January, February, and March (and probably June) 2014
Tomatoes & Democracy - March 2014
Yesterday during my hour-long taxi ride to the office (it used to take 20 minutes), the driver was listening to a talk show that was discussing the political situation here. There were dark comments about both sides. Much to my surprise the commentator began to describe Thailand as a "failed state" and welcomed the impending visit of UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon. Much to the surprise of many, the visit was confirmed yesterday by the caretaker government. The surprise is that he is coming at the request of the caretaker PM, who is the sister of a former PM who did not want the UN messing in his business under any circumstances. Moon offered to mediate peace talks last week.
Surprise #2: Caretaker prime minister Yingluck is now willing to have face-to-face talks with PDRC leader Suthep. OMG. It's about time.
Bonus surprise: PDRC leader Suthep last night announced that all of the rally sites that occupy major intersections in Bangkok will be dismantled before Monday and the entire contingent of PDRC demonstrators will take over Lumpini Park, which has facilities for meetings, plenty of room for camping, toilets, and even a swimming pool. Beyond Lumpini, one major demonstration site will remain on Cheng Watana Road outside the enormous complex of government ministry buildings. That protest site is under the control of Phra ("father") Buddha Issara, who is a senior Buddhist monk.
Caretaker PM Yingluck yesterday declared that she would "die for democracy." Does this mean she is ready to give up her life for the prospect of democracy in Thailand in the future? (See the beginning of the February 28th episode.) If so, she and Suthep have something in common. "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 (does not exist)," Said John Kerry. I have read this sentence over and over and am considering making it into my next tattoo.
Bangkok's busiest intersections were open to traffic yesterday as the Block Bangkok movement was unblocked.
But you don't think all of this is over, do you? Yingluck is still in the hot seat with NCCC, the red shirts are revved up and ready to go on the offensive, and rice farmers are still waiting for 140 billion of the 160 billion baht owed them and the caretaker government is not legally permitted to incur debt.
If that wasn't enough, the caretaker PM is facing two significant new challenges:
Thailand's constitution requires that the House of Representatives formally convene within 30 days after an election. If February second counts as an election, that deadline would be today. There was some "catch-up" voting in precincts that were closed in February, although no results have appeared in the news. The majority Pheu Thai party has solidly stood behind February 2nd as being valid, but this might not have been such a good idea in hindsight. The minority Democrats are pushing the courts to decide whether the current government is even legitimate at this point. The problem with the constitution is that there is no remedy when this 30 day requirement is not met. Expect lawsuits.
Radical red shirt leaders in the north and northeast have been shopping around the idea of a "Peoples Democratic Lana Republic" as a separate or autonomous state and signs promoting this idea have appeared in several cities. The army does not like this, and their lawyers have secured arrest warrants for a number of red shirt leaders for sedition, which could result in the death penalty. Mainstream UDID (red shirt) leaders and the caretaker prime minister have distanced themselves from any separatists.
Wow. This is getting more and more interesting. Meanwhile, Yingluck has not yet met PDRC leaders face to face. But she won't get into the new Lumpini protest site. The PDRC is now issuing picture ID cards to protestors, and the army has beefed up security around the Lumpini Park PDRC stronghold in an effort to deter future acts of violence. I may walk over there for a free dinner tonight just to see what is happening.
We have not seen much levity concerning the events over the past six or seven weeks--until yesterday.
Since the PDRC consolidated their protest sites into Lumpini Park, the Army has set up quite a few security posts in the area surrounding the park. These are mostly tents covered with camouflage. For the most part it's green and helps the tents to blend in with the leafy surroundings. We have three in our block and one smack dab in front of our office building. If you ask me they are better than having uniformed soldiers with helmets and guns hanging out on every corner.
Our glorious leader, Ms Yingluck, thought otherwise, and expressed her opinion that they were unsightly and 'gave Bangkok a bad image' to the commanding General Prayuth, commander of the Royal Thai Army. He apparently did not appreciate the remark. In an interview yesterday he sad something along the lines of 'maybe we should decorate them with flowers and pink drapes.'
Who says commanding generals can't have a sense of humor?
