McCargo on current politics

24 04 2015

Readers might find the brief audio interview of Leeds Univerity’s Duncan McCargo, who is also a senior research affiliate at Columbia University, by Murray Hiebert of CSIS. His interviewed on Thailand’s current political situation, the ongoing drafting process for its new constitution, the timing of elections and more.

Thailand’s crisis

18 07 2014

Some readers might be interested in a somewhat shallow report from the CSIS or Center for Strategic and International Studies on Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses (clicking downloads a PDF) by Gregory B. Poling, Phuong Nguyen and Kathleen B. Rustici.

It is not really about the crisis, unless you accept that everything revolves around succession. It ignores the deeper political struggle that makes succession an issue because the foundations of a social, political and economic system, with the monarchy as a keystone, is being undone. The claim is:

The real watershed will come with the country’s royal succession, when forces elite and mass-based, civilian and military, will jostle for primacy as the country enters a new era, without long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the helm.

Apart from the fact that being “at the helm” is a minomer, the succession “issue” is one created by the deeper conflict. The wide acceptance of the basic successionist position makes a more detailed analysis of the current conjuncture difficult.

The scenarios developed for the United States are limited and asinine.

Thailand in Crisis (in Washington DC)

6 05 2014

A couple of readers have sent us conference announcement. It is is Washington DC, but looks interesting enough. While the participants may seem the “usual suspects,” in fact, this is quite a different bunch than is usually wheeled out for “policy dialogues” in DC.

The Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies is pleased to present:
Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses


Tuesday May 13, 2014
9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
CSIS 2nd Floor Conference Room
1616 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington DC

To RSVP please click here. Please RSVP before Monday, May 12, 2014.

The Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies is pleased to invite you to Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses that will be held on Tuesday May 13, 2014, 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Thailand is working through a historic political crisis which will likely shape the future of how political power is organized and used in the country. Thailand plays an integral role in the region, and it is important for the United States to sustain engagement with a stable Thailand as part of its rebalance to Asia. This all -day conference will provide a much needed discussion that will focus on possible scenarios for Thailand’s volatile political situation and the implications for U.S. policy.
Follow the event on Twitter @SoutheastAsiaDC ǀ @CSIS ǀ #CSISLive


Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios & Policy Responses
May 13, 2014
Center for Strategic and International Studies
2nd Floor Conference Room
1616 Rhode Island Ave, NW, Washington DC
Tentative Agenda
0830 Registration of Participants

0900 Panel One: Why Thailand Matters to the United States
The Hon. Scot Marciel, U.S. Department of State
Dr. Amy Searight, U.S. Department of Defense
Moderator: Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS

0945 Discussion: Putting Modern Thai Politics in a Historical Context
Introductory remarks: Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University
Moderator: Mr. Murray Hiebert, CSIS

1015 Coffee Break

1030 Panel Two: How the crisis will shape the future political order
Mr. Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch
Dr. Duncan McCargo, University of Leeds
Mr. Shawn Crispin, AsiaTimes Online
Mr. Tony Davis, Jane’s Defense Weekly (Invited)
Moderator: Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS

1145 Luncheon

1215 Panel Three: Policy Options for the United States

Mr. Frank Jannuzi, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation (Invited)
Mr. Josh Kurlantzick, Council on Foreign Relations
Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS
Moderator: Mr. Murray Hiebert, CSIS

1330 Conference Summary & Closing Remarks

Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS

1400 End of Conference

A Washington view

7 02 2014

We thought readers might be interested in the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) view from “inside the beltway.”

As would be expected, it is highly focused on U.S. interests, elites and their politics, worried that Thailand can’t play its “regional leadership role” and calling for a “new elite arrangement is needed, but it must be one that recognizes Pheu Thai’s … electoral mandate, though not necessarily with Yingluck [Shinawatra] as prime minister. That a U.S. policy leader would see Yingluck as expendable is remarkably shortsighted. She has been the one leader in the past decade or so who has shown a capacity for compromise:

Thai Democracy Faces Continuing Hurdles in the Wake of Elections

By Murray Hiebert, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Gregory Poling, Fellow, and Noelan Arbis, Researcher, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies, CSIS

Thailand held national elections on February 2 that besieged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government hoped would quell a months-long political crisis. The polls proceeded more peacefully than had been expected, and the higher-than-predicted turnout undercut the message of government opponents who claim to represent the will of the people. But the elections did not break the current political deadlock, which is set to continue for at least several months—months in which Thailand cannot fulfill its role as a regional leader and during which the United States and the international community should sharpen their messaging toward Bangkok.

Government opponents, led by former senior Democrat Party politician Suthep Thaugsuban and supported by many middle- and upper-class residents of Bangkok and southern Thailand, forced the cancellation of voting at 11 percent of polling places, mainly in the south and the capital. A week earlier they had prevented hundreds of thousands of people from voting early. According to the Election Commission, voter turnout in the 68 (out of 75) provinces where at least some polling places opened was about 45 percent, defying opposition expectations. But the commission has said it will hold off releasing any results until early voters are given another chance to cast their ballots on February 23.

The Election Commission will need to organize by-elections in all those constituencies that were unable to vote, including the 28 in which demonstrators blocked candidate registration in December. By-elections will also be needed for constituencies in which unopposed candidates received the support of less than 20 percent of eligible voters or fewer than the number of “no” votes cast.

According to Thailand’s constitution, a new parliament cannot be formed until 95 percent of seats are filled. The elections clearly fell short of that number, although how short remains unclear. But the Election Commission has said that organizing all the necessary by-elections could take anywhere from three to six months. That means the country will be stuck with a caretaker government until at least mid-2014, assuming it can cling to power that long. Such a government cannot make crucial budget decisions, cannot pass important legislation, and cannot reach international agreements. In other words, it cannot lead, either at home or abroad.

