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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Situation in Thailand still of concern

Friday, May 21, 2010 | 12:18 p.m. CDT; updated 11:23 a.m. CDT, Sunday, August 8, 2010

Charles Davis, National Freedom of Information Coalition, Missouri School of Journalism: To some people, Thailand is known as the land of smiles, but it is a land of violence and political upheaval this week. Some say it is even on the brink of civil war. Demonstrators set at least 27 buildings on fire Wednesday, including the Thai stock exchange, TV stations and a department store. The death toll of protesters has reached 40 just this week and hundreds more are injured. The violence follows weeks of unrest in Bangkok among Thai authority and Red Shirt demonstrators.

It is unclear exactly what the demonstrators want, but they are aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a multimillionaire who was ousted in 2006 and who now lives in exile. Characterized as a populist, he gained support from Thailand’s rural poor by giving them aid while he was in office. He is also said to be financing the Red Shirt demonstrators.

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The current strife has implications for Thailand’s political future. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the longest reigning king in the world and is loved by many Thais, but as an 82-year-old in unstable health, his time as king will likely end soon. He hasn’t spoken publicly about the demonstrations. Scared away by the violence, tourists have avoided the tumultuous country in recent months, and foreign investors are beginning to withdraw.

So is Thailand on the brink of a civil war, or is this just routine tumult in a country that has seen 18 coups since 1932? What are some of the class tensions underlying the conflict? Is Thai monarchy coming to an end? What does it mean for the Thai economy but also for the economies in the region? Thanong, give us a sense of where we are at the moment. Yesterday, news in the states seemed to indicate that a showdown was inevitable between government forces and the Red Shirts.

Thanong Khanthong, managing editor, The Nation Newspaper, Bangkok, Thailand: Over the past three days, the government has put in curfews. We see some very tense situations going on in Bangkok – some 20,000 to 30,000 troops stationed in the capital to provide security, and there have been minor fractures between the authorities and some of the protesters there.

Davis: Does it seem like things are winding down or things are headed to a conclusive moment at all?

Khanthong: We don’t know what is going to happen at nighttime, but the situation in the daytime remains calm today as the authorities appear to have some control and some firefighters have been able to go in.

Davis: Clay Jones, this is an area of the world you know quite well. You were the Southeast Asia bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor in the 1980s and on into the 1990s. What is your take on this?

Clay Jones, Christian Science Monitor chief editorial writer, Boston: I have the advantage of being outside Thailand because there is a certain caution by journalists there to not talk about the role of the king, or the lack of a role in this case, because of laws that are strict about criticizing the monarchy. I was just raising the question in a column I wrote recently: "Where is the king? What does this mean for Thailand that he didn’t intervene, and at a deeper level, what does it mean to have this kind of constitutional monarchy in a country that is still coming to grips with democracy?" Interventions in the past have created an impression that he might save the country when it gets tough, and I raise the question whether that hinders growth in democracy in Thailand because people don’t take personal responsibility and leave it to monarchies to solve their problems if things get tough. So I put this current crisis into context of whether Thailand needs to start questioning its monarchy and what Thai democracy is all about.

Davis: Interesting. I read your column which concludes with the ringing words, “So I said it, arrest me.” Thongchai, why has the king remained out of the picture this time, and what has his role been in situations like this in the past?

Thongchai Winichakul, professor of history, University of Wisconsin-Madison: First of all, we don’t really know what the king’s health condition is. Second, I think to be a king and intervene at the right time is difficult, especially to choose the right time and right words. Third, foreign observers and lots of Thai people believe that the king intervened in these kinds of serious crises, but it’s a myth. Only twice has he intervened, in 1973 and in 1992. Most generally, Thailand scholars forget that he did not intervene in many other times. For example, he didn’t intervene in the 1976 massacre. I think it is an unfair expectation that he has to intervene every time. But now why intervene sometimes and not at another time is a question for which I do not have the answer.

Davis: Please run us through the cast of players. Tell us who is supporting who.

Winichakul: It is very complex to say. I would say both sides have so many troops, so many factions. But I would say underlying this issue is not the pure classist or Marxist sense but between the strong hierarchical high society. So on one had you have the rural and urban poor who are disenfranchised. On the other hand you have the urban upper classes.

Davis: Alex Frangos, from your post in Hong Kong, what is this doing to the Thai economic picture, and are there other economies in the region that are beginning to feel the effects?

Alex Frangos, staff reporter, Wall Street Journal, Hong Kong: I think it is really an inside-Thailand sort of situation. If there are any effects, other countries are benefiting from tourism, from people not going to Thailand and instead of going to places like Malaysia or Indonesia. Just in recent memory, Thailand has survived the Asian economic crisis, SARS, tsunami, H1N1, global financial crisis and it has always made its way through, so the feeling in the investment community is that there are so many more benefits than negatives to Thailand. It is a very open and creative economy; it is a well-educated place, a solid work force, a place where, frankly, foreigners have made money over the years; and despite the political unrest, it has been a great place to go for vacations. All this being said, this latest episode has raised questions about whether that reputation has been tarnished. We’re now seeing a lot of bloodshed, fires and riots. That is going to keep people away, and when I see people who are looking to invest in the Thai stock market or who are thinking in terms of buying companies there or launching businesses, they’re saying, "Look, there are more countries in the region that are more stable where I can get the same sorts of results." So the real fear here is the longer this drags on and the more violent it becomes, the longer the impact will be, both in terms of the investment community going in and of tourists going in.

