Capturing Yingluck

Over the years I often photographed Yingluck Shinawatra, and several times I even had the opportunity to talk with her. Now, as Yingluck has finally fled Thailand, and every political pundit speculates what will take place in Thai politics after she supposedly joined Thaksin—and an increasing amount of Thai political dissidents—in exile, I want to present a brief pictorial essay on how I experienced the career of Thailand’s first female prime minister.

The first time I saw and photographed Yingluck was during a birthday bash for her elder brother on 26 July 2009, in the huge Chinese Mangkorn Luang Restaurant in Bang Na. At the time she was just one of Thaksin’s siblings, and nobody expected that one day she would be Thailand’s prime minister. She was charming and very patient with both photographers and Red Shirts who liked to be photographed with her and her elder sister Yaowapa—who was at the time a far more powerful person in the party hierarchy, and the wife of former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat.

The 2010 crackdown came and went, and it came as a huge surprise when Yingluck was nominated to be the Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2011 elections. I followed the election campaign quite closely, being hired by several German language magazines and newspapers to work with their writers as coordinator, translator, photographer, and so on.

At the time the 2010 killings were still very fresh in the minds of the people, and many Red Shirts were in prison, or in temporary exile. The PAD had protested since early 2011 at Government House against the former allies of the Democrat Party government over the Preah Vihear issue and had erected a permanent protest camp (one with very few protesters, however: on average days several hundred, and on special occasions a few thousand at most). The PAD’s “New Politics Party” decided to boycott the elections, leading to a split in their leadership between party leader Somsak Kosaisuk, who wanted to contest the elections, and the other four core leaders.

The first campaign event I went to was in Chiang Rai, with Thilo Thielke, the then Spiegel Southeast Asia correspondent.

In the evening we even got a one-on-one interview with Yingluck, who made time in spite of her very busy schedule. I did not need to translate. While her English was by far not as good as then prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s polished Oxford English, it was quite sufficient. What she may not have had in language skills she could easily compensate for with her charm and honesty. This made her generally a much easier interview partner than Abhisit, who at times was very argumentative and outright prickly when he did not like the tone of a question.

A few days later we went to Udon Thani, where Yingluck spoke at Thung Si Mueang in front of a massive crowd, which she charmed with her election speech, promising to continue and improve on Thaksin’s policies, emphasising her relationship with Thaksin—“if you love elder brother, give younger sister a chance”. She answered the accusations that she had no experience in politics by saying that she learned about politics since she was a young girl through her family. A surprise at Thung Si Muang was to see Sanoh Tienthong, who in 2006 (before the coup) broke with her brother and appeared on the PAD’s stage. The presence of this political survivor was a sign that things were going well for Pheu Thai.

The following day Yingluck went on a tour through neighbouring provinces, starting in the early morning with an appearance in Khon Kaen’s market.

We then flew then back to Bangkok, where I met Abhisit and his entourage at the airport. I asked for an interview with the magazines and newspapers that hired me, which he said OK to, and asked me to call Panitan Wattanayagorn to make the appointment. This later turned into a bit of a nightmare, as was trying to report on the entire Democrat Party election campaign. Whereas Pheu Thai had a well-organised press office that always knew Yingluck’s whereabouts, fixed interview appointments, and made media invitations, it was almost impossible to find out where Democrat Party election campaign stages were. Calling the party headquarters, one could not get an answer, and in the end I managed to get the information by calling Special Branch Police.

Getting an interview with Abhisit turned out to be even more difficult. When I finally called Panitan, he said that now Korbsak Sabhavasu was responsible for scheduling with the media. When I called Korbsak, he was quite unfriendly, and said we would have to make a written request at the Party HQ. I tried to explain that this would be quite problematic with the tight deadlines we had to work under. He then said that he neither cared about that, nor that Abhisit promised us interviews, nor what Panitan said, and hung up. I then called Dr Buranaj Smutharaks, who was rather embarrassed about this, and could only fix us with a spot in a group interview with Abhisit. I explained that the Spiegel and Stern would not do group interviews, only one-on-ones, and that after we had each one-on-ones with Yingluck and with Thaksin in Dubai, it would only be in their interest to also be present in Germany’s two biggest print news outlets. In the end, it was only the group interview, which I attended with Swiss News, but not Spiegel or Stern. The irony came at the Democrat’s last election stage at Central World, where Korbsak accused the foreign media of being in Thaksin’s pocket and not giving Abhisit the same space, while angrily looking at me.

