Thursday, April 16, 2009

A view from Southeast Asia – Focus on Thailand

The most recent event of note, here in Southeast Asia, is the recent turmoil in Thailand. This has been brewing for such a long time, since former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in 2006. This is the same year that the Global Understanding Movement (GUM) was formed. We have no connection to Thaksin being deposed! Since then, a rainbow has graced the streets of Bangkok and other cities.

There have been the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin and the yellow-shirt supporters of those opposed to Thaksin and his allies. Then there have been the blue-shirt people wearing masks in Pattaya, who were there to supposedly protect the ASEAN meeting and show their opposition to the red shirts.

In the build up to the September 2006 military coup, which saw Thaksin removed from office, there had been pressure put on Thaksin and his policies by a group called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The PAD were not a political party, but a political pressure group formed by individuals concerned by the power wielded by Thaksin and the direction he was taking Thailand. PAD had some influential backers including those with links to the media, army and Royal Palace.

Supporters of PAD adopted the yellow shirt and made international headlines at the end of 2008, when television viewers around the world were shown images of the occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. The main distinguishing feature was the yellow shirts worn by the protesters, adopted by the protesters to show their allegiance to the king.

The Red Shirts managed to force the abandonment of the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Pattaya, where several world leaders were scheduled to attend, by breaking into the venue. Some leaders were whisked away by helicopter, including Vietnam’s Prime Minister.

Thaksin, a multibillionaire media tycoon was elected in 2001 on a populist platform that promised universal healthcare and cash handouts to poor villagers. He was ousted from power in a bloodless army coup in 2006 and has been in exile abroad since being sentenced last October to two years in prison after being convicted of a corruption charge by Thailand's Supreme Court.

It’s reported that he’s been in negotiations to recover US$2.2 billion of family-owned assets that are now frozen in Thai banks. Those negotiations reportedly stalled because of the military's unwillingness to negotiate and the government's efforts to have Thaksin extradited to serve a two-year prison sentence for criminal conflict of interest charges.

Last Wednesday, Thailand's government announced it has revoked Thaksin’s passport with effect from April 12th because he stands accused of helping to stoke the recent anti-government hostility. Thaksin frequently addressed his followers by video or letter and called for his followers to engage in a revolution.

"Now that they have tanks on the street and the soldiers are coming out, so it is time for the people to come out for a revolution," Thaksin said. He later pushed for an end to violence. "We absolutely reject any form of violence, and reject the efforts of such enemies to tarnish what we stand for, to portray us as a mob, and to legitimize a crackdown on our people," he said in an open letter to the Thai people.

"I reiterate my call here to all my fellow Thais that our struggle for democracy must be non-violent. We must build the future we seek through the force of our ideas and our principles, and resist all the suppressive and aggressive attempts by the state and state-sponsored thugs to provoke us and incite us to violence," he said.

On April Fool’s Day, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said the government wanted to avoid violence, he offered to negotiate directly with the exiled Thaksin. "If talks can bring peace to the country, I am ready to meet him anywhere, because Thaksin is the only person that can end the siege."

Thasin responded, "Negotiation is out of the question. We are talking about the nation's future now."

After the Red Shirts withdrew from their blockade of the Prime Minister’s office, PM Abhisit Vejjajiva said, “The government does not view its success on this occasion as a victory over the protesters and should this be considered a victory, it is one for all Thai people."

Where now?

The recent events, following on from previous disruptions that were shown on TV screens around the world, have badly affected Thailand’s tourism industry, which accounts for about 12% of the country’s GDP.

Thaksin’s trusted aide and former minister in Thaksin’s government, Jakrapob Penkair, now leader of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) distinguished himself throughout the chaos and some say he could emerge as the opposition's next prime ministerial candidate. This is of course presuming that Thailand will continue to have elections.

Some observers say that this is only one battle in the war. Thai society is on-edge because nobody knows what will happen when the highly revered 81-year-old monarch, King Bhumibol eventually passes away. He is of ill health and many wonder how long he will live. When he does, many predict that pent-up frustrations will boil over.

A key-player is Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, whom Thaksin recently alleged together with his close associate General Surayud Chulanont, were among the masterminds behind the 2006 coup. This is a public accusation that the royal advisory body was acting outside of its legal mandate.

Some say that Thaksin's calls for a national uprising were no idle threat and that the protest group, could in the weeks ahead stir more trouble at the provincial level.

There are reports that Thaksin operatives had for the past two years clandestinely funnelled small arms through Cambodia to his supporters in various north-eastern provinces, where Thaksin's grassroots support runs deep. The arms had been moved and distributed with the help of former Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), an ideologically driven insurgent group active in the 1960s and 1970s that frequently criticized the royal family during its years of armed resistance. The group was disbanded in the 1980s, but some of its former student leaders were among Thaksin's top aides while he was in government.

It is without doubt that Thailand has not seen the last of public discontent; there are other battles to be fought before the war is won. When and where, nobody knows.

How about a little understanding?

The motto of the Global Understanding Institute is: Let us live together in harmony

The Global Understanding Institute seeks to share understanding of the world around us through provision of global and local forums to exchange and express views for all interested and concerned citizens of the world. We owe it to each other to communicate in a polite, logical and rational manner that takes into consideration racial, religious and political sensitivities.

We seek to foster multicultural, pluralistic communities and to create peace between neighbours. This is based on the fundamental principles of human and humanitarian rights. Our goal is to aid any interested and concerned citizen of the world to understand others, to be understood themselves especially during times of crisis or conflict, and to bring peace and reconciliation where there are differences.

At this stage, I don’t know how the Global Understanding Institute can play a role in Thailand, but that is not going to stop us from trying to find out. I am actively reaching out to Thai friends, who represent all colours of the rainbow, to see what can be done.

We may not be successful, but at least we must try. If any readers of this post can assist in this worthy goal, please contact me. Together, let’s try to make a difference.

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