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Amnesia Is a Drag on Reform

August 06, 2000|Peter Eng | Peter Eng, a former Associated Press correspondent, has covered Southeast Asia for more than a decade

BANGKOK — In the United States, a right-wing politician like Samak Sundaravej would be hounded by student protesters at public appearances, much as Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara was during the Vietnam War. In Thailand, not only do people greet Samak with smiles and respect, they elected him mayor of its capital last month by a record landslide. He received more than 1 million votes, nearly twice as many as his closest rival, who was billed as a "new generation" politician.

Thailand has made significant progress in cleaning up its politics and giving the people more power since a mass uprising in 1992 toppled a pro-military government. But Samak's victory last month reveals how public attitudes--not only about politics but also the nation's bloody past--restrain the pace of reform in one of Asia's most dynamic new democracies.

Samak, 65, leads the opposition Thai Citizens Party. More than any other politician in Thailand today, he epitomizes what intellectuals call the "old-style politics" of patronage and autocracy, precisely the type of person post-1992 reforms were designed to get rid of. During the mayoral campaign, academics, students and human rights activists accused Samak of having "blood on his hands." As a government minister, they charged, he incited and justified the massacre of scores of pro-democracy student demonstrators by right-wing mobs at Thammasat University on Oct. 6, 1976. They also recalled that soon afterward, Samak shut down newspapers and sacked the office of the elected mayor of Bangkok.

Few of the middle-class Thais who led the 1992 uprising vocally opposed Samak's candidacy. They are still fickle, unorganized and politically passive unless a national crisis threatens their wallets. Furthermore, the majority of Bangkok voters, poorer people such as small shopkeepers and government workers, traditionally favor authoritarian leaders. Although the 1992 uprising pushed the military out of the equation, Thailand's hierarchy of power, with the world's longest-reigning monarch at its apex, encourages conservative values. This year, the Senate was popularly elected for the first time. The top vote-getter was a former bureaucrat known for carrying out the king's rural-development initiatives.

The mayoral campaign again showed how Thai politics focuses on personalities and ignores issues. One afternoon I followed an independent candidate, Kalaya Sophonpanich, as she campaigned in Siam Square, an entertainment-shopping area favored by Bangkok's yuppies. No one asked her what she stood for or would do if elected.

Samak won because he was the best-known name, from his quarter-century in national politics, and the most colorful character. Thais see him as a "can-do" politician, though few can tell you what he accomplished in office. People notice, admire and fear him for his blunt talk, quick temper and fiery speeches. "He's a great conservative populist, and he's very good at communicating to [Thais] at a very simple level," says Chris Baker, a scholar of Thailand. "He's a great orator and an entertaining man on game shows on TV or talking about Thai cooking on radio."

People sympathized with Samak when he asked why he was being harassed about an event that occurred 24 years ago and when he accused a rival party of paying the university lecturer who first raised the accusations. A lot of Thais still think that the students killed in 1976 were communist saboteurs who got what they deserved; after all, many thousands stood watching and cheering the slaughter that day. Many voters are simply politically immature; they did not bother to ask themselves what they thought about the allegation, or could see no connection between what happened in 1976 and the choice of who should govern them today.

Thais readily forgive and forget because they are tolerant, dislike public confrontation and fear that reviving the past will revive turmoil. The state encourages forgetfulness because the entire Thai ruling elite, many of whom remain prominent today, was involved in the killings of 1976.

"I really don't care" about the allegations regarding 1976, said Kwanrak Mentrakul, 30, who works for the publicly funded King Prajadhipok Institute, which promotes democratic values. "I just want someone who can build Bangkok." Another Samak supporter, Parichart Sthapitanonda Sarobol, 32, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said: "We have to find ways for Thai people to cooperate, not to go back to the past to find things that make us enemies. The issues in the past are over."

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