Updated: Keeping taxpayers in the dark

23 08 2010

It seems – at least according to a report in the Bangkok Post – that Abhisit Vejjajiva is reluctant to allow taxpayers to hear and see all of the debates on the budget. This would seem a little odd when Abhisit talks endlessly of transparency.

While it was the Puea Thai Party that complained, “accusing the government of banning a planned live broadcast of the budget bill debate because it wants to keep the public in the dark about some allocations,” the Post seems to agree.

Puea Thai spokesman Prompong Nopparit said yesterday substantial sums had been allocated to provinces represented by MPs from coalition parties.

PTP says “the government decided to ban the broadcast of the debate, which resumes tomorrow, to keep the public from learning that provinces not represented by coalition MPs would receive minimal funding.” With no live broadcast, the parliament is due to debate more than 200 billion baht to the Interior Ministry.

Such vast amounts are considered  essential by the coalition parties because they believe they can buy political support.

Update: Under considerable pressure, the government has apparently agreed to broadcast the debate. However, Abhisit apparently demanded that: “the parliament speaker must keep a tight rein on MPs from the opposition to ensure they stick to the budget topics being debated and not spend too much time straying from the point.” Keeping the lid on….

Reading the military’s political dominance

21 07 2010

There are several items that caught PPT’s eye in the Bangkok Post today. All are indicative of the decline of politics under the Abhisit Vejjajiva military-civilian regime.

The first was in a story about the Constituency 6 election. In it, the Post reports the results of a Police Special Branch poll of voting intention. Why on earth is the Special Branch doing this? Are they trying to influence voters? Another sign of the throwback regime that is running Thailand’s politics in a manner that reflects the deepest, darkest days of the Cold War and military dominance.

Related in the sense that it shows how powerful the military have become is a second article that focuses on the failure to lift emergency rule in most provinces that still suffer this undemocratic intrusion on politics and daily lives. In it, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence General Apichart Penkitti is quoted as saying that he “believes the political activities of the Puea Thai Party and the red shirts still pose a threat…”. Apparently the general is worried about a birthday party for the absent Thaksin Shinawatra.

Now the last time PPT looked, Puea Thai was a legal political party. But the leading military bureaucrat now labels their political activities a threat. It is all downhill from here. Next they’ll want to ban Puea Thai after dissolving its two predecessor parties. Maybe the Department of Special Investigation will start crashing birthday parties in search of evil opponents of the regime and so-called Democrat Party?

The same article mentions that the army is “seeking 60 million baht from the central budget to support the work of security guards for the prime minister and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban amid rumours about an assassination plot.” This rumor has been around for a considerable time, but there is still no accounting of how much money CRES and the government are spending protecting themselves.

A third story, linked to the lack of transparency on military spending is the account of the army “seeking approval to buy an additional 121 armoured personnel carriers from the Ukraine even though it has yet to receive any of the vehicles it ordered three years ago.” Apparently, “army chief Anupong Paojinda has decided to spend his forces’ leftover funds for this year on 121 APCs from the Ukraine, which has yet to deliver the 96 vehicles ordered in 2007.” The APCs haven’t been delivered because the motors overheat and seize. So they are useless, but they order more. And Anupong wants the whole thing done before he retires. A retirement fund perhaps? If so, its 4.6 billion baht, making the non-flying and deflated 350 million baht zeppelin seem like small change.

It is all a bit too obvious and too depressing. Thailand is in a vortex of actions and interests that are at once a Cold War throwback but also something new, where the military has a civilian front. That seems to have been the lesson of failure of more or less direct military rule after the 2006 coup: get the civilians to be the front men and women and have them run down the rat hole of authoritarianism, censorship, repression and corruption.

King, country, chaos? – Part II

20 03 2010

The Economist’s longer story on Thailand (18 March 2010) seeks to look behind the scenes of the present political unrest to examine “deeper fears about the royal succession.” We examine this story in some detail as it raises matters seldom openly debated in Thailand.

The newspaper claims that by last Sunday the “people’s war against the elite” saw a crowd “brimming with elation, [that] had passed 100,000.” That’s on the lower end of estimates, leaving aside the government’s propaganda. The story then says that by “mid-week the red shirts seemed no closer to their goal of forcing out the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and forcing new elections.” Well, yes, but 3-4 days is not even close to the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s non-stop rally of 2008, which approached 200 days. One wonders why the Economist (and much of Thailand’s mainstream media) expected the red shirt’s to achieve its stated aims in such a short time?

The Economist is right to point out that the “army stands squarely behind Mr Abhisit”. It might have said that the army put Abhisit where he is now and that they are not just behind him, but they made him. Interestingly, it was only yesterday that Abhisit seemed to get the message that appearing on television surrounded by men in uniform was just too strong a political message, and now he is seen with men in suits. At least that portrays the image of a government of the elite rather than the puppet government of the military and palace.

It is also true, as the Economist points out, that “Ruling-party politicians complain that the lowly red shirts are paid proxies and do not represent mainstream opinion. They bat away the idea that an election may be the only way to prove their point, arguing that an orderly vote is impossible amid the tumult. Most of all, they blame [former premier] Mr Thaksin [Shinawatra] for the uproar.” This is an endless rant that began with PAD and has close affinities with the allegations of paid voters. Even when the rich and powerful see their servants, gardeners, guards, waiters, masseuses, and other low-paid minions support the red shirts, they choose to believe this has nothing to do with deeply-held resentment of the “nai.”

