The dictatorship’s boys

26 07 2014

Military dictatorships are usually dominated by older men with testosterone issues. They are publicly tough but forever insecure. They bark orders and appoint weak-kneed and spineless flunkies to do their biding. And so it is with the appointed, unelected, unrepresentative “Legislative Assembly” that the junta will appoint.

A report at The Nation seems to delight in teasing readers with a blatantly false headline: “NCPO may pick trusted allies.” The use of the word “may” suggests some doubt. Of course, the new interim constitution, secretly developed by a few supine lawyers who sell their skills to authoritarian murderers, makes it perfectly clear that the military junta is controlling everything. Of course, everyone with even a half a brain knows this is the case.

The report then explains that “the Legislative assembly likely to be packed with military officers, bureaucrats and those with close ties to the junta.” Who expected anything else?

The TJA executive meets on lese majeste

The junta’s preferred legislative assembly

Trakoon Meechai, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said: “The NLA will be dominated by people in the Armed Forces and bureaucrats. And there may be some former senators with close ties [to the National Council for Peace and Order, i.e. the military junta], as well as businessmen and academics who have worked with the NCPO…”. This is as clear as the relationship between fossil fuels and pollution, and the junta plans to pollute Thailand’s politics for decades to come.

The list of potential junta male groupies includes military types as well as Pridiyathorn Devakula, a former Bank of Thailand governor and failed finance minister for the last junta-installed government, who is such an expert cleanser of the lower alimentary canal that he will likely get another gig, the turncoat Somkid Jatusripitak and junta lawyer Wissanu Krea-ngam.

The hopelessly compromised boot polisher and royalist Brasso salesman Borwornsak Uwanno, secretary-general of the royalist King Prajadhipok’s Institute, will certainly be slithering about looking for a position as well, as can be seen in his speech to a “a seminar on national reform organised by the institute and the Defence Ministry.” No “reform” likely from that lot except the “reform” of politics to make it more regressive and more authoritarian.brasso

The ridiculously named Election Commission wants to “screen candidates for Parliament” for any future (unfree and unfair) election “to ensure that voters get to choose from those who are qualified and possess a good track record…”. Now who might judge “track records”? Presumably it will not exclude murderers from the military, corrupt royalist officials and similar supporters of the military junta. In addition, the EC wants “to review proposed policies before political parties use them during election campaigns to woo votes.”

Such proposals are nonsense, but if they came about – and anything is possible from this regime – voters will get a choice of candidates who fit a patrician view of politics. In other words, no choice at all. The military and EC proposes that it allow only “noble candidates for voters to select…”. We believe that they mean this almost literally, so that aristocrats will be filling seats in parliament. This would be a parliament of the amart.

Panitan Wattanayagorn is quoted and said to be a “political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn,” although we can find no evidence that he has engaged in any academic work as a political scientist. Rather, he holds a position in a Faculty of Political Science but usually sells himself to illegitimate governments.

He makes the puerile claim that “the problem with the country’s political system is that only one group of people has acquired power and previous charters have given them huge power but provided a weak checks and balances system.”Marbles

This is not only asinine, it is patently false. Anyone who followed the path of the Yingluck Shinawatra government knows that the Constitutional and Administrative Courts, the Election Commission, the National Human Rights Commission and the Senate operated to not just “check-and-balance” but to prevent that government from operating! Panitan seems to have been in the anti-democrat medicine cabinet for too long and to have swallowed too much of their anti-truth serum.

When he blathers about the new charter needing to exhibit “Thainess” and “the submission culture, the belief in seniority and military hierarchy,” you are tempted to think that he is picking up his marbles but then you realize that he is speaking his royalist, militarist and anti-democrat mind. He reckons Thais “favour totalitarianism;” Panitan does.

This is a truly revealing and fascinating report.


Abhisit’s fairy tale, Part II

13 06 2011

PPT thought that everyone knows that the brokering of the deal for the Democrat Party-led coalition government was managed by the military with support from business and the palace. Abhisit seems to think that he can now spin a different tale.

Abhisit says: “I had no idea who was in talks with the military, but I never personally contacted any military officer. And I was sure no MPs were under anyone’s command. The Democrat Party’s Secretary-General, Mr. Suthep Thaugsuban, who coordinated party affairs, asked for my opinion on the issue. I said it was up to Parliament.”

Nice try. However, media reports of the dealings involved made it clear that Army chief General Anupong and other senior military figures negotiated with Newin Chidchob, backed by wealthy business interests, that caused Newin’s PPP faction to defect and support the Democrat Party. Anupong has spoken of his role.

