Political vandalism and the control of history

23 04 2017

1932 plaqueThe political theft of the 1932 plaque has had unintended consequences.

The thief-in-chief was seeking to remove a perceived threat to the new reign and the junta’s constitutional basis for authoritarianism.

One unintended consequence has been to shine a light on 1932. The understanding of that time and the revolution that ended royal absolutism has been “controlled” by royalists for a considerable time. Think of the King Prajadhipok Institute and its mangled version of history. (If the KPI “The history” and “About KPI” seem reasonable, then you are a victim of the royalist control of history.)

Over the past couple of days, the Bangkok Post has had several op-eds that have posed questions about the received “history.” Each deserves attention. We’ll just quote some bits and pieces.

The first is by Wasant Techawongtham. He begins:

The switcheroo involving the 1932 Revolution memorial plaque seemed at first to be a simple act of theft or vandalism. But once the matter was brought to the attention of the authorities, things rapidly spiralled into the realm of the surreal.

And the more people try to make sense of it, the murkier it becomes.

He points out the quite banal and seemingly inexplicable initial responses from the junta:

Both government [junta] spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd and National Council for Peace and Order [junta] spokesman Winthai Suvaree, who can normally answer anything the press might throw at them, were lost for words.

The Dusit district chief who has jurisdiction over the area knew nothing about it either. The Fine Arts department chief not only did not know anything about the switch but claimed — rather hilariously, I should say — that the plaque was neither an artefact nor had any historical value.

The police not only did not know about it but would not accept complaints to look into the matter, claiming — I’m not sure whether I should laugh or cry here — that no one owned the object, and therefore no one could file a complaint. Huh?

You have to ask yourself: Is this for real?

The plaque was installed there for only 80-plus years and is associated with arguably the most significant political development in modern Thai history.

He refers to more ridiculousness by the junta and its minions before observing:

The silliness in this country knows no bounds. But this latest episode really takes the cake.

This really worries me. The Thai people under this military regime are already under orders not to think or speak their mind. But now we are supposed to not see or hear as well.

George Orwell would love to have written such a story.

We seem now to be living in another dimension where reality is distorted out of all proportion and truth is anything the powers-that-be say it is.

A second op-ed is by Ploenpote Atthakor. She begins:

… the plaque, which marks one of the most important incidents in modern Thai history, is a hot potato politically.

But though I fully sympathise with those inflamed by this apparent act of “political vandalism”, the extent of the public outcry has surprised me. Like those who are up in arms, I also wish the plaque, which marks the political transition from absolutism or constitutional monarchy, had stayed at its original site.

I believe Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who has ordered a probe into the case, will never give a full account of what has happened. Nor could he restore the original plaque to its rightful place….

She seems to believe she cannot say why this is. The vandal-in-chief is beyond criticism. The Dictator is beyond criticism.

She continues by noting the failure of people to understand 1932 or to respect its symbols. Likewise, she does not point to the royalist hold on “history” as the reason for this. It is fine to opine about “the people” being “ignorant,” but the reasons for their alleged ignorance need to be explained. But she sees a silver lining:

… its sudden disappearance has triggered an interest in this particular period of Thai history like never before. The people who removed it probably didn’t expect that.

The third op-ed is by Kong Rithdee. He begins:

Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present (tada!) controls the past. In summary, the military, like quantum physicists or mad sorcerers, controls time: The past, present, future, ad infinitum.

Through their coups, their fantasies and their laws, they control history — meaning the things that have happened or they want us to believe have happened. They also want to control the making of history — history as work in progress — meaning the shifting of glaciers and governments, the removal of memory and the manufacturing of dreams. Through the new 20-year national strategy bill, they also want to control the laying of future laws that will govern our life until eternity….

Much has been pondered about the missing plaque marking the 1932 Siamese Revolution. The erasing of history, an elusive heist, a voodoo ritual? Take your pick, for it looks like the burglary of the artefact is going down as one of the greatest puzzles of modern times. The sorcerers know they can’t change the past, even with chicken blood or powerful mantras, so they feel a need to change the record of the past — the imperfect past written by the revolutionaries who transformed the country into a constitutional monarchy.

He can’t get into the palace’s role although he could look at the role of royalist “historians” in the service of palace and military, writing “politicians” and the anti-royalists out of “their” history that is now “the” history. Or maybe he can, by allusion:

With the new plaque discreetly put in place of the original one, a palimpsest of history is being constructed before our eyes by the hand that appears firm, inexorable, invisible. So invisible that even the CCTV cameras (which only function when you’re speeding) lost all trace of what happened. The ghost did it. Again.

Some might see the ghost as a devil. He concludes:

The mark of dictatorship is when someone controls our life and our choice — that’s harder now because modern dictatorship still operates under capitalism, a system that values choice.

