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A Divided Nation: 'In Thailand, the Law of the Jungle Prevails'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the governor of Bangkok and a cousin of the king, condemns former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and criticizes the Thai Army. He says he is deeply concerned about the state of Thailand and the future of the monarchy.

SPIEGEL: Thailand doesn't seem to be able to return to normal, as the latest uprising in Bangkok proves. The riots we saw last week were the worst ones witnessed in years.

Sukhumbhand Paribatra: In terms of how widespread it was geographically, it was the worst the city has ever experienced. During the unrest of 1973, 1976 and 1992, there were more deaths …

SPIEGEL: … but in 1973 and 1976 we were primarily dealing with student protests.

Chaos in Bangkok: "The worst the city has ever experienced."
DPA

Chaos in Bangkok: "The worst the city has ever experienced."

Sukhumbhand: This time there was senseless violence in many parts of the city. People set fires and attacked each other.

SPIEGEL: Everything began the weekend before last, when the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship -- as the supporters of deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra call themselves -- succeeded in halting the Asia summit in the coastal resort of Pattaya. Doesn't that indicate a total failure of your military and police forces?

Sukhumbhand: We have to admit that. The conference hotel is located on a hill and only three narrow roads lead to it. They should never have permitted this venue to be stormed. The police leadership downright refused to intervene and the armed forces only came to help at the last minute. By then Prime Minister Abhisit was trapped.

SPIEGEL: His car was attacked and his driver was hit. In other countries, bodyguards would have reached for their weapons. Why didn't they in Thailand?

Sukhumbhand: The instructions were not there to shoot. There was a vacuum, which allowed the protesters to do what we saw.

SPIEGEL: Earlier, Thailand was considered the epitome of a Buddhist tropical paradise. But today the country is mentioned in the same breath as civil war and chaos. How do you explain the polarization of your society?

Sukhumbhand: There has always been a division between the rich and the poor in Thai society, and there always was an extreme gap between the urban and the rural masses. But that has always been kept under control by an unstated consensus on the part of all political leaders that certain things should not be touched. There was a consensus that political leaders may quarrel among themselves, but they may not take their quarrel to the extent that it would have any impact on the monarchy or to the extent that it would aggravate these fractions in society.

SPIEGEL: But Thaksin suddenly did not play to the rules of the old political elites.

Sukhumbhand: What happened during the Thaksin period was that he didn't play according to that rule anymore. In fact, he tried to impose his own rules. That might have been for good reasons, I don't doubt that. But there was a rule that there are certain things that you don't do. It might partially be due to his personality and partially due to the extent of his three election victories. The consensus in our society broke down and there is no mechanism to put it back in place right now. This is also because the king is no longer as active as he was before.

SPIEGEL: The Red Shirts complain that there is no democracy and no justice in Thailand because their leaders have been arrested, but the Yellow Shirt leaders who blockaded Bangkok's international airport last year go free.

Sukhumbhand: The facts are obvious. There has always been injustice in Thai society. But under Thaksin, was there justice? This is one of the problems in Thailand -- there has been always the law of the jungle. Between 2002 and 2005, when Thaksin ruled, thousands of alleged drug traffickers and terrorists were killed. I don't say that Thaksin ordered that killings. But thousands were murdered. They disappeared and the media was silenced. What is better, that people who blocked an airport are not punished or that innocent people are murdered? I cannot condone any act of injustice. The sad truth is that in Thailand the law of the jungle prevails. It's also a fact that Thaksin's followers are no angels, and we Democrats aren't either.

SPIEGEL: In retrospect, was the military putsch that toppled Thaksin on Sept. 19, 2006 a failure?

Sukhumbhand: I don't condone military coups, and I was not in favor of that coup, either. But if the coup leader felt there has to be a coup, they should have carried it to its logical conclusion.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Sukhumbhand: They weren't forceful enough. Ironically, first the coup leaders broke the most important law of the land, the constitution, and then they didn't dare to break the little laws. If the generals had smashed Thaksin's network right at the beginning, and if they would have confiscated his properties straightaway, we wouldn't be confronted with the chaos that we have today.

SPIEGEL: Why did the generals mess it up?

Sukhumbhand: Stupid, they are stupid. Thaksin's popularity was on the way down, anyway.

SPIEGEL: Thaksin's passport was only recently revoked. What would his supporters do if he were extradited to Bangkok to stand trial for corruption and inciting the uprising?

Sukhumbhand: They would go completely berserk.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't new elections be the best solution for restoring peace?

Sukhumbhand: No. The outcome would be the same as before. We will be confronted with equally large blocs opposing each other. I think it will be better if the government stays in power to the end of this term. Then the voters should decide, but not on the streets. But no one has any magical solutions right now.

SPIEGEL: In times of crisis, His Majesty, the King of Thailand, has often spoken out as the moral authority of your country. Does that not indicate that Thailand's politicians are too immature to lead the country on their own?

Sukhumbhand: Actually, the king has not come out so often. He has only intervened in a few cases. But when he did, it was always important. But, clearly, we political leaders have proven to be immature in solving differences among ourselves. So the king is needed. But the fact that the king is there to help out in times of trouble allows us to be immature.

SPIEGEL: At some point, the king will no longer be there. Will Thailand then slip into chaos when he dies? Are you afraid of that?

King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit of Thailand: "Everybody worries about the king."
Getty Images

King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit of Thailand: "Everybody worries about the king."

Sukhumbhand: Of course I am afraid. I was not afraid before. But now, after a few years of political polarization, I think that this political polarization will become even more violent.

SPIEGEL: The king is 81 now. Normally, on his birthday he reads a speech to the nation each year. But last year was the first time he didn't read it himself. That might indicate that he is ill. Is there reason to worry and are you afraid?

Sukhumbhand: Everybody worries about the king. Even if he goes for a checkup, people panic. Yes, of course we are worried.

SPIEGEL: Is he seriously ill?

Sukhumbhand: Let me formulate it this way: He's not doing as well as he was 10 years ago.

SPIEGEL: Then isn't it time for him to reproach Thaksin before it's too late?

Sukhumbhand: The king has never failed, so his success has built up a myth around him that he could never do anything wrong. But it's not even certain that Thaksin would listen to him. If he didn't, then what? That's why he has to think very carefully about when and what he says.

SPIEGEL: Some say that the whole root cause of the problems in Thailand is based on the fact that Thaksin wants to become president and that he plans to get rid of the monarchy. How do you comment on that?

Sukhumbhand: I do not listen to things like that.

SPIEGEL: You are a cousin of the king. So you know the royal court's rules very well. How is the successor to the king actually selected?

Sukhumbhand: There are generally two possibilities. The king can pick his own successor ...

SPIEGEL: ... which King Bhumibol Adulyadej has not done yet ...

Sukhumbhand: As far as we know. If that hasn't happened, then a successor must be found according to the palace law of 1926. But that is subject to approval by the parliament.

SPIEGEL: So his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, or one of his daughters would become the successor?

Sukhumbhand: No, the palace law doesn't permit a female successor to the throne.

SPIEGEL: So the only choice would be Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn?

Sukhumbhand: That we know of, yes.

Interview conducted by SPIEGEL Asia correspondent Jürgen Kremb.

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