Missing from Abhisit’s account is also the “one who must be obeyed.” In fact, Abhisit’s comments that try to whitewash his personal position on the backroom dealing has caused a flurry of comment. Most interesting have been the comments by Chart Thai Pattana Party leader Chumpol Silapa-archa. There’s no need for PPT to detail this as Bangkok Pundit has an excellent post with the story and links.

Abhisit’s lame explanation is that there couldn’t have been all this backroom dealing within the elite because there was still challenge in parliament: “If the military was that powerful and could force the parties to do what they wanted, why did the competition (for the premiership) get so intense?” Well, perhaps it was portrayed that way, but everyone knew what the result was going to be. The military and “he or she who must be obeyed had ensured that the hastily-arranged Democrat Party-led coalition would win. Abhisit isn’t as naïve as he makes out. His account is pure fantasy and his own invention.

Abhisit then rambles on about what a great, selfless fellow he is, completely without ambitions except to save the nation from its political and economic crises: “I could have just decided against joining Mr. Newin and other parties to form a coalition, just because I feared I would get tarnished, and leave the country stuck in turmoil. Had I done that, I would have lifted myself above the trouble and created no hostile enemies. I would have evaded the many risks from political competition. But if I had done that, it would have been tantamount to abdicating my responsibility as a politician who is supposed to solve problems for the people.”

We have already commented on Abhisit’s track record on refusing an election in Part I of this post. So there’s nothing to add on that. On his selflessness, we can only point to different characteristics that Abhisit has displayed: he is stubborn, conceited and sure of his right to rule. These characteristics lead to a political ruthlessness that is seen, for example, in his capacity to criticize others for censorship and authoritarianism, then establish a regime that has censored and imprisoned more than any other civilian regime, while claiming to be democratic and liberal. What can we say?

As he often does, Abhisit mentions that the “red shirt masses were used to attack the MPs who supported me. I had to escape in a minivan belonging to Mr. Thepthai Sanpong, just to get out of Parliament and avoided clashing with them.” The two 2009 attacks on vehicles carrying Abhisit – one in Pattaya and another at the Ministry of Interior – appear pivotal in his approach to opposition: “At that time I told myself my life was about to change and I might not live as long as I should since some people were waging political violence against me.” He takes the political crisis personally.

Abhisit polishes up his trumpet and explains what a great prime minister he is: “I never got distracted by political havoc and simply devoted myself to solving the problems faced by my people…. All my decisions are made in the best interests of the people.” The problem is that in tooting his own trumpet there are those nasties who have ensured that “people have been fed misinformation aimed at discrediting me.” If he could hear beyond the sound of his own big-noting, perhaps he’d hear what the people really think. The problem is that, like so many in the establishment, he thinks he knows what’s best for “the people.”

Perhaps one of his most revealing comments is that Abhisit thinks he is a democrat. We are not sure he understands the word or the ideas it encompasses. In the end though, he has this assessment: “My only mistake is perhaps that I am the first Prime Minister in the parliamentary system since 2007 not under command of Mr. Thaksin.” It’s all Thaksin’s fault. Of course, there’s flipside to his assessment: Abhisit is the first Prime Minister in the parliamentary system since 2007 who didn’t lead the party that received the most support from the electorate.

Abhisit’s account is not really revealing of his political personality, for we have seen all of these elements before. It is just that he has put it together into an appeal for support. It is a fairy tale.


Abhisit’s fairy tale, Part I

12 06 2011

In The Nation it is reported that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is consistent in his capacity for purveying untruths. We were going to comment on that story, but put it aside for a while. Now Prachatai has a translation by Pipob Udomittipong of Abhisit’s revealing Facebook “explanation” to supporters and voters of his political role.

PPT could have ignored this self-serving account as just another set of lies from a politician with a penchant for untruths. We have had several posts over the past couple of years that attest to this element of the premier’s politicalpersonality. And yet Abhisit’s fairy tale tells us quite a lot about the man and his political position. It is rather long – we wonder how he has the time for this kind of activity while electoral campaigning. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that everywhere he goes, he is met by jeers and vocal critics. PPT takes up some of his points here and in a companion post.

Abhisit begins by explaining that while he has always been offering “participation” and has tried repeatedly to have the people “understand my mission,” nasties in some media are spreading “misinformation.”

The so-called misinformation is, it seems, no more than a restatement of the events that led to Abhisit becoming prime minister. These accounts are widely known. So why does Abhisit feel the need to whitewash now? Or in his words, why “the urge to write this record” of these events?

It seems because he has seen that his marriage to the Army’s generals is an election issue. In fact, like 2007, the 2011 election is looking like a referendum on the coup. More, it is a referendum on Abhisit’s royalist regime, the military, and the role of the palace and its aristocrats. In a sense, whatever the final election count, Abhisit has been shown as tainted and hated.

