Douglas Thompson's Gay Asia Blog

January through June 2014

Tomatoes & Democracy - February 2014

01 February

I could not have said it better. The Bangkok Post published a story yesterday under the headline "Stop Telling Lies." It begins:

"As predicted, the government will not be able to keep its promise to rice farmers that they will definitely be paid today, Jan 31 -- just as all the other promises of payment been broken -- because the government itself is broke but has stubbornly refused to accept it and has kept lying to the farmers."

The government had no success getting loans to pay the rice farmers the money it owes. As Gomer Pyle would say: "Surprise, surprise, surprise." Some in government are calling for the Prime Minister to sell off some of the government's massive stockpiles of rice, even at a loss. These stockpiles have been described as both "deteriorating" and "overpriced." The rice pledging plan was structured on a market price of 14,000 baht per ton. The current market rate is currently around 8,000. Problem is, a lot of that rice has gone missing. It may be no surprise to learn that a lot of attention is being given to a fake rice deal recently made with China even though the Chinese government knew nothing about it.

The Civil Court had declined to rule favorably on a lawsuit filed by one PDRC leader to invalidate the current state of emergency. The court has summoned the PM and several other leaders of the caretaker government and the Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order to testify late next week.

PDRC leader Suthep has asked demonstrators not to block anyone going to the polls tomorrow. One constitutional expert suggests that voters go to the poll and cast their ballot for nobody. If enough voters do this the Pheu Thai party's percentage of votes it receives would be significantly diluted. In any event, it is far fetched to expect that the caretaker government will see enough MPs elected to open parliament. And even if they did the election will be invalidated by the inevitable lawsuits anyway.

But what the heck. The election will cost the government only about 5 billion baht (a little more than $15 million). I don't know about you but it seems very odd to me that a government that is unable to pay nearly-bankrupt farmers the money it owes them will spend this much on an election that that it knows will result in six months of costly haggling in the Thai justice system.

04 February 2014

Only 48.5% of Thailand's eligible voters participated in Sunday's election. While there were some "incidents," there was no significant violence or death. The Pheu Thai party is claiming a resounding victory in an election that will most probably be thrown out by the courts. The Democrat party yesterday filed the first lawsuit to invalidate the poll with the Constitutional Court on the grounds that the law was not followed.

There has always been a polling station on the ground floor of the condominium building where I live. I resolved not even to go out on Sunday, but could not help but to travel downstairs for a peek. One solder (without a gun, walkie-talkie or even a stick) "guarded" the premise. Voting was going on calmly. Yesterday the precinct's poll was posted. One of my neighbors said that the great majority of those who voted ticked the "none of the above" box on the ballot.

On Saturday, the day before the voting, a gun fight broke out at the Lad Prao demonstration site when a group of armed red shirts decided that the anti-government protestors were invading their turf. Nobody was killed. Four people were injured, including a western journalist. The demonstration site was closed yesterday and demonstrators made a 14 km march to the main Lumpini site at the foot of Silom Road. Protest leaders decided that they could not effectively protect protestors at Lad Prao. The Victory Monument site was also closed. Leaders left the decision about whether to close the Cheng Wattana site that is currently crippling the enormous tract of government ministry buildings (including the Supreme Court) to the senior Buddhist Monk who is running the protest activities there.

Unpaid rice farmers have "unfriended" the beleaguered Prime Minister. A large group of farmers, most of whom are facing bankruptcy, yesterday blocked a major traffic artery in Bangkok yesterday. They are expected to petition His Majesty the King to intervene today. It is worth remembering that these farmers have traditionally formed the backbone of the ruling Pheu Thai party. A large contingent of farmers plan to protest in front of the PM's house.

This is only one of many challenges for the PM, who is facing investigations by the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Election Commission. The opposition Democrats will file a barrage of legal complaints against the government this week that could result in her impeachment, the disillusion of the Pheu Thai party, and the banishment of her and her cabinet from holding office for five years.

In case you are wondering, my tomatoes are growing beautifully.

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08 February

I am amused by the reaction to this blog of a very few who have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. "Go buy a yellow shirt," said one. Another made an idiotic remark about occupying airports.

