Living with Thailand’s always-churning cycle of strife

WHEN I heard the news of anti-government protesters besieging ministry buildings in Bangkok, including the Foreign Ministry, preventing civil servants from working and effectively trying to cause a government “shutdown”, I couldn’t help but think of the friendly Foreign Ministry officials I met a few months ago, and wonder how they were getting along.

I went on an exchange programme to Thailand in August, together with a handful of journalists, and we were led by two young secretaries from the Foreign Ministry’s Department of Information, one in his early 30s, the other in his 20s and a few years out of university.

They seemed like average, unassuming guys, and possessed the charming, congenial demeanour that Thais are so well-known for, just that perhaps having studied overseas in Western universities under government scholarships, they were smart and resourceful enough to herd our motley group of Singaporean journalists around the country.

They navigated the logistics of our visits, meals, accommodation, flights and excursions as expertly as veteran tour guides. And all without any impatience and annoyance at the typical foibles one would expect of a group of Singaporeans.

The Thai people as a whole are more patient than Singaporeans; for example, when driving. When our bus and many other vehicles were held up at a narrow street by a van of elderly people alighting, there was no sign of irritation among our drivers and no impatient sounding of the horn from any of the vehicles. They just waited patiently in queue to get going.

I would not dream that any of these kind, patient people would be participating in mass demonstrations to overthrow their elected government.

I had not been to Bangkok since previous protests in 2010, which had had spiralled into bloody violence. The city I visited in August, with its vibrant vibe, cheerful people, newly refurbished shopping malls and glitzy hotels and nightspots, seemed a world away from those deadly days of 2010.

The simple rural charm of the northern Chiang Rai province, almost as far away from Bangkok as one can get, also betrayed little evidence of pro- or anti-government sentiment.

However, the rumblings of discontent beneath the surface became evident when I was asked by a host what I thought of the current Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. I replied, hopefully diplomatically enough, that she was the leader of the ruling party that was elected democratically by a popular vote, but acknowledged concerns that she may be under the influence of her brother, exiled former premier Thaksin. This was when the amnesty Bill that would absolve his crimes had already been proposed in Parliament.

I can’t claim to understand the deep-rooted revulsion for Thaksin felt by his detractors – Thaksin-linked parties have won every election since 2001, so he does enjoy widespread support. Why then deny the majority their elected government?

But neither can I claim to understand the support he has from his mainly rural poor supporters – being a billionaire, one would think he couldn’t be more different from them, despite the populist policies.

I do get the impression, though, that because of the country’s divisions, the Thai people, humble and unassuming as they are, are trapped in a cycle of strife.

Though there had been relative peace since Ms Yingluck’s government was elected, it was almost certain that those behind the coup that ousted her brother in 2006 would be gunning for her too.

And what if they do indeed succeed in overthrowing her government this time round? Won’t it just be the start of another caretaker government that wasn’t elected by the people?

At the core of the crisis seems to be a struggle between the privileged and the poor. Before Thaksin’s rise, Thailand was characterised by weak prime ministers that deferred to the system of factional bargaining within the ruling elite. Thaksin transformed Thai politics by appealing to the common people, championing them as a prime minister elected by the people and impinging on the power of the elites, military and even the King.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has called for the creation of an unelected administration to run the country, a clear indication that the anti-Thaksin protesters, not all of which support the opposition Democrat Party, want to suspend the democratic system to prevent Thaksin-linked parties from gaining power again, effectively removing the rights of a majority of the population to choose their own leader.

Does Mr Suthep think his protesters have more of a right to choose the nation’s leaders than the majority of the population? Surely Thaksin supporters aren’t going to take lying down the ouster of a government they elected, and their being prevented from electing another one?

It all seems to be a crisis that may ebb, but never end.

Amid the turmoil, I couldn’t help but spare a thought for ordinary workers and citizens just like those I met a few months ago, whatever cause they support. How it must be like to see their city besieged by protests. How it must be like to go to work and school while protesters are choking the roads. How it must be like to see your country’s economy sputtering time and again due to political instability. How it must be like to have to explain to foreigners why your countrymen can’t seem to agree with one another.

How it must be like to not even be able to go to work, like my Foreign Ministry hosts, because protesters are occupying your workplace.

Thankfully, when I contacted the older of our Foreign Ministry friends on Tuesday afternoon, the day after the Foreign Ministry was occupied, he said everything was “back to normal” for the Foreign Ministry. He had been summoned back to work, and the protesters had left the building.

“Personally I’m sick of it,” he added.

While glad that they were unharmed, I couldn’t help but think that as long as the divisions in the country aren’t peaceably sorted out, life for them would not be back to normal for a while yet.