Back to his tale of events. Mark refers to “My Path toward the Premiership.” He begins by blaming the then Samak government for beginning the PPP’s downfall, claiming that the political situation became “shaky” when “PM Samak proposed constitutional amendments to give an amnesty to Lt. Col. Thaksin Shinawatra. This stirred up very strong opposition from people who did not want politicians to be accorded such extra-legal privileges.” He means that yellow shirts hit the streets again.

Of course, during the 2007 junta-managed constitutional referendum, the continual refrain from those on Abhisit’s side was that the then draft constitution could always be amended by the party that won the election. Abhisit campaigned for the approval of the draft, claiming that this would restore electoral democracy. He also claimed the draft had many good features, even while noting that the constitution would need amendment. His call for change to the constitution was made prior to the election and was supported by PPP leaders. At the time, some commentators and many in the military and establishment reckoned Abhisit would be the next PM.

During the election campaign, the People’s Power Party took this “promise” up, and repeatedly stated that, if elected, constitutional reform would be undertaken. So it was hardly a surprise that the newly-elected government began considering changes. But Abhisit’s side then had a new tune.

The unexpected electoral victory by the PPP saw Abhisit aligning himself with the People’s Alliance for Democracy. He opposed amendment and warned of violence if the government used its parliamentary majority to amend the charter, arguing that the only amendment required was to prevent the government amending the constitution according to the process set out in that document! In effect, Abhisit merely supported the street-based politics of PAD’s position that opposed any amendment. At the same time, Abhisit was using other PAD tactics in throwing allegations of lese majeste at his opponents.

Abhisit now claims that charter amendment “angered” many – he means PAD and the election losers – who opposed “using a political majority to have a law promulgated to exonerate politicians from criminal offences, including corruption.” He’s talking about charter amendment. He says this “would only make people lose faith in the justice system and the highly revered democracy with the king as head of state.” Given that the constitution fully exonerated those who made a coup in 2006 that overthrew the 1997 Constitution, it is not clear that there in any logic or consistency in Abhisit’s current position. And we haven’t even mentioned the travesties inflicted on the rule of law by his own administration.

Abhisit dismisses the idea that “there was collusion between the Democrats and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).” While noting that Abhisit expressed his support for PAD several times, PPT simply cites his old school buddy and current finance minister Korn Chatikavanij from December 2008 when he claimed to be a PAD sympathizer: “No point shying away from the obvious – after all, … one of the PAD leaders … is a Democrat MP. Many other key speakers were our candidates in the recent general elections. Almost all of the tens of thousands … [of PAD demonstrators] are Democrat voters.” He also claimed he understood PAD’s illegal actions, “… I understood it from the perspective of strategy.” Korn explained: “… like it or not, the Democrats could not on our own have resisted the PPP…”. Clearly Abhisit is dissembling.

One of Abhisit’s truly marvellous lines in this account is his recollection of calling on Samak to solve political conflicts – he means PAD occupying Government House – by “dissolving Parliament…”. We wonder what was different for him from December 2008 to May 2010, when he repeatedly stated that dissolving parliament in the face of red shirt protests was “impossible.” His offer of “early” elections only came as a non-negotiable item in his so-called reconciliation plan.

When writing of the upcoming dissolution of the PPP, Abhisit reveals that he met with “Pasit Sakdanarong, former Secretary of the President of the Constitutional Court…”. He says: “Our meeting took place at a restaurant near the headquarters of the Democrat Party. I kept listening as Mr. Pasit told me the PPP was going to be disbanded. He kept on saying that the reason he wanted me to know this was because this news would benefit the Democrat Party.” He uses this possibly illegal and certainly unethical meeting to explain that he didn’t covet the premier’s position. But then he admits that he wasn’t surprised when “other political parties decided to join the Democrats [he means Democrat Party] and formed a coalition?” He knew what was going on and encouraged it.

Abhisit then turns to how this coalition was brokered. That’s in Part II of this post.




Bombs and the elite’s ponies

27 09 2010

AP has an interesting report on one of the two most recent bombings in Bangkok. The first was in the Rama III area. The second bomb, the subject of the AP report and a “home-made device”, partly exploded near the Royal Turf Club in the Nang Lerng area. As the report points out, there have been “[d]ozens of bombings” in Bangkok this year, almost all of them without explanation or claims of responsibility. Despite this, and the serial “theft” of weapons and explosives from army bases (see here for a recent incident), the government continually lays blame on red shirts.

The interest in the AP report is for its citation of Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles for background information.This is because the “Royal Turf Club … is closely associated with Thailand’s traditional power holders in the royal palace and the military.” Handley claims the “Royal Turf Club and its crosstown counterpart, the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, both serve as exclusive sports, golf and horse racing clubs for the rich, the titled and the powerful.” He also mentions “untaxed backroom betting operations … invariably [enriching] the aristocratic and military elite…”.It also mentions Thaksin Shinawatra’s failed bid to gain control of the Turf Club.

