When news of the political unrest in Thailand hit the national airwaves this spring, the Seattle-Puget Sound Thai-American community reacted with dismay. Watching daily reports of rioting and arson attacks in Bangkok was especially difficult for Su Vathanaprida, a retired Seattle librarian.
“My reaction to the turmoil was sadness,” she said. “Thailand is a democratic country. People have a right to demonstrate peacefully, but they do not have the right to block businesses from operating or ordinary people who want to go on with their daily lives.”
Vathanaprida added, “Those who committed these acts should be punished. Everyone is glad it’s over, but at the same time we know that it’s not over yet.”
When Thai troops fired tear gas and bullets at protesters, turning downtown Bangkok into a battlefield, Thai-Americans in the region reacted viscerally to images of government troops and grenade-wielding militants. The scenes of armored vehicles, arson attacks, and televised images of violent confrontations between Thai military and Red Shirt protesters sent shockwaves throughout the Thai-American community.
“We were all surprised by the extent of the violence,” said Gaviphat Lekutai, an AT&T engineer. “We were even more surprised that Thaksin Shinawatra (the former Prime Minister) would do anything to put himself before the country and destroy it, the king’s reputation, and people.“
With tensions escalating each day, many local Thais stared in disbelief as pictures of burning buildings, mounting casualties and brazen-faced demonstrators reached a flash point. For many in the Thai community, the ensuing violence could be attributed to Thaksin, who was ousted in a bloodless coup four years ago.
Peter Tangpiankij, president of the Thai Association, was particularly critical of the demonstrators. “The Red Shirt protesters’ ultimate goal is to return Thaksin the power to reclaim their share of vested interests that they so enjoyed during his regime,” he said. ““Personally, there were times I hoped that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva would send in uniformed officers to disperse and crack down the Red Shirt agitators.”
For the most part, the 82-year-old Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, steered clear of any personal involvement in the unfolding crisis. Sympathy for the aging, and widely revered monarch, was an ever-present concern for the Thai-American community, many of whom expressed revulsion at the crisis that the pro-Thaksin demonstrators had fomented.
“I feel sad for the king because he’s devoted his life to helping the poor,” said Vhantip Bhokayasupatt, a Seattle businesswoman. “The people who caused this are corrupt and greedy, and want power.”
Other Thai-Americans in Seattle and around the state echoed her sentiments. Patriya Tansuhaj, a Washington State University professor of marketing who was in Chiang Mai with a group of 20 study abroad WSU students when the crisis erupted, had a first-hand perspective on the political tensions.
“As a Thai-American, I felt the turmoil became lengthened and escalated because of heavy funding by Thaksin Sinawatra,” she said. “We were not surprised because we have seen how much violence he (Thaksin) used to win his power back. We were surprised at how long it took the government to finally end it.
But then, it’s a Buddhist country, so using force to harm people should be the last option.”
The violence in Bangkok evoked similarly strong reactions elsewhere in the United States, although there were divisions. “The Thai community in the Houston area where we live is sharply divided into two camps, the pro-Red Shirt, Thaksin supporters, and the pro-government Yellow Shirts,” said David Rubin, a former Corps volunteer in Thailand.
“Many Thais living in the United States are from the north and northeast regions of Thailand and remain fervent supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin and the Red Shirts,” Rubin said. “The Yellow Shirt community is strong in the U.S., however, because many of their Thais are from the Bangkok area, or are in the type of upwardly mobile Thai professions who are supportive of the current government.”
Darryl Johnson, former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, is currently on the faculty at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.
“I think Thais in our area were deeply saddened and surprised by the violence, and were strongly opposed to Thaksin,” Johnson said. “I think it’s fair to say that they do not expect any real rapprochement between the Abhisit (Vejjajiva) government and Thaksin.”
Many Thai-Americans in the Seattle area are especially concerned about the damage the political crisis has caused to Thailand’s international image, which has suffered enormously. The country’s economy and multi-billion-dollar tourism industry have taken a major hit.
An additional source of frustration was the reporting of the violence in Bangkok by the Western media. For the most part, local Thais said that media coverage of the events in Bangkok was accurate, but were disdainful of stories by CNN reporters, which the Thai community viewed as overly sympathetic to the Red Shirts.
Bhokayasupatt was particularly distraught: “CNN only interviewed the Red Shirts, and not the soldiers. They spread these images around the world and only created more misunderstanding about Thai people and Thailand.”
WSU’s Tansuhaj concurs. “We felt that the international media sensationalized the situation too much, especially CNN, which received many complaints by educated Thais, their regular viewers,” Tansuhaj said. “Many boycotted CNN because of its very biased and inaccurate reporting, especially by its chief Bangkok correspondent, Dan Rivers.”
Most overseas Thais have not publicly criticized the British-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom they believe handled the crisis adroitly. “Most Thais in our community were sympathetic to Abhisit and supported his restraint, but were sharply critical of the Red Shirts,” said Ambassador Johnson.
Tangpiankij said, “Abhisit has tried to deal with the situation with openness, immense patience, and compassion. He has exercised restraint to the utmost beyond the international norm of practice.”
What the future holds for Thailand, however, remains uncertain. “The chasm dividing the country is quite wide,” said Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. “The chasm will continue and likely widen. The best hope is that the conflict moves off the streets and stays in the courts and parliament.”
Thais in the local Seattle community are similarly nervous about the prospects for a rapprochement between the government and pro-Thaksin supporters. The fault lines in Thailand’s political landscape remain unsettled.
Yet some, like Su Vathanaprida, are hopeful. “In order to reach out to the pro-Thaksin supporters, the government must try to understand their concerns and beliefs. Many are legitimate, like the gaps in jobs and prosperity between city and rural areas. All these can only be achieved if Thaksin and his supporters are really concerned about the future of the country,” she said.
“I sometimes wish that Thaksin could be like Bill Gates — a philanthropist, donating his money to the needy.”
Reprinted with the permission of Crosscut. www.crosscut.com.