A Civil War in Thailand?

My wife has just returned from a trip into the Thai countryside which involved a two-night stop-over in Bangkok.  She reported that there are soldiers everywhere, almost as if martial law has been imposed, and areas of the city are blocked off at night and the whole place is generally very tense and the normal hustle and bustle of this lively city is significantly subdued.  There has been some violence, although this being Thailand it is far more contained and things are much calmer than you could expect in almost any other country.

However, the tourists numbers have dropped significantly, no doubt due to various foreign offices firstly covering their arses by telling people to avoid the place regardless, and secondly by lazily assuming trouble in Bangkok means trouble everywhere else.  It doesn’t.  The closest I have seen to a Red Shirt rally in Phuket is a Manchester United game on TV.  Unless you go looking for trouble or are very, very unlucky, the worst that will happen to a visitor to Thailand is the airport might be disrupted, and a volcano in Iceland can just as easily cause that at the other end.  For sure, I would not recommend a visit to Bangkok itself right now if that’s what you’re planning, but lying about on a beach on Phuket or Koh Samui is as safe as anywhere and your holiday is not going to be interrupted by anything going on in Bangkok.

But all that said, the political situation is uncertain and unless an accommodation or compromise is found soon, things could turn uglier and hit tourism and the industries which rely on it pretty hard.  A few expats I have spoken to said they are refraining from buying property in Thailand until this issue is resolved fearing a change in the law a few years down the line, but I don’t think that worry will ever completely go away.  I have no idea what will happen and can offer no insight here, except perhaps an opinion as to whether Thailand will fall into full-scale civil war.  I don’t  think it will, and here’s why.

Firstly, it needs to be understood that fighting a civil war is a tough business.  The entire population, and not just the fighting men and boys, will have to endure extreme and sometimes unimaginable hardship.  For those actually fighting, this will involve living in the jungle on meagre rations, away from home and family, without access to anything but the very basic medical care, for an indefinite period which might be for decades.  For the rest of the population, which includes the fighters’ family and friends, a civil war will entail death, disease, hunger, a destruction of all infrastructure and civil society, and a return to the peasant farming of fifty odd years ago.  In short, anyone who wants to pick up a rifle in a civil war must be prepared to give up anything he has gained thus far and values in life, e.g. children, a house, car, etc. and endure serious hardship in the knowledge that his loved ones will suffer too.

This appears to be easy for the menfolk in places like Somalia or Afghanistan where they have very little by way of possessions or material wealth and comforts, so the difference between fighting and not fighting is minimal, almost to the point that it is down to whether you let off some rounds from your rifle or not.  This is not the case in Thailand.  Despite Thailand’s reputation as being a cheap place to holiday with lots of little poor brown people to serve you, the laws of the Kingdom regarding business and property ownership have resulted in a large middle-class which has been ever growing for the past three decades.  The wealthy Thai elites in Bangkok have done very well out of the tourist industry, but so has a huge number of hitherto poor folk.  The elites have made sure they’re all right, but they have not prevented everyone else with a brain or a work ethic from prospering too.  When I went to Cambodia a few years back, I found a bunch of new hotels being built by Korean contractors using Thai and Malaysian money and a whole load of Thai and Malaysian tourists.  The Thai middle class has grown to a point where going on holiday abroad is now affordable, investing abroad is possible, and a good many Thais go abroad for their education.  These wealthier Thais are in the minority, and those in the countryside (from whence all the dancing girls come) are still poor by almost any standard, but the numbers are moving in the right direction: things are getting better, not worse.  And the farmers and other rural dwellers, despite being poor, are not destitute.  I’m sure there are some areas of  Thailand where poverty rivals that of Africa, but in general even in the remote countryside most people share – if not own – a reasonable house with an electricity connection and a refrigerator, a scooter or old pickup truck, and a telephone situated somewhere nearby.  There is enough food and water to go around, and epidemics of disease exist but are not widespread.  Education services are basic, very basic, but nonetheless available.  Small comforts these may be, but they are not nothing, and the Thais will appreciate their lot now compared with 20 years ago regardless of any displeasure with the current government.  So should any Thai decide to pick up a rifle and join in a civil war, he will certainly lose out on something: in some cases not a lot, but each and every Thai will lose something which they have worked pretty hard for.

