King, country, chaos? – Part I

19 03 2010

The Economist (18 March 2010) includes a leader on politics and succession and a feature story called “The battle for Thailand.” As several other blogs have already said, this issue will not be available in Bangkok. However, the electronic links noted here were still working as PPT wrote this. If they become blocked, readers should let us know, and we’ll post the stories in full. In this post, we comment on the leader, and we’ll follow-up on the longer article later.

PPT agrees entirely with the view that for “decades Thai politics suffered from a surfeit of pragmatism. Indeed, grimy compromises were dignified as ‘Thai solutions’.” So we wonder why the editorial argues for this: “Thailand urgently needs to rediscover its lost flair for pragmatism and to rebuild a functioning political system.” Why rebuild the grimy politics of the past? With the Economist, those academics and Thailand watchers lamenting the apparent loss of the slimy compromise seem oddly conservative and lost for ideas. That said, a sleazy compromise remains possible in the current circumstances.

PPT notices that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has blinked. There are now widespread calls for “talks,” even with ex-prime minister and Montanegran, Thaksin Shinawatra. Even the largely discredited National Human Rights Commission has come out offering to “mediate”. Quite why the red shirts would want to have NHRC head and Chulalongkorn University professor Amara Pongsapich mediating talks with the government is unclear. She has a long been known to pop in and out of General Prem Tinsulanonda’s army-provided residence.

For all the criticism on the blogs, in the mainstream media and from weak-kneed academics concerning the red shirt “blood sacrifice” (that the Economist depicts as “was a creepy stunt”), one thing is clear: it has had an impact on the political climate and gained huge media coverage. Perhaps more challenging for the government has been the widespread support provided to the red shirts by Bangkok’s working class and elements of what might be considered the lower middle class.

The Economist ties contemporary events and the longer-term malaise of Thai politics back to the monarchy and succession – hence its “banning”: “Presiding over a messy but largely functioning polity has been a revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose admirers have no difficulty in reconciling the contradictory ideas that he is both ‘above politics’ and also the guarantor of stability.” With the king in hospital for unknown reasons, it states: “Thailand needs to start thinking about what will come when his reign ends.”

Actually, some of what’s going on now is about this thinking. And some of it is thinking that is certainly out loud. Almost everyone talks of the palace, privy council and aristocrats as integral players in current events and wonders what it all means for the future. The army seems to want to control the period of succession, but in doing so has opened a huge can of worms that includes a republicanism that does not, as the Economist says, “lurk in the wings” but is now more highly visible than at any time since the 1970s.

On the red shirts, the Economist states: “the red shirts do enjoy considerable popular support, and not just in the poor north-east from which so many hail.” For PPT, one of the things that was noticeable at last Sunday’s rally were the large contingents from the central provinces.

On a way forward, it says: “the political system has all but broken down, as the government itself tacitly admits when it argues that an election would not solve Thailand’s problems. It may well be right. Democracy works only when the parties that lose an election accept the outcome. And if, as might well happen, Mr Abhisit’s government lost an election to proxies for Mr Thaksin, the same alliance of military and civilian elites that toppled him in 2006 and his allies in 2008 might again reject the popular verdict. Instability would persist.”

On succession: “The king, who has reigned for six decades…. His anointed successor, the crown prince, is … widely disliked and already shows signs of meddling in politics. Although, in theory, the monarchy inhabits a realm far above the murk of daily government, it has been an important source of legitimacy for the unelected prime minister.” The paper continues to state: “the king’s death will remove a moderating influence that has kept irreconcilable political differences in check.”

This view is commonly expressed but there are also many who see such statements as merely part of the monarchy’s myth building. Critics suggest that active participation in several major and less than moderate political events tell a different story. Most especially, these critics point to the king’s role in the horrendous events of October 1976 and the extremism foisted on the country by the king’s privy councilor made prime minister Thanin Kraivixien, who proved too extreme, right wing and divisive even for the military. The events of 2006 and since do not demonstrate a moderating influence. Rather they suggest a protection of interests. PPT wonders if the government has been keeping track of movements of money out of Thailand? Has the palace been salting loot away in the event of a worst-case scenario for the monarchy? How much?

Of course, the Economist is right to point yet again to harsh lese majeste laws that ensure that the “future of the monarchy is a matter of private gossip, not public debate. This leader, and our article considering the succession in some detail, could not appear in Thailand. Indeed they will cause great hurt and offence in some quarters there. We regret this. But to discuss Thailand’s future without considering its monarchy is itself to belittle an important national institution.” It is added: “to endure, the monarchy has to win a debate, not suppress one.”

The Economist then looks to a way out of the “present political quagmire.” It argues for an “early election, producing a government with popular legitimacy. It would probably also entail a decentralisation of power away from Bangkok so that citizens of regions such as the north-east feel less alienated from their rulers—a sense of alienation that, more than ethnic or religious tensions, underpins the long-running, bloody insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern provinces. And a true ‘Thai solution’ would also imply a monarchy genuinely above political meddling or manipulation.” That’s a huge agenda that would undo much of the control of the establishment and may well prove impossible. After all, when they were convinced that they were challenged by a moderate but highly flawed Thaksin, they panicked and went for the guys with guns. Can they ever be convinced to share power in a system of representation?


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17 12 2012
Failed on human rights « Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] the National Human Rights Commission, AHRC on the new NHRC, We do not lie. Of course they do, King, country, chaos?, NHRC compromised (again), How many are detained?, Somyos and another chance for the NHRC, Is […]

17 12 2012
Failed on human rights « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] the National Human Rights Commission, AHRC on the new NHRC, We do not lie. Of course they do, King, country, chaos?, NHRC compromised (again), How many are detained?, Somyos and another chance for the NHRC, Is […]