Still getting the monarchy wrong

17 02 2017

Ralph Jennings, a Contributor at Forbes says he “cover[s] under-reported stories from Taiwan and Asia” but seems to specialize on China and Taiwan. Thus, venturing into things royal and Thailand is thus a stretch and a test of knowledge.

He’s right to observe that the monarchy in Thailand has “massive influence.”

But the picture he paints of the last king is pure palace propaganda when he states:

He had stopped coups, spearheaded rural infrastructure projects and met commoners in rough or squalid conditions. His actions helped strengthen people’s confidence in their country with an otherwise wobbly government.

Let’s correct a bit. He also initiated coups, as in 1957, and he supported coups, as in 2006, when it suited him. And that’s just two examples. He also supported right-wing extremists and acted as a prompt to massive blood-letting, as in 1976. The palace hand was always meddling in politics. The “infrastructure projects” are presumably the royal projects, many of them grand failures and, since the General Prem Tinsulanonda era, at great taxpayer expense.

And, “wobbly government” hardly seems to fit much of the reign, when the monarchy collaborated with ruthless military regimes, just as it does now.

The author is correct to observe that King Vajiralongkorn “is not expected to advocate changes in Thailand that reflect mass concerns or even go around meeting people.”

Recall that the dead king also essentially gave up “going to the people” for most of the last two decades of his reign. For one thing, he was too ill. For another, the “going to meet the people” was a political strategy for winning hearts and minds in his campaign to remake the monarchy. By the 1990s, this was largely achieved.

That King Vajiralongkorn is claimed to have “signaled little interest so far in shifting Thailand from quasi-military rule toward more democracy after a junta took power in 2014” seems an odd observation. And, in this quite natural political position for a monarchy such as Thailand’s, the new king follows the dead one.

That the new king wants more power for the throne is clear to all. That’s why the military’s “constitution” has been changed. But to say that the new version – we still don’t know the exact nature of the changes – allows the king “more freedom to travel overseas, where he has spent much of his life, and can appoint a regent to rule when he’s not around” is a misunderstanding of what The Dictator has let be known. The point of the changes was to allow him to not have a regent during his jaunts.

And, Mr Jennings must be the only one who thinks “[e]lections are due this year.”

He is right, however, to add that “[o]bservers believe that with King Vajiralongkorn, Thailand will continue to retain its strict lese-majeste laws, which ban any criticism of the monarchy.” That is a requirement of continued domination by a royalist elite.





The monarchy-military alliance

28 06 2016

The alliance of the military and monarchy goes back to the foundation of the modern military under the absolutist King Chulalongkorn.That link was broken with the 1932 Revolution.

Sarit

Sarit

Despite continuous struggle between the 1932 Promoters and the royalists, the monarchy-military alliance was not fully re-established and made exceptionally strong under the military dictator General Sarit Thanarat and the military-dominated regimes that followed.

Sarit took over a boy-king who came to the throne after the death of his brother, with an ambitious mother and surrounded by restorationist princes. It was only after the 1973 uprising against military dictatorship that the current king began to really feel his oats. With the military’s role in politics reduced and challenged, it was left to the king to maintain the alliance in the interests of the rising royalist elite.

By 1976, the military was back, with the support of the monarchy, following the military-backed murder of workers, peasant leaders and students that came, in part, from the monarch’s expressions of concern and fear about the rise of the Left.

This potted history leads to the big challenge that faced the alliance in May 1992. Then, as is its penchant, the military brass decided to gun down civilians protesting yet another military attempt to dominate politics.

These events saw the military in disgrace and the monarchy worked hard to rehabilitate its murderous allies. The usual image – endlessly promoted in palace propaganda – is of the king sorting out the crisis, with his meeting with the military premier General Suchinda Kraprayoon and the self-proclaimed protest leader Chamlong Srimuang.

This video shows the meeting, which included privy councilors General Prem Tinsulanonda and Sanya Dharmasakti. It is preceded by calls from Prince Vajiralongkorn and Princess Sirindhorn.

The king’s belated intervention in the events was meant to “save” the military. Even so, the military was shunned by a stunned public following the attacks on demonstrators.

Within a few short months, however, the king was speaking to rehabilitate his allies. As reported in the Bangkok Post on 15 November 1992, this was expressed in this way:

Recently there has been much talk about having too many generals, and why is there such ceremony to confer two hundred more general ranks to military personnel? … In truth, if we compare with foreign countries to the west or east or us we will find that they all have as many generals as us. One difference is that when their generals move to other jobs, they are no longer called generals.

