October 7, 2017. I lived in Thailand for most of the last eight years. I left for the last time two months ago. Like most expats living there, I followed Thai politics closely. I was very careful, however, about what I said in public. Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law was one reason. Many have been jailed for saying anything critical about the King or his family. It just made good sense to stay out of Thai politics if you are a visitor in the country. I was a member of the Pattaya City Expats Club. It was a cardinal rule in the club meetings that no matter what was going on in the country, we never discussed politics.
Having said that, one couldn’t help but shake one’s head at what transpired during the time I was there. As I detailed below, I was an eyewitness to the coup d’état of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck, won the next democratically held election. Both Thaksin and his charming sister were extremely popular with the voters in the North and East. The populist message of their Pheu Thai Party, appealed to the poor farmers, taxi drivers and maids. The powerful elites in Bangkok were up against an immense demographic problem. The economic pyramid is much wider at the bottom than it is at the top. The elites were far outnumbered by poor people living inside and outside Bangkok and they were all registered to vote. Many of the poor people from the Northeast region known as Isaan are actually ethnic Lao. They tend to be shorter and darker than the Central Valley Thais and have been discriminated against for decades. They saw the Pheu Thai Party and the Shinowatras as an opportunity to redress their long-held grievances
The elite learned their lesson when the Thaksin’s Red Shirts won for the second time. They patiently waited through the first couple of years of Yingluck’s Administration. When the right moment came, General Chan-ocha arrested Prime Minister Yingluck on May 22, 2014 in another coup and took her and members of her family to an army base nearby. Realizing how popular she was, he knew he couldn’t hold her for long. He released her but instituted charges against her for corruption and mismanagement. Gen. Chan-ocha then managed to get himself elected prime minister and his administration set out to rewrite the Constitution so that those damnable unwashed peasants would never get control of the government again. His idea of a democracy was to stuff the Senate with military appointees. He remains in office today. A major PR campaign has been conducted to burnish his image and that of his administration. Thais seem to have reluctantly accepted him. In a meeting last month with Pres. Trump, the Prime Minister gave his assurance that free and fair elections were coming soon. In an article yesterday, however, he seemed to have backtracked on that. (see the article below).
As for Yingluck, she was held under house arrest for most of the last three years while being tried on the corruption charges. The courts finally convicted her and she was given a five-year prison sentence. The only problem is that she is no longer in the country. Sometime last month, she was able to escape to Dubai where her billionaire brother is living in exile. She has applied to the UK and other countries for political asylum. Meanwhile the military remains firmly in control of Thailand.
Note: the following was written during the time that the anti-Thaksin forces were trying to topple Yingluck’s government. As noted above, they succeeded in May of the following year.
December 9, 2013. As I am writing this in my apartment in Chonburi, Thailand, two hours away, in Bangkok, 100,000 Thais are marching through the streets. I am watching the spectacle on the BBC. The demonstrators want to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In an attempt to pacify the demonstrators, the totally charming and photogenic leader dissolved the parliament and agreed to new elections. When this seemed to have failed to placate the crowds, she broke down in tears:
This is another chapter in the long struggle between the Yellow Shirts representing the middle and elite classes based mainly in the Bangkok area and the Red Shirts who draw their support from the working classes and farmers in the poorer regions of the North and East. Ask any cab driver in Bangkok who he supports and very likely he will say Prime Minister Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, the Red Shirts. Mr. Suthep, the leader of the Yellow Shirts (Democrat Party) would certainly take issue with most of the populist policies implemented by Ms. Yingluck and her majority in parliament since they took office. One policy that drew a lot of criticism, for example, was a rice buying scheme designed to guarantee farmers a minimum price for their crops. It resulted in an apparent loss to the government in the range of 450 billion Baht (1.5 million USD). But the proposed policy that seemed to have set off the demonstrations was an amnesty bill that would pardon many Red Shirts for their past transgressions, but most of all, would pardon Yingluck’s older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra for his conviction on corruption charges when he was Prime Minister several years earlier. Amnesty would allow him to return from his exile in Dubai. The billionaire telecommunications tycoon is a powerful personality that the opposition definitely does not welcome back to Thailand. Sadly, a deep divide exists in this beautiful country. I have Thai friends on both sides. It’s difficult to see how or when this problem will be healed.
September 2006. The following is my account of how I happened to become an eyewitness to the military coup d’état of the Thakin government.
Foreigners are guests in the country and should stay out of politics. I follow that policy. Sometimes, however, circumstances place the traveler in a situation, like it or not, where he or she is an eyewitness to history unfolding. This was the case in September 2006 when I was staying at Patumwan House, an apartment building in Central Bangkok. I happened to be there on the day the army staged a coup d’tat. It’s quite startling to see tanks and troops in the streets of an otherwise peaceful country. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in New York speaking at the United Nations. He was never allowed to return and was tried and convicted of corruption in absentia.
September 19, 2006. I was in my apartment in Central Bangkok when Tibor Krausz, a journalist friend living in the same building, knocked on my door and said a coup d’tat was underway. He asked me if I wanted to accompany him downtown to take some photos. I have to admit, I hesitated. I had traveled extensively in Latin America and a coup often meant shooting and violence. Well, you only live once. What the hell, I thought, and away we went to the Government House area. I was prepared to begin dodging bullets. Sure enough, tanks and troops had taken over all of the government buildings. Attached are a few of Tibor’s best shots. He was able to get a story and had some of the photos published on a wire service.
Fortunately, The takeover turned out to be non-violent. Indeed, as Tibor’s photos show, the military was popular with many of the Bangkok residents. Everyone was smiling and many people handed flowers and water to the soldiers.
All of the Thai TV stations suspended programming and showed videos and photos of the highly revered King.
Tibor, a Hungarian/Canadian living in Bangkok, is a highly talented journalist and photographer. He has been published in major periodicals throughout the world. A collection of his work can be found at: www.tiborkrausz.com