Uninformed on Thailand

21 07 2011

The National Bureau of Asian Research is a U.S. think tank funded by grants from the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and the Boeing Company. It claims independence and academic credentials. It has a program for providing broad policy-related advice and information. Like many such organizations in the U.S., it provides linkages between academia and the offices of government.

Catharin Dalpino is one of those who slips about Washington, sliding between academia and government and is listed in several foundations and think tanks as an expert on Southeast Asia and Thailand. Recently she became Warburg Professor in International Relations at Simmons College. Read about her career as a point person on Thailand here. But scroll down to her publications and it is clear that she is not an academic with many years of publishing with academic presses and journals. It is her links that seem to count more than the usual measures of academic success. Indeed, she lacks a Ph.D., the usual qualification for academic appointment.

Significantly, Dalpino is often considered in think tank circles as some kind of expert on Thailand, despite the lack of significant research and academic publications, her views appear to carry some weight.

When Dalpino and the NBR get together, people will take note. In her most recent interview with NBR, she has observations on the election. Some of her comments deserve attention.

On the election outcome, Dalpino begins by saying: “Pheu Thai had been tipped in the polls to win at least a plurality in the elections.” She’s essentially wrong. Bangkok Pundit has the story on polling, which generally had Puea Thai ahead throughout and predicted a majority. We might add that Thaksin Shinawatra was accurate in his predictions.

The Dalpino gets testy on the result: “ The Election Commission has not yet certified the results and will likely not do so until August, and so we do not know at this point what the final tally will be. However, preliminary post-election reporting holds that Pheu Thai has won a majority…”. Well, yes… but isn’t this all a bit understated? It has been acknowledged everywhere that this was a thumping Puea Thai victory.

Why is Dalpino so ambivalent? Our guess is because Dalpino is bitterly disappointed that her buddies in the elite were trounced by the rough lot voting for Puea Thai. Dalpino really likes the Democrat Party, considers its leader friends of the U.S. and is close to the palace. So she joins that elite lot in downplaying the significance of the fact that her favored party simply never gets elected.

She makes other errors such as saying the Democrat Party “traditionally wins in the south.” Only if “traditional” means in the past few elections.

Dalpino then manages this clanger: “The reaction to the election results by Thai military leaders suggests that the military is more focused on assuming a professional role than a political one.” On this, we think she’s been asleep for much of the election campaign and the period since the 2006 coup. Nothing could be further from the truth.

More poor interpretation follows when Dalpino determines that “some analysts had perceived the Democrat Party (Abhisit’s party) to be on the yellow shirt side because of its opposition to parties affiliated with Thaksin. In reality, it had a much more independent position, as yellow shirt leaders soon discovered when the Abhisit government assumed power.” Again, she is misinformed or she is deliberately making this up. The Democrat Party was exceptionally close to PAD, and took up much of PAD’s political agenda. The party pursued very few cases against PAD leaders.

She also misses the wide support for Puea Thai in the central region when she says that the south and central regions supported parties other than Puea Thai. Likewise she misses how close the vote was in Bangkok. She then adopts Democrat Party rhetoric to attack Puea Thai election promises.

Is she asleep at the wheel, uniformed or politically motivated? PPT thinks it is all three, and the reasons for policy units and think tanks taking her seriously can only be reflective of those places wanting to hear something other than the real story on Thailand.  We imagine the U.S. Ambassador in Bangkok would really like her.

Limited Debate on Thailand

27 07 2010

A bit off PPT’s usual tack, but a story in The Nation caught our attention. It has a report on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment hearing on Thailand’s political crisis that led to the House of Representatives bland and non-binding Resolution 1321 that was supported by almost all. This was back on 10 June, and the story probably reflects the fact that journalist just got around to reading the statements. The opening statement by Eni F.H. Faleomavaega is revealing of the intent of the sponsor.

One of the interesting points is that a “panel of Asian/Thai academic experts” is mentioned as providing testimony. They were: Dr Richard Cronin of the Stimson Centre (his statement is here), Dr Karl Jackson who is a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (see his testimony) and Catharin Dalpino, visiting associate professor and director of the Thai Studies Program at Georgetown University (statement). They were joined by Scot Marciel of the State Department.

By the way, it is better to read their statements/evidence than to rely on The Nation’s report. There’s also a webcast and this seems to be The Nation’s reference, but PPT can’t get it to work.

