Oppose everything!

3 04 2013

The Democrat Party seems stuck in a yellow past. Or perhaps it is just that they feel ever so comfortable opposing Thaksin Shinawatra and PAD-like, considering every move the government makes as being either to exonerate him or for him to somehow to gain control of Thailand as his personal fiefdom.

So it is that Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva opposes any change to the 2007 constitution that was spawned by the military junta. His reasoning, as detailed in the story is: “they are designed to help the ruling party cling to power rather than improve the political system…. Abhisit said the changes, if approved, would enhance the government’s leverage and serve vested interests.”Abhisit

Perhaps less disingenuously and recognizing that his party seems unable to win national elections, Abhisit said that the effort “to require that all members of the Upper House be elected” was an attempt to “ensure the chamber was filled with government lapdogs.” Some readers may recall that making the Senate half appointed was the military junta’s effort to ensure that parliament could be controlled by the conservative elite. Indeed, the current unelected senators are royalist lapdogs.

So while Abhisit bleats about upholding “democracy and transparency,” he is clearly no democrat. Real democrats would support an elected senate. When in office, placed there by the military-palace cabal, he demonstrated no democratic inclinations.

Abhisit’s recent statements at the yellow-hued island in a sea of red in Khon Kaen saw him expressing his political inclinations differently:

“We are here to bring the truth to the people,” Mr. Abhisit said to a fiery crowd [of yellow shirts]. “We want to show that Thailand is not one of Thaksin’s possessions. We want to protect our democracy and our king.”

Truth from the Democrat Party would be an innovation. Nothing much changes for Abhisit or the Democrat Party. Neither are interested in democracy that isn’t Thai-style, meaning royalist domination and little else.

Updated: Tanks, streets and judges I

11 12 2012

[Update: we have fixed several typos in this post]

Voranai Vanijaka at the Bangkok Post noticed that 10 December is Constitution Day. His comments deserve a couple of PPT posts, and here is the first.

Voranai begins with this: “but with 17 charters since 1932, we can call Dec 10 the day when Thailand celebrates 80 years of fickleness. Charter changes to accommodate the times are one thing; 17 constitutions and counting in 80 years is an entirely different matter.”

The problem with this characterization is that getting rid of constitutions is not about fickleness at all. Rather, getting rid of constitutions has been a task undertaken by the military mainly in the interests of protecting a royalist political system and the privileges associated with it, usually with palace support. Maybe Voranai who, just a few days ago, joined the uncritical adulation of the supposed great monarch, needs a bit of a history lesson to loosen the royalist scales from his eyes.



The first constitution in 1932 was rejected by the king who demanded that it be “interim,” with royalists thinking they could win back some of the powers they had lost to the commoners who overthrew the absolute monarchy. The “permanent” constitution of 1932 stayed in place until 1946, when it was replaced by what is sometimes said to be Thailand’s most democratic constitution. It was put in place by Pridi Phanomyong supporters.

Soon after, in the 1947 constitution, a coterie of royalist generals and their anti-democratic supporters decided to hand back a set of powers to the monarchy while dealing a death blow to the civilians associated with the People’s Party. It was the People’s Party hating regent, Prince Rangsit who accepted the coup within 24 hours and the new royalist 1947 charter the coup leaders had drafted (the king was back in Switzerland not finishing his studies).

The 1949 charter was drafted by a committee that was headed by the royalist Seni Pramoj and dominated by other royalists beholden to Prince Rangsit and Prince Dhani. As might be expected, this document returned considerable power to the throne and Privy Council. This saw a kind of last gasp effort by the military faction from the People’s Party era, which rolled back some of these powers in the 1952 constitution.

Then the royalist military under General Sarit Thanarat took over in 1957 and ruled by decree until 1959 when there was a “temporary charter” announced that was the shortest in Thai history and stayed in place – temporarily – for nine years. It was put in place and mutually supported by king and military as a highly repressive document that allocated almost untrammeled power to the premier (always a military man). There was a “parliament,” but it was appointed and packed with military men and did the bidding of the premier.



When the military finally came up with the 1968 constitution, it gave sweeping powers to the military. The senate was royally appointed and could delay legislation. The king approved Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn’s entire list of mostly military nominees to the senate.

Not surprisingly, this parliament looks a little like the “Thai-style democracy” promoted by modern-day royalists who hate the idea of elected politicians actually ruling. Not even this was adequate for the military bosses, who ditched the 1968 charter in November 1971, declared martial law, and ruled with little legal or political constraint. Thirteen months later, the military brass drafted the 1972 constitution, pretty much the same as the royalist-Sarit version of 1959, banning political parties and appointing legislators, with 200 of the 299 appointees being military and police.

King and prince

King, prince and PM Thanom

When this lot were finally booted out in October 1973, the king appointed a constitutional selection committee which, unexpectedly, came up with a very liberal draft of a constitution which was vigorously opposed by palace and royalists, who managed to water down many of the liberal aspects of the 1974 constitution before it was promulgated. Of course, as the palace and military grew weary of democratic politics and incessant political squabbling, the constitution was ditched following the bloody events of October 1976 and the coup supported by the king. The king appointed the rightist royalist Thanin Kraivixien as premier and his government produced a remarkably reactionary and royalist constitution in 1976 that allowed the king to appoint the entire National Assembly made up of almost entirely bureaucrats and and military men, with the king given the unprecedented power to propose legislation to the assembly.

