A Kingdom in Crisis reviewed III

11 10 2014

PPT is continuing to post reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century.

At The Independent, Andrew Buncombe reviews the book. He notes that “few people in Thailand … would publicly admit they’ve read the … book…”. To do so would risk lese majeste charges and a jail term. Buncombe states that this is not because the book “is particularly offensive. But it does make a striking case as it seeks to explain the origins of the political mayhem that has engulfed Thailand in recent years.”

He points out that “Marshall argues the situation can be understood only by seeing it as the jockeying by Thailand’s powerful and elite factions ahead of the succession…”. As Buncombe explains, “Thailand’s rules of succession” should mean that “the throne should pass to his son, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn.” What’s upset the plan?Kingdom in crisis

Marshall’s view is that “within the palace establishment – an expansive network of privy counsellors, advisers and minor royals – are those who would prefer it instead went to Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, one of his daughters.” Why the apparently jolly and unmarried princess? According to the review, “[m]any believe she would be easier to control…”. What’s at stake? It is “massive wealth of patronage and influence. Forbes magazine has estimated that King Bhumibol, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, oversees assets worth more than £18bn, and whoever succeeds him will be in charge of dispensing favours and influence.”

The review explains that Marshall states that Thailand’s crisis “in recent years is not solely about the succession issue,” but is a “struggle by the country’s poor to overturn the exploitation they have suffered at the hands of the elite.” He argues that there are “two entangled conflicts – an unacknowledged war of succession… and a struggle for equality and liberty that encompasses the whole country…”.

It is a bit odd to insist that succession issue is unacknowledged. Marshall has been responsible for a very broad and now pretty widely accepted successionist discourse, and he deserves credit for that. As Buncombe states, “Marshall … has been honing his theory for several years.” It seems that the succession argument is now the dominant discourse, and acknowledged by most observers of Thai politics. The debate is likely to be over how much of it to accept in a murky world of palace politics.

The battle over the repressive royalist regime

19 03 2012

In the British newspaper The Independent Andrew Buncombe writes of recent contention over lese majeste in Thailand. The article recounts activities associated with Nitirat and the politically-motivated assault on Worachet Pakeerut.

The articles states:

The recent attack on Mr Worachet underscores the increasingly bitter nature of a struggle over Thailand’s controversial lese majeste law, which outlaws criticism of the country’s royals, in a battle that threatens to reopen old political wounds.

It is the last phrase that is significant, especially for royalists. While the law is undoubtedly “unfair, unaccountable and has increasingly been used against political targets and to quieten dissidents,” those who campaign to maintain it actually have a house of cards mentality: if the law goes or is even amended, the whole trembling edifice of the repressive royalist regime will come tumbling down.

In fact, they are too late. Despite claims thatthe lese majeste law is about maintaining “harmony with the country,” the royalist regime is already finished.

It is not just PPT saying this – we have been for some time – but look at recent statements by academics such as Thitinan Pongsudhirak and Thirayudh Boonmee. These academics are not raging radicals but both make the point that the age of the monarchy is essentially over.

What isn’t obvious is what replaces the royalist regime. Those fighting to “protect” the monarchy are doing the republicans work for them. But that doesn’t mean that a Republic of Thailand, authoritarian (of the military or civilian variety), democratic, or something else, is necessarily a predestined outcome. Nearly dead ruling classes and their supporters fight and struggle to secure a toehold in a new regime or to determine the terms of their capitulation – that’s what’s happening now.

After 1932, the palace worked incessantly, with the support of the extensive royal family and with conservatives some in the military to make a come back. They may well hope to do the same again.

The Independent quotes the conservative British academic Duncan McCargo: “Though in many ways extremely important, the lese majeste controversy has also become a proxy struggle between different competing power groups in Thailand…”.

He’s right that lese majeste is important and that there is a power struggle going on. And yet that description of the present is too limited. In our view, this is not a struggle between competing elites, although various elite groups are staking out their political ground.

Rather, the current  struggle is one that is seeking to move beyond the sycophantic royalist regime. That regime has allowed, in Thirayudh’s words, “the central government and the elite groups … too much power to manage and exploit resources with only few benefits trickling down to the impoverished masses.” That situation has been fostered authoritarianism, to keep the masses in their place.

