The crown and the crop top

28 11 2020
The Economist’s Michael Peel has a really quite good article in one of the newspaper’s magazines. It’s behind a paywall but deserves to be more widely available, not least for the fabulous graphics. We hope the newspaper can put up with our reproduction of its excellent work:

The crown and the crop top: the king of Thailand in six objects

Decoding the mysterious monarchy that has provoked massive protests

The monarchy has long been treated with deference in Thailand. Until recently, people rarely mentioned the royal family in public except to proclaim their loyalty to it. Thailand is unusual among constitutional monarchies in having a potent lèse majesté law – a prohibition on insulting the royal family. Taking the king’s name in vain can lead to a prison sentence of 15 years.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the current king’s father, commanded genuine respect, though it wasn’t always clear where devotion ended and fear of transgressing the law began. When Bhumibol (pronounced Poom-ee-pon) died in 2016, he was succeeded by his son and heir – a very different public figure.

To many Thais the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn (pronounced Wa-cheera-long-kon) is less worthy of veneration: he is on his fourth marriage, spends most of his time in Germany and has sought to accumulate personal wealth and power, most recently by taking direct command of two army units in Bangkok. Even his mother once described Vajiralongkorn as a “bit of a Don Juan” and suggested he might have to change his ways or quit the royal family.

Over the past few months thousands of young Thais have been staging demonstrations in the streets. In an unprecedented show of defiance, they are not only talking about the monarchy but openly criticising the way it operates. Protesters have many reasons to be frustrated – the army’s influence in politics, choking restrictions on freedom of speech and a wider sense that the gerontocratic Thai elite is closed to new ideas amid a lingering economic malaise. One personality looms over these diffuse grievances: the king.

In theory the Thai monarchy acts as a unifying force and, like its British counterpart, stays out of politics. But a long history of coups by the palace’s allies in the army (most recently in 2014) suggests otherwise. The aura of a quaint, benignly ruled country that Thailand used to project to outsiders is fading. The deliberate opacity of the monarchy doesn’t help. The king rarely gives interviews and the mainstream press is not allowed to probe his role (in a rare interview Vajiralongkorn gave as crown prince in the 1980s, he complained at being the subject of false rumours). When scraps of information about the royal family or images of the king do make it into the public domain, people pore over them, parsing the regal stage props: old fashioned Kremlinology for the media age.

King Vajiralongkorn was formally crowned in 2019 with a two-foot cone of diamond-encrusted gold enamel dating back to the start of the Chakri dynasty in 1782. The Great Crown of Victory is an expression of the mystique with which the Thai royal family has surrounded itself.

For most of history, the Chakris were just another absolutist dynasty. Then, in 1932, an uprising by military officers and bureaucrats forced the monarchy to accept some democratic changes, like a parliament. When Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 he was only 18, and at first depended heavily on generals, business and bureaucratic elites and foreign diplomats. Within this informal alliance everyone worked to promote their mutual interests, a form of monarchical governance so unusual that a new term was coined to describe it: the “network monarchy”.

Over time Bhumibol added to his personal power with ritual and prestige. He pursued archaic practices such as an annual ploughing ceremony, held to mark the start of the rice-growing season, and reinstated a custom that individuals prostrate themselves before the monarch (a predecessor had stopped this in the 19th century, regarding it as demeaning).

The economy boomed under Bhumibol, thanks more to foreign investment and tourism than the agricultural initiatives he championed, like cloud-seeding. One of Bhumibol’s lasting agrarian interventions was to set up a department of royal rainmaking.

The coronation jewels are a potent emblem of a powerful monarchy to which some older Thais feel an almost religious devotion. The crown’s height is supposed to evoke the summit of Mount Meru, the heart of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist cosmologies. Yet the crown also acts as a real-world symbol of an institution reliant on spectacle: at 7kg, it is one of the heaviest coronation crowns still in use today (the St Edward Crown, placed on the head of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, came in at a paltry 2kg). That’s a weighty legacy to bear.

Friends with benefits Beware expensive gifts

Western powers have long played a role in boosting the status of the Thai monarchy. The 1960s and 1970s were not an easy time to be a king in South-East Asia and Bhumibol’s position was greatly strengthened by his close relationship with America. But it’s a friendship with strings attached: there’s a murkier side to the bountiful displays of support and affection.

