Further updated: Sparks beginning to fly

28 01 2018

Quite some time ago we said that, as in the past, the spark that lights a fire under Thailand’s military dictatorship might come from something quite unexpected.

We think we might have seen that spark and it may be two events that have begun to tip the political balance. One is Deputy Dictator General Prawit Wongsuwan’s luxury timepieces. It isn’t so much that he’s seemingly corrupt. After all the timid middle classes and the wealthy capitalist class “understand” corruption and it is a price they are ever willing to pay so long as they can continue to prosper. And, if the corrupt are “good” people, then it’s okay. What has led to a beginning of an unraveling of this political relationship is Prawit’s arrogance about his massive watch collection and the demonstration (so far) of cover-up and impunity. This taints the junta as self-serving, grasping and certainly not “good” people.

The second spark is the continual delay in the holding of an election that is neither free nor fair. The middle and capitalist classes were fully prepared to accept the junta’s manipulated constitution, its forcing of the constitutional referendum, the tinkering with the details, a senate that maintains military political dominance and human rights restrictions. However, as well as the political repression of the lower classes, they wanted something of a say in politics via that unfair election. By delaying numerous times, the junta is displaying arrogance and a craving for power “unsuited” to the middle and capitalist classes.

Clipped from the Bangkok Post

The peeling away of support even sees diehard yellow shirts, the boosters for the coups of 2006 and 2014, criticizing the military junta it bet on for turning back the lower class political tide. It also sees cracks appearing in the junta’s domination and control both in events and institutions. We have posted on the “We Walk” march and its court victory. Some of the NGOs involved in that event were those that were present at the birth of the People’s Alliance for Democracy in 2006. For some of those yellow shirts, there is disappointment in the regime for not doing sufficient political cleansing. More disappointment comes from the decisions by the junta to allow legal pursuit of PAD and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. Such legal cases are not just a disappointment but construed as a betrayal.

In this context, the re-emergence of political protest is telling. First We Walk and now the student activists. It isn’t that these students haven’t pushed the junta before. In fact, they have been regular opponents, but they have faced numerous legal cases, arrests, abductions and so on. The Bangkok Post reports their most recent event this way:

The Democracy Restoration Group, led by Sirawich “Ja New” Seritiwat and Rangsiman Rome, posted on Facebook on Friday asking people who share the same views to join them at 5.30pm at the BTS skywalk near the Bangkok Art & Culture Centre.

Pathumwan police said they did not try to stop the campaign so long as it did not block traffic.

Around 100 people came to the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre at 5.15pm while police stood by and took photos of the participants. Many of them showed the sign “Election 2018” or show its photo on their mobile phones.

Core leaders of the group took turns giving speeches.

Interestingly, the demonstrators emphasized not just elections but watches.

Update 1: A reader emailed us saying that we missed one of the most important bits of the linked Bangkok Post story. That reader is right that we should have specifically noted that the rally brought together stalwarts of both red and yellow shirts, with ultra-nationalist yellow shirt Veera Somkwamkid and red shirt iconoclast Sombat Boonngamanong. That is an unexpected alliance. Yet it is just this kind of unusual alliance that has underpinned anti-military movements in the past.

Update 2: An updated Bangkok Post report has more from Veera. He declared: “There are no colours right now…. It’s all about joining hands and removing corruption from the country.” He added: “The problem is we cannot rely on the government because they are in fact the ones who are not transparent.” The principal organizers, the New Democracy Movement declared “it will continue to pressure the government and Gen Prayut to dismiss Gen Prawit and to keep his promise to holding the election this year. They will gather again in the same spot on Feb 10.” Meanwhile, in Songkhla, “members of 19 civic organisations walked from Hat Yai municipality to Sena Narong army camp in Hat Yai to voice their grievances over several state projects in the South and to support the [People Go Network/We Walk group].”





Updated: Bankrupt PAD

7 01 2018

As widely reported, including in the Bangkok Post, 13 core members/leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy face a combined bill of 522 million baht incurred as a court’s decision on compensation to the Airports of Thailand Plc, for losses incurred “by the 10-day closure of Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports 10 years ago.”

