Updated: Thailand’s protesters don’t want democracy

29 01 2014

There have been some pretty horrid defenses of the anti-democrats by some journalists and bloggers in recent days. One of the features of these pieces has been the almost complete absence of factual information and the reliance on a few informants from the anti-democracy camp.

Perhaps the worst of this lot was the long Newsweek piece by Hugh Gallagher, called “What I saw at the Revolution.” Perhaps it should have been “What I saw at the Counter-Revolution.” This scribbler essentially had one source – a woman who happened to live in this guy’s condominium.

Saowaluk, 30-something TV producer, was one of them. She met me that morning in my building’s lobby. Dressed in jeans, black T-shirt and running sneakers, she tucked her smartphone into a designer handbag, brushed her long black hair aside, and led me out into the protests.

Smartphone, designer bag, etc. This is upwardly mobile Thai-Chinese middle class Bangkok.

Many people pouring into the streets of Bangkok today received their diploma directly from their king. The PDRC movement is filled with such educated professionals, whom detractors have spun toward the more derogatory label of “elite.”

Saying the “revolution” was more than the middle class and elite being pissed that they thought their privilege was going down the drain, the author then introduces “famous people” at the protest. He makes PPT’s case: this is a highly protectionist elite and their hangers-on protecting a system that has suited them and kept the rest down.

Equally hopeless was a piece at The Guardian by Dave Sherman. We were initially surprised that a respected newspaper like this would publish such week journalism, but then we realized that this is one of those stories that anyone can publish, kind of like a long comment at a blog.

Then we found out that this Dave is Bangkok Dave. He hasn’t posted anything at his blog for ages, but he came out for The Guardian. We won’t say too much about the article, but let’s contextualize it. This is how Dave describes himself:

I’m not a journalist…. I am not a neutral observer. I’m against the red shirts – their ideology; their goals (not their stated goals, but the actual ones); their methods, particularly the calculated use of violence; their hypocrisy and sense of entitlement; their lack of compassion and self-awareness. But most of all, I’m against their political master: Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former premier turned fugitive who’s organized the red shirt movement, funded its activities and infused it with his sociopathic personality and political ethos.

So Dave is a commentator who hates red shirts. Should we then listen to him when he supports the anti-democrats? Well, yes, if he made any sense.

Does he make sense? Try this, his: “Myth 1: The protesters are mainly ‘Bangkok elites’.” What is it then?:

In reality, while the protests indeed have their centre in Bangkok, most protesters are fairly diverse, and include the city’s middle and working classes, as well as students and people of all walks of life from Thailand’s south. Crucially, the majority of the Bangkok-born working class do not support the government.

“Fairly diverse”? Everyone says the Bangkok middle class is there (see above), so nothing new there. But the working class of Bangkok? The first thing to notice is that Dave has no evidence for this claim, and PPT certainly hasn’t seen this class at the rallies. Of course, the leadership of tiny state enterprise unions have supported the anti-democrats, going back to 2005, mainly through the influence of Somsak Kosaisuk.

But this is a “labor aristocracy.” It is a tiny fraction of the Bangkok-based working class that was so emphatic in its support for the red shirts and which repeatedly votes for pro-Thaksin parties. Evidence is not one of Dave’s strong points.

Update: Oops, like Dave, we forgot our punchline. The headline of this story is a contradiction of Dave’s. We won’t argue for our conception because he doesn’t either. But, hey, we have hundreds of posts to support us.

Thinking about the end of the monarchy

29 01 2014

The Wall Street Journal has a take on the end of the monarchy in Thailand. We are sure the journalist involved wouldn’t say it that way, but that’s what it is.

It begins rather shakily:

For decades, Thais have looked to King Bhumibol Adulyadej to referee political disputes. But with the king now 86 years old, some people here say it’s time to sort out their own problems.

Of course, this is incorrect. Some Thais have looked to the king.And this is a recent longing, mainly associated with 1973, canceled by the involvement in the 1976 massacre, and then in 1992, canceled by the 2006 coup. The Thais who seem to look to the king most are those who have gained much from a royal connection: the military, wealthy Sino-Thais and the culturally rudderless Bangkok middle class.

It is still a bit lost when it says:

Elevated to almost divine status with the help of the military during the Cold War, King Bhumibol has interceded during flashpoints over the years. Sometimes he has sided with street protesters demanding more democracy and accountability; at others, he has endorsed autocratic military rulers.

In fact, the king has always been on the side of autocrats. They are the ones who elevated him. His occasional comments on democracy have been conservative and reactionary, and mainly associated with notions of Thai-style democracy. When he has supported civilians against the military, it has been when a crisis threatened the roots of autocracy and his ruling class.