In 2018 the American embassy in Bangkok held an eye-opening exhibition to celebrate the relationship, entitled “Great and Good Friends”, a reference to a salutation American presidents used in addressing the “kings of Siam”. On display were the extravagant gifts Thai monarchs have bestowed on occupants of the White House.

Come for the gold niello turtle presented to Lyndon Johnson’s baby grandson, and stay for the diamond-embellished vine-woven bags given to Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush when each was First Lady. King Bhumibol and his wife Queen Sirikit toured America twice in the 1960s, appearing on a TV chat show and hanging out with Elvis Presley. The young Thai monarch also met the then-president, Dwight Eisenhower, and gave him a recipe for Thai noodles.

The bonhomie masked a grittier relationship. Thailand agreed to host the American B-52 bombers that pummelled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam war. The king also proved to be a valuable propaganda asset: as a Western-friendly monarch, he stood in contrast to the communists who were sweeping to power in other parts of the region. As Time magazine wrote in 1966, “(The) men who run Thailand are well aware that their youthful king is their – and the nation’s – greatest living asset.” The long line of the Chakri dynasty belies a frailty at its heart: the friends, and compromises, it has been forced to make to survive.

In dogs we trust A fuss over Foo Foo, the prince’s poodle

Dogs have featured heavily in the life of Thai monarchs. King Bhumibol, a man who projected seriousness and dignity, even wrote a book about his pet mongrel Tondaeng, extolling the virtues of canine obedience. It was widely seen as a prescription for the Thai people. Tondaeng had been a street dog and the message was clear for all: loyalty is not about pedigree, and everyone should know their place.

King Vajiralongkorn’s relationship with his pet poodle Foo Foo was quite different. When he was crown prince he reportedly appointed Foo Foo as an air chief marshal. At a gala dinner for a jazz band from New Orleans, the dog attended wearing “formal evening attire complete with paw mitts”, according to an account relayed in a diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks. “At one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up onto the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses.” When Foo Foo died in 2015, four days of mourning were held for him, complete with Buddhist prayers, before he was cremated.

Foo Foo also became a symbol for the playboy prince’s lifestyle. His fame began with a bizarre video which began circulating on the internet in 2009 showing Vajiralongkorn sat at a table with his third wife, Princess Srirasmi, who was wearing only a G-string. The prince clutched Foo Foo as the couple sang “Happy Birthday” (it’s not clear to whom), and then the princess crouched before the prince and his dog, offering up birthday cake from a silver dish. It’s the kind of surreal behaviour that has only added to the air of menace and unpredictability surrounding Vajiralongkorn.

His Sunday best Demonstrators mock the king’s crop tops

In Thailand King Vajiralongkorn is most often seen parading in his royal regalia, complete with a colourful array of medals. Unusually for a Thai king, however, Vajiralongkorn spends most of his time in Bavaria, where he has been snapped wearing skimpy crop tops, sometimes with elaborate temporary tattoos splayed across his back and arms.

Despite attempts by the generals in Bangkok to scrub these images from Facebook, it’s a look that has been noticed back home. Protesters have started turning up to demonstrations in similar attire, a satirical comment not just on the king’s surprising sartorial choice but what they see as his wider rejection of Thailand and the standards of propriety demanded by his office.

The king’s unorthodox lifestyle is a growing headache for the government in Germany, too. He apparently holed up in a hotel in Bavaria at the start of the coronavirus pandemic (at a time when all such establishments were ordered to close). Members of Bavaria’s state parliament have asked whether the king is liable to pay tax locally. The foreign ministry recently warned Vajiralongkorn not to conduct affairs of state from German soil.

Cementing his power The list of royal assets is long and growing

Protesters often focus their anger on the vast fortune of the royal family. With a total estimated wealth of more than $40bn, Vajiralongkorn is among the richest monarchs in the world. His many assets include a large shareholding in the Siam Cement Group: the lorries and mixers of this industrial giant are ubiquitous, a daily reminder of the king’s economic clout.

The wealth of the Thai monarchy has grown under Vajiralongkorn. Previously, royal investments had been held by the secretive Crown Property Bureau. Information about the bureau’s activities is limited, but it is known to control large amounts of property in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, some of it highly prized (the bureau was reported to have demanded only peppercorn rent for a sprawling plot it leased to the American government for the ambassador’s residence).

