Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia

20 05 2019

New Mandala has posted a series of videos from a recent conference on Entrenched Illiberalism in Mainland Southeast Asia,” recorded at the Australian National University on 8–9 April 2019.

Coming a couple of weeks after Thailand’s “election,” means that there’s something of a focus on that country. Thai participants included Sunai Pasuk, Pasuk Phongpaichit, Aim Sinpeng, Prajak Kongkirati, and Naruemon Thabchumpon.





Corruption, nepotism and impunity

4 02 2017

In an op-ed at the Bangkok Post, Thitinan Pongsudhirak says this of corruption:

The reason corruption is not forcefully addressed in Thailand is because we don’t know where to start with the powerful few involved. Those at the top who are supposed to eliminate corruption must be clean and willing to confront and prosecute culprits in a networked society where the degrees of social separation are very small. Going after corruption means going after crooks you and your friends and family may know.

We could read this as suggesting there’s a cultural element to corruption, but we’d prefer to think of it as suggestive of nepotism.

PPT is sure that nepotism plays a role. Indeed, the royalist elite and Sino-Thai tycoons are a relatively small ruling class and there are plenty of kinship links. The military and royalist state has also spent a considerable time seeking to make and reinforce such links.

Tucked away in an academic book (Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, eds, Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, Singapore: NUS Press, 2016) is a chapter by Nualnoi Treerat and Parkpume Vanichaka on elite networking through “special executive courses.” As one reviewer explains:

The interviews with course attendees are of great value for understanding how it is that specific policies benefiting the oligarchy come to fruition. The inclusion of members of “billion families” into the courses brings to light some of the behind-the-scene mechanics of how an oligarch can connect with those in the parliament, military, bureaucracy, university sector, or the media.

Public-sector courses have been offered by the National Security Academy for Government and Private Sector (Po Ro Or), the Office of the Judiciary, the King Prajadhipok Institute, and the Election Commission. Two private-sector courses include the Capital Market Academy by the Stock Exchange of Thailand one by the Chamber of Commerce….

Throw in marriage, sucking up to the monarchy, elite schooling and all of the other things covered by Thailand Tatler and a coherent and connected ruling class is constructed and maintained.

All this lubricates and normalizes elite corruption as part of the process of entitlement. These people believe that they are Thailand.

At the same time, there’s a lot more than nepotism and entitlement at work. At least two other elements of corruption deserve attention. They are impunity and the nature of the “corruption system.”

Ruling class corruption and “unusual wealth” – in some cases, stupendous wealth – these people are also immensely powerful. This means they can literally get away with murder (the “connections” that display power are visible). The ruling class share impunity among themselves and their flunkies.

That’s why no one investigates the “unusual wealth” of those associated with the military junta. That’s why “both the chief of Bangkok police and the nation’s largest beverage company failed to respond to a state watchdog’s demand they clarify their financial relationship.” This refers to Police Lt Gen Sanit Mahathavorn and ThaiBev controlled by the Sirivadhanabhakdi family and the “adviser’s” allowance paid by the company to the cop.

(By the way, we think Khaosod is misreading the documents it links to on the General’s monthly salary; we think his annual salary is 1,425,600 baht, not his monthly salary.)

In addition to nepotism, entitlement and impunity, the mainstay of corruption is that it is a system. Business people, politicians, military and police and bureaucrats know what the system is, and they all benefit from it. The system channels corrupt funds from every level of the organizational hierarchies to the top.

That’s why, for example, cops and military brass are willing to literally pay for positions that see the greatest flows of funds. Think here of being permanent secretary at the Ministry of Transport and chairman of the State Railways of Thailand or police chief in Pattaya; the money flows like a giant river. Of course, shares taken at lower levels are the cement that holds the corruption system.





Political networks

14 05 2016

Readers may be interested in a special issue of the University of Kyoto’s latest number of Journal of Southeast Asian Studies on political networks in Asia. All papers can be freely downloaded.

SEAS

There are two articles on Thailand:

Very Distinguished Alumni: Thai Political Networking by Pasuk Phongpaichit, Nualnoi Treerat and Chris Baker. The abstract states:

The creation of elite networks can be explicit and deliberate, especially as a strategy to sustain an oligarchic political system. In Thailand, because of rapid economic and social change, there are few of the established, seemingly natural frameworks for networking found in more settled societies. Those hopeful of joining the power elite come from widely differing backgrounds. Paths through education are very fragmented. There are no clubs and associations that can serve as meeting places. Alumni associations have been brought into existence as one major way to meet the demand for a framework for power networking. This particular associational form is familiar and comfortable because it draws on aspects of collegiate life that most of the participants have experienced. The military pioneered this strategy in the 1960s. When the military’s power and prestige waned in the 1990s, several other institutions emerged to fill the gap. One of the most successful was the Stock Exchange of Thailand, which created the Capital Market Academy (CMA) in 2006. CMA offers academic courses, but its main purpose is to create an alumni association that serves as a network hub linking the main centers of power—bureaucracy, military, judiciary, big business, politicians, and select civil society. Such networks are critical to the rent-seeking activity that is one feature of oligarchic politics.

Contending Political Networks: A Study of the “Yellow Shirts” and “Red Shirts” in Thailand’s Politics by Naruemon Thabchumpon. The abstract is:

This essay investigates two bitter antagonists in the turbulent politics of contemporary Thailand: the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), with its members labeled the “Yellow Shirts,” and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), or the “Red Shirts.” Each of the two foes, typically regarded only as a social movement, actually has a vast network connecting supporters from many quarters. The Yellow Shirt network is associated with the monarchy, military, judiciary, and bureaucracy. The Red Shirt network, organizationally manifest in a series of electorally triumphant parties, is linked to exiled ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his “proxies,” and groups and individuals who opposed the military coup that ousted Thaksin in 2006. The significance of the two antagonistic networks can be gauged from their different influences on democratic processes over several years. Using concepts of political networks to examine the PAD and UDD within the socio-political context in which they arose, the essay focuses on several aspects of the networks: their political conception and perspectives, their organizational structures (for decision making and networking), and the strategies and activities of their members. The essay critically analyzes key and affiliated characters within the PAD and UDD, as well as the functional mechanisms of the networks, in order to evaluate the positions of the two networks in contemporary Thai politics.





