Too gentle on the junta?

2 04 2016

We would imagine that every reader at PPT knows of the commentaries by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He’s a prolific commentator and, unlike so many of his faculty colleagues, he’s actually published some reasonable papers in some acceptable academic journals.

His recent commentary on the Bangkok Post on the military’s draft charter and the junta’s referendum deserves some attention. There’s some good stuff in it, but considerable wishful thinking based on too little attention to history.

As we said some time ago, in 2012 in fact, we think support for a referendum on a long and complicated charter is dopey. It still is. Worse, unless there is remarkable civil disobedience and considerable elector stoicism to defeat the junta’s referendum, then the winners are the military and the royalist anti-democrats who will use a Yes vote as a badge of “democracy.” Of course, this would be ludicrous, but believe us, this is what will be claimed, again and again.

This is why trumpeting the referendum as “Thailand’s second-ever referendum” is a bit of polishing of the junta’s blackened pot of anti-democracy. To say that the “completed draft constitution will now be dissected and digested in myriad ways, although public reactions and views will be constrained by the military-backed authorities” is just too droll. It isn’t going to be dissected by anyone for to do so risks jail. The “debates” will be tame and managed.

It could be that “tensions will likely mount ahead of the referendum, marked by the military government’s escalating repression,” but that repression is meant to deliver a military gold star for the junta.

It is indeed “clear enough that the military wants to retain power over the long term,” but to suggest that this will be “Premocracy 2.0” is giving too little attention to the real history and circumstances of the 1980s, especially when this seems to be portrayed as a benign period of “military-civilian compromise and accommodation that functioned well in the 1980s…”. We think Thitinan should go back and look at the archives of the Bangkok Post to see how Premocracy really worked.

Yes, we have used this analogy with the monarchy’s regime under General Prem Tinsulanonda earlier in this military junta’s reign of repression, but we no longer consider this the appropriate comparison. As we have been trying to illustrate in recent days, this junta is uninterested in reconciliation (recall Prem’s use of Order 66/2523). Prem’s regime struggled with opposition within the military, and this seems, for the moment at least, unlikely to concern the current regime. Prem had the total support of the palace and king. That might be the case now, but the aged and sick king is now a political liability rather than a source of strength. We could go on.

Thitinan is right that “Thai politics during 1980-88 was widely seen as ‘semi-democratic,” but the point is that it wasn’t a semi-democracy or a “hybrid regime.” It was a demi-democracy or, in another terminology. “Thai-style democracy.” That’s the democracy you have when there is no democracy. Prem was seeking to embed this royalist version of rule. The current regime cannot do that with the king almost out the door and the crown prince incapable of massaging a late succession into the four decades the king had had on the throne by the middle of Prem’s time in office.

Nor was Prem’s period one of “stable semi-democratic rule.” As Thitinan himself states, “Gen Prem presided over five coalition governments and three elections, in 1983, 1986 and 1988. After the latter election, he called it quits and soon thereafter joined the Privy Council, eventually rising to be its president.” He didn’t just call it quits, he was forced to step down for fear of his private life being exposed (by some who now support him and the current regime). Apart from the 1988 election, the other two were meaningless as Prem was throwing crumbs to the political parties so that they could be taught electoral corruption.

For all of these reasons, Thitinan is right to observe: “In truth, what the National Council for Peace and Order [he means the military junta] wants is more than the Premocracy of the 1980s” but not because Prem was “smart,” “astute,” or “untainted by corruption scandals…”. Rather, the political economy was just different and allowed and required different responses. The notion that Prem just handed all economic decision-making over to the best technocrats is also to buy into a fairy tale of “good” policymaking triumphing over deals and compromises. Nothing could be further from the truth. Thitinan is rather too enamored of the idea that technocrats know best.

We’ll skip his comments on the Democrat Party.

We think that Thitinan, and many other commentators, is missing the most basic point: this military junta is nasty, venal and self-serving to an extent that has seldom been seen in Thailand. It is very dangerous to reduce these aspects of its deadly reality by comparisons with very different times and circumstances.