Posts Tagged Thailand

Politics & Internet Freedom in Thailand

10 July 2011

This is following up on (and only somewhat redundant to) an earlier post that went up in advance of the Thai election. This was originally posted at

Thai ElectionAs you might have heard, there was an election here last weekend, and it was truly a watershed transition in the political history of this country. A bit of history: Five years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was tossed from the Prime Minister’s office by a military coup. Thaksin had been elected in 2001, and reelected (a first in Thai history) in 2005 riding a populist wave of support from the poor, rural majority of Thailand. He was widely disliked, however, by the established elite of the country– the upper and middle classes, the courts the “Privy Council” that surrounds and advises the monarchy, and the military, who saw to his removal.

After the coup, the military ruled for over a year, until another election in early 2008, which yielded victory for another member of Thaksin’s political party. He served for the better part of a year, before the constitutional court removed him from office on account of hosting a cooking show on TV while serving as Prime Minister. He was replaced by Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted two months before another court ruling sent him packing, and in stepped Abhisit Vejjajiva, a member of the opposition party, who served as Prime Minister until last week. (more…)

New Town, New Faces

27 June 2011

I left the Philippines on Friday five kilos heavier (pork, mostly), one cell phone lighter (sticky-fingered cab driver, probably), and so much the better for a quorum of new friends in Cebu, many of them my colleagues in the fight against dengue fever.

I’m in Bangkok this week, and let me tell you, this city is enormous and the food here is really delicious. Yesterday was the “pre-election day” — one week out from the July 3 poll, those citizens with good cause can cast their vote early.  Over two million people showed up, suggesting very heavy turnout to come on Sunday. Interestingly (at least, interesting to those deleteriously affected, such as myself), the sale of all alcoholic beverages is forbidden on pre-election day, presumably to prevent erroneous ballot-casting. The finer hotels in town to go great lengths to ensure that minibars remain fully stocked; I stuck to some orange drink for the day. (It’s just as well… on a hot evening, a malty Chang Beer can’t compete with a crisp and refreshing San Miguel Pale Pilsen– the choice of the Philippines.)

Here are a few of the characters I met during my first weekend in Bangkok:

Lady Luck

13 June 2011

In less than a month, Thais will go to the polls and either throw out the government that has ruled without a mandate for over two years, or give current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva the stamp of popular approval he’s been lacking. While the incumbent Democrat Party still seems to be ahead in the polls, a plurality of voters remain undecided, and the most dynamic candidate at the moment is undoubtedly Yingluck Shinawatra. At the head of the ticket for the challenger Pheu Thai party, Yingluck also happens to be the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup (Thailand’s 18th in the past century).

When the media talks about Yingluck, there are a few points they never fail to hit: she is rumored to be a “clone” of Thaksin, she has very little political experience, and she’s very “telegenic” (read: hot for a 43 year-old). She’s a businesswoman by trade, having run a telecom company formerly held by her brother. Also like her brother, she’s had her share of legal difficulties, with accusations of insider trading and perjury chasing her around.

Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra impress voters with their coffee-making skills.

And yet, despite her (considerable) wealth and pedigree of power, she (again like brother Thaksin) is a populist. Her campaign platform calls for lowering the corporate tax rate, but it also calls for raising the minimum wage, improving access to education, and institution of price controls that would benefit the poor.

That peculiarity is at the heart of the broader contradiction in Thai politics. You have the yellow shirts– they’re urban, establishment middle class, tending to include the military, the media, and (quietly) the monarchy– who support the conservative, stable, status quo elements in Thai politics. And you have the red shirts– mostly working class, mostly rural, devoted followers of billionaire media & telco mogul Thaksin– who have won every nationwide referendum in he past decade, and yet have been pushed out repeatedly by coups and court rulings.

Thaksin swept into power in a landslide in 2001, and his government was the first to achieve reelection in Thailand’s seven decades of democracy with another big win in 2005. A year later, he was ousted out by the military and the yellow shirted coalition, who saw him as corrupt (probably), a challenge to the power of the Thai monarchy (maybe) and indulging in economic policy too redistributionist for their liking. A free election was contested in 2007, and the winner was was thrown out less than a year later by the constitutional court for being paid to host a cooking TV show while serving as PM. Then came Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted three months before the court intervened again, and dissolved the whole party. Since then, it’s been Abhisit, ruling courtesy of a parliamentary vote.

Thaksin is still in exile, but remains the dominant political figure in the country– and there’s obviously not a whole lot of guile in having your little sister run in your stead. And so the the election is breaking along political lines identical to those that have divided the country throughout the past five years. In 2008 and again in 2010, these divisions resulted in protests that closed the airport, shut down parts of Bangkok, and left dozens dead– mostly red shirts at the hands of the police. It will be a hard fought battle once again: notwithstanding the pleasing binary I offered in the first sentence above, in all likelihood, neither party will win an outright majority of the 500 seats in parliament, and whoever emerges with the plurality will get a shot at coalition-building.

From the perspective of a democratically-minded observer, it’s rather galling the way the red shirts seem to keep winning elections and yet keep finding themselves disenfranchised at the hands of the entrenched elites. And Yingluck does make an appealing candidate on many levels, though it’s impossible to see her except in Thaksin’s enormous and problematic shadow.

But I won’t pick sides on a policy or political level; the real victory will come if Thailand can come out of this election peaceful and unified. If you think American politics are polarized, you ain’t seen nothin. Many are already forecasting another round of protests and violence regardless of who comes out on top– if not yet another outright coup attempt. It’s unlikely that a political chasm so deep will just disappear, but hopefully both sides will find a way to bridge it and assent to a government by the people. For five years, Thailand has been governed without popular consent and if this election yields only further acrimony and unrest, the country will surely backslide further in the coming years.

Sam in Siam

29 April 2011

The Kingdom of Thailand has experienced 18 coups in the past century. Since 2006, the government has changed hands roughly half a dozen times, with Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts taking turns occupying the airports, the capital city, and the Government House. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has played an inscrutable role in the political turmoil, seeming to quietly favor the yellow-shirted, urban, establishment middle class, yet retaining wide support and popularity among all Thais, including the poorer, rural, working class of the country who tend to fall, politically, in the red-shirted camp of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A populist billionaire media kingpin, Thaskin was chased from the Prime Minister’s office by the military in 2006, and yet has remained a potent force in Thai politics, and it was his followers who were killed by the dozens in the streets of Bangkok last April as they protested their repeated disenfranchisement at the hands of the establishment– the military, the middle class, the media, and, perhaps, the monarchy. Today, Thailand and Cambodia are shelling each other over ownership of 1.8 square miles of land that happens to contain an 11th century hindu temple.

THAT is where I’ll be moving next month to support the work of Dimagi, a Boston-based technology company that takes on healthcare challenges in (mostly) the developing world. I’ll be helping to roll out an SMS communications platform that will allow people enrolled in a vaccine trial for Dengue Fever to keep in better touch with those administering the trial. I won’t be based in Bangkok but in Kamphaeng Phet (four hours north), and working also in Cebu City, Philippines. I will likely be eating very well.

This next step is building on the work I’ve done at NDN over the past two years, analyzing and reporting on the impact of mobile phones, social media, and other new technology on democracy, civil society and global development. The Global Mobile brand that you’ve come to know and trust (or perhaps not) has migrated to this site, as has a selection of my best bloggery from the past few years. In the coming months, I hope to have new writing find its way into a variety of outlets, but you’ll be able to follow everything here. I had a good run in Washington, and now it’s time to get my hands dirty and get a little closer to the phenomena I’ve been writing about– so I’m off to Thailand.