The palace’s wreckage

28 05 2014

PPT reproduces Philip Bowring’s op-ed on the coup and the monarchy:

The past week has been a great one for determined republicans, but it has been sorrowful for those, like this writer, who believe that monarchies still have a useful role to play in modern states.

Republicans may be few in number in Thailand – at least in public – but their numbers must surely grow as the institution of the monarchy is increasingly regarded not as a force for national unity and worthwhile tradition but as the captive of interests who take its name in vain.

The 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, it is reported, has given royal assent to the latest military coup. But, we are told, the king was not actually present at the ceremony and no word has been forthcoming from his lips. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the long-ailing monarch is so surrounded by courtiers that he has a limited grasp of what has been going on, or is simply too weak to make decisions and put himself at the head of a process of compromise within a democratic formula.

Serious, sympathetic discussion of the role of the monarchy is curtailed everywhere – outside as well as inside Thailand – if not ruled out entirely by the abuse of lèse majesté legislation, which threatens harsh penalties for the slightest criticism of the royalty. The result can only be the further identification of the monarchy with the forces that have yet again rejected the choice of the electorate.

Until recently, that was represented by Suthep Thaugsuban, who might have been written off as a self-aggrandizing maverick with a dubious past, and to a lesser degree by the Democrats led by the unelectable Abhisit Vejjajiva. But now it is the army itself, a genuinely national institution, which has shown its true color – yellow not a neutral khaki.

As one who was in Iran in the days immediately before the overthrow of the Shah, and one who remembers the relatively recent fates of such kings as Nepal’s Gyanendra, Egypt’s Farouk, Iraq’s Faisal, Afghanistan’s Zahir Shah and Vietnam’s Bao Dai, current events make eerie viewing.

Of course, Thailand is different. The king has not held direct power, as did the Shah, since the 1932 revolution that ushered in what has now been 80 years of intermittent democracy and military coups. The monarchy faces no ideological enemy like the republican ayatollahs in Iran. Nonetheless monarchies that fall out of touch with the people can disappear surprisingly quickly.

One does not need to be a defender of Thaksin’s power abuses nor Yingluck’s wasteful rice and railway spending schemes to recognize how much damage has been done, not just to the position of the monarchy but of other institutions such as the Constitutional Court. Repeated, overt denial of the validity of elections and actions in tacit support of mob leaders such as Suthep and previously Sondhi Limthongkul have merely exacerbated social divisions.

Corruption was not unique to the Thaksin administrations and the economy relies far more on small business and foreign investment than on Bangkok’s big business groups.

Given the age of King Bhumibol and the comparative lack of esteem in which his anointed successor, the Crown Prince, and other royals including Queen Sirikit, are held it is more than possible that the army now will come to see itself not so much as the defender of the monarchy but as the center of power and core of national identity.

The monarchy will just be decoration, as it was the days of military strongmen Sarit Thanarat and Pibul Songgram, wheeled out to support some nationalist or special interest agenda.

As a foreigner who has been visiting Thailand often over 40 years, it is distressing to hear the disdain for fellow Thais showed by the spoiled Bangkok elite, writing off Thaksin’s supporters as simpleminded, easily-bought peasants from the North and Northeast. Have they not noticed that these people now have education and means of communication?

Are they not aware that Thailand has a labor shortage because the value of labor has risen and Thailand has to import workers from Myanmar and Cambodia? Have they not noticed that the lower-income districts of Bangkok itself are Thaksin strongholds and that the Democrats have won few seats in the newly urbanized provinces surrounding Bangkok?

The monarchy in Thailand has at times been a force for great progress – most notably under kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn – and for stability, as during difficult times in the 1960s and 1970s when internal threats were significant and war raged nearby.

But by default the institution now appears to be a force for reaction, or at least it is adding to not healing the divisions that naturally exist in a society that has undergone 50 years of rapid development and rising expectations.


Updated: Bowring entreaty

9 02 2014

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based commentator, once an editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. He has a commentary on Thailand’s political crisis at the South China Morning Post. He begins:

The election in Thailand has solved nothing – but few expected it to…. [A]ll sides seem set for a long struggle.

He makes the excellent point:

The crisis is not so much one of democracy per se but of the institutions which should underlie all systems of government that are not autocracies or absolutist states. Thailand has institutions which, in principle, provide continuity for a country that has been searching for a stable democratic system since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 but are now the problem, not the solution – starting with the monarchy itself.

And this is followed by a point PPT has made many times:

Much has been made in the past of the role of the king as guardian of stability, intervening occasionally to bring compromise or order. In reality, he mainly intervened on the side of conservative forces and blessed military intervention.

He makes the point that the monarchy is now – in its present situation of old and ill king, connection to the 2006 coup, and unpopular successor – unable to play a role for any kind of compromise. We agree, and would add that this means that the palace can only support the anti-democrats.

Bowring turns to the miltiary, “the monarchy’s supposedly staunchest ally…”. He observes:

The army knows that governing is difficult…. Now it also knows that holding power in Bangkok no long assures control of the Thaksin-dominated north and northeast.

The Democrat Party is also mentioned:

Always royalist,… it is now the tool of a Bangkok elite, run by the Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva in league with the anti-democratic thugs headed by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban.

We’d add that the party is in the hands of extremists. As Bowring notes that the Democrat Party is “weak in most other urban areas, including the industrialised provinces which surround Bangkok.” This failure to appeal to any group outside Bangkok’s elite and southern commercial farmers is why it has been taken over by extremists.

What of the judiciary?:

The next failed institutions are the courts and the Election Commission, which are supposed to ensure fair play on all sides. However, no one believes that they are much more than agents of the anti-Thaksin camp.

