extract from an interview with Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon, Professor Stephen Youn
Image via Wikipediag - credited among those who discovered the bronze-age site of Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand in 1966 (now a Unesco world-heritage site) - deplores the "ridiculous" national division he insists has resulted from Thaksin Shinawatra's "imperial" ambition.
Suthichai Yoon: Professor Young, you've been watching Thai politics closely, the red shirts, the yellow shirts, and of course you are part of Thailand as well. You grew up here, you went to the international school here. Looking from afar now, what do you think of Thailand; does it still have a future?
Professor Young: Well, I think that's the right question to ask. If you look at Thailand from afar, most foreigners don't know much about what's going on. The Western idea, the Western press coverage is very superficial.
SY: Even the New York Times?
PY: Yes, the New York Times especially. The Washington Post. The Economist. Foreigners don't know the way the Thais think. I'm more worried now about Thailand than ever before. When I first came here in 1961, that was 48 years ago, and my father was the American ambassador, we had a wonderful family relationship with Thailand. Maybe different from many foreigners. I don't speak Thai so well anymore, but I have a feeling that there's something special to us, to our family, my father, my mother, or myself, my brother, my sister about Thailand. We care about Thailand. My dad was close to His Majesty, close to [ex-PM Field Marshal] Sarit [Thanarat], and in 1961 there was this [big] gap between the Bangkok elite and the rural poor, a real gap. So, today, 2009, when I hear the red shirts say there's a gap between Bangkok and ban nok [upcountry], I think it's ridiculous. Today, there's a gap, but in 1961 it was much bigger.
I just went back to Ban Chiang. When I went there 43 years ago, there was no electricity, no flush toilet, and if you needed hot water, you had to boil it. Chicken was too expensive. You had to eat little fish from the pond. Today there's electricity, flush toilets, hot water and ATM machines. Most of the houses have Internet.
SY: At that time, there wasn't even a telephone.
PY: No telephone. Radios. I remember we had radios with batteries. The strongest station was communist Chinese, broadcasting Chinese propaganda, so I remembered sitting in Ban Chiang listening to Chinese communist propaganda, and in Thai.
SY: From Beijing?
PY: From Beijing. Radio Beijing. Today it's television, international television. The people are watching soccer games in Europe. The people have cell phones. A lady who was with me was calling another lady to tell the car to pick me up at the airport. This is modern Thailand. So many changes. In 1961 it was my dad, with the passion of His Majesty and Field Marshal Sarit. He was a dictator, a military dictator, he was a tough guy, but he cared about the people, especially Isaan [the Northeast], and His Majesty also cared about Isaan. So the government began all these programmes. The roads in Ban Chiang are all cement. Before, it was dirt road. Thailand has done so much and I think in particular, the people in Bangkok, the Bangkok elite. In particular His Majesty deserves appreciation for what he's done for Thailand. So when I hear all these strange things about Thailand not having this and that, the need to change, some intellectuals want to run a revolution or something, I think this is crazy. It makes no sense to me.
SY: Why do you think they have this rumbling about change?
PY: My feeling, quite frankly, is that this goes back to the ambition of one man.
PY: Thaksin. And I ask myself why is he such a threat to Thailand?
Image via Wikipedia
SY: You knew him before?
PY: No. Only by reputation. When I first heard of him, when he started the Shin Corporation, what I heard was: he's a police major who got a contract from the government for telephones after one of the coups. Now I ask myself, back then, 1993, something like that, how do you get a contract from the government? What do you have to do to get a contract? And I noticed Khun Thaksin made more money, became more wealthy, all because he has a government licence.
SY: A monopoly.
PY: A monopoly, not because he was out there working like other people. He had a monopoly that the government gave him. The Thai people represented by the government gave him an exclusive, elitist, monopolistic special privilege. This is aristocracy. This is elitism. This is not a man who started poor in a village and worked his way up. He has special connections and I've seen him use many special connections. But I've never seen Thai society so divided. Even the divisions over the West during the time of King Rama 4 and 5 were not this serious, neither was the division over the communists. The communists failed in Thailand. They could not divide the Thai people.
Thaksin has divided the Thai people and this is sad. The Thai people should not be so divided and angry. Even my family friends, the family is divided. Some of the brothers and sisters are yellow, and some are red. And around the dinner table, they argue and get angry. So I think ... sabai ... where did it go?
SY: But Thaksin claimed that he changed the face of Thai politics. He made the masses, the rural people, speak up for the first time. It's the first time they benefited from politics. They can touch, consume and eat politics.
PY: I think that's ridiculous. Rural people in their communities have always had their patrons. They can always have some influence in this group and that group. I have my view, my patron. I look up to you, you take care of me. You are at the provincial level and you reach the Bangkok level, so I can get it to the Bangkok level only through you. This has been true for a long time.
Thaksin is in exile. He wants a pardon, he wants his money back, he doesn't want the conviction. Other Thai political leaders have not acted like that, if you look back.
SY: All the way back to Pridi Panomyong?
PY: Before that. We had the coup of 1932 and Prince Nakornsawan, the powerful Chakri prince, was asked to leave. He did, and he died in exile and never came back. His Majesty King Prachatipok felt there was a new situation and he abdicated. He went to England. He died in England. At his cremation, in 1941 I think, there were his queen and several relatives. No complaints. Pridi: He felt the situation changed. He left. General Pao, the powerful police general, left when Sarit took over and did not come back. Sarit, after he died, there was an argument how much money he made and the government took the money back. The family did not argue. Khun Thanom lost his money and went into exile. So I ask myself why is Thaksin different? Why doesn't he think like a Thai?
PY: I think it's because he's not really a Thai Thai. He has other ideas in his head. He does not say kreng jai. He does not think about merit and sin. He thinks about how he can be a powerful man. He wants to be the leader of everybody, the big boss of everybody. This kind of thinking to me reflects not Thai Buddhism, but Chinese imperial thinking. The imperial thinking of the Chinese emperor. The Chinese theory. If you read about this, and I've studied a lot about it, we see this thinking.
So everything that Thaksin does, how he ran his government, how he put his money here and there, it's just like 2,000 years ago. Same thinking. This idea was that, above the earth is heaven, or tian, and there's one man- and underneath is everybody else. And when Thaksin wants to control the government, police, army, judges, businesses, TV, newspapers - that's bringing everything under him. No Thai leader in history has ever tried to do this. King Naresuen never tried to do this. King Rama I didn't try to do this. This is something new and different. Therefore, the Thai people are divided over this. Something new was added by Thaksin.
Image via Wikipedia
Professor Stephen B Young is the global executive director of the Caux Round Table and an editorial commentator for Twin Cities Daily Planet newswire. He was educated at the International School Bangkok, Harvard College (graduating Magna Cum Laude) and Harvard Law School (graduating Cum Laude). He was a former assistant dean at Harvard Law School and former dean of Hamline University School of Law. He is widely recognised for his knowledge of Asian history and politics, and has taught at various prestigious institutes. His articles have been published in well-known newspapers including the New York Times