When the military is on top XXVII

2 09 2018

Khaosod’s Pravit Rojanaphruk has an op-ed and a story that deserve attention.

In the stroy, Pravit points out that the “head of a private anti-corruption organization has been silent on its decision to award full marks to junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha in its annual assessment.” He refers to a press conference where Chairman Pramon Sutivong celebrated the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand’s 7th anniversary by declaring that his “organisation has helped save 25.1 billion baht of state funds that could have been lost to corruption over the past seven years.”

As it turns out, they don’t mean over seven years but since 2015, when ACT partnered with the military junta.

Pramon claimed lots of “outcomes” that can’t be verified, but correctly touted ACT’s “involvement in the development of their 2017 constitution which the organisation implemented as an ‘anti-corruption constitution’.”

At the media circus, Pramon stated: “I give Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister, full marks. But I admit that there are still a number of people around him that have been questioned by the public…”. He means Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, where ACT has made a comments, but didn’t get into nepotism and military procurement.

When Pramon was asked to “explain how its score was calculated to award the highest possible ranking to a regime that has been marred by corruption scandals, …[he] did not respond to multiple inquiries.”

One activist pointed out that Pramon and ACT gave The Dictator “full marks” when international rankings had Thailand wobbling and had a lower ranking now than in 2015.

A reporter’s questions were said to have included one on whether Pramon considered “staging a coup and monopolizing state funding through the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly as a form of corruption or not.” No response.

Pravit points out that a source at ACT “defended the announcement by saying Pramon, who was appointed by the junta leader to his National Reform Council following the coup, only gave full marks to Prayuth for his ‘sincerity’ to tackle corruption.” That ACT employee flattened out, saying: “He [Pramon] must have heard something that made him feels that His Excellency [The Dictator] Prayuth was sincere…. He may have had some experience from meeting [Prayuth].”

Of course, nothing much can be expected of ACT. It was a royalist response to the election of Yingluck Shinawatra and was populated by royalist “advisers” including Anand Punyarachun and Vasit Dejkunjorn, both activists in opposing elected governments. (By the way, ACT’s website still has Vasit listed as Chairman despite his death in June.)

Pravit’s op-ed is on China in Thailand. Chinese and Chinese money are everywhere, he says. Tourists, property buyers, investors are seen in everything from high durian prices to military authoritarianism.

It is the latter that Pravit concentrates on, citing academics who “publicly warn how the rise of China bodes ill for human rights and democracy in Thailand and Southeast Asia.” PPT commented on this seminar previously. One thing we said was that the emphasis on China, blaming it for the resilience of the military junta seemed a little overdone for us.

But Pravit is not so sure. He notes that China is unlikely to promote democracy, but that hardly needs saying. He does note that Japan and South Korea have “failed to put any pressure on the [2014] Thai coup-makers as well. To them, it’s business as usual.” As it is for China.

Pravit seems to be pointing to the West that was, for a time, critical of the 2014 coup. But, then, some in that  same West were pretty celebratory of the 2006 coup – think of US Ambassador Ralph Boyce and his commentary in Wikileaks.

But Pravit says that “the difference is that China has become much more influential in Thailand compared to Japan or South Korea.” Really? We have previously pointed out that it doesn’t take much work to look up some data to find out which country is the biggest investor in Thailand. But here’s a problem. Pravit cites a deeply flawed book, riddled with errors, that makes more than a few unfounded claims.

We might agree that “[d]emocracy, human rights, press freedom and free speech are at risk if we ape the Chinese model of politics and administration…”. But think, just for a few seconds about this statement. Thailand’s democracy, human rights, press freedom and free speech are not at risk from Chinese supporters but from Thailand’s military. Under the junta, they have been mangled.

Thailand’s generals don’t need Chinese tutors on how to undermine democracy, human rights, press freedom and free speech. They have done it for decades. It comes naturally, whether “relying” on the support of the US as many military leaders did or with China’s support.





Academic discussion of democracy

25 08 2018

Khaosod reports on an event at Chulalongkorn University that summarizes the outcomes as being:

China’s growing influence in Thailand, middle class support for the junta, a royalist ideology and the West’s declining interest in human rights abroad have led to the ruling junta’s long stay in power….

We were immediately somewhat dismayed. Some of these things may have had an impact but one of them – royalist ideology – disappeared from the report. All we get is the statement that the junta has been:

“manipulating” … “royal-military authority” as an alternative power structure. Prajak [Kongkirati] called the issue of the monarchy the elephant in the room, while Puangthong [Pawakapan] said she could not discuss the issue…. “You see it, but you cannot discuss it openly,” Puangthong said.

