Academic freedom

21 05 2020

We are used to seeing rankings. A relatively new one that PPT recently came across, thanks to a post at New Mandala, that led us here, and then to a ranking on academic freedom. On that last post, we noted Thailand’s abysmal performance.

PPT decided to get to work on the data made available by the efforts of researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) and the V-Dem Institute, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the Global Public Policy Institute. The full report can be downloaded as a PDF. Some might quibble about the ranking and what goes into it, but it is worth thinking about why Thailand does so badly. The result is the graph below:

We were selective, including Thailand’s ASEAN partners, some other countries in the Asian region and Germany as an example of a highly-ranked country and Taiwan and South Korea as highly-ranked countries in the region.

It is obvious that Thailand does very badly indeed, ranking well below all of its ASEAN partners except Laos (we couldn’t locate a score for Cambodia). Thailand even ranks below Vietnam, usually considered a pretty authoritarian state, but where public policy on education is taken quite a lot more seriously than in Thailand. Thailand even ranks behind Saudi Arabia, a despotic monarchy.

Thailand’s low score is no surprise. Thailand’s academics have long suffered state repression, censorship and academics have been prone to self-censorship. And, not a few academics have considered themselves servants of the rich and powerful and promoters of conservative royalism. Most of this latter type are seldom true academics, conducting fearless research and publishing high-quality papers. Rather, they crave lucrative advisory posts and proximity to power. Think of the execrable Panitan Wattanayagorn who grasps his academic position in a claw-like grip while being the servant of murderous generals.





Political appointees to the Constitutional Court

12 02 2020

Continuing the military junta’s practice of appointing protectors of the status quo to the Constitutional Court, the junta appointed Senate selected four new Constitutional Court judges, all of them – as far as we can tell – died-in-the-wool royalists and rightist supporters of the military’s role in politics.

From Ji Ungpakorn’s blog

While it isn’t clear exactly what their qualifications are, those selected are Udom Sitthiwirattham, Wiroon Saengthien, Jiraniti Hawanont, and Noppadol Theppithak.

We did a little digging and found some links, in English, on these new appointees.

Udom Sitthiwirattham is the judge who ruled the project to construct court office buildings and housing for judges and officials on a 147-rai slice of green land near the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park legal. More than that, he “warned that continuing to post comments online or sharing comments online that are deemed to tarnish the reputation of the Appeals Court Region 5 could result in lawsuits.” So he fits in nicely to the Court.

Wiroon Saengthien was appointed by the junta – well, the Supreme Court, but there has been little space between them – to be “in charge of the rice-pledging dereliction of duty against former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.” However, we think this might refer to ” case against former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom and 20 other people for alleged malfeasance, in connection with the sale of government rice under the previous administration’s rice-pledging scheme.” Those are the “credentials” valued by the Senate.

Jiraniti Hawanont was appointed by the junta established following the 2006 military coup to a committee to “probe of allegedly corrupt politicians…”. This was a special graft investigation panel and with “the power to freeze suspect assets.” Again, solid establishment and military-linked credentials. Many of those on the committee were also solid yellow shirts. Jiraniti has also held a position with the Ananda Mahidol Foundation, providing palace links.

There’s less we could find on Noppadol Theppithak. He seems to come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But if that’s so, MFA is renowned for its conservative royalism and support of military dictators.

In other words, don’t expect the Constitutional Court to become anything different from its current politicized self.

Any further information from readers would be appreciated.





Sulak and the king

18 11 2019

The Isaan Record has an interesting interview with Sulak Sivaraksa. Always a conservative royalist, Sulak was once seen as an opponent of lese majeste.

As things developed in the heat of anti-Thaksinism, Sulak flip-flopped between opposing lese majeste in some cases, including his own, but not in others, like those facing Thaksin Shinawatra.

Most recently, the media has given Sulak some credit for getting the current king to stop allowing the use of lese majeste for “protecting” the monarchy.