However, populations with lots to lose can and do plunge themselves into civil war regardless of the hardship that entails, but it requires the fighters and their supporters to have serious motivation to do so.  This motivation is normally driven by religious or ethnic differences, a desire for national liberation, or extreme ideological divides with the last one usually requiring the outside backing of one or more of the belligerents.  Pretty much every civil war I can think of rose from a situation where one or more of the above criteria applied, where enough of the population had sufficient motivation to take up arms in support of their cause.

Thankfully, none of the above applies in Thailand.  Thais share the same religion and much the same ethnicity (I’m simplifying here, but there is no divide in Thailand along ethnic lines).  Nobody is advocating separatism.  And the ideological divide seems to be relatively minor compared to the Soviet-backed Communists vs Western-backed Everybody Else conflicts which caused such mayhem during the Cold War, or the Royalist vs Maoist conflicts in Nepal.  Indeed, the problem in Thailand seems to be a disagreemment over government policy between the rural poor and … well it’s hard to say, but somewhere between the Bangkok elite and everybody else.  Judging by what’s being shouted about, the demands of the Red Shirts are not unreasonable in the general scheme of things.  It’s along the lines of “More money and power for us!” which sounds pretty much like political movements of all stripes anywhere.  Nobody is calling for the dissolution of the monarchy to become a socialist republic with the southern half of the country joining Malaysia.  Far from it.  And probably most importantly, there is no outside party – either a troublemaking neighbour or distant superpower – with any interest whatsoever in seeing Thailand descend into violence.  In the event of a major armed conflict arms sanctions would almost certainly apply, and without any outside support it is unlikely such a conflict could sustain itself for long.

The Red Shirt protestors are motivated enough – by money or otherwise – to hold lengthy protests in the capital and engage in sporadic and relatively low-level violence, largely aimed at the police or army.  But this is a long, long, way short of finding the motivation, and the numbers, to wage a protracted civil war.  A swift coup is always a possibility in Thailand, with the population wishing for – almost demanding – a rapid return to normality immediately thereafter, as has been the case in the past.  The worst case scenario would be a low-level terrorist campaign waged against government targets in the provinces with the occasional bombing of a city or two, but even that would probably struggle to garner the popular support such a campaign requires to sustain itself, let alone succeed.

There just isn’t the anger on the streets to warrant fears of a civil war.  The Thais simply have too much to lose and not enough reason to lose it.

The BBC: Worth Every Penny

Never let it be said that the BBC does not deserve its monopoly on being allowed to demand £3.5bn from TV owners on threat of imprisonment:

As airports begin to get back to normal after the volcano ash chaos, many people are still struggling to get back to the UK.

BBC journalist Jack Garland was stranded in Rome when the flight ban was imposed. He made his way back to London overland by train and bus, along with thousands of others.

He filmed the 53 hour journey on his camcorder.

That’s the article in its entirety, deemed important enough to enjoy a photo and a link from the BBC homepage.

Stranded in Rome?  My, whatever did he do for food?

Stranded is what Robinson Crusoe was.

Stranded is what the residents of the Odoptu Construction Camp were in the North of Sakhalin Island when an almighty blizzard blew through in January this year, covering buildings in 30-ft drifts, knocking out the power supply followed by the standby generator running out of diesel, and leaving them cold, wet, hungry, and miserable.  (Drilling didn’t stop, though.  Drilling never stops.)

Stranded is what the poor souls on the train that got whacked by an avalanche north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk during the same storm were.

