Fear and unintended consequences II

19 04 2017

Most of the breaking stories on the fate of the 1932 plaque are on social media, including the Facebook accounts of Andrew MacGregor Marshall and Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Another Facebook account worth following is that by Pravit Rojanaphruk, one of the bravest of local journalists.

The mainstream media is publishing material but because it is now widely assumed that the king had the plaque removed, that media is treading very carefully and fearfully.

Marshall claims that the plaque was removed on 5 April, the evening before the announcement of the military junta’s 2017 constitution. That, of course, would be symbolic vandalism.

When thinking about the king’s reason for moving against memories and symbols of 1932, it is important to recall that all he would know of that revolution would have been gained from his grandmother and father, both of whom were anti-People’s Party and anti-Pridi Phanomyong, or from disgruntled royals who mostly hated the events and people of what they consider a travesty of (their) history.

Reuters reported that The Dictator and the junta have been getting a plausible story together.

Self-appointed royalist premier General Prayuth Chan-ocha has “warned people not to protest against the mysterious disappearance of a plaque commemorating the end of absolute monarchy, a theft some activists see as a symbolic threat to democracy.” He’s also been working on “protecting” the replacement plaque “celebrating the monarchy.”

Prayuth babbled something about “police … investigating…”, but also diminished the significance of the theft, the plaque and the 1932 revolution. Essentially, Prayuth’s message was a mafia-like “forget about it.” He said that it was all in the past, history, and not worth the effort.

The idea that the junta doesn’t know what happened in an area that is usually crawling with police and military and is watched by dozens of cameras beggars belief. As Reuters says, the “square where the plaque went missing is close to parliament, to a royal throne hall and to an army barracks. The area is also surveyed by several police posts.”

Prayuth knows what happened. He is now worrying about the political fallout and the boot he may get up the backside if he says or does anything wrong.

Meanwhile, at The Nation, the police claim sudden attacks of brain death. Deputy police chief Srivara Rangsibrahmanakul “admitted yesterday that he had no idea how to proceed with the case involving the mysterious removal of a plaque marking a 1932 revolution that ended absolute monarchy.” He knows he can’t move on this without some kind of “insurance” that he won’t end up shaven headed in the Bhudha Monthon Temporary Prison.

His babbling seemed like a man crazed or crazed by fear. In any case, while Prayuth declares the police are investigating, the police say they aren’t.

A group of activists filed a complaint, part of which explained to the police what they should be doing and why. We doubt the police, knowing the risks, will get of their ample posteriors.

What the police did do, according to several reports, was throw up a protective fence around the new royalist plaque, with a sign declaring it “royal ground.” You get the picture.

Reporters didn’t get the picture, however, as the police with some military support tried to prevent them from filming in the area.

They would not have done this without orders from The Dictator or from Tutzing.

Srisuwan Janya, arrested yesterday while trying to complain about the removal of the plaque, was released from military custody. He proclaimed that he would continue to complain, saying the new constitution gave him that right.

It remains to be seen what the full consequences of royal vandalism will be for the junta and the monarchy. It is certainly a damaging fiasco. Yet the junta knows it can manage fiascos – it has in the past. The question for the junta is whether they can manage the king.





Maintaining authoritarian monarchism

26 11 2016

It may seem odd that “a special event in Bangkok next month to mark the birthday anniversary” for the late king, on his former birthday of 5 December, and described as “huge” is being overseen by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

It seems that the dead king has to be properly handled and managed to be made a series of ceremonies that will accord him the status of figurehead. That’s important for the monarchy, the military dictatorship and also for Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn.

The aim is to maintain the previous king’s “aura” for the institution of the monarchy in anticipation that the person of the new king is not bringing any of that with him when he takes the throne. Maintaining the aura of the monarchy is important for the military junta as it “protects” the monarchy and manufactures and protects authoritarian Thailand.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, writing in Khaosod, explains some of this:

The reason why the military government is still very vocally vowing to have these two dozen or so people extradited to Thailand has become a performance for the sake of the domestic audience of royalists and ultra-royalists to reinforce the military’s claim to leadership in loving and revering the monarchy.

By vocally pursuing these anti-monarchists, the regime inadvertently contradicted it own oft-repeated claim that all Thais love and revere the monarchy without exception.

Any shade or nuance between those who totally love and revere the monarchy and those who oppose the institution often gets buried in repeated performance of loyalty, however.

These performances are likely to continue as markers of loyalty to the regime and the monarchy and as a means to repress opposition.





