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Thailand: An Insider’s View

I recently ran into an old acquaintance I haven’t seen for two years. The last time I met him was just after General Prayuth and his military cronies took over Thailand to save it from Democracy. He’s a long-time American expat in Thailand. Knows everything about the Kingdom, has met everybody who is anybody in the Kingdom personally-the ultimate insider. When I met him two years ago in Bangkok he told me not to worry about the current unpleasantness.

“Just another coup. Nothing to worry about. The Generals will reshuffle the deck and soon it will be back to ‘business as usual.’”

Back to the Land of Smiles and white sand beaches and fine dining and cheap sex and cheap labor. The land of the “good people” who are born to lead, the “bad people” commoners who oppose them, and the “ignorant peasants” who must be kept in their traditional place. The land of corrupt, hollowed-out institutions…the courts, the police, the Byzantine government bureaucracy, the Electoral Commission, and the Thai Army. The land where the King, and even his dog, must be rigorously defended against insult though he has stated that he is not a god and doesn’t need to be defended.

Recalling his previously upbeat assessment of the situation I greeted him with a certain degree of sarcasm.

Things are surely going swimmingly in Thailand these days, are they not. Happiness reigns everywhere and the deep divisions of Thai society are being healed even as we speak.

“Tourism is booming. Bangkok has become a sophisticated International city, a place where the world’s elite meet,” he responded, obviously trying to change the subject.

What about the rest of the country? I countered. I had him there.

“Well, uh, things are going to get better. The Generals are a bunch of idiots but they will soon be gone and the sophisticated well-educated technocrats will slide back into power…and some of them, the better ones, are worried about the divisions in Thailand.”

Soon be gone? But what about Prayuth’s 20-year plan? He clearly intends to be around for its disastrous conclusion.

“Oh, he’ll be eased out of power, by someone more reasonable.”

Like who? I replied sharply.

He reeled off several names, names that I had heard of but knew little about. He was, after all, an insider, and I am not.

So what happens when these ‘more reasonable’ and somewhat smarter military men ‘ease him out’?

“Then the technocrats will take over. They’re already taking over now, even some of Thaksin’s old associates are quietly creeping back into positions of power. A deal will be struck, Prayuth and his cronies will get their ‘golden parachutes’; competent, worldly, well-educated people will come to fore and peace and prosperity will be restored. “

So back to ‘business as usual’ with the Oxford-educated Mr. X here, and the Harvard-educated Mr. Y there, and 80% of the Thai people still getting the short end of the stick.

“No, it won’t be that way. These technocrats…at least some of them, are really worried about the deep divisions in Thai society.”

Worried enough to do something about those divisions? Worried enough to give the Thai people…all of the Thai people, the vote and let them decide things for themselves?

Once again I had him. He could only repeat that Prayuth would be gone and “better people” would replace him…sometime…somehow. To which I replied that what Thailand really needed was democracy, however messy and disorderly it might be, not another round of ‘good people’ replacing ‘bad people.’ A rule of laws not men-not the ‘right people’ in the ‘right places.’ Thailand has been reshuffling the deck ever since 1932. In the past that reshuffle has sometimes worked but it does no longer, and the coup after coup cycle has become a death spiral.

I hope my insider friend is right about the departure of General Prayuth and his cronies, but that departure, however welcome, will not cure Thailand’s most pressing problems, and I am skeptical that another dose of good intentions and ‘reform from above’ by Bangkok technocrats will solve them either.