Humpty’s men

3 07 2019

Marwaan Macan-Markar, at the Nikkei Asia Review, contributes a long and useful review of the remolding of the relationship between monarchy and military.

He claims that diplomats in Bangkok know which military leaders are closest to King Vajiralongkorn by a pin with an “image of Prince Dipangkorn, the king’s 14-year-old son” which are “pinned on the left breasts of a select few military leaders…”. (Dipangkorn is widely considered to be heir apparent, lives in Germany and seldom appears the full quid.)

Gen Apirat

One diplomat described those wearing the pin as “a small network,” with Army boss Gen Apirat Kongsompong an important bearer of the pin. Gen Apirat is known to present himself as “fiercely loyal to the king.”

Macan-Markar says that this “network” indicate “a major change in the relationship between two of Thailand’s most powerful institutions — the monarchy and the military” under King  Vajiralongkorn.

While his analysis, based on interviews with diplomats, pundits and academics, is interesting, it is one that is based on a kind of “Kremlinology” of military watching which can be somewhat misleading if the forest is obscured by the trees. Hence the interminable speculation over Queen’s Guard versus King’s Guard.

In our view, it is misguided to see the king’s faith in the “senior generals of the King’s Guard, a Bangkok-based faction” as representing a spurning of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and his junta. As far as anyone can tell from available evidence, the junta has done everything that the king has wanted and it is Gen Prayuth, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paojinda who have put in place military succession plans that lead from Gen Apirat to Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae, currently commander of the First Army region and Gen Songwit Noongpakdee, the leader of the Bangkok-based 1st Infantry Division.

That “defense analysts say the monarch’s choice of trusted lieutenants stems from his own military record” is no surprise, now. What they miss, however, is that the king’s succession was a long one, with his father incapacitated, and the then crown prince and his advisers long having had influence over the military brass.

Interestingly, and barely mentioned, is the ways in which the king revamped the Privy Council, the Crown Property Bureau and the palace administration over that period of long succession. In these moves, he made these institutions his own, bringing in junta loyalists and advancing those closest to him, including Air Chief Marshal Sathitpong Sukwimol, long the king’s private secretary and now, arguably, his most powerful adviser, heading the CPB, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement Group, among other important bodies.

ACM Sathitpong Sukwimol (clipped from The Nation)

All of these rearrangements, promotions and not a few demotions and ousters do mean that a military man on the throne has ensured that he has the military under control. Just in case of problems, there’s some “insurance,” with ACM Sathitpong’s younger brother Pol Maj Gen Torsak at the head of a large force of “protectors.”

Naturally, Prawit remained a Prayuth confidant during the five years of the junta, serving as the deputy prime minister and defense minister. Gen. Anupong Paochinda, another former army chief from the Queen’s Guard, was also a key figure in Prayuth’s coup and junta.

That the king promotes the “King’s Guard, the faction he was part of, in the driving center of army power,” hardly seems a revelation. Yet there’s no evidence that the Queen’s Guard is in any way untrustworthy or disloyal. (It was King Bhumibol who placed his son in the King’s Guard.)

With little evidence, Macan-Markar discerns that the generals of Queen’s Guard is somehow more “politically ambitious” than those of the King’s Guard. There’s no evidence for this. In addition, there’s an amnesia for previous claims made. In the view of many pundits, it was the Queen’s Guard who conducted the 2014 coup in order to ensure the current king’s succession. What happened to that position? And, it was the Queen’s Guard coup masters who purged the military of those perceived as disloyal.

Former foreign minister Kasit Piromya is quoted as saying: “The king clearly wants a vertical hierarchy without any distractions and divisions that can cause splits in the army…”. That seems to have been the junta’s aim as well. To see this as a move against the Queen’s Guard ignores the fact that the junta’s role has been to “cleanse” the military, to immeasurably strengthen it and to embed it at all levels of society. That’s the important message, not the Kremlinology of watching factions.

It seems that “experts” on the military blame “factional rivalries” for “repeated coups.” We think the experts need to re-read the history of successful coups.

Former ambassador and new author James Wise is right to observe that “the monarchy and the military exercise authority in their own right, often without reference to the more familiar legislative, executive and judiciary…”. The big picture matters.

When Kasit predicts: “No more coups,” we think he’s in la-la land. It will depend, as in the past, on on perceptions of “threat” to the monarchy and the broader ruling class.





Updated: Prem dead I

26 05 2019

The grand old meddler in Thailand’s politics, from the 1980s to recent times, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda is dead, aged 98.

