Movement To Oust Corrupt Prime Minister Gains Momentum in Thailand


Thai People Gather at a Rally at the Royal Plaza, Bangkok
Thai People Gather at a Rally at the Royal Plaza, Bangkok

Tens of Thousands of Thai people are meeting at huge street rallies to depose scandal - tainted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatara

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BANGKOK- “Thaksin AWK PAI,” chant tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the searing afternoon heat at Bangkok’s Royal Plaza. The crowd are swathed in vivid royal yellow, the color now associated with rejection of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Weekly rallies in the nation’s capital number in the hundreds of thousands, making the movement to depose the scandal-tainted prime minister the largest massing of public dissent since 1992, when huge demonstrations and the army’s subsequent massacre of protesters culminated in the end of military rule in Thailand.

Thailand is a land that lives up to many clichés. Tropical jungles teem with orchids and wild elephants. Known abroad for its white sand beaches, tropical islands and transvestite cabaret, the nation is famous in Southeast Asia for having maintained its independence while its neighbors succumbed to brutal colonization, cultural and linguistic subjugation by England, Holland and France. But the Thai emperors of the last centuries played a precarious game of diplomacy and conciliation with hostile western powers, often allowing their aggression to remain unchecked in return for assurance that Thailand would remain nominally independent. At the behest of a series of kings educated abroad, the country underwent a transition from feudal monarchy to the type of corrupt parliamentary system that was a synthesis of Asian clan oligarchy and western abuse of power in the name of popular democracy. In the 20th century, Thailand provided bases and support for the US military in undeclared and often unjustified wars against Thailand’s neighbors, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Thai politicians learned that the USA could smuggle heroin, execute political rivals and give huge contracts to influential private businesses in the name of the democratic struggle against popular communist movements.

Thai people, traditionally quite deferent to authority, have been gathering regularly for the last two months at the Royal Square in an ongoing series of weekly rallies calling to oust Thaksin, a billionaire tycoon who initially elected by a wide margin, and remains popular. In recent months, allegations of scandal, fraud, bribery and corruption have seized headlines in the nation’s press which, until recently, tended to shy away from directly criticizing the government. Scandals include allegations bribes paid by contractors in the building of a new airport, the alleged use of military planes to ferry friends of the prime minister to a birthday party in his northern hometown of Chiang Mai, and hundreds of projects with huge sums of money left unaccounted for.

“60 to 80 percent of the Thai government are cronies for Thaksin,” estimates Payal Keawarna, one of an estimated 100,000 attendees of a recent rally at the Royal Square. The 26 year old self employed businessman and student, who wears a placard announcing “Suwannapoom airport, most corrupt in the world.”

A continuing source of outrage among critics of the Thaksin regime is a recent sale of the Shin corporation, a telecom business built up by the prime minister under dubious ethical practice to a Singaporean investor when building up Thailand’s preeminent telecom business while still in office became embarrassing for him. The multibillion dollar sale was apparently subjected to negligible taxation.

Pointing , he comments, “Before, [Thai network] I-TV was a public venture, but Thaksin has taken it over,” Payal comments, pointing to a television camera on the only boom crane present at the rally.

“Many Thais do not have access to information because so much of our TV and radio is in his control.”

There is also a large and very vocal number of supporters of the prime minister, some of whom have clashed violently with anti - Thaksin protesters. In recent weeks, rallies both to support and condemn the prime minister have been held in cities outside the capital.

“Maybe Thaksin has made some mistakes, but people in the mob forget all the good things that have happened,” says a 23 year old shopkeeper who wished to remain anonymous.

“Before him there was no sky train [Bangkok‘s elevated commuter rail] and the economy in the last eight years has been going up and up. If he is not doing his job, then why do we have a new airport at all? And if he is out of office, who will we have to replace him? Who will do a better job?”

Even many of Thaksin’s detractors concede that he is a shrewd businessman who has attracted a lot of foreign investment. But the last 25 years have been a period of dizzying economic and social change for the people in urban areas of Thailand as well as in neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, while life for people in rural areas has been slow to change. Many people have gone from being peasant farmers, living from one rice crop to another and plowing their fields with buffalo to living in global marketplace boom towns such as Bangkok where cars, pollution, air conditioning and suspension bridges are replacing the boats, tree lined wood houses, handmade parasols and river ferries of only two decades ago.

In essence, the transition from isolated rural life to modern urban capitalism that has transformed everyday life gradually over the last 1000 years for people in Europe and had descended upon America in only 200 years has transformed the lives of many southeast Asians in just 20 years! A stark example of this transition is the family of Sukhon, a lecturer at a Bangkok university, who attended a recent rally near the Thai king’s palace.

“I don’t support any political party,” she said.

“We are here to oppose any corrupt regime, weather it is firm Thaksin’s party or Democracy Party. He must step down and leave Thailand, he has too many friends taking money from the Thai people. Maybe if many people join us and the king supports us, we can alert people in the villages who don’t know about the corruption.”

Sukhon takes the futuristic, air-conditioned sky train to work every day. Her father is a rice farmer who still uses draft animals like water buffalo in lieu of tractors in his fields and his grandfather, veteran of an even less developed Thailand of only 30 years ago, trained elephants to do logging work in the wild jungles that have now been mostly cleared for agriculture and timber harvest.

“We want a new election,” she continues. “We need someone who is more moral, not corrupt and one who tolerates opposition to the government.”

In the face of months of protest, Prime Minister Thaksin has called for snap elections in April. Many opposition parties plan to boycott the elections, claiming that they are a ploy to rally support for Thaksin at a time when he knows that opposition parties are not yet organized. The PM’s ruling Thairakthai party is so entrenched that many rural areas lack an active opposition party. After a recent rally, thousands of protestors marched on the Singaporean embassy to “politely ask Singapore to stop cooperating with Thaksin to loot Thailand."

“I’m not sure what the solution is or weather we can change things through protest, but we have a lot to learn,” says Yostan, a soft - spoken 34 year old artist.

“We are used to respecting rich people and people with power. We must learn through protest the value of democracy.”


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