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Thailand – A Political Christmas Story

Seasons Greetings, a true story. December 25, 1989

Christmas in Cheng Mai, a glorious morning. I’m up early as usual, Thai wife and half-Thai son sleeping in-also as usual. We’re staying at a comfortable, somewhat seedy, hotel on the banks of the Mae Nam Ping. I’m sure it’s long gone now, river front property too valuable for such a dump. I’m out onto a cozy terrace overlooking the river for strong black coffee and croissants. Only one other early riser, a middle-aged Thai man reading the morning paper, grumbling to himself, obviously unhappy, I let him fume while I secure my grub.

“What, another Military coup?” I chirp in my hillbilly Isaan accent to break the ice.

“No, not another coup. The government’s completely screwed up but there’ll never be another coup. The country has gotten too complex, the Generals and Colonels are too stupid to run it. They’re out of touch with the modern world, living in the past along with their reactionary backers the royals and the filthy rich Bangkok elite. But these damned civilian politicians and technocrats are even more frustrating. They’re smart, and modern, and worldly, and sophisticated-they know how to run the country, but they either can’t, or won’t, do it. They’re either too gutless to do it, or too busy stabbing each other in the back and jockeying for personal wealth and power to do it. I wish that, just for once, there would be somebody in Thailand, other than the King, who would put the Kingdom’s interests before his own.”

“And I thought things were going pretty well around here, better than they were the last time I visited eight years ago, much better than when I first came here in 1968, even on my home turf, Isaan aka ‘Impoverished Northeast Thailand.’ My wife’s village has an all-weather road to it now, with real bridges, not a five-months-a-year buffalo cart track with no bridges…and electricity, and an elementary school. First things they’ve gotten from the government since Siam grabbed Isaan from Laos in the 1830s. Bangkok ignored them for 130 years so they’re pleased to get anything at all.”

“That’s the problem. They get something for the first time and then they want more. I don’t blame them, they deserve more, they’ve been getting screwed for centuries. But Bangkok isn’t going to give them much more. The rich and powerful don’t want to give them more than crumbs off their table, it upsets the Kingdom’s ancient Brahman Caste system social order.”

“So why not cue the military? They did some good in the past. They helped build roads and schools. Much of Thailand’s infrastructure was created under Military rule. Are they really as bad as you say they are? Surely they did some things right.”

“They did, but it’s too late for them now. They’re pawns of the Bangkok plutocrats, whether they know it or not, and they’re outclassed, they can’t compete.”

“Sorry to hear it. I was hoping things would continue on the same positive track despite coups and weak civilian governments. My Thai relatives are all doing well now, I’d hate to see them suffer.”

“Oh they may still do well enough. Perhaps I’m exaggerating. Just tell them not to look to the Generals for help from now on. They’ll probably have to do it on their own, unless the bumbling civilians can get their act together and beat back the rich reactionaries.”

“So no more coups, then? I won’t miss them, especially if something better replaces them.”

But that wasn’t what happened. My Thai acquaintance was only half right. The Generals and Colonels really are too stupid to rule Thailand now, but that hasn’t kept them from staging more coups, and ludicrously mismanaging the Kingdom once they’ve staged them. The only thing they’re good at these days is seizing power. Sometimes being half right is a bad as being wrong.