It is then stated that:

Unlike some other Asian royal houses that have faded into the background or, in Nepal’s case, been abolished, Thailand’s monarchy is still part and parcel of everyday life here, despite not having any formal power.

This is a common enough statement about the king’s constitutional power. In fact, though, it isn’t correct. Since 1932, and especially since 1958, constitutions have gradually returned real powers to the monarchy. Yes, the current constitution states: “The King as Head of State shall exercise such power through the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers and the Courts in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” However, many sections give real power to the king:

Section 7. Whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be decided in accordance with the constitutional convention in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.

The king has been encouraged by anti-democrats to use this provision.

Section 90. An organic law bill and a bill may be enacted as law only by and with the advice and consent of the National Assembly and when the King’s signature has been given or deemed to be given thereto; it shall come into force upon its publication in the Government Gazette.

The king has withheld his signature. This effectively kills such bills. There are many other provisions which refer to the king’s “prerogative” and it remains unclear if this is on the advice of the premier.

There are several provisions which relate to the so-called independent agencies, where the king and Senate act in concert to make appointments. Given that the Senate is only half-elected, this is a most powerful weapon used by the king against perceived opponents. So it is that the judges, appointed senators and other “independent” agencies are able to depose governments.

It is true that “Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws penalize criticism of the royal family with prison terms of up to 15 years.”

The interesting bits follow this:

But as King Bhumibol enters the twilight of his long reign, the political divides here in Southeast Asia’s linchpin economy are widening as protesters, many of them invoking the name of the king, try to check the growing power of the country’s elected leaders. And some supporters of the populist government say it is time to stop using the king’s name for political leverage.

Of course it is, but wander about the hawker stands at the anti-democracy protests and you see a lot of paraphernalia that is of the “We love the king” variety common at People’s Alliance for Democracy events in the past. Listen to the speeches and you hear calls for lese majeste to be more vigorously used. As the article states:

The protesters aren’t coy about invoking the name of King Bhumibol. During frequent parades around Bangkok’s busy business district, many wear yellow head bands declaring “I Love the King.” Some of their placards accuse Mr. Thaksin, who was overthrown as prime minister in 2006 and now lives abroad, of plotting to usurp the king’s powers—a charge Mr. Thaksin has consistently denied, and which the king hasn’t publicly commented on.

Red shirts know they are attacked as anti-monarchy and stymied by calls to monarchical loyalty:

“We’re not really supposed to talk about these things in Thailand,” says Wutthipong Kotchathammakhun, a leader of a pro-government “Red Shirt” splinter group here, just north of Bangkok. “But we want people to understand how the establishment is using ‘the sky’ to grab power for itself,” he says, using a common term to refer to the royal family.

While it might be true that the “king himself has remained silent on the months-long standoff playing out on the streets of Bangkok,” his youngest daughter has been vociferous. We don’t know what the king himself is capable of saying as he is often incoherent as dementia takes its toll.

And here’s the real point of the article:

The clash represents an almost existential struggle to determine what kind of country Thailand should be in the 21st century. On one side are Thailand’s traditional power bases in the military and technocratic political parties, and in the rival camp are supporters of populist politicians backed by billionaire businessman Thaksin Shinawatra.

Actually the struggle is bigger than Thaksin. The army “has a strong and visible attachment to the monarchy,” but that will fade over time and with succession as the connection between the two has been highly personalized via the aged and infirm Prem Tinsulanonda as the royalist wheeler-dealer premier and then privy councilor. That era is at an end:

… the more the demonstrators play the royal card—by making lèse-majesté allegations or simply waving royalist placards—the more they risk undermining the institution in the eyes of millions of Thais who have repeatedly voted for the Shinawatras.

“Everything the royalists do is working against the long-term interests of the monarchy,” says David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar and author. “The lèse-majesté laws, trying to secure the positions: any of it, really, is bad for the monarchy.”

It might be the end, but the real end is a struggle, a battle. And, as was seen post-1932, the monarchy is nothing if not tenacious and resilient and was able to rebuild. This time?

Pandering to the minority?

30 12 2013

The Bangkok Post has joined The Nation in apparently pandering to the anti-democratic movement by naming it as the “People of the Year.” It refers to the “great mass uprising” or “muan maha prachachon” as a kind of middle class revolution that could “go down as a major political landmark and point of progress in Thai history.” The Post adds: “Whether the newly emerged force … will grow into a positive movement that brings about political progress remains to be seen.”

In other words, the selection is, like that of The Nation, either a bit of anti-democratic campaigning, pandering and hope or it is a bit like TIME magazine choosing Hitler as Man of the Year in 1938 which appears as fascination with a demagogue. We don’t know, but we do wonder about the Post’s pitch on this “landmark.”