Cult of personality

5 11 2016

At Khaosod, journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk asks:

Excessive and incessant praise and veneration, growing rituals of worship will likely elevate the late King into a demi-god and produce a King-worship cult, and a climate where the only thing one could possibly say about the late King is how great he was and how much you loved him.

What will this mean for Thailand in the long run? I can’t help but wonder.

PPT’s answer is that we already know. Thailand today is seeing nothing that it hasn’t seen for the past 3-4 decades as palace propaganda grew in intensity and became highly politicized.

The cult of personality was a creation that began to be promoted in the 1960s as a political tool for counterinsurgency. By the time of General Prem Tinsulanonda’s never-elected prime ministership, the promotion of the monarchy was taken to new levels. Prem supported the king in ways never seen since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy. Prem picked up all of the royal projects and funded them all with taxpayer monies. Legends were created with taxpayer funds, promoting the king as a demi-god.

Prem was rewarded with political support, lucrative corporate sinecures and a house and job for life at the top of a royalist hierarchy he did so much to create.

Every royal idea has been promoted as the greatest this and that. The king was promoted as great and good. No facts were allowed to stand in the way. School books and even university texts were modified to meet the need for portraying the king as a demigod. And, as we know, laws were strengthened and used to shut up those who found all this cult creating just a bit too stifling.

So Thailand has had a cult of personality for some time. What we are seeing now is an outpouring of this treacly fairy tale compressed in time. That too is a creation, paving the way for a new reign.

Those who thought the death of the “father” might lead to something different in Thailand are probably going to be disappointed as his image will be “protected” as a means to embed the new regime. Royalists are coming on board for the new reign. The cult of personality will remain, for the dead king, but that will be used to protect the military-monarchy regime going forward.





The EC and fixing the referendum

4 08 2016

Khaosod’s Pravit Rojanaphruk had a very useful (and scary) article published a couple of days ago. We highlight just a few points, while noting that the Election Commission is a failed and partisan organization.

Pravit asks:

Can people trust that the Aug. 7 referendum charter draft will be transparent, impartial and credible?

Given the junta’s wielding of absolute power and its big stakes in a “successful” outcome of the Aug. 7 referendum on the constitution it wants passed by the public, there are many questions about the process.

Is that a no to the question asked? We suggest never trusting the military in Thailand. Never, ever.

The next question is startling: Why does the ballot require a fingerprint? This is the first time ever that this has been part of a ballot. The EC says this in not for identifying voters (all of whom are fingerprinted for their ID cards) or for intimidating voters. The EC says it is a “a marketing maneuver.” Yes, seriously, that’s what they say and why there’s a space on the ballot for the print.

Will the ballot be secret: There is the fingerprinting…. But the EC says: “Despite recent rumors circulating on social media that ballots would be counted in secret, the [Election C]ommission said ballots will be counted at polling locations Sunday.”

Is public monitoring possible? The official answer is yes. But, and its a big but: “To make a formal complaint of misconduct or irregularity, one must physically visit a provincial office of the Election Commission, or EC [HQ], or via an EC smartphone app available for iPhone and Android.”

Will there be military interference? Probably. The military’s men and women will be everywhere and in many roles, but according to the EC, “they will be outside the stations…”. But it is admitted that The Dictator could use Article 44 to intervene anywhere he likes.

Why will only 95 percent of the votes be initially reported by the EC? The EC says this is “in order to avoid possible discrepancies with the official result process running in tandem, the results of which will be made public by Wednesday at the latest.”

That’s three days of opacity, added to all the opaqueness, threats and repression to date.





Two years of military dictatorship

22 05 2016

There has been quite a torrent of articles assessing the two years that have passed since the illegal seizure of power by the military junta that continues to rule Thailand. So much so, that PPT doesn’t feel the need to add to the tragic and dark story. Rather, we’ll link to a number of the recent stories that have appeared.

The Bangkok Post has had a series of lengthy articles assessing the junta and the past two years. One of them is about the treatment of political dissidents, where the Post refers to “hundreds” of arrests and cases “that reflect the …[junta’s] efforts to suppress freedom of expression.” There’s plenty more that readers can track back through recent issues.

Khaosod has an assessment of what it says were eight promises made by The Dictator when he “unveiled his policy objectives to his rubber stamp parliament shortly after it named him prime minister, his speech took nearly two hours.” It’s a mixed bag, but we regret that elections are not mentioned. That’s a big promise that was in a supposed “road map” that gets altered as often as the junta feels necessary. A second Khaosod article, this one by Pravit Rojanaphruk, advises that no one should believe the junta.

