A True Tragedy in Thailand

Having lived in Thailand for three months just before the recent violence broke out, I am deeply saddened by what has transpired there these last few weeks. Every day now, I receive messages from the American Consulate warning me of government-imposed curfews and informing me of the danger of being shot or blown up in what I knew as peaceful, vibrant neighborhoods just a few months ago.

But although I feel deeply for the Thai people, I am also deeply frustrated by American response to the situation there. Perhaps even more so than in Iran, the current struggle in Thailand is one for democracy and social justice. The crackdown has been just as, if not more, brutal as it was in Iran, with dozens of protesters killed within the past week, and close to 100 since protests began in mid-March.

And yet, particularly compared with the American response to Iran's struggle, the lack of opinion pieces condemning the Thai military's actions is striking (just as it was in last year's bloody Honduran coup). In theory, if we really stood by the ideal of democracy, our ideological position would have little bearing on where we chose to support it. Unfortunately, as examinations of our responses to analogous situations show, it clearly does. In Thailand, as in Honduras, there were dozens of Nedas struck down, unarmed, in a struggle for justice and democracy. Yet for some reason, we do not know their names.

When media outlets do proffer opinions on Thailand's plight, rather than simply reporting the facts, they almost invariably get it wrong. One of the most puzzling pieces I've seen in these last few weeks came from the New York Times. Their reporter, Thomas Fuller, was interviewing a rogue Red Shirt Thai general when he was shot in the head and killed. Fuller reports wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet, "equipment left over from a spell covering the Iraq war that is probably more useful to me in the streets of Bangkok." One cannot imagine being any closer to the struggle there, and yet in his analysis of the basic problem, Fuller completely misses the mark. He writes that "...if any one idea can sum up the troubles, it is that Thailand's politics have failed to develop as fast as its rising wealth." He wonders at the idea that something like this could happen in a city with as many rich people as Bangkok. He muses, "Is there any other city in the world today that has so many cloth-napkin restaurants, spas - and periodic grenade attacks? How many other world capitals have streets filled with fleets of luxury cars and armies of protesters apparently willing to die for their convictions?"

For Fuller, Bangkok is substituted for the country as a whole. Yet the burgeoning Bankok plutocracy that he alludes to is precisely the problem. Thailand has one of the highest rates of inequality in Asia, and the superb affluence of the Bangkok elite is not in any way indicative of Thailand as a whole. In the North, where many of the Red Shirts hail from, the norm is not the Mercedes sedans Fuller observes in Bangkok's upscale areas, but rather 100cc motorbikes shared by families of 4 or 5, who all pile on at once. What the Red Shirts are protesting, more than anything else, is the military's collusion with Bangkok's elite to ensure that their wealth remains concentrated in the hands of the few. Fuller's flawed underlying assumption is that even extremely concentrated economic development (what he calls the "modernity and grandeur" of Bangkok) should automatically go hand-in-hand with democracy. This is a strangely common, yet empirically untenable, position.

The United States has an unfortunate record of either actively or passively backing repressive but business-friendly military regimes (see the last 50 years of U.S. - Latin American relations). Too often, we have supported democracy only when it aligns with our own economic and/or ideological interests. What is particularly sad about the situation is that the Thai people love the U.S. and President Obama. The first thing almost all of them said upon finding out I was from the U.S. was "Oh, Barack Obama!" usually with a smile and a thumbs-up.  During the campaign, the President seemed to be a man who actually understood and valued the foundational values of America, yet as President his foreign policy has remained distressingly familiar to administrations past. It is my hope that the President and the American media look clearly at the tragedy unfolding in Thailand and decide to do things differently this time. I'm not in any way calling for America to get directly involved in the conflict, but in this instance, some demonstration of support would go a long way.