Hence, the security forces and the Ministry of Interior are designed to maintain a “harmony” that sucks resources, money and wealth into the coffers of those at the apex of Thai society. It has also created a palace that has accrued unconstitutional political power and is the largest capitalist conglomerate in the country.

While Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra might have “vowed her government would review the lese majeste law,” and “lingering fear that the government could be ousted, either by a formal coup as in 2006, or forced out…” might cause the government to “leave the issue alone,” in the end, the struggle is much, much bigger than this. The struggle is about who will rule Thailand and what role the masses will have in a political regime that is no longer royalist.

Thirayudh talked a lot about Thaksin Shinawatra, and finally realized his political significance. While Thaksin might be vitally interested in who will rule Thailand, he is also likely to be worried about the role of the masses.

Lese majeste and a Puea Thai government

7 07 2011

In The Independent, Andrew Buncombe reports that, still not in government, Yingluck Shinawatra is “already under fierce pressure to charge the outgoing Prime Minister with murder and reform the country’s harsh lese-majesty law.”

Buncombe says this pressure emanates from the red shirt movement. He cites United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship chairwoman, Thida Tawornsate Tojirakarn, who stated: “I will not accept an amnesty [for those responsible for last year’s deaths]. Reconciliation is different from amnesty.” She went on to call for amending the constitution and Article 112.

In the interview, Yingluck is recorded as saying this on lese majeste: “”I think this issue is a big sensitive issue. We need to have someone specialised to discuss [this]…. We don’t want people to use lese-majesty too often. We don’t want Thai people to misuse this law.”

Abhisit Vejjajiva once said similar things on lese majeste and then went on to use the law for political advantage in a regime of lese majeste repression. We at PPT don’t think it politically feasible for Yingluck to do anything like this. Nor is it likely that she can put off dealing with immediate cases, constitutional amendment or with the deaths in 2010.

The issue is when, how and at what cost? There can be no doubt that all of this is a political minefield and red rags to the yellow bull. Certainly, any move to reduce the number of lese majeste charges being investigated will be attacked as “republicanism by stealth.”

In terms of those currently jailed and facing lese majeste charges, the immediate question is how to get justice. Bailing all those charged would be a good beginning.


Chiranuch should not be in the dock

13 02 2011

Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent for The Independent, has a story on Chiranuch Premchaiporn’s case. Like other reports, it begins with a comment that the “case … is being seen as test of the country’s questionable commitment to free speech as well as an examination of its controversial ‘lese majeste’ laws…”.

PPT has pointed out that this high-profile case, while very important, is not necessarily exactly the test case it is claimed. It is certainly the one with the highest profile.And, it is the only case amongst hundreds of political cases that seems to have roused a remarkably somnolent Amnesty International in Thailand.  Benjamin Zawacki, a regional spokesman for AI has now stated: “Chiranuch should not be in the dock…. The comments for which she is being held responsible should not be prohibited in the first place, much less when they are posted by someone else.”

Now AI needs to take up the other cases of lese majeste and political crimes and make those test cases too.

After all, as the report citing Zawacki makes clear, “[e]xperts say the laws have been increasingly invoked, and often to prosecute dissidents or members of the political opposition. Several leaders of the anti-government Red Shirt movement have pursued using lese majeste legislation and writers and journalists have been jailed.”

Tyrell Haberkorn, a research fellow at the Australian National University, is cited on the impact of lese majeste repression: “The effect of this is incredibly chilling. This is sending a message that no matter where you write, be it online, be it on Facebook, then the state is paying attention.”

More on the DSI’s leaked report

12 12 2010

Reuters has another story with some further details, adding to the material in an earlier post PPT had. In another post, PPT mentioned our concern that the culture of impunity will continue, with those responsible for the deaths claiming “shootings were committed in the line of official duty.”

There’s a ไทย version of the Reuters report here.

