Newsworthy News in Thailand: A Popular Uprising Against…Populism?

Bangkok protests in November

Bangkok protests in November – picture via The New York Times

Disclaimer: This is a layman’s analysis of the situation in Thailand and is derived from publicly-available information via CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera and Wikipedia. Though I have done my best to rely only on verifiable facts consistent through all sources and to filter out any information that seems agenda-driven or implausible, it remains, as always, a possibility that these disparate media conglomerates are in a vast sinister conspiracy and that vagabonds have circumvented all the moderators at Wikipedia and fabricated every last bit of information regarding Thai politics in the last fifteen years. There is also the very real possibility that everything is a lie and that we are doomed to lives of puttering insignificance in unknowing servitude to some faceless, humorless authority that derives joy only from our suffering. If this is the case, I trust it is forgiven that my analysis is somewhat lacking.

Some weeks ago – roughly around the time I decided to start caring about the universe again and dipped my toes once more into the terrifying pool of The News – the Thai public also began caring, vocally and publicly, about they way they are governed. For those who, as I did until recently, have lived in a vacuum of public affairs for the past several months, allow me to explain.

The people of Thailand have been protesting the current regime, led by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, for a number of weeks. The protests started as your run-of-the-mill street demonstrations but over the course of the last month-plus have evolved into something quite substantial. To date, people have stormed military compounds and bodily occupied government offices (though these activities have in the last decade become almost commonplace in Thailand in a similar way to people ignoring the person directly in front of their face in favor of cat pictures on their smartphone in Western societies).

At the current moment protesters are locked in a massive “shutdown” of Bangkok, clogging up busy intersections with even more milling humanity than usual (those who have been to southeast Asian metropolises will know what I’m talking about) and severely impeding the flow of commerce. Until recently they had managed to do this all peacefully, but the ominous “for now” tag reporters had taken to the habit of adding to their reports has been vindicated by a grenade attack killing twenty-eight and the shooting of a counter-protest leader last week, with several further incidents being carried out since the composition of this piece began.

When I read the news, very few of the normal story lines – bombings, military incursions, outrageous rage crimes, and all the other depressing horror to which the media daily bids us look – catch my attention. I note their emphasis on the commonplace atrocities human beings relentlessly dole out and, with the callous cynicism every news reader eventually acquires as a defense against madness, move on in the search of something more noteworthy.

The one subject that never fails to catch my attention – no matter how often it is reported – is that of popular movements. There is something magnetic about them that ignites my own desire to speak out on behalf of justice. Whenever I see the coalesced will of the people rising up against the government, I am instinctively driven to take the side of the protestors, which I suppose finds its roots in part from being an American boy taught from toddler age the glorious history of a ragtag band of colonists shrugging off the world’s greatest empire. I, like so many Americans, have an instinctual love for the underdog.

If being a midwestern boy means rooting for the underdog, then being a student of history and a casual observer of world affairs means noticing the widespread habit of governments to cheat and abuse the people they govern – a tendency over which, incidentally, so-called “oppressive” regimes by no means hold a monopoly. The cycle of alternately neglecting and manipulating the people (depending on whether it’s an election year) is a characteristic of all governments, from the “transparent” republics that preside over first-world nations all the way down to the mysterious and terror-filled dictatorships that lord over the people of North Korea and Syria.

Marry the midwestern lad’s tendency to root for the underdog with the cynicism of a dabbler in world affairs and you get a default assumption of sympathy for public protests. Voila, Jonno. All other things being equal, I generally assume that if the people in a given nation have taken the trouble to leave their jobs and livelihoods to risk the state’s wrath to voice defiance, they usually have a good reason.

At least I did until I started following the Thai protests, whose outline of complaints – a single family dominating the political landscape for too long, large-scale governmental corruption, suppressed separatist movements in the south, etc., etc. – seemed to correspond line for line with the syllabus of Governmental Abuse 101.

