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More Dishonesty About Thailand’s Upheaval From the International New York Times

International New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller downplays the seriousness of the corruption and brutality of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies in the present government and dismisses the democratic character of the protests against them, says Michael Pirsch.

During the large demonstrations in Bangkok Monday November 9, a protestor holds a sign summing up people's strong feelings against Thaksin and Thaksinism, namely killing and corruption. (Photo: François May)

International New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller downplays the seriousness of the corruption and brutality of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies in the present government and dismisses the democratic character of the protests against them, says Michael Pirsch.

I have been reading accounts of the demonstrations in Thailand by Thomas Fuller of the International New York Times (INYT). I do not have a television, so I cannot comment on the nature of its coverage. The INYT coverage minimizes the cause of the protests. Consequently, readers in America receive a dishonest version that pits the democracy-loving Thaksin proxy government as the victim of an undemocratic mass protest that seeks to undermine democratic elections. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In truth, the demonstrators are sick of the corrupt nature of Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former prime minister, who is defined by his corrupt behavior as a minister in government beginning in the mid ’90s to the years of his official running of the country from 2000-2006. He has used his position in government first and foremost to enrich himself and his family. Even though he now lives in Dubai, he micro-manages the Thai government through his youngest sister Yingluck, the current Thai minister. In addition, Thais have not forgotten Thaksin’s excesses, including murder, suppression of the media and his violent policies toward the southern Malay-Muslim provinces.

Thaksin was removed from office in 2006 as a result of a military coup conducted while Thaksin was in New York City preparing to give a speech at the opening session of the United Nations. The night before, Thaksin paid tribute to the makers of United States foreign policy, the Council on Foreign Relations. He was there in his capacity as a vital cog in the neoliberal policies of bringing corporate control to all (formerly) sovereign countries. The coup was conducted following large-scale protests against Thaksin’s autocratic rule during which he executed many policies solely to benefit corporations in which he was the major shareholder. The last straw came when he sold his telecommunications firm to a Singaporean entity for several billion dollars. Two days before the deal was finalized, the Thai laws limiting foreign ownership of a Thai corporation were changed to increase that limit to 49 percent. Furthermore, Thaksin also arranged to have a capital gains tax precedent case removed so the deal would not be subject to any Thai taxes. Yes, Prime Minister Thaksin arranged not to pay more than 400 million dollars in taxes. This “last straw” followed a long string of abuses while he was prime minister.

He ordered a “War on Drugs” in early 2003. Within 3 months, more than 2,500 people were murdered, many of whom had no connections to drugs at all. It cannot be said with any certainty that none of those who were killed had any involvement with drugs since they were never arrested, charged or brought to trial. They were murdered so that Thaksin could maintain his popularity with poor people in villages that were suffering because of the meth epidemic.

The southernmost provinces of Thailand were ceded to Thailand by the British in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. The population is overwhelmingly Malay-Muslim, and the first language of most residents is still Malay. This region has never become accustomed to being colonized, and Bangkok’s efforts to administer the area have not been successful. At the time Thaksin became prime minister, the Thai army was conducting a campaign to involve the residents more in administering their affairs through the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC). It was a period of very little violence. Thaksin dissolved the SBPAC and placed the Royal Thai Police in charge – which resulted in increased violence. The policy went from one that was progressively inclusive to one that was authoritarian and violent toward the southerners. A protest against Thaksin’s policies took place in Tak Bae village. The army attacked the demonstration, resulting in the deaths of 89 people. Most of the dead were tortured to death by stacking bodies on top of each other until those at the bottom were crushed or suffocated. Thaksin blamed the victims for their deaths, stating that they died because they were observing the spiritual practice of fasting during the month of Ramadan. An incident at the Khrue Mosque resulted in the deaths of 11 people following a day of fighting between southerners and Thai authorities. The attack on the mosque involved tanks and heavy artillery.

When elected to parliament or appointed a deputy prime minister, a Thai politician must sign a declaration of assets. When he was appointed a deputy prime minister in the mid 90’s, Thaksin did not list most of his shares in his various companies. Instead, he claimed he had transferred most of his shares to his housekeeper, cook, gardener, driver and security. Had this truly happened, those minimum-wage workers would have been among the richest people in Thailand. After his election and before he was sworn in as prime minister, this case came to trial. The court was truly afraid of convicting Thaksin, who had just won by a landslide of those voting. He even reminded them in testimony of his victory – leaving no doubt of the consequences of overturning his election. Thus, the court voted narrowly to clear him, paving the way for him to pursue even more wealth at the expense of the nation.

Thaksin held a 50 percent share in the low-cost airline Air Asia when he decided as prime minister to promote more low-cost airlines to service the increasing number of airports in Thailand. He arranged to charge Air Asia a substantially lower service charge for all fees paid by airlines for service at airports. This increased Air Asia’s market share and greatly increased its profits. Thaksin’s telecommunications company Advance Info Services (AIS) was the beneficiary of a special tax treatment on its corporate tax. When Thaksin traveled to meet other foreign leaders, at least one of his companies benefited through deals arranged between Thaksin and the foreign leader.

