Academic freedom challenged

25 05 2011

Simon Montlake comments on declining academic freedom in the Christian Science Monitor. Of course, this relates to the lese majeste case brought by the Army chief against history professor Somsak Jeamteerasakul at Thammasat University.

The report begins: “An outspoken historian is facing the threat of a criminal trial for his writings on the Thai monarchy, spurring an international appeal by scholars for the protection of academic freedoms in Thailand.”

Some useful quotes from the story:

“Watchdog groups say Thailand’s widespread use of repressive laws such as lèse-majesté to silence critics has undermined its democratic rights. US-based Freedom House recently ranked Thailand with dictatorships like China and Cuba for its ‘substantial censorship’ of political debate. Thai authorities continue to shut down media outlets allied to the opposition red-shirt movement. Armed police raided several red-shirt radio stations on April 26 for airing anti-royal speeches.” PPT thinks there should be an “allegedly” associated with “anti-royal speeches.”

“Somsak is among a group of intellectuals who have called for root-and-branch reform of the monarchy to diminish its political influence.”

David Streckfuss: “If charges are brought against him, it would really put a dent in Thailand’s image as a place where general freedoms are observed…”.

“For academics, this creates a ‘black hole’ in the study of Thailand’s modern history, says Michael Montesano, a fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asia Studies in Singapore. While some studies have simply echoed official hagiographies of the current ruler, others have resorted to coded language or bitten their tongues…”.

Montesano: “In recent years, this caution has ebbed a bit. But Somsak has really pushed the envelope…”.

Prime Minister “Mr. Abhisit [Vejjajiva], who was educated at Oxford University, has said that non-partisan scholarship on the monarchy is permissible.”

Kevin Hewison: “said Somsak’s case was a test for Abhisit. ‘He has stated several times that academic comment on the monarchy is acceptable. If it now isn’t, [his] reputation will be in tatters for scholars who follow Thailand’…”.

PPT thinks it worth noting that there are now reformist and abolitionist perspectives on lese majeste. Somsak’s case is a clear over-step by an enraged Army boss. Arguably, this is also the case for Somyos Pruksakasemsuk, who continues to be held without bail.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha has shown that he is unable to comprehend Thailand’s current political climate and the changes that have taken place in recent years. So while the action against Somsak is an act of repression, it has thrown open a door that the royalists can’t shut. The more “liberal” amongst them must press for reform of the lese majeste law. If they don’t do this, as Sulak Sivaraksa says, time and again, they risk the monarchy itself.

Election talk

7 05 2011

As readers will have noted, PPT has been watching election speculation and while agreeing that there is probably an elite strategy on the royalist government an electoral mandate that will (it hopes) silence critics, we have also noted the intense debate that has gone on within the elite on whether this was the “right” strategy at this time. This caused us to comment on the conflict with and in the People’s Alliance for Democracy as well as the unbridled use of lese majeste against the government’s opponents while demanding silence on the monarchy during an election campaign.

As the Bhum Jai Thai Party-Ministry of Interior-Internal Security Operations Command organized a large rally of the so-called Monarchy Protection Volunteers Group in Rangsit (go here and choose 6 May to see a front-page picture) and as the Army displayed on Channel 5 its nationwide activities supporting the monarchy and opposing those “threatening” the monarchy, and as the Cabinet approved huge budgets (see below and here) in an unusual, long and generous meeting, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said late Friday that he had submitted a decree for the king’s signature that would dissolve parliament and lead to an election.

The Economist, writing before Abhisit’s announcement, has a piece that includes some interesting issues.

It begins with Abhisit’s “spendthrift cabinet” approving “102 spending proposals, totalling billions of dollars.” (A Bangkok Post account says 137 billion baht.) It concludes: “Plainly, an election is in the offing.” The Economist believes “the contest will be bitter…. And whatever the result, some will not accept it.”

PPT hasn’t mentioned what the Economist calls “the centre of the show”: Thaksin Shinawatra. It observes:

Deposed in a coup in 2006 and banned from politics in Thailand, he is now in exile in Dubai. But his devoted followers, the red shirts, have kept the flame glowing, often in the face of extreme government hostility. Scores of their number were gunned down during a prolonged protest in central Bangkok a year ago. They see this election as possibly their last chance to right the wrong of that coup.”

