Political conflict continuing

14 01 2011

Xinhua has a useful report on political conflict and the prospects for 2011. It begins with the claim that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said “that he is likely to dissolve the parliament in April although his term will finish in December and will call for a fresh election. While analysts forecast that the general election may be held not earlier than April after the charter amendment receives the parliamentary endorsement or at the latest by October after the parliament approves annual budget for fiscal year 2012.”

Recall that this is trumpeted by Abhisit an “early” election…. PPT has long believed that this government would hold off on an election for as long as possible – perhaps even testing the constitutional requirements – or would go to the electorate when it thought it had done enough “fixing” to ensure it would win. In fact, October would just about be the end of the current term, so not really “early.”

Even so, Xinhua says analysts think the decision by the government to “arrange earlier election” – note our skepticism above on the use of the word “early” –  is “a way-out to avoid possible confrontation with the anti-government ‘red-shirt’ movement. The expected election will eradicate, to some extent, the conditions which once led to violence in Thai politics last year.”

We doubt that an election won by Abhisit and his coalition on the basis of repression, jailing, censorship, killing and fixing is going to do that.  But, as Parinya Thewanarumitkul, a law lecturer at the Thammasat University, states: “If the government continues to stay in the office, the pressure outside the parliament will increasingly grow and eventually lead to confrontation again. The declaration of the premier to dissolve the house in April will lessen the external tension at a certain extent.” Prajak Kongkiarti, a lecturer at the Thammasat University’s Faculty of Political Science, is cited as more or less agreeing with this sentiment.

Well, perhaps, but if Abhisit was interested in releasing tension, he could have gone to an election in 2009 or 2010. We think he’s been keen to do the fixing first. Then, assuming a victory, the establishment could make all kinds of claims about legitimacy and use this to further repress political and regime opposition.

Xinhua makes this comment: “Legitimacy of the Abhisit government has been questioned since the first day that the Democrat party took the office in 2008 as it was allegedly formed by the military in a military camp.” And, that alliance has been greatly strengthened since then. The Democrat Party is now the military’s preferred option for maintaining the military’s hold on politics.

Prajak goes on to explain that an election would not solve the political crisis, and mentions “several remaining obstacles [that] include the case of 91 deaths. The new government is duty-bound to answer questions regarding facts and justice as well as recently occurring violence.” He also notes that political disputation is “acceptable in democratic society, so [a] polarized civil society in Thailand is not uncommon phenomenon as it is witnessed in every corner of the world.”

He sees conflict continuing and evokes a kind of clash of elites theory, pointing to an ongoing struggle between to competing ruling classes or elites. He adds: “So long as the two groups keep wrestling for power and the trouble of bipolar state has not really been addressed, it is difficult to alleviate conflicts in civil society. The chance that the violence will resurge remains highly possible if this controversial political structure exists in Thailand.”

There’s a lot of political theory going begging in this view, not least on the relationship between civil society and state. That said, PPT tends to agree that conflict will continue. But rather than a bipolar clash of competing elites, we’d tend to see the conflict between elites as having deeper structural roots in the Thai political economy.

Win the battle, lose the (class) war?

22 04 2010

Thomas Fuller of the New York Times, who had a really very good story from Khon Kaen in the northeast last week, now comments on the blocking of an army train and a motorized convoy  traveling south. Fuller begins by noting that the actions in Khon Kaen are further evidence of “the Thai government’s weakening control of the populous hinterland.”

The protesters feared that the soldiers and equipment were to be used in a crackdown on the red shirts. “[T]hey demanded that 10 red shirt protesters be allowed to accompany the train to ensure that it was not bound for Bangkok” as claimed by the government.

Fuller adds that “red shirts have garnered widespread support and sympathy in Thailand’s vast northeastern rice-growing hinterland, including among local officials, the military and police.” Indeed, the information on the troop and equipment movements in Khon Kaen came from “military wives.”

Writing of the crackdown, Fuller observes that such action “could also have wider consequences across the country.”

Are the rich and establishment figures aware of this? Perhaps they are because the Thai Baht seems to remain strong. That would seem counter-intuitive. Or are the rich buying dollars and other currencies as future insurance? The baht was 32.2 against the USD today, compared with 32.2 on 11 April, 32.7 on 11 March (before the red shirt rallies began) and 33.0 on 11 January. [Update: Yes we realize this is a dumb undergraduate error and that this explanation would mean a falling baht…. apologies for being economically illiterate.]

Any other suggestions on why the baht remains high while the SET was is at 761 today against 801 on 2 April.