His corruption was truly legend. To adequately list each transgression would require writing a book. That is precisely what Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit did in their book titled Thaksin. It is an excellent reference to the excesses of Thaksin during his corporate and political career.

He has previously called himself the CEO of Thailand. In doing so, he naturally distances himself from any responsibility of governing for the benefit of the Thai people. Should he become successful in keeping his power over the Phuea Thai Party (his current proxy), the country of Thailand will become Thailand Inc. Thailand Inc. is responsible to its shareholders, not its citizens. Thailand Inc. must produce more, more and more wealth to its shareholders.

While prime minister, Thaksin arranged the sale of a stake in the national gas company, PTT. The public sale ended 2 minutes after it began and sold out the entire offering. Relatives of Thaksin and relatives of some of his government’s ministers purchased the entire offering. This follows the neoliberal mandate of selling off each nation’s public assets to the private sector.

Again, I have not referenced all the possible corruption charges he could face, but the INYT and others only mention his single corruption conviction involving the sale of prime downtown Bangkok real estate owned by the Thai government. This land was sold to Thaksin’s wife at well below market price. His trial took place after the 2006 coup, but during the reign of one of his two proxy governments, which served him after the coup. The current government, led by his youngest sister, Yingluck, is his third proxy government. Between the end of the trial and the verdict, he petitioned the court for permission to travel to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The court allowed his request while requiring his assurance he would return. He has never returned. He was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. In spite of his conviction and his fugitive status, the Obama-Clinton State Department granted Thaksin a visa to enter the United States. At present, he runs Thailand from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. No important decision is made by the government without his assent. His sister Yingluck remains the definition of a puppet prime minister.

The participants in this Bankok rally can hardly be qualified as  The participants in this Bankok rally can hardly be qualified as “high society matrons in high heels and office attire”. (Photo: François May)

It is not fully known just how many corruption cases Thaksin would face if he was returned to Thailand. Members of his political parties also face corruption charges. This was the main reason for the passage of an amnesty bill that would have cleared the books of over 25,300 corruption cases, according to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. It was the passage of this bill at 4 AM that led to the current protests. When the proxy government of Thaksin withdrew the bill, the protestors said that was not enough. Instead, the focus is on ridding the country of Thaksinism and pursuing political reform. On November 27, 2013, the coalition of demonstrators announced a six-point reform plan that would serve as the foundation for more political reform. The six-points are:

1) Fair and free elections, no vote-buying.

2) Wipe out corruption, no statute of limitations for corruption cases.

3) Increase citizens’ power.

3.1) Impeachment of politicians from PM to MP.

3.2) Elected provincial governors (all 77 provincial governors are presently appointed by the nation’s ruling power).

4) Police forces must come under provincial governors. (They are now organized under a national centralized police).

5) Merit system for civil servants. (The present system requires bribes to achieve a promotion).

6) Put education, transportation and public health policies on the national agenda.

How to achieve these goals has been the focus of the debate since they were announced. Unfortunately, discussion of the six points, which go a long way to eliminating corruption, has been detoured to a discussion over the fine points in the Thai Constitution that would allow or not allow enactment of the points of reform. A suggestion might be to look at the process whereby the nation of Venezuela drafted a new constitution, which was approved by over 70 percent of the voters in 2001. The process of drafting the constitution involved all segments of society, including those who previously had been frozen out of politics, namely indigenous Venezuelans and black Venezuelans. The result is the most democratic constitution on this planet.

The focus of the protestors is the out-of-control corruption by the Thaksin Shinawatra-owned political parties. However, when you read the International New York Times (INYT), a totally different story emerges. I admit it is difficult for a journalist employed by the NYT to write a story that doesn’t conform to the narrative of the US Empire. This is doubly difficult when the government of Thailand is committed to serving the interests of that empire. Thaksin allowed torture centers to be operated by the Empire, and he sent Thai troops to fight in Iraq. Both decisions are unpopular in Thailand. Therefore, the protestors must be misrepresented and their goals ridiculed. The crimes of Thaksin must be erased from memory. This is the totality of coverage of the INYT stories as written by its correspondent Thomas Fuller.

Fuller displayed his bias against the protests when he wrote about their goals. His characterization of the goals reflects the propaganda rule of repeating the lie over and over again until it becomes “truth.” The following are quotes from 4 of Fuller’s articles about the goals of the protestors:

November 26: “Protest leaders, led by leading opposition figures, are pursuing the seemingly quixotic goal of eradicating from the country the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra . . . Mr. Shinawatra remains very popular in the countryside, and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is prime minister.”

December 1 article: “Protestors are pursuing the seemingly quixotic goal of ridding the country of the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire tycoon and former prime minister [sic] whose political party has captured the allegiance of voters in the countryside . . .”

December 2 article: “Protestors have set the ambitious, and according to many analysts, unachievable goal of ridding the country of the Shinawatras, the country’s most influential political family.”

