King changes graduation ceremonies

21 09 2018

Graduation ceremonies in Thailand are important for more than those who celebrate their years of studying. For one thing, since the 1960s, the palace propagandists has recognized that having a royal hand out the certificates is a great way of having the then increasingly Sino-Thai middle-class graduates tied to the monarchy in a ceremony that was a kind of graduation into Thai-ness. As the higher education sector opened up, and graduation ceremonies got ever larger, the task of royal bonding was doled out to more royals. A financial benefit also accrues to the royal as each graduate is expected to pay amounts from 400 to 600 baht each which goes into the royal spare change purse.

When he was Crown Prince, Vajiralongkorn usually presided at Thammasat University and the Rajabhats.

A couple of days ago, The Nation reported, in an account reflecting the fear of king and monarchy, that:

King Maha Vajiralongkorn has accepted an invitation to bestow degrees on the newest batch of graduates at Thammasat University (TU) next April, the TU Graduate Committee’s social media page (facebook.com/TUgraduate60/) announced on Tuesday…. The dates for the Graduation Ceremony for the 2017-18 academic year were selected by … the King for April 7-8, 2019. The ceremony will be held at the Grand Auditorium, Thammasat University, Tha Phrachan Campus…. The announcement post received more than 12,000 ‘likes’ and was shared by 26,000 Facebook users.”

This is odd in the sense that graduation ceremonies have for years been at a particular time for each institution – indeed, there has been a graduation season – and most haven’t changed much over the years. Why the change? Why is the king deciding? And why to a hot period?

A day later, Khaosod reported that Thammasat and 39 Rajabhats all announced that “their year-end graduation ceremonies … have been postponed to April.” The changes were said to have been made to “accommodate a new schedule set by the palace.”

Thammasat vice rector Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut is reported: “The Royal Household Bureau stated that His Majesty the King has set the date to hand out diplomas for April 7-8, so we will hold the ceremonies on those days…” rather than November-December.

Some of the dates for the Rajabhats “have yet to be set by the palace.” It is reported that the “palace postponed the ceremonies … [but] no reason was given.”

There is much social media speculation: astrology and auspicious dates, the king will be skiing in Europe in winter, his coronation is to be announced for November/December.

Whatever the reason, one things is clear: this king does what he wants when he wants. It is all rather feudal.





Further updated: Sparks beginning to fly

28 01 2018

Quite some time ago we said that, as in the past, the spark that lights a fire under Thailand’s military dictatorship might come from something quite unexpected.

We think we might have seen that spark and it may be two events that have begun to tip the political balance. One is Deputy Dictator General Prawit Wongsuwan’s luxury timepieces. It isn’t so much that he’s seemingly corrupt. After all the timid middle classes and the wealthy capitalist class “understand” corruption and it is a price they are ever willing to pay so long as they can continue to prosper. And, if the corrupt are “good” people, then it’s okay. What has led to a beginning of an unraveling of this political relationship is Prawit’s arrogance about his massive watch collection and the demonstration (so far) of cover-up and impunity. This taints the junta as self-serving, grasping and certainly not “good” people.

The second spark is the continual delay in the holding of an election that is neither free nor fair. The middle and capitalist classes were fully prepared to accept the junta’s manipulated constitution, its forcing of the constitutional referendum, the tinkering with the details, a senate that maintains military political dominance and human rights restrictions. However, as well as the political repression of the lower classes, they wanted something of a say in politics via that unfair election. By delaying numerous times, the junta is displaying arrogance and a craving for power “unsuited” to the middle and capitalist classes.

Clipped from the Bangkok Post

The peeling away of support even sees diehard yellow shirts, the boosters for the coups of 2006 and 2014, criticizing the military junta it bet on for turning back the lower class political tide. It also sees cracks appearing in the junta’s domination and control both in events and institutions. We have posted on the “We Walk” march and its court victory. Some of the NGOs involved in that event were those that were present at the birth of the People’s Alliance for Democracy in 2006. For some of those yellow shirts, there is disappointment in the regime for not doing sufficient political cleansing. More disappointment comes from the decisions by the junta to allow legal pursuit of PAD and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. Such legal cases are not just a disappointment but construed as a betrayal.

