Thailand's Troubles, and Other Strange Events

Thailand Military
Photo courtesy of Columbia University

Thailand's Troubles, and Other Strange Events
| Sunday, May 25, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review associate editor

I'm checking right now to see if there was a full moon the other night. Evidently there was a military coup in Thailand, and Robert Gates has agreed to become leader of the Boy Scouts of America. To temporarily borrow from the Book of Numbers "What hath God wrought?

I was sitting there minding my own business when boom—Reuters was telling the world that General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand's army chief, led a bloodless coup on Thursday and will govern a polarized nation following six months of turmoil. He detained at least 25 politicians and ordered representatives from both sides to an army facility meeting at 10 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Friday. The discussion will almost certainly chart a path for Thailand's short-term future, with Prayuth forcing a negotiated “solution” that seeks to avoid protracted international criticism.

Prayuth launched the coup in light of a power struggle between the royalist establishment and a populist politician, ostensibly to avoid serious violence and damage to Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. Call it whatever you want, but this was the second time in eight years that the government was overthrown, and the 12th since 1932, when absolute monarchy ended. The country has since been dominated by military dictatorships.

Thailand exports more than $105 billion worth of goods and services annually, primarily rice, textiles, footwear, fishery products, rubber, jewelry, cars, computers and electrical appliances. The nation is the world's no. 1 exporter of rice, exporting more than 6.5 million tons of milled rice each year.

Yingluck Shinawatra's brother is Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon and former prime minister, and they have garnered massive support among rural poor in the north.

The coup is largely seen as a royalist establishment victory, because it has long disliked Ms. Yingluck and Mr. Thacksin, accusing them of being involved in corruption and nepotism. Yingluck was forced to step down as prime minister by a court earlier this month, but her caretaker government has retained power although martial law was declared Tuesday.

Condemnations have poured in from the United States, France, Japan, Australia, the European Union and the United Nations. First-world powers have long propped up dictatorial governments worldwide for generations, with their quasi-slave labor making it possible for Americans to purchase inexpensive products. We shall see if the country formerly known as Siam is able to emerge from this potential debacle with some semblance of stability.

Prayuth, a member of the royalist establishment, has sought to appear even-handed in his duties, trying to keep the military from interfering with conflicts. The army chief, 60, has taken over as prime minister, although it's unclear if he will retain the position. He and Yingluck had been on amiable terms before her ouster, but she's not trusted by many Thaksin supporters.

The royalists are demanding a 'neutral' interim prime minster to oversee reforms prior to another election, considering that they've been unable to unseat Thaksin or his party since 2001. The anti-Thaksin protesters were thrilled with this turn of events, while Thaksin's “red-shirt” supporters are angry although there are no immediate plans for protests.

More than 90 people were killed in 2010 clashes, with the vast majority being Thaksin supporters who were rallying against a pro-establishment government. Things could get pretty dicey because Prahyth commands an army that includes Thaksin sympathizers.

Investors have attempted to take the upheaval in stride, although Thailand's gross domestic product contracted 2.1 percent in 2014's first quarter. This negatively impacted tourist income, bringing on the potential for a recession.

In another situation that may prove just as sticky as the Thailand affair, the Boy Scouts of America named former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as its president during its annual meeting in Nashville.

"The Boy Scouts of America had a profound influence on my childhood and helped form the foundation of my career in public service," Gates said. "I’ve had tremendous opportunities in my life, but I can say without hesitation that my memories of Scouting are every bit as vivid and meaningful as what came later. I believe every boy deserves an opportunity to experience what Scouting offers."

Gates will become Scouting's most public figure at a pivotal moment in its history, following his service as defense secretary under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He had previously served as director of the CIA and president of Texas A&M University.

Last year, the BSA voted to admit openly-gay youths among its ranks, while excluding openly-gay homosexual adult leaders. There are 2.5 million BSA youth members and almost 1 million adults nationwide, and the decision almost certainly negatively impacted participation. The past decade has seen enrollment decline slightly, with a 6 percent drop coming last year.

Gates also has come under fire recently for unvarnished passages in his autobiography Duty, where he criticized Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, calling White House staffers "micromanagers" who were involved with "operational meddling."

On a recent book tour in support of his tome, Gates claimed his remarks meant no disrespect to the administration and the comments were "hijacked" by politics.

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