World affairs, to me, is like a soap opera. A real drama, unfolding in real time, with numerous complex sub-plots. One has been Thailand.
This was one of those Asian “tigers” that democratized a few decades ago. But they still have a “revered” king (aged and declining), who is supposed to be above politics. In reality, he’s made a hash of things by allowing a clique of military and palace intriguers free reign. (In addition, there has been disgracefully extensive exploitation of a “lese majeste” law, jailing many people for supposedly insulting the King.)
Comes Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms billionaire, elected prime minister in 2001. No perfect angel, he. But he made promises to Thailand’s poor that he kept, genuinely trying to improve their lot, as well as the nation’s. (Unlike that sonofabitch Chavez.) Yes, Thaksin’s policies were also politically canny – he developed a wide base of loyal support, and won an unprecedently large victory in 2005 elections.
But the elites and old guard didn’t like Thaksin’s populism, and the army ousted him in a 2006 coup. Thaksin was driven into exile, had some of his billions confiscated in a (probably) trumped up corruption prosecution; and when Thaksinites won a subsequent election, the courts were suborned to sideline them and to hand power to a contrived anti-Thaksin parliamentary coalition (headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva).
Since 2006, too, Thailand has been wracked by political violence between Thaksinite “red shirts” and the yellow-shirted, palace-instigated “People’s Alliance for [Against] Democracy.” Many were killed in a virtual civil war in Bangkok. As the whole sorry tale unfolded, Thai democracy looked battered and failing.
Finally, on July 3, another election. Thaksin’s former political parties having been sequentially banned, a new one (Peu Thai) was entered, with a new standard-bearer, Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, Thaksin’s sister, new to politics. Given the country’s polarization, the extremism of the anti-Thaksin side, and a multiplicity of parties, a muddled indecisive outcome might have been expected. That would have been very bad.
But, inexperienced or not, Yingluck mounted a brilliantly effective campaign, while her opponents proved as skillful in campaigning as they had in managing the country. Sensibly, Yingluck promised to promote national reconciliation, eschew revenge, and no rush to bring Thaksin himself back.
Her victory was smashing, producing an outright parliamentary majority.
A decisive victory for either side would have been a good thing, drawing a line under Thailand’s poisonous political turmoil. But I was delighted to see the Thais deliver this resounding repudiation of the undemocratic manipulations by the army, the elites, the palace intriguers, and their violent thugs, over the last five years. So crushing was the blow that it’s hard to see how that illegitimate resistance to the people’s choice can be sustained any longer. The yellow shirts encamped in or near the capital seem to have slinked away.
I recite this tale because I consider it very good news. In the same week, on July 9, South Sudan at long last celebrated its hard-won independence (and thank you, USA, for that). Progress is never linear, it’s a fitful and difficult process, overcoming human bloody-mindedness, three steps forward and two steps back, but, inch by inch, day by day, year by year, the world is becoming a better place.