Backgrounder on Thailand’s conflicts

28 12 2013

Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have a useful backgrounder at India’s Economic and Political Weekly. PPT summarizes by emphasizing some points that seemed useful, if well-known. The deep divide they note takes some of the emphasis away from the current focus on succession politics. While succession is an issue in the mix, the deep and long-established divisions within society cannot be ignored:

[T]he demonstrations reflect a deep divide in Thai society according to class, region and ideology, a divide which has developed over the past half century as growth has centred on Bangkok while the rural north and east have been left behind.

The government that has just resigned was installed after elections in July 2011 delivered a strong majority to the Pheu Thai party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. In its election platform, the Pheu Thai party promised to provide amnesty for offences during the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, and to amend the constitution drafted after an army coup in 2007. More informally, the party also promised to bring Thaksin home, which would require cancellation of a two-year sentence for abuse of power.

In mid-2013, the government began to deliver on these promises….

The reaction to this clumsy piece of parliamentary chicanery was immediate.

The government backed down almost immediately…

But the protests had very rapidly gathered considerable emotional momentum… Their leader is Suthep Thaugsuban, a long-standing politician from Thailand’s south, a typical local machine politician trailing a string of scandals, mostly over dubious acquisition of land. In the Democrat Party-led government of 2009-11, he was the tough-guy enforcer working behind the scenes for the inexperienced prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Suthep is an unlikely character to become a hero of street politics. He was turned into a protest leader by the collective emotion of the crowd rather than his personal attributes.

The combined protest vowed to “overthrow the Thaksin regime”, meaning the removal of the current government but also (and more vaguely) reforms to prevent its return. While the movement had momentum, it lacked a mechanism. Traditionally, the military had provided the mechanism by enacting a coup, and more recently the courts have played the role by annulling an election or dissolving the ruling party. On this occasion, neither mechanism worked.

The core of the yellow movement is the Bangkok middle class…. Its members appreciate the upcountry peasantry as a source of cheap labour, but look down on them as backward.

The core of the red movement comes from the rice-growing regions of the upper north and north-east…. Many developed rising aspirations for themselves and their children, and growing resentment at the great inequalities in income, in the distribution of public goods, and in access to power.

From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the power of the vote.

The Thaksinite party has now won all five national elections since 2001 by convincing margins. In face of this record, his opponents have gradually lost faith in electoral democracy…. In 2009, the yellows proposed “new politics”, meaning a retreat from the principal of one person/one vote through some graded form of franchise. Yellow advocates talk of a need for more “morality” in politics, and a greater role for “good people”. They repeatedly aim to delegitimise elected politicians by claiming that they buy their votes. Now they are pressing for a complete suspension of constitutional democracy.

On the other side, the reds have consistently backed the electoral principle.

The yellows have more money and more social power. They own the capital…. They have the support of the media. But they lack the numbers to win in national elections.

The reds have the numbers but they lack the social power and get very little support in public media….

On the incapacity for political learning

17 10 2013

There are several common positions held on what has happened in Thailand since 2001 or since the 2006 coup, whichever is seen as the “major turning point” in Thai politics.

One position that we kind of like is that the combination of economic crisis, new constitution and the resulting advance of electoral politics saw Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party “sleepwalking into history,” [clicking opens a PDF] offering national political-electoral platforms that came to be seen as a challenge to the royalist status quo. Voting for a party that promised and delivered opened people’s eyes to the possibilities offered by electoral politics that far exceeded the old “money politics” model.Sleepwalking

From our perspective, this is not an outcome we expected at the time Thaksin was first elected. We’re pretty sure that Thaksin didn’t expect it either, hence our pilfering of Jakrapob Penkair’s emphasis on “sleepwalking.” Nor did Thaksin imagine that the palace and associated elements of the capitalist and royal hangers-on elite would find his politics such a challenge. That opposition pushed Thaksin even further to so-called populism and a political alliance with voters in rural and working class electorates.

