Further updated: Abhisit’s royalist boomerang and the failure of royalist reform

27 03 2011

The Bangkok Post’s Achara Ashayagachat is in great form on 27 March 2011. She has two noteworthy articles in the Post.

Her first takes up a theme that has been winding its way through several PPT posts (e.g. here, here and here), where she points to the irony of Article 7 of the Constitution being invoked against current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. As she points out, Abhisit “once supported the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s (PAD) call for an invocation of Section 7 of the constitution to pave way for royal appointment of an unelected prime minister to replace Thaksin Shinawatra.”

PAD at Government House

That call led, eventually, along a path to the king’s intervention, calling for and getting the intervention of a shonky judiciary, and a coup in 2006. More than that, PAD is calling for a boycott of any upcoming election, a tactic that the so-called Democrat Party signed up for in 2006.

Abhisit’s then allies in PAD have now bitten the hand that fed them (with others) back then.

Achara notes that PAD is “not the only group promoting the vote-no campaign. Some civil groups working on national reform also support the idea of asking voters to tick ‘vote no’ in the ballot. These groups believe that politicians are evil and the coalition administration has proved to be corrupt and inefficient in eliminating money politics from Thailand.”

Achara chides these groups for its rejection of the electoral system and, implicitly, of the underlying denigration of voters.

Achara’s second article refers to the allegedly “historic” talkfest held by the “National Reform Assembly (NRA) attended by 2,000 community leaders and civic groups at a cost of several million baht to taxpayers ended yesterday with grand words but no guarantees of action.” It seems it was pretty ho-hum. She says:

Anand Panyarachun, chairman of the National Reform Commission (NRC), and Dr Prawase Wasi, chairman of the NRA, presided over a closing ceremony that resembled a bureaucratic workshop. Representatives of eight discussion groups handed over a “declaration of the people” to the two reform leaders appointed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva last year.

Anand and Prawase are paid up members of the ruling elite of old men, but are not usually seen as stubborn old men.

Anand received the so-called people’s declaration and said that “debates on reform would hopefully help address conflicts within society which have led to violence. Dr Prawase said he hoped reform would bring a ‘new paradigm’ for the country to place power with the people rather than moneyed interests.” Sounds remarkably like 1997 as the localists and the nationalists signed up for the king’s sufficiency economy. In other words, while the tone is “liberal” – let voices be heard and let reform reign – the outcome is likely to be royalist nonsense that allows little real reform or innovation.


Update 1: A reader points to another boomerang that Abhisit seems to have ducked, at least for the moment. The reader points to Abhisit’s October 2008 speech to Parliament and a press conference that flayed then-PM Somchai Wongsawat as being responsible for the one death and several injuries during the PAD street protests (another death was a PAD car bomber who blew himself up, with the funeral being attended by Abhisit and Anand). The reader points to the irony and hypocrisy of Abhisit in the light of the more than 90 killed in April and May 2010.

Apparently the gist of Abhisit’s speech were reported in Matichon Weekend, 23-29 April 2010 and translated by a contributor (Srithanonchai) at Andrew Marshall’s blog (24 April 2010). We copy it here:

Matichon Weekend, 23-29 April 2010, page 9 reported Abhisit’s above quote in the following way (my translation):

“Regarding the entire incident, the prime minister cannot reject being responsible for not performing his duties, or for intending that this incident would occur. But what is worse is to blame the officials, that is, to slander the people. I could not think or dream that we would have a state that does harm to the people, even including deaths and severe injuries, and still have a state that even shifts responsibility to the people. This behavior is unacceptable.

I have heard the government asking this or that person whether they were Thai or not. But regarding your [Somchai Wongsawat] behavior, are you a Thai or not? Are you human or not? Today, politically, your legitimacy is gone already. We demand that the prime minister shows responsibility.” Abhisit referred to resignation or the dissolution of parliament. If Somchai remained idle, this would do harm to the country, and to the political system.

“There is no democratic political system in this world in which the people are harmed by the state, but the government that came from the people does not show responsibility. … Even if the PAD had done something wrong, the government had no right to do harm to the people.”

When the reporters asked Abhisit at that time how come that there could be such a big crisis, while the PM could still remain in office, Abhisit briefly but clearly answered:

“I cannot answer this. I have never been such a person. The normal human beings that I know are not of this kind.”

The paper concluded, “Abhisit’s words in the past and his actions in the present are totally opposite.”

As well as supporting PAD, Abhisit comdemns Somchai as all but inhuman and un-Thai for security forces being responsible for one death. Maybe being responsible for dozens of deaths is human and Thai (royalist variety). But we forget: the military and government continue to claim that security forces killed not a single person….