The Pheu Thai election machine, meanwhile, was highly professional. Thaksin, who seems to be very strategic in his timing when granting interviews, opened his house in Dubai to foreign media outlets. I flew there with Stern’s Asia correspondent Janis Vougioukas, where Thaksin gave as a lot of time for a one-on-one interview.

A few days later we went again on Yingluck’s campaign, where she visited a Muslim community in Bangkok. She gave Stern an interview, and also Dan Ten Kate from Bloomberg interviewed her.

On 15 June 2011, foreign media were invited to observe Yingluck on another campaign tour through in Isan. I went there with Swiss News. The organisation was stunning: Yingluck went on around 20 stages in three provinces. Cars were supplied to the media, and the bigger outlets got one-on-one interviews in between stages, being invited into Yingluck’s car. At the same time a computer car had staff observing what the media reported, including social media, which then was summarised and sent on to Yingluck’s assistant in her car. Yingluck then read the briefs, and worked them into her speeches at her following appearance on stage.

On 1 July 2011, it was the last campaign stage, in Rajamangala stadium. Yingluck held her speech in the pouring rain.

As expected, two days later on 3 July, the Pheu Thai Party won the elections, and Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand’s first female prime minister. The party HQ was filled with supporters and a massive presence of both local and foreign media.

From then on I took a break from high politics, and concentrated again on what interested me most: street politics and political developments in the grassroots and community sector. I did not hang around Government House and stayed away from the usual little infighting and jealousies there, so I am quite unaware what went on in the echelons of power, and heard only the usual rumour and gossip.

I next met Yingluck when I took photos for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand at the prime minister’s dinner, a regular event with most elected (and semi-elected) prime ministers, both in 2012 and in 2013. On her first dinner, on 23 March 2012, Yingluck was visibly nervous (more so her entourage), but managed with her usual charm to deflect some of the more difficult questions.

On her second dinner, on 11 March 2013, she was already far more confident.

Here I took a picture with some historical significance, which I found while browsing through my images for this story: Yingluck together with former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom on her right, who was just sentenced to 42 years in prison over the government-to-government rice sales case.

Later that year, Yingluck came under increasing pressure when the Yellow Alliance began to topple the elected government, and with it electoral democracy in Thailand, by the old and proven strategy: building a street movement with elite support to create chaos, in order to give the military the excuse to step in. The insults against Yingluck became vicious. I have even heard Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva on a protest stage insulting Yingluck with an extremely derogatory term for a prostitute.

A particularly racist slide presentation I saw during a speech by academic and ultra-nationalist fanatic Kaewsan Athibodhi on 15 November 2013, at the anti-government protest stage at Democracy Monument.

Even her immediate family was not spared, when PDRC protesters regularly accosted her son in front of his school.

I met Yingluck during this terrible period only once, when she attended the funeral of Police Senior Sergeant-Major Narong Pitisit, the police officer slain by PDRC fighters. Visibly distraught, she talked with the family and paid her respects.

The coup had taken place before I met Yingluck again, at the funeral of Dr Apiwan Wiriyachai on 12 October 2014. When we photographers took her picture on this rare occasion of her going out in public, she recognised me, and with genuine concern asked me about my situation and if things were better now since the hate campaign and the violence of the PDRC directed against me.

The last time I met Yingluck was when she opened her house to the foreign media on 12 February 2016, about 8 months before I left Thailand. At the time I was still under quite a bit of pressure and could hardly work anymore, being followed by intelligence whenever I made an appearance at political events. Therefore I usually stayed away from Yingluck’s appearances at court, and her later trips to visit supporters upcountry. Yingluck was very cautious during the interview sessions, avoiding direct political statements that could have brought her into trouble with the junta (which was not very happy about the event). The invitation was ostensibly about showing her hydroponic garden to the media, serving us organic salad, and giving us samples of her salad and salad sauce—politics, while avoiding politics.