Just so you know, the PDRC has nothing to do with "Yellow Shirts." The leaders are not the same. The agenda is vaguely similar but not the same. The new "Flag Shirts," as they have been dubbed,  and the Yellow Shirts, share their contempt for Thaksin Shinawatra and his dynastic ambitions. That's about all.

If you believe that anyone who shares the PDRC's ideals is a radical, you can now include former finance ministers, many mainstream academics and, now, the Bangkok Post. I could not help laughing out loud when I read the first paragraph of a front-page story in The Post last Wednesday:

"The blanket amnesty bill and the rice-pledging scheme, the lies and the secrecy -- given its poor performance and shady practices, the Pheu Thai government should be brought down."

The story went on to talk about how Thai people depend on short cuts, bribery and cheating to get through the day. Ultimately, however, people will only remember the first few sentences of the story.

Two grenades exploded at the Chaeng Wattana rally site on Thursday evening. Nobody was injured. According to the National Security Council chief, the PDRC  is behind grenade attacks on its own demonstration sites in order to "get attention," and as a way to attract more people to demonstrate. I'm not sure about you, but the potential for injury or death does not compel me to dash down to a rally site. Giant firecrackers were thrown into the same site this morning before dawn, injuring one.

Another caretaker government minister says he expects bombs to go off every night at demonstration sites.

Yesterday I drove past the Central World Plaza demonstration site on my way to work. It's pretty hard to avoid since it's practically next door to where I live. I was surprised to see it virtually empty. I told my staff when I arrived at the office that it looked like PDRC was abandoning the place and I was quickly reminded that all of the demonstrators had fanned out around Bangkok to collect donations for rice farmers who have not been paid.

That's pretty generous on the part of PDRC leaders, whose bank accounts have been frozen (even though they have not been tried or convicted of anything--how's that for a "democracy?") and many of them face bankruptcy. Fifty-eight PDRC leaders have been banned from leaving Thailand, which I find quite odd since I am sure some in caretaker government would love to see them go. Thaksin Shinawatra is still banned from returning.

Yingluck: An "ulterior power" is blocking the government from paying farmers. The suggestion is, of course,  that the PDRC is the ulterior power. However, there are those who suspect it's really her brother Thaksin and the Finance Minister. Yingluck continues to promise the farmers that they will be paid, although she now claims that the caretaker government has 'limitations.' Meanwhile, the clock is ticking  for warehouses full of unsold, over-priced rice that won't last forever.

19 February

Nothing of great importance has happened since the last installment of this blog. Until Tuesday, that is. Over the last couple of weeks there has been a lot of hyperbole, dogma, saber rattling on both sides, like a couple of dogs barking at each other endlessly.

That ended on Tuesday morning when the PM took to the air and immediately stuffed both of her feet into her mouth with a Nixonesque, self-serving televised speech that was packed with lies and later condemned by academics, the media and political leaders, alike as a "hate speech." She called the protestors "enemies of democracy" (!) and blamed them for practically everything except for global warming and the assassination of JFK. Primarily, she blamed non-payment of rice farmers (who should have been paid last October) on the demonstrators. She also said that anything that had to be done to control the demonstrations was necessary but regrettable.

With that forecast in mind, within hours a huge contingent of police attacked the peaceful demonstrators at a site controlled by a group called the Dharma Army. (There are at least four groups involved in the current protests, counting rice farmers.) A hooded man dressed in black reportedly threw a hand grenade at police. It is still unclear who this person was, how many were with him, or what side they were on. PDRC protesters claim that they have no such people among their ranks. There has been some conjecture that he may have even been a red shirt who was attempting to force the situation into a violent confrontation. The Army says they were not involved. In the end, three protestors and one police officer were dead and  70 others were injured, including one policeman who lost both of his legs.

This has apparently left a bad taste in the mouths of rank-and-file police officers, who are leery about participating in further confrontations. One of the barking dogs, a spokesperson for the caretaker government's Committee for Maintaining Peace and Order, said that the police were unarmed. Television news and the front page of today's Thai Rath newspaper tell a different story, showing front-line police firing into the crowd of protestors with rifles, hand guns and what appeared to be a shotgun.