So repressive was the king’s premier and his regime that the military threw it out in a coup led by General Kriangsak Chomanand.  The king objected to Kriangsak’s coup and refused to sign the new 1977 charter even though it was pretty much the same as the 1976 basic law. Kriangsak proceeded to draft a barely more liberal constitution in 1978, that moderated royal powers. The palace was not amused.



The problem the king had with Kriangsak was only solved when royalists managed to engineer his replacement by General Prem Tinsulanonda, a palace favorite, who stayed in power without ever seeking election but with remarkably strong palace support, but did permit the gradual evolution of tame political parties. Eventually, in 1988, an elected prime minister took the prime ministership, only to be ousted in a military coup in 1991 that ditched the 1978 constitution.

There was considerable debate on what became the 1991 constitution. To cut long story short, the military junta to monopolize power. In the end, it was the king who provided the support for the junta when he received the draft constitution by fax, made some minor changes, faxed it back, and then  stated that the junta’s constitution wasn’t “fully adequate,” but should be promulgated because it was “reasonable.” Again, the king had intervened for an undemocratic junta constitution.

The result was the May 1992 uprising that eventually saw the development of the so-called people’s constitution in 1997. When Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by yet another military coup supported by the palace, that charter was unceremoniously dumped.

That military junta headed by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin set in place mechanisms to develop its own 2007 charter. The major innovation was a referendum. When approved, the Asian Human Rights Commission described a “heavy-handed undemocratic atmosphere…”, stating that the “… junta … coerced, threatened, bought and cajoled part of the electorate…”. Even the Bangkok Post (1 August 2007) claimed the process had a “facade of being a democratic choice… ”, adding “[t]his is not democracy, this is not the rule of law.”

General Sonthi

General Sonthi

This account shows that Voranai’s story of “fickleness” is nonsense. Worse, it can be seen as obscurantist as it deliberating conceals the central roles of the monarchy and military in the story of “serial constitutionalism.” It obscures the fact that it has been the monarchy and military that have worked assiduously to prevent democratization and to throw out  constitutions as it suited them.

Now that the Puea Thai Party-led wants to amend this undemocratic constitution, Voranai says the obstacles are “First, tanks in the streets; second, protesters in the streets; third, Constitution Court judges on the bench.” As can be seen above, tanks – meaning the military – have been the most usual method of opposing constitution reform that is liberalizing. They have most usually done that with or for the palace.

Wikileaks: Anand on the 2006 coup

7 03 2012

Following the 19 September 2006 palace-military coup, U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce met with palace insider and former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun. Boyce’s conversation with Anand is reported in a cable dated 21 September 2006. Boyce considered Anand as “Thailand’s most distinguished elder statesmen.” He also notes that “Anand made waves in August [2006] when he publicly denounced Thailand’s course under Thaksin [Shinawatra].”


Boyce begins by recounting that Anand’s view on the coup was that it had “forestalled imminent political violence between Thaksin’s enemies and loyalists.” Helpfully, Boyce points out that the People’s Alliance for Democracy “had called for a major rally on September 20 to persuade Thaksin to resign. Thaksin’s allies publicly condemned the plan and rumors arose of an impending crackdown on protesters by security forces.”

That Anand is repeating a mere rumor suggests that he was either disconnected from the reality of political events or, far more likely, was conjuring a justification for the coup that foreigners might “buy.” After all, none of the coup “explanations” and justifications for the coup by the junta really gave this rumor much credence.

While Anand reportedly stated that “he could not have advocated a coup,” he was crystal clear in stating that he supported it. He claimed that “Thaksin’s administration had already become undemocratic.” For a twice unelected and appointed premier, the claim to democracy is more than a bit rich. Neither of his administrations was to be overthrown by the military-palace clique as he represented each.

He added that:

Thaksin had controlled the media, suppressed the free flow of information, and manipulated an uninformed electorate. He had corrupted the judiciary, to the point that court cases against him could not proceed. He had sabotaged the Constitution, manipulating political institutions that were supposed to be independent, destroying the system of checks and balances set up by the 1997 Constitution. Thaksin’s administration lacked accountability and transparency. In this environment, elections by themselves hardly ensured democracy. Thaksin blocked off all avenues for political change, leaving his opponents no option other than a coup.

Yes, Thaksin was powerful and had some arrogant and authoritarian tendencies. After all, his party controlled 75% of the seats in parliament, having won a massive electoral landslide. But had he done all of this and did his power demand a coup by a bevy of unelected and unrepresentative agents?

Here we see the patrician Anand expressing his position that ignorant voters were “manipulated.” The same Anand, of course, has never been elected to anything. He is a member of the elite that is selected for their powerful positions through birth, connections and money. He’d be lucky to know anyone from the “uninformed electorate,” unless they are his drivers, maids and gardeners.Maybe they could have told him whether elections had anything to do with democracy.

