A triple threat?

11 07 2017

Academic Nicholas Farrelly, who runs New Mandala, has produced a report for Australia’s Lowy Institute, sometimes described as a “think tank.”

Quite a lot of the Thailand commentary at Lowy has been bland and not particularly analytical, but Thailand’s Triple Threat (only three?) deserves a reading. The abstract is:

King Vajiralongkorn’s elevation to the Chakri throne comes after decades of whispers that he is an unsuitable king for Thailand. Despite these concerns, the military leadership has swung behind their new monarch. But the potential for future turbulence under the government led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha is high. The fluid situation in Bangkok is complicated by the potential escalation and expansion of separatist violence in southern Thailand. The question is how will Thailand respond to the triple threat of King Vajiralongkorn’s ascension, the entrenchment of military rule, and the potential escalation of separatist violence emanating from the southern provinces?

The most likely future for Thailand is one in which the authoritarian instincts of the military and the monarchy reinforce their mutual survival pact. Nevertheless, at the core of Thailand’s triple threat is the possibility that the untested nexus between the new king and the powerbrokers in the military will prove insufficiently strong. Even if everything goes according to plan, today’s authoritarian establishment in Bangkok risks inspiring new challengers to its interests. And if everything goes bad at the same time, Thailand would struggle to maintain its position as one of Southeast Asia’s most successful societies.

Commentary on the recent and next monarchy I

15 10 2016

Assuming that the monarchy continues in one form or another, there’s some interesting commentary sparked by the king’s death. (The end of the monarchy following the 9th reign has been a prophesy heard previously – clicking the link downloads a PDF considered illegal in Thailand.)

Of course, there’s lots of hagiography too, reporting much that has been said about the king previously. A quick look at any news source in Thailand shows only this kind of reporting. Claims that the king was above politics and a force for stability were criticized years ago, as can be seen in the PDF linked above.

Here is some of the more interesting material currently available:

France 24 has an AFP story that “follows the money,” with a story on “one of the world’s richest monarchies, with a multi-billion-dollar empire spanning property, construction and banks.” One estimate is that the Crown Property Bureau is worth almost $60 billion. PPT would add that each of the royals is individually wealthy and each of them sponges off the taxpayer as well, so this is a fabulously wealthy capitalist conglomerate. If there is a competition for the top spot, then there are plenty of spoils for the winner/s.

The king’s unauthorized biographer Paul Handley has an op-ed at The New York Times. His conclusion is:

This is a bleak backdrop for the end of King Bhumibol’s reign. He was the model of a great king — modest, earnest and selfless, with his attention focused on the neediest. But he has left Thailand, as well as his heir, in the same situation he inherited all those years ago: in the hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals who rule however they want. And those King Bhumibol cared about the most — the Thai people — must suffer the consequences.

We are great fans of The King Never Smiles, but we are not convinced that the modest, earnest, selfless stuff isn’t buying palace propaganda (see the story above). We do agree that Thailand is currently in the “hands of corrupt and shortsighted generals,” we’d just point out that that was not the situation when the late king came to the throne. It was the Democrat Party’s founders, the old princes and other diehard royalists who used the death of the new king’s brother to overthrow a civilian regime. This was the first successful royalist coup.

Over at New Mandala, academic Lee Jones has an article called “The myth of King Bhumibol,” writing of his “weakness” of the king and identifies him as “a divisive and negative force for Thailand’s politics and democracy…”. We agree on the latter points but are not sure about the “weakness.” We think it better to view the monarchy and military as partners in anti-democratic rule.

Also at New Mandala, Nicholas Farrelly has an assessment of the king’s legacy. His view is of the king as a product of palace propaganda and image-making. He concludes: “But in late moments of reflection he [the king] may have regretted that his country became so ill prepared for mature leadership transitions and that his own charisma had been so regularly mobilised against the political wishes of the Thai people.” We doubt he regretted this. He considered Thais as children requiring discipline and direction and he provided it, for a while.

And, in another New Mandala piece, anthropologist Christine Gray writes about talking about monarchy. She writes about the past failures to challenge reporting and scholarship that was too accepting of palace propaganda. She makes an interesting point when she says “it seems tacky to criticise the dead” and then says it is necessary. She’s anticipated a ever stronger line on social media that argues that “now is not the right time for criticism.” It seems it is never the right time to be critical of the monarchy.

Along the same lines, Peter Symonds at WSWS has some useful observations. On not being truthful, he observes:

The king’s death was greeted with a wave of nauseating accolades from heads of state and political leaders around the world. US President Barack Obama issued a statement declaring that Bhumibol was “a tireless champion” for economic development and improved living standards. The UN General Assembly and Security Council stood in silent tribute. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised Bhumibol’s “legacy of commitment to universal values and respect for human rights.”

