Updated: Absurd defenses of feudalism

16 10 2017

Update: A reader rightly points out that our headline is potentially misleading. Let us be clear: the absurdities are all on the side of those implementing, using and defending the feudal lese majeste law.

PPT has had several posts regarding the efforts of a couple of retired generals, public prosecutors and a military court’s decision to go ahead with investigations of a lese majeste charge 85 year-old Sulak Sivaraksa. He dared to raise doubts about a purported historical event from centuries ago. (In fact, the prosecutors have until 7 December to activate the charge or let it lie.)

We have been interested to observe how parts of the media seem to far braver in pointing out the absurdities of this case than when it is workers, farmers, labor activists or average people who are charged in equally absurd cases. If these people are red shirts or fraudsters, there’s often barely a peep from the media.

Conservative, middle class, aged, royalist and intellectual Sulak, who has also been anti-Thaksin Shinawatra, is far easier to defend than those in more uncomfortable political and social locations for some reporters and writers.

His case also generates more international attention, as his cases have always done since 1984, when international academics supported him (and an alleged communist) under the administration led by General Prem Tinsulanonda.

Just in the Bangkok Post, there have been three op-eds and one editorial that each point out the ridiculousness of the case against Sulak. These include:

Yellow-hued, anti-Thaksinist Veera Prateepchaikul writes that the latest case is “unique in its absurdity.” He says he sees two troubling issues with the case:

First, … why did it take police three years to decide to send this case to the prosecutor — a military prosecutor in this case because we are now under the junta regime?

The second issue concerns the police interpretation of the lese majeste law or Section 112 of the Criminal Code in a way which makes the law look like it has an infinitely long hand which can delve into an event which took place some 400 years ago. The land on which the elephant duel was said to take place was not even called Siam.

Kong Rithdee, who has been pretty good and brave in calling out the lese majeste fascists, points out the absurdities of the case:

Another day, another lese majeste story. This time the interpretation of the contentious law goes back much further, to 1593 to be precise, to a dusty battlefield somewhere before “Thailand” existed.

The use of a military court to possibly sentence an 85 year-old to 15 years in jail is also mentioned as absurd.

Kong makes some connections that warrant more attention:

The scope of interpretation of Section 112 has been one of the central bristles of modern Thai politics, and while there have been cases that raised your eyebrows and body temperature (that of Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa, to name just one), this wild reading of the law to cover an event from 400 years ago borders on dark comedy.

He asks if the absurdity of Sulak’s case tells Thais that they must not discuss or adopt a critical perspective on history. It seems Thais are expected to accept schoolbook nationalism and the jingoism of royalist film-makers.

Ploenpote Atthakor takes up the blind royalist nationalism. She observes that, in Thailand, there is no “dialogue” about historical events, “especially the parts concerning historical heroes or heroines, or even villains, hardly exists. Anyone who dares to question particular historical episodes may face trouble.” She notes how the history that got Sulak into trouble has changed several times and is disputed by historians.

Ultra-nationalism blinds Thais. The red hot pokers have been wielded by feudal-minded royalists and military dictators.

The Bangkok Post editorial extends the discussion to law and injustice:

In what appears to be an attempt at law enforcement, authorities in the past two weeks have taken legal action against two prominent public figures by resorting to what appears to be a misuse of both the law and its principles.

One is Sulak’s case and the other person is Thaksin, one of his lese majeste cases and the retroactive application of a law. The Post states that the cases “not only put the Thai justice system under the global spotlight but will also jeopardise law enforcement in the country.”

The editorial questions the police’s interpretation of the law, saying it:

is worrisome and has prompted questions about how far such a law should be applied. If Mr Sulak is indicted, it would create a chilling climate of fear and hurt the credibility of Thailand’s justice system….

In proceeding legal actions against the two men, the authorities must realise any abuses of the law can set bad precedents with a far-reaching impact on Thai citizens.