With 3 updates: A brief lull and a renewed threat

22 04 2010

After what many assumed – including PPT – was a propaganda blitz that was preparing the way for another push to clear the red shirt demonstrators, this time from the Rajaprasong area, there has been a 24 hour lull. This saw much talk of negotiation, and several media outlets reported all sides reaching out for talks. However, the Bangkok Post (22 April 2010) reports that the ever-threatening Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the spokesman for the Centre for the Resolutions of Emergency Situations, “has warned red-shirt protesters camped in the Ratchaprasong area that troops are waiting for an appropriate time to take back the area.”

Sansern said: “Your time is running out. Please leave the area and report to the authorities…. This is not a threat. This is real…”. He added that”[a]uthorities will take decisive action against protesters when they disperse the mob…”.

Some pundits are suggesting Friday or Saturday evening as the likely time for government action. This feels a little like the standoff that briefly developed when troops surrounded the remaining red shirt demonstrators at the end of the Songkhran Uprising in 2009, which eventually led to red shirts, feeling that they were going to be crushed, accepted government offers to retire from the rally. The best scenario is that the government/military is hoping for a similar outcome this time. The worst scenario could be troops again clashing violently with determined red shirts.

Update 1: The government is making the most of anti-red shirt sentiment and is stoking it. Colonel Sansern said: “To take people in Bangkok hostage is not right…”. AP reports that “[a]nger among Bangkok residents is mounting against the Red Shirt protesters…. The weeks of protests have forced hotels and offices to close and are threatening the livelihoods of those who work in the “occupation zone.” This is only partly correct. There is no doubt that the occupation of Rajaprasong is hitting businesses in the area hard. Indeed, the government is thinking of compensating them. However, as has been remarked many times, the red shirts also have enormous support from Bangkok’s working and service classes.

And when AP says that there is a “loose coalition opposed to the Red Shirts has started taking to the streets and clashed with the protesters on Wednesday, tossing stones, bottles and shouting, ‘Give back our city’ and ‘Hillbillies, get out’,” they seem to be misunderstanding that they are attacking their workers, janitors, taxi drivers, maids, masseuses, wait staff, and so on. Or maybe they do understand and they see this as a class war.

Update 2: See Simon Roughneen’s updated photos including on the rally at Silom. Scroll down through his story and pictures.

Update 3: The Nation reports that the “Civil Court Thursday evening issued an injunction against the use of force to break up the red-shirt rally at Rajprasong Intersection. But the court noted that the demonstration affected the public so the government could use internationally-accepted measures to deal with the protesters form lighter to harsher measures.” PPT is not sure what this means, for the government always claims to be using “international standards.”

What a royalist says about politics

24 03 2010

It is always useful when royalists go into print and share their views on politics and the monarchy. Asia Times Online (24 March 2010) has just posted a long story and interview with never-elected prime minister and ardent royalist Anand Panyarachun. The article refers to Anand as a “palace insider [who] epitomizes the ammataya, or aristocratic elite, that Thailand’s red shirt-wearing United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) protest group claims to be up against in a ‘class war’ for democracy.”

As the article notes, the UDD sees Abhisit Vejjajiva and his government as being “propped up by conservative interests and criticized top royalists, including Privy Council members selected by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as impediments to democracy.” Anand has long been a spruiker for the monarchy, especially to foreigners, and regularly recycles his Thai monarchy speech. He’s sometimes seen as a royalist who is also “liberal” in terms of politics and is an insider, being at the top of the board at the royal bank, the Siam Commercial Bank.

In this post, PPT simply provides a commentary on Anand’s comments to the ATO.

Anand might well be seen to be again displaying his alleged political liberalism when the ATO says that he believes “holding new elections would help to resolve the country’s escalating political crisis, but not be a cure-all.” He adds: “Elections cannot resolve everything, but they may be helpful in accelerating the resolution of the problem.”

PPT prefers to view Anand as a political conservative, and this article displays his political position quite well. In addition, it provides some useful insights into how the people at the top and around the palace think.

Take the election comment as a starting point. In an earlier speech, Anand had expressed dismay about “Western” complaints about the overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra by the coup in 2006: “I never thought that some Westerners would equate elections with democracy.” And in this interview, when he speaks of elections, he’s not giving any ground to his opponents, predicting an election “next year.” Well, yes, that’s what’s supposed to happen as the government’s term expires at the end of next year. Only the UDD could derail this. Anand is firmly committed to the current order.