PPT would add that the supporters of Thaksin have seen their votes count for nothing in the three most recent elections. Many of them will wonder if that will be the case again should the Puea Thai Party do well. It is unclear if people will remain connected to the electoral process if their votes are thrown out time and again.

Thaksin remains critical. As this report notes, many “hoped that Pheu Thai would evolve into an issues-based party rather than remain a Thaksin fan-club. Fat chance. As the election nears, the opposite is happening…”. One reason for this continuing “Thaksinisation” of the party is because “the party does not have a lot of choice, because of government crackdowns… [and bannings]. With so many leaders sidelined, Pheu Thai’s remaining talent pool is shallow.”

Abhisit sees an opportunity to “ opportunity “win his own mandate.”

The Economist raises one important question: will “the campaign will be a proper contest of people and ideas…”, adding that censorship, jailings and so on make “some red shirts argue that it will be almost impossible to hold a free and fair election.” Not just red shirts. PPT has argued a “fixing” has been going on.

A second important question relates to acceptance of a hypothetical Puea Thai victory. PPT thinks that such a victory would be a remarkable outcome with so much aligned against the party. Hence the generals say they will accept a Puea Thai government. We think this is little different from their claims back in 2007 when they said the junta’s constitution could be changed following an election that they thought the Democrat Party would win. When they didn’t, and People’s Power Party sought constitutional amendment, PAD mobilized, chaos resulted and the judicial coup took place in December 2008.

Writing after the Abhisit statement, the Wall Street Journal has another take on the election. Despite all of the obstacles and fixing, the Journal thinks calling an election is “a risky strategy” against a “well-funded opposition backed by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the man the army kicked out of power nearly five years ago.” In fact, the Democrat Party doesn’t seem short of campaign funds, and has used the state coffers extensively to promote its position (see above).

The Journal has more on opposition to the election amongst the elite, saying “conservative royalists argue that Thailand isn’t ready to hold peaceful elections.” It cites Michael Montesano who says “that even among Thailand’s anti-Thaksin establishment, there are doubts that elections are the best way to stabilize the country.”

As we noted above, the military has actively campaigned for the royalist government and hopes that its work will be more successful than it was in 2007. Meanwhile, Abhisit, who was put in place and maintained there by the military says: “I think we see the military is now playing its role according to the constitution, and supports an elected government and the policies we adopt.”

More doublespeak by Abhisit, obscuring his enduring debt to the military and their weapons. Expect much more of this and also expect the military to be heavily involved as they provide bodyguards for Abhisit and other Democrat Party politicians as they campaign. Also expect the already huge promises made by both sides to get even bigger. And, don’t forget the monarchy. We assume the king will sign off on the dissolution of parliament, despite his operation. Even if the major parties agreed that it is unmentionable, state television and the military will continue to harp on “the institution,” implying that the opposition is disloyal.

Unrest is the norm

15 01 2011

Getting a slot in one of the big U.S. news weeklies has always been taken in Thailand as problematic. This has been more so since the current regime came to power with various accusations against the international media for “failing to understand” or, worse, being in the pay of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This week Thailand got a slot in Newsweek as it talked with some international scholars on the problems in the south.

The take-off point is the observation that  “Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appears eager to show that Thailand is on the mend. In late December, the government lifted the state of emergency that had been in place in the capital for more than eight months, and Abhisit then gave an optimistic end-of-year speech promising stability. As one indication, the cabinet also lifted a much older state of emergency in three districts of Thailand’s troubled Deep South—where successive administrations have been unable to quell an insurgency that since 2004 has claimed more than 4,400 lives.”

Abhisit claimed: “It shows that the government is making progress…” on the south.

Newsweek seems to refute this, citing the analysis of three scholars familiar with the region. Zachary Abuza, a professor at the U.S.’s National War College says: “The violence isn’t down…”. He adds that : “there’s no end to the conflict in sight…”. One of the reasons for this is that: “Harsh military and police tactics, meanwhile, such as detaining suspected insurgents without charge and allegedly using torture, seem only to make things worse.” And, as for lifting the state of emergency, this means little when the Internal Security Act remains in place.

Professor Duncan McCargo from Leeds University hits the nail firmly on the head when he says: “What you see in the Deep South is just an extreme version of the national problem in Thailand, which is that power is overly concentrated in Bangkok, where “the military and monarchy sit.”

