Fear and unintended consequences I

18 04 2017

Yet another strange media event highlights the politics of the new reign.

Yesterday it was reported that the dead king’s funeral would take place on 26 October. Later in the day, Khaosod has published this, with the black nothingness being in the original:

Note to Readers: Removal of An Article About a Palace Announcement
Khaosod English
April 18, 2017 6:41 pm

From the Editors of Khaosod English.

Khaosod English has deleted an April 18 article about a certain statement made by the royal palace.

The story was removed because the announcement was not yet released formally by the palace, and Khaosod’s editorial management feared that the content in the article might lead to legal action.

As a news agency based in Thailand, Khaosod English is obliged to comply with Thai law. However, we strive to serve the public interest by presenting objective, accurate news reports.

That the newspaper is unable to present “objective, accurate news reports” due to the monarchy is nothing new. However, the fear that is seen in bizarre news reporting like this, under the new reign, is now part of a commentary.

We have briefly mentioned a New Mandala op-ed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun on fear in the new reign. Earlier we mentioned an op-ed by Claudio Sopranzetti also writing of fear.

While we agree that fear now seems central to the new reign under the erratic and violent King Vajiralongkorn, we do not agree with their contrasting references to the previous reign as one that was one of love and reverence. Idealizing the previous reign is a political mistake based on an incomplete reading of history.

In fact, the previous reign was also one that was defined by patronage and a feeling of impending danger, leading to bizarre politics. Yet for the earlier period of the reign there was also a political struggle as the palace sought to revive monarchy and royalism, along with its wealth and power.

It is in this sense, that the last 10 years marked the political success of that strategy, even if the king was not particularly involved, being hospitalized for the last decade or so of his reign.

Yet his proxies demonstrated a bizarre pattern of rightist and royalist politics that were a direct result of the monarchy’s manufactured position, power and influence. They fought the ghosts of the past and what they perceived as the threat to their position and power that had come from monarchism. That threat was seen in popular sovereignty.

It is in this sense that the current reign is the true and real outcome of that struggle and its politics.

Royalists have always known that Vajiralongkorn is a thug and unstable yet they now seem  somewhat confused that they have aided and abetted a new reign that sees monarchism moving towards an absolutism that they may not have contemplated.

Confusion will lead to bizarre politics and bizarre acts as those who consider themselves part of the royalist ruling class maneuver for influence.

Yet this is also a dangerous time for both the ruling class and for the monarchy as missteps in this small circle of the rich and powerful can have unintended consequences that threaten both.





On Vajiralongkorn

12 04 2017

It is six months since the late king passed and just over four months since the then crown prince acceded the throne. The first of the assessments are appearing on “the reign so far.”

One of these is by Claudio Sopranzetti at Al Jazeera. It may soon be blocked in Thailand.

Essentially, Sopranzetti makes an argument that Vajiralongkorn is a nasty piece of work seeking to ensconce himself and his privilege in ways that are different from the manner in which his father operated. His father was a networker while Vajiralongkorn is a thug.

This is not the potentially “democratic” king envisaged by another observer.

One might think that succession to a throne would see changes made to the royal household. Indeed, there have been such changes in the Thai royal household, but these have been completed in nasty, even vengeful ways.

That Vajiralongkorn is vengeful, thuggish and nasty should not come as a shock to anyone who has watched the royal family over the years. Those characteristics, along with his womanizing and his need for money, defined his life as crown prince. He’s also considered himself a military man, and the “military discipline” he seems to have imposed in the palace matches the vile treatment of recruit to the military.

That members of the elite now fear the erratic new king is to be expected, and if it is only now that they are making hasty contingency plans, then they can only blame themselves for not fully believing the stories they all knew to be true.

Perhaps the most interesting issue is how interventionist King Vajiralongkorn is going to be.

Sopranzetti gets a few things wrong. The lese majeste law was not introduced in 1957; Vajiralongkorn did not spend most of his adult life overseas (depends a bit on the definition of “adult”); he’s wrong that “changes provide the King with complete control over the appointment of a regent in his absence” for the king has long had this control and had it under the earlier version of the new constitution under Article 16. What he has now is the capacity to not appoint a regent when he’s overseas. He’s also wrong to reproduce bits and pieces of palace propaganda as fact.

