Updated: Making monarchy

19 11 2017

Sport360.com is not usually the subject of a post at PPT. Yet we felt there’s one point in an article about a middle-ranked Thai golfer that reflects something being seen more broadly in Thailand.

Readers will recall the widespread criticism of now King Vajiralongkorn as his father declined and his succession became a reality. There were suggestions that there was a succession crisis that might even split the country or bring down the monarchy.

We are not sure that the succession crisis was all it was said to be. Even so, thanks in part to the repressive military regime and its displays of loyalty to the monarchy, and despite the king’s grasping and threatening personality, he seems to be settling in.

This isn’t all that different from his father’s experience in the period when the royalist General Sarit Thanarat grabbed power and managed the early period of the royal restoration.

Part of the process of creating this new monarch is making a public image that can be used in propaganda.

This process has begun. He’s a “concerned” monarch: he reportedly expressed concern for people waiting for the funeral; he wanted more done for flood victims. We have no idea whether these “concerns” were real or concocted; the point is that they become part of building the image.

So how does golf fit? Under the deceased king, it became almost mandatory for athletes to display excessive loyalty, often handing over their trophies to the king and dedicating their victories to him and his claimed “inspiration.”

Many royalist Thais have come to see this propaganda as “normal” and even expect such displays. Some athletes seem to understand the requirement for regular expressions of loyalty, contrived or otherwise.

So when golfer Kiradech Aphibarnrat turned in a reasonable score in a recent tournament, it became a monarchy story: “Thailand and its proud people have gone through emotional turmoil this year [apparently because the king died last year] – but one of the country’s most beloved sportsmen has risen above it.”

The article claims that Kiradech “has flown the Thai flag high” and hopes for a good score in an event “to honour the late king’s memory.”

That’s all about the dead king, but then this from the golfer: “I’ve tried to do my job. It hasn’t been a good year for Thailand after we lost the king, even though we have a new, fantastic one…”.

There it is. The more it is repeated, the more likely it is to ingrained. Vajiralongkorn has many traits that saw him ridiculed. The military has banned ridicule and has tried to limit the reports. More statements like Kiradech’s will pile on the propaganda that the military and palace hope will overwhelm the negative past.

Update: A reader tells us that we should have mentioned Khaosod’s story of about a week ago, on the king getting in on the charity run for hospitals by Toon Bodyslam. The king is said to be Toon’s “biggest fan.” It was reported that: “To show his appreciation for Toon’s ongoing runathon for 11 hospitals across the country, … the [k]ing has arranged gifts to be sent to the 38-year-old singer on Wednesday when he arrives in Surat Thani province…”. He sent one of his top officials, a general, to hand over the gifts. There’s no news on how much money Thailand’s richest man is donating…. There’s probably a reason for that.





Good rich king, bad rich king

25 10 2017

Are we the only ones who have detected a change in the way that critics of the monarchy are writing about it?

While we recently posted on the ninth reign as a bloody era where thousands of citizens were disappeared, jailed, tortured and killed by the state, usually operating in the name of the monarchy and, for the most part, supported by the king, other commentaries seem to be eulogizing that reign.

An example, and it is one of several, is a New York Time op-ed by Matthew Phillips, a historian in Wales.

Phillips repeats several of the lines from Bhumibol hagiographies and palace propaganda:

Thailand’s previous king … is credited with transforming Thailand into a modern nation-state and unifying the country during times of political turmoil.

The author might acknowledge that this is pure propaganda that ignores real history.

Then in 1946, Bhumibol ascended to the throne, and after a discreet first decade….

The author doesn’t seem to think it important to mention the death of King Ananda Mahidol or the royalist efforts to pin that on innocents and to send political opponents into exile. We would have thought that period was pivotal for the rise of a royalist military.

A military coup in 1958, pro-American and high on Thai pride, placed the (U.S.-born) king at its center, and the Thai public reacted enthusiastically.

We can’t help wondering about how public enthusiasm is measured? By the bodies that piled up under General Sarit Thanarat’s despotism?

