Agam's Gecko
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Man, it's difficult to settle on alphabetical spellings for Thai words sometimes. No matter how I shuffle around the vowels up there (leuak, leuek, lueak, luaek...), it just doesn't do the job very well -- to enable an average English speaking reader to get a close approximation in the mind's ear, of the Thai expression meaning ELECTION. Anyway that's as close as I'm gonna get with our measly 26 character set, and I think it's the most usual rendering of that particular compound vowel. As for tung, it looks easy, eh? But it's not like tongue, and nor is it dung, but something roughly midway between.....

Now that Agam's pedantic pronunciation lesson is out of the way (yeah I know, and I'm still ticked at Rachel Harvey for her persistence with "Bang-Bang" in SBY), Sunday was a big day in the Kingdom. Yes, right, Bob Marley's birthday, but I mean something else. Sunday was wan leuak tung, election day in Thailand -- and following the incredible spirit of democracy and freedom shown by Iraqis one week earlier, the Thais have made a little history of their own. Check with 2Bangkok for lots of stories and pictures of the day.

Yesterday felt important, and I would say that the sense of "sacredness" carried by the national act of self determination, has taken root well in this country. Not to mean that it was in any way sombre or subdued, far from it. Democratic spirit and the sense of responsibility just seem more 'normal' somehow, than even just a few years ago. The question of whether to bother voting (which for many in Bangkok means a journey to their hometown) seems more rarely heard nowadays. Prior to the pro-democracy movement's ejection of the Thai military from politics, that question was the most common one. The spirit which was reignited in 'Black May' (1992) has grown steadily with each successive free and fair vote (whether for electing people or reforming the constitution), until election day feels as natural here as som tam. I watched a bit of the morning tv coverage of polling stations before going out to catch a breath of that great election day breeze that's been wafting across our world.

And what? Well, nothing much to report -- that's the best part. A steady flow of people in both directions, the process was quick and easy, the atmosphere relaxed and happy, nothing remarkable. Our neighbourhood polling station was serving voters in two districts, or better to say, it was two polling stations working side by side. No confusion was apparent. A noodle soup cart was providing for hungry voters, and I sat at the big stone table while S voted. The election aparatus hummed like a well oiled machine, and the great act was done. No finger dip required (they used to do that here). It would be trite to say it had a Sunday picnic sort of feel, because of course anything under an open tent in a school courtyard, on a Krung Thep Sunday, is going to feel like that. Like I said, it was normal, and that's the best part.

As for History; this is the first time that any elected Thai government has served its full term, right up to the next scheduled election. Thailand's elected governments have always been coalitions of parties, sometimes up to half a dozen. But ruptures in coalitions over no-confidence motions did not cut short all the previous governments -- the rest were overthrown in coups d'etat and counter-coups. Surely for the world's record in frequency of military coups, Thailand is not likely to be challenged. Now a freely elected parliament and government have served a full term, gone to the people on schedule, and this government has been overwhelmingly re-elected with an absolute majority. In their second term, Thai Rak Thai will be able to form a government all by itself. That's a bunch of firsts all rolled into one.

Turnout looked strong throughout the country, and will likely be over 70% nationwide. Polling stations in the southern provinces seemed particularly busy and security was high in the face of reported threats against voters, posted by Islamist fascists on the internet. I wonder if this is going to be the new thing, now that the Jordanian freak Zarqawi has clarified the jihadi position: democracy is the enemy, and participation is the equivalent of apostasy. Judging from the many wonderful comments from Muslim voters -- usually echoing the same principles and idealism we heard a week ago from so many Iraqi voters -- democratic spirit is still very strong in the mainly Muslim south. But then, it has long seemed the case that the southern part of the country was a bit more politically aware than some other regions.

One set of statistics that caught my attention on Sunday, seem to illustrate the progress. One of the news anchors went over the previous election's list of the ten highest voter turnout districts, and then compared them with the figures he had for the current balloting. Four years ago, it was a district in Chiang Mai, followed by a district in the south, another in Chiang Mai, two more in the south, another one near Chiang Mai, and more in the south. He then went through the new figures (incomplete, as voting was still continuing), and the top ten hit every region in the country.

Polling stations closed at 3 pm, many still with long lines. A reporter in Kanchanaburi, at around 2:30, estimated that it would still take more than an hour to get all the waiting voters through. Everyone who was queued up by 3 pm was promised they would not lose their chance. I think perhaps the Election Commission could consider longer voting hours next time. The system seems to be efficient and secure enough to permit a longer election day.

I know that more than a few people were rather put off by the media coverage immediately after the polls closed. The "election desks" with their academics and experts need immediate material upon which to hang their insightful analyses. Once again, those who enjoy the suspense of watching the returns coming in and the scorecard changing minute by minute, were disappointed by that bane of election nights far and wide -- the exit poll.