Michael Montesano, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies responds that the solution is “[d]evolution of power … both in the Deep South and countrywide…”. Yet he knows this is deeply challenging for the elite who are “reluctant to cede real power, while Abhisit’s government is backed by Thailand’s most centralized powers—the military and the crown.”

PPT agrees when the article concludes: “Until the country’s leaders are willing to address the longstanding grievances held by Thais outside the traditional power structure, unrest, both in the South and in Bangkok, will likely continue to be the norm.”

Red shirt resentment and action

4 10 2010

There’s a useful report on red shirts outside Bangkok in a U.N.-based newsletter that warrants consideration. It does considerable summarizing of already well-known information, and continues the theme of lack of reconciliation by the government as it hunts and arrests red shirts. As the report states, “though many of its leaders have been detained, the Red movement is, in fact, far from over, as community grassroots groups … continue to collect money for the cause and as Reds convene more rallies…”. See some clips of recent events below.

It cites Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group: “Genuine reconciliation can only happen when the government stops suppressing the Red Shirts and allows them to voice their aspirations and grievances through peaceful political channels.” The report continues: “That means restoring electoral democracy and respecting the vote, even if those in power lose.”

One of the surprising aspects of the report is the claim by [m]any Reds” that there was “a utopia completely void of corruption during the Thaksin [Shinawatra] years…”. That may be a rural villager’s perspective on the changes that have taken place post-Thaksin as the military and civil bureaucracies have reinforced their control, and this allows for increased demands on the public for “support.”

As PPT has also pointed out, “there is little awareness on the part of the ruling elites as to how deep-seated change needs to be.” Michael Montesano is quoted: “There are people who get it and are virulently opposed to change, and there are even more people who don’t get it…. I don’t think there’s an understanding in the top rungs of the government that the old tricks just won’t work any more.”

The report also comments on “Red Sundays” partly organized by Sombat Boonngamanong. Some of these are seen in the clips below. Sombat says: “The government can now see that the Red Shirts will not be defeated…”.

PPT is pretty sure that Thai E-News remains pretty much blocked in Thailand. Our recent scan of their posts revealed some recent video gems, which we wish to post here for those interested in current red shirt activism:

The site also includes links to Picassa pages of photos.

On the government’s part, repression and startling claims regarding “terrorism” remain the order of the day. The government’s leading supporter, banned politician and former Thaksin supporter Newin Chidchob has claimed that a former “boss” has put out an assassination contract on him. Newin says the”former boss” – PPT and everyone else assumes he means Thaksin – has put up 20 million baht for the assassination. The claim seems odd given that Newin is often in highly public situations, not least at football games, so he would be a relatively easy target if a professional assassin had really been hired. Maybe he’s been watching Bangkok Dangerous.

PPT notes that claims of assassination plots are legion in recent years, but that the only ones that had any basis appear to be that against Thaksin when he was premier, and another against yellow-shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul. Neither seems to have seen any effort to get the masterminds brought to justice.

This claim by Newin follows hard on the heels of a government report that it has busted a ring of 11 “red shirt” assassins-in-training “at a resort in Chiang Mai in preparation to launch violent acts and political assassinations.” That is convenient given Newin’s accusation. The Post states that the police “acknowledged the arrest but refused to provide details.”

Red shirt leader and parliamentarian Jatuporn Promphan, in the story on Newin, called the the arrest “a birthday gift for Mr Newin.” He added that the arrests and confessions “seemed to be scripted.” He denied all knowledge of the men and suggested that they weren’t red shirts.

At the very least, the claims of terrorists need to be substantiated and more information supplied; usually, it is at this stage that the claims seem to melt into history…. Let’s see if anything happens this time.

Montesano on tolerance

1 06 2010

Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, has an article entitled “The Death of Tolerance in Thailand” in the Wall Street Journal (31 May 2010). It is prompted in part by the arrest of Chulalongkorn University professor Suthachai Yimprasert, now released from his arbitary detention.

The article remain relevant even following Suthachai’s release. This is because his arrest was under the draconian 2005 emergency decree that pretty much allow the military-backed regime to do whatever it wants.

Montesano is also correct to observe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s empty words about reconciliation: “The Abhisit government says it wants reconciliation. But Mr. Suthachai’s detention, along with aggressive measures to censor the Internet and other media, suggest that it has embarked on a post-crackdown course likely to deepen Thailand’s ugly divisions.” He sets out some of the actions taken by the government, using its emergency powers, to conduct a repressive witch hunt. These include:

  • freezing the bank accounts of more than 100 individuals that the government thinks have helped fund the red shirt protests;
  • surveillance  of ordinary citizens in northern and northeastern Thailand;
  • internet censorship on a grand scale.