All these perspectives are right. We applaud these journalists for daring to defend Sulak and, in one instance, even Thaksin. At the same time, it would be brave and right to point out the absurdities that face many others charged with lese majeste. The military dictatorship has gotten away with being absurd for too long.





The “necessity” of military dictatorship

13 10 2017

In the Bangkok Post, commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak comes up with his repeated excuse for military domination. He claims the succession explains it:

The consequent royal transition is likely to be viewed in posterity as the principal reason why the Thai people have had to put up with Gen Prayut.

Later he states, as he has before, that:

To appreciate how Gen Prayut and his cohorts could seize power and keep it with relative ease, we need to recognise the late King Bhumibol’s final twilight. The royal succession was imminent by coup time, and the Thai people collectively kind of knew the special and specific circumstances this entailed. Power had to be in the hands of the military, as it had to ultimately perform a midwife role. Unsurprisingly, ousted elected politicians may have complained about and deplored the coup but none wanted to retake power during the coup period. They knew that after seven decades of the reign in the way that the Thai socio-political system was set up around the military, monarchy and bureaucracy, it had to be the generals overseeing this once-in-a-lifetime transition.

This is nonsensical propaganda. There were, at the time, and today, many, many Thais who reject this royalist babble. But Thitinan just ignores the deep political and social struggles that marked the period of discord that began with the Asian economic crisis in 1997 and which was punctuated by two military coups.

Thitinan appears to us to be expressing the views of the socially disconnected middle class of Bangkok, those who hate and fear the majority of Thais, and “protect” themselves by attaching themselves to the economic and political power of the Sino-Thai tycoons, monarchy and military.

Thais have “put up with” ghastly military rulers for decades. The military dictators and rulers have used the monarchy to justify their despotism. General Pin Choonhavan used the “mysterious” death of Ananda Mahidol; General Sarit Thanarat promoted the monarchy as a front for his murderous regime; General Prem Tinsulanonda made “loyalty” de rigueur for political office.

Thitinan is wrong and, worse, whether he wants to or not, he provides the nasty propaganda that is justification for military dictatorship. We can only imagine that the military junta is most appreciative.

One reason Thais “put up with” military dictatorship now is because anti-democrats want it, because many of them hate elections that give a power to the subaltern classes. And, as Thitinan acknowledges,

Gen Prayut and his fraternal top brass in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have guns and tanks to intimidate and coerce. In their first year in power, the ruling generals detained hundreds of dissenters and opponents for “attitude adjustment”. They even put some of those who disagreed on trial in military court. They also came up with their own laws in an interim charter, including the draconian absolutist Section 44. And they have used and manipulated other instruments and agencies of the state to keep people in check and dissent suppressed.

To be sure, dozens of Thais are languishing in jail during junta rule. One young man, a student with his own strong views, has been jailed for re-posting a social media message that appeared on more than two thousand other pages. The junta also has banned political parties from organising, and has generally violated all kinds of human rights and civil liberties all along.

In addition, the generals have not been immune to corruption allegations….

Thais, it seems, must just “put up with” all this in order to facilitate the death of a king, succession and coronation. Thitinan goes even further, lauding The Dictator:

who grew up in the Thai system from the Cold War, who came of age at the height of Thailand’s fight against communism in the 1970s, seeing action on the Cambodian border against the Vietnamese in the 1980s, serving both the King and Queen and the people in the process with devotion and loyalty.

In fact, General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military promotion was not forged in “battle” but in providing service to the palace and especially the queen.

Thitinan declares that General Prayuth is the “soul of the nation,” a term once used for the dead king:

When Gen Prayut spoke for the nation [after the last king died], he meant it. Fighting back tears, in seven short minutes, he said what had to be said, and directed us Thais to two main tasks, the succession and the cremation after a year’s mourning. Had it been Yingluck [Shinawatra], who is not known for her eloquence, she might have stumbled during the speech. Had it been Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is fluid and flawless in speechmaking, it would have lacked the soul of the nation.

