Wednesday, December 4, 2013

THAILAND'S YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY


A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask marches on a main road during an anti-Thaksin demonstration at a
shopping centre last month.  (photo credit EPA/Narong Sangnak)


"The Year of Living Dangerously" (Bangkok Post, July 17, 2013)


Philip J Cunningam

Thailand is one of the world's top tourist destinations, and this success couldn't have come at a worse time, not because the country hasn’t earned it, and not because it isn’t a fun place to visit, but because Thai society is on the brink, entering its year of living dangerously. To the background drumbeat of mounting political pressures, there are endless attractions and distractions and myriad, shimmering sights to see. The food is delicious, the music swings, service is supreme and there are serene temples, street snacks and tempting nightlife. Even the egotistical strutting of local politicos, and the consumerist tail-dancing of hi-so snobs can be viewed as background color for sojourners soaking up the sun and fun and non-stop folly in the kaleidoscopic tropical wonderland.
Unfortunately for tourists, Thailand is not a mind-bending fantasy, but a real, fractured country in crisis, teetering on the edge of a political abyss, facing imminent political implosion. The record-breaking twenty million pleasure-seeking foreign arrivals may suddenly discover that a funland lurching towards civil war in fits and starts is no holiday bargain. Crime against tourists appear to be on the upswing, and while there is no neat correlation between rape, rip-offs, murder and the political descent into madness, the risk of tourists becoming collateral damage is a real one.
Recent volatile events in Cairo are being monitored closely in Bangkok because there are haunting political parallels. Thailand has more experience with electoral democracy, but it also has more experience with coups. Both Egypt and Thailand have been major recipients of US military aid, and each has duly attempted to emulate American-mandated democratic trappings. This has led to the creation of formidable political machines that win at the polls only to gobble up power, cripple the opposition and hoard the ill-begotten goods as ruthlessly as any strong-arm patron would.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood abused a broad electoral mandate, allowing the economy to crumble and crime to soar while trying to cow the courts in the direction of Sharia law, while in Thailand, valuable time has been wasted on schemes designed to pave the way for Thaksin’s return with a get-out-of-jail-free card, distracting the nation’s law-makers from tackling more pressing problems of poverty, crime, corruption and the “fire-in-the-south” communal violence that has claimed almost 5,000 lives.

The ill-conceived amnesty bills range from the anarchic --letting every violent offender since 2006 off the hook-- to the ironic, such as a proposal by coup-maker Sonthi Bunyaratglin to forgive and forget “political” offences.

Now out of power, under an administration where the political opposition is not given its due as part of the game, a very vulnerable Abhisit has been hit with spurious murder charges by PM Yingluck’s Ministry of Justice. Meanwhile, there’s been enough behind-the-scenes-scheming to make Machiavelli blush, a sample of which has emerged in the form of an audio tape documenting Thaksin’s attempts to wheel and deal with the military.

But that’s not all. Former Prime Minister Abhisit recently revealed that he has been offered a deal by an unnamed nemesis, the gist of which was to approve the pro-Thaksin amnesty bill if he wanted capital charges dropped against himself.

So, say what one might about Abhisit’s privileged childhood spent mostly in England, or the disadvantages of behaving like a gentleman when inside the ruthless ring of political combat, it is the rare man who calmly faces legal charges that could result in his execution. Unlike Thaksin, who fled the country in 2008, using a short, court-approved trip to the Beijing Olympics as a pretext to escape justice for economic crimes, Abhisit is willing to face grave, life-and-death charges against him in court and in country.

To those aligned with the Shinawatra bandwagon, Abhisit’s stubborn courage makes him the anti-Thaksin. He was inexplicably portrayed as a ghoulish, long-fanged, bloodthirsty, Dracula by partisan propagandists well before the crackdown in 2011, but that was trash talk and street theatre. From the very outset, pro-Thaksin agitators revealed their darkest desires in a self-fulfilling prophecy of bloody chaos by pouring buckets of donated blood on the gate of Abhisit's home. And it was in keeping with the same desperate, apocalyptic agenda that Thaksin’s negotiators courted a crackdown by refusing a fair and reasonable agreement to hold new elections within six months.

A terrible bloodbath followed on May 19, 2011. There is no disputing the dreadful violence, much of it committed in the course of a clumsy military crackdown, but there were also rogue snipers, police asleep on the job and partisan men in black running interference; factors which made the military dispersal of the crowd at Rajprasong an unmitigated disaster for all sides. 

And yet, if the opportunistic deals with the military and the shameless horse-trading that Abhisit recently alluded to are for real, it just goes to show that the Shinawatra don did not have any skin in the game, and can conveniently distance himself from the bloody battles he praised so highly from the sidelines.

To such a leader there are no permanent friends or enemies, nor any concept of impartial justice or lasting loyalty to the foot-soldiers fallen at the barricades, just opportunism at each and every turn.

What this potent political mix means for holiday-goers soaking up the sun, dancing in the moonlight and cooling in crystalline swimming pools is uncertain, but if the restless Thaksin can’t overcome his heartless lust for power, Thailand loses, and all bets are off.

Millions of visitors may find themselves in unexpected jeopardy, akin to Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver in Peter Weir’s “The Year of Living Dangerously,” set in Indonesia on the eve of social breakdown.  Even the most cosmopolitan and street-wise traveler is at risk when it comes to dealing with the unseen political riptides that deliver periodic terror to the shores of what otherwise may seem a bountiful, steamy tropical paradise.

If the most divisive figure in modern times orchestrates a return to Thailand, by hook or by crook, coups and chaos will follow, and tourists won’t be able get to the airport fast enough.