December 9 article: “Yet leaders of anti government demonstrations . . . have vowed to press on with their quixotic campaign to rid the country of the influence of Yingluck [sic] and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon whose policies have cemented the loyalty of voters in the most populous regions of the country.”[5]

The INYT December 10 edition has Fuller explaining universal health care and guaranteed high prices for rice farmers as two policies that have “cemented strong support in the populous northern and northeastern parts of the country – but created great resentment in Bangkok and other parts of the country.”

The universal health-care policy is popular everywhere in the country. The same cannot be said about the corruption-riddled rice-pledging scheme, which pays farmers a price 40 to 50 percent above world market price. It is estimated the government has lost $13 billion over the last 2 years funding this scheme. Not all farmers qualify for payment, as a minimum weight of harvested rice is required. Many of the poor rice farmers in the northeastern part have farms too small to grow the minimum. Some analysts estimate 20 percent of the funds go to farmers, the other 80 percent go to middle men and rice millers. Again, it isn’t the rice price supports people are angry about, it is the corruption surrounding the policy. There are several ongoing investigations regarding corruption in the program.

A telling encounter between the late long-time Thai politician Snoh Thienthong and Thaksin’s wife, Pojaman, reveals the motivation behind the policies of Thaksin’s proxy political parties. Snoh claimed he asked Pojaman why she needed so many billions of dollars and was told, “In politics, you have to hand out money. It has to be considered a business.” Snoh asked her what would happen if things blew up, and she replied, “If Thaksin falls, the Thai Rak Thai party will have to stay in power for at least two more terms for safety.* Since Thaksin fell in 2006, there have been 3 proxy regimes, and none has served a full term. It becomes clear from the single-minded Phuea Thai party goal of absolving Thaksin that Thaksin is more important than anyone or anything else in Thailand.

At every opportunity, Fuller writes with sympathy about Thaksin. He calls the one conviction of Thaksin in the government land sale to his wife the result of a “highly politicized trial.” He does not even mention the 2,500-plus murders in Thaksin’s “War on Drugs.” He does not reference the torture and murders in the Malay-Muslim South, nor the forced disappearances of 18 human rights activists. He also does not mention the multiple corruption allegations against Thaksin. He does not credit the protestors with demanding an end to corruption; instead, he belittles the focus on corruption.

Fuller describes the protestors in his November 27 article, “Among the protestors are elegantly dressed Bangkok residents, supporters of the Democrat Party, and rubber farmers . . . ” On December 3, he described the protestors as “. . . a diverse group varying from upper class Thais who have attended the rallies in high heels and office attire to rubber farmers . . . also include groups of students known for their brawling, which compounded the political tensions.” The reference to vocational students, known for their brawling with rival schools is true. What Fuller hides from the reader is that, for the first time in history, vocational students have joined together in a single goal without violence against each other. They are fighting the corruption of Thaksinism.

I have walked through the demonstrators’ main encampments near Democracy Monument during both day and night. I have yet to see the high-society matrons Fuller sees in his dreams. I have seen the faces of everyday Thais who appear to come from all walks of life. I have seen the calloused and weathered hands of men and women who have performed manual labor their entire lives. I have seen artists, roadside food vendors, elders, children, shop owners, factory workers wearing their company’s jackets. Fuller’s descriptions insult the many diverse Thai people who have attended the protests. All are sick of the corrupt nature of their government.

He also implies that the demonstrations are an affront to democracy since Thaksin’s proxy parties have won recent elections. The most recent election in 2011 saw the “Thaksin Thinks-Phuea Thai Acts” party receiving 48 percent of the vote. This total was not enough for the party to form a government, so they had to invite other smaller parties to join. They were more than happy to do so given the corrupt nature of Phuea Thai and the opportunities and rewards that follow from being part of the majority. The Phuea Thai percentages drop when we factor in the number of eligible voters. Phuea Thai received only 32 percent of the number of eligible voters. That means 68 percent either did not vote for Phuea Thai or did not vote at all. If it would be possible to factor in the number of bought votes, the percentages might be less in both calculations. Eliminating vote-buying is the number one point of the six-point reform plan presented by the protest leaders. Thailand does not come even close to having a democracy and neither does my country, the United States of America. We make a big mistake confusing the 2 to 5 minutes it takes to cast our votes as the expression of democracy. As Howard Zinn pointed out, the time we spend voting is not as important as what we do in the intervening years between those 2 to 5 minutes. This is what Thailand is doing today.

The International New York Times will continue to feed us lies and half-truths. Don’t believe them, investigate stories yourself. This is our duty to become an informed citizenry. We need to always remember to use our critical thinking skills no matter the subject. We should think about why it is so easy to lie to the American people. Why is it necessary to lie to us? Whose interests are being protected? Whose interests are being destroyed?

* Note: This excerpt was taken by Pasuk and Baker from Snoh Thienthong’s 2006 book titled, “Thaksin or Thailand?” Edited by Chermsuk Pinthong. Bangkok: Tawan ook. P43.

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