Same Song, Different Lyrics

Some random notes about Thailand by a foreigner who’s lived here for almost a year.

Most Thais drive like old people do in the States. They drift slowly in whatever direction they want, whenever they want, without looking who’s coming behind them, or first signaling. They simply expect other drivers to watch out for them.

Girls riding on the backs of motor scooters ride side-saddle if they’re wearing a skirt. They never wear a helmet and dangle a flip flop or sandal from the lowest hanging foot, so that the heel of the shoe hangs only a millimeter from the asphalt. They often are absorbed in texting on their cell phone, and seem unaware of their surroundings. Dangerous, surely, but “cool.”

Traffic fatalities in Thailand involve motor bikes seventy percent of the time. Eighty percent of those fatalities could have been prevented if the rider(s) had been wearing a helmet.

Thais who have government jobs get 25 paid holidays a year. Many people take off two or three days before a holiday, so they can journey back to their home town. Banks are closed at least one day every other week for some sort of national holiday.

Thailand has the largest military for a country its size, and has the largest percentage of generals of any military in the world. If you hold an officer’s rank in the military, police or many other branches of civil service, you merit a personal driver and personal dresser, who accompany you on your daily visit to your branch’s private golf course.

Thai airways, the government-owned airline, offers free flights to many government employees. Their board of directors enjoy all sorts of special perks as well, including unlimited free baggage. At least that’s what the Executive Chairman of the Board and his wife enjoyed after an international flight, when they brought 40 bags with a total weight of 500 kilograms, which mysteriously bypassed customs and were delivered directly to Lost and Found.

Thais love uniforms and dressing up in them. Boy and Girl Scout uniforms are a big deal here. Everyone with a state job has a white jacket covered with medals and ribbons, which they wear to special events and to have their official portraits taken.

Thailand isn’t a third-world country, but it’s not exactly Switzerland, either. The ruling party uses the State’s resources to buy votes. The current Prime Minister is a proxy, the sister of her older brother who wields the real power. He was deposed by a military coupe a few years ago. He’s a troll, but she’s quite cute, and seems like a spokesperson for an airline, or high-end shopping mall.

He was found guilty of billions in fraud, so he fled the country, and is currently in self-imposed exile, circling the borders of Thailand like a coyote circling a campfire, his eyes glowing hungrily in the darkness. He has hopes to return home, but on his own terms.

All shaky democracies with relatively uneducated populations behave in this way. In Latin America, it’s de rigeur. Take Nicaragua, for example. Daniel Ortega, Sandanista Jefe Commandante and President for Life, uses state money to promote himself as the friend of the little guy. Since the vast majority of Nicaraguan little guys are illiterate, they are easily taken in by omnipresent huge posters of Ortega spouting revolutionary slogans. He’s immensely popular and nobody objects to the fact that he’s hijacked their nascent democracy. Well, the people who publish and read La Prensa, the thinking person’s newspaper do, but they’re way outnumbered. Most people read the other newspaper, the one that publishes full page spreads of busty young women with plenty of eye makeup and skimpy bikinis.

Dan’s buddies Hugo Chavez of Venezuala and Evo Morales of Bolivia subsidize commodity prices as a “gift” to the poor. That kind of gift is always paid down the line by somebody unlucky enough to get elected after the giver retired to Miami with as much of the nation’s treasury as he could steal.

Here, in Thailand, the masses are being fooled by two transparently absurd vote-buying schemes, one involving a free laptop for every grade-schooler, and the other a rice subsidy that promises to help poor rice farmers at the cost of one percent of GDP, but has only made rich growers even richer and severely distorted the commodities marketplace. The problem with these schemes is they discourage international investment, because no self-respecting international corporation wants to invest in a house of cards.

But the people who dream up these policies will be long gone by the time the bill comes due. They’ll be writing their memoirs, or having them ghost-written, lazing their days away on an island paradise, or in a Swiss Chateau.


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