Looking back in the past 12 months in Thailand I’m reminded of the ‘The Fire Raisers’ (‘Biedermann und die Brandstifter’). The play written by Swiss author Max Frisch in 1953 is set in a town regularly attacked by arsonists who talk their way into their victims’ homes to set off the fires.
The central character is a moralistic businessman who pledges not to be taken in by them, only to have the very same arsonists coercing themselves into his home and filling his attic with oil drums. Refusing to believe until the very end that his ”guests” are actually the arsonists – despite being always openly blunt about their intentions – the businessman in the end even gives them the matches to set the fire, actively becoming an accomplice to the crime and the demise of himself and the entire town.
So, in the parable that was Thailand in the year 2014, who were the ‘the fire raisers’ and who their accomplices?
The anti-government protests that ended 2013 continued and gathered pace in 2014. Be it their prolonged blockades of the streets of Bangkok, the harassment or open assault on members of the media or the obstruction of fellow Thais from exercising their democratic right to vote in the February 2 elections, with each passing week it became more and more clear the people behind the protests didn’t want more democracy, but less of it.
The protesters themselves – spectating in the thousands, blowing whistles in the ten of thousands and taking selfies in the millions – may not be the villains, yet they were dangerously confusing naive idealism for misplaced fear of the political forces they were protesting against, while missing the bigger threat looming in the shadows.
And they even helped measuring the fuse, not (willingly) knowing for what.
Nevertheless, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban and almost the entire former leadership of the absolutely misnamed ”Democrat” Party, the daily delusions of grandeur, the political weaponization of the Thai flag and the spurious claims of righteousness and a self-proclaimed moral high ground enabled the complete disruption of any reasonable political discourse.
And the attic was stacked to the brim with petrol drums.
The so-called “independent” agencies also did their part – such as the reluctant Election Commission and the Constitutional Court – annulling the successfully sabotaged February 2 elections and eventually chasing then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra out of office. With the man-made political impasse in place, Thailand’s military was free to launch the coup of May 22, 2014.
We have already extensively discussed in our week-long special last month about what has happened to Thailand under the military junta after the 12th coup in Thailand’s history and will continue to do so going forward.
But it still bears repeating: The rule of the military junta led by former army chief and now-Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha is both tight- and ham-fisted in its sovereignty, both overzealous and insecure in its confidence, and both clear and vague in its intentions. The deep re-imagineering of the country, its political system, its teaching and its “myths” will irreconcilably scar Thailand for years to come and an end is not in sight, as the junta can conveniently move its goal posts (i.e. until new elections) indefinitely.
If this year were a play then we’ve been in the afterpiece for quite some time and still don’t know when it will end. But the afterpiece also reflects on what has been before.
A year ago, both The Nation and the Bangkok Post crowned the anti-government protesters as ‘People of the Year’ – only then to see that they were in fact anti-democracy protests. It was political blindness to a possible transformation, complacency to adapt to another reality and sheer intellectual failure to face a new tomorrow. It was that well-maintained ignorance that eventually culminated in the death of Thai democracy as we know it.
And they handed them the matches in blind faith.
With martial law still in effect and critics and dissidents being silenced, the whistle mob of last year has gone quiet, either silently enjoying their ”victory” – Suthep, who has admitted that it was planned all along, is now practically in political refuge as a monk – or slowly realizing that the cost of said “victory” was too high.
2014 was a bad year for Thailand and hardly anything points to any improvement in 2015. Is that assessment bleak? Absolutely. A little bit too cynical? Perhaps. But what the protests, the coup and the rule of the military junta shows is that a change is in progress in Thailand, it has just been halted yet again by a few not able to see that yet – or as one of the arsonists in ‘The Fire Raisers’ put it:
Jest is the third best disguise. The second best: sentimentality. (…) But the best and most safe disguise is still the blunt and naked truth. Oddly enough. Nobody believes that!