The Asia Foundation has found its voice. Back in 2006, it was supportive of the coup. This time it seems to take a different view. Here’s a snippet from the conclusion:

While speculation points to a variety of plausible scenarios, the deepest worry is that little will change whatever the referendum result. If the constitution passes, the NCPO may be in no rush to enact the extensive body of election and other “organic laws” that must be in place before an election is held. Alternative scenarios include public rejection of the charter, setting the country on an uncharted course of continued military rule, or cancellation of the referendum by the NCPO if the military leaders sense growing public unrest in the lead-up to August 7. Sadly, none of these prospective outcomes ensures Thailand’s release from the stubborn grip of authoritarianism and guided democracy – a prospect that seemingly weighs in a climate of creeping malaise and dwindling hope that observers sense among Thais across all strata of society – a mood that some observers suggest may portend unrest.

Global Risk Insights is a publication that looks at political risk news and analysis. It has turned its eye to Thailand and lists three near term risks: Yingluck Shinawatra’s show trial, the death of the king and succession and the referendum on the military’s charter.

The Southeast Asia Globe talks to some academics who are often also commentators. No one could really argue with the final statement from one of them: “Thailand is going backwards.” In a similar vein, Australia’s New Matilda looks at Thailand and Cambodia, apparently in lock-step on the authoritarian road.

AP has a useful account of “Why Junta Rules Thailand, With No End in Sight.” It observes that the “coup really was traditional ruling elite’s latest and most decisive intervention in what is now a decadelong war for political power with billionaire telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra.” It concludes: “Thailand’s ruling generals have made clear they are not planning to yield control anytime soon. Initial plans to hold an election in 2015 were deferred until 2016, and are now deferred again until 2017.” And, as we know, this deferral may be extended even further.

AP has another story where they get opinions from various persons seems as somehow representative of particular interests. The one we found most revealing was from palace-connected coup supporter and wealthy businessman William Heinecke. It reflects that fact that most royalists and pretty much all of big business remain firmly behind the junta:

There certainly has been change. Bangkok if we remember correctly was almost at a standstill. No one could vote, an election couldn’t take place, traffic was blocked, protests were ongoing. So we’ve seen a return to stability. And that’s always good for business…. When you see instability on the streets, and in the mass media worldwide, it affects our business in every possible way. There’s a lack of confidence, there’s a lack of tourists, the economy was being strangled.

I think we’ve seen a return to normalized business. I think there has been significant improvement. To me, I know of no one that’s concerned about the protection of their rights — in terms of living peacefully, going about their business. Yes, if you say, ‘Do I have the right to rally in the streets?’ you may not, but to me that’s less critical than it is to make sure we can all continue with business and to make sure we can provide education for our kids…. Is it perfect? I’m sure it’s not. Is it better than it was? I think it is.

In contrast to this exceptionally wealthy capitalist and anti-democrat, Prachatai has a series of interviews with others who were outspoken in the anti-democrat movement of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. Environmentalist Prasitchai Noonual joined the PDRC and opposed projects that “favoured investors but would be harmful to the local environment.” Back then on the PDRC stage he declared:  “Today, we are carrying out a significant mission to uproot the Thaksin regime…”. Now he says “he has realized that he was wrong, since the junta has favoured foreign investors to an even greater extent … allowing investors to build anywhere and ignore the surrounding communities.” Recognizing that he was a political ninny, he says: “the junta is much worse [than Thaksin-dominated governments] because people were able to stop some government projects during Thaksin’s time, but never under the junta.” Supat Hasuwannakit is a medical doctor and activist who worked with the PDRC. He says:

Two years later … people are now fed up with the junta but they don’t dare to express their anger due to the intensive suppression of free speech. This anger, however, will manifest itself in the August referendum, meaning that people show their approval or disapproval of the junta through the ballot box.  …[P]ublic assembly is how the people bargain with the state, but that is hardly possible under the junta…. Let’s hold an election now. We’re sick of the junta. At least under an elected government, we can criticize, express ideas, and negotiate. Doing such things is very difficult under the junta…. This is a big lesson for all Thai people, that we might despair of representative democracy but a coup d’état is absolutely not an option in any way.

From this, we presume Supat must never have read a book about military authoritarianism or studied the role of the military in Thailand. That’s also true of student anti-democrat Thatchapong Kaedam who seems to remain a ninny:

After observing the junta administration for two years, Thatchapong told Prachatai that he was disappointed because it has failed to deliver what it promised to the public – that it would reform the country before an election. According the draft charter, it is obvious that reform will happen after the election. Moreover, the reforms will be carried out by an unelected government and junta-appointed political bodies, not by the people or civil society.