The Thaksin Shinawatra camp also gets a bollocking:

He swept to power in 2001 partly because the 1997 constitution was designed to create bigger parties and hence more stable…. Power went to Thaksin’s head. The checks and balances supposedly built into the 1997 constitution – the Senate, Constitutional Court, National Anti-Corruption Commission – were eroded….

Yingluck seemed to have learned lessons from her brother’s overreach. But her attempt to get Thaksin included in an amnesty created much disquiet, and a rice subsidy scheme, economically ill-advised and open to widespread corruption, created an opening for the opposition….

Bowring concludes pessimistically:

It is indeed hard to find a middle way through this mess until all the institutions agree to play by mutually acceptable rules. An economic crisis may be needed.

Update: Okay, it isn’t really a humble request, but it is a plea for the stubborn elite to reform themselves and enter 21st century politics instead of pining for feudalism or fascism.

Political voice

3 10 2012

It is kind of interesting to see rice farmers protesting against Bangkok-based academics. And, we think it is reflective of the way that politics has changed since the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and especially since the 2006 coup.

Most readers will be aware that there has been quite a campaign waged against the Yingluck Shinawatra rice pledging scheme. PPT has no resident economists who can pontificate on the rice growing in fields they have never seen except in postcards, but the National Institute of Development Administration has no shortage of them. A few days ago urban-bound Veera Prateepchaikul at the Bangkok Post stated emphatically that he cheered:

Dr Adis Israngkura na Ayudhaya, dean of the Economic Development Faculty of the National Institute Development Administration (Nida), and 145 academics and students who co-signed a petition to the Constitution Court challenging the effectiveness of the government’s rice-pledging scheme and the sanity of continuing this badly-flawed and corruption-riddled populist policy.

Of course, to date there is no outstanding evidence of corruption riddling the scheme. Although such schemes have been plagued by corruption for all governments in the past, Veera is making great leaps and unsubstantiated claims. It is interesting that another report breaks down the numbers: 50 Nida lecturers, 27 Thammasat University academics, and 42 other people who were either students or members of the public who disagreed with the scheme. Sounds like a political attack rather than one based in sound economic analysis. As well, we know from past campaigning, that NIDA’s academics and students have a deep yellow-hue. And they have been joined by others who are broadly anti-Thaksin/anti-populist (whatever the latter term means), including the usual lot of appointed senators. The argument seems to be that rice and other crop pledging is anti-capitalist and unaffordable.

Readers may find Philip Bowring’s op-ed of interest in that it deals with the political economy of the schemes.

Whatever the economics, the politics are significant. A Bangkok Post report details some of this. It refers to rice farmers “threatening to step up protests against academics…”. These elite academics are used to the farmers being seen and not heard, as they first labored through decades of rice taxes that made farmers bear the burden of cheap urban prices and kept farmers poor and then have struggled to get an fair share of their price for crops that are always controlled by middlemen and women and millers.

Some 3,000 rice farmers gathered at NIDA to protest and “lambasted the academics for their move and accused them of being manipulated as a political tool against the government.” Protest leaders “said the pledging scheme helped free farmers from massive debts and improve their lives.” Another “5,000 rice farmers from Suphan Buri, Ang Thong, Pathum Thani, Ayutthaya and Chai Nat rallied at the provincial hall of Suphan Buri” and “200 rice farmers from Chiang Mai and Lamphun staged a similar protest at the Chiang Mai provincial hall…”.

Whether the scheme is flawed is a different debate as we see farmers standing up (once again) to elites and the privileged. Things have changed politically.


Bowring on the election outcome

7 07 2011

Philip Bowring at The Irrawaddy has a sensible take on the election outcome. He begins: “Thailand’s Democrat Party deservedly got its comeuppance in Sunday’s Pheu Thai landslide for having abandoned its principles and come to power through a combination of military intervention and abuse of the judicial process. The sheer scale of the pro-Thaksin victory should leave the military and monarchist forces in no doubt at all that attempt[s] to thwart this popular verdict can only have tragic consequences that would radicalize many who saw the election as an opportunity for the nation to return to a democratic path.”

He continues: “The result should also leave no doubt that support for the monarchy, though still robust, may be increasingly conditional on the monarchy itself distancing itself from some of its more extreme self-proclaimed defenders and recognizing that the next monarch will have to accept a much less exalted status than King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch.”

He warns: “The bigger question now is whether Thaksin is any closer to understanding the resentments he aroused when in power, not just from old elites but from those who felt the force of his authoritarian instincts.”

He observes: “The Democrats … lost any claim to moral high ground with their alliance with the Yellow Shirts, the military and monarchist extremists, and their acceptance of a constitution imposed by the 2006 coup which undid much of the good of the 1997 charter and sought not to strengthen independent institutions but entrench the most conservative forces in power.”

He asks: “Have the Democrats really seen the folly of aligning with one set of authoritarians to counter Thaksin’s behavior? Has the Thaksin camp learned that unless it conducts government with a modicum of honesty and fair play towards opponents in the democratic process there will eventually be another rightwing reaction supported by many middle class people who don’t belong to the old elite?”

Well worth a read in full.



openDemocracy on the Thai crisis

14 04 2009

At openDemocracy, an article by Tyrell Haberkorn on the current Thai crisis has been posted. Haberkorn links the demonstrations in the streets to the growth of the use of the lesè majesté law over the last past months. In particular, she criticizes the assumptions underlying Philip Bowring’s NYT op-ed from yesterday, commenting that he  “leaves unquestioned the relationship between the enduring royal institution and the possibility of full democracy or the just use of law in Thailand. A lesson of this now lengthy crisis is that scrutiny of the sources and uses of power in the interests of strengthening democracy in Thailand and the participation of all citizens in governance is now needed.”

Read the entire article here, Tyrell Haberkorn, 14 April 2009, “Thailand’s democratic crisis”

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