Andrew Buncombe, who was shot during the events and was at Wat Pathum Wanaram, has a story at the The Independent on Sunday:

Many of those trapped inside Wat Pathum that terrifying afternoon last May probably didn’t actually see who was responsible for turning a Buddhist temple into a killing ground. As the bullets flew, those unfortunate enough to find themselves at the front of the compound fled for safety wherever they could: behind trees, behind cars, crouched behind low brick walls. Their swirling emotions were a mixture of fear and astonishment.

A number of those who did manage to look up said they saw troops on the overhead railway, taking up positions and aiming weapons. And while everyone is aware of the abilities of Photoshop to distort or create an image, subsequent photographs published in those newspapers that had the courage to print them appeared to provide supplementary evidence of the presence of the soldiers.

I didn’t see who was firing that chaotic afternoon. When the bullets started, I was taking cover with everyone else and when I was struck, I was lying down on my side trying to take a photograph of the medical volunteers working on the injured. It was ironic that one of them would run across the concrete and drag me to safety. But even those who did not see the troops in action concluded they were almost certainly responsible for the shots that entered the temple.

Earlier in the week, soldiers had been casually spraying bullets at Red Shirt protesters armed with stones and fireworks elsewhere in the city. They didn’t seem to care that the protesters had taken up a position in a residential area and that the bullets of their M16s would likely travel a very long way.

Now we know that the troops responsible for shooting into Wat Pathum were not raw recruits but supposedly “élite” special forces. Even if, as they claim, someone was firing at them from the temple (and remember, no independent witness has come forward to verify this), did they not pause to think that their bullets might harm the innocent? Precisely what special training to these troops receive?

What also remains unclear is the intention of the soldiers. Are we supposed to believe someone struck by three bullets could be the victim of loose “covering fire”?

If, on the other hand, those shots were aimed, what was going through the minds of the soldiers as their sights came to pause on young female volunteers wearing shirts marked with large green crosses that in Thailand signify a medic? Or, for that matter, on journalists wearing green armbands that had been handed out for the media?

Although it confirms the deadly role of the troops, Thailand’s Department of Special Investigations report still leaves unanswered many of the most vital questions that were being asked in the immediate aftermath of 19 May. Who was in control that day and who gave the order to shoot? Did Thailand’s Prime Minister, Mr Abhisit [Vejjajiva], approve of these orders? What was his role? And what is he going to do about it now?

To refresh memories of the day, there is this video clip:

The Bangkok Post has some answers on Abhisit ‘s likely responses to the questions Buncombe and others raise. The report states: “The prime minister is still reluctant to accept that security forces could have played a role in killing civilians during the street clashes in April and May.” He says it is too early – after 7 and 8 months of investigation – to jump to any conclusions. He emphasizes that the leaked reports refer only to probability. The cases are far from over. Hang all of the video and images of troops firing, including deliberate targeting. He says that legal procedures have to be followed through the courts.

That’s true, but in virtually every human rights case brought against military and police in the past, impunity is the rule.

Accounts of the dead II: red shirts remembered

28 05 2010

Prachatai has a short account of the life, death and funeral of Kamolkade Akkahad, who was just 25 years of age “when she was shot dead inside Pathumwanaram Temple on 19 May.  She was called Kade by her friends, but was Moo (pig) to her family members, as she ate a lot and was plump, according to her mother.”

Kade's funeral

According to the report, “Kade was born into a poor family.  Her mother used to sell khao kaeng (rice with toppings), and then turned to selling flowers and garlands in the market.  Her father works for an electricity utility.  She had a warm family, with two younger brothers, 21 and 18, to whom she was very close.”

She was “outspoken and sharp-tongued, yet good-humoured, and she was loved by others and had many friends.  She was popular at the market when she went to help her mother…”.

Still in school, Kade volunteered with the Po Tek Tung Foundation. Kade eventually got “paramedic training and apprenticed at hospital accident and forensic departments.  After training, she worked in the accident and emergency department of a hospital.” She lost that job when the hospital closed. She joined the red shirt protests and she “went as a volunteer.”

Kade was shot while tending the injured and wearing a paramedic’s uniform.

Andrew Buncombe, himself shot at the temple, attended the funeral and reported for the Independent (27 May 2010). He reports that Kade’s body was “one of six removed from Wat Pathum the following morning. Post-mortem tests have revealed that all were killed by high-velocity bullets. Ms Akahad was hit three times.”