At precisely 15:00:01, all networks were airing the exit poll results just as though it was the final standings. Experts talked to pundits, anchors nodded knowingly to academics, what a tremendous result for Taksin Chinawat. Thai Rak Thai gets 399 seats in parliament, out of 500 -- an unprecedented landslide! Except that not one single precinct was reporting any results yet. So for the next few hours, the tables of exit poll results remained up on screen, as the source for "expert" discussion to keep the time filled up with something. In fact after a short time of this, S couldn't even stand to watch it any more.

The result was not unexpected at all, the only question in most minds was how strongly PM Taksin would win. There is always the chance that the people will fool the experts and the surveys, and do something unexpected. That's why many people will dislike being offered survey results, presented as if they were actual results. And many more will not even understand the difference, and marvel at how the modern election system has advanced, such that the final result is known the very second that ballot boxes are closed.

This was the second election conducted under a new constitution, which provides for 400 parliamentary seats for constituency representatives, and 100 more seats which are filled from the party lists. Thus, the voter will have one ballot to select a candidate for his or her district, and another ballot with which to choose a party. You get two eggs, so to speak, and no need to put them into the same basket. If a party manages 1.5 million party votes, they get 5 members in from their party list. The share of the "at large" party vote determines the proportion of the 100 non-constituency seats each party will receive.

The latest score that I've seen was yesterday (I wanted to get this posted last night, sorry!), when the standings were:

Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai) :: 301

Prachathipat (Democrat Party) :: 67

Chart Thai (Thai Nation Party) :: 23

Mahachon (People's Party) :: 1

That leaves a few short of the 400, with some probably too close to call, and at least a couple of districts that will re-run their election tomorrow (in Satun and Nakorn Ratchasima). Party list MP's will be determined after full results are official, but TRT will get about 2/3 of them, the Democrats about 1/4, and a handful to Chart Thai. Mahachon didn't make the cut. So now Mr. Taksin has the biggest elected majority in Thai history, along with the silliest party name in the history of democracy. (I sometimes hear them called Jeen Rak Jeen, and I'll just leave it at that)

The Democrat leader, Banyat Bantadtan took quick responsibility for the party's poor showing, and announced his resignation as party leader. He's a good man who has been there as a leading figure in the party, through the struggles against dictatorships of the past, but he perhaps lacked a little something in the charisma department. The party only recently selected him to replace former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai as their leader, favouring him over the younger and non-charismatically challenged Abhisit Vejjajiva. It seemed to me to be a choice between the natural generational change in leadership (Abhisit was also there as a new face during those earlier pro-democracy struggles), and traditional deference for a party elder who had paid his dues. Khun Abhisit is now expected to assume Democrat leadership after a party convention, and I presume that as current deputy leader he will be acting interim leader until then. I'm sure we'll see him as Prime Minister before too long.

So... the concerns over Taksin's well-known authoritarian streak and his now overwhelming grip on parliament, have been the headlines this week. A lot of people seem to regret the weakened state of the opposition, even with the addition of the remains of the old-guard Chart Thai, which was previously in a theoretical coalition with Thais Loving Thais, but was spurned by Mr. Taksin in advance of the election for being "untrustworthy". Whatever, dude. Mr. Taksin (or, Toxin, as the CNN correspondent Anesh Ramman persists in saying .... oops, I feel another journalist pronunciation beef coming on...) has never taken criticism well, and frequently throws tantrums against the news media. Now he has the numbers to do everything he wants, including amendment of the constitution. He came this close to disqualification following the election four years ago, due to alleged corrupt dealings in his financial management of his vast business empire. He has the wealthiest set of gardeners, drivers and maids in the known universe, if you know what I mean. And with the diminished numbers in parliamentary opposition, they don't even have enough voices to call for a non-confidence debate in the House. Toxin.. er, Taksin (Tuck! Sin? -- there ya go, Anesh) has a free hand for almost whatever he wants, including the weakening of independent institutions (in which he has already shown some interest, after that Anti-Corruption Commission nearly cost him his political career).

But the voice of the people has spoken, and nobody gets to keep complaining about the fair and square result for months afterwards. There are thankfully no Boxer equivalents here, and no whiny wing of the losing side, and I haven't heard a single person say, "We wuz robbed!" Have an election, deal promptly with challenges, disqualify cheaters and re-run the voting where necessary, get a result and live with it -- that's the new Thai way. There are no Prachathipat Underground movements churning out conspirazoid theories and revenge plans. Even those who dislike Mr. Taksin know when it's time to accept the people's judgement, and just move on (as opposed to MoveOn in that other country, an Org which seems unable to take the hint in its own name).

