The Economist on the military dictatorship

25 08 2017

Bits from The Economist’s latest edition:

Having been one of South-East Asia’s freest countries two decades ago, Thailand is now among the region’s most repressive….

Since its introduction, Section 44 has been invoked more than 150 times. A constitution adopted a little over a year ago allows the junta to keep using the legislation until a new government is formed after a general election due to take place next year. Other statutes ban gatherings of more than five people, prevent critics of the regime from travelling and allow civilians to be tried in military courts for sedition. Computer-crime regulations curb online activity. And more than 100 people have been arrested under lèse-majesté laws since the junta took power. More than half of them are now either awaiting trial in prison, or serving jail terms for peccadilloes such as “liking” things on Facebook deemed by the junta to be offensive to the royal family. (At the time of the coup in May 2014, just six were behind bars for lèse-majesté.)

The persecuted include activists, journalists, academics and even formerly powerful politicians….

The suppression of civic life bodes ill for Thailand’s democratic prospects. Even if the thrice-delayed general election is held, politicians will be fearful of expressing themselves openly and challenging the junta’s policies.

That seems to be one of the points of the extensive political repression.





A call for US sanctions

24 03 2016

The New York Times had an op-ed by Tom Felix Joehnk, who writes for The Economist from Bangkok and  Ilya Garger, the founder of Capital Profile, a Hong Kong–based business research service.

The piece is right to observe that “since seizing power, the [Thai] junta has become increasingly erratic, incompetent and repressive.” It is right that the “economy is stagnating.” It may be right that the “threat of social unrest is rising.” It is right when it says that The Dictator wants to “ensure real power remains in the hands of the military even after a formal return to electoral democracy.”

Most of all, the authors are correct that getting “Thailand back on track is a matter largely for Thais.”

It is wrong to suggest that “America, which has been the dominant foreign player in Thai politics since World War II, can help rein in the junta’s increasingly dictatorial ways by isolating it from its support base among traditional Bangkok-based elites.”

That time has passed. The US is widely viewed in the elite as part of the Thaksin problem. The more conspiratorial among them think that the US and Thaksin want to bring down the monarchy.

But here’s a neat twist in the story, which would confirm a conspiracy for those who already distrust the US, but which says something unexpected:

Washington instead should isolate the Thai military from its traditional backers to deprive the junta of a crucial source of legitimacy and support. Acting with the European Union, Japan and other allies, America should penalize not only the generals involved in the 2014 coup, but also the civilians the government has appointed to its rubber-stamping institutions.

We have to say that we were bemused at this point, but then this:

The United States is in a strong position to do so. Wealthy Thais have shoveled assets overseas at an astonishing rate since Mr. Thaksin was brought down in 2006. Their annual investments abroad have increased twelvefold, according to the Bank of Thailand….

The call is for sanctions a la Burma. There are lots of issues with sanctions, but the authors suggest “that such measures work better when their goal is moderate and when they are used to pressure otherwise friendly governments, rather than enemies.”

We guess the question for the elite is whether the US is now an enemy or a friend?





In for the long haul

17 10 2015

Like PPT, The Economist is gloomy about the political future in Thailand. In a recent note, it states that the “generals who took over Thailand in mid-2014 have settled in for the long haul and watched the economy slump. They have stifled dissent and defended their grip on power by arguing that they are needed to restore ‘public order and morality’.”

The regime hates all criticism and has devised a strategy of repression: “For those who dare criticise them, the generals have devised what they euphemistically call ‘attitude adjustment’ sessions. These are aimed at instilling a proper sense of ‘understanding’ and respect for Thai institutions, including their favourite one, the monarchy.” Poking The Dictator and his regime will also result in re-education.

These re-education sessions also include implied threats to those called in and, often, to their families as well.

The regime is said to have “summoned” almost 800 people for attitude re-education.

As The Economist explains: “The campaign of intimidation has had a chilling effect.”





