Pining for the Imagined Past; Preparing for the Repressive Future

24 05 2010

We have blogged before about the writings of people like Stephen Young—one of many conservative romanticizers of a Thai past that never existed—who seem unable to extricate themselves from the regressive truisms they learned to invoke in the Vietnam War era. At the present moment of crisis, with severe repression by the Thai state being the urgent issue of the day, it might seem that dismantling another such absurd proclamation is a bit beside the point. But a recent editorial in the Globe and Mail by David Van Praagh, “Thailand’s Real Road to Freedom Starts Here” (May 19), seems to us worth noting, not because it says anything credible or intelligent, but because it might nonetheless be representative of the kinds of intellectually and morally bankrupt arguments we are likely see produced over and over again in the days ahead, as the Thai state and its reactionary backers desperately attempt to justify their remarkable savagery.

Van Praagh, listed as a former Globe and Mail correspondent in South and Southeast Asia, as well as a professor of journalism at Carleton University and the author of a book on the life and times of M. R. Seni Pramoj, asserts that the entire red shirt uprising of the last two months has been nothing more or less than a coup attempt by Thaksin against the government and the monarchy, and that with this threat now banished, Thai society, the “Land of the Free, can begin working, again, to live up to its name.”  To begin building a better future, however, “Thais—and non-Thais—who care about their country need to understand some facts that have emerged in recent days.”

The first of these, according to Van Praagh, is that “the Thai army acted not above the law or on its own but on the orders of the elected coalition government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Prachatipat or Democrat Party…” Van Praagh has an interesting notion of what constitutes a “fact.” Technically speaking, the military certainly did not act on the orders of the coalition government but on the orders of military commanders, especially, Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, working through the hastily assembled Center for Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES), which itself was legitimized by reference to the State of Emergency the Abhisit government declared when it decided to deem what would have otherwise been legal protests illegal. Indeed, as we and many others have reported, Abhisit and more powerful Democrat Party boss Suthep Thaugsuban, tried repeatedly to push military commander Anupong Paochinda into launching the military attack that finally came, with Anupong—who is perhaps only slightly more law-abiding than the Democrat Party leadership—resisting this and calling for a political settlement. Only when some yet-to-be-fully revealed maneuvers within the military and the palace had been completed, allowing the hardline Sansern to emerge in charge of operations and the threat of internal conflict within the military was sidelined for the time, did the troops begin the slaughter.

Even more obviously, however, if Van Praagh considers the Democrat Party to have been “elected” he is either woefully ignorant or wilfully deceptive. To most readers of the Globe and Mail, Canadian or otherwise, an election means a popular plebiscite, where the general population is allowed to determine who they would like to govern. The Democrats did not win and have never won such an election, and it is the fact that they know they are unlikely to do so any time in the near future which has conditioned their firm resolve to reject the red shirt call for a dissolution of the current parliament. Van Praagh and others who utter this nonsense apparently consider the vote of the parliamentary representatives themselves, after the new coalition was already arranged by Anupong, to constitute the equivalent of a popular plebiscite—a perfectly rational view, we suppose, for those who think the population cannot be trusted to vote properly and should have their chosen political representatives “vote” on their behalf (Cf. the New Politics proposal.)

Van Praagh’s second “truth” is remarkable enough in its intellectual and moral barbarity that it needs to be repeated in full: “what the world has seen in the weeks of confrontation is nothing less than an attempted coup d’état by Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 to 2006, who was convicted of corruption and had about $1.5-billion of his assets seized by the government. Mr. Thaksin, now in exile, aimed to provoke a bloody massacre of so-called Red Shirt demonstrators by the army that would have led to civil conflict – the only way for him to return to power and end the monarchy that holds Thailand together. The coup failed when the army showed extraordinary restraint until it was no longer possible to allow the ruination of Bangkok’s business and shopping district. Even then, casualties were comparatively low.”

Like others who assert that a Thaksin coup attempt against the government and the monarchy was the source of the entire uprising, Van Praagh does not feel compelled to provide evidence for this “fact.” But the problem is not merely the lack of factual evidence. Indeed, under the current situation, with untold numbers of prisoners in detention, suffering who knows what unspeakable treatment, it would be shocking if we don’t very soon have a detailed Thai government account, based on statements by someone or other in custody, explaining how Thaksin bought and paid for the entire red shirt movement. And, if so, such “factual” evidence will be worth just as much as everything else pronounced by Abhisit’s mendacious government, not solely because the “facts” produced by it under these conditions cannot be taken seriously by any impartial observer without access to the information and the process by which it was elicited, but because the entire intellectually shabby foundation of the argument would be dismissed out of court by any serious social analyst. “Big men” theories of history, the sort that government officials like to propound in order to individualize their enemies and reduce complex events to simplistic morality plays, have no credibility, and certainly not when they assume that hundreds of thousands of people are no more than sheep, willing to walk unthinkingly to their deaths on promise of a few baht. (Well, we should note that some scholars, like Van Praagh, appear amazingly willing to sheepishly follow whatever ideological line those with power would like them to follow, but then again these people are rewarded for their sheepishness, not threatened with death.)