Some people already suspected that the bureau was effectively the monarch’s personal piggy bank, but officially at least, it was holding the wealth “in trust for the nation”. In July 2017 Vajiralongkorn personally took over managing the bureau. The following year the bureau announced it had transferred all its holdings to Vajiralongkorn himself, removing the last element of ambiguity about whose money it was.

What a handful “The Hunger Games” defiant salute finds new followers

For years demonstrators in Thailand have staged intermittent protests against the coup-happy army (which is allied to the royal family) and its hold over the political realm. The dynamics of these demonstrations often reflected struggles among the political and business elite, as different sides mobilised their supporters.

Things are different this time. Those who started the current protests in Bangkok are remarkable for their youth – some are still at school. They don’t have an official leader. And they have a radical new agenda: wide-ranging reform of the monarchy itself. Their demands include the right to criticise the royal family, a reduction in its spending and removal from the school curriculum of material glorifying the monarchy.

This new cohort of protesters identifies with the group of rebels fighting despotic oppression in “The Hunger Games”, a series of books and films for young adults. The three-fingered salute of Katniss Everdeen and her fellow freedom-fighters had been used by protesters before in Thailand, but it has become the iconic image of the current demonstrations.

The potential dangers of opposing the Thai royal family are real. In 2018 the bodies of two Thai campaigners against the monarchy were found in the Mekong river in Laos, close to the border with Thailand. The murderers have never been identified. In Bangkok the authorities have arrested many protesters and charged some with sedition. So far the royal response to recent demonstrations has been merely to ask the younger generation to “love the country and love the monarchy”. King Vajiralongkorn has said that Thailand is a ”land of compromise”, but many reckon the biggest scenes in this drama are still to come. The house of Chakri – and those who benefit from it – do not take challenges lightly. ■

ILLUSTRATIONS: JAKE READ

Additional images: Getty, Backgrid, John Burwell, Splash News, AP, Alamy

In addition, The Economist has a very useful little podcast on recent events, which seems to be free to access at: https://embed.acast.com/theintelligencepodcast/athismajesty-displeasure-thailand-santi-monarchypush beginning on Thailand at about 0:50 and running for about 5 minutes.





Thailand’s political blues

16 05 2015

Stanley Weiss, a global mining executive and the founder of  Business Executives for National Security. This is one of those quintessentially American combines of security, big business and former well-linked government officials brought together in a Washington-based “think” tank and policy lobby group. Weiss has an op-ed on Thailand at the Huffington Post. It is interesting for its reflection of thinking amongst these groups in Washington and for the comments on the elite in Bangkok and its considerations on politics.

He begins his musings, apparently from Bangkok, with the cliched image of the king’s first trip to the U.S., as General Sarit Thanarat enlisted the young king in a Cold War PR exercise for the military dictatorship. The king “and his family visited Disneyland and rubbed elbows with Elvis, Bob Hope, and Lucille Ball.” Then they went to Washington for the Cold War allies stuff.

But Weiss reckons the best bit was the kings “jam” with jazz musicians “Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and other jazz greats.” We have previously mentioned some assessments of the king’s alleged talents, with the most critical being from Buddy Rich.

So Weiss’s claim that the king’s “knack for improvisation has served him well — on stage and on the throne” might be suspect, but it is something of a rhetorical device for the op-ed that looks at politics and succession: “When the music stops and the world’s longest-serving monarch is gone, what — or who — will fill the void?”

The obvious response and it has been made for years since at least the late 1970s,  is that “Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, whom the king declared, in 1972, to be his successor. But the prince — an infamous playboy — is as scorned…”. The alternative, also spoken of for years, is Sirindhorn. Weiss reveals that some members of the Thai elite believe that “now that the law of succession has been amended to allow the king to choose any of his children.”

We are not sure that this is factually correct. Perhaps he means the constitution? But then, back in late 2014, there was discussion of the law being altered. There was also a fake succession announcement. Can any reader enlighten us as to whether the puppet National Legislative Assembly passed a revised law to parliament and had it promulgated? Have we missed something as significant as this? Or is it PPT’s aged memory suffering loss?

Weiss then claims to have spoken with “a Thailand expert” about succession. The response was about how to keep the prince off the throne:  “There are many ways around it,” while adding: “It’s very important who is the prime minister at the time of the succession.” That is the essentially the argument put by Andrew Marshall, and it is said that “who sits on the throne is merely a proxy for a larger fight.”

