It is well-known that the current military junta has been miffed and sometimes angered that the government of the United States is unable to support Asia’s one military dictatorship. At times it has even organized demonstrations at the US Embassy even when it has banned political gatherings.
In this context, we imagine that the leadership will be delighted that four long-time American residents have gotten together to pen an op-ed that is supportive of many of the claims made by the military dictatorship and by the anti-democrats who worked hand-in-glove with the military to bring down Thailand’s last elected government in 2014.
The four residents are William Klausner, James Stent, Robert Fitts and Danny Unger. Before turning to their joint op-ed, some background.
Klausner has made a career and life in Thailand, interpreting Thailand for foreigners. He claims to be an anthropologist and socio-political analyst. He began this in the 1950s and has managed to have the title “professor” attached to his name through various adjunct, advisory and visiting appointments such as at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. He had links with the OSS/CIA group in Thailand from the 1950s to 1970s. He has written two books on Thailand, both popular and collections of observations and anecdotes that are claimed to constitute “Thai culture.” A royalist, he was received as a Member (Fifth Class) of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. We had some comments on him in a post in 2012. He is believed to have been one of those responsible for circulating an anonymous document in 2006 that tried to denigrate foreign authors considered critical of the monarchy. That scurrilous document was reportedly circulated to foreigners in Bangkok, and claimed a conspiracy. It was claimed that these foreigners had assessed the king and his reign in “unacceptable ways.”
James Stent is listed as a banker and analyst on political economy. At Vriens & Partners, he is listed as having had “a long and distinguished career in financial services in Thailand and China. He was the senior executive vice president of the Bank of Asia in Bangkok until his retirement in 2002, and continued to serve the bank as a director until 2004. He is currently a director of the China Everbright Bank…”. When Stent was at the Bank of Asia, it was chock full of royals, including the king’s mother (see the clip from The Nation in November 1988).
Robert Fitts is listed as a diplomat and political analyst. His bio at McLarty Associates, a consulting firm in Washington, doesn’t list him as a Thailand specialist or resident of any length of time, but has his diplomatic career. Like Klausner, he is linked to the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Danny Unger is said to be a teacher and writer on politics. He was once an Associate Professor at the University of Northern Illinois. He is the only one in this group with an academic background. It is not clear what his current position is.
We assume that there must be a reason for four Americans coming together to make this statement, and we assume that the reason is that they are frustrated by the American government’s refusal to accept Thailand’s military junta with open arms, as this government has so readily done in the past.
In a long piece there are certainly statements that some of us at PPT would find reasonable and fair. However, this is an elite version of a “liberalism” espoused by conservatives for the benefit of the elite.
These elite-connected commentators begin by questioning why “several foreign governments have exhorted Thailand to ‘bring back democracy’ and ‘hold elections’.” For them, declaring their longevity a reason for confidence in their opinions, such calls are “well-intentioned exhortations” but are “counter-productive and simplistic, revealing inadequate understanding of the cultural, social, and political challenges that Thailand must deal with if it is to develop sustainable democratic governance.”
Their claim that they “are colour blind” is a fudge as all are deeply embedded in elite culture and politics, and have been for a long time. Indeed, given there many years in Thailand, through periods of military dictatorship and stumbling electoral politics, we have struggled to locate declarations from them in the past that are supportive of electoral politics or that trenchantly stand against military intervention. They have surely had plenty of opportunities to denounce military murder, repression, lese majeste and media censorship over the past five decades!
That they suddenly find voice the day after General Prayuth Chan-ocha has more deeply entrenched his authoritarian regime is telling. Making their view largely congruent with the anti-democrats and the military junta, they say “Thailand needs less to return to any democracy already achieved than to build a democracy that can be sustained.”
This claim for “sustainable democracy” is not defined or explained, except in broad cultural terms that essentially says, let Thais work this out for themselves. That Thais need to work out their politics is hardly a great insight, but their intervention is not doing that. It claims to be addressed to other foreigners, but it repeats the propaganda of anti-democrats and of royalists for the last 50 years who favor a Thai-style democracy, just as Prayuth does. Despite the playing with words and terms about democracy, this is a statement of support for authoritarian politics.
Their observation that Thailand’s political history is one of “elite-dominated governments, characterised by greater or lesser degrees of top-down authoritarian governance,” is correct, but they fail to ask why this is or to point to the forces that have repeatedly intervened to rid the country of electoral regimes. After all, it is no secret that those who have opposed electoral politics have been the palace and the military, working hand in glove, as political vandals. For these commentators, the problems all seem to lie with elected politicians, not the repeat offending vandals.
The claim that “there has been broad agreement among Thais that Thailand should be a democracy of one sort or another” is simply nonsense. In fact, there is a long and dominant political discourse in Thailand that opposes electoral democracy precisely because it threatens the political, economic and social interests of the elite. This is why there are repeated military and palace interventions to destroy electoral politics before it takes root. Indeed, their words amount to support for some culturalist notion of Thai-style democracy that is not democracy at all.
They write of 83 years of attempts to embed democratic government but their commentary is all about the period since 2000 and of their opposition to Thaksin Shinawatra and the massively popular parties that have been repeatedly elected in often landslide results.
They reject electoral democracy by asking: “what is achieved by demanding Thailand hold elections right away…”. This is incorrect and immediate elections has not been a demand. To emphasize this point, PPT cites the Remarks by Daniel R. Russel (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs) at Chulalongkorn University on 26 January 2015, and which caused considerable consternation amongst junta supporters:
The fact is, and it’s unfortunate, but our relationship with Thailand has been challenged by the military coup that removed a democratically-elected government eight months ago. This morning, I had a chance to sit down and hold discussions with first, former Prime Minister Yingluck, then former Prime Minister Abhisit, and then with the interim Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Tanasak.
