Has Newin Stepped In It?
The old godfather Thai politicians are nothing if not opportunists. The announcement that Newin Chidchob has defected to the Democrats is hardly surprising. The other godfathers are well known for jumping on any bandwagon they think will help perpetuate them in their mafia-style power. They control their little fiefdoms as their own personal kingdoms, extracting huge amounts of money from the rich merchants and poor farmers alike.
Now that Chidchob, once Thaksin’s staunch ally, has defected to the Democrats many are probably shaking their heads, expecting the red shirt demonstrations to be defeated. But I would not bet on it. To understand why we must look at the realities that govern Thai society today.
Behind all the unrest, the big elephant in the room that we are hardly allowed to acknowledge is the question of the succession. If you have been following Thai politics for any length of time you will know that the yellow shirts are in favor of continuing the status quo. The cannot see a future without the monarchy. But is this possible? Given the situation this is a crucial question. No matter how much money and effort is poured into it, the simple fact is that His Majesty has set the bar extremely high for his successor.
So that leaves the question hanging. And the common Thai people, the red shirts, are well aware of this.
When Thaksin was in power I often felt he was aiming for far more than the royalists were prepared to even think about: A republic with himself as President. I could see a scenario where this would have been possible while maintaining the current power structure, but subordinate to the state instead of the army. Thaksin’s courting of the successor was a powerful indicator of his ambitions.
With Thaksin’s ouster that does not seem to be possible any more. But in politics one must never say never. As the Pink Panther said, “Politics is where greed meets the mask of morality”. Newin has amply demonstrated this with his defection.
THAKSIN AND THE RED SHIRTS
It’s easy to look at the red shirts and think of them as an undisciplined rabble. However, they have a genuine grievance. Ever since the 1930’s they have been disenfranchised and exploited. These are the farmers, the factory workers, the taxi drivers, the poor. The power structure has used and abused them for decades. As we have seen in countless other countries you cannot keep the masses down forever. Eventually, the pressure builds and finally explodes. This is what we are seeing around the country now. The red shirts are not just demonstrating in Bangkok and Pattaya. They are everywhere. My niece in Ubon is one, and she is angry. She is just one of a multitude.
With the unrest during the last two years groups of farmers have repeatedly tried to march on Bangkok to protest their treatment by the government. The military government reversed many of the gains brought in by Thaksin. Once more, the upcountry people were relegated to being fodder to generate more riches for the Bangkok elite.
The people no longer have confidence in their leaders. They feel restless, rudderless. As the succession question continues unresolved they no longer have a shining beacon of benevolence to guide and inspire them.
The masses saw these same elite hounding their hero Thaksin, branding him corrupt, forcing him to flee and country. We stood and watched as the elite tried every trick in the book to lure him back to face justice…their “justice”. The red shirts saw and understood what was happening. They just didn’t have a voice yet.
Then along came the yellow shirts, the lap dogs of the power elite. These are the emerging middle class, or people who consider themselves Royalist patriots. Yet they managed to destroy the biggest money earner for the country; the tourist industry. Without the billions generated by the tourists, small businesses collapsed, leaving their owners disillusioned and angry. They have also joined the red shirts.
As a consequence, the movement has grown exponentially. The numbers have not reached critical point yet. The red shirt leaders were hoping hundreds of thousands of supporters would swarm into Bangkok. That has not happened. But there are enough red shirts on the streets now to continue to attack the government. Thaksin is calling for open revolution. He says the time is here and he is ready to return to lead.
So it must seem like a blow to him for Newin to suddenly defect to the Democrats. But does this give the ‘government’ any more power? I think not. In fact, it just looks like more of the same old-style politics. And the people are sick of those manipulating politics for their own purposes and enrichment.
