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Post 399: Thailand Democracy RIP? - Posted 29th May 2014

‘A week is a long time in politics’. It appears that in Thailand, a week is also a very long time without politics, or at least without government. Since the military announced a state of martial law on May 20th 2014, closely followed by a coup, it seems that much in the Land of Smiles has changed, including perhaps, my own views on democracy. 
As an individual I firmly believe in democracy, and as a liberal standing somewhere to the left of centre, I firmly believe in freedom of speech, fairness and equality for all citizens. So, after less than two weeks of military leadership in Thailand, why do I now feel that it’s probably the best thing that could have happened here? Don't get me wrong, that's not a personal show of support for military intervention, but a reflection of how bad Thailand's alternatives really were.
A few years ago, I was deeply in love with my latest motorcycle, a BMW R1100SS. Deep red paint with bags of torque and a lusty exhaust note, it was a bike that constantly reminded me of everything that was good about motorcycles. I was working as a motorcycle despatch rider in London, a difficult test for any bike, but that BMW turned every working day into an absolute pleasure. Sadly, a despatch rider’s income and BMW ownership were never an ideal pairing and as the mileage mounted, things started to go wrong. Small things at first; electrical niggles, brake issues, suspension glitches - things that didn’t stop the bike in its tracks but issues that I really ought to have fixed as they arose. But, being amazingly lazy and ever so slightly broke, I decided to ignore them and ride around the problems. Finally the clutch, which had been slipping for weeks, finally gave up on the task of delivering 100bhp to the rear wheel. On many bikes, replacing the clutch is a relatively simple task, but this was a BMW. Off came the exhaust system, the catalytic converter and the rear wheel. Then, out came the sub-frame and the shaft drive assembly, followed by the swing arm and rear suspension unit. Finally, I reached the burned-out clutch and set about replacing it. My journey towards the depths of the BMW's problematic clutch was a journey into the unknown, a true mechanical voyage of discovery. With BMW tools being unique to a BMW, and my own tools being universal to everything but a BMW, the process ended up taking two weeks to complete and during that time, I was forced into using a slightly different mode of transport.   
To non enthusiasts, all motorcycles are recognisable as motorcycles, but as enthusiasts, we know that beneath the visual outer skin, or the identifying symbol on the tank, they’re all amazingly different beasts. Democracy is the same. In Thailand the democratic clutch had burned out and no amount of cursing, kicking tyres or adding fresh oil was ever going to fix it. To the outside world it still looked like a democracy, but in mechanical terms it was absolutely unrideable and the only option was to rebuild it. If Thailand's democratic problems had arisen in Europe, then I'm confident that the courts and media would have done their jobs and called-out the politicians long before things had been allowed to deteriorate that far. But Thailand’s in Asia, a continent where democracy has a certain ‘uniqueness’ and is often seen by politicians as having little, if anything, to do with following the law or abiding by the decisions of the courts. 
For those people following the current reports and editorials in much of the Western media, you’d be forgiven for believing that the ousted government had no sins, and that once elected they'd followed a true path of democratic rule. You’d also be led to believe that democracy in Thailand was now dead, but it’s not, it’s just temporarily off the road and undergoing much needed and long overdue repairs. In two weeks, many good things have happened in Thailand and the military leadership seems to be gaining increasing support from the people, North, South and Central, but the Western media seem to be concentrating only on the negatives. The negatives certainly exist, and small groups, so far, have certainly taken to the streets to show opposition to the coup, but the true feeling within Thailand is far different from the West’s portrayal of it. Of course, most people fundamentally disagree with military intervention in a democratic country, but those living in Thailand are painfully aware of the alternatives. Without intervention by a third party, Thailand was undoubtedly heading for a bloody civil war, and ultimately, secession. If the West had been half as observant and critical of Thailand's elected politicians as it now is about the unelected military, then I firmly believe that the need for military intervention would have been avoided. 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing'. Burke, Aked, Kennedy? There's doubt as to who first uttered this famous sentence, but there's no doubt that it's applicable to Thailand's spiral into democratic immorality.

In time, working democracy and free elections will return to Thailand, and when they do, suspension, engine, electronics, brakes, gearbox and clutch will hopefully all work far better than they ever did before.   

