Updated: Prem dead II

27 05 2019

As mentioned in our earlier post, buffalo manure is to be piled high for the deceased Gen Prem Tinsulanonda. That said, there are some interesting accounts emerging. We link to some of them here and comment briefly on some of them.

The Bangkok Post has a couple of stories and will probably have more. One of these is a listing of Prem’s “achievements” and refers to him by the kindly term “Pa Prem.” In fact, Prem’s career was of an ambitious right-wing military leader. A second item in the Post is an editorial. Like the previous king, Prem is said to be “revered.” It would be more accurate to say that some rightist, royalist Thais revere Prem for his “loyalty” and steadfast opposition to elected government. Indeed, many Thais hated Prem as an unelected politician and incessant political meddler.

The main error in this editorial is the mistaken view that Prem decided of his own volition to leave his unelected premiership in 1988. The editorial states:

Gen Prayut[h Chan-ocha] and the regime would do well not to forget Gen Prem’s wise decision to relinquish power before the tide turned against him. The regime has been accused of trying to hold on to power at any cost, which is at odds with the example set by Gen Prem.

This view is mistaken as it ignores the long and intense political struggle that eventually forced Prem out. Indeed, that is what will be needed to force out out the Prem-ist junta and its illegitimate political child, the Palang Pracharath-manipulated coalition.

AP has a sound obituary that appropriately links Prem and Prayuth. It also makes a useful point via academic Kevin Hewison:

That coup [2006] was probably Prem’s last major political intervention, and it was one where he misjudged…. He expected elation and praise for his open role in getting rid of Thaksin. Instead, his intervention lit the fuse of a political polarization that continues to haunt Thailand’s elite.

The New York Times obituary is useful and forthright, with another academic, Duncan McCargo noting Prem’s long alliance with the last king:

The king trusted Prem absolutely … seeing him as an incorruptible figure who shared his soft and understated approach, but who was a skilled alliance-builder and wielder of patronage.

We are not quite sure how McCargo knows Bhumibol’s views, but his comment recalls his coining of the term “network monarchy” that describes Prem and the king’s manner of meddling in all manner of things in Thailand.

Reuters mentions Prem’s political meddling and the rewards he received from the conglomerates that benefited from his promotion of monarchy. Prem provided the links – the network – for Sino-Thai tycoons to connect with the palace and his politics provided considerable protection for the ruling class and its profits.

BBC News quotes its correspondent Jonathan Head on Prem’s role in making the monarchy more overtly political:

He will be remembered as an ardent royalist who helped to cement the monarchy’s place at the very top of modern Thailand’s power structure….

AFP has a measured account of Prem’s political meddling and the rise of the monarchy:

Hailed as a stabilising force by allies but loathed by critics as a conservative underminer of democracy in the kingdom, General Prem was a top aide to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and helped cement the unshakeable bond between the monarchy and the military.

It adds that “General Prem became a figure of revulsion in Thailand’s pro-democracy camp.”

Update: Bloomberg’s story on Prem’s death hits the nail on the head: “Royal Aide Accused of Plotting Thai Coup on Thaksin Dies at 98.”





On the junta’s rigged election

30 12 2018

Even though the military dictatorship is getting skittish about its rigged election, The Guardian of a few days ago had some bits worth quoting. Here are some of them:

Many Thais remain sceptical that the long-awaited election – pushed back multiple times by the military junta … – will even happen, let alone do much to change the political structure of the country.

Commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak:

“This will not be a fair election…. But it is a necessary first step for Thailand to regain some balance. There is a long way to go yet.”

“I see the constitution as the biggest source of political ailments and social grievances in Thailand…. It is totally crooked and it was written to perpetuate military power in politics. The senate is a junta chamber and in the lower house they have obliterated the party system to make it entirely rigged for the military.”

…[M]any fear that the election system will be so manipulated by the junta that 24 February will simply see the military returned to power through proxy political parties such as the Palang Pracharat party, recently formed by NCPO [junta] members, or will end up with [Gen] Prayuth Chan-ocha, the incumbent prime minister under the military regime, selected to the role again.

Academic Duncan McCargo: “the rules of the game have been rigged…”.

Civil rights and environmental activist and leader of the Commoner Party, Lertsak Kamkongsak, still waiting to hear whether the military will allow it to register:

“The whole system is messed up and totally against parties…. Prayuth will be the next prime minister for sure and this election will lead to the military government, but it won’t be completely under their control. I think they will last one to two years, and then there will be another election again…. Personally, I think it’s going to be chaos. And [it will] probably lead to another coup.”





Mid-week reading: monarchy, academics, hypocrisy, hope

30 08 2018

There are several articles we think deserve a reading this week.

The first is actually two articles by University of Leeds academic Duncan McCargo. In recent weeks he’s been reporting on visits he’s making inside Bangkok’s rapidly expanding royal zone. The first was at Asia Times Online, on the end of the military’s Royal Turf Club, which reverts to the Crown Property Bureau, which itself is now the personal property of the king. We have posted on this. This article says little about that link, which is odd, as it is the story.

McCargo’s second piece is at The Nikkei Asia Review and is on the soon to close zoo. In it, he does dare to at least mention the king in the context of the zoo’s closure. We have also posted on this. He implies that it might also suit the military regime. So careful does the academic have to be that self-censorship means a casual reader might miss these associations.

As an important footnote, McCargo did put his name to an undated International Statement in support of Dr. Chayan Vaddhanaphuti and colleagues some time ago.

Another article worth considering is at The Nation, reflecting on the ill-health of exiled academic Professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul and his principles. The comments on hypocrisy among political activists and academics are well made. At the same time, some of the journalists at The Nation, including the author of this piece – Tulsathit Taptim – have also been been extravagant propagandists for those who have attacked and reviled Somsak.

Somsak has indeed stuck with his principles. He’s been brave and determined in addressing important historical issues and the monarchy and Article 112. Like rabid dogs, the military and ultra-royalists attacked Somsak and made him pay.

We wish Somsak a speedy recovery and applaud his efforts to pull back some of the curtains that hide the monarchy and its actions.

The third set of articles is from the Focus on the Global South. Its 4th Newsletter “tackles the issue of democracy in Asia and its different facets–elections, constitutions, (extreme) nationalism, populism, majoritarian rule, and press freedom.” Two of the Newsletter’s items are especially relevant for Thailand. One is an article titled “The Indomitable Spirit of Democracy in Thailand.” The second is an interview with pro-democracy activist Rangsiman Rome. There’s room for some optimism.





Worth reading

18 07 2018

Over recent months we have neglected suggesting some of the more academic works on Thailand that some readers might find of interest.

We were reminded of this omission when we saw an excellent account of the 6 October massacre and associated events in a story at the Los Angeles Review of Books by Suchada Chakpisuth and translated by Tyrell Haberkorn. As ever, when it comes to anything on Thailand’s politics, there are likely to be negative responses. In this case, so far, there is only one such comment. All we can say is that what one reader finds sentimental and sophomoric, we found enlightening, sobering and a painful reminder of the ways in which ultra-nationalism and ultra-royalism can spin out of control or be made to become demonic and murderous.

Back to recent articles that may be of interest:

There’s a Commentary behind a paywall at Critical Asian Studies by Kasian Tejapira: “The Sino-Thais’ right turn towards China.” Also at CAS, there are pay-for-view commentaries reflecting on Thailand: “Thailand’s urbanized villagers and political polarization” by Duncan McCargo and “Modern day slavery in Thai fisheries: academic critique, practical action” by Peter Vandergeest, Olivia Tran & Melissa Marschke.

At the Journal of Contemporary Asia, there are several pay-for-view articles and book reviews: Owners of the Map. Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok is reviewed by
Kevin Hewison who also reviews Working Towards the Monarchy: The Politics of Space in Downtown Bangkok, while A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern Period is reviewed by Robert H. Taylor. Björn Dressel & Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang author “Coloured Judgements? The Work of the Thai Constitutional Court, 1998–2016.” The most recent issue includes two Thailand articles: “Anti-Royalism in Thailand Since 2006: Ideological Shifts and Resistance” by an anonymous author (which was, for a time free for download, but not now) and “Politics and the Price of Rice in Thailand: Public Choice, Institutional Change and Rural Subsidies” by Jacob Ricks.

Pacific Affairs has a pay-for-view article by Aim Simpeng, “Participatory Inequality in the Online and Offline Political Engagement in Thailand.” and free book reviews of Thai Politics: Between Democracy and Its Discontents reviewed by Kevin Hewison, Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok reviewed by Charles Keyes, The Lost Territories: Thailand’s History of National Humiliation reviewed by Søren Ivarsson.

