Another year has gone by and unfortunately it hasn't been one to remember. In culinary terms, if it was a meal in a posh restaurant, you'd send it straight back to the kitchen; if it was a swig of wine, you'd spit it right out. Academically speaking, it was a complete failure. Welcome to my overview of 2008, a recount of events as I remember them. Since I haven't lived in Thailand for the last four months, this overview starts worldwide, since outside of the Land of Smiles, news coverage of the Kingdom was rather scarce, apart from the airport seizures last November.
From an international point of view, Thailand is still anything but the centre of the world. After a turbulent 2008, the Land of Smiles seems to have consolidated not only its image of a popular yet overrated holiday destination associated with paid sex and drugs, but is now also considered a land of mass demonstrations, riots and lame-duck governments. Some well-known news organisations even wondered if it was about to become a failed state and dozens of countries issued admittedly exaggerated travel warnings. The Thai tourism industry has been in dire straits lately and the outlook has probably never been bleaker.
The negative worldwide
What I think of first are the credit crunch and the ensuing global economic crisis. The financial crisis which erupted in September almost pushed the world to the brink of collapse. Without going into too much detail, the main culprits of this catastrophe were major banks who got too greedy and reckless. The catastrophe started with the US subprime crisis which had been smoldering since late 2007. Egged on by the authorities, banks had started approving home loans for just about anyone, often without even asking for proof of income or employment. No wonder many jobless Joe Sixpacks defaulted when interest rates of their teaser loans went up, so many of the bad-quality (aka subprime) loans led to foreclosures, thus sending the house market tumbling down and leaving many families stuck with negative equity (as the bubble burst, the outstanding value of loans was often higher than what the houses were actually worth).
At about the same time, banks recruited an army of mathematical eggheads who invented a swath of hybrid financial instruments to get both rid of and ensure against bad risks. Nobody really understood the risks of these products and highly leveraged investments yet nobody cared as unregulated trading of these instruments had started an era of big banking profits. Doubting if all these seemingly easy profits were above-board was a non-starter for managers who were under severe pressure to maximise banking profits and simultaneously jack up their own obscene bonuses.
Financial fire brigades were set up worldwide and massive bail-out packages were announced in order to douse the flames of the banking Armageddon and relieve the banks of billions of dollars of toxic assets. Yet although this prevented a global banking collapse, it couldn't prevent the damage from spreading to the real economy, leading to a myriad of factory closures, bankruptcies and millions of jobs lost worldwide. Even the CEOs of big three US automakers flew to Washington in their corporate jets to go begging to Congress to bail them out (US lawmakers refused to fill their bottomless pits but George W eventually filled their begging bowls).
The major problem of the first half of 2008, namely runaway inflation due to soaring oil, commodities and food prices, solved itself. Thanks to the economic crisis and bumper harvests, demand for raw materials plummeted and food supplies became plentiful again, thus sending prices to more realistic levels (although I suspect consumers didn't always benefit from lower prices).
Apart from the global economic crisis, lots of news coverage was given to the Mumbai attacks which sent India reeling in November. Terrorists killed almost 200 people at random in the heart of Mumbai, India's financial centre. After almost three days, all but one of the heavily armed madmen was captured alive. It seems the perpetrators of what was labelled India's own 9/11 were trained in Pakistan but not acting of behalf of that country. Investigations are ongoing but one can only hope this ruthless slaughter won't lead to a military confrontation between two nuclear-armed neighbours.
The situation in Afghanistan also deteriorated significantly, leading to more foreign troop casualties than in Iraq. It is clear the country is falling yet again into the claws of the fundamental Taliban, who are not exactly the paragon of human rights and international peace efforts. In my opinion, the troubling fact is that apparently an important part of the Afghani population would actually prefer living under the iron fist of Sharia law, which prevents for example girls from getting an education and provides stoning as punishment for raped women. How can you save someone who doesn't want to be saved? Splitting the country into two parts - one for brain-damaged fanatical zealots and one for the all the others - is hardly feasible, I imagine.
In Central Asia, Russia flexed its muscles and showed Georgia who's the boss in that part of the world during the Russian-Georgian war in August. It is clear that Russia, after having become an important international player again mainly thanks to oil and gas riches, won't let itself be pushed into a tight corner by NATO and won't tolerate being challenged or provoked by western-aligned former Soviet states. Contrary to many other autocratic states, the big majority of Russians adore Prime Minister Putin and his protégé, the newly appointed President Medvedev.
