Post dissolution commentary

4 03 2020

We thought that several recent op-eds, long posts and reports and statements coming after the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of Future Forward may be of interest for readers who have not yet seen them:

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Thai junta can’t even tolerate existence of opposition parties

Joshua Kurlantzick, A Popular Thai Opposition Party Was Disbanded. What Happens Next?

Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, Anakot Mai: ‘lawfare’ and Future Forward Party’s legacy

Kevin Hewison, Thai Constitutional Court dissolves another major party

The Economist, Thailand’s courts ban the country’s third-biggest political party

VICE, Inside Thailand’s Rising Anti-Government Student Protests

The state of politics

18 10 2019

There are a couple of assessments worth reading together. We have been able to access both, so we figure others can too and that there’s no need to reproduce in full.

The first is “Why the Thai King’s Power Grab Could Backfire,” by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. Referring to the fake emergency decree, the author states:

The decree claims the change was made necessary by an emergency, but there is no obvious emergency that justifies such a decision.

In reality, taking personal control of the military units is just the latest move by King Maha Vajiralongkorn to expand his influence over Thailand’s politics, military affairs and economy since ascending to the throne in late 2016…. Vajiralongkorn seems intent on pushing the country further away from a constitutional monarchy as well, but in another direction altogether: closer to an absolute monarchy.

From Ugly Thailand

Some of the rest of the article we do not agree with, including its wishful thinking. Frankly, we do not see this relationship between a cocky, dominant and obsessive king and the seemingly supine military coming undone any time soon. Hopefully we are wrong. This is the conclusion to the article:

Ultimately, the king’s power grab might hurt the long-term viability of the monarchy. Although lese majeste laws outlaw public criticism, Thais are generally well aware of Vajiralongkorn’s past and present conduct. There is little evidence he has boosted his popularity as king. His maneuvering is making enemies among business, military and political elites, in addition to quiet republicans who already distrusted the monarchy. Meanwhile, disempowering advisers, like the Privy Council, and assuming more control over both politics and the economy removes any plausible deniability for the king in the event of failure.

By operating in the shadows, the king’s father wielded significant power but allowed the blame for Thailand’s problems to fall on others. Vajiralongkorn may have squandered that option.

The second story is The Economist’s Banyan writing on Gen Apirat Kongsompong demonstrating his loyalty to the king. Again, the relationship between supine military bosses and the powerful king is a feature.

Read them and weep for Thailand.

On the junta’s election chances

2 11 2018

We recommend Joshua Kurlantzick’s World Politics Review assessment of the the junta’s “election” appearing under the title “Thailand’s Junta Is Finally Promising Elections—On Its Terms.”

Needing to love the military dictatorship

13 07 2018

Some pundits have wondered if the cave rescue has made the military dictatorship more popular internationally and more “electable” domestically. We don’t know the answer to those questions, but we do know that authoritarian regimes have long felt comfortable dealing with Thailand’s military junta and that the West, moving rapidly to the right, has sought to re-engage with the regime.

An op-ed – The Rest of the World Has Warmed to Thailand’s Military Rulers – by Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, addresses the “warming” to the regime that has been seen in recent times.

Despite the junta embedding itself for the long term, delaying “elections” and engaging in widespread repression, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha “has been welcomed in many leading Western democracies.” Worse, he observes that “[f]rom Europe to Australia to the United States, countries have largely dropped their efforts at pressuring the Thai government [to civilianize], even while Thailand’s political crisis stretches on indefinitely.”

After the 2014 military coup, “[m]any democratic states took a relatively harsh line toward Bangkok,” that’s changed. The countries in Europe, the U.S. and Australia are now moderately supportive of Thailand’s military regime.

The Dictator and the U.S.’s Trump

President Donald Trump hosted The Dictator at the White House in October 2017. No surprise there, but the “Obama administration had already begun normalizing those military-to-military ties.”

Kurlantzick observes that “European states and other major democracies have acted similarly.” The EU re-established “all political links with Thailand” in late 2017. In March, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed Prayuth “reversing the Australian travel ban on top junta leaders.”

The Dictator and Australia’s Turnbull

The author doesn’t note it, but Turnbull has moved rapidly to the right, adopting policies that the military regime in Thailand would appreciate.

In June, “Prayuth took his first trip to Europe since the easing of EU sanctions on Thailand. He met British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, along with a wide range of business leaders.” May heads a government that is engaged in a Brexit debate that sees the right gaining ground, recent events notwithstanding. Linked to post-Brexit needs, “Prayuth and May agreed to relaunch talks on a free trade agreement.”