Apparently, “a legal execution notice sent by prosecutors, who were authorised by the operator of the two gateways, to seek the payments.” This follows a 2011 ruling by the Civil Court upheld by the Appeals Court and the Supreme Court between 2011 and 2017.

This might be good news for those who were outraged by PAD’s illegal actions that led to the judicial coup of December 2008.

But is it? It seems that the PAD leaders will simply declare themselves bankrupt.

The 13 are Chamlong Srimuang, Sondhi Limthongkul, Pipop Thongchai, Suriyasai Katasila, Somsak Kosaisuk, Chaiwat Sinsuwong, Somkiat Pongpaibul, Amorn Amonrattananond, Saranyu Wongkrajang, Samran Rodpetch, Sirichai Mai-ngam, Maleerat Kaewka and Therdpoum Chaidee.

While Sondhi is in jail for another unrelated offense, we guess that the rest have had plenty of time to organize their personal finances.

Criminal lawsuits are continuing.

Update: Confirming our comments above, the PAD group has thumbed its nose at the courts (again). Chamlong “said he cannot find the money to pay, and he had no assets which can be seized.” In any case, he rejects the notion of compensation to Airports of Thailand: “I insist I did nothing wrong. Why was I ordered to pay such a huge sum of money — as if we burned buildings. But we never burned a single building…”. He added that “he does not regret the consequences he now has to face as he did it in the best interests of the country.” His yellow compatriot, Sirichai Mai-ngam simply said: “We have no money. We won’t run away. We won’t pay…”.





Push and shove on “elections”and a disingenuous junta

3 01 2018

Some commentators argue that the junta needs an election in order to embed all the conservative changes it has made. That would be so if its preferred people can actually “win.” Certainly the bigger political parties are dead keen for an “election,” even if conducted under the junta’s rules. More direct military rule in an extremely narrow political space does them no good at all.

The mainstream media is mostly pushing for an election. Even some activists reckon any election is better than a extension of the junta’s political nastiness.

All of these “pro-election” groups know that “the regime is paving the way for a military-backed political party which will draw members of existing parties to back it and support Gen Prayut[h Chan-ocha] and the regime to stay in power after an election expected in late 2018.”

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has questioned the (ever changing) election roadmap, doubting that an “election” can be held by November.

The Puea Thai Party’s Chaturon Chaisang reckons the “political landscape this year will be dominated by efforts to prepare for the NCPO [junta] to return to power after the poll” via a “nominee” party. He’s dubious the “election” will be held in November.

Former People’s Alliance for Democracy leader Suriyasai Katasila reckons its back to political polarization. He reckons an election will not take place until 2019.

As a kind of response, the Bangkok Post reports that “[e]lections for local administrative organisations (LAOs) are likely to be organised from May to July…”. The junta has used the local election card previously. This time there might be more to it. No parties involved and all the electoral bodies in the provinces firmly in the junta’s hands. The Post says General Anupong Paojinda “has been confirmed the LAOs elections would take place before the national poll…”. Maybe.

What is certain is that the military is determined to harass “politicians” (who aren’t members of the junta).

In a contrived event, all four regional army commanders “warned politicians against canvassing for support during the festive period while revealing soldiers have been deployed to shadow certain targets.”

One of the commanders, Lt Gen Wijak Siribansop, added that he’s most “concerned about academics, whom he said cannot be barred from voicing their views.” The military have been “talking” with academics in the north. The demand: “Do not try to touch on politics…”.

Lt. Gen. Kukiat Srinaka “revealed officials have been sent to secretly shadow targets in the 1st Army Region’s jurisdiction.” Lt Gen Tharakorn Thamwinthorn, “in charge of the Northeast, said his officers work with other agencies to monitor prime targets…”. He added that he disdained “politicians” and was keen to “apprehend them…”.

After all of this threatening and discussion of illegal acts by the deeply politicized military, Lt Gen Piyawat Nakwanich “insisted the army will act as a neutral player in the political sphere.” Jeez, what would it be like if they did insist they were taking sides? Probably not that different.

It’s a stitch-up.





