Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bangkok Political Turbulence

“Weeee are Siamese if you pleeease, we are Siamese if you DON’T please…” (Disney’s 101 Dalmations) was my introduction to things Siamese; a few years later I lived there. Now I’ve taught Thai Social Studies, written local history and guidebooks, and lived here over 20 years. But although I live in Thailand, I have little contact with the Siamese.
One can argue the point, but to me, the Siamese are less than 20 million Central Plains folk who mostly live within 250 kilometers of Bangkok, have some Malay blood and heritage, and revere social hierarchy. Further south along the peninsula people are mostly Malay (except in Nakorn Sri Tammarat and tribal villages), along the Cambodian border they are Khmer (pronounced kah-mae), in Issan Lao and in the north T’ai or tribal. This is not an anthropological treatise, so I won’t belabor the issue. I merely want to suggest that international reportage in the situation here are hampered by limited understanding of context and local opinion.
The Thai, all the people of the country, are governed not by Siamese, but by Chinese, largely Teh Chiew, but also others with roots in Guandong Province, China (aka Canton or Kangtung Province). Thai bureaucracy is headed by a Persian family, the Bunags. There were, of course, generally Thai wives involved, but sense of paternal importance remains strong. The “Sakdi-na” feudalistic system in place for over half a millennium remains strong, almost inflexible, and dangerous to the unconnected. It is the need for greater justice, both economic and social, that is the root of current Thai instability.
Three and a half years ago, I wrote:
A friend thinks Thailand’s “People Power" revolution could lead the world into a new era of social justice. This is but reveling in an intoxicated feeling resultant of accepting being lied to as as valid as anything else. Thai being a highly ambiguous language, well suited for seeming to say opposite things simultaneously, it involves tremendous capacity for deception, as well as for very polite manners (and yes, there is a very definite close relation there).
Are Thai oppressed masses really demanding freedom from an evil dictator? I think not. The “protesters” (or paid agitators) are victims, certainly, but mostly of their own gullibility. Unused to reading, doing even simple math, and blithely unaware of most geography, history and economic theory, they at least have been unwilling to follow the un-elected leaders of their “democracy movement” – although at great social cost, and cost, even to their own health (in particular, from breathing smoke from tires they lit on fire). They know Thaksin wasn’t “democratically elected” – they got paid to vote for him! But that’s OK, they tell themselves; even the Democrats have bought votes.
Whether there are actual facts, or only opinions, it is wise to accept that there are consequences to actions, or non-actions, and to act in accordance with what is likely to result from one’s decisions. The Red Shirts have not done that, primarily because they have become intoxicated with hope, and because they refuse to see that replacing the devil they know with a new silver-tongued devil full of glib promises is hardly overthrowing a system, let alone working for social justice.
Traditionally, different Thai powers have had differing concepts on justice, duty and method, and no singular vision ever became paramount. Clergy, armed services, tax collectors and other bureaucrats, various Chinese groups (merchant and other societies), other foreigners and internal rivals among these various powerful groups have long exerted veiled, but extensive, influence. Privilege was protected, nurtured, cherished and fought for – and Thai politics has generally been a delicate diplomatic juggling show. Much of Thai social structuring has always been a balancing act, keeping peasant farmers and Chinese merchants, border tribes and central bureaucrats, army and police, the powerful and the powerless, able to interact with less friction than has been the norm through much of recorded history, throughout the globe.
Thai courts have often been accused of corruption, as also have army, police, and bureaucracy, as well as other government divisions (the electricity generating monopoly, state railroad department, customs and port authority, immigration and the border patrol); even the Sangha Buddhist clergy officialdom has, too. But as often as not, perhaps, this “corruption” might be said to exist primarily in the eye of the beholder. It’s often been simply the way things are, or were, done, and Thailand has usually exhibited an incredible extent of tolerance.