It had to be Gen Prayut, the strongman dictator and self-appointed premier. He is an earnest man, purposeful and well-intentioned….

Make no mistake, this is pure propaganda for military dictatorship. Make no mistake, Thitinan is justifying military dictatorship for the West, “translating” Thai “culture” for those he thinks are Thailand’s friends. He is saying to The Dictator and to “friends” in the West that 2018 or 2019 will mark the end of an “unusual” time and a return to “normality.” That “normal” is Thai-style democracy, guided for years by the military and its rules.

For those who seek a more nuanced and less propagandist reflection try Michael Peel in the Financial Times. He was formerly a correspondent for the FT based in Bangkok, and has penned “Thailand’s monarchy: where does love end and dread begin?” (The article is behind a paywall, but one may register and get access.) Peel asks: “In a country where few dare to speak openly about the royals, how do Thais feel about their new ruler?”

That is, how do they feel about the succession that Thitinan propagandizes as having “required” military dictatorship working as midwife.





Updated: 6 October and dictatorship

6 10 2017

A few days ago PPT post about the new website has been launched from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, to establish and maintain an archive about the massacre of 6 October 1976.

On this day in 1976, royalists and rightists were mobilized with and by the police and military in a massacre of students and others they had decided were threats to the monarchy. With claims of lese majeste and communists at work, these “protectors” of the monarchy and royal family engaged in an orgy of violence, killing, injuring and arresting thousands.

For a radio program on the events, listen to the BBC’s Witness story on the October 1976 events in Thailand, with  archival audio footage of reporting from the time and Ajarn Puey Ungpakorn, and a present-day interview with Ajarn Thongchai Winichakul. Read Puey on the terrible events by following the links here.

The king and the royal family fully supported the massacre at Thammasat University.

In remembering this massacre in the name of the monarchy, we are reminded that the current military dictatorship bears many of the characteristics of the dictatorship that resulted from the murderous events of 6 October in 1976.

Thanin Kraivixien was a dedicated fascist judge who served the king. His government was established to turn back the political clock and established a 12 year plan to do this. Today, three years of military dictatorship is meant to be followed by 20 years of rewinding under military, royalist and rightist tutelage.

Mercifully, Thanin’s extreme authoritarianism only lasted a year but military-backed rule continued until 1988, first with General Kriangsak Chomanan as premier. He was replaced by the more reliable royalist posterior polisher, General Prem Tinsulanonda. After 1988, Prem retained considerable political influence and has repeatedly supported military coups. His support for the current dictatorship has been stated several times.

Update: The military remains exceptionally prickly about this event of 41 years ago. And justifiably so in that military fingerprints are all over one of Thailand’s worst massacres of civilians. So it is that Khaosod reports that a film about the event was prevented from being screened on the anniversary. By the Time It Gets Dark or ดาวคะนอง is a 2016 film directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong. It has has some very good reviews.

But the military censors weren’t interested in art. According to Khaosod, theatre owner Thida Plitpholkarnpim announced two hours before it was to show that the thugs had said no. She added: “Don’t ask for the reason…. They misunderstood the story of the film. They couldn’t even remember the name of [tonight’s] activity.”





Following some trails and not others

30 09 2017

The media seems flooded with Yingluck Shinawatra stories. Dozens of them. And most of them are about the “hunt for Yingluck.”

We understand that the anti-democrats, including the Democrat Party, are beside themselves with rage about Yingluck’s disappearance, but we can’t help feeling that the attention is over the top. We wonder if the news blitz isn’t part of a junta plan to reduce the attention to its role in her departure. After all, the DNA swabs and “scientific” policing seems pretty much like a performance rather than an investigation. And what will the “investigation” show? She’s gone. Maybe some scapegoats facing minor charges? It hardly matters except as a performance for the anti-democrats.

While following trails, the Krungthai Bank (KTB) and Krisda Mahanakorn (KMN) real-estate company loan scandal has produced some interesting social media.

