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The Thai & I

Melody KempMelody Kemp lives in Laos. Her previous piece for Webdiary was In the Depths of the Temple.

by Melody Kemp

Yesterday, police with their characteristically olive green uniforms and dull silver boiled egg helmets, were stationed every 20 meters along Vientiane’s streets. Such a heavy presence could not be accounted for by the big banner straddling the two main roads that traverse the city announcing a visit by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg. Well Luxembourg is hardly a mover and shaker on the world stage and while I am sure he is a nice chap, it is not as though anyone might like to pop him on the way to the Government Guest House. Strange. Bad vibes.

On Saturday I had sat with my friend Bounthanh and we watched Thai TV, all the reporters in the mandatory acid yellow that indicates deep and abiding love for the Thai king. Various guests filed in and the reporters veered into the hot coals of politics. Boun translated for me as my Thai is about as good as my Lao. "They are saying he should be stopped from re entering the country. He should stay in Cuba". He of course could only mean Thaksin Shinawatra, the much reviled and equally loved, and now ex PM of Thailand.

That he is a Chinese media tycoon with fingers in a lot of Uncle Bens is well known. He has shares in Asia Air, and has recently been cutting all sorts of deals with the Burmese junta, the most recent for a very potentially destructive logging project. His square head with its characteristic wide smile was the face of the Tak Province-driven Free Trade Agreement with Australia, which ensured that the Chinese corporations that dominate that economy could keep alive their dream of an export processing zone extending through Burma into India.

Hated as he was by Thai intellectuals and urban dwellers, he was loved in the provinces across the river that I can see from my office window. It was clear why. He promised a cow to every household that voted for his Party Thai Rak Thai (which means Thais Love Thais). The faded and battered hoardings, with Thaksin’s head next to that of a Brahmin steer, can still be seen in Isan. One doesn’t need to read Thai to know the intent. Pragmatic Asians would see this not as vote buying but strategic politics.

So this am we woke up to find him gone. The military running the country as they have done so before. But in reality Thailand has been running itself for the past six months since the demonstrations and staged election put him into the role of caretaker. A role he has exploited to push through some regulations and economic programs without recourse to parliamentary or public accountability. But the day to day tasks of getting electricity into peoples homes, money to health services, ensuring teachers get paid, and just keeping the economic machine that is Thailand going has proceeded without any ostensible leadership making us wonder why we bother with politicians at all.

It must be particularly unnerving for the old boys and girls of the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic whose one party police state is run with an iron fist and an eye to the borders. Those of us on the phone comparing notes have all agreed that while the Luxembourg PM is a notable figure, that the police presence yesterday was probably more closely linked to the Politburo having a feeling in their collective water about what was to come over the river and wanted to show the Lao people that a similar party was not theirs to have.

Now we have to monitor the seismograph of Taiwanese politics as the people continue to come out on the streets (this time in red in contrast to the yellow clad Thais … politics in Asia is starting to look like Noddy’s car). They are up in arms about the PM’s son’s activities, which appear to be both corrupt and have been an abuse of privilege. Some tried to nail Richard Howard - the Prime minister’s son Richard, a supposed US based lobbyist, with similar abuse of privilege charges, but they didn’t stick. Anyway, most Australians are far too politically nonplussed to make it an issue, even if it was. Pity though, would love to see what colour they would wear.

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