Communications: New York Times “One Two Punch Combination” exposes Abhisit & Yingluck

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By Ranger, Thai Intel’s political journalist

New York Times has produced two consecutive articles, one on Abhisit’s Dems and another on Yingluck’s governing of Thailand. Both articles have some factual errors, but they are about 80% to 90% right on the money, in exposing Abhisit and Yingluck to what they stand for.

  • On Abhisit, NYT reports:

Well-Mannered Thai Party Throws Down Its Gloves in Government Protests

Booming loudspeakers, crowds of cheering protesters and the riot police on alert — after a relative lull of more than two years, politics is back on the streets in Thailand.

Thousands of demonstrators cheered in a vacant lot here on Saturday as speakers threatened to “overthrow” the government. But unlike in previous years, this time the protesters were members of Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, which has long had a reputation as the staid, well-mannered and intellectual voice of the Bangkok establishment and has been firmly dedicated to resolving differences inside Parliament, where the Democrats lead the opposition.

The threats by some of the Democrats’ leaders to lead large-scale street demonstrations in the style of the Arab Spring — stunning to many Thais because it seems so out of character for the party — underlines the persistence of divisions in Thailand and raises the prospect of a return to the political turmoil that left more than 90 people dead on the streets of Bangkok in 2010.

“We are gathering up the masses, people left behind by this government,” Sathit Wongnongtoey, a Democrat Party member of Parliament, told the crowd on Saturday in front of a backdrop with a huge clenched fist. “We will rise up and fight.”

The acrimony between the Democrats and the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra centers on a number of legislative issues, chiefly an effort by the government to pass an amnesty law for those involved in the 2010 protests. The Democrats oppose the bill, saying it might also apply to those who insulted the monarchy or committed serious crimes.

But the broader conflict appears to stem from the Democrats’ feeling of powerlessness in the face of the resurgence of Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s older brother, who sets the broad policy lines for the government and the Pheu Thai Party despite living abroad since 2008 in self-imposed exile to escape corruption charges.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister who leads the Democrats, has been under relentless pressure since losing parliamentary elections two years ago. He was charged with murder in December in the deaths of protesters in 2010, when he was prime minister.

Mr. Abhisit, who was born in Britain and educated at Oxford, has been criticized for being unable to connect with rural voters. The formal language and academic bearing favored by the Democrats won over some Bangkok voters, but the party has been trounced in the rice-growing northeastern part of the country, where one-third of the electorate lives.

“The image of this party in the past has been that of a very good and elegant performer, like Maradona on the soccer field,” said Sombat Boonngamanong, a political activist, referring to the fleet-footed Argentine athlete. “Now they want to play street soccer.”

At Saturday’s rally, Mr. Abhisit’s speech was earthy and markedly more aggressive than his previous remarks. Other party leaders used coarse language to criticize the government, and the crowd repeatedly called for Ms. Yingluck’s ouster with a vulgar chant.

On Sunday, Ms. Yingluck held a meeting to call for national reconciliation, an effort the Democrats have refused to join.

Even inside Parliament, the Democrats have sought to portray themselves as street fighters, with one lawmaker shoving a security guard during a ruckus that a Thai newspaper described as a “disgrace.”

“We want to awaken the masses,” said Nipit Intarasombut, a lawmaker who leads the Democrats’ radical faction that advocates aggressive street demonstrations.

“It’s a new era for the party,” he said. “People today are fearful. But once we can mobilize hundreds of thousands of people on the streets, the fear will disappear.”

It is unclear whether the Democrats’ supporters, especially Bangkok’s affluent voters, will put up with the discomforts of prolonged demonstrations. Punishing heat and drenching rains have tested previous protesters.

At the rally on Saturday, one of a series held this month in Bangkok, the Democrats’ supporters said they were committed to opposing the government, but seemed sheepish when asked whether they were ready for sustained street protests.

“We would have to see if it’s convenient,” said Pongporn Chaicharus, a financial planner at a Bangkok hospital. His partner, Tiparpa Aimsaby, who sells computer software, also looked uncertain. “If it’s not convenient, we could watch it from home,” she said.

In a country with a history of military coups and other democratic disruptions, the Democrat Party for years lived by the mantra “I believe in the parliamentary system,” the words of Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister who is now the party’s elder statesman.

Some in the party say it is a mistake to abandon that principle. Alongkorn Ponlaboot, a veteran lawmaker, calls the protest strategy “destructive democracy.”

“We will not win people over with mob democracy,” Mr. Alongkorn said. “It will cause indefinite divisions.”

What the party needs, Mr. Alongkorn said, is a wholesale restructuring, including a system of primaries to choose candidates. The party should focus on bread-and-butter issues at a time when the Thai economy and others in the region are faltering, he said.

Data released this month showed that Thailand had entered a mild recession.