The international media followed suit, focussing on the outpouring of grief among the king’s supporters. The phrase “revered by the Thai people” appears in article after article, which either gloss over or completely ignore the Thai monarchy’s staggering wealth and its support for the country’s long succession of military coups and abuse of democratic rights.

The tabloids are also at work. The Mirror has been at it and so has the Daily Mail. The New York Post has a story titled “Thailand’s new king is a kooky crop top-wearing playboy.” It reproduces some of the lurid stories about the crown prince – the Post might say clown prince. Srirasmi is mentioned. There’s other critical commentary, including by a former Australian ambassador to Thailand.

Dictatorship as the “standard form of government”

6 06 2016

In a commentary at Japan’s Nikkei, academic Nicholas Farrelly, one of the founders of New Mandala, looks at Thailand’s “standard form of government,” the military dictatorship.

He notes that since the May 2014 coup, “General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his ruling clique have taken to the stage with relish” and he observes that Prayuth has a “deep commitment to eliminating the political influence of perceived enemies.” Those “enemies” are politicians who kept winning elections and their supporters. Prayuth wears his anti-democrat color on his sleeve and it is bright yellow.Prayuth

That is why, As Farrelly, says, a “fundamental worry for Prayuth’s team [he means the junta] is that any movement towards a democratic system of government opens the door to the return of forces allied with deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.”

This is why “Prayuth’s preferred constitution” is essentially anti-democratic, aimed at “stopping Thaksin and anyone who might seek to emulate his electoral success.”

Interestingly, Farrelly argues that the 2007-14 period was one where the military played a political game – with lots of violence – in order to be in a position to “fully re-assert control.” He adds that they want to control succession.

One reason they are now so motivated to maintain that stranglehold is that King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health continues to fade. After his 70 years on the throne, Thailand will eventually confront succession.

Along the way, Prayuth’s junta has relentlessly disenfranchised voters, reinstated repressive measures not seen since the 1970s and appeared dinosaur-like to many outsiders and some investors. All of this has put the old elite back in charge:

What will count … is the negotiation of power among a Bangkok-focused elite — the palaces, their loyal generals, bureaucratic and judicial servants, and the right kind of top business players. That small circle wants to shape the rules such that their incumbent advantages accrue to the next generation and the one after that.

There seems “no obvious end to its self-inflicted wounds.” The military has been firmly entrenched on the political stage.

This is for the king IV

6 02 2014

From a story at the Sydney Morning Herald:

Thaksin levelled the electrifying accusation that senior counsellors to the  King of Thailand had been complicit in allowing the coup, drawing the monarch’s name into the fray. In a country where the king is revered, and where you can be jailed for 15 years for criticising him, this was extraordinary. It was also true.

Much evidence supports the claim. And this brings us to one of the overarching factors in explaining Thailand’s democratic dyslexia. The monarchy ”had at best a mixed record supporting democracy, and hasn’t allowed a fully democratic political system to emerge,” says David Streckfuss, an American researcher based in Cambodia….

”Thailand has largely accommodated military interventionism, especially by accepting the defence of the monarchy as a justification for toppling elected governments,” writes Nicholas Farrelly, an… ANU expert on Thailand.

”Thailand’s elite and, to some extent, the public as well have deeply internalised the ultimate acceptability of coups. The test of this arrangement may come with the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign and the potential realignment of military influence in Thai society.”

That test is drawing near. The king is 86 and ailing. It will be a threshold moment for Thailand.

In a real constitutional monarchy, where the palace is guided by the law, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. The anti-democrats draw great strength from their belief that the monarchy is with them.

Monarchy’s twilight II

17 08 2012

As with the commentators in our previous post, Nicholas Farrelly at the Australia’s Inside Story comments on the decline of what the royalists call “the institution.” Okay, the story is really about Thaksin Shinawatra’s political tenacity, but the monarchy is also central.

The author points out:

In the years since then [the 2006 coup], Thailand’s military, palace, bureaucratic and judicial power brokers have remained sensitive about any discussion of the political role of the royal family. In recent years the country’s lese-majesty law, which demands harsh penalties for any perceived slights against the king or senior royals, has become newly problematic [sic.]. Since the crackdown on the Red Shirt protests of April and May 2010, anti-palace graffiti and slogans have infused rallies with radical sentiments.

Like one of the commentators we quoted in our earlier post, we think Farrelly is wrong on lese majeste under the Yingluck Shinawatra government when he claims:

Under her government, Thailand continues to lock up critics of the palace and determinedly pursues legal proceedings against any minnows who dare challenge royal prestige.

As we have said before, the rhetoric was initially strong, but the record of locking people up is miniscule when compared with the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime. He is right in observing:

What Yingluck’s government knows is that the lese-majesty law holds back an avalanche of scrutiny and criticism looming over the palace. They have decided that this is not the time to unleash its destructive potential.

