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'Nothing really changes'

Publication Date : 04-12-2013


"Please help me," implored the woman, sitting at the roadside.

I was near the popular Bobae wholesale clothes market. Government House, a main target of the anti-government protesters trying to unseat the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, was only a few blocks away. The intermittent pops of rubber bullets being fired were growing in intensity and frequency, while a haze billowed down the street, bringing with it the faint odour of gunpowder and an acrid smoke that immediately burned the eyes and nose. The barricades began just two blocks away, where traffic was being redirected away from the protests.

Although we were close to the site of the clashes, the woman was not a protester, nor had she been hurt. Not physically.

"I have barely sold anything all day," she lamented.

Daeng was a middle-aged roadside vendor who sold jackfruit, and what should have been a bustling market was nearly deserted, the vendors whiling away the time with gossip. Several were unsteady on their feet, nursing bottles of local rice whisky.

"It has been like this for over a week now but has been especially bad [since the violence broke out]."

She gestured towards a pile of unsold, peeled jackfruit. "I'm not going to make back my investment today."

Daeng invests about 200 baht (US$6.20) each day to purchase several whole jackfruit, which she peels and sells on the roadside.

This neighbourhood, located close to Government House, Rajdamnoen Avenue and its symbolic heart, the Democracy Monument, and several major ministry buildings, is no stranger to political turmoil. Almost every major political uprising in Thailand has taken place in or around the area, including the "1932 revolution" that ended absolute monarchy.

As I did what I could to help Daeng recoup her investment, groups of protesters passed through, frequently wearing black, with the Thai flag emblazoned on a T-shirt, scarf or wristbands, and with the latest local fashion accessory - a whistle - strung around their necks. Many had towels or swimming goggles handy, and several were helping each other rinse out their eyes with bottles of drinking water.

At the time of writing, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban says the prime minister's resignation and dissolution of the House would not satisfy the anti-government campaign's demands. Instead he has given Prime Minister Yingluck a nebulously worded ultimatum of two days to "return power to the people" so that a "People's Democratic Reform Committee" comprised of unelected individuals can oversee political reform and uproot the so-called Thaksin system.

As a physician, I have learned to make a clear distinction between the disease and its symptoms. One of the cardinal manifestations of the disease malaria is high fever, which can be treated with anti-pyretics such as paracetamol while treatment against the causative parasite can be administered.

Similarly, the "Thaksin system" is a reflection of a deeper illness that pervades and perverts Thai democracy: that of patronage networks, where personal loyalties - rather than platforms, performance or ideals - are of paramount importance. Such networks can make or break careers, open or close doors to power, and even allow those with the right connections to flout the law. Thaksin Shinawatra has been indicted for conflict of interest, abusing his position to help his wife purchase land, for which he was sentenced to two years in prison. His tenure as prime minister saw a "war on drugs" in which thousands were extra-judicially executed, and precipitous declines in indices of press freedom for Thailand. Meanwhile, those close to his family were promoted to positions of power. His cousin Chaiyasit Shinawatra was elevated to army commander-in-chief in 2003. Another cousin by marriage, Surapong Tovichakchaikul, currently serves as his sister's deputy prime minister, Foreign minister, and, most recently, chief of the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO), charged with handling the current anti-government protests.

Yet the man who would lead the charge against the scourge of the "Thaksin regime" and undertake political reform is, himself, no stranger to controversy and scandal. Suthep Thaugsuban, a veteran politician, has been implicated in several cases of corruption and conflict of interest, and it was Suthep's involvement in shady land deals in Phuket which, in 1995, brought down one Democrat government. Although his current message has struck a chord with many, mobilising the largest protests since 2010 in an expression of anger against the government's unpopular amnesty bill to absolve corrupt politicians, Suthep's past, coupled with his nebulous goals and undemocratic tactics and statements, belie his exhortations for reform.

True, durable political reform in Thailand will not simply come about with the removal of the Shinawatras. To paraphrase the words of a friend who works as a medic in the jungles on the Thai-Myanmar border, their removal would be akin to providing just paracetamol for malaria, masking the symptoms of fever without curing the disease. The bitter pill to swallow, the treatment for the disease, will require a sea-change in the country's value system. Our disease is a self-perpetuating system which often elevates scoundrels to positions of authority. A system where opacity and the maintenance of face are prioritised over transparency, and one which condones and encourages the use of personal connections to achieve one's goals, and tolerates abuse of power, corruption, and even murder for those with the right connections.

"We know he [Suthep] owns a lot of Phuket," said Phet, a nearby coffee vendor, with a knowing smile. Phet has also seen a drop in business but has managed to get by thanks to the thirsty demonstrators. With his stall located just off Rachadamnoen Nok, he too is no stranger to political turmoil.

"We have seen many protests and uprisings. They [the politicians] always make big promises with a straight face, grandiose pronouncements. And then? They come and go, but at the end of the day we are the ones who still have to suffer. And nothing really changes."

Voravit Suwanvanichkij, MD, is a Research Associate at the Centre for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


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