Update 2: Pravit Rojanaphruk also has a piece on the reform talkfest that is worth reading. These comments are noteworthy:

Besides being seen as opportunistic, the process is also dominated by many people who are aligned or play a key role in the yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement….

Many who this writer spoke to think Prawase and his followers are “shamelessly exploiting” a political opportunity to secure funding and push for reform in accordance with their moralistic view of what constitutes a good society. Others say they utterly failed to address the need for reform of those at the very apex of Thai society – namely the monarchy institution….

Prawase claimed the process was a “new paradigm” as he spoke at the end of the congress yesterday. While such a conclusion is debatable, one thing certainly new is that these people have succeeded in alienating and antagonising many red shirts in the name of a national reform that “transcends the political divide”.

Promoting royalist conservatism (again)

6 03 2011

Prachatai has a revealing article regarding the land reform proposal by the National Reform Commission and the take on it by National Reform Assembly Chair and dedicated royalist Prawase Wasi. PPT isn’t about to repeat the article, which is worth reading in full, yet we can provide some context for it.

Prawase has explained that giving 5-6 rai (a miserly 0.8-0.96 hectares) to “farmer families for sufficiency agriculture will bring the country out of its crisis.” That’s an enormous claim based on, for PPT, some remarkably dubious, deeply ideological and outdated, ideas, coupled with a fear of conflict seen in the unmentionable red shirt demonstrations and the “massive political demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, [which] in essence, stem from economic problems.”

What’s the “current crisis”? Prawese suggests a complex pictures that he simplifies to 4 components: (1) An economic crisis that he identifies as an “overwhelming gap between the rich and the poor. Thailand has tied its macro-economy closely to the global economy which has been extremely volatile; as a result, it has seen repeated crises and foreigners have come to take over banks, hotels, retail businesses, etc. Free trade agreements benefit certain big business groups, but devastate small people.” (2) A social crisis involving a “lack of justice and overwhelming inequalities…” that leads to “social problems” and the “frustration” of the poor that “will burst open.” (3) An environmental crisis that has resulted in deforestation, floods, and droughts. He also refers to the “use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture and the mining industries poison the land and the environment, and toxins have entered the human body, causing cancer and crippling fetuses.” Finally, there is (4) the political crisis which he blames on the previous three issues.

How is this complicated complex of crises to be rectified. For Prawase, that is simple: give people a small plot of land and they can farm it in a sustainable, non-market, and secure way. Prawase blusters that “His Majesty the King’s Sufficiency Economy will become the world’s new civilization…”. The king saves the world! These royalists really do get hopelessly lost when it comes to spit-polishing the royal image.

The first thing to notice is that  this is not a new account. Well before anyone even thought of using the term “sufficiency economy,” Prawase was making the same points sans the royalism. Look at his chapter in Seri Phongphit and Robert Bennoun’s collection, Turning Point of Thai Farmers, published in 1988, where the same argument is made. It is in a book that includes several studies that examine farmers seeking “self-reliance.” Some of these are now claimed in the literature to have been “sufficiency economy” successes. The book is not readily available now. The only thing that gets close on the Web is here, by Kevin Hewison, and it includes a critique of Prawase back then. Not much seems to have changed. [Related, see Hewison’s comments on sufficiency economy at New Mandala.]

Prawase harps on these things because he believes a “plot of land will give people security in their lives and the economy” and leaves them outside the market system. Prawase believes that “subsistence agriculture does not take much time, 1-2 hours a day.” PPT knows plenty of farmers who know that Prawase is displaying his ignorance of farming. But that doesn’t matter much because this argument is as much for the soft hands of the city as for farmers.

With a tiny subsistence plot, “each farming family can have a small reservoir to provide a year-round water supply for aquaculture, vegetables, fruits and poultry to meet their own needs in the practice of subsistence or sufficiency agriculture…” and can find “a balanced and sufficient way of life.” He provides examples drawn straight from the royal web page on sufficiency economy.

As an aside, he believes that this will reduce crime because having a plot means not having to “commit suicide or crime.” They will not have debt and they will live happily ever after.

This is a fairy tale and it is based on a profound misunderstanding of farming and farming families. It is also classic conservatism. More worryingly, it suggests a lack of understanding of the nature of Thai society in the present. Hence the solution is to promote a backward-looking policy essentially invented in 1997 to support hyper-nationalism and prevent expected social unrest from the economic crisis of the time. Keeping people on the farm or encouraging or forcing them back to tiny farms is now seen as a political solution for multiple crises [be aware, this is a big download].