Even in the United States, when a general becomes president he will be called mister which makes it seem as if they have fewer generals. But in Thailand those with a military rank retains it even when they go to work in other jobs. This is because they consider it an honour, an indication of a man with good performance. No matter what job you do, if they carry the rank with them, it is an honour, and it makes their colleagues trust them.

Therefore the number of generals in the country must be taken as not too many. We are not top-heavy. So do not feel disheartened after listening to those words, since it is only a kind of tongue wagging, and it is not damaging.

In fact, according to the Thai concept, those with a military rank consider it an honour which makes them proud and any job they do will be done better because of this realisation of the honour. There is no negative side to this. If they are transferred to other job or retired, their military salary Will not be tied to their rank. This means that the government does not have to pay more because of it.

But every person who acquired a military rank is proud of it. He will do a good service without the government having to pay him any extra salary. It is a way of saving government budget. If an army officer loses his rank when he is transferred to another unit he will feel sorry and may be discouraged. If there is a military rank attached to him when he works outside the military service it will encourage him to work efficiently, and the country will benefit more from him.

The king’s support for the rehabilitation of a murderous military is an act of loyalty and one of self-protection.

One result is that the military was not reformed, meaning it was again able to conduct coups in 2006 and 2014, seeing off supposed threats to the palace and the status quo.





Quote of the day

29 01 2016

From the hardworking Nuengnuch Chankij, mother of Neo-Democracy Movement member Sirawith Seritiwat, at the Bangkok Post:

“I think of Jit Bhumisak’s mother. She must feel heavy-hearted. The difference is my boy is not in the jungle but fighting here.”

She does remain optimistic. “The world has changed and the military could not be as barbarian as they were in the past, people shouldn’t be brainwashed like they were in October 1976, when people hung others on trees and stuffed shoes in the corpses’ mouths.

“Thailand has some brave men and women here. And they just have to do what they have to. I just have to stand firm…”.





Is the Thai monarchy in danger?

11 10 2013

That’s the headline for a story by Florian Decludt at the International Affairs Review, a web-based magazine produced graduate students from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington D.C.

It begins with the usual nonsense about the king having “served as the sole guarantor of the country’s stability.” You really would think that graduate students would be able to read a bit more widely and finally discern that this claim is nothing more than palace propaganda. Graduate students may not have much influence, yet there is enough in the article to warrant a critical assessment.

The story told is about an “old and ailing” king and the implications of succession for the political order. If the alleged stabilizer is dying, what happens to the alleged stability? All a bit tortured really, for it depends on this fake idea that the king has stabilized politics rather than supported coups and authoritarian leaders who have a notion of stability that revolves around crackdowns, jailing opponents and maintaining the royalist political order.

Leaving this false premise aside for the moment, the article says that “[e]nsuring stability means that the succession process proceeds smoothly and that prominent figures such as Thaksin Shinawatra do not interfere with the process.”

This is an odd claim, and mainly heard from yellow shirts in Thailand who think Thaksin is somehow close to the prince, with rumors circulating that Thaksin funds the prince or once did. So while it is clear in law that the Crown Prince will succeed his father, the article notes the “unpopularity of current Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn,” as if this matters. The article goes so far as to state: “It is clear, however, that Vajiralongkorn is not fit to become King because of his unpopularity.”King, prince

To make the point clear, the article states: “Vajiralongkorn, unlike his father, does not enjoy the same prestige due to allegations of adultery and ties to criminal organizations.” It is hardly a state secret that the prince isn’t seen in the same way as his father, who has been the subject of massive, state-funded propaganda campaigns. The rest is rumor and ignores the king’s long association with the military, also long associated with illegalities in trade, on borders and in terms of state murder.

At the same time, this observation also buys into the palace line that the king has to be popular, with the implication that popularity is somehow akin to a people’s mandate. Of course, no monarchy works that way, as blood is the only critical measure. And male blood, with an heir, in place matters more than female blood and no possibility of an heir. So ignoring law and royal “tradition” in Thailand – at least for the 19th and 20th centuries – and elsewhere, relying on palace propaganda and rumor, the article then claims:

The Thai monarchy could circumvent this block by having King Rama IX disinherit Vajiralongkorn and designate Princess Sirindhorn as the heiress to the throne. This would follow the recommendations made by three prominent Thai political figures: former Prime Ministers General Prem Tinsulanonda and Anand Panyarachun, and Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila.

So this puts the claim about Thaksin interfering in a different perspective. Drawing on a famous Wikileaks cable, it becomes clear that it is actually the courtiers, as “prominent figures,” who could “interfere with the process.” The claim, often heard in red shirt circles as much as amongst yellow shirts, is that Privy Council President Prem will manipulate succession. The red shirts claim that Prem is an old interferer while the yellows seem to be hoping that he does intervene to ensure the jolly Sirindhorn may save the monarchy from Vajiralongkorn and thus maintain their feudal royalism.

