Updated: Less corruption, more democracy

8 02 2023

There have been some odd reports of late. We recently posted on the anomalous suggestion that corruption had declined. Even the conservative Bangkok Post has reservations about this, noting in its editorial that:

the government has failed to tackle corruption in its own bureaucracy, with rampant graft among state officials in budget management, conflicts of interest and lax law enforcement still big problems.

Corruption in the military is not as easily seen as among the police and civil bureaucrats because the military operates with far more impunity.

The other oddity is the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy ranking, where Thailand has improved!Here’s the results, with 2021 and 2022 compared:We think the EIU view of Thailand is deeply flawed. Its report is an ideological document of the New Cold War, seen in its strange emphasis on Ukraine and Russia and, it seems, an ideological soft spot for countries seen as Western allies.

Even leaving such issues aside, the EIU’s methodology, where Thailand is (erroneously) considered a “flawed democracy,” deserves criticism. It defines flawed democracies:

These countries also have free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.

Thailand has “free and fair elections”? The EIU’s sister publication, The Economist on 24 March 2019, commenting on the 2019 election said that Thailand’s military junta had got “its way in a rigged vote.” How does that become “free and fair”?

It is noted that Thailand’s political participation score increased substantially, with the EIU stating that “Thailand showed a greater willingness and propensity to organise and participate in public demonstrations and protests.” We must have been sleeping and missed this.

In another part, we are simply confused by the EIU. For example, it says that on political culture, “Thailand records an increase of 0.62 in its score… The improvement is due to a widening political space for the country’s opposition parties, greater popular political participation and a receding threat from secessionist movements.” Our reading is that Thailand’s score on this measure declined. Certainly, though, its ranking on political participation zoomed up. How’s that? Likewise, the functioning of government also improved substantially. How’s that?

Here’s the EIU’s “explanation,” with PPT’s bracketed comments:

A series of victories for the political opposition in parliamentary by-elections [well, about half and half, or more-or-less matching the 2019 general election and under the same rules, so not much changed] and municipal elections [in Bangkok and Pattaya] in 2022 revealed the increasing electoral appeal of non-government parties [but ignoring the more significant local elections in 2020 and 2021]. EIU expects opposition parties to make significant gains in the next general election, which must be held by May 2023. This will open up political space, bolster representation for a broader set of social and economic groups and encourage further political participation [perhaps, but irrelevant to 2022]. The local insurgency in the three Muslim-dominated southern provinces has been largely contained and ceased to be a main threat  to the state authorities in 2022 [this seems premature and ignores a series of violent acts in 2022].

In other words, much of this account is speculative of 2023. The EIU seems on slightly firmer ground when it states:

Despite increasing public dissatisfaction with the pro-military ruling party and the electoral ascendancy of the opposition parties [this is untrue although it may reflect the expectation of 2023], the government retains command over the security and judiciary apparatus. Furthermore, the military-aligned bloc enjoys the advantage of a constitutional provision that allows the appointed Senate (the upper house of parliament) to vote on the selection of the prime minister [and to block almost all opposition motions and bills]. Any parties that seek to form a governing coalition will have to secure the backing of the military establishment, and certain policy areas such as the defence budget and reforms to the monarchy are off the agenda. The military-aligned government will continue to use lese-majeste laws, which make it a crime to defame, insult or threaten the monarch.

In our view, Thailand better fits the EIU’s category of “hybrid regime”

Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies—in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically, there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

So less corruption? No, there’s more. More democracy? Hardly.

Update: On political participation, it seems that the EIU is well out of step with specialist agencies.

Architecture of the mighty v. for the people

30 10 2022

We really liked Prachatai’s post on royalist and ratsadon architecture.

Prachatai reports on the work of “Pat Kulkan, an independent researcher and AR model designer associated with Kidyang and Urban Ally, sites dedicated to the study of architecture and urban planning, and Chatri Prakitnonthakan, professor of history of architecture at Silpakorn university, author of The Art and Architecture of the People’s Party, and advisor to the aforementioned project.”