Telecommunications-tycoon turned Prime Minister Thaksin’s years of success (coming after many business failures and then selling questionable walky-talkies to the police force he was an officer of) involved quiet deal-making that eventually consolidated over a fifth of the national budget under his personal executive authority; he toured the country dishing this out (usually as loans, with interest), thus becoming more important in patronage than long-powerful local MPs, and creating a challenge to the old power system. Thaksin’s main challenge to the power structure involved assault on the long-standing but compromised relationship between authoritarian privilege and mercantilism. The poor wanted a champion, and he pretended to be one for them, gaining power while traveling to India and Burma on public funds to do personal business. While proclaiming support for all, he acted primarily for his own benefit, winning accolades as a mover and shaker, as one who knew how to achieve results.
But much of what he did was based on the work of Chuan Leekpai (especially the much touted, but painfully inefficient, 30 baht public health “scheme”). He did all he could to overthrow checks and balances, and to insure continuation of his power. He was no champion of democracy. The parliamentary process by which the current Democrat coalition came to power is the same process used in Britain; the parliament that voted in this government consists entirely of democratically elected members.
The fanciful, self-serving demands of the “red shirts” have had little to do with “social justice” – they don’t even say what they hope new elections will bring. They could, and should, talk about decentralization, and some have; they could, and should, decry corruption, but in doing so, must also show willingness to share in the burdens a re-making of the social contract would require.
In Bangladesh, “micro-economic” support-groups have helped revive an almost comatose economy, much as overseas Koreans have used the power of the group to finance many small, but nonetheless successful, businesses. Has “community radio” called for that kind of thing here? I think not. This all wasn’t, as claimed, about an elite vs. people they oppress: people who were poor but a generation ago now have access to consumer goods, healthcare, communications and entertainment, and more so than half of the people in our world. Why should Thais be richer than everyone else? Have they worked as hard as people in South Korea?
The Isaan poor engage as much in “kicking dogs” as other people; they complain of being looked down on, but meanwhile look down on others. Not only is there a problem of lack of individual initiative, but one of integrity, honesty, and understanding of principles. That Isaan’s history has been lost has contributed to this, but despite an interesting tradition of separatism, the fiery self-respecting bravery of which I most certainly respect, it is absurd not to acknowledge the problems of Balkanization, and how the ethnic armies of Myanmar undercut themselves through their refusal to effectively unite. Privilege without responsibility is hardly privilege at all. The truth of the matter is that Abhisit is more likely to be of assistance to the tire-burners and other under-privileged Thais than Taksin, or his surrogates, would ever be, as is clear to anyone looking at the situation without hope of personal gain. That the “red shirt” leaders are merely self-serving should be obvious, but the human capacity for self-deception is immense.
The King has said all he’s able to, constitutionally; in calling on supreme court justices to do their duty, he implied that they sometimes have not. The king REIGNS ... he doesn't "rule" – and although he may be the richest of reigning monarchs, and although the royal palace may be run in bureaucratic fashion with typical bureaucratic problems, that seems to me to be something that comes with the territory. Communists like Jit Pumisak and Ho Chi Min were never true followers of Karl Marx, and couldn’t be – there was no oppressed proletariat, just an ancient, and functional, agrarian society based largely on co-operation among villagers. Southeast Asia has always been paternalistic, and every Thai, save for maybe 20 or 30individuals (at most), has a protector. This is not likely to change quickly.
Although the monarchy was overthrown (for questionable reasons) in 1932, resumption of monarchy’s importance in Thai politics soon followed. After Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat took over, through a brilliant and almost entirely non-violent coup, the King was once again firmly in place at the top of the social hierarchy, justified by Sarit through an idiosyncratic ideology based on paternalistic, traditional social and political hierarchy. Instead of emphasizing abstract loyalties to country or constitution, Sarit focused on respect for the monarch, with citizen loyalty as the source of legitimacy for government, the worldly part of a sacred monarchy. Social hierarchy, built up from the masses through the lower bureaucracy to higher officials and monarch, was enhanced, but at the cost of egalitarianism. The king, again at the top of moral, social and political orders, resumed service as the highest supporter of all the country’s religions, and an integrated whole became again effective. Sarit tried to redefine democracy as a system of government, bureaucracy and king, responsive to people’s needs and aspirations. Leaders were to act toward members of society as fathers toward children, concerned for their well being but stern in discipline. A consequent attitude that those in authority need not explain difficult matters to their lessers, brought problems with accountability, consistency and transparency which still hamper Thai efforts to successfully compete in the modern global economy. Sarit is now widely reviled for greed and corruption (while Prime Minister taking for himself and his many, many mistresses perhaps as much as 4% of GNP!); his efforts on behalf of the royal family largely forgotten.