We don’t know if the bombs link back to these issues, but they are of interest, especially as the elite gets increasingly “horsey” in their sports. What PPT does see lurking about is the potential for these bombings to be linked to challenges to Abhisit Vejjajiva’s position. The AP report makes a stab at this but we see the destabilization tactics as fitting a pattern of factional and military-backed “movements” of the past. This remains in the arena of speculation, but Abhisit does look politically shaky at present.

The other anniversary

21 09 2010

From Reuters

PPT has posted sparingly on the anniversary of the 2006 coup, relying mainly on the reports available at other sources. However, that other anniversary that also fell on 19 September deserves some consideration.

This is the anniversary of the king’s hospitalization for unspecified and unexplained illnesses. Fever, loss of appetite and lung inflammation don’t usually amount top more than a year in hospital. The king has been in Siriraj Hospital for a year. As PPT earlier posted, if one reads the press reports, he’s been in full recovery mode for about 11.9 of the 12 months in hospital. This kind of nonsense reporting is the rule rather than the exception.

Of course the mechanistic among the media come up with the expected stories that tell of the “9,000 Thais who visit a Bangkok hospital to pray each day for the health of 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, lighting joss sticks and laying flower garlands.” They don’t say that most of those 9,000 (but see figures below) are organized by state agencies like the Ministry of Interior and that officials are essentially required to attend at least once.

Actually, the TAN Network has more details: “Representatives of various organizations continue to travel to Siriraj Hospital to convey their best wishes to His Majesty the King. Civic groups from provinces around Thailand join other visitors in signing well-wishes for His Majesty the King at the Centennial Pavilion at Siriraj Hospital today. Among the well-wishers are officials from the 29th Infantry Regiment’s 3rd Battalion in Kanchanaburi, health volunteers from Bang Sai subdistrict in Chonburi’s Muang district and staff of the Thanyarak Institute of the Medical Services Department in Pathum Thani. More than 613,400 people [i.e. about 6,000 a day] from all walks of life have signed visit books for His Majesty during the past 100 days after the well-wishing activity was resumed. Of that number, around 6,500 came yesterday [8 September] alone.”

But at least this Reuters story goes a step further and notes that “Thailand faces hard questions over the future of its most powerful institution and whether it can sustain its traditional role as pillar of stability in times of upheaval.”

Oops, there’s the “pillar of stability” cliche, usually associated with 1973 and 1992, as if Paul Handley’s book The King Never Smiles had never been written. More than ever before, the monarchy is in disarray and its armed protectors and its essentially royalist government are working hard to repress and defeat opposition.

While the “royal family say the king’s health has improved and he remains in hospital only for physical therapy. In rare appearances, he is … looking frail but speaking clearly.” At the same time, the royal family creates anxiety and trepidation because they also portray the king as infallible and indispensable, which makes the unexplained illness a political problem and is just one more area where there is no transparency related to the monarchy. Even a rumor of the king’s demise leads to a witch hunt for the rumor mongers.

The Reuters report continues, saying that the king “has not addressed the political crisis. That has not changed Thailand’s reverence for their … king, whose image hangs from shops, homes and office towers across the nation.” Wrong on both counts. His speeches to judges and discussions with the prime minister were deeply political and about the post-Thaksin Shinawatra political crisis that owes much to the palace’s political meddling. And, the monarchy is now hated by many red shirts who see it as partisan and politically regressive.

The notion that there is “a perception among some Thais that the monarchy has been drawn into the political struggle that is polarising the country” is correct, but probably more see the monarchy as a direct participant and responsible for the crisis because it has repeatedly supported those who overturn the political will of the electorate. As the report observes, many red shirts see their fight as with “aristocrats and the royalist elite who back Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and are accused of orchestrating a 2006 coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.”

The question: “Whether the political bickering is changing how largely Buddhist Thailand views the monarchy is unclear. Many still regard the king as having unassailable moral authority” deserves to be a statement. The king’s authority and that of the royal family is substantially diminished.

Fighting the working class

26 06 2010

Patrick Winn in the Global Post has a useful take on recent events in Thailand. He notes that the Abhisit Vejjajiva government is “now struggling — and failing — to find common ground with a mobilized, largely working-class faction that detests them.”

That government has worked hard to argue that there has been no class basis to recent political events, not least because the huge demonstration of working class support for the red shirt protesters scared the pants off the capitalist and middle class supporters of the government. Those classes are more used to ordering the working class about and exploiting their labor than facing rebellion.