“Back then, I always believed that a coup d’état would never happen again in this country. One had just happened in 2006 so I thought the military would not do it again. But of course, I was disappointed…”. Thatchapong added that the junta’s intimidation of ordinary people will heat up political conflict. It is, however, not a conflict between the red shirts and the yellow shirts, but rather between the people and the dictatorial regime.

Boonyuen Siritham is a former senator and appeared on the PDRC stage. Her networks have suffered under the junta, so she has an altered view: “We use to call the former PM ‘the dumb girl’ but I’m not sure whether we now have a dumber PM or not, since our lives have more suffering than during the dumb girl’s government…”. We can’t help but observe that many “activists” simply personalize politics. Big pictures and grand ideas seem to rank lower in politics for them.

In all of this it is noticeable that it is Channel NewsAsia that reminds its readers that this military junta has blood on its hands. The report is of the failure of justice for the victims of the 2010 crackdown on red shirt protesters and reminds us that the “military’s leaders also stated they would bring about reconciliation while in power.” We doubt any red shirts ever believed this. Indeed, the junta has gone out of its way to deepen the political divide by targeting red shirts and the Puea Thai Party.

And, we should not forget the academic “media.” As we noted a couple of weeks ago, the Journal of Contemporary Asia has a special issue on Thailand’s authoritarian turn. Two of the articles are for free download.





Lese majeste news

8 05 2016

In the current situation of abductions and hostage-taking by the military regime, a couple of recent stories worth reading on lese majeste deserve mention here.

The first is an long and reflective article by Nanchanok Wongsamuth in the Bangkok Post. The article provides some interesting background on Bundith Arniya, who is currently on trial for his second lese majeste charge. He was first accused of lese majeste in 1975.

The second is an important article by Pravit Rojanaphruk at Khaosod English on the efforts of Akechai Hongkangwarn to raise funds for those incarcerated on lese majeste. Akechai was arrested in March 2011 on lese majeste allegations and was convicted in March 2013. He was released on 15 November 2015. The website of the For Friends Association has details on how to make donations.





A PPT catch-up on Juntaland

7 04 2016

Having spent a considerable time putting together our Panama papers II post, we fell behind on other useful reports that have come out in recent days. Here’s a brief round-up:

Thai politics sink into vicious circle, from NewEurope. It begins: “Even though a new constitution is on the way in Thailand, it doesn’t seem this process will bring more democracy. On the contrary, the country is further sinking into its political vicious circle of instability.” It also cites Eugénie Mérieau, speaking at the hearing on the political crisis in Thailand at the French senate on 5 April.

Press Release from the Cross Cultural Foundation, Order bestowing sweeping powers and impunity to military breaches rule of law and human rights. Notes the allocation of police powers to the military and the threat to human rights and law. It ends: “The Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) urges the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, to review and revoke the order to uphold the rule of law and human rights safeguard, particularly the right to justice process which is fundamental and indispensable for the restoration of democracy in Thailand.” Not much chance of that.

On the same topic, Asia Sentinel has the report, Thai Junta Turns Law Enforcement Over to Soldiers. It concludes: “The plan for continuing dictatorship is becoming clear, with military officers taking effective control of the criminal investigations, and assuming the powers of the police…. This is a new threshold, a whole new low on human rights in Thailand, that shows the NCPO is entrenching itself for the long term. What’s telling is that the NCPO’s list of ‘influential persons’ is not about so-called mafia only, but includes community leaders and activists who are being targeted by the military for standing up for their rights.”

Nirmal Ghosh at The Straits Times writes Thai military’s grand design in politics. It begins with a comparison with Myanmar: “The shadow of the army in Myanmar is a long one, but, over the past five years, it has shrunk. Next door in Thailand, though, the shadow of the Royal Thai Army is lengthening.” Much of the op-ed is in line with things PPT has been saying for some time: “It is obvious that the military’s grand design is to weaken political parties in order to have easily disposable coalition governments. The military will remain the real power whatever the outcome of the referendum and the election.” He quotes Thongchai Winichakul.

Pravit Rojanaphruk has an op-ed at The Guardian: Thailand is turning into Juntaland – and we are resisting. He begins: “Deep down, Thailand’s military junta leaders are probably aware that they are illegitimate. They’ve become increasingly paranoid and repressive in their crackdown against any form of resistance – both online and offline.” It ends: “Deep down, the junta knows that its power rests not on legitimacy but on the barrel of guns and the threat of arbitrary detention that is increasingly turning Thailand to Juntaland.”