The Thai Coup on May 22nd means that Thailand is now on the radar of the international media. It also means that a tremendous amount of misinformation is being spread online via traditional news outlets, as well as social media. Therefore, we at E-Learn Thai have decided to spotlight the top ten myths we’ve encountered with regards to the Thailand coup and Thai politics in general.
1) Thailand is sliding towards civil war. No it’s not. Some 75% of Thais supported martial law when it was declared. Meanwhile, polls in the past have shown that around 80% of Thais don’t side strongly with either side of the warring political factions. They simply want peace, stability, and less corruption. The numbers simply aren’t there for civil war to occur in Thailand. What the kingdom was seriously at risk for before the coup was isolated acts of terrorism. That risk still remains.
2) Military coups and democracy are antithetical. We really need to stop fetishizing democracy and our grade-school understanding of it. Democracy is not a static political system but an ongoing human process that involves a multitude of issues and faces an equal number of obstacles. Military coups can indeed serve democratic ends. Whether the current Thai coup serves Thailand’s slow march towards a more developed democracy remains to be seen—but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
3) Those who want to delay elections want to restrict voting rights. The vast majority of Thais who favor reforms before elections do not think this way at all—though I’m sure you can find a few on social media. What they do want to see are reforms that will limit the impact of vote buying and other corrupting influences on the political process.
4) Vote buying isn’t a serious issue. Those who say that vote buying isn’t a serious problem in Thailand have never spent time in rural villages during election periods. Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxy governments transformed the traditional spreading around of money before elections into genuine vote buying, vastly increasing the amounts of money being exchanged, as well as keeping detailed records of who accepted money and who didn’t. For the first time, many villagers now feel coerced to accept a vote bribe or be shut out from village handouts and programs after the election.
5) The poor were ignored before Thaksin came to power. Not true. While it is true that they could have been served better, their plight was not ignored. Enormous investments in infrastructure (electricity, running water, roads, etc.) and education in rural areas were made long before Thaksin came to power.
6) The poor are better off thanks to Thaksin. While it is true that some of Thailand’s poor are better off thanks to a few of Thaksin’s programs, there is another (much larger) story that few journalists ever tell. Consumer debt has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, thanks to the government pushing for much easier access to credit cards, as well as populist schemes like the recent 1st car tax rebate. The poor were seduced into a crushing consumer debt that has forced many into positions where they have had to sell their land to pay off their debts. Poor rural Thais were often land rich before Thaksin came to power and able to subsistence farm. Now many of them are both cash poor and land poor.
7) All red shirts are pro-Thaksin paid stooges. While many red shirts are indeed pro-Thaksin and many have been paid, there are also other red shirts who don’t like Thaksin much at all. Many of these anti-Thaksin red shirts are highly educated, peaceful, and driven by a desire for less corruption and greater democratic freedoms. They are though in the minority.
8) All opposition supporters are PDRC supporters. Just as there are red shirts who don’t like Thaksin, there are many Thais who supported the government protests but loathed Suthep and some of the young elites who appeared on stage with him. There is an enormous amount of diversity in the opinions held by both pro-government supporters and anti-government supporters.
9) I can trust foreign media reports on Thailand. Unfortunately, no you can’t. Accurate reporting on Thailand requires that the journalist has lived and traveled the country for several years while developing a fair command over the Thai language. Thailand isn’t a big enough player on the world stage for foreign media organizations to have installed such a journalist here. Thus what you get is either hugely biased propaganda disguised as news or ridiculously superficial reporting. One of the few foreign Thailand commentators and academics worth checking out is Gerald W. Fry.
10) I can trust local Thai reporting. While one can reasonably trust Thai news to deliver accurate factual reporting on daily events, when it comes to reporting on politics, not so much. Most Thai reporters at The Bangkok Post and Nation come from privileged backgrounds, and have little direct experience with life in Thailand’s rural areas, the plight of the poor, and their political mindset. In addition, most have fully aligned themselves (albeit not publicly) with one side of the warring political factions and frequently write extremely one-sided analyses. The same can be said of the writing which occurs in the Thai language papers. Lastly, there are laws in place which make certain important discussions in Thailand impossible.
Having said all that, the best and most even-handed of Thailand’s commentators at this moment in time is unquestionably Voranai Vanijaka of the Bangkok Post. The Nation’s editorial cartoonist Stephff (a foreigner) also has been producing some excellent work of late.