For an academic account that tells some of this story, download this PDF by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker.

Another perspective is one that hasn’t changed at all since about 2003-4. The Nation reports on a “Senate-organized seminar.”  In  fact, the “seminar” was little more than an opportunity for the incandescently bright yellow “group of 40 senators” who are mostly appointed junta spawn senators to “explain” an unchanged perspective on Thai politics that refuses to learn from events and elections or to admit that people have changed.

Asleep at the WheelWhile Thaksin might have sleepwalked, this lot have been asleep at the wheel.

It seems that the unelected lot want “independent candidates be allowed to join the electoral race as a way to counter parliamentary dictatorship.” The latter terminology reflects the incapacity for any clear thinking on elections. Essentially, they refuse to believe that every election since 2000 has returned a pro-Thaksin government has anything to say about the mood of the electorate or the electorate’s refusal to accept coups, whether judicial or military.

One of the “panellists” was “former senator Chirmsak Pinthong.” Chirmsak once collected some valid criticisms of Thaksin in government but since has become caught up with the People’s Alliance for Democracy and a personal hatred of Thaksin. Back in 2010, he was howling about “civil war” and suggesting that Thaksin supporters are either paid by the tycoon or are traitors to the royal Thai state. As for those who were duped into voting for pro-Thaksin parties or into becoming red shirts, Chirmsak couples “the poor” with the “ignorant.” Like other right-wing intellectual Chirmsak remains so resolutely dismissive of many millions of his fellow citizens.

Hence, Chirmsak dismisses elections by talking of “a political party owned by an individual …[where the] party founders had no ideology and relied on their financiers to sustain the party.”  For Chirmsak – and he is absolutely logical and consistent in this –  the solution is appointed “independent MPs.”

Funny that, for his buddies organizing the “seminar” are appointed. And, they are “independent” of the ruling party. But they are the flunkies of the palace, military and every other hierarchical and unelected institution in the country.

Chirmsak’s position has been heard over and over again from those who hate the idea of the “poorer classes” having a say in government if that say doesn’t accord with their “betters” wishes. For this lot, people are best kept in their place and not heard too much. It is ever so much better if the toffs run the show.

Nothing has changed at all for the toffs who seem resolutely blind to change.

Abhisit’s fabrications

20 08 2013

The Bangkok Post has a review of Abhisit Vejjajiva’s The Simple Truth, a translation of his Thai-language book from several months ago. This account comes with a foreword by Abhisit’s  school chum Korn Chatikavanij. The review is by Chris Baker, a well-known writer based in Bangkok.

Baker is rather kind to Abhisit’s personal plea for understanding on how it was that he ordered security forces to shoot down protesters in 2010. Or, as Abhisit prefers, apparently living in a fantasy world:

Abhisit explains that he wrote this memoir because red shirts have made political capital by claiming that government forces killed protesters in a brutal crackdown, so he needs to set the record straight: “We have heard plenty of lies _ I now ask for the opportunity to tell the truth.”

The former and now tainted premier apparently takes politics very personally, emphasizing red shirt attacks on himself.

The good old days at the Army Club

The good old days at the Army Club

Abhisit seems to believe that the red shirts “realised that to create even greater chaos, they had to add weapons”. He says that from the end of 2009 demonstrations, the red shirts were “preparing to wage a war.”

Regarding the 10 April 2010, events, Abhisit refers to “black shirts kill soldiers at Kok Wua intersection.” Forget the protesters who were cut down by snipers, for Abhisit and his ilk didn’t care. Abhisit is said to have cried “all night over the incident” but he doesn’t cry for the protesters cut down by military bullets.

The “truth” for Abhisit – and who knows if he believes it or is simply delusional – is that “there were armed guerrillas within the red-shirt movement.” For him, the red shirts were “waging guerilla warfare complete with organised terrorism”, and “wanted the country to become a failed state”. Abhisit seems to repeatedly speak of guerrillas, the men in black, and seldom about red shirts or their issues.