Academics on post-coup Thailand

8 05 2016

PPT has snipped this post from the Journal of Contemporary Asia. We have previously posted on a couple of these articles. Most are behind a paywall, with two articles being free:

RJOC_COVER_46-02.inddIssue 3 of Volume 46 (2016) has gone to print and the issue is available electronically at the publisher’s site (with two articles available for free download). This is a Special Issue titled: Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn. The details are:

Introduction: Understanding Thailand’s Politics” by Veerayooth Kanchoochat & Kevin Hewison (free download).

The 2014 Thai Coup and Some Roots of Authoritarianism by Chris Baker.

Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics by Pasuk Phongpaichit.

The Resilience of Monarchised Military in Thailand by Paul Chambers & Napisa Waitoolkiat.

Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the Constitutional Court (1997–2015) by Eugénie Mérieau (free download)

Thailand’s Failed 2014 Election: The Anti-Election Movement, Violence and Democratic Breakdown by Prajak Kongkirati.

Rural Transformations and Democracy in Northeast Thailand by Somchai Phatharathananunth.

Redefining Democratic Discourse in Thailand’s Civil Society by Thorn Pitidol.

The issue includes five book reviews.





Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.





Unequal Thailand

2 12 2015

Readers may not have noticed the publication of a new book called Unequal Thailand. Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power. Published by NUS Press, this book is a collection edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker.

The blurb states:Unequal_Thailand

Extreme inequalities in income,wealth and power lie behind Thailand’s political turmoil. What are the sources of this inequality?  Why does it persist, or even increase when the economy grows? How can it be addressed?

The contributors to this important study—Thai scholars, reformers and civil servants—shed light on the many dimensions of inequality in Thailand, looking beyond simple income measures to consider land ownership, education, finance, business structures and politics. The contributors propose a series of reforms in taxation, spending and institutional reform that can address growing inequality.

Inequality is among the biggest threats to social stability in Southeast Asia, and this close study of a key Southeast Asian country will be relevant to regional policy-makers, economists and business decision-makers, as well as students of oligarchy and inequality more generally.

There are chapters on land, education, wages, capital markets, tax, networking and local power.





Backgrounder on Thailand’s conflicts

28 12 2013

Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have a useful backgrounder at India’s Economic and Political Weekly. PPT summarizes by emphasizing some points that seemed useful, if well-known. The deep divide they note takes some of the emphasis away from the current focus on succession politics. While succession is an issue in the mix, the deep and long-established divisions within society cannot be ignored:

[T]he demonstrations reflect a deep divide in Thai society according to class, region and ideology, a divide which has developed over the past half century as growth has centred on Bangkok while the rural north and east have been left behind.

The government that has just resigned was installed after elections in July 2011 delivered a strong majority to the Pheu Thai party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of the former prime minister Thaksin who has been in self-imposed exile since 2008. In its election platform, the Pheu Thai party promised to provide amnesty for offences during the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2009 and 2010, and to amend the constitution drafted after an army coup in 2007. More informally, the party also promised to bring Thaksin home, which would require cancellation of a two-year sentence for abuse of power.

In mid-2013, the government began to deliver on these promises….

The reaction to this clumsy piece of parliamentary chicanery was immediate.

The government backed down almost immediately…

But the protests had very rapidly gathered considerable emotional momentum… Their leader is Suthep Thaugsuban, a long-standing politician from Thailand’s south, a typical local machine politician trailing a string of scandals, mostly over dubious acquisition of land. In the Democrat Party-led government of 2009-11, he was the tough-guy enforcer working behind the scenes for the inexperienced prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Suthep is an unlikely character to become a hero of street politics. He was turned into a protest leader by the collective emotion of the crowd rather than his personal attributes.

The combined protest vowed to “overthrow the Thaksin regime”, meaning the removal of the current government but also (and more vaguely) reforms to prevent its return. While the movement had momentum, it lacked a mechanism. Traditionally, the military had provided the mechanism by enacting a coup, and more recently the courts have played the role by annulling an election or dissolving the ruling party. On this occasion, neither mechanism worked.

The core of the yellow movement is the Bangkok middle class…. Its members appreciate the upcountry peasantry as a source of cheap labour, but look down on them as backward.

The core of the red movement comes from the rice-growing regions of the upper north and north-east…. Many developed rising aspirations for themselves and their children, and growing resentment at the great inequalities in income, in the distribution of public goods, and in access to power.

From 1998, the spread of elective local government gave people a rapid education in the power of the vote.

The Thaksinite party has now won all five national elections since 2001 by convincing margins. In face of this record, his opponents have gradually lost faith in electoral democracy…. In 2009, the yellows proposed “new politics”, meaning a retreat from the principal of one person/one vote through some graded form of franchise. Yellow advocates talk of a need for more “morality” in politics, and a greater role for “good people”. They repeatedly aim to delegitimise elected politicians by claiming that they buy their votes. Now they are pressing for a complete suspension of constitutional democracy.

On the other side, the reds have consistently backed the electoral principle.

The yellows have more money and more social power. They own the capital…. They have the support of the media. But they lack the numbers to win in national elections.

The reds have the numbers but they lack the social power and get very little support in public media….