Since World War II Bangkok has grown rapidly, which caused problems with transportation, communication, housing, water supply, drainage and pollution (which Thai language thus had to invent a word for). Tourism rose in importance during the Vietnam War; the city became a popular destination for U.S. military personnel. In the 1980s, nightclubs and sex trade were the world’s wildest. Although prostitution is formally illegal and the number of prostitutes per capita is lower in Thailand than in some other Asian countries, sea-side resorts pander to foreign sex-tourists. To combat gross abuse, underage prostitution and a growing ‘image problem’ the government stiffened penalties in the late 1990s, and problems with “sex-slavery” have been greatly reduced. Amazingly, though, despite a lack of foreign spending during the Red Shirt occupation of central Bangkok, prostitute earnings are reported to have quadrupled during that period. It isn’t hard to guess where the money for that came from, or why.
While their men were disporting themselves, women and children were being told they were in danger of falling into the hands of murderous oppressors, and children were used as “human shields”, told they needn’t be afraid, must be brave for the “cause” – their presence justified to reporters by their parents’ purported desire to "entertain and thrill" them. Paranoia, delusions of grandeur, incessant noisy diversions, and a perverse justification of violence as expression of one’s feelings undermined what otherwise might have become a propagandistic media victory; I doubt the Red Shirt faction can any longer win a national election. Still, the international press has failed to comprehend the issues involved, and seems determined to help destroy what democracy exists here, in the name of democracy – much like the Tea-baggers in the good ol’ USA.
It’s foolish to forget - Taksin has been supportive of despots, the Argentine Juan Peron’s populism didn’t work, that concentration of wealth is sometimes almost accidental (is it merely coincidence that the richest man in the world is currently a Mexican telecommunications tycoon, that fabulously wealthy Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi is also accused of corrupting democratic values, that the “too big to fail” businesses are ruining the world economy?); if media doesn’t correct its conceptual and contextual framework, we might even end up living in a world of urban terrorism not unlike what’s been depicted in Hollywood movies based on Philip K. Dick stories, but in all likelihood, media predictions of continuing violence are greatly exaggerated.
Did red shirt “leaders” (orators?) make suspiciously expensive purchases this year, as has been claimed? Were followers promised financial reward they didn’t receive? How much has resumption of peace resulted from asset freezing? Was Central World well insured and operating at a loss? Was another party involved, and directing (and paying for) paramilitary snipers dressed in black? Is there a significant chance of these questions being satisfactorily answered? Will misguided reporters, and their publishers, make retractions and corrections? As for the last two questions – I doubt it, while at the same time suspecting that real resolution depends at least somewhat on that happening (at least somewhat). More likely, we’ll hear more about projected unrest, unrest due to globalization, governmental ineptitude, and the good side of certain scoundrels.

That was then. Now the demonstrators are the opposing camp, but it seems much the same, and many from many places, “international” people, continue to express extremely confused ideas about “democracy” (which has never really existed anywhere, any more than communism has). The real issue is the power of money, the rule of law, and the stresses of “globalization”! Thais, especially the Siamese, feel threatened, and they are.
In January 2003, Thaksin Shinawatra (pronounced Chin-awat) started a “War on Drugs” to rid the country of drugs - in three months. Human Rights Watch reported 2,275 people killed in that time, failing to acknowledge the murder of thousands of “stateless” or illegal immigrant tribal people in villages throughout the North (at least one in every tribal village). Thaksin’s people laughably claimed that only around 50 were killed by police, the rest being drug traffickers who were being silenced by their dealers and their dealers’ dealers. I have heard many tales of prolonged torture, including days in pits before death. Some killed were patently innocent (one was only 6 years old). Well over 2,800 individuals were killed in the “war on drugs” campaign between 2003-2005; I believe it to have been over 10,000. Whatever the case, Thaksin subsequently admitted that the campaign was a mistake. It was found to be a case of crime against humanity by an independent investigative committee. It did nothing to end the drug problem, which is now in fact worse.