In this context, the re-emergence of political protest is telling. First We Walk and now the student activists. It isn’t that these students haven’t pushed the junta before. In fact, they have been regular opponents, but they have faced numerous legal cases, arrests, abductions and so on. The Bangkok Post reports their most recent event this way:

The Democracy Restoration Group, led by Sirawich “Ja New” Seritiwat and Rangsiman Rome, posted on Facebook on Friday asking people who share the same views to join them at 5.30pm at the BTS skywalk near the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.

Pathumwan police said they did not try to stop the campaign so long as it did not block traffic.

Around 100 people came to the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre at 5.15pm while police stood by and took photos of the participants. Many of them showed the sign “Election 2018” or show its photo on their mobile phones.

Core leaders of the group took turns giving speeches.

Interestingly, the demonstrators emphasized not just elections but watches.

Update 1: A reader emailed us saying that we missed one of the most important bits of the linked Bangkok Post story. That reader is right that we should have specifically noted that the rally brought together stalwarts of both red and yellow shirts, with ultra-nationalist yellow shirt Veera Somkwamkid and red shirt iconoclast Sombat Boonngamanong. That is an unexpected alliance. Yet it is just this kind of unusual alliance that has underpinned anti-military movements in the past.

Update 2: An updated Bangkok Post report has more from Veera. He declared: “There are no colours right now…. It’s all about joining hands and removing corruption from the country.” He added: “The problem is we cannot rely on the government because they are in fact the ones who are not transparent.” The principal organizers, the New Democracy Movement declared “it will continue to pressure the government and Gen Prayut to dismiss Gen Prawit and to keep his promise to holding the election this year. They will gather again in the same spot on Feb 10.” Meanwhile, in Songkhla, “members of 19 civic organisations walked from Hat Yai municipality to Sena Narong army camp in Hat Yai to voice their grievances over several state projects in the South and to support the [People Go Network/We Walk group].”





Troubles for the junta II

19 12 2017

If the junta plans a transition to a slightly different form of rule following its “election,” it seems to be struggling to maintain political control and direction. Yesterday we posted on some of these issues and challenges. Today we look at how some of these are playing out and some other issues and challenges.

A big issue is when the military dictatorship will ease the ban on political organizing in order to permit the junta’s “election” and how the junta will arrange the military’s continuing political domination. After claims of the formation of a “military party,” those involved have denied that anything is planned (well, sort of).

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, one of the few civilian’s in the military’s government has denied claims that he’s going to lead a military political party. At the same time, the be-watched Deputy Dictator General Prawit Wongsuwan seemed less sure. Checking his new Casio watch, he said “he had no idea if a military-back political party was being set up or if Mr Somkid would lead it.”

Prawit’s penchant for pricey horographs threatens the junta by showing that it is corrupt, practices double standards and maintains impunity. All of this worries the middle class. It is that class that has been the bedrock of junta political support.

One of the most poignant demonstrations of military cruelty and its institutional impunity has been the death of cadets and recruits. The family of Pakapong “Moei” Tanyakan has rejected a meeting with the military to be told of a military inquiry “investigation” into their son’s death in which the military had already publicly exonerated itself. Such brutality and its sweeping under the carpet are increasingly seen as unacceptable, not least by the middle class.

Then there are the splits within the anti-democrats and with the junta. The usually supine Abhisit Vejjajiva, while still refusing to attack the junta, wants an election, even if it is the junta’s election. So he’s attacking his former deputy and Democrat Party alpha male Suthep Thaugsuban for proposals that might delay an “election” and/or might presage a Suthep-supported alternative political party in the south, gobbling up support that might have gone to the Democrat Party. Any pro-Suthep party is likely to throw weight behind a junta-dominated government post-“election.”

The junta appears befuddled in dealing with political allies of the past although splits in old parties might be considered to benefit any new military party. It is more “comfortable” repressing red shirts.





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.