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Best Time to Invest In Thai Civil Society

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From late October 2013 to the middle of May 2014 Thailand - one of America’s closest allies in Southeast Asia stretching back nearly two centuries - was racked with political turmoil and the political equivalent of a Mexican Standoff among traditional ultra-royalist/ultra-conservatives, progressive liberal forces that had begun to find a voice under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, and an ever-lurking Thai military that had, in the past, taken over the reins of power on an average of every four years since the kingdom first publicly claimed to be a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Thaksin came into office as prime minister in 2001. Even before his first tenure as the country’s political leader was faced with a major hurdle accusing him of corruption and hiding assets. Clearing that obstacle successfully, after filling a full term - Thailand’s first-ever experience with an elected prime minister doing so - in 2006 Thaksin was ousted in a military coup, ostensibly for corruption and many say, posing a threat to the revered Thai monarchy – and as many correct, a threat to the powers surrounding and benefiting from close association with the monarchy. He was also, however, widely held to be too corrupt even by notorious Thai standards and not willing to share the spoils with traditional elitists.

Thaksin’s legacy lived on through subsequence political parties and prime ministers who did his beckoning. The last one, his sister, was herself ousted by the Thai courts for malfeasance in office by improperly transferring a senior official. Not long after this, public resentment overwhelmed the pro-Thaksin government’s ability to govern. Without any military objections government offices were literally invaded and those Thais who did support the government at the time were harassed and cajoled without the country’s elites raising a single objection – for good vested interest reasons.

After some violence occurred and even to the unfamiliar eye Thailand was clearly perched on a do-nothing ledge, the country’s military finally gave one last opportunity for the pro-and-anti Thaksin forces to come to some sort of compromise over a two day period. When it became evident that neither side was ready to compromise its position, on 20 May 2014 the military declared martial law, and two days later effected yet another coup.

That the coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha earlier swore in publish he would not effect a coup was a moot point when he did so on 22 May. As all Thai military leaders in the past had demonstrated without fail, the army will act when it feels it needs to. The standard propaganda about returning power to the people has become dog-eared over time and people basically understand that the country’s elite social echelons are merely applying more heat to ensure that their world is protected.

Against all this is the question among American administration officials and organizations that provide various kinds of assistance to Thailand of whether or not American aid, in its many forms, should be continued or curtailed. Certainly military aid was reduced in token fashion, but at risk were long-standing commercial and other relationships that if endangered would pose significant losses to American businesses. This was not an option. So instead of following the path the European Union took, the United States has been at once relatively vocal in Thai terms but pretty mute - in western jargon.

The core issue in a sense is not just a standoff among three unholy rivals who are all meritorious and benevolent by any means. Thai society itself is at huge risk. Over years the United States has been working in rural areas to help promote better governance and democracy. Local communities, part of civil society, have been provided aid and support in becoming more aware of legal rights, of how to take meaningful steps in making government more responsible, and how to work together as a productive democracy-based community for the benefit of civil society.

Up until this point USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, has been providing millions of dollars in aid, some of it to support civil society in Thailand. Now the question is being asked, if Thai authorities – an alliance between the military and the elites – are going to reprogram the minds of the Thais to return to ancient loyalties and archaic ways of thinking that include blind belief in principles and personalities that have little or no fact to support some of these force-fed concepts, isn’t the United States at risk, certainly financially, in continuing aid for promoting civil society in Thailand?

Having spent the last five months as an outreach advisor for northeast Thailand’s Center for Civil Society and Nonprofit Management, partly funded and supported by USAID, I was initially very negative on continuance of such aid. But then I thought: isn’t lack of basic underlying principles of governance and democracy, of critical thinking and thoughtful planning… isn’t lack of these really what makes such coups sometimes to be seen as necessary? If people are now aware, if they don’t have basic tools for local education and the knowledge on a local level to make good decisions, and they don’t need to be pro-American in any manner, then is it not a good idea to keep exerting efforts to provide such tools or create such awareness?

My new thoughts have been echoed by Australian academic Dr. Murray Print of the University of Sydney who wrote back to me on how he felt about whether the time was appropriate to promote and financially support civil society in Thailand, “The current situation in Thailand indicates an even stronger need for a program in civics and citizenship education in Thai schools and for appropriately prepared teachers to teach it.”

Perhaps one of the key phrases was “appropriately prepared.” That is a catch, and might be getting even more difficult with the junta’s insistence on turning back the clock and not allowing anyone a voice. This social motif, in fact, has been a hallmark of Thai values…a presence of tolerance but abject refusal to tolerate anything or anyone openly different or divergent from what is deemed to be Thai.

It is because of these drawbacks, and not in spite of them, that continued American support of civil society and democracy-based initiatives are vital. Despite the negative anti-western climate that seems to pervade Thailand from time to time, it is still just like any other place where ordinary people aspire to be free, to make up their own minds, to work together to achieve democracy. Retaining USAID-related projects, and approving new ones, will further this cause.

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