Let’s look more closely at the claims made in this campaign by the Post (the indented bits are from the newspaper’s story):

Discontent, it is said, is the first necessity of progress.It’s discontent that lies at the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to Bangkok streets since last month to protest against the amnesty law that sought to absolve all crimes and corruption cases from 2006 onwards without any clear justifiable reasons.

It’s discontent against the flagrant abuse of power by a majority of democratically elected representatives who not only voted to pass a law that would have rendered the justice process meaningless but did so at 4:25am _ unbecoming conduct by parliamentarians for such highly questionable legislation.

This is true, as far as it goes. There is no doubt that the ill-conceived amnesty bill was a disaster for all involved. It is true that the amnesty bill motivated many who have demonstrated. However, it is also true that red shirts, both official and others, were also opposed to the amnesty bill. They are not demonstrating.

As the story later states, the bill has since been withdrawn. It might have been added that it never became law.

It is also true that the opposition movement is not primarily about this bill. The anti-democracy movement is primarily interested in destroying what it identifies as the “Thaksin regime” and prevent an election before the rules of elections can again be changed to allow minority interests to control politics.

The almost spontaneous uprising against the draft law started with tens of thousands who joined then Democrat MP and former party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban at a rally on Samsen Road, and grew into hundreds of thousands within weeks.

It is important to recognize that this anti-democratic movement was formed in 2005 and has been active ever since, seeing various levels of support. The opposition to the “Thaksin regime,” as Thongchai Winichakul points out in an excellent op-ed,  may have begun in late November, but this is “only one battle in Thailand’s protracted political struggle since the violent protests of 2006 that ended with a military coup.”

In fact, the lineage and allies is: People’s Alliance for Democracy (since 2005), Democrat Party (since 2005), Dhamma Army and Santi Asoke (since 2005), Group of 40 Senators (since 2005), palace and military (2006), judiciary (since 2006), No Colors/Multi Colors (from about 2010), Green Politics Group (since 2007), Thai Patriot Network (since 2008), Siam Samakkhi (since 2011), Network of Citizen Volunteers to Protect the Land (2012), Pitak Siam (which began its demonstrations in the same month in 2012), Sayam Prachapiwat (2012), the White Mask group, People’s Army Against the Thaksin Regime (2013), and now the misleadingly monikered People’s Democratic Reform Committee (2013). Each of these groups -and we are sure we have missed some of them – has had overlapping membership and leadership. Essentially, a small group of rightist leaders have worked from 2005 to mobilize and bring down elected governments.

The spirit of the 2013 uprising, the will to mass together to challenge injustice and the force for change it engendered, has earned the mass uprising, or muan maha prachachon as it has become known, the Bangkok Post’s 2013 People of the Year distinction.

PPT can’t help thinking about the injustice heaped upon every single elector who has voted again and again for the governments the majority wants, only to see them overturned by unelected minorities. We can’t recall, but were red shirts the Post’s Persons of the Year in 2010 for their campaign for an election?

It is the first time that white-collar working-class people and business entrepreneurs have spoken up and demanded they be treated as informed citizens who are willing to engage in participatory democracy, in activities that go beyond casting their ballot on voting days.

When Sondhi Limthongkul formed the People’s Alliance for Democracy six years ago, only a few thousand people in these classes joined him as the so-called yellow-shirt demonstrators….

This is far from factual. Business people have been funding PAD’s demonstrations since 2005 and have been involved in demonstrations previously – recall the 1992 “mobile phone mob.” The “white-collar working class” is an odd term and seems little more than an attempt to identify middle-class protesters who have come out time and again to oppose elections and pro-Thaksin governments. We have to say we are seriously confused by the claim about Sondhi and PAD. The Bangkok Post’s archives tell a different story.

Indeed, the … movement … is not without flaws.

As the uprising against the political amnesty law grew under Mr Suthep’s leadership, it morphed into a demonstration to oust the Yingluck Shinawatra government and so-called “Thaksin regime” _ a term used to refer to the influence of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on politics and more loosely to the tyranny of the majority.

It is revealing that the Post uses the term “tyranny of the majority” with no interrogation. The term is usually used to refer to a situation where decisions made by a majority mean its interests are so central that those of an individual or minority are ignored in a manner that constitutes oppression. The anti-democrats, however, use this terminology to refer to the Shinawatra clan and associates getting all that they want. They also use it to complain that legislation the Democrat Party doesn’t like gets passed in parliament.  In reality, the Yingluck government has repeatedly backed down on its electoral promises in order to reduce opposition. Recall what political scientists were saying 6-12 months ago: the Yingluck strategy has been, according to Duncan McCargo, to cool political tensions. Kevin Hewison made similar claims in a 2012 article at Political Insight. None of this sounds either tyrannical or despotic.

While its demand seems to resonate with many people _ hundreds of thousands rose up every time Mr Suthep called on them to march _ it is questionable whether the movement is for a “less flawed democracy” as many demonstrators have claimed, or simply “less democracy” as Mr Suthep’s proposal seems to suggest.

Political analyst Chris Baker is cited by the Post:

He said the movement’s rejection of the one-person, one-vote basic principle of political equality is clear.

“Some supporters have clearly said they think Bangkok people should have more weight in the elections than non-Bangkok people. This is important. We outside observers now know what this movement stands for…”.

Thammasat political scientist Kasian Tejapira is also quoted:

He said what is going on is not different from a putsch. It’s just being done with support from the masses instead of military tanks and weapons. “The muan maha prachachon is a capitalist movement that will lead to the tyranny of the minority…”.

Despite this clarity, the Post still it is fascinated by the anti-democratic movement. Part of the reason for this is explained by Democrat Party stalwart and former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan:

He said the rural electorate was awakened and made aware of its political power and potency in an open political process over a decade ago.

Now, the other end of the political spectrum including people who were politically passive have become agitated by the ways things are going.

“Deep grievances are being articulated against a rampant and unprecedented level of corruption, abuse of power, cronyism in business, nepotism in the bureaucracy, intervention in the check-and-balance mechanisms, control of government media and intimidation of free and independent news agencies.

“[They are also upset about] pervasive and systematic violations of human and civil rights, impunity for law enforcement personnel, ruinous populist programmes and ill-conceived government projects. All of these lead to a profile of anger, frustration, bitterness, emotional pain and political divide on the streets of Bangkok,” Mr Surin said.

It is a bit difficult to know where to begin with Surin’s position. We do agree on the political awakening of a decade or so ago. However, as we have shown above, the claim that “the other end of the political spectrum including people who were politically passive” is false. It would only be true if there hadn’t been a 1992, a PAD or a coup. The POst adds to this:

There are those who attend rallies because they want “good people” to govern the country, university students who want to rid the country of conflicts of interest, and those critical of the government’s environmental policies.

A common theme of the protests is the crowd’s opposition to corruption.

“It’s the corruption, stupid!” former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala wrote on Facebook.

He was referring to former United States president Bill Clinton’s phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid!” which alerted American voters that the key issue during the 1992 US election was not the war against Iraq but the poor economy.

To be factual, the phrase was not Clinton’s but of one of his campaign strategists. That aside, it is fair to observe that none of these desires are absent from the majority who support pro-Thaksin parties. At the same time, each of these claims has been made since PAD came into existence and the double standards are breathtaking: Suthep has a long history of nepotism and cronyism, not to mention corruption claims; Sondhi Limthongkul has an equally long history of corrupt practices; the Democrat Party had to leave office in 1995 over corruption claims; and when Abhisit was in power, the claims of corruption were from red shirt opponents.

Political commentator Anek Laothamatas is also cited:

The Pheu Thai Party, which has focused on winning votes from the rural base and believed _ falsely _ that electoral victory would silence the minority middle class, must rethink their strategy to regain its support….

He’s right on that. The majority has been repeatedly told by the minority – the middle classes and elite – that electoral victories mean nothing. In democracies that take hold, these classes usually make compromises that allow the poorer majority a say in politics. It seems Thailand’s minority wants another path.

Backgrounder on Thailand’s conflicts

28 12 2013

Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have a useful backgrounder at India’s Economic and Political Weekly. PPT summarizes by emphasizing some points that seemed useful, if well-known. The deep divide they note takes some of the emphasis away from the current focus on succession politics. While succession is an issue in the mix, the deep and long-established divisions within society cannot be ignored:

[T]he demonstrations reflect a deep divide in Thai society according to class, region and ideology, a divide which has developed over the past half century as growth has centred on Bangkok while the rural north and east have been left behind.

The government that has just resigned was installed after elections in July 2011 delivered a strong majority to the Pheu Thai party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. In its election platform, the Pheu Thai party promised to provide amnesty for offences during the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, and to amend the constitution drafted after an army coup in 2007. More informally, the party also promised to bring Thaksin home, which would require cancellation of a two-year sentence for abuse of power.

In mid-2013, the government began to deliver on these promises….

The reaction to this clumsy piece of parliamentary chicanery was immediate.

