What we want you to believe

11 05 2010

The responses from Ministry of Foreign Affairs to critical articles about the monarchy and the Abhisit Vejjajiva government are getting pretty standardized, but this one from Thana Duangratana, the Thai Ambassador in Kuala Lumpur to the New Straits Times (10 May 2010) is of some interest.

Thana is responding rather belatedly to the article by Sin-Ming Shaw, which got considerable international syndication. PPT posted on it here. Thana states that the article “contains a number of misunderstandings that make his analysis flawed.”

The first misunderstanding has to do with – no big suprise here – “the role of the palace.” The usual blather is presented including the above politics mantra and the idea that it is nasty unnamed others who draw the palace into the political fray. We at PPT assume that this group of nasty others must now include General Prem Tinsulanonda, the President of the Privy Council for his political interventions in recent years. But then again he may be being told to intervene….

The second point is a little less predictable: “discussing the monarchy is certainly not taboo. Thailand’s so-called lese majeste law has never been an obstacle to discussions, particularly academic ones, on the monarchy…. Indeed, only two years ago, at the 10th International Conference on Thai Studies held in Bangkok, lively discussions took place about the monarchy and its role in Thai society.”

Now this is interesting, for the ICTS was not devoid of conflict. Yes, it took place, but only through the glare of international attention and stoic attention to attempts to censor or pressure by Thai academics. Giles Ji Ungpakorn is an academic who published the book A coup for the Rich and found that he was charged with lese majeste. Many would consider Sulak Sivaraksa an academic and intellectual commentator and he has been charged several times. Thanapol Eawsakul edits Fah Diew Kan which is used and read by many academics. He currently faces two charges/accusations of lese majeste. Very few academics are willing to discuss the monarchy openly for fear of lese majeste charges. PPT thinks the ambassador and the bosses in Bangkok are selective in their historical memory.

The third point is to deny that there is any element of class struggle “or urban-rural division…”. The current government line on this is to simply note that “many other democracies [have] economic and social disparities” and that all Thai governments face this problem. Mirroring Kraisak Choonhavan‘s recent line, the ambassador says a “more thorough study of its welfare-oriented policy is recommended for those who believe the government is not pro-poor.” PPT has already commented on this. There are now a plethora of yellow-shirted semi-serious emails circulating claiming the same thing.

Fourth, the Ambassador points to an error in the Shaw article, where it is stated that the red shirts: “demand that the government dissolve the current legislature immediately, and that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resign because he was never elected and is viewed as a front man for the traditional anti-Thaksin monied groups.”

Of course, Abhisit was elected to parliament. However, what Shaw was presumably pointing to was the tawdry manner in which Abhisit was catapulted to the premier’s chair and his party to government, in coalition with breakaway members of the (court dissolved) People’s Power Party in a deal brokered by the military, some business interests and the palace. To say, as the Ambassador does, that Abhisit “was voted prime minister by the majority of the House of Representatives in the same manner and by exactly the same house as his two predecessors” is a misrepresentation.

Abhsit’s two predecessors were made prime minister in quite different circumstances. Samak Sundaravej was leader of the largest party to come out of the 2007 election. His successor, Somchai Wongsawat, was elected to the leadership by his party – still by far the largest in parliament – after Samak was disqualified in the bizarre cooking case. Abhisit needed non-stop demonstrations by his PAD allies, including the occupation of Government House and Bangkok’s two airports, a shonky court case dissolving the PPP, and a behind closed door deal brokered by the abovementioned extra-parliamentary forces to get levered into government.

Fifth, the Ambassador claims that “the legal process on certain cases — including those outstanding against both the so-called ‘Yellow Shirts’ and ‘Red Shirts’ — takes time [and] should not be construed as impunity. The judicial system in Thailand is independent. How quickly each case proceeds depends largely on its complexity.” This is another misrepresentation. As the abovementioned case that dissolved PPP, the earlier case dissolving the Thai Rak Thai Party and the decision to declare the April 2006 election void indicate, politicized decision-making is a trait of the judiciary. They also show that the courts can move fast when they want to.

