Maybe it's the heat.
Maybe it's the humidity.
Maybe it's a side effect of eating coconut milk, peanuts and chili peppers at every meal.
I don't know the reason, but the way Thai people do politics is fantastically weird.
In September 2006, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by Thai military leaders.
Thaksin was very popular with Thailand's rural poor because, unlike previous Thai leaders, he actually did stuff for them. He supported government programs that fostered rural infrastructure development and improved health care. He was less popular in cities, no doubt, but he was still democratically elected.
Despite his popularity, the coup that sent Thaksin packing was less tense and violent than most Americans' morning commutes. Tanks rolled up to key government facilities and simply announced they were in control and that was it. The population didn't just comply – news footage taken after the coup shows Thai civilians mingling casually with the soldiers who just trampled their country's constitution.
If that wasn't weird enough, the weird coup de grace of the coup d'etat occurred when coup leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin went on TV and said to the Thai people, "We ask for the cooperation of the public and ask your pardon for the inconvenience." Beg your pardon, old chap, but it seems we've overthrown your government. Sorry if we woke you. Carry on.
Not weird enough? Well then, how about this:
The coup leaders carried out several policies one does not typically associate with military governments. First of all, they took a more conciliatory approach to Thailand's Muslim insurgency in the southern part of the country than did their democratic predecessor. "Military junta" and "conciliatory" are words that don't typically go together.
Secondly, the junta not only allowed Thailand companies to start making generic versions of patented American HIV/AIDS drugs, they started distributing them for free among the rural poor. Yes, ladies and gents, it appears Thai military dictators have a more compassionate and sophisticated understanding of public health than most American politicians.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the junta promised to hold free and fair elections in Thailand in 2007.
They did. The elections were held Dec. 23.
And guess who won? The People Power Party, a political party that loudly and proudly allied itself with the guy the military overthrew, Thaksin Shinawatra.
The PPP didn't win a majority in the parliament, but it won enough to form a coalition government with other smaller parties. The Thai people were unhappy with the military junta's leadership. Thai people were proud of their multiparty democracy, which was a rarity in the region.
And Thailand's economy, once one of Southeast Asia's strongest, has been sputtering since the uniforms took control. Tourism, which took a hit after the Asian tsunami in 2005, hasn't yet fully recovered. And foreign investors aren't exactly thrilled by political instability, either.
Once it takes power in January, it's possible the PPP will attempt to restructure the military to prevent another military coup. Some have hinted that it may try the coup leaders for treason, although talk of such action is muted. Asked what he has to say to Thai military officials who may try to stop him from taking office, PPP leader Samak Sundaravej offered, well, politeness. "Please think carefully," he said. Kindly refrain from couping again, mmm-hmm, thanks.
As for ex-PM Thaksin – he remains in self-imposed exile in London. He's thought to be a big behind-the-scenes player in the PPP, but he's not necessarily gonna hop on a plane back to Bangkok. Logic would dictate that the PPP would try to secure its grip on power and neutralize the coup plotters' power before bringing Thaksin back.
If the PPP successfully consolidates power, however, I can't imagine Thaksin could resist the temptation to return. Not only could he become Thailand's prime minister again, he could also assume his duties as president of the Professional Golf Association of Thailand, a position to which he was elected in absentia last spring.
I'm telling you, it's a weird place.
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