That larger fight is the well-known struggle between voters “who support the populist policies of the self-made billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister” and the “revolution” he unleashed by providing some Thais a view that saw “a rural sense of exclusion from government.”

A “banker and member of the Bangkok elite” is then cited: “Thaksin, despite his faults, is one of the few that progressed democracy in Thailand…. Thaksin brought awareness of the value of the vote.” Few of the royalist elite would agree, yet Thaksin did create a demand for some voice via the ballot box.

The usual claims that Thaksin represented vote buying via “policy corruption” is repeated from a “Thai journalist.” Yet Weiss seems to agree that when Yingluck Shinawatra was impeached by “legislators in the military-stacked assembly later voted to impeach Yingluck for ‘dereliction of duty’ over the rice subsidy,” it was the end of democracy and rule of law. He cites analyst David Merkel who “dryly notes” that this move was “akin to impeaching a U.S. president over an ethanol subsidy, pork barrel spending, or a dairy program…”.

He says the 2014 coup was “a power play by Bangkok’s elite” to ensure that “traditional royalists, and the military, are running the country when the king dies…”. That seems reasonable, although we think there were plenty of other reasons why the brass intervened.

Weiss cites “a Thai investment banker” asking if “the change in the monarchy … [will] force the country to grow up?” PPT thinks this is a good question. However, a better question is whether the military will ever allow Thailand to maturer politically? To do that, it has to relinquish its desire to intervene. Yet it is such a corrupt and murderous clique that it fears letting anyone else engage in “reform.”

The king claimed to play jazz. Thailand sings the political blues.





Making king

10 01 2013

Readers will find two quite different sources of interest on the broad topic of how the current monarchy was constructed.

The first is a recent post by Zen Journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall that deserves attention. Earlier he posted on King Ananda’s death based on an account by Kenneth Landon, a  former missionary and U.S. government operative, who had a huge influence on U.S. policy to Thailand around WW2 and into the 1950s. In another snippet from that oral history, Landon has an intriguing account of an evening at the Grand Palace on 26 December 1945, for drinks with King Ananda Mahidol, Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej, and their mother Sangwan. Listen to it here.

The other source is a much more detailed account of the United States and its role in making the modern monarchy as part of a Cold War, anti-communist strategy. There are several instances in a new (to PPT anyway) set of interviews with diplomats, operatives and spies who served in Thailand over the period from the end of the Pacific War until the late 20th century. Be aware that clicking the link downloads a 900+ page document).

One snippet, of many, has Paul Good, a Junior Officer Trainee in USIS based in Ubol (1963-1965) and then a Field Support Officer in Bangkok (1966-1968). He says:Commies

We were in effect a PR (public relations) unit for the Thai government. We would pass out pictures of the king….

We were looking for dependable allies in the region. We were going to do everything we could to make sure that Thailand was one of those. We were constantly out while I was up in Ubol….

The purpose was to show the people that the King was thinking of them and taking care of them and interested in listening to what they had to say, on the theory that if the people were supportive of the King, that he would be the binding force, the focal point for all attention, and there wouldn’t be any susceptibility to the communist influence which was coming in on the Laotian and Cambodian sides from Vietnam. That was the theory. We pinned up a lot of pictures of the King, which were printed in our Manila printing plant….

Reading the interviews shows the many ways in which modern Thailand was shaped by the Cold War politics of the United States and that the monarchy became important in the U.S. strategy.





Conjuring royal anniversaries

25 08 2012

After watching Weekend at Bernie’s, PPT reading bits of The Nation to find yet another piece of royalist nonsense and, we guess, more funding of royalist symbolism by unknowing taxpayers. How many anniversaries can the palace’s propagandists come up with? In this case, inflicting it on New Zealanders, the “Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra is off to New Zealand next week to perform three shows next week in celebration of the golden jubilee of His Majesty the King of Thailand’s visit to the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.” The orchestra has 85 musicians and a large number of others who will also travel to New Zealand.

Yes, 1962, when New Zealand was a tiny place and an anti-communist ally of the United States and, by extension, military-run Thailand. It was that military regime, supported by the king, that sent him around the world, touting Thailand as a front line state in Cold War.

There’s a little information on the 1962 visit here. This was on the same visit that saw demonstrations in Australia and the refusal of faculty at the Australian National University to confer an honorary degree on the king.