In this interview, Sulak is quite shocking in his praise of the erratic and absolutist King Vajiralongkorn. Of course, unlike his disdain for the king’s father, Sulak hasn’t yet found a personal reason for denouncing the current monarch. Perhaps murders of dissidents don’t count for Sulak these days.

For all of this posterior polishing of Vajiralongkorn, Sulak does have one useful insight on the monarchy and says some useful things to say about the military and its current political regime.

The one insight is in this statement:

I told His Majesty that I was being unfairly targeted, that the charge of lèse-majesté was just a pretext for silencing me, and he believed me. He instructed the royal secretariat to have the court case dropped immediately. [The king]… is very decisive. If he is going to do something, he doesn’t wait around to do it. I am very grateful indeed. 

Under King Bhumibol, the buffalo manure that came from royalists was that the king had no say in how lese majeste was used. Sulak and Vajiralongkorn have demonstrated that this was always a ridiculous claim.





Updated: Get rid of the junta

19 03 2019

Perhaps the best that can come from the junta’s “election” is a massive vote for anti-military parties a massive vote for anti-military parties, even if those parties are flawed in some ways.

To remind us why this military junta and its government should be sent packing  it is worth recalling disappearances:

  • It is now two years since the extrajudicial killing of Chaiyapoom Pasae on 17 March 2017. What happened when the military involved were “investigated”? Nothing at all, mainly due to cover-ups.
  • The disappearance of all “investigations” of allegations of the junta’s corruption.
  • The missing 1932 memorials while unthinking conservative royalism is promoted.

That’s just a sampler.

Then there’s the repression. One example of many relates to the use of computer crimes laws, recently made worse. And, it is important to recall that this repression is not just directed at the junta’s political opponents.

This is emphasized in a recent and long article at Coda.It begins with the story of the hopelessly flawed Thai police going after a 19-year-old British tourist who claimed she had been raped while visiting Koh Tao. As the report observes, the “allegation was serious and the response was rapid, but not in keeping with the norms of a rape investigation. The local police first denied that the rape had occurred; they also described her accusation as ‘fake’.”

They then went after some overseas dissident media: “In an another remarkable move, police also obtained warrants to arrest the editor of an online Thai newspaper in Britain and the administrator of a dissident Facebook page in California, both of whom had shared or reported on the case.” Followers in Thailand were arrested.

The message was clear to the Thai media: self-censor. Not surprisingly, “there has been little domestic news coverage of the case, even as it has been widely reported in Britain and the United States.”

One of those targeted was “Pramuk Anantasin, the California-based administrator of the CSI LA Facebook page, which has hundreds of thousand of followers and regularly shares stories that are censored in Thailand…”.

But the article points to a different reason for the crackdown: protecting the Chinese tourism market:

To understand Thailand’s censorious response to the alleged rape case, it is important to go back to another tourism-related event which took place around the same time, but one that received even less attention. On July 5, 2018, shortly after the rape, a tour boat sank off the Thai resort island of Phuket, killing 47 of its 93 passengers, nearly all of whom were Chinese. The incident was widely covered in China and, in the coming months, resulted in a large drop off in inbound tourists.

But CSI LA is not off the hook. The head of the junta’s “Judge Advocate General’s office, Col Burin Thongprapai, lodged a complaint Monday, after the Facebook page said the photos ‘proved’ soldiers had been ordered to vote for a certain political party, believed to refer to the pro-regime Palang Pracharath Party…”. The military denies and then sues for “defamation.”

Whether the particular story is true or not, it remains clear that the military leadership has made it absolutely clear who they think the people – including soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen – should vote for.

This is a regime that needs to be ousted. Is it possible? We hope so.

Update: The Nation has an AFP story on why the junta should be sent packing. It is headlined “Deaths, jail and cyber spies: The dangers of dissent in Thailand.”





Further updated: What a day!

