Thai politicians mark time until democracy returns

Thai politicians mark time until democracy returns
Democrat Party deputy leader Kiat Sittheeamorn (left) and former Thai deputy prime minister Phongthep Thepkanjana have had plenty of time to attend to personal matters since the junta imposed martial law.

Former Thai deputy prime minister Phongthep Thepkanjana spent three weeks touring the United States with his family earlier this month. They visited New York and Washington DC, gazed at exhibits at the Smithsonian, and toured a university campus.

Nobody noticed that he was a senior politician in the Puea Thai party government that was deposed in the May 22 military coup. Nobody knew that he had been detained for five days by the military - alongside many of his compatriots - and needed special permission from the junta just to step out of his country.

Life for politicians in Thailand has turned a tad surreal after the junta, citing the need for stability, imposed martial law and suspended most political activities. Some have gone back to school, dusted off old guitars, perfected their swing on the green, or dabbled in home improvement, to cope with this political equivalent of gardening leave.

"If you were trapped in a forest, you have two choices: Be very frustrated because you can't find a way out, or find something to enjoy, like the beauty of the forest," said Mr Phongthep, one of the key ministers who held the Puea Thai fort in the face of fierce anti-government protests earlier this year.

The junta's restrictions on politics are broad: Public gatherings of more than five people are banned and so are political party meetings.

With national elections not expected until at least a year from now, the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta calls itself, has also suspended local-level polls and opted instead to replace outgoing officials with bureaucrats. Meanwhile, its newly enacted provisional Constitution explicitly excludes politicians from the interim Parliament.

As a result, political party headquarters have fallen silent. A hush has also descended over politically linked grassroots movements, like the pro-Puea Thai "red shirt" movement, whose leaders were detained and activities closely monitored since soldiers took control of the country.

Mr Phongthep now spends his time administering his late father's estate. He might also fly to the US again, this time to help one of his daughters settle in to undergraduate life there.

"I could be with her three weeks or one month," he said, his face creasing into a slight smile. "If I were in politics, I could not even think about it."

Some of his Puea Thai colleagues "play golf almost every day", he said.

Another, former Puea Thai deputy leader Kanawat Wasinsungworn, is using the lull to catch up on his doctoral thesis research. His topic: The correlation between socio-economic factors and happiness about public policy. "As there is a big break (because of) the coup, I should be able to get it done one year earlier," he said.

Over at the rival Democrat Party camp, deputy leader Kiat Sittheeamorn has found time to jam with the band he performed with in his youth when he was working his way through school. Last month, in front of an audience of about 100 people, he took to the keyboard and belted out old Beatles hits like Do You Want To Know A Secret? and The Long And Winding Road. "The good news is, when I sang, a lot of women still cheered," he quipped.

The enforced holiday for politicians has not taken their minds off politics though. "When we are in office… we are too busy to think about a lot of things," said Mr Kiat. "(This) break... is very valuable… (we can) think about some tactical things we can do when all these bans are lifted."

Likewise, Mr Phongthep has his eye firmly on life after Thai democracy is restored.

"I'm not quitting politics yet... My personal objective is at least to try to make our politics improve."

The hiatus, he said, will merely push back his plans to retire from politics.

This article was first published on July 29, 2014.
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