The Bangkok Post reports that:

… photos circulated online purportedly showing a cheque worth 100,000 baht signed by Wichai Krisdathanont, a former executive of KMN, on Dec 26, 2003. Also featured was a purported deposit slip showing that the cheque had been deposited into the bank account of Adm Pachun Tamprateep, an aide to Privy Council President Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, five days later.

Another photo shows part of a 250,000 baht cheque written out for a general whose name started with the letter “P”. It was supposedly signed on Sept 20, 2003 also by Wichai. According to the online post on social media, the money was then ordered to be wired to the bank account of the General Prem Tinsulanonda Historical Park Foundation.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) is hot on the trail. Well maybe not. It “has set up a panel to look into petitions urging the agency to probe individuals suspected of receiving embezzled money…”.

Its director-general Paisit Wongmuang said “the panel, formed by him, will look into all petitions and determine whether there were new issues that needed to be investigated.”

At present, the only targets seems to be Shinawatra-related cases, including Panthongtae Shinawatra.

We can’t wait to see how DSI fudges any notion that higher-ups might have pocketed millions more than Panthongtae is accused of receiving.

Interestingly, it seems that the photos have been leaked from DSI’s own investigators. It seems someone reckoned there was a cover-up going on.





2006 military coup remembered

19 09 2017

2006 seems a long time ago. So much has happened since the palace, led by General Prem Tinsulanonda, the military and a coterie of royalist anti-democrats (congealed as the People’s Alliance for Democracy) brought down Thaksin Shinawatra’s government on 19 September 2006.

Yet it is remembered as an important milestone in bringing down electoral democracy in Thailand and establishing the royalist-military authoritarianism that has deepened since the 2014 military coup that brought down Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government.

Khaosod reports:

Pro-democracy activists are marking the 11th anniversary of the 2006 coup on Tuesday evening on the skywalk in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Representatives from the police and BTS Skytrain were ordering them to clear the area because it belongs to the rail operator.

The location, frequented by commuters and tourists in a highly visible location, has become a de facto location for protests since the 2014 coup.

“It’s unbelievable how far back we’ve gone for the past 11 years,” said Siriwit Seritiwat, the prominent activist known as Ja New. “The country doesn’t suck by itself, but it sucks because of the wicked cycle.”

The 2006 coup was no surprise given that Thaksin had faced determined opposition from PAD and from General Prem, who reflected palace and royal household dissatisfaction with Thaksin. The coup came after Thaksin had been re-elected in a landslide in February 2005 with about 60% of the vote.

Thaksin had many faults and made many mistakes often as a result of arrogance. The February 2005 election reflected Thaksin’s popularity and this posed a threat to the monstrous egos in the palace. Of course, they also worried about Thaksin’s combination of political and economic power and his efforts to control the military.

Thaksin’s reliance on votes and the fact that he accumulated them as never before was an existential threat to the powers that be. The elite feared for its control of political, economic and social power.

Behind the machinations to tame Thaksin lurked the real power holders in the military brass, the palace and the upper echelons of the bureaucracy who together comprised the royalist state. Some referred to this as the network monarchy and others identified a Deep State. They worried about their power and Thaksin’s efforts to transform Thailand. Others have said there were concerns about managing succession motivating coup masters.

We are sure that there were many motivations, fears and hallucinatory self-serving that led to the coup. Wikileaks has told part of the story of the machinations.

Coup soldiers wearing the king’s yellow, also PAD’s color

A way of observing the anniversary of the military-palace power grab on 19 September 2006 is to look again at Wikileaks cables that reflect most directly on that coup. Here they are:

There are more cables on the figures circling around the coup and the events immediately before and after the coup, giving a pretty good picture of how the royalist elite behaved and what they wanted the U.S. embassy to know.