Ongoing conflicts such as the Darfur debacle in Sudan, the war in Iraq, the standoff between Israelis and Palestinians and the regular skirmishes between Sri Lankan rebels and government troops are still far from being resolved but seldom captured the headlines in 2008. It seems the world - media world and audiences alike - gets tired of these endless battles. Solutions to these conflicts are also long overdue.
In Africa, a new civil war broke out in the already war-torn DR Congo's northeastern Kivu province, where rebel troops of the Rwandan-backed (?) megalomaniac rebel leader Laurent Nkunda wreak havoc. The latter doesn't seem to mind allowing his bullies to terrorise and slaughter locals in order to extort direct talks with the central government it wants to topple.
The former bread basket of Africa, namely Zimbabwe, was pushed further to the brink of collapse by dictatorial Robert Mugabe, even after losing a general election. Although he agreed to share power with the main opposition party of Morgan Tsvangirai, he soon reneged this agreement and his country spiralled further into hunger, despair and fatal illness as cholera broke out due to contaminated water supplies. Inflation rose into millions of percent and a 10 billion Zimbabwean dollar note (that's 10,000,000,000) was the central bank's ridiculous Christmas present to its population.
The fact that in Asia the autocratic and oppressive generals of the Burmese regime illegally extended freedom icon Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest almost seems benign in comparison, though it certainly isn't.
The negative in Thailand
Looking at the 2008 headlines, most Thai news was bad and gloomy. The political battle fought in Parliament as well as in the streets and the courts divided Thai society more than ever. Political foes, together with intolerant battering-ram organisations like the PAD (yellow shirts) and UDD (red shirts), made absolutely sure the country became even more polarised thanks to their respective hatred and reverence of ousted PM Thaksin.
Thaksin's cronies were democratically elected, albeit with some inevitable vote-buying (nothing new there), under the banner of the PPP Party and formed a coalition government in early 2008, but the courts (instructed by his Majesty the King?) made sure their reign was short-lived. After barring PM Samak from office for the most ridiculous reason in history (hosting a cookery show on TV), a replacement PM was found in the person of Somchai Wongsawat, incredibly enough none other than Thaksin's very own brother-in-law. Red rejoiced while yellow was outraged; more protests and violent clashes were the logical result.
The PAD (People's Alliance for Democracy) subsequently launched their 'new politics' plan, in which only one third of the Parliament would be elected, while the rest was to be appointed (by whom remained unclear). They claimed that poor, uneducated farmers were too stupid and too prone to vote-buying for the good of the country. Actually, the PAD, which comprises mainly the old rich, the Bangkok elite and an assorted bunch of royalists and academics seemed royally fed up that a bunch of dirt-poor Isan farmers were able to shape the political landscape by electing populist politicians, thus undermining the status quo of Thai society in which the poor were supposed to remain poor and the rich supposed to get richer.
This battle between old and new culminated in the occupation by the PAD of Government House and Bangkok's two international airports. The siege of Government House slowly but steadily undermined the governments legitimacy as police and army were unwilling to kick out the peaceful PAD protesters, most of which were armed with iron bars, slingshots and handguns. Moreover, the head of the army repeatedly urged the PM to resign and call elections. The airport seizures unnecessarily paralysed the country and its economy. Not only were hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists stuck for weeks, billions of dollars worth of tourism income, exports and credibility also went down the drain.
Finally, a judicial coup brought a controversial way out of the morass as judges disbanded the ruling PPP Party for vote-buying (of one of their executives). The PPP government's coalition partners all switched sides and a breakaway faction from the outlawed PPP itself (the Friends of Newin Chidchob, an Isan heavyweight now probably wanted dead rather than alive in the Northeast), declared its sudden love for the Democrats, thus giving Democrats party boss Abhisit Vejjajiva the PM's job on a silver platter. Although the Democrats lhad ong coveted to be in power, I personally wouldn't want to be in Abhisit's shoes sorting out the incredible mess the country is in. If he doesn't tread carefully in this snake pit, his rule might be short-lived as well.
In January 2008, the King's sister, Princess Galyani, died after a prolonged illness at the age of 84. After no fewer than ten months, she was finally cremated in an opulent ceremony lasting a whole week. Evil gossips labelled it a fine general rehearsal a possible future royal demise which might plunge the country into chaos.