He is right to say that with the “new constitution Vajiralongkorn will wield more power over the parliament than his father ever did.” However, no one should conclude that the previous reign was not highly interventionist. The previous king was forever meddling, sometimes on his own and often through trusted intermediaries. His relationship with particular military leaders meant that his view always counted.

What is in doubt is exactly how King Vajiralongkorn will intervene. So far, he seems intent on maintaining royal powers. His intervention on the constitution essentially rolled back changes that sought to deal with the end of the last reign and the political fallout from interventionism.

The new king sees no reason for the changes, so it is probably reasonable to assume that his future interventions will be erratic and nasty.





Talking about crisis and monarchy

16 11 2014

PPT was unable to post an announcement about the discussion that recently took place in London at the Frontline Club. We make up for that failure by linking to a report on the event, which also includes a video of the event:

The panel was chaired by Simon Baptist, chief economist and Asia Regional Director at the Economist Intelligence Unit and included four speakers:

Andrew MacGregor Marshall is a journalist, political risk consultant and corporate investigator, focusing mainly on Southeast Asia. He spent 17 years as a correspondent for Reuters, covering amongst others conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and political upheaval in Thailand. He is author of A Kingdom in Crisis.

Claudio Sopranzetti is a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University All Souls College and the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red-Shirt Movement.

Eugénie Mérieau is a lecturer in political sciences and law at the University of Sciences-Po in Paris. She is also a political columnist for TV and print media. She recently published The Red-Shirts of Thailand.

Junya ‘Lek’ Yimprasert (via Skype) is a Thai labour rights activist who writes about exploitation at the bottom of supply chains. After the crackdown by military forces in Bangkok in May 2010 she wrote Why I don’t love the King and was charged with lès majesté. She is now a political refugee in Europe, she continues to denounce openly the military junta and interference of Monarchy in political life in Thailand.

The report of the event begins by noting that “if the event … had taken place in Thailand instead of at the Frontline Club in London, members of the … panel could have been jailed” under the lese majeste law.





Wheel of crisis in Thailand

23 09 2014

PPT was sent a link to an online set of papers on Thailand in Cultural Anthropology. The special is edited by by Ben Tausig, Claudio Sopranzetti, Felicity Aulino and Eli Elinoff.

For decades, Thailand has been entangled in a cycle of political turmoil that oscillates between elections, street protests, and coups both military and judicial. Although this dynamic has dominated in Thailand since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, what we term the “wheel of crisis” has increased its rotational speed since the 1997 Asian economic collapse. This Hot Spot series inquires into the underlying conditions of Thailand’s recent political upheavals, with sections focusing on legal and political stuctures (Hewison, Haberkorn, Streckfuss, Sinpeng, Chachavalpongpun, and Winichakul), social divisions and citizenship (Mills, Elinoff, McCargo, and Arafat Bin Mohamad), the turning of civil society against democracy (Phatharathananunth, and Sae Chua), and larger structure questions (Tausig, Sopranzetti, and Aulino).

The list of papers and titles, all available for free download, is:Cultural Anthropology

Introduction: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand by Ben Tausig, Claudio Sopranzetti, Eli Elinoff and Felicity Aulino

Judicial Politicization as Political Conservatism by Kevin Hewison

Article 17, a Totalitarian Movement, and a Military Dictatorship by Tyrell Haberkorn

The End of the Endless Exception?: Time Catches Up With Dictatorship in Thailand by David Streckfuss

The Cyber Coup by Aim Sinpeng

Academic Freedom Under Siege by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Thai “Royalist Democracy”: From Nineteen Eighty-Four to The Great Dictator” by Thongchai Winichakul

Questioning Thailand’s Rural-Urban Divide by Mary Beth Mills

Like Everyone Else by Eli Elinoff

Double Trouble: Thailand’s Two Souths, Thailand’s Two Conflicts by Duncan McCargo

Red Shirts, Yellow Shirts, Same Difference by Muhammad Arafat Bin Mohammad

Civil Society Against Democracy by Somchai Phatharathananunth

Revisiting “People’s Politics” by Bencharat Sae Chua

Party Anthems by Ben Tausig

Political Legitimacy in Thailand by Claudio Sopranzetti

Hierarchy and the Embodiment of Change by Felicity Aulino





The search for the anti-monarchist conspiracy

23 07 2014

Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University All Souls College has a story at Al Jazeera on the military dictatorship’s renewed search for an anti-monarchy cabal and plot. The military junta has been on the hunt for mythical beast since the May 2014 coup.

