Tepperman should get facts straight before preaching

Tepperman should get facts straight before preaching

We Thais have tried our best to make it easier for foreign observers who wish to better understand Thai political events by wearing red and yellow shirts, so that one can effortlessly distinguish the pro-Thaksin group from the anti-Thaksin group.

But red and yellow were the colours of 2008. Since then, the political landscape looks much different and has become, if anything, more complicated.

It was extremely ambitious for Jonathan Tepperman, in a New York Times opinion piece, to try to use Thailand as a case study to warrant a solution to Egypt's current political crisis. To try to do so with such a poor grasp of the facts proved disastrous.

That's not to say that common issues do not exist whereby Thailand and Egypt can learn from one another; the need for both to foster genuine democracy and not lapse into crass majoritarianism is one burning issue that calls for sincere and intelligent discussion.

Such questions should have been explored by Tepperman _ unfortunately in his op-ed piece we are left with a narrative of Thailand so full of factual inaccuracies that it makes it impossible for the author's expert opinions to be taken seriously.

The author opened his piece with a graphic visual cue by claiming that Bangkok was rocked by anti-government demonstrations earlier this month.

In truth, during those anti-government demonstrations, the 5,000 demonstrators were outnumbered by 20,000 police acting under the government's ludicrous use of the Internal Security Act, which was invoked in central Bangkok.

Despite the government's fears, no laws were broken and no arrests were made in what was a simple, peaceful march. This contrasts with the violent and law-breaking tactics used by red-shirt demonstrators, which were all too common when the current opposition party _ the Democrats _ were in power two years ago.

The Democrats have simply chosen to refrain from using the same disruptive strategy as the red shirts _ and this is the main reason why the streets have been much calmer these past two years.

Moreover, the author claims that "the police killed over 90 demonstrators" during the political violence of 2010 in Bangkok. In fact, the police were not involved in maintaining order, but it was the army.

More importantly, of the 91 killed, as many as 55 were innocent bystanders and military personnel attacked with military weapons by militia. These armed militia elements have been identified in a number of independent investigations and are believed to have direct links to the red shirts and the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

No respectable article about Thailand written by a foreigner would be complete without a reference to coups, constitution and the King.

Unfortunately for Tepperman, the facts concerning the coup, the constitution and the King did not reflect reality.

First, the trouble did not begin with the 2006 coup as Tepperman asserted _ the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) has affirmed that the current political crisis began with Thaksin Shinawatra's intervention in the Constitution Court's controversial ruling against his illegal assets declaration in 2000.

It should also be noted that Thaksin failed to pay a single baht of tax on the sale of Shin Corp to Temasek in 2006, when the sale price constituted 1% of the country's GDP, causing him to lose popular support. It was unconstitutional for him to have owned shares in the first place, given his executive position.

The coup was indeed a mistake, and that was a lesson Egypt should have learned from Thailand. Former president Mohamed Morsi should in the meantime realise that abusing your power as an elected government in a developing democracy could lead to disruption of democracy itself.

Second, the author claims that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has avoided challenging the constitution.

This assertion is laughable when the fact of the matter is she is currently and controversially attempting to amend the constitution, including the removal of the democratic right of citizens to file a complaint against the government directly to the Constitution Court.

Third, the author mentioned that Ms Yingluck "courted opponents, holding respectful meetings with the powerful and popular King". The implication that the King was her opponent is ludicrous, not least because she has not held "meetings" of the kind Tepperman implies, but rather has had audiences with His Majesty, no different than all previous prime ministers.

Tepperman asserts that Thailand has "gone from a virtual wreck to a booming, stable success story in two years" when in fact the country just entered a recession after GDP declined for two consecutive quarters in the first half of this year.

Fact: When Ms Yingluck took office in 2011, the country was far from a wreck. At the time of the handover to Ms Yingluck, Thailand had record foreign reserves, its debt-to-GDP ratio was only 41% (currently it is 45% and rising), and the stock market had been rising dramatically up to the 2011 general elections (it quadrupled, as Tepperman mentioned, since 2008, but about 80% of the rise occurred in Abhisit Vejjajiva's government, not Ms Yingluck's).

Average household debt was only 55% (currently it is 80%), and during the Abhisit government, Thailand was one of the fastest recovering economies in the world out of the 2008-9 global economic crisis.

Even more poignant is the fact that this economic success story took a distinct downturn after Ms Yingluck took office. GDP growth during her first year in office was only 0.1% after the total mismanagement of the biggest floods in Thailand's recent history, and might I mention again that the economy is now in recession.

When you dig deeper, Tepperman's reference to Ms Yingluck's "bold economic stimulus and reform campaign... giving all Thais a slice" borders on being comical. Ms Yingluck's government has refused to pursue a property tax to help distribute wealth from the rich to the poor; Ms Yingluck's government has refused to provide pensions to independent workers; and Ms Yingluck's government has shelved land ownership reforms _ three pro-poor "equaliser policies" that were initiated by the Abhisit government.

Conversely, what she has done is to reduce corporate income tax from 30% to 20%, thus benefiting the already very wealthy with no apparent benefit to the economy and to her electoral base _ the rural poor.

I am also curious what data Tepperman was using when he asserted that Ms Yingluck had "kept corruption to a minimum". According to Transparency International, Thailand's corruption index fell from 80 in 2011 to 88 in 2012 _ from 78 in Mr Abhisit's last full year in government. In fact, the latest Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, has Thailand trailing behind Liberia, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

So, can Egypt learn from Thailand? Absolutely yes, and we should equally learn from Egypt. As it is, it seems the two countries are repeating one another's mistakes.

Korn Chatikavanij is Deputy Leader of the Democrat Party and Finance Minister of Thailand from 2008-2011.

Korn Chatikavanij


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