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It’s a Thai thing: ditching the new for the old

by Tom Plate

More than almost any other political crisis on the face of the earth today — more than in Russia, Ukraine and Crimea; even more, in a way, than in dreadfully miserable Syria — it is the crisis in Thailand that seems so sad.

Because this tragedy need not have happened — not at all.

Very many people live in the shadow of unelected governments that they dislike, or even under elected governments for which they did not vote and perhaps even despise. But in this world (and quite possibly even in the next) rarely does one get everything he or she politically wants, certainly not all the time and maybe not even often.

But in Thailand some people — too many people — do want it all, and to achieve that aim they are prepared to deny everyone else almost everything.

And so one feels terribly sorry for all those many people in Thailand that voted for the government of Yingluck Shinawatra (who became the 28th prime minister — and first woman prime minister — in Thailand’s history from the 2011 general election) and who now find this nice and hardworking lady out of the job.

Why? Essentially because a smaller number of people don’t like the political taste of a larger number of people.

What is so loathsome is the selection of this fine lady as the punching bag of the Bangkok elite, which has just pulled off what many are terming a “judicial coup.” Unable to beat Yingluck’s coalition in an honest us-against-them election, the elite’s allies on the so-called Constitutional Court (packed with anti-government elitists) found cause the other day to disqualify the prime minister and much of her Cabinet.

The ruling — that a series of sudden appointment maneuvers by the government was legally invalid and required dismissal — required of the court a reasoning style from the legal school of Alice in Wonderland.

The ruling creates a bad precedent for governance; worse yet, it may pave the way toward a civil war of un-Thai-like violence. It is, after all, the view of no less than Ramkhamhaeng University political scientist Pandit Chanrojanakij that the justices exercised unwarranted political power in order to undermine political parties allied to Thaksin.

“The rulings of the Constitutional Court in recent months have decreased the credibility of the court itself,” said Pandit. “If the law cannot create principles equally used by everyone, violence in the future may be inevitable.”

Behind the anti-Yingluck coalition, of course, is a deep hatred of her brother, Thaksin, also expelled from the prime minister’s office — not by court coup in 2006 but by a less subtle military coup.

The hatred that gushes at Thaksin, in self-exile, seems unquenchable and, because it is so limitless, unreasonable.

Perhaps the closest hate analogue I can think of in our own politics here was the American left’s inconsolable loathing of President Richard Nixon, whom now, in fact, history seems to be treating with a little more respect (reflecting his brilliant opening to China, surprisingly expansive domestic programs, etc.).

Consider the arguable parallels. Thaksin’s 2001-2006 reign coincided with the greatest uptick ever in the Thai economy. His government was repeatedly reelected. There were many policy innovations in health and income redistribution. To many voters outside of Bangkok, he offered hope for escape from the cruel box of poverty.

Yet, he was brought down, they said, for his “corruption” — as if he were the first politician in the history of Thailand to (allegedly) take personal shortcuts while in office. Whatever.

The anti-Thaksin crowd’s dubious bile was then piled on his younger sister Yingluck, a lady of substantial charm and I-try-hard work habits. The Thai Constitutional Court that invalidated her as prime minister thus jumped in with a shortsighted movement that took a country suddenly doing so well and yet managed to begin to bring it down.

I find it all beyond sad. I suppose some people in Thailand find me biased because of my work as the author of “Conversations With Thaksin.” This was the 2011 book that tried to tell the former prime minister’s side of the story as much as possible using his own words.

In 2010, I spent a week and a half with him in Dubai where he has been in frustrated exile. Frankly I found him pleasant, smart and patriotic about Thailand. Did I find him self-serving? May I ask you this: Have you have ever heard of any politician who was not?

In fact, his enemies have lauded this book for how it presents Thaksin’s views with plain candor, almost as much as his supporters have embraced it for letting the controversial man have his say. But that is what true journalism does: It seeks to embrace unblemished reality.

I wish Thailand itself would do that. Instead, it is — at least to me — on a course of serious self-destruction that seems totally unreal.

Little in today’s political world makes me sadder. Almost nothing terrible going on now is less necessary than this nightmare in Thailand. This is a remarkable tragedy: the utter self-destructiveness of it all.

We can only hope that someone or something inside Thailand can bring it back from the brink.

American columnist and journalist Tom Plate is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, and author of the “Giants of Asia” quartet of books on Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Mohamad Mahathir of Malaysia, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea and Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand.