Junta doubles down in repression of (former) allies

1 12 2017

For the first time in quite a while, PPT can agree with commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak. And, it seems, he is agreeing with us. In an op-ed at the Bangkok Post, he states:

After the most recent cabinet reshuffle produced the fifth line-up of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government, it is clear the military intends to stay in power for the long term in one form or another. The reshuffle provided a more civilian look but let there be no doubt that Thailand still has a military government, led by generals who seized power more than three and a half years ago [PPT: the civilians are mostly window dressing for a military junta]. As the top brass perpetuates its rule and puts off the election as long as they can, political tensions will mount as civilian-led forces agitate for a share of power and a return to popular rule.

… It is likely Thailand will soon be mired in yet another round of political conflict between civilian and military leaders.

While Thitinan still holds that the “people” gave the junta leeway because they were all frightened about the future after the previous king finally died, a reason now gone in a puff of smoke, he does also suggest that the usual failings of autocrats and dictators have come to the fore.

Thitinan considers that “[i]t would be unsurprising if the Prayut government now goes into a campaign mode of sorts, visiting provincial areas and handing out more subsidies and largesse with an eye to returning to post-election power.” He seems to have taken his eye off the ball, as this has been happening for a very long time.

But he’s right to observe: “It is also likely to put aside a firm election date until it feels more secure and popular. Its aim to stay in power will pose a dilemma for Thailand.” He’s also likely to be right that the “more the Prayut government tries to hang on to power, the less popular it will become.”

Unfortunately, that suggests a military regime that will become increasingly repressive as it claims a right to rule. Here, comparisons with the vile regime of 1991-92, led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon are probably appropriate. That junta decided it deserved to rule and was prepared to murder civilians to keep its place in power.

For us, what is most telling is the manner in which the junta has cracked down on the anti-coal dissidents in the south. Using methods previously reserved for its political opponents, the junta has gone after people who have been politically supportive of the 2014 coup and the military regime.

While these protesters are locals, they have many supporters and some leaders who are among the often yellow-hued NGOs in Bangkok. This group falls within a broader Bangkok middle class and its political opinion leaders in the former People’s Alliance for Democracy have been increasingly critical of the junta.

Those political cracks are likely to be broken apart following the junta’s doubling-down response to the protesters. Prachatai reports that “police are preparing to issue arrest warrants for 20 more protestors against the coal-fired power plant in Songkhla.”

That’s another 20 people in addition to the 15 leaders of the network from Songkhla and Pattani provinces who had already been arrested, jailed, and then “released on 29 November after six lecturers from Prince of Songkla University and Thaksin University used their academic positions to guarantee bail for them.”

Their arrest saw “114 academics from Southern Thailand … issue … a joint statement condemning the authorities for using force against the protesters and arresting the 15 activists.”

It seems the junta is demonstrating that it will not tolerate any dissent, and this includes middle-class dissent by (former?) political allies.

Of course, the brutality and callousness of the regime is also being demonstrated to these former supporters, and not just in the arrests in the south. While the many cases of the abuse of poor recruits drafted into the military has tended to be tolerated by regime supporters, when the victim is from a family that is in a different class, suddenly the brutality of the regime is recognized, even if the underlying reasons for it are not.

We seem to be entering a dangerous period.

 





Junta learning from China

31 10 2017

Over the years, there have been efforts to suggest that various Thai leaders in politics and the economy have turned to China in part for reasons of ethnic loyalty. Certainly, several Thai leaders have been of Chinese extraction and some Sino-Thai tycoons at CP and the Bangkok Bank (to name just two) have been early and long active in “giving back.”

But what does this mean in practice, especially when China’s economic rise has been noticeable for decades and its political sway has been increasing for some time? And, consider that almost all of Thailand’s wealthiest, including the dead king, were Sino-Thai. Chineseness has seldom been a hot political issue since Phibun’s time and a period when the OSS/CIA were worried about the “overseas Chinese” as a “fifth column” for Chinese communism.

The most recent effort we can recall was by Sondhi Limthongkul, in some accounts claimed to be China-born and the son of a Kuomintang general. Back in the days when the People’s Alliance for Democracy – dominated by Sino-Thais of the Bangkok middle class – declared that they too were loyal to the nation (and the monarchy).

When we look at the current military dictatorship, for some time shunned by the U.S. and by some major countries in Europe, the draw of China became important. While on a well-worn path, where China was already a major trading partner, the significance of China rose substantially for the regime as it sought to arm and boost the economy. But one of the attractions does seem to be, as one academic has it, mutual authoritarianism.