We expect the buffalo manure to be piled high for him as royalists and lazy commentators recall his time in power as an unelected premier as somehow better than now. In fact, Thailand’s politics seems strangely locked in the 1980s, and that’s largely due to Prem and his political and military meddling, promoting lapdogs and loyalists and refusing to accept the will of the people as expressed in elections. Others will not look beyond his “loyalty” to the throne where it must be acknowledged that he did much to promote the palace’s political role.

Update: Readers might like to reflect on Prem’s period as unelected premier. While not a great scan, Gareth McKinley’s 1984 discussion of a coup attempt is useful, with information on lese majeste and the monarchy’s political role. There’s an op-ed from The Nation (3 May 1988) “Prem’s rules of the game: A 1988 guide for laymen” which pokes fun at his leadership “style.”

And it is worth remembering how Prem was forced out in 1988 and “rescued” by the king, also from The Nation, when it produced an Afternoon Extra, from 28 August 1988:

On his 2006 coup role, WikiLeaks was useful. He also supported the 2014 coup, and New Mandala also commented. The BBC produced a profile in 2016, without too many of his warts. One of PPT’s most viewed posts “A country for old men?” is probably worth reading again.





How huge is the Royal Guard?

12 04 2019

Does anyone know how big the Royal Guard is?

We ask because a recent announcement in the Royal Gazette states that the king has “retired” 1,261 officers. It goes on to name every single one of them.

Almost all of those listed are Army Generals, Lieutenant Generals and Major Generals or their rank equivalents in the Navy, Air Force and Police. There are a few who have ranks lower than generals.

The announcement has no statement of the reasons, but some social media accounts are that these are officers who are being retired and who are old.

That may or may not be true, but the capacity to send more than 1,200 very senior generals to retirement from those allocated to the palace suggests that that force is huge.





Further updated: Media reprimands Gen Apirat

20 02 2019

Army commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong has been hammered by the media today. For example, the Bangkok Post had an editorial, two op-eds and a story all highly critical of his attack on campaigning politicians as “scum.”

In the story, it was reported that “[p]oliticians demanded … the army chief remain neutral in the lead-up to the … election after he rebuked them for calling for defence budget cuts and revived an anti-communist song…”.

Actually, it is a song that belongs to extreme rightists and ultra-royalists, most recently used by the yellow-shirted royalists People’s Alliance for Democracy and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee to attack pro-Thaksin Shinawatra groups and politicians.

In other words, Gen Apirat was reaffirming his ultra-royalism as an anti-democratic rightist. The notion that he will be “neutral” is farcical. The military is never politically neutral.

Commenting on this, Ploenpote Atthakor points out that one of the (false) justifications for the 2014 military coup was about eliminating political conflict. As she points out, Gen Apirat is promoting conflict. For PPT, it is clear that the military has been stirring conflict throughout recent decades. The military is the problem.

Even determined anti-Thaksinista, Veera Prateepchaikul points out:

Many people may love the song and call it patriotic. But for a person like me and many others who are old enough to have witnessed the horrors of the “October 6” massacre and heard it being blasted around the clock before that fateful day by the army-run Yankroh radio station alternating with the hateful phone-in comments against the students inside Thammasat University, this is unquestionably a far-right hate song for its association with this bloody history.

The Post’s editorial comes straight to the point:

The troubling response of the army commander to a rather benign political campaign promise has quickly escalated. Gen Apirat Kongsompong didn’t just try to refute the call to cut both the military budget and the number of general officers. He retaliated by reviving the most hateful song in Thai political history, and promised to flood military bases and the airwaves with it. It is a move with an ironclad guarantee of major political and national division.

It continues to condemn Gen Apirat, saying what was:

hugely disappointing and inappropriate was Gen Apirat’s instant and ill-formed leap into the political campaign. The decision of the highest ranking army officer to step into the election debate was questionable. What is indefensible is his order to revive and propagandise his soldiers with the noxious and odious 1970s song Nak Phandin.

Yet it is hardly out of the ordinary. Gen Apirat, like his predecessor Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha have made their careers by being palace loyalists, rightists, and murderous military bosses.

Perhaps the most interesting commentary, however, was at Thai Rath, which outlines Gen Apirat’s family story. His father, Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong, a diminutive rightist also known as “Big George,” was a corrupt leader of the 1991 coup. The paper points out that, following a dispute between Sunthorn’s wife and mistress in 2001, people were stunned to learn that the property under dispute was valued at over 3.9 billion baht.

Thai Rath goes through the whole story of this corrupt general, the father of the current military commander. Being a powerful military boss has been lucrative, but for the Kongsompong clan, the wealth siphoned was conspicuously huge. We have no evidence of who shared in that huge wealth.