The government backed down almost immediately…

But the protests had very rapidly gathered considerable emotional momentum… Their leader is Suthep Thaugsuban, a long-standing politician from Thailand’s south, a typical local machine politician trailing a string of scandals, mostly over dubious acquisition of land. In the Democrat Party-led government of 2009-11, he was the tough-guy enforcer working behind the scenes for the inexperienced prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Suthep is an unlikely character to become a hero of street politics. He was turned into a protest leader by the collective emotion of the crowd rather than his personal attributes.

The combined protest vowed to “overthrow the Thaksin regime”, meaning the removal of the current government but also (and more vaguely) reforms to prevent its return. While the movement had momentum, it lacked a mechanism. Traditionally, the military had provided the mechanism by enacting a coup, and more recently the courts have played the role by annulling an election or dissolving the ruling party. On this occasion, neither mechanism worked.

The core of the yellow movement is the Bangkok middle class…. Its members appreciate the upcountry peasantry as a source of cheap labour, but look down on them as backward.

The core of the red movement comes from the rice-growing regions of the upper north and north-east…. Many developed rising aspirations for themselves and their children, and growing resentment at the great inequalities in income, in the distribution of public goods, and in access to power.

From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the power of the vote.

The Thaksinite party has now won all five national elections since 2001 by convincing margins. In face of this record, his opponents have gradually lost faith in electoral democracy…. In 2009, the yellows proposed “new politics”, meaning a retreat from the principal of one person/one vote through some graded form of franchise. Yellow advocates talk of a need for more “morality” in politics, and a greater role for “good people”. They repeatedly aim to delegitimise elected politicians by claiming that they buy their votes. Now they are pressing for a complete suspension of constitutional democracy.

On the other side, the reds have consistently backed the electoral principle.

The yellows have more money and more social power. They own the capital…. They have the support of the media. But they lack the numbers to win in national elections.

The reds have the numbers but they lack the social power and get very little support in public media….

CFR on Thailand’s democratic failure

31 03 2011

Some choice quotes from Joshua Kurlantzick, a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. The article is worth a read in full:

Thailand boasted a large, educated middle class, one of the best-performing economies in the world, and a relatively robust civil society. By the late 1990s, Thailand had held several free elections and passed a reformist constitution that enshrined greater protections for civil liberties and created a wealth of new institutions designed to root out graft and ensure civil rights. In its 1999 report on freedom in the world, monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” nation.

Today, however, Thailand looks less like a success story and more like an example of how democracy can fail. Since a 2006 military coup, Thailand has reverted to a kind of soft authoritarianism: the military plays an enormous role in determining politics; the Thai middle class has become increasingly anti-democratic; and security forces have used threats, online filtering, arrests, and killings to intimidate opponents of a government sanctioned by the armed forces and Thailand’s monarchy. Freedom House recently ranked Thailand as only “partly free,” and the country has sunk near the bottom of all developing nations in rankings of press freedom.

Critical of Thaksin Shinawatra’s period in power and his authoritarian tendencies, the author adds:

By 2005, when Thaksin was re-elected, again with massive support from the poor, he dominated the country’s political landscape. And yet Thailand had not become Equatorial Guinea or Libya; the Thai middle classes, who had led the democratic revolution before, could have fought back against Thaksin at the ballot box, through the remaining independent news outlets or in the courts. But instead, like middle classes in many emerging democracies today, they had grown disillusioned with democracy, believing that it had delivered only elected autocracy and that it would empower the poor at their expense.

They supported the 2006 coup. Kurlantzick says: “The Thai coup, unfortunately, only triggered a total meltdown. Thaksin might have damaged the country’s weak democracy, but the military ruined it.” Indeed.

Updated: More internet censorship likely

30 07 2010

There had been some hopes, harbored by the more optimistic, that the draconian provisions of the post-2006 coup Computer Crimes Act might be liberalized. That hope seems to have turned to despair, according to a long report in the Bangkok Post. The conservatives are well out in front on this.

The story now seems bleaker than ever. More cyber-snooping, more censorship, less attention to human rights, more charges and, potentially, more people in the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime’s prisons.

Supinya Klangnarong, secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, says that conservatives want “more severe punitive measures against so-called national security threats…”. She adds: “We believe that pushing for amendments to the law in parliament now means risking it being changed in the opposite direction, leaning towards harsher punishment for violation by internet users…”.

Conservatives like the prime minister have “thrown … support behind a so-called ‘online scout project’ to monitor improper content on the internet which poses a threat to national security and the highest institution.” This is a vigilante movement for the monarchy, being the middle class and internet generation’s equivalent of the right-wing Village Scouts.

Within the Senate, a panel dominated by the appointed senators “has been formed for the specific task of protecting the monarchy and monitoring anti-monarchy movements…”. Meanwhile, the “police are also setting up a special force to monitor online actions deemed in violation of the act…”.

