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 2008-2014

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.


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.