“Self exiled” fugitive Police Lt.Col. Thaksin Shinawatra stands accused of “policy corruption”: infrastructure and liberalization policies that, while legal and of potential benefit to society, not only greatly aided companies owned by his family but also cost the state nearly 30% more than it otherwise should have spent (an additional 400 billion baht, over 13 billion US$). Other examples include the Board of Investment's granting tax breaks worth a total of Bt16.4 billion to Shin Satellite for its iPSTAR project in 2003, and the Transport Ministry's decision the same year to abolish the minimum air fare of Bt3.8 /km when Shin Corp was about to enter into a joint venture with low-cost carrier AirAsia to open a Thai subsidiary. After the 2006 coup, the military junta-appointed Assets Examination Committee froze as much of Thaksin's assets as they could, based on charges of policy corruption. He retained sufficient funds to buy Manchester City football team (called “the poor relation to Manchester United”) for £81.6 million, or US$162 million (in his 3rd attempt to purchase an English Premier League team, following aborted attempts on Liverpool and Fulham).
In January 2007, the Thai government filed a charge against Thaksin and his wife over their purchase of four 772 million baht plots of land from the Financial Institutions Development Fund in 2003, an unrealistically low price. The charge was based on alleged violation of Article 100 of the National Counter Corruption Act, which prohibits government officials and their spouses from entering into or having interests in contracts made with state agencies under their authority. The Assets Examination Committee also accused Thaksin of issuing an unlawful cabinet resolution approving the spending of state funds to buy rubber saplings. In March 2007, the Office of the Attorney-General charged Thaksin’s wife and brother-in-law with conspiring to evade taxes of 546 million baht (US$15.6 million) in a 1997 transfer of Shin Corp shares.
The Assets Examination Committee found Thaksin guilty of malfeasance for obstructing competition by imposing an excise tax on telecom operators (Thaksin’s Cabinet had approved the relevant executive decree in 2003). The court found Thaksin guilty of four out of five policy corruption, and ordered that 46 billion baht be seized. The remaining 30 billion seized remains frozen.
Count 1: Conversion of telecom concession fees into excise charges. Previously, telecom operators had to pay the TOT/CAT a percentage of their revenue as a concession fee (TOT/CAT are state-owned enterprises, although they were going through the process of privatization). The Thaksin government modified this into a system wherein all operators would instead directly pay the government an equivalent excise tax. Judges ruled that this benefited Thaksin’s AIS while harming rival TOT, and thus was an abuse of power.
Count 2: Modification of a revenue sharing agreement on pre-paid mobile services. In 2003 Thaksin changed the concession fees paid by mobile telecom operators to state telecoms such as TOT and CAT. Previously, telecom operators had to pay the TOT a percentage of their revenues for post-paid mobile services. The revenue-sharing percentage of a prepaid-mobile concession agreement between Advanced Info Service (AIS) and state-owned TOT was reduced from 25% to 20%. This resulted in TOT losing B70.2 billion in revenue, including an estimated loss of B14.2 billion from 2001-06 and another estimated loss of B56 billion from 2006-15. Fees, converted into a simple tax, remained much lower, and Shin Corp’s AIS telecom, owned by Thaksin until it was sold to a Singapore State owned company in 2006, benefited the most, being the biggest telecom mobile company in Thailand, thus having had to pay the most in concession fees. An investigation found that Thaksin had abused his authority to benefit his family’s company; the changes made under his administration caused financial losses to two state-owned telecommunications enterprises. Judges ruled that the terms of the pre-paid agreement harmed TOT while benefiting AIS.