Things can only to worsen as this government continues to be led and dominated by conservatives and royalists.

Update: 2bangkok.com has a picture posted (scroll down to the second picture for 31 July) that adds considerable visual weight to the idea that the conservatives are fully in command of internet censorship and that things are likely get worse. In the picture of a huge billboard, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is pictured apparently reporting an inappropriate web site. The billboard calls for Thais to come together in reporting inappropriate web sites. This could refer to all kinds of sites but the fact is that most sites the regime blocks have to do with the monarchy. Most people know the message means “protect the monarchy.” Abhisit has thrown his weight behind this task and encourages vigilantes.

Disingenuous regime maintains totalizing control of politics

2 07 2010

Yesterday the Democrat Party candidate for the upcoming Bangkok by-election disingenuously claimed to a Channel 7 TV reporter that he had no advantage from his Puea Thai Party opponent being in jail. That was followed by the Democrat Party and Abhisit Vejjajiva’s personal spokesman Thepthai Senapong making seemingly stupid but actually considered statements that labeled the opposition Puea Thai Party candidate Korkaew Pikulthong’s campaign slogan should be “Vote for Korkaew, Troublemaker, Terrorist, Number 4.”

The statement was meant to influence middle-class voters. At the same time, it accused a candidate alleged but not proven to have committed any crime. We know Thepthai meant the comment because he later stated that he’d say “terrorist suspect” in future. Expect more such dirty politics from the so-called Democrats as they cannot afford to lose this by-election when the opposition candidate is locked-up, can’t campaign, and has been prevented from engaging in even basic requirements of the Election Commission.

Recall that Abhisit has threatened the Puea Thai Party with all kinds of legal trouble if they say the government did anything wrong in April and May. In fact, having demanded this of Puea Thai, Abhisit should now sack Thepthai, but the usual double standards are at work.

This dirty work was followed by the prime minister launching a phone-in to get ideas about reconciliation. It seems that the Abhisit regime is interested in short ideas. Recent meetings have allowed 2-minute comments and now a phone-in, lending itself to short and unverifiable interpretation. A phone-in at least means that Democrat leaders don’t have to come face-to-face with their opponents.

Meanwhile, and as expected, the Bangkok Post reports that the “Criminal Court on Friday rejected a request for the release on bail of political activist Sombat Boonngamanong who has been charged with violating the emergency decree.” Recall that he was arrested while engaged in the heinous act of tying ribbons of remembrance at the Rajaprasong intersection but on a charge of gathering with other red shirts at Lat Phrao following the government’s bloody crackdown on red shirt protesters.

No release, no bail and further detention at the Region 1 Border Patrol Police headquarters in Pathum Thani province.

Of course, all other red shirts were also refused bail again. Keeping opponents locked up remains important to the authoritarian but still shaken regime.

In amongst all the nonsense, this is worth a read. Suranand Vejjajiva TELLS the Democrat Party what they should know but aren’t prepared to understand.

Fighting the working class

26 06 2010

Patrick Winn in the Global Post has a useful take on recent events in Thailand. He notes that the Abhisit Vejjajiva government is “now struggling — and failing — to find common ground with a mobilized, largely working-class faction that detests them.”

That government has worked hard to argue that there has been no class basis to recent political events, not least because the huge demonstration of working class support for the red shirt protesters scared the pants off the capitalist and middle class supporters of the government. Those classes are more used to ordering the working class about and exploiting their labor than facing rebellion.

The organization of the working class has been prevented, smashed and demeaned by a string of governments for decades. Whenever the working class shows any militancy, the ruling class moves quickly to squash it, and they have done it again in 2010.

Journalist Winn has been talking with Peter Warr, an economics professor at the Australian National University. Warr is a pretty much straight up and down neoclassical economist with an interest in poverty reduction. He’s done considerable work for the World Bank on Thailand, including studies of incomes and poverty. A recent publication by Warr on poverty in Asia can be downloaded here.

Winn says that Warr believes the Thai government and its opponents have “overlooked” the impact of the “U.S.-born global economic crisis has played … in prodding disaffected Thais to join anti-government demonstrations…”.

Warr argues that the Thai economy is remarkably reliant on exports. Most of these are now manufactured goods, and “in recent years these have been hit “by dwindling foreign demand.” This has resulted in “waves of layoffs and slashed hours” for the country’s workers. He believes that it is the workers in export-oriented industries who are mostly “unskilled and semi-skilled people from the north and northeast,” who are the “very people who are the support base for the ‘Red Shirts’.”