Did Thaksin corrupt the judiciary? He tried to but was far less successful than, say, the monarchy in getting the judiciary to do his bidding. Indeed, prior to the coup, he lost one very significant case that was seen as a measure of media freedom when journalist Supinya Klangnarong was sued for a fortune. She won.

This case also relates to the idea that Thaksin controlled the media. We think he’d have like to have had more control. He lost the case against Supinya and by early 2006, almost every newspaper was attacking Thaksin. Also, the military control a big segment of the electronic media, and Thaksin didn’t win control of them.

Did Thaksin try to pervert the independent agencies? The answer on that has to be yes, but that he still faced resistance from some of them.

In other words, Anand is both a consumer and purveyor of the royalist elite’s position on Thaksin that justified a coup. We think the elite essentially took a lazy way of working against Thaksin. These people simply couldn’t be bothered fighting Thaksin on democratic and lawful grounds; it was “easier” just to get the praetorian guard to ditch him out and restore Thai-style (non-)democracy.

Emphasizing Anand’s royalism, he argues that:

Thaksin further aggravated the Thai people by appearing to put himself on the same level as the King. Anand stopped short of characterizing Thaksin as disloyal to the King, but he said Thaksin failed to understand how many people came to perceive him as hostile to the monarchy.

PPT can’t recall the “Thai people” being aggravated. The royalist yellow shirts used this line as a way to weaken Thaksin but, frankly, most Thais weren’t buying it as anything other than royalist propaganda. Again, Anand is a member of a cabal of royalists who convinced themselves of Thaksin’s “disloyalty.”

Anand also noted “Thaksin had brought trouble upon himself by picking fights with Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda…”. We’d suggest that it was Prem who chose to fight Thaksin and actively planned his downfall by Prem’s men in the military.

Anand’s political views are further revealed when he is asked about “constitutional reform.” He is said to have:

acknowledged problems in the 1997 Constitution, and he advocated abolishing the Senate as a non-partisan elected body…. A better alternative would be a House of Lords model, with the Senate consisting perhaps at least in part of former high-ranking officials, appointed in a transparent, systematic process.

Ah, yes, Anand feels like an English lord perhaps.Again, he is opposed to the idea of elections, and advocates the oxymoronic notion of appointments of “high-ranking officials” in a “transparent” manner. Anything but elections!

Boyce uses Anand as a tool in making his point to Washington that the coup is acceptable:

Given Anand’s experience as a Prime Minister who was appointed by a coup-instigating junta and then worked to restore democracy to Thailand, the ease with which he accepts the CDRM’s claim of noble intentions is noteworthy.

Well, of course he does; it is what he wanted. Get rid of Thaksin and put the patrician royalists back in their rightful position as rulers and string-pullers.

Boyce then makes the somewhat surprising admission:

This elitist point of view — shared by many wealthy and educated Thais, especially in Bangkok — gets to the heart of Thaksin’s claim about revolutionizing Thai politics, precisely by taking on these entrenched elites.

Indeed. What Boyce – and the royalist elite – doesn’t foresee is that their day is essentially gone, and the struggle to push the old and rich duffers aside would continue until today.

Wikileaks: Briefed by the junta

4 03 2012

In yet another Wikileaks cable dated 20 September 2006, U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce details a briefing provided by Army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin, fronting the junta’s then rather aptly named Council for Democratic Reform Under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM). The briefing was provided for the diplomatic corps and defense attaches and was held, symbolically, at the Army’s headquarters. The rest of the CDRM was also in attendance: Supreme Commander and heads of the Navy, Air Force, Police and National Security Council.

As is well-known, it was at this briefing (and in related announcements) that the CDRM provided its justification for deposing the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra:

a lack of political confidence; rampant nepotism; corruption; unprecedented social divisions in Thailand; the inability of administrative institutions to function properly without political interference; social injustice, and offenses to the Thai monarch.

Sonthi apparently stressed that the military’s goal was to “make democracy a reality in Thailand.”However, Boyce notes that “Sonthi was evasive when pressed to explain exactly what had prompted the coup.” PPT has never considered Sonthi very bright and we think the “evasion” is just Sonthi being unwilling to say that he was ordered to do it.

All Sonthi says is that the military had “recently … learned certain facts about the (Thaksin) caretaker government. This information convinced us that further waiting would not result in democracy, so we acted.” He doesn’t say what they knew but adds that the military “have received numerous requests to act, to bring peace and normalcy back to the country.” He doesn’t say who made the “requests” but when pressed by the Australian ambassador, he replied: “The people requested us to act; they were not receiving the benefits of democracy. A democracy formed by the people did not exist.”

It is noted that the “CDRM members had an audience with the King and Queen,” but no details are provided in this cable. For those, see this cable posted some time ago, where Sonthi claims the king was “happy, smiling throughout” the meeting with the CDRM cabal of military leaders.

