Thailand's doomsday clock moves closer to midnight

Thailand's doomsday clock moves closer to midnight

The state of emergency is bad news for Thailand, bad news for believers in peaceful struggle and bad news for newspapers.

Lethal forces that could unwittingly plunge Thailand into civil war are in play, and while it is not too late for sane minds and the better angels of Thai political nature to prevail, time is running out.

The caretaker government's declaration of a state of emergency has unfortunately pushed Thailand's doomsday clock to an interval perilously close to midnight. Such an act, with the belligerent Chalerm Yubamrung at the helm, bodes poorly for peace and unity in the nation's future.

This, despite caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's solemn pledge to UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon that she would not declare a state of emergency, as recorded in the transcript from the secretary-general's office on the 38th floor of the UN that was made available in New York last week.

What happened? There is strong anecdotal evidence Ms Yingluck might actually have wanted to step down earlier this month, but she didn't. A week ago she was saying she had no desire to impose a state of emergency either, which by its very legal clauses deprives citizens of rights, and rights to legal redress.

Why did Ms Yingluck change her mind on such a crucial and divisive an issue? Could it be the same out-of-the-country source who persuaded her and the party she supposedly leads to accept the last-minute inclusion of Thaksin Shinawatra in an ill-conceived and unpopular amnesty scheme?

While it is not possible to pinpoint in each and every case when the caretaker premier has been her own woman, and when she has been a medium for her fugitive elder brother, I think everyone would agree it is high time for the real Ms Yingluck to stand up and set a good example for women and girls in the kingdom.

It's high time she showed the courage of her convictions instead of reflexively kowtowing to her bossy big brother. It's not too late for her to show the entire electorate that being independent, principled and holding the highest civilian office in the nation are not incompatible things.

The transcript of Ms Yingluck's telephone conversation with the UN chief reveals a person with good manners, good protocol but a lack of original thought and imagination.

She has the dispiriting tendency to evade difficult truths, and tends to repeat a party line that has been formulated by others. On the one hand she told Mr Ban there would be no state of emergency; on the other hand she trotted out the usual crackdown excuses, saying that "drugs" and "weapons" could be found among her political enemies, while not acknowledging evidence of the same among her allies.

Elections are not necessarily the problem, as some of Suthep Thaugsuban's followers seem to believe, but elections are not the answer at the present time. If a Tammany Hall type of electoral-based political cult is causing a nation to rip its heart out, and the state of emergency narrowly focused on Bangkok promises to do just that, then the system needs reform before a periodic flick of the wrist at a voting booth is going to produce decent democratic results.

The obsession with elections smacks of Cold War political theatre, the sort of thing that tyrants like Ferdinand Marcos perfected, installing superficially democratic regimes that then went on to rape, rob and pillage the wealth of the nation for decades to come.

A free press is a pillar, indeed, a necessary precursor to a truly democratic election. Thaksin's systemic long-term attacks and attempts to buy the Thai press are almost as well known as his extrajudicial campaign of murder in the so-called "war on drugs".

Based on the evidence, it is fair to say Thaksin's rule by proxy represents not democracy but its polar opposite.

Thirayuth Boonmee, a key member of the 1970s' October generation, is still fighting tyranny and corruption unlike some of his erstwhile comrades who have joined the Shinawatra bandwagon. He recently offered an original analysis of how Thaksin's "anarchy," as he calls it, has destroyed the independence of the state bureaucracy and is set to ruin the country.

It's a far more penetrating analysis than communist-sounding platitudes about how two plus two equals four and some of the other attempts such as "respect my vote," which seeks to make peace with a corrosive political machine in which votes are abrogated and used, not respected.

If nothing else, Thaksin, and his assorted proxies have never wavered from the view of democracy as a "winner-takes-all" lottery for the ruling party, and especially to the man on top, to the detriment of the nation as a whole.

While I don't pretend to understand Mr Suthep's politics, I believe he is honest in portraying himself not as a new strongman for a country that is weary of domineering figures, but as a short-term bridge figure, to lead Thailand out of the Shinawatra-rigged political trap into a neutral zone where national affairs can be put into order and cooperative norms of Thai political behaviour can be restored.

There's no need to make a big deal about the need for elections in February, they can and should come later.

It is unknown what effect the Yingluck caretaker government's emergency decree will have on the free press, but if past behaviour is any judge, the consolidation of Shinawatra political and economic fortunes will see a decline of free speech and media diversity.

Philip J Cunningham is media researcher covering Asian politics.

Philip J Cunningham

Media researcher

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.

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