2006 royalist coup

The military in the king’s yellow in 2006

Prem’s recent political game-playing – actively participating in coup planning in 2006 – was a political disaster for the monarchy and destabilized it more than any other event since 1976, when the monarchy intervened on the side of vicious rightists causing remarkable political damage. In the latter case, the monarchy intervened to protect its interests and seemed prepared to accept the damage. In 2006, it thought it was on a political winner, only to be seriously disappointed.

The article then states the royalist argument for Prem’s interference:

If the Crown Prince keeps his title, it is certain that the royal family’s standing will be weakened by Rama IX’s passing. In this situation, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration will attempt to secure more executive power at the expense of the King, and ensure the return of her brother, Thaksin.

Constitutionally, the king is meant to have little political role and the idea of wrestling “executive power” away from him is misguided. What the author appears to mean is that succession may mean that the monarchy is less able to intervene in political matters. For many, that would be an excellent development and may be the one thing that actually works to stabilize Thailand’s democracy.

The article then gets confused and lost, prophesying a military coup “in favor of Vajiralongkorn” that would seek “to topple Yingluck,” leading to “internal support to overthrow the monarchy.” If the prince is close to Thaksin, this argument seems illogical. Even so, the article then states that the end of the monarchy in Thailand “would have disastrous consequences for Thailand as a whole.” Why? Well, circular logic is employed:

Without the royals, the country would lack the unifying force that guarantees a certain level of stability, which has allowed the country to prosper despite numerous coups. King Rama IX’s prestige and influence is the sole reason why Thailand did not descend into civil war following Thaksin’s ouster in 2006.

That palace seems such a dysfunctional place that it is capable of bringing itself down. It was the palace’s intervention that led to the 2006 coup, which very nearly unraveled royalist power in Thailand.

Ignoring all of this, the article makes the following claim, which may well represent some of the parallel universe thinking that characterizes conservative elite thinking both in Thailand and the U.S.:

The only way to ensure the preservation of the status quo would be to coronate Princess Sirindhom. While it is likely that Vajiralongkorn will attempt to prevent this from happening, his widespread unpopularity will prevent him from taking the crown from his sister, forcing him to withdraw from political affairs. Princess Sirindhom’s relative popularity compared to her brother would also reduce the odds of the Yingluck administration’s attempts to secure more executive power. Such continuity in power is the best outcome for Thailand’s stability and therefore for US interests in the region.





“Bizarre, slightly surreal, and somewhat Kafkaesque”

8 12 2012

Lennox Samuels at The Daily Beast has his take on the charging of former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his former deputy Suthep Thaugsuban. His essential position is the most common amongst the commentariat in Bangkok at present, yet there is much in the article that is worth considering.

It is at once bizarre, slightly surreal, and somewhat Kafkaesque: The most recent ex-prime minister of Thailand, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and one of his former deputy premiers, Suthep Thaugsuban, charged with the killing of a taxi driver during the political unrest that rocked the country more than two years ago. The charges were announced the day after the 85th birthday of the nation’s beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Part of the bizarre is the response from Abhisit, Suthep and the Democrat Party. Samuels talked to academic-for-hire and former Abhisit spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn who sees the “charges as politically driven.” PPT wonders what he says about the “charges against 295 red shirts.” No, we don’t ponder this, for we know that Panitan deals in double standards and would dismiss these red shirts as “terrorists.” Panitan does make one good point: “It’s unprecedented to charge two top policymakers, including the former prime minister, like this.” That’s true and deserves to be applauded, not denigrated as when Panitan “likened the situation to charging President Obama with crimes in connection with his lawful execution of his role as commander-in-chief.” Of course, in Thailand, the king is commander-in-chief, so the comparison is flawed.* Other Democrat Party members, like The Economist, argue that the driving force behind the charges revolve around Thaksin: “Thaksin wants to come home and he’s getting desperate as his surrogates in government gain their own power and become more independent…”.

Samuels recalls Thailand’s “long-running political tug-of-war … marked by coups, deadly protests, and the ouster of prime ministers for absurdist reasons like hosting a cooking show on television. And inevitably, a bogeyman lurks in the background—or foreground, depending on who’s telling the story.” The bogeyman is not Privy Council president General Prem Tinsulanonda, the king, queen, old military duffers or someone in the military brass. Of course, it is “Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire premier ejected in a 2006 coup who has lived in comfortable exile ever since.”