What is somewhat surprising is Sonthi’s statement in reply to a British diplomat, who seems to have been more persistent in questioning and skeptical of the junta than Boyce, who noted that “Sonthi had said that the coup was prompted by ‘certain facts’ concerning Thaksin which, while unspecified, must be fairly serious given the actions they provoked.” He noted that “the CDRM does not have any plans to take any legal action against Thaksin. What, asked the UK Charge, has Thaksin done?”  Sonthi replied that Thaksin “has not done anything legally incorrect…”. 


Seemingly unable to grasp the enormity of a coup that has thrown out a premier elected with the biggest ever electoral vote, Boyce says “the good news here is that he has committed to move toward civilian rule in two weeks. We should welcome this commitment…”. It seems clear that Boyce has also welcomed the illegal putsch. Of course, Boyce had met with Sonthi in advance of the coup, several times, and knew his thoughts on Thaksin. At that time, Boyce provided succor to the general, assuring him that “policymakers in Washington … have noted that the military continues to conduct itself in a professional manner, staying on the sidelines of this crisis, and that this can largely be attributed to Sonthi himself.”

Sonthi is reported as saying that “there is no intention, whatsoever, for military involvement in the current crisis.” We doubt Boyce believed him, but he continually repeated this line to Washington. We can only speculate that Boyce knew more than he let on, for he makes no point about being misled by Sonthi in these earlier chats.

When Sonthi was asked by the Finnish ambassador about a return to democracy, the dullard in Sonthi was revealed when he replied: “Thailand is 100 percent democratic now; our reason for action is that we want real democracy in our country.” Military types seldom understand the meaning of democracy, and we assume that Sonthi is blathering about “democracy with the king as head of state.”

Boyce is critical of Sonthi for not anticipating these questions and having pat answers prepared, “[e]ven after making due allowance for the fact that the CDRM members had not gotten any sleep the previous night…”. Poor guys. Throwing out elected governments is no picnic. However, and more seriously, as noted above, we doubt Sonthi could even conceptualize electoral democracy from “Thai-style democracy,” which is no democracy at all, but a royalist regime.

Boyce seems to have been quiet and prepared to accept the coup without much questioning at all. We can only imagine that other ambassadors must have been surprised by his acquiescence but they probably also knew his support for crown and the men with guns.

The threat of “royalist democracy”

13 02 2012

A few days ago PPT used the term “royalist democracy” in a post. We used it much as we would use “Thai-style democracy,” a term that has been in wide circulation for several decades.

At the Bangkok Post today we see that noted historian Thongchai Winichakul has used “royalist democracy” to define “a regime whereby elite groups exploit the monarchy for their political legitimacy.”

In a talk, Thongchai observed that “royalist democracy” as a system “took root as a result of fear of communism during the Indochina War in 1970s, followed by the dilution of military prowess after Black May in 1992.” This brought a longing for absolute monarchy.

“From the hysterical hyper-royalism seen during 1975-1977 emerges the indulgence of loyalty through divinisation of the monarchy and marketisation of royalism,” he said. “This has resulted in prevalent sentiment towards the monarchical institution as religiosity.”

He describes “Hyper royalism” as “a cult and a hallucinogen for Thais through education and media machinations, resulting in self-censorship, hypocrisy, fear, and rumours…”.

Thongchai characterizes “royalist democracy” as dangerous because its “resistance to social change would lead to clashes between the institution of monarchy and democracy…”.

While mentioning royalist (non-)democracy, some readers might also be interested in a further review of King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work by Grant Evans in the Bangkok Post. It is rather more critical than an earlier review in The Nation. It also comments on resistance to change and democracy:

… Changes across the social spectrum manifest themselves politically in the refusal of a huge swathe of the population to comply with pre-existing norms concerning their place in society.

There is no going back to “traditional” Thailand.

If there is one clear lesson for monarchies from the 20th century it is that they cannot be seen as an obstacle to democracy. The defenders of lese-majeste in its present form are today in danger of forcing people to make what would be a fatal choice between monarchy and democracy.

It seems that the decision on whether a country should sustain a monarchy or be a republic can be fatal for a monarchy when it resists the tide of history.

The Army’s election campaign: Vote monarchy!

13 04 2011

It seems PPT’s earlier post on lese majeste charges against red shirt leaders has underplayed the extent of Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha’s efforts to “protect” the monarchy by using the lese majeste law against political opponents.It is far worse and far more sinister than our post indicated.

If The Nation report is to be believed, Prayuth has gone nuclear on the monarchy. He is now actively campaigning in an election period for the monarchy. In essence, for the royalists in the Phum Jai Thai Party and the Democrat Party.

Prayuth wants a high voter in an election as he thinks a high “turnout is the key to safeguarding the monarchy and bringing about change under a democracy…”.

Getting the number of eligible voters wrong by quite a way, he says: “”I believe if all 60 million [eligible] Thai citizens come out to cast their votes, they can change the country…”. He seems to mean changing Thailand to be a Thai-style democracy where the monarchy rukes.

Prayuth thinks that an election “could end the political turmoil that had gripped the Kingdom.” He seems to mean that if the Democrat Party wins, it can finally claim electoral democracy. And as the party of the royalist elite, the “people” would effectively be safeguarding “the country’s revered institution by weeding out ill-intentioned politicians…”. He means any politician who are in the opposition, associated with Thaksin Shinawatra, the Puea Thai Party and the red shirts.

