A Divided Perspective, Part I: Out with the Government
Grit Sripaurya, a 33-year-old businessman, is tall, dark and powerfully built. When he smiles, which isn’t often, it’s a wide grin, revealing a fine set of pearly white teeth. He sits across from me in his family home, a house near Wat Jed Yod replete with chandeliers, spiral staircase, towering columns in the driveway, statues, mahogany furniture, and paintings of family and royalty showcased in gilded frames. We sit back on blood red velvet chairs and start talking politics.
His English is fluent and his speech erudite. Grit grew up in Chiang Mai, “born and raised,” he says, but he also went to school in New Zealand and then took a degree in Farm Management in Israel. He was also, in his more playful youth, the owner of Chiang Mai’s one-time English language radio station, T.I.T.s radio – “The Greater the Hits the Greater the T.I.T.s”.
Today, Grit runs a taxi company at Chiang Mai Airport called Jed Yod Taxis. His current passion though, his ancillary vocation, is working as a spokesperson and protest coordinator for Chiang Mai’s contingent of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the current movement whose chief motivation is to rid the country of the caretaker government, to wipe Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai party off the face of the Thai political landscape, and in fact, to expel her and her notorious older brother from the country altogether and put an end to what Grit calls the Shinawatra family’s “evil regime.”
Chiang Mai’s anti-government movement has 10,000 registered members, according to Grit, a number that is surprising and “very very difficult [to achieve] considering that Chiang Mai is the capital city of the red shirts, where the Thaksin regime was born.” While it works closely with Bangkok and follows centralised goals, it also has its own agenda. “I work for Chiang Mai, not for Bangkok, I want Chiang Mai to have a strong democracy where all voices can be heard,” he says.
“My father is very involved in the Democrat party, my brother is a scholar and he uses academia to further political causes. Me?” Grit breaks into a huge grin, “I am the thug.” When asked whether he is a yellow shirt, he says no. He feels this new movement, boasting reform, is an amalgamation of what were yellow shirts, white masks, and even defecting red shirts “united, thanks to Khun Suthep, against the government, with the core purpose of dissolving the Thaksin Regime.”
Grit’s role as one of the north’s PDRC leaders is to hold gatherings and publicise information, much of it on social media. Concerning the famed local red intolerance of government opposition, “We now negotiate with red leaders before an event, through the help of the police, so that both of our boundaries are respected. It is working well so far. We try to explain to people why the government’s amnesty bill is an unacceptable whitewash, why populist policies need to be based on real economics, why reform needs to happen, why corruption shouldn’t be tolerated and why the Shinawatra family is evil.”
Unfortunately, just before we went to press, on February 16th, there was an incident where Grit’s Love Chiang Mai, Love Thailand campaign at Wat Jed Yod was attacked by a group of red shirts called Chiang Mai Free Red Shirts, under the leadership of red shirt radio personality DJ Uan. “There are many red factions,” Grit told us when we called for a last minute update to the story. “DJ Uan is running out of money and needs to impress Thaksin. It won’t happen again, tomorrow the police will issue the fifth warrant for his arrest, he is now in hiding. Other red groups are more reasonable.”
“A lot of people come and observe us,” Grit says in our original chat. “People like what we do, and more come back. We’re talking a lot about reform, but first you have to reform yourself, we have to write people into the debate. The red shirts, they are Thai people too, and after this problem we are still all in Thailand.”
He says that he would like to convert red shirts to hate Thaksin, a name which appears to be synonymous with “evil” in Grit-speak.
“Thaksin is evil. He is a cult,” Grit says looking more and more frustrated. “He’s pure evil…there’s no other word for it. I can’t find words.” Shifting down a gear, he admits, “Though if it weren’t for the corruption of Thaksin, the Democrats wouldn’t be talking reform.” In other words, Democrats’ reform is reactionary, not ideological, just a tool to rid Thailand of their arch-enemy.
Grit accepts that PDRC are no angels. “I’m not denying that the PDRC has done wrong,” he says, relating to the many undemocratic actions of the party. “We tried each and every way [to stop the government’s many actions], and they used the loopholes in democracy. Elections are not the answer to the problem; another election is not the answer.”
He explains that it is only a matter of time before the government is overthrown, and if it hadn’t been for the government’s push for the blanket Amnesty Bill, there would have been another catalyst that kicked off anti-government protests. “The oil was always there, we just waited for the fire,” he says.
But can he not see why many rural Thais support Thaksin and Pheu Thai in view of policies that actually recognised their existence and improved, somewhat, their quality of life? “People felt tangible hope from Thaksin’s policies, but there are consequences…it’s a Thaksin trap, the penalties come later,” he replies.