9 02 2019

Thai PBS’s headlines

Yesterday was quite a day. Startling, bizarre and almost inexplicable.

The headlines were something to behold.

Of course, none of that seems to have caused the usual pundits from speaking on Ubolratana’s nomination, making all kinds of claims, almost none of which carried much factual content. Speculation reigned.

Then the king intervened, causing the same pundits to say something quite different a few hours later, sometimes contradicting their earlier predictions and speculative claims.

What can we say with some degree of confidence?

Khaosod English’s headlines

First, the idea of a member of the top-most members of the royal family standing as an “outsider” candidate for prime minister shocked most Thais, including politicians. As Khaosod put it:

There was a sudden silence across most of the political spectrum Friday after a royal nomination left a smoking crater in everyone’s election plans.

Many worried about what this meant for political development, observing that regular political robustness might be dampened and some worried how parties might reject her after an election. No one seemed to know what to do. In other words, decades of dull royalist compulsion and repression has left Thailand’s polity and many of its politicians with few options for marking difference and disagreement with the monarchy and royal family.

For example, when asked to comment, the junta’s legal specialist and Deputy PM Wissanu Krea-Ngam had no comment. When asked whether he was surprised, he quipped “Are you?”

The Democrat Party’s Nipit Intarasombat “wouldn’t give a specific response,” but he turned out to be correct when he said: “It’s still too premature. We’ll wait until the dust settles first.” It is a pity the pundits didn’t listen.

Second, royalists were dumbfounded. But more on this below.

Third, we know that Ubolratana was knowingly and wittingly proposed. She “thanked her supporters and vowed to lead the country toward a golden age.” She also declared her “commoner” status.

Fourth, the Future Forward Party took to the high ground, being the first party (as far as we know) to take a position. It restated “its position against a prime minister coming from outside of Parliament…”. That means a non-royal princess too.

Fifth, some royalists managed to oppose this move and did so on quite interesting grounds. This is probably the most significant response to the events. Paiboon Nititawan of the pro-junta People’s Reform Party asked the Election Commission to reject Ubolratana’s nomination. The EC went into hiding.

Paiboon’s reasoning previewed the king’s announcement. He said:

… the monarchy is a sacred institution that must not be drawn into politics, and pointed to an election law which bans any mention or use of the monarchy for political advantage.

Paiboon, a law scholar who has served as a senator and a constitution drafter, also argued that a 2001 Constitutional Court verdict ruled that any royal family member “either born or appointed with” the title of mom chao (the least senior possible rank) must remain neutral in politics.

In another report, he is quoted as stating that:

… Thai Raksa Chart might use the name of the princess for election campaigning. That would breach Section 17 of the election law, which bars candidates and political parties from using the monarchy…

He added:

The rank of nobility as written in some papers is another issue. The state of being a son and a daughter still exists in the royal institution though it is not in mentioned in the constitution. The fact is Princess Ubolratana is respected and treated as part of the royal institution. Use of the royal institution by any political parties is prohibited. It goes against the law….

On social media, Ubolratana was criticized by ultra-royalists who distinguished between her and the king, essentially dismissing her for having aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra.

Of course, there remain huge questions. One is important: How is it possible that Ubolratana could have nominated without consulting her brother? We know she’s flaky, but this is beyond flaky.

And now for our speculation: we think this series of events has further weakened the monarchy.

Update 1: Oops, forgot our sixth point, which is that we now know what Ubolratana’s political leanings are. What we don’t know is how much her leanings cost.

Update 2: Pravit Rojanaphruk of Khaosod adds another known:

But what is clear and can be said, is that the short-lived nomination of Princess Ubolratana by the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra party of Thai Raksa Chart brought back to the surface the bitter enmity between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps like nothing else since the May 2014 coup.





Updated: On not being anti-royal

12 08 2018

The level of self-censorship in Thailand is at an all-time high. That’s an outcome of the military junta’s 2014 coup and its heavy-handed crackdown on anything considered anti-monarchy.

