In Bangkok, Sowing Chaos to Provoke a Coup

Don't be fooled by the tens of thousands of protesters in the streets. Massive demonstrations that have blossomed in the streets of Thailand this week have very little to do with democracy.

Instead, those protesters hope to oust the current government and replace it with an unelected "People's Council." They would probably settle for a military coup as well.

Dubbed "Shutdown Bangkok," anti-government protesters, led by former opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban, have made it their goal to bring the country's capital to a standstill. Demonstrators have clogged the major intersections of Thailand's capital city, and Bangkok has seen sporadic violence, including an explosion at the house of a former prime minister.

On Wednesday, protest leaders boycotted a proposed meeting to discuss postponing the Feb. 2 elections. The snub underscores the fundamental crisis of this standoff: the movement, orchestrated by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), has no interest in democratic reform. The partisans on the streets do not have sufficient popular support to win at the polls, and are, as a result, seeking to delegitimize the administration of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra through blunt force.

With the PDRC planning to stay on the streets for a month and the prime minister unwilling to resign, the future of Thai politics likely lies in the hands of the army.

The latest demonstrations are an extension of the same partisan deadlock that has paralyzed Thai politics for years -- one that centers around the deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Though Thaksin, the brother of Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister, fled Thailand in 2008 amid corruption charges, he still wields significant influence in Thai politics. His high levels of popular support, particularly among rural poor in the country's north, swept his sister into power in 2011. Despite living in exile, he is thought to be key in determining her administration's policies. Yet he is equally maligned among Thailand's opposition Democratic Party supporters, upper and middle-class Bangkok elites, and southerners who have accused him of widespread corruption and vote buying. Fundamentally it is a fight about demographics. Yingluck mobilized a majority voting bloc that threatens the traditional power of moneyed elites.

In 2010, Thaksin supporters, dubbed Red Shirts, massed in the streets, eventually clashing with security forces. The crackdown left 90 people dead. With the current protests at a stalemate, a remix of the bloody 2010 confrontations may be exactly what Suthep is hoping for. Sow enough discord in the streets, and the army may step in and oust the government.

The open secret of the current demonstrations is that elections are not the end game. For weeks, anti-government protesters have called for the implementation of an unelected "People's Council." But with Yingluck standing firm in her commitment to stay in office through the election period, Suthep's last best hope for delegitimizing her administration may be the mobilization of her supporters.

After initial calls went out for Shutdown Bangkok in early January, Red Shirt leaders said they were ready to combat any effort to undermine the elected government. While Red Shirts have rallied in support of the Yingluck administration in provinces across the country, so far they have kept their distance from the capital.

But if they march on the capital, Bangkok could become the scene of some very ugly street battles. And that may be the opposition protesters' last, best hope to get the army to intervene on their behalf. If the current government proves that it cannot control the situation on the streets, that could give the army license to intervene. In other words, by mobilizing, the Red Shirts may very well be walking into a trap.

To understand what the future has in store for Thailand, keep a close eye on what the Red Shirts do in coming days.



Kazakhstan Wants to Attract Big Pharma to Its 'Cannabis Klondike'

Despite a heavy-handed campaign against drug trafficking and related crime in the country, one Kazakh lawmaker thinks it's time to cash in on some 140,000 stubborn hectares of wild cannabis that can be found around Kazakhstan. Darigha Nazarbaeva, the eldest daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, proposed Monday that the country lease some of its treasured cannabis fields to international pharmaceutical companies.

"I suggest we review our attitude to cannabis," Dariga Nazarbayeva reportedly told the Kazakh parliament.

The Chu valley, which is shared between southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan, is home to some of the most infamous -- and potent -- pot in the world. Supposedly rivaling even Afghanistan's potent weed, the robust cultivation scene has generated some unique rituals around the plant. Just one harvesting ritual in the region involves a person riding naked on a horse through cannabis plants, until the bodies of both are covered in a thin layer of sweat and pot resin. The substance is scraped off, molded into ultra-concentrated marijuana bars called "plastilin," and then packed into a regular cigarette. The country's pot is also a favorite subject of at least one Kazakh rap group, who has penned such poetic lyrics as "The champions of smoking kick-ass chronic / Live right here in Kazakhstan, that's not ironic."

After aggressive Soviet efforts to eradicate the high-THC cannabis, the plants have only come back stronger and remain the target of campaigns by the authorities to combat drug trafficking and related crime. Most anti-drug efforts in Kazakhstan are focused on Afghan heroin. About ten percent of the opium that is meant to pass through the country on its way from Afghanistan to Russia ends up in Kazakhstan. But marijuana remains a unique problem because of its accessibility in the region and its unusual stubbornness. A 2012 Kazakh government report on the drug situation in the country noted that although registers users of opioids and stimulants had decreased since 2007, the number of cannabinoid users had increased.

That stubbornness might be behind solutions like the one proposed by Darigha Nazarbaeva and others like it. Last week, a leading narcologist and former presidential candidate in Kyrgyzstan, with which Kazakhstan shares its THC-rich "Cannabis Klondike," proposed a pilot program for the legal production of cannabis in the country. In Kyrgyzstan, too, the drug has become woven into the social fabric. It is estimated that as many as two thirds of all families in the country's Issyk-Kul and Chu regions harvest marijuana.

Kazakh Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov seemed open to Nazarbaeva's  idea, citing the vastness of Chu Valley as evidence of a need for a more creative solution. "You can't just seal off these 140,000 hectares of land," he said.

The idea that pot might become a boom industry for Kazakhstan some time in the future certainly isn't outrageous. With legalization movements afoot in the United States, investors have been busy trying to figure out how to cash in on what has been called a 21st century Green Rush. Surely there are few better marketing opportunities available for the crop than the sale of marijuana harvested off of the naked body of a Kazakh man.