As my wife and I flew into Thailand, the Bangkok International Airport where we were scheduled to arrive had just been seized by thousands of anti-government protesters, shutting down all air travel. We were re-routed to Tupao, a Vietnam-era naval base 200 km outside of Bangkok, which was hastily set up with customs agents and buses handling the overflow of confused tourists.
For the next week, this modest third world country was paralyzed as hundreds of thousands of travelers and tons of cargo could not get in or out of Bangkok, costing this struggling economy over $85 million a day. Over 1 million Thais face losing their jobs because of this enduring blow to their thriving tourism industry.
The Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was fully aware of how devastating the protests would be. Yet they steadfastly believed that the demand for the Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to resign was more urgent, and after staging protests outside the Parliament building since September, this was, as several banners read, the “Final Stand.”
The PAD built barricades around the airport, established their own security forces, fed stranded travelers, and even fought off police forces when they tried to retake the airport on Sunday. As the Prime Minister refused to step down, crowds of yellow shirts worn by the PAD only grew on TV screens and newspapers around the world, which were reporting no end in sight for stranded travelers and struggling Thais.
How did it come to this? This is where this Third World style crisis started to sound a little familiar to me.
The PAD sought the resignation of the Prime Minister insisting that he was a proxy for the previously ousted PM, a billionaire media tycoon convicted of corruption and election fraud and living in exile. His name is Thaskin (pronounced like “Texan.”) Besides the fact that the Prime Minister is also on trial for election fraud, he had even more in common with Thaksin: he is Thaksin’s brother-in-law.
Wealthy families with puppets in power, election fraud, refusal to compromise in the face of mass dissent from your own people? Yet, the similarities to the last eight years in America end there.
The PM, while buoyed by red-shirted pro-government demonstrators, did not seem to get the same support from his military. The military chief refused to unleash his firepower on the demonstrators, nor stage a military coup, acknowledging that neither would solve the deep divisions and problems in Thailand. Huh? The police here have a no-force policy, which allowed their outnumbered forces to be easily overrun. It probably has to do with the Buddhist religion that 95% of Thailand observes, which urges compassion for all life, hence the stray dogs sleeping everywhere you go here.
And just as grenades and violent skirmishes between red shirts and yellow shirts were starting to evoke the Bloods and the Crips, a ruling came from the Constitutional Court: the PM, and his People Powered Party, were convicted of election fraud and vote rigging. The PM immediately had to step down, his political party was dissolved, and he and 59 other party members were banned from politics for five years. Elections were to be called by a new Parliament within a week, with a new party forming from the PPP’s remains.
Just close your eyes and imagine seeing this on our TV screens across America:
• George W. Bush thrown out of the White House by a court case proving election fraud in Ohio. (There is such a case open, King Lincoln vs. Blackwell in Ohio, led by the relentless Cliff Arnebeck and Bob Fitrakis.)
• The Republican Party ordered to dissolve over its well-documented history of illegally purging voters, which it previously admitted to in a 1981 consent decree to cease such efforts, only to continue such tactics.
• Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and 57 other GOP All-Stars humiliated under court order to cease any political activity and find a new line of work.
Are we to look to Thailand for pointers on democracy? A country that deeply reveres its King, featuring billboard sized photos of him with shrines on every block, honoring his birthday on December 5th as one of its highest holidays? This 80 year-old King who kept quiet throughout this national crisis, at a time when such powerful leadership could have calmed the masses?
Since the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the PAD protesters have cleared out of the Bangkok International Airport in high spirits, though weary of the next PM’s ties to Thaksin. This dreadful standoff, peaceful though it was, has already scared away half of the 14 million visitors scheduled to visit this tourist season.
I urge everyone to come to Thailand and visit this beautiful country, with its warm people, wondrous natural scenery, and stunning temples. If that is not enough, come for the cheap great food, cheap great beer, and cheap great massages. Two more words: ELEPHANT RIDES.
And while you’re here, you can bring back some of the basic outrage that could be well used in places like the state of Georgia, where a ruthlessly partisan Secretary of State has helped her fellow Republican Senator Chambliss back into office on the same electronic voting machines that drove out triple amputee Max Cleland in 2002, allowing future filibustering from Republicans.
In Chiang Mai, I saw such wisdom in a Buddhist temple’s garden that read: “Better to speak unpopular truths than share popular lies.”