But we don’t think we have ever seen such an enthusiastic embrace as that provided by the junta’s 4th generation Sino-Thai Wissanu Krea-ngam in an interview with the official Xinhua news agency on the day the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China concluded.

Speaking of the amendment to the CPC Constitution that made “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era a new component of the party’s guide for action,” Wissanu was enthusiastic, declaring:

Xi’s thought makes “Chinese characteristics” more prominent, the Thai deputy prime minister said.

He praised China for being very good at accomplishing its goals efficiently as can be proved by the anti-corruption campaign that started five years ago.

He said he believes that the new goals set at the 19th CPC National Congress will be accomplished as before.

“The Chinese set long-term goals and ask people to do it together. That is something we can learn from, as we are also working on a 20-year national strategy to guide the development of Thailand,” Wissanu said.

“It is just magical that we have consistent policies or strategies as China put forward the Belt and Road Initiative. We have Thailand 4.0 and ASEAN … has ASEAN Connectivity,” Wissanu said, adding that China and Thailand can still find a lot of aspects to cooperate in the future.

Maybe he’s just noticing economic opportunities? But those have been evident for decades. Wissanu seems attracted by the Chinese model of marrying authoritarianism with markets. That seems pretty close to the junta’s aims.

 





The “necessity” of military dictatorship

13 10 2017

In the Bangkok Post, commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak comes up with his repeated excuse for military domination. He claims the succession explains it:

The consequent royal transition is likely to be viewed in posterity as the principal reason why the Thai people have had to put up with Gen Prayut.

Later he states, as he has before, that:

To appreciate how Gen Prayut and his cohorts could seize power and keep it with relative ease, we need to recognise the late King Bhumibol’s final twilight. The royal succession was imminent by coup time, and the Thai people collectively kind of knew the special and specific circumstances this entailed. Power had to be in the hands of the military, as it had to ultimately perform a midwife role. Unsurprisingly, ousted elected politicians may have complained about and deplored the coup but none wanted to retake power during the coup period. They knew that after seven decades of the reign in the way that the Thai socio-political system was set up around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy, it had to be the generals overseeing this once-in-a-lifetime transition.

This is nonsensical propaganda. There were, at the time, and today, many, many Thais who reject this royalist babble. But Thitinan just ignores the deep political and social struggles that marked the period of discord that began with the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and which was punctuated by two military coups.

Thitinan appears to us to be expressing the views of the socially disconnected middle class of Bangkok, those who hate and fear the majority of Thais, and “protect” themselves by attaching themselves to the economic and political power of the Sino-Thai tycoons, monarchy and military.

Thais have “put up with” ghastly military rulers for decades. The military dictators and rulers have used the monarchy to justify their despotism. General Pin Choonhavan used the “mysterious” death of Ananda Mahidol; General Sarit Thanarat promoted the monarchy as a front for his murderous regime; General Prem Tinsulanonda made “loyalty” de rigueur for political office.

Thitinan is wrong and, worse, whether he wants to or not, he provides the nasty propaganda that is justification for military dictatorship. We can only imagine that the military junta is most appreciative.

One reason Thais “put up with” military dictatorship now is because anti-democrats want it, because many of them hate elections that give a power to the subaltern classes. And, as Thitinan acknowledges,

Gen Prayut and his fraternal top brass in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have guns and tanks to intimidate and coerce. In their first year in power, the ruling generals detained hundreds of dissenters and opponents for “attitude adjustment”. They even put some of those who disagreed on trial in military court. They also came up with their own laws in an interim charter, including the draconian absolutist Section 44. And they have used and manipulated other instruments and agencies of the state to keep people in check and dissent suppressed.

To be sure, dozens of Thais are languishing in jail during junta rule. One young man, a student with his own strong views, has been jailed for re-posting a social media message that appeared on more than two thousand other pages. The junta also has banned political parties from organising, and has generally violated all kinds of human rights and civil liberties all along.

In addition, the generals have not been immune to corruption allegations….

Thais, it seems, must just “put up with” all this in order to facilitate the death of a king, succession and coronation. Thitinan goes even further, lauding The Dictator:

who grew up in the Thai system from the Cold War, who came of age at the height of Thailand’s fight against communism in the 1970s, seeing action on the Cambodian border against the Vietnamese in the 1980s, serving both the King and Queen and the people in the process with devotion and loyalty.

In fact, General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military promotion was not forged in “battle” but in providing service to the palace and especially the queen.