And in each case, I’ve discussed the current political situation in Thailand with each of them. And all sides have spoken about the importance of reconciliation and their commitment to work to achieve Thailand’s democratic future.
Now I understand this is an extremely sensitive issue, and I bring it up with all humility and great respect for the Kingdom of Thailand and for the Thai people.
The United States does not take sides in Thai politics. We believe it is for the Thai people to determine the legitimacy of their political and legal processes. But we are concerned about the significant restraints on freedoms since the coup, including restrictions on speech and on assembly, and I’ve been very straightforward about these concerns.
We’re also particularly concerned that the political process doesn’t seem to represent all elements of Thai society. Now I want to repeat, we’re not attempting to dictate the political path that Thailand should follow to get back to democracy or take sides in Thai politics. But an inclusive process promotes political reconciliation, which in turn is key to long-term stability. That’s where our interests lie. The alternative — a narrow, restricted process — carries the risk of leaving many Thai citizens feeling that they’ve been excluded from the political process.
That’s the reason why we continue to advocate for a broader and more inclusive political process that allows all sectors of society to feel represented, to feel that their voices are being heard. I’d add that the perception of fairness is also extremely important and although this is being pretty blunt, when an elected leader is removed from office, is deposed, then impeached by the authorities — the same authorities that conducted the coup — and then when a political leader is targeted with criminal charges at a time when the basic democratic processes and institutions in the country are interrupted, the international community is going to be left with the impression that these steps could in fact be politically driven.
And that’s why we hope to see a process that reinforces the confidence of the Thai people in their government and their judicial institutions and builds confidence internationally that Thailand is moving towards stable and participatory democracy.
Ending martial law throughout the country and removing restrictions of speech and assembly – these would be important steps as part of a generally inclusive reform process that reflects the broad diversity of views within the country. And we hope that the results of that process will be stable democratic institutions that reflect and respond to the will of the Thai people.
There’s nothing in this that is demanding an immediate return to elections. If anything, it is overly conciliatory to a regime that came to power through illegal means.
Rather, the point of the op-ed and its false claims is to agree with the military junta: “considering the repeated frustrations and disappointments after the several elections held over the past decade. Is there any reason to believe that yet another election will magically resolve Thailand’s political paralysis?”
Like the anti-democrats, these commentators are unable to accept that every election since 2000 has produced a clear outcome. That outcome – Thaksin-associated parties winning landslide victories – is simply unacceptable. They blame the elected governments which they say “often behaved in authoritarian ways at odds with true democracy.” They don’t actually say what “true democracy” is, but we may assume that even the remarkably conciliatory approach adopted by Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011-14 was somehow “authoritarian.”
Again, this claim is the anti-democrat shibboleth against all pro-Thaksin elected government:
For the most part, civilian governments have not developed, strengthened and sustained the values and structures necessary to effective liberal democratic governance. They have sometimes trampled on the rights of minorities, communities and individuals, they have all too often abused authority to increase their power and enrich themselves through illegal means, and they have sometimes vitiated the checks and balances and civil society that give meaning to democratic rule.
They repeat this claim, adding to it the rejection of the notion that “mobilised Thai voters,” some of whom “recognise the stake they have in elections” can have knowingly and repeatedly elected pro-Thaksin governments. Again, this easily leads to the yellow-shirt mantra of “uneducate” voters as the problem. In fact, the problem is that those defeated by elections and voter voice refuse to accept the verdict of the electorate. The op-ed appears to reject this political voice, calling for it to be replaced by “the articulation of authentic voices…” and denigrating millions as an “easily manipulated citizenry…”. If that isn’t enough, these true conservatives blame some mythical Thai “culture” for democratic failure rather than seeking to understand the political and economic interests involved in maintaining such a manufactured culture – think Prayuth’s most recent attempts to reinforce hierarchy and the endless palace propaganda that maintains privilege.
There can be no prizes for guessing what they want for Thailand. It is isn’t elections:
In our view, Thailand must focus on laying the groundwork for political system sustainability before and after elections, and not just on the elections themselves. Constitutions and electoral laws can be designed and redesigned with the assistance of the best scholars and legal minds to prescribe how elections should be conducted, but they are unlikely to succeed unless the essential groundwork is first put in place.
That seems like a perfect description of what the military dictatorship claims to be doing and of the self-perception of the “scholars” brought in by the junta to manage the “reform” process through secret and exclusionary processes.
Finally, they justify an authoritarian future that will result from the 2014 coup, military rule and the “fixing” of the political rules:
Thailand’s foreign friends should recognise the social, cultural and political obstacles to the conception and implementation of such a national vision of renewal, and to any immediate realisation of democratic governance. They should accept that this ambitious agenda should and could comprise Thailand’s long-term goals, but that achieving them will not occur overnight. Although those contesting for political power and control will do so in the name of democracy, the reality for some time to come may be semi-authoritarian regimes, deceptively packaged as “guided democracy”, “tutelary period”, and other terms masking the reluctance of the elite to entrust the future of the country to a democratic process with broad participation.
And, they say, don’t annoy The Dictator and the elite: “Foreigners should be sympathetic, constructively critical but also encouraging behind the scenes, avoiding public calls for immediate elections and a ‘return to democracy’, which only irritate.”
The best outcome for these conservatives would seem to be an acceptance of The Dictator, an acceptance of the military dictatorship’s repression and manipulation, and hope that the elite will eventually grant the people a say in the running of Thailand. Another 83 years? The elite always welcomes toady friends.