An Attempt To Put The Thai Crisis Into Perspective

Events following the destruction of the Red Shirts’ barricades and the voluntary surrender of Red Shirt leaders are particularly distressing. Arsonists have destroyed one very large and several smaller buildings in Bangkok. There have been shootouts here and there, including one in a Buddhist temple. Fifty-two people are reported killed on the fourteenth of May.

These facts raise a number of questions, and they permit some tentative conclusions.

1. Several days ago, the government announced the Red Shirt area would be “sealed.” Yet some three hundred Red Shirts were located in a shopping mall — Amarin Plaza — where they had taken refuge after the rebels’ positions were overrun. Diehard fanatics also left the area, later to torch buildings in thirty-five locations. The incompetence of the police/military is obvious. Its cause, whether simple lack of professionalism, failure to attend to detail or deliberate malfeasance (making common cause with the Red Shirts), is unknown.

2. The Red Shirts destroyed Central World (Google it if you don’t know it), a huge mall that was recently expanded and upgraded. How could this building be so damaged by fire that parts of it collapsed, and the remaining structure is useless? What happened to the sprinkler system, and what, in a building all concrete, tile and glass, was the fuel for the fires? TLB does not take the “Truther” approach, but this conflagration needs to be explained. It almost certainly can be, just as the collapse of WTC 7 on 9/11 can be explained without resort to conspiracist nonsense.

3. This newsletter heard a rumor before Central World was set afire that all properties of the Central enterprise were to be targeted by Red Shirt fanatics. First, if TLB knew about it, why didn’t the police? Protecting Central World should have been easy. Yet it was not done. Why? Then: why just Central? Why was other expensive real estate near the Red Shirt camp not targeted? TLB wonders whether some very bad blood exists between the family-run Central organization and the backer or backers of the Red Shirts.

4. It should be abundantly clear by now that the Red Shirt movement is not pro-democracy. Note that the current government contains no one who participated in the undemocratic, illegitimate deposition of PM Thaksin; that the constitution was approved by a referendum; that today’s Parliament was democratically elected; that the post-military coup government — a Democrat-led coalition — came to power in the same way as governments in the UK do; that there is today no dictatorship; that all of Thaksin’s populist programs continue to be funded by the government; that election fraud, not coups or power plays, brought about the last two changes in government; that a Red Shirt leader and propagandist named Arisman is on video telling Bangkok that he and his people will destroy government buildings, mosques, and all other important institutions if the Red Shirts are opposed by force.

(The video is here; in it, Arisman accuses PM Abhisit of being a sheltered and beloved associate of Prem, a close advisor to the King and Chief of the Privy Council. Prem is a homosexual, which gives Arisman an opportunity to snicker suggestively about Abhisit’s sexuality. At the very end of the video, Arisman threatens arson and violence if force is used to disperse the Red Shirts. In another video, he says each Red Shirt will have a bottle of gasoline, and those who try to break up the demonstrations will be “made to disappear.”)

Red Shirt pretensions to democratic principle are lies. How can democracy be advanced by widespread arson, when the government is already representative-democratic, root and branch?

The Red Shirt response, that no government not controlled by them can be democratic, is neither true nor a justification for mayhem.

5. Ultimately, one must deal with the huge entity that looms over the field of battle and the hulks of burned-out buildings: Thaksin. What manner of person is he, what has he done, and what is he capable of?

Begin with recent news. He is accused of having directed and funded the Red Shirt invasion of Bangkok. A rumor has it that at least one of the Red Shirt leaders has admitted that Thaksin did donate to the cause, but TLB has been unable to confirm that. So at this point, no one can prove that Thaksin plotted anything. All that is known is that he has repeatedly harangued his admirers from overseas, urging them to press for the restoration of democracy and justice. All of his words since the violence began have been just what one might expect: mild pleas for talking, not fighting; a denial that he funded/directed events or approves of violence, and so on.

Would he lie? Of course he would — there is abundant evidence that he is not above it, as when he lied about owning an offshore holding company that was part of his scheme to complete the illegal sale of his biggest company to Singapore (he eventually admitted his lie).

