How the Thai Government Is Dealing With Students Who Criticize Them

Suranand Vejjajiva has written (yet another) interesting article. This one is titled Teaching our kids about democracy and dictatorship. It talks about the case of 5 university students from Chiang Mai.

All the students did was write up cardboard signs which stated: “I saw dead people at Ratchaprasong”, “Prime Minister, don’t revoke the Emergency Decree because the government will collapse”, “The Emergency Decree must be maintained to conceal the truth”.

They were also wearing surgical masks on which were written the words “Reconciliation” and “No love for a dictatorial government”. They walked around the local market and all the way up to the provincial governor’s office before they were arrested.

Police said they were monitoring the students’ Facebook folios which contained messages considered to be of a similar offence. The high school student’s notebook computer was confiscated.

This was obviously enough for the police to serve arrest warrants, because they were accused of breaking the emergency decree:

the students were charged with “gathering in public with more than 5 people, stirring public unrest, presenting and distributing news through print and other messages that could cause fear among the population, or distorting news and information that leads to misunderstanding about the emergency situation which affects national security”.

If five high school students carrying cardboard signs are a threat to national security, then the situation must be really bad.

the mother of the high school student and another local businessman who was seen talking to the protesters were also called in to report to police. The high school student was also asked to join a psychological treatment programme but the mother refused and told reporters there was nothing wrong with her child

Trying to send high-school students with different political opinions into a mental facility is not something that is exactly typical of a democratic regime.

Suranand also touches on the abuse of the emergency decree by the government:

The emergency powers are designed to ensure peace and stability in the face of violent acts from rioting to terrorism. It is designed as a tool to protect democracy and freedom, not to be abused and used to infringe upon citizens’ basic rights and liberties.

In disregard for democratic principles, this government adopted the emergency decree as a rule book in political suppression of the opposition. The hardline attitude is signalled through interviews and press conferences to the bureaucracy and government political sympathisers which in turn implement it as policy and/or start a witch-hunt, online and off.

At the same time, the government has talked a lot about reconciliation, and if you listen to Abhisit speaking, he sounds like a very reasonable man – it’s just the dichotomy between his words and his (and the current governments) actions, that is frustrating.

If people are not allowed to express themselves other than the official version of the truth, there is no use in calling for public participation – it will only enforce the view that the whole process is just a charade played by the government.One of the signs held up at Chulalongkorn University carried JFK’s warning: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Let’s hope that it will not come this far, because nobody wins, and everybody loses when there are violent revolutions. If you look at countries where there have been violent changes of powers – even if the previous powers were obviously “evil” (even more so than the current Thai government) , countries often take a turn for the worse after “good” violent revolutionaries take over. Violence is not an acceptable means of political progress, but it is at least partly the current governments responsibility to also prevent the eruption of violence – not just through strong-handed force, but also by employing (truthfully) reconciliatory strategies.

Specially students, who have been very apolitical in recent years – the harder they try to muffle dissent among students, the higher the likelihood that they are just pouring gasoline into the fire and isolated radicalization may occur.

The Meaning of Chiang Mai Airport

Thailand was a poor country at the end of the Second World War: it became a mid-income country by the 1980-90s because of its adoption of a version of the East Asian Economic Model – that is, export-oriented manufacturing of products that would otherwise by imported, with all kinds of incentives offered to international investors to locate their factories here in the Land of Smiles. Competitiveness came from low labour costs and these low costs were maintained because of two factors: (i) a constant stream of new people entering the manufacturing industry from agriculture (increased supply of workers means lower wages for all); (ii) suppression of collective bargaining and freedom of association for workers – often through the use of violence by the state.

This form of development was sufficient to allow Thailand to become a mid-level income country in the same way that South Korea, Japan and Taiwan had previously achieved. However, this method is not sufficient for countries to change from mid-level to high-level of income. This was evident throughout much of the 1980-90s and reinforced by the 1997 economic crisis. To move on, Thailand had to undergo an economic (and social) transformation just as Korea, Japan and Taiwan had done. That meant changing the nature and structure of production, placing more emphasis on creativity, innovation and so forth while still remaining open to the outside world (for a country such as Thailand which is so reliant on the outside world for its exports, for tourists and for oil, trying to turn against globalisation would be almost immediately ruinous).

One aspect of the economic transformation was the recognition of the need to devolve some activities from Bangkok and develop the regions of Thailand, so that more infrastructure would encourage investment in firms around the country and convince people that they did not need to move away from their homes to get good jobs. The expansion of Chiang Mai airport, which was begun in 2004 and is now being opened, is a good example of this thinking. Enhanced services and capacity not only permit more inbound tourists but also help to persuade people that they can live in Chiang Mai and the north of Thailand and still travel around as and when they need. Cargo capacity provides more opportunities for northern producers to take advantage of new markets, including those being opened up by increasing regional economic integration and symbolized most strongly by the Free Trade Agreements (it was announced today, for example, that exports of vehicles from Thailand have increased after the signing of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement).

The economic transformation was largely ended on September 19th, 2006 but even if it had been allowed to continue, in itself it would be enough. The examples of Korea, Japan, Taiwan and other countries that have broken through to the next level of development indicate that a social transformation must complement the economic one. That would include better education and labour market opportunities, hugely increased social mobility and more ownership by the people of governance and of the democratic process. Above all, it needs the rule of law.

Khao Soy

I am not really a big one for noodles but I do enjoy a bowl of khao soy, which we had in our recent quick trip to Chiang Mai, which is its home. Khao soy is quite a simple dish: the base is a curry sauce made with coconut milk and into this goes boiled yellow rice noodles and either a tiny sparrow-like Thai chicken leg or else some pieces of pork (I have also seen beef and pork balls used), on the top of that goes more of the same noodles but crispy and then a small sprig of some green herb. Diners can then mix in pickled vegetables, raw shallots and bean sprouts, together with the usual range of condiments – chilis in fish sauce or soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, dried chili or chili paste and so forth (one of the first things I saw when I visited Laos was a group of guys sitting down to some noodles and choosing from a range of nine different condiments). It is a good combination – I don’t personally subscribe to the Thai belief that each dish should balance the four tastes of hot, sour, sweet and the other one and so rarely put sugar on any savoury dish but then everyone is free to flavour the noodles in any way that suits. Her indoors uses rather more chili paste than I would be comfortable with and the little girl does not seem to add anything. Taste vary.

There are an enormous range of different types of noodles and ways of preparing them. The traditional boat style is very popular. It is named after the kind of noodles that used to be sold from the small, one-person boats that were once the principal form of transportation in the canal-filled cities of Siam. Many types are associated with specific ethnic groups or particular locations. Some are comparatively new inventions: tom yum flavoured noodles are I believe a recent innovation and so too are kee mao (alcoholic, like puttanesca in Italian style) noodles. The first time I went to Italy I was amazed to see in just a small grocery shop a whole wall full of different types of pasta. That is nothing compared to what might be found here, especially since local varieties are now joined by Japanese, Korean and western versions.