What a royalist says about politics

24 03 2010

It is always useful when royalists go into print and share their views on politics and the monarchy. Asia Times Online (24 March 2010) has just posted a long story and interview with never-elected prime minister and ardent royalist Anand Panyarachun. The article refers to Anand as a “palace insider [who] epitomizes the ammataya, or aristocratic elite, that Thailand’s red shirt-wearing United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group claims to be up against in a ‘class war’ for democracy.”

As the article notes, the UDD sees Abhisit Vejjajiva and his government as being “propped up by conservative interests and criticized top royalists, including Privy Council members selected by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as impediments to democracy.” Anand has long been a spruiker for the monarchy, especially to foreigners, and regularly recycles his Thai monarchy speech. He’s sometimes seen as a royalist who is also “liberal” in terms of politics and is an insider, being at the top of the board at the royal bank, the Siam Commercial Bank.

In this post, PPT simply provides a commentary on Anand’s comments to the ATO.

Anand might well be seen to be again displaying his alleged political liberalism when the ATO says that he believes “holding new elections would help to resolve the country’s escalating political crisis, but not be a cure-all.” He adds: “Elections cannot resolve everything, but they may be helpful in accelerating the resolution of the problem.”

PPT prefers to view Anand as a political conservative, and this article displays his political position quite well. In addition, it provides some useful insights into how the people at the top and around the palace think.

Take the election comment as a starting point. In an earlier speech, Anand had expressed dismay about “Western” complaints about the overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra by the coup in 2006: “I never thought that some Westerners would equate elections with democracy.” And in this interview, when he speaks of elections, he’s not giving any ground to his opponents, predicting an election “next year.” Well, yes, that’s what’s supposed to happen as the government’s term expires at the end of next year. Only the UDD could derail this. Anand is firmly committed to the current order.

Like all good royalists, Anand believes that democracy is not really what Thailand is about. “Thailand will continue to muddle through with its particular brand of democracy, which he describes loosely as an ‘ad-hocracy’ where politicians improvise and ‘roll with the punches’.” Thailand is different from the West, because “In Asian culture, particularly in Thailand, everything is personal. And that’s not good for democracy.” While Lee Kuan Yew might have pointed out that Asian-style democracy was not real democracy because of Confucian group orientation, Anand is essentially on the same conservative line – Asians are different.

What does Anand think of the UDD? He says “They must be bankrupt of ideas. And there’s no leadership. These three or four guys … use rhetoric all the time. They have no credibility. Some of the more credible figures in Thaksin’s camp never came out. [Former prime minister and Thaksin ally] Chavalit [Yongchaiyudh] disappeared. [Former Internal Security Operations Command deputy director] General Panlop [Pinmanee] is where? Nobody came out. I think in Chavalit’s mind he knew it was a lost cause, these demonstrations. And they must have spent a fortune.”

This is the view of a royalist insider. PPT wants to unpack it. The UDD is “bankrupt of ideas.” That’s a bit rich from the royalist camp that has been peddling the same monarchist ideas for decades. Aside from that, those who are “bankrupt of ideas” have succeeded in changing the political debate in Thailand. While much of the current media discussion of “class war” is a mulch of ideas from the Cold War and from the uninformed – here we mean from opponents of the red shirts – there’s no doubt that the political discourse is now of phrai, amat, double standards and inequality. Opponents and supporters alike have adopted this lexicon.

Even Anand is required to engage. He says: “When they try to incite demonstrations into a movement of class warfare, that will not work in Thailand. The communists tried 25 years ago. It will not work because there’s no such thing.” Not only does Anand forget how extensive the communist movement was in Thailand, but he uses the “communist” label to damn the current red shirt movement and scare the Bangkok middle class and elite.

None of the opponents of the red shirts consider that the rich and powerful in Thailand have been waging their own class war for decades. Worker and peasant movements have been repeatedly smashed and disorganized. Those from the lower classes who stick their heads up and refuse to be co-opted find life difficult, if they are permitted to keep breathing. Opponents of the monarchy are regularly threatened, charged and jailed with laws that provide and protect privilege.

On Chavalit, Anand is wrong, although not entirely so. At the beginning, Chavalit seemed reluctant to get involved and was in hospital. Now, however, he has provided his support and appeared on the red shirt rally stage with the leaders of the movement. With respect to Panlop, this is an odd comment. Anand says that Panlop is a “credible figure and yet the red shirt leadership wanted him sidelined because of his penchant for violent actions. The royalists and the government seem to want the red shirts to be constructed to fit their own propaganda and beliefs about the movement.