Perhaps some day more will be known about Thaksin’s role, if any, in plotting the violence and funding the Red Shirt movement. For now, logic demands that one note the accusation and remind all concerned that evidence of Thaksin’s guilt is not publicly available.

It is important to note that Thaksin’s opponents made a serious mistake in not denouncing the man for his greatest offenses. Instead of setting out his egregious human rights record in detail, they merely accused him of being corrupt. Of course he was and is corrupt; what Thai politician is not?

Tacitly contradicting their already muted claims of his dishonesty, Thaksin’s enemies never even began to bring him to justice for his many thefts from the public treasury. To this day, his multiple enterprises still owe the Thai government hundreds (perhaps thousands) of billions of baht in unpaid taxes; the issue has been dropped. His sale of Shin to Singapore should have immediately removed him from office pending trial, but nothing was done, and the sale remains unrevoked. His conviction for using his position as PM to purchase illegally some government-owned land at an astounding discount is a trifle compared to his systematic, unpunished plunder of the public’s assets.

Thaksin was not a simple, familiar thief in high office. He is a murderer and a resolute enemy of freedom of speech and the press, as his actions while PM clearly indicate. He deals in intimidation and retribution, buying cronies rather than making genuine friends. His cold inhumanity is more than just an extension of his insatiable greed, for the man is a borderline sociopath.

Incapable of understanding the motives of others who do not share his obsessively acquisitive values, PM Thaksin reacted instinctively (and revealingly) to Muslim violence in the south of Thailand: he tried to buy the murderous fanatics off. When they rejected his cynical offer, he was so confused by their lack of greed — which he found stunningly alien — that he ordered millions of origami birds dropped from airplanes on the Muslims. This bizarre episode was perhaps the least rational misadventure in his political career.

Thaksin is the center of the universe, and he can lash out in fury when reality does not automatically conform to his requirements. Egocentric, driven and without empathy, Thaksin views other people as instrumental, rather than as full human beings. When frustrated, questioned or slightly challenged, he assumes he has been personally insulted. If someone requests that he adjust his policy, he may react to the imagined affront by throwing an infantile fit. This is not a mature, fully socialized individual.

It is to these profound character flaws and overt sins against Liberty that his opponents should have directed the attention of the media. Instead the world was told, and is still told today, that he is simply a crook. Thaksin is much more than that.

Even if Thaksin did nothing to enable the violence in Bangkok, he certainly did nothing to stop it. His weasel words calling for talks rather than violence were easily ignored by the rank and file Red Shirts.

How that could happen takes some explaining. The Red Shirt protesters were told by their leaders that those who surrendered to the police and army would risk being killed. The gullible faithful were also told that if they allowed themselves to be treated by army medics or non-governmental charities they would likely be further injured or even murdered.

Thoroughly indoctrinated and fearful of the soldiers and cops, the rank and file protesters assumed Thaksin’s call for peace was not directed at the Red Shirts. They never thought of telling their leaders to stop making crazy threats and halt the pep talks. The combination of near paranoia and intense solidarity produced a terrible momentum.

Of course Thaksin knew how his fake plea for restraint on all sides would be taken. He was mouthing empty words crafted to allow him to evade moral responsibility for what was about to happen. Had he genuinely intended to prevent a catastrophe, he would have spoken privately in very harsh terms to the Red Shirt leadership, threatening to denounce them publicly if the situation worsened (if, for example, widespread arson were to be employed by Red Shirts). His silence speaks volumes.

It must be emphasized that Thaksin’s repeated exhortations to press on, rescue democracy, restore justice and bring the government down were the preface to violence, not its sole proximate cause. Had he endorsed the plan to set Bangkok afire after and because the protesters had been dispersed? The world will probably never know.

That said, it would be absurd to insist that he could not understand the implications of the incendiary rhetoric of other Red Shirt leaders, or was unaware that declamatory orators like Arisman were exhorting the crowds to violence. He knew Arisman had threatened arson and murder. Thaksin did know what could and likely would happen. He knew that a hard core of Red Shirt fanatics had a fatalistic and nearly suicidal mindset.

The one man in the world who could have demanded an end to the inflammatory propaganda, aborted the arson/murder plot (even if he did not know about it) and saved lives…murmured some self-serving platitudes for the record. Many of his followers probably never heard them. Then he went silent.