The organization of the working class has been prevented, smashed and demeaned by a string of governments for decades. Whenever the working class shows any militancy, the ruling class moves quickly to squash it, and they have done it again in 2010.

Journalist Winn has been talking with Peter Warr, an economics professor at the Australian National University. Warr is a pretty much straight up and down neoclassical economist with an interest in poverty reduction. He’s done considerable work for the World Bank on Thailand, including studies of incomes and poverty. A recent publication by Warr on poverty in Asia can be downloaded here.

Winn says that Warr believes the Thai government and its opponents have “overlooked” the impact of the “U.S.-born global economic crisis has played … in prodding disaffected Thais to join anti-government demonstrations…”.

Warr argues that the Thai economy is remarkably reliant on exports. Most of these are now manufactured goods, and “in recent years these have been hit “by dwindling foreign demand.” This has resulted in “waves of layoffs and slashed hours” for the country’s workers. He believes that it is the workers in export-oriented industries who are mostly “unskilled and semi-skilled people from the north and northeast,” who are the “very people who are the support base for the ‘Red Shirts’.”

Government data confirms this general assessment, with economists showing that there has been a sharp deterioration for workers and a shift of income to capital. All of the productivity gains made by workers have essentially gone to business owners through very high rates of profit. The share of income now accruing to workers is at an unprecedented low rate.

The red shirt rhetoric was attractive to the workers who see, feel and know that they are worse off. The call to join a fight against the “governing ‘aristocrats’ who’ve long shafted ‘the commoners’,” was eagerly taken up.

Warr sees the protests as “… attractive to those wounded by the economy and seeking a vehicle for their frustration…”. Under the Abhisit government, Warr asserts, “they’ve lost out. And they’re right…. They don’t know why. But it’s easy to portray their deteriorating circumstances as being caused by the government.”

Winn observes that: “Many among the Red Shirts faithful claim grievances that run deeper than electoral or economic cycles. They insist they’re shut out of a hierarchy of strings and connections that keeps nearly 70 percent of Thailand’s assets in the hands of its wealthiest 20 percent.” His article cites several examples of grim tales from the laid-off in a faltering export and consumer economy.

In fact, inequality is worse than this, for wealth, income, assets and property are all highly skewed to the richest.

Economist Warr is no fan of Thaksin and tends to view him as a populist who came to power in an expanding economy – albeit slower than before the economic crisis of 1997-98 – and discounts the political aspects of Thaksin’s economic policies targeting the poor.

Poor rich boy and finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, makes the now well-rehearsed Democrat Party lament that claims the red shirts “have distorted economic facts to rile up followers.” He says the current regime has advanced “Thailand’s largest-ever stimulus package, a $44-billion bundle of infrastructure and social welfare projects aimed in large part at Thailand’s poor.” He claims that the government “hasn’t received enough credit…”. In the northeast, the Democrat Party has “very little popularity, very little understanding…”.

Like most in his party, born of privilege and wealth, Korn finds it impossible to conceive that Thaksin somehow found and released a political groundswell of support that relies more on political opportunity than on money spent. There’s an ideological block, because yellow shirts like Korn believe that Thaksin’s support is all bought.

While Korn might have been educated in the elite schools and universities of the U.K., it is unlikely that he understands the full historical and contemporary significance of the comparison he makes to relatively poorer Scotland and voting patterns in the U.K.

Arguments by the government that portray the red shirt uprising as anything but a class struggle are seriously misguided. But that’s what one would expect of the government of those who benefit most from the current ownership of the country. Despite everything, in relative terms, they are doing better than ever. The rich exploiters can continue while their government, backed by the military, remains in power. All they have to do is to continue to come up with ways to keep it in office.

Class, fear and propaganda

20 03 2010

PPT has for some time been posting about the way the mainstream media has been pro-government and, in substantial parts, essentially yellow-shirted in its biased reporting. That has now changed. Large parts of the media are now simply acting as the tools of the military-backed and palace-supported government fronted by Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Part of the reason for this is a ratcheting up of the fear of the red shirt rallying that is now felt by the government and its supporters. So fearful have they become, that they have allowed the red shirt agenda to become the agenda. Some of this is made clear in a Bangkok Post (20 March 2010) report that tells of Prime Minister Abhisit’s supposed “offensive to counter ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s daily video-link where he encourages people to join the red shirt rallies.”

Abhisit got together a group of local media and broadcast in Thai for a substantial time yesterday (Friday). On other channels, commentators made exactly the same points that Abhisit made. In other words, this was a concerted media propaganda campaign organized by and for the government.