Post 398: Martial Law to Military Coup in Thailand – Posted 23rd May 2014

Within 72 hours of declaring Martial Law, Thailand’s Army Chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, has dismissed the caretaker government and placed the military in control of Thailand, another Military Coup in the famous Land of Smiles. Three days ago I said “It’s still early days and I'm not certain if there's a measureable distance between Martial Law and Military Coup, so things may quickly change”. However, I really didn’t expect things to change quite as quickly as they have. So what happened in those 72 hours, and, what made General Prayuth feel the need to take control not only of the Kingdom’s security, but also control of its government? 
On Tuesday, following the imposition of Martial Law, General Prayuth invited all leading political figures to attend a meeting to be hosted at Bangkok’s Army Club. This was the first meeting of all relevant parties since the start of the political unrest seven months ago. The aim of the meeting was to find areas of common ground and compromise between the two main political parties, the governing Pheu Thai Party (PTP) and the opposition Democrat Party, and their supporters, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). After the meeting was adjourned, it was announced that all attendees had been ‘given homework’ and would return on Wednesday to continue their discussions. I suspect that the Generals had noted that recently ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and former executive of Shinawatra Corporation and current Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, had failed to attend the meeting.
On Wednesday, the second meeting began with Yingluck and Niwattumrong still absent. Reports suggest that after having twenty-four hours to consider the situation carefully, the various parties and factions were unable or unwilling to compromise or reach any sort of agreement. Several media channels also reported that governing Pheu Thai Party attendees stated that having discussed the content of the previous day’s meeting with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they were unable to accept any meaningful electoral reforms until after another election had taken place. The validity of these reports is uncertain, but if General Prayuth had received direct confirmation that Thailand’s Government was indeed taking council and directions from a wanted criminal, a man living in self-imposed exile in order to escape a jail term in his native Thailand, then perhaps he’d considered that any hope of finding a direct political solution to the troubles was gone. Whatever happened, at some point in the meeting Prayuth announced that given the obvious political impasse, and the real threat of an imminent escalation in violence on the streets, the Army would be taking control of Thailand’s Government. After the meeting, representatives of the political parties and their support movements were detained by military police and placed under temporary house arrest. Several of those detained had long outstanding arrest warrants for crimes including, but not limited to, arson, incitement of terrorism, acts of terrorism, and murder. An announcement then called on 150 other officials to report to the Army Club within 24 hours and all international travel for all of the named people was prohibited. The list included the names of Yingluck Shinawatra and Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan. Thailand had just witnessed its thirteenth Military Coup in eighty-five years as a Constitutional Monarchy.
The announcement of Martial Law on Monday was swiftly followed by action. The military quickly uncovered several caches of arms in and around Greater Bangkok. The arms, described as war weapons were confiscated and the owners, mostly pro-government supporters, arrested. New investigations have been ordered into the murder of civilians during the recent political conflict and teams of military police have today confiscated thousands of documents relating to what seems to be significant money transfers by important political figures to their off-shore bank accounts. Today, the ruling military has also vowed to pay the beleaguered rice farmers all of the money that’s been owing to them from the deposed Government’s controversial and corruption fuelled Rice Pledging Scheme, a scheme that has so far cost the Kingdom, and more importantly its rice farmers, an estimated Bt450 Billion. With thirty unanswered murders and eight hundred serious injuries, many of which were caught on camera, and with weapons of war being openly stock-piled and even flaunted on the streets of Bangkok by all sides, and with billions of dollars being stolen from the mouths of the Thai people, one has to ask the question - What have the Royal Thai Police Force been doing for the last seven months?   
Since news of the Military Coup spread on Thursday, USA’s John Kerry and UN’s Ban Ki Moon have been quick to condemn the General’s action and have warned of future sanctions against Thailand if democracy is not quickly restored. Since the announcement of the Military Coup, a curfew exists across Thailand from 10pm until 5am and it’s uncertain how long this will remain in place. Initially taken from the air, TV channels are now returning and the internet has so far remained operational. Media and demonstrations now appear to be strictly controlled by the military but so far there has been very little in the way of a violent reaction to the Coup. Again it’s early days and things could quickly change, but the general feeling from friends in and around Bangkok is that they now feel far safer than before. I’m not sure if that feeling of safety qualifies as ‘hope’, hope for a resolution to the seemingly never ending problems that plague Thai politics, but it may be a good start. 
Democracy is a very emotive term, but democracy can take many different forms. North Korea, PDR Laos, Egypt, Cambodia and Zimbabwe all have democracy, but I don’t remember such outrage from the West when the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi was recently overthrown by the military in Egypt. Should Robert Mugabe be removed in Zimbabwe or Kim Jon Un in North Korea, I wonder what the West’s reaction would be? Perhaps it all depends on how ‘friendly’ the elected leader is towards the USA and its allies, and it’s safe to say that Thaksin Shinawatra and his successive proxy Governments have over the years, been very good friends indeed. I'm not suggesting that a Democrat led Government would be any better, at least under the current legal system, but I maybe they'd be less likely to waii so low to the West and spend a great deal less on lobbying.    