One of the reasons for the coup was to crush anti-royalism and republicanism. These rising sentiments threatened the social hierarchy and the ideology of conservative royalism that holds Thailand’s military-monarchy alliance and the whole exploitative class structure together.

The Dictator’s assigned task was to crush anti-royalism. This task was made all the more important as it was clear in 2014 that succession was not far off.

The use of lese majeste and sedition laws, together with a militarization of bureaucracy and an embedding of military personnel at all levels of Thai society in order to repress anti-royal sentiment has been successful. Indeed, in the past year or so, lese majeste cases have dwindled after a huge spike after the coup. A combination of repression and self-censorship, along with the jailing of several hundred has had a marked impact. So too have the huge sentences that were being handed out. These said to people: you are warned! Cross the line and you rot in a stinking prison!

This long background is a way of introducing a Bangkok Post editorial that raises questions regarding the opaque deal being done on the Dusit Zoo. This is a deal to return public space to the monarch. It is a part of the king’s unstated but all too obvious plan to recover land that he feels rightly belongs to the monarch. He’s rolling back the 1932 revolution one property at a time.

The best the Post can do is stress animal welfare and the royal heritage of the zoo. These might be well-made points, but the real issue is the opaque deals being done between the junta and the palace.

The Post simply can’t say anything direct on anything that may be construed as critical of the monarch or the monarchy.

Update: Displaying high royalism but hinting at the unease over the royal land grab, Thai PBS has not one but four pictures of the title deed and land that the king has swapped for his prized piece of real estate. It is about 50 kilometers from central Bangkok. This report says there are more than 1,600 animals that have to be moved elsewhere and also indicates the shock of the deal for some patrons.





“Elections” matter for the junta and its supporters

30 06 2018

Readers will be interested in a new op-ed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun. As the article is long and also likely to be able to be read in Thailand, we just highlight a couple of points.

Drawing on an observation by Italian Communist and Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, Pavin observes that “[t]hese are the days when an old system refuses to die and a new system isn’t ready to be born.”

Reflecting on the current grim political situation, Pavin looks back to the rise of the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) some 13 years ago. He argues that the “crux” of the political problem of the time was “apprehension among the royal political network concerning the rise of Thaksin [Shinawatra], who threatened to replace the old political order with his own.”

As the Shinawatras and their parties continued to triumph in elections after the 2006 coup, Pavin observes that this “coincided with the flagging power of the Thai monarchy.”

This characterization is a little off. The monarchy’s power wasn’t flagging but was being challenged by the rise of anti-monarchy sentiment associated with a political movement. That’s why the “royal political network sought to eliminate its enemies once more in a coup.”

Whether this had much to do with “manag[ing] the royal succession” remains debatable. But it is clear that crushing anti-monarchy sentiment and agitation was critical for both the military and palace as it was red shirts who constituted the existential challenge to monarchy and military. Pavin provides a neat potted history of the construction and maintenance of the military-monarchy nexus and its struggles with the rise of electoral politics.

Today, while it may appear that “the royal political network had won this political tussle,”Pavin isn’t so sure. He links this to the new reign and potential instability, where the “prospect of Thailand being ruled by a new unpopular king was daunting. While Bhumibol was able to safeguard the political benefits of the elitist class, his son, now King Vajiralongkorn, seemed unlikely to be able to guarantee the same” for that class.

We think that explaining the long political crisis by focusing on the succession has now been shown to have been overdone. In fact, there was no succession crisis. Rather, there was a crisis that emerged from the challenge to the military-monarchy nexus that came from the grassroots. It was that crisis that in part prompted the 2014 military coup.

Pavin is right that the new political system is not yet in place. That is why the junta wants 20-year “plans” and to control the election after putting new political rules in place. If the current junta succeeds and puts Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha in place following the election heading a coalition of unimportant military boot-licking pseudo-parties, then it will have given birth to the “new” system.