Troubles for the junta I

18 12 2017

The military dictatorship, keen to extend its political role into the future, is running into a series of problems that suggest struggles over power will intensify as political jockeying for position deepens.

Corruption cases, previously ignored, swept under the rug or “investigated” to exoneration are now getting under the junta’s skin. One recent case is the death of a military cadet where the usual excuses for such deaths are not being accepted.

More challenging because it targets the Deputy Dictator is General Prawit Wongsuwan’s extensive  watch collection. His latest attempt at explaining his unusually expensive watches is about a dead “friend”:

According to Gen Prawit’s close aide who asked not to be named, Gen Prawit is under pressure as he does not know how to make the public believe the Richard Mille watches belonged to his friend.

If his “friend” is dead, then Prawit’s story of “borrowing” watches is unlikely to be verified. If the “friend” existed but is now dead, we assume Prawit might claim to inherited the watches.

The point, though, is that the scandal and chatter won’t go away.

More revealing are the splits that seem to be appearing in the yellow-shirted alliance of anti-democrats who have supported military dictatorship.

While Suthep Thaugsuban continues to support military rule and seeks its extension, his Democrat Party and the broader yellow shirt movement have become critical of the junta and its attempts to entrench its rule.

The Bangkok Post reports the former PAD leader Somsak Kosaisuk as railing against a “military party.” Somsak and Democrat Party MP Watchara Phetthong reckon there’s a “plot to set up a new party in support of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.” The vehicle is claimed to be “a military party which will support Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak as party leader while the name of the party will include the word Pracharath, the government’s public-private collaboration…”.

Somsak warned that “military-backed parties of the past, including the Manangkasila and Samakkhitham parties, had failed because the people did not accept them.”

Somsak’s history is not all that comprehensive, but leaving that aside, Watchara mangles it when he says “Gen Prayut should follow the example of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who said ‘that’s enough’ when he was invited by parties to take the premier’s post once again.” He seems to forget the huge pressure to get rid of Prem, including threats about “revealing secrets.”

Even if their history is a bit off, the idea for a military party may not stymie a Prem-like reign for The Dictator. As in the Prem period, the Democrat Party may not be opposed to that.

But the kerfuffle also shows that the regime remains troubled. It is seeking ways to cement its influence but finds the political alliances and parties cumbersome and confounding.





2019 “election”

5 12 2017

Remember that late 2018 “election”? Even with the military dictatorship fixing the electoral rules, fixing the institutions, and likely to fix the result, that date is looking even less likely than when the junta made the announcement.

We use “fixing” in the sense of match fixing.

The Bangkok Post reports that some now predict that the “[military] regime’s possible delay of lifting the political ban could cause a general election to be postponed to 2019…”. Those saying this are “united” in that whatever their political hue, they are “civilians.”

One is former PAD leader Suriyasai Katasila. He points out, as others have, that 5 January is the “deadline for political parties to complete mandatory processes, including notifications of changes of party members to the registrar…”. Because of the ban on political party activity, they simply can’t begin this process.

One of the requirements is that by 4 April each party to find 500 members within 180 days of the law taking effect, find an initial fund of 1 million baht, call a meeting to alter their regulations, prepare their ideology, elect party executives, establish party branches and appoint branch representatives and pay the party fees…”.

The thinking is that either the military dictatorship is going to seek to hamper political parties by sticking to the deadline, while advantaging its preferred party or parties or it will later extend the deadline, thus further delaying the election.

Suriyasai says that some “political parties may lose their legal status and no longer exist if they are unable to meet the stipulated requirements within a given deadline, whether it is extended or not…”.

Chart Thai Pattana Party’s director Nikorn Chamnong agreed, saying “the only way to cope with the deadline of updating the party’s member database is to ask for an extension, otherwise the parties might have to be dissolved for failure to comply with the organic law.”

The junta’s blunt strategy is plain to see. Concoct plots, delay political activity (even under its fixed rules), weaken most political parties and stay in power as long as possible. Delaying elections (even under its fixed rules) means that the junta gets its preferred political outcome.