Others have raised questions about how much support the Democrats can mobilize outside the party for their protests. Mr. Sombat, the activist who is a former protest leader for the “red shirts,” a movement that helped propel the Yingluck government to power, said the Democrats were misreading the national mood.

“The society is not ready to spill out into the streets,” he said.

In a sign that he might be right, the leadership of the “yellow shirts,” another once-prominent protest movement, resigned Friday.

“We have been through that and learned it’s tiring and expensive,” Mr. Sombat said of street protests. “No one wins. We can’t do this anymore. It’s not the way out of the problem.”

  • On Yingluck, NYT reports:

Can Egypt Learn From Thailand?

By JONATHAN TEPPERMAN

Published: August 22, 2013 72

BANGKOK was rocked by anti-government demonstrations earlier this month — once a depressingly familiar sight. But that bad news shouldn’t overshadow the good. Disruptive protests may have been all too common in Thailand just a short while ago, but in the last two years, they’ve become an anomaly. The country has gone from a virtual wreck to a booming, and relatively stable, success story. Figuring out how it’s managed to do that is important, and not just for Thailand’s 65 million citizens. For if a place this polarized can pull itself back from the brink, other bitterly divided societies might be able to as well. To get a sense of how far and fast Thailand has come, consider its recent past. Marketed to tourists as the land of a thousand smiles, Thailand spent most of the last decade fighting with itself. The trouble really began in 2006, when the military, in connivance with royalists and the courts, overthrew the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The coup ignited years of running street battles between citizen armies of “yellow shirts” — defenders of the old, semifeudal order — and “red shirts,” Thaksin supporters among the rural and urban poor. Political power changed hands four more times in four years.

In January 2010, the police responded to enormous red-shirt protests by killing over 90 demonstrators, injuring 2,400 others and jailing hundreds. The economy went into a tailspin. Then, in August 2011, Mr. Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister. And today, barely halfway through her four-year term, Thailand looks like a different country. According to Ruchir Sharma, head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley, the economic outlook is the brightest in 15 years: the currency is up, land prices have climbed and the stock market has more than quadrupled since 2008. Tourists have returned, and the streets (despite the August flare-ups) are mostly quiet. So how did Ms. Yingluck, initially considered a mere proxy for her exiled brother, do it? The formula turns out to be deceptively simple: provide decent, clean governance, compromise with your enemies and focus on the economy.

Ms. Yingluck understood that she’d never accomplish her broader agenda and improve life for the poor unless she could first calm the place down and complete a full term in office. And to do that, she had to give all Thais a stake in her success. So she began a bold economic stimulus and reform campaign. Some of her moves, like a 40 percent minimum-wage hike and subsidies for car buyers, were aimed directly at her lower-class base. But others, such as $67 billion of infrastructure spending and cuts to personal and corporate taxes, have benefited the wealthy as well. She also sought to make peace politically. She has courted opponents, holding respectful meetings with the powerful and popular king — and even with the general allegedly behind the coup against her brother. According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University, Ms. Yingluck has brought the elites onside by offering a tacit bargain: she preserves their privileges and they let her hold onto power.

Thus she has left the military alone, even recently naming herself defense minister so she could ensure that no one would mess with the army’s prerogatives. She has avoided challenging the Constitution, including the infamous lèse-majesté laws that ban criticism of the monarchy. She has kept corruption, a perennial problem in Thailand, to a minimum. And she has ensured that her brother, whom the aristocracy still fears and loathes, remains in exile. This, in many ways, is an ugly deal. It means Ms. Yingluck must tolerate undemocratic checks on her power and the repression of free speech. Despite an amnesty law now being debated in Parliament, some of her red-shirt supporters are angry that she hasn’t done more for the families of those killed and imprisoned by the military-backed government in 2010. It’s also a fragile bargain. Thailand’s recovery could easily unravel.

Die-hard yellow shirts have pounced on the prime minister’s mistakes, like a scheme to boost the price of rice that backfired spectacularly. Other dangers loom: the economy is still too export-dependent, and while everyone is getting wealthier, inequality is growing. Ms. Yingluck hasn’t erased Thailand’s dividing lines so much as papered them over, and the underlying power struggle could erupt again at any time — especially if her brother returns or if the king, now 85, dies. But the longer Thailand remains at peace, and its economy keeps growing, the greater the odds that real democratic politics will take hold, so that when Thailand does finally confront its divisions, it will do so through ballots, not street battles. Indeed, the flaws in Ms. Yingluck’s grand bargain are part of its genius. The fact that everyone is irritated by the truce she’s negotiated is a good sign, not a bad one: it means nobody is getting everything he wants. That’s how compromise is supposed to work. It may seem messy; it is. But it’s the kind of mess that other countries like Egypt or Venezuela or Zimbabwe can only envy right now.

Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs.

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