Contemporary Southeast Asia has a free book review of Thai Politics: Between Democracy and Its Discontents reviewed by Aim Simpeng, Khaki Capital: The Political Economy of the Military in Southeast Asia reviewed by John Blaxland and Thailand: Shifting Ground between the US and a Rising China, reviewed by Pongphisoot Busbarat. It has a pay-for-view article by Duncan McCargo, Saowanee T Alexander and Petra Desatova, “Ordering Peace: Thailand’s 2016 Constitutional Referendum.”

The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies has “Mae Fah Luang: Thailand’s Princess Mother and the Border Patrol Police during the Cold War” by Sinae Hyun and available for free download. It also has several book reviews of general Thailand interest, some for free download.

If an article is behind a paywall, we recommend searching by title as authors and their universities sometimes make them available in a pre-print format.





Updated: How’s the new king looking?

7 04 2018

Each year, the academic journal Asian Survey has articles which provide brief country summaries of the previous year’s significant events. For 2017, well-known analyst and commentator Duncan McCargo has completed the article on Thailand (opens a PDF).

The article is necessarily short but has some comments on King Vajiralongkorn that merit posting here, not least because they mesh with some of PPT’s comments a few days ago.

In the abstract, McCargo states that “…King Vajiralongkorn is untested and lacks popular legitimacy.” True enough, although it has to be said that almost all those who succeed to thrones are largely “untested” and that popularity is no qualification for monarchy, where it is bloodlines that matter. Like a few other commentators, including some who are anti-monarchists, there’s a tendency to unfavorably compare Vajiralongkorn with his deceased father. Unfortunately, some of these comparisons required considerable retro-acceptance of palace propaganda about the dead king.

When he deals with the new reign, McCargo observes:

New King Vajiralongkorn’s detractors have long dismissed him as a playboy who takes little interest in serious matters, but since ascending the throne on December 1, 2016, he has proved to be an activist and interventionist monarch.

This is an important point. The areas where he has intervened, however, have been mostly about the monarchy and its privileges and the control of the palace. Clearly, Vajiralongkorn has been planning his succession maneuvers for some years. McCargo continues:

King Vajiralongkorn apparently pays very close attention to government policies and matters of legislation, especially where they may affect the legitimacy or privileges of the monarchy, or touch on matters of religion. He carefully monitors promotions and transfers inside the bureaucracy, especially the upper echelons of the military and the police force.

His interest in religious matters goes back to the 1990s and we know about his intervention in police promotions. Readers may recall that the last police intervention was in favor of Pol Gen Jumpol Manmai. Later Jumpol was made a Grand Chamberlain in Vajiralongkorn’s palace. That didn’t go well and, as far as we can recall, nothing has been seen or heard from Jumpol since…. Which reminds us, if legal infractions cause the king to disgrace a senior aide, can we expect that Gen Prem Tinsulanonda will soon be sacked from the Privy Council by the king?

Presumably the upcoming military reshuffle will result from a junta-palace consensus. One report reckons the reshuffle buttresses The Dictator’s position.

But back to McCargo’s commentary. He says:

… the new king remains neither popular nor widely respected; crucially, while his father never left Thailand after 1967, King Vajiralongkorn spends much of his time in Germany. His private life is the topic of constant gossip and speculation. The prospect of his coronation—and a raft of associated symbolic changes, such as new banknotes, coins, and stamps—fills many Thais with apprehension.

In fact, Bhumibol visited Laos in April 1994 (an error also made officially), but this slip doesn’t diminish the point about Vajiralongkorn’s extensive periods away from Thailand. On the bit about gossip, that’s been true for several decades and the king seems to have accepted that he is a “black sheep.” That there is “apprehension” over symbolic changes may be true, but if a report in the Bangkok Post is to be believed, that apprehension seems to be dissipating. It says:

Large crowds formed long queues at provincial offices of the Treasury Department to exchange cash for the first lot of circulated coins bearing the image of King Rama X on Friday, the Chakri Memorial Day.

Palace propaganda continues apace, the military junta has crushed republicans, and monarchists are remaining adhered to the institution if not the person.

Update: Another measure of apprehension dissipating might be seen in the report of “traditional” clothing sales. While the report refers to the influence of a hit soap opera, the influence of the king’s efforts at a revival of all things pre-1932 are having an impact too.





“Election,” king and politics in 2018

3 01 2018

For the start of 2018, three academic commentators and a journalist have had a go at crystal-balling Thailand’s political future.

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun continues his recent lauding the dead king. We at PPT find this quite odd, but it seems Pavin feels that a good king-bad king scenario makes the bad king look badder still. We think he’s wrong to gild the previous reign.