I could not help myself making a selfie with Yingluck, and posting it on Facebook, which earned me the most likes and shares ever. To be neutral, a month later I posted a selfie with former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, who is a strong opponent of the Shinawatra clan.

I have met Yingluck as a photographer and journalist and I have not much knowledge of the workings of her inner circle. Nor can I judge or comment much on her qualities as a politician or prime minister. I especially cannot comment on the legal cases against her; others are better placed and more knowledgeable on these very complex matters.

As a human I found her always a polite, friendly, and caring person. Her charm and warmth endeared her to diplomats and journalists alike, and quite possibly these qualities led to the decision to nominate her as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate in the first place. She could bring political tensions down several levels so that Thaksin and his elite opponents could hold talks—unsuccessful, as we saw with the 2013 PDRC protests and the 2014 military coup—after the 2010 crackdown.

In the aftermath of her escape from Thailand I read much punditry on the future of Thai politics, and again predictions of the end of the Shinawatra clan’s influence in the Thai political scene.

I may add my own bit of punditry here.

It is very difficult to make any predictions now. Too much is still in a state of fluidity. Since the 2006 coup I have seen too many analysts predicting the end of Thaksin a bit too regularly. It hasn’t happened, as we have seen in the 2007 elections, the 2009 and 2010 uprisings, and in the 2011 elections. I very much doubt that Yingluck leaving Thailand will mean the end for either Thaksin, the Shinawatra clan, the Red Shirts, or efforts to introduce a stable system of democracy in Thailand.

While Thaksin and Yingluck may be extremely important symbols for the now somewhat dormant Red Shirt movement, and the voters of Pheu Thai, this movement identifies itself with far more than just these personalities. While an imprisoned Yingluck may have served as Thailand’s version of Aung San Suu Kyi, one should also question whether this would really be good for Thailand’s political development in the long term. Idolising and sanctifying a human being will inevitably lead to disappointment, as every symbol will fall short of human reality. Democracy does not come from such artificial saints, but from the people and leaders who earned the trust of the people. One should also not forget that Yingluck is a mother, and has already sacrificed much.

A year ago, people close to Thaksin told me that he anyhow planned to remove his family from the front seat of Thai politics, steering things from the background, and working on reforming and modernising Pheu Thai. In this sense, news that some power brokers of that party would think of leaving Thailand may even be an advantage, as the party can slim down and make a fresh start. Yingluck’s importance in the running of the party after the 2014 coup was negligible (if indeed she ever played a large role in the game of power is rather doubtful as well).

While I would rather not speculate on the future of Thai politics now, I am however sure that we have not seen the end of the Red Shirts, the Pheu Thai Party, Thaksin, or Yingluck. The game will continue, as Thai politics is always good for a surprise. Yingluck’s Houdini move was most likely not the last of these.

…………………………

Nick Nostitz lived and worked in Thailand for 23 years as a photojournalist and writer, and has contributed extensively to New Mandala’s coverage of Thai political life and conflict since 2008. His books include Patpong, Bangkok’s twilight zone: a photographic diary and Red vs. Yellow (Volume 1: Thailand’s Crisis of Identity & Volume 2: Thailand’s political awakening).

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15 Responses

  1. Srithanonchai

    “ultra-nationalist fanatic Kaewsan Athibodhi” > This is a very apt description of that individual. Must keep it in mind for future use.

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  2. Chris

    Great piece, Nick. It all seems like another era, almost another planet, compared to where Thailand is today. Your reports and especially your thousands of insightful set of photographs of the various street demonstrations and fighting captured that period (2006 thru 2014) as no one else did. For you and your fellow Expat Journalists, it was a difficult challenging and often very risky time which stimulated you all to do your best work. Kind of a Golden Age for Expat/Foreign Correspondent journalists/photographers in Bangkok.

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  3. Sam Deedes

    Thank you so much, Nick, for this reminder that at the heart of politics there are human beings after all. In particular thanks for the perceptive comments in the paragraph third from the end. We miss you very much and wish you all the best for you and your family in the future in Germany.