The Civil Court has, since this incident, ruled on a lawsuit brought by one of the protestors that declares that the State of Emergency under effect does not allow the caretaker government to attack protest sites. In other words, the rally sites and protestors are protected by law unless they themselves become aggressive.

Tick tock. The rice farmers still have not been paid. The Government Savings Bank agreed to loan the government 5 billion baht, resulting in a run on the bank as depositors withdrew reportedly 3 billion baht in one day. The president of the bank has resigned.

The caretaker PM was indicted yesterday by the National Counter-Corruption Commission for her part in the "failure of" (e.g. corruption of) the rice-pledging program. She could face impeachment and a statutory ban from holding public office for five years.

Red shirts in Chiang Mai have offered a safe haven for the caretaker government should they want to move to a temporary capital.

One voice of common sense stands out in all of this. In today's Bangkok Post, former PM Ahbisit Vejjajiva and leader of the Democrat party accepted part of the blame for his party's part in Thailand's Washington-style political gridlock. The paper also published his essay "The time has come to restart Thailand." Well worth reading.

I, for one, am happy that I do not live in Kiev.

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24 February 2014

They are killing children now.

For the last week there have been increasingly frequent incidents of hooded men in black attacking PDRC's rally sites. They seem to be well equipped and very well trained in tactical combat. Yesterday in Trat, deep in Southern Thailand, men in black opened fire on a peaceful PDRC rally site, killing two--including a 5 year old girl--and injuring many. On Saturday, men in black launched a grenade into the Rachaprasong rally site in Bangkok, killing two children, aged four and six. Friday evening at 8:45 I heard an explosion--the kind that sends birds flying south and makes windows rattle. A bomb had exploded behind the stage at the Rachaprasong site, which is two blocks from where I live, and the same place where the red shirts camped out for two months. There is plenty of speculation about who the bad guys are. PDRC leader Suthep points his finger at the government. Others are guessing that they are rogue police, perhaps associated with exiled former Primer Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who graduated from Thailand's police academy and served as an officer in the national police. But we won't know until one of them is caught.

So far, 19 have died and there is no evidence that any PDRC leaders or protestors have ever had weapons in their possession. Arrest warrants brought by the caretaker government for 13 PDRC leaders have been invalidated by the Criminal Court.

A parade of farmers who drove to Bangkok in their trucks and on their tractors last week, decked out with Thai flags was reported widely on network and cable news around the world last Friday. They came to Bangkok to get the money owed to them. What CNN and BBC did not later report was that the whole thing was a piece of theatre. A former member of parliament and head of a small political party that formed the coalition government of Yingluk  Shinawatra, managed to bamboozle about 1500 farmers into participating in this charade. It was announced that they would even make a symbolic appearance at Suvarnabhumi Airport, which sent chills down the spines of airport management. Once in Bangkok he said he met with the Prime Minister--which probably could not have taken place-- then announced that payment would be made this week. He then convinced (some used the word "forced") everyone to go back home.

Apparently this politician did not want "his" farmers staying behind to join the ranks of the farmers already demonstrating here. Those farmers are not buying into this bit of make-believe. They have announced that, if not paid with seven days, they will block the main highway between Bangkok and the airport. Meanwhile, nobody is loaning the government money and economists give no hope to the proposed "rice bonds" idea that was floated by the government last week. Both the stock market and the Thai Baht took a nose dive this morning.

The most frightening recent turn of events is a meeting of about 4,000 UFDD ("red shirt") leaders in Khorat over the weekend. They do not like what has been going on in Bangkok lately and they definitely do not like the idea of Yingluck Shinawatra being forced from office. They plan to send "one million red shirts to Bangkok." At a red shirt meeting in Samut Prakan (suburban Bangkok) over the weekend, one of the leaders announced the "good news" that PDRC protestors at sites in Bangkok and Trat had been killed. The crowd cheered the murder of children.

