Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.

Thailand’s Democrat Party Is Hilariously Misnamed

28 11 2013

That’s TIME magazine’s headline not PPT’s. PPT might have changed “hilariously” to “dangerously.” For a long time now, PPT has refused to use the word “Democrats” as a way of describing the Democrat Party and we have even referred to the DemoPAD and PADocrat Party ins some posts. The point has been, as TIME now notes, that there is nothing democratic about the Democrat Party or its leadership.

The article notes that:

On Tuesday, protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, a former Democrat Party Deputy Prime Minister, repeated his call for a “people’s revolution” to replace the elected Yingluck administration with a nonelected royalist council. Attempting to downplay personal ambitions, Suthep declared “before the sanctity of Buddhism that I, Suthep Thaugsuban, will not be Prime Minister in the future.” A warrant has since been issued for his arrest for unlawfully entering government buildings.

Suthep also stated, at the Bangkok Post: “We like peaceful methods,” …. But he added, “If we don’t succeed, then I am prepared to die in the battlefield.”

Getting the strategy rightAnd, as PPT noted earlier, the Democrat Party and its leader Abhisit Vejjajiva have announced in a report at The Nation that the “party is determined to overthrow the ‘Thaksin regime’, with Abhisit affirming his craving for power: “If it leads us to win the battle, we won’t hesitate [to resign from parliament] with unity…” to join the street battle. Abhisit and the Democrat Party used to talk of rule of law and claim all kinds of democratic principles. But as TIME notes:

It’s just that when it comes to Thai democracy, the ironically named Democrat Party is among the worst practitioners. Tens of thousands of Yellow Shirts are marching across the country, but demanding the establishment of royalist councils is hardly a people’s revolution. If anyone has been exercising people power, it’s the 15 million voters who elected Yingluck and her Pheu Thai party in July 2011. Thaksin-backed political parties have won the previous five elections with significant majorities, and Thaksin’s own populist policies helped bring millions of rural poor out of poverty. He remains the kingdom’s most popular Prime Minister since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons to oppose the billionaire telecom mogul: the catalog of nest-feathering business deals from his time in office left few in any doubt of his lack of scruples, while his 2003 “war on drugs” involved some 2,800 extrajudicial killings. The image of him directing demonstrations from his lavish Dubai haven, while his Red Shirt supporters risk arrest, violence and occasionally their lives, is hardly a heroic one. But the opposition’s failure to exploit these weaknesses is astonishing.

TIME’s account then flounders on facts and its use of dubious commentators.

It says that the “Democrat Party last won a majority in 1992.” This is a serious error. There were two elections in 1992. In the first election in March, the party did not even win the most seats in the election. In the second, in September, the party did win the most seats. It won 79 of the 360 seats. It is only pro-Thaksin parties that have ever won majorities in the Thai parliament.

TIME also says the power base of the Democrat Party “is the Bangkok bourgeoisie,” and quotes Cornell University Professor Benedict Anderson in describing it as: “timid, selfish, uncultured, consumerist and without any decent vision of the future of the country…”. But this gives the Democrat Party too little credit. It’s party machine in the south is well-organized amongst a population that is relatively well-off in Thailand, but they are not the bourgeoisie. It also neglects the fact that many of the Bangkok protesters are relatively recent, often Sino-Thai entrants to the middle class who resent and fear pro-Thaksin government policies that are redistributive.Fear easily breeds hatred of Thaksin and of those who support him.

TIME thinks that the “Yellow Shirts’ seizure of government buildings has also backfired.” To back this up the article turns to a tainted source on Thai politics, Benjamin Zawacki, now said to be a senior legal adviser for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists. Readers can search for our earlier posts on the lamentable Zawacki, who claims that: “Yingluck has snatched something resembling victory from the jaws of defeat,” says  adding that Suthep “has likely overplayed his hand.” TIME continues with this “source”:

Regrettably, all signs now point toward an escalation instead — and soon. Dec. 5 is the 86th birthday of now ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej and an important holiday in Thailand. Some believe Suthep will not want to mar this occasion and so will, in Zawacki’s words, “seek escalation now in the hopes of a coup or at least a temporary declaration of martial law” before the holiday. These are thuggish politics. The Democrat Party might cling onto its name, but seeing many of its supporters swap yellow for black shirts seems strangely apt.