King Bhumibol is often credited with foiling a Communist movement during the Cold War, liberalizing the Thai economy and keeping the country together despite its often-fractious politics.

Again, he is “credited” with these superhuman feats, but it is usually palace propagandists making these points.

The rest of Phillip’s article is quite good, so we are not sure why he repeats these lines of hagiography. In other stories, it seems the authors are pining for the past 70 years, comparing that era with what they think is going to be an awful reign under the erratic and narcissistic Vajiralongkorn.

The good bits seem to us to build on several insights from Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles. The previous king and his advisers came up with the propaganda device that made its wealth a sign of merit and allowed others to share in it.

On the funeral, he notes that “… there is little discussion over the expense of King Bhumibol’s cremation.” He adds that, “for the monarchy, has been to make royal wealth seem sacred, and any contribution to it appear virtuous.”

He notes the growth of royal wealth under the dead king.

The royal family, thanks in part to a raft of projects with business, academia, the arts and charities, has implanted itself at the center of Thailand’s cultural and social life — apparently far from the messy, brutal realities of capitalism and political gamesmanship. Giving money or labor to a royally endorsed project has come to be seen as a good deed, and so an opportunity to improve one’s chances of an auspicious rebirth in the Buddhist reincarnation cycle.

… Bhumibol’s material legacy also is great. The Crown Property Bureau, the agency that manages the royal finances, has vastly expanded its business portfolio. Neither the bureau’s assets nor its operations are entirely known, but the Thai monarchy is now thought to be the world’s richest, with an estimated fortune of at least $30 billion. Under … Bhumibol, the royal family of Thailand has become fabulously rich….

No debate there, although the figure is probably closer to $50 billion now. And the new king has control of it. The “fun” is about to begin.





Buddhism, military regimes and new reigns

24 10 2017

There have been a couple of recent stories that deserve some attention. Both relate to the nature of Buddhism.

A first story at the Bangkok Post is classic dictatorship double-speak. High-ranking government mouthpiece Lt Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd, who is usually wheeled out to babble about the things the dictatorship thinks is important stuff, denied that his string-pullers had issued “an instruction to Buddhist temples to destroy non-Buddhist sacred objects, including statues or images of Hindu gods…”.

Pious Prayuth

He said The Dictator, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, “was aware [of] the actions occurring at several temples across the country but had not issued any instructions regarding the matter.”

“It isn’t true” he opined, declaring that the destruction was “being carried out by the monastic community which has thoroughly examined what items are and are not appropriate…”.

Yet the order for the destruction has come from the Sangha Supreme Council, which has been tightly controlled by the military junta. They say this is a campaign “to prevent misunderstandings about Buddhism.”

Then, the propaganda chief blurted out that General Prayuth “stressed that each temple will use its own judgement when removing the statutes or banning the sale of sacred items…”.

This is a part of the junta’s ongoing cleansing of (official) Buddhism. One of its highest risk cleansings was the attempt to destroy the Dhammakaya sect with threats of violence and several arrests.

This followed the then new king’s agreement that the law on the selection of the Supreme Patriarch be changed so that those considered “too close” to Dhammakaya be bypassed. This meant that the king and the dictatorship got their man in the top (Buddhist) spot.

Pious king

For the junta, Dhammakaya was believed to be “too close” to Thaksin Shinawatra.

A second Bangkok Post story has The Dictator seeking to dictate to the country’s two Buddhist universities. He wants the universities to concentrate on Buddhist teaching, taught by monks.

The link in the two stories is the notion that The Dictator is cleansing the religion:

… Santisukh Sobhanasiri, a Buddhism expert, told the Bangkok Post that he has much respect for Gen Prayut over his “brave” role in supporting the Sangha body in its fight against over-commercialisation, such as the sale of amulets from temples.

Pious Sarit

“It’s extraordinary for the PM to dare to deal with this issue,” said Mr Santisukh, adding that amulets produced in ancient times were intended as keepsakes to remind people of the importance of practicing Buddhanusati.