For Anand, as for Abhisit, all this trouble is Thaksin-related. Thaksin is surrounded by acolytes “of many kinds. Real converts. Some people genuinely fawn and worship Thaksin, but there are so many converts who do it for their own personal agenda, their own interests, their own financial interests. So he’s been hearing only one side of the story and I’m sure he was misled by these leaders who say they can embark on a very, very important, a very, very decisive sort of battle.” Thaksin has been misled by those who seek wealth. The refrain of being misled and paid usually refers to rural voters, so this is a neat twist. That said, isn’t the palace surrounded by acolytes of exactly the kind Anand says make up red shirts? Anand could fall into this category, and he hasn’t done all that badly by his own fawning.

At least the red shirts, with “all these antics and stunts” haven’t engaged in “violent actions.” Anand is thankful for that. And, despite being “bankrupt of ideas,” Anand does a mental backflip with a degree of difficulty of 4.5 and comes up with this: “Some of the issues raised by the red shirts are, in my view, valid…”. What might these ideas that are not bankrupt be? Anand says: “the widening gap between the rich and poor, unequal opportunities.” And making exactly the same comment as Abhisit – who’s coaching who? – Anand then says: “but they have existed for a long time in our history of democratic rule [huh?] and these issues have existed in all other societies, in other countries…. These issues are not newly invented and they did not happen in Thailand only in the last few years. Every government has tried to address these issues but nobody has a quick fix.” Maybe there’s no coaching and its just that position and privilege breeds a similar outlook.

Anand and Abhisit would love to think that they are right about these big and important issues. Are there really no changes in these patterns over time? Bangkok Pundit has an excellent post on exactly this issue related to wealth and income inequality, so there’s no need for PPT to repeat that. We’d just point out that governments regularly make decisions that change these patterns, in both the short and medium terms. The fact is that if you are in the bottom half of Thai society, most governments have changed these patterns for the worse. If you are up the top, you’ve generally done very nicely. Class war at work perhaps?

Getting truly, deeply royalist, Anand warns that the red shirts can’t be trusted: “I think there’s deep suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that the reds have some other issues under a hidden agenda. I think there is this confusion about the legitimate issues and, shall we say, illegitimate questions.” Of course, he means to imply that the “reds” as he calls them are really republicans.

PPT really appreciated Anand’s comment when asked under what circumstances Thaksin might return to Thailand. We had said some time ago that this palace has a long memory for its opponents and is remarkably resolute in dealing with them. So Anand’s comment is confirmation: “I don’t see much prospect of his return. I’m not quite sure his strategy is a correct one…. in the past two years he has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have gone beyond the point of return in terms of his rhetoric, in terms of his actions.”

After blathering on about the usual propaganda position on the monarch’s constitutional duties and rights, a la Bagehot, Anand sounds almost apologetic for the lack of reform – “evolutionizing itself” – in the monarchy. He complains that the Thai monarchy hasn’t had much time to reform and, he complains, “you have to be fair to us, sometimes we cannot go faster than what the people want.” Blame “the people,” for it is they who don’t want the monarchy to change. That’s the language of despots.

Anand continues to make another weird statement: “there is a deep affection and deep loyalty towards our King and our constitution by an overwhelming majority of the people.” Perhaps a slip of the tongue? For we know that there’s not nearly an overwhelming majority for the 2007 Constitution. For the king perhaps? Maybe, but who knows. Would anyone in their right mind ask the question in a survey, and would any sane person answer that they dislike the king?

Still, Anand knows that succession will inevitably see the supposed popularity decline. Even now, he estimates that 10-20% of the population does not want the monarchy. He adds that a further 20-40% don’t care all that much.

Bangkok Pundit also comments on this aspect of the story and is worth a read.

Anand seems to still support Abhisit and the Democrat Party and he is convinced that the “army is not that stupid. They know they bungled the last one and the coups in the past have never been able to resolve the nation’s problems.” PPT is sure that he is wrong. The army’s silent coup of 2008 showed that they learned that running a government was tough. So they sit behind the scenes and pull whatever levers or strings that are necessary. Brokering a government and standing behind it while that government doles out money and military hardware and allows the military to do pretty much as it pleases is a very neat strategy.


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