His supporters will believe this “truth,” but the evidence is of something else. As Baker points out:

Someone who read this book with no prior knowledge of the 2010 events would imagine the army suffered heavy casualties from weeks of “terrorism”, “vicious attacks”, and “bullets flying everywhere”. In truth, military casualties did not reach double figures, and deaths of protesters were 10 times as many. Among the many illustrations in the book, several show red shirts holding crude weapons, but there is not a single picture of a soldier visibly holding a gun.

Abhisit apparently believes that the delicate, reluctant military were subjected to “vicious attacks.” He cannot believe or admit to the Army doing anything aggressive or murderous:

As for the killings at Wat Pathum, Abhisit claims it is “unfair and illogical… downright preposterous” to blame them on soldiers. Although the temple had been designated a safe haven for women and children, male protesters had also entered the temple “perhaps even with arms and other weapons”. Abhisit suggests the deaths in the temple were caused by the same “armed militia”, meaning the black shirts. By a mixture of strange logic, innuendo, and unsubstantiated assertion, Abhisit absolves the military of any guilt.

This, apparently, is Abhisit’s “truth.”

His delusional musings – yes, we know we have used the term already, but synonyms are few for this stuff – include this: “I saw everything that happened, and I can confidently say that the true murderers were the same people who had earlier unleashed terror on our city.”

As Baker says:”But of course he did not see everything.”

And, it seems, Abhisit simply hates red shirts and most especially Thaksin Shinawatra. So much does he seem to hate Thaksin that he was prepared to kill and maim thousands. This view may reflect Abhisit’s thinking, but if it does, Abhisit deludes himself, for his assigned role was to protect the existing royalist order at any cost.

He continues to do this in opposition and in arranging street protests against the pro-Thaksin government that he and other royalists see as a mortal threat to their wealth and power.

Baker on reconciliation

15 08 2012

PPT saw this on a Facebook page and wanted to make it more widely available. It is from a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand a few days ago, with Chris Baker featured. We don’t have any comments as we have only listened to 5 minutes of the first video, thought the comments interesting, so have posted immediately:

Calls for lese majeste reform

31 12 2011

The Bangkok Post reports briefly on the latest recommendation from the Democrat Party-established Truth for Reconciliation Committee.

The TRC “has suggested the controversial lese majeste law be amended to reduce the maximum punishment, absolve a minimum penalty, and for the Lord Chamberlain to authorise prosecution.”

This is a kind of compromise recommendation for, in his letter sent to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, “TRC chairman Kanit na Nakorn said abolishing Article 112 of the Criminal Code, or the lese majeste law, as called for by some people would not be appropriate to Thai society.”

In saying this, Kanit is lining up with the royalists who claim a fictitious cultural basis to the draconian law. That’s what makes the call for amendment rather powerful, for Kanit says “to maintain the law as it is would not be proper either because it leaves no other option but prosecution for anybody who is accused.

The TRC proposes that the “law be amended, and that the Lord Chamberlain be authorised to screen whether to pursue a prosecution or to drop the charges altogether.” Of course, giving the palace this legal right should be unconstitutional, but it is a call that has been made for sometime as the reformists believe that this would depoliticize lese majeste.

In addition, the TRC “urged the law be revised so its application becomes more liberal. It suggested the maximum sentence be reduced from 15 years to seven, with no minimum punishment, and a fine of no more than 14,000 baht should also be added.”

That would be a minor reform, but in the current circumstances, would represent a breakthrough if the Yingluck government has the backbone required to make the minor adjustments that are recommended. Somehow we doubt it has….

Meanwhile, also at the Bangkok Post, a feature story lays out an account of how “the lese majeste law has grown to become an elephant in the room of Thai politics.”