Update 1: It is not just the media that has gone after Apirat. As Prachatai reportsAs Prachatai reports:

… student activist Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, along with other members of the Student Union of Thailand, also went to the Army Headquarters to read an open letter to the Army Commander in Chief protesting Gen Apirat’s comment on ‘Nuk Paen Din.’

Following that:

… political activists Ekkachai Hongkangwan and Chokchai Paibulratchata held a demonstration at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in response to army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong’s order to broadcast the controversial Cold War anthem ‘Nuk Paen Din’ (‘Scum of the Earth’) on all army radio stations and over the intercom at military headquarters.

Update 2: As might be expected, the military and its rabid response to politicians has been defended by what the Bangkok Post describes as “Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn…”. Panitan is neither a “political scientist” nor an “academic” in the true senses of these words. Rather, he is a toady of the military and in its pay. He’s a propagandist for the military, lying that “army chief Gen Apirat spoke out in response to the proposed defence budget cuts because he intended to defend the interests of rank-and-file soldiers who would be affected by any spending cuts.” It is a ludicrous fabrication. Defending the murderous military is nit the work of serious academics.





Updated: A decade of PPT

21 01 2019

A decade has passed for Political Prisoners in Thailand. We admit our huge disappointment that we are still active after all these years.

By this, we mean that PPT should have gone the way of the dinosaurs, being unnecessary as Thailand’s political prisoners, its military dictatorship and political repression would have been a thing of the past. But political dinosaurs flourish in Thailand’s fertile environment filled with fascists, royalists and neo-feudalists. Sadly, the political climate in  the country is regressing faster than most pundits could have predicted.

When we began PPT on 21 January 2009, we hoped it would be a temporary endeavor, publicizing a spike in lese majeste cases to an international audience. Instead, a decade later, we are still at it and dealing with the outcomes of royalist politics gone mad. We now face the repressive reality of the continued dominance of a military dictatorship, brought to power by an illegal military coup in 2014. This regime is underpinned by a nonsensical royalism that masks and protects an anti-democratic ruling class. Royalists have fought to maintain a royalist state that lavishes privilege, wealth and power on a few.

In “protecting” monarchy, regime and ruling class, the military junta has continued the politicization of the judiciary and is now rigging an “election” that may, one day, be held, if the king finally decides that he will allow an election. That “election,” embedded in a military-royalist constitution, will potentially be a political nightmare, maintaining military political domination for years to come.

A better, more representative and more democratic politics remains a dream.

When we sputtered into life it was as a collaborative effort to bring more international attention to the expanded use of the lese majeste and computer crimes laws by the then Abhisit Vejjajiva regime and his anti-democratic Democrat Party. That regime’s tenure saw scores die and thousands injured in political clashes and hundreds held as political prisoners.

The royalism and repression that gained political impetus from anti-democratic street demonstrations that paved the way for the 2006 military coup and then for the 2014 military coup have become the military state’s ideology. Those perceived as opponents of the military and the monarchy were whisked away into detention, faced threats and surveillance and some have died or been “disappeared” in mysterious circumstances, and continue to do so in recent months.

This royalism and repression has also strengthened the monarchy and the new monarch. The junta has supinely permitted King Vajiralongkorn to assemble greater economic and political power. It has colluded with the palace in aggregating land for the monarch that was previously set aside for the public. It has colluded in destroying several symbols of the 1932 revolution, emphasizing the rise of neo-feudal royalism that leaves democracy neutered.

On this anniversary, as in past years,  we want an end to political repression and gain the release of every political prisoner. Under the current regime, hundreds of people have been jailed or detained, subjected to military courts and threatened by the military. The military regime is not only illegal but is the most repressive since the royally-appointed regime under Thanin Kraivixien in the mid-1970s.

The 2006 and 2014 coups, both conducted in the name of the monarchy, have seen a precipitous slide into a new political dark age where the lese majeste law – Article 112 – has been a grotesque weapon of choice in a deepening political repression.

From 2006 to 2017, lese majeste cases grew exponentially. Worse, both military and civil courts have held secret trials and handed out unimaginably harsh sentences. And even worse than that,  the definition of what constitutes a crime under the lese majeste law has been extended. Thankfully, in 2017 we were unable to identify any new lese majeste cases and some in process were mysteriously dropped. We don’t know why. It could be that the military’s widespread crackdown has successfully quieted anti-monarchism or it might be that the king wants no more cases to get public airings and “damage” his “reputation.”

The last information available suggest that there are at least 18 suspects accused of violating Article112 whose cases have reached final verdicts and who remain in prison.

As for PPT, despite heavy censorship and blocking in Thailand, we have now had more than 6 million page views at our two sites. The blocking in Thailand has been more extensive in 2018 than in past years. This is our 7,999th post.