Thaksin may not be perfect. In fact, he comes from the very same power structure as Newin and others. However, when he was in power he did bring a new reality and hope to the people. Instead of hording the wealth all to himself, he forced the government to start caring for the people. Sure, he also did some dirty deeds. The extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers, taking advantage of the loophole in the law to avoid paying taxes when he sold his company, dividing his wealth between his family so that he appeared to comply with the letter of the law and allow him to avoid an apparent conflict of interest. However, the good he did for the people far outweighed these deeds. The country regained its pride and the economy surged to new highs. The wealth being generated was finally trickling down to those whose backbreaking work made it all possible.
With the succession in question, Thaksin offered a new reality; one that included those who had helped build the Thai nation into a powerhouse, but who had not been able to share in the riches accruing from it before. He gave the poor hospital care for a mere 30 Baht. The OTOP project helped generate an income for people who previously had no hope. He paid off the IMF debt in advance, giving Thailand great face among nations.
So has the time come for him to consider returning to lead the revolution?
There is no doubt in my mind that change to Thai society is long overdue. Having lived in the country for 30 years I watched and participated in the economic growth. I watched as Bangkok flourished and grew. But always at the back of my mind was the nagging feeling that the power structure was stuck way back in the 1930’s. Everything was changing, but nothing was really changing. The poor got poorer still, the same old politicians played their usual games and kept the populace in thrall. Thaksin appeared to play that game too by including many of the old guard in his coalition. But he had such an overwhelming mandate from the people that he was able to control and effect the changes he wanted. Along the way he put many powerful noses out of joint.
Despite this, the vast majority of Thais loved and supported him. They still do.
So I see the current demonstrations continuing. Abhisit’s government is illegal. There is no disputing that. <Actually, there is. You vote for individuals who then form a government in Parliament. They choose the leader. If the members you voted for then switch their allegiance then that is *not illegal*, although neither is it necessarily what the voters had in mind – Stick> He was not elected, as Thaksin was. He does not have a mandate to govern from the majority of Thais. He can call a state of emergency if he likes, but as the red shirt leaders have said, now that there is no rule of law they are free to do whatever they like to bring about the change they so ardently desire. Trying to cut off the heads of the Hydra will not work. The people are angry and they want change. No matter how many demonstration leaders the government arrests the protests will continue.
WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Where does this leave all the foreigners living in Thailand?
For now, you can relax as long as you stay away from the troubled areas. Traditionally, these demonstrations have centered on Sanam Luang. However, that is not the case this time. The demonstrators are going to wherever they see the potential to topple the government. They have gone to Pattaya, they are blockading parliament and the Foreign Ministry and other places.
Eventually, I think the demonstrations will spill over into the streets of Bangkok. That is when foreigners will have to decide what they want to do.
Do you have an exit strategy ready?
I foresaw all this happening two years ago and started to make plans to get me and my family out of the country, which I have done. With two young daughters I did not want to face the possibility of civil unrest and possibly violence. The Thais are still a very generous and open people, but when tempers fray, as they are starting to, they can also become very unpredictable. There are some hot heads who call themselves ardent nationalists who might see foreigners as a provocation. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but the potential is there.
At the very least you might want to start taking precautions for the worst. I can’t tell you what they might be, but if I were still incountry I would be stocking up on food and essentials. I would keep my car’s gas tank full, and I would have an evacuation plan in place. Very often, these things blow up quickly so I would want to have at least two ways available to get out of the trouble area as quickly as possible.
Lastly, I see the possibility of large scale bloodshed happening in the future if the red shirts don’t get what they want. As my niece said, “We are ready for war!”
In terms of the personal safety of foreigners, be they residents or tourists, I don't see any real reason for concern at this stage. I cannot see foreigners being targeted although someone in the wrong place at the wrong time could become an innocent victim. The skirmishes are confined to just a few areas and the odds are that most will only see it on the news.
As far as business and the economy goes, that's where I see problems. Investors abroad seeing these pictures on TV will be put off. The so-called quality tourists Thailand wants to attract will be among the first to cancel or simply put Thailand on the "too difficult list".
But at the end of the day, as you well know from 30 years living and working in Thailand, this is all business as usual.