Of course, journalists tend to ignore history, and when they state that it is only in very recent days that lese majeste has become an issue, they belittle the huge impact of the 2006 military coup that overthrew an elected government. They also neglect the times in the past when royalist regimes, often led by palace-picked leaders, have used lese majeste to repress political opponents.

That aside, and the fact that the author too readily makes inaccurate characterizations of the convictions of recent lese majeste victims, the account provided is reasonably sound and worth reading.

Chulalongkorn University’s Thitinan Pongsudhirak says that: “The lese majeste law has become a battleground in Thailand’s political divide which pits monarchists on one side and electoral democrats on the other…”.

Quoting from author David Streckfuss, the article notes how lese majeste is about a “profound contest of ideologies that are rarely discussed.” Streckfuss is cited:

Barely hidden beneath the surface of the growing debate around the law and its use are the most basic issues defining the relationship between those in power and the governed; equality before the law, rights and liberties, the source of sovereign power, and even the system of government of the polity _ whether Thailand is to be primarily a constitutional monarchy, a democratic system of governance with the King as head of state, or a democracy.

Thitinan adds:

More LM cases are likely next year and beyond. Without amendments, the LM law risks becoming a self-fulfilling situation whereby it generates unintended anti-monarchy sentiments by stifling the freedom of fair expression….

Stalwart political analyst Chris Baker agrees that:”The use of the LM law and the Computer Crimes Act is counterproductive…”. He adds that every use of Article 112 “provokes more criticism than it prevents.”

Thitinan and Baker apparently agree that the law needs to be amended. The latter says: “Thailand has updated other laws in line with the times and the world. This is a glaring exception. Every new case serves to undermine the institution and damages Thailand in the eyes of the world…”.

PPT sort of agrees, but also argues that the lese majeste law is more in line with the Streckfuss interpretation, which has lese majeste as symbolic of a broader struggle. Hence, talk of the law undermining the “institution” misses the most basic point of the struggle to remake Thailand’s politics.

Streckfuss points out that:

There is still a chance that Thailand will not topple over the precipice in facing this issue. If we show enough restraint, tolerance and generosity of spirit, we can go through this process without the acrimony that has defined so much of politics recently, and become stronger as a result.

PPT thinks the precipice may have been reached and that the decline over the top may have begun. We have stated several times that the monarchy is in decline, and that the use of the law is a signal of that. How bitter the battle is remains to be seen.

New book on the current reign I

1 12 2011

PPT can’t yet judge it because we haven’t yet seen it, but we will be interested to assess a new book – “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work” – on the current reign that results from a project overseen by former prime minister and ardent royalist Anand Panyarachun at the head of an editorial advisory board.

It was launched a couple of days ago.

The Nation reports that Anand promises “deep, previously unknown insights into King’s life and the monarchy with ‘no attempts to hide the truth or run away from debates’.” He says it is “not a sugar-coated description of the world’s longest-reigning monarch and the work in English was written by a group of experts with knowledge and long experience in Thailand.”

The experts are said to be Chris Baker, David Streckfuss, Porphant Ouyyanont, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings, Robert Woodrow, Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder.

Baker is certainly a respected writer on Thailand but has seldom trespassed in any critical manner on issues related to the monarchy. Streckfuss is the expert on lese majeste and Porphant is the leading expert on the Crown Property Bureau. Respectfully, and wishing to be fair but critical, none of the rest are more than long-term journalists, some of whom haven’t written much for a very long time (e.g. Wedel), others write pretty lightweight journalism (e.g. Cummings) and some are pretty much yellow-shirted monarchists.

The book is meant to “help Thai and foreign readers understand the whole gamut of Thailand’s 750-year-old institution and all related implications, real or imagined, especially those related to HM the King, his role and life-long work.” The idea that this current reign is the inheritor of an eight-century tradition is, in fact, one of the inventions of palace propaganda.