For PPT, one interesting thing here is that only relatively conservative commentators were at the hearings and yet they came up with mildly divergent views. At the same time, they pussyfoot around, with barely a mention of the monarchy in their statements. A second point is that each of these speakers is a kind of policy, inside-the-beltway policy people who are not really Thailand experts. None of them has produced major political analysis on Thailand. What has happened to Thai studies in the U.S.? Where are the political scientists? There are some – for example, Allen Hicken at Michigan, Kevin Hewison at UNC-Chapel Hill, Danny Unger at NIU – but their views are not heard. PPT can only wonder why this is when these specialist academics have written extensively on recent politics.

It is noticeable that, since the Cold War/Vietnam War days, Thai studies in the U.S. has been in decline. That’s a shame but the recent crisis may at least have more students thinking that Thailand is a place worthy of critical study.

Terrorists and Marxist-Leninists

13 06 2010

In an earlier post, PPT mentioned that Thailand’s special envoy to the U.S. would speak at the Asia Society. In that post we expressed some skepticism, noting that the visit was advertised as to “rehabilitate Thailand’s image” following the government’s crackdowns on red shirt demonstrators, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries and hundreds of political prisoners. The regime has also told “Thailand’s friends” that they are expected to do more to “help.”

AFP reports on this visit by Kiat Sittheeamorn, who is said to be seeking U.S. support in the country’s political crisis, discouraging the kingdom’s longtime ally from trying to mediate in the wake of bloody street protests.” If that sound like a double-handed approach, it is. The Abhisit Vejjajiva military-backed regime wants the U.S. to abstain from criticism and support it, despite the government’s authoritarianism.

Abhisit and his military backers throw people in prison under emergency rule, kill protesters and engage in levels of censorship not seen since 1976-77, and hopes the U.S. will ignore this. They just might, as the U.S. has a long record of supporting authoritarian government in Thailand and plenty of other places.

The elite supporters of the Abhisit government were all schooled during the Cold War and so it is not all that surprising to hear Cold War rhetoric return. Envoy Kiat has been “dispatched  to Washington to make the case that so-called Red Shirt protesters who occupied central Bangkok for weeks included armed and Marxist elements.”

Kiat is reported as meeting “with members of Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration on Friday” and said thanks for the advice, but that the Abhisit government has its own plan, inadequately described as a “reconciliation plan.” He reckons that outside interference will only further complicate things.

For PPT, complicating things might be necessary as the Abhisit government’s approach is way too simplistic. You get an idea of the lack of complex thinking when Kiat compares Thaisland’s recent events to those of  the 11 September attacks in the U.S. Oddly, in talking of Thailand’s response then was by the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

And it gets worse because Kiat dissembles: “We always respect the decisions of any government; it’s their right.” That’s a pile of fermented fish. Think Cambodia of late. But the point is to ask for support from “friends” whatever the Abhisit government decides to do.

Kiat comes up with the now usual platitude that “some” Red Shirts had “legitimate grievances,” but that the events of March-May were not a “straight-forward demonstration” because of the other standard line – armed groups – and the recycled Cold War slogan, “Marxist-Leninist ideologists.”

It seems that this line was accepted by “Senator Jim Webb, who heads the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, [who] recently visited Thailand and agreed that aspects of the Red Shirts were ‘classic Marxist’.”

What constitutes classic Marxism for Webb? Here’s a statement that would be unworthy of an undergraduate but would be neatly fitted into 1950s McCarthysim: “You had the incitement of people based on poor versus the rich in a country that has made enormous advances over the last 30 years,” Webb said.

Don’t expect anything much that is logical from either the Abhisit dissemblers or from U.S. policymakers. Thailand doesn’t matter all that much and support is easier than having problems.

A U.S. academic who seems to have some influence in policy circles, Catharin Dalpino, who is said to be “director of the Thai studies program at Georgetown University,” but who has a remarkably sparse record on academic work on Thailand,  said the “United States had a stake in Thailand’s stability but needed to exercise restraint. Unlike many other countries since the Cold War, Thailand transitioned to democracy without foreign involvement, she said.”

Maybe Dalpino missed the 2006 coup? Maybe she missed the military’s involvement in the 2008 maneuverings to get Abhisit in place? Maybe she’s missed all the killing and censorship? Or maybe she is a “friend of Thailand” doing the assigned job?

If this AFP report is accurate, the Kiat visit to the U.S. is a farcical propaganda exercise, supported by simplistic – downright stupid – views in the U.S. from Dalpino and Webb.

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