What of the rich, including royal plutocrats? What of Sino-Thai business tycoons? Where is the land to come from? What of all those foreign-invested companies? What of those who have lost their farming skills? What of those who prefer a modern existence rather than farming?

This is good royalist talk that aims more to bring back alliances rather than solve any problems. Prawase is mouthing the same ideas that the king and his supporters used in 1997 to “save the country” – read save domestic capitalists – by avoiding social upheaval. These ides pulled at the heartstrings of so many NGOs, intellectuals and their ilk that they all piled on the royalist caravan that led to PAD, military coup and the current crisis. Will it work again? Will it keep the royalist elite in power a little longer?

Updated: Reform yawn

20 12 2010

In case readers missed it, according to the Bangkok Post, the “National Reform Assembly has finalised its nine-point proposal calling for widespread political, economic and social change, and forwarded it to the government for action.” Yes, we know our header is cynical, but read this report and see if anyone gets energized.

Chairman Prawase Wasi handed his recommendations to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during a forum on national reform and Abhisit “said the government would turn the list of proposals into an operation plan and take action.” Ho hum. PPT suggests no one hold their breath while this process is “actioned.”

Readers can view the summary in the article, and PPT guesses there must be some detail in them. Here we mention just a few.

The suggestion that “state media communicate with the public in a way that can help the country achieve national reform” seems like a recommendation for propaganda, while the suggestion for the public to “be encouraged to participate in brainstorming sessions on all issues that concern them” sounds warm, cuddly and naive in the extreme.

The fourth proposal to decentralise administrative power is useful but is one made hundreds of times in the past.

A seventh proposal, to “reform … the taxation, social welfare and finance and budgetary systems to improve fairness and decrease the disparity between rich and poor” sounds nice. The problem is that there are structural impediments to any such reforms.

The eighth proposal “is for the Education Ministry to upgrade the national education structure for the sake of community strength, promoting honest livelihoods and academic strength.” This sounds like the usual moralistic position that Prawase has personally advocated for several years.

This is at the end of the report: “The government, meanwhile, says it wants to achieve national reconciliation before a new election is held.”

Was our headline inaccurate?

Update: A reader chastises us for failing to note that it seems this “reform” report says nothing of political freedoms that have been removed under recent regimes and most especially under the “savior of the parliamentary system” Premier Abhisit Orwell. Good point.

Abhisit at CFR I

26 09 2010

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva recently spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. PPT has some commentary on the talk, and we will provide further commentary on the Q&A in another post, when we can get to it:

He is introduced as speaking on the current situation in Thailand. The first thing that strikes a well-informed listener is that he says very little that is new, and sticks pretty closely to the furrow that the regime has plowed since it came to power and especially since the violent 19 May crackdown. As PPT has long pointed out, what Abhisit says and does are often diametrically opposed, so his statements require contextualization.

Regular readers will recall that PPT referred to Abhisit then as the Butcher of Bangkok because his government was responsible for the largest-ever official number of deaths in political protests in Thailand. Note we emphasize “official,” and readily acknowledge that earlier protests probably resulted in more deaths at the hands of authoritarian and military governments. Twice in the speech, Abhisit refers to “regrettable losses of life” but says nothing at all of his government’s role in the events, the fact that the military slaughtered and maimed protesters or anything else that would suggest true regret.

Likewise, he says absolutely nothing about people locked up. He says nothing about political prisoners, whether red shirts or victims of the lese majeste or computer crimes laws. It is as if they do not exist for this prime minister. He seems to wash his well-manicured and soft hands of the grime and blood of his struggle to remain in power.

Abhisit makes no mention of the monarchy, the judiciary, the elite, the military, double standards or any other issue that would be suggestive that he gives any credence to his opponents.

Abhisit does say the word “democracy” several times, perhaps anticipating that an American audience will lap up this rhetoric. Perhaps they do, but well-informed listeners will notice a hollow ring as democracy is defined in terms that the regime chooses and relies on rule of law language that would suit most authoritarian regimes. Thaksin Shinawatra is always accused of having a disdain for democracy, seeing it as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Abhisit, however, strips the term of much of its meaning. The result is his penchant for authoritarian politics and repression.

Abhisit claims he did not anticipate the events of April and May 2010, but now views them as part of a process that has Thailand building on the “foundations of our democracy.” Despite “challenges” he is confident that Thailand will win through a “long and difficult process.” Given that the Democrat Party and Abhisit himself were essentially supportive of the 2006 coup, are wrapped like Siamese twins with the major repressive forces in Thailand, and have implemented repression in all political arenas, the meaning of “democracy” for him and his supporters is no more than “Thai-style democracy,” which is no democracy at all.

