Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lao Trip 7.1a - NBL to Tha Li

Thailand’s Hot Season (“summer” – March thru May) gave way to the Rainy Season (June to October). Aw, all the Thai seasons are hot to me; I sweat throughout the year, every day, from 6:30am to 7pm; not continually, but periodically depending on what I’m doing – including eating!

At the beginning of the East Asian Monsoon Season, rice fields are plowed and readied for planting. In preparation for planting, rice seed beds were already sprouting when it was time for my quarterly trip out of Thailand to fulfill the requirements of my 1-year Thai Non-Immigrant “O” Visa.

This trip was my 7th to Lao in a little over two years. It turned out to be one of my best so far and contained one particular day that was outstanding; my single greatest day in Lao, thus far, and a day I will never forget.

I head out on my travel permit renewal trips every three months. This time, it was right after The Coup. Leaving the province, at the Nong Bua Lamphu bawkasaw (bus station), I noticed a newly-installed television. When the Thai national anthem came on, most everyone followed tradition and stood up, including me. Not everyone did and some paid the anthem “no never mind.” When I first came to Thailand 15 years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Everyone would have stood up proudly. It is a sign of the changing times.

(seal of Nong Bua Lamphu Province, Thailand)

Going to Xayaburi Province, in Lao, from Nong Bua, I usually take a second-class bus to Muang Loei, then transfer to a sawng-thaew to Tha Li. This is now becoming a familiar route for me and I still vividly remember the first time I took it with Thip. Memorable, also, was the last time I took it, when I met that thin, young Lao country girl. All during the ride from Tha Li to Loei, we kept giving each other inconspicuous looks. I racked my brain trying to figure out how I could become friends with her; get to know her more, after the ride. I got the impression she’d be up for it and t would have been good, I thought, as she lived in Muang Loei and Loei wasn’t that far from Nong Bua. But, she knew very little English and I know very little Lao. I could not get through the Language Barrier.

On this ride from Muang Loei to Tha Li, I did my usual of sharing a bag of Kopiko coffee candies all around. I just passed the bag along and while most people were shy to take one or two, the last guy – a very sketchy-looking guy, I might add – just pocketed what was left over, bag and all. This surprised me, but also reminded me that the world is full of strange characters.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thai Politics Since 2008

To my surprise, this series of contemporary Thai politics has been somewhat popular – based on web visits. Thank you. I am a student and writer of history; I’m into it and feel knowing what went before is valuable for assessing what’s happening now and what’s likely to go on in the future. Of course, you always have to be careful of writers’ “spin.”

Remarkably, the relative instability of Thai politics does not affect tourists much and expats very little.

To read more about Thai political history, especially since 2008 to present day, I recommend reading the wikis:

2014 Thai Coup and my take on The Coup

Monday, August 18, 2014

Thaksin Shinawatra

Continuing my history of contemporary Thai politics, drawn largely from Wikipedia data:

Not long after Thip and I married, businessman-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra campaigned against old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs and was voted into office as Thai prime minister in January 2001.

(Thip and I in our condo in Santa Barbara, 2001, after Thip's first year in the USA)

While Thaksin himself owned a large portion of shares in Shin Corporation (formerly Shinawatra Computer and Communications), one of Thailand's major telecommunications companies, he moved his holdings to his servants and driver until his children were old enough to be able to hold shares. The shares eventually transferred to family members. The share issue went to court and the court ruled in his favor, acquitting him from the legal clause that a prime minister cannot hold shares. Even though this legally freed him, political opposition parties and many Thai people did not accept the court ruling on this matter.

In power, Thaksin presided over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy and repaid all debts borrowed from the IMF before due date. By 2002, Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, was once again booming. As low-end manufacturing moved to China and other low-wage economies, Thailand moved upscale into more sophisticated manufacturing; both for a rapidly expanding domestic middle class market and for export. Tourism, and particularly sex tourism, also remained a huge revenue earner despite intermittent "social order" campaigns by the government to control the country's nightlife. Thaksin won an even bigger majority at elections in February 2005, securing his second consecutive term.