The perverse consequence of continuing to clamp down on critical references to the royal family is that intrigue, scuttlebutt and animosity multiply. Discussions of the most sensitive topics have not been eradicated and, like a festering wound, are left to draw attention in ways unwanted and uncomfortable.

The author then turns to Thaksin and succession:

His opponents remain preoccupied with the palace succession and the need to ensure the continuity of the Chakri dynasty. There are also those hoping to keep control of what Forbes estimates could be a $30 billion royal fortune. [PPT: It’s $37 billion at last count.]

… The $30 billion question is: what happens when … Bhumibol dies? It remains the question that nobody is prepared to touch. But if we have understood anything of Thailand’s political action since the 2006 coup then any tentative answer matters a great deal. It provides an explanation for what we have seen and what, we assume, lurks just out of sight. On everyone’s lips there is an unspoken view that things could get very bad as Thailand seeks to clarify its longer term political future.

Unresolved questions about Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn’s reckless behaviour haunt the equation. His apparent incapacity to generate consistent popular goodwill must infuriate those pragmatic types who have sought to provide every chance for his success…. Millions of Thais have stopped believing in the official, benign portrayal of the Crown Prince.

The palace plan, we think, is unchanged; the prince steps up. The issue is whether this will unleash political forces betting on and promoting others. For the author, succession plays out for Thaksin too:

Under these circumstances the final months of 2012 are likely to see more aggressive efforts by Thaksin to return to the kingdom. He will not want to miss an opportunity to pay his final respects to King Bhumibol. It is easy to overlook Thaksin’s own royalist views and the fact that he has worked very closely with the palace and the military in the past. The coup put an end to that, but Yingluck’s words and actions have signalled that rapprochement is conceivable.

Seat belts might be required.

Divisive politics, dumb perspective

13 01 2011

PPT ‘s attention was caught by a recent East Asia Forum post, written by Chalongphob Sussangkarn, listed as “Distinguished Fellow,” but in fact an economist at the Thailand Development Research Institute. East Asia Forum is a usually pretty conservative blog that claims to be a “platform for the best in East Asian analysis, research and policy comment on the Asia-Pacific region and world affairs.” It is from the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

In his post, Chalongphob, a nearly invisible Minister of Finance in Privy Councilor General Surayud Chulanont’s military junta-appointed government in 2007, says:

The Red Shirts’ protracted occupation of a central Bangkok area and the eventual violent and deadly end in May 2010 reiterated the highly divisive situation in Thai politics.

This protest, like the Yellow Shirts’ closure of the Bangkok airport toward the end of 2008, had the potential to have extended negative impacts on the broader economy, particularly on foreigners’ confidence. Luckily, the impacts have so far been short-term, partly because these protests and the associated violence were not directly targeted at foreign interests.

To be fair to his readers, Chalongphob might explain that this was not his (politically-motivated) claim at the time of the protests. Back then, TDRI and Chalongphob warned that the red shirt protest would “cause a cut in economic growth of more than 0.5-1 percentage point…” and “Tourism, retail trade and part of transportation have already been hard hit by the political crisis.” Chalongphob himself said: “persistent conflict could suffocate both exports and foreign direct investment. The government has to get rid of the violence initiated by underground armed forces. If violence drags on, foreign investors will move their target to other countries and orders of goods from abroad could dry up…”.

So, at that critical time,  Chalongphob could be considered to be calling for a crackdown. He was also off target on the economic impacts . Long-time readers of PPT will know that, at the time, PPT questioned the dire economic warnings (here, here and here). Yesterday, we also commented on some of the reasons why foreign investors like Thailand.

In his recent article he also states this:

Many have tried to link the political divisiveness to socio-economic disparities. This is highly misleading. The divisiveness is really only around one person, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, the currently fugitive former Prime Minister.

Apart from sounding like he is an op-ed writer for The Nation, Chalongphob is simply wrong on both counts. The view that the red shirts are only about Thaksin is one that was common amongst yellow shirts, the army leadership, and the Democrat Party-led government. It seems they learn nothing from the resilience of the red shirt movement and the huge support it has.

More puzzling is the claim that socio-economic disparities are meaningless for politics. PPT would have thought that the government’s own “populist” policies, handouts, and other actions had debunked this view.The various reconciliation committees,set up by the government, also appear to confirm the political salience of inequality.

We wonder about Chalongphob’s politics and assume that he is an unreconstructed supporter of the regime when he says:

Talks of reconciliation are just red herrings. How can one reconcile black and white?

PPT has never been much encouraged by the Abhisit-directed PR exercise in “reconciliation.” However, Chalongphob seems to think that there can be no political peace. We think that’s a pretty accurate reflection of the establishment’s unwillingness to make the historic compromise demanded of it. The establishment seems to have no conception of compromise for it sees it as a loss of its privilege, power and wealth.