One of the lessons of April and May, he says, is that when “trying to develop a democracy, there will be clashes of values, clashes of opinions, but the key thing … is to find a way to … avoid violence and and illegal means to …political ends…”. The government, Abhisit opines, is “determined to embark on a process of reform and reconciliation…”. He speaks of “reaching out” to “all parties” in this process. He says this is to “build the right values that support our future and stronger democracy…. respect the law, good governance, accountability and transparency.”

PPT is sure that there will be many who will read this and need to get their jaws off the floor. Yes, he says it all the time, but he does nothing meaningful.

Justifying the use of the emergency decree in Bangkok since April this year, the premier jauntily asserts that: “If you are in Bangkok you’d hardly notice the effect of the state of emergency…. Ordinary people are not affected…”. As many ordinary people have stated, along with intellectuals, journalists and human rights activists, this is fundamentally wrong. Abhisit knows it, so he is dissembling yet again. In fact, the emergency decree (and earlier uses of the internal security laws) is central top  political control for his government.

The prime minister then speaks in self-congratulatory terms of his efforts for reconciliation: “What I have done is set up a number of independent commissions…”. He repeats this word “independent.” He says Anand Panyarachun’s is the most important commission, to “look at some of the structural issues that give rise to inequalities,” admitting that “for some” that such inequalities gave rise to the violence of April and May. Abhisit has generally rejected this latter line, but sees the Anand commission as a PR exercise to change the views of others on this. As PPT posted recently, the Anand commission seems remarkably reluctant to do much at all.

Would it only be PPT that finds Abhisit’s statement on the media threatening?: “We are engaging the media so that they go through a process of reform as well.” It seems Abhisit wants them to “retain freedom of expression” while reporting news with responsibility and accountability. The mainstream media have been reluctant to participate. However, the most striking issue is that while Abhisit’s regime has closed almost all of the opposition media, it mollycoddles the yellow shirt media such as PAD’s

As might be expected from the leader of a political party that was manipulated into parliamentary leadership, Abhisit tries to normalize the backroom dealings and extra-parliamentary forces that catapulted an unelectable party to the head of government. He says the the parliamentary system is “fully functioning.” He complains that there are misconceptions that the political crisis arose from a “somehow undemocratic process.”

He states: “That is not true,” and goes through the usual explanation of how his coalition came to power without mentioning the role of a politicized judiciary or of the military, People’s Alliance for Democracy, Newin Chidchob or the palace. Oddly, Abhisit places some emphasis on the fact that the PPP did not get a majority when elected…. The Democrat Party have never had a majority, and the only party ever to have a majority in parliament was thrown out by the military….

Abhisit seems to welcome “the opposition” saying they want to be involved in the reconciliation process – although, in reality, he is the one who has been suspicious of these overtures. Abhisit rejects debate on “who did what, who’s right and who’s wrong” in favor of him, as a “true democrat,” being confident that the government is addressing the “real issues that matter to the people.”

Abhisit demonstrates his toughness when he says he will not “cave in” to “some demands” as he gets the country “through this crisis.” In fact, though, this is nothing more than his personal hatred and fear of Thaksin Shinawatracoming to the fore. He makes the claim that one unnamed person or small group has placed their interest above that of the nation – Thaksin , of course. One should “never allow the use of force, violence,  or intimidation to effect political changes.”

That might sound reasonable, but then the U.S. used violence to gain independence and fought a civil war on political rights. The French Revolution involved considerable violence, and we could go on and on. Members of the elite is always opposed to violence, except when they are perpetrating it.

On early elections, Abhisit is boringly repetitious: “Over the last two years, I have never rejected calls for early elections. But my conditions that I have set are set for the best, for the country’s interests…”. He has not moved on this for months. Back in March, we posted this:

What was striking, however, was Abhisit’s insistence on constitutional change before an election. He has a patchy track record on this. There have been statements from him on constitutional reform, but these have all fallen into the usual traps. He has made no personal commitment to meaningful constitutional reform and has not personally been engaged with the agenda. It’s the talk but … no action problem again.

The government’s other line is to say that “elections will solve nothing” while also saying that dissolving parliament is not off the agenda. Many in the middle class and elite will agree with the rejection of elections because they fear the outcome will bring politicians they view as pro-Thaksin back to power. Abhisit may have angered some in his right-wing support base by talking, but nothing he said is going to immediately cause concern for his yellow-shirted supporters in the Democrat Party or more broadly.