However Thaksin became one of the most controversial premiers in the history of Thai politics. While he was applauded as an able leader, his critics became more severe. From the very beginning of his power, he was charged with hidden assets. He was 'at war' with journalists. His close relationship with Myanmar's junta was also criticized. His policy of 'war on drug' led to the killing of thousands of 'suspects', inviting critics from human rights groups domestically and internationally. Reports of his abuse of power and his conflicts of interest were heralded.

In December 2005 media proprietor Sonthi Limthongkul launched an anti-Thaksin campaign, after his news analysis TV program – sharply critical of Thaksin – was removed. Sondhi's movement was based on accusations of Thaksin's abuse of power, corruption, human right violations, and immorality. Accusations included the improper handling of privatization of PTT and EGAT, the unfairness of the U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement, the corruption in the Suvarnabhumi Airport project, and conflicts of interest due to the Shinawatra family's continued ownership of Shin Corporation.

In January 2006, the Shinawatra family sold its shares in Shin Corporation, but due to a condition in Thai law, they did not have to pay capital gains tax. Although legal, Sonthi, his Peoples Alliance for Democracy, and the opposition claimed that the tax-free sale was immoral. Sonthi and the PAD held mass protests for months. In February 2006 Thaksin responded by calling a snap election in April. The opposition boycotted the elections, causing the Constitutional Court to later nullify the election results. Another election was scheduled for October 2006.

On September 19, 2006, with the Taksin in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin launched a successful coup 'd'etat. The October election was cancelled, the 1996 Constitution was abrogated, some key ministers arrested, and Parliament dissolved. Thaksin's diplomatic passport was cancelled, and he took up exile, mostly in the UK. The new constitution was promulgated with junta's support. The general election took place in December 2007.

In the general election on 23 December 2007, the People Power Party lead by Samak Sundaravej, Thaksin's loyal party leader, won a majority seats in the parliament, and democratic rule was restored.

The politics of Thailand after the 2006 coup still concerned the two fighting factions: supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra. The anti-Thaksinists formed the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), known as The Yellow Shirts, as they included the defense of the Crown as the symbol of the constitutional monarchy. The pro-Thaksinists aimed at lessening the royal power; combined with anti-2006 coup activists, they formed UDD, known as The Red Shirts, supporting the overthrow of the current constitution and an amnesty for Thaksin and his allies.

In mid-2008, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) renewed its large protests against the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who was the declared nominee of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The protesters were also against the ruling parties's plan to amend the constitution. On 26 August 2008, the protesters occupied government buildings, including Government House.[2] Samak refused to resign, but also elected not to use force to remove the protestors.[3] Beginning August 29, protesters disrupted air and rail infrastructure mostly in Bangkok and its outskirts.[4]The protests caused one confirmed death, on September 2.[5] Later that day, Samak declared a state of emergency, banning gatherings and the use of media by the PAD.[6]

On September 9, 2008, the Constitutional Court of Thailand delivered a decision that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej had performed acts in breach of Section 267 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (2007) which prevents conflicts of interest. Sundaravej, after assuming the premiership, had engaged in a cookery show business through being the emcee for a TV show. According to the procedure for termination of a premiership, the entire Council of Ministers needed to step down together with Sundaravej. The ruling, however, did not bar him from running again for prime minister.[8] All the ministers other than Sundaravej remained in a caretaker position until a new administration was installed.

