Bright sparks amid a bleak year for Thailand

opinion January 01, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

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Military-backed elite have tightened their grip on power, but cave drama showed citizens can come together



After a year of swallowing bitter pills from an increasingly entrenched military-backed elite, 2018 ended on another sour note for citizens of Thailand.

Anyone optimistic that February’s general election might open a new chapter for the nation will be disappointed. The best we can hope for is to take a small step back to political normalcy. True representative democracy is not on our horizon.

More than four years after the Army intervened once again to end political deadlock, the self-appointed guardians of the nation’s destiny are ambitious to extend their stay in power.

The bitter medicine of their rule in 2018 underlined just how far we still have to go to achieve good governance. And in case any reminder was needed, as the New Year break loomed last week, the National Anti-Corruption Commission absolved Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan of failing to declare a Bt37-million collection of luxury wristwatches when he took up his government post.   

The country collectively shook its head over the NACC ruling, while at the same time bobbing to the rap song “Prathet Ku Me (My Country’s Got…)” and its blistering attack on Thailand’s political hypocrisy and social injustice.

Prawit was already sporting a foot injury sustained in July, when he shot his mouth off after a tour boat capsized near Phuket, killing 47 Chinese tourists. The deputy PM was quick to blame the Chinese tour operators, accusing them of ignoring Thai safety regulations. The heartlessness of the statement prompted a wave of cancelled bookings from Chinese travellers, resulting in a 20-per-cent drop in arrivals between August and October.

Hopes were lifted when the long arm of the law reached out for Thailand’s top monks following an investigation into financial corruption in the Sangha Supreme Council by tough-as-nails National Buddhism Office chief Pongporn Parmsneh.

Among those stripped of their saffron robes was Phra Prommedhi, an abbot known for spreading Islamophobic sentiment among his followers. He fled to Germany where he has applied for asylum.

Trophy hunting, a pursuit often indulged in by the rich and famous, also made headlines this past year. A team of forest rangers at Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi apprehended Premchai Karnasuta, president of Italian-Thai Development Plc, at a jungle camp littered with carcasses of rare wildlife, including a black leopard that had been skinned and butchered.

All eyes will be on the court case over the next three months to see what course Thai justice takes.

The judiciary did not generate much sympathy earlier in the year when they came under fire over alleged encroachment in Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep, a sacred landmark in the running for World Heritage status. Apparently, building housing for judges on hillsides off-limits to ordinary people was not an issue, legally speaking.

But while the judiciary took a beating in the social media, the authorities decided to give nature a chance to heal another wound. One of the country’s top tourist destinations, Krabi’s Maya Bay in Had Nopparat Tara-Phi Phi National Park, was shut to visitors to give it time to recover. The brave measure is apparently paying off, as marine life including black tip reef sharks are finally returning to the calmer and cleaner waters. 

The beloved Dusit Zoo left Bangkok, together with residents like Mae Mali the Hippo, who have found new homes at wildlife facilities around the country.

An unlikely whistle-blower, Panida Yotpanaya, gave everybody renewed hope when the 22-year-old intern at the Khon Kaen Protection Centre for the Destitute courageously brought to light large-scale corruption in the ministry.

But the news that united all of us was the mission to rescue a group of young footballers stranded by rising floodwater in a Chiang Rai cave. For a brief moment, we forgot about the bitter pills and found unity in sympathy for the plight of the boys in the cave – two of whom were stateless. In a year of division and dictatorship, memories of the Tham Luang drama offered proof of what Thais, at their best, are capable of.