Taxi Meter

A few baht buys a ride and political commentary.

I love talking with taxi drivers in Bangkok. Well, at least with those capable of carrying on a conversation in English. It’s cheap entertainment, and you get a free ride thrown in to boot. I don’t know why Thai taxi drivers spout off the way they do, but as a group they sure ain’t afraid of letting you know their views. And politics always seems to be a favorite subject.

I’ve learned a lot from taxi drivers in Bangkok over the years. On one of my first trips, after watching the death race that passes for traffic in Thailand’s capital city, I just had to ask one driver why everyone let other cars cut them off without protest. It hardly seemed right considering their dog eat dog set of road rules. Turns out this wasn’t always the case. The old paradigm resulted in many accidents, injuries, and deaths. So bloody were the streets that the King finally addressed the subject. The King told the Thai people that allowing others to cut in front of you was the mark of a good man. So now when someone wants over, you let them in without so much as a honk of your horn. Thanks to a taxi driver, I learned the reason behind an odd Thai driving practice and also learned, by example, how highly respected and loved the King is in Thailand.

Bangkok taxi drivers ready to start up a conversation with you always begin by asking where you are from. It’s just an intro. They already know, I’m sure. I can spot a German touri, as opposed to a Russian one with ease. I’m sure they can too. And it’s not like picking us Americans out of a crowd is difficult. It’s not that we are all fat, though far too many of us are. We just have a look about us that screams USA. But they ask anyway. ‘Cuz it’s always good to know you’re right.

After establishing your country of origin, taxi drivers often immediately launch into a political debate. One sided. Theirs. Sometimes it’s local politics, sometimes international. And if you have an American in your cab, talking about his country is too tempting to ignore. But I never heard outright criticism about the American people or our President until a trip immediately after 9/11. After I’d admitted I was from America, the driver shook his head making a tsk, tsk, tsk noise with his tongue, and then said, “That Bush. He not good man.”

That’s a pretty strong statement from a Thai. They all aspire to be a good man. Even the ladyboys. It’s karma and reincarnation all rolled into one. Evidently, my driver didn’t think George W had much of a chance coming back in a happy state. Probably instead will spend his next life as a cockroach. And this was before he broke the world. Bush’s condemnation was instead based on two events. The first was a recent trip he’d made to Thailand. He booked in an insanely huge retinue; so large it was both laughable and a slap in the face to the locals. Bangkok residents are used to foreign leader visits. And expect a certain amount of decorum in their travel plans. Bush Jr. had put on airs that exceeded what the Thai Royal Family would demand. And that’s an unpardonable sin to the Thais.

King of Thailand's Personal Flag

Personal Flag of the King

Worse, however, was his response to the 9/11 attack when he declared you were either a friend or an enemy of America. What he demanded was that all countries whole heartedly buy into and support his new War on Terrorism. Whether the provisions of that war made sense or not. If you didn’t you were an enemy of the US, and could expect to be treated as such. Thais do not like being pushed around by school yard bullies. Plus, their King certainly outranks some political upstart from the West. Bush’s proclamation was not well received in Thailand. To say the least.

The majority of taxi drivers in Bangkok support the ousted ex Prime Minister Thaskin. Thailand’s mafioso at work. For those that follow colors instead of political parties, that’d be the Red Shirts. After the riots in Bangkok, it wasn’t surprising to me that many taxi drivers spoke favorably about Thaskin and the red shirt party. I expected as much. And while I disagree with their leanings, it was always interesting to hear the take from one of the common folk. On a recent trip to Bangkok, in the middle of a political tirade, my driver shook his head, making a tsk, tsk, tsk sound with his tongue, and said, “Da King no good. He crazy man.”

I was speechless. Not a state I am familiar with as I’m sure you’ve come to realize. Not only is the King uniformly held in great regard, love, and esteem in Thailand, but there are some fairly sever laws in place to deal with anyone who says something negative about the royal family. I’d never heard a Thai say something close to being derogatory about the King before. And here was this man offering up a fairly damning slam. He went on to explain the problem was the King was old, possibly senile (that’s what the ‘crazy’ meant), and under the influence of the wrong people. Meaning not Thaskin.