The Economist on bombs, junta and monarchism

21 08 2015

Readers may find the account at The Economist of some interest. Some quotes:

Nothing is clear, except for one thing: the bomb has shattered the illusion of safety which the junta that seized power in May last year wished to foster. The generals justified their coup by claiming that they alone could protect Thais from the violence that had sporadically erupted during a decade of squabbles between the country’s democratically elected governments and Bangkok’s conservative elites. By targeting tourists, the bombers have also undermined the generals’ claims to be boosting Thailand’s flagging economy. With shrinking exports, dwindling foreign investment and high household debt, the economy badly needs visitors to come to Thailand and spend.the-economist-logo

… Just two days after the blast General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the prime minister and coup leader, attended the opening in Hua Hin of a new park containing the colossal statues of seven long-dead Thai kings, built by the army at a cost of about $20m. The bronze monarchs are not entirely out of keeping with a sprinkling of chintzy attractions that already surround Hua Hin, a resort with royal connections. But they are an oddly Soviet spectacle.

More grimly, in the past 15 months the junta has presided over a big increase in the number of people charged with insulting the sovereign, a grave offence in Thailand. Punishments have also grown more harsh….

Few observers reckon the junta will consider ceding any control until well after the death of King Bhumibol, who has long been ailing….

The article then recounts a bunch of rumors regarding succession and the successionist thesis.





On The Economist and “sensitive” and “risky” content

30 01 2015

On 27 January, PPT mentioned an article in The Economist  on lese majeste that is only available on its website. Titled “The royal road to ruin,” it argues that the “strict lèse-majesté laws pose the gravest threat to free expression.”

We have now updated that post to include the whole article.the-economist-logo

Prachatai now reports that “The Economist emailed its subscribers in Thailand on Friday that it has decided not to distribute the 31 January issue in Thailand due to ‘sensitive content’ which results in ‘potential risk to our distributors’.” It is said that the issue contains the said article “The royal road to ruin.” However, The Economist’s website still lists this as a web-only article.

We are guessing that the articles in question may relate to two other articles, so we reproduce those here, hoping that the publisher understands that we are doing this to make their articles more widely available. Perhaps the only commentary to make is to note that The Economist seems to underestimate the military dictatorship’s repression and its fascism:

Thaksin times
Thailand’s coup-makers punish two former prime ministers

LESS than two years ago Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister of Thailand and something of an establishment outsider, appeared to be winning his bitter battle against the traditional elites in Bangkok, the capital. They, led by the army, had toppled Mr Thaksin in a coup in 2006. But Pheu Thai, the party he directs from self-imposed exile in Dubai, rocketed back to power in 2011 with his sister, Yingluck, at the helm. And in November 2013 Ms Yingluck’s government promised a blanket amnesty wiping out a corruption charge preventing Mr Thaksin from returning.

The pledge proved a colossal mistake, for it galvanised Mr Thaksin’s enemies. Last May Ms Yingluck was ousted by the constitutional court and, shortly after, the army seized power in another coup. And in recent weeks the prospects for Mr Thaksin and his political movement have darkened greatly, perhaps irrevocably. On January 23rd the generals’ rubber-stamp parliament retrospectively impeached Ms Yingluck, banning her from politics; she also faces criminal charges. Her party has begged its “red shirt” supporters not to protest, for fear of giving the junta an excuse to prolong its rule. Yet the generals seem bent on eradicating the influence of Mr Thaksin, who has dominated Thailand’s political discourse since he first swept to power in 2001.

Ms Yingluck’s impeachment—ostensibly for failing to tackle fraud made possible by a costly rice-subsidy scheme—marks a new phase in the army’s rule. Right after last year’s coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha and his fellow officers said they favoured reconciliation over revenge. By and large, elected politicians of all hues co-operated with the army, leaving journalists, academics and other activists to suffer most under martial law (a large number of dissidents are thought to be in jail). But the persecution of Ms Yingluck suggests that “the gloves are starting to come off”, says Daniel Giles of Vriens & Partners, a political consultancy. The criminal case against Ms Yingluck could mean ten years in jail—a threat that, the generals perhaps hope, will encourage her to flee the country.

