Updated: Authoritarianism, king and junta

31 01 2018

Some readers will be interested in a 2017-in-review article by Eugenie Mérieau of the University of Göttingen that appeared a couple of days ago at East Asia Forum. Not that she is saying anything new, but simply for her review of the here-and-now authoritarianism that dominates Thailand’s politics under the junta.

There’s a couple of things that bothered us. The 1932 plaque wasn’t removed “[a] few days after the promulgation of the constitution,” but before that event. She mentions Article 116 but does not name it as the sedition law. And she’s still writing of an election in 2018, which now seems off the agenda unless significant political pressure can be brought on the junta. Yet this is an article that sets out how the military is seeking to continue its control for years to come.

It also recounts some of the king’s moves that roll back the constitutional, economic and political power back to something resembling pre-1932 position without (at least not yet) a reversion to absolute monarchy. The alliance between a military king and a monarchized military makes for a descent into the political darkness inevitable unless citizens oppose them.

Update: The author noted our comments above and advised that an updated version of the article is available.





Reorienting the palace-military partnership

15 02 2017

If the palace propaganda machine has had to re-vamp itself to deal with the new king, spare a thought for the pundits. For those guessing what’s going on inside the palace or even in the king’s head, the current situation must seem quite at odds with some of the predictions made.

Reuters reports on the new reign. Its point is that the new king “is putting an assertive stamp on his rule.” They mean “reign,” but some might think there’s a move to make a reign a “rule.”

The report says that “King Vajiralongkorn has made it clear to the generals running the country that he will not just sit in the background as a constitutional figurehead…”.

Given Vajiralongkorn’s past actions, reorganizing the palace, being open in promoting favorites and his propensity for headstrong actions, as well as the long period of the old king’s ill-health, we doubt the generals have been surprised. If they were, this indicates their political incapacity.

The king’s father was in incessant political player, so the mold was set for another interventionist monarch. In addition, the deals the junta has done with King Vajiralongkorn show that this king will have more legal powers to intervene.

That matters in Thailand, where relationships between monarchy, army and politicians have long determined the stability of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and America’s oldest regional ally.

Academic Paul Chambers reckons the king “has proven himself to be very adept at managing the junta and the military…”. Another academic, Eugenie Mérieau states that the relationship between the king and junta “is at least one of obedience…”.

We kind of get what that means. In fact, we guess that, as was the case with his father, Vajiralongkorn is in a partnership that involves mutual back-scratching that maintains society’s hierarchical social order that pours wealth into the purses of the loyalist and royalist elite.

That does not mean there won’t be tensions. For example, the king’s call for changes to the draft constitution may have been something of a surprise for the junta. Yet the process has publicly demonstrated a new king’s real political power and an important piece of political theater as the junta showed obedience. That’s good  for both sides of the partnership, especially as the junta looks to its political longevity.

It’s also risky for the palace if the political winds shift.

At the moment, though, with former junta members on the Privy Council, the links with the junta and the tools for the “management” of the relationship are in place.

That’s why the Reuters report can state:

None of more than two dozen serving or former officials, military officers, parliamentarians, diplomats or analysts that Reuters spoke to for this story saw any immediate threat to that balance of power.

The report notes that King Vajiralongkorn “started from a very different place to his father.” Mentioning his erratic and turbulent “private” life, it is noted that Vajiralongkorn has a strong military background, having had military training and involvement since he was 18 years old. Some of his military “service” was with the King’s Guard, which now has considerable clout in government and in the palace.

All of this should mean he feels very comfortable with the military running the country’s politics. But the king is erratic, headstrong and conspiratorial, so nothing is permanent for him. And, his reputation for strong-arm tactics means it is walking on eggshells for those close to him.

As the report observes, the king has been quick to rearrange the palace:

Over 20 appointments and promotions have been made by the new king and published in the Royal Gazette.

This includes reshuffling senior members of the household, many of whom had held posts for decades under King Bhumibol, and promoting military officials with ties to the new king.

Among other notable military promotions was Suthida Vajiralongkorn na Ayudhya within the King’s Own Bodyguard. Often seen at the king’s side, though not publicly designated as his consort, she became a general on the day he took the throne.

All of this means that the pundits have a new lease on life as palace tasseographers.

Already some of them read royalty into too much. The example in the report is of former reporter turned reconciliation guru Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Some of his history of consulting on “reconciliation” is here and here.

He reckons that he sees “sense of urgency with regard to reconciliation that some politicians say stems from the new king’s call for peace and unity…”. He states: “The military government is under some pressure to deliver on the king’s request, which may even speed up the transition back to civilian government.” That sounds so last reign….

