Some Canadian Connections To The Ructions In Thailand
I suspect I’m not alone among Canadians in not quite knowing what to think of recent events in Thailand. On one side of the battle lines are the noisy “Red Shirt” followers of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist, wealthy, probably corrupt former Prime Minister who comes across as a kind of Thai equivalent of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. The Red Shirt movement is said to be rooted among the rural poor of northern Thailand, who benefitted from Thaksin’s largesse during his time in power. Guarding the ramparts of the Thai establishment against the Red Shirts are a wealthy urban elite clustered around the current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the elderly King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The establishment forces seem to have won the current round by using the army to break up a big Red Shirt protest camp in the middle of Bangkok, but the situation is far from stable.
As a Canadian living in China, which is not that far from Thailand but certainly far enough, I have the luxury of being able to observe the situation through the media without becoming too anxious about it. Thaksin strikes me as a thoroughly slippery and distasteful sort of politician, but I don’t doubt that the Red Shirts have some genuine economic and political grievances. Mostly I hope that the Thais will be able to find a compromise and return to their usual (relative) peace and prosperity, but it’s a detached and dispassionate sort of hope. Subjectively speaking, Abhisit vs. Thaksin seems a lot less significant than Harper vs. Ignatieff or, for that matter, Canadian forces vs. Taliban. Nevertheless, there are a couple of interesting Canadian connections to the ructions in Thailand.
For one thing, Thaksin’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, was educated in Canada although he was born in the US and remains an American citizen. This Amsterdam is an interesting character and self-described “advocate for the rule of law” who runs a no-nonsense blog on international (but especially Russian) business and politics, and has also represented the oil tycoon and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Amsterdam’s take on the Red Shirts is as follows:
They came to Bangkok to remind the ruling elites and the world that they also have constitutional rights as Thai citizens, that their votes should count too, no matter their level of wealth, class, and education.
This has to be balanced against the possibly more cynical view that the conflict in Thailand is basically a clash of equally unscrupulous “competing patronage networks”, of Thaksin’s cronies and supporters against Abhisit’s cronies and supporters. Under this interpretation ideological leanings might still count, but would be decidedly secondary. I have to admit that this description rings a bit truer to me, if only because I know that politics in southeast Asia tends to be intensely personal. It’s rather appropriate that political figures in the region are often referred to by their given names, a convention I’m obviously following here.
Several journalists have been injured during the military operation against the Red Shirts, and two of them are Canadian. Nelson Rand was shot in the leg, abdomen and wrist, presumably by soldiers, while Chandler Vandergrift (like me, a UVic alumnus) was badly hurt by a stray grenade hurled by a Red Shirt. Amazingly enough, he underwent brain surgery at the hands of a Thai doctor who had trained at Toronto’s Sick Children’s Hospital, one Chopeow Tacholarn. One good thing about training foreign doctors in Canada, I suppose, is that it increases ever so slightly the odds that capable medical help will be available to Canadians who get into trouble abroad.
It also occurs to me that Canada and Thailand may, in some respects, have similar national temperaments. Thailand likes to call itself the “land of smiles”; Canadians are famously polite. In each case, however, there is an ample supply of sterner stuff to go along with the niceness. Thailand’s national sport is a particularly rough form of kickboxing, while ours includes a fair measure of boxing on ice. Through military strength as well as skilled diplomacy, Thailand avoided ever being colonised, and even sent a small contingent to fight the Germans in World War I. Canadian troops earned a reputation for toughness, even ferocity, during that same conflict. Thais enjoy their cockfighting, while Canadians hunt moose and club seals. It doesn’t entirely surprise me that, when push came to shove in Thailand, the military eventually stepped in with decisive force. We Canadians seem to have misplaced our talent for that sort of thing, but outrages like the occupation of Caledonia sometimes make me think we ought to find it again in a hurry.