Wikileaks cables, truth and Thailand

28 06 2011

A PPT reader has sent us his account of Andrew Macgregor Marshall’s Thailand’s moment of truth, which is the first narrative trying to make sense of American diplomatic cables regarding Thailand made available through Wikileaks.

The first volume (the second just out) has been published as a free electronic book. Marshall’s work and his perspective received some media attention, particularly in the UK and there has been considerable discussion among circles interested in events in Thailand, notably on some of the blogs.

Marshall’s work weaves together a review of Thai history over the last century, including the life of the king, excerpts from credible works by Paul Handley and Duncan McCargo as well as William Stevenson‘s questionable biography, and of course dozens of the leaked cables.

This first volume has considerable value for people with limited knowledge of Thailand and its society. The selection of cables will be especially interesting to observers who focus on elite perspectives. For those who take a broader view and are open to the possibility of the common person, or phrai, being an active force in these heady times, Marshall’s work will be but of less interest, perhaps as an occasional reference for reasons which will be elaborated.

It is perhaps courting trouble to consider and critique only the first volume when the three subsequent volumes have yet to be published. The first volume does not provide a clear introduction to the subsequent three volumes. Therefore, it is only possible to consider the first volume as it is and assume it sets the approach, perspective and tone for the subsequent volumes.

In brief, the cables that form the spine of the account are accounts of discussions between American diplomats and figures from royal circles as well as Thaksin. The volume reports there are several significant fissures within the amart, doubts and debates over the succession, and concerns for the future of the monarchy and by implication the current structure of power, and some confusion within the elites. In short, no groundbreaking insights, perspectives or explanations on what is or might be happening in Thailand.

If the cables are the basis for the book, it is how the cables are understood and interpreted that matters. It is here where the book falls a little short. The cables are lightly classified. They represent only a part of the information available to the American government. No access has been provided to highly classified cables, nor do we know the range of electronic and human intelligence assets that are reporting to the American government. Therefore the cables must be treated with care and caution.

Marshall sets them up as gold. Some of them may be lead. A thorough assessment and interpretation will only be possible in the years ahead after events have unfolded and historians are able to go to work. Only then may it be clear if what has been told to American diplomats was accurate. For now, they must be considered preliminary. Moreover, consideration has to be given to the motives of the elite interlocutors and their agendas. This is absent from the first volume.

The cables often appear to peddle the rumors that surround what one U.S. ambassador calls an opaque monarchy. This is seen in accounts attributed to elite actors on the health status of the heir to the throne and his young son. Some of which is conveyed in the cables. However, in person they appeared healthy to American diplomats. Of course it might be said that there is no smoke without fire. The prince, and perhaps even his son, may not be 100%. We simply do not know and should perhaps treat such claims coolly until proven otherwise. Indeed given the distaste for the prince among privy councillors (and many not in the elite) it is hardly surprising if ill thinking about the prince translates into whispers and gossip.

The cables presented are exclusively about discussions with elite actors. Several interpretations arise. It seems that American diplomats are not sending many cables about the state and change in mass society. This leads Marshall to a bias towards elites and an implicit discounting of the agency and power of subaltern actors, experiences and perspectives.

Those with some knowledge and experience of Thailand and its society, especially the dramatic changes in life and economy over the last decade or so, will see numerous weaknesses in Marshall’s elite-centric perspective. The masses barely exist, whether by accident or design the book implies politics and political change in Thailand are solely the business of the elites. In so doing, the work, unwittingly perhaps, tacitly accept claims made by the elite and some other observers that the mass is incapable of thinking or acting or being anything other than bystanders and buffalo to be lead in as muscle when needed. The most striking recognition of the great changes in society is a cable reporting a discussion with a friend of the prince who points out that people under 40 may be less enamoured with the monarchy because of pressures and entertainments of modern life.

The king is portrayed as honest, wise and a victim and universally adored when in fact there are several good accounts and arguments of why he is an active player and backs the winner in disputes such as 1973, 1976 and 1992. It is curious that early in the book Marshall discusses 1973 and 1992 as examples of the king supporting change and progress (questionable in any case) while ignoring the monarchy’s support for the fascist backlash in 1976.

His repetition of the tired media line, itself a mindless broadcast of elite propaganda, that all Thais love the king and respect the monarchy is simply bizarre given recent events. The monarchy is, among significant segments of the masses, looked upon with disdain. Such developments are not always obvious but are built up through countless conversations with ordinary people and by watching the reporting of the past couple of years.

Thailand is in period which might be described as one of paradigmatic or revolutionary change. The coup of 2006 was unusual, even unique. It toppled a prime minister with unparalleled popular legitimacy expressed through winning two consecutive elections (leaving aside the odd 2006 election). Part of this legitimacy stemmed from the innovation of campaigning nationally on a policy manifesto attuned to the needs and interests of the masses and then acting upon it. Many people perceived they were benefitting directly from government policy for the first time. This is a new era.

The coup against a prime minister holding such legitimacy can be interpreted as a move by the amart to contain and halt this change that could have fundamentally restructured the distribution of power in society. The coup was a reaction against the change heralded by the action of the majority of voters in selecting and delivering power to the prime minister through their votes. So while it might be said that most of the time in most societies the masses don’t matter a great deal it might be said that when it comes to big change they matter absolutely because it is they that collectively hold the power to force change in one way or another including de facto alliances with certain elements of the elite.

Thus the cables and Marshall’s work is important background, especially for what elements of the elite were telling American diplomats and policymakers. What is needed is a more thorough, comprehensive and nuanced account that uses the cables and situates them within the context of a country living with great uncertainty and the politics of subaltern revolt.



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28 06 2011
Wikileaks and Thailand... - Page 5 - - The Thailand Forum

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