Mr. Heinecke cannot have his coup and eat it too

Mr. William E Heinecke, the 23rd richest person in Thailand, has decided to speak out publicly.  He wants media reports to portray the post-coup situation positively, otherwise, there are negative effects on tourism.

His open letter backing the coup and the actions of the junta, though, exposes at best a remarkable naiveté or at worst a sort of cynical insensitivity that knowingly ignores the serious human rights situation facing many Thais today.

In a way, it seems pointless to counter his perspective, but I believe that as he chosen to step forward and make a public statement, then his view deserves an equally public response.

In his piece, “Western nation, media must not distort the facts,” Mr. Heinecke himself does not offer any facts to the contrary. He does not cite a single article or news outlet creating these “grave misinterpretations.”

What are these misinterpretations?

He writes, “From where we sit today,” and as one of Thailand’s billionaires, he does indeed have a “unique perspective.” we can assume that he’s not sitting in a detention center.

He’s mixing two somewhat discrete phenomena.

First, there is the question of the safety of foreigners. So far, it is true—there is no danger to foreigners yet, although some of the anti-Western rhetoric the anti-democratic protesters expressed earlier in the year and some of the ire expressed against government that have sanctioned the junta suggest there is a potential for such violence against foreigners in the future.

Has there been a single news report either domestically or internationally mentioning possible violence targeting foreigners? No, so Mr. Heinecke must not be talking about that.

Instead, he focuses on warnings and travel advisories issued by various countries. Correctly, he notes that these have a huge impact on tourism and the hospitality industry. What Mr. Heinecke does not seem to understand is that in times of political uncertainty and possible violence, governments are obliged to issue warnings to their citizens. As the coup leaders themselves cited widespread violence in justifying the coup, and because no one could predict shortly after the coup or even now whether there might develop stronger reactions against the coup, responsible foreign governments must inform their citizens and advise.

From what I’ve seen, the foreign press has correctly and accurately covered stories about what the junta is doing and how Thai politicians, journalists, academics, artists, and activists have been arbitrarily detained and arrested, how the media has been censored, and how any show of public dissent or opposition to the coup has been suppressed. These stories surely can’t be the “grave misinterpretations” that Mr. Heinecke is referring to.

It seems that the misinterpretations he is referring to are those concerning the coup itself and the actions taken by the junta since. And here we encounter his interpretation which he assures us reflects what “all Thai” want.

He says that all Thais “will pull together to work within a system that is acceptable to the majority of Thais.” Really? How would he, or anyone for that matter, know? All we can say is that a majority of Thai voted for the party of their choice in 2011 and that many of those were willing to defend that government against anti-democratic groups. He speaks of a “social and political gridlock” in Thailand as if it just happened that way, without recognizing that it was a very well-orchestrated and painfully obvious effort by the Bangkok establishment to undermine democracy. He said the gridlock was due to neither side compromising. In fact, the government at the time made every compromise it could democratically: it “compromised” by dissolving the House of Representatives and calling for new elections. That is the democratic way of resolving gridlock in a parliamentary system—returning the decision to the voters.

He portrays the military as a reluctant actor as “it stood by watching the situation deteriorate.” In fact, the military could have backed the democratic government by protecting election stations from those seeking to block the vote, in the same efficient way it has locked down Thailand under martial law. But that was the problem. It “stood by” and did nothing.

Mr. Heinecke said that the military had allowed “ample time and opportunity for the politicians to resolve the crisis.” I wouldn’t say that the three or four hours of military-mediated talks was ample time or much of an opportunity. In any case, the only compromise between the sides demanded for by the military at the talks was for the caretaker government to step down. Period.

In other words, there were other “reasonable” solutions available, and a coup was not among them.

To say that most Thais do not “oppose the idea of a functional democratic system in Thailand,” or that “the Thai people all want democracy,” or that Thais “want is a stable and functioning democracy that represents the will of the majority of Thais,” as Mr. Heinecke does, is in itself a grave misinterpretation. Whether a democratic government can function or not is unfortunately up to whether the extra-constitutional forces—be it the PDRC or the Thai military—allows it to.

If Mr. Heinecke insists on saying that all Thais want democracy, he glosses over profound differences among Thai groups in defining it. One group, and perhaps the majority of voters, broadly defines democracy based on the will of the majority determined by periodic elections with a constitution that guarantees fundamental rights and sets out a structure of elected government subject in some way to mechanisms of public accountability. The base of the system is popular sovereignty: the people decide either through elections of representative or referendum. A minority support a system that so limits popular sovereignty that it is debatable whether its “democracy” should be called democracy at all.

Mr. Heinecke cannot be serious when he says that all Thais want a democracy that represents the will of the majority. If so, elections would have allowed the majority to express its will. But most in the business sector remained silent or supported the blocking of elections. To call the coup a “reboot” of democracy is disingenuous. If anything, it is a reboot of authoritarianism.

Mr. Heinecke, with his fifty years in Thailand, must himself have heard countless times the tedious contention that Thailand is a young democracy. By this point, more than eighty years later, it quite frankly is not that young. For many Thais, “democracy” in Thailand is embarrassingly old. To depict this coup as somehow “part of the maturation” of its political system is absurd.

What is notable is that Mr. Heinecke has adopted the Bangkok establishment’s traditional way of viewing characterization of events as of more importance than what is actually happening. The problem is not, apparently, is not the sustained intimidation and suppression of essentially the majority of the population, but rather the “exaggerated media reports which paint a distorted and unrealistic picture of the situation in the kingdom.” What exactly are these media reports exaggerating or distorting? He doesn’t specify. He only says that the “fear-mongering” causes foreign governments to issue their warnings which in turn have “a disastrous effect on tourism” at which point Mr. Heinecke returns to his refrain that tourists have no reason to fear for their personal safety.

If Mr. Heinecke wants to point out to the world that foreign tourists are not at present targets of political violence, that’s fine. But when he chooses to make this point—which is true enough—it is ill-advised for him to wade into politics and make a naïve attempt to justify the coup.

He wants to have his cake and eat it, too: He wants to support the junta and its actions and for no one to make a fuss about it. But he can’t have it both ways. He has to tolerate the quite accurate reports on the detention of hundreds if not thousands of those who have supported democracy and equality and accept that this is unacceptable behavior in the eyes of the international community. If he wants the image to be improved, then he really ought to criticize the junta’s mass stripping of basic rights of Thais. When those basic rights are recognized (and it’s hard for those rights to be recognized as there is no constitution) are guaranteed by the regime, then the media reports will become more positive.

Mr. Heinecke gives his perspective “from where we sit in Thailand today.” That is exactly the problem. From where he sits, within his own circles, presumably in Bangkok, he really wants to believe this isn’t a battle over democracy. For him it seems that politics is something that could be more easily resolved by an authoritarian government.

But in tying his lot to the coup, his perspective from Bangkok is remarkably insensitive to those who have borne the brunt of the coup, those hundreds if not thousands who have been detained, coerced, intimidated, and jailed for their courage to think and act differently. It is insensitive to millions of Thais whose votes are nullified time and again.

Mr. Heinecke claims his open letter is but one voice, and points out that “without voices there can be no conversation.” Indeed. Perhaps he should exert less effort serving as an apologist for the junta and instead call for the millions of silenced Thai voices to be heard.

David Streckfuss is an independent scholar based in Khon Kaen.