New Internationalist

The Thai protest parody

Protests in Thailand [Related Image]
An anti-government protester. In the streets of Bangkok the demonstrations are led by a number of different leaders and interest groups. © Lillian Suwanrumpha

Jiw does not cut an intimidating figure. She is barely five foot tall and wears loose baggy clothing that makes her seem even smaller. But the 32-year-old accountant is full of energy, loudly and proudly declaring that she ‘will not leave until Thaksin [Shinawatra – the former prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup] and his cancer are gone from the nation’. We are interrupted as a speaker from the stage drives home a point. Jiw blows loudly on her whistle in approval. In the melodrama of Thai politics the whistle has become the weapon of choice and here in the heart of the opposition protest everyone is armed to the teeth.

The protesters accuse the current Thai government of being controlled by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, Thaksin, who, having been charged with corruption, now lives in self-imposed exile. They want the government to step down and are trying to shut down government buildings to disrupt normal play. The response to the protesters from the military and police has – so far – been peaceful.

Thailand has seen eight years of on-off turmoil, from street demonstrations to army intervention, each with Thaksin as their root cause.

Jiw states that, like so many of her fellow protesters, she cannot stand idly by while the country is plagued by a corrupt government. She ends the interview by trying to sound poignant: ‘If I had not come here today, how could I ever look my children in the eye? I am fighting for them – otherwise they will not have a country to grow up in.’

What was striking about Jiw’s statement was not its profundity or originality but how closely it echoed a statement that I had heard at another protest three years earlier. That protest, however, was at the other end of the Thai political spectrum: a pro-Thaksin affair that aimed to restore his allies to power and foster his return from exile. The name of the cab driver I interviewed may elude me now, but his sentiment struck a similar tone to Jiw’s. He said he was there because he wanted his children to be proud of him. He was fighting so that they could have a better future.

I often find that such declarative statements are similar because what it all boils down to is that the people of the world share the same hopes and passions. We all want to live in a society that is fair and equal and we all want what’s best for our children. But too often these common sentiments are separated by made-up constructs of nation, race, religion and politics. Often leaders who have much to gain from division and strife perpetuate these constructs.

Take Thailand’s current protests, which have once again choked government offices and halted the capital. The hundreds of thousands that have come out in opposition to the government and a proposed amnesty bill (which would have seen the return of Thaksin Shinawatra) have employed hateful rhetoric in their campaigns, encouraged by leaders who claim that they are fighting for the best interests of the nation when in reality they are fighting for themselves.

If we take away the politics of it all we find that protest leaders often have more in common with the ‘enemies’ they are protesting against than those that they are leading. For example, the leader of the current protest, former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban, described by many Thai political observers as a shrewd politician, has been implicated in numerous corruption affairs and openly wants to manipulate democracy to favour his cohorts. When his government was in power, it was accused by human rights groups of cracking down on civil liberties and individual freedoms and of carrying out a vast programme of censorship. These are the same charges that he, quite rightly, levies at Thaksin from his soapbox.

It is known that Thai politics is anything but stable. It is plagued by hypocrisy, self-interest and vitriol. The cycle of protests repeats so often that it has become a parody of itself. This will not change until people like Jiw and the cab driver realize that, like Suthep and Thaksin, they have more in common with each other than they were led to believe. The cycle will continue until the whistleblowing is directed at their leaders instead of each other. Only then can they bridge the gap that these politicians have wedged between them; only then can they throw off the shackles of hatred that have enslaved the nation.

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  1. #1 Peter De Rouck 28 Nov 13

    Could you consider today's protests as a military coup since
    the military or police is not intervening and having the crowd do the dirty work of occupying the ministries. Furthermore, the arrest warrant against Suthep is not being executed.
    It is my believe that standing by is approving of what is going on.

  2. #2 Ajarn Spencer 28 Nov 13

    I think that the lack of education about politics is to blame, and general illiteracy allows those learned but greedy persons in power, to manipulate the poor farmers, and lure them into doing things or attending events which they would optherwise, if not offered bribery money, attend. Voting is the same, in Thailand, people are offered 500 baht plus food and travel expenses to vote..

    The main problem is an internal one, thus, the Thai Elections should be supervised by the UN, to prevent corrupt activity or vote stealing.

    This will never happen, because Thailand has a Xenophobia about allowing anyone except Thais, to have any say in the matter. It is a problem that is going to be more difficult to solve, than the Northern Ireland Crisis which Plagued Britain for decades, and still does.

    Pride on a Nationalist scale that does not allow a neutral party (UN) to intercede, or to act as an intermediary, or overseer, is a Nation Doomed to self destruction.

  3. #5 Drew 28 Nov 13

    The problem is way bigger than Thaksin, but from everything we've seen, Thaksin has to be removed completely from the political scene. He will we know after this that his dream of returning is in tatters. But to do so fairly (and prevent him from wanting to fight on) others have to go too. He needs to be given an exit plan that restores his dignity as a past PM, let him have some money back, investigate the excesses of Peua Thai and tackle corruption across the board, both sides will need to offer some fall guys in this respect. It boils down to Thaksin dragging Thailand through the mud for another decade, covertly or otherwise, losers can afflict quite a bit of damage, make sure he's not seen to be the loser or the winner. Find him a golf course somewhere.

  4. #6 Sam Quinlan 28 Nov 13

    I totally agree with the main thrust of this piece, though more than anything I think Thais (especially the largely middle-class yellows) must engage with what Thaksin represents in a political-economic sense. He is the man that was bound to come to the scene eventually...

    An extremely wealthy 'outsider' to the mainstream Thai oligarchy/network monarchy who used populism to activate vast swathes of the rural population to his political cause. There was always going to be someone who took advantage of the vacuum left by the royalists who appealed almost wholly to middle/upper-class Bangkok and only perpetuated long ossified power dynamics. So the underlying question brought up by these protests, both red and yellow, is: What is meant by the word democracy in Thailand?

    I think you'll find that these two groups have an extremely different conception of this term. Higher classes (represented by the Yellows) basically don't want to see the rural 'Baan Nork' with a voice as their views are not educated enough to find validity, and probably never will be, according to them. The Reds latch on to the idea that democracy means their chance to put people into power that will change the realities of their lives on the ground with populist credit, financing and subsidy programs, and don't mind if these people take as much power and money as they can while in government, after all that's what those in power do, don't they?

    So fundamentally it becomes a problem of education (just as Ajarn Spencer states above) and the hierarchical, structural inequities of Thai culture perpetuated through language etc.

    Until democracy means a level playing field where monstrosities of new money such as Thaksin and cronies are replaced by career politicians that truly represent regional interests (instead of just appealing to them) and have grown up and been educated about them, among them, the Thai political system will always be a farcical game of money and empty abstractions like 'democracy' and 'freedom'...

  5. #7 James Will 29 Nov 13

    The present situation in Thailand further advocates the need for a constitutional reform. The current constitution allegedly, gives too much power to the central government, and with the divide between the north and the south regions running deep, it might be better to adopt the distribution of the legislative power on a provincial level.

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