Montesano on tolerance

1 06 2010

Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, has an article entitled “The Death of Tolerance in Thailand” in the Wall Street Journal (31 May 2010). It is prompted in part by the arrest of Chulalongkorn University professor Suthachai Yimprasert, now released from his arbitary detention.

The article remain relevant even following Suthachai’s release. This is because his arrest was under the draconian 2005 emergency decree that pretty much allow the military-backed regime to do whatever it wants.

Montesano is also correct to observe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s empty words about reconciliation: “The Abhisit government says it wants reconciliation. But Mr. Suthachai’s detention, along with aggressive measures to censor the Internet and other media, suggest that it has embarked on a post-crackdown course likely to deepen Thailand’s ugly divisions.” He sets out some of the actions taken by the government, using its emergency powers, to conduct a repressive witch hunt. These include:

  • freezing the bank accounts of more than 100 individuals that the government thinks have helped fund the red shirt protests;
  • surveillance  of ordinary citizens in northern and northeastern Thailand;
  • internet censorship on a grand scale.

Montesano argues that the current regime and their backers are ignoring “the most hopeful lessons of modern Thai political history. Instead they have embarked on a path to destroy what is best about their country.”

PPT agrees that the current regime is on a path that has not been seen in Thailand since the dark days of the Thanin Kraivixien government. However, we would quibble with Montesano’s history of the reconciliation that followed on the heels of a draconian government, put in place by the palace in 1976, and headed by a still-serving privy councilor.

Montesano argues that on 6 October 1976, “Soldiers, police and right-wing vigilantes attacked Bangkok’s Thammasat University. They killed tens of student protestors, detained many others and drove still others into the jungle to join the armed insurgency of the ‘terrorists’ of the Communist Party of Thailand.”

That’s more or less right, but the death toll in that event is disputed (as the death toll in recent events is). The government officially claims just 46 killed. Others at the time claimed many more deaths.

Montesano then states that “Thailand entered a very bleak period.” It did indeed. The Thanin government was, not unlike the current Abhisit regime, rabidly ultra-royalist and attacked even royalist liberals as “communists.” Again, we see signs of that today.

Montesano then sees a period of reconciliation, presided over by General Prem Tinsulannda after he replaced another general who was despised by the palace for throwing out their favorite in Thanin. Those who fled to the jungles or overseas following the October 1976 events began to come back. He argues that one outcome was the return of talent and a new “academic freedom” that made “Thailand’s best universities sites for rigorous examination of the country’s past and present, its society, economy, and history.” He calls on the Democrat Party – the victim of the 1976 coup and a party seen then as too liberal – to remember the lessons of the past and to see true reconciliation rather than resorting to the dead wood of repression and authoritarianism

Again, PPT agrees in part but points to the contexts. Recall that the period of reconciliation of the 1980s came after a thorough “cleansing” by ultra-royalists and a significant turning back of the political clock. Indeed, elections didn’t really matter again until Prem was pushed out of his army-palace appointed premiership in 1988, 12 years after the 1976 events.

PPT suggests that this scenario is not dissimilar to the Abhisit regime’s approach today. They are engaging in a period of cleansing, making the world “safe” for the palace and its conservative backers, and they will only look at elections when they feel they can safely control the outcome.


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