Montesano argues that the current regime and their backers are ignoring “the most hopeful lessons of modern Thai political history. Instead they have embarked on a path to destroy what is best about their country.”

PPT agrees that the current regime is on a path that has not been seen in Thailand since the dark days of the Thanin Kraivixien government. However, we would quibble with Montesano’s history of the reconciliation that followed on the heels of a draconian government, put in place by the palace in 1976, and headed by a still-serving privy councilor.

Montesano argues that on 6 October 1976, “Soldiers, police and right-wing vigilantes attacked Bangkok’s Thammasat University. They killed tens of student protestors, detained many others and drove still others into the jungle to join the armed insurgency of the ‘terrorists’ of the Communist Party of Thailand.”

That’s more or less right, but the death toll in that event is disputed (as the death toll in recent events is). The government officially claims just 46 killed. Others at the time claimed many more deaths.

Montesano then states that “Thailand entered a very bleak period.” It did indeed. The Thanin government was, not unlike the current Abhisit regime, rabidly ultra-royalist and attacked even royalist liberals as “communists.” Again, we see signs of that today.

Montesano then sees a period of reconciliation, presided over by General Prem Tinsulannda after he replaced another general who was despised by the palace for throwing out their favorite in Thanin. Those who fled to the jungles or overseas following the October 1976 events began to come back. He argues that one outcome was the return of talent and a new “academic freedom” that made “Thailand’s best universities sites for rigorous examination of the country’s past and present, its society, economy, and history.” He calls on the Democrat Party – the victim of the 1976 coup and a party seen then as too liberal – to remember the lessons of the past and to see true reconciliation rather than resorting to the dead wood of repression and authoritarianism

Again, PPT agrees in part but points to the contexts. Recall that the period of reconciliation of the 1980s came after a thorough “cleansing” by ultra-royalists and a significant turning back of the political clock. Indeed, elections didn’t really matter again until Prem was pushed out of his army-palace appointed premiership in 1988, 12 years after the 1976 events.

PPT suggests that this scenario is not dissimilar to the Abhisit regime’s approach today. They are engaging in a period of cleansing, making the world “safe” for the palace and its conservative backers, and they will only look at elections when they feel they can safely control the outcome.

Updated: Release of Dr. Suthachai Yimprasert

1 06 2010

PPT was very pleased to hear about the release late on Monday, 31 May 2010, of Dr. Suthachai Yimprasert, the assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University who was arbitrarily detained by the CRES last Monday. PPT has previously blogged about Suthachai here, here, here, and here. You can also read about his case on the blog of Siam Democracy Cooperative, a new, emergent organization here.

Update: The Bangkok Post covers his release here.  Matichon covers his release here.

Violence, monarchy, people

25 04 2010

At (25 April 2010) there is a report of an academic discussion on Thailand in Singapore. Some interesting elements include the observation that violence is deep-rooted in Thai society: “In terms of the carnival atmosphere turning into violence, this comes from very deep in Thai society…. This is the whole Thai society that we are seeing here. There is a lot of violence under the surface.” This has often included deadly confrontations between security forces and demonstrators (Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies).

Paul Chambers, who is said to be “a Thailand expert at Germany’s Heidelberg University” makes doubtful comments about the monarchy. PPT thinks this one is simply silly: “Given the country’s cultural affinity for obedience to monarchy, Thailand’s palace can facilitate moves toward consensus…. Absent such intervention, polarisation and violence may well continue.” We wonder what Mr. Chambers has been doing over the past few years. The idea of a “cultural affinity for obedience to the monarchy” is something that royalists sprout in their propaganda, but is hardly academic thinking.

The report refers to a “sense of resentment has now spread to the working poor in urban areas.” We at PPT would suggest that this is something that is also deep-rooted and that we are seeing it again.

Montesano makes an excellent point about the current situation: “The hatred of Thaksin is much more dangerous to Thailand than Thaksin [himself]…”. Talk to members of the Democrat Party and to the various yellow-shirted intellectuals and this personal hatred of Thaksin is the fundamental basis of their political position. Montesano adds: “Because the government believes Thaksin is behind all this, there is no compromise.”