Like all good royalists, Anand believes that democracy is not really what Thailand is about. “Thailand will continue to muddle through with its particular brand of democracy, which he describes loosely as an ‘ad-hocracy’ where politicians improvise and ‘roll with the punches’.” Thailand is different from the West, because “In Asian culture, particularly in Thailand, everything is personal. And that’s not good for democracy.” While Lee Kuan Yew might have pointed out that Asian-style democracy was not real democracy because of Confucian group orientation, Anand is essentially on the same conservative line – Asians are different.

What does Anand think of the UDD? He says “They must be bankrupt of ideas. And there’s no leadership. These three or four guys … use rhetoric all the time. They have no credibility. Some of the more credible figures in Thaksin’s camp never came out. [Former prime minister and Thaksin ally] Chavalit [Yongchaiyudh] disappeared. [Former Internal Security Operations Command deputy director] General Panlop [Pinmanee] is where? Nobody came out. I think in Chavalit’s mind he knew it was a lost cause, these demonstrations. And they must have spent a fortune.”

This is the view of a royalist insider. PPT wants to unpack it. The UDD is “bankrupt of ideas.” That’s a bit rich from the royalist camp that has been peddling the same monarchist ideas for decades. Aside from that, those who are “bankrupt of ideas” have succeeded in changing the political debate in Thailand. While much of the current media discussion of “class war” is a mulch of ideas from the Cold War and from the uninformed – here we mean from opponents of the red shirts – there’s no doubt that the political discourse is now of phrai, amat, double standards and inequality. Opponents and supporters alike have adopted this lexicon.

Even Anand is required to engage. He says: “When they try to incite demonstrations into a movement of class warfare, that will not work in Thailand. The communists tried 25 years ago. It will not work because there’s no such thing.” Not only does Anand forget how extensive the communist movement was in Thailand, but he uses the “communist” label to damn the current red shirt movement and scare the Bangkok middle class and elite.

None of the opponents of the red shirts consider that the rich and powerful in Thailand have been waging their own class war for decades. Worker and peasant movements have been repeatedly smashed and disorganized. Those from the lower classes who stick their heads up and refuse to be co-opted find life difficult, if they are permitted to keep breathing. Opponents of the monarchy are regularly threatened, charged and jailed with laws that provide and protect privilege.

On Chavalit, Anand is wrong, although not entirely so. At the beginning, Chavalit seemed reluctant to get involved and was in hospital. Now, however, he has provided his support and appeared on the red shirt rally stage with the leaders of the movement. With respect to Panlop, this is an odd comment. Anand says that Panlop is a “credible figure and yet the red shirt leadership wanted him sidelined because of his penchant for violent actions. The royalists and the government seem to want the red shirts to be constructed to fit their own propaganda and beliefs about the movement.

For Anand, as for Abhisit, all this trouble is Thaksin-related. Thaksin is surrounded by acolytes “of many kinds. Real converts. Some people genuinely fawn and worship Thaksin, but there are so many converts who do it for their own personal agenda, their own interests, their own financial interests. So he’s been hearing only one side of the story and I’m sure he was misled by these leaders who say they can embark on a very, very important, a very, very decisive sort of battle.” Thaksin has been misled by those who seek wealth. The refrain of being misled and paid usually refers to rural voters, so this is a neat twist. That said, isn’t the palace surrounded by acolytes of exactly the kind Anand says make up red shirts? Anand could fall into this category, and he hasn’t done all that badly by his own fawning.

At least the red shirts, with “all these antics and stunts” haven’t engaged in “violent actions.” Anand is thankful for that. And, despite being “bankrupt of ideas,” Anand does a mental backflip with a degree of difficulty of 4.5 and comes up with this: “Some of the issues raised by the red shirts are, in my view, valid…”. What might these ideas that are not bankrupt be? Anand says: “the widening gap between the rich and poor, unequal opportunities.” And making exactly the same comment as Abhisit – who’s coaching who? – Anand then says: “but they have existed for a long time in our history of democratic rule [huh?] and these issues have existed in all other societies, in other countries…. These issues are not newly invented and they did not happen in Thailand only in the last few years. Every government has tried to address these issues but nobody has a quick fix.” Maybe there’s no coaching and its just that position and privilege breeds a similar outlook.

Anand and Abhisit would love to think that they are right about these big and important issues. Are there really no changes in these patterns over time? Bangkok Pundit has an excellent post on exactly this issue related to wealth and income inequality, so there’s no need for PPT to repeat that. We’d just point out that governments regularly make decisions that change these patterns, in both the short and medium terms. The fact is that if you are in the bottom half of Thai society, most governments have changed these patterns for the worse. If you are up the top, you’ve generally done very nicely. Class war at work perhaps?

