A Change For the Better
There has been a great deal of nonsense written and spoken about the current Thai military coup and the martial law that has been imposed, almost exclusively by people who have only the shallowest idea of Thailand, its people and its politics.
In their eyes any coup, any takeover of government by the army, any censoring of the media is wrong. No exceptions. It is bad, it must be condemned and sanctions threatened (you will notice that, anywhere in the world, sanctions are usually weak and often threatened rather than imposed because if they were put in place then business would suffer. Money always trumps morals). However, a few have begun to open their eyes, and none more so than the Thais themselves who are fed up to the back teeth with the rampant corruption and lawlessness that has been allowed to exist in every area of officialdom and elsewhere.
There was a zero chance of the politicians ending the situation, or even addressing it, as they gained the most from it, creaming off a reported 30 – 50 percent of any major contract signed. Same with the police, who took no action against the countless scams that have existed in Thailand for decades and are well documented on the internet as well as having been exposed by numerous TV documentaries and newspaper and magazine articles. Why? Because they have been in on the act. Much of the crime in Thailand has been committed by them. The whole world, including the United Nations, knows that. The UN described the boys in brown as a well-organised criminal organisation.
One perfect example of a problem that has been allowed to rot for far too long is the jet ski scam. It is so well known and has received such wide publicity that it’s amazing anyone still hires the things. You hire, you ride, you return, you are told you have damaged the jet ski, you pay. Big-time. Serious money. If police are called they suggest a settlement. About two years ago, following a UK TV show exposing the scam, there was a promise that all jet ski operators would now have to carry insurance against such damage. Great idea. Guess if it was implemented. Of course not, because too many people, some of whom are supposed to act against such scams, would lose too much income. So, like everything else that is wrong and exposed and results in much hand-wringing and promising that it will be stamped out, nothing happened.
So we had a situation where politicians were crooked, only interested in lining their own pockets, and the police did nothing to uphold the law and often broke it themselves. When you have a situation where you have little hope of politicians doing anything to help your situation, and you fear the authorities rather than feeling comfortable and confident that you can go to them for help, you have a very unhappy population.
That is a large part of what was wrong with the country, and the army bosses were not blind to that.
Then we had the political deadlock. Where else in the world could a group of people declare openly that they were going to close down a capital city by blocking major intersections, even give a place and date and time they would do it, and no-one lifts a finger to stop them. Not once, in 2014, but before in 2010. And both times the police just stood by and did nothing. Worse this time around, when a democratic election was called to try and end the deadlock, the police just stood by and did nothing as candidates who tried to register to stand for election were prevented from doing so, and those who tried to vote on election day were blocked and threatened by gangs of thugs who knew their party had no chance of victory. It appeared that there is no law against intimidation in Thailand.
The army bosses were not blind to that either, and started to let it be known that the situation could not be allowed to continue. But it did, and with no solution or even a hint of compromise in sight.
But what could you expect, when both sides were allowed to run tv stations that broadcast hate speeches 24 hours a day, ranting against and mocking the opposing party. No alternative point of view was ever considered or discussed. And no-one in the crowds who gathered for these broadcasts were ever allowed to ask questions. They listened like sheep, by the stage, in meeting halls or at home, and lapped everything up without question.
When it became obvious that nothing was going to change, that neither side was ever going to give an inch to the other, that a re-arranged election was going to be as useless as the last, the army finally had enough. They declared martial law, called in the leaders of both sides, put them in a room and knocked their heads together and told them to sort out their differences. After two days and to no-one’s surprise they didn’t, so they were all arrested and the army took over the running of the country.
For too long there had been stalemate, with only an interim government, riots on the streets, apparently readily available grenades going off on a daily basis, hundreds of businesses and thousands of people's lives being disrupted by street protests and blockages – yet when the army stepped in to bring an end to all that it was roundly criticised by the world for doing so. One can only assume those countries were happy with the corruption, intimidation, lack of a functioning government, large parts of the city closed down, street protests, bombs and grenades going off.
How would the US handle things if the same happened in Washington, I wonder? You can be sure that hundreds would die, yet in Thailand the takeover by the army had the opposite effect. People were no longer being threatened, intimidated or killed. Peace descended on the land. Everyone shut the fuck up, because they had to. Basically, the army treated a section of the population like the children they were acting as and imposed a bit of parental discipline.
What other choice did the country have? What other choice did the country have?