Jacques Ivanoff, said to be from the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, is reported as saying: “When citizens take matters into their own hands, the outcome is never very good.” Not quite sure what this refers to. People in the Philippines and Indonesia might disagree as might many Thais when they think of their country’s long history of uprisings against authoritarianism.

A country for old men?

22 09 2009

Also available as ประเทศนี้สำหรับคนรุ่นเก่าหรือไง

With so much happening in Thailand’s politics in the past few weeks, it has been difficult to keep up. Seeing the bigger picture is a challenge.

Following our retrospective on Thailand three years after the 2006 palace-military coup, where we attempted to be positive, we now offer some observations regarding the current situation.

We begin with the police chief debacle. Why has this appointment been so drawn out and so conflicted? Of course, there are the related views that Thaksin Shinawatra controls the police or that the police support Thaksin. Another view is that there was a tug-of-war going on between coalition partners. There is truth in both perspectives. However, PPT suggests that there is more to this dispute.

Reports suggest that Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda (b. 1920) is at work. We won’t go into great detail for Bangkok Pundit has collected some of the comment on the police chief saga and most especially on the latest debates on who should get the job, including from ASTV/Manager and the Bangkok Post (17 September 2009: “New twist in police drama”) where there were guarded comments “new influential players.”

Police General Jumpol Manmai, the “alternative” candidate is known to be close to Prem and The Nation (17 September 2009: “Top Cop : Deadlock remains”) had stated that Jumpol “is known to have very strong backing outside the Police Commission, and lobbying was said to have reached fever pitch in the past few days.”

So is it Prem who is lobbying? Probably. Why? We suggest it is because, for some years, the palace and Privy Council have been trying to get increased control over the legal system. There has been a heightened urgency to this in the battle to root out Thaksin and his “regime.” Retired judges have been brought onto the Privy Council.

In what has clearly been a deliberated strategy, five of the last seven appointments to the Privy Council have been from the courts. The odd ones out were Admiral Chumpol Patchusanont (Former Commander of the Royal Thai Navy) and General Surayud Chulanont, who was appointed after he left the army and stepped down to be premier appointed by the military and then went back to the Privy Council when that guest appearance ended.

The former judges on the Privy Council are: Sawat Wathanakorn (appointed 18 July 2002 and a Former Judge of the Supreme Administrative Court); Santi Thakral (15 March 2005, Former President of the Supreme Court of Justice); Ortniti Titamnaj (16 August 2007, Former President of the Supreme Court of Justice); Supachai Phungam (8 April 2008, Former President of the Supreme Court of Justice); and Chanchai Likitjitta (8 April 2008, Former President of the Supreme Court of Justice and Minister of Justice). That so many judges are appointed send a clear message regarding intent. The king’s speeches to judges confirm the palace’s intentions. That such links to the judiciary have been put to use in the battle against Thaksin is seen in the ample evidence of meddling in the courts.

The palace has also been keen to have its people at the top of the police. In recent years, Police General Seripisut Temiyavet was said to be a palace favorite. When the military took over in 2006, Seri was made acting and then Police Commissioner and became a member of the junta’s Council for National Security.

At about the same time, long-time palace favorite Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn, once the Chief of the Royal Court Police for the Thai royal family, was put in charge of a review of the police force. At the time, this was reported as an attempt to clean up the notoriously corrupt force and to break Thaksin’s alleged political hold over it. As late as just a week or so ago, the Democrats had Vasit look into corruption in the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority.

Michael Montesano says this of Vasit: “Briefer of CIA director Allen Dulles during the latter’s late-1950s visit to Thailand, veteran of anti-Soviet espionage in Bangkok, long the Thai Special Branch’s leading trainer in anti-Communist operations, and palace insider at the time of his country’s most intensive counter-insurgency efforts, Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn ranked among Thailand’s most important Cold Warriors.” His own background in the shadows of the Cold War did not prevent him from being of an office holder at Transparency International in Thailand. Vasit remains a warrior for the palace in his columns in Matichon and as a royalist speaker. For a very short time Vasit was deputy interior minister for Chatichai Choonhavan being raised from his position as deputy police chief.

Vasit is 79 or 80 (thanks to a reader for this information), been “retired” for years, but keeps popping up in strategic locations. His political views reflect the position of the palace. For examples of his royalism and extreme views, see here and here.

