Michael's Dispatches

Thailand Cracking?

Posted from Malaysia
13 April 2009

[This dispatch is in the "RUBS" format.  (Rough, Unedited and Barely Spell checked.)  I can convey much more information and more timely by occasionally bursting out via stream of consciousness.]

Back in October 2008, I emailed Dana Lewis, an interesting journalist who was traveling between Afghanistan, Dubai and Moscow:

"This is odd in Thailand.  Nobody is saying much about it, but there is a vague chance, I think, they could go to war.  Emotions running very high.  On the surface, if you were a traveler, all would look fine.  But I know a lot of Thai people and for years they never brought up politics.  I was out with some bankers on Saturday, and the politics came up.  I was out with a very high ranking policeman yesterday, and politics was coming up even though I was with his family.  Would be sad to see this place start to falter."

Dana asked for my whereabouts, and I responded:

"Yes, in the North (Thailand).  All looks peaceful but I have never seen them bring up politics so much, and the emotions are HIGH.  But back to Afghanistan soon.  If Thailand really melts down, that would be very sad, but also it could have huge implications for this region.  You might want to keep your eye on this place.

I wrote those words on 19 October 2008 and headed back to Afghanistan.  Today, about six months later, I'm getting a sinking feeling about the growing unrest in Thailand.  I flew out of Chiang Mai,Thailand on Saturday and am in Malaysia.  A message just came in from Chiang Mai that tensions have increased in Chiang Mai even since Saturday.  Many Thai people are staying at home even though it's time for the national water fight they call Songkran.

Many tourists might not notice increasing tensions unless they have a baseline of experience, or are dialed into the local community.  Tourists could walk around oblivious because the Thai people will not heap their problems on tourists.  Thais do not take western hostages.  Other than normal crime or accidents, westerners will almost certainly be safe provided they avoid clashes between protesters and the government.  And don't rent motorbikes.  I have warned a hundred people not to rent motorbikes but seemingly to no avail.  If you want to get killed in Thailand, renting a motorbike is your best bet.  You are safer in Afghanistan than on a motorbike on Koh Samui.  (I'll bet that claim would actually withstand rigorous actuarial scrutiny.)

Thailand is very friendly to the United States and our relationship is strong.  The country seems to improve year by year.  The reservoir of highly educated men and women continues to grow.  Women have achieved equality in education, which is creating a growing flood of women with advanced university degrees who remain single.  Thai women normally will not marry someone with less education.  In fact, they greatly prefer a man with superior education to themselves, which leaves many Thai women standing when the music stops.  Many are deciding to lead their entire lives single.

Despite the obvious progress, make no mistake that the current political crisis is serious.  Every democracy is different, and the fuse is burning faster and hotter on this one.

I do not wish to add problems to our Thai friends, yet this is a moment when the good, the bad and the ugly are important to report.  My suggestion, for folks heading to Thailand at this time, is to make other plans.  Though it's extremely unlikely that Thai people would lash out at tourists, travelers could get stuck stuck in Thailand if the airport is closed again.  If you do get stuck and cannot fly from Bangkok, there are myriad ways to get out -- such as flying from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Koh Samui, or going overland to Laos, Cambodia, or Malaysia. Or hop on a cruise ship and step off in some another country such as Singapore, from which you can fly to anywhere in the world.  Singapore is probably about the safest country in the world so long as you remember two things: 1) Don't smuggle drugs (execution); 2) Look both ways before crossing a road.

Even if there is severe unrest, getting stuck in Thailand should not be an issue.  There are probably hundreds of legal ways (and thousands of illegal ways) to get in and out of Thailand in the event that Suvarnabhumi Airport is closed again.

For the slightly adventure-minded, this could be an opportunity for a bargain holiday.  There's unlikely to be any increased danger for tourists who avoid fighting, so just sit back and enjoy the plummeting hotel prices and learn to scuba dive.

Nothing may come of all this, but my gut feeling is not good.  This situation could be very bad for Thailand.


Comments   

 
# Matthew 2009-04-13 17:53
Just curious why motorcycles are dangerous in Thailand? That is an interesting comment. Do criminals use them most? Or subversive types?
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# A Robert Malcom 2009-04-13 18:11
would a Thai woman be interested in marrying an artist who is self-educated?
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# Mark Brower 2009-04-13 19:01
I would bet they are dangerous because of the chance of a local running you you over with their car. Driving skills are not a prerequisite for operating a vehicle in some foriegn countries.
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# Scott Dudley, CDR, USN ret 2009-04-13 19:30
Nice early call on Thailand, Mike.
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# Paul Cox 2009-04-13 20:13
I don't think the wheels will completely come off of Thailand. There are two strong factors working against that.

