Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let's just condemn the coup and play soccer

Anyone can talk up freedom and democracy and lash out at dictatorship, but it takes a real man to do all that and embrace Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at the same time.

As Thailand marked the anniversary of the September 19, 2006 coup, it turned out that quite a few of our democratic idealists were also capable of adoring the Phnom Penh strongman. If you want to discuss what that power seizure that toppled Thaksin Shinawatra has done to all of us, look no further than the intriguing events unfolding in the neighbouring country.

How many independent websites has Hun Sen allowed in Cambodia? Did he ever stage a coup? Where are his political opponents now? Can anti-government protesters pour blood at the gates of his house? Is Cambodia an NGO paradise? Are the Cambodian armed forces democracy-lovers that stay away from politics and never let themselves become tools of politicians?

Of course, our ankle sprain is a bigger deal than an earthquake elsewhere. I mean, it's perfectly fine to decry our own dictatorship and ignore the plight of oppressed citizens someplace else. It's not so fine, however, to denounce one dictator and kiss the hand of another next door, almost in the same breath. When an ideology lacks consistency, it's in danger of degenerating into mere hypocrisy.

This is not meant to be Hun Sen bashing. He has gone through all kinds of political turmoil, even losing one eye because of political conflict battering his country. And he has been everything - a rebel, a "puppet" leader and a legitimate leader with no qualms about crushing rebellion or freedom fighters who fail to make the grade, to be exact). Hun Sen has criticised political situations in Thailand, especially under the Abhisit government. Again, whatever he does is his business. But here's a man whose government was in 1987 accused by Amnesty International of torturing countless political prisoners using "electric shocks, hot irons and near-suffocation with plastic bags".

For Thai politicians who portray themselves as champions of democracy to hero-worship Hun Sen, they should at least explain why they do so. Because he's giving Thaksin Shinawatra love, warmth and sanctuary? Problem with that is, if Aung San Suu Kyi sought refuge with the Abhisit government and got it, would that make the previous Thai government less "dictatorial"? Or if Thaksin requested asylum in Burma and got it, would that make the generals there, well, less of a junta? If a political prisoner in Cambodia escaped to Thailand and played guitar at a public event, like Arisman Pongruangrong did a couple of days ago in Phnom Penh, would Bangkok's democracy rating jump?

Five years on and the last Thai coup is being condemned like it has always been - romantically yet blindly. Ask Hun Sen why he had to stage a coup or do what he allegedly did to political prisoners, and Thai democracy lovers may understand the Council for National Security a little better. If that can't yield a new perspective, imagine having to choose between being a repressed citizen of Thailand (from the coup of 2006 up to July this year) or enjoying the political freedom that Hun Sen provides (go ahead and pick a period).

One may argue that it's within democracy's rights to employ desperate measures. If association with a dictator can help advance a democracy elsewhere, then so be it, no matter how ironic that sounds. If that's the case, the logic is flawed because it still indicates dictatorship has some virtues. It implies that it's all right for, say, Abhisit Vejjajiva to be dictatorial if his government gives a foreign political outcast a red-carpet welcome.

My point is simple. If you are opposed to any coup d'etat and abuse of human rights, choose your opponents for a friendly soccer game carefully. Do that for nothing but your very own conscience and the ideology that you proclaim you'd die for.

Granted, idealists everywhere can be led astray. That is always possible when the real people who drive an ideal are not its true believers. Only they can make it sound acceptable when they tell us why something is bad but a similar or worse thing elsewhere is all right. Perhaps the best lesson we have learned from September 19, 2006 is not an answer or solution, but the question why coup sufferers should receive "achievement" medals from a former coup-maker in another country.

Democracy may stand a chance if that question is addressed thoroughly and without any prejudice. For now, there is not much we can do but condemn the Thai coup and try to enjoy the soccer game.

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