Abhisit also spoke to Al Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. (PPT has yet to see the latter international interviews/reports, but we sat through the Thai versions). Abhisit was agitated, spoke very rapidly and seemed quite disturbed by the events on the streets and by the developing class warfare discourse. Another campaign is under way attacking the red shirt blood sacrifice.

The Post claims that Abhisit wanted to attack “Thaksin’s repeated messages that prai [phrai], or proletariat, are oppressed by the elite and that Thaksin wanted to fight for the proletariat…”. In a strict sense, the phrai are not the proletariat, and Thaksin and others use the term more to mean the “commoners” who face the aristocrats at the center of the amart. Other outlets were more accurate in simply using the terms “amart” and “phrai.”

Abhisit is reported as saying: “Pol Lt Col Thaksin used to be an extremely rich prime minister. Is he an elite or one of the proletariat? This morning I saw a photograph in Matichon newspaper picturing where demonstrators were lying down…”. He continued to say he saw a “photograph of Pol Col Thaksin and his children overseas. Do these represent the elite and the proletariat?” Abhisit was trying to capture a contrast between Thaksin and his supporters, but it is meaningless to people who see themselves sacrificing something for change (and, in many cases, for Thaksin).

Then Abhisit started to sound like an American Republican by damning “class war,” saying “Thaksin should not speak in a way that could create hatred between the rich and poor. Society would be fine as long as people could do their jobs lawfully and had opportunities and rules that everyone respected. Mr Abhisit warned that attempts to divide society and incite people to topple the system were dangerous.”

That seems to be the point. The red shirts have hit on a deeply felt resentment of power and privilege, and the conservative establishment is spitting mad. Few red shirts or any of their supporters is going to seriously buy into an argument that society “would be fine as long as people could do their jobs.” This is the pampered elite speaking to the people they exploit.

Abhisit “explained” – pleaded and dissembled might be the correct terms here – that Thailand no longer had a proletariat and an elite. He said: “All Thai people are equal in terms of freedom but they are unequal in opportunities and his government is trying and doing more than other governments to solve this inequality.” He claimed that “his government was doing what other governments dared not do.” Most red shirts would just laugh at this or get angry. Only this week Abhisit personally vetoed a proposal for the government to raise the already low rice price by a measly 200 baht a ton. Symbolically that is a telling move.

The Nation (20 March 2010) adds to this story, saying that Abhisit asked: “Is Thaksin an ammart or a phrai? He was prime minister and super-rich.” Does Abhisit really think that red shirt supporters don’t know that Thaksin was rich? We’ll forget the historical examples of wealthy people supporting various people’s struggles, but Abhisit seems to live in a different world.

He demonstrated this when he claimed: “Inequality is normal in any society, but it should not be used to incite hatred in society…”. Well, yes, but the downtrodden don’t want to see inequality justified, and when the premier asks “whether Thaksin had tried to solve the problem of inequality between ammart and phrai while serving as prime minister between 2001 and 2006,” most red shirts would claim that he did more than anyone before him and certainly any leader since. That’s one of the reasons why Thaksin continues to be supported; he was seen as trying to do something.

The media propaganda campaign for the Abhisit government is also shown in the Bangkok Post’s (20 March 2010) report that Saturday’s red shirt 46km caravan around Bangkok will cause traffic chaos as “30,000 protesters” join in. Maybe 30,000 will join the drive around Bangkok, but having been to the rally site at Rajadamnoen again last night, PPT was staggered by how many protesters were there.

PPT walked around a very large area where the protesters are camped out and then up to Pan Fah Bridge and down to the Democracy Monument. Our estimate is 50,000 to 75,000 people were there. We were very surprised for having been limited to local media for the last few days, PPT expected a hugely diminished crowd. Some media reports were of 10,000 protesters left. Looking at the crowd from the apex of the Pan Fah Bridge, it was a huge sea of red. At the same time, many screens have been set up around the area where the rally is going on, and so there are groups numbering from tens to hundreds sitting in front of the screens, some of them a considerable distance from the main rally site. In addition, there were smaller stages, with various groups talking to small crowds. Thousands of other red shirts camped out all over the area, sleeping, eating, singing and shopping.

The latter might seem odd, but the mushrooming of vendors selling everything from Marxist-Leninist literature to mosquito nets to VCDs and shoes and, of course, food (in remarkable regional variety) is something PPT wasn’t expecting. The atmosphere is laid-back – indeed, quite literally as red shirts seem to have purchased deck chairs and now make themselves comfortable for the night time talks. People there seem happy and friendly. Also noticeable was the number of couples with kids arriving for the evening and small groups of workers arriving as they finish their shifts. Groups of red shirts were still arriving at 10.30 p.m. Traffic in the area was light but flowing easily. Back up in the Sukhumvit, the traffic was horrendous, even at 11 p.m. That’s the elite partying on a Friday night.