This, dear Reader, is pathological, predatory greed that knows no let or hindrance, no conscience, no pity.

Well. As this is written, the candid observer must admit to puzzlement at the ineffectiveness, the seeming absence, of law enforcement in Bangkok. Somehow thugs can move about the city during total curfew, breaking into buildings that were built to deter burglars, setting fires and then simply moving off. Why is anarchy so easy?

In the provinces, events are just as incomprehensible. News videos show small clusters of people standing around while one or two men nonchalantly set fire to a government office; a few cops armed with pistols could have prevented it. Where are they? How did the camera crew know to be there, when the police did not?

Too, TLB views the victimized citizenry of Bangkok with amazed incredulity. The city has been devastated, people have died needlessly — yet the populace is not furious with the national and municipal governments. The public has clearly been betrayed, so why is there no expression of outrage, even if it’s merely rhetorical? The angry letters to the editors of the two English-language newspapers are all from Westerners. One would think Thais would be marching on government offices to demand action. TLB confesses to puzzlement.

Move now from the mystery of unwarranted composure to a consideration of what must be done. Thailand’s task for the future should be to determine why all this happened and why it happened now.

Asking why should begin with the realization that only a gullible ignoramus would believe that violence could change the economy and social stratification of Thailand to the advantage of the poor. Aping Pol Pot and Mao is literal madness. The bigotry of the middle and upper classes in Bangkok will not be washed away with blood; the big city folks will still sneer at the accents, skin color, and tastes in music of the yokels. Burning buildings in the capital cannot enhance the fertility of the soil in the Northeast. While some unsophisticated ideologues believe that destroying a government is how you make a society more tolerant and reduce poverty, rational people know there are better ways.

So it could be that all this fuss about democracy and poverty is just a smoke screen that has confused quite a few people. If that is so, the confused are, unfortunately, just hapless cannon fodder. TLB has suggested that Thailand is actually caught up in a gang war, not in pure social or political strife.

Is that plausible? The mysterious “Black Shirts” captured on video are easy to explain as ex-military mercenaries, hit men in the employ of gangsters. Do pro-democracy activists hire such people to snipe and commit arson? Then consider that specific properties were targeted to be burned; that has some earmarks of a feud.

Unfortunately it will not matter to the Thais whether the violence is politicians arguing over principles, or gangsters waging a turf war. It certainly should matter, and in “developed” nations it would, but Thailand has been a thugocracy for so long that the distinctions between leaders and gang bosses have become vanishingly tiny. So the practical and realistic question is, what next?

Thailand should devise a strategy for coping with the consequences of the next election. The Red Shirts will certainly win it, and the composition of Parliament will be radically altered. One must assume that means the return of Thaksin.

That might not matter very much. Note that Thaksin the fugitive from justice is still a very active player in Thai politics. Thailand just can’t get rid of him. Exonerated or not, in Thailand or not, he will be running his networks and planning to enhance his power.

As long as Thaksin is active at all, democracy in Thailand can never be safe. The threat to responsible government is found in the fact that he can rally his voters and overwhelm the opposition, controlling the Parliament through his proxies. The Liberty on which democracy depends can be crushed democratically.

Thaksin will persist in his push for power and astronomical wealth, for it is his nature. His career is proof of that. He failed in business repeatedly, but kept trying to find some way to work a sure thing. He pressed on when most would have given up. No, Thaksin is not going away; he is not going to retire, and he is intent on regaining the power to add to his massive fortune.

When he entered politics, Thaksin experimented until he found a way to control his environment. Unlike traditional politicians who simply form alliances with businesses, police officials, military officers and other politicians, Thaksin saw that real power in a parliamentary democracy comes from having a large, compliant voter base. Once that is established, the networks that bleed the public are secure. Obviously, Thaksin needed a huge bloc of loyal voters.

His original forays into government fell far short of that goal. At one time he was the governor of Bangkok, a position that defeated him. He promised he would end the city’s notorious traffic problems within six months, failed spectacularly, and tried to ignore the blunder. The citizens of Bangkok were hardly disposed to vote a second time for the loudmouthed fraud, so Thaksin cast about for a segment of the population that could be seduced. His realization that the rural poor and Thais living outside the capital are second- and third-class citizens (who nevertheless vote) was the key to his success as a politician.