On October 5 and 4, 2008, respectively, Chamlong Srimuang and rally organiser, Chaiwat Sinsuwongse of the People's Alliance for Democracy, were detained by the Thai police led by Col. Sarathon Pradit, by virtue of an August 27 arrest warrant for insurrection, conspiracy, illegal assembly and refusing orders to disperse (treason) against him and 8 other protest leaders. At the Government House, Sondhi Limthongkul, however, stated demonstrations would continue: "I am warning you, the government and police, that you are putting fuel on the fire. Once you arrest me, thousands of people will tear you apart."[10]

After 2008 and pretty much to present day, Thai politics has been a struggle between The Yellow Shirts and The Red Shirts, with a notable violent demonstration held in Bangkok by The Red Shirts. Taksin still remains a multi-millionaire fugitive.

References for this section and the preceeding post:

"Declaration of the State of Emergency within the areas of Bangkok Metropolis". (2008, 2 September). Government Gazette of Thailand, (vol 125, pt 144 D, special issue). pp. 1.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Premocracy to Taksin

For most of the 1980s, Thailand was ruled by Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who, thankfully, was a democratically-inclined strongman who restored parliamentary politics to Thailand. I think of him as an intelligent guy in a position of power at the right time and would love to meet him. Anyways, the country remained a democracy from that point on, except for two brief periods of military rule from 1991-1992 and 2006-2007.[1]

(our backyard, south-facing)

(our westside, including clothes line)

By allowing one faction of the military to get rich on government contracts, the beginning 1990s government of Chatichai provoked a rival faction, led by Generals Sunthorn Kongsompong, Suchinda Kraprayoon, and other generals of Class 5 of the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy to stage a coup in February 1991, charging Chatichai's government as a corrupt regime or 'Buffet Cabinet'. The junta called itself the National Peace Keeping Council. The NPKC brought in a civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, who was still responsible to the military. Anand's anti-corruption and straightforward measures proved popular. Another general election was held in March 1992.

The winning coalition appointed coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon to become Prime Minister, in effect breaking a promise made earlier to the King and confirming the widespread suspicion that the new government was going to be a military regime in disguise. However, the Thailand of 1992 was not the Siam of 1932. Suchinda’s action brought hundreds of thousands of people out in the largest demonstrations ever seen in Bangkok, led by the former governor of Bangkok, Major-General Chamlong Srimuang.

Suchinda brought military units personally loyal to him into the city and tried to suppress the demonstrations by force, leading to a massacre and riots in the heart of the capital, Bangkok, in which hundreds died. Rumours spread out that there was a rift in the armed forces. Amidst the fear of civil war, King Bhumibol intervened: he summoned Suchinda and Chamlong to a televised audience, and urged them to follow a peaceful solution. This meeting resulted in Suchinda's resignation.

The King re-appointed royalist Anand as interim prime minister until elections could be held in September 1992, which brought the Democrat Party under Chuan Leekpai to power, mainly representing the voters of Bangkok and the south. Chuan was a competent administrator who held power until 1995, when he was defeated at elections by a coalition of conservative and provincial parties led by Banharn Silpa-Archa. Tainted by corruption charges from the very beginning, Banharn’s government was forced to call early elections in 1996, in which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party managed to gain a narrow victory.

Soon after coming into office, Prime Minister Chavalit was confronted by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, just two years before I met Thip. After coming under strong criticism for his handling of the crisis, Chavilit resigned in November 1997 and Chuan returned to power. Chuan came to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund which stabilized the currency and allowed IMF intervention in the Thai economic recovery. In contrast to the country's previous history, the crisis was resolved by civilian rulers under democratic procedures.

During the 2001 election, Chuan’s agreement with IMF and use of injection funds to boost the economy were a cause for great debate. Meantime, businessman-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra’s proposals appealed to the mass electorate. Thaksin campaigned effectively against old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. In January 2001 he had a sweeping victory at the polls, winning a larger popular mandate than any Thai prime minister has ever had in a freely elected National Assembly.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Thailand_since_1973

Monday, August 4, 2014

Democracy Regains, 1980s

In a significant progression, much of the 1980s saw a process of democratization overseen by the King and Prem Tinsulanonda. The two preferred constitutional rule, and acted to put an end to violent military interventions.