We were also dismayed that other “major factors” were simply missed (at least in the report): repression, the bringing down of the red shirt movement and the militarization of almost everything, not to mention the power of the military’s armed threat.

So this report is a bit ho hum, but we are still going to write on it because even the fact of having an academic meeting on the future of democracy is something of an achievement in the junta’s Thailand!

That China gets some of the blame for the resilience of the military junta seems rather overdone. After all, contrary to the daft comments of the American commentator Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Hoover Institution, who miraculously appears in a range of places “advising” on how to be more democratic, Thailand has long experience with authoritarianism and authoritarianian principles are deeply embedded in many institutions.

Much of that was achieved when Thailand leaned heavily on the US. And as Thitinan Pongsudhirak of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University observed, “China said whatever government you have is okay with us…”.

It is true that, initially, China was important for Thailand because, as Prajak Kongkirati of Thammasat University, the junta had to “lean on China as it came under pressure from the United States, European Union and Australia in the immediate aftermath of the coup.”

But all that has since changed, and the junta has been enthusiastic on the nations of Europe and the US. Watch these countries accept the rigged election results when the junta decides it can “win” it.

Still on China, Puangthong Pawakapan of Chulalongkorn University, said “China has become the biggest investor-donor in Southeast Asia, provide uncritical support to oppressive regimes in Southeast Asia and has become a model for authoritarian rule in the region.”

Only some of that is true.It is true that China provides uncritical support of oppressive regimes. It is also uncritical of the governments that are not so repressive in the region. We also think that China’s successful marrying of authoritarianism and rampant capitalist development is seen as something of a model.

At the same time, a significant part of the rise of that “model” has to do with the failures of democracy in the West, where citizens have been economically disenfranchised and politically marginalized and the plutocrats and their states have moved sharply to the political right.

What isn’t right is the reported claim that China is the “biggest investor-donor in Southeast Asia.” More research is needed on this. But it isn’t true for Thailand, where the data do show China as the biggest trade partner, even before the junta, but the data up to a year or so ago show China a relative minnow in terms of investment.

As reported, Diamond’s commentary is uninformed on Thailand and rather too formulaic on electoral politics. The claim that: “It’s hard to imagine a long authoritarian rule being stable here,” seems too focused on recent years. Authoritarian rule has been remarkably stable in Thailand since WW2. And, as Prajak points out the junta is now “the longest-ruling regime since 1973…”. He means military regime, because Gen Prem’s regime was in place for a longer period (1980-88).

Prajak is right to observe that “support from the middle class and big capitalists would keep the military in power.” And Puangthong is probably right to say that “Thailand was the worst in Southeast Asia when in comes to the rise of support for authoritarianism among the middle class, though she did not cite any evidence of this.” She added that this support “is the strength of the military regime now…”.





How does that happen?

16 08 2018

With the military junta in its fifth year of rule, at times it does seem to lose even its own plot. Below are three news items that PPT struggles to comprehend.

First, in a financial scandal that looks something between a white-collar crime and a Ponzi scheme with new means, the Bangkok Post reports that a big investor on the Stock Exchange of Thailand and staff from at least three commercial banks “are suspected of being complicit in a 797 million baht (US$24 million) scandal involving a foreign investor and the cryptocurrency bitcoin…”. The banks are the big three: Bangkok Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and Kasikorn Bank. Police say that “several of the banks’ employees failed to report money transfers of 2 million baht or higher, a serious violation of bank rules.” Those rules come under the Anti-Money Laundering Office.

It was just a couple of days ago that The Dictator sacked the head of AMLO. That head had only been in the job for about a month. Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha used his unbridled Article 44 powers to send the AMLO boss packing. What’s going on there?

(Call us suspicious, but we do recall the big wigs being involved in the Mae Chamoy chit fund that was exposed in the 1980s. The Wikipedia entry states:

The fund had a large number of politically powerful investors from the military and even the Royal Household and as such there were calls for the government to bail out the banks and the chit funds. After discussions with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the nature of which were not made public, the Mae Chamoy Fund was shut down and Chamoy Thipyaso was arrested. She was held in secret by the air force for several days and her trial was not held until after the losses for the military and royal personnel involved had been recovered.)

