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.

More on TRC matters

23 09 2012

Readers have been active in sending PPT material related to the Truth for Reconciliation Commission. Two of the most interesting are mentioned here.

First, a reader points out to us that we missed a link in the TRC report. In an earlier post, we commented on the Wall Street Journal (also here) op-ed on the Truth for Reconciliation Commission report by Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue Michael Vatikiotis. We stated:

In the first place, is his moniker a full disclosure of his relationship to the TRC? Vatikiotis has been working with several state and other bodies in Thailand on various “humanitarian dialogue” issues including the south and rumors of involvement in palace-Thaksin Shinawatra negotiations. Suddenly, he has popped up at the release of the TRC report and now as a booster for the report…. When Vatikiotis notes that “the commission drew on extensive international advice and support,” it would be useful to know if he and the HD Centre had a role with the TRC.

In fact, pages 18-22 of TRC’s report lists all of the international experts and agencies who joined hands with the TRC and supported its work. There are three mentions of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The first is a meeting with “a representative of the Centre … to discuss and support TRC operations.” The second refers to an offer of support and assistance to the TRC. The third mention is of a meeting between TRC Chairman Kanit na Nakhon and Francesc Vendrell, said to have supported reconciliation efforts in several countries, Michael Vatikiotis of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and two other Centre staff “in the name of the Friends of Thailand Group” (ในนามกลุ่มเพื่อนประเทศไทย) to exchange ideas and views about reconciliation and the positioning of the TRC in terms of the perspective of the international community.

We have no idea who the “Friends of Thailand” are. Do readers know?

Interestingly, the support of the HD Centre to the TRC was the most consistently recognized in the report. It seems that Vatikiotis was allocated a role in advocating for the TRC to the international community. Again, though, as we pointed out in the earlier post, HD Centre activities in Thailand are confidential/secret.

Second, a reader reminds PPT of something we had certainly forgotten. This is of Kanit’s earlier incarnation as Attorney-General in the 1990s. Readers may recall that the Chuan Leekpai Democrat Party-led government (1992–1995) fell when members of the Cabinet were implicated in a Sor Phor Kor 4-01 land project documents scandal in Phuket. The aftermath of that case was that the Attorney-General’s office, under Kanit, dropped the cases against those implicated, including wealthy people connected to the Democrat Party. Some of the reaction to that case are found in several reports from the time, here, here, here and here. Recalling the intricate linkages and debts in Thai politics always causes some surprise.

What is fair, balanced and impartial?

20 09 2012

Former journalist turned Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue Michael Vatikiotis has an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal (also here) on the Truth for Reconciliation Commission of Thailand report that deserves some critical scrutiny.

In the first place, is his moniker a full disclosure of his relationship to the TRC? Vatikiotis has been working with several state and other bodies in Thailand on various “humanitarian dialogue” issues including the south and rumors of involvement in palace-Thaksin Shinawatra negotiations. Suddenly, he has popped up at the release of the TRC report and now as a booster for the report. His agency claims to have “full-time consultants based across Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines,” yet doesn’t list any current activities in Thailand. This is probably because they are secret. As a Bangkok-based operative states, her “role at the HD Centre is to participate in all aspects of mediation operations – two confidential projects in particular…” (in the second part of the Centre’s 2011 annual report). When Vatikiotis notes that “the commission drew on extensive international advice and support,” it would be useful to know if he and the HD Centre had a role with the TRC.

Leaving aside the secretive nature of the HD Centre’s Thailand activities and returning to his WSJ article, Vatikiotis refers to the TRC report as “a reasonably fair and balanced account.” He later adds that it is “a detailed factual account of events that is impartial, if imperfect.”

Nowhere does he mention the origin of the TRC under the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime or the composition of the TRC. Many red shirt commentators have focused exactly on those two points in suggesting that the TRC was inevitably biased from inception. He notes that at the launch of the report, “Red Shirt activists let loose a barrage of questions that were left unanswered at the close of the event.”

Fair, balanced and impartial seem to be terms being thrown about for this report when it isn’t any of these. It is a report completed by a government-appointed body that did not have access to all information and couldn’t answer some quite specific questions. It included members who have been associated with a particular side in the political conflicts it investigates. Perhaps this is why, after all the claims of unbiased and fearlessness at the TRC, at the end of the article, Vatikiotis admits: “Inevitably, and despite valiant efforts to remain impartial by core working members of the commission, the TRCT fell victim to Thailand’s highly polarized political environment.”

Vatikiotis praises the TRC report for being critical of “the military for firing live rounds and provides photographic evidence that soldiers were not just firing into the air, as the army has said.” This is hardly news to anyone. The evidence is enormous; saying it in the TRC report is hardly a breakthrough unless one is a hard core yellow shirt.

While critical of the military and receiving no cooperation from them, the criticism is muted. While commentators including Vatikiotis have claimed that the attention to the military is new and bold, the fact is that the criticism of the military has been so great that the report’s account appears behind the political times.

It is interesting that Vatikiotis notes the TRC report agrees that “unarmed civilians died inside or close by a Buddhist temple that had been declared a safe zone.” It is more interesting that he seems to agree with the report which essentially argues that the soldiers were effectively acting in self-defense, based on the Army’s own statements. Fair, unbiased? No.

PPT does agree with Vatikiotis that the fact that a government-initiated committee has released a report is something of a breakthrough. He argues that “hundreds of civilians have died in such conflicts over the past four decades” and that reports have never been released. We’d suggest thousands have been killed.

But that breakthrough is not reason for an uncritical boostering of the TRC account as “impartial, fair and balanced.” The developing plethora of reports all have to be treated critically. That there are several reports again suggests how far politics has moved in Thailand by the events following the 2006 military coup. Of course, the coup and all of the political conflict of recent years is blamed on Thaksin, not the military and the palace is hardly mentioned.

Vatikiotis says that “the report also presents a set of recommendations aimed at addressing the root causes of the 2010 conflict. The authors placed emphasis on the conduct of the security forces and the impartiality of the justice system.” He adds that these recommendations focus on “access to justice, manipulation of the stringent lese majeste law and the use of the military to manage protests.”

PPT will have more to say on the monarchy and lese majeste in another post.

For all the contrived boosting, Vatikiotis does point to some useful issues, albeit in terms that suggest that the perpetrators of crimes are likely to get off while others suffer, incarcerated for political reasons:

The recommendations calling for reform of the judiciary and the security agencies should get top priority. Next, it would help if leading political figures and officials associated with the unrest issue a public apology, as the report calls for. Although unlikely, some process of accountability should be explored, so long as it is fair and balanced. The government should also address the cases of those facing criminal charges related to the 2010 protests, whose continued detention is a significant issue for the UDD.

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