Moral disorder
Whatever the generals think, smashing Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother is no cure for Thailand’s ills

FOR 15 years Thaksin Shinawatra has dominated Thai politics—and for most of that time the country’s generals and their supporters around the ailing king have tried to destroy him. The populist billionaire fled into exile two years after a coup deposed him in 2006, but his sister, Yingluck, still won an election in 2011 and ruled as his proxy, with Mr Thaksin pulling the strings from Dubai. But she was ousted last May in a constitutional wrangle—and soon afterwards the army took over. Now rampant abuses stemming from a rice subsidy programme that was overseen by her government, have led to a sham impeachment of her. Criminal charges will follow.

This time, finally, the generals and courtiers may have cornered the Shinawatras…. Ms Yingluck is in effect a hostage in negotiations with Mr Thaksin, whose position has weakened. He has lost the backing of Thailand’s crown prince, while a purge in the police force has weakened a key bastion of his support. Mr Thaksin may now sacrifice his political ambitions to safeguard his family and fortune. Some Thais will cheer, longing for calm after years of political stand-offs and street protests that often spilled into violence. But the junta’s determination to abolish democratic politics spells trouble, probably the bloody kind, in the future. It should think again.

The worst form of government, except for all the others

There was much to fault in the way Mr Thaksin ran his country, both before and after he fled abroad to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power. With support from a poor, rural heartland in the north and north-east, neither he nor his sister paid enough heed to the interests of Bangkok’s middle classes or the southern provinces. In office Mr Thaksin favoured his own considerable business interests and weakened public institutions. He was a Berlusconi with less of the bunga-bunga. Appallingly, in 2003-04 he ordered an extrajudicial assassination programme that killed thousands of supposed drug dealers. His sister was less authoritarian but also less competent.

And yet the Thaksinite governments were probably no more corrupt than their predecessors were. Crucially, the Shinawatras did much to transform the lives of some of the country’s worse off. They built country roads, boosted education and provided health care for the poor. The old elites resented this, not least because they liked to think of the king traditionally atop an ordered hierarchy with deferential peasants at the bottom grateful for royal charity. Without putting it in so many words, Mr Thaksin implicitly challenged that dispensation, and a majority of Thais approved. But soon after he or his loyalists were back in office, the political stand-offs and the street violence would resume.

Last May the generals intervened to break the dismal cycle, claiming impartiality. They spoke of reconciliation and tried to start discussions with Mr Thaksin. But recently they have changed their minds, perhaps to please the establishment around the court of the old king. Impeaching Yingluck is only part of it. The generals are drawing up a constitution designed to keep populist parties like Mr Thaksin’s Pheu Thai from power. They intend to rule for as long as it takes to restore a supposed moral order.

This will do Thailand no good. The lesson of the past 15 years is that ever more Thais want a say in their country. Banishing the Shinawatras will not change that. The West should make clear to the generals that a constitution that bans Thailand’s most successful party from power is a step backwards. If they still go ahead, military ties should be broken. The era of Thaksin may be ending; but the democracy that he so imperfectly represented is Thailand’s only hope.





Updated: The Economist on the threat from lese majeste

27 01 2015

PPT noticed an article in The Economist  on lese majeste that is only available on its website.

Titled “The royal road to ruin,” it argues that the “strict lèse-majesté laws pose the gravest threat to free expression.”

The article doesn’t have much that is new, but might be compared with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ propaganda page on the monarchy that includes several “academics” like Bowornsak Uwanno and Suchit Bunbongkarn writing in support of this draconian law and feudal politics.

Update: The full article:

The royal road to ruin
In Thailand, strict lèse-majesté laws pose the gravest threat to free expression

ALTHOUGH lèse-majesté laws remain on the books in many constitutional monarchies, prosecutions are rare. Thailand is an exception: it enforces them far more assiduously than any other country since Japan canned rules protecting its emperor after the second world war. Anyone who “defames, insults or threatens” the King, his heir, the Queen or a regent risks between three and 15 years in jail. For decades, the number of cases averaged around ten a year, but since 2004, they have soared to several hundred each year, as friction between Thailand’s populist governments and its traditional ruling establishment has erupted into conflict.

