Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The 2011 National Thai Election

The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with a free and democratic government—that is what the constitution says. The Head of State is the King of Thailand, King Rama IX, as he is usually referred to in the west. Under him there is an executive consisting of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, an elected parliament, and an independent judiciary. In accordance with the Thai constitution, which requires an election every four years, an election is currently underway in Thailand. On Sunday, the 3rd of July, the people of Thailand will elect a new government. 
The modern Thai government structure dates back to 1932 when an unlikely combination of traditional aristocrats and a westernised upper middle-class Bangkok group compelled the Thai King to agree to a written, democratic constitution, which moved Thailand (Siam, as it was then known) from an autocracy to a democracy. All well and good, however, peace and domestic tranquility was not to ensure. Since that date there have been seventeen constitutions and charters, intermixed with repeated coups, military and militaristic governments, and even the occasional massacre of pro-democracy proponents by the military.
The last such coup was in 2006, when the somewhat reformist, but certainly populist, ‘red shirt’, government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (the winner of two consecutive elections) was overthrown (while he was out of the country) and a (another) military junta took power, which wrote (another) constitution. In 2007, with this new constitution, an election was held in which a pro-Thaksin government came into office. Yet, again, peace and prosperity did not ensure. The anti-red shirt group, the ‘yellow shirts’ (there was a joke in 2008 that one had to carefully choose the colour of one’s shirt), staged a series of disruptive protests, which eventually brought the Thai government down. 
The result of these protests was the assumption of office in late 2008 by the leader of the Democrat Party, which is opposed to the red shirts, the 27th Prime Minister of Thailand, Mr Abhisit. The new PM quickly attempted to ‘move on’, restore the economy and ‘heal the wounds’, but his term in office has been marked by ongoing protests and resistance to government. The greatest protest taking place in mid 2010, which was ended with blood on the streets of Bangkok. 
Now, again, the Thai people have the opportunity to select their government. To do this they will elect, in a system of compulsory voting, two houses of parliament. The upper house is partly appointed, and considered a bastion of conservatism. The lower house, the  House of Representatives, is where most of the action takes place, and consists of 480 members, the majority of whom are elected directly, the remainder from party lists and electoral regions. Most elections produce a party with a definite majority, but not always with an absolute majority in the parliament, thus lots of wheeling and dealing takes place to form a government.

The principal players in the current election are: Mr Abhisit, the current PM. Ms Thaksin, who is, amongst other things, the sister of the deposed and currently exiled former Prime Minister, who is leading the new red shirt party, in her first parliamentary performance. Last, but by no means least, is the Thai military, who so far have repeatedly stated that they will not involved themselves in politics. 
As part of the process of informing my readers of these things, here is a sample of election posters seen by myself. These come from southern Thailand, where I am as I write, however, when I return to Bangkok I will post some posters from the capital city of Thailand.
My thanks to the following for the information presented here: wikipedia, http://tambon.blogspot.com/, and the various Thai English language newspapers and journals.


election vehicles, common in Thailand.

lots of signs, everywhere.

A red shirt campaign commitment.
Seems just a tad optimistic.

When visiting the city and province of Phatthalung I came across
a group of red shirt folk. From their demeanour, I gather fairly senior folk.

I don't know anything about this guy,
but he makes a point.

From the Muslim south.

The Democrat party, and Mr Abhisit.

The lady herself, Ms Thaksin.

Red shirt trucks.

Some are demanding a No protest vote.
The goal is to remove the legitimacy of the
resultant government. I gather that portraying
humans as animals is rather insulting in Buddhist Thailand.

I am not sure about this, found a batch of these in
Nakhon Si town, on phone booths. Is this a joke
or political commentary?

Monday, 20 June 2011

A Day in Narathiwat (Nara)

Having been told by everyone in Pattani that Nara was the really dangerous province of the ‘deep south’ it was with some trepidation that I bordered the bus for the 90km journey from Pattani to Nara. While on the bus I will confess that my imagination went into overdrive on a few occasions. I saw myself dragged from the rickety "local" bus and incarcerated as a hostage, suffering all privations of the same—while of course writing an account of my adventure, in movie script format. The fate of Julius Caesar in such a situation flashed through my mind, though I would never consider myself to be so persuasive. However none of that occurred. I bordered my bus @ 08.00 in central Pattani city for the two or so hour trip to Muaeng Narathiwat, and the entire trip was uneventful. 
a journey.
election time.

your first stop, province bus station.

