Friday, August 8, 2008

Opinion: Thailand and Bush's speech

Those who talk, those who walk

By Frank G. Anderson
Column: Thai Traditions

Published: August 08, 2008

Nakhonratchasima, Thailand

There is no need for surprise. U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to Thailand this week was less a renewal of close ties between two old allies than a statement that the status quo will likely continue. That is, Burma will remain immune from Thai and most ASEAN pressure to reform, and Thailand itself will continue to see U.S. military sales to the country uninterrupted.

Although this writer placed a call to the White House press secretary to ask the president if he planned to speak about the right of free assembly, not in Burma but in Thailand, it was never likely that anything negative about the Thai government would be coming from the Bush side. Commercial interests override those of human rights -- always have and always will unless, for example, Barack Obama means what he says and wins the U.S. presidential election this year.

Bush’s speech delivered in Bangkok on Wednesday had been touted as a “major policy speech on Asia,” but again there was more fizzle than dazzle. Because the local U.S. Embassy probably had a hand in drafting the speech for Bush, it was well-organized, point by point, and inoffensive. But it didn’t say much, save for some oblique references to the right of assembly (in Burma), a mention of close historical U.S.-Thai ties, and what he said was Thailand’s active human rights role because it allowed refugees in from neighboring countries.

Bush may have overlooked most of Thailand’s other-side-of-the-ledger human rights abuses because he is busy sidestepping efforts at home to impeach him for human rights abuses, namely invading a sovereign nation under false pretexts with ensuing bedlam and chaos in the region.

Yet, Thailand can take Bush’s warm praise to heart and publish it in Tourism Authority of Thailand travel brochures. One particularly stood out. “And I salute the Thai people on the restoration of democracy, which has proved that liberty and law reign here in the "Land of the Free."

Considering the Samak government’s continual efforts at amending the charter to limit rights of expression and assembly, to overturn earlier high court verdicts against the Thai Rak Thai party and its 111 executive members, to totally ignore important subjects like recent multiple Cabinet changes and upcountry pro-government mob violence against pro-democracy groups, and instead, on the prime minister’s regular Sunday morning talk to speak about nuances of the Thai language and how wonderful a certain style of cooking is, well … we wonder what restoration of democracy means to Bush. He must have been talking about the junta giving back administrative power to the Thaksin-nominee government Samak heads.

This coming weekend, Aug. 8, 9 and 10, some real work on democracy is being done in Thailand’s northeast province of Kalasin, located about 520 kilometers from Bangkok. There Thailand’s Amnesty International will be teaming up with well-known human and community rights defender Bamrung Kayota, who is also an adviser to the country’s Assembly of the Poor.

Even ten years ago in an interview this activist indicated that dealing with the Thai government through legal processes was ineffective, and that the only way to make a statement and gain action was to march. It’s not reassuring that so little faith was put into the country’s judicial process, but generally local lords’ intimidation, coercion and killings have created enough lessons for those considering speaking out.

But with the People’s Alliance for Democracy having maintained a continuous anti-government campaign in the middle of Bangkok for over two months, and having been joined by the country’s large labor unions and other groups, those who wish to speak out are getting their chance. There may be a renewal, then, in motivation to open up not just debate, but important avenues of information that the people of the northeast are in sore need of.

The event this weekend organized by Amnesty International and local villagers at Khun Bamrung’s home will act as another catalyst, it is hoped, in renewing faith and encouraging more active participation with other like-minded people and groups. Raising political consciousness and willingness to organize at local levels for political strength was once an alien concept for most Thais; for some it still is.

There is a drumbeat that unity and agreement are more important than substance and rights, a drumbeat played daily by Thailand’s culture. Yet, signs scattered in the past and occurring today, as well as hopefully those in the near future, all seem to indicate that change is going to take place not because someone organized it from Bangkok, but because the people themselves want it.

The challenges that Amnesty International and northeast Thai community leaders and residents alike face may be seen in an old incident during this writer’s former Peace Corps years in the northeast province of Buriram. A fellow volunteer, working with farmers to help them raise their standard of living, managed to help them put together what was believed to be the region’s first farmer’s cooperative. Local ethnic Chinese rice mill owners were all upset and participating farmers were worried. But in the end the project was destroyed from within -- the group’s treasurer took off with all the cooperative’s funds. The central government in Bangkok quickly informed the members that until the money was repaid, there would be no more assistance.

In fact it is probably weaknesses within, across the board, that prohibit a faster and more widespread growth of democracy and rights awareness in the region. Individual values in civics and ethics are often misplaced at best, and inculcating straightforward values of honesty, openness and commitment to community projects will remain a challenge for some time to come.

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(Frank G. Anderson is the Thailand representative of American Citizens Abroad. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer to Thailand from 1965-67, working in community development. A freelance writer and founder of northeast Thailand's first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post -- www.thekoratpost.com -- he has spent over eight years in Thailand "embedded" with the local media. He has an MBA in information management and an associate degree in construction technology. ©Copyright Frank G. Anderson.)

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