TIME might have made more of the story by examining the Democrat Party’s own anti-democratic statements, from its royalist beginnings to its alliance with monarchy and military in military coup and judicial coup. But it is a great headline.

Monarchists and royalists on lese majeste

17 06 2012

PPT has finally had the time to compose a comment on two recent discussions of lese majeste. We think both efforts, while useful in keeping the issue on the international agenda, were problematic.

At Siam Voices, Lisa Gardner has a bit of detail on the “Rhetoric and Dissent: Where to next for Thailand’s lèse majesté law?” discussion from a week or so ago. The discussion involved two of the respected and aged gentlemen of Thai studies, Sulak Sivaraksa and Benedict Anderson along with two younger generation journalists,  Pravit Rojanaphruk and Andrew MacGregor Marshall.

Frankly, we found the discussion rambling and not particularly revealing of anything new. Still, that probably shows how far things have moved on monarchy and lese majeste in recent years. The comments we felt were most problematic were from the outspoken Sulak. While he has been on the receiving end of lese majeste charges in the past, this doesn’t mean that everything he says on the topic makes sense.

We agree with Sulak that: “If journalists had more guts, if they can speak critically, openly, things would change enormously – but they all avoid the issues…”. He’s certainly right when he observes:

I think, on the whole, people don’t take the monarchy as that sacred, that wonderful, as they try to tell you in the media. As they try to tell you in educational institutes.

His comment on the greed of the Crown Property Bureau is also worth repeating:

I think if the monarch (keeps) clear from the greed that is the Crown Property Bureau – if they’re clear from the army, which represent power – I think the monarchy will become less powerful. Like it used to be….

But we stop agreeing there. His next claim is that: “I think the King made it very clear. The case of LM – each case – harms him personally and undermines the monarchy. He made that very clear…”. PPT thinks, and we’ve said it several times, this is a patently false claim. In fact, Sulak knows it. In one of his own cases, the Royal Household Bureau was crucial in determining that he should be “taught a lesson.” Following the king’s statement on lese majeste, nothing changed except that cases have increased. Not only was the king’s statement far from clear, but we find it astounding that anyone can think that if the king wanted the law changed that it wouldn’t be done.

Sulak then asks:

But why [d]oes this government not carry out the King’s wishes? Because Thaksin [Shinawatra] wants more and more cases of lese-majeste, to undermine the King and to harm him personally…

For PPT, this is utter nonsense. It is clear that the Thaksin-Yingluck position is defined by their belief that the lese majeste law is non-negotiable. The Army, other ultra-royalists and the palace have made this plain.

It is not just the current government that has kept the law. The government led by privy counselor Surayud Chulanont was perfectly placed to implement the king’s supposed will. It didn’t. Perhaps the biggest user of the law against political opponents – the Abhisit Vejjajiva government – was less likely to do the king’s alleged will yet we don’t Abhisit and his lot thought they were doing the king’s will by throwing red shirts in jail.

Sulak’s claim is largely driven by his anti-Thaksin politics. He claimed his most recent lese majeste case was a result of Thaksin trying to get him. Frankly, we doubt this for several reasons, not least being that Sulak is simply not as politically significant as he thinks he is.

We now turn to the recent Al Jazeera program on lese majeste. We posted the link a couple of days ago, and have just had a chance to watch the show. There was much of interest in the first half of the story and quite a lot of it  very sensible.