Thitinan declares that General Prayuth is the “soul of the nation,” a term once used for the dead king:

When Gen Prayut spoke for the nation [after the last king died], he meant it. Fighting back tears, in seven short minutes, he said what had to be said, and directed us Thais to two main tasks, the succession and the cremation after a year’s mourning. Had it been Yingluck [Shinawatra], who is not known for her eloquence, she might have stumbled during the speech. Had it been Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is fluid and flawless in speechmaking, it would have lacked the soul of the nation.

It had to be Gen Prayut, the strongman dictator and self-appointed premier. He is an earnest man, purposeful and well-intentioned….

Make no mistake, this is pure propaganda for military dictatorship. Make no mistake, Thitinan is justifying military dictatorship for the West, “translating” Thai “culture” for those he thinks are Thailand’s friends. He is saying to The Dictator and to “friends” in the West that 2018 or 2019 will mark the end of an “unusual” time and a return to “normality.” That “normal” is Thai-style democracy, guided for years by the military and its rules.

For those who seek a more nuanced and less propagandist reflection try Michael Peel in the Financial Times. He was formerly a correspondent for the FT based in Bangkok, and has penned “Thailand’s monarchy: where does love end and dread begin?” (The article is behind a paywall, but one may register and get access.) Peel asks: “In a country where few dare to speak openly about the royals, how do Thais feel about their new ruler?”

That is, how do they feel about the succession that Thitinan propagandizes as having “required” military dictatorship working as midwife.





Updated: Trains, land and all that money

18 06 2017

PPT likes trains. We like public transport generally. We acknowledge that Thailand’s public infrastructure has been neglected and that many of the public transport developments that have taken place have been for the middle class in Bangkok. When it comes to rail other than the subway and skytrain, the infrastructure is a crumbling mess.

In short, rail links to the region and across Thailand can have considerable benefits. That was illustrated, in part, by the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime wanted a rail link to China. It is why the Yingluck Shinawatra government established a high-powered team investigating and seeking to move the project forward.

So what is the military dictatorship up to?

As we know, after years of failing negotiations with the Chinese, The Dictator has used Article 44 “to expedite the Thai-Chinese high-speed railway line between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima and enable work to begin this year.”

Only between Bangkok and Korat and high-speed. That means, so far, no links regionally and suggests a passenger service. It also doesn’t say what “high speed” means. But because the military junta is doing it, precious few details are available.

The junta’s decree “aims to clear technical and legal problems for the delayed 252-kilometre railway.”

It is a remarkable decree in that it “instructs the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) to hire a Chinese state enterprise to supervise the construction of the Thai-Chinese railway.”

That Chinese company “will oversee the design of the railway infrastructure as well as rail and electrical systems. It will serve as an adviser for the project’s construction and provide training in system-related knowledge for the project staff.”

In other words, the junta is establishing a kind of Chinese monopoly for Thailand on this huge project. It is not just rail because all such projects are also about land. (Yes, we know other contracts for other lines have been considered with the Japanese.)

The contract “must be ready within 120 days,” suggesting that there’s already a preferred contractor. After that, “Thailand and China would then be able to sign an agreement for the design contract…”.

As Khaosod says, using Article 44 will “remove all legal obstacles preventing China from taking charge of every step in the construction of the high-speed railway project.” It says ten “relevant laws and junta orders involving government procurement…”. It also said that “Chinese engineers and architects are also exempted from professional licensing requirements.”

Interestingly, the use of Article 44 “shielded the project from going out to international bidders and exempted it from a mandatory process to estimate costs.” The order states that an “unspecified amount of funds [is] to be approved by the interim cabinet.”

The order would also “allow construction to take place on protected lands…”.

What isn’t stated is that the line will involve the compulsory acquisition of land from landholders and will gobble up land that was previously allocated with limited title, exactly the kind of land the junta has been so agitated about in other areas such as national parks.

That Dictator Prayuth Chan-ocha is “due to visit China to attend the ninth BRICS Summit in September,” might add something to the use of Article 44, recalling that he wasn’t invited to a recent meeting in China, seen as a snub.

Another Bangkok Post report has the World Bank urging “the Thai government to hold an open bidding for the long-delayed Thai-Chinese high-speed railway project linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima to ensure transparency.”

Transparency may be important but it won’t happen in this project, just as it hasn’t in all major projects and purchases by the junta. Most infrastructure projects involve 30-40% “commission” payments. Junta-related interests are salivating.

And the land! So much land! It will be appropriated and then rented or sold to the tycoons for all kinds of projects that will further enrich them.

Bangkok Post’s Umesh Pandey grumbles that the use of Article 44 by a “caretaker” regime is wrong: “In any given scenario the job of the caretaker government is to look at maintaining the status quo and not undertake major policies that involve committing the country’s resources for years if not decades to come…”.