Actually, we do not consider it extraordinary. We also have some doubt that it is just Prayuth at work here. In many new reigns, there is a cleansing of Buddhism as the new monarch establishes his control over the religious hierarchy. That said, other dictators have also cleansed for control. The prime example being General Sarit Thanarat.

We have the feeling that both king and dictatorship are “cleansing” Buddhism as a feudal right of settling in for the long term.





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.





It feels like 1962

2 10 2017

Back in 1962, General Sarit Thanarat had his boot on the neck of Thailand’s politics. He had taken control of everything, including police and personally meted out “justice” against “communists,” “elected politicians” and others.

In other words, the military dictatorship had strong control over the bureaucracy, the military, the police and over broader society. One academic referred to Sarit’s rule as “despotic paternalism,” but the emphasis was really on despotism.

It feels like that now, and recall that Sarit’s military regime went on for a total of 11 years.

What prompted these observations is the story in the Bangkok Post where it is reported that the Minister for Defense and Deputy Dictator General Prawit Wongsuwan has is now putting himself in charge of crime-fighting.

He has “ordered widespread crackdowns on mafia gangs to stop them causing trouble to Thai and foreign tourists across the country.”

It seems that the Defense Minister is now controlling Pattaya (which is supposed to have its own administration), “key police agencies, including the Crime Suppression Division and the Immigration Bureau…”.

Following their “success” with political repression, “joint investigation between military officers and local police” will become common.

Nothing will escape the Deputy Dictator: the drug trade, prostitution, extortion, visa overstays, and down to bag snatching. After Pattaya, the Ministry of Defense plans to cover the country.

The militarization of Thailand continues apace.





Updated: Royalism undermines popular sovereignty

14 08 2017

Everyone knows that the prince, now king, began his purges of the palace from late 2014, when he “divorced” Srirasmi. Dozens of her family and associates were jailed. Then there were the clearances that saw “unreliables” ditched, deaths in custody, lese majeste jailings and the use of a personal jail. Some fearful palace associates, now out of favor, fled the country.

This was followed by an aggregation of control to the palace. The constitution was secretly changed to accord with the king’s desires and then secret meetings of the puppet assembly gave him control over formerly state bureaucratic departments and the vast wealth of the Crown Property Bureau to the king.

Has he finished? Probably not. Fear and favor mean that an erratic king will lose interest in some people and some things and will need to be rid of them. Then he’ll desire control over other people and things.

But one of the other things that is noticeable is the “normalization” of the reign, as if nothing has changed or that the changes made are in line with the normal activities of the king and palace. Yet even this “normalization” has been a process of promoting a heightened royalism.

The media has been used recently to promote royalism. The excuse has been the queen’s 85th birthday, with a series of “stories” about “people nationwide” celebrating her birthday. Many of the photos showed military men and bureaucrats doing the celebrating.

The Dictator was especially prominent, leading the junta in an alms-giving exercise for 851 monks at the Royal Plaza, claiming it was also a tribute to the dead monarch.

More specific propaganda pieces have dwelt on “merit” and filial piety. For example, the Bangkok Post has run pictures of the king, his mother and Princess Sirindhorn making merit together.

Other royal stories include a donation to of 100 million baht to Siriraj Hospital, with the king thanking the hospital for taking care of his father. The money is said to have “come from revenue from selling his diaries featuring his drawings…”.

While we might doubt that so much money can be made from the sale of a collection of childish drawings, the junta’s support for the king has been strong and maybe it bought many diaries and distributed them.

But back to deepening royalism. The Nation reports on a “revival” of Kukrit Pramoj’s restorationist story “Four Reigns.” Kukrit was an incessant promoter of royalism, ideologue for the dictatorial General Sarit Thanarat, booster for King Bhumibol and diplomat for royalism translated for foreigners.

The Four Reigns is now Six Reigns. According to The Nation, the “restaging of Thailand’s most commercially successful musical play is more pro-absolute monarchy than ever.”