The first scene that caught our attention was when self-described ultra-royalist Taweesak Suthakavatin explained why the monarchy is so important for him and Thais in general. He states that Thais are not suited to “Western” democracy because they are not rational in politics! Because they are prone to patronage, Thais are best off with the supposedly benevolent king at the head of the patronage system. Thus  Taweesak manages to denigrate Thais as incapable of engaging in politics and in need of a stern and loving father.

Remarkably, half of the Al Jazeera show is handed over to an interview with a monarchist (Sulak, again) and two royalists (Tul Sitthisomwong and Panitan Wattanayagorn). We’re not sure why the producers decided on these three, but having Sulak as the “opposed to lese majeste” speaker against an academic who has sold his soul and services to the military and the so-called Democrat Party and the clown royalist Tul is a strange combination.

Sulak says pretty much the same as he does in the above-mentioned discussion. In this program, though, he comes across as sensible and reliable when compared with the dolts Tul and Panitan.

Panitan is the most annoying because he seems to want to reinvent himself as a disinterested academic. For example, when asked why there are calls for the lese majeste law to be amended, his first point is that the law has been vigorously used in recent years. He doesn’t mention that he was the spokesman for the government that most abused this law, and that he wholly supported throwing political opponents in jail. When he adds that “several divisive groups have tried to use the law to their own advantage,” he is demonstrating a remarkable degree of arrogance.

His arrogance is meant to mask his deliberate deceptions. When asked about the misuse of the law, he does not mention the government he served and their repeated use of the law against political opponents. When he says anything about the Abhisit government it is to claim that its committee on lese majeste, which oversaw the biggest rise ever in cases charged, dropped a case against BBC journalist Jonathan Head. PPT has seen no independent evidence for this claim, and when we heard Panitan earlier on lese majeste at the FCCT, he made no mention of this. When he speaks of prosecutions he makes it sound like those charged are somewhere other than in jail.

Does he really believe that he will not be seen as a dissembler and a charlatan? Panitan can’t help himself as he arrogantly lies and conjures fantasies with no hint of shame.

He’s more real when he speaks of the lese majeste law as important for national security and when he babbles about the king being vital for everything Thai and for the “well-being” of the country. That’s the line that allows the law to be endlessly abused.

Panitan supports the law, and Sulak makes him look rather silly when he declares the law “antiquated, old-fashioned, useless.”

Having Tul on the program is pretty much a waste of space. He’s indisputably vacuous and has a single line: don’t change the law. He simply can’t explain why in any cogent way.  When listening to him rail against red shirts and that 3-15 years in jail for offenders is a reasonable sentence, he demonstrates a breathtaking ignorance.

There’s much more from Tul and Panitan that is bizarre, fatuous and untruthful. We could say that they come across as the Laurel and Hardy of lese majeste, but that would be insulting to the great comedy duo.

On oligarchies

31 03 2011

Benedict Anderson has a guest post at the Midnight University website. PPT thought this quote accurate and pointed on Thailand (and the rest of Southeast Asia):

… Kasian Tejapira,  one of the very best students I ever had, has been describing the present system as a ‘semi-democracy.’ This is the commonest way that outsiders tend to describe the political orders of Indonesia, the Philippines, and  Malaysia.   But in my opinion all these states, including Siam, are actually controlled, to varying extents,  by oligarchies, clusters of interlocking families, whose children go to the same schools, whose businesses are interconnected,  who marry among themselves, and share a common set of values and interests.  This does not mean that they do  not compete among themselves, sometimes fiercely. Nor are they entirely exclusionary; they are flexible enough to  assimilate various kinds of semi-outsiders, but on their own terms.  They even have a kind of code of conduct – one element of which is not to  use sexual scandals against each other.  A good sign of oligarchy is the absence of a coherent, well-managed opposition; another is the easy and rapid movement of sor-sor between so-called parties as shifting governing coalitions get formed.

PPT would call this a ruling class. Red shirts might think of amart.

There’s more worth reading in the piece, including some side-swipes at the monarchy.