(Note that the Bangkok voters mocked Governor Thaksin for his preposterous promises and subsequent pratfall. His personality type suggests very strongly that he must have taken the japery personally, reacting with bitter, abiding resentment. How profoundly the rejection and humiliation hurt him, and whether those wounds engendered a grudge that would poison events years later, are matters of conjecture.)

The telecoms billionaire who had made his money by getting a monopoly from a general in a previous military-run government was about to become the leader of a virtual private army. As PM, he soon proved that he could steal at will, as long as he threw a few crumbs to the disadvantaged. He reminded them that they were discriminated against, despised and exploited by the bigots and wealthy high society of the big city. It was populism on steroids.

PM Thaksin pretended to be magnanimous while savaging the exercise of human rights and ruling with disregard for the lives of those who opposed or disobeyed him. That mattered not at all to the people who saw him as their savior. After all, what does a landless farmer know or care about freedom of the press, or what the cops should do with a suspected drug dealer?

Traditional politicians run the corruption machine with reasonable efficiency, taking care of their hired thugs and cronies and not making big changes in anything. Thaksin reveled in change and advertised all his paltry gifts to the poor, establishing himself as a reformer even as he strengthened and made more efficient the networks that steal from the people.

That is what makes him so dangerous. He is very good at what he does, and what he does undermines the ethical foundations of the economy and democracy itself. His impact on Thailand has been like that of a narcotic: he both delights and enslaves.

Getting rid of Thaksin and replacing him with decent leadership is the task. It is complex and frustrating. One hopes the Thais will want to prevent Thaksin from prostituting representative governance and the rule of law yet again. Whether they can do that without negating what they wish to preserve is the distressing question.

The usual Thai response to political stalemate has been to go through one or more military coups. Thaksin has tried to set that pattern aside by mobilizing a militant majority of voters who think of themselves as abused and entitled. He appears to have succeeded.

The Red Shirt movement has expanded and been radicalized by bombastic speeches and endless propaganda. It has survived all of Thaksin’s transparent misdeeds, even shrugging off the former PM’s cuddling up to — of all people — the Cambodian government. If Thaksin can remain popular after that breathtaking affront to Thai values, he can get away with just about anything.

For expanded commentary on this interesting point, see the addendum “Polarization.”

The Red Shirt apparatus has the strength and financial support to lay siege to Bangkok, and it will do that again if it sees any benefit to the undertaking.

Accordingly, TLB believes May of 2010 is payback time. If that is correct, Thailand is suffering through Thaksin’s fell response to (at least) the military coup that deposed him in September of 2006.

The former PM has shown Bangkok’s establishment — which is mostly middle class — that he can and just might burn Bangkok down. He is bragging that even if you play dirty, you cannot take him out of the game.

And if TLB is wrong, and none of this horror is Thaksin’s doing? That means it was planned and accomplished by his ardent supporters. That’s yet another case of, “I won’t bite you, but my dog will.”

Ultimately, democracy depends not on good leadership, but on principled, informed and concerned voters. Thailand is proving that.

How in the world do you upgrade an electorate in time to save it from men like Ferdinand Marcos, Juan Peron or Thaksin?

It seems to TLB that if Thailand is to avoid yet another cycle of excesses and violence, either Thaksin will have to be totally nullified, or Thailand will have to submit to his rule.

Thailand may be a textbook example of how an increase in prosperity and the adoption of democratic governance can go terribly wrong, enriching the rascals and depriving the people of Liberty.

Fortunately for Thailand, events here seldom unfold in a linear fashion. In unpredictability there is hope.

Polarization

Thaksin is so revered/loathed that Thais give the appearance of being hopelessly divided on his merits. His partisans cleave to him no matter what, and his opponents damn him as the devil. Because the traditionally censored and generally anything-but-candid news media overwhelmingly disapprove of the man, a fable has sprung up in the Red Shirt community: everything bad about Thaksin is fabricated.

