Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thailand and Bolivia

Like many people, I am naturally sympathetic to protest movements.  I like the speeches, the camaraderie, and, especially, the feeling of politics out in the open, not behind closed doors---the closed doors of power, but also the closed doors of our own homes, where we stew over newspapers and computers, not knowing who else shares our thoughts. 

However, in the past month I've been profoundly at odds with two protest movements in particular: the opposition movement in Thailand and the secessionist movement in Bolivia. 

The New York Times summed up the campaign of the Thai People's Alliance for Democracy (P.A.D.) against Prime Minister Samak Sundarajev well with the headline "Power of the People Fights Democracy in Thai Protests" (note the absence of the word "for").  The political camps in this latest flash point are contradictory to say the least, but one thing is clear: a powerful contingent of the opposition does not believe in one person, one vote, because such a system gives the rural majority "too much" of a voice.  

Why shouldn't Thailand's rural majority have a voice?  Why, indeed, shouldn't they have the biggest voice?  Their votes, it is said by P.A.D. supporters, can be bought.  What does that mean?  In at least one conversation I've had with an opposition supporter, at a discussion in New York organized around the last coup, "buying votes" was taken to include providing the rural masses with healthcare, as the deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra did.  In other words, responding to the needs of the poor and then receiving the votes of the poor is sketchy, outside the natural order of things, inherently corrupt.

That's not to say that Thaksin couldn't be a thug when he wanted or that he wasn't, in fact, corrupt.  His anti-drug crackdown was unnecessarily brutal.  And anyone turned off by Berlusconi's marriage of media tycoon-ery and politics in Italy will see striking parallels with the Thaksin TV empire's fuzzy borders with his administration.  But the picture of, as the Times says, "haves and have-nots, with the haves rising up against the poorer classes" is disgusting.  

It reminds me of a nineteenth century book called Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants or Civilization and Barbarism By D.F. Sarmiento that I had to read for a Latin American history class in college.  In the book, the civilized capital of Argentina is contrasted by Sarmiento with the "barbaric" interior, from which "tyrants" and cowboys and Indians spring.  As in Thailand's case, the rural-based "tyrants" of the Argentine book are indeed less than admirable, trampling on the law with abandon. But the bankruptcy of Argentina's Europeanized elite, with whom Sarmiento proudly identifies, is even more apparent.

Which brings me to Bolivia.  There, in Santa Cruz but also elsewhere, we see a bourgeoisie remarkably similar to that of Chile before 1973: disdainful, fearful of change---and ready for the U.S. to intervene, practically begging for the Yankees to sweep in.  And it seems that America has done just that, if Evo Morales' recent expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg for meddling is any sign.    

Thankfully, Latin America seems to have rallied around Morales, a leader worthy not only of support but also real admiration.  Brazil in particular has shown courage in speaking up, shelving for now the benefits that have come with being Bush's "good" left-leaning government on the continent.  In fact, this is not the first time that Lula has stepped up for Bolivia when it has been in need.  In a February interview in Monthly Review, Bolivian VP Garcia said that support from Brazil, along with the support of other countries like Chile and Argentina, held back the tide of "extremists."

It is this sort of solidarity, but also sense of purpose, that Southeast Asia needs in order to preserve its democratic gains, put elites in their place (which by rights should be toward the back of the line), move beyond a superficial populism---like that epitomized by Thaksin---and begin to achieve real fairness.

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