(published in Bangkok Post as "Suthep's patriotic vision stuck in an imaginary Past")
by Philip J Cunningham
Anticipating the King’s December 5 birthday, Suthep's protestors and the police have stepped back from the brink, exchanging flowers and hugs on the battle-torn frontlines instead of bullets and tear gas.
It was an extraordinary moment, a photo op for the ages, like one of those fabled World War I Christmas truces, where both the French and Germans shared a bit of comfort food and holiday good cheer before going back at it again. Whatever it was that was really going on is by no means over; the harsh contradictions that have been ripping Thai society apart are still in play, though mercifully dormant for the moment.
The mai pen rai factor in the sudden cessation of tensions is simply mind-boggling.
Nothing is as it seems; either side could win all or lose all, or then again, some sort of face-saving accommodation will see a restoration of the status quo in new clothing.
The only constant is the defiant Suthep, who has been in high dudgeon during the last few days. On the evening of December 2 an embattled Suthep gave a speech that baffled many while reassuring his base. It’s too soon to say if it will go down as a rhetorical last stand, or if it reflects the emerging manifesto of a new political regime, but Suthep’s December 2 speech, and his follow up announcements since then, amount to a non-violent call to arms.
(screen grab of December 2, 2013 speech)
Key points of recent Suthep speeches:
-Now is the time to join; it’s fight between good and evil.
-Thailand is suffering because of the predations of an evil capitalist and his police lackeys.
-The way to remove suffering is to drive the clan out of the country and reform the police.
-The Thai media tell only part of the story
-The army is on the side of the people. Neutrality is enough.
-The people must remain committed to peace and non-violent tactics.
-The people should not be goaded into violence by the predations of police and pain of tear gas.
-Having the Prime Minister Yingluck step down solves nothing
-A caretaker government under foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul is no good
-Thailand needs an entirely new leadership team in the form of an appointed "People's Council"
-The metropolitan police did nothing to protect the innocent students at Ramkamhaeng who were killed and injured during a sustained attack
-The police must be confronted by the will of the people and the metropolitan police bureau must be occupied.
Check. The occupation happened, as Suthep said it would, but with a twist. Metropolitan police chief, Khamronwit, (who is an unapologetic supporter of Thaksin) turned a tense crisis into a public relations coup when he invited the protesters in with no resistance. Floral bouquets were offered. It’s possible the police are of two minds about Suthep, it’s possible the military brokered an accommodation, but it also might be a time-buying ploy.
Suthep is not the most popular man around, but he is the beneficiary of unseen dynamics. At a certain level, only crazy people can do what needs to be done when it comes to pulling off a people’s coup. But there is at least some method to the madness if there is tacit support from major players behind the scenes.
The result is a battle for hearts and minds, but it’s not for the faint of heart and the dynamics remains elusive to foreign and domestic media alike. The world is left watching wide-eyed with mouths agape, feeling pressed to rush to judgment on something that is half blood sport, half soap opera.
A real revolution, if it is to take place at all, first takes place in the realm of the spiritual, the realm of self-sacrifice, the realm of belief in a higher cause that makes it possible to transcend the logic of the habitual and put one’s body on the line. But a phony revolution can mimic a real one given sufficient backing of unseen supporters and secret understandings.
The result so far has been a wild ride; it’s reckless, it’s insane, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous, it’s sickening, it’s hypocritical, it’s Manichean, it’s many, many things.
It has been anything but a dinner party, but it may not be a revolution either.
Suthep speaks to the yearning for a strong leader. He speaks as corrupt, strong-arm politician who has undergone a spiritual conversion; he is operating on a different plane from his former self, he feels himself to be an instrument of history.
The protesters' vision of Thailand is not unlike that sung about in the national anthem. It’s about flag-waving patriotism, courage and determination, but it’s also reactionary. It’s about reform, but it’s also about going back in time, back to an imagined golden age before the current troubles.
In throwing down the gauntlet, Suthep raises the stakes. Now it’s up to the nation, in all its trembling uncertainty, and innate fear of backing the wrong horse, to figure out if it wants to follow the “madman” possessed with a deeply conservative but compelling vision of regaining a lost country.
(photo downloaded from Twitter, wire services)