As we enter the final quarter of 2020, a year that has been full of unexpected shocks, I have been surprised by eventualities closer to our valley behind the mountain. I say only that I had not expected these five things that have happened since September began.
§ People wanting liquor delivered with their food order have joined the student protests against the Thai government. It was surprising that the student protests have kept going, but who would have imagined that a government decision to prohibit delivery of alcoholic beverages as part of the COVID-19 directives would incite this whole new segment of the population to join the demands for a new election and constitutional reforms?
§ Two soldiers from one of the Myanmar Army factions testified that they had been ordered to shoot every living human being (“anything that moves or anything you hear”) when they attacked Rohingya villages. This is damning evidence of what is being called genocide of this Muslim ethnic population in Myanmar. Such testimony is so rare as to almost take one’s breath away.
§ The Thai Prime Minister is not one to keep his feelings bottled up (rather like other heads of state in that respect), but he has been doing better lately. So it was surprising when he retorted “Go home! Go home!” to a reporter who asked him to comment on rumors of the Thai Army preparing for a coup against the PM and his government. My, my! He was touchy about that. One wonders why.
§ A boycott movement against a Walt Disney film is surprising, especially if it is a new release. But the Chinese action-film “Mulan” generated calls to protest the film when Yifai Liu, the lead actor, made public statements against student activism in Hong Kong and supportive of the police crackdown and Beijing government’s new laws limiting forms of protest in HK. An international student movement called the Milk Tea Alliance (named for a drink students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand have in common) with LGBT people prominently in leadership, has gained attention. So it surprised me that, despite the controversy, the movie is turning out to be a hit even among our LGBT protégés.
§ It seems this week the Thai government has decided not to buy two submarines, and not to dig the Kra Canal across the southern peninsula. Nor is there any progress on building a high-speed rail line connecting Beijing to the Gulf of Siam. Any of these projects would benefit China and would help Xi fulfill his grand plan for turning China into the main actor in this century. I thought that the Thai Navy had really sewed-up the deal.
In retrospect, none of these things should have been surprising.
The government’s irrational and largely ineffective campaigns against alcohol have a long history. In order to nod toward conservative Buddhist prohibitionists without actually impacting liquor sales and the tax revenue it brings, laws have often been enacted, such as the ban on liquor sales between 2 and 5 p.m. (supposedly so children don’t drink on the way home from school). For a while liquor sales in bulk were permitted so retail deliveries wouldn’t be inconvenienced, but that loop hole was stopped for no obvious reason, even though no school children ever bought beer by the truck load. One should not expect rationality beyond the penchant for making a show of cooperating without actually being bothered to make a difference.
As for genocide or ethnic cleansing to rid Myanmar of Rohingya settlers (resident on the western rim of Myanmar for more than 2 centuries), getting rid of them was decided upon long ago. Hope prevailed, briefly, that Aung Sang Suu Kyi would moderate the militant loathing that the Burmese majority has for this ethnic group. This was always a hope too far. As atrocities continued, sooner or later the United Nations or somebody was going to find a whistle-blower and then it would be a new game.
The question is, “What IS the Thai military up to?” Internal shifts in its power and options have placed things back in the shadows where the elite prefer for them to be. For a while it looked as if the military had become the government by buying off the royal elite. That is, by raising no objections to expropriation of funds and employment of a small private army as the only army units inside Bangkok. This sort of opaque military power in uneasy control of government is how it’s been for almost a century. The last thing any Thai Prime Minister has ever wanted to do is to talk about it.
Clearly, the Milk Tea Alliance didn’t get its allies all on board. It is forever difficult to expand a politically-based movement to include the population as a whole, even when cooperation might be to everyone’s benefit. Our gang of LGBTK friends hardly cares about who Yifei Liu is off-screen or what she says.
It would always be a mistake to underestimate China. 55 years ago when I arrived in Thailand for the first time I was told, “Remember, the great fact of Asia is China.” It’s probably complicated, but my guess in the meantime is that this submarine deal is another example of how Thailand makes a big show of doing something huge with China, but then needs to back off. The COVID-19 economic slow-down was mentioned as the need to delay buying the subs. The fact that Laos made news this week for having realized it is now hopelessly in debt to China for deals it made, and that China is attaching strings to turn the country into a puppet, may have something to do with postponing the submarine deal. Or the widespread public reaction to the idea that submarines are more important than public welfare could have been a factor. China will have to wait. But China is very patient when necessary.
9/13/2020 08:12:04 pm
Thanks for these illuminating comments, Ken! Your arc of subjects reminds me of an observation I've made about history: it seems several vast impartial powers survive in new forms into the present day, including China, and Russia. I also suggest that the Roman Catholic Church inherited and perpetuates much of what the Roman Empire claimed, at least centrally. When I first began researching my novel about Ayutthaya long ago, I became aware that for many centuries imperial China liked to officially consider southern neighbors such as Burma and Thailand to be "southern provinces," even if not under direct political control. I found it fascinating that when the Burmese had sacked Ayutthaya, the Emperor of China was apparently offended that he had not been consulted about that incursion. He attacked Burma from the north, forcing much of the invading Burmese force to withdraw from what was then called "Siam" by Westerners. Now, in this swiftly changing world, there are patterns that persist, perhaps these among them. It seems that many within the thrall of the three "imperial" powers I mentioned may not be happy with everything about their "emperor's" policies, still they also seem to sometimes take comfort in having a "big boss man" in charge. Or at least that party of the pattern persists: an ultimate patriarchal order. Another interesting thing about domineering regimes is that in practice many common people's daily lives persist not all that directly controlled by the political system. Fascinating times, and I appreciate your perspective here! Many thanks! - Bruce
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.