Among the standout points:

Called “Sappaya Sapha Sathan,” the new parliament building is located on Samsen Road along the Chao Phraya River. It features a golden pagoda on top of the building, which is lined with teak wood poles and houses two meeting halls for the Senate and the House of Representatives, namely Chandra and Suriyan (Moon and Sun in Sanskrit language) as well as meeting rooms and offices.

“The new parliament building is not a public building, but a sacred building. The monarchy is at the centre. The top of the building is the pagoda, the traditional Thai pagoda, it is very sacred, very traditional, turning the clock back more than 200 years ago,” Chatri said.

For Chatri, the new Parliament building is designed to create a certain feeling in its visitors.  He calls this process symbolic violence. He finds that whereas parliament buildings in other democratic countries are designed to make their citizens feel as if they hold the power in their hands, the Thai Parliament building makes visitors feel powerless.

“I think when we use the building under the top that has a traditional pagoda, that building will make you become small … tiny people under the space that is sacred and more powerful than you. The building changes you to a subject,” he said.

On the People’s Party and architecture:

“… the Khana Ratsadon used Art Deco style to ignore the traditional Thai order. Khana Ratsadon buildings try to give the power to the people and destroy the hierarchy of architecture. That is the meaning of ignoring traditional Thai ornament: that Thailand was now a real democracy [with] no hierarchy anymore.”

The centre of the new Thai Parliament building is the monarchy, according to Chatri, whereas the centre of the Democracy Monument is the constitution.

Youth and democracy

13 06 2022

Readers may be interested in a new US-based initiative (at least new to PPT). Democratic Erosion follows and compiles data and commentary on the experience of democratic governance. It says: “Democratic Erosion is a multi-university consortium that helps students and faculty evaluate threats to democracy both at home and abroad through the lens of theory, history, and social science.” It is very much North American social science.

Our attention was drawn to this site by a blog post “Youth Are The Future of Democratic Consolidation in Thailand.”

No democracy! Hagiography!

6 10 2021

Remember the recent ranting by ultra-royalists and dinosaur bureaucrats and senior regime dolts about a series of of eight illustrated children’s books called Nitan Wad Wang, or “Dream Tales?” So incensed were the authorities that they began a probe looking for themes deemed critical of the government and sympathetic with the pro-democracy movement. They were also looking for anything negative about the king or monarchy.

Education Ministry spokesperson Darunwan Charnpicharnchai was especially “worried” that the booklets contain information that misleads children.

The story of this is retold at Thai PBS.

Clipped from the Bangkok Post

Meanwhile, the hopelessly inane Ministry of Culture “has released a cartoon book featuring biographies and stories about the contributions of the 10 monarchs of the Chakri dynasty.” No prizes for guessing that this is a pile of buffalo manure meant to prime kids with royalism.

The 237-page comic is meant to “honour of the 10 monarchs of the Chakri dynasty,” so can’t be truthful. We guess – couldn’t find the book at the Ministry website – that the chapter on the current king is well and truly padded out because he’s achieved so little in his 68 years.

Culture Minister Itthiphol Kunplome – whose father was a gangster and killer – “said … the cartoon format is partly aimed at promoting interest among the younger generation in the royal institution [monarchy].” He added to the manure pile by saying that “the monarchs have ruled under the Ten Principles of Kingship and devoted themselves to improving people’s livelihood through preserving and promoting cultural heritages and ensuring peace and prosperity.”

No democracy! We’re Thais!

30 09 2021

The Education Ministry has decided to get even more censorial as it seeks to “save” Thai students from democratic knowledge.

It is reported that alarmed officials have been spurred into action:

A series of eight illustrated children’s books called Nitan Wad Wang, or “Dream Tales,” is being probed by the authorities for themes deemed critical of the government and sympathetic with the pro-democracy movement. Taking the whole thing very seriously, Education Ministry spokesperson Darunwan Charnpicharnchai said the books could contain information that misleads children without parental guidance.

[Deputy] Education Minister Kalaya Sophonpanich is “extremely concerned” about the books, Darunwan added. A team led by ministerial adviser Phummisan Seneewong Na Ayutthaya will investigate the peril presented by the picture books.