On this visit, Noppadon Theppitak, Thailand’s ambassador to New Zealand, Tonga and Samoa says: “We are trying to get away from the purely Asian side of Thai culture and are therefore not presenting through muay thai, traditional Thai dance or khon [masked dance]. Instead, we will be showing the New Zealand people that Thai musicians are every bit as talented as their Western counterparts and we will also be honouring our monarch’s natural musical abilities by playing some of his compositions…”. This is the great man line that the palace endlessly pushes.

Apparently the visit falls under the jurisdiction of a man who comes from the “Land of the Small White Lie,” Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Kittiratt Na Ranong. You would guess that the event would be open to the public, but apparently not: “The Thai ambassador says that the audience for the concerts will be made up of government officers, businessmen, the diplomatic corps and Thais living in New Zealand.” An audience of the trusted perhaps. That seems little “return” after doling out airfares for probably more than 100 persons, transport of equipment, accommodation and so on.

Just in case Kiwis forget that this is all about a little remembered visit, a “photo exhibition of His Majesty the King touring New Zealand between August 18 and 26, 1962 will also be shown, with images of his stops in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch.”

How many more anniversaries can the palace propaganda machine conjure up? They seem remarkably adept at finding ways to use taxpayer funds to promote a vision of “royalist Thailand” and of the monarchy itself.

We can’t help wondering, though, if anyone in New Zealand is likely to point out that at the very time of this hugely expensive celebration for an ailing and old king, a New Zealand citizen is currently languishing in a Thai mental hospital, prevented from leaving the country and returning to New Zealand, accused of insulting the king. That’s a charge that could land her in jail for many years.





Royalist minds

4 02 2012

The opposition to Nitirat and discussion of the lese majeste law has been reported extensively. It has been pretty threatening, not least because some of the comment from high levels has been meant to strike fear and to silence people.

That’s why it is so encouraging to see some of those supporting freedom of expression speaking out and being reported. We acknowledge that doing this is a brave act as those speaking out risk public scolding and out of the limelight, threats and worse. Hate emails are especially common, and these usually include threats.

It is in this turbid, even rancid, atmosphere that The Nation reports on academics speaking out.

Most outspoken – at least that is how it comes across in the report – was political scientist Kasian Tejapira. He points out that some Thais “have not left the absolute-monarchy system.” He explains:

Some Thais still relate to the monarchy institution as if they lived under an absolute monarchy, leading them to become enraged when faced with people they think want to criticise the institution…. This outlook also causes them to regard anyone who wants to repeal or abolish the lese majeste law….

Comments like this, pointing out a conservative royalism, should not be controversial for they are absolutely obvious. The ultra-royalists would prefer an absolute monarchy. However, in the current atmosphere, Kasian will likely be seen as driving a stake into the hearts of ultra-royalists.

That’s even when he urges “those critical of the monarchy and the lese majeste law to refrain from using hate speech or strong words and bear in mind that they’re dealing with people who believe they love the institution ‘most’.”

In fact, though, most of the hate speech originates with those opposing Nitirat and lese majeste.

Panus Tassaneeyanond, a former dean of Thammasat’s Law Faculty pointed out that the media has fanned “hatred through the supply of one-sided information.” Panus agreed with Kasian:

He also acknowledged that many ultra-royalists did not care about details of the proposed amendment, and simply regarded supporters of the move as anti-royalists. The mentality of these ultra-royalists is that of people living under an absolute monarchy….

As PPT alluded in an earlier post, this conservative royalism is not so much a hangover of an earlier historical period as a constructed ideological position. We would place the effort to build royalism, while always there for the palace as it battled to re-establish its power and wealth after 1932, it was the Cold War that brought the military, the palace and the bureaucracy together to build royalism and nationalism into an anti-communist brew that had “loyalty” at its core.





The U.S. and the Thai military

18 06 2011

The United States government has been remarkably quiet on the political events in Thailand and said almost nothing of any significance about the bloody crackdowns on demonstrators in April and May 2010. In fact, since the military coup in 2006, the U.S. has taken the position that their trusted allies in Thailand are the military, the palace and the Democrat Party. After all, the U.S. played an important Cold War role in promoting the first two and has had close relations with the Democrat Party for decades.

PPT has long observed that the advisers in Washington who have the ear of U.S. policymakers are conservative and connected to palace and military in Thailand. Most of them are from an era when these forces were the only ones that really mattered, and they almost feel comfortable now that the Democrat Party is the mia noi of the military. Those dinosaur advisers keep telling policymakers that dealing with the Democrat Party is easier than any other party because the Democrat Party is full of “people like us.”