Meanwhile, over at the Democrat Party, at present it seems that chief adviser Chuan Leekpai (b. 1938) is the power behind Abhisit. In recent years, Chuan has been increasingly outspoken in support of Prem. In recent days, Chuan has become the link between Prem and the government. For example, just a few days ago, as PAD fired up on Preah Vihear, Prem became involved, with the Bangkok Post reporting that “Gen Prem is reportedly concerned about the possibility of tensions spinning out of control if it is not attended to properly. A source said former supreme commander Gen Mongkol Ampornpisit, one of Gen Prem’s closest aides, paid a visit to Chuan Leekpai, the former prime minister and chief adviser of the ruling Democrat Party, at the party’s headquarters in August, to convey Gen Prem’s concern over the border developments.” The Post considers that Prem’s concern nudged Abhisit to send Foreign Minister Kasit to arrange a broadcast “assuring the Thai public that the country has not yet lost a single inch of land area in regard to the Preah Vihear dispute.”

As PPT shown in recent postings, Abhisit has been promoting increasingly nationalist and royalist causes. We won’t detail all of this again, but it is clear that Abhisit is not stupid. His emphasis on right-wing, conservative and nationalist strategies is a reflection of the views of his strongest backers. We see this backing as involving Chuan, Prem and the palace more generally. It seems Abhisit doesn’t have much support within his own party, so this backstopping, is keeping him in his position, has to be acknowledged. So Abhisit, with the support of important and highly conservative and royalists, adopts measures that hark back to a darker past.

Of course, the recently launched project called “Thai Unity” reflects the views king (b. 1927) and currently in hospital. His call for “unity” is a conservative refrain heard since the days when the king feared he might lose his throne to communists.

Abhisit’s calls to nationalism and patriotism may seem anachronistic and even dim-witted but they are an accurate reflection of the fact that the conservatives are bereft of new ideas. Hence, we have loyalist Anand Punyarachun (b. 1932) promoting nonsense like the interview with Stephen B. Young, the “Patronizing White Man With Degree Reassures Thai Elites With Unexamined Rhetoric” upon Thailand and believing that he makes sense and has something to say. What he actually says is that these old men haven’t a clue what the new Thailand is about.

The result is that all they can do is fall back on projects that are emblematic of the military-authoritarian governments of past generations.

Related, the huge effort to protect Prem in recent days is also to be understood as a part of this conservative project (see here and here).

Add in the remarkably expensive efforts to “protect the monarchy” through the use of lese majeste and computer crimes laws and the debt to the elders adds up to a government that is becoming increasingly conservative, more repressive and is normalizing authoritarianism.

While PPT points to this authoritarian slide, we also celebrate and support the courageous struggles of those within Thailand who continue to speak out even as they are watched by the current surveillance state. In 1997, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi urged those outside Burma to “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” Comparing the current waves of royalism and the increasingly repressive Democrat Party-led state to the Burmese military regime would be factually incorrect and politically dangerous, yet there seems a determination to take Thailand back.

Thailand is now at a precipice between, as we noted in our coup anniversary post, the potential for deepening democratization, and the potential for unbridled repression at the hands of state, para-state, and royal actors. It is important to continually observe and criticize repression, and call for justice – especially for those jailed by repressive laws and those awaiting trial. A democratic Thailand will be a place where these old authoritarian men have a place, but it won’t be a place that celebrates their anachronistic ideas through government programs that enhance repression.


What analysts are saying about Thailand’s political crisis

15 04 2009

Reuters (15 April 2009: “Can Thailand break out of its downward spiral?”) cites  a number of analysts on the continuing political crisis in Thailand.

Kristina Kazmi, Asia-Pacific analyst at IHS Global Insight said that “any compromise would need to address the flaws in Thailand’s constitution and agree on the proper role of the military and the monarchy in politics.” She observes that “the big problem is there is no-one in Thailand now who actually commands the strength and the support and the respect to enact any [required] changes.”

One unifying figure is said to be the king: “But while the king is revered, the role of the monarchy in Thai politics is a deeply divisive issue at the heart of the crisis. Many in the yellow camp support an interventionist monarchy, while the reds resent the power of Thai elites. But draconian lese majeste laws block public discussion of the issue.” The report adds: “Bhumibol’s son and presumed heir, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, commands little of his father’s popular support. And with the 81-year-old king facing regular health scares, the issue of royal succession could erupt at any moment and throw another explosive element into Thailand’s volatile mix.”