Not being able to fly home from Rome and having to take the train is hardly stranded, is it?  And I’m sure the camcorder footage of the arduous journey through Turin, Lyon, and – gasp! – Paris to get our brave reporter back to London will be well worth making into a mini-series.  Long-time readers of this blog might remember I once took a train from London through Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw and onto Kiev whereupon I took a taxi some 600km to Simferopol in the Crimea.  Where was the BBC then?  True, it was more an exercise in inexperience bordering on stupidity but it’s got to be more interesting than some BBC hack sitting on a train and not having to do so much as wave his passport.

Ah, I forgot: in the modern media, of which the BBC leads the pack in this regard, the journalist is the story.  No journalist, no story.  It’s all about me.  I am the story.  £3.5bn

Ash? What ash?

Via my wife, I hear that residents of St. Petersburg are finding horrible brown spots appearing on their cars, which is the ash from the Icelandic volcano that has closed much of Europe’s airspace.  And courtesy of the BBC we get the map below showing the extent of the ash cloud, and it would appear that parts of Russia, including St. Petersburg are affected:

But via the same BBC webpage, we also learn that although airspace is closed in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Switzerland, UK; there are partial closures in Italy, Norway, Bulgaria, Poland, Sweden and France; and flights are operating in Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Spain.

Flights are operating in Russia with no partial closures despite the monster ash cloud hanging above St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport?  Are the Russian airlines throwing caution to the wind and flying anyway?  This report indicates flights have been cancelled, but implies that it is the destination airports which are closed, not the Russian airspace.  Does anybody know?  Certainly, when I was living in Sakhalin it was well known that the Russian airlines would continue to operate long after the Asiana flights had been postponed due to weather conditions.

The European airlines are already complaining that perhaps the airspace closures were unnecessary:

As several airlines questioned the curbs, some carried out test flights and reported planes showing no obvious damage after flying through the ash.

Give the Russians a call, they’ll let you know!

A Fascinating Tale of Revenge

For no other reason than sheer coincidence, during my last week in Sakhalin I happened to watch three films all sharing a common theme:  Defiance, Inglorious Basterds, and The Reader. The common theme is, of course, the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe with each film dealing, albeit in vastly different ways, with the issue of retribution for the crimes committed.  This subject reminded me of a fascinating tale of revenge which is told in Bernard Fall’s excellent book, Street Without Joy, an account of the French debacle in Indochina.  I am surprised that nobody thus far has deemed this story worthy of making into a film.  I have reproduced the relevant section of Fall’s book below (pages 286-290).

Excerpt:

A last chapter of the of the Foreign Legion’s colorful history in Asia was written, in, of all places, the drab surroundings of an Israeli Navy court-martial in May 1958.

The defendent was a 25-year old man, in the neat white uniform of the Israeli enlisted seaman.  Eliahu Itzkovitz was charged with desertion from the Israeli Navy, but this case was not an ordinary one, for he had deserted from a peacetime hitch in Haifa to a twenty-seven months ordeal with the Foreign Legion in Indochina.

Eliahu had grown up in a small town in eastern Rumania when the country threw in its lot with the Nazis at the beginning of World War II.  Soon, the Rumanian Conductorul (the “Leader”) Antonescu began to emulate all the tactics of the Nazis, his own version of the Brownshirts calling itself the “Iron Guard”  and practising mass murder on a large scale.  In fact, according to the British writer Edward Crankshaw in his book Gestapo, they “offended the Germans on the spot by not troubling to bury their victims; and they offended the R.H.S.A. [the administrative section of the Nazi police in charge of mass exterminations] by their failure to keep proper records and by their uncontrolled looting.”

The Itzkovitz family did not escape the collective fate of the Rumanian Jews.  Eliahu and his parents and three brothers were sent to a concentration camp, no better and no worse than most Eastern European camps; one lived a few days to a few weeks and died from a wide variety of causes, mostly beating and shooting.  Rumanian camps were not as well equipped as their German models, the “death factories” of Auschwitz and Treblinka with their sophisticated gas chambers.  Again, according to Crankshaw, “the Rumanians showed a great aptitude  for mass murder and conducted their own massacres in Odessa and elsewhere,” and the Itzkovitz family paid its price – within a short time, only Eliahu, the youngest boy, survived.