Thus, it is only momentarily shocking to read at Asia Provocateur that U.S. Marines are training Thai army snipers! In the linked report, Gunnery Sgt. Victor Lopez, scout sniper chief instructor with Weapons Platoon, Landing Force Company, says: “The sniper has only two things on his mind; the fact that he is about to take someone’s life, and how he is going to do that.” PPT thinks that the Thai Army’s snipers already know this. After all, it was only just over a year since these snipers brutally cut down civilians with head and chest shots. Another trainer stated: “We want to impart some of our sniper culture…. They did really well and we want to inspire them to build their own sniper culture.” This is the culture of the brotherhood of cold-blooded murder of civilians, and it is, in fact, a culture deeply rooted in the Thai Army.

The State Department’s human rights policies and statements are in tatters. Human rights abuse is central to U.S. foreign policy. Human rights have always taken last place when it comes to dealing with authoritarian “allies,” but this account should surely be shocking to right thinking people in Thailand and the U.S. As it did during the Cold War, the U.S. is quite simply training murderers who use their skills to suppress and kill their own people. There’s more on the U.S. relationship with the Thai military in the story cited in the following paragraph.

PPT won’t add more to that story as Andrew Spooner has it covered. However, we want to add a little more, based on a useful report at the Asia Times Online. There it is reported that in addition to the abovementioned lethal training, on 10 June, the “United States Marines have finished training Thailand’s military and police to use electroshock Tasers to inflict ‘intense pain’, shoot a blinding neurotoxin spray and explode non-lethal grenades…”. As the report adds, this training is just “one year after the Thai army unleashed snipers and armored personnel carriers against an anti-coup insurrection in Bangkok in which 91 people died.”

US Marine Corps spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Curtis L. Hill is reported to have stated that: “The purpose of the NOLES [Non-Lethal Weapons Executive Seminar 2011] training is to promote the use of non-lethal equipment in peacekeeping and develop the relationship between the civilian police and military, with an emphasis on preventing and stopping human-rights violations…”. So let’s try to get this right…. “non-lethal” is about human rights and sniper training is about….

What is the U.S. on about? One can imagine the U.S. Embassy saying that NOLES is about protecting human rights and minimizing casualties so that demonstrators aren’t brutally gunned down. Meanwhile, training snipers is developing a culture of efficient murder.

NOLES ’11 is said to have been specifically designed “to improve capabilities to maintain order during civil unrest.” In other words, the U.S. has involved itself in Thailand’s political struggles, choosing to support institutions that have a long record of human rights abuses and using U.S.-supplied weapons to wantonly murder opponents and civilians. This recent training even involved using mock incapacitating sprays against “a simulated uncontrolled crowd…”. As the report states: “Other lessons by the Marines included how to fire an M-203 grenade launcher, and load non-lethal ammunition into a Mossberg shotgun.”

PPT could excitedly proclaim that the U.S. should be ashamed that it continues to support regimes that murder and imprison, but what would be the point? After all, this is standard operating procedure.

 

 





Limited Debate on Thailand

27 07 2010

A bit off PPT’s usual tack, but a story in The Nation caught our attention. It has a report on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and the Global Environment hearing on Thailand’s political crisis that led to the House of Representatives bland and non-binding Resolution 1321 that was supported by almost all. This was back on 10 June, and the story probably reflects the fact that journalist just got around to reading the statements. The opening statement by Eni F.H. Faleomavaega is revealing of the intent of the sponsor.

One of the interesting points is that a “panel of Asian/Thai academic experts” is mentioned as providing testimony. They were: Dr Richard Cronin of the Stimson Centre (his statement is here), Dr Karl Jackson who is a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (see his testimony) and Catharin Dalpino, visiting associate professor and director of the Thai Studies Program at Georgetown University (statement). They were joined by Scot Marciel of the State Department.

By the way, it is better to read their statements/evidence than to rely on The Nation’s report. There’s also a webcast and this seems to be The Nation’s reference, but PPT can’t get it to work.

