Agam's Gecko
Wednesday, October 04, 2006

want to get a couple of items (saved since last week) up here before their source links go all defunct on us. They are a few perspectives from some well-informed foreign observers with long experience in this country, offering a reality check which I hope might balance some of the excitable and unbalanced insinuations of international media "experts."

First up is a letter to the editors of The Nation, from a former journalist with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Rodney Tasker. About a year into Mr. Thaksin's first government (and thus well into his crusade against the independent press), Tasker and fellow FEER journalist Shawn Crispin were declared threats to national security and targeted for deportation. Interesting aside: FEER is currently banned in Singapore.

Former FEER journalist urges UK to remember how Thaksin dealt with outsiders

As a British citizen, I would like to express my hope that the British government does not give fugitive former prime minister Thaksin too much of a comfortable ride in my country.

After all, Thaksin was officially only a caretaker prime minister since the annulled April 2 election, though he tried in his usual style to override this and continued to act as if he owned Thailand. So, since he landed in London he was no more than a former caretaker prime minister, and should be treated as such.

I write from the vantage point of having had some personal, historical experience at the hands of the former prime minister. In February 2002, I and my colleague Shawn Crispin were with the then weekly magazine Far Eastern Economic Review's Bangkok bureau, when Thaksin struck. He, of course, later told us it wasn't him but his "senior officials", but we were nevertheless officially accused at the time of being "a threat to national security". The Thaksin government spokesman subsequently said we were "terrorists". We were, of course, nothing of the sort, and were simply the first foreign press victim of Thaksin's war on the critical press, both foreign and domestic.

Luckily, the powerful, good people here, as you would call them, intervened and we successfully petitioned against the deportation order, meaning our passports with new visas and work permits were returned and we were told by immigration authorities we were definitely off the black list. The only word I got from the British embassy was to make my own apology to the government (for what?) and basically to accept deportation.

The official confirmation that we were free men again was fine, but annoyingly I continued to be held-up at Bangkok airport by immigration every time I left and returned. Must be just bureaucratic confusion about my case history, I thought. But I subsequently found out from the Immigration Department itself that it had been decided on March 15 that year we should both be scratched off the black list, and two days later we were officially told such. I also learned that certain individuals in Thaksin's inner circle - still smarting from their defeat - had quietly told immigration to do no such thing, hence my prolonged airport hassles.

So London, I don't ask you to declare Thaksin a "threat to national security", but at least bear in mind what the man did to one your citizens.

Rodney Tasker
Chiang Mai
Former British Ambassador Derek Tonkin shared his thoughts on The Nation's letters page, regarding foreign media coverage of Thailand after the coup, as well as Tasker's experience. I've left out his explanation to another writer regarding ex-ambassadors vs. serving ambassadors opining in their home media.

Only retired ambassadors are afforded the luxury of voicing their opinions to home media

With the laudable exception of the Financial Times and the BBC, comment in the British press has indeed been stereotyped, shallow and waspish, totally failing, as Andrew Drummond said, to capture the mood in the country. There has been no blood in the streets. The Council for Democratic Reform has set out a rigorous timetable for the return to democratic government. Civilian participation is already impressive. Comment in the local press is even freer than it was before September 19. This good news, however, is unlikely to get an airing in the British press. They have moved on to the next story.

I am glad my old friend Rodney Tasker has written the way he did ("Former FEER journalist urges UK to remember how Thaksin dealt with outsiders", Letters, September 26). I would hope that if had I been in Bangkok when Rodney had his problems, he would not subsequently have had cause for complaint.

Derek Tonkin
Guildford, England
And as long as wire services editors, and certain foreign pundits are going to persist in likening interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and his yet to be named cabinet, to the 18 year military dictatorship in Burma (which really should be counted from 1962 to include the infamous Ne Win dictatorship), let's hear from a Burmese academic (who has been obliged to base himself in Thailand for at least as long as I've been reading his writing, about 10 years). He wrote, in an op-ed for the Bangkok Post last weekend:
For most Burmese, coups are extremely frightening. In the 1988 coup in Burma, thousands of soldiers stormed the streets, arresting or killing anyone found outside. The sounds of military marching songs and gunshots rang through the air. A strict curfew severely limited people's ability to travel and carry out their business.
Lest we forget, the Burmese democracy movement began peaceful demonstrations in 1988 against Ne Win's absolute dictatorship of more than a quarter century; inspired by (and adopting the non-violent methods of) the Philippines' legendary "People Power" movement against Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. It didn't work out that way, unfortunately. Ne Win stepped aside, and his successor was overthrown in a brutal military crackdown costing thousands of lives in Rangoon -- three thousand is thought to be a conservative estimate.

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father (Aung San) had led the independence movement after WW II and is also considered the father of the nation, returned to her homeland from a comfortable life (with her husband and two sons) in Britain. Elections in May 1990 were won in a landslide by the National League for Democracy (although she was not allowed on the ballot). The results were not accepted by the military junta, which has refused to allow the elected parliament to meet, and has ruled the country (badly) ever since. During most of that period, Aung San Suu Kyi has spent her time either in prison or under house arrest.

The Burmese generals' pathetic justification to the international community was a simple one. The election hadn't actually been for a parliament, but for a constitutional drafting assembly. After that job's done, then we can have the real election.
The Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) has also said that the constitutional drafting process will only take six months. While some Thai academics have argued that this is longer than necessary, it seems quite short from a Burmese perspective. In Burma, the regime started a constitution drafting process in 1993, but 13 years later, the constitution is still not written.
And nobody really believes that it will ever be written.