The bus, the usual: old, slow, noisy, but entirely serviceable. The country side green and lush, with lots of small towns and villages, people and lots of soldiers. As with my trip to Yala, the highway was protected by armed soldiers. I did notice that the further south we got the greater the armed presence felt. More sand bags, bigger guns, more troops. The trip did include a digression of a few kilometers from the direct route to stop at the small town of Sai Buri.

streets of the city,
a cultural landmark
a '7'.

downtown Narathiwat.

one of the attractions
of the town—the clock tower.

After arriving at Nara, I soon realised that there was not much to see. I only spent a handful of hours in the city. Long enough to see the standard features, but little else. What I can say, while I am sure that the people are good and wish no more than to live their lives, the city itself was far from the most attractive I have seen, and the people seemed less than totally happy. To be blunt, it was a dull and unhappy place. The streets are filled with what one travel site described as “concrete egg-carton” style buildings—correctly so. Business looked slow. Outside this central area are surrounding suburbs of small houses. The streets are clean, maybe a little dusty, but few attractions.
elections !

elections !

the streets of the city.

swans seem to be a local icon.

What I did discover, which surprised me, is that a new government centre, is being built outside the city to the north. Entirely new buildings, and nearing completion in the mid-2011.
Unlike Pattani or Yala the streets of the city of Narathiwat were filled with soldiers, and barbed wire, and small fortifications. Perhaps not than many, but there were few times when a soldier was not seen. 
soldiers on the roads.

always there.

soldiers on the streets.

coming into town.

I did have an opportunity to talk to a local at length, a local rubber plantation owner, 10 hectares of rubber trees. He told me that the people here did not wish to secede from Thailand, rather they just wanted better treatment. A central request of the region is for autonomy, which essentially means that they be allowed to elect their own provincial governor. At the current time, and for all times previous, the governors of the various provinces have been appointed by the central government. I have noticed that most if not all areas in Thailand, outside Bangkok, would like this change.
I returned to Pattani after a day in Narathiwat. I will say that the country side is attractive, green and lush. I also understand that the beaches are ready and waiting for tourists to arrive. Here’s hoping that the troubles here are speedily and justly resolved and that the locals can begin to fleece foreign tourists, rather than fight amongst themselves. 

The 'Illiad' of Homer: A synopsis.

For my own edification, to aid me in my reading and understanding of this great work, I have created a summary of each Book of the poem as I have read them. I present these here for any who are interested.

A work in progress:

Synopsis of the 24 Books of the IIliad by Homer.
Book 1
Apollo punishes the Greeks with disease, as Agamemnon offended him over the ransom of the slave girl Chryseis. Agamemnon and Achilles argue over the return of the girl. Achilles withdraws from the battle. Zeus considers punishing the Greeks.
Zeus – king of the gods.
Hera – wife and sister of Zeus. 
Thetis – mother of Achilles.
Agamemnon – King of the Greeks
Achilles – 
Chryses—T priest, father of Ch
Nestor –
Chryseis — captive woman
The poem begins with the priest of Apollo, Chryses entreating Agamemnon to ransom his daughter Chryseis, but Agamemnon refuses. Chryses then calls upon Apollo to punish the Greeks for their blasphemy, which Apollo does by sending disease to ravage the Greeks. Achilles then called a meeting of the Greeks to seek an explanation of this curse. An augur Calchas explains the reason, and states that to appease Apollo the girl must be returned. Agamemnon refuses, he and Achillas argue. By the intervention of the goddess Minerva and the wise Nestor combat between Achilles and Agamemnon is averted, however, Achilles refuses to fight any further in the Greek cause. 
After this argument Agamemnon sacrifices to Apollo in an effort to turn away the god’s anger, and returns Chryseis to her father. Agamemnon then instructs two of his men to take a captive woman from Achilles, Briseis. Greatly affronted, Achilles then asks his mother, the sea goddess Thetis to speak to Zeus on his behalf in order to obtain his revenge upon Agamemnon and the Greeks, by favouring the Trojans in combat until the Greeks seek forgiveness from Achilles. Zeus acknowledges her request and agrees to think on this. His wife Hera, who favours the Greeks in the conflict, suspects that Zeus is considering aiding the Trojans, and she questions his actions. Zeus quells her, and Hera is advised by the her son Haephasteus to not anger Zeus.