Junta doubles down in repression of (former) allies

1 12 2017

For the first time in quite a while, PPT can agree with commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak. And, it seems, he is agreeing with us. In an op-ed at the Bangkok Post, he states:

After the most recent cabinet reshuffle produced the fifth line-up of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government, it is clear the military intends to stay in power for the long term in one form or another. The reshuffle provided a more civilian look but let there be no doubt that Thailand still has a military government, led by generals who seized power more than three and a half years ago [PPT: the civilians are mostly window dressing for a military junta]. As the top brass perpetuates its rule and puts off the election as long as they can, political tensions will mount as civilian-led forces agitate for a share of power and a return to popular rule.

… It is likely Thailand will soon be mired in yet another round of political conflict between civilian and military leaders.

While Thitinan still holds that the “people” gave the junta leeway because they were all frightened about the future after the previous king finally died, a reason now gone in a puff of smoke, he does also suggest that the usual failings of autocrats and dictators have come to the fore.

Thitinan considers that “[i]t would be unsurprising if the Prayut government now goes into a campaign mode of sorts, visiting provincial areas and handing out more subsidies and largesse with an eye to returning to post-election power.” He seems to have taken his eye off the ball, as this has been happening for a very long time.

But he’s right to observe: “It is also likely to put aside a firm election date until it feels more secure and popular. Its aim to stay in power will pose a dilemma for Thailand.” He’s also likely to be right that the “more the Prayut government tries to hang on to power, the less popular it will become.”

Unfortunately, that suggests a military regime that will become increasingly repressive as it claims a right to rule. Here, comparisons with the vile regime of 1991-92, led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon are probably appropriate. That junta decided it deserved to rule and was prepared to murder civilians to keep its place in power.

For us, what is most telling is the manner in which the junta has cracked down on the anti-coal dissidents in the south. Using methods previously reserved for its political opponents, the junta has gone after people who have been politically supportive of the 2014 coup and the military regime.

While these protesters are locals, they have many supporters and some leaders who are among the often yellow-hued NGOs in Bangkok. This group falls within a broader Bangkok middle class and its political opinion leaders in the former People’s Alliance for Democracy have been increasingly critical of the junta.

Those political cracks are likely to be broken apart following the junta’s doubling-down response to the protesters. Prachatai reports that “police are preparing to issue arrest warrants for 20 more protestors against the coal-fired power plant in Songkhla.”

That’s another 20 people in addition to the 15 leaders of the network from Songkhla and Pattani provinces who had already been arrested, jailed, and then “released on 29 November after six lecturers from Prince of Songkla University and Thaksin University used their academic positions to guarantee bail for them.”

Their arrest saw “114 academics from Southern Thailand … issue … a joint statement condemning the authorities for using force against the protesters and arresting the 15 activists.”

It seems the junta is demonstrating that it will not tolerate any dissent, and this includes middle-class dissent by (former?) political allies.

Of course, the brutality and callousness of the regime is also being demonstrated to these former supporters, and not just in the arrests in the south. While the many cases of the abuse of poor recruits drafted into the military has tended to be tolerated by regime supporters, when the victim is from a family that is in a different class, suddenly the brutality of the regime is recognized, even if the underlying reasons for it are not.

We seem to be entering a dangerous period.

 





Thailand’s future politics II

2 11 2017

In our previous post we looked at two articles considering possible futures for Thailand’s politics. Here we look at two more.

Christina Larson is a Beijing-based reporter who has written for the New Yorker, Foreign Policy and Bloomberg. Her guess that the “respect felt by most Thais for their monarchy” is “genuine” is married to an appopriate observation that this is “besmirched by the growing enforcement of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté law…”. She adds that ” use of the law has allowed the government to persecute critics and to create a widespread fear while maintaining a veneer of legality.”

She observes that the “fate of the law has been inextricably tied up with the image of Bhumibol himself.” That’s a point that others have often missed. At the same time, the increased use of the law and its justification has been “protecting the monarchy.” Larson notes that the image of the monarchy that is protected is of the ninth king and adds: “But the burnished image of the ‘People’s King’ — as a crusader for little people, a camera-toting investigator and promoter of public works – was shaped and reinforced by a supremely successful 70-year-propaganda campaign.”