The fortieth day after the tsunami was observed a few days ago, that being a traditional mourning period -- coinciding with announcements that the emergency period was now over, and the withdrawal of the carrier USS Lincoln from its station off the Aceh coast. A month and a half after the disaster, Indonesian and international NGO's are now able to take over the distribution of relief and services with the logistical support from the Indonesian military. The thanks from the Acehnese people was genuine, while the thanks from certain aid workers seemed rather constipated (might some be feeling jilted with the loss of their floating bedrooms and flying chauffeur service?). "We're more than capable of providing the kind of help needed by these kind of communities, with or without Abraham Lincoln... at this point, we're pretty much all set," stated Greg Beals of the International Rescue Committee. Yeah well, Alhamdullilah the Lincoln was there (and the Australian Navy even a day or two ahead of them) while the civilian NGO's got themselves up to "this point" and "all set" in the middle of the second month.

And as The Diplomad uncannily predicted at the end of the first month, the UN bureaucrats were more than happy to take credit wherever soldiers and sailors were getting the job done. Have a look at what the US forces had been doing, before reading the Diplomad's analysis of the UN-crats' festival of self congratulation. My own modest addition to the issue is this: I had heard that somewhere around Jan. 18, the UN's first two helicopters were due to start contributing to the relief effort. A few days later, there they were on my TV screen (courtesy MetroTV, natch). Well, I couldn't help but noticing that these were indeed Swiss Air Force equipment (it was spelled that way above the door, I'm very observant). So in fact these were Swiss helicopters, without the word "Swiss" crossed out, and with a very large UN written in crayon. Oops, Python flashback, I mean appliqued in duct tape. And, as far as I remember, the Swiss were already involved in the rescue operations anyway, so I wonder if the bragging over these UN heli's flying in to save the day like cavalry or something, really just amounted to some rental money changing hands and a slick duct tape job. In other words, not actually comprising any additional lift capacity at all.

I don't expect to hear the Swiss military bragging about what they've been doing, just like I haven't heard the Yanks or the Aussies or the Singaporean or Kiwi forces doing so. But it's great that there is somebody up close to the operations in Indonesia who is willing to set things straight and separate the doers from the talkers. What a shame that Diplomad is hanging up his blogging shoes for now. Gonna miss ya, man! Have a glance through his archives while it's still available.

The French Navy however, might have something to brag about, regarding life aboard the Jeanne d'Arc. With choice wines at hand day and night, pate with every meal, shorts and sandals as the de rigeur fashion on deck (and on duty, along with the booze), and an onboard artiste to render all the suffering with his paints -- it's a phenomenal achievement that they find time to save so many lives under such conditions.
Feel their stress and torment as French officers suffer the pain of noses out of joint, with the explanation that les Americains are always trying to "show off" by "getting there first" and bringing plenty of large ships, cargo aircraft and choppers with them. Sacre bleu, I feel their pain!

Of course as always and from Day One, The Electric Lamb Mission folks are in a class all by themselves. From the first day I heard of their spontaneous and broad based relief effort, I knew that these were doers and not talkers, and that this was where my support would be going. Have a look at what they've been doing and what they continue to accomplish -- there are good sets of pictures and extensive information on the site -- and I think it's plain that this is what spontaneous, grass roots emergency relief work should look like. I certainly cannot imagine these good people complaining about having to eat from paper plates, like the "coordinators" and "relief leaders" taking their free food and accommodations aboard the Lincoln. I'd doff my hat if I had one, and offer a deep wai of thanks to Rick Cameron and all the volunteers in Padang and elsewhere -- and especially those either now at sea or with their feet in the Rencong Land.

Here are just a few things I'd like to pass along, related to the great lesson in freedom that so many Iraqis presented for the world last week. Any of the Iraqi blogs on the sidebar (to which I've been adding lately) have been great places to read the anecdotes and inspiration. There are many regional reports and photos on Friends of Democracy, a collaboration of Iraqi democrats in every part of the country. More thoughts and links to photos can be found with the stalwart Iraqi blogger, The Messopotamian, as well as some of the best analysis of the Iraq situation at In the Red Zone.

A picture still seems to be worth a thousand words, and Jim Treacher proves it. Hammorabi has more pictures from the voting stations. Ali, writing on the Free Iraqi, describes an incident which is quickly assuming legendary status among freedom loving Iraqis. Quoting for us from the Arabic language Radio Sawa, Ali translates:
Citizens of Al Mudhiryiah (a small town in the "death triangle") were subjected to an attack by several militants today who were trying to punish the residents of this small town for voting in the election last Sunday.
The citizens responded and managed to stop the attack, kill 5 of the attackers, wounded 8 and burned their cars.
Ali continues with his own thoughts on the incident:
This is such a good news and I never heard anything like it before. I consider it good even if the government forces were not there at the time to do something about it, because it shows that Iraqis are no longer paralyzed by fear from the terrorists and are able to organize themselves and defend their town when it's necessary. I believe that this is one of the good outcome of the revolution that took place in the great Sunday. Iraqis realized at that day that they're much stronger than this bunch of psychopaths that are standing in our way to democracy in freedom.
And all of Iraq now knows the name of a true martyr to freedom, A'adel Nasir, who spotted a suicide/homicide belt wearing jihadi trying to barge through the women's voting queue to do his damage. A'adel tackled the man to the ground, sacrificing himself to save others -- the school which was serving as polling station, will henceforth carry his name. At another station where a suicide bomber succeeded in only blowing himself up, voters streamed out of the facility to spit on his body before returning inside to complete their duty.