But I started to scratch my head when, a little over a month ago, I read an article on Al Jazeera saying that the protestors were calling not for more democracy, but for a non-elected “people’s council” to choose the country’s leadership.

Squinting and reaching for my nearby cup of Jamaican me Crazy coffee, which I feared was living up to its name, I shook the fuzzies from my head and read the line again.

Same result. They didn’t want another election. They wanted a “people’s council” to choose their representatives for them. To put it another way, the Thai protesters gathering in rousing affirmation of the power of popular will were advocating for nothing less that an eradication of popular will from the political process.

The squint became a scrunch. This was news that might throw off my entire conception of the universe, but the coffee, if mischievous, was good, and provided some comfort.

I looked for alternative solutions. It must be a misunderstanding by the reporter, I thought, then nodded at my own sagacity and headed over to the BBC to see if the voice of the old maritime empire could rectify the error.

But the reporter from the BBC said the same thing. Protesters in Thailand were not merely protesting the rule of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra – who, to compound things, had been popularly elected in a vote whose legitimacy no one, not even the protesters, contested – but had further refused Yingluck’s seemingly generous proposal to put her position in jeopardy by holding early popular elections. The cavillous people of Thailand were unmoved by offers to placate their popularism with a popularist solution, and demanded nothing less than the eradication of the ballot box as a Thai institution.

So awestruck was I by this news that I made a rare last-ditch jot over to CNN – resorting to American news conglomerates is always a sign of desperation – to confirm it. It did. The CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC all stand in firm agreement that the teeming masses behind Thailand’s popular movement want nothing more or less than to have their voices removed from the political process.

What, thought I, the devil?

We live in an era in which, despite the unfathomable myriad of differences between nations and cultures – differences whose vastness is thrown daily into my face on the streets of small town Korea – the one thing that essentially everyone agrees on is that some form of democracy is the best way to ensure justice.

We differ widely on the forms. Some want an American-style congressional system, for instance, while others want a parliamentary system with a prime minster. Some have gunslinging, winner-takes-all elections while others opt for the drier but more technically accurate system of proportional representation. But in the end, at heart, the vast majority of people subscribe to the idea that democracy – i.e. popular rule in which the people being governed get to choose more or less how that governing is done and who gets to do it – is the fairest way for a society to pursue justice.

Democracy is unique in this. It is one of the relatively few ideas that has gained such wide currency with so many different people in all parts of the world. That people ought to be able to choose for themselves how and by whom they ought to be led is one of those rare universal staples of justice.

Or so, until November, 2013, it seemed.

But then the mob in Thailand started hollering that they’d had enough of democracy and couldn’t get rid of it fast enough, and all our grand illusions of global cosmopolitanism went out the window.

When this first sunk in, I stared befuddled at my computer screen for a full minute. Some of Ma’s lovingly shipped Jamaican Me Crazy may or may not have had to be wiped off the desk, bringing me back from contemplations of the universal to the sobering banality of everyday life. But still I wondered, what could possibly make a group of people not want to be in control of their own destiny?

The very concept was impenetrable, but that by no means stopped me trying.

Only one far-fetched possibility presented itself. Were Thais an exceptionally modest people so Socratically aware of their own fallibility that they wanted decisions handled by minds they assumed to be more able than their own? Perhaps their hold on the traditional Buddhist habit of self-deprecation had convinced them that if they were incapable of knowing the truth, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote on it either.

A very admirable sentiment, so far as it goes – even philosophically sophisticated – but it meets with an immediate problem: Even if you humbly determine you’re too stupid or foolish to reliably pick your own and others’ leader, you’ve still got to decide who’s going to do it. You still have to choose who will choose. It would be nice to think the universe does not turn in ways that place us in positions to do tasks for which we are unfit, but, as any parent will tell you, it most certainly does, and with merciless regularity.