Anand says the book even features “negative aspects” related to the monarchy; we’ll be interested to know what these aspects are. He refers to “both sides,” and “not hiding the truth,” and adds that “we also do not want to persuade anyone to change their ways of thinking…”. Such language suggests how deeply debates about the monarchy, despite the stifling impact of lese majeste, have gone.

Anand says more on this when he adds: “The Thai monarchy has been subject to heavy criticism in the past few years not based on facts, so I have used my role as an adviser to tell the truth to foreign audiences…. The book features accurate information, which is fair to all sides, and is regarded as a reference for anyone without true knowledge about the monarchy.”

Anand claims that the book is entirely factual: “we did not use details without reference.” He does, however, note that as “the adviser to this publication, [I] did not alter any inputs of information, but [I did] have put in some details as fulfilment, to create greater balance.”

In line with the palace view that the public has recently “misunderstood the monarchy,” he says “I want all Thais to read it, and to know about a lot of things [about the monarchy] not known before to the public…”.

The topics discussed, apart from a piece on the Privy Council and that on the CPB and lese majeste, seem pretty much the regular features of the hagiographical accounts, so it remains to be seen if they introduce anything that is critical on sufficiency economy, royal projects and so on.

The comment that the article on lese majeste concludes that: “Thailand currently has the most severe lese-majeste law seen anywhere in more than a century, comparable only to Japanese wartime legislation,” is suggestive of some criticism of the law, as would be expected of Streckfuss.

The story concludes, unfortunately with an inaccuracy: “In the past, books about the monarchy have been banned in Thailand. Paul Handley’s ‘The King Never Smiles’ was banned…. So was William Stevenson’s book “The Revolutionary King”, written in 1999.” Of course the latter is sold in Bangkok, but not the more thorough and more accurate Handley book.

Some election lowlights

2 07 2011

Yesterday TNN cable television ran several times a statement attributed to the king (from the past) stating that Thailand should be in the hands of good leaders and so on. There was no apparent reason provided for this “advertisement.” However, every viewer would put this statement together with that by Army boss Prayuth Chan-ocha, which used very similar words, and see the meaning. Vote for the Democrat Party. This was an interesting piece of electioneering in the king’s name. Was the hopeless Election Commission watching?

The political revenge and bastardry associated with locking up Jatuporn Promphan continues. It is reported that the Appeal Court yesterday denied a bail request for the red shirt leader and Puea Thai Party candidate. Jatuporn is “highly unlikely to be released to cast his vote on election day…. In its ruling, the Appeal Court said there were no new grounds to reconsider the lower court’s decision not to temporarily release him.”

The Bangkok Post on Friday included an election special. It was four pages, which included a piece by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker that said the election “was about” several things, but unaccountably neglected to mention that that this election is about the monarchy. The Army chief made sure of that. Why forget to mention this? Self-censorship?

The Post’s analysis is pretty much a claim that the Democrat Party can still win. Yes, it says Puea Thai should win, but then sets about explaining a scenario where the Abhisit Vejjajiva government can get back. Like the Democrat Party itself, there seems to be considerable confidence in a seemingly unlikely result. Why is this? Just hope? Or is there a reason for believing that, despite all the polls, something miraculous can happen? PPT can’t help wondering if there isn’t something dark underpinning these “hopes.” We hope we are wrong.

The final page of the Post’s election special – the whole page – is an election campaign advertisement for the Democrat Party…. Of course, it is not in the electronic version.


Yingluck, Thaksin, Prayuth

18 06 2011

The New York Times recently stated that Yingluck Shinawatra’s “campaign represents an extraordinary resurrection for Mr. Thaksin [Shinawatra], the most divisive personality in the country. He was pronounced politically dead by many analysts after the coup, and he remains abroad to evade imprisonment for a corruption conviction, as well as a charge of terrorism for his role in backing the red-shirt demonstrations.” The paper cites the well-known pundit Chris Baker as saying: “I think very simply Thaksin has made this election about him…”.