The Dictator and Britain’s May

Kurlantzick observes that “[f]or all the junta’s attempts to boost its image abroad, the political environment in Thailand is still as repressive as it has been since 2014.” It is the other countries that are rushing to the right and thus having no qualms about embracing repressive military regimes.

Another factor involved has been the panic over China: “the junta has pointed to its growing ties with China, which did not condemn the coup, as a reminder to other leading powers that Thailand has alternatives for investment, aid and diplomatic and military ties.”

The Dictator with China’s Xi

This causes some Western countries to ditch human rights concerns in the interests of checking China. It’s all a bit Cold War like.

China’s influence is not new and has been on the rise in Thailand, as it has elsewhere, but the junta still craves “balancing” as much as it does “bending,” and it is the junta that has made overtures to the West.

And, as ever, business is interested in profits rather than human rights, making Thailand attractive as it is at the heart of a broader ASEAN region.

For all these reasons the West feels the need to cosy up with the nastiest of regimes.

Thailand in Crisis (in Washington DC)

6 05 2014

A couple of readers have sent us conference announcement. It is is Washington DC, but looks interesting enough. While the participants may seem the “usual suspects,” in fact, this is quite a different bunch than is usually wheeled out for “policy dialogues” in DC.

The Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies is pleased to present:
Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses


Tuesday May 13, 2014
9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
CSIS 2nd Floor Conference Room
1616 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Washington DC

To RSVP please click here. Please RSVP before Monday, May 12, 2014.

The Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies is pleased to invite you to Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios and Policy Responses that will be held on Tuesday May 13, 2014, 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Thailand is working through a historic political crisis which will likely shape the future of how political power is organized and used in the country. Thailand plays an integral role in the region, and it is important for the United States to sustain engagement with a stable Thailand as part of its rebalance to Asia. This all -day conference will provide a much needed discussion that will focus on possible scenarios for Thailand’s volatile political situation and the implications for U.S. policy.
Follow the event on Twitter @SoutheastAsiaDC ǀ @CSIS ǀ #CSISLive


Thailand in Crisis: Scenarios & Policy Responses
May 13, 2014
Center for Strategic and International Studies
2nd Floor Conference Room
1616 Rhode Island Ave, NW, Washington DC
Tentative Agenda
0830 Registration of Participants

0900 Panel One: Why Thailand Matters to the United States
The Hon. Scot Marciel, U.S. Department of State
Dr. Amy Searight, U.S. Department of Defense
Moderator: Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS

0945 Discussion: Putting Modern Thai Politics in a Historical Context
Introductory remarks: Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Chulalongkorn University
Moderator: Mr. Murray Hiebert, CSIS

1015 Coffee Break

1030 Panel Two: How the crisis will shape the future political order
Mr. Sunai Phasuk, Human Rights Watch
Dr. Duncan McCargo, University of Leeds
Mr. Shawn Crispin, AsiaTimes Online
Mr. Tony Davis, Jane’s Defense Weekly (Invited)
Moderator: Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS

1145 Luncheon

1215 Panel Three: Policy Options for the United States

Mr. Frank Jannuzi, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation (Invited)
Mr. Josh Kurlantzick, Council on Foreign Relations
Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS
Moderator: Mr. Murray Hiebert, CSIS

1330 Conference Summary & Closing Remarks

Mr. Ernest Z. Bower, CSIS

1400 End of Conference

Monarchies in comparison

27 08 2012

Personal or public?

Readers may recall that back in April this year, PPT posted regarding the scandal facing the Spanish king at that time and some of the historical coincidences that haunted the Spanish and Thai kings. At the Council on Foreign Relations blog, Joshua Kurlantzick has a post with a contemporary comparison.

Referring to a Washington Post article of a few days ago, Kurlantzick writes of how European austerity programs are impacting the monarchies there. Kurlantzick reminds readers of the criticism of the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, for his 19th Century and colonial-like penchant for shooting wild animals in Africa (see PPT’s earlier post). That criticism “led to a major backlash against the monarch.” The blog article states that that event has seen calls for “Juan Carlos to drastically cut his annual spending and to be much more transparent about how he is spending money on royal activities.”

While the well-funded and seemingly well-fueled escapes of the youngest British prince/playboy in Las Vegas may suggest that the austerities are not cutting too deep for some, the calls for greater transparency for the more controversial and big spending and well-connected royals has been growing, while establishment figures and self-serving royalists seek to protect the extravagant royals.