Omar at Iraq the Model fills us in on new techniques of the "resistance". The sick bastards used a young man handicapped with Downs Syndrome, to deliver one of their infernal bombs:
Eye witnesses said (and I'm quoting one of my colleagues; a dentist who lives there) "the poor victim was so scared when ordered to walk to the searching point and began to walk back to the terrorists. In response the criminals pressed the button and blew up the poor victim almost half way between their position and the voting center's entrance".
Omar recounts what seems to have been an earlier near miss by one of his own relatives, also a handicapped person, who was able to run away from being abducted (likely for this very purpose).

While Iraqis inspired themselves with each other's courage, and felt their empowerment as real as the sun in the sky, some others were greatly disappointed in the Violet Finger revolution. Take Robert Fisk for example, (take him please!):
The shish kebab in my least-favourite Baghdad restaurant tastes like cardboard. No wonder my friend Haidar says that the only decent food we get nowadays is at funerals.
And he still hears gunfire, and his travel agent went on haj but didn't get trampled to death as is their wont, and so on and so forth. Read it if you have the stomach (or a good sense of humour). Al Zarqawi's boys got so upset with everything (though not as upset as Fisk, apparently), they brutally kidnapped and held hostage Cody, the Special Forces action figure. The pictures were posted to the same Islamist website normally reserved for the kidnapping and beheading of human victims who exceed 12" in height -- as usual the blogosphere was sceptical, and had the picture refuted almost immediately. The parts of Main Stream Media which weren't paying attention, fell for the gag and printed the story as real. Associated Press was funny (sorry no link), with "experts" querying the "piping" on the trousers, when any reasonably sharp person could look at the full size image and know immediately it was as phoney as a 3 dollar bill. The Guardian was still running with the story the following day! LGF has the comparative pics.

Eason Jordan puts his foot in again, as the CNN "chief news executive" claims in front of a large audience at Davos, that US troops in Iraq have been deliberately trying to shoot journalists. Since then he's backtracked, and foretracked on it, but the video should be available soon. Actually I was hoping to see it last weekend on C-SPAN, but no luck. Mr. Jordan, some may recall, is the CNN executive who admitted, after the April 9, 2003 fall of Saddam's regime, that his network had for years been holding back reporting that Saddam wouldn't like, and reporting in such ways as to please him, for the simple payoff of being able to continue working in Baghdad.

A wai to Balloon Juice for pointing out this gem from Jim Geraghty, and Jim of course for digging up this bit of confusion from John Kerry's Iraq Election Nite appearance with Tim Russert:
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that Iraq is less a terrorist threat to the United States now than it was two years ago?

SEN. KERRY: No, it's more. And, in fact, I believe the world is less safe today than it was two and a half years ago.

Then, a few seconds later:

MR. RUSSERT: Is the United States safer with the newly elected Iraqi government than we would have been with Saddam Hussein?

SEN. KERRY: Sure. And I'm glad Saddam Hussein is gone, and I've said that a hundred times. But we've missed opportunity after opportunity along the way, Tim, to really make America safe and to bring the world to the cause.
Two people who were far less confused about things, and provided the emotional climax of President Bush's State of the Union, were Safia Taleb al-Suhail -- an Iraqi woman whose father was murdered by Saddam's thugs -- and the mother and father of Sgt. Byron Norwood, who was killed by Michael Moore's Minutemen (i.e.- basically the same type of thugs who killed Safia's dad). I know that few of my readers would have been interested in listening to the Chimpster, so let me just describe briefly that these guests in the gallery were introduced at different points in the speech. But when Mr. and Mrs. Norwood were acknowledged, Ms. Safia Taleb al-Suhail, standing in front of Mrs. Norwood, turned to embrace the serviceman's mother while the Senate floor thundered and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. The President was obviously greatly moved, as was I. Perhaps it was Allah's hand which entangled Byron's dogtags, which his mother was clutching in her hand, in the sleeves of Safia's dress. They were, for a moment, bound together beyond their lengthy hug, and had to take care and work together to extricate themselves from each other. Whether it was Allah or simply fortuitous circumstance, it was a wonderfully symbolic accident.

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