For teachers, 2008 wasn't a vintage year in the Land of Smiles either. In a possibly well-intentioned effort to enhance teacher quality, the Ministry of Education not only launched a mandatory culture course but also severely compromised the issuance of work permits by implementing new draconian and impractical requirements. Teachers without a BA in Education were supposed to sit the MoE's four error-ridden exams or take a costly and time-consuming training course. Rules are more complicated than they seem and might have changed by the time you read this, so check out the rest of the website for up-to-date information.
Anyway, there was some major disgruntlement in many teachers' rooms as the quality of the provided culture course and the proposed exams were all but top-notch. All this seems to have caused an even greater shortage of qualified teachers, thereby opening the door for more unqualified individuals with dubious teaching and language skills who will end up working illegally, exactly the opposite of what the MoE envisaged. I guess unscrupulous recruitment agencies are having a ball.
Visa agents might see their business boom as well, as visas-on-arrival by land have now been limited to 15 days in a move to flush out people working illegally. Although the intention of this new rule might have been honourable, it not only affects border-hopping teachers and Pattaya residents but also backpackers and migrant workers from neighbouring countries, all of which spend good money in the Kingdom and help keep its economy running. The timing of the new rule certainly seems odd, given the economic woes Thailand is going through and the fact that most other countries in the region are actually relaxing visa regulations.
The positive worldwide
The Olympic Games held in August in Beijing were considered as possibly the best ever. Chinese authorities excelled at organising and coordinating the massive event and even managed to keep the ever-present smog at bay by closing nearby factories and ordering most cars off the roads. Efficient public transport and very strict traffic policemen ensured everyone got to their destination on time without bending any rules.
It also became apparent that China is the new powerhouse in the sporting world, claiming more medals than ever and even humbling the mighty USA, the perennial number one. China scored medals across the board but was particularly ruthless in gymnastics. Although the minimum age for participation in the Olympics still stood at 16, some critics observed that many of the Chinese female gymnasts looked as if they belonged in primary school.
Oversees reporters covering the Games were granted unprecedented Internet access and a special zone was provided for provided for protesters and demonstrators. Overzealous officials in charge made sure though that every protest permit was turned down and would-be demonstrators swiftly traced and put behind bars.
Most people will probably consider the election of Barack Obama as America's 44th president as the most positive event of 2008. I do admit that this historic election was one of the highlights in America's recent drab history, yet how could they not elect the charismatic and energetic son of an American mother and a Kenyan goat herd? Electing a geezer whose age rivalled that of former Soviet Politburo members would have surely lost America the last morsel of respect it retained on the world stage.
Despite an overwhelmingly negative campaign from his opponent, Barack Hussein Obama (who is not a Muslin though smear campaigns wanted to make voters believe otherwise) convincingly won the popular vote (52% vs 46%) and claimed a big majority in the electoral college (some 350 vs 170 votes). On the one hand, one could say that 52 percent of Americans finally saw the light and elected the right man for the job.
On the other hand, it is quite amazing and deplorable that no fewer than 46 percent of Americans (mainly whites) still voted for the craggy John McCain, an ancient war hero who personified anything but change and who would probably have given the US four more years of the same (or definitely similar) Bush policies. More disturbing even was the fact that McCain's choice of running mate Sarah Palin definitely signalled a sharp shift to the right, as the self-proclaimed hockey mum quickly became an icon for the far-right, gun-toting moral majority. Sitting President Bush, on his way to become the most unpopular president ever, was conspicuously absent during the whole election campaign.
Oil prices reached an unimaginable 147 dollars per barrel in July last year. Although this put strain on the economy and fuelled inflation worldwide, this price level triggered a welcome avalanche of investments into renewable energy sources and the development of clean and hybrid cars. In December, prices plummeted to under 40 dollars, thus giving the economy some well-needed breathing space but unfortunately putting the development of alternative energy on the back burner.
The positive in Thailand
This is a tough one. I suppose the fact that the new government might put the country on the road to reconciliation is positive. Ousted PM Thaksin being convicted of corruption and abuse of power is also something to cheer about, although he is still hiding in plain view abroad and it is doubtful he will ever see the inside of a Thai prison.
Finally, the food is still fresh and affordable and the weather is as hot as ever. Although many destinations now have become blatant and overpriced tourist traps, there are still some nice and inexpensive places with honest and friendly people. Just read some of my other columns if you wonder where they are.
Thanks for all the reactions I received in 2008. Comments and suggestions remain welcome. I wish all readers a prosperous 2009. I will refrain from making predictions for 2009 as I absolutely do not believe in fortune-telling.
South-East Asia photos available on www.flickr.com/photos/philiproeland.
The author of this article can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.