Count 3: Modification of mobile roaming agreement. Previously, there were no roaming agreements between mobile operators - subscribers from one operator were not allowed to use services on another operator’s network, thus limiting the growth of the mobile industry. Under the Thaksin government, roaming was allowed, with roaming fees deducted from the revenue that AIS and other operators had to share with TOT and other state enterprises. Essentially, TOT helped AIS shoulder the costs of its subscribers roaming on the mobile networks of other operators. This reduced TOT and CAT’s income while benefiting the operators. However, the judges ruled that it while benefited AIS, it did so to the benefit of AIS’s new owners (Temasek Holdings) rather than Thaksin, and hence was not an abuse of power. A conflict of interest case related to the $2.2 billion tax free sale of Shin Corp to Temasek Holding, a Singaporean Company, remains.
Count 4: Replacement of ThaiCom4 with iPSTAR: A previous government had originally contracted with ShinSat to launch and operate ThaiCom 4 as a backup satellite for ThaiCom 3. Instead, ShinSat negotiated with the Thaksin government to launch iPSTAR, then the largest commercial satellite in history, which it claimed could offer commercial internet services while also providing backup for ThaiCom 3. However, the claim is not technically possible since iPSTAR does not have C-band transponders. Shin Corp's ownership in ShinSat was subsequently reduced from 51% to 40%. Judges found that changes in ownership and satellite specification change reduced Thailand's communications security, and noted that the negotiations allowed ShinSat to launch a satellite with much greater commercial potential than ThaiCom 4 without having to bid for a separate concession agreement. There was a failure to enforce a satellite concession contract between Shin Satellite (ShinSat) and the Transport Ministry, resulting in public damage of Bt20 billion. ShinSat, a unit of Shin Corp and since renamed Thaicom, was supposed to invest in Thaicom 4, a back-up satellite costing Bt4 billion, under its contract with the government. However, the contract was changed to allow ShinSat to switch to launch the commercially oriented iPSTAR satellite instead of Thaicom 4. In addition, the concession contract was amended to reduce Shin Corp’s investment burden in ShinSat from 51% to 40%.
Count 5: Abuse of authority in approving an Exim Bank loan to Myanmar, to pay for ThaiCom services, which substantially benefited his Shin Corp. Thaksin had trade deals negotiated which gave Myanmar a Thai EXIM Bank loan to purchase B376 million in satellite services from ShinSat. While 16 other companies also benefited from the EXIM Bank's loans, judges still ruled that the loans gave preferential treatment to Thaksin, and hence were an abuse of power. They decided to seize 46 billion, the differences in value of Shin Corp. shares from the date when he came to office and the value when the shares were sold to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings in early 2006. Thaksin had declared around B500 million in assets and his wife Pojaman 8 to 9 billion, while Thaksin served as prime minister.
Thaksin was charged with illegally concealing billions of baht of his wealth by transferring ownership of Shin Corp shares to his drivers and maids, without their knowledge. Thaksin tearfully told the Constitutional Court that it was an honest mistake before the Court acquitted him on the charges. (CNN, Thaksin court drama grips Bangkok, 26 February 2010)
Thaksin faces a number of corruption charges as well as malpractice charges in the Thai courts. Charges against him include:
-Corruption in the purchase/hiring of explosive detector and equipment for Suvannabhumi Airport from GE Invision Inc. causing damage to the country of approximately $80 million.
-Unlawful change of telecommunication concession fees into excise tax which allegedly benefited Shin Corp while causing an equivalent loss of $US230 million to the country.
-Malfeasance in granting a loan of approximately $US400 million from state owned Krung Thai Bank to a company owned by his cronies and son.
-Abuse and violation of human rights on Muslim population in Southern Border Provinces which caused 108 deaths at Krue Sae Mosque, and 35 deaths at the Tak Bai incidents. Furthermore, during his first government, 18 human rights defenders were assassinated and another disappeared.
Eight out of 24 criminal corruption charges against Thaksin that has gone to court; the other 16 are still at police office or the attorney general’s office. Meanwhile, there are four potential perjury cases against Thaksin and his immediate family, related to official asset declarations of public office holders and their spouses.
Taksin’s sister and factotum faces many charges too:
1. The government of Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration subverted rule of law by submitting an Amnesty Bill to whitewash Thaksin from corruption charges and his involvement in political violence during the years 2009-2010. This Amnesty Bill would have stopped further investigation into Thaksin’s involvement in extrajudicial killing and abuse of human rights in the three Southern Border Provinces as well as the killings during the “war on drugs”, and started a process to reimburse him $US1.5 billion for monies seized when he was found guilty of corruption and other charges in 2010. Those who burned down the Zen Department Store building would also be “forgiven”!
