On oligarchies

31 03 2011

Benedict Anderson has a guest post at the Midnight University website. PPT thought this quote accurate and pointed on Thailand (and the rest of Southeast Asia):

… Kasian Tejapira,  one of the very best students I ever had, has been describing the present system as a ‘semi-democracy.’ This is the commonest way that outsiders tend to describe the political orders of Indonesia, the Philippines, and  Malaysia.   But in my opinion all these states, including Siam, are actually controlled, to varying extents,  by oligarchies, clusters of interlocking families, whose children go to the same schools, whose businesses are interconnected,  who marry among themselves, and share a common set of values and interests.  This does not mean that they do  not compete among themselves, sometimes fiercely. Nor are they entirely exclusionary; they are flexible enough to  assimilate various kinds of semi-outsiders, but on their own terms.  They even have a kind of code of conduct – one element of which is not to  use sexual scandals against each other.  A good sign of oligarchy is the absence of a coherent, well-managed opposition; another is the easy and rapid movement of sor-sor between so-called parties as shifting governing coalitions get formed.

PPT would call this a ruling class. Red shirts might think of amart.

There’s more worth reading in the piece, including some side-swipes at the monarchy.

With 3 updates: Reaction to reds and talks

30 03 2010

Update 1: It seems that the Bangkok Post’s usually reasonably reliable military affairs reporter Wassana got it wrong in her article cited below on the location of the cabinet meeting. Channel 3 shows the cabinet meeting at the Ministry of Public Health, surrounded by soldiers and police.

Update 2: The Nation (31 March 2010) has a surprisigly fair account of the second round of talks. This is an interesting point:

Veera [Musikapong] tried to befriend the youthful premier by saying: ‘We are the same, we are all victims of the military coup’. ‘Not exactly,’ Abhisit should have said, before he began justifying the 2006 military coup, the junta-sponsored Constitution and his government that took the power in accordance with the Constitution. Instead, he implied: “If there was no Thaksin, there would have been no coup.”

PPT can confirm from our own meetings that most senior Democrat Party members have this same view, blaming Thaksin Shinawatra for everything and believe that the “fight to the death” is justified in keeping Thaksin at bay. See our earlier post about Kasit.

And this also: “As the Oxford-educated Abhisit continued lecturing about the philosophy of democracy, Jatuporn Promphan, another red-shirt leader, decided to fight back like a pit bull, breaking up the philosophical debate and dragging the negotiators back to the real issue. ‘We are here to talk about the dissolution of Parliament. If the government will not accept this, should we all stop now and go our different ways?’ he said.”

Another point seldom made: “People keep saying that Jatuporn is fighting for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, but in actual fact, this red-shirt leader is no stranger to the fight for democracy. He started fighting for the principle from the uprising against the military in May 1992. Yet, as he says, he has nothing more than a Toyota Fortuner to show for his decades in the political field.”

Update 3: Wassana Nanuam explains the change of the location of the cabinet meeting on Monday. She reports in the Bangkok Post (31 March 2010) that “The cabinet also opted to relocate the cabinet’s meeting venue yesterday from the prayer room at the 11th Infantry Regiment to the Public Health Ministry.  A CAPO source said army chief Anupong Paojinda ordered the relocation late on Monday night.  The order was made after a number of cabinet members said they did not want to enter the barracks because the government had already been accused of being propped up by the military, the CAPO source said.

It was stated that “another important reason was the criticism of holding a meeting in a prayer room in the presence of a huge Buddha image, which is inappropriate…”. Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said “many cabinet members preferred to meet at the Public Health Ministry because they felt it was a more convenient location with several entrances and good services.”  And, the “number of soldiers guarding the venue of the cabinet meeting was reduced from about 5,000 troops to 1,200 to avoid panicking staff at the Public Health Ministry…”.


On the first day of the talks, red shirt co-leader Veera Musikapong said: “”Our request is simple and direct. We would like Parliament dissolved to return power to the people, so they can make their decision…”. This, however, is the stumbling point. The government believes that it cannot win an election, so its negotiating point is on “constitutional reform” and hence delaying an election for a further 9 months.

The government side and its supporters and backers are also firmly of the view that elections cannot solve the problems created by the political contestation that has continued for several years. Given the response of the military, palace, royalists and their yellow-shirted supporters to elections in 2005, 2006 and 2007, this position may well be correct for these forces can never accept a government that they cannot control or which they believe is linked to their hated enemy, Thaksin Shinawatra.