Getting truly, deeply royalist, Anand warns that the red shirts can’t be trusted: “I think there’s deep suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that the reds have some other issues under a hidden agenda. I think there is this confusion about the legitimate issues and, shall we say, illegitimate questions.” Of course, he means to imply that the “reds” as he calls them are really republicans.

PPT really appreciated Anand’s comment when asked under what circumstances Thaksin might return to Thailand. We had said some time ago that this palace has a long memory for its opponents and is remarkably resolute in dealing with them. So Anand’s comment is confirmation: “I don’t see much prospect of his return. I’m not quite sure his strategy is a correct one…. in the past two years he has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have gone beyond the point of return in terms of his rhetoric, in terms of his actions.”

After blathering on about the usual propaganda position on the monarch’s constitutional duties and rights, a la Bagehot, Anand sounds almost apologetic for the lack of reform – “evolutionizing itself” – in the monarchy. He complains that the Thai monarchy hasn’t had much time to reform and, he complains, “you have to be fair to us, sometimes we cannot go faster than what the people want.” Blame “the people,” for it is they who don’t want the monarchy to change. That’s the language of despots.

Anand continues to make another weird statement: “there is a deep affection and deep loyalty towards our King and our constitution by an overwhelming majority of the people.” Perhaps a slip of the tongue? For we know that there’s not nearly an overwhelming majority for the 2007 Constitution. For the king perhaps? Maybe, but who knows. Would anyone in their right mind ask the question in a survey, and would any sane person answer that they dislike the king?

Still, Anand knows that succession will inevitably see the supposed popularity decline. Even now, he estimates that 10-20% of the population does not want the monarchy. He adds that a further 20-40% don’t care all that much.

Bangkok Pundit also comments on this aspect of the story and is worth a read.

Anand seems to still support Abhisit and the Democrat Party and he is convinced that the “army is not that stupid. They know they bungled the last one and the coups in the past have never been able to resolve the nation’s problems.” PPT is sure that he is wrong. The army’s silent coup of 2008 showed that they learned that running a government was tough. So they sit behind the scenes and pull whatever levers or strings that are necessary. Brokering a government and standing behind it while that government doles out money and military hardware and allows the military to do pretty much as it pleases is a very neat strategy.

King, country, chaos? – Part II

20 03 2010

The Economist’s longer story on Thailand (18 March 2010) seeks to look behind the scenes of the present political unrest to examine “deeper fears about the royal succession.” We examine this story in some detail as it raises matters seldom openly debated in Thailand.

The newspaper claims that by last Sunday the “people’s war against the elite” saw a crowd “brimming with elation, [that] had passed 100,000.” That’s on the lower end of estimates, leaving aside the government’s propaganda. The story then says that by “mid-week the red shirts seemed no closer to their goal of forcing out the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and forcing new elections.” Well, yes, but 3-4 days is not even close to the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s non-stop rally of 2008, which approached 200 days. One wonders why the Economist (and much of Thailand’s mainstream media) expected the red shirt’s to achieve its stated aims in such a short time?

The Economist is right to point out that the “army stands squarely behind Mr Abhisit”. It might have said that the army put Abhisit where he is now and that they are not just behind him, but they made him. Interestingly, it was only yesterday that Abhisit seemed to get the message that appearing on television surrounded by men in uniform was just too strong a political message, and now he is seen with men in suits. At least that portrays the image of a government of the elite rather than the puppet government of the military and palace.

It is also true, as the Economist points out, that “Ruling-party politicians complain that the lowly red shirts are paid proxies and do not represent mainstream opinion. They bat away the idea that an election may be the only way to prove their point, arguing that an orderly vote is impossible amid the tumult. Most of all, they blame [former premier] Mr Thaksin [Shinawatra] for the uproar.” This is an endless rant that began with PAD and has close affinities with the allegations of paid voters. Even when the rich and powerful see their servants, gardeners, guards, waiters, masseuses, and other low-paid minions support the red shirts, they choose to believe this has nothing to do with deeply-held resentment of the “nai.”

Moving to the king, the article observes that: “To Thailand’s royalist movement the monarch is the nation’s father, and the “fighting children” on the streets are a source of distress to him. Some fear that Thailand’s troubles may be thwarting King Bhumibol’s full recovery from the respiratory illness that has kept him in hospital since September.” Then the author adds: “But it is precisely because ‘father’ is on his way out that his ‘children’ are fighting.”

