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Thailand analysis: 'land of smiles' becomes land of lies

Written By vibykhmer on Tuesday, April 7, 2009 | 6:27 AM


Thailand, sad to say, is in a terrible mess. With the very future of the monarchy at risk the stakes could not be higher. The country is deeply polarised with goodwill, moral authority and the truth itself in desperately short supply. Thailand could be heading for a very hard landing.

05 Apr 2009
By Thomas Bell in Bangkok
The Telegraph (UK)


One side is led by Thaksin Shinawatra. The former telecoms billionaire and deposed prime minister is a dubious champion of democracy. During his six years in power Mr Thaksin launched a "war on drugs" in which up to 2,000 alleged dealers were summarily executed by the police.
In government he was dogged by corruption allegations, apparently unable to distinguish his own business interests from those of the country. He was no friend of the free media, although censorship is worse now than it was in Thaksin's day.

On the other side is... who? Mr Thaksin has many vehement enemies among the middle and upper classes. It is difficult to tell how many because in Thailand opinion pollsters never ask the only question that really counts – who would you vote for?

They particularly object to Thaksin's alleged corruption and his government's challenge to Thailand's rigid social hierarchy. Qualms over the deadly "war on drugs", on the other hand, are mostly limited to hand-wringing foreign liberals.

These well-healed opponents control most major institutions. They also claim they are acting to "protect the king", and this is where it gets difficult.

Strict laws make any criticism of the monarchy punishable with up to 12 years in jail – in practice almost any discussion of the monarchy is prohibited. Last week a man, the breadwinner for his family, was jailed for 10 years for posting "insulting" pictures of the royal family online.

King Bhumibol, 81, is "above politics" and he is widely and sincerely loved. Many Thais credit him with steering their country's modern development and intervening to solve periodic crises. The country's official doctrine of "sufficiency economics" is the king's own invention.

When politicians claim to act in the king's name they often accuse their opponents of disloyalty, potentially punishable by 12 years in jail. That can make politics very hard to talk about. Bhumibol, for his part, has been mostly silent.

In 2006 Mr Thaksin was accused of disloyalty to the king and overthrown by a military coup. Nevertheless, with Thaksin in exile, voters returned his supporters to power in elections at the end of 2007.

Mr Thaksin's one great virtue as a democrat is that he and his supporters have won each of three elections so far this decade. He is popular because for the first time in Thai history he campaigned on policies aimed at the rural majority – and then delivered. He earned massive admiration for schemes such as affordable health care.

The pro-Thaksin government elected after the coup lasted less than a year. Protesters, some of them armed with golf clubs, bombs and guns, overran first Government House and then both Bangkok's airports, costing the economy untold millions. They wore the royal colour, yellow, and claimed they were acting to protect the king from Thaksin's alleged republicanism. The movement received the public endorsement of the queen.

The People's Alliance for Democracy, as the movement is misleadingly called, argued that democracy does not work in Thailand because the peasantry are too simple to vote. They want a "new politics" in which 70 per cent of parliament is appointed.

Last year's protests found widespread support among the conservative media which, in its rush to finish the Thaksinites for ever, abandoned factual reporting.

Thaksin denies that he is a republican, although some of his supporters undoubtedly are – or they are now.

At the end of last year a court dissolved the elected government and the army brass summoned political bosses to hoist a new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to power. The leaders of the airport protests were never punished – one even became foreign minister.

Now Thaksin has dropped his bomb. In live video addresses to rallies around the country he identified two retired generals who are close advisers to the king and a small group of top judges as the conspirators who plotted his 2006 ousting and have allegedly been invisibly pulling Thailand's strings ever since.

The government is in a funk, panicking about how to block the transmissions. The army is said to be furious: Thaksin has broken the omerta and the government could not stop him. Commentators say he has gone too far and newspapers are openly demanding censorship to stop the revelations being heard.

Yet although the people Thaksin named have offered desultory denials, no one is seriously disputing the truth of his revelations. Apparently that it is not the point – in Thai politics the truth is not meant for public consumption.

Thailand aspires to be a serious country, a Western ally and a destination for tourists and investment, yet in the past few years the "land of smiles" has been more like the land of lies. A light cast on what takes place in the comfortable sitting rooms of power is long overdue.

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