|By Pueng Vongs, New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO – March 29, 2006 – The relentless protests threatening to topple Thailand’s government have triggered public demonstrations by Thai Americans, a departure for a community that tends to avoid conflict and stay out of political affairs in their adopted homeland.
“The (Thai) government thinks they have absolute power, but they have to understand that power comes from the people,” says Jiab Tongsopit, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz who joined a protest in San Francisco last week.
In Los Angeles, more than 100 Thais have gathered at weekly protests in front of the Thai consulate, donning the bright yellow and red sashes worn by their compatriots back home to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Los Angeles is the hub of the Thai immigrant community in America, with approximately 200,000 Thai residents. Similar demonstrations have erupted in Chicago and Las Vegas.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in Thailand in the past two months, in Western-style mass demonstrations calling for Shinawatra’s ouster. Mounting corruption allegations exploded in January, when the prime minister profited $1.9 billion, tax-free, from the sale of his family’s wireless business to a Singaporean company. The protests are the largest the country has seen in 14 years.
Highly visible protests are unusual for Thai Americans, who tend to focus on achieving economic security. Furthermore, when times are tough, Thais’ Buddhist nature preaches patience. When other Asian immigrant groups such as Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese demonstrated for better housing, health care and political rights, most Thai Americans remained on the sidelines.
Behind the scenes, however, is a community actively building temples, proliferating Thai restaurants nationwide and donating quietly to political candidates in the United States.
Now the sale of a top wireless company in Thailand to Singapore appears to have fueled nationalistic fervor in Thais in America.
“We want to see Thai business returned to the Thai people. We want Singapore out,” says Montree Chaisorn, head of the new, Westminster, Calif.-based Thai People’s Alliance for Democracy. Chaisorn, a nurse who has lived in the United States for 32 years, says he participated in protests against the government as a student in Thailand. According to him, the sale of the wireless company is just the beginning of Shinawatra’s illegal activity. Shinawatra also illegally granted Singaporean troops a long-term lease to train in Thailand, Chaisorn says.
But Thais who support Shinawatra are just as passionate as those in the anti-government camp. They too have been staging frequent protests in Los Angeles, and have collected 500 signatures and $4,000 to bolster Shinawatra’s campaign. Many fear that ongoing unrest will shake their homeland’s economic stability.
“I am concerned about what this will do to the Thai economy,” says Rosalynn Carmen, a Thai business owner in San Diego. “Right now Asia is booming. China is doing well and Vietnam is coming back. If Thailand continues to be unstable, it will throw us way out.
“Instead of demonstrating, we should be focused on appointing a council to tackle corruption,” Carmen says.
The competition between the two sides is so fervent that at a weekend Buddhist Dharma talk at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, the anti- and pro-Shinawatra camps had an intense standoff and segregated themselves from each other.
Greater access to information outside of government-controlled media in Thailand has also helped galvanize Thai activists in the United States. “The people here look at the Internet, read Thai newspapers published here or watch satellite television every day to get information people do not have in Thailand,” says Paison Promnui, editor of Asian Pacific News, a Thai weekly.
Thai Americans are eager to try out new democratic ideals and tools by staging protests and voting. Shinawatra is the first democratically elected leader to last a full term in the country.
On April 2, both sides will weigh in at a provisional election to decide Shinawatra’s future. Overseas Thais will be counted in the vote. In a preliminary election on March 17, Thais lined up in front of the Thai consulate in Los Angeles hours before the voting booths were opened.
Some Thai observers in the United States say that the renewed interest in elections in Thailand will encourage more Thais to participate in the American democratic process.
“People from Thailand have two houses. One here and one in Thailand, and when they are 60, they go back. But this will change,” Chaisorn says. Thais, he says, are already seeking ways to become more visible. They have created a scholarship fund for a Thai human rights lawyer, and successfully pushed for the appointment of a Thai commissioner as part of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s team.
“We pay taxes here for many years and we want to have a greater say in what happens in America,” Chaisorn says.
Pueng Vongs is a writer and editor for New America Media.