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  4. Chris Beale

    Thanks Nick, for yet another fascinating piece. I especially liked the way you captured Yingluck’s obvious warmth, charm, bravery, and general strength of character. A good refelection of many hard-working Thai women, not least in Isaarn and Lanna. In a way, it was somewhat disappointing to learn that Anand Panyarachun – one of the best Prime Ministers ever – is such an implacable Shinawatra foe, since Anand was SO skillful at successfully bridging the May ’92 divide, and has even proposed de-centralisation measures, which I suggest may help heal the current divide. Could you post anything more about Anand re. all this ? Your details comparing Peua Thai, Democrat, and other party organising, were very insightful.

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    • Nick Nostitz

      Thank you 🙂
      I do not know Anand well enough to really write anything about him. I met him just that one evening when he spoke at the FCCT dinner in 2016, where he, several of his friends and some of the FFCT board and me spend some time afterwards in the cigar lounge.
      He was nice and had a very witty English humor. I however do not understand how he could position himself so clearly on the side of the Yellow Alliance. It is perfectly legitimate not to support Thaksin or the Red Shirts – but supporting the Yellow Alliance destroys any democratic credentials he has built up.
      Some of his friends were nice, but filled with a blind hatred towards the Red Shirts.
      Quite sad.

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      • Chris Beale

        Thanks Nick. It is indeed sad if such a well-deservingly revered former PM, of the highest personal integrity, has such a hostile attitude towards one side of the political divide. This is not usual for Anand. But if what you say is true, I really don’t think there is ANY hope of keeping Thailand as one unified country. Civil war will become inevitable. And Isaarn, Lanna, Patani – will try to secede. There’s almost no hope, and no other option, now.

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  5. James Brecht

    Thank you for submitting an article which conveys a very warm and human side, irrespective of the politics in the background, and as we know, a very dirty business.

    It is interesting that you mention the contrasting difficulties you experienced in procuring similar contact with the opposing party during political canvassing, its members’ apparent disinclination, or perhaps even revulsion, towards engaging with foreign journalists. Is this perhaps similar to the arrogance that which we now see increasingly within the apparent rise of Thai nationalism and the defiance of anything external to the Thai State — that it is simply the face of the far-right, to rebuff anything that is not Thai?

    An interesting article was published in Prachatai last month, which to my mind observes this clearly. It presented a discussion between the Project for Social Democracy, The Commoners’ Party of Isan and the Neo Isan Movement. Those participating in the event had noted that the objectives of their group were more internationalist and open towards engaging with those outside Thailand, that this was a feature of the Left, and that it contrasted with “…ultra-nationalism, such as the rise in global authoritarianism and the ‘pen khon Thai reu plao’ approach which was isolationist”. The link and the particular paragraph in question is below.

    https://prachatai.com/english/node/7328 “… Drawing on the originally ‘social-ist’ inheritance of the Left, Social Democracy was internationalist, thus a Thai SDP would work with NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Greenpeace, to improve standards in the country. Social Democracy was ultimately internationalist and stressed human solidarity in the face of shared challenges. It was the opposite of ultra-nationalism, such as the rise in global authoritarianism and the ‘pen khon Thai reu plao’ approach, which was isolationist and discouraged working with foreigners.”

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    • Nick Nostitz

      I believe it was a mixture of that arrogance and sheer incompetence, a refusal to have a modern election campaign and an inability to communicate on every level.
      But as always, things are more complex. For many decades Democrats and figures from the traditional elites were the go to guys for most western journalists and diplomats. They were the ones who explained Thailand to the outside world, western educated and fluent in English these people knew what we wanted to hear. And if we did not rock the boat, they were very easy to get access to.
      However, things began to change, when reality seen on the streets did not match what they said. For a long time there was even no real opposition existing, and therefore nobody really who could present a counterpoint, until TRT came and suddenly won elections. While initially, during Thaksin’s government, and in the early stages of the Red/Yellow conflict these Reds still had difficulties with communication, they soon overcame that problem (and at the start they may not have had that much to communicate as for many of them the events became a steep learning curve about their own society as well).
      2010 was a watershed. During and after the killings the relationship between the media, and the Democrats soured, and they began disliking us when increasing amounts of both journalists and diplomats turned very critical. While initially after the 2006 coup it was seen and judged as somewhat necessary, 2010 was not condoned anymore. Two key events during that period was the press conference of Abhisit immediately after the killings, in which they presented us with a flyier trying to tell us how we should report – which, needlessly to point out, did not go down that well with us. Another even was shortly afterwards, when some elite figures came to the club, trying to explain us stupid farang how we should understand 2010. What did not exactly help their cause, was that architect Sumet Jumsai was drunk on the stage, and insulted the Swedish Ambassador, and several others (including me).