That might at least be an interpretation that breaks from the line of it all being of Thaksin’s making, but it is a flawed argument. Like blaming Thaksin, it is a position that is seeking explanations in personalities rather than in political and social realities. In PPT’s view, the king and Thaksin are players in a drama that is located in the vast inequalities that have become increasingly sharp as Thailand has rapidly integrated into global patterns of production and consumption. This is why red shirt attacks on amart, double standards, elite privilege and, now, “class war” draw so much support from the poor and exploited. But these shibboleths also have resonance for a struggling group of workers and those hoping to be upwardly mobile.

But let’s take the important points the article makes about the monarchy seriously, for the monarchy is the richest of the rich, at the pinnacle of the establishment, at the core of the amart, and its ideology is the keystone of the royalist ideology that attempts to keep people in their place. In the Economist’s view, the monarchy is critical because “power in Thailand flows along patronage networks that start with the king.”

On succession, the newspaper thinks that the “crown itself should pass smoothly. The designated male heir is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, aged 57, and there is not much scope for doubt about his claim. A long mourning period, perhaps six months or more, will allow a pause in the political dogfight. Some protagonists may come to their senses and seek a compromise. The death of King Bhumibol would also signal a generational shift in Thailand: younger voices could start to be heard.” PPT wonders why the author thinks the king is about to drop off the perch? He could hang on for years.

Like so many other commentators, this one believes the current “king will be a most difficult act to follow,” adding that “Vajiralongkorn is already widely loathed and feared.” For the prince, becoming king means that he “must fill the shoes of a beatified icon whose achievements have been swathed in a personality cult.” We might add that the task of beatifying the prince, while difficult, has begun in earnest, and it relies as much on his current wife and adult daughters as on his own achievements. They are being pumped up as stars by the media. Sirikit played a similar role for a time in the early years of this reign.

Can it work again? Probably not, although the article cites “Sulak Sivaraksa, a veteran royal observer and social activist, says that the prince has matured during his third marriage and is more respectful of others than in the past.” In any case, apparently the “prince knows he is unpopular” and a political acquaintance says “he doesn’t care.”

The article then joins in the myth-making about the monarchy and asserts: “… King Bhumibol’s virtues … include monogamy, Buddhist piety and old-fashioned thrift…”. PPT is not at all sure what this is about. Acknowledged as one of the world’s richest monarchs, with a stable of hugely expensive cars and taking huge lumps of public funding, the thrift seems an odd angle. The other claims we leave to the gossip mill.

The point seems to be to say that “the crown prince is a poor substitute” in terms of the alleged virtues of his dad. The article then repeats some of the well-known stories: “Salacious stories of his private life are daily gossip. A video circulated widely in 2007 showed his third wife, known as the ‘royal consort’, at a formal [birthday] dinner [several years ago] with the prince in a titillating state of undress. Diplomats say Prince Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable to the point of eccentricity: lavishing attention on his pet poodle Fu Fu, for example, who has military rank and, on occasion, sits among [and at the table of] guests at gala dinners. In the 1980s his rumoured ties to the criminal underworld, which he denied in a newspaper interview, inspired the gangster nickname of ‘Sia O’.” Obviously much more could be added, but the story seems clear.

The article then considers some alternatives for the throne and again runs through some of the gossip. Some hope for the increasingly pudgy Sirindhorn and others raise the potential for “a jump to Prince Vajiralongkorn’s children, such as his youngest, Prince Tipangkara, with a regent, perhaps Princess Sirindhorn.” As a footnote, the author describes Sirindhorn as having a “saintly image as a patron of charity.” Well, yes, that’s the image, but of late it has been changed somewhat as she seems to have become the collector of donations to the monarchy. Just before she jetted out to meet the Burmese generals, she was shown on television day after day receiving funds hand over fist.

Apart from the dislike of the prince, why do these hopes for Sirindhorn spring eternal? None of the other siblings are mentioned for they are all obviously totally hopeless. According to the article, “Prince Vajiralongkorn is distrusted in military circles [because of] his past association with Mr Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Mr Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire turned populist politician, was said to have lavished money on the prince. That may have been the real reason for the coup, which appeared to have the blessing of Prem Tinsulanonda, the chairman of the Privy Council and thus the king’s chief adviser. The fact that Mr Thaksin, who is living in exile in Dubai, is still in contact with the prince is deeply troubling for those same royalists. In a recent interview with a British newspaper, the former prime minister lavishly praised the heir to the throne.” PPT thinks there were many more pressing reasons for the coup in 2006, but this perspective is one frequently aired, especially by those who claim insider military connections.