He is right when he says: “Some analysts predicted that Vajiralongkorn would be a weak king dominated by a strong army due to his lack of moral authority and divinity. But the new King has proved these pundits wrong.” This assessment also seems correct:

King Vajiralongkorn has embarked on consolidating his power with the backing of the military. It appears that Thailand’s two most prominent institutions — the monarchy and the military — have attempted to establish a constructive working relationship in order to entrench their respective political standings (at least during this critical royal transition period).

The military king

That relationship has seen the “military … work[ing] towards achieving two goals: eliminating its political enemies and legitimising itself as a political actor.”

He concludes that “the future of Thailand is undefined. 2018 will test the longevity of the interdependent relations between Vajiralongkorn and the military. If such longevity is guaranteed, Thai democracy will be shouldered with another setback.”

Michael Montesano, also an academic, seems sure of a couple of things for 2018: a coronation and the junta’s “election.” But he backtracks on the latter, suggesting it may again be pushed back. He also gets into a bit of good king-bad king stuff, and like Pavin sees Vajiralongkorn as activist/interventionist:

Since the demise of his father, King Vajiralongkorn has been far from passive. But he has devoted his attention above all to matters relating to the management and reordering of royal affairs and to the relationship of the monarchy to the government…. He has not yet begun publicly to define an overarching mission for his reign.

His musings on the future of the monarchy are not particularly convincing to us. But his discussion of the military junta’s role is. He refers to “an ideological orientation” that has the military and junta seeking “to integrate Thai citizens into national affairs without reference to political parties and elections.” On the junta’s “elections,” Montesano sees them as a test of the military regime’s “effort to introduce a political order of lasting quiescence in Thailand.”

Academic Duncan McCargo, acknowledging that The Dictator is “always seems to be trying to wriggle out of it [the junta’s election],” is also unsure about the political future, suggesting five post-election “scenarios.” For all the rumors about new parties – the junta’s and splits from the Democrat Party – and the junta’s more than three years of attacks and repression, McCargo reckons the Puea Thai Party vote could hold up. Even so, “[t]he dice could be loaded the against a pro-Thaksin victory in 2018.” Strikingly, McCargo says almost nothing about the monarchy.

Journalist Shawn Crispin thinks that military regimes that try to stay on tend to be unstable and face civilian uprisings. While he tends to ignore military and military-backed regimes that have had considerable longevity in Thailand, he is the only commentator in this group who considers a civilian uprising against the military a possibility.

He is right that “Thailand’s enterprising but repressed media” seems prepared to “to press the current generation of military coup-makers to hold elections as promised in late 2018 and for coup leader cum premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha to refrain from clinging to power after the polls.”

Crispin notes that “while the media has exposed [the junta’s] massive irregularities” – corruption – the relatively united regime has been able to cover-up using repressive measures:

… the junta’s ironfisted grip on power, underwritten by a hard ban on political association that deems any meeting of more than five people illegal. Invasive state surveillance has also ferreted out and suppressed potential anti-junta agitators before they can mobilize and take to the streets.

He also sees “Thaksin is circling again” as an “election” is anticipated:

Prayuth and Prawit [Wongsuwan] clearly sense an electoral scenario where Thaksin’s coup-ousted Peua Thai is resoundingly restored at the ballot box and their plans to sustain a political role for the military are challenged as illegitimate.

While he says precious little about the monarchy, Crispin does foresee scenarios that involve the king in further delays to an election if the regime feels threatened.

2018 will be interesting.





Junta repression deepens II

16 08 2017

Human Rights Watch has issued a statement on the charging of five academics and attendees at the International Conference on Thai Studies.

We can only wonder if the foreign academics who attended will mobilize to protest this new low by the junta.

The keynote speakers should be the first and loudest voices: Katherine Bowie, Duncan McCargo, Thonchai Winichakul and Michael Herzfeld. After all, they made very particular and careful decisions to attend amid some calls for a boycott because the junta has been repressive of academics in Thailand (not their yellow-shirted friends and allies, of course).

Here’s the HRW statement:

Thai authorities should immediately drop charges against a prominent academic and four conference participants for violating the military junta’s ban on public assembly at a conference at Chiang Mai University in July 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The International Conference on Thai Studies included discussions and other activities that the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta deemed critical of military rule.

Professor Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, who faces up to one year in prison if convicted, is scheduled to report to police in Chiang Mai province on August 23. Four conference attendees – Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam – have been charged for the same offense for holding posters saying “An academic forum is not a military barrack” to protest the military’s surveillance of participants during the July 15-18 conference. None are currently in custody.

