Dog City

Michael Vatikiotis
May 24th, 2014

Michael Vatikiotis and Cod Satrusayang consider the implications of this week's coup in Thailand.

 

 

 

 

 

Thailand, May 22nd 2014

 

They arrive to sounds of trumpets and cheering
With tanks and planes and muted jeering.

Staring at the end of a rifle, we were told to unite.
We saluted, praised him, sang patriotic songs into the night.

And If they asked we would shout, if they asked we would die
Because they asked so often we learned to mask all our lies

And the flag on our TV screens fluttered patriotically into the wind
While the flags on our porches stayed silent, unaware of the din.

 

Cod Satrusayang

 


 

Dog City

 

You can hear the dogs barking.  On a Friday night in a city of more than twelve million, you can hear the dogs barking because the army has seized power and a curfew is in place. 

It’s at times like this that the reporter usually writes: ‘An uneasy calm has descended.’  The cliché is misleading in the case of Thailand.  I haven’t seen a single soldier and some people have cynically expressed disappointment that this has been a tank-less coup.  But the situation is anything but calm.  For beneath the quiet, imposed tranquillity lurk anxieties about where the country is headed, and there is no evidence that the new national stewards have a coherent plan.

After six months of perpetual protest and paralysis, Thailand is back where it was almost a decade ago.  Sure, the army’s intervention has brought a halt to the nightly skirmishing that killed more than two dozen people and injured over seven hundred.  Many ordinary people are grudgingly grateful for that. The rhetorical hyperbole and insults that flowed from protest stages on either side of the divide can be heard no more on the airwaves, because all radio and television programmes have been shut down.  A taxi driver hummed along to the patriotic song playing on his radio. It was a tune he’d last heard as a child.  ‘They can’t keep this up for much longer,’ he said. ‘Politics is politics, and we the people decide who governs at the ballot box.’

This seems a far-off possibility at this point. The people have been told that the army has stepped in to restore harmony.  Those who have been detained are “happy and grateful”.  The world has protested and demanded the immediate restoration of democracy.  But Thais tend to be impervious to outside influence and pressure.  They are told this stance has preserved their independence over centuries.  Perhaps it has.  But today’s world presents no palpable threat to sovereignty and offers opportunity to prosper on trade and investment.  Nearly ten per cent of the Thai economy is built on the almost thirty million foreigners who flock to Thailand’s temples and beaches.  Why turn your back?  Albania wasn’t much fun under Enver Hoxa, North Korea is building a ski resort no one will visit. Who visits the beaches of Mogadishu after decades of civil war?  Is this the path Thailand has chosen?

Of course not.

Culture remains a powerful determinant of political life in Southeast Asia and two aspects of Thai culture have turned a simple power struggle into a monumental national tragedy.  First there is the tendency to avoid conflict because, once engaged, the protagonists will be driven by considerations of face that make it unbelievably hard to compromise.  Then there is the unfortunate proclivity, once conflict is joined, to invoke higher authority and especially to use the semi-divine monarchy as a cloak of legitimacy to overcome opponents.

This cocktail of cultural drivers has generated deadlock and stirred up fiercely contested emotions.  The more the two sides became locked in combat, the less they cared about the damage they left in their wake.  Family members argued and refused to speak with one another, friends argued and fought – in one reported case a best friend was shot and killed by another after a drinking session in Northern Thailand.  There was no decency or respect on either side – when people were killed, no common lamentation for the victims. Like millenarian movements of the last century and earlier, leaders on both sides used intense displays of charisma and naked aggression to stir up their followers into a barely controllable frenzy.

Logically, there was a peaceful way out through dialogue and the techniques of mediation.  And if sense had prevailed earlier there would have been no need for the army to intervene.  But after six months the army was forced to step in to break the deadlock.  It should have stepped right out again after acting as an assertive referee forcing a negotiated settlement.  Instead, it launched a sudden coup.

The next few months won’t be easy.  It’s possible the other shoe will drop and a fierce popular counter-reaction will emerge.  On day two a small number of students gathered in central Bangkok and unfurled banners denouncing the coup.  There were scuffles and one or two arrests.  No army likes to shoot its own people, but on far too many occasions this has happened in Thailand.  We should not imagine it cannot happen again.  There is a saying that dogs bark at the moon.  In Thailand tonight, the dogs are barking because the air is so clear and the streets are empty. The city has gone to the dogs.

 

Michael Vatikiotis

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Michael Vatikiotis
Singapore
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016

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