Book Two
This is one of the longer books of the poem, due in no small part to the inclusion of the ‘Catalogue of Ships’. The Book is the ramification of the previous. Zeus decides that the Greeks need punishment and sends a false dream to Agamemnon, promising victory if he leads the combined Greeks armies against Troy. However, rather than immediately do this Agamemenon calls together an assembly of the Greeks, kings and common soldiers, to gauge their mood. He begins the assembly with a deception, he tells the men that they can go home, return to Greece if they wish. Unexpectedly, this is what the men choose to do. An immediate ‘mad dash’ for their ships occurs. Angered, the Greek King Odysseus goes amongst the men and restores order bringing them back to the assembly. 
At this point, a new figure emerges, one who was to be a stock character, for the next millennium of Greek and Roman history composition, Thersites. This man, a humble, or perhaps not so humble common soldier, publicly voices dissent with the course of the war and demands that the Greeks return home, having fought a pointless war, which only benefits the kings and nobles, while bringing death to the common soldier. Odysseus severely beats Thersites for his temerity, returning the assembly to obedience. 
Now in a more warlike mood, the Greeks eat a hearty meal, and then prepare to assault the walls of Troy. At this point, with the Greeks fully arrayed, Homer takes the opportunity to describe the Greek forces in detail. This is the famous ‘Catalouge of Ships’, which for generations thrilled its Greek audience, who searched for their city or town, or namesake in the list. The Book also includes a shorter ‘Catalogue of the Trojans’.
Book Two concludes with the Greek armies streaming across the plains to attack Troy.

Book Three
Book Three
Menelaus—Spartan, husband of Helen
Paris—Trojan, lover of Helen.
Helen—the cause of the war, first appears in the poem.
Aphrodite—Goddess, pro-Trojan
This third book begins immediately after the conclusion of the second. The Greek and Trojan armies meet on the field, but rather than fall into combat, two heroes agree to fight between themselves, the winning side to take all, including Helen. These two men are Menelaus, the husband, and Paris, the lover. There combat is preceded by negotiation as to the spoils the winning side will receive and the necessity of a sacrifice to seal the agreement. 
The two men fight, Menelaus gets the better of the combat, but Aphrodite spirits Paris away to his bed chamber, to which she also summons Helen. The two engage, leaving Menelaus to wander the field of combat looking for his absent opponent. Agamemnon declares that his brother Menelaus has won the contest and that the Trojans should now accept the terms of the agreement.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

A day in Yala.

The province of Yala is one more of the three ‘deep’ south provinces of Thailand, also suffering from terrorism as is Pattani. I decided to visit the capital city of this province, also named Yala (every Thai province shares its name with its capital city—it is one of the few exceptions to the rule that every rule of Thai administration has an exception), to see what I could see. 
On the buses.
A mix of culture ?

Heading to the city.

One of many checkpoints.
These are
difficult to photograph
from the bus.

A poor area, many folk
live in simple wooden shacks.

Rather than move myself and my gear to the landlocked Yala province, I decided to keep my base in Pattani, at the comfortable CS Pattani Hotel, and take a local bus to Yala city for the day. This consumes an hour plus in time, 25 baht in coin, and 40kms of space travelled southwards from Pattani town. 

Always soldiers.
In my previous blog post about Pattani I made the point that there was little evidence of a police and military presence in the city. That is true, however, I can now say that this gives an inaccurate indication of the situation. Along the highway between Pattani and Yala there were few kilometres of road without a soldier visible. 

I will confess to feeling a certain amount of sympathy for these chaps. These soldiers come from other parts of Thailand, are paid a relative pittance, stand (or sit) in the hot sun all day (ok, they are usually in the shade), and have a remote chance of being killed. Not the best way to spend one's youth.

Soldiers along the highway

Soldiers at entrance to Yala.
There were checkpoints, parked military vehicles, or small groups of soldiers along the entire trip. I did not count, but there were lots of soldiers. Other than the military, the trip from Pattani to Yala wove through many small towns and villages, and through the lush southern Thai country side, farms, banana trees, and people.

The streets of the city.

Town clock.
There are four
public clocks in Yala!

Old wooden building.
From the Portuguese
trading era. 

The Central Mosque
of Yala.

Some local chaps sitting
outside the Mosque, in
the "man's area".

A Muslim dressed man
at the train station. It was
mostly the women who wore
Muslim garb.

With the mod cons.
A 7 Eleven.
A mainstay of Thai life.
The economy of the region is largely agricultural, rice and a few other crops. There is not the prevalence of rubber trees as there is further north. The demographics of the province reflect this. There are approximately 400,000 people in Yala, but only 60,000 or so in the city. Thus 85% of the population live in the small towns and villages of the province, close to the land. You will notice this as you drive through the province, at least along the main roads. There are always people to be seen.