PPT agrees, but thinks this focus on Thaksin was fleeting. In one sense, those who considered Thaksin “politically dead” following the 2006 coup clearly didn’t understand the deep political feelings that Thaksin had (inadvertently, perhaps) tapped amongst Thais who had been left out politically and who felt left behind economically. Thaksin has never gone away, and it required no strategy decision to make the election about Thaksin. With the coup he became symbolic of the struggles of many Thais. That may seem strange for a guy who today claims that he’s only got a billion left in the kitty, but politics in Thailand is often strange.

When interviewed, Baker further commented: “… this election is about nothing else…. It’s about Thaksin and what has happened to him in the last five years.” Certainly, the Democrat Party, scratching about for a way to push back the surge of support for Yingluck and the Puea Thai Party would like it to be about Thaksin. They thought they had the election won, and they now realise that they have it lost. Making it about Thaksin might suit them.

In fact, the election is about several things. As the hecklers who keep showing up at Abhisit Vejjajiva’s campaign stops keep making clear, the election is also about accountability for the more than 90 deaths in Bangkok last year. It is also about Yingluck. She has provided considerable energy to Puea Thai, as a fresh face, running a disciplined campaign, looking good, speaking to very large crowds, getting personal with average Thais and making Abhisit look like a stiff bureaucrat. The Oxford-educated member of the elite forever looks uncomfortable when dealing with the people his school chum and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij described as “the great unwashed.”

More significantly, Army boss Prayuth Chan-ocha’s carefully timed but clearly panicked national broadcast telling people not to vote for Puea Thai made the election about something else. In what can only have been an approved comment, Prayuth made the election about the monarchy. The general might now be saying he will keep his mouth under control, but he has thrown the monarchy into the middle of an election that is looking like a plebiscite on all that the establishment holds dear.

And finally, the election is about the military itself. Will it ever be held responsible for the crimes it has committed against the people? In the short term, a more limited question comes to the fore: if Puea Thai does very well in the election, will the military let it form a government? If it does, how long before the military and its allies begin a campaign to undermine that government? In fact, the undermining is already underway, so perhaps the question is answered.

Trying to fix an election, part III

18 02 2011

Simon Roughneen in the Sydney Morning Herald joins those who think that there will be an election “before the end of June.” Both Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban have spoken of such a possibility, with no commitment to a date.

Chris Baker

The article notes that this latest bit of election speculation came after “MPs voted to amend the electoral format, expanding the party list representation in parliament and moving the remaining constituency seats from a multi-seat to a single-seat format.” Roughneen cites well-known pundit Chris Baker who says that “the amended system could boost Mr Abhisit’s Democrats [he means the Democrat Party, for they are not democrats], the lead party in the governing coalition, but which has been comfortably beaten by pro-Thaksin [Shinawatra] parties in recent elections.” Baker adds that the premier’s party ”did much better last time on the party list than the territorial constituencies. Shifting seats from territorial to party list should favour them.”

PPT said similar things more than a month ago. We remain on the fence about an election date although we think the probability of an election increases as the Democrat Party and their backers get all of their pieces in order.

We have previously posted on how jailing opponents, engaging in massive censorship, killing protesters, being backed by the military, judiciary and palace, banning hundreds of politicians who would oppose the royalist regime or pose an electoral threat, and getting an already rigged constitution fixed (again) seems not enough for the Abhisit government that has now thrown billions of baht at voters.

With all of this in mind, readers should also look at the post at Bangkok Pundit regarding what PPT considers amounts to Thai-style gerrymandering.

PPT also wants to emphasize the article that BP cites, from The Nation. The panel selected and appointed by Abhisit and chaired by yellow-shirted academic and virulent Thaksin critic Sombat Thamrongthanyawong is said to be “poised to recommend the formation of a Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) tasked with a major overhaul of the electoral system, transforming the way governments are formed.” And just guess which party is going to benefit enormously from the proposals so far leaked. Of course, it is the Democrat Party.