Government data confirms this general assessment, with economists showing that there has been a sharp deterioration for workers and a shift of income to capital. All of the productivity gains made by workers have essentially gone to business owners through very high rates of profit. The share of income now accruing to workers is at an unprecedented low rate.

The red shirt rhetoric was attractive to the workers who see, feel and know that they are worse off. The call to join a fight against the “governing ‘aristocrats’ who’ve long shafted ‘the commoners’,” was eagerly taken up.

Warr sees the protests as “… attractive to those wounded by the economy and seeking a vehicle for their frustration…”. Under the Abhisit government, Warr asserts, “they’ve lost out. And they’re right…. They don’t know why. But it’s easy to portray their deteriorating circumstances as being caused by the government.”

Winn observes that: “Many among the Red Shirts faithful claim grievances that run deeper than electoral or economic cycles. They insist they’re shut out of a hierarchy of strings and connections that keeps nearly 70 percent of Thailand’s assets in the hands of its wealthiest 20 percent.” His article cites several examples of grim tales from the laid-off in a faltering export and consumer economy.

In fact, inequality is worse than this, for wealth, income, assets and property are all highly skewed to the richest.

Economist Warr is no fan of Thaksin and tends to view him as a populist who came to power in an expanding economy – albeit slower than before the economic crisis of 1997-98 – and discounts the political aspects of Thaksin’s economic policies targeting the poor.

Poor rich boy and finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, makes the now well-rehearsed Democrat Party lament that claims the red shirts “have distorted economic facts to rile up followers.” He says the current regime has advanced “Thailand’s largest-ever stimulus package, a $44-billion bundle of infrastructure and social welfare projects aimed in large part at Thailand’s poor.” He claims that the government “hasn’t received enough credit…”. In the northeast, the Democrat Party has “very little popularity, very little understanding…”.

Like most in his party, born of privilege and wealth, Korn finds it impossible to conceive that Thaksin somehow found and released a political groundswell of support that relies more on political opportunity than on money spent. There’s an ideological block, because yellow shirts like Korn believe that Thaksin’s support is all bought.

While Korn might have been educated in the elite schools and universities of the U.K., it is unlikely that he understands the full historical and contemporary significance of the comparison he makes to relatively poorer Scotland and voting patterns in the U.K.

Arguments by the government that portray the red shirt uprising as anything but a class struggle are seriously misguided. But that’s what one would expect of the government of those who benefit most from the current ownership of the country. Despite everything, in relative terms, they are doing better than ever. The rich exploiters can continue while their government, backed by the military, remains in power. All they have to do is to continue to come up with ways to keep it in office.

Ji Ungpakorn on academic silence

13 06 2010

PPT reproduces the latest article we have seen from Ji Ungpakorn, from University World News:

THAILAND: Silence of the academic community

Giles Ji Ungpakorn
13 June 2010
Issue: 128

Universities in Bangkok will be opening now. Because the anti-government Red Shirts were crushed with violence last month and 80 or so people killed, I don’t think there will be any immediate activity by the students.

People will be discussing very heatedly among themselves. Students will be worried about writing an essay criticising the status quo and any academic who thought they might encourage argument and debate will keep quiet.

If you’re not particularly politically active, you won’t notice any difference. There will still be university seminars but they won’t be discussing why the King did not come out and say something about the killings.

They will not be discussing if the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva was genuinely democratically elected. And they will not be discussing what kind of society Thailand should be in the future.

In the department of political science and in the department of history you can’t really function unless you discuss things of this nature. So academics have avoided discussing some of the fundamental issues in Thailand. There is a long tradition of avoiding and stifling free thinking and debate.

I had to leave Thailand in 2009 because I wrote a book criticising the 2006 military coup. I said the coup received legitimacy from the King. In my opinion it is impossible to write a book criticising the coup without trying to discuss the role of the monarchy in protecting or not protecting democracy in Thailand.

I was charged with lese-majesty for insulting the King which I didn’t do but this law is being used by various elites to try to silence the opposition. You can go to prison for up to 15 years for lese-majesty but if you write two separate sentences in one book you might be sentenced to 30 years.

The trials are held in secret and no one is allowed to publish what the person said so there is no transparency in this process. I am in exile but I have not committed what would be internationally regarded as a criminal offence.

I only wrote a book defending democracy! Chulalongkorn University, where I was an assistant professor in the department of political science, started out by refusing to sell my book in the university bookshop even though they have sold numerous other books of mine in the past.

The university actually gave my book to [Thailand's] Special Branch: this shows there is no real academic freedom. The bookshop is part of the university; its management committee is made up of university officials and the deputy rector was chair of the management committee.