Lèse-majesté complaints are a common way of harassing political rivals. A surge of new cases followed last May’s military coup. Anyone can report an offence, and it is not only speech that breaks the rules. In 2011 a 61-year-old received a 20-year sentence for sending four offensive text messages; he denied the charges and died in prison the following year. People who fail to stand for the royal anthem, still played before most film screenings, or deface banknotes, which bear the King’s image, have fallen foul of the law. In December complaints of lèse-majesté were made against a woman who wore black clothes on the eve of the King’s birthday. In 2008 a series of charges against the BBC included the complaint that its website had allowed the King’s image to appear below that of a politician.

Foreigners who break the lèse-majesté law are often swiftly deported, but in recent years more of them have served jail terms. In 2007 Oliver Jufer, a Swiss national, received a ten-year sentence for defacing pictures of the King while drunk (he was pardoned after a month). Shortly afterwards an Australian, Harry Nicolaides, spent more than a year behind bars because one paragraph in a self-published novel contained an unflattering description of the crown prince. In 2012 Joe Gordon, a Thai American, spent 13 months* in prison for translating excerpts of “The King Never Smiles”, an English-language biography of the King that is banned in Thailand.

In 2005 King Bhumibol warned supporters that over-zealous implementation of lèse-majesté laws could create problems for the monarchy. The palace regularly issues pardons, particularly if cases are well-publicised and miscreants apologetic, but the volume of prosecutions is moving upwards, all the same. Hard-liners argue that criticism of lèse-majesté laws is itself a crime, which is one reason the plague is so difficult to stop. And cases are poorly covered in the media, for fear of repeating the offence.

In theory the death of King Bhumibol, who is 87 years old, could provide a window for reform. It is more likely that fears about the monarchy’s future will prompt the courts to crack down even harder.

*Correction: This article originally stated that Joe Gordon spent seven months in jail. Mr Gordon has been in touch to say that he was jailed on 24 May 2011 and released on 11 July 2012. He adds: “The Thai kangaroo court never allowed bail for me to fight the case. I had only one chance to plead guilty in order to get pardon from King Bhumibol. Otherwise, I could get 20 years imprisonment.”





The Economist blocked

6 08 2014

The word is that The Economist’s Banyan column is blocked by the military dictatorship:

THE ARMY has been the most powerful force in Thai political life since the introduction of constitutional monarchy in 1932. Since its most recent power grab, in a coup d’état sprung on May 22nd, a junta has been busy building a façade of legitimacy—as if to obscure from view their new dictatorship. An interim constitution grants absolutist powers to the military men, who effectively administer the monarchy. It also grants an amnesty for crimes related to the toppling electoral democracy and the tools necessary to ensure that martial law persists. A handpicked bunch will draft a similar piece of paper within the next 120 days. It is unclear whether the expected result, which is to be Thailand’s 18th constitution, will be put to a referendum.the-economist-logo

To make it all fly, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s military dictator and prime-minister-in-waiting, had to prostrate himself in front of the 86-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The ailing monarch’s blessing was the only available source of legitimacy. Accordingly, the interim charter makes mention of the king no fewer than 38 times. Shunting responsibility to the king in this way is a time-tested trick.

On July 31st the king endorsed the members of a new national assembly, a 200-member strong rubberstamp composed of 105 military officers (including 40 generals, 21 lieutenants-generals, 17 chief air marshals and 14 admirals). Professional politicians were ineligible. The civilian half of the new legislature includes civil servants, academics, ex-senators and figures from the private sector (in all, ten women made the cut). An opening ceremony for the assembly will be chaired by the crown prince on August 7th. One of its tasks will be to give General Prayuth, the man who appointed all legislators, the job of prime minister. Unlike the coup-makers of 2006, who quickly delegated power to handpicked civilians, General Prayuth and his classmates are intent on retaining complete control.