He keeps forgetting that this is a military dictatorship and that it has no intention of fading away.

He asks: “who is going to be responsible for the transparency of the multi-billion-dollar project.” The idea is that wealth generation for the few is built on monopolies and opaque arrangements. That’s Thailand’s history, and not just under juntas.

And Umesh notes that The Dictator’s order also “silences opposition to any project, overriding the system of checks and balances that would make sure Thailand gets the best deal.”

Thailand is a loose concept. We know from wealth data and from details about the unusually rich who gets the best deal. And they define themselves as “Thailand.”

Umesh continues: “People like myself are all for the project but I wonder how clean the process is going to be, especially as rumours swirl of kickbacks to contractors.”

He isn’t wondering, he knows. Then he raises another point:

Then there is the issue of a possible election late next year. As any economist would tell you, the time between green-lighting a project and seeing the money flow in can be anywhere from nine to 12 months — around the time the election is expected.

Is that a coincidence? Certainly, signs of economic growth right before the polls could be an advantage to some.

We remain unconvinced about an “election,” but we see his point. But what of the land? All that land.

Update: Prachatai has two stories on the train line, one that is about middle-class concerns regarding safety where professionals raise this issue. The other is interesting in that in a review of the week, it raises the issue of the use of Article 44 to create “extraterritoriality,” but only in the title. It is an interesting issue and harks back to the decades it took to roll back the extraterritoriality enshrined in the Bowring Treaty.





Calling Bangkok’s middle class

28 04 2017

Thitinan Pongsudhirak deserves just a little praise for rather suddenly (and almost) taking a stand. His call to Bangkok’s middle class suggests that criticism of the military junta in elite circles is gathering some steam. While we don’t see Thitinan ever being a political rabble-rouser, he does speak the language of the Bangkok middle class:

Headed by Prime Minister [he means The Dictator] Prayut Chan-o-cha, a retired general and former army chief, the current military government that seized power by force will soon reach its three-year mark in office without the kind of civil society resistance and opposition that ousted ruling generals in October 1973 and May 1992. Whether the current Thai apathy in the face of military rule is attributable to a political culture that privileges order over liberty, and to what extent this phase of Thai political tameness extends, will be decided over the next several years.

What he means is that the middle class hasn’t risen. He continues:

Either [middle class] Thailand will break out of its military repression and return to a system of liberalising popular rule with an open society, or it will descend firmly into military-authoritarianism in the guise of illiberal democracy, dressed up with ersatz elections and rigged rules.

Well, yes, but that’s been the junta’s plan all along. It hardly takes three years to work that out. Again, he’s asking the middle class in Bangkok why they love the military and anti-democrats. He continues:

Not a week goes by without some kind of questionable government actions and top-down decision-making without public input and any semblance of accountability.

That’s true, but it began when the junta seized power. But, wait, there’s an excuse:

In the early months of the military government, the Thai public largely gave the benefit of the doubt to the generals who did put an end to endless street protests.

[And then there was] There was also a once-in-a-lifetime royal transition to consider, and a military government seemed most suited to oversee this delicate interval.

The latter is buffalo manure. Do think about what the military has managed through succession! Hope you are happy in the shophouses and apartments with the new arrangements. But, truly, if the military hadn’t been mutinous, and if they hadn’t been supported by the self-interested in Bangkok, maybe the anti-democrat street demonstrations could have been brought to an end without the coup the Bangkok middle class craved.

But what about the repression and the “deaths in custody” and the ridiculous fabrication of lese majeste cases? Thitinan sort of gets there:

Certainly, those in Thailand who dissent have been prosecuted and persecuted. Clearly, the quelling of dissent and spreading of fear are core reasons why Thais are putting up with military rule….

Related to fear is the lack of leadership. In social movements against military rule, only the Oct 14 uprising in 1973 was organic, spontaneous and broad-based. It was led by university students but they had wide support among other segments of society, including the media and merchants. In May 1992, the catalyst in what was dubbed a “mobile-phone mob” was the leadership of former Bangkok governor and popular politician Chamlong Srimuang and the Bangkok middle class.

This position is not supported by the historical evidence. One can only say that 1973 was “broad-based” if the working class and farmers are forgotten. When those groups did get involved, when electoralism developed, the middle class deserted in droves and cheered the military and its murderers in 1976. It was also the middle class that supported the coup in 1991 and then changed its collective mind. When it again felt that the working class and farmers were getting uppity by rejecting anti-Thaksinism, they supported the military again.

