February 22, 2010
I was in the back of a black sedan on Friday morning speeding along Highway 7 from Pattaya to Bangkok when my driver’s phone rang. He picked up, jabbered for a few seconds, and then said to me:
“Sir, my friend call me from Bangkok; he say big protests in city, we need to go around.”
“No chance–” I replied. “Let’s go see how serious they are this time…”
Here in Thailand, you have to be living under a cave to not know what’s going on in the political scene. It starts with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the Thai military while he was out of the country in 2006.
He’s one of the richest men in Thailand having amassed a fortune in the telecom industry, and among other things, Thaksin has been accused of corruption, tax evasion, censorship, and human rights violations.
About half of Thailand loves him, the other half hates him… it just so happens that the current administration falls on the side of hating him, and they have issued several warrants for his arrest.
In fact, shortly after the 2006 coup, the new government set up a commission to investigate Thaksin’s financial holdings; it was ruled that he accumulated an unusual fortune during his time in office, and roughly $2.3 billion of his assets were frozen pending further investigation.
Years later, an official legal judgment has yet to be made about Thaksin’s frozen assets… until this week.
This Friday, February 26, is known as Judgment Day in Thailand because a high court will finally rule on the fate of his assets.
Did he evade taxes? Did he use public office for personal gain? Or did he follow the letter of the law and become victimized by Thailand’s notoriously corrupt politicking? The verdict is set to galvanize the country as many Thais regard it as a referendum on the corruption of their political institution.
There have already been mass demonstrations leading up to the decision by a group known as the “Red Shirts,” who in many ways are like the Tea Party protesters in the United States.
Like the Tea Party, the Red Shirts are commonly unified by their desire for acute political change. They despise the current administration and everything it has done to their country, yet many of the Red Shirts are undecided about Thaksin… sort of like Sarah Palin.
Many regard him as a free market hero who can liberalize the economy, while others find him to be just another self-serving politician… though not necessarily guilty of the charges against him.
The protests on Friday were held by the Red Shirts who shut down several streets and chanted refrains about freedom, justice, and change. I jumped in the thick of it to get a sense of their passions… are they true believers, or simply going through the motions?
I was surprised at what I saw.
The thing is, in Thailand, these sorts of protests and mini political revolutions are about as common as seeing a military parade in North Korea or the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas– if you miss it, just wait around for another few hours.
Oh yeah, and they sell T-shirts. Lot’s of souvenirs, actually… something like “I went to the revolution in Thailand and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” sort of thing.
It’s widely expected that the outcome of the “Judgment Day” decision will result in nationwide protests and rioting, regardless of the outcome. That makes for a lot of t-shirt sales.
As you could imagine, foreign governments are totally overreacting. The British and US embassies are urging their citizens to exercise caution; and if there are wide-scale protests, you can count on the mainstream media to portray Thailand as a country coming apart at the seams.
Truthfully, Thailand will be just fine. Both foreigners and locals alike are accustomed to political instability… it’s par for the course in Thailand. Government or no government, Thailand is one of the most peaceful places on earth.
Case in point, Pattaya is probably the most international city per capita I have ever been to– Russians, Americans, Canadians, Brits, Germans, French, Thai, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Malaysians, Japanese, Aussies, Arabs, and Jews, all living in one place in complete harmony.
Why? Because they’re here for the same things– ultra-low cost of living, privacy, warm weather, quality medical care, high class lifestyle, and of course, cheap sex.
These factors trump politics any day of the week, and they won’t go away just because of a couple of protests.
If Thaksin is able to engineer a real revolution, he will make his return to Thailand. In the meantime, he is enjoying the fruits of having planted multiple flags and traveling around the world on second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth passports from friendly jurisdictions in the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America.
Let’s talk about these later this week. Stay tuned.