Wednesday, January 29, 2014

O Thailand

One response to the tragedy of the tsunami
 Red shirts and yellow shirts: Still crazy after all these years
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
Our first strong memory was the Christmas 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 300,000 people across the Indian Ocean. For two weeks BBC coverage of that disaster mesmerized us. But another memory is stronger: at 7 a.m. on Sept. 20, 2006, our alarm radio turned on, but emitted only a vague hissing. Our morning lifeline to the world, BBC radio, was silent. We woke up out of habit, though and I fiddled with the device for a few minutes. Nothing.

My other morning ritual was to go to the computer to check my mail. The first note I opened, from a friend in Canada, asked “Are you all right?” I sent him a puzzled response, and his reply told me that overnight Thailand had experienced a coup – its 11th since the country’s 1932 revolution. Part of the ritual of seizing control of government is to seize control of the media
My wife Bernie and I had been living in Chiang Mai – the country’s second city, in a dish-shaped valley in the northwestern mountains – for nearly four years. We were charmed by the Thai custom of addressing each other always by first name – thus, in translation, I was “Mr. Peter.” Most of all, we learned to love the people, whose lives in many ways reflected the dominant religion: Buddhism tinged with Hinduism and animism. We’d gone there for a great adventure before we retired. But the cost of living was low, and we even wondered about early retirement.

Our four years in Thailand were a fine adventure. Today, back in Calgary, we often talk about it – but no longer in Thai, because I have mostly forgotten the language. Almost as importantly, our memories illuminate our understanding of the tragedy of that beautiful and charming land: At least 80 years of corruption and greed.

When we arrived, we rented a small house in a gated community, and began to get the lay of the land. A few houses over was a grand estate owned, a neighbour told us with pride, by “Mrs. Yingluck” and her husband. Her brother, we learned, was Prime Minister Thaksin (Shiniwatra). We were impressed.

I have always read history as a hobby, and began to read every history I could find about this privileged nation, plus the daily Bangkok Post. What became clear soon enough was that under the charm of these gentle people was a bizarre undercurrent of violence and corruption.

The year after we arrived, we were armchair spectators to a monstrous atrocity. In Thailand’s deep south, which has a large Muslim population, the army arrested a large group of peaceful protestors. They then forced hundreds of male detainees at gunpoint to lie shackled and prone in Army trucks, stacked like cordwood. The trucks were delayed from moving to the detainment area for hours. The victims of this atrocity died of asphyxiation, overheating or the crush of bodies above them.

Yellow and Red
Most people in Thailand know their birth colour, which reflects the day of the week they were born on and has a mystical significance. The odd thing is that today’s Red Shirts – those protesting against Yingluck – are the poorer people. The colour red comes from Thaksin’s day of birth (Sunday), and represents the fact that, before his looting of the country began, he arranged a form of universal health care for the poor. Ironically, their protest shirts bear the colour of the man who failed them.

In Thai politics, the Yellow Shirts have traditionally been the wealthy. Their colour comes from the much-respected King’s day of birth (Monday). Historically, they haven’t had much time for elective politics, so it’s ironic that today’s Yellow Shirts stand for uncorrupted democracy.

The scion of a wealthy Chinese-Thai family, Thaksin entered politics in 2000 – three years before we moved there. In the next election his party won the plurality of seats; and formed a coalition government. Suddenly a powerful man, he soon became wealthy beyond even his family’s high standards, but his government began to face allegations of corruption, authoritarianism, treason, conflicts of interest, acting non-diplomatically, and muzzling the press. His comeuppance was nigh.

When he went abroad on government business, the military seized power and froze what family assets he hadn’t moved out of the country. The following morning our radio was silent, and we were living under martial law. We saw military vehicles at major intersections over the next few days, but otherwise the coup affected us very little.

We had spent almost four years in Thailand, and decided to come home. Yes, we loved the country and the people, but we were increasingly disillusioned. As Canadians we are citizens of one of the oldest and most stable democracies on the planet. Thailand is charming, but its politics are not. We packed bag and baggage and returned to Calgary.

Of course, Thaksin believes in keeping things in the family. Because of a Supreme Court ruling, he can’t return to Thailand without facing a term in jail. Even so, when democracy was restored he arranged to have his sister Yingluck elected the new PM. It is on her watch that today’s demonstrations and riots are taking place. The allegations of the protestors? Corruption and mismanagement: go figure.

It’s fascinating to think what Thailand could be if it could reform itself. Of the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the country has the lowest unemployment rate, at 0.6 per cent. To put that number in context, second-place Singapore’s lowest unemployment is three times greater than Thailand’s, at 1.8 per cent.

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