Then there is this odd comment:

Fortunately, there will be a general election in 2011. This should reduce the risk of another major protracted street protest….

Now isn’t that exactly what the opposition called for, time and again, since this government was placed in its present position? Why now and not then? Clearly because Chalongphob and his ilk didn’t think their party had a chance back then.

PPT was provocative in our headline because Chalongphob’s political perspective is not so much dumb as revealing of his ideology and that of so many in his one-tenth of the population who are very privileged.

For a more interesting perspective in the same forum see Nicholas Farrelly’s contribution.

Walker and Farrelly on Abhisit, politics and monarchy

27 08 2010

Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly are at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, where they co-founded the blog New Mandala in 2006. They have an opinion piece on Thailand’s recent politics in Australia’s Inside Story. It is worth reading in full. A taster:

For much of this [turbulent political] period the king himself has been in frail health and rarely seen in public. He never publicly endorsed the yellow-shirt campaign but nor did he, or his confidants, make any attempt to voice disapproval about increasingly anti-democratic uses of the royal brand. Queen Sirikit has been much more open in her support for the anti-Thaksin forces. A pivotal moment in public perceptions of the monarchy came when she attended the funeral of a yellow-shirt protester killed in a violent clash with police. In a powerful blow to the palace’s carefully cultivated imagery, Thailand’s queen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with yellow-shirt leaders who were calling for the forcible overthrow of an elected government.

Inevitably, royal entanglement in politics has generated comment, and some dismay, locally and internationally. Abhisit has done whatever he can to keep a lid on the criticism. Among the many legal tools his government has enthusiastically deployed, the lèse majesté provision of the criminal code is the most potent. Lengthy jail terms have been handed to those who have challenged the supposed sanctity of the royal institution. Though Abhisit has paid lip service to international calls for reform of this draconian law, his government has shown no sign of backing off from heavy-handed repression of free speech when it comes to royal matters. Soft power may also play a part. There is talk of Abhisit’s government funding a Thai studies centre in Australia, presumably in an attempt to get some more sympathetic international discussion of sensitive issues.

Campaign for Suwicha at NM

15 07 2009

Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly at New Mandala have suggested a smart new publicity campaign in support of Suwicha Thakor. On 3 June 2009, Thong Dee, a Thai elephant at the Sydney Zoo, gave birth to a male calf.  The Zoo is calling for public entries for a contest to name the elephant.  New Mandala is calling for readers to submit the suggestion of the name “Suwicha” for the elephant calf — to draw public attention to his case.

Read and link to action here: 15 July 2009, “A campaign for Suwicha”

FCCT Charges Expand

2 07 2009

Lesè majesté charges in relation to speech at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand (FCCT) in 2007 have expanded to include the entire fifteen-person board of the organization.

According to Pravit Rojanaphruk’s article in the Nation (2 July 2009, “FCCT board faces police probe over lese majeste”), “Laksana Kornsilpa, 57, a translator and a critic of ousted and convicted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra filed a lese majeste complaint against the 13-member board at Lumpini police station on Tuesday night. Laksana was quoted on ASTV Manager website as claiming the board’s decision to sell DVD copies of Jakrapob Penkair’s controversial speech at the club back in 2007 constituted an act of lese majeste. She alleged that the whole board “may be acting in an organised fashion and the goal may be to undermine the credibility of the high institution of Thailand.””

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance and the Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH) have issued statements condemning the charges.

PPT also directs your attention to the excellent collections of links and analysis at New Mandala (Nicholas Farrelly, 2 July 2009, “The lese majeste circus continues”) and Bangkok Pundit (1 July 2009, “Lese Majeste Complaint Against the FCCT”)

Perhaps, as one commenter on New Mandala suggests, “This escalation is necessary to push the LM circus into a full and revelatory crisis of absurdity and unsustainability.”  The question remains, however, at what cost? How many lives will be harmed, how much speech repressed, and how many people’s human rights will  be violated before the the crisis becomes revelatory?

The royal context of the political crisis

14 04 2009

Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University and of New Mandala have produced a useful and insightful article in the Australian online magazine Inside Story (14 April 2009: “Thailand’s royal sub-plot”).

The article provides essential context for the current political crisis in Thailand, beginning: “When Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva launched his crackdown on red-shirt protesters on Sunday night, one of his first acts was to post army units around Chitralada Palace, the Bangkok residence of Thailand’s king. It was a routine security measure but, in the current climate, it was an act rich in symbolism.” The article discusses the lifting of the veil on royal politics, academic discussion of the political role of the monarchy, lesè majesté, and discusses why army generals and privy councilors Prem Tinsulanond and Surayud Chulanont are important political actors, and more.

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