Sunday, March 18, 2007

DOING NOTHING IS NO OPTION

BANGKOK POST, January 3, 2007
FOCUS / THAI POLITICS

Doing nothing is not an option

The Council for National Security and the government have made little progress in identifying and punishing crimes deemed serious enough by the coup-makers to have abrogated a constitution for

By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

A coup d'etat is a dangerous and unpredictable thing, even in countries like Thailand, where the sheer frequency of barrel-of-the-gun changes in government since 1932 has taught the populace to keep their heads down and accept the inevitable. The political news team at Thai Rath nominated General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin as their Man of the Year in recognition of the considerable courage implicit in staging a coup.

But a full three months after the smoothly-executed and mercifully peaceful coup that removed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from office, ostensibly in response to crooked business deals among other things, little progress has been made identifying and punishing crimes deemed serious enough by the coup-makers to ditch a constitution for.

Until the concerted bombing attacks on New Year's Eve, Bangkok looked a lot like a city back to business as usual, the usual wheelers and dealers flaunting their wealth, the usual trembling masses of motorised vehicles jamming every major intersection, the usual footpaths cluttered with tenacious street vendors. Hotels were bustling, luxury restaurants, exclusive shops and spas pampered local and visiting rich, while elephantine malls stretching from Siam Square to Sukhumvit Road narrowed the scope of public space, trees and fresh air even as they offered a new virtual reality: a grandly-appointed and air-conditioned fantasy life for the upper middle and lower upper classes.

Until the last day of the old year, it was as if the decisive Sept 19 coup had never happened, not so much a sympton of political apathy as the application of a kind of folk wisdom: going about one's daily life pretending it's business as usual can help get things back to normal. Unfortunately, pretending doesn't make underlying conflicts go away, and Thailand remains divided along dangerous fault lines of the new and old order, rich and poor, city and country, as well as serious ethnic cleavages.

When Mr Thaksin was in power, he dominated the media, both as a celebrity personality and as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. For the sake of free press and the airing of divergent views, it is a good thing that the greedy media impressario no longer dominates the airwaves or the headlines. But Mr Thaksin, given his modern outlook and loads of money, left a legacy of polished production values, rapid-strike reactions and instant, though often unverifiable, answers to pressing issues.

Mr Thaksin was slick enough with public relations to make the current leadership look like media amateurs, though upon closer inspection this may be a good thing if one values truth over spin. It's just that for a populace conditioned by media tricks and manipulative sleight of hand, hearing straight talk and having to face the unvarnished truth may take some getting used to.

For as America's fatal infatuation with the spin of the Bush-Cheney propaganda team in the post 9/11 period suggests, in times of stress people crave firm answers and seemingly decisive policies in preference to complex, ambiguous, even contradictory truths. A fearful and confused populace badly wants immediate action, even if it means going down the wrong road.

Seen in this regard, the no-frills response of both interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin to the New Year's Eve bombings was both reassuring and troubling; reassuring because they tried to level with the public, admitting there was much they didn't know and there were things they couldn't control; and troubling because not knowing the complete truth and not being able to protect the population as much as one would like to, does not inspire hero worship.

One suspects that Mr Thaksin, and his media flacks, facing a similar crisis, would have been less deferential to the truth, claiming he knew who did it, or had things totally under control, which was his standard reaction to previous incidents of violence, even when not backed by the facts.

No one, not even a strong-armed elected official with a rich war chest and marked dictatorial tendencies like Mr Thaksin, ever has things completely under control. Mr Thaksin came close to controlling the media maybe, but reality always eluded his grasp.

There is perhaps poetic justice in the role switch for the wily politician who once so excelled at buying the news: Mr Thaksin is now a tabloid caricature, a shadow puppet of his former self. The restless man of unbound ambition impatiently tests the limits of his tentative exile, knowing the ticking of the clock daily reduces his importance to little more than last year's news.