The Yingluck government still balances on a knife-edge, with the opposition challenging the election results in court and continuing to mount street protests. Many observers in Bangkok expect the political stalemate will be resolved by some kind of an “administrative coup” in the weeks ahead.

Few expect a military coup like the one launched against Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, in 2006. The generals appear loathe to overthrow yet another popularly elected government and face the domestic and international opprobrium that would follow. Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha and other top generals publicly cast ballots in the elections, sending a message that even if they are not overly fond of the government, they will respect the system. General Prayuth on February 4 admitted that the elections had turned out better than expected and said the military would not be pushed by outside groups into launching a coup.

That leaves Thailand’s courts and other appointed government bodies as the key players to watch in the days ahead. Government opponents have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the election results and disband Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party, arguing that the polls were not free and fair because they were held under a state of emergency. Many legal experts in Thailand have dismissed that argument, but the courts have consistently proved unfriendly to the current government and ordered the dissolution of the last two pro-Thaksin ruling parties.

A likely scenario is that Yingluck and most of the Pheu Thai leadership could be ousted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission. On January 7 the commission charged 308 members of the parliament’s lower house, most of whom are members of Pheu Thai, with illegally seeking to pass a constitutional amendment to make the country’s Senate fully elected. Then on January 28 it launched an investigation of Yingluck’s role in a costly government rice-pledging scheme after bringing formal charges against two of her cabinet members. These cases could effectively nullify the February 2 elections by declaring the vast majority of Pheu Thai lawmakers ineligible for office for five years.

The only constitutional recourse then would be to organize yet another set of elections, which would have to be held amid even greater chaos. This would likely mean that the interim government would be replaced by some kind of appointed council made up of prominent Thais or technocrats with the backing of the military, not unlike what the opposition has been calling for. This council would need to figure out what to do about revising the constitution and eventually holding fresh elections.

Thailand’s political crisis will be solved by Thais, and international actors have limited leverage. But that does not mean that outsiders, the United States in particular, have none at all. Thailand has been a U.S. treaty ally for a half century and a friend for over 180 years. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, should reiterate to Thailand’s political elites that, as a friend, the United States stands for democracy and hopes that the country will soon find its way back to a democratic political path.

In recent weeks, the U.S. ambassador and the State Department have urged Thais to resolve the current impasse at the ballot box. Those messages prompted the government’s opponents to accuse Washington of siding with the ruling party and threaten to force their way into the U.S. Embassy. Still, the statements reminded the military and others that the international community would oppose any extra-constitutional change in government.

While the annual Cobra Gold military exercises will go ahead in Thailand later in February, the United States should also remind Bangkok that the unending political bickering has delayed some high-level military-to-military engagement as well as civilian efforts to expand regional cooperation in neighboring countries like Myanmar and in joint regional health projects.

It might also be useful to remind Thailand that its neighbors worry about the country being missing in action. The Thai foreign minister could not attend a recent ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in Myanmar, and Southeast Asian officials are starting to wonder if Thailand will be able to play its key role as the ASEAN interlocutor with China in the months ahead.

U.S. messaging will play only a minor, if any, role in helping to persuade Thailand’s political and military elites to preserve their country’s democratic system. In the end, the nearly decade-long cycle of rival factions seeking to oust sitting governments can be resolved only if Thailand’s various political stakeholders recognize that politics cannot be a zero-sum game. This is particularly critical given that highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a frequent arbiter in previous crises, is 86 and ailing.

A new elite arrangement is needed, but it must be one that recognizes Pheu Thai’s, or its next incarnation’s, electoral mandate, though not necessarily with Yingluck as prime minister. The Democrats must accept that no amount of constitutional tinkering will change the fact that their only sustainable path to power in today’s Thailand is by competing for votes nationwide, as dozens of third parties did in the recent elections. And Pheu Thai politicians must learn that an electoral majority is not a cudgel, because leaving opponents no recourse in the parliament will only drive them into the streets.

Updated: Defending the TRC

30 09 2012

The Bangkok Post decides that the Truth for Reconciliation report on the Battle for Bangkok needs additional boosting. It shouts that the:

condemnations [of the report] bordered on the hysterical, with certain Pheu Thai Party MPs demanding another commission be set up under their rules and terms of reference.

Hysterical? PPT actually felt that the cheers for the report verged not on the hysterical, unless one was referring to them as hysterically silly to the point of bizarre. As one example, consider the account of it by Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Written within hours of the final report being released and with no evidence of having read any of it, the CSIS claims that it “seems to give a balanced treatment to both sides involved in the political violence two years ago…”. As well as being “balanced,” CSIS reckons it is “objective, comprehensive, and critical … groundbreaking [and displays] objectivity…”.

Hysterical support perhaps for a report that is assumed to be all kinds of appropriate things with not a shred of possible evidence.

The Post’s account claims that the “more critical recommendations touched upon the role of the military and the monarchy.”

The Post seems to laud the TRC for a recommendation that PPT has seen for several decades; that “the military must refrain from getting involved in politics and carrying out coups.” Hardly “groundbreaking.” And PPT has already commented on the deeply conservative suggestions on the monarchy.

The Post trumpets the TRC call for “more decentralisation as part of the key solutions to the current political problems as it sees centralisation as part of the root cause of inequality.” Royalist Prawase Wasi and every second public intellectual has been demanding decentralization. The idea that inequality is rooted in centralization is obscurantist nonsense with no basis in data or analysis.

What seems to bothering the Post and Kanit na Nakhon is that the TRC’s elite conservatism is vigorously criticized.

Update: Readers may find Asian Correspondent’s account of the TRC report and reaction to it of use.

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