On Tuesday, The Nation (30 March 2010) reported that the talks between red shirts and a Democrat Party team led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had “reached an impasse yesterday as both sides failed to find a common stance to end the ongoing stand-off.” In fact, PPT’s taxi driver earlier on Monday had already said that the talks were dead because of the government’s unwillingness to consider a dissolution in the near term (on the news of this, see the Bangkok Post). At the same time, the taxi driver continued to listen to the live broadcast of the second round of talks.

The two sides initially appeared to agree on further talks after Abhisit returned from a trip to Bahrain. The Nation reports, however that the red shirts “suggested the talks be suspended indefinitely as the stances of both sides looks unlikely to change.” There’s no indication why this trip is more critical for Abhisit than the political negotiations with the red shirts.

On Monday evening, Abhisit had demanded that there be no dissolution until “late this year after a referendum on amendments to the Constitution. Abhisit also said the government needed time to pass the budget bill for the next fiscal year. His finance minister later appeared on television news programs opposing any dissolution and arguing  for keeping the economic recovery on track.

All the talk of constitutional reform and a referendum remains somewhat mute as the Bangkok Post reports that the coalition parties have agreed to dissolve parliament by the end of the year after the government amends the constitution but reject a referendum.

There was more spark in the discussions, with Abhisit repeatedly talking over the red shirt leaders and trying to rebut their statements. Red shirt negotiator Jatuporn Promphan stated that the “government and Prime Minister Abhisit had no legitimacy to stay in the power, because the government was set up undemocratically.” He added fuel to this fire by mentioning corruption, double standards and pointing to hypocrisy: “You used to call for the late prime minister Samak Sundaravej to dissolve Parliament when the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance’s for Democracy protested in 2008, so why don’t you apply the same principle today…. Just simply follow your own words, and you’d be a great leader.” A series of other allegations got Abhisit upset – these tend to be the more personalized attacks on him – and relate to violent actions last April during the Songkhran Uprising.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post (30 March 2010) reports on an “historic first when it is held in a prayer room at the 11th Infantry Regiment compound surrounded by 5,000 troops.” The image of a cabinet meeting being held and guarded by 5,000 troops is astounding. It is reported that more than “1,500 [soldiers] have been assigned to undertake foot patrols. Armoured vehicles, personnel carriers and water trucks are also on alert.”

But it gets better. Apparently, the cabinet is to “discuss national affairs before a statue of Phra Phutthachaisirinimitpatima [also called Luang Phor Cherd]. A government spokesman said it was hoped the move would boost morale among MPs disheartened by the continuing political turmoil.” Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban “said it was the first time he would attend a cabinet meeting in the presence of a giant Buddha statue.”

Readers may notice that when the government resorts to ritual and religion, it is termed “historic,” but that when red shirts do the same thing, albeit far more spectacularly, they are rounded on as superstitious Neanderthals. Weak-kneed, middle-class academics wince and cry foul because the pouring of blood is “gruesome” and they consider it some kind of “violence” against people’s state of mind. Perhaps this government ritual is meant to show the difference between black and white magic.

Some of those weak-kneed academics are the core of NGOs. Today they also seem to be the main constituency of these organizations. The Bangkok Post reports that NGOs, academics and senators “have welcomed negotiations between the government and red shirt protest leaders but doubt they will solve any problems.”

The “Network of Non-governmental Organisations yesterday praised representatives of the government and the …UDD … for talking to each other…. The network called for a dissolution of the House in six months, public participation in constitutional amendments, a referendum on any amendment, public participation to work out solutions to social inequality and corruption and an end to unreasonable accusations and threats through the media.”

While Somchai Preechasilpakul of the online education forum Midnight University sounded reasonable when he, “criticised Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for trying to buy time by demanding the constitution be amended before he would dissolve the House,” others lined up to support the government with statements about dissolution not solving problems and needing to be delayed.

Senator Prasarn Marukhapitak saw dissolution as unlikely to “lead to any solution,” Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn “said a dissolution was not the only problem,” Senator Surasak Sri-arun “said red shirt protest leaders were always changing their demands. Initially they battled for constitutional amendments but later turned to demand a dissolution of the lower house.”

