politics to realize that the extended military authority that comes with the state of emergency leaves the path clear and open for getting rid of red sympathizers. If Abhisit wants to quash political opponents, now is the time to do it and he very well knows that. The extended detention of the UDD leaders, the labeling Thaksin as a “terrorist”, the arrest of several outspoken system critics and just the sheer amount of “red” arrests suggests that what is next for Thailand is a witch hunt on reds.
So what happened in Thailand, when we were not really paying attention? A LOT! And now, when the West is finally paying attention to Thailand’s deroute away from democracy and towards an authoritarian regime: Is it too late to stop it?
Anya Palm, freelance journalist stationed in Bangkok.
See also Anya Palm’s article in Information 27 May 2010 Thailand på vej mod autoritaert regime