One of the big public unknowns relates to the privy council. Presumably the prince has his own people he’d like to have advising him when he’s king. The council serves at the will of the monarch, so the prince can boot out the current crop of aged men dominated by military and judicial appointments. The article cites an unnamed “foreign scholar” as saying that the prince’s men “will definitely not have the calibre” of the current council. That’s a big claim for the current lot seem to have created the very situation that the Economist frets about.

Usefully, the Economist also cites the long-running saga of the failed appointment of a police chief. It says that this impasse is reflective of the prince’s poor judgment as Abhisit’s “choice for police chief was blocked by members of his own team, including Nipon Prompan, an aide to Prince Vajiralongkorn, who lobbied for another candidate. A ‘powerful and mighty’ backer was reported to be pushing the second man, a former head of national intelligence under Mr Thaksin. Mr Nipon later resigned from the cabinet. Mr Abhisit was unable to confirm his man, who is currently acting chief. The row exposed Prince Vajiralongkorn’s clumsy meddling. It also provoked apoplexy among King Bhumibol’s courtiers, says a palace source. Prince Vajiralongkorn was told that ‘we don’t do things like this,’ the source says.”

But as the article points out, this is something of a fib as “the palace has long patronised loyalists in the army and bureaucracy.” Indeed, the palace always makes known who it wants in important position. Thaksin has plenty of time to regret the palace-pushed appointment of 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin as army chief. The article states that “Vajiralongkorn is itching to meddle in the annual autumnal shuffle of senior jobs in the armed forces and extend his support base, says a senior Asian diplomat. How far he succeeds may determine how long he lasts.” And, it raises the “possibility [of] … a royal pardon for Mr Thaksin so that he can return to manage state affairs for the new king.”

The Economist then turns to the question of what to do about the monarchy and succession, suggesting that a “way out of this predicament would be to shrink the Thai monarchy back to its previous size. Top-down reform of the institution is more palatable than a push from below with republican overtones. Under King Bhumibol its stock has fallen already from its zenith…”. PPT is not sure why republicanism is to be feared. After all, there are plenty of stable republics around. We would have thought that a shrinking of the monarchy would only be useful if it is combined with an enhancement of democratic governance.

The Economist seems to write of PPT when is observes that: “Some might argue that King Bhumibol shares the blame for the failure of democratic institutions to take root in Thailand.” That’s undoubtedly true, and was a point made many years ago by the Australian academic Kevin Hewison when he noted the king’s personal disdain for political principles associated with democracy. In part because of this disdain and the fear of the masses, Thailand has become “a cautionary tale of a botched democracy.”

Of course none of this debate about the monarchy and succession is the stuff of national debate and consideration in Thailand. This is due to the threat of “arrest under the lèse-majesté laws or a new, equally nasty computer-crimes law.” It is claimed that under the present king “the silencing of opponents has been controversial, but many tolerate it out of respect. Prince Vajiralongkorn can expect no such leeway.”

Then a really neat piece of gossip is added, from Sulak. He claims that the king has sent out “three trusted emissaries to present ideas for reforming the institution…”. Interesting, but with the article, PPT agrees that a “radical rethink seems unlikely.” In any case, the article then cogitates for a few paragraphs on potential reforms and worries about the monarchy’s total lack of transparency, most especially on the public funds that it takes by the truckload. It also worries about the grand patronage system means that “elected ministers who care about their careers are continually looking over their shoulders for signals from the palace. Mr Abhisit attends so many royal ribbon-cuttings that it is hard to imagine how he finds time to govern…”.

The article finishes by noting that this debate should be held in Thailand, but that “Royal censorship has kept much of this debate under wraps. That is a pity.”

More on class

20 03 2010

Pravit Rojanaphruk writing at Prachatai (18 March 2010) has comments on “class war”. He begins by noting that the “mainstream mass media has been so busy blasting Thaksin Shinawatra for being the cause of all political evil that it has failed to see the seeds of the class struggle that have been germinating since the 2006 coup.” PPT agrees and it is clear that the red shirt tactics of blood sacrifice and class warfare have scared the government and its supporters.

Pravit notes that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban has expressed concern about talk of a class war. Today (Friday), public television has been drenched by anti-red shirt propaganda and slabs of speech and interview with a quite agitated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They have clearly been spooked by a number of the red shirt activities. One example is seen in the spot that suddenly appeared under the heading “How’d you like to have blood poured on your place?” In the spot, “average” people are asked to comment on the red shirt’s “blood sacrifice,” with the most disturbing comment being that those who did this “are not Thai.”