(Another shot of the Phu Chan area)

Here’s how Prem came to power:

In April 1981 a clique of junior army officers popularly known as the "Young Turks" staged a coup attempt, taking control of Bangkok. They dissolved the National Assembly and promised sweeping social changes. But their position quickly crumbled when Prem accompanied the royal family to Khorat. With the King's support for Prem made clear, loyalist units under the palace favorite General Arthit Kamlangek managed to recapture the capital in a bloodless counterattack.

This episode raised the prestige of the monarchy still further, and also enhanced Prem’s status as a relative moderate. A compromise was therefore reached. The insurgency ended and most of the ex-student guerillas returned to Bangkok under an amnesty. In December 1982, the Thai army Commander in Chief accepted the flag of the Communist Party of Thailand at a widely-publicized ceremony held in Banbak. Here, communist fighters and their supporters handed in their weapons and swore allegiance to the government.[1]

(Prem, early 1980s)

Prem declared the armed struggle over.[1] The army returned to its barracks, and yet another constitution was promulgated, creating an appointed Senate to balance the popularly elected National Assembly. Elections were held in April 1983, giving Prem Tinsulanonda, now reincarnated as a civilian politician, a large majority in the legislature (an arrangement which came to be known as "Premocracy").

Prem was also the beneficiary of the accelerating economic revolution which was sweeping South-East Asia. After the recession of the mid 1970s, economic growth took off. For the first time Thailand became a significant industrial power, and manufactured goods such as computer parts, textiles and footwear overtook rice, rubber and tin as Thailand’s leading exports. With the end of the Indochina wars and its insurgencies, tourism developed rapidly and became a major earner.

The urban population continued to grow rapidly, but overall population growth began to decline, leading to a rise in living standards even in rural areas – although the Isaan continued to lag behind and still continues to. While Thailand did not grow as fast as the "Four Asian Tigers," (namely Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) it achieved sustained growth.

Prem Tinsulanonda held office for eight years, surviving two more general elections in 1983 and 1986, and remained personally popular. However, the revival of democratic politics led to a demand for a more leadership options. In 1988 fresh elections brought former General Chatichai Choonhavan to power. Prem rejected the invitation offered by major political parties for the third term of premiership.

Significantly, the Prem era also marked the end of violent struggle between the Bangkok government and communist insurgents by issuing the general amnesty. Former students who fled the cities and joined the communist party, returned eventually to take part in Thai society.

(Prem, contemporary photo)

References for this post and the preceeding post (“Democracy Falters, 1974-80”):

"Declaration of the State of Emergency within the areas of Bangkok Metropolis". (2008, 2 September). Government Gazette of Thailand, (vol 125, pt 144 D, special issue). pp. 1.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Democracy Falters, 1974-80

In some ways, the Thai student rebellion of 1973 mirrored student rebellions around the world that began with “The Prague Spring,” in 1968. I was briefly a part of this more militant approach at changing the status quo, in California, in 1970, and wrote about it in my book Sunshine Revolutionaries, aka “Don’t Bank On Amerika.”

The events of October 1973 amounted to a revolution in Thai politics. For the first time the urban middle class, led by the students, had challenged the ruling junta, and had gained the apparent blessing of the king for a transition to real democracy. The leaders of the junta were forced to step down and took refuge in the United States and Taiwan.

Thailand, however, had not yet produced a political class able to make this bold new democracy function smoothly. The January 1975 elections failed to produce a stable party majority, and fresh elections in April 1976 produced the same result. The veteran politician Seni Pramoj and his brother Kukrit Pramoj alternated in power, but were unable to carry out a coherent reform program. The sharp increase in oil prices in 1974 led to recession and inflation, weakening the government's position. The democratic government's most popular move was to secure the withdrawal of American forces from Thailand. Significantly, the communist insurgency in Thailand, led by the Thai communist party, gradually became more active in the countryside, allying with urban intellectuals and students.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to communist forces in 1975. The threat of the communists in the neighboring countries soon led to a mild panic among Thai people. The arrival of communist regimes on Thailand’s borders, the abolition of the 600-year-old Lao monarchy, and the arrival of a flood of refugees from Laos and Cambodia swung public opinion in Thailand back to the right, and conservatives did much better in the 1976 elections than they had done in 1975.

