Nakhonratchasima, Thailand — Anyone expecting a quiet year for Thai politics may be surprised; so far the year promises to be anything but settled. On Jan. 14 an M79 rocket grenade was fired into the Royal Thai Army headquarters. General Anupong Phaochinda – himself suspected by many of being behind last April’s assassination attempt on media baron Sondhi Limthongkul – said the incident was only to create headlines and spread fear of future violence.
Now Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol – also known as Sae Daeng – finds himself pursued by the Thai military and police for his possible involvement in that attack.
There are factions within the police and the military both supporting and opposing former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Meanwhile the royalists steadily hammer home – through legislation and imprisonment – the point that democracy in Thailand is just a word, while the Thai prime minister tries to govern the country whose ailing monarch has now been in hospital for four months.
In the midst of all this Thaksin, the burr under the saddle, has apparently flown back to Dubai to bask in the warmth and relative safety of Middle East sun and beaches. In the past he was visited there by Khattiya, who also saw fit to visit him in Cambodia but denied he had done so.
The rogue general also warned the current Thai military elite that going after him would make the streets unsafe for them. That, coupled with the M79 grenade incident that was initially covered up by the military, was enough to set the status-quo forces working overtime – and led to the inspection of Sae Daeng’s home last Thursday.
Local media got reports that police would be waiting at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport when Sae Daeng flew in from Hat Yai, but alas there was no Sae Daeng and no police. Perhaps the media were misled.
Sae Daeng – whose website http://www.sae-dang.com/ is still up and running despite his political activities, which one would suppose are threats to national security – is a self-adulating hero to the masses, a self-made caricature of bravado that itself is a blend of Thai society’s love of nationalism, uniform, loyalty and power.
Khattiya may have neglected the fact, however, that other people who see things differently also wear uniforms, have guns and power and worse, are loyal to different institutions.
Thailand’s oldest institution, permanence – which is sometimes confused with stability –has been enshrined by people who do not mean to allow “the masses” to rise up and be free. They will pay lip service to freedom and democracy and elections, but will not allow that one vital element that separates democracies from imposters – the ability to freely determine what is fact and what is fiction.
Thailand prides itself on being known as the Land of Smiles, and indeed the Thai smile is a hallmark of Asian and Thai hospitality. Smiles are often deceiving and disarming, however, just as Sae Daeng smiles on his website but winces as he is accused of supporting dictator-democrat Thaksin Shinawatra.
Many on the traditionalist train are smiling, as Sae Daeng is either under arrest or is now, like his friend Thaksin, a fugitive. Others frown because they understand that the small bushfires that have spread here and there advocating open-mindedness and real change are being fueled by “troublemakers” who either are “not really Thai” or who are “bad Thais.”
Sae Daeng and other elements within Thai society, whether in the uniformed services like the army or police or government civil servants, have for decades lived under a fixed regime that to think – or worse, to act – differently is tantamount to treason, and certainly equal to renouncing one’s identity as a Thai. This is where those in power have the people by the short hairs – shaming them, forcing them, deluding them and imprisoning them – to maintain something called national unity and stability.
That kind of unity and stability has led to seventeen constitutions and one military coup after another, compounded by the de facto colonization of Thailand by ethnic Chinese. Thailand’s demographic in politics, business, government and social organs is overwhelmingly Chinese.
The Thai-ness that is cited and used to promote unity and solidarity is merely a traditional collectivist approach, or is perhaps a natural offshoot of communism that means to, and does, undermine democratic thinking and ideals.
(Frank G. Anderson is the Thailand representative of American Citizens Abroad. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand from 1965-67, working in community development. A freelance writer and founder of northeast Thailand’s first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post – http://www.thekoratpost.com – he has spent over eight years in Thailand “embedded” with the local media. He has an MBA in information management and an associate degree in construction technology. ©Copyright Frank G. Anderson.)