We agree with Samuel that:

In essence, Thailand is divided between reformist democracy activists who want a more open process, and traditionalists who are content with the centuries-long structure dominated by elites that regard the one-man-one-vote ideal as at best premature. The elites, personified for many by Abhisit and the Democrats, have resisted “reconciliation” efforts, loath to agree to anything that would dilute the status quo.

We also agree with a diplomat cited by Samuel who declares that: “The fact is, Thaksin has been convicted of a conflict of interest,” the Western diplomat said. “Barely a misdemeanor. There are several prime ministers in the past who have committed far more egregious offenses. Frankly, it is unsustainable in the long run that the de facto prime minister be barred from his country.”

Abhisit takes a different view and in announcing his impending martyrdom, declares (at The Nation):

I hereby affirm that I will not negotiate for anybody’s interest. I insist that wrongdoers must be brought to justice and will fight the case based on facts. I will not join the process to absolve people who cheated the country. I’ll accept my fate even if the judicial process lands me in jail or gets me executed, but I will not whitewash the wrongdoings of cheaters….

Frankly, the martyrs are those protesters murdered by the state in 2010, and in 1973, 1976, 1992, at Kru Se and Tak Bai and(to mention just a few instances) where no one has been held accountable.

The problem the autocrats have is that Thaksin is electorally popular but, as Samuels explains, “the former premier is anathema to establishment Thais, who regard his populist rhetoric and policies as threats to the societal order…”. They fear and hate Thaksin so the concoct conspiracies that see anyone who is not on their side as a mortal enemy and where proposed constitutional amendments amount to “a process they allege would result in the entire political system being jettisoned, including the monarchy.” That is bizarre.

The outcome is described in the article this way:

In the short term, the political gridlock is likely to continue, as neither side has the leverage to effect change—or the will to compromise. “A lot of people are in a prolonged conflict,” said one prominent political figure. “There’s more and more hatred and anger, and things get more complicated. So it is not possible for them to say, all of a sudden, we want to reconcile.” He added that both sides are “about even,” with Red Shirts having the government on their side while the Yellow Shirts can claim the military, judiciary, and “people in the palace.” … “Reconciliation basically has a better chance when one side dominates,” he said. If so, Thailand’s in for a long slog.

Interestingly, the government also has the majority of the people on its side, but then the autocrats simply can’t accept elections or their results (unless they were to somehow conjure a win). This is one reason why Abhisit always speaks of the rule of law and seldom about issues of democracy.

______

*While there are U.S. politicians who should be held responsible for atrocious acts internationally – think drones and Indochina bombing – we can’t think of a case of post-Civil War mass state killings in the U.S. that haven’t gone to the courts. The Kent State killings come to mind as a case that did go to courts, but maybe readers can remind us of others as we know little about U.S. history.





More publications available

14 08 2012

Some time ago the journal Critical Asian Studies made their special issue on the 1976 military coup in Thailand available for free download. In recent days the Journal of Contemporary Asia has followed suit, making available its special issue on Thailand from 1978. This issue became the edited book Thailand: Roots of conflict, edited by Jonathan Fast, Andrew Turton and Malcolm Caldwell and published by  Spokesman Books, but long out of print.

The articles available at the Taylor & Francis website are:

  • Editorial, pp. 3-4
  • Malcolm Caldwell, Thailand and imperialist strategy in the 1980’s, pp. 5-20
  • David Elliott, The socio-economic formation of modern Thailand, pp. 21-50
  • Peter F. Bell, ‘Cycles’ of class struggle in Thailand, pp. 51-79
  • Marian Mallet, Causes and consequences of the October ’76 coup, pp. 80-103
  • Andrew Turton, The current situation in the Thai countryside, pp. 104-42
  • Patrice de Beer, History and policy of the communist party of Thailand, pp. 143-57

The website has other articles available for free download and readers may look around the site for free articles. We may have missed some, but found the following on Thailand:





King, country, chaos? – Part I

19 03 2010

The Economist (18 March 2010) includes a leader on politics and succession and a feature story called “The battle for Thailand.” As several other blogs have already said, this issue will not be available in Bangkok. However, the electronic links noted here were still working as PPT wrote this. If they become blocked, readers should let us know, and we’ll post the stories in full. In this post, we comment on the leader, and we’ll follow-up on the longer article later.

