Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Code Yellow

(Note: Don't let this post, a rare entre into politics, alienate you!)

With the Thai political situation about to get messy again, I decided to beef up and get up to speed on the current state of things.  I have been quite bad about staying abreast of politics here since they seem so illogical and irrational sometimes and I find it difficult to remain interested.  I do end up feeling pretty dumb when someone asks me about what's happening here and I bumble my way through an answer, hoping that the little bit I know if volumes more than the questioner knows.  

So, join me for a brief crash course on what's happening right now.  Learn a bit about what's happening in this far-away kingdom under the facade of sunny beaches, smiling people, and delicious food.  Dig a bit deeper, impress your friends with your obscure knowledge of Thai politics, and be ahead of the curve because breaking news is just 10 days away!  Information below is just a sliver of the big picture, but I hope it will provide us with a solid foundation -- enough of one so that I won't look stupid the next time a visitor asks me about the state of affairs here.
This post is all about the chaos created by this man, Thaksin Shinawatra. 

Thaksin (pronounced TACK-sin) Shinawatra, the business man/former Prime Minister/one of the richest people in Thailand, is due to stand trial next week.  He was deposed in a bloodless military coup in 2006 and he and his family were subsequently charged with corruption on various accounts (nepotism, conflict of interest, tax evasion, muzzling the media, etc.).

Thaksin's fall from power rapidly divided the country and led to a number of mass protests by the Red Shirts (supporters of Thaksin and the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship) and the Yellow Shirts (anti-Thaksin, People's Alliance for Democracy--aka PAD--supporters who were responsible for the famously disruptive take-over of the Thailand's main international airport in Bangkok in November 2008).  (These color alliances have left non-political Thailand residents with two fewer hues to wear so as to avoid being caught in the fray.)

While Thaksin's political legacy is vast and includes attempts to alleviate rural poverty; the founding of the Thai Rak Thai ("Thais who love Thais") populist party, to represent the "common man"; the settling up of Thailand's first universal healthcare system; waging a war against drugs, and providing addicts with treatment programs, he is also known to be responsible for human rights violations, election fraud, and the questionable acquisition of great wealth while in office.

The money earned during Thaksin's time in office came mostly from the sale of Thakin's family's shares of the Shin Corp, a leading Thai telecommunications company, to the investment branch of the Singapore government.  As a result of the sale, on which the family did not pay taxes, Thaksin was accused by some of his countrymen as a sell-out, relinquishing national assets to a foreign government.  The sale of the Shin Corp coupled with Thakin's facilitation of the purchase of prime real estate by his now ex-wife's, led to a review by the Thai Assets Examination Committee.  The AEC decided that Thaksin has abused his authority as PM in order to benefit his business interests and, consequently, the committee froze 76 billion baht ($2.2 billion) of Thakin's assets.   
 Thaksin's ex-wife, along with his three children

Thaksin has managed to keep a relatively low profile due to self-imposed exile and the help of Nicaraguan and  Montenegran passports after the government revoked his Thai passport to restrict his movement.  Nevertheless, rumor has it that he has been engineering and financially supporting the Red Shirt movement from abroad.  Next week, on February 26th, the Thai Supreme Court will rule on his asset-seizure case.  It is not known what the outcome will be, whether protests (there will definitely be some colorful ones) will be peaceful or get out of hand, but the Thai government and police are gearing up for mayhem.

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