Political commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak is one of those who makes a living “translating” Thailand’s politics to foreigners. He does this from a safe position as the head of a Chulalongkorn University institute that has long been supportive of the status quo.
His latest op-ed at the Bangkok Post is far more than an effort to “translate” and more an attempt to rewrite history. He does this in a form that will be appealing to the great and the good who are “liberal royalists.” (On Thitinan’s royalist credentials, see his pathetic ode to the dead king.)
We won’t address every line of Thitinan’s attempted “new history” of the past decade or so, but select some examples.
Although we don’t read all of his op-eds, his first position seems like a new one for him. He “explains” the 2014 military coup as if he is a successionist.
In view of the royal transition that has transpired, Thailand’s interim period since its military coup in May 2014 has now entered a new phase. When the military seized power back then, the Thai public largely put up with what became a military dictatorship…. This rough bargain, whereby the military stepped in to be the midwife of the royal transition, has passed.
In fact, no homogeneous “public” exists in Thailand. Indeed, at the time of the coup, the public was deeply divided. So there was a minority – people like Thitinan, mostly in the comfortable Bangkok middle class of shophouses, apartments and suburban enclaves – who liked the idea of a military dictatorship. Indeed, many of them called for it and demonstrated in support of anti-democracy and military intervention. Most others saw repression and threats and fell into line out of fear and because the junta left no space for opposition.
The notion that there was some kind of “bargain” that allowed the coup as necessary for succession is not just lacking in firm evidence but provides a justification for the coup that is both unwarranted and ignores the military’s history as coup makers. Other writers have suggested that this coup is “different,” but this again seems like a measure of whitewashing the military’s penchant for power.
If we look back to Thitinan writing after the coup, there’s nothing of this. Back then, he drew a distinction between the 2014 coup and Sarit’s regime. Now he says the “Thailand’s putsch in 2014 deviated from familiar coup models in the contemporary period.” That’s because the 1991 and 2006 coups led to “a technocratic caretaker cabinet, led by a civilian at the helm,” and a return to electoral politics.
Thitinan is enamored of “technocrats,” but his claim about handing over to civilian leaders is not entirely true, with the 2006 generals handing over to a government led by General Surayud Chulanont, recently retired from the military and plucked from the Privy Council.
Thitinan, safe in his university institute, reckons the current dictatorship “was suppressive and authoritarian, detaining hundreds of dissenters and regime critics but the generals invariably released them. But the men in green have not killed people.”
He conveniently forgets the military’s role and the role of the junta leaders in murdering dozens in 2010. That was a “message” that opponents have taken seriously, but not, apparently, Thitinan. We can also mention the deaths of activists, deaths in custody and “disappearances,” because Thitinan doesn’t.
Thitinan also reckons the junta is good because it has kept “violence low, [and]… have kept corruption to a minimum.” Perhaps he can explain why almost all the generals who have declared wealth far in excess of what can be legitmately received in their positions in the military? He also seems to forget that, usually, the corruption of military regimes is not found or detailed until after they have been ditched (think Sarit, Thanom and Prapas).
Thitinan then dismisses opposition to the junta as “rumblings and chatters among critics and detractors calling for democracy at the expense of dictatorship. But these have been patchy and contained rather than large-scale and explosive.”
He views the constitutional “referendum” as an endorsement of the junta. He does not consider the threats, the intimidation, the prevention of the expression of alternative views. Indeed, that intimidation continues with court cases ongoing. All this is whitewashed through his silence.
The death of the king becomes a truly remarkable justification for a military dictatorship:
All of this was premised on a once-in-a-lifetime royal transition after the late King Bhumibol’s remarkable 70-year reign. When the day came on Oct 13, few doubted why it had to be Gen Prayut who made the announcement to a grieving nation. At that moment, in the Thai system, it had to be a military man who spoke for the Thai people and the entire nation. No civilian leader from any side of the Thai divide could have had the required gravitas, firm and determined, tinged with grief and sorrow.
This is bizarre, but it also displays the “acceptance” that the monarchy and military are linked as the Siamese twins of authoritarianism. It’s a system that seems to suit Thitinan and one he sees as some kind of feudal social contract.
But now that succesion has been “managed” by a dictatorship, he says it “is time to recalibrate and prepare for a return to popular rule by placing more civilian technocrats in government in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.” He suggests this as a way to renovate the dictatorship. This faux “civilianization”:
… would boost government performance and lend more international legitimacy. A broad section of the international community has been critical of Thailand’s coup period but there are many sympathetic ears abroad as well. They knew Thailand has been going through a rare transition, and were willing to suspend judgement and wait. Civilianising the cabinet would show progress to Thailand’s friends abroad and pre-empt greater domestic scrutiny going forward. Some at home are beginning to ask why the generals are still so entrenched and dominant in power when the royal transition is behind us.
Bring in the technocrats! But let the junta “maintain control over security-related ministries, such as defence and interior.” There’s no notion of electoral democracy in this. Its anti-democratic to the core. Thitinan probably sees himself as one of those well-placed to move into one of those anti-democratic technocratic positions. After all, his predecessors have been well-rewarded by the forces of authoritarianism.