Second, the Nikkei Asian Review reports that the junta is dumping its Special Economic Zone projects. It observes:

Since taking power in 2014, the military-led government had floated SEZ projects with the idea of building industrial complexes in the poor, remote areas along the country’s border. The plans backfired by fueling property speculation and sending land prices substantially higher, driving up the costs of building the SEZs.

How does that happen? Perhaps it has to do with the third story, with the junta stating it now wants to concentrate on infrastructure rather than SEZs.

Third, the Bangkok Post reports that “Transport Ministry officials have confirmed that auctions for the construction contracts for all sections of the first phase of the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project will commence by the end of the year, despite unsettled negotiations between both countries.” How does that work?

One way it works is by dividing up the work into “14 separate contracts, which will use design and construction blueprints from China.” Quite a few are going to be in the money!





Needing to love the military dictatorship

13 07 2018

Some pundits have wondered if the cave rescue has made the military dictatorship more popular internationally and more “electable” domestically. We don’t know the answer to those questions, but we do know that authoritarian regimes have long felt comfortable dealing with Thailand’s military junta and that the West, moving rapidly to the right, has sought to re-engage with the regime.

An op-ed – The Rest of the World Has Warmed to Thailand’s Military Rulers – by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, addresses the “warming” to the regime that has been seen in recent times.

Despite the junta embedding itself for the long term, delaying “elections” and engaging in widespread repression, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha “has been welcomed in many leading Western democracies.” Worse, he observes that “[f]rom Europe to Australia to the United States, countries have largely dropped their efforts at pressuring the Thai government [to civilianize], even while Thailand’s political crisis stretches on indefinitely.”

After the 2014 military coup, “[m]any democratic states took a relatively harsh line toward Bangkok,” that’s changed. The countries in Europe, the U.S. and Australia are now moderately supportive of Thailand’s military regime.

The Dictator and the U.S.’s Trump

President Donald Trump hosted The Dictator at the White House in October 2017. No surprise there, but the “Obama administration had already begun normalizing those military-to-military ties.”

Kurlantzick observes that “European states and other major democracies have acted similarly.” The EU re-established “all political links with Thailand” in late 2017. In March, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed Prayuth “reversing the Australian travel ban on top junta leaders.”

The Dictator and Australia’s Turnbull

The author doesn’t note it, but Turnbull has moved rapidly to the right, adopting policies that the military regime in Thailand would appreciate.

In June, “Prayuth took his first trip to Europe since the easing of EU sanctions on Thailand. He met British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with a wide range of business leaders.” May heads a government that is engaged in a Brexit debate that sees the right gaining ground, recent events notwithstanding. Linked to post-Brexit needs, “Prayuth and May agreed to relaunch talks on a free trade agreement.”

The Dictator and Britain’s May

Kurlantzick observes that “[f]or all the junta’s attempts to boost its image abroad, the political environment in Thailand is still as repressive as it has been since 2014.” It is the other countries that are rushing to the right and thus having no qualms about embracing repressive military regimes.

Another factor involved has been the panic over China: “the junta has pointed to its growing ties with China, which did not condemn the coup, as a reminder to other leading powers that Thailand has alternatives for investment, aid and diplomatic and military ties.”

The Dictator with China’s Xi

This causes some Western countries to ditch human rights concerns in the interests of checking China. It’s all a bit Cold War like.

China’s influence is not new and has been on the rise in Thailand, as it has elsewhere, but the junta still craves “balancing” as much as it does “bending,” and it is the junta that has made overtures to the West.

And, as ever, business is interested in profits rather than human rights, making Thailand attractive as it is at the heart of a broader ASEAN region.

For all these reasons the West feels the need to cosy up with the nastiest of regimes.





Dictatorship and royalty

23 04 2018

The military dictatorship has proven itself to have the right attitudes and ideology for dealing with other authoritarian regimes, especially the party dictatorships of China and Laos and the Hun Sen regime in Cambodia. Most especially, Thailand’s military regime has felt most comfortable in dealing with military leaders in those countries.

It has had some issues with Laos, where red shirt and republican dissidents reside having fled the royalist military dictatorship following the 2014 coup. The military dictatorship has kept the pressure on, and we can assume some collusion in the enforced disappearance of Ko Tee from his residence in Laos. He’s presumed dead.

Thailand has a long history of political interference in its smaller neighbor’s politics, and there have been many ups and downs. So it is to be expected that all Lao regimes develop the relationship with some caution.