Kurlantzick then turns to Thailand:

Though it may be able to hold off such inquiries for now, via harsh lèse-majesté laws and the genuine reverence the monarchy enjoys, the Thai monarchy could learn some lessons from Juan Carlos. Like the Spanish king, the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has truly earned a high degree of respect from many Thais over the course of his lengthy reign. But that respect, and the fact that the king’s reign is strongly supported by a core of arch-royalists in Bangkok, does not mean that questions are not increasingly being raised, in private, about the royal family’s finances.

Kurlantzick’s view of “respect” is couched in terms that don’t obliterate history in the way that several news agencies have long done, and the point he makes about transparency for royal finances is an important one. While he believes that “royals seem to understand this [need] in Thailand,”we are not so sure the royals are in any way keen on opening up about health, wealth or much else.

His evidence for feeling that the Thai royals have been given a message is the “recent, royally-approved biography of the king’s life” that he says “contained significantly more information on the Crown Property Bureau “than any royally-approved book had in the past.” That’s true, but it is a bit of closing the gate after the horse has bolted given the high profile of an academic account (get it here) and the related Forbes story of the CPB. Essentially, the book is a royalist and palace attempt to steer the public account of the monarchy, post-Handley (and his The King Never Smiles).

Kurlantzick believes that as the average Thai knows something about the monarchy’s wealth, that knowledge “only fuels a hunger for more —though Thais will not say so in public. On social media sites, and in private conversations, discussion of the Crown Property Bureau now is far more common than in the past.”

Juan Carlos has apparently “announced he would be taking a pay cut voluntarily, according to the Washington Post story, in tune with the austere times.” Kurlantzick asks if that isn’t a “model for other monarchs?” Probably not, for as the palace and those responsible for the recent biography points out, this king is unlike any other…. and other such concoctions that serve “protect” and conceal.

Much that contributes to the wealth and power of the Thai monarchy remains missing from public view. See sets of PPT posts on this here and here.

As a most basic of examples, it remains unclear – make that opaque – how much taxpayer money goes to support the royal family, its activities, projects and personal spending. Efforts have been made to cull information from Budget Bureau papers, but there is no clarity and a myriad of government agencies pour funds into the support of the royals, with no accounting or public accountability (as one small example, think of royal cars). No minister or politician dares  raise questions about royal funding in parliament, which is meant to be one site of scrutiny over the expenditure of public monies; many of these people assist in what amount to cover ups. Senior bureaucrats regularly come out with dopey letters denying royal wealth.

Transparency remains pretty much off the agenda and accountability is a term that is unlikely to be used in the same breathe as monarchy.

Kurlantzick on failed reconciliation

14 08 2012

At the Council on Foreign Relations, Joshua Kurlantzick has a take on the failure of reconciliation.

He begins by claiming that “Thai politics, which almost couldn’t get worse, actually has.” We at PPT don’t agree. Since the 2011 election, while those who lost the election have been vocal and demonstrative, and while the conditions in the south seem more dangerous, in terms of the ongoing political crisis, we have to admit that Yingluck Shinawatra’s government has seen an easing of political violence and repression.

Even in terms of lese majeste, while calls for changes to the law and for the release of those currently incarcerated, and despite some regressive statements on lese majeste, we can think of only one case that has been wholly processed under this government. Others, begun under the royalist Abhisit Vejjajiva regime, have continued to be processed. That scores of people aren’t being accused and jailed is a step forward, if a much smaller one than PPT wanted.

We don’t disagree with the cited quote from Thitinan Pongsudhirak who states that “Thailand’s problem is that those who keep winning elections are not allowed to rule, whereas others who ultimately call the shots cannot win elections.” At the same time, we think that those “who call the shots” are not going unchallenged. The recent red shirt challenges to the politicized and corrupt Constitutional Court are a case in point. The Court’s actions were reprehensible but were opposed and continue to be opposed, and the Puea Thai Party hasn’t (yet) been dissolved.

That progress, however, is not robust, and Yingluck’s government faces constant threat. We remain bemused by the claim that there was a “deal” done between Thaksin Shinawatra, the palace and the military. There’s scant evidence for a deal yet the claim continues to be made. Kurlantzick cites Asia Times Online columnist Shawn Crispin on this, but as far as we can tell, no deal has been respected by anyone. Rather, an arm-wrestle continues for control of the state.

If there is one aspect of the so-called deal that has played out it relates to the military.  Essentially, Yingluck has been very reluctant to challenge the military. Indeed, we believe that her government is pushing money to the military, with the idea being that new toys keep them quiet and funds flowing to military bosses from “commissions.” That said, deal or no deal, we think the government would have attempted to avoid confrontation with the coup makers. That would also apply to the coup makers in the palace. Yingluck’s prostrating and pandering to them is a bit like throwing money at the men with guns. Conflict with both groups continues but is not as overt as in the past.