      They then turned outright nasty, culminating in their attacks in 2013/2014. One highlight was the assault(s) against me, and where Abhisit refused to intervene on my behalf (twice), when asked to, and all other Democrats either played along, or kept silent (many of whom i have known and talked with often) – until today (with the exception of Kasit Piromya – who however is a bit of an outsider in the party).
      Also Jonathan Head, once very well connected to many people in that party and in the elites, has been dealing with much hatred from them, as he refused to play along, and instead insisted in doing his job.

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      • Chris Beale

        Interesting what you say Nick about Kasit Primoya – since he is one of the few elitists, along with Anand Panyarachun and surprisingly the Democrat’s own Korn Chatikavanij – who has proposed some de-centralisation. But all three are rabidly anti-Shinawatra.

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  6. Ryan K

    Thanks for your timely and reflective article on Khun Pu (Yingluck Shinawatra).
    I am not a fan of the Shinawatra family and yet, I am adamant that true justice would not have been served on August 25, in present day “junta land” especially with regards to Yingluck or anyone associated with Pheu Thai, as is already well documented and the facts have shown.

    The 42 year sentence that Boonsong, the former commerce minister got, just goes to show how rigged the Thai justice system esp. the courts have become. It’s a kangaroo court and terribly biased in favor of the ruling junta. The “yellow shirt” PAD leaders have gotten away scot-free while the show goes on to uproot any and all “red shirts” from the scene, as several of their leaders languish in jail, serving long prison sentences.

    No one from the corrupt military in Thai history has ever gotten that type of a jail sentence, despite causing so much harm and destruction to the Thai nation, illegitimately seizing power, destroying the people’s constitution time and time again, lining their pockets with bogus and useless weapon’s purchases, not to mention all that is hidden from the public eye is well known fact. The first thing they do is to give themselves “blanket amnesty” so they and their cronies are never prosecuted, which they make sure to enshrine by law.

    One must put oneself in her shoes and have an adequate understanding of the facts, what this illegitimate military junta has already shown and one will definitely sympathize with her. I would have done the same. I do not believe it was her true intention to lie or deceive her supporters. She was sincere and determined to prove her innocence and did so for the past three years since the politically motivated and political vendetta roadshow against her started to roll.
    And her decision to listen to her brother’s prodding to get out while she still had a narrow window of opportunity to do so, was not done lightly. It is just a matter of time before we come to know her side of the whole truth and it will become evident for all to see.

    I have no doubt that she and her close confidants, as well as her brother Thaksin, got word that she would be found guilty for sure. Thereby she would have to serve the 10 years of horrible suffering in a Thai prison, which we well know is not an experience anyone would ever want to experience.

    I do not doubt the fact that she was not a corrupt or arrogant politician unlike her brother. Despite not wanting any fame or fortune for herself, (she was already wealthy to begin with), was persuaded by her brother to stand in his place and take charge of Pheu Thai Party. And once she was convinced and accepted that challenge put forth, she never looked back and went all out to contest the elections and convincingly won at the ballot box fair and square. And became the first woman PM of Thailand. It’s time we had more women in the upper echelons of power in Thailand.

    Yes, in hindsight, mistakes were made. The rice scheme did benefit the rice farmers but it did have its flaws and shortcomings and one can debate all night, the pros and cons of her official govt. policy. She could have done more to prevent any corruption by the cabinet member and govt. to govt. fake sales. Not to mention the blanket amnesty that her govt. proposed which ignited a firestorm and gave the green light for one of the most corrupt Southern politician Suthep Thaugsuwan and his gang to create the environment and provide the excuse and a cover for Prayuth and his gang to take over. Which is how it turned out. The rest is what we all know took place.

