It seems our visit to Thailand has coincided with a flurry of political unrest and restructuring of government.
On our first evening here, I read an email from my Dad who checked into advisories for travelling Canadians and found out there had been demonstrations and several airports closed by protesters entirely unhappy with their Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Amazingly, we had seen a complete lack of any out-of-the-norm events or behaviour while extensively touring Bangkok that day. That same week, a state of emergency was declared in the capital after one man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-Government protesters. Also members of the latter group had barricaded themselves inside Government House. At this point we had already travelled north, but I think it would've hardly mattered - except for newscasts and parental warnings, everywhere we went it was business as usual.
Making a point of following the events, we found out that General Anupong Paojinda appointed by the PM to oversee the country during the state of emergency politely refused to follow his orders as he was certain that the army's involvement would only escalate the situation. Newspapers hinted that the General also sided with the anti-government group's (People's Alliance for Democracy) position that the Prime Minister "bought his election by duping poor, ill-educated, often rural voters and that he should therefore resign." Mr. Samak continued to experience high government officials refusing to follow his instructions, although a few promised to support him unfalteringly.
Last week his downfall climaxed when Mr. Samak hosted a cooking show, which was reason enough for the constitutional court to force his resignation, as it is forbidden for a Thai PM to be involved in business. Mr. Samak was re-nominated for the position, but three days later even his party withdrew its support. His newly voted-in successor Somchai Wongsawat is from the same (People's Power) political party and is a 61-year-old judge who is considered to be a conciliator by some. However, protesters continue to express their disapproval as Mr. Somchai is married to the sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 coup amid corruption allegations and is believed to have a puppet-master influence over his followers.
Whew... enough excitement on that scene... Our recent stay near villages in Northern Thailand also turned up some pretty disturbing bits of history. There are dozens of hilltribes in Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam and to the unassuming traveller they seem like peoples who have maintained their traditional ways, sell wonderful handicrafts and are sometimes used as a tourist gimmick. But shady details float up about refugee camps whose inhabitants cannot leave, tribes without land ownership or other rights, suppression of indigenous culture with tactics ranging from intimidation to outright genocide and Christian missionaries who inundate the young with their dogma and agenda, stripping local customs, language and healing practices for all the usual excuses of it equating to devil-worship while they bring higher learning. That certainly made me think twice about ever donating to World Vision Youth. I won't even go into the opium and heroin trade history fueled by aggressive power struggles of Shan and KMT army factions, as frankly I don't know enough about it.
The world seems such a troubled place and even in this wonderful country underneath the surface not all is calm and well.
On a lighter note, the Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently the world's longest-reigning head-of-state and a highly revered figure to the Thai people. Some interesting Wikipedia facts about the Thai king: he is one of the richest men today, has funded over 3,000 development projects, born in US and mainly educated in Switzerland, he is an accomplished musician, artist, and sailor and I've been told up to 20% of the country's population wear yellow on Mondays symbolizing their devotion and this figure quadruples during his birthday celebrations. Although he is a constitutional monarch with no formal political role, he is "regarded as a key to Thailand's stability and in his six decades on the throne has stilled bloody uprisings, weathered military coups and has reigned through scores of governments, democratic and dictatorial." Long live the wise king and may his people prosper!
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