But he had seen his family die, and he had remembered who killed it.  It had been one particular brute, not the coldly efficient SS-type but a Rumanian from a town not too far away from his own home town and who enjoyed his new job.  And Eliahu swore that he would kill the man, if it took all his life to do it.  More than anything else, it was probably that hatred that kept him alive; he was a skeleton but a living one when the Russians liberated him in 1944.  Eliahu then began his patient search from town to town.  Of course, Stanescu (or whatever name the brute had assumed in the meantime) had not returned to his hometown for good reasons, but Eliahu found his son there and took his first revenge; he stabbed the son with a butcher knife and in 1947, a Rumanian People’s Court sentenced him to five years in a reformatory for juveniles.

Eliahu served his time but did not forget.  His family’s murderer was still at large and he had sworn to kill him.  In 1952, he was finally released and given permission by Communist authorities to emigrate to Israel, where he was drafted into the Israeli army in 1953 and assigned to the paratroops.  Training was rigorous in the sun-drenched barracks and stubby fields south of Rehovoth, and thoughts of revenge had become all but a dim memory.  There was a new life to be lived here, among the people from all corners of the world who still streamed in and who, from Germans, Poles, Indians, Yemenites, or Rumanians, became Israelis.  To be sure, Eliahu still met some of his Rumanian friends and talk often rotated back to the “old country”, to the war and the horrors of the persecution.  Camps and torturers were listed matter-of-factly, like particularly tough schools or demanding teachers, and Stanescu came up quite naturally.

“That s.o.b. made it.  He got out in time before the Russians could get him,” said a recent arrival, “then he fled to West Germany and tried to register as a D.P. but they got wise to him and before we could report him, he was gone again.”

Eliahu’s heart beat had stopped for an instant, and when it resumed its normal rhythm, he had shaken off the torpor of peacetime army life.  The hunt was on again.

“Do you know where Stanescu went then? Do you have any idea at all?”

“Well – somebody said that he had gone to Offenburg in the French Zone, where they recruit people for the French Foreign Legion, and that he enlisted for service in Indochina.  The French are fighting there, you know.”

On the next day, Eliahu’s mind was made up.  He reported to his commanding officer and applied for a transfer to the Israeli Navy; he liked the sea, had learned something about it while in Rumania, which borders the Black Sea, and would be happier aboard ship than as a paratrooper.  A few days later, the request was granted and Eliahu was on his way to the small force of Israeli corvettes and destroyers based in Haifa.  A few months later, the opportunity he had been waiting for came true; his ship was assigned to go to Italy to pick up equipment.

In Genoa, Seaman Itzkovitz applied for shore leave and simply walked off the ship; took a train to Bordighera and crossed over to Menton, France, without the slightest difficulty.  Three days later, Eliahu had signed his enlistment papers in Marseilles and was en route to Sidi-bel-Abbès, Algeria, the headquarters and boot camp of the Foreign Legion, and again three months later, he was aboard the s/s Pasteur on his way to Indochina.

Once in the Foreign Legion, Stanescu’s trail was not hard to pick up.  While no unit was made up of any single nationality, each unit would have its little groups and informal clans acording to language or nation of origin.  It took patience, but in early 1954, he had located his quarry in the 3d Foreign Legion Infantry.  The last step was the easiest; the Foreign Legion generally did not object if a man requested a transfer in order to be with his friends, and Eliahu’s request to be transferred to Stanescu’s battalion came through in a perfectly routine fashion.  When Eliahu saw Stanescu again after ten years, he felt no particular wave of hatred, as he had somehow expected.  After having spent ten years imagining the moment of meeting the killer of his family eye to eye, the materialization of that moment could only be an anti-climax.  Stanescu had barely changed; he had perhaps thinned down a bit in the Legion; as for Eliahu, he had been a frightened boy of thirteen and was now a trapping young man, bronzed from his two years of training with the Israeli paratroopes, the Navy and the French Foreign Legion.