“Government censorship and military surveillance have no place at an academic conference,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By prosecuting a conference organizer and participants, the Thai junta is showing the world its utter contempt for academic freedom and other liberties.”

Since taking power after the May 2014 coup, Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha has asserted that the airing of differences in political opinions could undermine social stability. Thai authorities have frequently forced the cancellation of community meetings, academic panels, issue seminars, and public forums on political matters, and especially issues related to dissent towards NCPO policies or the state of human rights in Thailand.Frequently, these repressive interventions are based on the NCPO’s ban on public gatherings of more than five people, and orders outlawing public criticisms of any aspect of military rule. The junta views people who repeatedly express dissenting views and opinions, or show support for the deposed civilian government, as posing a threat to national security, and frequently arrests and prosecutes them under various laws.

Over the past three years, thousands of activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders have been arrested and taken to military camps across Thailand for hostile interrogation aimed at stamping out dissident views and compelling a change in their political attitudes. Many of these cases took place in Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand, the hometown of former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Most of those released from these interrogations, which the NCPO calls “attitude adjustment” programs, are forced to sign a written agreement that state they will cease making political comments, stop their involvement in political activities, or not undertake any actions to oppose military rule. Failure to comply with these written agreements can result in being detained again, or charged with the crime of disobeying the NCPO’s orders, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, protects the rights of individuals to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and assembly. The UN committee that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Thailand has also ratified, has advised governments that academic freedom, as an element of the right to education, includes: “the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfill their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the State or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction.”

“Academics worldwide should call for the trumped-up charges against Professor Chayan and the four conference attendees to be dropped immediately,” Adams said. “Thailand faces a dim future if speech is censored, academic criticism is punished, and political discussions are banned even inside a university.”





Updated: Understanding the politics of Buddhism

11 03 2017

As readers will know, PPT has said several times that we are not all that well informed on the debates about the politics of Buddhism in Thailand.

As we have watched the military dictatorship’s heavy-handed action against Wat Dhammakaya, aided and abetted by the palace and much of the mainstream media, we have been reading bits and pieces to try and better understand these  events.

One of the more interesting and relevant articles we have seen is by academic Duncan McCargo, from Critical Asian Studies in 2012.

The Changing Politics of Thailand’s Buddhist Order,”  available for free download, may turn out to be wrong in one conclusion if the junta has its way: “Like it or not, Wat Phra Thammakai was here to stay.” Yet the rest of the paper has valuable insights and background on the current effort to crush it.

Update: It seems the junta has more or less succeeded in taking over the Dhammakaya temple. The Bangkok Post reports that the Ministry of Justice will “set up a ‘joint command’ inside the temple to take over its management and maintain order…”. PPT may be uninformed, but we can’t think of another instance where the state has invaded and taken over the running of a temple. As usual, we suspect that the story now will be watch and follow the money.





Turkey and Amsterdam

17 07 2016

There is considerable social media discussion about the attempted coup in Turkey. Many ask why Turkish citizens protected an elected government in Turkey but that there was no such effort in Thailand in May 2014.

Obviously, there is much to be trawled over in the differences between Turkey and Thailand. There have been some comparative efforts and even attempts to apply a concept – Deep State – that has been used for analyzing Turkey.

In the comparative article, Duncan McCargo and Ayşe Zarakol speculate that recent years have seen “the rise of new societal groups based upon urbanized villagers has produced charismatic populist leaders who preach democracy, but practise electoralism. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Thaksin Shinawatra are locked in parallel confrontations with traditionally interventionist military/bureaucratic elites.”

We are not able to provide any sophisticated comparative discussion, but we did note one similarity. In a report at The Guardian, discussing allegations by Erdoğan about the involvement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen who leads global Hizmet movement from exile in Pennyslvania, we saw this mention of lawyer Robert Amsterdam:

As the coup attempt unfolded on Friday night, a lawyer for the Turkish government, Robert Amsterdam, said there were “indications of direct involvement” of the Gülenists, adding that he and his firm had “attempted repeatedly to warn the US government of the threat posed” by Gülen and his movement. Amsterdam cited Turkish intelligence sources in claiming that “there are signs that Gülen is working closely with certain members of military leadership against the elected civilian government”.





Updated: The junta’s deformed politics

30 05 2016

Oops, we commented on an old op-ed by academic Duncan McCargo. Apologies to him and to readers for confusing them with our mistake. Sorry.