I’m not stupid. I listened but made no comment. And was relieved when we arrived at my destination. Regardless, that this driver was willing to insult the King certainly clued me in to the changing tides in the Kingdom. But then my friend Noom keeps me pretty well informed about the true state of Thailand, its ruling party, and the royal family.

red shirts

Politics as usual

According to Noom, Thailand’s biggest problem is that the King is old and will soon die. A quick digression is in order here to give you an example of how a Thai’s mind works:

Several years ago the King was suppose to die. He was very sick and in the hospital (still is, this was his initial bout with the medical practitioners that resulted in his still being under their care). The Thai people were distraught. The Thai people prayed for their King’s recovery. So the King did not die. His sister did instead. Seems the gods had already decreed a royal death was in order but accepted the King’s sister in his lieu. You may scoff, but if you know a Thai well enough to get into this conversation, ask him. He’ll probably agree with Noom’s assessment.

Back to today. The King is old. He will die, someday soon. What is happening in politics today is nothing more than jockeying for position to be king of the hill when he finally passes on. Now while the King is old, he really isn’t sick. He is in the hospital for protection. If he went home, the Queen (who is in a strong position today) might kill him. Poison. In Noom’s words, “Just like bruddah.”

The King had an older brother who ascended to the throne. For a very short period of time. He died ‘mysteriously’. And the current King came into power. Ask any Thai and they will tell you he was assassinated. No finger pointing, no cry of foul, mind you. It’s just a ‘fact’ well known.

The current leaders of Thailand’s military, collectively referred to as the army, are on the Queen’s side. So she has both the status of Royal and the support of the army to be the defacto leader of Thailand if the King were to die tomorrow. Hence the idea she wants to kill the King. Not because she hates him, but because it would be good for the country.

Noom says, the ousted Prime Minister, Thaskin, has a strong political base among the Northern Thai people (which somehow encompasses the Issan folk too, even though they are not from the North). Thaskin also has the backing of the ousted leaders of the army. If he manages to make it back into Thailand and assumes a leadership role before the King dies, he’ll probably be the new seat of power in Thailand. Now that his sister has been elected as the new Prime Minister, his return is expected. But then so is her death, and/or yet another coup.

I don’t know how accurate any of that is, it’s all Noom’s opinion. So don’t post comments about how wrong I am; I’m passing along a Thai’s view of his country’s political future not with a claim to its accuracy, but rather to provide you with an example of what a typical resident of Bangkok thinks about his country’s current political climate.

buddhist prayer

Pray for the Royal Family

A lot of farang fret over Thailand’s political future. And a lot take sides though they are often ill-informed. It is too easy to mistakenly throw Western political ideas into the mix; unless you are Thai you just don’t have the proper insight to really understand the ins and outs of Thai politics. I tend to accept what will be will be. And enjoy the soap opera like antics that pass for politics in Thailand in the meantime. Not that politics in my country are any more sane. They have Thaskin, we have Palin.

As far as the future of the monarchy, the role of reigning monarch is supposed to go to the King’s son when he dies. But nobody likes him. He’s a playboy. There are also two princesses in line, but, well, they are girls. And one’s a dyke. The entire accession question becomes muddled, and plays a leading role in Thailand’s current problems, thanks to various constitutional amendments that allow for the Privy Council to appoint a princess as successor to the throne, or makes it the prerogative of the reigning King, if he so chooses, to appoint his son or any of his daughters to the throne. The old stand-by is the line of succession but that brings us back to the playboy son.

No one really knows what will happen with the royal family when the King dies. There is no strong contender for the throne. Will the Queen reign? The unloved son? One of the ugly daughters? Or will it be the end of the royal family as we know it. It’s problematic because it is the spirit of the King that holds the Thai people together. If that sense of kinship is lost when he dies, Thailand could become many tribes battling for independence and/or rule.