Elayne Clift


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Politics and Poultry: Living in the Eye of the Storm

Elayne Clift, a writer in Saxtons River, Vt., is spending a year teaching in Chiang Mai, Thailand and writing about her experiences there.

My friends want to know if it’s okay to visit.  If it’s not bird flu that frightens them, it’s the political scene.  The reality is neither poultry nor a Prime Minister up to his patootie in trouble makes Thailand a dangerous place to be right now.  It does make it interesting.

Once CNN gets a hold of a story, as it has done with Mr. Thaksin’s troubles here, one would think there is anarchy in the streets. The fact is that outside of Bangkok, where regular demonstrations have been peaceful, life goes on without anything more than speculation about what will happen next.  I am reminded of my Israeli friends who say that, really, life goes on quite normally on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv while we watch racing ambulances.   Sound bites are a powerful thing.

It was a mistake, in my view, to report Thailand’s recent political events in the same breath as talk about marital law in The Philippines (which has been lifted).  Here in Thailand, the situation is this: A growing coalition calling itself the People’s Alliance for Democracy  (PAD) has said that until Thakin steps down, they will continue to demonstrate peacefully.  The Prime Minister has ignored PAD’s calls for his resignation; instead, he dissolved Parliament and said there will be an election in April.  This, his critics charge, gives him time to buy votes in rural areas (Thailand is 80 percent rural), where his party, Thai Rak Thai, is very popular because of his grandiose promises and personal payments, which he euphemistically refers to as “poverty alleviation.”  Opposition parties have said they will boycott the election.

The straw that broke Mr. Thaksin’s political back was a change in the law, at his instigation, that gave him the right to sell his huge telecommunications holdings to a Japanese firm without paying taxes on the deal. But he’s been on a slide for months, beginning with his attempts to control press freedom.

There’s no doubt that the situation could escalate, but so far the military has said it will remain neutral (in spite of Mr. Thaksin’s recent meetings and rounds of golf with the big brass). The King is nowhere near stepping in with a royal decree as he did during the 1990’s political crisis.  So for now, it’s still a wait-and-see game for most people in what has been called this country’s “fragile democracy.”

As for worries about avian flu – right now, that’s literally for the birds.  Of course a pandemic could break out, and one day it probably will.  But for now, people here are still eating chicken.  And Thailand is still a wonderful place to visit, even though in more ways than one, we are coming into the hot season.

March 2006