There was nothing left to do for Eliahu but to arrange a suitable occasion for the “execution;” for in his eyes the murder of Stanescu would be an execution.  Stanescu (his name was, of course, no longer that) had become a corporal, and led his squad competently.  The new arrival also turned out to be a competent soldier, a bit taciturn perhaps, but good.  In fact, he was perhaps better trained than the run of the mill that came out of “Bel-Abbès” these days.  He was a good man to have along on a patrol.

And it was on a patrol that Stanescu met his fate, in one of the last desperate battles along Road 18, between Bac-Ninh and Seven Pagodas.  He and Eliahu had gone on a reconnaissance into the bushes on the side of the road, when the Viet-Minh opened fire from one hundred yards away.  Both men slumped down into the mud.  There was no cause for fear; the rest of the squad was close by on the road and would cover their retreat.  Eliahu was a few paces to the side and behind Stanescu.

“Stanescu!” he called out.

Stanescu turned around and stared at Eliahu, and Eliahu continued in Rumanian:

“You are Stanescu, aren’t you?”

The man, the chest of his uniform black from the mud in which he had been lying, looked at Eliahu more in surprise than in fear.  For all he knew, Eliahu might have been a friend of his son, a kid from the neighbourhood back home in Chisnau.

“Yes, but…”

“Stanescu,” said Eliahu in a perfectly even voice, “I’m one of the Jews from Chisnau,” and emptied the clip of his MAT-49 tommy gun into the man’s chest.  He dragged the body back to the road: a Legionnaire never left a comrade behind.

“Tough luck,” said one of the men of the platoon sympathetically.  “He was a Rumanian just like you, wasn’t he?”

“Yes,” said Eliahu, “just like me.”

The search had ended and the deed was done.  Eliahu was now at peace with himself and the world.  He served out his time with the Legion, received his papers certifying that “he had served with Honor and Fidelity” and mustered out in France.  There was nothing left for him to do but to go home to Israel.  The Israeli Armed Forces attachè in France at first refused to believe the incredible story, but the facts were soon verified with the French authorities and a few weeks later Eliahu was on his way to Israel.  At Haifa, two Israeli M.P.’s, perfect copies of their British models with their glistening white canvas belts and pistol holsters, took charge of him and soon the gates of Haifa military prison closed behind him.

The three Israeli Navy judges rose.  Seaman Itzkovitz stood stiffly at attention as the presiding judge read out the judgement.

“… and in view of the circumstances of the case, a Court of the State of Israel cannot bring itself to impose a heavy sentence. … One year’s imprisonment … ”

The Future of Socialism

I haven’t written anything political on this blog for a while, so why not throw a big haymaker out there this morning?

Via Norm, I see some chap called Robert Paul Wolff has written an essay called The Future of Socialism which contains the following sentence:

If socialism is the achievement, at long last, of justice and equality, it is a dream that has been aborted in the womb of the old order.

Erm, no.  Socialism wasn’t some poor, helpless unborn infant cruelly aborted by evil capitalists, it was a fucking huge great alpha male abomination which during the prime of its life ran rampage with a bottle of vodka mixed with amphetamines in one hand and a heavy machine gun in the other.

So how come Mr Wolff hasn’t noticed the scale of death and destruction wrought by this beast?  Here’s how:

The economic systems established in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, in the People’s Republic of China, and in a number of other nations self-described as “socialist,” were not in any usable sense examples of socialism.

Ah, that old chestnut! Of course they weren’t.  Because to admit they were (and let’s point out that they weren’t just “self-described” as socialist, they were also thus described by an awful lot of third parties) would mean that an essay called The Future of Socialism would be about three sentences long.

I liken this mentality to a nutty professor spending his life trying to make a time machine, and each time he produces a device which inevitably doesn’t work he turns to his exasperated assistant and says:

“Ah!  But that wasn’t a time machine we were making, was it?  If it was, we would have been able to travel through time, wouldn’t we?  Now what we’re going to build next will be a real time machine!”

No wonder these clowns never see their political dreams realised. Thankfully.