Monarchies have several weaknesses. One is that they are surrounded by hangers-on who are afraid to comment on the king’s lack of clothing. Another is the hangers-on to the hangers-on who try to manufacture outcomes by using “signs” from the palace. And another is the personality of the monarch which means that for good or ill, all reigns are highly personalized.

All of these challenge the Thai king and his relationship with the generals.





Scary king

3 02 2017

In a new article at The Conversation, Eugénie Mérieau of Sciences Po has an assessment of King Vajiralongkorn and the constitution (the space is open to choose the military’s interim one or the draft, passed in a “referendum” but being amended military one). Readers will find it of interest. We don’t agree with all of it.

For example, she begins with a claim that the newbie king has “disregarded the provisions of the Thai constitution and its conventions to an extent unprecedented in the modern history of the nation.”

We think that’s going a bit far. His father wasn’t much troubled by these things, despite Mérieau’s view that he exercised constitutional powers “rarely and with caution.” And, as indicated above, which constitution? If it is the draft one, he has exercised a right granted to him. He didn’t “interfere” in constitution making but exercise powers that foolish royalist regimes have granted the monarch.

In terms of succession, his delay did leave Thailand without a king, but that had happened previously and the then prince was engaged in a PR exercise that actually eased his path to the kingship. As in the past, royal powers were exercised by a Regent.

That this left The Dictator ruling by decree changed nothing; he was doing this before the delayed succession.

We do agree that the changes he wanted are important and worthy of criticism. They are clearly a movement of constitutional power to the king. Mérieau might also have noted that the king now has the power to appoint the Supreme Patriarch.

We agree that there is a movement away from notions of constitutional monarchy and towards a monarchy that is institutionally very powerful. That is scary.





Junta’s political strategy II

2 06 2016

The Dictator has “clarified” his statements that he doesn’t desire power or want to hold it or that he intends to stay on or have the military stay on in power. As the Bangkok Post reports it, General Prayuth Chan-ocha has “threatened his critics … that he would hold on to power … until peace has been fully returned to the country.”

We guess that suggests that the “loosening up” might have already gone too far for The Dictator.Prayuth gunning for democracy

Oddly, the erratic general was reportedly making these comments on the junta’s domestic political strategy to “a group of 134 developing countries known as G-77 at a forum in Bangkok.” He added that “he would use the 200,000 soldiers at his disposal to continue to lead the country.” The Dictator was clear still: “Without soldiers, Thailand can go nowhere. Nowadays, we are using soldiers to steer the country. Our troops aren’t meant to fight anybody or to persecute politicians…”.

In one sense, we agree with Prayuth. The military is not a conventional armed forces. It is a political agency that has for decades repressed and murdered the citizens of the country.

While the Post worries that the “general’s latest outburst flies in the face of repeated pledges to restore democracy through elections next year,” it should look more closely at the political rules the junta has set that will bound and corral any elected civilian regime to such an extent that the elite’s and military’s representatives in (non)independent agencies and the royalist judiciary will be what one academic calls the Deep State.

Prayuth’s rant continued as he said that “there are still some politicians expressing their opinions.” That’s a pretty clear statement of what Prayuth and the regime think of “politicians” and he is clear on what their subordinate, dominated and unrepresentative position must be. On his own extraordinary powers as The Dictator, Prayuth “explained” that “[m]artial law and Section 44 are crucial for Thailand keeping peace and moving towards the elections…”.

That all seems pretty clear, but the erratic Prayuth then played dumb, claiming he has no “thirst for power.”

Finally Prayuth defended non-democratic politics:”Western democracies” should not urge elections or people’s sovereignty. The Dictator said a one-size political “shirt” does not fit everyone. He declared: Dictators of the world unite, trumpeting, “We countries in the G-77 should have the liberty to select which shirt we want to choose to fit our people.”

That’s exactly what he’s doing in Thailand. The Dictator is defining the people’s political shirt. It is small, narrow and uncomfortable.

All hail The Dictator.





Academics on post-coup Thailand

8 05 2016

PPT has snipped this post from the Journal of Contemporary Asia. We have previously posted on a couple of these articles. Most are behind a paywall, with two articles being free:

RJOC_COVER_46-02.inddIssue 3 of Volume 46 (2016) has gone to print and the issue is available electronically at the publisher’s site (with two articles available for free download). This is a Special Issue titled: Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn. The details are:

Introduction: Understanding Thailand’s Politics” by Veerayooth Kanchoochat & Kevin Hewison (free download).

The 2014 Thai Coup and Some Roots of Authoritarianism by Chris Baker.

Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics by Pasuk Phongpaichit.

The Resilience of Monarchised Military in Thailand by Paul Chambers & Napisa Waitoolkiat.

Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the Constitutional Court (1997–2015) by Eugénie Mérieau (free download)

Thailand’s Failed 2014 Election: The Anti-Election Movement, Violence and Democratic Breakdown by Prajak Kongkirati.

Rural Transformations and Democracy in Northeast Thailand by Somchai Phatharathananunth.

Redefining Democratic Discourse in Thailand’s Civil Society by Thorn Pitidol.

The issue includes five book reviews.





A PPT catch-up on Juntaland

7 04 2016

Having spent a considerable time putting together our Panama papers II post, we fell behind on other useful reports that have come out in recent days. Here’s a brief round-up:

Thai politics sink into vicious circle, from NewEurope. It begins: “Even though a new constitution is on the way in Thailand, it doesn’t seem this process will bring more democracy. On the contrary, the country is further sinking into its political vicious circle of instability.” It also cites Eugénie Mérieau, speaking at the hearing on the political crisis in Thailand at the French senate on 5 April.

Press Release from the Cross Cultural Foundation, Order bestowing sweeping powers and impunity to military breaches rule of law and human rights. Notes the allocation of police powers to the military and the threat to human rights and law. It ends: “The Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) urges the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, to review and revoke the order to uphold the rule of law and human rights safeguard, particularly the right to justice process which is fundamental and indispensable for the restoration of democracy in Thailand.” Not much chance of that.

On the same topic, Asia Sentinel has the report, Thai Junta Turns Law Enforcement Over to Soldiers. It concludes: “The plan for continuing dictatorship is becoming clear, with military officers taking effective control of the criminal investigations, and assuming the powers of the police…. This is a new threshold, a whole new low on human rights in Thailand, that shows the NCPO is entrenching itself for the long term. What’s telling is that the NCPO’s list of ‘influential persons’ is not about so-called mafia only, but includes community leaders and activists who are being targeted by the military for standing up for their rights.”

Nirmal Ghosh at The Straits Times writes Thai military’s grand design in politics. It begins with a comparison with Myanmar: “The shadow of the army in Myanmar is a long one, but, over the past five years, it has shrunk. Next door in Thailand, though, the shadow of the Royal Thai Army is lengthening.” Much of the op-ed is in line with things PPT has been saying for some time: “It is obvious that the military’s grand design is to weaken political parties in order to have easily disposable coalition governments. The military will remain the real power whatever the outcome of the referendum and the election.” He quotes Thongchai Winichakul.

Pravit Rojanaphruk has an op-ed at The Guardian: Thailand is turning into Juntaland – and we are resisting. He begins: “Deep down, Thailand’s military junta leaders are probably aware that they are illegitimate. They’ve become increasingly paranoid and repressive in their crackdown against any form of resistance – both online and offline.” It ends: “Deep down, the junta knows that its power rests not on legitimacy but on the barrel of guns and the threat of arbitrary detention that is increasingly turning Thailand to Juntaland.”





2014 and the (further) rise of authoritarianism

6 03 2016

A reader points out that PPT has neglected a couple of academic articles at the Journal of Contemporary Asia. We have now looked at the papers, apparently the first to come out in a special issue of the journal. The issue is to be titled: “Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn,” edited by Veerayooth Kanchoochat and Kevin Hewison. Both articles at the publisher’s website are of great interest.

The first is available for free download. Eugénie Mérieau contributes “Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the Constitutional Court (1997–2015),” which the JCA blog says “is an important article assessing the way in which a conservative elite has ruled Thailand and how it seeks to manage succession.”

The abstract for the article is as follows:

This article challenges the network monarchy approach and advocates for the use of the concept of Deep State. The Deep State also has the monarchy as its keystone, but is far more institutionalised than the network monarchy accounts for. The institutionalised character of the anti-democratic alliance is best demonstrated by the recent use of courts to hamper the rise of electoral politics in a process called judicialisation of politics. This article uses exclusive material from the minutes of the 1997 and 2007 constitution-drafting assemblies to substantiate the claim that the Deep State used royalists’ attempts to make the Constitutional Court a surrogate king for purposes of its own self-interested hegemonic preservation.

The second paper is by Chris Baker, titled “The 2014 Thai Coup and Some Roots of Authoritarianism.” Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall. His abstract states:

Thailand is the only country currently ruled by a coup-installed military government. The 2014 coup aimed not only to abolish the influence of Thaksin Shinawatra but also to shift Thailand’s politics in an authoritarian direction. While the army authored the coup, the professional and official elite played a prominent role in engineering the coup and shaping political reforms. This article examines some historical antecedents of this authoritarian turn, first in the broad trends of Thailand’s modern political history, and second in the emergence and political evolution of the Bangkok middle class.