The previous royalist regime under the puerile Abhisit Vejjajiva produced a “diagram” of a plot. It might have been drawn by elementary school children but was probably military-inspired and drawn.

Sopranzetti  begins:

Two months after the military coup, the Thai junta continues to interrogate, detain, and persecute activists, journalists, and academics. The period of “attitude adjustment”, as the military dictatorship calls these arbitrary detentions, may vary from a few hours to seven days, depending on how far removed the victims are from the fairy tale of peace, unity, and happiness that the junta wants them to repeat.

While these “conversations” have been quite effective in silencing opposition, they also reveal the army’s paranoid belief in the existence of an organised plot to bring down the Thai monarchy. Many among the summoned reported that the interrogators attempted to identify and expose such an organisation. Pitch Pongsawat was among them. A professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and the host of the popular satellite TV programme “Wake Up Thailand”, Pitch wrote of being called up to meet with the army and hearing about an alleged plot to take down the monarchy put together by a structured organisation.

The military dictatorship believes that there is an “organisation revolving around former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, republican intellectuals, and fringes of the Red Shirts” that is seeking to bring down the monarchy.Prayuth planking

We wish there was….

In fact, though, whether the military dolts believe their own nonsense or not, their conspiracy theory is “providing both legitimacy and urgency for unprecedented repressive measures by the Thai military, which has historically presented the protection of the monarchy as their top priority.”

“Historically” is not entirely accurate as the “mission” can only be dated to 1957-8, when General Sarit Thanarat ran his coups and made the monarchy his legitimizing force. The current lot seem to have a 1957-8 model in mind. As the article notes,

The revival of the idea of “enemies of the state” to describe anybody who voices criticism, an important tool for violent military repression of progressive forces during the Cold War, is a sign of Thailand’s slow descent into a new dark era. Once the monarchy and the nation are perceived to be under attack, any form of dissent can be deemed by the military as a real challenge to Thai identity and repressed with any means possible.

Discussing lese majeste, Sopranzetti notes that:

Since the coup on May 22, the junta led by General Prayut Chan-ocha has elevated this strategy to an unprecedented degree and set out to crush the imagined plot against the monarchy. Only in the last  few months, 13 lese majeste cases were filled [filed]. In the military paranoia, enemies of the state are everywhere, from students protesting the coup to media commentators, from vocal taxi drivers to academics advocating for a reform of the law.

Sopranzetti observes that “human history is dotted with similar authoritarian regimes and the disastrous consequences of their quixotic fights against imagined conspiracies.” They may be imagined, but the results for those harrassed, tortured, arrested and killed are real enough.

The author states that it “is undeniable that the Thai monarchy has lost popularity since the palace has been seen as taking sides in the present political crisis, and often voiced to be the mind behind it. However, this discontent is a dispersed murmur rather than an actual conspiracy.”

Things look dark indeed.

 





Red journeys, mainly by motorcycle

26 03 2012

Readers will be interested in a new book Red Journeys: Inside the Thai red-shirt movement by  Claudio Sopranzetti. Very reasonably priced by Silkworm Books at 395 baht, it is about to be launched.

The blurb says:

Red Journeys is a first‐hand account of the emergence and expansion of the red‐shirt protests in Bangkok that took place in 2010. It traces the origins of the protest, focusing on the unique voices, stories, and motives of those who participated in the movement. Sopranzetti vividly depicts daily life in the heart of the movement and when the peaceful occupation descended into violence and neared its tragic end, he describes the final moments of the protest as the red shirts faced the force of the Thai military.

Styled engagingly between ethnography and daily blog, Red Journeys offers an unprecedented analysis of the biggest social movement in Thailand to date and highlights the discrepancies between the “official” media portrayal of the protest and the reality on the ground.