Some of Abhisit’s talk on television has running footers supposedly showing SMS messages sent in, some of them in English. All were positive. PPT sent one that said: “You seem overly agitated and worried.” It didn’t appear.

Pravit observes that the discussion of class exploitation and unequal political voice has been growing among the red-shirt protesters, most of whom are dirt poor with little or no formal education. Well-to-do Bangkokians only have to see the welcome given by the capital’s working class to their red-shirt counterparts to recognise this.” True, but if they are watching and reading mainstream media, they’ll know nothing of it.

Just as PPT has observed in recent posts, Pravit notes that in red shirt “songs, grievances and angst” it is all “about class inequality as well as socio-economic and political disparity. The sense of injustice and inequality in Thai politics and society is real and has struck a chord with many in the Bangkok working and lower middle-class…”. Pravit makes this important point: “The point is not whether the number of protesters is more or less than 100,000, because there are enough red-shirt sympathisers upcountry and in the slums of Bangkok. And judging by yesterday’s motorcade the poor are a force to be reckoned with even if they are going to disperse in the next few days. What will not disappear though is that, with or without Thaksin, there is growing recognition that the poor are oppressed and exploited, and their demands for greater socio-political and economic equality have gone unheeded by many in the mainstream mass media, which continues writing columns lambasting Thaksin.

And this is equally perceptive: “The level of disdain and bias among the educated middle-class and the elite, mostly in Bangkok, is appalling. They’re not just ignorant about the plight of the poor, but are indifferent to it. The level of real contact between the middle-class and the elite with the poor is mostly superficial and confined to relationships where the latter are servants and subordinates. The middle-class and elite feel that they are entitled to being superior and that the poor should know their place in life. Therefore, when the poor continue supporting Thaksin, many of the well-off folk in Bangkok have no problems supporting a military coup.” Pravit, you’ve done it again. Absolutely spot on.

Pravit finishes by arguing that it is the “upper echelons of society [that] have been screwing-up Thailand for the past many decades” and suggests that it “might be fair for the poor to now say: ‘Enough is enough’, and seek a chance to run or ruin this country…”. This phrase “enough is enough” was a neat little slogan on red shirt placards that PPT saw last Sunday.

We said these are interesting times. Now with privilege and position apparently being directly challenged, they are again dangerous times. This “establishment” has show time and again its willingness to protect its interests using draconian means.

Class war

18 03 2010

The Bangkok Post (18 March 2010), The Nation and a bunch of other mainstream media seem suddenly surprised by red shirt ideas about class warfare. It would seem that their reporters haven’t been watching, listening or reading red-shirt media or even bothering to listen to what red shirt speakers say during their current rally.

As PPT noted in our report on the red shirt rally last Sunday, the class war rhetoric is there. For some time the red shirts have resurrected and used the term “phrai” (connoting commoners) to describe their supporters’ social position and have long described elements of unfairness in Thai society as making people slaves (“that”) in their own land. All of this fits neatly with the criticism of aristocrats and “amart.”

For the Bangkok Post, which has been running its own class war for some time against the red shirts – hordes, mobs descending on Thailand in pick ups and trucks, paid off to protest, deliberately under-estimating rally numbers, and so on – the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’s class war is an affront. It means “a protracted protest …[and] a plan to mobilise pickup trucks to descend on Bangkok’s streets on Saturday.” This move was to “drum up support for … a class war” as red shirts recruit support in Bangkok.

UDD claims that they have “received warm support from Bangkok people over the past three days as the red shirts marched to various places” is deeply unsettling for the Post and like-minded red shirt opponents. The sight of hundreds of people in Bangkok waving anything red and cheering the red shirt cavalcades as they pass is shocking. It may be why the military-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva government is increasing its surveillance and pressure on the red shirts.

It might also explain the re-emergence of conspiracy stories from the government. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban was quoted as believing that “the UDD rally might drag on, amid reports that it was receiving more financial support. He said money was being transferred to UDD co-leaders through three businessmen involved in politics. They had avoided state scrutiny by running international businesses as a front…”. It is essentially a re-hash of an old claim, but why now? New claims are that Puea Thai Party MPs in the Northeast, who have been quiet during the red shirt rally are now stumping up money to support the demonstrators.