So, back to the question, why execute a Military Coup now? Could it be that General Prayuth saw little hope of any side giving an inch, or that the ruling government was being openly directed by the exiled Thaksin Shinawatra from his home in Dubai? Possibly, but I doubt that this alone would have convinced a seemingly reluctant General to execute a coup just three months before he was due to retire. Was it that recent calls for pro-government supporters to raise arms and fight the perceived injustice of Thailand’s courts had gained traction, and likewise the oppositions determination to stop them, and that the newly discovered arms caches were evidence that such action was moving closer and closer to Bangkok? Possibly, and allied to the first point, this might have been enough for General Prayuth to take such action. But, there may be another reason, something that is sadly inevitable but something that none of us care to mention.             

A statement from Prayuth’s spokesman early on Friday stated that ‘the General had not met with the King and had no wish to burden him at this time’.

Post 397: Once again folks ... Martial Law in Thailand - Posted 20th May 2014

On Monday 19th of May 2014, armed troops took to the streets of Bangkok and Thailand’s Army Chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, declared a state of Martial Law across the Kingdom. Almost immediately, the Western media expressed outrage at the General’s actions and called for Democracy and the Rule of Law to be followed. However, here in Thailand ‘Democracy’ and ‘Rule of Law’ are seen as totally unrelated concepts. Thailand has Democracy, basically a two party system similar to that in the USA, and it has Rule of Law, but each of the political parties seems to believe in one, but not the other. Actually, to call them Political Parties would be wrong. They’re actually nothing more than huge business conglomerates. On the left you have the new-money Shinawatra Corporation and on the right, old-money Bangkok PLC. In fact, the best thing that I could say about Politicians in Thailand is that they make Western Politicians look trustworthy. Well, almost.   
Over the course of seven months, Thailand has been transformed into a dangerous powder keg, a huge stick of dynamite searching for a match. This coming weekend, 24th - 26th of May, it’s likely that the coming together of Pro and Anti Government movements in Bangkok would have lit the deadly tapper. During this current period of political unrest, with thirty deaths and eight hundred serious injuries, the police have done little to stem the violence, or to bring those responsible for the violence to justice. When the Constitutional Court recently decided, unanimously, that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was guilty of abusing power for the benefit of her own family, something that’s becoming a bit of a family tradition for the Shinawatras, and she and half of her cabinet were removed from office, the scene was set for an escalation in the already bloody conflict. Government supporters openly called on their followers to raise arms and march south to Bangkok while Anti-Government leaders called on their own supporters to prepare for the final battle.      
It would be a battle that neither side could win, but a battle from which neither side could ever step back from. Retreating from a stated position would mean losing face, and to be honest, most Thai’s would sooner lose their lives than lose their perceived standing in society. Thankfully for them, this being a political dispute between wannabe billionaires, the leaders would have allowed their foot-soldiers to take the bullets on their behalf, but I think you see my point.

With neither side willing to give an inch, and the police force dormant on the sidelines, the only real alternative was the army. By stepping in with a show of military force, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha has allowed leaders and activists from both sides of the political fight to avoid further confrontation and at the same time, to come to the conference table without any loss of face. To the Western eye, this might seem like a strange and radical solution to a political problem, but if Western standards were applied here, then the majority of Thailand’s current and former politicians would already be banged-up in jail.   

It’s still early days and I'm not certain if there's an official distance between Martial Law and Military Coup, so things may quickly change. However, since the imposition of Martial Law the deadly grenade and gunfire attacks have ended, at least four large illegal arms caches have been confiscated and representatives of all political parties have come to the meeting table for the very first time. But, with the current caretaker Prime Minister and former Prime Minister not attending the meeting, and there whereabouts currently unknown, it's uncertain if any side will be willing, or authorised, to compromise or accept an alternative point of view to their own, but it's hopefully the first small step on a very long road to peace and stability for the people of Thailand. The fact that these talks are taking place has taken a little of the wind from the sails of many Western journalists, but still searching for the negatives, they now seem to be concentrating on the suspension of certain satellite TV news channels. Suppression of the media is certainly detrimental to democracy, but a biased and corrupted media can be severely detrimental to peace.I suspect that very few of these vociferous journalists are familiar with the offerings from Thailand’s BlueSky or Choice TV, because real journalists mourning the temporary demise of these particular ‘News Channels’ would be like Mozart mourning the failure Jedward’s third album.
For myself and my many friends in and around Bangkok, the presence of the army is the first sign that a solution to the Kingdom’s plight may at last be insight. Politicians have proved incapable of helping anyone other than themselves and the streets today feel an awful lot safer than they did a week ago. Media images showing close cropped photographs of heavily armed soldiers are somewhat misleading. It’s not how the streets of Bangkok really look and the photographs have been cropped for a reason. On the other hand, a new industry in Soldier Selfies seems to be flourishing .. mai pen rai kap