One might solve this dilemma with anarchy, but experiments with idealistic forms of radical decentralization have thus far been dashed to pieces when met with the wall of human selfishness and ignorance (even not-so-extreme decentralized methods have failed; remember the Articles of Confederation?). At least until we show signs of not being shameless and obtuse, we need some form of government. But how, apart from universal suffrage, can we form such a government without openly inviting abuse?

Shall we throw a die? Play a national game of rock-scissors-paper? Have an elaborate “Who Gets to Be or at Least Choose the King” lottery? If you think these are the worst methods humanity has come up with, I bid you simply hearken back a few hundred years, when a majority of nations believed their king was either a descendent of God, chosen directly by God, or God himself. A random lottery seems a whole lot better than rule by a person who has been raised from birth with a deliberately fostered God-complex.

As terrifying as the idea of subjecting oneself to the depressing specter of popular wisdom is – and it is truly harrowing – somehow every other idea seems worse. All but the most sanguine of us (including myself in more hopeful days) think we need a government. We need some laws and a kind of authority to back them up. And I have to agree with Winston Churchill in saying that once that choice has been made, we end up with democracy by the same process that caused my grandpa to always wind up buying a Buick. Amidst a slurry of bad choices, it was the one he concluded would leave him with the fewest regrets.

Yet the Thais, apparently, think differently. At least those in the streets clamoring for the political equivalent of an indefinite moratorium on all Buicks do. Amidst the maddening white noise of daily news – a number of civilians killed in senseless bombing in b war-ridden country; x summit of incomprehensibly privileged people with no intention of changing the world in a way meaningful or helpful to 99% of readers meets in city y; e politician caught in f standardized scandal to the shock of g set of followers, whose surprise must surely by this point be considered more astonishing than the act itself – what was happening in Thailand seems like something noteworthy.

So, I have read all the articles I could find from CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC and Wikipedia covering the Thai political crisis in an effort to understand what could possibly make a people so opposed to their own right to choose their government that they took to the streets in public protest against it. After reading, it has become clear that there is considerably more to what’s happening in Bangkok than meets the eye, and all of it fascinating.

Now, I am not Thai. Neither am I a Thai scholar. I have not studied long or intensively enough to claim expertise in this matter. I do not have intimate enough knowledge of all of Bangkok’s politics to issue a Hamlet-esque cry that there is “something rotten in Thailand.” Nor am I bombastic enough to mimic that great conspiracy theorist Patrick Henry’s cry that I “smell a rat,” and storm theatrically (and largely ineffectually) from the conference room.

Still, there is a distinctly pungent aroma emanating from the streets of Bangkok, even if, like that region’s famed exotic food, it is difficult to discern whether the unidentifiable scent emanates from a dish that, when consumed, will lead to unspeakable delicacy or to intolerable suffering. Nevertheless, it behooves us as good citizens and responsible diners to make every effort to ascertain the truth beforehand rather than blindly consuming and leaving it to the geriatrics of our digestive systems to make the judgment for us.

Let us, then, as we did with Caesar, linger thoughtfully over the case of the Thai protests for a while. Let us see if in doing so we might not be able to come to a clearer understanding of the issues at hand and which of the parties’ positions offers us the most realistic hope of justice.

In order to do so, as with Caesar, we shall have to take a trip to the past, but this time the journey will not be so long. It requires of us an excursion of little more than a decade, to a time when another Shinawatra took up the office of prime minster in 2001. His name was Thaksin Shinawatra, he is current prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s older brother, and he’ll be the subject of the next post. Which I reckon will be up in a day or two, so you have all that time to rustle up some pad thai or Thai curry for ambiance during the next post. It’ll make everything better, I promise.

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One thought on “Newsworthy News in Thailand: A Popular Uprising Against…Populism?

  1. Looking forward to the next post then. Perhaps you will make mention of the Monarchy of Thailand and the love for the king or that could be an entirely different post. Could be a nice juxtaposition too.

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