First is the respect and love and devotion that everyone- the PAD (yellow shirts) and PPP (red shirts) has for the King. If he says "okay, knock this **** off, here's how things are going to go" then that's how things are going to go. People don't screw with the King. Ironically, part of the reason is because he's stayed so removed from politics as much as possible.

But second, and more important, is the armed forces. They're pretty tough, they're pretty good, and they don't get involved in politics any more than they have to- but if the nation is about to come apart, they will. And when they do so, they'll run the show for a while, get things back to normal, and then they'll turn it back over to the politicians because they believe in democracy.

Thailand is different from many of the neighbors. The folks who're running the show are more educated, in more foreign nations, and know the value of a stable economy and political system. What they're having trouble with isn't a near-civil-war (IMO); what they're having trouble with is the notion that to have that stable political system, you have to have two things.

First, you have to have clean, fair elections; second, you have to understand that if your side loses, you're supposed to wait until the next election before your guys can try again to take power.

The only reason the PAD was able to snag power in the past year or so is because the PPP bought elections. Fix the elections, get everyone to understand that if/when you lose you're out for a while, and things will settle back down.

They stand to lose so much money with the unrest that I predict they'll settle things back down before too long. Even if they don't, the military and the King won't let things get too out of hand. Sooner or later they'll force a solution to the problems.

Like Mike, I've noticed Thai people talking politics far more to a farang like me on recent trips, but I still think they'll work it out.

Oh, and riding motorbikes in Thailand is insane because the traffic is insane. Rules? Right of way? BAH! That's for weenies. My wife and I don't ride motorbikes any more than we absolutely have to, and if/when we buy a hotel or guesthouse in Phuket or Koh Samui (we're considering it strongly when I retire) we plan on buying CARS.
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# Dick Jones 2009-04-14 00:36
Hi Michael, if U are thru HK anytime, shoot me an email and come on out to a really nice place: Lamma Island.

Hey, I'll even buy you lunch.

OK then.
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# Tom 2009-04-14 03:11
Thailandƒ??s King Bhumibol is highly respected by all sides and he has stayed out of this struggle, but he did take a position back in 2006 against then Prime Minister Thaksin thereby forcing Thaksinƒ??s resignation. But the good King is also aging and his children are not as respected as their father.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy where the King is just a symbolic leader and the day to day governance is managed through a parliamentary system. Yet the King has, over his 63 year reign, done much for the Thai people and has been a driving force behind Thailandƒ??s modernization. But when he passes so will almost all of that royal clout, and then there will be only the military left to thwart corrupt leaders.

PM Thaksin was a wealthy Thai who bought his election to office, then when in power forgave the $50M+ debt he and his celphone business owed back to the country. But that was overlooked by many of the poor rural voters because Mr. Thaksin instituted a national health system that gave the poor 50-cent co-pays for doctor visits. He then further instituted agriculture policies that were lucrative for the poor farmers but unsustainable to the country economically. Essentially, Thaksin bought his popularity with the masses by offering incentives that were mortgaging the future generations of Thailand (sound familiar?).

Economically and politically, Thailand remains an oligopoly and oligarchy and there is a great deal of underlying corruption in many levels of Thai society. The people in Thailand that I know are not so much upset with the selling of elections as they are finally fed up with the selling of favor overall. Thatƒ??s what they want to see change and they see both the PAD now in power and Thaksinƒ??s PPP disruptors as equally guilty. Thaiƒ??s I know are afraid that this current upheaval is just a foretelling of the political battlespace once their good King Bhumibol is unable to exert any influence over the opposing factions.

Having almost bought a dive shop back in 2002, I heartily support Michael's recommendation that everyone go there to learn how to dive when things stabilize. And to Mr. Cox, who is thinking about buying a Guest House and retiring to Thailand, be very patient before investing in there.
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# Tom 2009-04-14 03:28
Thailandƒ??s King Bhumibol is highly respected by all sides and he has stayed out of this struggle, but he did take a position back in 2006 against then Prime Minister Thaksin thereby forcing Thaksinƒ??s resignation. But the King is also aging and his children are not as respected as he is.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy where the King is just a symbolic leader and the day to day governance is managed through a parliamentary system. Yet the King has, over his 63 year reign, done much for the Thai people and has been a driving force behind Thailandƒ??s modernization. But when he passes so will almost all of that royal clout, and then there will be only the military left to thwart corrupt leaders.