By late 1976, moderate middle class opinion had turned away from the activism of the students, with their base at Thammasat University. The army and the right-wing parties began a propaganda war against student liberalism by accusing student activists of being 'communists' and through formal paramilitary organizations such the Village Scouts and the Red Gaurs many of those students were killed. Matters came to a head in October when former Prime Minister Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn returned to Thailand to enter a royal monastery, Wat Bovorn.

Tension between workers and factory owners became fierce, as the civil right movement became more active after 1973. Socialism and leftist ideology gained popularity among intellectuals and the working class. The political atmosphere became even more tense. Workers were found hung in Nakhon Pathom after protesting against a factory owner. A Thai version of anti-communist McCarthyism spread widely. Whoever staged a protest could be accused of being part of a communist conspiracy.

In 1976, students in Thammasat University held protests over the violent deaths of the two workers hung in Nakhon Pathom. They staged a mock hanging of the two, one of whom bore a resemblance to the Crown Prince. Some newspapers the following day, including the Bangkok Post, published a version of a “doctored” photo (what we would call in this day and age as “photoshopped”), suggesting that the students had committed lese majeste (criticism of the Thai Monarchy, which is still against the law). Rightist and ultra-conservative icons such as Samak Sundharavej blasted the students, instigating violent means to suppress the movement of the students, culminating on October 6, 1976.

The army unleashed its unofficial and clandestine paramilitaries. Subsequently, the army used the resultant mob violence, in which hundreds of students were tortured and killed, to suspend the constitution and resume power. Immediately after the incident, an amnesty was issued to soldiers to prevent any of those responsible for the massacre from coming to justice.

In the evening, a junta staged a coup, declaring the end of the Democrat Party led-coalition government. The army installed Thanin Kraivichien, an ultra-conservative former judge, as prime minister, and carried out a sweeping purge of the universities, the media and the civil service. Thousands of students, intellectuals and other leftists fled Bangkok and joined the Communist Party's insurgent forces in the north and north-east (Isaan), operating from safe bases in Laos. Others left for exile, including Dr. Puey Ungphakorn, the respected economist and Rector of Thammasat University.

(Photos we took in 2010 of the area of Phu Chan where communist insurgents had a base camp not an hour away from our village, back in the late 1970s, earliest '80s)

The economy was also in serious difficulties, in no part due to Thanin's policies, which frightened foreign investors.

The new regime proved as unstable as the democratic experiment had been. In October 1977 a different section of the army staged another "coup" and replaced Thanin with General Kriangsak Chomanand. In 1978 the government offered an amnesty to Thai communists willing to "work with us to build a prosperous nation".[1] The offer included housing, family reunion and security.[1]

By this time, Thai forces had to deal with the situation resulting from the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. There was another flood of refugees, and both Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces periodically crossed into Thai territory, sparking clashes along the borders. A 1979 visit to Beijing earned Deng Xiaoping's agreement to end support for Thailand's communist movement; in return, the Thai authorities agreed to give safe haven to the Khmer Rouge forces fleeing west following the invasion of Cambodia.

Revelations of the tremendous crimes of the defeated Khmer Rouge also sharply reduced the appeal of communism to the Thai public. With no one he could blame, Kriangsak's position as prime minister soon became untenable and he was forced to step down in February 1980 at a time of economic troubles. Kriangsak was succeeded by the army commander-in-chief, General Prem Tinsulanonda, a staunch royalist with a reputation for being incorruptible.

