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.





Evil and threatening

20 02 2017

The anti-coal protest has been seen off by the junta. In the end, it became a kind of political bonding exercise. Double standards proliferated throughout.

The other confrontation has been the 4,000 police and soldiers raiding Wat Dhammakaya. PPT has posted a bit on this case previously and why it has been so central for the junta and for the broad yellow shirt movement.

For the junta and its supporters, the perceived connection to the Shinawatra political clan seems to have been the underlying motivation.

What is not at all clear to PPT is why a wealthy temple, supported mainly by Bangkok’s middle class is politically associated with red shirts and Thaksinites, but the wealth of the temple certainly worries the junta, which continues to operate on the assumption that money motivates all political positions other than those of the great, the good and the royalists.

We do understand that Thaksin and his elected regimes were considered a threat to monarchy and thus nation, so perhaps throwing in the third element of the royalist and nationalist trilogy – religion – is a way of further conveying the royalist notion that Thaksin was an evil threat to the very core of the royalist nation.

In this context, we thought that readers might be interested in the views of a dedicated anti-Thaksinista on the evil threat posed by the temple, its monks and its followers.

Veera Prateepchaikul declares:

The real objective of the operation, I believe, is to clamp down on the temple, to strangle the Dhammakaya cult until it is no longer active and does not pose a threat to Buddhism for its distorted Buddhist teachings.

We can’t imagine what “real Buddhism” constitutes for Veera. Not the almost daily scandals of monks drinking alcohol, drug taking, engaging in sexual predation, gambling, high living and so on of official and hierarchical Buddhism. Perhaps he is thinking of that other “cult,” Santi Asoke so close to the yellow shirt movement? He goes on:

More importantly, the trial of Phra Dhammajayo — if there is one — is not the trial of the monk as an individual. It can also be seen as a trial of our own monastic order for its failure to rein in the monk and for its complacency that allowed the monk and his sect to grow so strong they can defy the state and the monastic order with impunity. This does not mean there are no other rogue monks who have misbehaved, but they were deemed a lesser threat than Phra Dhammajayo and the Dhammakaya cult….

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is more than a temple. It qualifies as an empire. Besides the main headquarters in Pathum Thani … [i]t has spread its wings to reach out to the world with meditation centres overseas and across the country, most of which encroach on forest reserves or parks.

Wat Phra Dhammakaya branched out in a similar fashion that a business branches out to get a bigger share of the market.

For the cult, its goal is to attract a bigger following and spread its adulterated Buddhist gospel to encourage its followers to make donations under the slogan that the bigger the amount of the donations, the higher the plane to heaven for the donors.

What the preachers didn’t tell their gullible followers is that some of them may find hell in this life before they may or may not go to heaven in the after-life….

Phra Dhammajayo and the Dhammakaya cult are just one major problem that poses a threat to Buddhism in this country.

We get the feeling that nation, religion and monarchy are under threat. But it isn’t a threat from the Thaksinites as much as from the forces that surround military dictatorship. Conservative forces that seek to maintain feudal and hierarchical institutions of (let’s say) the mid-20th century in a society that has changed.

Winding back the clock to some perceived “simpler”, “purer” and “better” time for the old heads and old men doesn’t mean that their clock isn’t broken. That their “model” (and clock) is broken is their biggest worry and their problem. Thaksin and his supporters heralded the royalist problem, they didn’t create it.





In the embrace of the dictatorship

16 12 2016

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.





Accountability gone missing

13 11 2016

The Bangkok Post’s Achara Ashayagachat had a useful article a few days ago that we didn’t see until it appeared in the Myanmar Times. It was undoubtedly as resonant there as it was in Bangkok.

She begins by noting the “strength” of Thailand’s military dictatorship, despite “the serious problems that have rocked the country…”. For three years, the regime has been “without real political challenge…”.

Achara observes that the “regime’s strength is partly down to the fact that our society lacks genuine checks and balances.”

The “parliament” is the “coup-installed National Legislative Assembly” which is a puppet rubber stamp for the regime.

She says that “similar institutions, are not in a position to go after the leaders or any other military members.” We assume she means all of the so-called “independent agencies” which have been made regime tools.

In civil society, “[c]ivic groups and individuals that have campaigned for key issues in the name of democracy have faced threats and intimidation under Section 44.”

What happened to the much-hyped “middle class,” claimed by some to be a ballast for democracy? Achara refers to “the indifference on the part of the middle class, especially those who joined the shutdown campaign spearheaded by the then-People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) during the marathon protest against the Pheu Thai government in 2013-2014…”.

Baffled, Achara states: “It worries me that people, undoubtedly ultra-conservationists, have sold their democratic principles and become submissive, allowing the regime to get away with whatever it wants.”

Examples include corruption and nepotism in the regime. The anti-democrats campaigned against an elected government, complaining of corruption. When the military is corrupt, they seem to just shrug their shoulders and accept the corruption of “good people.”

“No one is held accountable…”.

The regime stumbles, fumbles, grabs lucrative positions and pockets cash, but “[n]o one seems to care…”.

No one seems bothered by double standards in law, in policy or in the regime’s copying of the very policy that the middle class claimed to “hate” and the military regime is prosecuting – the rice subsidy scheme.

Achara is also “sadden[ed]” by “seeing portions of the middle class trying to monopolise loyalty to the monarchy, and go on a rampage to indict people on lese majeste offences.” She refers to “fears that a vicious witch hunt is under way.”

Finally, she notes the dictatorship’s attacks on the media, where “the regime is only fond of the docile type.” Under pressure and sometimes as members of the regime-loving middle class, the media has generally toed the regime’s line. She writes of “obedient compliance.”

The result is a regime built on repression and double standards that is not subject to even a modicum of accountability.