The army has given itself 500 days or so to establish “genuine democracy” by fiat. It will appoint a 250-member strong National Reform Council and then task it with proposing political, social and economic reforms. The stated point of the exercise is to “create the democracy with the King as the Head of State appropriate to the Thai society”. The key characteristics of such a democracy are supposed to include free and fair elections; an end to corruption, misconduct and inequality; and the impartial enforcement of laws. It all sounds perfectly “appropriate”. But it seems the generals have in mind a few extra characteristics.

For a start, no  political comeback for Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck, the siblings who won every election since 2001. Without competitive elections, the Shinawatras are powerless, albeit rich. The generals let Ms Yingluck leave Thailand to attend the Mr Thaksin’s birthday party in Paris on July 26th. That puts Ms Yingluck in a position to decide whether to return to Thailand—and face criminal charges—or join Thailand’s long list of exiled former prime ministers.

The junta says there will be a big election in October 2015. Thus far it has refused to say if it will impose any restrictions on the franchise. But it would be a wonder if it didn’t. For the whole point of the coups of 2006 and 2014 has been to overturn the winner-takes-all system which served Mr Thaksin so well, in favour of governance by “moral people” who cannot win elections.

Much of the elite feels offended to hear a spade called a spade. But there can be no mistaking that Thailand’s government has slipped from the reach of any popular majority. The dictatorship which has replaced it will make every effort to outlast the lifespan of the current king.

Most Thai citizens (and most Western governments too) would like to see Thailand emerge someday as a prosperous, democratic republic, a leader within South-East Asia. For them the near-term future looks unpromising. Large parts of the economy are essentially criminal conspiracies based on smuggling, prostitution, gambling and corruption. Research by the World Bank shows that only half of all income shows up in Thailand’s national-accounts data—which is among the lowest rates in Asia.

And while the benefits of Thailand’s economic growth since the 1960s have raised incomes and provided health care and education to most Thais, the pillars of future prosperity look shaky. The things that will be required by further development—rule of law, a well-regulated financial system, transparency of wealth, a strong commitment to a scientific society—are in short supply.

The junta’s very existence represents a rejection of the rule of law. While its commitment to stamp out corruption sounds good, graft is too entrenched to be rooted out by the army alone; like the government it replaced, the officer corps is essentially a business club, serving the country’s elite.  The financial system, long under the control of the wealthiest Thais and leading Thai-Chinese business groups, will remain a closed shop. The central bank, which became notorious for its mismanagement of the financial crisis in 1997 and 1998, has since pursued a course that is directly supportive of the wealthy and has significantly slowed growth. Much has been written about the successes of the Thai economy, but Thailand’s record in raising peoples’ standards of living post-1997 is actually worse than that of any other country in East or South-East Asia (with the notable exception of North Korea). The secretive policies of the Crown Property Bureau, the palace’s investment arm and the biggest conglomerate in Thailand, reflects a deep resistance to transparency. Finally, if freedom of thought and expression are to be the basis of any scientific society—then Thailand will just have to wait.

The forces that are leading the society backwards are now unassailable, according to the letter of the law. They shield themselves from every other kind of criticism by their association with the monarchy. Challenging a state that has been endorsed by the king is socially unacceptable—and now it is a criminal offence, too.

Eventually public opinion will turn against the junta. But a social response to economic failure will take time to develop. Thailand’s economy is short of labour, with nearly full employment. Its fiscal position is enviable by most European and Asian standards.

Yet a meaningful economic recovery in the second half 2014 would be nothing short of a miracle. Imports fell 14% year-on-year in June and industrial output fell 6.6%. Overall production, consumption, investment and tourism all slumped. Investment, which follows demand, will not pick up until the collapse in domestic demand has been reversed. High household debt and consumers’ reluctance to invest their black money are likely to complicate a return to rapid growth. Whatever happens in the next few months, Thailand is likely to be the slowest-growing economy in Asia this year.

At some point the self-appointed leadership is bound to weary of defending itself on the pretext of building a democracy. Most dissenters appear to have resigned themselves to the fact that their views will not matter for a while, perhaps two or three years. Many are too busy simply trying to make ends meet.