Bloomberg (15 April 2009: “Thai Rifts May Spur More Turmoil in Land of Smiles”) cites a range of academic commentators on Thailand’s futures: McCargo, Hewison, Montesano. On the monarchy, the report states: “The yellow shirts also accused Thaksin and the reds of trying to upend Thailand’s monarchy. Insulting the royal family can land offenders in prison for as many as 15 years. In the past, King Bhumibol, who took the mantle in 1946 and is now the world’s longest reigning monarch, had been looked upon to unify the country in times of crisis. In 1992, after troops fired on pro-democracy demonstrators, millions watched on television as rival leaders prostrated themselves before the king.”

Kevin Hewison, a professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of North Carolina, said, “There now doesn’t seem to be anyone who can transcend the polarization and negotiate a compromise, a prospect that may lead to a “war of attrition…” . He continued: “The standoff looks starker by the day. People of the countryside and working class want representation so they feel their vote counts. The people who everyone calls the conservative elite, royalists or bureaucratic polity are just somehow fundamentally opposed to that as something that can happen now.”

There has been some reporting and commentary that verges on the nonsensical in some outlets, especially when those with little knowledge of the background of current events are involved. An example is the  Star online’s Bunn Nagara (15 April 2009: “Mobs turn Thai politics into streetfighting bloodsport”). The perspective from Forbes is here.

Compare these with the report by Jonathan Head of the BBC (14 April 2009: “No winners in Thailand’s crisis”). Head begins “Nobody won. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the chaotic events in Thailand over the past few days.” And, the conflict is not finished.

Writing of festering grievances, Head states: “The many, well-founded criticisms made of Mr Thaksin’s style of government do not affect that view: that he was autocratic, fatally weakening Thailand’s fragile democratic institutions; that he presided over a sharp escalation of human rights violations; that corruption continued to flourish under his administrations; that he shamelessly promoted on the basis of loyalty, not competence. These are points made tirelessly by the PAD during their anti-Thaksin protests last year, and they are hard to refute.”

He then makes a point that should be obvious: “But because so many poorer Thais saw this flawed politician as their champion, they resented it bitterly when forces aligned with the wealthy elite decided to bend the rules to kick him out of office.It was ultra-royalist generals who led the coup. But they were cheered on by conservative judges and bureaucrats, wealthy business tycoons and many urban, middle-class Thais. Mr Thaksin’s followers felt robbed. That sense of being robbed continued last year when they saw the governments they had voted for harried by the PAD, and then disqualified by bizarre court decisions. And they felt patronised when PAD activists said – as they did repeatedly – that the only reason the poor voted for Mr Thaksin was because he had bribed them to. These grievances continue to fester, and deepen the divide in Thai society.

Like others, Head observes that there is a lack of effective leadership on all sides – he doesn’t say it, but PPT wonders if this has something to do with all of the bannings that have gone on since the coup in 2006 – “Certainly not Mr Abhisit, who often looks uncomfortably out of place in the rural, red heartlands of the north and north-east. How he deals with the leaders of the ‘red uprising’ now – and how that compares with the treatment given to last year’s ‘yellow uprising’ – will be an important test of his promise to uphold the rule of law impartially.”

Notes from roundtable on the Thai monarchy in Singapore

1 04 2009

On 24 February 2009, the Asian Research Institute at the National University of Singapore held a roundtable on the topic of “Thailand in Crisis: The Twilight of a Reign or the Birth of a New Order.” Panelists included Bruce Lockhart, Michael Montesano, and Maurizio Peleggi. As Anthony Reid notes in his foreward to the papers,  the Asian Research Institute has placed the papers given by Bruce Lockhart and Michael Montesano online for the following reason: “This discussion has been placed on the web because it is an issue of great concern particularly to the citizens of Thailand.  In recent months the lèse majesté laws have been used to make public discussion of the Thai monarchy impossible in Thailand, at the  very time when discussion appears particularly essential. On the one hand the institution of monarchy has been politicized as a legitimation for moves of dubious constitutionality against the elected government; on the other a 60-year reign that has transformed Thailand’s monarchy is nearing its end, increasing anxieties about the succession.  The constraints now operating in Thailand increase the obligation on friends of Thailand to allow that necessary discussion to take place elsewhere.”

PPT is pleased to offer a PDF of the papers here and to be part of creating and supporting this necessary discussion.

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