2014 military coup: assessing and forgetting

21 05 2018

There’s currently a plethora of stories and op-eds that assess the results of the 2014 military coup.

Despite limited resources, Khaosod is usually a news outlet that is better than others at reporting the events of the day and in trying to be critical of military rule. However, one of its assessment stories is rather too forgetful.

Teeranai Charuvastra is the author and begins with the sad statistic that The Dictator Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has been directing the state since he seized it 1,641 days on Tuesday. In fact, he effectively seized power a couple of days earlier and the official coup announcement then followed.

That long four years is, Teeranai observes, “longer than any other coup leader since the Cold War.”

We are not exactly sure when the Cold War ended. Perhaps its late 1991 when the Soviet Union itself dissolved into its all those republics. Perhaps it is the fall of the Berlin Wall two years earlier. It matters only because if it is December 1991, then there’s only been two military coups in Thailand in that period, both involving roughly the same military crew as is in power now. If it is 1989, then add one more coup.

Two or three coups in Thailand’s long history of military seizures of the state doesn’t necessarily amount to establishing a pattern, although Teeranai’s thinks it does. The claim is that:

Every ‘successful’ military takeover of the last four decades has followed the same script: The generals who led the putsch quickly install a civilian prime minister, ostensibly to give the appearance of democratic rule, before retreating into the shadows. Typically, general elections have been organized within a year.

For one thing, that time period takes us back to about 1978, when Gen Kriangsak Chomanan was in the premier’s seat, having seized power in late 1977 from the ultra-royalist/ultra-rightist regime of civilian and palace favorite Thanin Kraivixien.

But back to Gen Prayuth, who is claimed to have gone off-script. Military junkie/journalist Wassana Nanuam is quoted in support of this claim: “He tore to pieces the rules of the coup.”

Back to the dates. Is there a script. In our view there is, but it isn’t the version proclaimed by Wasana. Rather, the script for the military is in seizing and holding power. When Gen Sarit Thanarat seized power in 1957, he put a civilian in place but in 1958 took power himself. He and his successors held power until 1973. When the military again seized power in 1976, it reluctantly accepted the king’s demand for Thanin to head a government. He failed and Kriangsak seized power in late 1977. Kriangsak held the premiership until 1980, when the military leadership convinced him to handover to palace favorite Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, who stayed until 1988.

Now there’s a pattern. We think its the pattern that Prayuth’s dictatorial junta has had in mind since they decided that the 2006 coup had failed to adequately expunge Thaksin Shinawatra’s appeal and corral the rise of electoral politics.

So Wassana’s triumphalism about The Dictator “breaking a mold” is simply wrong. The military regime is, like its predecessors in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, about embedding the military and throttling electoral politics.

Wassana’s other claim is that Prayuth’s coup and plan to hold power was risky. We think that’s wrong too.

In fact, after 2006 was declared a failure, Prayuth and his former bosses, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan and Gen Anupong Paojinda, had worked with various rightist and royalist agents to undermine the likely opponents of another military political victory: red shirts and politicians of the elected variety.

ISOC was an important part of that as it systematically destroyed red shirt operations and networks.

In addition, the courts and “independent” agencies had all been co-opted by the military and its royalist and anti-democrat allies.

There was never any chance that Prayuth would hand over to an appointee.

Teeranai’s piece also asks; “So how did Prayuth’s National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, manage to stay this long?”

The response is: “The reasons are many, … [that] range from the junta’s use of brute force to Prayuth’s personal influence.” But a “common thread has to do with what the junta is not. The regime’s success, according to most people interviewed, lies in convincing people it is a better alternative to the color-coded feuds and churning upheaval that have plagued the nation.”

We think this is only true for some people and certainly not all. And the people who were convinced are the anti-democrats. Those interviewed are mostly yellow shirts who define “the people” as people like them.

When Suriyasai Katasila says that “The people felt there was only instability… So people accept the NCPO’s [junta] intervention, even though it cost them certain rights,” he speaks for some of Bangkok’s middle class and the anti-democrats.

Other anti-democrats are cited: “people don’t see the point of calling for elections, because they think things will just be the same after the election. People are sick and tired.” Again, these are words for the anti-democrats and by the anti-democrats.

If elections were rejected, one would expect low turnouts for them. If we look just at 2011 and 2007, we see voter turnout in excess of 80%. The anti-democrats propagandize against elections and speak of “the people” but represent a minority.

We’ve said enough. The aims of the current military junta are clear. And the anti-democrats are self-serving and frightened that the people may be empowered by the ballot box. That’s why the junta is rigging any future vote.





Weird and freaky II

15 05 2018

As part of its Cannes Review, the Film Stage blog refers to the Ten Years International Project which seeks to give articstic and political voice to Asian filmmakers. The first is Ten Years Thailand featuring Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wisit Sasanatieng, Aditya Assarat, and Chulayarnnon Siriphol.

Aditya’s opening salvo “could easily take place in the present. Shot in black-and-white, it is set in a small art gallery that is hosting a photography exhibition. A group of soldiers arrive and order the pictures to be taken down despite the curator and artist’s protests that there is nothing problematic on show.” The only moment of “optimism” is a young soldier’s romance with a member of the cleaning staff at the gallery.

From there, things “get weirder and more sinister…”. Cat heads hunting down humans in a weird metaphor of the current political situation and then a “futuristic boy scout group led by a woman in a pink military uniform lives in a brightly colorful compound reminiscent of Teletubbyland.” This land has massive surveillance. Thailand knows a pink man, it knows men in uniform and surveillance is a fact of life, so the links to Thailand as an unreality land come to mind.

Then there’s Apichatpong’s short, set in a park that appeared in his last feature, Cemetery of Splendour, where he portrays the grim and melancholy specter of military domination, epitomized in a park (country) that is being remade (reform) by bulldozers (the dictatorship) and watched over by a statue of Marshal Sarit Thanarat. As the film ends, a character is solemn as he looks to the statue, There seems little that suggests hope for reform by 2028.





Updated: An old lese majeste case

15 04 2018

As we read stuff about Thailand’s political past we sometimes come across little stories that throw some light on more recent events. In reading about the period around the time of the two coups engineered by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, we came upon this translation of a story from Khao Phap, on a lese majeste case. We do not know the outcome:Update: Somsak Jeamteerasakul writes about this case:

The accused was found guilty and sent to jail.

The interesting thing about this case is: the incident happened before the 1957 coup. At the time, the Pibul-Phao government ignored it, because Phibun-Phao had a plan to revive the King’s Death Case (also they wanted to attack the palace circles). It’s only after Sarit took power in the October 1957 coup, with the support of the King, that the case was brought to trial.

This is quite a well-known case. Suphot Dantrakul published the verdict of the case (or at least the summary of the verdict) in his famous 1974 book on King Ananda’s Death Case. I don’t have the book in its various editions at hand. But if my memory serves, only the first edition contained the verdict (or its summary) in the appendix. Subsequent editions don’t.

We appreciate the update. We are not at all that sure that the case is “well-known.” We also agree that the sequence of events is important. Another reader adds that the case has resonances with recent lese majeste cases where people have been convicted for implications drawn from speeches rather than what was actually said.

 





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.