Clipped from Coconuts Bangkok

Now there’s some elite family names! Who better to “save” Thailand’s youth! A person authorized to examine books, films, or other material and to remove or suppress what is considered morally, politically, or otherwise objectionable.

These hi-so so-and-sos have “set up a team to check all novels and comic books to ensure the content does not cause confusion among youngsters.” It seems the team will “examine if children’s books about a terrible dragon and a duck fighting for equality are subversive.” Frankly, we doubt this lot will comprehend the comics as they are written for 5-7 year-olds.

Spokesperson Darunwan came up with what she must think is a brilliant jibe, saying “children should have the liberty to access correct information.” Determining what is “correct” is a task for the crippled minds at the military as she explained that the “team will cooperate with the security affairs division in the investigation.” We assume that this is the military. We suppose it is possible that the Ministry of Education has a “security affairs division,” but that would prompt questions about its task. Whatever, the team will be appropriately royalist and acutely pro-regime.

When the team finds “incorrect information,” it will seek to “take legal action against companies that publish novels and comic books that contain distorted content…”.

We recall that after 6 October 1976, there was a culling of books with “incorrect information.” Next comes the book burning.

Royal land, royal power

25 09 2021

PPT was intrigued by two recent stories about the king and about royal land. In case readers missed them, we link to them and summarize some points.

At The Nation, it is reported that the “Treasury Department announced on Wednesday that it has taken back more than 100,000 rai of land owned by the Royal Property Bureau and will redistribute it among prisons and low-income people.” This is somewhat vague, and even the short story is contradictory. Director-general Yutthana Yimkarun is reported as saying that “most of the 100,000-rai taken back from state agencies was either left unused or was being misused. The land will now be used for temporary prisons, inmate training sites and housing for low-income people.”

Usually, the Treasury Department looks after the business interests of the property it holds for others, including the Army, and ensures a reasonable return to the owner. So we assume the property remains owned by the monarch.


The really interesting point is that the “Treasury Department currently oversees some 500,000 rai of royally owned land.” We would guess that, with other royal land, this confirms that the monarch is one of the country’s largest landowners, exceeding the earlier guestimates.

The second story comes from Prachatai. It states, perhaps playing on numbers, that:

Since 2017, King Rama X has issued at least 112 royal edicts appointing and demoting royal officials and the royal consort, bestowing royal decorations, appointing monks to the Sangha Supreme Council and expressing political views….

This comes about due to:

The Royal Service Administration Act enacted in March 2017 transferred 5 agencies that were formerly part of the government structure into royal agencies to be organized “at the royal pleasure”.

After the Act came into force royal edicts were issued appointing and demoting officials in the royal agencies with no countersignature from anyone in the government.

Prachatai goes on to list the categories of edicts issued.

We understand that it also relates to the changes the king demanded in the junta’s 2017 constitution. As Prachatai points out, “no one in a democratic system should be able to exercise political power without accountability.”

Thus it would seem that, as the king does exercise political power without oversight or accountability, ipso facto, Thailand cannot be a democracy.

Down the shute

4 03 2021

PPT doesn’t always post on rankings, but the Freedom House index struck us as telling of Thailand’s descent into a dark era. Freedom House’s report now ranks Thailand as Not Free. While one might dispute such indices, it is clear that the country now languishes with some sad companions in these “league tables,” looking far more authoritarian than democratic.

Freedom House’s report on Thailand begins:

Thailand’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the dissolution of a popular opposition party that had performed well in the 2019 elections, and the military-dominated government’s crackdown on youth-led protests calling for democratic reforms.

It goes on

Following five years of military dictatorship, Thailand transitioned to a military-dominated, semi-elected government in 2019. In 2020, the combination of democratic deterioration and frustrations over the role of the monarchy provoked the country’s largest anti-government demonstrations in a decade. In response to these youth-led protests, the regime resorted to familiar authoritarian tactics, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation, lèse-majesté charges, and harassment of activists. Freedom of the press is constrained, due process is not guaranteed, and there is impunity for crimes committed against activists.

Read it all here.

112 threatens Thailand

16 01 2021

The Nation has a report on a recent statement by Piyabutr Saengkanokkul as secretary-general of the Progressive Movement.