The current Thai dictatorship has been especially agitated about republican dissidents in Laos and has been seeking a deal to get them jailed in Thailand or, if that fails, to have them silenced.

Speaking in Vientiane, Lt Gen Souvone Leuangbounmy, chief-of-staff of the Lao People’s Armed Forces has “played down Thai authorities’ concerns about political fugitives and those wanted under Section 112 of the Criminal Code…” in Laos.

He says that “Thai political fugitives in Laos will be kept under strict surveillance to prevent them from engaging in lese majeste activities…”. He added that “Laos would be vigilant in trying to stop any acts which could affect Thai people” and soothed the military junta: “Please rest assured. You can count on us…”.

He made these comments as Thai military leaders visited Laos. We assume that he was saying this because the Thai military visitors had raised the issue (again).

Perhaps Lt Gen Souvone’s position is a compromise by his regime, under pressure from the “big brothers.” Will they accept this?





Part-time king and neo-feudal Thailand

5 03 2018

As recently mentioned, Thailand’s stay-away king recently returned to Bangkok after a couple of months based in Tutzing and enjoying the skiing.

While he’s been away, presumably he’s stayed in touch with his orders and how they have been implemented. Presumably he’s been happy with the Royal fair he ordered be held while he was away.

A bunch of Chinese outlets have run a story on this event, with our link to a version from China Global Television Network or CGTN, which is China’s international media organization, launched by the official China Central Television (CCTV) on December 31, 2016.

It reckons the king ordered the fair be held so that “people” have “a chance to celebrate their relationship with the royal, after a long period of sadness [the mourning for the dead king].” It adds that it was “[s]oldiers [who] put the finishing touches to exhibits ahead of the opening…”.

As with the previous king, Vajiralongkorn and/or his minion advisers know that the people-monarchy link is of enormous political value, so state resources are used to construct, mobilize and dazzle. The report states: “The fair, opened at the instigation of Thailand’s new King, celebrates the links between the Royal family and their subjects. And in the modern era, two monarchs are given particular prominence. The first, King Chulalongkorn, is revered as a modernizer and a reformer, who saw a future in the technological advancements of the West a century ago. The other is the father of current monarch, King Bhumibol, who died in 2016…”.

It may be a transparent propaganda strategy but the king is betting it will make him look good too.

In line with the military dictatorship’s winding back of the political calendar, the report observes that “[m]any of the exhibits … hark back to a simpler time 100 years ago when Thailand was far more advanced than its SE Asian neighbors but also life was much simpler. The political landscape wasn’t complicated by battling politicians and the people relied only on a kind and benevolent monarch.”

We get the feeling that this is the kind of neo-feudal Thailand that the king would feel most comfortable with. We have noted his plans for erasing the 1932 Revolution and re-establishing a huge royal palace area in central Bangkok. This has also recently been reported at the Asia Times Online.

As we know, visitors are urged to dress up in period costume to inculcate notions that the feudal past was the “good old days.”

The “good old days” were also a period when the modern military was brought into existance, and it was the royalist military under Chulallogkorn and Bhumibol that are celebrated when The Dictator is moved to the center of this neo-feudal world of monarchy-military alliance. This sees The Dictator getting fancy dress awards.





Updated: Why has the EU capitulated?

13 12 2017

We are not sure why the European Union has, as reported at The Nation, “agreed to resume political contacts” with Thailand and “at all levels,” Which means it will deal with the military junta.

More than three years the EU suspended ties “in protest at the military coup in Bangkok.”

The EU claims that “developments in Thailand this year, including the adoption of a new constitution and a pledge by junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha to hold elections in November 2018,” now mean that it is “appropriate” to resume ties.

That is, of course, errant nonsense. If anything, the entrenchment of military political power and its repression have increased in 2017.

We figure that trade is the reason for dealing with the murderous and corrupt devils running Thailand.

Naturally enough, as The Nation reports, the junta and its minions are ecstatic as this “recognition” is a very public justification of military dictatorship.

With the Trump administration cashing in on dictatorship, following the Chinese, we guess the Europeans consider trade trumps human rights.

Update: Interestingly, a day after the EU Council capitulated to the military junta, Human Rights Watch issued a statement on “baseless sedition charges” against Sunisa Lertpakawat of the Puea Thai Party. HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams stated: “Bringing sedition and computer crime charges against a politician for criticism on Facebook shows the Thai junta’s growing contempt for fundamental freedoms…”.