Commenting on offensive remarks about the monarchy, Prayuth “said he saw no justification for certain individuals to try and fault the King, adding that politicians should not allow their political rivalry to spiral out of control and tarnish the monarchy.”

He continued, “urging voters to punish the instigators of last year’s riots through the ballot box.” He added: “Everyone knows the culprits behind the lost lives and the injuries incurred…”. PPT is sure he doesn’t mean the military! He means those who are in the opposition, associated with Thaksin Shinawatra, the Puea Thai Party and the red shirts.

Although the instigators tried to attribute the blame to anti-riot forces, the crowd-control measures had been activated as a last resort and in a defensive manner due to the provocation, the Army head said. Prayuth then got really nasty, when he “pointed out that troops and protesters suffered high casualties while the rally organisers themselves had come out unscathed.” Perhaps he forgets that most casualties were to those wearing red shirts. Or perhaps he remembers and is simply a liar or perhaps he doesn’t care.

The Nation says this is “a veiled attack on red-shirt leaders.” It isn’t. It is a direct threat and the army chief is up to his thick neck in political campaigning for the current regime. Nothin g much else could be expected from the army chief. What is really very sinister is that this political figure who happens to be army chief has the temerity to criticize “red-shirt leaders for trying to link the military to politics in a bid to sway the crowds.”

Related, the political police at the Department of Special Investigation have “launched an investigation into 10 red-shirt leaders, including Pheu Thai MP Jatuporn Promphan, on suspicion of their having offended the monarchy during the April 10 rally last year at Democracy Monument.” Do they mean this year?

DSI director-general Tharit Phengdit revealed yesterday that his team of investigators was preparing to charge Jatuporn and rally organisers for lese majeste, as evidenced by their recorded rally speeches.

Tharit said Jatuporn Promphan “had contacted him via telephone to inquire about surrendering to face a lese majeste charge. Other red-shirt leaders likely to face the same charge include Weng Tojirakarn, Nattawut Saikua, Korkaew Pikulthong, Suporn Atthawong, Kwanchai Praiphana and Laddawan Wongsriwong.

The Army chief has already filed a police complaint against Jatuporn, Suporn and Wichian Khaokham forlese majeste.

So is that 13 accusations of lese majeste in 2 days? Maybe the U.S. State Department can review its so-called human rights report now that the political intent of the use of lese majeste is so clear that a blind monkey could see it.

Kasit at the U.N. Human Rights Council

6 03 2011

PPT can’t find a copy of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya’s speech to the 16th session of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, so we rely on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement. We have an earlier post here.

Kasit Piromya

Kasit delivered a speech where he advertised Thailand “as a leading country in pushing forward human rights at the international level…”. PPT is tempted to add that he wasn’t suggesting this for the domestic situation on human rights situation, which is a record of repression and abuse. However, Kasit did make most of his points pertinent to domestic issues, so of course some corrections are required.

Kasit stressed that  Thailand, as current chair of the HRC, has great hopes for the Council at a time when “the world is witnessing the call for freedom, peoples’ right of ownership and participation.” He adds that Thailand hopes the Council will promote and protect human rights and “address human rights challenges in an even-handed manner.”

In Thailand, those who seek freedom have been met with the army’s boot, censorship and repression. Thailand under the Democrat Party-led government continues to lock up political opponents and exercises power through laws and courts that are politically biased (see here, here and here). While the regime recently released seven red shirt leaders on bail after X months incarcerated, other remain imprisoned and refused bail. An unknown number – probably in the hundreds – of political prisoners remain in prison on charges of lese majeste, computer crimes and violating an emergency decree. Thailand’s political police, the Department of Special Investigation has announced plans for more arrests.

Kasit lectured on the “importance of promoting democracy, tolerance, avoiding extremism and support for the cohabitation of multi-ethnic groups in society are all crucial factors in the development of human rights.”

Of course, there is none of this in Thailand. “Democracy promotion” in Thailand revolves around a “Thai-style democracy” that must have the king held in a revered position. Any attempts to change this system are consider illegal and unconstitutional. The status quo is all that is acceptable. For a critique of Thai-style democracy, which is not democratic at all, see here. As for tolerance, perhaps the political death toll is not the only measure of the low-bar in Thailand as much as the intolerance of border-crossers and asylum seekers (see a selection of PPT’s posts here and here).

Kasit is said to have claimed:”human rights promotion and protection continue to be one of the top priorities of the Thai Government.” While PPT can think of no evidence for such a claim, Kasit went on to claim “progress.”

He pinpointed “[i]nvestigations into the violent incidents during the protests last April are still on-going with a view to bringing the perpetrators to account.” Few seem to think this is likely in Thailand (see here).

Kasit also confirmed that “progress had also been made with regards to reducing the disparity within Thai society and pushing forward the implementation of the 5-point national reconciliation plan which aims at ensuring basic rights and needs for all persons on an equal footing.” That’s a bold but false claim. The reconciliation plan was never more than a political proclamation of how the current coalition and its army partners would seek to fix an election. Kasit might have also have trumpeted the current regimes huge efforts to pour funds into the electorate – at least this might have some impact on short-term income inequality – but he probably recognizes that this too is about winning an election at all costs.