To stay in power till the next royal succession, the generals must prove that their brand of authoritarianism can improve the lot of 68m Thais. If they pulled it off, theirs would be the first coup anywhere since the end of the cold war that actually raised the pace of income growth. It will never be known what Thailand could have achieved for itself this decade within a democratic framework. If Thailand’s own history is a reliable guide, abandoning democracy can be expected to lead straight to economic stagnation and exacerbated inequality.





The Economist “banned” yet again

29 11 2013

Just two weeks ago an edition of The Economist was withdrawn from distribution in Thailand.This week, despite all the turmoil, whoever is on lese majeste patrol has done it again. 2Bangkok.com confirms this with a screenshot. Economist

Despite the editorial comments at that website, which we picked up in our snip,  indicating that censorship for the monarchy is a cultural trait of Thais, the truth is that there is nothing cultural about lese majeste, and this nonsensical “banning” is making the country look even more daft than it usually does on lese majeste.

As ever, we reproduce the whole of the “offending” leader and let readers decide if there is anything poisonous and likely to cause the monarchy to dissolve at a faster pace than it already is. Note that The Economist helpfully points out its lese majeste in all the succession stuff and material accusing the palace of politicking:

The exile and the kingdom

Fixing Thailand’s broken politics requires the government, the opposition and the monarchy all to change

Nov 30th 2013 | From the print edition

YET again, anarchy threatens Thailand. Rival crowds of pro- and anti-government protesters have gathered in Bangkok. The (far more numerous) antis have occupied government ministries, prompting the government to extend special security laws across the capital. The government has seen off a no-confidence motion in parliament but its future remains in doubt, in the face of challenges not just on the streets but also in the courts. Violence may return. Blame for the resurgence of the chaos that plagued Thailand in 2006-10 lies with the government, the opposition and the institution to which they both look for their legitimacy—the monarchy.

The government is led formally by Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister, but informally by her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a wealthy tycoon. Deposed in a coup in 2006 and later convicted of abusing his power, Mr Thaksin runs the government by remote control from self-imposed exile in Dubai. Thailand’s social and business elites regard him as corrupt and high-handed, and are appalled by his populist economic policies. But, thanks in large measure to his popularity in the rural north and north-east, Mr Thaksin’s party (its latest incarnation is called Pheu Thai) keeps winning elections—in 2001 and 2005, and (through proxies) in 2007 and 2011.

Until recently Ms Yingluck’s government seemed to have reached an accommodation with the establishment. Then it pushed through the lower house of parliament a sweeping amnesty bill which would have let Mr Thaksin return home, while expunging thousands of other court cases. There was huge opposition to the bill, even among some of Mr Thaksin’s former fans, who thought it went too far. It was thrown out in the Senate. Retreating, Ms Yingluck promised not to revive it.

Encouraged, the opposition pushed its advantage. The partially appointed Senate tends to side with the opposition, so the government has been trying to change the constitution to make it fully elected. On November 20th the constitutional court backed the opposition’s view that the amendment was unconstitutional; it has yet to rule on whether those who voted for it broke Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté law.

Like some of its predecessors, the government may thus be finished off by the judiciary. But even after the amnesty fiasco, Ms Yingluck may well win a fresh election. And in the meantime, the two sides’ supporters slug it out on the streets, and Thailand totters.

Prince charmless

For this stalemate to end, three changes are needed. First, the opposition—led by the members of the main establishment political party, the Democrats—must abandon its undemocratic tactics. Its leaders want it both ways. They support parliamentary democracy when it produces the “right” result; when it does not, they resort to the streets, the courts or a phone call to army headquarters. That must stop.

Second, Thaksinite governments have to learn that they must use their electoral mandates not just to win the renewed votes of their supporters next time—still less to run government for Mr Thaksin’s ends—but for the good of the country. That includes confronting corruption, ditching crazy policies, such as a price-support scheme for rice, and promoting a better business climate.