The PDRC have been busy with a series of public forums on topics related to national reform: eradication of poverty and inequality, corruption, decentralization of government, restructuring the police and judiciary, as well as election, political-party and civil-service reforms. Three forums held last week included participation from academia, members of a committee to bring about reforms from a previous government, and members of the public. PDRC is using high tech methods to include as many in the national discussion as possible. Personally, I find this effort constructive and badly needed.
Yingluck continues to be in hot water, and the temperature is rising. Now the Election Commission is investigating her possible use of public funds for campaign trips. Her older sister is being investigated as well. Potentially, her party could be dissolved and she could be banished from political office for five years.
Then, there is the matter of the legislation authorizing the government to seek loans of 20 trillion baht for "infrastructure projects," including a high speed rail system. What is odd about the bill that was approved by the senate is that is a dressed-up emergency spending measure that is managed entirely at the discretion of the cabinet, and not treated as line-item budget funds. The big difference is the former requires no public transparency, while public spending does. In other words, it is potentially a giant honey pot of corruption. The minority Democrat party fought hard to keep this bill from passing but they lost. However, they did file a law suit and, late last week, the court ruled that the whole thing was illegal. The penalty: You will find those at the end of the previous paragraph. The Pheu Thai party's reaction? 'So what? We're just a caretaker government.'
I have been reminded by one reader that I have not fairly brought anyone's attention to the difficult lives of the "other side," and I admit that this is true. Most of the supporters of the current government are poor working people who suffer the same plight as agrarian people in most of the rest of world. They are overlooked by society. They are poor. The value of the commodities they bring to market is often manipulated by wealthy people and institutions. Most of the provinces in the north and northeast get less funding per capita than more wealthy provinces, which means less money for education and infrastructure. I understand their frustration with greedy politicians far away who make no effort to understand their plight.
However, I cannot see why they have allowed themselves to be exploited for political gain by the caretaker government and their powerful siblings. Selling your vote for a bag of rice, 1,000 baht, or a hand-full of Viagra (yep, it's true) is not going to help lift anyone out of poverty. They have become the poster children for all that is wrong with Thai social and political systems, yet they put their trust in the empty promises of charismatic politicians who really do not honestly care how bad their lives are and who, in fact, have betrayed them. Rice farmers--the backbone of the Pheu Thai party and the red shirt organization--put their ultimate faith in a government that still owes 140 billion baht for the rice they pledged. In the last week another farmer has ended his own life because of massive debt and no available options for the next rice crop. Yet, many continue to follow the Shinawatras blindly, perhaps with the unstated hope that some of the riches swindled, skimmed and stolen with through the machinery of a fundamentally-corrupt patronage system might somehow trickle down to them.
Yesterday Phra Issara Buddha, the senior monk who runs PDRC's Chiang Wattana demonstration site, took a caravan of supporters to the offices of the Government Lottery, an institutional scam to cheat those who failed math (including me--but I'm going to have a gown made of all the worthless tickets I bought). He dumped 20 tons of rice on their doorstep and, after a heated negotiation, procured 1.3 billion baht for rice farmers. It has been said that if you find tickets with the license plate numbers of the PM and her inner circle, you might win 6 million baht.
This is the catch-up round.
So... The Constitutional Court threw out the February 2nd "election." But you guessed that would happen anyway. The Constitutional Court will set a new election, after which one side or the other will do whatever they can to call it off. They will take turns doing this, which could go on endlessly. Then the pot will boil over and the military will do what they do best.
The National Lottery Office got a big thank-you yesterday for their 1.3 billion baht donation to the PDRC's rice farmer relief effort in the form of a rocket-propelled grenade. National Counter Corruption office got a similar expression of gratitude. M76 grenades have been used repeatedly over the last three months by persons unknown. It is generally understood who they are: PCS (People with Colored Shirts). They are not the only folks with weapons. Police have reportedly arrested the infamous "popcorn gunman" who opened fire on police at the infamous Laksi bloodbath just before the February 2nd voting. He got the nickname from hiding his rifle in a sack of popcorn.
Wow. If I could have written this script I'd be rich by now.