Yellow Peril by Tze Ming Mok

Coup update 3: a coup for all the family

From a friend working for a rights watchdog body in Thailand in downtown Bangkok:

It is so difficult for any textbook or theory to explain Thai politics. It's very unusal coup, where people came out to give flowers, water, food and sweets to soldiers to show appreciation for ousting corrupted politicians from election!!! Some take their children and family to take photograph with soldiers, and tanks with roses on top as background.

Meanwhile, a Thai Human Rights Commissioner has said that the coup should not be framed within a progression/regression of democracy discourse, but is about "problem solving." Okay. Right. Maybe he thought that, since the Constitution in which his job is defined was ripped up, that he didn't have to fulfil the obligations of his job and could just say what he thought instead of actually defend some human rights. I'm sure the rest of his staff are cringing at the PR disaster, while falling behind on their website updates.

Bans on political protest in the city have been met with a promise of political protest in the city. Rock on. These are likely to be anti-Thaksin but anti-coup organisers who are doing it for the principle of the thing - how the military and police react will be a good testing point.

Community radio and SMS polling has now been subjected to the media clampdown - via warning announcements anway - but the net is still running freely and openly running political content critical of the coup. However, I suspect this is not so much a situation where the media control is token and the military is turning a blind eye, as an understanding that the urban web-surfing population is anti-Thaksin and if not pro-coup then optimistic about what could happen as a result of it. It is the rural Thaksin heartland of the Isan northeast that relies on community radio. Not good.

At the end of the day, if the army extends then abuses its control over the media or political activity, it will be met with resistance: at first the kind that tests the waters, then by increasingly organised opposition. For all the talk of Thailand 'not being ready' for democracy and a nation of non-confrontational softies, the people still know how to put up a good show on the streets and in the country towns. The military know this, and I believe, are smart enough to know how to avoid it.

One good sign of what we could hope is the pattern set for things to come, is that the military's preferred candidate for appointed interim Prime Minister is Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary General of UNCTAD, formerly joint chief of the WTO with Mike Moore. Supachai is totally clean, a fair player, no egotist, and no military patsy. He's one of those guys who everyone in the country actually wanted to be Prime Minister back when he was in politics, but he was never corrupt or vilely ambitious enough to get into the crazy business of trying to get elected. Whether he accepts the job however, is another matter.

The greatest unacknowledged population in this 'popular' coup, are the dirt-poor rural populations of Isan in the northeast. These are die-hard Thaksin supporters. Is it because Thaksin is a populist visionary dedicated to sustainable development, poverty alleviation, and agricultural revolution? I've never been able to figure it out. But I do know that his party bribes that huge province of voters substantially - with cash - before each election, and when made a regular practise of trucking in provincial supporters to clash with anti-Thaksin demonstrators in Bangkok, when interviewed, the rural demonstrators never knew what they were demonstrating about.

My friends in Thailand described the election voting booths for me. Well actually, there are no 'booths' and it's not even a secret ballot - CCTV cameras can clearly see who you vote for out in the open, to guarantee the return on the party investment in buying your vote. I'm all for income redistribution, but this is just ridiculous. If this is the democratic system that was just destroyed, you can ultimately see why the guardians of human rights and democracy in Thailand are a little confused about what to say.

If anything, lessons learnt from this particular democratic failure in Thailand have got to include a commitment to substantial poverty alleviation and rural development in the northeast - otherwise any replacement democratic process will always be ready to be bought, corrupted, and taken down.

That's enough coup for a while... to come: more relaxation with Survivor: Race War!


22 September 2006

Coup update 2: same same but different

More from Yang at the end of the 'National Holiday' yesterday:

as I saw on a T shirt today....Same same (on the front) but different (on the back).

The Democratic Council as the coup leaders call themselves declared today [Wednesday] a holiday so I met a few friends at Starbucks and there were plenty of people there sipping expensive coffee and enjoying the day off. Its probably a good shopping day in Bangkok with little traffic. The back of the T shirt is that we have tanks at certain key roads and bridges, and no CNN, BBC or foreign news stations because they want to block the embattled PM (who was in NY at the UN general assembly) from broadcasting into Thailand from abroad. And of course they have control of the local TV and radio stations.

I used to play a board game called junta. There are some interesting parallels. Thaksin has apparently still got heaps of cash/assets he has not been been able to get abroad. So he may be negotiating with the coup leaders. He still has a sizeable faction in the army on his side but because he was overseas they could not get mobilised quickly and the other lot now control things and are strengthening their positions around the capital. So no violence for now.

Here's Thai newspaper The Nation's talkboard on the topic "Do you support this coup?"

It's an English language paper and website generally read by the middle and upper English-speaking classes, and yes, by all you Kiwi expats - and rather a lot of the answers are 'yes'.

The Nation and The Bangkok Post are good places for more running updates. It's a good sign that although the television stations were frozen out yesterday, the print media was operating online without any apparent restriction (reporting a massive surge in webhits as a result of the TV clampdown), and that pro-Thaksin demonstrators did not seem to be mistreated in Bangkok.

Main developments: after the King's endorsement yesterday, the military has promised two weeks until civilian government and a start on redrafting the constitution, calling on constitutional experts for their input. Constitutional experts are saying: 'um, can we copy it off the old one you just ripped up? We put a lot of work into it at the time. Seems a bit of a waste. Or we could just, like, tape it back together.'