Third, the monarchy must stop playing politics and accept the symbolic role the constitution accords it. Two looming events have helped make Thai politics so frenzied. One is the 86th birthday on December 5th of Thailand’s revered king for 67 years, Bhumibol Adulyadej. By tradition, harmony is supposed to prevail on that day. The king will probably be too frail to make his customary birthday speech. His unpopular son, the crown prince, is likely to succeed him. None of this is discussed in Thailand, for it would contravene the lèse-majesté (as this leader now does too).

This pernicious law blocks rational discourse about urgently needed reforms. Thailand’s constitution not only has undemocratic elements, but also gives the central government too much power. That has helped fuel a long-running bloody conflict in the Muslim south. It may yet help spark another, in the Thaksin-supporting north-east. The royal family should give its explicit support to constitutional reform—and first call for an end to lèse-majesté.





Strange decisions I

16 11 2013

A reader alerted us in the middle of the night that this week’s edition of The Economist has been withdrawn from distribution in Thailand. 2Bangkok.com confirms this with a screenshot:

ScreenShot001-2As we usually do, if it is banned, we reproduce it. This is from the Banyan page at the newspaper, with PPT highlighting what might possibly be the offending words, and providing links where they may assist readers. But we are guessing. Lese majeste has become such a bizarre law in Thailand that guessing what might offend some dopey royalist official or the aged lot around the palace requires considerable warping of logic and rationality:

Blowing the whistle

Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, loses a battle but is winning the war

Nov 16th 2013 |From the print edition

THE truce in the street warfare into which Thai politics descended in 2006-10 is over. To the shrill peeps of ubiquitous whistles, protesters have yet again crowded Bangkok, the capital, brandishing portraits of Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s long-serving king, revered but frail. What has so far been a peaceful movement earlier this month seemed to threaten the survival of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister. Her tactical retreat has probably saved it. But the political divide looks as unbridgeable as ever, and as dangerous to Thailand’s stability.

The cause of the schism is simple. Thailand’s voters, dominated by the rural poor, keep electing governments loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister in 2001-06. Many of the powers-that-be—in the Bangkok elite, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the army and the royal family and court—find this intolerable. They turfed Mr Thaksin out in a coup in 2006. Facing a jail term for corruption if he returns, he runs the country by videoconference from Dubai. In 2007 the electorate stubbornly voted in a government led by his proxies. The opposition managed to find a legal way of getting rid of it and installing a government led by the establishment Democrat Party. Then in 2011 the voters went and did it again, electing Mr Thaksin’s sister, Ms Yingluck.

The truce that followed showed restraint on both sides. The elite seemed at last to grasp that it would have to deal with Mr Thaksin. And Ms Yingluck trod carefully, making friends with the army and doing nothing to threaten entrenched interests—even enforcing Thailand’s scandalously strict lèse-majesté laws as fiercely as ever.

Then, perhaps too confident that they had won the trust of the establishment, the Shinawatras overreached themselves. They pushed a sweeping amnesty bill through the lower house of parliament. It would have scotched thousands of corruption cases, as well as the one at which it was aimed: Mr Thaksin’s conviction. It would also have let off Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former Democrat prime minister, and Suthep Thaugsuban, once his deputy, from the murder charges they face for the use of lethal force against pro-Thaksin “red-shirt” protesters in Bangkok in 2010, when more than 90 died. The army, too, would have been excused for its involvement.

Outrage at the bill brought the establishment onto the streets, some in the yellow shirts they wore in earlier protests (yellow is the royal colour). But, in a remarkable blunder, the bill handed the Democrats the moral high ground and seemed to open up a split between the red shirts and Ms Yingluck’s party, Pheu Thai. In the words of Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University, Mr Thaksin appeared to be climbing over dead bodies to come home. Optimists among the Democrats must have glimpsed the end of the long Thaksin ascendancy and their return to the positions of power some see as their birthright.