There is a remarkable arrogance in Van Praagh’s claim that the red shirts were merely trying to sacrifice themselves en masse for Thaksin’s alleged coup attempt—in this case, classist, racist, and imperial arrogance all at the same time—implying as he does that we should simply ignore what the red shirts said they were trying to achieve (dissolution of the parliament) and instead interpret events according to the “facts.” Once again, these “facts” are never presented—and can’t be—but perhaps divination or communication with higher powers is a better description of how Professor Van Praagh discovers reality? As to the claim that the military exercised great restraint and that the casualties–at least 80 people dead and nearly 2,000 injured) “were comparatively low”–one must wonder what number of casualties imposed on overwhelmingly unarmed civilians Van Praagh would consider “comparatively high.” The moral savagery of this claim is stunning, all the more so when the military violence is made to seem acceptable and inevitable because of the “ruination”—another “fact,” here—being imposed on “Bangkok’s business and shopping district.”

Fact number three for Van Praagh is that “Mr. Thaksin’s hard-core Red Shirts turned out to be not a force for democracy but for what can only be called a Thai strain of fascism.” Here Van Praagh’s already limited “analysis” degenerates into a flood of virtually incoherent assertions: “This was first evident in the 1920s, when King Vajiravudh created the ultranationalist Wild Tiger Corps. It became dominant when Marshal Pibul Songgram, an admirer of Hitler, Mussolini and especially Japanese imperialists, ruled Thailand before and during the Second World War. It re-emerged in the 1970s, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej ordered ruling generals into exile, and military officers and well-to-do civilians reacted viciously in the name of nationalism.” Setting aside the issue of how one should define fascism—does a regime that comes to power by military and judicial coups, refuses to hold elections, and guns down civilian protestors qualify?—or the stylized misrepresentation of the King’s role in Thai history, one might ask what any of this has to do with the red shirts. Van Praagh’s answer: among the red shirts, “some call themselves Black Shirts – modern-day Wild Tigers beholden to Mr. Thaksin.” We take it as unnecessary to say more about the “facts” that have been established by this line of argument.

The fourth and final “fact” is merely the usual blathery line about the monarchy being “above politics” but needed as “Thailand’s political mediator of last resort”—a ludicrous notion that we have addressed too many times to bear repeating here. From this point Van Praagh’s “argument” rambles forward to a happy conclusion: “Thailand is an innately conservative Buddhist nation. Thais’ great sadness must soon give way to their usual smiles.”

We don’t wish to speculate about what planet Van Praagh must live on in order to maintain this perception. But two things seem worth noting: first, although we’re firmly in favour of freedom of expression and congratulate the Globe and Mail for publishing a letter betraying how remarkably infantile are some of the best arguments Thailand’s “friends” are mustering at the moment, we also have to note the disgraceful level of intellectual culture that must exist on the world’s political right to enable “analyses” like these. Second, as we said at the outset although a performance like this might be best ignored, the fact that this seems to stand for some on the right as a credible kind of argument needs recognition. It is not only people like Van Praagh who make such bankrupt arguments. Democrat Party leader and one-time intellectual Kraisak Choonhavan, in an interview on al-Jeezeerah, demonstrated his own decline into intellectual and moral bankruptcy as he bent over backwards to represent the red shirt movement as a mere puppet of Thaksin. Conveniently forgetting that the red shirts rallied a year ago, demanding exactly what they demanded this year (dissolution of the parliament), Kraisak asserts that the entire uprising was a response to the seizure of Thaksin’s assets by the Thai courts. And, like Van Praagh, Kraisak insists that the Abhisit government is in fact elected, as he knows because he was there for the vote!

The degeneracy of these kinds of arguments and presentations of the “facts” will not prevent them from being heard, and probably accepted by those who wish to believe. They will certainly not convince those who have been shot at, those whose friends were killed, those who are now detained or hunted, or the millions of supporters of a movement that faces daily the fascist repression of the most undemocratic government Thailand has seen since the era of Cold War dictatorship.



2 responses

5 01 2014
Royalist propaganda | Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Young, these propagandists are those who have had long connections with the palace and monarchy. Indicative of this is David Van Praagh, a former professor and former Canadian Globe and Mail correspondent in South and Southeast Asia […]

5 01 2014
Royalist propaganda | Political Prisoners of Thailand

[…] Young, these propagandists are those who have had long connections with the palace and monarchy. Indicative of this is David Van Praagh, a former professor and former Canadian Globe and Mail correspondent in South and Southeast Asia […]

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