This might actually lead to what the now-neutral military may decide is their last option--another coup to bring order to a lawless country where Thais are engaged in acts of violence against other Thais. Military leaders were to have met with the caretaker PM today. However, that meeting was abruptly cancelled indefinitely and without explanation. The head of Army today pleaded for two sides to work things out face to face, which seems difficult when the Prime Minister is in hiding and her dogs are barking.

At my staff meeting this morning we began to put into place an emergency plan for all of our future Bangkok arrivals, as well as individual personal plans to work from home if it appears to become unsafe. I have two months of food and water at home, flashlights, candles, a solar-powered radio/USB charger, and a couple of great big boxes of red wine. (I have given up cigars since the red shirt episode.) We cannot predict the future, but we want to be ready for everything and to keep our customers out of harms way. Meanwhile, I drove through one and along side two of Bangkok's four (or is it five?) protest sites just to get to work this morning and lived to tell about it.

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26 February

A fourth child died last night from injuries sustained at a rally site. People in red will surely cheer.

The caretaker PM is required to appear before the National Counter Corruption Commission tomorrow on their charges of dereliction of duty for her role in the miserably-failed rice pledging scheme. Apparently she may also be charged by another oversight body for hanky-panky with water management projects that may have contributed to the massive floods here two years ago.

The UFDD (which stands for United Front for Defense of Democracy a.k.a."red shirts") have suggested to the caretaker PM that she ignore everything the courts, human rights watch-dogs, Election Commission, NCCC, the Constitution, and everyone else who has her back to the wall, and do what she damn pleases. But wait a minute. Wouldn't that be dictatorship? Spoken like true defenders of democracy.

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28 February

In a landmark speech on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State said that "A democracy is not defined solely by an election." He argues: "You can have a democratically elected government, but if you don't have democratically-instituted reforms that actually give you a democracy, a full, practicing, functioning democracy." I can see Miss Fu getting out her red pen and marking up the second sentence, but I am sure you get the point.

"And what you have in many places is a general election, a popular election, absent reform, present with great corruption, great cronyism and a huge distortion of democratic process."

Tomato MasterThere you have it. For all of its pretenses and despite all of the dogma about "democracy" that all of the dogs are barking so loudly about, "democracy" does not really exist in Thailand beyond a mere election.

There was a parade of red shirts on my street on Wednesday--just one block from PDRC's territory in front of Central World Plaza. They ended up across the river at in Thonburi at the offices of the National Counter Corruption Commission. They invaded the building, then parked themselves on the pavement outdoors with one empty coffin for each of NCCC's Commissioners. They have sealed the entrance of the building with concrete.

I remember an episode of I Love Lucy (yes, I am way over 50) in which Ethel returns to her home town and puts on a somewhat ghastly vocal recital. Lucy, Ricky and Fred crossed the stage back and forth behind her carrying a small tree at first, then a larger, and larger tree until it became a Sequoia. Well, this blog has almost become as endless as Ethel's recital, although I hope it is not as hard on the ears. I have no trees, but remember the tiny tomatoes at the top of the page when this mess began? All of those toddlers are teenagers now, and almost ready to leave home to live with farmers. I'm still looking for one more farmer to grow 20-30 plants. Each plant should produce from 800 to 1,500 baht worth of fruit. The farmer gets half of the profit.

Red shirt leaders announced yesterday that they were going to recruit 600,000 young men to travel to Bangkok to 'protect the monarchy.' Belly laughs all around. The UFDD has been widely considered to be against the Noble Institution from the get-go. Indeed, some of its leaders have been convicted of lese- majese. It's the part about recruiting (and therefore employing) 600,000 unemployed upcountry hooligans that Bangkok needs to worry about.

This morning I asked our bookkeeper whether she feels safe in the suburban neighborhood where she lives. She said that she definitely does and that she does not often get home until 23:30. Same for one of the others in the office. Apparently they make a convenient detour to the PDRC's Lumpini rally site, where they get free dinner, and listen to a great band and uplifting speeches from Dr. Seri Wongmontha, which I imagine is something like campy stand-up comedy. "We feel really safe there," they told me.

March 2014>