Until the shocking New Year's Eve blasts, Thais of all walks of life had been cheerfully converging on Rajprasong intersection to enjoy the company of other people under the brilliant lights of glittering holiday displays. In a quintessentially Thai tableau just days before the blasts, throngs of street vendors plied freshly cooked treats to curbside diners, creating a fragrant obstacle course to tourists who joined luck-challenged locals offering candles and incense to the restored four-faced Brahma at Erawan Shrine, while Christmas decorations and New Year lights shimmered, the tinkle of ancient court tunes were counter-pointed by school kids singing Christmas carols.

If the perpetrators of the bombing spree are not identified and apprehended, such cosmpolitan moments will become rare and public space, already cramped due to over-development in the Thaksin-era building spree, will become sterile and impoverished.

Pressed to choose between an upstart billionaire premier and an august and long-tenured King, the Thai people chose their beloved King. And so boundless is the general admiration of the monarch and so auspicious the anniversary year that the coup-makers were graciously given time to get their act together by otherwise frustrated people hungry for positive change.

But even with the silkiest of coups, the honeymoon can only last so long, and the bomb blasts put an abrupt end to whatever grace period the new government enjoyed. The news from the provinces continues to be troubling, whether it be the intolerable provocations of an intractable Islamist insurgency in the South, or the troubling spate of school burnings in the North and Northeast, or the withdrawal symptoms of the Thaksin populism-intoxicated poor hooked on handouts, easy cash and grand gestures.

Interim Prime Minister Surayud has shown considerable dignity, humility and civic-mindedness in his first few months on the job, a restorative to a population recovering from the loud and brash ways of his megalomaniac predecessor. But remnants of the old order and advocates for a return to electoral politics will be quick to discredit the new government if it stumbles economically or plays too heavy a hand in dealing with terror and other deliberate provocations.

On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option; gaping social wounds will not heal as long as long as ill-begotten fortunes are left entirely intact and fundamental wrongs are not righted.

To be effective, one has to hew a fine line between unwarranted intervention and criminal neglect, between going too far and not going far enough. It's a tall order for anyone, even a wise old soldier, but Gen Surayud, with his track record of using a humanitarian approach to end the civil war with the Thai communists a generation before, may just turn out to be the right man at the right time to lead Thailand away from bitter social divisiveness back on the path to social harmony.

Though tourism and business may suffer short-term reversals due to the blasts and underlying political insecurities, the example of New York and London and other terror-hit cities suggests that things will rebound, even improve, with time. The indomitable spirit of New Yorkers and Londoners is part of what attracts visitors today, just as the courage and resilience of the Thai people and foreign friends in the face of the terrible tsunami demonstrates that a return to normalcy, or even something better than normalcy, is possible.

Two years after unimaginable devastation, Thailand's beach resorts welcome huge numbers of tourists, interested not only in sea and sand but moved by and intrigued by the newly fortified cosmopolitan spirit that grew in response to the tsunami. Pleasure-seeking is now paired with a deeper appreciation for the preciousness of life.

The trials and tribulations that the people of Bangkok, local and foreign, must endure in the days to come, can likewise help forge a new cosmopolitan spirit. While terror can also lead to a closing of the mind and an upswing in petty prejudices, it is also an opportunity for a recognition of shared human vulnerabilities, and it can further allow for an opening of the mind and finding strength in diversity.

For the worst of times contain the seeds for the best of times; squarely facing the fears of the present can help promote a newfound courage, a newfound concern for fellow men and women, a newfound discovery of the things that really matter. That's a bit how it feels now, talking to friends, chatting with vendors, shopping and eating out in a vibrant neighbourhood not far from two of the bomb sites, hours after a series of coordinated blasts intended to instil fear and confusion.

If the people of Bangkok can continue to press forward, as they have been doing already, with both courage and appropriate caution, with concern for others and a cultivated lack of attachment to the distortions of power and greed that fuel most battles, then Bangkok will become a better place to live.

Tourists and businessmen will continue to vote for Thailand with their feet if Thailand's fabled tolerance for diversity and appreciation for different cultures, religions and races continues apace. Whatever hardships must be faced will be shared hardships, and the joining of many hands will make the necessary hard work lighter.

Philip J Cunningham is a Beijing-based freelance writer and political commentator.