It is remarkable how inaccurate the reporting from the red shirt rally is. As PPT left the rally, we ran into an outside broadcast van for Thai Television, so we asked the reporter there why the reporting from the rally was like this. She might have felt threatened by the accusation, but said that was what “the bosses” ordered. PPT left it at that.

To finish this post, we point to the The Nation’s (20 March 2010) story where it is stated: “Fearing the urban middle-class Bangkokians would either join the red shirts today or confront them, Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra has advised people to stay at home while the demonstrators march through the capital.” Televison commentators keep telling people to stay at home. Based on experiences of the past few days, they really do fear that the support for the red shirts will be huge. That said, recalling events in 1975 and 1976, marches like this, even if motorized, offer opportunities for opposed forces to attack.

King, country, chaos? – Part I

19 03 2010

The Economist (18 March 2010) includes a leader on politics and succession and a feature story called “The battle for Thailand.” As several other blogs have already said, this issue will not be available in Bangkok. However, the electronic links noted here were still working as PPT wrote this. If they become blocked, readers should let us know, and we’ll post the stories in full. In this post, we comment on the leader, and we’ll follow-up on the longer article later.

PPT agrees entirely with the view that for “decades Thai politics suffered from a surfeit of pragmatism. Indeed, grimy compromises were dignified as ‘Thai solutions’.” So we wonder why the editorial argues for this: “Thailand urgently needs to rediscover its lost flair for pragmatism and to rebuild a functioning political system.” Why rebuild the grimy politics of the past? With the Economist, those academics and Thailand watchers lamenting the apparent loss of the slimy compromise seem oddly conservative and lost for ideas. That said, a sleazy compromise remains possible in the current circumstances.

PPT notices that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has blinked. There are now widespread calls for “talks,” even with ex-prime minister and Montanegran, Thaksin Shinawatra. Even the largely discredited National Human Rights Commission has come out offering to “mediate”. Quite why the red shirts would want to have NHRC head and Chulalongkorn University professor Amara Pongsapich mediating talks with the government is unclear. She has a long been known to pop in and out of General Prem Tinsulanonda’s army-provided residence.

For all the criticism on the blogs, in the mainstream media and from weak-kneed academics concerning the red shirt “blood sacrifice” (that the Economist depicts as “was a creepy stunt”), one thing is clear: it has had an impact on the political climate and gained huge media coverage. Perhaps more challenging for the government has been the widespread support provided to the red shirts by Bangkok’s working class and elements of what might be considered the lower middle class.

The Economist ties contemporary events and the longer-term malaise of Thai politics back to the monarchy and succession – hence its “banning”: “Presiding over a messy but largely functioning polity has been a revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose admirers have no difficulty in reconciling the contradictory ideas that he is both ‘above politics’ and also the guarantor of stability.” With the king in hospital for unknown reasons, it states: “Thailand needs to start thinking about what will come when his reign ends.”

Actually, some of what’s going on now is about this thinking. And some of it is thinking that is certainly out loud. Almost everyone talks of the palace, privy council and aristocrats as integral players in current events and wonders what it all means for the future. The army seems to want to control the period of succession, but in doing so has opened a huge can of worms that includes a republicanism that does not, as the Economist says, “lurk in the wings” but is now more highly visible than at any time since the 1970s.

On the red shirts, the Economist states: “the red shirts do enjoy considerable popular support, and not just in the poor north-east from which so many hail.” For PPT, one of the things that was noticeable at last Sunday’s rally were the large contingents from the central provinces.

On a way forward, it says: “the political system has all but broken down, as the government itself tacitly admits when it argues that an election would not solve Thailand’s problems. It may well be right. Democracy works only when the parties that lose an election accept the outcome. And if, as might well happen, Mr Abhisit’s government lost an election to proxies for Mr Thaksin, the same alliance of military and civilian elites that toppled him in 2006 and his allies in 2008 might again reject the popular verdict. Instability would persist.”

On succession: “The king, who has reigned for six decades…. His anointed successor, the crown prince, is … widely disliked and already shows signs of meddling in politics. Although, in theory, the monarchy inhabits a realm far above the murk of daily government, it has been an important source of legitimacy for the unelected prime minister.” The paper continues to state: “the king’s death will remove a moderating influence that has kept irreconcilable political differences in check.”

This view is commonly expressed but there are also many who see such statements as merely part of the monarchy’s myth building. Critics suggest that active participation in several major and less than moderate political events tell a different story. Most especially, these critics point to the king’s role in the horrendous events of October 1976 and the extremism foisted on the country by the king’s privy councilor made prime minister Thanin Kraivixien, who proved too extreme, right wing and divisive even for the military. The events of 2006 and since do not demonstrate a moderating influence. Rather they suggest a protection of interests. PPT wonders if the government has been keeping track of movements of money out of Thailand? Has the palace been salting loot away in the event of a worst-case scenario for the monarchy? How much?