Nothing’s changed. Abhisit lists the reasons he has opposed early elections. First, the economy needed time to recover. Second, he says he doesn’t want to see an election resulting in a weak government and a process like 2007-08. Third, and most important “I have always said that elections should only take place under peaceful and stable conditions…”. He says “he does not believe in elections where there continues to be intimidation, threat of the use of force or violence against candidates or parties…”. Only if the red shirts can guarantee this, will he go for an early election. He believes he has a right to stay in power until the beginning of 2012. After all of this, he blames the red shirts for rejecting his conditionality.

The closest he gets to accepting red shirt “demands” is to say that average red shirts “have been exploited by some political leaders” and it is this that led to the “unfortunate and regrettable events of April and May.”This is the “villagers are ignorant” claim so often repeated by Democrat Party leaders and the yellow shirts. Even if the red shirts have legitimate gripes, they are “manipulated” by the evil Thaksin and other nasty politicians. Only yellow shirts and government supporters are not manipulated and remain clear-eyed…. This is elitist nonsense but also a necessary rationalization to de-legitimize political mobilization by the under-classes.

This is Abhisit unchanged, using his English-language skills to sell his authoritarian government to U.S. investors and government. Military dictators and the king have long done the same. Abhisit fits that model ever so neatly.

We are reforming, not

22 09 2010

With considerable amusement, PPT read a Bangkok Post report thatquoted the head of the government-appointed National Reform Committee, Anand Panyarachun.

Anand apparently came up with a list of things his committee is not doing. Not included are: political and military reform – “… politics and the military would be left to change by themselves since this would mainly require changes in the attitudes of those involved”; no constitutional reform and no attention to corruption. No focus on decentralization.

Despite all these negatives, Anand has 21 committee members and believes he needs more than 3 years to complete his commission’s work. But what is it?  Anand says: “We are trying to provide an environment for fair play in society.” His panel is to “provide political space for people to have their voices heard, to be able to bargain and stand up without being sidelined or belittled by local and national politicians.”

Let’s get this right. Anand’s committee is going to try to control politicains by creating a space for a civil counterweight. Isn’t that what he tried to do during the drafting of the 1997 Constitution? And why are politicians the problem and not corrupt officials, military leaders, police and their huge weight of power?

The committee is to hold its very first public hearing on 17 October at Thammasat University but not on these issues but on “how problems of inequality and injustice in society could be resolved.” None of the inequality and injustice has to do with corrupt officials, military leaders, police and a self-centered ruling class?

The committee might also “gather views on socio-economic issues, land rights and resource distribution, opportunities, people’s rights and bargaining power…” which can’t involve corrupt officials, military leaders, police and the ruling class.

Is this even worth the effort? Anand is no dumbie, so PPT assumes that there is something going on that remains behind a screen, but, really, what a waste. Or was it always just Abhisit’s window-dressing?

“We have been talking about reform in various dimensions, the process of which is owned by the people in society and is timeless. So it might take longer than three years,” Mr Anand said.

Anand’s change of mind

5 08 2010

The Bangkok Post recently reported that former appointed prime minister Anand Panyarachun has urged fellow Thais to embrace reform “by moving beyond debates on ‘good and evil’ and by accepting the voting rights of the majority.” He said: “We, therefore, have to respect their voting rights whether or not we may disapprove of their choices.” PPT has added the emphasis as the chair of the National Reform Commission appears to have changed his mind on elections.

Anand is reported to have “insisted the political rights of certain groups must firstly be respected by all, otherwise reform efforts were bound to fail.” He adds: “I believe people in rural areas have suffered inequalities and thus want political space…”. He was speaking at a dinner reception organised by the royalist-aligned Population and Community Development Association, so these changed views represent a liberal-royalist understanding.

In an attack on the yellow-shirted rightists associated with the People’s Alliance for Democracy, Anand said “people had no right to control other people’s opinions, and those who oppose the political choices of this group [pro-Thaksin Shinawatra voters] might one day have to live with it.”

Why does PPT say he has changed his mind? Back in the days around the 2006 coup, Anand was a defender of intervention and questioned the notion held by “some Westerners” that equated democracy with voting. He said this at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand when launching a new edition of The King of Thailand in World Focus (p. 274). The point of this statement was to whitewash the trashing of Thai democracy by the PAD, the military and the palace.

That he now seems to accept that voting matters perhaps reflects a liberal-royalist recognition that electoral processes can be one way of moderating political demands from the lower classes and a way of disciplining the ruled. To do that, the ruling elite needs to make concessions. Will the army, now back in the driving seat, agree? Will the conservatives agree with Anand and seek to make the historic compromises necessary to maintain their class hegemony. So far they haven’t shown much willingness.

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