The royalist elite came to believe that the 2006 coup failed as pro-Thaksin parties managed to continue to win elections. The result was the development of an anti-democracy ideology and movement that paved the way for the 2014 coup and the military dictatorship that is determined to uproot the “Thaksin regime” and to eventually make elections events that have no meaning for governing Thailand.





Updated: Royal wealth and the squeeze on the taxpayer

13 09 2017

Academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun has recently published an op-ed at The Japan Times. “A very wealthy monarch grows wealthier” examines the July “reorganization of the Crown Property Bureau, to pave the way for his [King Vajiralongkorn’s] control of this financial wing of the monarchy.”

Pavin observes that:

The new legislation was approved by the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, which appointed Vajiralongkorn as the sole authority over royal wealth. This dismantled the traditional mechanism put in place by his father … who appointed a government official to manage the crown property. Instead, under the new bill, Vajiralongkorn will set up a board of directors to oversee his assets.

We don’t think this is entirely accurate. It is odd to call the previous arrangement “traditional.” Rather, laws that have been revised a couple of times since 1932 established that the Minister of Finance would chair the CPB (as Pavin later notes). It is that governmental link that has been removed and the CPB made the preserve of the king. Pavin is right to note that:

There are two key characteristics of the legislation. First, the king is entitled to appoint the board members, as well as to remove them, at his discretion. Second, the law prohibits the taking away of royal assets without the king’s approval.

As others have noted, this new arrangement means the “Crown Property Bureau is the corporate arm of the monarchy, performing as the major shareholder of the kingdom’s biggest cement company and one of the largest commercial banks.” It’s also correct that “the most valuable assets owned by the royal family are huge swaths of land, much of it in prime areas in central Bangkok.”

Pavin is also correct to argue that “the financial status of the monarchy [the CPB and private wealth combined] has dominated Thailand’s economic landscape. The super-rich status of the king played a vital part in buttressing the political power of the royal family.” Likewise, it is certainly true that part of the CPB’s business success “derived from special privileges granted to the monarchy in conducting business” without transparency or accountability.

Then there’s the capacity of this fabulously wealthy monarchy to leech off the taxpayer. Not only does the CPB pay no taxes (its listed companies do) but there’s a seemingly bottomless money pit that takes money from the taxpayer and redistributes it to the richest of Thailand’s rich.

The much touted “royal projects” are funded by the taxpayer – thank General Prem Tinsulanonda for that redistribution when he was unelected premier. And then there is the cash spent on the “operations of the Bureau of the Royal Household and the expenses of the monarch and his extended family members,” along with bags of money for “promoting” the monarchy.

Despite the wealth of the Crown Property Bureau, the monarchy is allocated generous funds from the government for private and public expenses. Around $170 million annually in state funding covers the salaries of staff working in the Royal Household Bureau and other palace offices, including protection provided for the royal family by the security forces.

Pavin reckons the “budget for the promotion of the dignity of the monarchy,” was almost $400 million in 2003, increasing to $438 million in 2015.

We looked at the 2016 and 2017 budget years in documents available from the Budget Bureau (Thailand’s Budget In Brief), and we think the figures are striking. In 2016, the amount for “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy”under the National Security Strategy, on its own, comes to about $555 million. As can be seen in the attached snip, there’s more in the budget for “unified reconciliation.”

The interesting thing is that when one goes through the budget lines provided it is decidedly unclear if the strategies listed as 2.1 and 2.2 overlap the roughly $340 million for royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on. Given that every ministry and department will spend oodles on royal promotion not covered under the programs above, we are thinking that, in 2016, the monarchy cost Thai taxpayers something like $700-800 million.

How does this look in 2017? The format provided is different, but we located this:It seems highly unlikely that the programs have changed this much. Rather, the changed format is suggestive of covering up the huge amount on “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy” in 2016. What we do observe is that the second program has gone up by about 60%. In looking at details of funding to royal projects, royal travel, royal bureaus, royal vanity projects and so on, there has been a 37.8% increase, thanks mainly to the creation of a budget line for the Chulabhorn Research Institute (about $115 million). The total budget in these lines in 2017 was $472 million. We might guess that the total taxpayer bill for all things royal is around $1 billion.

