Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bangkok Burning-Why?

Central World Plaza, to the left, has been on a civil war footing.

It was cleverly linked to a sky walk and the Skytrain.

The King gazes benevolently down and is widely revered.

And Bangkok has been booming with upmarket construction.

Ordinary people, often rural migrants, have to shop in markets like this that are just like the ones in the villages.

But the rich won't be shopping here any more.

It’s hard to believe that Central World Plaza, the biggest shopping mall in Asia is now a smouldering ruin. It must have taken some skill to torch it as it is a series of vast open spaces. Shops like Asia Books that I have visited so many times would have plenty of combustible material, but to destroy the whole place is truly remarkable and shocking.

Ironically it used to be called the World Trade Centre but presumably to remove the association with a complex that collapsed in flames, the name was changed. It was then given an elaborate face lift and was upgraded to become one of the glitziest malls in Bangkok and indeed the world.

So where do the rights and wrongs of all these violent protests lie?

We have been rightly warned against regarding the Red Shirt movement as a romantic crusade of the poor and oppressed to achieve democracy. See A complex situation requires deeper analysis and peeling off each layer of the onion skin of Thai politics always induces tears and often leads to misunderstandings and confusion.

Yet there is clear justification in the Red Shirt demands for an election to be called immediately and not at some later date. A charismatic but young and inexperienced old-Etonian prime minister came to power as leader of a party without a full electorate mandate and is struggling to hold together a coalition of disparate interests. This could describe either Britain or Thailand, but the difference is that in Britain the majority of the electorate has not been repeatedly deprived of its franchise by military and judicial coups, as in Thailand.

Yet one cannot simply characterize the confrontation in terms of goodies and baddies. Prime minister Abhisit is as liberal and decent a leader as Thailand is ever likely to get, even if now swimming in a tank of sharks. He does not have presidential powers to make decisions as he would wish and has little scope for real action. On the other side, Thaksin, the man who has hijacked the cause of the poor, is the biggest self-serving kleptocrat of them all. Once again the rural poor are being exploited in a way that is totally cynical by him setting himself up as their champion.

A few months back I went to a press conference at the FCCT (Foreign Correspondants Club of Thailand) given by the leaders of the Red Shirts who were explaining the aims of their proposed protests. They were, frankly, unimpressive, though to be fair they are not a formal political party with a manifesto and party membership but a loose collecting point for a range of interests and views. It was clear that theirs was not a united or cohesive movement and it was inevitable that they would have little if any control over the way the protest developed, even though their desire for non-violence seemed sincere.

After so many years of frustration, ‘protest and be damned’ would be understandable as a philosophy. Nothing else would achieve the changes they seek as reason and dialogue with those monopolizing power had already reached the end of a long road.

So what are those changes?

Essentially what is sought is a complete shift in how political power is shared in Thailand and perhaps Central World Plaza epitomizes the fundamental divide in Thai society.

Who were the men who laboured in terrible temperatures to build the place and the rest of Bangkok’s consumer palaces, living in appalling conditions for low wages? Who are the cleaners and other skivvies that then run it from day to day? Who drive the taxis, clean the streets and do all the menial tasks that keep Bangkok running?

It is the children of the rural poor who have to leave their villages to find work as agriculture no longer provides a living. And their sweated wages are hardly enough to feed their children and ageing parents back in the villages.

And who enjoys the benefit of Thailand’s evident prosperity, achieved by the low wage slaves of factory and field? It is the urban elites, government employees and middle classes of the cities… the ones who could shop at Central World Plaza and enjoy the dream and comfort of a rich consumer society.

Like looking for good guys and bad guys, this thesis may seem simplistic but it is essentially true. Too much of Thailand’s wealth and political control has been held in too few hands for too long. My neighbours in the rural North East are truly poor and there is no way upwards. In a hierarchical society of deference where the poor do not complain, there comes a time when their patience and tolerance comes to an end. That is when they run amok.

Had the government called an immediate election a few months ago, all of this might have been avoided. It is hard now to see how further chaos can be avoided. How sad that Abhisit took the poisoned chalice of prime minster when he did, rather than wait for a more secure mandate. How sad that Thaksin so badly betrayed the trust of the Thai people in the two clear electoral mandates that they entrusted to him.

His was the best ever opportunity for Thailand to make political and economic progress but his self-serving greed created the mayhem on the streets that we have seen in the last few days. I hope he does not emerge the winner from all this and that the poor can ultimately find a new champion who can more fairly shift the sharing of power and resources in Thailand.

Copyright Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog May 2010


Newt said...

I very much appreciate your insight and commentary.
Thanks also for the link to Somtow's blog...I don't agree with some of what he wrote in his 18 May posting, but his analysis & explication are most credible.

David said...

Good analysis. I fear that there will ongoing violence/unrest and this will be used as a pretext to prevent elections being held. One good thing is that the international community has finally been made aware that there are deep problems in Thailand.