21 September 2006

Coup update: Military finds innovative solution to Bangkok traffic congestion

Update from Stephen 12:30pm NZ time, 7:30am Thai time:

"Morning, Gil Scott Heron, was right - the revolution will not be televised. We lost local TV at 10 pm last night & the big boys, BBC, CNN & CNBC at midnight. My friends tell me everything will be back to normal tomorrow (I don't know what Thai normal is however).

The streets are pretty quiet (my cab ride took 15 mins - on a normal day it would take 1hr 15 mins) & you wouldn't know a coup was being staged - saw a few soldiers standing on a couple of major intersections and that was it. Think people here are surprised that a coup did eventuate (though there had been rumours since last week). Many thought the days of martial law etc was history etc

We're trying to get hold of [my wife's] uncle, he's well into the anti-Thaksin thing to see what he knows. Banks & schools are closed today With no TV you guys know more about what's happening than we do..."

Yang checked in a few hours later, also saying he didn't know what was going on, due to the media blackout:

CNN and BBC and foreign news shut down but internet may be OK. They obviously control all radio and Thai TV stations.

The faction in control is loyal to a military commander who constantly criticised Thaksin and was about to be demoted.

You missed it! Probably for the best as you would be on the bridge confronting the tanks!



My friends in Bangkok are probably still tossing in their sleep after a tank-filled evening, but hopefully we'll have some of their comment soon about the military coup. I imagine they might have mixed feelings - dismay and cyncism at the collapse of the democratic process, perhaps relief at the end of the stalemate... or even secret glee. Maybe even open glee, I guess we'll see.

In terms of your usual democratisation factions, Thailand is the mad exception. It's a place where, to plenty of political analysts, the unelected, hereditary, revered-as-a-god monarch is the country's most principled guardian of democratic institutions, whereas the (sort of vaguely kinda) elected government is considered the force most committed to undermining those institutions.

That leaves the army and the privy council. The army are 'loyal to the King', hate Thaksin, and have been power-struggling with him forever over nepotistic appointments, his hollowing out of judicial independence, and his mishandling of the Southern insurgency.

Bangkok is not Thailand, but it is the urban, professional class, sick of corruption and fighting for their democratic institutions, who in the months since the election, have been backing the King, his councillors, and even the Army against Thaksin. General Sonthi, who led the coup, was appointed as head of the armed forces at the urging of the King against Thaksin's preferred appointment. Sonthi is a Southerner - read: ethnic Malay Muslim - whose appointment was seen as a conciliatory and progressive move. He was about to be taken down by Thaksin. Woah, no-one tell Bush that Thailand just got taken over by a Muslim.

Thaksin may have been playing a stupid game of brinksmanship, but a coup is a coup, and "terminating" - not even 'suspending' - the constitution is hardly a blow for democracy, especially with new elections only a couple of months down the track. No amount of speculation about the democratic intentions of the army will change that - it may be a genuine attempt to press the 'reset' button, but there are no guarantees. I also can't imagine the King is too happy that they've launched a miiltary coup in his name again.

Before all this excitement broke out, I considered boring you with an unending parse of Martin Amis' unendingly problematic 9/11 5-year anniversary essay The Age of Horrorism, but turned instead to reading the verdicts on 'Survivor: Race War!' - which, let's face it, you're all far more interested in.

In times of political crisis, there's nothing like metaphorical clashes of civilisation within the framework of trite reality TV.

As every good ethnicity-geek would have heard by now, season 13 of Survivor is not only taking place in our neighbourly Cook Islands, but the four competing teams have been segregated by 'race', with the intended outcome of this cut-throat race war to be a melting-pot 'merging of the tribes' - before they end up back-stabbing each other to the end as usual. There's a White team, a Black team, a Latino team, and an Asian team. Black contestants with Latin American ancestry default to black; Latino contestants with white ancestry default to Latino; Asian contestants with Polynesian ancestry default American-style to Asian (because there is no Polynesian tribe). There are no South Asian, Chinese or Japanese contestants on the Asian team; but there is a white chick called - unbelievably - Parvati Shallow. She doesn't default to Asian. There is no Arab-American or Native American team.

How are Asian-American pop-cultural critics reconciling gob-smacked lefty sensibilities with wanting to see what happens to 'our' team? Here's Jeff Yang's Asianpop column, in which he gathers a team of hyper-ironic Asian-American pop-cultural critics for the season premier, as well as a carefully balanced selection of quadro-ethnic food: 'The Tribe Has Spoken' (highly recommended), and also his mailing-list breakdown on Instant Yang

From 'The Tribe Has Spoken':

"Did you see that? That white guy just grabbed the Asian guy's chicken," says Anna Liza.

"Don't worry, the chickens are going to come home to roost," I crack.


"I can tell already that this show is going to be successful," says John. "Next season should just go ahead and do white supremacists versus Black Panthers."

"I think next season should be 'Survivor: LGBT,'" I say. "They've got to top this somehow. You know everyone's going to bet on the lesbian tribe."

"Yeah, but will there be a tribe for 'Curious'?" asks Suyin.


The [immunity] challenge involves putting together a "puzzle boat," rowing it out to a floating brazier and bringing fire back to an altar, which can only be ascended after another puzzle is completed.

"Gotta go with the Asians on this one," says Ursula.

"Asians, come on! Why else are you playing all that Minesweeper on your Blackberries?" says Suyin. "They might as well just make the immunity challenge a set of SAT questions."

I don't have much to add to the flurry of quipping - except for highlighting the oddity of the 'Asian tribe' being called 'Pukapuka'. Sure, it's the name of an island, and I guess Cook Island Maori is not New Zealand Maori... but it does immediately call to my mind an homage to the Asian love of hanging out in libraries.