The local economy is also boosted by remittances of locals who live and work in neighbouring Malaysia. There is also, I am told, a number of informal cross border activities such as the sale of cheaper petrol, and other products, from Malaysia, which also aids with the local cash flow. A difference between the south of Thailand and the Isan region is the lack of ‘factories’. Factories—assembly plants where everything from hard drives to t-shirts are manufactured and exported. No idea why there but not here.

A local cat.

Yala is also one of the four provinces of Thailand, which has a Muslim majority. Approximately 70% of the population are Muslims. As you wander through the city you will see lots of headscarves and women in Muslim dress. The men wear, mostly, the same casual shirt and pants as do most men in Thailand.
Street cleaner.

The motorbike ('cyc')

People everywhere.

When I arrived in the small city I alighted at the town train station. When in doubt get off at a train station, it is always a transport nexus. Needless to say the locals were surprised to see me wandering around the town taking pictures, but were generally happy at my presence. Many waved and smiled at me, and when I used my minimal knowledge of the Thai language, they smiled even more (in a nice way). I suspect that tourism is appreciated for the boost it could provide to the local economy. And, as always, tourists provide a constant source of amusement in these small and isolated towns.
My badge to
enter the provincial
hall grounds.

The Pillar of the City
Pillar Shrine.

The Shrine itself.

Have you been?

The Yala province
Provincial Hall.

To assist me in covering territory and to get to see what I wanted to see, I engaged the services of a tuk tuk driver 'A-fin' by name. After a few minutes of negotiation we decided on a fee of 150 baht (~$5) per hour for himself and his small tuk tuk. I spent a total of three hours with him, he was a good local advisor, hampered somewhat by a lack of more than a few words of English. 
If you find yourself here, be aware that there is little English in the far, far south. Many locals speak enough to communicate the basics, but that is it. There is also not a great deal of information about Yala on the usual tourist websites. It is not a tourist destination, partly because of the troubles, also partly because, as even the most ardent local patriot would admit, there is little of note in the province. 
The City of Yala follows the basic design of most Thai provincial capitals. It has a central government precinct, replete with government buildings, ranging from provincial admin, to court buildings, land offices, tax, and so forth—all of the impedimenta of civilisation. The main difference is that there was a heightened air of security. For example, the entrance to the provincial hall was lightly fortified and had soldiers on duty examining cars for bombs.

Signs everywhere.

Election time.

More election signs.

Sights? Not a great deal. There is a primary Mosque in the city, the ‘Central Mosque’, but it is not overly large. There is also a major Buddhist wat in the city, Wat Put-a-Phum, but again, I have seen larger. I did not see evidence of one really nice cafe. It has been my experience that at least one enterprising local creates at least one pleasantly nice cafe for the local big wigs and the odd tourist to relax in, while enjoying a capuccino, but not apparently in Yala—or perhaps I missed, in my speedy day trip. 

The province bus station.
On the outskirts of the town.

The interior of the
Yala train stataion.
The streets of the city, outside the government area, seemed very much alike. Lines of old and worn  two or three story buildings, usually shops of one sort or another. There is little new construction. What I did not notice was the ‘bird contest’, which I saw in Pattani. Men gambling on bird chirping. As I spent only a day or so in town perhaps I simply missed this. I cannot say that I noticed any real centre to the city. The government precinct was just too far from the commercial areas to act as a local focus. To me the city seemed to be a series of near identical streets. This description paints a somewhat grim image of the city, but the people were happy and busy. Also the dress of the locals, particularly the women, gave the city some colour. 
Heading back. A local bus.
A bit bumpy, lots of stops
but it gets you there.

On the buses.
The town and province does have a university. A Rajabhat university. I visited and was told there were 9,000 students in attendance, and was given a comprehensive English language handbook about the uni. There were also a few buildings under construction. There were no native language English teachers at the uni. 
I spent my time in the city taking photographs and seeing what I could see. I will say that I did not feel in any danger from terrorists. In reality, the ‘troubles’ seem to interest only a tiny minority of the population. The Muslims of these three southern provinces are treated no better, or worse, than other rural Thai people, by the Thai authorities. As for being better off under the rule of the Malaysian government? Most people I have seen simply want to get on with their lives. 

Interesting to visit once, but I suspect I will not be returning.