The road to democracy and peace will be a long one. One thing the rest of the world can do is send human rights observers and also observe and monitor an election if and when it is held.

Kent Davis said...

Thank you, Andrew, for helping to make sense of this situation. I had seen Somtow's article and you have added even more perspective.

To me, seeing the devastation of downtown Bangkok is shocking but, frankly, I couldn't afford to shop there myself and never understood where all that money came from. Your observation that the poor of Thailand built, cleaned and maintained this shrine to luxury consumption is quite profound.

Though on a much smaller scale I found the videos of City Halls burning in Khon Kaen, Udon, Ubon and Mukdahan even more disturbing. The pain here is deep but I hope that both sides are shocked enough by this violence and destruction to seek the more level-headed path that you propose.

To close, here are two video links...neither commentary seems "fair and balanced"...but they do represent opposite ends of the spectrum quite effectively. People can draw their own conclusions

Interview with Taksin lawyer on Al Jazeera

Taksin and Red Shirt leader mix video with English subtitles

Roger Morton said...

Might I use some of your comments on my blog? www.allextremelyprecarious.blogspot.
The situation is so complex and so incredibly important.
I would of course credit you and your blog!
Thanks so much, Joselyn Morton

Thai Girl said...

Thanks for all your Comments.

Roger/Joselyn, I'd be delighted for you to use my material as every blogger wants to be read.

Watch this space asI've got more to say on some new posts.


Smorg said...

This is the fairest and most even-keel a commentary on this current political standoff/class-warfare-gone-torchy ordeal I've read yet. Thanks very much for your objectivity and ability to see both sides of the story. :o)

It is a real shame it has gotten to this point when it all could have ended peacefully a week or so ago before the Red Shirt leaders yielded to their more aggressive elements and the government went after that rogue general. :o( I wonder how the situation can be resolved without more violence now... It really is a much different deal than all the previous political protests in Thailand had been.

Stay safe, my friend, and thanks for reporting!

Lloyd said...

A well written and balanced post.

I do not believe there is as much sympathy for the current red shirt leaders imprisoned, however I do believe that Bangkok and the "Elite" have not seen or heard that last of the Red shirts.

Anonymous said...

I liked your blog and your admittance to a possible oversimplification of the comments (analysis?)

US Citizen here and there is quite a large population of poor here too. I wonder if your comment about the middle class enjoying Central World could apply to any mall in the US. The image of the huge number of poor people in the US was brought to light for many during the Katrina crisis. Maybe things are not so different here? Lots of min wage or less people in the US working and cleaning for the other classes.

My Thai wife who claims herself anti-red shirt but only a little yellow is not from the NE or Bangkok. I'm trying to learn what the story is in Thailand. Thanks for your blog.

Anonymous said...

you might like to see this response to somtow:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I lived in a Thai village ten or more years ago where there was already a kind of clique fermenting trouble, so this is nothing new, just better financed and organized. Secondly, very bright kids can get scholarships if they are very poor and actually work there way up through society. Not in huge numbers but the possibility is there. At the other end of the scale, the almost complete lack of regulations allows people to start up small businesses on next to no money and in ways that would have Western safely officers et al in a total frenzy. So there are plenty of possibilities for people with no money and plenty of energy. However, there is a large segment of the population who earn 150-200 baht a day, enough for whisky and food, who can not get their head around the idea of how they can move on from mere survival money - either through poor education, innate stupidity or the overwhelming idea of being Thai (hard to explain the latter but it is there). This is not say a rich elite aren't taking the piss but people would generally be better off working harder and more innovatively on an individual level than burning down Bangkok.

Smorg said...

I agree with the anonymous who posted on May 25th. My parents are two of those Thai who were born extremely poor but successfully worked their way up to the upper-middle class by doing very well in school (they never finished below 3rd in their class and so never had to pay tuition, and both graduated from Chulalongkorn University with honors in medicine and engineering).

They are both Yellow Shirt supporters... which is not to say that the yellow shirts are right about everything, of course. But there is a bitterness when they talk about this conflict being classified as disconnected rich people versus the working poor. A lot of the now rich were poor before and can still remember very well how it is to be hungry and cold. They just resent that many of those who don't make it out want to tear down the system that allowed them the opportunity... without offering any better alternative (it is easy to criticize, but less so to criticize constructively).

Thai Girl said...

In reply to the above two comments, yes, there are always exceptional people who can rise from poor beginnings against all adversity. However, Thailand is very hierarchical and social mobility is very limited.

Poor urban Chinese Thais may have the opportunity to make progress. An able kid in a village in Isaan may not.

In the primary school in my village 45 per cent of the children are below the Thai health ministry's recomended minimum body weight. They sinply do not have sufficient nutrition to thrive. There are stories of brothers going to school on alternate days because they only have one shirt. Some urban Thais are simply unaware of this sort of thing or just don't want to know.