More recently, Professor Suthachai Yomprasert in the history department at Chulalongkorn was accused by the military command of plotting to overthrow the monarchy. (see University World News)

Last month, just after the crackdown, Suthachai was summoned to report to the army and was detained without charge. Many others are still in detention but, because of a big campaign within Thailand and abroad, the authorities were forced to release him on 31 May.

Suthachai will be facing charges, probably terrorism. He is an open supporter of the Red Shirts but anyone who knows him knows he is not a terrorist. He uses his brains and his writing to support democracy.

The vast majority of the academics in Thailand have sided with the military and the royalist Yellow Shirts. Ordinary people have been protesting on the side of the (pro-democracy) Red Shirts and their strength of numbers has given some academics encouragement.

But university lecturers who side with the Red Shirts have become targets of the military whereas academics who side with the Yellow Shirts do not face punishment even though they closed down the international airport. It is the Red Shirts who are facing charges of terrorism and sanctions for attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

When the universities were completely bound by the state there was at least a feeling that academics had a degree of freedom. So-called university autonomy, basically the introduction of market forces, was resisted for a long time in Thai universities.

It was only after the 2006 coup, during the 2006-07 military junta, that university autonomy was pushed through a military-appointed parliament. The rectors of all the main universities were part of this parliament.

Academics who sympathised with the Red Shirts may find they have difficulty getting their contracts renewed, if they are on short-term contracts brought in as part of the new university autonomy.

But I doubt we will see mass firings because most of them have either kept their heads down or they support the royalists and the 2006 coup d’etat.

It was shocking for me that the majority of my colleagues in the faculty of political science, people who teach subjects such as democratisation, sided with the coup d’etat that overthrew the elected government. There is no debate over whether or not you should oppose a government you don’t like through democratic means.

But it is not because they are afraid for their jobs the majority of academics have chosen to side with the Yellow Shirts. I think it is a middle-class thing. The middle classes in Bangkok may be irritated from time to time by corruption and authoritarianism, but in general they are doing quite well and they see the Red Shirts as a bunch of ignorant poor workers and farmers.

They are afraid this movement will challenge their wellbeing and result in a redistribution of wealth.

The military and the government have won this particular round and the struggle for democracy has taken a setback. The Red Shirts are regrouping at grass-roots level but it is the status quo that now prevails.

Still protecting the monarchy

9 06 2010

The Christian Science Monitor (8 June 2010) has a report that links the Abhisit Vejjajiva government and the military in a campaign to protect the monarchy. Nothing much new in this, and PPT has said a similar thing several times. However, it is useful to consider context.

The story begins by recounting the fact that two weeks after the 10 April clashes with red-shirt protesters, the military’s spokesman produced the imfamous chart linking “more than 20 opposition figures, including three former prime ministers, key protest leaders, several exiled activists, and a Thai restaurant owner in California” in a plot to overthrow the monarchy.

These charges are said to “carry a sting: Royal defamation is punishable with jail time, and closet republicans live in fear of exposure. The claims also stirred dark memories of 1976, when a royalist militia massacred Thai students accused of similar disloyalty.”

Accusing the red shirts and anyone vaguely associated with them of republican tendencies just served to fan the hatred of the red shirts amongst royalist yellow shirts and much of Bangkok’s middle class: “the royalist fears stirred by the demonstrations – and repackaged by the military for media consumption – remain a potent force.”

The government continues to talk of threats against the nation and “the institution” and has used the fear of further red shirt action to extend emergency rule for a further month. “Human rights groups say hundreds of activists have been detained without trial, including several accused by the military of plotting against the crown.”

Interestingly, the CSM claims that there is a “backlash against the king.” It notes that “red-shirt leaders repeatedly criticized Thailand’s aristocracy as a brake on democracy and development, a message that resonated with rural and working-class supporters. In private, some activists go further, saying the royal family must butt out of politics or face the consequences if their allies lose power.”

A businesman is cited: “They think they own the country. They think they own us…”. PPt thinks that’s a pretty accurate assessment. It means that Abhisit is but a footman for the palace.

The palace’s foot soldiers are the military and they are also threatened by the “backlash against royal tutelage.”

The CSM says that Abhisit has thus had to back “the military’s campaign to root out republican plots and claimed that red-shirt protests had a ‘higher purpose’ than forcing new elections.” Well, yes, but he also believes that the monarchy is the bedrock of Thai society and for his class’s rule.

Citing judicial statistics collated by David Streckfuss, the CSM talks of a clampdown and says the statistics “show a wave of court judgments that have gone unnoticed, possibly because of social stigma. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of Thais prosecuted under the law rose from 33 a year to 164…”.

Some analysts – PPT would also agree – “argue that the intimidation of opponents using draconian laws may become the norm as long as the military and the palace perceive an existential threat.”


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