PM Thaksin was a wealthy Thai who bought his election to office, then when in power forgave the $50M+ debt he and his celphone business owed back to the country. But that was overlooked by many of the poor rural voters because Mr. Thaksin instituted a national health system that gave the poor 50-cent co-pays for doctor visits. He then further instituted agriculture policies that were lucrative for the poor farmers but unsustainable to the country economically. Essentially, Thaksin bought his popularity with the masses by offering incentives that were mortgaging the future generations of Thailand (sound familiar?).

Economically and politically, Thailand remains an oligopoly and oligarchy and there is a great deal of underlying corruption in many levels of Thai society. The people in Thailand that I know are not so much upset with the selling of elections as they are finally fed up with the selling of favor overall. Thatƒ??s what they want to see change and they see both the PAD now in power and Thaksinƒ??s PPP disruptors as equally guilty. Thaiƒ??s I know are afraid that this current upheaval is just a foretelling of the political battlespace once their good King Bhumibol is unable to exert any influence over the opposing factions.

As to motorbikes, unless you already know how to ride in one well and can ride in serious traffic congestion, do not ride on or drive one at all in Thailand. There, the first rule of the road is that there are no rules of the road. The province of Chonburi (pop. about 2 million), where I lived for half of 2001, ƒ??02, ƒ??03 and ƒ??04, suffered 2 motorbike fatalities per day back then. The reasons are many, including untrained drivers (licensing of locals is often not enforced), driving drunk (both with motorbikes or vehicles in general) or from overloading those little 100cc mopeds (it's not uncommon to see a family of 5+ riding together without helmets).

Also, having almost bought a dive shop and boat in Thailand back in 2002, I heartily support Michael's recommendation that everyone go there to learn how to dive once the political situation has stabilized. And to you Mr. Cox, who is thinking about buying a Guest House and retiring to Thailand, be very patient before investing in there.
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# Simon 2009-04-14 05:26
It looks like Thailand might be in for another coup to settle matters. However, a Thai coup is generally bloodless, more to prove the point than a violent political backlash.

Like others on here have said, you can't underestimate the power of the King. His authority is not only tied in with tradition, but with Thai Buddhism (itself influenced by Hinduism and even more ancient Indochinese animist beliefs), and the Thais revere the royal couple with almost religious fervor. If he steps in, both sides will listen.
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# Hell Is Like Newark 2009-04-14 14:04
My wife is a Thai national and is planning to head back there in less than 2 weeks for her sister's wedding. Her father is a retired naval officer and some of her relatives are offices in the police. So here are some details via those sources:

The majority of urban / educated Thais don't support the former prime minister Thaksin. They were quite happy to see him go in 2006, which is why you didn't see any mass protests or other disruptions during the 2006 coup. The "Red Shirts"* are paid by Thaksin $12 per day to "protest". They have been brought in by truck, bus, train from the impoverished areas up North or near the Thai borders. Many in fact are not Thai nationals, but Laos and Cambodians (who moved to Thailand over the years fleeing their respective homelands).

The Thai army is holding back waiting for the Red Shirts to escalate the violence to the point where the Army won't receive bad press to crack down hard. By hard, I mean open firing, creating a massive pile of Red Shirt corpses.

Given this, I expect the violence will get rapidly worse; after which the army will restore order.

* The various Thai political groups have color coded themselves. The Yellow shirts were the ones originally shutting down the airports to force Thaksin from power. The Red Shirts are paid by Thaksin to put him back into power. The Blue Shirts (the latest group) are supporters of the current prime minister.
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# Valerie 2009-04-14 14:43
Thank you, Michael. Don't believe much from the news media due to their extreme Obama adoration and consequential twisting of facts so must ask who I trust will report without bias. Please...when you have a moment, summarize what exactly is going on from a Thai point of view and the root causes. Finally, know my heart goes out to these people..do you think they have a chance of righting what they feel is wrong?

Ironically...we here in the U.S. feel a kinship with these people since we feel our government is corrupt and deliberately acting without regard for its citizenry. Rebellion is close to the surface here, too.

Be safe.
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