So sad to read what’s going on in Bangkok. Though it’s had its share of military coups over the years, it has been generally a safe and wonderful country to visit. I always tell people that the best first country to visit in Asia is Thailand—it’s user-friendly (people speak English, used to tourists, etc.), full of incredible attractions (beaches, temples, amazing capital city) and safe and stable. But now the political strife that was coursing underneath during the time I spent there, in the Thaksin years, has now fully boiled to the surface, with more than 20 dead in political violence that has pitted supporters of the deposed populist Thaksin Shiniwatra’s against the military-installed government that booted him out.
It’s confusing, and I think that the red shirts are sympathetic to the extent that they feel like their voice in a democracy has been drowned out; the guy that they elected—Thaksin—was pushed from power in a coup a few years ago and is now living in exile. I’m not going to post at such a length to even begin to clarify the complexity here, but Thaksin is a Berlusconi-type character, if you haven’t followed Thai politics that much, and was in the process of setting himself as the richest man in the country and amassing unassailable power. He courted the poor while lining his pockets and was slowly squeezing democracy. I honestly believe that the Thai military acted in the best interests of the country when it removed him. And the Thai king—a source of great reverence in Thailand—gave his blessing to the new government. But Thaksin has stirred trouble from abroad, first from England, and now from Saudi Arabia, likely funding the mass of “red shirts” that have brought political life in Bangkok to a standstill until their demands are met. Those demands are mostly about new elections, which Thaksin’s proxy party would likely win.
Which brings us back to the question of democracy, which we touched upon months ago during a small but rowdy session in the east village on whether democracy was always best for a country or whether something like Singapore’s benign authoritarianism is the best course for a developing country. I still don’t have a decisive opinion, but the violence in Thailand, and upcoming elections in the Philippines keep the idea in mind.