Sunday, October 19, 2014

The big issue: Our man in Milan

The spotlight fell even more strongly on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last week. And no one, not the most vengeful anti-coup opponent, seemed to feel worse about the constant attention than the man himself. 
He flew off to the Asia-Europe Meeting summit in Italy, and after a very quick freshening up in his five-star RosaGrand suite, was ready to present a tale of woe to Team Thailand — regional diplomats and businessmen who also followed the trail to the Capital of the Western Roman Empire. It was not a pleasant introduction.
To start it off, the new prime minister had a flat statement. "I have no happiness." His version of recent events has been told frequently, but the Milan group heard the sad version. In order for happiness to return to Thailand, "I have to suffer."
Gen Prayut obviously wanted the remarks to be spread. His staff translated them and handed them out to the entire press contingent at Milan, hundreds of them.
In his telling of current affairs of the government and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), every detail is something of a battle. As a military man, he can give orders — and frequently has to. "Every day I have to fight," he said. "When I get home, I have an argument with my wife."
Gen Prayut has dragged his domestic problems into previous addresses, most notably in one of his Friday night TV monologues last month. But the Wednesday evening speech to Team Thailand was remarkable for its revealed personal insight. He said he led a coup and holds power merely because he is a patriot.
"I don't want to stay longer than I expect for even one day," he said, according to the official translation. Reporters were not allowed into the speech itself.
Once he arrived in Milan, Gen Prayut focused on his diplomatic agenda. European counterparts refused to meet him or talk with him, but on the sidelines of the summit he held showy, much-photographed talks with the prime ministers of Cambodia, China and Japan. The latter meeting showed the big problem with being the head of a junta in 2014. Thai spokesmen claimed to the Thai media at great length that Shinzo Abe “praised” the premier’s plans for national reform. Japanese spokesmen told the Japanese media that Mr Abe had urged Gen Prayut to get the country back on a democratic footing faster.
Tokyo's version of the meeting had Mr Abe telling Gen Prayut that Japanese businesses and the government believe massive investment would be at risk unless democracy were restored quickly, in order to eliminate the risk of political instability.
As promised, Thai activists and exiles turned out with foreign friends to “greet” Gen Prayut with signs that represented him as Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty Four, saying, “Prayuth, you do not represent Thai people.”
But Milan is also the home town of the late Fabio Polenghi, the Italian photographer gunned down in May 2010 during the street fighting. The Criminal Court said soldier killed him. Polenghi's sister Arianna had the harshest words heard against Gen Prayut since May 22: “an assassin who, along with others, ordered the execution of my beloved brother Fabio”.
Everyone cuts a bereaved family member a little slack. But Ms Polenghi’s grief was a reminder that there has not been even a serious attempt to demand accounting for the hundred deaths and great violence of 2010.
Gen Prayut has been everywhere, and last week was particularly frantic. He got involved in the Koh Tao murders, the self-immolation of the loan shark victim, problems with pharmacists and farmers and a stern reporter. And, of course, there was his first gentle letdown of 65 million people who were hoping for a peaceful end to the military regime next October.
The general has been described more and more in the foreign press as “unsmiling”. It seems there are many reasons for that.
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