Kasit also “declared Thailand’s readiness to undergo review under the Universal Periodic Review mechanism in October this year in the spirit of constructiveness and openness to improve the human rights situation in Thailand.” While PPT doubts that anything will come of this Review, it is an opportunity for revealing the current regime’s human rights abuses. Will any of the so-called human rights defenders in Thailand be prepared to stand up? Will anyone dare challenge lese majeste repression?

Review of “Saying the Unsayable” on the monarchy

13 12 2010

The Bangkok Post has a review of Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and democracy in Thailand, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (Nias Press, 278 pp, 795 baht ISBN 978-87-7694-072-0). It is reviewed by Chris Baker:

Half way through this book, one of the contributors asks, “Is Thailand primarily a democracy protected by a constitution that guarantees rights, or is primarily a monarchy with authoritarian structures that prevent democratisation?” Not so long ago, such a question was unimaginable. The standard formula is that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy with the King as head of state. But ever since the People’s Alliance for Democracy swathed themselves in yellow and announced “We fight for the king”, cracks have appeared in that formula. The mantra that the monarchy is “above politics” has never made much sense since monarchy is nothing if not a political institution. The claim that monarchy is beyond discussion or debate falters because the institution is too important to ignore. As Thailand’s economy has become so rapidly and drastically globalised, more and more outsiders want to understand the country’s key institutions because it matters to their business profits and personal lives. In academic writing on Thai politics, monarchy is now the prime focus of attention.

The eleven contributors to this book of essays include seven foreigners and four Thais. Two of the Thais have elected to use a nom de plume. Yet this is a careful book which has nothing personal or strident, no whiff of revolt. The nine essays and the deft summary in the introduction present analyses of the meaning of the Thai monarchy in the present and the recent past. Although this book claims its subject is “the Thai monarchy”, in fact it’s focus is rather narrower. The words “queen”, “prince” “princess”, “crown” and “succession” do not appear in the index. Only two of the essays stray into history. This book is a study of one reign.

The first section focuses on the current image of the monarchy, and the contrast between the two essays highlights how complex the topic is. Peter Jackson argues that the monarch is seen as magical and semi-divine. The palace entourage have promoted an old idea that the monarch is a sammuti devaraja, a “virtual god-king”, not an actual god-king but capable of being imagined as one. Yet, Jackson argues, over the course of the reign the word “virtual” in this formula has tended to fade. The adulation of the monarch is one of many cults promising prosperity and security which have flourished all over the world in the context of globalisation and its insecurities. People started to worship the Fifth King as an ancestor spirit capable of granting prosperity, and the Ninth has become associated with the cult.

By contrast, Sarun Krittikarn argues that the distinguishing feature of the present reign is the accessibility and evident humanity of the royals. Rather than being cloaked in mystery and ritual, they appear every day on television doing very human things. From this inspection, “it is obvious that the family has gradually adopted middle-class values and lifestyles”. The people gaze at them constantly, and the monarch gazes back from pictures, banners, statues and banners which seem to be everywhere. He watches over his subjects constantly. “Under his gaze, we are turned into a child in need of security.” Of course, the sheer multiplication of images runs the risk that the image overwhelms the reality behind it. Moreover, Sarun suggests, while the royal image is supposed to serve as the focus of nationalist loyalty, viewing the image has rather become a form of entertainment which arouses feelings of comfort.

In the official version of history, King Prajadhipok welcomed the transition from absolutism to democracy, thus ensuring that democracy and monarchy could comfortably coexist, and earning for himself the title as “father of Thai democracy”. Two essays attack this history head-on. Nattapoll Chaiching marshals all the evidence showing that Prajadhipok fought bitterly to reverse the 1932 revolution, and that after his abdication committed royalists took up the same cause until they succeeded with Field-Marshal Sarit’s coup in 1957. Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp take up the story from there, tracing the idea of “Thai-style democracy” from Sarit to the present. Since 1932, royalists had argued that the Thai people were not ready for democracy or not suited to it at all. Sarit claimed that strong leaders who responded to popular needs were a better form of “democracy” than that contrived by elections. Kukrit Pramoj imagined that there was a virtual bond between king and subjects which meant that kingship was a perfect form of representation, somehow “natural” for Thailand, and indispensable for peace and prosperity. Since then “Thai-style democracy” in which the monarch acts as a moral balance against wicked politicians has been a cornerstone of royalist thinking. Hewison and Kengkij argue that Thaksin was found so frightful because he was beginning to show that democracy could work, an elected leader could deliver prosperity to the people and be rewarded with unprecedented popularity.

The 2006 coup hangs heavily over the book. Almost every essay refers to it. David Streckfuss notes the epidemic of lese-majesty cases since the coup. He draws a comparison with the last epidemic of comparable scale – in Germany in the late nineteenth century. In one six-year period, 248 people were convicted. Yet the result was only to make more people more defiant. Eventually in 1904, the Emperor himself told the judiciary to desist, and issued pardons to those still undergoing punishment.

