Random Play by Graham Reid

Troubled times in Thailand

One thing I learned in my years at the Herald -- which any journalist will confirm -- is that you can write a penetrating article about a serious subject and get absolutely no reader response, yet if you spell the name of a lousy album by a crashing bore like Al Stewart incorrectly . . .

Blogging has proven much the same. Saying bad things about politicians always gets good feedback, something personal (the death of my mother for example) gets genuinely sensitive and honest responses, and writing the Alt.Nation satires last year confirmed for me that many people can’t tell political absurdity from reality, which is extremely worrying.

But one thing blogging has in common with hardcopy journalism is you can write a penetrating article about a serious subject . . .

My recollection is that when I previously wrote about Aceh, Taiwan and the situation in the southern provinces of Thailand (where 10 per cent of the population is Muslim and they are being hammered by thugs in police and military uniforms) there were very few responses.

So, in the sure knowledge that this may elicit not a single solitary ripple from anyone’s radar let me now launch into something serious which I think is only going to get bigger and dominate our headlines: the political unrest in Thailand.

Three nights ago I was talking to some people about it -- people who had been to Thailand a couple of times -- and I mentioned what was happening. They didn’t know a thing about it.

Fair enough. Until then I think it had only rated a couple of paragraphs in various newspapers and I have seen nothing on television news about it.

Today however the situation made the front page of the Herald under the heading “Thailand teeters on the brink“.

The brink of what is as yet unclear, but possibly civil disruption in Bangkok and the government declaring a widespread state of emergency. (There is already a state of emergency in the southern provinces.)

The shorthand is this: prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has lost the confidence of many thousands of former supporters amidst allegations of corruption (hardly a new thing in Thailand), and he has called for an early election on April 2 to test his mandate but opposition parties (which would doubtless lose anyway) are going to boycott it.

Ironically the head of one of the powerful movements against PM Thaksin is his former ally Chamlong Srimuang who has said the protests and sit-ins will be peaceful. So far they have been -- but pro-Thaksin forces are also gathering in the northern provinces and threatening to come to town for a show of support.

Thaksin was yesterday in the northeast rallying people in his election campaign but also trying to defuse the situation by ruling out declaring a state of emergency. (Although he also said the legislation was ready to go.)

The military have said they will not be intervening. If you can believe that.

Yesterday tens of thousands of anti-Thaksin demonstrators marched in Bangkok and right now five thousand have camped out at Government House overnight and have said they intend to stay indefinitely. They are surrounded by over 1000 police.

The demonstrators have been carrying posters which depict Thaksin as Hitler and reading “Thaksin -- Wanted Dead or Alive”. They are serious.

As all this is going on there is still violence in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Songhkla and Narathiwat where most of Thailand's six million Muslim minority live.

Aid and development programmes are being deployed because these are poor provinces and there is widespread fear that Muslim youths are becoming increasingly militant. And who could blame them?

More than 400 people were killed last year, Muslim schools have been torched, and in some villages non-Muslims are unwelcome. Many Thai Muslims in these provinces speak Yawi, a Malay dialect, and the region was once part of the old Kingdom of Pattani, a semi-autonomous Malay region which adopted Islam seven centuries ago.

Thailand annexed the area a little over a century ago, but the people still have more in common with Malaysia than Bangkok.

The separatists began their struggle for autonomy in the 70s and while things went quiet for a while in the past two years the region has become volatile again.

There are widespread suggestions that young Muslims are seeing their struggle as part of the international jihad as young Islamic teachers, trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, have returned home fired by the radical ideas of Islamists.

Thaksin has made it clear that there will be no autonomy for this region. So there is the makings of another Aceh.

The reason all this is important is obvious. Just look at a map.

But we might also expect our media to be taking a greater interest given our long links with Thailand: it’s the place we go to get sun-tanned and buy Buddha heads. We delight in the friendliness of the people, the temples and Mekong whisky on a white beach at sunset.

We trade with Thailand, hundreds if not thousands of us have lived there, and we like the food. In Auckland we have Thai neighbours and friends.

So far the protests have been peaceful. But as anyone who has been on the wrong side of a Thai policeman knows, there can be an underlying volatility in Thailand, and men in uniform or fired up by political passion can be quick to respond to a perceived threat.

Thaksin has lost the support of many middle-class amidst the allegations of corruption and tax evasion, and the poor have little to lose by his going. And the military?

Might it not be time to cross to our Asia correspondent in Bangkok?