Meanwhile, senators and MPs are continuing to press the Democrat Party to attend parliament – it seems, as PPT pointed out earlier, that Abhisit has forgotten his earlier claims about parliament.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post reports that despite a “massive security cordon” red shirt protesters threw blood out on the outside of Prime Minister Abhisit’s sealed-off home on Sukhumvit 31. Some protesters threw what was allegedly blood in bags at the house and on its roof.

Interestingly, another group of red shirts “marched on the Nakhon Ratchasima residence of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda.” They smeared blood on a picture of the privy council president.

The protesters then moved to the US embassy. They did this because of claims by Suthep and others that the intelligence claims made by the government last week of “sabotage” and terrorism associated with the red shirt rally came from foreign sources. Over the next day or so PPT expects we will hear more about this government claim. It isn’t clear that foreign government’s maintain serious intelligence gathering operations in Thailand, but if they do, some of the intelligence is weak. For example, Suthep made a claim that two high-rise buildings were to be targets. PPT can claim to have heard this claim made in late December by a taxi driver. Is that the same source for this claim, three months later?

Are foreign intelligence also the source for PM’s Office Minister Sathit Wongnongtoey’s claim, reported in The Nation (18 March 2010) that “Intelligence organs have warned of an assassination plot against Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which is why he had to take cover inside the 11th Infantry Regiment base…”? A police spokesman referred to “death squads” targeting Abhisit and other big shots. PPT wonders about this, especially as Sathit has long been prone to outrageous claims, especially when the government is under pressure.

These remain interesting days.

Weekend commentaries on Thailand

19 04 2009

There have been a series of reports in Western and Asian regional newspapers reflecting on recent events in Thailand. While we do not agree with every element of these articles, PPT wishes to provide some links:

We are not stupid: PPT was struck by the piece by Peter Alford in The Australian (18 April 2009: “The raw colour of acrimony”) who has been in Chiang Mai. He begins with this: “the national news media was proclaiming that the red shirts were irrevocably disgraced by their rampage in the capital, the absent Thaksin Shinawatra really was finished now, and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had transformed himself from a hapless weakling last Saturday to the personification of an iron fist in a velvet glove by his crackdown this week.” Alford warns against accepting this perspective. A Chiang Mai UDD leader says, “… we will go back to fight.”Alford then quotes an unemployed tour guide standing in an angry group outside Chiang Mai’s Wararot Grand Palace hotel, “They think we’re stupid up here…. But we know what’s going on. We know why they shut our radio station and leave the yellow radio alone.”

Chiang Mai deputy governor Pairoth Sangphuwong claimed: “The mood is getting worse… Normally Chiang Mai people are the best, very nice, but now the mood is much worse…. I’m really worried…”. Alford concludes: “The state of emergency will remain during the weekend. Abhisit may have need of it again next week. The red-yellow divide is looking more ominous than ever.”

Class war: Also worth considering is the article by Gwynne Dyer (The Korea Times, 17 April 2009: “Class War in Thailand”). He argues that Thailand’s current politics is a “great deal like 19th-century European politics.” He continues: “Thailand’s democracy is less than 20 years old, and it was the growing Thai middle class that made it happen – just as it was the middle class in European countries that made the revolutions happen there in the 1800s. In both cases, they were doing it for themselves, not for the poor.” When the middle classes got what they wanted – “mainly political equality”  – they soon “discovered to their horror that the poor were also infected by this idea of equality.”

This provided a stark choice for the comfortable middle classes: “Either they made a political deal that brought the poor into the system economically, or they lived forever in fear of the day when the angry poor broke into their homes.”It seems clear that Thailand’s middle classes have made their initial choice. Reflecting on yellow shirt politics, Dyer says, “In the parts of the world that know democracy better, the notion that the demands of the poor can be dealt with simply by disenfranchising them seems crazy ― and we have the history to prove it. At the moment, however, it clearly doesn’t sound like a crazy idea to many middle-class Thais.”

Finally, he warns: “Really bad outcomes to this impasse are possible, including a return to permanent military rule, although that would now require repression on an almost Burmese scale.” More positively – or is it just hope? – Dyer is optimistic that a “likelier outcome is that the Thais will find some way out of their current blind alley and back to democratic normality. The whole history of the past two centuries proves that you have to compromise with the poor. You don’t have to give them all your wealth, but if you want to live in a stable and prosperous country then you do have to share it.”

Other stories: MySinchew (19 April 2009), Boston Globe (19 April 2009), Malaysian Star (19 April 2009), The Straits Times (18 April 2009), The Irish Times (18 April 2009), LA Times (18 April 2009), The Age (18 April 2009), Globe and Mail (17 April 2009)

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