January, February, and March (and probably June) 2014
Tomatoes & Democracy - January 2014
I have not been sleeping well lately. My sleeping patterns have always been very stable. But recently I have been waking up between 03:00 and 04:00 and not being able to get back to sleep. Yesterday, I joked with Chutima, our bookkeeper, that my tomato plants were making too much noise.
Tomatoes here are something I love to bitch about. Thai tomatoes seem to be bred for their mealy texture and complete lack of flavor. I have been growing some American heirloom tomatoes on both of my balconies with as much success as you can expect for a 10th floor farm that does not get 360 degree sunlight all day. One of my dreams is to grow decent tomatoes that I can share with people who deserve them, and that will delight hotels and restaurants in the area. My friend Darren, who owns the glam restaurant Eat Me flies his tomatoes in from France. So my idea has the added appeal of ruining the French economy.
In one of my brightest windows I have about 120 heirloom tomato seedlings about two inches tall. Now all I need is one or more farmers who will grow them for me. I will provide all of the materials and technology. Since I use containers, soil quality does not matter and they can even grow on top of concrete. All they need is daily watering and tying up the floppy parts every couple of days. The farmer gets half of the take, which could be between 50,000 and 100,000 baht per month when we are up to 200 new plants a month. If you have a green thumb and want to adopt some plants (or know a rice farmer who has not been paid by the evil, crooked government and needs money, please be in touch with me.
More Whistles in the Street. I am beginning this episode of my blog on 22 January 2014. The government yesterday declared a State of Emergency. I expect I will be writing this episode, as I did with my blogging about the Red Shirt demonstration in 2010, for several months. I will do my best to be as objective as possible. I am doing this because you deserve to know the truth, and you won't probably find that on network or cable television news.
A State of Emergency affords the government special privileges under the constitution. These include detention of individuals for no reason, censorship of the media (which some contend is already taking place), curfews, and the authority of the military and police placed in the hands of government leaders. It is worth saying that the military will not do anything the police are told to do and vice versa. It is also worth saying that the former Democrat government declared a State of Emergency but did not exercise any of their powers until troops moved in on red shirt demonstration sites after many, many warnings and after weeks of intense negotiations failed.
My last blog set the stage for what the demonstrations became. Not long after that was published the leaders announced that they would "shut down" Bangkok beginning on 13 December until the caretaker Prime Minister steps down. She is the "caretaker" PM because she dissolved the government as a result of the noisy demonstrators and their demands. This was a clever move on her part, because she is now left with a caretaker government that is made up entirely of her hand-picked cabinet, mostly members of her own party. The opposition parties in parliament are no longer around to argue with her. Fresh elections were set for February 2nd.
We were not quite sure what to expect on January 13th. The anti-government Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the major organizer of the protests, published a list of major intersections where they would bring traffic (except for public transportation and emergency vehicles) to a halt. One of them was all of Pratunam, where I live, just two blocks from the site of the Red Shirt occupation. Another is Rama IV Road at the beginning of Silom Road, which is more or less in front of our office. We put together a contingency plan to close the office and work from our respective homes. I stayed at home all of last week. (I had a bad cold anyway.) Eventually the street in front of our office was closed and nothing materialized in Pratunam. The PDRC decided the main venue should be the Pathumwan Intersection (in front of MBK) because it had good Feng Shui.
"Big Picture" Things You Need to Know:
The primary demand of the PDRC is that acting PM Yingluck Shinawatra, youngest sister of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, step down. They believe that she is merely the puppet of her brother, who is pulling the strings from his self-imposed exile in Duabai. Thaksin was convicted in absentia of massive corruption. Little Sister refuses to quit, and the conclusion has been drawn that Big Brother will not allow her to do so. Prominent intellectuals in Thailand have recently called for an end to the Shinawatra family's involvement in Thai politics, and many have felt compelled to voice their support for the current demonstrations.
Yingluck's government tried to push through a general amnesty law that would let convicted red shirt leaders, and leaders who had fled Thailand off the hook. Although it did not specifically mention Thaksin, it surely would have applied to him. Many in the Kingdom were outraged and began to organize into what are now several protest groups. The amnesty bill eventually failed, but the damage to the ruling party was already done.
The major opposition Democrat party, has decided to boycott the February 2nd elections. Many open seats do not yet have candidates, so the Democrats have called to move elections to March. Pro-Shinawatra Red Shirts have warned that doing so would result in dire consequences. Stockpiles of weapons supposedly hidden by Red Shirts have reportedly been found in Bangkok.