Referring to the youth who have been demonstrating for reform and lamenting the rise of lese majeste repression, he states: “We cannot leave the ‘future of our nation’ to be charged with violating Article 112…. They are sacrificing their freedom and lives to fight for democracy.”

He argues that Article 112 of the Criminal Code is “problematic in all aspects, including the severity of punishment, and its interpretation and enforcement by authorities.”

He went on to urge “members of Parliament, as representatives of the people, to use this opportunity to cancel the criminal offence of defamation, whether it covered royalty, foreign leaders, ambassadors, shrines, or ordinary people.” He believes that “[d]efamation should be made a civil offence rather than a criminal offence…”, which would be inline with international practice, adding “that no one should be jailed for exercising their freedom of expression…”.

Piyabutr added that the “Move Forward Party he co-founded in 2019 had decided to leave the lese majeste law off its agenda, but this had left a scar on his conscience…. However, the situation had now changed and it was time to support the popular push to revoke Article 112…”.

He’s right.

With 3 updates: The Dictator’s response I

21 10 2020

The Dictator, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, is tone deaf. So hard of political hearing that he’s doubling down against the students and other protesters, seemingly prepared to risk clashes and extreme violence.

Voice TV has been defiant on the court ordered shutdown. But Gen Prayuth has ordered state authorities to crackdown hard, especially on anti-monarchy statements and images, stating: “We are duty-bound to protect the country and eliminate ill-intentioned actions aimed at creating chaos and conflict in the country…”. He’s talking about the monarchy.

In a piece of good news, and in an act that goes against the judiciary’s pro-authoritarian bent, the Criminal Court on Wednesday “repealed a government order to close down a TV channel [Voice TV] who’s been broadcasting live coverage of the student-led protests…”.

Voice TV “representatives argued to the court that the shutdown order breached the constitutional protection of media freedom…. The argument was accepted by the court, who noted that the order did not cite any clear wrongdoing.”

But other parts of the judicial system acted against democracy. Many will have seen reports that several of those arrested had been bailed. Not so fast. A Bangkok Post report states:

Two protest leaders, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, were taken to the Criminal Court on Wednesday as Bangkok police pressed charges against them for their part in an anti-government rally at Sanam Luang on Sept 19.

Samran Rat police took the two pro-democracy activists from the Region 1 Border Patrol Police camp in Pathum Thani province to the court, ariving around 10.50am on Wednesday.

The two Thammasat University students were released on bail by Thanyaburi court on Tuesday afternoon, before police took them to the Region 1 Border Patrol Police camp in Khlong Luang district.

Mr Parit and Ms Panusaya were also wanted on arrest warrants from other police stations for their roles in anti-government rallies in Bangkok and other provinces.

In other words, the police and regime can continue to keep them on political ice.

More than this, the arrest continue, even in the fake case of “royal endangerment.” Suranat Paenprasert, a coordinator for children’s welfare and anti-drug advocacy group “Active Youth,” was charged with Article 110 of the Criminal Codes, which bans committing acts of violence against the Queen or [h]er [l]iberty.” It is a fit up, but the regime want to raise the temperature of ultra-royalists, while removing activists.

Meanwhile, the royalists are getting organized, with support from the state. Seeing the students and other protesters as “misled” and “duped” – terms also use when denigrating red shirts – Warong Dechgitvigrom warned of “the plot”: “pro-democracy protesters’ demands were not legitimate, especially those concerning the monarchy.” And, he added that there were hidden backers: “group leaders did not want to show themselves to avoid legal action.”

Helping him out, “Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin yesterday spoke about his Facebook post urging people in Chon Buri to exercise their power to protect the monarchy.” That’s a call to action and probably arms.

The state is now actively engaged in mobilizing royalists. The Bangkok Post reports:

Crowds estimated to number in the tens of thousands led by local administrators gathered in several in provinces on Wednesday in a show of loyalty to the royal institution.

The royalist demonstrations, staged in response to recent calls by some student protesters for reform of the monarchy, took place in provinces including Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Lampang, Nan, Narathiwat and Songkhla….

Similar gatherings were planned in provinces before the end of this month.