PPT isn’t in the big league of the blogging world, but the level of interest in Thailand’s politics and the use of lese majeste has increased. We are pleased that there is far more attention to political repression and lese majeste than there was when we began and that the international reporting and understanding of these issues is far more critical than it was.

We want to thank our readers for sticking with us through all the attempts by the Thai censors to block us. We trust that we remain useful and relevant and we appreciate the emails we receive from readers.

As in the past we declare:

The lese majeste and computer crimes laws must be repealed.

Charges against political activists must be dropped.

All political prisoners must be released.

The military dictatorship must be opposed.

Update: We completely botched the number of views at PPT. We have amended above to 6 million, not 3 million as we originally had.





Guessing game

17 01 2019

The guessing game about the junta’s “election” continues, although The Nation reports that The Dictator has finally actually stated that the 24 February date is off. Now everyone and his buffalo knew this, but Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has been reluctant to say it, fearing the palace and/or loss of face.

Then he babbled before stating something potentially rather significant. The babble was this: “We’re going towards full democracy.” That’s buffalo manure. For an analysis of why this is buffalo manure, see the op-ed by Zachary Abuza a couple of days ago.

The Dictator then said: “There will be an election no matter what…. [The election date] will be changed but still it will be by May 9.” We are interested in the “no matter what” bit. We are guessing that there’s pressure to delay everything until after the coronation. At the same time, with no royal decree, the junta seems to be grasping at rice straw and defining the constitution in a manner that gives it the most possible time in scheduling a rigged election.

Another report has Gen Prayuth declaring: “There will be an election before coronation…. We have to organize both things together, but we must give time to the coronation preparation first…”. Royalism trumps elections, even a rigged election.

Meanwhile, the Bangkok Post is reporting on a quiet arm wrestle between the Election Commission, the junta and the palace.

Before writing more, though, we have a response to a reader who asks whether it is the king or the junta holding things up. That reader wonders if a royal decree has been signed but that it is being withheld from publication in the Royal Gazette. Like everyone else outside the upper reaches of the dictatorship and the palace, we don’t know. However, it would seem that withholding the decree would both damage the junta and would amount to an act of lese majeste. So our guess is that the delaying is in the palace and that the junta’s bosses are fuming but hamstrung by their own royalism.

Back at the EC, it is reported that it “is highly likely to select March 10 as the election date as it has agreed that the 150-day deadline for the general election to be completed as set by the charter should include the poll results endorsement.” Of course, that would seem to contradict The Dictator’s assessment, so there’s a tussle going on, with the EC trying to get some clarity.

Another version, reportedly from a senior EC official talking to Reuters, is: “There are now two possible dates … March 10 or March 24…”.

EC secretary-general Jarungvith Phumma stated that EC “commissioners had agreed that the completion of the election process mentioned in the charter must include the poll results endorsement. This is the first time the EC has spelt out its stance on the issue.” It’s likely putting the EC in conflict with The Dictator.

Jarungvith, however, reconfirmed that “while the EC is authorised to set the poll date, the government is responsible for announcing the election. The EC is required to set the date within five days of the decree being published in the Royal Gazette.”

There’s no decree, so the arm wrestle continues.





Pessimism or optimism?

16 01 2019

Pessimism and optimism are measured in different ways when it comes to politics, depending on where one is standing.

Surasak Glahan at the Bangkok Post joins the pessimists:

Cambodia had a “fake” national ballot in June. Bangladesh held a “farcical poll” blighted by intimidation late last month. Thailand is worse. It can’t event hold a general election as planned.

It is now two weeks since the royal decree “allowing” an election date to be selected was supposed to emerge from the palace. Notions of a constitutional monarchy seem a thing of the past.

If the notion that the “palace, bureaucratic and military elites” won’t be able to “consolidate their hold on power through the establishment of a semi-authoritarian regime,” sounds like a good outcome of a delayed election, then academic Prajak Kongkiarti’s piece at New Mandala is worth a read.

His conclusion is another glass half-full, half-empty proposition:

elections are only the beginning of a new round of struggles to set the terms of a political order that has yet to settle. It will be difficult for the NCPO to establish a robust authoritarian regime, but nor will Thailand transition to a stable, democratic system.

Less optimistic is the increasingly threatening behavior of Army chief and current palace favorite Gen Apirat Kongsompong.

He’s both warned those campaigning for an election date to be set and ordered his troops to “monitor” political parties as they campaign.

On demands for an election, Gen Apirat warned activists: “you should also draw the line on your own actions and don’t step over that line…”. He said he would “deploy security forces to maintain peace and order during the rally” by activists planned for Friday.

No one seems to know if a royal decree will emerge and it is the lack of the decree that causes pessimism on an “election.”