So it’s true dictatorship when someone attempts to control the concept of time — the mad aspiration to rule history and lay siege to the past, present and future while preventing us, the true holders of destiny, from writing our own parts. The clock is ticking but time is frozen. It’s not, as they often say, Orwell’s 1984.

This is a dystopian sci-fi, a country beyond Brave New World.

 





A feudal future beckons

21 04 2017

Yellow shirt commentators do not worry much about military dictatorship. They see military dictatorship as “normal” for Thailand.

While most yellow shirts still believe that the military is the only thing standing between them, an election and the hated Thaksin Shinawatra, it is also clear that not all yellow shirts expected an enforced royal dictatorship that fosters Thailand’s refeudalization.

Nonetheless, yellow shirt anti-electionism and royalism naturally promotes refeudalization.

The symbolic removal of the 1932 plaque is not just a royalist act of political and historical vandalism. It is also one more step by the military junta that marks the path of Thailand’s refeudalization.

The attraction of a feudal political arrangement for the military dictatorship is that it has no truck for notions that the people are sovereign.

In this sense, while symbols can have multiple meanings, expunging those that can be used by those who demand popular sovereignty is a part of the military’s palace alliance and its 20-year plan for a “reformed” Thailand.

This is part of the reason why The Dictator is both mum on the removal of 1932 commemoration plaque and protective of the royalist plaque that replaced it. It is pretty clear that this vandalism initially caused fear among some in the junta. Now, however, they have fallen into line, knowing that by their own design, they are politically bound to the reign.

That the opposition and agitation over the removal of the plaque has largely come from those the junta considers the “usual suspects” has also meant that protection of feudalism and its symbols is an easy and “natural” decision.

The most recent act of protection has been to accuse opposition figure Watana Muangsook of “a computer crime for posting on Facebook that the missing 1932 Revolution Plaque is a national asset.”

As Prachatai explains it:

On 19 April 2017, Pol Gen Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, the Deputy Chief of the Royal Thai Police (RTP), revealed that the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) filed a complaint against Watana Muangsook, a politician from the Pheu Thai Party, for breaching the Computer Crime Act.

The police apparently think that the use of the term “national asset” is threatening and false.

Watana was due to report to the police. He is the second to face charges or detention over the plaque. Like Srisuwan Janya, Watana has called for the “return of the missing plaque and for prosecution of those responsible for its removal.”

No one associated with the removal of the plaque has been named, arrested or charged. The chances of this happening are pretty much zero.

As one correspondent stated, everyone knows who is behind this act, but no one can say for fear of lese majeste and jail.

Expunging the symbols of 1932 expunges notions of popular sovereignty. That serves the interests of the military-monarchy alliance where King Vajiralongkorn looks like a throwback absolutist.





Fear and unintended consequences II

19 04 2017

Most of the breaking stories on the fate of the 1932 plaque are on social media, including the Facebook accounts of Andrew MacGregor Marshall and Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Another Facebook account worth following is that by Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the bravest of local journalists.

The mainstream media is publishing material but because it is now widely assumed that the king had the plaque removed, that media is treading very carefully and fearfully.

Marshall claims that the plaque was removed on 5 April, the evening before the announcement of the military junta’s 2017 constitution. That, of course, would be symbolic vandalism.

When thinking about the king’s reason for moving against memories and symbols of 1932, it is important to recall that all he would know of that revolution would have been gained from his grandmother and father, both of whom were anti-People’s Party and anti-Pridi Phanomyong, or from disgruntled royals who mostly hated the events and people of what they consider a travesty of (their) history.

Reuters reported that The Dictator and the junta have been getting a plausible story together.

Self-appointed royalist premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha has “warned people not to protest against the mysterious disappearance of a plaque commemorating the end of absolute monarchy, a theft some activists see as a symbolic threat to democracy.” He’s also been working on “protecting” the replacement plaque “celebrating the monarchy.”

Prayuth babbled something about “police … investigating…”, but also diminished the significance of the theft, the plaque and the 1932 revolution. Essentially, Prayuth’s message was a mafia-like “forget about it.” He said that it was all in the past, history, and not worth the effort.

The idea that the junta doesn’t know what happened in an area that is usually crawling with police and military and is watched by dozens of cameras beggars belief. As Reuters says, the “square where the plaque went missing is close to parliament, to a royal throne hall and to an army barracks. The area is also surveyed by several police posts.”

Prayuth knows what happened. He is now worrying about the political fallout and the boot he may get up the backside if he says or does anything wrong.

Meanwhile, at The Nation, the police claim sudden attacks of brain death. Deputy police chief Srivara Rangsibrahmanakul “admitted yesterday that he had no idea how to proceed with the case involving the mysterious removal of a plaque marking a 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy.” He knows he can’t move on this without some kind of “insurance” that he won’t end up shaven headed in the Bhudha Monthon Temporary Prison.