In 1979-88, Vietnamese occupation forces in Kampuchea made incursions into Thai territory, often seeking rebel guerrillas supposedly hidden in refugee camps (where many Laotians and Vietnamese refugees had also settled).[1] Sporadic skirmishes continued along the border. From 1985 to 1988, Vietnamese troops in Kampuchea periodically made raids to wipe out Khmer Rouge border camps in Thailand, which remained, along with China, major supporters of Khmer Rouge resistance.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Democracy Movement, 1973

Although the Thai absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932 and a constitutional monarchy instituted in what was the country’s first coup d’etat, the Democracy Movement did not begin until the late 1960s with Thai student demonstrations calling for changes in the military government of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. These started in 1968 and grew in size and numbers in the early 1970s despite the continued official ban on political meetings.

(front patio orchids)

The following is mostly taken from the Wiki on the History of Thailand:

In June 1973, nine Ramkhamhaeng University students were expelled for publishing an article in a student newspaper that was critical of the government. Shortly after, thousands of students held a protest at the Democracy Monument, in Bangkok, demanding the re-enrollment of the nine students. The government ordered the universities to shut, but shortly afterwards allowed the students to be re-enrolled.

In October 1973, another 13 students were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. This time the student protesters were joined by workers, businessmen and other ordinary citizens. The demonstrations swelled to several hundred thousand and the issue broadened from the release of the arrested students to demands for a new constitution and the replacement of the current government.

On October 13, the government released the detainees. Leaders of the demonstrations, among them Seksan Prasertkul, called off the march in accordance with the wishes of the King who was publicly against the democracy movement. In a speech to graduating students, he criticized the pro-democracy movement by telling students to concentrate on their studies and leave politics to their elders [military government].

As the crowds were breaking up the next day, on October 14, many students found themselves unable to leave because the police had attempted to control the flow of the crowd by blocking the southern route to Rajavithi Road. Cornered and overwhelmed by the hostile crowd, the police responded with teargas and gunfire.

The military was called in, and tanks rolled down Rajdamnoen Avenue and helicopters fired down at Thammasat University. A number of students commandeered buses and fire engines in an attempt to halt the progress of deployed tanks by ramming into them. With chaos on the streets, King Bhumibol opened the gates of Chitralada Palace to the students who were being gunned down by the army. Despite orders from Thanom that the military action be intensified, army commander Kris Sivara had the army withdrawn from the streets.

The King condemned the government's inability to handle the demonstrations, ordered Thanom, Praphas, and Narong to leave the country, and notably condemned the students' supposed role as well. At 06:10 p.m., Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn resigned from his post as Prime Minister. An hour later, the King appeared on national television, asking for calm, and announcing that Thanom had been replaced with Dr. Sanya Dharmasakti, a respected law professor, as prime minister.

(The Democracy Monument in Bangkok, built in 1940 to commemorate the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932, was the scene of massive demonstrations in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010).

 References for this section:

1932: Revolution in Siam by Charnvit Kasetsiri; Thammasart University Press, 2000 ISBN 974-85814-4-6
The End of the Absolute Monarchy in Siam by Benjamin A. Batson; Oxford University Press, 1984 ISBN 0-86861-600-1
History of the Thai Revolution by Thawatt Mokarapong; Thai Watana Panich Press, 1983 ISBN 974-07-5396-5
The Free Thai Legend by Dr. Vichitvong na Pombhejara; Saengdao, 2003 ISBN 974-9590-65-1
Siam becomes Thailand by Judith A. Stowe; University of Hawaii Press, 1991 ISBN 0-8248-1394-4
Thailand: A Short History by David K. Wyatt; Yale University Press, 2004 ISBN 0-300-08475-7
Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism by Thak Chaloemtiarana; Thammasart University Press, 1979
Thailand's Secret War: OSS, SOE and the Free Thai Underground During World War II by E. Bruce Reynolds; Cambridge University Press, 2004 ISBN 0-521-83601-8