Bangkok Post: An estimated 20,000 yellow-clad people march in Sungai Kolok district of Narathiwat on Wednesday morning to show their loyalty to the royal institution. (Photo by Waedao Harai). The Post always downplays and vastly underestimates the size of student rallies.

The states involvement is a dangerous turn of events and The Dictator seems to be digging in. We are not sure that can save him. How desperate can he become?

Update 1: The Bangkok Post appears to be aiding the regime. One of its latest “stories” is about continuing protests and the ultra-royalist marches mentioned above. It reports that “authorities are worried about possible clashes between the two groups in the future.” Again, the post goes full ultra by not pointing out that it is the authorities who are mobilizing the royalists. Indeed, many of those who marched were in civil service uniforms! The Post, by playing dumb, is aiding and abetting any violence that the state unleashes.

Update 2: The Nation makes it clear that the royalists were mainly officials.

Update 3: Social media reports that the first attacks on protesters by yellow shirted royalists took place at Ramkhamhaeng University around 5-6pm today.

The Guardian on Thailand’s absolutist monarch

16 10 2020

The Guardian has an editorial on Thailand that deserves to be widely read. With apologies to the publisher, we reproduce it here in full (including hyperlinks):

The Guardian view on Thailand’s protests and the king: the end of deference

Demonstrations reflect a longstanding appetite for democracy – but challenging the monarchy breaches a taboo

Thailand is often described as coup-prone, given the numerous military takeovers since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. It would be as accurate to call it democracy-hungry. Thais have periodically fought to determine their own future, despite the risks.

Early on Thursday, the government declared a “severe” state of emergency in Bangkok, in response to months of protests culminating in a mass rally on Wednesday. It banned gatherings of more than four people and the publication of information that could “create fear” or “affect national security”. Thousands immediately surged into the streets, angered by the arrest of protest leaders. The fear of a harsher crackdown is well-founded given the brutal repression of previous movements, including the 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. The UK and others must press the regime to respect the rights of protesters.

Prayuth Chan-ocha’s administration, a military junta that laundered itself into an elected government via a rigged system, is both incompetent and authoritarian. Even dissidents who have fled the country have been harassed, disappeared or killed. Unhappiness has been fuelled by Covid-19’s destruction of the tourism sector, on which the country is heavily dependent. Protestors demand the prime minister’s resignation and the redrafting of the constitution. But they have also broken new ground by demanding reform of what was previously taboo, thanks to heavy penalties for discussing it: Thailand’s royalty. Anon Nampa, the lawyer who helped kick the movement off and is now detained, warned: “If we don’t fix the monarchy, we can’t fix anything else.”

While his father, who died in 2016, was seen touring provincial development projects, King Maha Vajiralongkorn is better known for his personal life, including the ruthless treatment of ex-wives. He resides largely in Bavaria with a female entourage; Germany’s foreign minister says it has “made it clear that politics concerning Thailand should not be conducted from German soil”.

But the king has also centralised both wealth and power, taking direct command of troops, insisting on constitutional changes and taking personal ownership of the Crown Property Bureau’s holdings – estimated at $40bn [PPT: way too low]. While millions are unemployed, $1bn of this year’s government budget will go to the monarchy. Cue previously unthinkable scenes, with protestors giving a three-fingered salute to the royal motorcade in reference to the Hunger Games and to liberty, equality and fraternity.

Yet the institution’s revered status had already begun eroding. While the last king was seen as a pillar of stability, he consistently sided with the forces of conservatism. Anti-monarchism began to emerge among the largely poor and rural “red shirts” who supported the ousted and controversial prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Strikingly, however, there now seems to be a nascent realignment between this movement and another with which it has often clashed: the urban, largely middle class pro-democracy movement often rooted in universities and NGOs, and which most recently swung behind Future Forward, a now-dissolved pro-democracy party.

Thailand’s establishment has so far proved incapable of grasping that the age of deference is over. It is not surprising that the elites resist change in a country with possibly the highest wealth inequality in the world, where the richest 1% control almost 67% of assets. But nor is it feasible that the rest will be content with their meagre lot. Until a better political and economic settlement is reached, the strains will continue to grow. The monarchy’s position is now one of them.

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