Saturday, October 18, 2008

A nation divided by politics

Thai Takes
By Philip Golingai

WHAT does a Thai doctor check first?

a) Your blood pressure.

b) Your weight.

c) Your temperature.

d) Your political views.

The answer is “d” if your doctor is from Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok.

A day after the Oct 7 bloody street battles in the Thai capital between the People’s Alliance of Democracy (PAD) and the police that killed two PAD protesters, about 50 doctors from the Chulalongkorn Hospital announced that they would not treat policemen.

“Today, medical teams of Chulalongkorn Hospital will not give assistance to police officers injured in clashes with PAD supporters. This is a social measure to show that doctors and nurses condemn the violent actions,” said Dr Suthep Koncharnwit.

Up north, 70 doctors at Chiang Mai University’s faculty of medicine declared that they would not treat policemen, Cabinet members and government MPs - except in emergency cases.

Another quiz.

If you are a pilot, will you refuse to fly a passenger because she/he is?

a) Osama bin Laden.

b) A threat to the safety of other passengers.

c) A MP from People Power Party (PPP, the ruling party the PAD love to hate).

d) Sarah Palin.

The answer, if you’re Thai Airways pilot Jakrit Pongsirim, is a combination of “b” and “c”.

The day after the police used tear gas to disperse PAD protesters blockading parliament on Oct 7, Jakrit - in two separate domestic flights - refused to allow three PPP MPs from boarding his aircraft.

The pilot told a Thai Airways panel investigating the incidents that he was compelled to reject the MPs because they could cause trouble as other passengers could become angry if they saw them in the aircraft.

Another quiz.

What does the two incidents tell you about Thailand?

a) The country is so politically divided that it is now Thai versus Thai.

b) A war has erupted between those who clutch hand-shaped clappers (the PAD’s favourite political “weapon”) and those who clasp foot-shaped clappers (produced recently for the pro-PPP supporters).

c) It is all grouchy in the Land of Smiles.

If you are Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, who contested in the recent Bangkok governor race as an independent, your answers are “a” and “b”.

“It is a reflection of the division in this society,” explains the former Democrat Party MP. “And this division has drawn a deep wedge which can be felt even among families, friends and colleagues.”

Thailand is now split between those for or against the PAD (a movement seeking to eradicate what it thinks is the root of all evil in Thai politics - Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Thai prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup).

The split, according to the 53-year-old politician, is the worst since the 1970s that saw two brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators in the “Black October” of 1973 and 1976.

Thais, observes Kriengsak, are overtly declaring their political affiliation.

For example, those carrying hand-shaped clappers want to make a personal statement that they are with the PAD.

However, it will be too simplistic to colour code Thais into “yellow” (the colour of PAD) and “red” (the colour of the PPP) because there are those who are neither yellow nor red.

Kriengsak estimates that 30% of Thais are pro-PPP, 20% are pro-PAD and the rest - including himself - are caught in the middle.

Those in the middle disagree with the use of violence (from both sides) to resolve the country’s political conflict.

And the neutrals are fed up.

“We wonder when will these clashes end? When can we go back to our normal life?” Kriengsak says.

Final quiz.

On Wednesday, Thai and Cambodian soldiers exchanged rockets and gunfire along their disputed border.

Will this border dispute where two Cambodian soldiers were killed and Thai soldiers captured:

a) Unite polarised Thais to fight against an external enemy?

b) Weaken the government because it will be fighting at two fronts - Cambodia and the PAD?

The answer varies.

Ed Cropley of Reuters says: “A border war with one of Thailand’s traditional enemies would likely rally some support behind the government and army.”

But some political analysts predict another “final battle” between anti and pro-government supporters is looming in Bangkok.

(Published in The Star on Oct 18, 2008)