His babbling seemed like a man crazed or crazed by fear. In any case, while Prayuth declares the police are investigating, the police say they aren’t.

A group of activists filed a complaint, part of which explained to the police what they should be doing and why. We doubt the police, knowing the risks, will get of their ample posteriors.

What the police did do, according to several reports, was throw up a protective fence around the new royalist plaque, with a sign declaring it “royal ground.” You get the picture.

Reporters didn’t get the picture, however, as the police with some military support tried to prevent them from filming in the area.

They would not have done this without orders from The Dictator or from Tutzing.

Srisuwan Janya, arrested yesterday while trying to complain about the removal of the plaque, was released from military custody. He proclaimed that he would continue to complain, saying the new constitution gave him that right.

It remains to be seen what the full consequences of royal vandalism will be for the junta and the monarchy. It is certainly a damaging fiasco. Yet the junta knows it can manage fiascos – it has in the past. The question for the junta is whether they can manage the king.





Fear and unintended consequences I

18 04 2017

Yet another strange media event highlights the politics of the new reign.

Yesterday it was reported that the dead king’s funeral would take place on 26 October. Later in the day, Khaosod has published this, with the black nothingness being in the original:

Note to Readers: Removal of An Article About a Palace Announcement
Khaosod English
April 18, 2017 6:41 pm

From the Editors of Khaosod English.

Khaosod English has deleted an April 18 article about a certain statement made by the royal palace.

The story was removed because the announcement was not yet released formally by the palace, and Khaosod’s editorial management feared that the content in the article might lead to legal action.

As a news agency based in Thailand, Khaosod English is obliged to comply with Thai law. However, we strive to serve the public interest by presenting objective, accurate news reports.

That the newspaper is unable to present “objective, accurate news reports” due to the monarchy is nothing new. However, the fear that is seen in bizarre news reporting like this, under the new reign, is now part of a commentary.

We have briefly mentioned a New Mandala op-ed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun on fear in the new reign. Earlier we mentioned an op-ed by Claudio Sopranzetti also writing of fear.

While we agree that fear now seems central to the new reign under the erratic and violent King Vajiralongkorn, we do not agree with their contrasting references to the previous reign as one that was one of love and reverence. Idealizing the previous reign is a political mistake based on an incomplete reading of history.

In fact, the previous reign was also one that was defined by patronage and a feeling of impending danger, leading to bizarre politics. Yet for the earlier period of the reign there was also a political struggle as the palace sought to revive monarchy and royalism, along with its wealth and power.

It is in this sense, that the last 10 years marked the political success of that strategy, even if the king was not particularly involved, being hospitalized for the last decade or so of his reign.

Yet his proxies demonstrated a bizarre pattern of rightist and royalist politics that were a direct result of the monarchy’s manufactured position, power and influence. They fought the ghosts of the past and what they perceived as the threat to their position and power that had come from monarchism. That threat was seen in popular sovereignty.

It is in this sense that the current reign is the true and real outcome of that struggle and its politics.

Royalists have always known that Vajiralongkorn is a thug and unstable yet they now seem  somewhat confused that they have aided and abetted a new reign that sees monarchism moving towards an absolutism that they may not have contemplated.

Confusion will lead to bizarre politics and bizarre acts as those who consider themselves part of the royalist ruling class maneuver for influence.

Yet this is also a dangerous time for both the ruling class and for the monarchy as missteps in this small circle of the rich and powerful can have unintended consequences that threaten both.





Feel the repression

14 04 2017

The repressive military dictatorship continues to behave badly. It says it behaves badly because the people cannot be trusted. Well, that’s our interpretation of what they are saying, but that’s the message.

And when they say these things, they also lie.

Recall that the use of Article 44 has been carried over into the 2017 constitution. “Liberal” critics complain about this, but they miss the point: this is an “illiberal” constitution that seeks to limit popular sovereignty.

The junta and The Dictator have said that the use of Article 44 would be limited and only for really important stuff. Then The Dictator promptly used it for a special interest group of schools.

The Bangkok Post reports on the junta’s statements on its need for Article 44, noting the Army chief’s defense of the draconian power that resorts to knee-jerk monarchism:

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha needs to retain his wide-reaching Section 44 powers for the sake of security and for maintaining peace for the late King’s royal cremation as well as the coronation of [the new] … King….

Junta member General Chalermchai Sitthisart declared that Article 44 “remains an essential instrument for maintaining security.”

He maintained that after three years of junta control and repression, the military and the junta has failed, at least in its own terms. Again, they are our words, but that’s what he’s saying when he opines that “the security situation has been fairly stable although anti-government elements were staging movements ‘to stir up trouble’.”