PPT agrees entirely with the view that for “decades Thai politics suffered from a surfeit of pragmatism. Indeed, grimy compromises were dignified as ‘Thai solutions’.” So we wonder why the editorial argues for this: “Thailand urgently needs to rediscover its lost flair for pragmatism and to rebuild a functioning political system.” Why rebuild the grimy politics of the past? With the Economist, those academics and Thailand watchers lamenting the apparent loss of the slimy compromise seem oddly conservative and lost for ideas. That said, a sleazy compromise remains possible in the current circumstances.

PPT notices that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has blinked. There are now widespread calls for “talks,” even with ex-prime minister and Montanegran, Thaksin Shinawatra. Even the largely discredited National Human Rights Commission has come out offering to “mediate”. Quite why the red shirts would want to have NHRC head and Chulalongkorn University professor Amara Pongsapich mediating talks with the government is unclear. She has a long been known to pop in and out of General Prem Tinsulanonda’s army-provided residence.

For all the criticism on the blogs, in the mainstream media and from weak-kneed academics concerning the red shirt “blood sacrifice” (that the Economist depicts as “was a creepy stunt”), one thing is clear: it has had an impact on the political climate and gained huge media coverage. Perhaps more challenging for the government has been the widespread support provided to the red shirts by Bangkok’s working class and elements of what might be considered the lower middle class.

The Economist ties contemporary events and the longer-term malaise of Thai politics back to the monarchy and succession – hence its “banning”: “Presiding over a messy but largely functioning polity has been a revered king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose admirers have no difficulty in reconciling the contradictory ideas that he is both ‘above politics’ and also the guarantor of stability.” With the king in hospital for unknown reasons, it states: “Thailand needs to start thinking about what will come when his reign ends.”

Actually, some of what’s going on now is about this thinking. And some of it is thinking that is certainly out loud. Almost everyone talks of the palace, privy council and aristocrats as integral players in current events and wonders what it all means for the future. The army seems to want to control the period of succession, but in doing so has opened a huge can of worms that includes a republicanism that does not, as the Economist says, “lurk in the wings” but is now more highly visible than at any time since the 1970s.

On the red shirts, the Economist states: “the red shirts do enjoy considerable popular support, and not just in the poor north-east from which so many hail.” For PPT, one of the things that was noticeable at last Sunday’s rally were the large contingents from the central provinces.

On a way forward, it says: “the political system has all but broken down, as the government itself tacitly admits when it argues that an election would not solve Thailand’s problems. It may well be right. Democracy works only when the parties that lose an election accept the outcome. And if, as might well happen, Mr Abhisit’s government lost an election to proxies for Mr Thaksin, the same alliance of military and civilian elites that toppled him in 2006 and his allies in 2008 might again reject the popular verdict. Instability would persist.”

On succession: “The king, who has reigned for six decades…. His anointed successor, the crown prince, is … widely disliked and already shows signs of meddling in politics. Although, in theory, the monarchy inhabits a realm far above the murk of daily government, it has been an important source of legitimacy for the unelected prime minister.” The paper continues to state: “the king’s death will remove a moderating influence that has kept irreconcilable political differences in check.”

This view is commonly expressed but there are also many who see such statements as merely part of the monarchy’s myth building. Critics suggest that active participation in several major and less than moderate political events tell a different story. Most especially, these critics point to the king’s role in the horrendous events of October 1976 and the extremism foisted on the country by the king’s privy councilor made prime minister Thanin Kraivixien, who proved too extreme, right wing and divisive even for the military. The events of 2006 and since do not demonstrate a moderating influence. Rather they suggest a protection of interests. PPT wonders if the government has been keeping track of movements of money out of Thailand? Has the palace been salting loot away in the event of a worst-case scenario for the monarchy? How much?

Of course, the Economist is right to point yet again to harsh lese majeste laws that ensure that the “future of the monarchy is a matter of private gossip, not public debate. This leader, and our article considering the succession in some detail, could not appear in Thailand. Indeed they will cause great hurt and offence in some quarters there. We regret this. But to discuss Thailand’s future without considering its monarchy is itself to belittle an important national institution.” It is added: “to endure, the monarchy has to win a debate, not suppress one.”

The Economist then looks to a way out of the “present political quagmire.” It argues for an “early election, producing a government with popular legitimacy. It would probably also entail a decentralisation of power away from Bangkok so that citizens of regions such as the north-east feel less alienated from their rulers—a sense of alienation that, more than ethnic or religious tensions, underpins the long-running, bloody insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern provinces. And a true ‘Thai solution’ would also imply a monarchy genuinely above political meddling or manipulation.” That’s a huge agenda that would undo much of the control of the establishment and may well prove impossible. After all, when they were convinced that they were challenged by a moderate but highly flawed Thaksin, they panicked and went for the guys with guns. Can they ever be convinced to share power in a system of representation?