Sombat says that the military junta-backed 2007 constitution simply doesn’t cut the mustard and needs a “major rewrite … to improve on Thailand’s political institutions…”. We’re pretty sure this doesn’t involve the institution.

Getting the junta's constitution in place

It may seem strange that the military junta’s basic law doesn’t work for the Democrat Party as the party of the amart. The military worked exceptionally hard, in alliance with all kinds of yellow-shirted intellectuals and junta flunkies to get the constitution passed by a referendum, so it should be in the interests of the amart. It surely is, but the simple point is that this constitution, while rigged for the anti-Thaksin parties still saw them elected in 2007! Therefore it must be changed to prevent such an “anomaly” again.

Basically, the rules have to be changed to ensure a system that is heavily biased against pro-Thaksin, red shirt or populist parties.

So here are some of the draft recommendations from Abhisit’s panel led by Sombat:

The party with highest proportionate ballots, known as the party-list vote, should have first the chance to form a coalition government. As PPT has pointed out already, this is meant to reflect the fact that the Democrat Party did much better on the party list in 2007 than in the constituency seats. In other words, the proposal does away the notion of the party with the most seats getting first opportunity to form a government. By implication, this approach, in good yellow shirt fashion, effectively devalues votes in rural areas where pro-Thaksin parties have their strongholds, especially in the North, Northeast and Central regions.

The House should not have the mandate to censure the prime minister. PPT reckons this comes direct from Privy Council President and former unelected prime minister General Prem Tinsulanonda. We have no evidence for this claim, but recall that Prem refused through his many years to appear before parliament for a grilling. This would remove the capacity for proper scrutiny of government and for one of the more interesting interludes in parliament.

MPs should not be required to have party membership. This would take Thailand back to a period when horse-trading was the main means of building coalition governments and when buying and selling politicians was the norm. The idea of this proposal, again harking back to the Prem model of the 1980s, is to weaken political parties. By demanding coalition governments the outcome is weak government, strengthening the bureaucracy, military and the intrusive extra-parliamentary institutions of business, palace and judiciary.

PPT wonders just how many more fixes the Democrat Party requires before it could win an election?

Review of “Saying the Unsayable” on the monarchy

13 12 2010

The Bangkok Post has a review of Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and democracy in Thailand, edited by Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (Nias Press, 278 pp, 795 baht ISBN 978-87-7694-072-0). It is reviewed by Chris Baker:

Half way through this book, one of the contributors asks, “Is Thailand primarily a democracy protected by a constitution that guarantees rights, or is primarily a monarchy with authoritarian structures that prevent democratisation?” Not so long ago, such a question was unimaginable. The standard formula is that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy with the King as head of state. But ever since the People’s Alliance for Democracy swathed themselves in yellow and announced “We fight for the king”, cracks have appeared in that formula. The mantra that the monarchy is “above politics” has never made much sense since monarchy is nothing if not a political institution. The claim that monarchy is beyond discussion or debate falters because the institution is too important to ignore. As Thailand’s economy has become so rapidly and drastically globalised, more and more outsiders want to understand the country’s key institutions because it matters to their business profits and personal lives. In academic writing on Thai politics, monarchy is now the prime focus of attention.

The eleven contributors to this book of essays include seven foreigners and four Thais. Two of the Thais have elected to use a nom de plume. Yet this is a careful book which has nothing personal or strident, no whiff of revolt. The nine essays and the deft summary in the introduction present analyses of the meaning of the Thai monarchy in the present and the recent past. Although this book claims its subject is “the Thai monarchy”, in fact it’s focus is rather narrower. The words “queen”, “prince” “princess”, “crown” and “succession” do not appear in the index. Only two of the essays stray into history. This book is a study of one reign.