Interestingly, the writer says that the Burmese regime has tried to prevent news of the Thai coup reaching their people. One might expect, especially at this time when Burma is about to be an agenda topic for the UNSC, that they may want to point to it, and say, "See? They do it too." But that won't work at home, where people know what they are. If their people could easily see pictures, and hear or read stories from Bangkok of these past two weeks, it would make them look terrible by comparison, and might even lead to some soul-searching among younger officers in their own ranks.
At the same time, Burmese democracy activists feel that any new Thai government will be better than the Thaksin government because for the past five years Thai policy toward Burma was largely driven by Thaksin's personal business interests in the country. While previous Thai governments took an interest in the terrible human rights problems in Burma, Thaksin once said that he could understand why the Burmese generals detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
I bet he did -- understand it, rationalise it, and perhaps even wish he could do it so easily. Thaksin's position toward the democratic movement in Burma was only one of his many detestable policies.

But now his once invincible, money-powered political machine is disintegrating before our eyes. Factions within the Thai Rak Thai party have been deserting the ship in recent days, numbering in the hundreds by now. Yesterday Thaksin resigned from party leadership in a handwritten letter, he said, in order to allow the party to carry on building its strength for the future. Today he also resigned from TRT membership.

All that might be moot in any case. A court is presently considering the case of TRT having paid smaller parties to contest seats in the April 2 election, as a way of averting the expected slew of voided constituency elections (due to insufficient voter participation, with a 20% minimum). This practice, if proven, would have violated election laws and would result in the court ordering the dissolution of the TRT party. Officials of any such dissolved party would lose electoral rights for five years. This legal process has been going on since before the coup, and hasn't been affected by it. A decision is expected soon.

If anyone was reading here back in March - May, they may remember some of the tension between Thaksin and the "highest institution" beloved by the people, both before and after his snap election call. Yesterday, I was reading through a "breaking coup news" thread on the Paknam Thailand Forums. It's interesting to see again the earliest reports -- and rumours -- from that night and the following days. But one writer summed up the context particularly well, and I wanted to quote a bit of his analysis here. "Terry1311" had clearly been paying close attention to Thai politics for some time, and with the exception of one detail about 1992, he gets the facts right.
I remember Thaksin speaking on national TV, stating that the King had advised him to: 1. listen to advise from other people and 2. not get a "swell head". During the mass demonstrations against him this spring, Thaksin said he would not step down - unless the King "whispered something in his ear".

The King did something interesting some months ago: Ordering all the major TV stations to rerun the famous video clip from 1992 in which he publicly scolds the then prime minister and the then military chief following the bloody response of the government to the student rebellion. (This is the clip in which the two leaders had to crawl on all fours across the carpet leading to the Throne. Both leaders resigned immediately after he broadcast, efficiently ending the violence)
I'll never forget that broadcast. There was a 6pm curfew, virtually everyone was in their homes. All television channels were interrupted by the "TV Pool" logo, and it stayed like that for several hours while we waited for an "important broadcast." At about 10pm the scene appeared -- the King seated in a reception room, and moving across the floor to wai at his feet, the two protagonists in the days of chaos which had just past. General Suchinda, who had sought to slide into the PM's chair from the Supreme Command without having stood in the just-completed election, was the focus of the popular uprising; and Chamlong Srimuang, the former Bangkok governor who had become the figurehead of the democracy movement. "Pa" Prem Tinasulandonda was also present, and as I recall, also the interim PM Anand Panyarachun. After the lecture, Suchinda announced he would not continue his quest to be PM, and Chamlong called on demonstrators to return home.
As Thaksin did not take this "hint" from the palace, he was later invited to the King's summer residence in Hua Hin. On his return, a crying Thaksin announced that we would resign as prime minister.

Still, he kept clinging on, and on some occasions proclaimed that there was a major, non-democratic force that wanted to oust him from power. Several commentators assumed that he was referring to the King.
I had thought, after the crying scene and subsequent clearing out his office, that Thaksin had finally heard the "whisper in his ear" mentioned in his earlier promise. After earlier that day affirming that he would remain as "caretaker PM" until the new parliament was convened from the April 2 election (soon afterwards judged illegitimate by the courts), he returned from Hua Hin and turned the office over to a deputy "acting caretaker." After a few weeks of invisibility, he quietly returned to his "caretaker" job, apparently hoping no one would notice.

We will probably not know the full story of what went on behind the scenes in the months since, until some time in the future when certain memoirs may be made public. It will certainly be a very fascinating story. His Majesty never makes a move before careful and methodical collection of information. There is no information network in this country more extensive, connected to each and every part with integrity and trust flowing both ways through longstanding and unbreakable relationships.

But the excitable will be excited, I suppose. It must be romantic to imagine oneself making a valiant stand against the new Thai fascism, or reporting it. I predicted that much would be made, in the foreign media, of the fancy uniforms at Surayud's swearing in. And so it was, in every wire report this week. I can hardly wait to see my first farang wearing his "I survived the 2006 coup" t-shirt. One local farang pundit was seen foaming about "All heil our new military overlords!" [my italics] Sheesh, that's pretty funny. I think he probably meant "All hail" but the slip makes it even funnier, and telling. If Surayud is Hitler, he's the most down to earth, modest Hitler the world has ever seen! He does remind me a lot of another Asian leader though, and that's President Yudhoyono of Indonesia (also a retired General, by the way). In my insignificant opinion, he's the right man for the job.

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