Davis: What are the implications in the potential consequences for the United States in terms of diplomacy with Thailand?

Frangos: Thailand has been an ally of the United States over the years in the region, and I think the U.S. cares greatly that the situation gets resolved.

Davis: I get a sense that the U.S. government has remained largely mum on this issue to date.

Jones: Yes. I think they’re watching it carefully, but I think they know the Thais in the end will probably resolve this conflict among themselves. It would be interesting to see how much self-reflection goes on within Thailand about the nature of their society and the use of violence to resolve differences and so forth. I don’t want to revive the old Vietnam War debate about dominoes falling, but we have to remember that Thailand is somewhat squeezed by authoritarian regimes, Cambodia, Vietnam, to some degree Laos and Burma. The U.S. appreciates that while Thailand has trouble with democracy, it is relatively stable, it is struggling to figure out what that democracy means.

Davis: That is an important point. Thongchai, what is your sense of the government reaction thus far? Can you characterize it as an overreaction or can you empathize with the pressure the government is under?

Winichakul: Sorry, I don’t have much sympathy for the government because I think they made a lot of mistakes, wrong decisions, and fundamentally I think the government is wrong this time basically from the point of the basic grievances in the Red Shirt movement. The fundamental causes of grievances are democratic rights and justice because they have been treated unfairly for years. None has been addressed adequately at all. In fact, the problems are now compounded by the decision to use excessive force. In my view, it is an illegal violation of human rights, under international law, to use ammunitions. But the government has decided to do so because they have serious misunderstandings and blame everything on Thaksin. Thaksin is not a nice guy, I know that, but just to blame and thinking that arresting him and cutting the financial support from him is to solve the problem totally misses the point.

Davis: Thanong, is there a sensitivity to the impression of Thailand abroad and its reliance on force to resolve civil protest? Is that a sensitivity you feel within the nation?

Khanthong: I have a different idea from Professor Thongchai because I think the government has started a right and necessary thing to put an end to the Red Shirts. This conflict has been going on since March 12, and that has resulted in some clashes, particularly on April 10, which resulted in a large number of deaths and injuries. And the Red Shirts have moved their rally sites to the heart of the capital in the luxury area where you have the luxury shopping, business and commercial center, thus practically holding the whole nation hostage. The longer they stay there, the more difficult economic conditions we’ll face. Lots of business there will have to close down and the whole economy has been affected, so I think the use of force by the government and the military is a difficult but necessary decision.

Davis: Alex Frangos, what is your sense from Hong Kong in how the rest of the region is taking this crisis?

Frangos: I think people don’t understand Thailand because it is not the sort of conflict in terms of ethnic or religious strife. It really harkens back a couple decades in terms of class and other much more complicated factors. Here in Hong Kong, Thailand is a huge destination. It is just a couple hours’ flight away. There’s no actual violent spillover or economic problems in the region, but there is still a sense that "here’s our neighbor that is in trouble we really want to see the situation resolve."

Jones: There is one danger for Thailand on the horizon and that is that when the current king passes away, the crown prince is not nearly as respected and may not be the glue that holds the whole country together the way the current king has done for six decades. And Thailand needs to have a big debate about this. It is hard to debate it because of current laws about the monarchy. This feeds into the question of whether income disparity between the rural northeast and the richer Bangkok area is a fundamental problem because if the monarchy is seen as upholding the disparity of income, that issue may come up again. That raises an old solution proposed many times that Thailand move its political capital away from Bangkok up to the northeast and leave Bangkok as its commercial center. This would help alleviate some of these income disparities and resolve some of these political problems.

Davis: I know you spent a day with the king, which was the subject of the column you wrote in the Christian Science Monitor. Can you give us some sense of the man?

Jones: I was just amazed, being an American, traveling with him from village to village, how much the farmers revered him. We would drive by and the farmers would be lined up along the road, kneeling with their faces down in the dirt. Then he would get out of the car and go from farmer to farmer and quietly ask them what their problems were. He was bypassing the government and saying, "What do you need in this village?" and he would take notes, take pictures of their fields and look at different experiments in agriculture and go back to his palace and write up memos to the bureaucrats saying, "Please fix this irrigation ditch" or "Here is a problem you need to work on." So the king has kept close ties with the people — both in terms of the history of the monarchy but also in terms of dealing with the daily needs of the people.

Davis: Fascinating. Although most countries don’t have red, yellow and pink-shirted factions, the class divisions and political challenges are far from unique. The Thai government has a rocky road ahead in uniting the country and stability seems like a far off place. But at least we know that the world is watching closely.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Liz Lance, Youn-Joo Park, Angela Potrykus, Tim Wall and Rebecca Wolfson. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

 


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