He adds: “It would perhaps be a step too far to claim that the journey to Poonsin I – a two-and-a-half-hour crawl through Bangkok’s bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic – was a trip that symbolised the social divisions at the heart of the conflict tearing at the fabric of Thailand. But her working-class neighbourhood, set on the edge of flat farmland, lies beyond the glittering tower blocks of Bangkok and its multi-lane highways.”

Buncombe notes that the “temple was crowded with people paying their last respects and lining up to have their photograph taken in front of her coffin…”.

Kade died “while attending to a man with gunshot wounds who had been hit outside the temple and then carried inside and laid down at a makeshift first-aid area, located near a souvenir shop. The injured man, Kittichai, survived his injuries…. Among the people at the temple yesterday was a man who was also present last week and who said he had watched [Kade] and other volunteers attend the wounded. The man, who gave his name as Tom, claimed he had seen two soldiers located on the route of the passing light railway fire into the temple grounds. He took out his mobile phone to reveal photographs of injured people being treated inside the temple grounds.”

Prachatai has another report of a red shirt murdered and the funeral rites in Kalasin. The funeral for Akkaradej Khankaew was on 23 May, and brougth together “hundreds of red shirts from various districts of Kalasin, Sakon Nakhon and Mukdahan…”. He was another of those murdered at Wat Pathumwanaram. Akkaradej was from Nong Pue, Khao Wong District, Kalasin Province.

Akkaradej's funeral

According to the report, he had been “shot in the head, stomach and leg, and died inside the temple while helping paramedics attend to injured people, a voluntary job which he had done for over a month when he joined the red-shirt rally.”

The village head who went to Bangkok to bring back the body stated that the “autopsy certificate issued by the Forensic Department of the Police Hospital said that Akkaradej died from being hit with a hard object.  He and his friends had to argue the point, and the hospital then agreed to change the form to death from a gunshot wound to the head with the exit wound at the cheek.”

The parade

The mountains of lies associated with the red shirts and the government’s repression and suppression continue to mount. At the same time, this is creating a sense of solidarity in red shirt regions. Akkaradej’s home “was decorated with red flags. On the “afternoon of 22 May, family members and red shirts paraded Akkaradej’s photos and wreaths around Khao Wong and nearby Na Khu district to publicize his tragic death and condemn the government who ordered the crackdown.  However, the district chief asked them not to use loudspeakers, so the parade honked car horns, distributed leaflets and informed local residents through word of mouth instead.”

It is unlikely the deaths of these two red shirts will be easily forgotten.

Further updated: Fear and death

21 05 2010

Yesterday PPT posted a note from a reader regarding shootings at Wat Pathum Wanaram and a link to photos, including some from ther temple. We also included a link to the story from journalist Andrew Buncombe, who was wounded by shot gun pellets at the temple. Canadian journalist Mark MacKinnon, who was with Buncombe, now has his account available at The Globe and Mail.

Update 1: Al Jazeera have a video report from the temple:

Watch the government’s still acting spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn “explain,” implying that it was not the government firing at the protesters. PPT has no doubt that various international media and governments will continue to buy this line.

Update 2: There’s an interesting follow-up on the Andrew Buncombe. Here’s what HoldtheFrontPage.co.uk say:

A British journalist was treated in hospital after being shot and injured while covering the Thai army assault on Red Shirt demonstrators.

Andrew Buncombe, of The Independent, worked for Cardiff-based daily The Western Mail in the mid-1990s before pursuing a career in national newspapers.

He had been filing eye-witness reports on the disturbances in Bangkok when he was hit in the leg by a series of shotgun pellets.

In a series of Tweets, Andrew revealed that the pellets has “buried themselves deep – perhaps three inches – into the flesh.”

He eventually took shelter in a Buddhist temple before being conveyed to hospital by ambulance.

Andrew also disclosed via Twitter that he had “respectfully declined” an offer from the King of Thailand to pay for his hospital treatment.

Two journalists, one from Italy and another from Japan, have so far been killed covering the disturbances.

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