Reflecting this democratic ambivalence, he then drops the ball. His “solution” is: “some kind of civil-military compromise, as seen in Myanmar now and Indonesia in the recent past.” He means a negotiated solution that allocates the military thugs power and prestige and gives the middle class a disproportionate political weight. He ends with this lament:

Nevertheless if the Thai people don’t do something about their military rule, they may well end up with a government they deserve.

The middle class has its government.





No hope for electoral democracy

23 03 2017

The Deutsche Welle headline actually says “Little hope.” We think “no hope” is far more accurate for Thailand under the military dictatorship:

Despite the promised return to democracy, the military government in Thailand has shown little inclination to hold elections anytime soon. Fears abound about the country sliding increasingly into authoritarianism.

We think Thailand is already in a deep authoritarian freeze.

DW is right to observe that:

A free and frank discussion about the prevailing political situation in Thailand can, under current circumstances, only take place outside the country. Since the 2014 military coup, the freedom of expression and of the press has shrunk drastically in the Southeast Asian nation. Critics are either coerced by the military to acquiesce in government’s actions or, in worst cases, vanished without trace.

It also notes that “foreign academics and scholars have refrained from traveling to Thailand.” We know that is true. We also know of at least one scholar turned away – deported – from the airport on arrival.

The report mentions “Wolfram Schaffar, who works for the Institute for International Development at the University of Vienna, hasn’t visited Thailand since the 2014 coup. The expert had previously been a regular visitor to the country for work and research purposes.”

DW then suggests that there’s a conflict between the traditional elites and “sections of the emerging middle class that demand more say in the political process. These segments are supported by peasants, particularly in the north of the country.”

We are stumped by the notion that middle classes in Thailand want democracy. In fact, they are the main ballast of authoritarianism. We can only guess that DW has swallowed the nonsensical line that red shirts are some kind “middle class.” Such falsities do nothing to advance clear analysis of the nature of Thailand’s deep authoritarianism.

Its on solid ground quoting Pavin Chachavalpongpun who observes that:

The traditional elites were driven by fear… adding that they were scared of facing an uncertain future. They were particularly afraid of the then Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who is now king.

That fear resides in the middles classes who fear the loss of a “protection” they have from the “rough classes” in the current military-monarchy system. There’s also a great fear among the elite itself. They fear an erratic, greedy and violent palace. Managing both sets of fears requires a military regime prepared to establish succession and the new reign. Because Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable and unreliable character, that “management” may need to be in place for many years to come.





Going south II

27 02 2017

Attacking those “liberals” and of the middle class who have generally been supportive of the 2014 military coup and the military junta is another example of things turning screwy from the junta’s position.

The Nation reports that Mahidol University, in rankings terms, the best of a pretty dismal bunch of universities, all controlled by royalist administrations, has said that it “will form a committee to investigate a group of lecturers belonging to its Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies (IHRP)…”.

Why is this? It is precisely because of “the institute’s statement questioning alleged junta abuses of power, including the issuance of Article 44 orders.” Goodness! How could they be so ungrateful of the wonderful junta?!

The boundary riders of royalist “learning” claim that defending human and legal rights is terrible. “In a statement issued Sunday, Mahidol University denounced the lecturers for ‘damaging the university’s reputation’ by using its name in their original statement.”

In fact, the reputational damage is now caused by the dopey and coup-lovers in the administration.

It gets worse, when they state: “Such action is not academic freedom…. We urge the issuers to stop immediately.”

This is a clear demonstration of the failure of university administrators and another example of why education fails in Thailand in so many ways. By and large, royalist ideologues see all education as indoctrination and claims about human and legal rights are not a part of this.

Mahidol’s administration asserts that “it always stood by the principle that everyone must respect the law.” Well, the military’s law, anyway.

The university administration’s rightist reaction “came after the IHRP late on Saturday night issued a statement calling for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [the junta] to stop using absolute powers granted by Article 44 of the interim charter.”

Its authors stated:

Using the article [to solve problems] is using dictatorial power against the rule of law, with a lack of checks and balances, and it is illegitimate…. Article 44 is used too often and without a sense of urgency. In many cases, the government and authorities are able to enforce [the same measures] by normal laws.

That all seems polite and reasonable. Yet one thing that seems to have bother the junta and their supporters running the university was that in citing “nine orders issued this month,” it also mentioned “one establishing the controversial Dhammakaya Temple and surroundings areas as a ‘controlled area’.” It came just after “a man hanged himself from a 100-metre-high radio antenna in an apparent protest against the ongoing siege at the controversial Dhammakaya Temple.” He also complained about Article 44.

Military-loving yellow shirts went online to condemn the IHRP, caliming it should not be “allowed to use Mahidol’s name when taking action.”

Things are indeed unraveling.