The play opens with the scene in which the spirit of Mae Phloi starts to recount her life story and confirm her unwavering love for “kings”, and the background is the familiar image of people gathering outside the wall of the Grand Palace paying respect to the late King Bhumibol.

And with the last scene showing Thai people paying respect to King Vajiralongkorn, the play now covers six, not four, reigns.

Clearly, the play … tries, more clearly than the original novel, to prove … that Thailand was much better before 1932 than after. This outdated attitude doesn’t sit too well in 2017 Thailand, as we try to build our political system from “military junta under a constitutional monarchy” to “unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy”, a kind of democracy that is already difficult to explain to our friends from many countries.

This royalism can only deepen as the cremation of the dead king approaches and as Vajiralongkorn and the junta further embed his reign and undermine notions of popular sovereignty.

Update: The new king is the old king propaganda continues, with two stories at The Nation of the king’s donations to 300 flood victims and 39 students in the south. We should add that there is no evidence provided of where the funds come from. Like royal projects, it may be that “donations” are all taxpayer funded.





Updated: Monarchy vs. 1932

4 07 2017

For the royalist junta, 1932 is very scary. Perhaps because they are royalist or because the king is poking them. Perhaps both.

Khaosod reports twice on Akechai Hongkangwarn. The last we heard of him was on 24 June, when he’d been apprehended by the royalist patrol dogs as he tried to install a mock-up of the missing historical plaque at the so-called Royal Plaza. Then, police apparently did not charge him.

Khaosod’s earliest report states that officials from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration Bang Kapi District Office “visited a [Akechai’s]… Lat Phrao district office to discourage him from petitioning the prime minister to reinstate June 24 as Thai National Day.”

June 24 is the day of the 1932 revolution. The report states that “June 24 was National Day from 1940 to 1960 before then-dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat pushed a cabinet resolution changing it to Dec. 5, the birthday of King Rama IX.”

The BMA officials visited Akechai’s workplace “and asked that he submit a petition intended for Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha to them instead.” He refused, saying he intended “to submit a petition with 200 online signatures Tuesday at Government House…. He said it would be registered, so he could follow up on it.”

Akechai said “the man who spoke to him was polite, but the activist didn’t let the five – including a man with a short military-style haircut – inside his office, fearing they would arrest him.” He added: “I locked the door…”. The group then went off and found Akechai’s mother as a means to pressure him.

Akechai made a prediction: “Since they came to visit me today, I think they will apprehend me tomorrow…”.

The second report is on that prediction being proven correct. Thug-soldiers took him away earlier today, taking him “a local district office in a bid to prevent him from submitting a petition letter to the prime minister urging he reinstate June 24 as the country’s national day…”.

A district official stated that he was “just invited since this morning. I don’t know further details…”. The official was petrified:

“Please don’t name me or I will be damned. What they did was to borrow our equipments and all those were soldiers,” he said, adding however that a district official accompanied the soldiers. “The NCPO has the power and I must follow their orders.”

The official added that some 30 soldiers “use the district office as their workplace” but do “not report to the district chief.” This seems to be the situation at every district office as part of the junta’s militarization of the country by the fascist, authoritarian, royalist and erratic regime.

Update: Khaosod reports that Akechai was permitted to go home after “being taken away by four policemen and pressured by a soldier for nine hours.” He said he was “arrested by four police officers at about 5am on Tuesday and dragged away as he was leaving his residence in Lad Phrao for the Government House.” After that, Army Captain Cholapat Pheungphai, “a junta officer in charge of anti-junta activities in the district” who “pleaded to me [Akechai] to concede otherwise he would have had nothing to show his commander.”

In the end, the captain “succeeded in convincing him not to proceed to the Government House to submit a petition letter asking for the reinstatement of June 24 as national day.” Akechai “agreed” to submit the letter at the District Office.

Any guesses why The Dictator is so fearful of a letter about 1932? Akechai says he “tried to explain [to the soldier] that [the junta] should not be foolish…”. May as well talk to a large rock; it would be as bright and as responsive as The Dictator.