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Thailand, Trump, and Authoritarianism

in Columns/Opinions by

Last week, I overheard a conversation about Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. Two people were arguing if President Trump would ever release them. The argument proceeded as follows: because American politics nowadays are too polarized and divisive, President Trump’s tax return would not affect public perception. For Trump supporters, if Trump’s antics, behavior, and lack of political experience could not dissuade them, his tax return probably will not. In contrast, for people who oppose him, they will never vote for him even if Trump releases his tax returns, period.

 

The question is, why should we spare any thought to President Trump’s tax returns? Does the information about how Trump profits from his billionaire empire offer us any meaningful insight? Yes, it does. Be it his lucrative real estate properties in the United States, his golf courses in Scotland, or his Trump Grill in Trump Tower, the public deserves to know this information. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the importance of tax returns because no other president besides President Trump has ever refused to release theirs. Because the current situation in Thailand resembles that of the United States in several ways which I will explore later, this article will draw parallels between both countries to argue why citizens suffer if government authorities do not declare their assets.

To understand how the situation in Thailand resembles that of the U.S., it is crucial that one understands Thai politics first. Thailand is a Southeast Asian country fraught with corruption and political instability. The country experienced three military overthrows and 16 presidents in the past three decades. How does the military justify these coups? Eliminating corruption. Today, Thailand is governed by a military regime that seized power from the previous government in 2014 and has vowed to eradicate corruption from the country. The regime was led by General Prayut Chan-Ocha, who, like Trump, has minimal experience in politics. However, according to the 2016 Corruption Perception Index report by Transparency National, Thailand is ranked 77th out of 176 countries for corruption, climbing from 100th in 2015. This figure tells us that 100 countries enjoy more transparency than Thailand does. Also, we deduce two possibilities from this figure: corruption was either exacerbated so much within one year that the regime cannot tackle the issue, or the regime itself is corrupted.  

 

Now, we will draw the aforementioned parallel: both Thailand’s prime minister and Donald Trump ascended to power by denouncing the status quo. For Thailand, corruption is the culprit. For the United States, the dysfunctional economy is to be blamed. Moreover, recognize that Donald Trump has repeatedly derogated politicians with such words as “lyin” or “crooked,” promised to “drain the swamp,” and vowed to “make America great again.” During the campaign, he invoked his status as an outsider to appeal to his voters.

 

The second parallel is that leaders of both countries have actively discredited media, non-government organization, and independent agencies whenever these groups keep them in check. To elaborate, several months ago, a Facebook page called “CSI LA” published evidence that General Prawit Wongsuwan, the second-in-command of Thailand’s current military regime, had worn at least 25 extremely expensive watches, costing over $1 million in total. He owns so many expensive watches that the Daily Mail bestowed him the title “Rolex General.”

 

The problem is, Mr. Wongsuwan declared none of these assets before accepting his position. To fend off criticism, he invented several unreasonable explanations, claiming that his relatives and his friends let him borrow those expensive watches. Moreover, he requested that the media not publish “false” stories about his watches and claimed only the media care about this issue, implying ordinary people do not care about his wealth. Even if this excuse were true, Mr. Wongsuwan’s wealth indicates that he may have some conflict of interest with people outside of the government. Even worse, he might have abused his power to benefit himself.  It is virtually impossible for them to accrue such massive wealth within a short period of time because politicians earn $40,000 per year in Thailand. Once again, notice the similarity. Donald Trump has repeatedly undermined the credibility of news media by calling media “fake news,” “fake reports,” and so on. Whenever the media urge President Trump to release his tax returns, he shuts them down.

 

Why are these parallels problematic? Because they breed the idea that outside intervention solves every problem and thus detracts people from understanding how politics works. In reality, politicians do not run the country alone. They must cooperate with other government personnel and existing structures rather than disregard them totally in order to enact any meaningful change. The craze for one-man-fix-all solution teaches people to be passive with democracy. What should happen is that if people are discontent with how the government is functioning, they should protest and voice their opinions instead of waiting for some deus ex machina to fix their problem. Moreover, these parallels signal to us that government authorities are harming the media. In every democratic society, people’s trust in media prevents politicians from abusing their power for illegitimate purposes. Had American citizens not trusted Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, President Nixon would not have resigned and gotten away in the Watergate scandal. Therefore, because the media keep the government in check, we should protect them from false discredits by the government.

Right now the President of the United States, who supposedly serves as a beacon of democracy in the free world, is acting very similarly to an authoritarian regime in Thailand. The question we need to ask is how we should proceed. Despite the authoritarianism of the Thai government, we learn that journalism, social media, and the will to fight for transparency can inspire citizens to protest even against a military regime. The outcry against the regime and the demand that the regime return power to Thai citizens is happening at this very moment, all thanks to a few people behind a Facebook page. Also, we learn that when people notice blatant acts of corruption, many choose not to tolerate it. They demand explanations from those in power. With the stories of President Trump’s financial ties with Russia unfolding, we should demand some explanation as well.

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