Council on Foreign Relations on lese majeste regression

12 09 2011

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick has posted an article where he considers the unique trajectory of lese majeste repression in Thailand. He begins:

Over the past five years Thailand’s Lèse-Majesté law, by far the strictest in the world, went from being scarcely used to being used an extraordinary number of times annually.

Noting the huge expansion of cases since the 2006 military coup, he notes that

Thailand has in recent years broadened the law in order to prosecute Thais who have allegedly insulted the monarchy on the Internet, in blogs, and using social media; one U.S. citizen recently was arrested in Thailand for just such a “crime.”

Kurlantzick is obviously correct to note that lese majeste “has become a political weapon”:

Royalists in the military, the bureaucracy, and the Democrat Party have used it to crush dissent.

On initial optimism that Yingluck Shinawatra’s government might do something about the horrid law, Kurlantzick  states:

Allies of Yingluck say that she is personally sympathetic to trying to reduce use of the law and reform it in the long run. After her election, for example, bloggers posted an interview she had given in which she said that she did not want the law to be misused.

But that hope is receding as nothing has been done and arrests have continued. Kurlantzick notes:

A group of concerned scholars have submitted to Yingluck a public letter calling on her to review Thailand’s laws on Lèse-Majesté and on cyber crimes. They also have called on her to push for the release on bail of people facing Lèse-Majesté charges, many of whom are being held without bail. So far, Yingluck and her cabinet have not given any signs that they are taking notice.

CFR on Thailand’s democratic failure

31 03 2011

Some choice quotes from Joshua Kurlantzick, a Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. The article is worth a read in full:

Thailand boasted a large, educated middle class, one of the best-performing economies in the world, and a relatively robust civil society. By the late 1990s, Thailand had held several free elections and passed a reformist constitution that enshrined greater protections for civil liberties and created a wealth of new institutions designed to root out graft and ensure civil rights. In its 1999 report on freedom in the world, monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” nation.

Today, however, Thailand looks less like a success story and more like an example of how democracy can fail. Since a 2006 military coup, Thailand has reverted to a kind of soft authoritarianism: the military plays an enormous role in determining politics; the Thai middle class has become increasingly anti-democratic; and security forces have used threats, online filtering, arrests, and killings to intimidate opponents of a government sanctioned by the armed forces and Thailand’s monarchy. Freedom House recently ranked Thailand as only “partly free,” and the country has sunk near the bottom of all developing nations in rankings of press freedom.

Critical of Thaksin Shinawatra’s period in power and his authoritarian tendencies, the author adds:

By 2005, when Thaksin was re-elected, again with massive support from the poor, he dominated the country’s political landscape. And yet Thailand had not become Equatorial Guinea or Libya; the Thai middle classes, who had led the democratic revolution before, could have fought back against Thaksin at the ballot box, through the remaining independent news outlets or in the courts. But instead, like middle classes in many emerging democracies today, they had grown disillusioned with democracy, believing that it had delivered only elected autocracy and that it would empower the poor at their expense.

They supported the 2006 coup. Kurlantzick says: “The Thai coup, unfortunately, only triggered a total meltdown. Thaksin might have damaged the country’s weak democracy, but the military ruined it.” Indeed.

The culture of impunity

7 12 2010

Joshua Kurlantzick at the Council on Foreign Relations has a short post related to much of Southeast Asia, but which has particular resonance for Thailand. He begins with the “awful stampede that took place at a water festival in Phnom Penh in late November, killing as many 350 people” and concludes that “no one will be punished.”

Apart from the fact that he thinks this culture of impunity that protects state officials and the higher ups does not infect Singapore, his observations about the way, for example, in Thailand, the police and military can torture and kill and get away free from any responsibility is amazing and tragic. He says:

In Southeast Asia, punishing wrongdoing is exceedingly rare, outside of Singapore [sic]. Yet it is one of the pillars of a functioning democracy, a democracy in which citizens have the degree of trust in the state necessary to conform to the laws. If this trust in the state does not exist, you wind up with a privatization of essential functions, tax avoidance and people paying for public services like water and sanitation and policing, private militias, and other corrosion of state control. You also wind up with a total lack of trust in the law, so that average people become less likely, in the future, to report crimes, testify as witnesses, or generally punish illegal activities.

Thailand has plenty of that.

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