PM Yingluck is being investigated by the National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC) for her involvement in the allegedly-corrupt government "rice pledging scheme." Put in the simplest terms, the government guarantees that rice produced by Thai farmers would be purchased and that the government would control its sale and pay the farmers. The scheme was a major platform for Pheu Thai, the Shinawatras' political party. The scheme has been stigmatized as official fraud. In October 2012 the Chairman of Thailand's Central Bank called for an end to the program because of related corruption, adding that it could "doom Yingluck."
Meanwhile in Isaan, the country's vast north-eastern "rice belt," only 14% of farmers have been paid for last year's rice crops. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy and cannot afford seed for future crops. Farmers have organized major protests of their own and will march on Bangkok in the coming days to call for an end to the current regime.
So far, nine people have been killed since the beginning of the anti-government protests. In the last two weeks "under-cover Red Shirts" have hurled hand grenades at demonstrators and at into the residential compound of Democrat party Chairman and former PM Abhisit Vejjavija.
Are we afraid? Not at all, although traffic is even more fucked up than normal.
Are visitors in danger? Absolutely not. I have been passing through the Lumpini Park demonstration site every morning on my way to work. It looks more like a festival with vendors selling t-shirts and protest-themed merchandise. The larger protest sites at Victory Monument and Pathumwan Intersection are not normally places that visitors find themselves and are easily avoided, although you will have great views of the protest sites from Skytrain. Should you stay home? Of course not. Chicago, Baltimore, Capetown, Detroit, Saint Louis, Flint, all of Mexico, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Brazil are far more dangerous. No city in Thailand appears on any of the "25 most dangerous cities" lists we consulted.
Meanwhile, the value of the Thai baht is dropping, which means prices are lower here for visitors than they have been in a long time.
Stay tuned for more....
Morning temperatures here have been in the low sixties (Fahrenheit) here. It's more like San Francisco than tropical Bangkok. My tomatoes are not enjoying this at all.
The anti-government protestors have balked at the declaration of a State of Emergency. Their reply to Yingluck was to take over the same street in front of Central World Plaza that the Red Shirts occupied.
The State of Emergency itself may be unconstitutional according to some lawmakers and legal scholars. Since Yingluck dissolved the government, leaving only her own party in power, the SOE may violate a provision of the constitution that prohibits such a decision if it puts any political party at an advantage or disadvantage. The courts will decide.
Apparently the courts will also decide whether it was legal for the Prime Minister and not the Elections Commission to set a date for a general election. So that piece of business may put Yingluck in deep doodoo as well. The EC has asked the courts to clarify who is authorized to postpone an election.
Meanwhile, about 800,000 rice farmers--the backbone of the constituency of Yingluck's Pheu Thai party--have declared that, if they are not paid under the corruption-ridden "rice pledging scheme" by the end of the week, they will join the PDRC. I love a good bitch fight.
PDRC supporters in southern provinces have been shutting down government offices. One public school administrator in the south ended his own career yesterday after he forced the students in the schools he supervised to participate in a pro-government rally. On their lunch hours students blew their whistles (which have become a trademark of the PDRC) outside their schools, then went home. Angry parents accused said administrator of being a Red Shirt and gave him seven days to leave town "or else."
My assistant Ton and I went to Balcony Pub on Silom soi 4 last night to be interviewed by European travel journalists. I was gob-smacked by what I saw. Silom is 80% closed off from Rama IV to Narathiwat (the only practical way in or out is by motorbike taxi) and has become a shopping mall for non-demonstration-related tourist trash, as well as a gathering place for curious onlookers. Democracy at work.
It was 61F when I emerged from my thick down comforter this morning.
Red Shirt organizers have announced that they will stage massive protests in favor of the February 2nd elections. Obviously that is a magical date for them since, if held, elections would give the Pheu Thai party complete control of the Kingdom during a period of civil unrest.
The caretaker government is flexing its muscle, although anti-government demonstrators probably won't be obedient. Public gatherings of more than five people are banned, making the planned Red Shirt rallies apparently illegal. The Thailand Open golf tournament was immediately cancelled. The PM also asked media not to publishing anything that might incite unrest or risk national security. The PM also asked the military to "run" the February 2nd election and told generals to "instruct" their subordinates to vote.
