Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan sends the latest on the dystopian situation in Thailand.
Thailand: It’s not going well
by H. Numan
Last week, and probably today as well, there were several riots in Bangkok. Police used maximum force to disperse the rioters: water cannons, rubber bullets and the baton. Several rioters and police officers got injured, mainly rioters. Rioters struck back by throwing bricks, bags with paint and ‘ping pong bombs’. Everything is related to the CCP virus.
I call it the CCP virus instead of COVID, as the pandemic originated in China. The original outbreak was suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party, hence the name. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but it needs to be said. The CCP is going to great lengths to put the blame elsewhere. With success, as the virus is usually called COVID.
Back to Bangkok. What are ping pong bombs? Take a ping pong ball. Drill a hole in it, fill it with gunpowder and put a fuse in. Light it, then throw it at the police. It’s not exactly a deadly weapon, but definitely more dangerous than heavy firecrackers.
The rioters are mainly students. There are several groups that have different and conflicting goals. All of them demand the resignation of the present government. Most of them want the constitution revoked and rewritten. Some of them demand more transparency of the king and the royal family and fewer privileges for the king.
Those demands are very difficult to meet, if not outright impossible. First of all the government: the present prime minister is general Prayuth Chan-O-Cha, rtd. He is “elected”. Yeah, he really is. Prayuth took control of the country in a coup. That’s quite normal in Thailand. Usually the military government takes control for a couple of months, appoints a civil government, then hands over control to them. Of course that civil government will do exactly what they want.
Prayuth didn’t follow the pattern. He took control, and kept it. That’s not the way military coups usually work in Thailand. He stayed in office as long as he could. Then called for civil elections, after rewriting the constitution. And announced he wouldn’t mind doing another four years. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. He was willing to carry on the burden. Of course he was re-elected.
In those four years Thailand was under an arms embargo from the USA. That’s why you see a lot of Chinese and Russian/East European military equipment appearing in the Thai army. He would much rather have American equipment; that’s why he (and his cabinet) retired from the army. You could say that the Thai army is the world leader in camouflage: the present cabinet is exactly the same junta that committed the coup, only ‘retired’. With success, as most governments seem to believe that.
It’s pretty much standard procedure to rewrite the constitution. The current version is the 26th. In it, the military can appoint (without elections) 30 generals in parliament, with veto powers. As Prayuth sees it, he can’t solve the problems in a couple of years. That’s why he made sure the army will retain power for the next 20-30 years in the future.
Whether that artificial stability works remains to be seen. All he did was make it impossible for anybody but the army to commit a coup. That ‘anybody’ has a name: Thaksin Shinawatra. He was elected twice, each time with an absolute majority. After he was ousted in a coup, the new elected civilian government was run by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, until she was impeached, followed by — you guessed it — another coup.
The (now) civilian government is firmly in control. They had the red shirts (supporters of Thaksin) arrested, together with the yellow shirts (middle class of Bangkok; they hated Thaksin). You could say that the red and yellow shirts were beaten by the green shirts (army), and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Under the Prayuth administration King Rama IX died, and his son now Rama X, ascended the throne. King Rama IX was dearly loved by the population. The present king, not so much. He also steers to a more absolute form of monarchy. The kind of monarchy that would make Louis XIV say: and they call me an absolute monarch!
Back to the demands of the demonstrators. I said the were unreasonable. Here’s why. Who are the demonstrators? I have no figures to back it up, but I think mainly permanently-out-of-a-job tourism students. Tourism is as dead as a dodo right now, without mysterious resurrections in the foreseeable future.
Anyone studying at a tourism university wasted his time, effort and money. That’s not a fault of the students. It just happens to be that way. The CCP virus hit Thailand HARD. Especially the delta variant. Thailand was doing pretty well until mid-April of this year, CCP virus-wise. At this moment any plan to reopen tourism is canceled or at least postponed. Especially in Bangkok, just about everything is closed.
Everything: Schools. Banks. Shopping malls. Universities. Government offices. I normally pay in cash for the phone and electricity; their offices are right around the corner. Not now, because they have been closed for months.
Schools are closed, and universities are closed. The students have nothing to study. No future to look forward to. And a lot of bills to pay. Can you guess what they do? They start grumbling and that has now turned into rioting.
Their demand that the government resign is not possible. First of all, no PM anywhere wants to incur that much loss of face. But more important: there is nobody there to replace him. It’s very easy to say the government isn’t doing well, but quite another to come up with a solution. All the students do is whine the government is bad — it is — but they have no alternative for that bad government. We have plenty of political parties, but no viable opposition.
Revoke the constitution and write a new one could be a high school exam question. Not even a university exam. It happens so often. So, that is an empty phrase as well.
Lastly, some of the students demand that the king rule more transparently with fewer powers. Sounds nice, but it’s not something supported by the general population, to put it mildly. As long as the king doesn’t do anything untoward, for example ruling per decree from Germany or imprisoning his second wife, most Thais will happily accept however he wants to rule. At the moment the king donated 2 billion baht for CCP virus support, something that most people admire. He’s back in the country, and his second wife has been reinstated.
That also explains the heavy hand of the police. The demonstrators were planning to drive to the house of the premier, in an army compound on the Vipawadee Rungsit road. And to drive to the royal palace. In both cases something that cannot be tolerated. It’s likely the king himself would be “not very pleased”. There are strict laws here to prevent me explaining what will happen if the king is not very pleased. Use your imagination. Likewise, if demonstrators were able to demonstrate right in front of the Vipawadee Rungsit Barracks, the PM might as well resign immediately. That doesn’t mean to say the police should have acted so harshly, but it is understandable. In the very unlikely case demonstrators were to march around the royal palace, things could turn really nasty. Not necessarily royal guards opening fire, more like furious bystanders starting to lynch demonstrators.
Back to the CCP virus situation. It’s not good. The experimental sandbox projects are slowly closed down. Not only are the banks, schools, government offices, and most shops closed. So is all domestic air travel and long distance coaches. The tourists in Phuket had to be transported back to the Bangkok airports by rented coaches.
To rub salt into the wounds of tourism, a Thai man got the bright idea to rape and murder a 57-year-old Swiss female tourist in Phuket. I don’t have to tell you what the consequences of that are, do I? At first, as usual, the police thought the act had been committed by a Burmese migrant worker. They were able to arrest the rapist within two days. This guy doesn’t have to worry about not having any sex. He’ll get more than he can dream of. He also will learn rape is not exclusively for women.
To finish this dark and grim story, the National Bank of Thailand lowered its guarantee on savings accounts from 5 million baht to 1 million baht. No reason was given, just the usual ‘don’t worry, nothing is going to happen’. Which makes me wonder. What do they know that we do not know?
— H. Numan