Low expectations, lack of access and poverty in the rural areas prevent the able from doing well at school. In my village you have to pay under the table to get into the better secondary school in the local town and it costs 500 baht a month for the truck into town and back. (I know because I pay for a child in the family.) Most families do not have this money, nor the cash to cover the cost of further education, even the small incidental costs if a scholarship in a very exceptional case is won.

Then if top grades are achieved there are no job opportunities for the flood of graduates as the jobs go to those with family contacts or pay money under the table. This is widely known and I am not making outragous allegations.

The divide in Thai society is that the comfortably off are simply concerned to preserve their privilege and do not want to know about the have-nots who provide the cheap labour for the economy.

This is the powder keg that Thaksin exploited for his own ends and that has recently ignited. The protests turned from good natured, peaceful protest into mob violence. The Red Shirt movement was dysfunctional and factionalised. The fact that it can thus be criticised does not, however, in any way diminish the validity of the essential claims of the poor and disenfranchised.

Those who have control bear full responsibility if these issues are not addressed and if this causes Thai society to tear itself apart.

Nobody is more blind than those who refuse to see.


Josh said...

I think Abhisit's offer of elections on 14 November 2010 was reasonable and in fact the moderate red leaders had accepted the deal in order to have a peaceful ending to the protests. However, in was Thaksin and the hardline red leaders that derailed the peace process.

From The Economist:

1. “As the bullets flew and the bodies fell, crocodile tears came from afar, as Mr Thaksin tweeted his sorrow to his followers. From his luxurious exile he denied, once again, that he was giving orders to the red-shirt leaders and urged everyone to embrace peace. There is little doubt, however, that Mr Thaksin holds sway over the splintered, squabbling red-shirt leadership. The two-month protest would not have been possible without his deep pockets, vengeful will and political network, even though the red-shirt cause has become much larger than him. And his stubbornness seems to have undone the peace talks, despite his protestations.”

2. “Many are asking why peace talks failed, when the red shirts had little hope of resisting the troops. Insiders say that Mr Thaksin was a serious spoiler, as were General Khattiya and other radicals.”

3. “That the leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the red shirts’ formal title, failed to grasp this olive branch [Abhisit's roadmap] is tragic. They, as much as trigger-happy soldiers, must bear some responsibility for the lives lost.”

From the Wall Street Journal:

1. “People on both sides of Thailand’s political divide with knowledge of the negotiations say that Mr. Thaksin’s interventions—which they say included a number of new demands that ended up slowing the talks intended to end the political standoff—delayed an agreement for new elections that would have enabled the protesters to call off their months-long rally. His machinations prompted the most senior opposition Red Shirt negotiator to quit in frustration, according to these people.”

2. “But in recent weeks Mr. Thaksin has kept in close contact with rogue military officers training a paramilitary “people’s army” to attack troops and turn Bangkok’s streets into a war zone, according to opposition members involved in the conflict.”

3. “At a luxury hotel near the Red Shirts’ camp in central Bangkok, a team of Mr. Thaksin’s lawyers and advisers regularly conferred with protest leaders and other negotiators to ensure that Mr. Thaksin was kept in the loop over the past several weeks.”

4. “People involved in both government and opposition camps say Mr. Thaksin urged hard-liners to come up with fresh demands that stalled the process, ultimately leading to the talks’ collapse.They say Red Shirt leader Veera Musikapong quit the negotiations in disgust.

“He was questioning why they were bothering to talk when Mr. Thaksin was delaying any progress,” says one person involved in the mediations. Mr. Veera is in army custody and couldn’t be reached for comment.”

David Thurston said...

I wish my boys could learn a little work ethics from the rural Thais. I grew up in rural Canada, sometimes working of farms for free, but at night, I had a regular modest Canadian home to go to, with food on the table cooked by mother. Improving a rural economy is no simple task. In Canada, for investment money, they sold property to the Americans. However, Thais seem vary much against selling land. They could do like, China, have controls, and a 100% tax on the land purchased by foreigners. Problem is, with corruption in office, the tax money is not likely to benefit the rural population. I'll think some more on it...
Andrew, thanks for article.

Thai Girl said...

Thanks for this, David. I agree, it's extremely difficult.

My broad view is that the very essence of Thai rural society is the smallholding and the extended family. These are under threat, causing a huge revolution and much loss of traditional values.

The smallholders need support with credit and extension services but any major industrialisation of agriculture will cause social upheaval and more urbanisation.

Agriculture cannot support the population for example of Isaan so an infow of money to the villages is needed. At present families are broken up as the fit have to travel far south to find work and the cash to send back home. Jobs and a modern economy should instead be brought to the regional centres and small towns.

With tax and other incentives this could be achieved at least in part.

Nothing is ever easy though, not least modernisation that does not destroy a much as it creates.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog today and have now been reading for hours, thank you for open and honest view of Thailand to much nonsense is written about Thailand on certain websites.