For PPT, one interesting thing here is that only relatively conservative commentators were at the hearings and yet they came up with mildly divergent views. At the same time, they pussyfoot around, with barely a mention of the monarchy in their statements. A second point is that each of these speakers is a kind of policy, inside-the-beltway policy people who are not really Thailand experts. None of them has produced major political analysis on Thailand. What has happened to Thai studies in the U.S.? Where are the political scientists? There are some – for example, Allen Hicken at Michigan, Kevin Hewison at UNC-Chapel Hill, Danny Unger at NIU – but their views are not heard. PPT can only wonder why this is when these specialist academics have written extensively on recent politics.

It is noticeable that, since the Cold War/Vietnam War days, Thai studies in the U.S. has been in decline. That’s a shame but the recent crisis may at least have more students thinking that Thailand is a place worthy of critical study.





Terrorists and Marxist-Leninists

13 06 2010

In an earlier post, PPT mentioned that Thailand’s special envoy to the U.S. would speak at the Asia Society. In that post we expressed some skepticism, noting that the visit was advertised as to “rehabilitate Thailand’s image” following the government’s crackdowns on red shirt demonstrators, resulting in thousands of deaths and injuries and hundreds of political prisoners. The regime has also told “Thailand’s friends” that they are expected to do more to “help.”

AFP reports on this visit by Kiat Sittheeamorn, who is said to be seeking U.S. support in the country’s political crisis, discouraging the kingdom’s longtime ally from trying to mediate in the wake of bloody street protests.” If that sound like a double-handed approach, it is. The Abhisit Vejjajiva military-backed regime wants the U.S. to abstain from criticism and support it, despite the government’s authoritarianism.

Abhisit and his military backers throw people in prison under emergency rule, kill protesters and engage in levels of censorship not seen since 1976-77, and hopes the U.S. will ignore this. They just might, as the U.S. has a long record of supporting authoritarian government in Thailand and plenty of other places.

The elite supporters of the Abhisit government were all schooled during the Cold War and so it is not all that surprising to hear Cold War rhetoric return. Envoy Kiat has been “dispatched  to Washington to make the case that so-called Red Shirt protesters who occupied central Bangkok for weeks included armed and Marxist elements.”

Kiat is reported as meeting “with members of Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration on Friday” and said thanks for the advice, but that the Abhisit government has its own plan, inadequately described as a “reconciliation plan.” He reckons that outside interference will only further complicate things.

For PPT, complicating things might be necessary as the Abhisit government’s approach is way too simplistic. You get an idea of the lack of complex thinking when Kiat compares Thaisland’s recent events to those of  the 11 September attacks in the U.S. Oddly, in talking of Thailand’s response then was by the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

And it gets worse because Kiat dissembles: “We always respect the decisions of any government; it’s their right.” That’s a pile of fermented fish. Think Cambodia of late. But the point is to ask for support from “friends” whatever the Abhisit government decides to do.

Kiat comes up with the now usual platitude that “some” Red Shirts had “legitimate grievances,” but that the events of March-May were not a “straight-forward demonstration” because of the other standard line – armed groups – and the recycled Cold War slogan, “Marxist-Leninist ideologists.”

It seems that this line was accepted by “Senator Jim Webb, who heads the Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia, [who] recently visited Thailand and agreed that aspects of the Red Shirts were ‘classic Marxist’.”

What constitutes classic Marxism for Webb? Here’s a statement that would be unworthy of an undergraduate but would be neatly fitted into 1950s McCarthysim: “You had the incitement of people based on poor versus the rich in a country that has made enormous advances over the last 30 years,” Webb said.

Don’t expect anything much that is logical from either the Abhisit dissemblers or from U.S. policymakers. Thailand doesn’t matter all that much and support is easier than having problems.

A U.S. academic who seems to have some influence in policy circles, Catharin Dalpino, who is said to be “director of the Thai studies program at Georgetown University,” but who has a remarkably sparse record on academic work on Thailand,  said the “United States had a stake in Thailand’s stability but needed to exercise restraint. Unlike many other countries since the Cold War, Thailand transitioned to democracy without foreign involvement, she said.”

Maybe Dalpino missed the 2006 coup? Maybe she missed the military’s involvement in the 2008 maneuverings to get Abhisit in place? Maybe she’s missed all the killing and censorship? Or maybe she is a “friend of Thailand” doing the assigned job?

If this AFP report is accurate, the Kiat visit to the U.S. is a farcical propaganda exercise, supported by simplistic – downright stupid – views in the U.S. from Dalpino and Webb.





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.