26 September 2006

Move along... nothing to see here...

Today's New York Times offers an interesting op-ed piece by freelance reporter Ismail Wolff, who found himself in the thick of things in Bangkok this past week when the Thai military staged a coup and overthrew the nation's prime minister:
Suddenly, all the public TV stations, by now under the direction of the military, ran a statement from the army and police commanders. They had “taken control of the situation in Bangkok” and politely asked for the public’s cooperation.

“We apologize for any inconvenience,” it signed off. Typical Thai politeness, I thought. Is this really what a coup feels like?

My shock, however, was not shared by the rest of the country.

As journalists sprang into action, Bangkok shut down. It happened like clockwork, almost as if a director yelled “Cut!” and a whole city of six million packed up the set and went home.

Street vendors casually closed up their food carts and wheeled them off to the shadows. Bustling streets slowly emptied as bars and restaurants shut up shop early under orders from the new junta. No signs of panic anywhere.

In the midst of a chaotic event, nearly everyone forms an intial impression of that event which draws heavily on personal experience and expectations. Once events have run their course and we are able to look back with 20/20 hindsight, we reassess and usually see where we got things wrong in the heat of the moment. One of my pet peeves about journalists is that they tend to report every development as if it supports, or at least does not negate, their initial impressions of an event; to hear them tell it, nothing ever proves them wrong.

Wolff's op-ed is somewhat refreshing in that he seems to acknowledge that his visceral reaction to the Thai coup was a marked departure from the lack of reaction of other experiencing the same events. Some journalists would simply ignore that or automatically attribute the difference to the military's effect on the civilians amongst them or those civilians' general cluelessness about larger events. Instead, Wolff is more circumspect and seems to wonder if he's the one who's missing the point:
“Our country will be better for this,” a close friend said to me as we sat smoking cigarettes and staring at troops on the corner by his house. “Today is a better day than yesterday. You may not understand, and may never will, but we needed to create a fresh start, and that is what has happened.”

That attitude prevails nearly a week after the coup. Early yesterday evening, I went to a protest at Thammasat University, where 30 years ago, on Oct. 6, 1976, the military and its henchmen massacred dozens of students at a pro-democracy demonstration, burning many alive, hanging others from trees and mutilating their bodies in front of a large crowd.

Yesterday, though, the mood was calm and there were no soldiers to be seen, even as speakers condemned the new junta’s restrictions on civic and political rights, including holding protests like this one.

But many of the students who stopped to listen as they passed by still said that they believed that the coup was the only way out of a political imbroglio. Nearly everyone I spoke to remained “sabaay jai,” or comfortable at heart with the military takeover. At least on the outside.

We Americans often speak of "spreading democracy" and "supporting elected governments" around the world; it's a curious thing that we tend to take it for granted that these concepts have nearly the same meaning for everyone.

The Athenians long ago demonstrated that unchecked democracy could tend toward opression and every successful democracy since then has relied upon some form of restraint. Our Founding Fathers institutionalized that restraint in our system of checks and balances amongst the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches and that's worked for us. Consequently, we have historically had very little patience with striking and rioting as means of change and virtually no tolerance for military intervention in domestic affairs. The French can more or less set their clocks by the periodic strikes and riots they endure over everything from religious freedom to university fees to social welfare benefits; that seems to work for them. Although they're not enthusiastic for it to occur again anytime soon, the Thais seem quite accepting of some benign military intervention in their political system as a final check on governmental authority. If it works for them, who are we to judge?

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