2. The Rice Mortgage Scheme which Thaksin explicitly and publicly claims to be his initiative has cost the country over $US13 billion, destroyed Thailand’s competitiveness in the world rice market and failed to provide the help to the poor it promised. The scheme’s many loopholes have enabled public officials involved to embezzle substantial amounts of money. This has cost the public – we don’t know how much, as the government won’t say (one minister - Kittiratt Na-Ranong - has gone so far as to explain that it is OK for him to lie, to maintain public confidence), but the price seems to have risen to 1 or 2% of average income. Thailand’s position as the world’s #1 rice exporter may be forever lost.
3. Yingluck’s government attempted to circumvent budgetary practices by submitting a bill to enable it to secure a loan of $US70 billion (B2.2 trillion) for infrastructure mega-projects. This bill, only 4 pages long, contains but vague details of the projects. If approved, the country would be subject to 50 years of repayment, interest more than doubling the cost. This cost I figure as about 10% of average income. This, for a high-speed train which was supposed to connect to China, but now seems to have been scaled back to just three short lines, from Bangkok to Hua Hin, to Pattaya and to Korat.
4. Her government implemented a number of destructive populist policies, including excise tax reduction for a first car purchase, credit card for farmers, revolving funds for villages, and free electricity and water supply. These vote-catching policies have damaged the country’s fiscal situation and fostered a “culture of beggars” among many of its people. Populist policies produce votes for the government’s party but result in further financial irresponsibility among the populace. Household debt is now above a year’s average salary, and the country’s in danger of credit defaults like those which caused the 1997 financial collapse.
The government is also heavily involved in other expensive, and perhaps useless, mega-projects, especially the controversial B350 billion water management and flood-control scheme (of less than questionable value). Many of these are now on hold, but at least one isn’t: the Thai and Myanmar governments signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in May 2008 to develop a deep- sea port in Dawei and a connecting road link to Bangkok. Later, in July 2012, both governments signed another MOU on the Comprehensive Development of the Dawei Special Economic Zone and Its Related Project Areas in order to further enhance their cooperation of the Dawei project. While Thaksin has invested his own money buying land in the area and taking potential investors to Dawei and showing them the potential rewards for investing there. Meanwhile his proxy government is spending vast amounts building roads and infrastructure to the Myanmar border. It has approved the spending of another B50 billion on the project. But cost projections have been rising, and, as with her other mega-projects, Yingluck is finding lenders cagey and unco-operative. Once again, Thaksin’s vaunted “business acumen” becomes called into question. His satellite not-withstanding, Thaksin’s telecommunications “expertise” certainly has not produced a world-class system for his native country.
In April 2009, Privy Councilor General Pichitr Kullayanijaya reported he had been informed by former US ambassador to Thailand Ralph L. Boyce that Thaksin had laundered 100 billion baht (US$2.8 billion) through Cayman Island bank accounts to organize the anti-government protests ( Asia Times, “Smoke, mirrors and lies”, 17 April 2009).
A lack of the checks and balances necessary to real democracy has been a hallmark of Thai “democratic” procedure, and protesters are demanding that this change. They are not, though, acknowledging other important realities impending upon modern consciousness. They show no ecological concerns, no fears of global havoc, no concern to limit rampant materialism or greed, and little concern for justice for the poor. Perhaps they’re just a little behind the times; after all, many others don’t seem to be dealing with a full deck either.
for much more on the crimes of "Mr T" see:
Many seem to think that the credibility of the “leader” of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban , should be a central issue here. It most certainly is not. He is not running for office nor, as often claimed, trying to put some kind of end to Thai “democracy”. It has taken his unorthodox methods and virulent demagoguery to get at least some to remember that democracy is not just about elections. Suthep has become a figurehead, I’m not sure exactly why (I suppose he was chosen by somebody), of a movement to try to keep the country from being looted. That is all.

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