The sixth point Thana makes refers to the rise of civil society, where the Ambassador reminds Shaw that it was “civil society” that was responsible for rallying “against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, holding him and other public officers to a higher standard of accountability and propriety.” It is difficult to know what Thana means here. For one thing, it is often said that civil society was intimidated and repressed under Thaksin. Perhaps he refers to the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which was often violent and decidedly uncivil in their actions? PPT wonders if he would also include the red shirts as a part of civil society?

The Democrat Party and its supporters are desperately trying to win back the international support that they have lost. It seems clear, however, that the international media and foreign governments are unlikely to see Thailand’s political crisis and its current government in the terms Abhisit and his spin doctors prefer. However, gross exaggeration, misrepresentation and lies are unlikely to be appreciated.

The monarchy in question

20 04 2010

Sin-ming Shaw at Project Syndicate (which seems to have some interesting members) has a think piece on Thailand’s current political fight and the role of the monarchy. It begins: “Thailand’s political and social fabric is fraying. Indeed, the country’s future looks as shaky as it has never been.”

It believes that in the past, “four broad groups has held Thailand together: the ‘Palace’ – a euphemism used here to avoid violating draconian lèse majesté laws; big business, the custodian of economic growth; the military, which ensures, first and foremost, the sanctity of the Palace and the moral values it represents; and the common people, mostly rural and urban poor, who accept the rule of the other three estates.” All this hid behind a national mythology of “compassion and harmony under the benevolent grace and blessings of the Palace and the generosity of big business.”

The paper says: “Many believe that the current crisis will pass, and that Thailand will revert to its historical harmony among the four groups. But this view ignores the country’s new political dynamics.” It provides the example of “Thailand’s lower classes [who] have decided that docility is a thing of the past. They are angry and frustrated by the status quo.” Meanwhile, “the wealthy dwell in air-conditioned houses, travel in chauffeur-driven cars, and shop in luxury malls, apparently oblivious to how the rest of the country lives.”

Then to the monarchy: “the unspoken issue behind Thailand’s unrest is that, with the country’s 82-year-old king ailing, the Palace’s moral force has come into question. Indeed, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Pirmoya, breaking taboos that have governed the country for years, recently spoke about the need to re-examine the country’s lèse majesté laws so that public discourse could intelligently address the role of the Palace in Thailand’s future. What Thaksin did for the poor required only political self-interest. Yet even that elementary wisdom has never occurred to traditional ruling elites too set in their myopic and arrogant ways. Until it does, Thailand’s otherwise promising future will be increasingly remote.”

The Wall Street Journal (21 April 2010) in an article titled “Breaking a Thai Taboo,” begins from Kasit’s comments last week about the need to talk about the monarchy and lese majeste. The WSJ says that this is “a welcome and overdue suggestion, especially from a politician known to be in the royalist camp.”

Assuming that “most” Thais want the monarchy to continue, the Journal observes that “it is currently almost impossible to have a reasoned discussion about the king’s role. That’s because the country has one of the world’s strictest lese majeste laws. Any criticism of any member of the royal family, no matter how mild, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.”

Like so many others, it repeats the mythical comments about the king wanting criticism; all we’d observe is that this claim and statement has yet to be proven.

The Journal then runs through material that would be well-known to regular readers of this blog. It mentions the case of Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Then the Journal makes a claim that the authorities in Bangkok will have choking on their khao tom in the morning: “This would all count for less if King Bhumibol were a figurehead, but he has long played an active role in Thailand’s politics.” PPT added the emphasis.

The link between the palace and the military is then explained – a link that has been forgotten in so much that has been written in recent weeks. The WSJ also mentiones the same ruling groups as Shaw lists above: “a loose and evolving triumvirate of the military, nobility and established families of ethnic Chinese businessmen.”

The newspaper then observes: “The present conflict is the result of long-festering resentment among rural and working-class Thais that their democratic voice has been ignored.”

Both articles are worth reading in full.

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