The real leaders of the minor coalition parties, none of them actually in parliament, want different things. Newin Chidchob favors constitutional change but no referendum. Banharn Silpa-archa election rules amended. Suwat Liptapanlop wants a dissolution but no constitutional change. There are also differences within the coalition parties on the sections of the constitution to be amended. The Democrat Party has no desire to “change the section regarding the election system from multi-representative to single-seat constituencies.”

It seems that the talks have been used more or less to reduce pressure on the government and to buy time, still hoping (what are seen as) the horrid peasants occupying Bangkok will tire and go home, leaving the government free to continue in office. Such a perspective draws on beliefs about who is born to rule and the perception that most of the red shirts are Thaksin proxies and duped or paid. These attitudes run very deep and have been reinforced – rather than shaken – by recent events and the language of class warfare. The elite understands that they are in a war that their class and allies must win.

Somkiat Tangnamo under attack

17 02 2009

Prachatai, 17 February 2009: “Chiang Mai University asked to sack dean for signing Ji’s petition against lèse majesté law” translates an important and disturbing story from Matichon (ภาษาไทย, ดู มติชน, ร้อง”สมเกียรติ”พ้นคณบดีมช. เหตุหนุนแก้กม.หมิ่นสถาบัน) that deserves to be quoted in full:

“On Feb 16, a group of teachers, personnel and alumni of Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts released a statement demanding the University Council to dismiss Assoc Prof Somkiart Tangnamo from the deanship of the faculty for signing Giles Ji Ungpakorn’s petition to abolish the lèse majesté law.

According to the statement, Somkiart has been severely criticized in newspapers and websites, including the alumni website, and the university’s reputation has been damaged.  Although he might claim that he acted as a member of the Midnight University (a grouping of academics active in social and political issues), it is hard for the public to understand.  So they asked the Council to dismiss him from his position because Somkiart failed to exercise good judgment and take a proper stance as Dean of the Faculty, with pride and acceptance by Thai society.

‘We want to protect the reputation of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Chiang Mai University, as all of us have firm loyalty to the nation, religion and monarchy,’ said the statement.

Fine Arts teacher Assoc Prof Pongdech Chaiyakut said that the group disagreed with what Somkiart had done and said and had nothing to do with it.”

PPT had a post regarding an attack on Midnight University by Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, a senior Manager columnist and an appointed senator, and raising questions about those academics who signed a petition regarding the lèse majesté law. We also had a post regarding a response to such attacks by Nidhi Eowsriwong from Midnight University. It seems that such attacks continue and PPT knows that other faculty at Chiang Mai University have been the subject of allegations of lèse majesté and have been investigated by university authorities. Even anonomous claims that present no evidence seem to be cause for “investigation.”

The Midnight University response is at its website, in Thai.

From exile in England, Giles Ji Ungpakorn has made this appeal, which PPT posted in full:

“In Thailand it is “a crime” to sign a petition

Supporters of the government, the PAD royalists and the military, are waging a witch hunt against Thai citizens who signed a petition for the abolition of the lese majeste law in Thailand. This law is being used by the present regime to silence any opposition. The PAD media outlet, Manager, is encouraging this witch hunt and has previously encouraged the use of violence against opponents. The Thai government is censoring hundreds of website and throwing people into jail for expressing opinions against the destruction of democracy. The excuse is always that these people have “insulted the king”.

Associate Professor Somkiat Tangnamo from Chiang Mai University, who is a prominent human rights activist and member of the Midnight University, is currently being witch-hunted by some academic staff.

Please send him messages of solidarity and make sure he receives international support: midnightuniv@gmail.com”

Nidhi Eowsriwong on lesè majesté, freedom of speech, Giles Ungpakorn

12 02 2009

In an earlier post, PPT commented on Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, a senior Manager columnist and appointed senator, attacking those who had signed a petition circulated by Giles Ungpakorn before his flight. Kamnoon mentioned academics associated with Midnight University.

Now Nidhi Eowsriwong from Midnight University has responded, asserting that those who supported the petition were also supporting the principle of freedom of speech.

The article refers to “climate of fear” and to “dozens of cases are being prosecuted” and the fact that the “Thai media has kept silent.”

Read the story at Prachatai, 12 February 2009: “Nidhi: signing the petition was for the principle of free speech”

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