Article 44 is also essential to the junta’s control of politics as it manages any “election” it decides to hold and win.

Gen Chalermchai then went strange, declaring “the army would never again seize power – because it would not have to.” He’s either lost his marbles, been drinking or really means that the military won’t act against the junta? But this is strange indeed.

By saying: “I can confirm that there won’t be a coup,” he’s really saying that there is coup talk about.

On his ridiculous royalism, why does the junta need Article 44 to “ensure a smooth arrangement for the royal funeral, expected towards the end of October, and of the coronation…”?

Is this simply using the monarchy for the junta’s gain? Or is it another admission of the junta’s failure? Or is it a fear that if anything goes wrong, then the junta’s future is at stake. If the latter, then they can blame themselves for manufacturing monarchism as a justification for military rule.

Meanwhile, The Dictator warned people that if “the exercise of people’s rights and freedom can go unchecked, [then] this could lead to conflicts…”. In other words, the repression continues. Just to emphasize this, he warned the media that it should not encourage people to exercise their rights.





Updated: Banning contact with the banned

13 04 2017

The Bangkok Post reports, with the order (reproduced below), the junta’s declaration that it is now “illegal to exchange information on the internet with three prominent government critics wanted on charges of lese majeste.”

The order from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society “requested all citizens not to follow, contact, share or engage in any other activity that would result in sharing information” with exiled historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun and journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall. All three live outside Thailand and concentrate some of their energies on revealing information about the regime and the monarchy.

The order states that “people who spread such information, directly or indirectly, could be violating the country’s Computer Crime Act, even unintentionally. This could result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years for each contact.”

In other words, this is backdoor lese majeste.

The Post states that the “reason for the letter is not known.” It also expresses its doubts about why these three are considered the most significant of critics.

Amnesty International criticized the warning for showing a “brazen determination to silence dissent.” In its statement, AI “Deputy Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Josef Benedict said authorities [he means junta] have plunged to fresh depths in restricting people’s freedoms of expression’.”

PPT reckons there is more to be learned about this order. We note that the jittery and angry junta is forever twitchy about monarchy news. However, we can’t help but notice that these critics are targeted at the beginning of a reign of a nasty monarch who is highly sensitive to even the slightest criticism. In this case we can’t but notice a whiff of palace intervention in this.

Update: Amid wide criticism of the “order,” the “ministry’s caretaker permanent secretary, Somsak Khaosuwan, who signed the announcement admitted yesterday that the document was aimed at sending a message to people, telling them about the ‘proper’ use of the Internet and making clear what sources of information should or should not be shared online.”

He babbled that the “order” was “intended also to advise Internet users to use discretion in reading or sharing information.” Yeah, right.

When asked “how the ministry would deal with a possibly large number of people following or making contact with people named persona non grata, the official said it was the responsibility of the … Police.”





Elections vs. the patronage system

11 04 2017

The Puea Thai Party may think it has a chance of doing well in an election, even if it is the junta’s “election.” We have serious doubts that they could win another election under the junta’s rules. Even if they did, the junta’s constitution will stymie them as a government.

In line with their faith in electoral democracy, the Puea Thai Party has demanded a “general election early next year, revocation of ‘unconstitutional’ orders of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) [the military junta] and freedom to express opinions about legislation.”

Somewhat oddly, at least in our view, the party sees the “promulgation of the 2017 constitution last Thursday started a process to restore democracy…”. We see it as the beginning of a period of military-backed government.

Meanwhile, the enemies of electoral democracy met with General Prem Tinsulanonda, the President of the Privy Council. The now frail Prem beamed as he accepted the obeisance of some members of the junta (who was missing?), cabinet members, military commanders-in-chief, the national police chief and other top officials.

General Prem “wished Prime Minister [General] Prayut Chan-o-cha success in his handling of the country’s administration and advised him not to be discouraged by problems he has encountered.” For the grand old political meddler, “success” involves “returning happiness” to “the Thai people.”

The Dictator was puffed up and proud, praising General Prem, “who he said was a role model for everyone in the country in terms of loyalty to the nation, religion and the monarchy.”

Readers will be amused to learn that The Dictator “presented a vase of flowers and a basket of gifts to Gen Prem, who in return distributed a CD on the tribute to the late King … and a book of prayer to everyone present.”

Just the thing for men who were responsible for the attacks on red shirt demonstrators seven years ago to the day that eventually left scores dead and thousands injured.

Meanwhile, it seems that Prayuth has decided that as The Dictator, he deserves Prem-like obeisance. He will “open Government House on April 12 for cabinet members, members of the National Council for Peace and Order, armed forces commanders and other officials to perform a rod nam dam hua [water-pouring] ceremony for him to mark the Songkran Festival.”

The juxtaposition of these political positions is defining of Thailand’s political present and indicative of its futures.