For Which It Stands: Thailand

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ISAAN REGION, Thailand – Barack Obama smiles over this patch of upcountry Thailand, its rice fields glowing under a golden sunset.

He grins broadly, not so much at the farmers thigh-deep in rice stalks, but at the motorists along the nearby motorway. Come, he beckons. The beer is cold and the coffee is fresh.

“I hired someone to paint him for me,” explained shop-owner Rachaneekorn Taweewitheeranyaporn, who posted a sign with Obama’s likeness to attract customers. Her shop offers quick eats to drivers on Highway 2 in Thailand’s Isaan farming region.

“Obama is inspirational,” she said. “I was hoping he’d attract people to drink my coffee.”

Obama’s celebrity in Thailand is pervasive. Pretty much any Thai with a TV can repeat Obama's selling points: handsome, young, not George W. Bush. And at a particularly low point for Thai politics — when in-fighting and violent street rallies have crippled the government — many extol the incoming U.S. president as an icon for peaceful change.

“It reflects where Thailand is at as a country,” said Voranai Vanijaka, a political observer and columnist for The Bangkok Post. “We’re desperate. We’re in a crisis. Thai people project that onto Barack Obama, who actually doesn’t have anything to do with Thailand.”

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Analysts expect Obama to mostly continue previous presidents’ U.S.-Thailand policies. The head of the American Studies Association in Thailand, Viboonpong Poonprasit, suspects that “Obama’s foreign policy toward Thailand is zero right now.” As an export power, Thailand may actually suffer if Obama adopts protectionist trade policies that moderate the flow of cheap imports into the U.S.

But none of this has diminished the star power of the man Thais call “Oh-bah-MAH.”

Still, the love affair is largely shallow. Many protesting Thais also sport the image of Che Guevara, the Latin American Marxist guerilla, whose face says “revolution!” and little else. “At this moment,” Voranai said, “people in Thailand will grab on to anything. Even though you’re not doing very well in America, hell, we’re doing a lot worse.”

Several styles of “Bangkok for Obama” shirts hang in crowded Thai markets. The cover of a leading magazine, Business Thai, screamed “Super Obama!” and depicted the President-elect in Superman spandex, a crimson “O” replacing the “S” on his chest. Bangkok taxi drivers can cite Obama’s childhood in another Southeast Asian metropolis, Jakarta, Indonesia.

“Obama talks about running after water buffalos,” Viboonpong said. “This is going to be the first time we see a president in the United States who understands the world.”

Obama is also a “Luk Krung,” noted Phil Robertson, chairman of Democrats Abroad Thailand. The phrase refers to an adored mixed-race class in Thailand — the “half child” — that dominates ads and movie roles. (It typically refers to people with Thai and Caucasian blood.)

The Thai-language print media, though divided into political camps, has proved universally adoring of Obama. Newspapers on reverse sides of the political chasm have championed Obama and his peaceful rallies, with some outlets drawing unflattering comparisons to Bangkok’s raucous and sometimes violent protests.

Thai politicians, attempting to soak up Obama’s shine, have also likened him to their own leaders. Abhisit Vejjajiva, 44, the handsome leader of Thailand’s Democrat party, has invited the most comparisons (the two politicians have little else in common). A senior education bureaucrat publicly announced she’d forced her staff to review Obama’s “Zero to Five” early education plan by reading his campaign website.

The Obama fawning comes at a time when unrest and backstabbing have brought high turnover to Thailand’s political leaders. “We don’t even know who’s going to be in power in Thailand to send that congratulatory note to Obama,” Robertson said.

Regardless of who leads Thailand in 2009, expect that leader to take every opportunity to score a photo-op with America’s new president, Voranai said. “Whoever will be in power, they’re standing on shaky ground.” A photo with Obama, printed in the Thai press, he said, will “legitimize” the prime minister with readers.

“People hope that, somehow, Obama will lead America to a better future,” Voranai said. “And, as a side effect, Thailand and the rest of the world will be brought along.”