 And they won their point. Ms Yingluck promised not to push the bill through if it was defeated in the Senate, nearly half of whose members are appointed rather than popularly elected. Sure enough, on November 11th all 141 senators present rejected the bill. A ruling the same day by the International Court of Justice in a territorial dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple near the border also helped Ms Yingluck. The opposition tried to use this, too, to criticise the government, but the ruling was even-handed and hard to portray as a humiliation.

The Democrats kept the protests going, on the pretext that the amnesty bill is not formally dead—Ms Yingluck has 180 days in which to break her promise and table it again in the lower house. Mr Suthep and eight of his colleagues resigned from parliament to lead the movement. They called a three-day South Asian-style national strike from November 13th, largely unheeded. By then, however, their aims seemed no longer limited to the amnesty. The protest leaders want to bring down the government.

 Yet Ms Yingluck’s opponents must know that she would probably win another election. Red shirts may be disgruntled with her government for its failure to amend the constitution or lèse-majesté law, for example, or to bring those responsible for the 2010 killings to justice. But they have nowhere else to go. Mr Thaksin, an ethnic-Chinese billionaire, is an odd leader for a group dominated by non-Chinese Thais from the north-east. But they like the populist economic policies, such as a rice-price support scheme attacked this week by the IMF, which he and his sister have pursued.

Self-fulfilling prophecies of doom

If Mr Thaksin cannot be defeated at the ballot box, nor is the army likely to try another coup. It would need the tacit endorsement of King Bhumibol. Part of the air of desperation in elite ranks reflects the calendar. December 5th will be the king’s 86th birthday. It is an occasion when royal pardons are issued, and one that the king used to mark with a speech. This year, again, he is unlikely to be well enough, reminding his anxious people of his mortality. His probable successor, the crown prince, unlike his father, is feared and reviled, in a legally imposed silence. Yet Mr Thaksin, in the words of a cable in 2005 from the American ambassador to Thailand revealed by WikiLeaks, “long ago invested in crown-prince futures”.

So long have Thais told each other that the king’s death would jeopardise the nation’s stability that they may even have made it likely. Mr Thaksin’s opponents have always portrayed him as a threat to the monarchy, and they have long enjoyed the tacit backing of the palace despite its being supposedly above politics. In fact, like all Thai politicians, Mr Thaksin seems to crave the king’s approval. Nothing would suit him better than a royal pardon. What really alarms his enemies is not that he is a closet republican. It is that he may be close to an accommodation with the palace that would see his clan’s rule entrenched for years.

Economist.com/blogs/banyan

 No points for guessing what the post on ‘Strange decisions II” will be about.





Right royal company

28 01 2013

We at PPT can’t help but wonder what kind of polity would best suit the ultra-royalists like the lot who run the courts handing out enormous sentences for, say, words unspoken, fictional accounts of royals or political speeches. As we browsed accounts of Thai-style democracy here and here, we wondered if The Economist last week didn’t provide some direction when describing the Thai monarchy’s brother rulers in the Middle East.

Kuwait:

Faced in recent months by unprecedented mass demonstrations demanding broader democracy, the sleekly rich city-state’s riot police have gained a nasty reputation for brutality.

Oman:

… is far more autocratic, but political opposition had been muted before a sprinkling of protests in 2011. In response the government promised reforms, but since last May it has instead jailed some 42 dissidents.

Qatar:

… in November a Qatari court sentenced a poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb, to life in prison for mocking the emir and his family.

United Arab Emirates:

Cybercrime legislation now makes it an offence simply to advocate “change in the political system”. But even without that law, the previously lenient Emirati authorities had been cracking down. In the past year they have arrested at least 77 bloggers and human-rights activists, stripped others of citizenship and denied 200-odd the right to travel.

Bahrain:

The 2011 crackdown by Bahrain’s rulers left nearly 100 dead and the island kingdom dangerously split between a Shia majority and loyalist Sunnis…. Bahraini courts have continued to dispense cruel justice. This month the highest appeal court upheld life sentences for seven men accused of calling for anti-government demonstrations.

For anyone following events in Thailand, this all sounds remarkably familiar. Monarchies seem to come together on political tactics when defending their economic and political privileges.








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