(Correct us if you think we are wrong in our calculations.)

Whatever way you look at it, this fabulously wealthy king and royal family, worth perhaps $50-60 billion, also leeches off the taxpayer to the tune of another $1 billion a year.

Update: Somsak Jeamteerasakul wants to challenge some of the points made by Pavin:

Pavin’s article contains some significant errors or misleading statements, and this post doesn’t correct them, even repeats them. For instance. it’s not “right to note” the “two characteristics” of the new legislation. Those two were already there in the previous law. In fact, the second ”characteristic” is quite misleading to put it that way, both in the case of the previous law (article 7 which was more suit to describe as Pavin does, but still isn’t entirely apt) and the new law (article 8 last para., which doesn’t really mean what Pavin says; it is not about [others] ‘taking away’ royal assets at all, just saying that the king-appointed committee couldn’t sell or make any transaction of the asset without his formal approval). Pavin was also wrong to say the late king “appointed a government official to manage the crown property”. The next sentence is also mistaken: “instead, the – no, it’s not something King X does ‘instead’; his father also did. Pavin was wrong again to say “Under King Bhumibol, the board of directors for the royal assets answered to the finance minister.” In both the letters of the old law (read carefully article 4, nothing about ‘answered to’ at all) and in practice (for 70 years, finance ministers of all successive governments did have any say in the management of the CPB). In consequence and in this context, Pavin’s next sentence is also incorrect: “NOW, it is independent of the government.” It isn’t “now” that the CPB is ‘independent of the government.’; it had always been since 1948.

As we said above, there were some problems with Pavin’s characterization of the new law, but Somsak is rather picky on this stuff, being immersed in the detail. We don’t believe that Pavin states that the “two characteristics” are new in the new law. Somsak prefers a very careful reading, and that’s fine. We pretty much agree with his other points.

However, we were more interested in taxpayer funding to the monarchy. As we said above, we are keen to know if our calculations are wonky.





Prem’s support for dictatorship eternal

24 08 2017

At 97 years, General Prem Tinsulanonda’s penchant for political interference remains undiminished even if his physical and mental capacities are now reduced.

As is usual, when his birthday rolls around, his military posterior polishers show up at his taxpayer funded home to buff the old man while he lauds corrupt military leaders and constitution crushers.

Reports of the mutual back-patting is sometimes worth recounting for the morsels it reveals of the thinking about military dictatorship.

This year, The Dictator “spent five minutes verbally extending his best wishes to Gen Prem.” General Prayuth Chan-ocha praised his patron as a “good example of love for the nation,” with the emphasis on “good,” for it is Prem who has defined “good people” and “bad people-politicians” for Thailand’s traditionalists and royalists.

Prayuth also stated that “he would follow the path of Gen Prem and free the nation of internal conflict.” Prem is remembered by some as a commander in the latter period of the anti-communist civil war. It is telling that Prayuth feels he is fighting a similar war. Such a view goes some of the way to explaining the 2010 military massacre of red shirts.

Privy Council president Prem cheered that too.

Today Prem “expressed support for the [military] government … and stressed that it has helped improve the lives of Thai people.” We are not at all sure which “Thai people” Prem talks with. None that we know.

Gen Prem babbled on:

I think that Thai people understand what Tu [The Dictator’s nickname] does… I think that Thai people understand that the government is working to save people from poverty and have sufficiency. They will understand that you are not doing it for your own honour or reputation….

And on:

Gen Prem also referred to his lasting friendship with Gen Prayut and Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, saying that this friendship would ensure the smooth working of the government.

And on. Friends, nepotism, corruption, paternalism:

I would like Tu to pay attention to remaining determined to work for the nation. Do not get an unnecessary headache over people’s remarks….

It must be frustrating for those who feel Thailand would and has done better when the military is not on top.