All the stuff about the “new monarch is lacking in moral authority” and so on is quickly being replaced by a “new” conservative royalism that is backward looking, nationalist and military sponsored, not unlike the monarchism invented under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.

Pavin concludes by asking”: “So, where does Thailand go from here? Will the upcoming elections mean anything for the country?” Remarkably, he can only say: “Elections, if they are to happen, may not deliver a genuine democratic regime.”

May not? Seriously, this is a desperate grasping at straws. They not only cannot deliver a “genuine democratic regime” but are meant to deliver – and designed to deliver – military political dominance for years to come save the prospect of “political violence” that Pavin briefly considers.

Finally, Pavin returns to “palace politics” which he says is “complicated and unpredictable.” It has always been so because the palace remains the most opaque and secretive of institutions. Pavin is certainly right to observe: “Since the Thai monarchy cannot be separated from politics, developments within the walls of the palace matter greatly to Thais.” That is probably how the junta and palace prefers it. The alternative of the people mattering has been pretty much erased by the junta’s selective and targeted political repression.





Heroes and villains I

23 12 2017

Thailand’s politics under the despotic military regime has been one-sided but marked by impunity and double standards. The regime has been repressive, grasping and opaque. The military junta has used feudal laws and absolutist decrees to grind down its opponents while building its own political base.

Thailand’s villains are relatively easy to identify. Most of them wear uniforms (and expensive watches). They sit in puppet assemblies and courts or at the top of ministries. They collect allowances and advantages that build wealth and status. The faces may change over the years, although there’s remarkable longevity, but their politics remains the same: royalist anti-democracy.

Heroes are those who challenge the anti-democratic status quo. They pay dearly for it. Somyos Prueksakasemsuk has been jailed for almost seven years. Hundreds have been jailed or “re-educated,” others have died in prison and thousands have been intimidated and silenced. Some have fled into exile and hundreds find themselves ostracized from a conservative, royalist and hierarchical society.

There is little good news for the heroes. This makes a recent report in the Bangkok Post a bittersweet article.

Already serving a jail term on an unfair and concocted lese majeste conviction by a junta court, student activist Jatuphat Boonpattaraksa “posed for a photo in a graduation gown of the KKU’s Law Faculty with his parents.” He was prevented from attending his graduation ceremony because he was locked in a junta jail.

With seven other heroes, Jatuphat appeared in a court at the villainous 23rd Military Circle to deny charges “of holding a public assembly to protest against the military regime at Khon Kaen University (KKU) in 2015.”

While Chartthai Noiunsaen, Phanuphong Srithananuwat, Chatmongkol Jenchiewchan, Narongrit Uppachan, Natthaporn Arthan, Duangthip Kararit and Neeranut Niemsap were released on bail, Jatuphat went back to prison.

Another hero, Rangsiman Rome, failed to appear. We understand that he refuses to recognize the court. If that is so, it’s a brave act. Anything that challenges the villainous regime is brave.





Protecting the politicized constitutional court

27 11 2017

Prachatai reports that the junta’s puppet lawmakers have approved a junta law that will give “more power and protection to the Constitutional Court.”

Why would 188 of the dutiful National Legislative Assembly members vote as a block (with just 5 abstentions and not a single opposing vote) for this law?

From Ji Ungpakorn’s blog

Apart from the fact that the NLA slavishly slithers after the junta, the Constitutional Court is considered an important bulwark of conservatism, royalism and anti-democracy. Since King Bhumibol’s political activation of the courts in 2006, the Constitutional Court has often played a king-like role, being the institution to “sort things out.” Its decisions have been highly politicized.

 

Giving the Court more powers is in line with ideas about establishing an interventionist institution that can proactively and retroactively punish political oppositions challenging the established order.

The NLA also “protected” the Court from “people who make ill-intentioned criticism of the Constitutional Court, including those who post such criticisms online.”

There has been criticism of the NLA’s work.





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.