Control of the media is a controversial and contentious issue, and as a journalist I am perhaps more sensitive about that than many. But the reality is that it had to be done. You simply cannot have one-sided propaganda being spewed out 24 hours a day to an impressionable audience. My native UK has very strict laws on tv election broadcasts, and each major broadcaster has to offer equal rights to all major parties to showcase their policies – on the same channels. They do not have a Conservative Channel, or a Labour Channel. Each station offers a balance and people can (and sometimes do) listen to both sides of an argument and make an informed opinion.
Allowing such one-sided media outlets was particularly dangerous in Thailand, where critical thinking and questioning what you are told is discouraged from an early age. That results, inevitably, in mental immaturity and allows people to be easily manipulated.
So, those channels that only served to brainwash the population were shut down and remain shut down. As are the hundreds of illegal radio stations that served the same purpose. They are all allowed to apply for a proper license, and if they broadcast in a manner that is not designed to stir up unrest then they’ll be back on the air. Again, how were these illegal stations allowed to operate? Yet again, the police took no action, often no doubt because they were owned by influential people, the untouchables. More of those in a moment. All other stations, local and foreign, were back on the air as soon as the dust had settled and people had had a few days to reflect and not react in a knee-jerk fashion.
And what effect has the army takeover had in Thailand? It would be difficult to find anything negative about it. It has not, and never has been, about power, simply about unseating a democratically (in the loose, Thai sense where vote-buying is rampant) government. It was done reluctantly, after many months of stalemate that was causing immense damage to the country, primarily to restore law and order.
It has certainly done that, or is at the very least in the early days of doing so, as they are making the police actually do their job. Within two weeks they had gone to the lawless island of Phuket and assisted (made) the police act in shutting down dozens of illegal ‘mafia’ taxi gangs that had long blighted the life of residents and tourists alike. It had gone on for many, many years, with hotels being blockaded and the public threatened and attacked, with no-one ever prosecuted as the companies were run by the untouchables. They are, it appears, untouchables no more. That source of income has been closed. They are now also tackling the taxi gangs at Bangkok’s main airport, something that, somehow, the authorities there have been unable to do since the place opened.
Where there is a will there is a way. There was no will in the past because too many pockets were being filled, but the army is not interested in filling its pockets. It is only interested in restoring law and order to the country, something that nobody, even the governments around the world that have condemned the coup, could argue against.
And it is not only the so-called mafia that the army has started to sort out. Before they took over running the country, there were daily stories stretching back for many months about the rice-pledging scheme. Briefly, the government decided they would help the rice farmers, most of whom supported them, by raising the price of rice worldwide by creating a shortage. The government bought the rice from the farmers at an inflated rate and then sat on it, waiting for the price to rise due to the shortage it had created. The problem was the arrogance they showed, which wasn’t really surprising when you consider that many Thais believe everything about Thailand is better than anywhere else, including their rice.
What happened was instead of selling Thai rice at a high price, and then being able to pass on the profit to the farmers, people simply bought cheaper rice from elsewhere, primarily Vietnam and India. Thailand was left with warehouses full of rice it couldn’t sell and the government claimed it had no money to pay the farmers for the rice they’d sold to it. Some got into debt and killed themselves. There were also, of course, plenty of accusations of corruption over the scheme and zero transparency by the government. Anyone who revealed the figures as the scheme fell apart found themselves out of a job.
Yet, despite the government telling their own voters, their loyal supporters, that there was no money to pay them, within a week of the army taking over the money had been found and the farmers paid.
I had expected that the Red Shirts, who had had their elected government removed, would quickly launch a people's revolution in protest. That hasn’t happened, possibly because the army exposed the hypocrisy of their government. It still might, but that seems increasingly unlikely as everyone appears to be recognising that the coup has benefited the country as a whole. The people are not stupid, and can appreciate that the army has made strides to make life better for everyone simply by promising to crack down on corruption and lack of law and order, and they’ve been seen to do so.
It is early days and there is a lot to do. But a start has been made and, possibly, a new mindset may develop – one that no longer accepts that corruption and lack of law and order is inevitable and acceptable. The army leader is due to retire shortly, and there is talk of him becoming prime minister. He is a quiet man who has gained a lot of respect for his firm hand, and his ability to run things without the use of masses of armed soldiers everywhere. It has been a quiet revolution, achieved without a shot being fired, and life is now functioning without the disruption that existed before. On top of that, an election has been promised for the second half of next year, once the country has managed to settle down and a sense of greater stability has been established.
Why can’t overseas governments see that?