Of course, the Economist is right to point yet again to harsh lese majeste laws that ensure that the “future of the monarchy is a matter of private gossip, not public debate. This leader, and our article considering the succession in some detail, could not appear in Thailand. Indeed they will cause great hurt and offence in some quarters there. We regret this. But to discuss Thailand’s future without considering its monarchy is itself to belittle an important national institution.” It is added: “to endure, the monarchy has to win a debate, not suppress one.”

The Economist then looks to a way out of the “present political quagmire.” It argues for an “early election, producing a government with popular legitimacy. It would probably also entail a decentralisation of power away from Bangkok so that citizens of regions such as the north-east feel less alienated from their rulers—a sense of alienation that, more than ethnic or religious tensions, underpins the long-running, bloody insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern provinces. And a true ‘Thai solution’ would also imply a monarchy genuinely above political meddling or manipulation.” That’s a huge agenda that would undo much of the control of the establishment and may well prove impossible. After all, when they were convinced that they were challenged by a moderate but highly flawed Thaksin, they panicked and went for the guys with guns. Can they ever be convinced to share power in a system of representation?

Class war

18 03 2010

The Bangkok Post (18 March 2010), The Nation and a bunch of other mainstream media seem suddenly surprised by red shirt ideas about class warfare. It would seem that their reporters haven’t been watching, listening or reading red-shirt media or even bothering to listen to what red shirt speakers say during their current rally.

As PPT noted in our report on the red shirt rally last Sunday, the class war rhetoric is there. For some time the red shirts have resurrected and used the term “phrai” (connoting commoners) to describe their supporters’ social position and have long described elements of unfairness in Thai society as making people slaves (“that”) in their own land. All of this fits neatly with the criticism of aristocrats and “amart.”

For the Bangkok Post, which has been running its own class war for some time against the red shirts – hordes, mobs descending on Thailand in pick ups and trucks, paid off to protest, deliberately under-estimating rally numbers, and so on – the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’s class war is an affront. It means “a protracted protest …[and] a plan to mobilise pickup trucks to descend on Bangkok’s streets on Saturday.” This move was to “drum up support for … a class war” as red shirts recruit support in Bangkok.

UDD claims that they have “received warm support from Bangkok people over the past three days as the red shirts marched to various places” is deeply unsettling for the Post and like-minded red shirt opponents. The sight of hundreds of people in Bangkok waving anything red and cheering the red shirt cavalcades as they pass is shocking. It may be why the military-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva government is increasing its surveillance and pressure on the red shirts.

It might also explain the re-emergence of conspiracy stories from the government. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban was quoted as believing that “the UDD rally might drag on, amid reports that it was receiving more financial support. He said money was being transferred to UDD co-leaders through three businessmen involved in politics. They had avoided state scrutiny by running international businesses as a front…”. It is essentially a re-hash of an old claim, but why now? New claims are that Puea Thai Party MPs in the Northeast, who have been quiet during the red shirt rally are now stumping up money to support the demonstrators.

Meanwhile, senators and MPs are continuing to press the Democrat Party to attend parliament – it seems, as PPT pointed out earlier, that Abhisit has forgotten his earlier claims about parliament.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post reports that despite a “massive security cordon” red shirt protesters threw blood out on the outside of Prime Minister Abhisit’s sealed-off home on Sukhumvit 31. Some protesters threw what was allegedly blood in bags at the house and on its roof.

Interestingly, another group of red shirts “marched on the Nakhon Ratchasima residence of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda.” They smeared blood on a picture of the privy council president.

The protesters then moved to the US embassy. They did this because of claims by Suthep and others that the intelligence claims made by the government last week of “sabotage” and terrorism associated with the red shirt rally came from foreign sources. Over the next day or so PPT expects we will hear more about this government claim. It isn’t clear that foreign government’s maintain serious intelligence gathering operations in Thailand, but if they do, some of the intelligence is weak. For example, Suthep made a claim that two high-rise buildings were to be targets. PPT can claim to have heard this claim made in late December by a taxi driver. Is that the same source for this claim, three months later?

Are foreign intelligence also the source for PM’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey’s claim, reported in The Nation (18 March 2010) that “Intelligence organs have warned of an assassination plot against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which is why he had to take cover inside the 11th Infantry Regiment base…”? A police spokesman referred to “death squads” targeting Abhisit and other big shots. PPT wonders about this, especially as Sathit has long been prone to outrageous claims, especially when the government is under pressure.

These remain interesting days.

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