This fable might be referred to as the All Lies Mindset (call it ALM for convenience). If, for example, Red Shirts are shown on TV trying to murder the current PM, as happened not many months ago, a Thaksin lover will tell you the incident was staged, with actors playing the roles of would-be assassins. Videos of Red Shirts sending a driverless, flaming bus at police lines were “faked for the cameras;” transcripts of Thaksin’s speech to the national police telling them to execute rather than arrest suspected drug dealers are “lies;” claims regarding Thaksin’s unpaid taxes and the illegality of the sale of Shin to Singapore are “utterly false,” and so on. ALM is universal, absolute and unyielding. It is a close relative of the Flat Earth Syndrome, with a huge component of childish conspiracism thrown in.

If one questions a Red Shirt instead of pointing to hard evidence of Thaksin’s emotionally malformed personality and misdeeds, the responses prompted by ALM are somewhat different. What will Thaksin do with the monarchy when he regains power? “I don’t know,” and that ends the discussion. What about Thaksin’s adventures in Cambodia, when he took a job working for Hun Sen as an economic advisor? “I don’t want to talk about recent events, that’s not important, what matters is the long history of unfair treatment of Thaksin, he has been so badly dealt with for years….”

Minds are closed. Facts cannot be discussed because they are all rejected as conspiratorial deceit. There is no common ground on which to stand.

The next step in the ALM process is to shift the topic from Thaksin to the social/economic structure of Thailand. “The rich people run everything, they do not care about the suffering of the poor in the countryside, it has been this way too long, the poor have no chance to better themselves, they are discriminated against and held down by selfish interests in Bangkok….”

The implications of this attempt to shift legitimate concerns about Thaksin’s greed away from that important subject — to change the debate to questions of social and economic reform — are very troubling. First recall that the majority of big firms in Thailand are run by ethnic Chinese families, and that prejudice against the Chinese is common (but almost never noticed by the visitor or long-term guest). Thaksin is of Chinese descent, but that fact may not prevent an intensification of anti-Chinese feeling in Thailand if his crimes are ignored and a traditional conspiracist search for scapegoats begins.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is common in other nations; this newsletter has reported on its presence in Papua New Guinea, and its potential to become an issue in French Polynesia. Where there is unreasoning support for the Red Shirt cause today, tomorrow may see virulent bigotry and worse directed against the Thai-Chinese. This could be explosive.

No, this scenario is not at all implausible. Anti-Chinese sentiment is neither new nor an antique in Thailand. A pamphlet titled The Jews of the East was written by a Thai king (Rama VI, whose reign was from 1910 to 1925); today it is of course unavailable and very seldom mentioned in the heavily-censored history of Thailand, but it does exist and it was just as simple-minded and conspiracist as you might expect.

Ethnic Chinese in Thailand are required to have Thai language names, and Chinese schools are closely regulated and their number restricted by the government. Thailand has long had an explicit policy designed to prevent the nation from being swamped by Chinese culture. The forced acculturation has worked in all areas but business. (Social critics occasionally note that two Chinese exports, institutionalized corruption and prostitution, have been well received by the Thais.)

Second, wherever there are discontents focusing on perceptions of social stratification and discrimination, there are sure to be Marxist opportunists. Some critics are already suggesting that the Red Shirts are partially infiltrated by agents in the employ of mainland China. Communism, in other words, may be making a second attempt to destroy the Thai democracy and render the nation safe for China.

Because the concepts of “economic democracy” and class warfare belong to Marxist political theory, there is the probability that Thais who wish to improve the lot of the poor may see no vehicle for change other than communism. Thaksin’s ugly crony capitalism is a fraud, for it masquerades as humanitarian populism. If the Red Shirts ever begin to realize that, their zeal for justice and equality may be co-opted by communist organizations and their allies. Thailand’s future could include political strife that will be a replay, to some extent, of the communist uprising of forty or so years ago.

At present, the possibility of communist influence in the Red Shirt movement means that critics of Thaksin may promote conspiracist nonsense, thereby weakening their cause. Seeing spectral commies under the house is no more helpful than adopting ALM. What Thailand needs is reason, clarity of vision, and a better-educated electorate.

Polarization is a potential cause of catastrophic events. If there is to be a debate between Red Shirts and their opponents, it should begin with the firm insistence that the Red Shirts acknowledge incontrovertible facts. That will be maddingly difficult.