The trap, Grit adds, are the many failures of the Shinawatra siblings. The rice pledging scheme being the biggest failure of all, and perhaps PDRC’s best trick in the current political theatre. “They’ve come to a dead end,” he says. “They cannot give money back to the farmers, and so they tried to borrow money from the banks, but they don’t have the right to get loans! They don’t even have the right to set up an emergency state. This government is illegitimate!” For this reason, he says, more and more farmers are joining the PDRC movement.
As to the much-criticised proposal for a people’s council for reform, according to Grit, they will be elected, not handpicked like many other members of PCRC have claimed. It will not consist of politicians, but rather people with mixed political beliefs, whether red, yellow, or on the fence.
But what does reform actually entail?
“The roadmap objective of reform is not 100 percent,” he says, “but it’s almost there, it’s coming soon,” and though it’s still inchoate, “We want all the people of Thailand to be part of the reform.”
One such reformative move is a planned change to how the police system works. Currently, he explains, the police system is much like the army system, a hierarchy in which members of the force are moved around whenever they get a bump up the ladder – whether it’s a bought bump, or less likely, one earned. Instead, Grit says, it should be community-based so that policemen have real relationships with people they are meant to serve.
The law, the mechanisms of law, is where Grit says reform has to start: the police, the courts, legislation. This means harsher punishments for those involved with corruption. Clean up the police, he says, and then you can also punish fairly and efficaciously. “If you buy votes,” he says, “then you will be eliminated. If the accusations are proven to be false, then there should also be punishment.”
How this kind of reform will be implemented – and it is a grand idea – is something for which we shall have to wait and see. Right now there is no road map.
Education is where reform is also needed, adds Grit. “Self-actualisation, through education,” turning the voter into someone who votes with knowledge and confidence. He also talks about cleaning up the courts, matching ministries with competence-based ministers, decentralisation, doing away with the patronage system, paying teachers more, paying police more, etc.
These words could of course be the antidote to Thailand’s social struggles and political schisms, but they could also simply be more rhetoric spilled into the cloudy airwaves. Suthep’s reform is a noble idea on paper; it essentially espouses less corruption, more equality, better politicians, more transparency. But as the reform now stands, it’s just a lot of sentences. Can it really happen? Is reform, as many journalists and citizens write, just a pretext for more self-interest? Will corruption still reign in politics if the regime is supplanted? Is this just a power game? Isn’t Suthep himself a man with a rich history of corruption? Doesn’t that say it all, really?
“Every single person involved in Thai politics is tainted with corruption,” says Grit when asked about Suthep’s murky track record, “but who else has such charisma? It has to be a certain kind of person to lead the people. Everyone knows he’s not clean, but we need a true leader. Suthep has won the hearts and minds of the people of Thailand, regardless of how dirty he is. People don’t care, they need direction.”
When pointed out that the same argument could be said to apply to Thaksin, Grit stands firm. “In the past, politicians sold the country retail, but Thaksin sold the country wholesale. It is a matter of scale.”
Grit says again that the PDRC movement is growing in Chiang Mai. That many people are becoming disenfranchised with the Pheu Thai government, in spite of recent reports that local red shirt groups are talking about a split Thailand.
“It’s absurd,” says Grit. “We can’t split the country.” He talks about rumours of “black shirts” camping out in Sansai, ready to take Chiang Mai if they are called upon. But while Grit believes that Thailand should not split, he also believes in Chiang Mai as a self-governing province, and says that “good governance and limited terms” could lead to a better Chiang Mai.
The outcome to the current morasses, soon to transpire, according to Grit, is that “Yingluck will either go to jail or go abroad like her brother and Pheu Thai will be dissolved.”
As a silver tray brimming with cookies and crumpets arrives with our tea, I ask Grit if he is worried about a civil war if this happens.
“We are past that point,” Grit tells me. “The most intense violence has already happened.” With Yingluck out of the way, he explains, the first step is to restart Thailand. The elected council would then get to work on this aforementioned reform.
What about the people who support neither side? Grit doesn’t believe there are any. “Deep in their hearts,” he says, “they have one side.” But it’s his belief that in the end the opposing sides will become one, one side with one set of leaders.
Will they reform Article 112? Surely freedom of speech is very important in a real, progressive, democratic society. I mention the criticism in the western press to what just about every newspaper calls “Thailand’s draconian laws.”
“We have freedom of speech; it’s just not all free,” says Grit. “We cannot live without the monarchy. This country was formed under a monarchy. We have to be grateful to our King, because our King has been so good to us. It would be immoral to criticise the royal family. This is a complexity of Thai democracy. We have a long history of complexity. People love their monarchy. Foreigners cannot understand this. If you [I think he means all foreigners, not just me] lived here a long time, you’d understand this.”
When asked what he saw as a realistic solution to these problems, he said, that he does believe in dialogue and wishes to reach out across the aisle on a local level to talk. But his overtures, he claims, have so far been ignored.