The first section focuses on the current image of the monarchy, and the contrast between the two essays highlights how complex the topic is. Peter Jackson argues that the monarch is seen as magical and semi-divine. The palace entourage have promoted an old idea that the monarch is a sammuti devaraja, a “virtual god-king”, not an actual god-king but capable of being imagined as one. Yet, Jackson argues, over the course of the reign the word “virtual” in this formula has tended to fade. The adulation of the monarch is one of many cults promising prosperity and security which have flourished all over the world in the context of globalisation and its insecurities. People started to worship the Fifth King as an ancestor spirit capable of granting prosperity, and the Ninth has become associated with the cult.

By contrast, Sarun Krittikarn argues that the distinguishing feature of the present reign is the accessibility and evident humanity of the royals. Rather than being cloaked in mystery and ritual, they appear every day on television doing very human things. From this inspection, “it is obvious that the family has gradually adopted middle-class values and lifestyles”. The people gaze at them constantly, and the monarch gazes back from pictures, banners, statues and banners which seem to be everywhere. He watches over his subjects constantly. “Under his gaze, we are turned into a child in need of security.” Of course, the sheer multiplication of images runs the risk that the image overwhelms the reality behind it. Moreover, Sarun suggests, while the royal image is supposed to serve as the focus of nationalist loyalty, viewing the image has rather become a form of entertainment which arouses feelings of comfort.

In the official version of history, King Prajadhipok welcomed the transition from absolutism to democracy, thus ensuring that democracy and monarchy could comfortably coexist, and earning for himself the title as “father of Thai democracy”. Two essays attack this history head-on. Nattapoll Chaiching marshals all the evidence showing that Prajadhipok fought bitterly to reverse the 1932 revolution, and that after his abdication committed royalists took up the same cause until they succeeded with Field-Marshal Sarit’s coup in 1957. Kevin Hewison and Kengkij Kitirianglarp take up the story from there, tracing the idea of “Thai-style democracy” from Sarit to the present. Since 1932, royalists had argued that the Thai people were not ready for democracy or not suited to it at all. Sarit claimed that strong leaders who responded to popular needs were a better form of “democracy” than that contrived by elections. Kukrit Pramoj imagined that there was a virtual bond between king and subjects which meant that kingship was a perfect form of representation, somehow “natural” for Thailand, and indispensable for peace and prosperity. Since then “Thai-style democracy” in which the monarch acts as a moral balance against wicked politicians has been a cornerstone of royalist thinking. Hewison and Kengkij argue that Thaksin was found so frightful because he was beginning to show that democracy could work, an elected leader could deliver prosperity to the people and be rewarded with unprecedented popularity.

The 2006 coup hangs heavily over the book. Almost every essay refers to it. David Streckfuss notes the epidemic of lese-majesty cases since the coup. He draws a comparison with the last epidemic of comparable scale – in Germany in the late nineteenth century. In one six-year period, 248 people were convicted. Yet the result was only to make more people more defiant. Eventually in 1904, the Emperor himself told the judiciary to desist, and issued pardons to those still undergoing punishment.

The last two essays focus on the sufficiency economy. Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager put the idea in the context of a worldwide enthusiasm for “etho-politics”, theories in which greater self-discipline by the individual does away with the need for such a great political superstructure. The ideal is a community which can exist without conflict. But in truth, they argue, this is always a dream. Andrew Walker adds that the image of a self-sufficient local rural economy may never have existed in Thailand and is certainly far removed from present-day realities. One large portion of the rural population does not have enough land or other assets to be sufficient, and survives by migrating away from the village in search of work. Another large portion finds that the best way to deal with the risks and insecurities of small-scale agriculture is to invest more, play the market, and diversify risks rather than retreating into a shell of sufficiency.

As the editors note in the Introduction, a monarchy like any other institution is constantly being made and remade. The immense changes over the present reign make that abundantly clear. This book is a valuable contribution to a growing literature that helps to make this institution and its complex dynamics more understandable.

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