The last two essays focus on the sufficiency economy. Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager put the idea in the context of a worldwide enthusiasm for “etho-politics”, theories in which greater self-discipline by the individual does away with the need for such a great political superstructure. The ideal is a community which can exist without conflict. But in truth, they argue, this is always a dream. Andrew Walker adds that the image of a self-sufficient local rural economy may never have existed in Thailand and is certainly far removed from present-day realities. One large portion of the rural population does not have enough land or other assets to be sufficient, and survives by migrating away from the village in search of work. Another large portion finds that the best way to deal with the risks and insecurities of small-scale agriculture is to invest more, play the market, and diversify risks rather than retreating into a shell of sufficiency.

As the editors note in the Introduction, a monarchy like any other institution is constantly being made and remade. The immense changes over the present reign make that abundantly clear. This book is a valuable contribution to a growing literature that helps to make this institution and its complex dynamics more understandable.

General Prayuth, the Chinese and democracy

11 11 2010

Reasons to fret about Thailand’s political future:

1) Prayuth Chan-ocha is quoted by Suthichai Yoon as saying this: “Let me pose a question. Who wants to stage a coup right now? Thailand has a democratic system under the Monarchy. This is the best system in the world. We are different from other countries. They only have a democratic system. Why do we want to go in search of another system then? That won’t solve our problems….”.

The best system in the world? Perhaps it has been for those in the elite who benefit from the power of hierarchical institutions to repress the subaltern classes. PPT would hope that this system’s days are numbered.

2) Xinhua reports on “China and Thailand [having] … underlined their commitment to deepen parliamentary ties.” Top Chinese legislator Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), “said the NPC would like to seek closer ties with the Thai Senate in all fields, step up experience sharing on democracy, legal system, legislation and supervision, and keep consultation and cooperation in international parliamentary organizations.” Wu was a guest of the President of the National Assembly of Thailand Chai Chidchob.

There have been some scuttlebutt regarding discussions amongst the business elite in Bangkok about the feasibility of a Chinese system – authoritarian politics with a capitalist economy. Is this what is meant by discussions of “democracy”? Chinese-style democracy meets Thai-style democracy?

Abhisit at CFR I

26 09 2010

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. PPT has some commentary on the talk, and we will provide further commentary on the Q&A in another post, when we can get to it:

He is introduced as speaking on the current situation in Thailand. The first thing that strikes a well-informed listener is that he says very little that is new, and sticks pretty closely to the furrow that the regime has plowed since it came to power and especially since the violent 19 May crackdown. As PPT has long pointed out, what Abhisit says and does are often diametrically opposed, so his statements require contextualization.

Regular readers will recall that PPT referred to Abhisit then as the Butcher of Bangkok because his government was responsible for the largest-ever official number of deaths in political protests in Thailand. Note we emphasize “official,” and readily acknowledge that earlier protests probably resulted in more deaths at the hands of authoritarian and military governments. Twice in the speech, Abhisit refers to “regrettable losses of life” but says nothing at all of his government’s role in the events, the fact that the military slaughtered and maimed protesters or anything else that would suggest true regret.

Likewise, he says absolutely nothing about people locked up. He says nothing about political prisoners, whether red shirts or victims of the lese majeste or computer crimes laws. It is as if they do not exist for this prime minister. He seems to wash his well-manicured and soft hands of the grime and blood of his struggle to remain in power.

Abhisit makes no mention of the monarchy, the judiciary, the elite, the military, double standards or any other issue that would be suggestive that he gives any credence to his opponents.

Abhisit does say the word “democracy” several times, perhaps anticipating that an American audience will lap up this rhetoric. Perhaps they do, but well-informed listeners will notice a hollow ring as democracy is defined in terms that the regime chooses and relies on rule of law language that would suit most authoritarian regimes. Thaksin Shinawatra is always accused of having a disdain for democracy, seeing it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Abhisit, however, strips the term of much of its meaning. The result is his penchant for authoritarian politics and repression.

Abhisit claims he did not anticipate the events of April and May 2010, but now views them as part of a process that has Thailand building on the “foundations of our democracy.” Despite “challenges” he is confident that Thailand will win through a “long and difficult process.” Given that the Democrat Party and Abhisit himself were essentially supportive of the 2006 coup, are wrapped like Siamese twins with the major repressive forces in Thailand, and have implemented repression in all political arenas, the meaning of “democracy” for him and his supporters is no more than “Thai-style democracy,” which is no democracy at all.

One of the lessons of April and May, he says, is that when “trying to develop a democracy, there will be clashes of values, clashes of opinions, but the key thing … is to find a way to … avoid violence and and illegal means to …political ends…”. The government, Abhisit opines, is “determined to embark on a process of reform and reconciliation…”. He speaks of “reaching out” to “all parties” in this process. He says this is to “build the right values that support our future and stronger democracy…. respect the law, good governance, accountability and transparency.”

PPT is sure that there will be many who will read this and need to get their jaws off the floor. Yes, he says it all the time, but he does nothing meaningful.