Meanwhile, the head of the military said that it is ready to intervene in the event of any violence, and decried those who were causing it, adding (according to the Bangkok Post newspaper) "I condemn these people. I have some information about who they are." What is very compelling about this comment is that he did not point his finger at any single group. Could he be talking about the Red Shirts who hurled hand grenades at peaceful demonstrators?
The Constitutional Court yesterday heard arguments that the current 60-day State of Emergency decree is against article 184 of Thailand's Constitution, which prohibits the government from using its power to give it an unfair advantage in an election. A ruling is expected today.
Farmers in Phitsanulok yesterday blocked a major international transportation route and threatened that they will vote for non-Phue Thai candidates if the government does not pay what it owes under the "rice pledging scheme." According to The Nation newspaper, 164 billion baht (just short of US$5 billion) is owed to farmers. The government says it is short of cash, which begs the question: What happened to the money the government collected for the rice they sold?
Last Thursday night a group (of more than five people) calling itself "government-supporters for peace," (thereby insinuating that the anti-government protestors are violent) staged a rally on the outskirts of Bangkok. Each of them held a lit candle and their intention was to make a circle and create a human peace symbol. Unfortunately, they were short of protestors and the best they could do was the Mercedes Benz emblem. Yes, this is true.
Yesterday the Constitutional Court unanimously and predictably ruled that the February 2nd elections could be postponed, thereby upholding the Elections Commission's contention that the elections should be rescheduled.. Seven of the eight judges voted that the Prime Minister and the Elections Commission should meet and sort the matter out. The PM complained that the EC had not yet invited her to a meeting. This is also true. The court has not yet ruled on the separate complaint that the State of Emergency is unconstitutional.
This afternoon I got 98% of the way home from the supermarket only to find that the anti-government demonstrators had commandeered Petcheburi Road, where I live. My taxi driver and I were stuck in the mass of slowly moving human beings for more than half an hour. He asked what I thought about the demonstrations. Apparently he was unaware that nobody should ever ask my opinion about politics. That was the beginning of a very spirited conversation. He had two important things to say: 1. that he need to get to a toilet pretty fast; and, 2. that Thaksin is the Hitler of the 21st century.
Recently George W. Bush decided against visiting one of the larger European countries because he was afraid that their legal elite would detain him on charges of crimes against humanity. One has to wonder whether Thaksin is still welcome there. According to Wikipedia , "Reportedly thousands of extrajudicial killings occurred during the 2003 anti-drug effort of Thailand's prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Rumors still persist that there is collusion between the government, rogue military officers, the radical right wing, and anti-drug death squads." In October 2004 the London Telegraph newspaper reported that 80 Moslem demonstrators who had been placed under arrest in Southern Thailand died from suffocation when their hands were tied behind their backs and they were stacked in the backs of trucks. Thaksin reportedly blamed the Ramadan fast for "weakening those who died."
PDRC leaders have softened on their previous intention to disrupt elections and have promised not to hinder voting when it happens. The PM has accused the anti-government demonstrators of being anti-democracy. PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban has written to both Barak Obama and UN leader Ban Ki-Moon to assure them that the anti-government protest is both peaceful and democratic, and asked that both of them they stop getting all of their information from CNN and lobbyists hired by representatives of Thaksin Shinawatra.
I hope you will share this blog with your friends, especially if you know Kristie Kennedy, The U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Barak Obama or Ban Ki-Moon. Heck, even the New York Times.
Their majesties the King and Queen have announced that they will graciously pay for the funeral and hospital expenses of all the casualties of the current demonstrations. As Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, Members of the Royal Family refrain from making public comments on political matters.
The PM says her government will find a way to pay all of the farmers who have not been paid under the "rice pledging scheme," which is almost $5 billion in arrears. She will do this through bank loans and the sale of bonds. The government apparently has earned $5 billion selling rice it did not grow yet is short of cash, and that taxpayers who have not even been born yet will be paying for this bit of prestidigitation for much of their lives.
Advance voting will take place today amid fears that there will be clashes between PDRC protestors and those who wear rose-colored shirts. The PM will meet with the Election Commission on Tuesday. The EC still strongly favors delaying the election schedule for 2nd February until at least May, fearing that the government will come up short of the 95% members of the House be required to open Parliament. Former PM Ahbisit, leader of the Democrats, has vowed to proceed with impeachment of the PM and her cabinet if the elections are not postponed.