Remembering 6 October 1976

6 10 2009
Thai Rath Newspaper

Thai Rath Newspaper, from

PPT readers will be interested in this picture of a front page of events in Bangkok on 6 October 1976.

Readers are also reminded of articles about this tragic event that we have on our site with permission from Critical Asian Studies. These articles are from the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Special Supplement on “October 1976: The Coup in Thailand” as it appeared in Volume 9, Number 3, July-September 1977:

  • Cover, contents and introduction  to the Supplement by Jayne Werner (bcas_9-3-1977_cover_intro)
  • Puey Ungphakorn, “Violence and the Military Coup in Thailand” with an Introduction by David Millikin (bcas_9-3-1977_puey)
  • Ben Anderson, “Withdrawal Symptoms: Social and Cultural Aspects of the October 6 Coup” (bcas_9-3-1977_anderson)
  • E. Thadeus Flood, “The Vietnamese refugees in Thailand: Minority Manipulation in Counterinsurgency” (bcas_9-3-1977_flood)
  • Carl A. Trocki, “Boonsanong Punyodyana: Thai Socialist and Scholar, 1936-1976″ including an interview with Boonsanong from the Far Eastern Economic Review (bcas_9-3-1977_trocki)

Readers will also be interested in a series of YouTube videos on the event. Start here and here and for the latter, look for several parts. Be aware that they are graphic and violent. For 1973-76 see here. For a recent account, see this at AI USA.

New historical documents at PPT

21 03 2009

PPT has been posting historical documents related to lesé majesté, the monarchy, human rights and general items on Thailand’s history and politics. The latest additions are posted with permission from Critical Asian Studies.

PPT is pleased to make available the content of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars Special Supplement on “October 1976: The Coup in Thailand” as it appeared in Volume 9, Number 3, July-September 1977:

  • Cover, contents and introduction  to the Supplement by Jayne Werner (bcas_9-3-1977_cover_intro)
  • Puey Ungphakorn, “Violence and the Military Coup in Thailand” with an Introduction by David Millikin (bcas_9-3-1977_puey)
  • Ben Anderson, “Withdrawal Symptoms: Social and Cultural Aspects of the October 6 Coup” (bcas_9-3-1977_anderson)
  • E. Thadeus Flood, “The Vietnamese refugees in Thailand: Minority Manipulation in Counterinsurgency” (bcas_9-3-1977_flood)
  • Carl A. Trocki, “Boonsanong Punyodyana: Thai Scoialist and Scholar, 1936-1976″ including an interview with Boonsanong from the Far Eastern Economic Review (bcas_9-3-1977_trocki)

Earlier posts related to political history include:

  • U.S. State Department, declassified cable on how the U.S. Embassy and the palace worked with the international media to ensure the king’s good image, 30 March 1973: palace_nat-geog_1973
  • U.S. State Department, declassified cable on protecting the king from criticism, 7 December 1973: king_sweden_1973
  • U.S. State Department, declassified cable on “creative” intervention, 22 December 1973: king_const_1973
  • U.S. State Department, declassified cable on attempts to censor negative reports on the queen, 11 February 1975: queen-1975
  • U.S. State Department, declassified cable on claimed links between the CIA and Palace Guards, 25 February 1975: palace-guards_1975
  • E. T. Flood (compiler), “Village Scouts: The King’s Finest,” Indochina Chronicle, No. 54, 1977, p. 19: indochina-chronicle_1977.
  • Phoo Phaakphoom, “The Last Thai King,” Southeast Asia Chronicle, No. 60, 1978, p. 6: se-asia-chronicle_1978
  • UCL, “Case of lèse majesté at Chiangmai Province,” UCL Newsletter, Vol. 2, 1985, p. 7: ucl_1985
  • Mong Doo, “ How deep are the cracks in the kingdom? Reflections on a king’s birthday”. This is a paper proabably written in late 1987 or early 1988 and circulated privately: Mong-doo_cracks

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