Justifying the use of the emergency decree in Bangkok since April this year, the premier jauntily asserts that: “If you are in Bangkok you’d hardly notice the effect of the state of emergency…. Ordinary people are not affected…”. As many ordinary people have stated, along with intellectuals, journalists and human rights activists, this is fundamentally wrong. Abhisit knows it, so he is dissembling yet again. In fact, the emergency decree (and earlier uses of the internal security laws) is central top  political control for his government.

The prime minister then speaks in self-congratulatory terms of his efforts for reconciliation: “What I have done is set up a number of independent commissions…”. He repeats this word “independent.” He says Anand Panyarachun’s is the most important commission, to “look at some of the structural issues that give rise to inequalities,” admitting that “for some” that such inequalities gave rise to the violence of April and May. Abhisit has generally rejected this latter line, but sees the Anand commission as a PR exercise to change the views of others on this. As PPT posted recently, the Anand commission seems remarkably reluctant to do much at all.

Would it only be PPT that finds Abhisit’s statement on the media threatening?: “We are engaging the media so that they go through a process of reform as well.” It seems Abhisit wants them to “retain freedom of expression” while reporting news with responsibility and accountability. The mainstream media have been reluctant to participate. However, the most striking issue is that while Abhisit’s regime has closed almost all of the opposition media, it mollycoddles the yellow shirt media such as PAD’s

As might be expected from the leader of a political party that was manipulated into parliamentary leadership, Abhisit tries to normalize the backroom dealings and extra-parliamentary forces that catapulted an unelectable party to the head of government. He says the the parliamentary system is “fully functioning.” He complains that there are misconceptions that the political crisis arose from a “somehow undemocratic process.”

He states: “That is not true,” and goes through the usual explanation of how his coalition came to power without mentioning the role of a politicized judiciary or of the military, People’s Alliance for Democracy, Newin Chidchob or the palace. Oddly, Abhisit places some emphasis on the fact that the PPP did not get a majority when elected…. The Democrat Party have never had a majority, and the only party ever to have a majority in parliament was thrown out by the military….

Abhisit seems to welcome “the opposition” saying they want to be involved in the reconciliation process – although, in reality, he is the one who has been suspicious of these overtures. Abhisit rejects debate on “who did what, who’s right and who’s wrong” in favor of him, as a “true democrat,” being confident that the government is addressing the “real issues that matter to the people.”

Abhisit demonstrates his toughness when he says he will not “cave in” to “some demands” as he gets the country “through this crisis.” In fact, though, this is nothing more than his personal hatred and fear of Thaksin Shinawatracoming to the fore. He makes the claim that one unnamed person or small group has placed their interest above that of the nation – Thaksin , of course. One should “never allow the use of force, violence,  or intimidation to effect political changes.”

That might sound reasonable, but then the U.S. used violence to gain independence and fought a civil war on political rights. The French Revolution involved considerable violence, and we could go on and on. Members of the elite is always opposed to violence, except when they are perpetrating it.

On early elections, Abhisit is boringly repetitious: “Over the last two years, I have never rejected calls for early elections. But my conditions that I have set are set for the best, for the country’s interests…”. He has not moved on this for months. Back in March, we posted this:

What was striking, however, was Abhisit’s insistence on constitutional change before an election. He has a patchy track record on this. There have been statements from him on constitutional reform, but these have all fallen into the usual traps. He has made no personal commitment to meaningful constitutional reform and has not personally been engaged with the agenda. It’s the talk but … no action problem again.

The government’s other line is to say that “elections will solve nothing” while also saying that dissolving parliament is not off the agenda. Many in the middle class and elite will agree with the rejection of elections because they fear the outcome will bring politicians they view as pro-Thaksin back to power. Abhisit may have angered some in his right-wing support base by talking, but nothing he said is going to immediately cause concern for his yellow-shirted supporters in the Democrat Party or more broadly.

Nothing’s changed. Abhisit lists the reasons he has opposed early elections. First, the economy needed time to recover. Second, he says he doesn’t want to see an election resulting in a weak government and a process like 2007-08. Third, and most important “I have always said that elections should only take place under peaceful and stable conditions…”. He says “he does not believe in elections where there continues to be intimidation, threat of the use of force or violence against candidates or parties…”. Only if the red shirts can guarantee this, will he go for an early election. He believes he has a right to stay in power until the beginning of 2012. After all of this, he blames the red shirts for rejecting his conditionality.

The closest he gets to accepting red shirt “demands” is to say that average red shirts “have been exploited by some political leaders” and it is this that led to the “unfortunate and regrettable events of April and May.”This is the “villagers are ignorant” claim so often repeated by Democrat Party leaders and the yellow shirts. Even if the red shirts have legitimate gripes, they are “manipulated” by the evil Thaksin and other nasty politicians. Only yellow shirts and government supporters are not manipulated and remain clear-eyed…. This is elitist nonsense but also a necessary rationalization to de-legitimize political mobilization by the under-classes.

This is Abhisit unchanged, using his English-language skills to sell his authoritarian government to U.S. investors and government. Military dictators and the king have long done the same. Abhisit fits that model ever so neatly.


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