Violent confrontations overshadowed yesterday's "pre-election." Anti-government protestors surrounded polling places just about everywhere. However, there were no violence confrontations in northern and north-eastern Thailand. Polling places in eleven southern provinces and 39 polling places in Bangkok did not open at all.
At one polling station in a temple in suburban Bangkok a demonstrator was shot and killed in a confrontation with Red Shirts. PDRC demonstrators were joined by farmers in several provinces. Army generals have ordered thousands of additional soldiers to be deployed to protect the PDRC protestors after police that had been deployed to do so were withdrawn by their superiors. In an interview with the Bangkok Post yesterday, PDRC Leader Suthep repeatedly referred to Thaksin Shinawatra by his previous title: "Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra."
A lawsuit as been filed in a Bangkok Civil Court by an anti-government protest leader to declare the State of Emergency illegal. The suit also names the Caretaker Prime Minister and officials of the government's "Centre for Maintaining Peace and Order" (CMPO). The premise for the suit is that the Constitutional Court has already ruled that the PDRC protest is lawful. Thus, it is peaceful and not harmful, so the government does not need to declare a SOE to restrict the rights of members of the public who are acting within their legal rights. Due to the urgent nature of the suit, the Court is expected to rule by the end of the day.
The CMPO has threatened 30 private companies with legal action for providing food, shelter, money, food, vehicles and other support to PDRC protestors. I don't know about you, but this seems pretty heavy-handed since the PDRC's protest has been ruled legal by the Constitutional Court. They also told the media to basically shut up and make this a feel-good story.
The meatiest paragraph comes near the end:
"To the protesters, Thaksin has always been seen as an autocrat for whom democracy is simply a means to holding on to power, not a guiding political philosophy. Therefore opposing Thaksin and his proxy government is not seen as antidemocratic as Thaksin himself is antidemocratic in substance, if democratic in form."
Thailand's general election will go ahead as planned on Sunday, February 2nd. The PM and the Election Commission were unable to agree on a delay. It is clear that polling will not take place in many precincts in Bangkok or eleven or twelve southern provinces. It is also probable that the caretaker government will not have a quorum to open parliament. The EC fully expects that a petition will be filed with the Constitutional Court to invalidate both last Sunday's and next Sunday's elections. The EC had asked for the election to be delayed for six months.
Anti-government demonstrators gathered outside the building where the PM and the EC held talks yesterday. PDRC security questioned a man who was taking photos. The man produced a hand gun and shot one of the security guards. He was apprehended by demonstrators and beaten severely. He was later identified as a plain-clothes police operative.
There has been more news about the anti-government protestor who was shot near a temple/polling place on the 26th. The victim headed an organization separate from PDRC. Sutin Taratin, leader of People' Army to Overthrow the Thaksin Regime, was shot by at least two different gunmen as a group of people waving red flags (which identify them as "red shirts") attacked the truck in which the victim was riding. Police in the immediate vicinity were summoned but declined to come to Sutin's aid. In an Op Ed yesterday, the Bangkok Post repeatedly referred to those waving red flags as "thugs."
The body of a man wearing clothing and other objects that suggests he was an anti-government protestor was found near the Chatuchak demonstration site early this morning. His injuries were consistent with being tied up and tortured before he was shot to death. He died of multiple gunshot wounds.
A bomb exploded outside the home of one of PDRC's leaders. Windows shattered and there was other damage to the house and a car but there were no injuries. Does anyone besides me see that all of the grenade-throwing, protestor-shooting, and blatant murder is at the hands of pro-government factions and not the protestors?
The caretaker government has asked banks to tender proposals to loan the government nearly $5 billion to repay rice farmers. Trade unions representing employees of the banks don't like this a bit because of the obvious risks involved in loaning a huge amount of money (including funds set aside for Social Security) to a government with a bad record of handling money that may not be in power six months from now anyway. Meanwhile, Thailand's National Counter-Corruption Commission is now prepared to lay charges against, and move to impeach, caretaker prime minister Yingluck Sinawatra in two cases related to the government's "rice pledging scheme." She has also been acting as head of the nation's National Rice Policy Committee. The NCCC has already indicted 16 others on related charges.
For a number reasons, I have restricted access to the rest of this blog only to readers outside of Thailand and neighboring countries. If you would like to read the blog for February through June 2014, pleaseadd yourself to the distribution list and you will receive an email with a link.
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