It is that propaganda image that has been reinforced again and again over recent years – not least because the incumbent was mostly hidden in a hospital – and because that image was challenged. The funeral pushed the image again to supreme heights. But it is constructed:

According to Thailand’s constitution and school textbooks, the monarch is above politics, separate from the spheres of government and business. But nearly every public and private establishment in Bangkok was marking the official mourning period. Black-and-white memorial photos of Bhumibol in full royal regalia were on display at major airports, on highway billboards, at restaurants and hotels, even on the screens of ATMs. Liquor sales were prohibited during the cremation ceremonies, and the city’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens closed early on Thursday. That speaks to the power of the monarchy – and the fear of causing offense – that’s opened up a wide venue for persecution.

Larson quotes Benjamin Zawacki on the monarchy and lese majeste. (As a former representative of Amnesty International, he spent a lot of energy arguing that the reign of the dead king promoted human rights! He and AI neglected lese majeste in Thailand.)

Zawacki makes a rather odd comment: “If the cremation shows us nothing else, it is that the depth of respect and adoration for the monarchy in Thailand renders the lèse-majesté law redundant…”. Clearly it wasn’t, and the palace and military used it whenever there were political crises or whenever it saw threats to the grand concocted image of the monarchy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak seems to contradict Zawacki, saying:

With the new reign, the enforcement of the [lèse-majesté] law will likely only increase, not decrease, for two reasons. The new monarch does not command as much love and respect as his father on an individual basis, and the monarchy will be under pressure to structurally adjust to new democratic norms.

Thitinan sees a continuation of the monarchy’s anti-democratic politics and a deepening of fear and intimidation. That seems entirely consistent with what we know of Vajiralongkorn and The Dictator. The symbiotic relationship mentioned in our previous post is important. At the same time, the  junta benefits enormously from the lese majeste law.

Kasit

The final article is an op-ed by the Democrat Party’s Kasit Piromya titled Thai political transformation needs ‘third force’. He believes an “alternative exists to military rule and entrenched political elite.”

Given that Kasit seems to have supported two military interventions throwing out elected governments, was a long-serving and senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, filled with members of the elite who are deeply royalist, we can only marvel at his idea of a “third force” and his call for “full-fledged democracy.”

He asks: “How much longer must Thai society accept the military’s involvement in politics?” Perhaps the answer is when persons like Kasit stop supporting those who are responsible for the coups.

He’s not keen on electoral politics, with PAD-like anti-democrat finger-pointing at the “dominance of vested interests in the political landscape led to countless numbers of abuses of power and corruption” along with “a power-hungry civilian political elite that engaged in rent-seeking with its majority rule.” He means the Thaksin regime.

And the “third force”? It is a PAD “solution” based on its usual false premises.

Kasit declares a pox on all houses (not his own): “One cannot rely on the military to voluntarily return to and remain in the barracks, nor on the political class to change its exploitative ways.”

The citizens must take the lead. But, of course, only after this “uneducate,” duped, misled and paid among them “educate themselves by gaining full access to information about government services and tasks, including how the national budget is spent, how decisions are made and how they can have input.” Does Kasit do this? We doubt it.

PADistas like Kasit believe that the citizenry is fodder for Thaksin-like politicians because they are “uneducate.”

Somehow the “Thai democratic citizenry” will be achieved “with the advent of modern telecommunications that enable convenient and fast connections with the public through mobile phones, social media and other internet-based vehicles.” Internet-based vehicles?? He’s making this up as he writes.

But what of the “third force”? Kasit reckons it “could consist of like-minded people” who come “together to agree on a course of action and draw up a list of priority issues so that a national consensus can be reached on taking Thailand forward.”

We think he’s serious, but who knows. When he calls the “get together” we’ll be sure to attend. Oh, but hang on… we are not “like-minded” with Kasit (thankfully!).

That said, he is right that when old ruling classes in some places have “reached a consensus with society at large to agree on a transitional approach toward democracy.”

In Thailand, however, the ruling class has repeatedly demonstrated that it will not compromise. Kasit can ramble on about a “third force” but the problem is the ruling class. They need to be overcome.