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  7. James Brecht

    Thank you again for this very helpful addition to the piece, which itself adds some quite astonishing narrative to the main article and paints an interesting picture of the Democrat counterpart.

    Do Thai people deserve to know about such things that you mention, such as the drunken behaviour at what I presume was the FCC, by someone whom members of the public would otherwise hold in high regard, or how members of the media such as yourself, have been treated? I think they do, otherwise how can they make informed personal choices if everything is concealed?

    Certainly it would appear that the political right was incensed following the international media’s reporting of the 2010 events, evidenced for example by the famous writing of a letter to CNN by a member of the privileged class – in effect complaining that the media had not reported the event internationally in the way that suited the beneficial interests of the right – then further gaining the support of Queen Sirikit, which of course said it all.

    Given that the Thai political class was only ever happy with the international media when it was reporting what suited its interests, rather than the truth, it is perhaps not difficult to see why Thailand now finds itself at this juncture of authoritarianism and suppression of freedoms, especially given the fragile foundation of the government which was subsequently elected and the ease with which it was toppled. One wonders, if it hadn’t been a rice mortgaging scheme or a proposed change to the law, then it would simply have been some other faux pas, just waiting to incite street protests by the opposing force.

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    • Nick Nostitz

      “One wonders, if it hadn’t been a rice mortgaging scheme or a proposed change to the law, then it would simply have been some other faux pas, just waiting to incite street protests by the opposing force”

      Exactly that is a point I have argued many times
      I do believe—no, I am convinced—that the takeover of power by the military/traditional elites/corporate collusion would have taken place regardless, and was decided and planned long before the 2011 elections as a consequence of what was seen by these powers as a failed 2006 coup, and the failure of their initial strategy to operate through a government beholden to them.
      All my information, research, and off the record conversations with many actors over the years point to that fact. Amnesty bill, rice scheme, etc was just pretense.

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  8. Ivor Edwards

    Setting aside all of the irrelevance, there seems to be a growing perception in Thailand (and among the Red-Shirts in particular that the government has disappeared Yingluck and then engaged in a disinformation campaign. In Thailand this normally takes the form of contradictory statements, and general confusion.

    Thus (for example) the failure of the police to identify an escape vehicle has been countered today by the army chief Chalermchai, who now says ‘several vehicles were involved’, while the Bangkok Post and other ‘news’ organisations have quietly stopped any comment on Yingluck but started a propaganda campaign to vilify the Shinawatra clan in general. There are those who think they’d be better off investigating the ubiquitous corruption in Thailand, but since the BPP, Nation and others are in receipt of government grace and favour, perhaps they won’t..

    These tactics always worked before; the government seems convinced that most Thais are too dim to see what they’re doing.

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  9. Martin Thorpe

    I’m teaching a student this afternoon, whose best friend was Madame’s boyfriend at university, where they were all fellow students. His assessment of her, “lovely looking, but not very clever”. This from a man with no obvious axe to grind.

    Staring at the tea leaves, especially those pertaining to the Sino-Thai business elite, is I fear – even for the well-connected commentators above, a pretty fruitless exercise. Thai society is transactional in the extreme, the extreme being that it exists in the now. So, unlike say Italian politics, an arena just as mercenary, there is next to no long term planning or strategizing, just simple, immediate, opportunistic gratification. There-in lies the central problem when it comes to academic analysis of the type undertaken in organs like this. The reality I would contend is that there’s precious little to analyze, simply because the actors are are neither inclined that way, or even if individuals are prepared to play the long game, their contemporaries aren’t or won’t.

    The abject failure of the Thai governmental elite to instigate a program of meaningful land reform, let alone a commensurate industrial policy, should be evidence enough of it’s institutional limitations.

    The curse of the humanities academic is reading too much into too little, of conjecture over substance. The longer I live in Thailand, the more I am persuaded of the influence and importance of random chance, chaos and cock-up.

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