Moving to the king, the article observes that: “To Thailand’s royalist movement the monarch is the nation’s father, and the “fighting children” on the streets are a source of distress to him. Some fear that Thailand’s troubles may be thwarting King Bhumibol’s full recovery from the respiratory illness that has kept him in hospital since September.” Then the author adds: “But it is precisely because ‘father’ is on his way out that his ‘children’ are fighting.”

That might at least be an interpretation that breaks from the line of it all being of Thaksin’s making, but it is a flawed argument. Like blaming Thaksin, it is a position that is seeking explanations in personalities rather than in political and social realities. In PPT’s view, the king and Thaksin are players in a drama that is located in the vast inequalities that have become increasingly sharp as Thailand has rapidly integrated into global patterns of production and consumption. This is why red shirt attacks on amart, double standards, elite privilege and, now, “class war” draw so much support from the poor and exploited. But these shibboleths also have resonance for a struggling group of workers and those hoping to be upwardly mobile.

But let’s take the important points the article makes about the monarchy seriously, for the monarchy is the richest of the rich, at the pinnacle of the establishment, at the core of the amart, and its ideology is the keystone of the royalist ideology that attempts to keep people in their place. In the Economist’s view, the monarchy is critical because “power in Thailand flows along patronage networks that start with the king.”

On succession, the newspaper thinks that the “crown itself should pass smoothly. The designated male heir is Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, aged 57, and there is not much scope for doubt about his claim. A long mourning period, perhaps six months or more, will allow a pause in the political dogfight. Some protagonists may come to their senses and seek a compromise. The death of King Bhumibol would also signal a generational shift in Thailand: younger voices could start to be heard.” PPT wonders why the author thinks the king is about to drop off the perch? He could hang on for years.

Like so many other commentators, this one believes the current “king will be a most difficult act to follow,” adding that “Vajiralongkorn is already widely loathed and feared.” For the prince, becoming king means that he “must fill the shoes of a beatified icon whose achievements have been swathed in a personality cult.” We might add that the task of beatifying the prince, while difficult, has begun in earnest, and it relies as much on his current wife and adult daughters as on his own achievements. They are being pumped up as stars by the media. Sirikit played a similar role for a time in the early years of this reign.

Can it work again? Probably not, although the article cites “Sulak Sivaraksa, a veteran royal observer and social activist, says that the prince has matured during his third marriage and is more respectful of others than in the past.” In any case, apparently the “prince knows he is unpopular” and a political acquaintance says “he doesn’t care.”

The article then joins in the myth-making about the monarchy and asserts: “… King Bhumibol’s virtues … include monogamy, Buddhist piety and old-fashioned thrift…”. PPT is not at all sure what this is about. Acknowledged as one of the world’s richest monarchs, with a stable of hugely expensive cars and taking huge lumps of public funding, the thrift seems an odd angle. The other claims we leave to the gossip mill.

The point seems to be to say that “the crown prince is a poor substitute” in terms of the alleged virtues of his dad. The article then repeats some of the well-known stories: “Salacious stories of his private life are daily gossip. A video circulated widely in 2007 showed his third wife, known as the ‘royal consort’, at a formal [birthday] dinner [several years ago] with the prince in a titillating state of undress. Diplomats say Prince Vajiralongkorn is unpredictable to the point of eccentricity: lavishing attention on his pet poodle Fu Fu, for example, who has military rank and, on occasion, sits among [and at the table of] guests at gala dinners. In the 1980s his rumoured ties to the criminal underworld, which he denied in a newspaper interview, inspired the gangster nickname of ‘Sia O’.” Obviously much more could be added, but the story seems clear.

The article then considers some alternatives for the throne and again runs through some of the gossip. Some hope for the increasingly pudgy Sirindhorn and others raise the potential for “a jump to Prince Vajiralongkorn’s children, such as his youngest, Prince Tipangkara, with a regent, perhaps Princess Sirindhorn.” As a footnote, the author describes Sirindhorn as having a “saintly image as a patron of charity.” Well, yes, that’s the image, but of late it has been changed somewhat as she seems to have become the collector of donations to the monarchy. Just before she jetted out to meet the Burmese generals, she was shown on television day after day receiving funds hand over fist.

Apart from the dislike of the prince, why do these hopes for Sirindhorn spring eternal? None of the other siblings are mentioned for they are all obviously totally hopeless. According to the article, “Prince Vajiralongkorn is distrusted in military circles [because of] his past association with Mr Thaksin, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Mr Thaksin, a telecoms billionaire turned populist politician, was said to have lavished money on the prince. That may have been the real reason for the coup, which appeared to have the blessing of Prem Tinsulanonda, the chairman of the Privy Council and thus the king’s chief adviser. The fact that Mr Thaksin, who is living in exile in Dubai, is still in contact with the prince is deeply troubling for those same royalists. In a recent interview with a British newspaper, the former prime minister lavishly praised the heir to the throne.” PPT thinks there were many more pressing reasons for the coup in 2006, but this perspective is one frequently aired, especially by those who claim insider military connections.

One of the big public unknowns relates to the privy council. Presumably the prince has his own people he’d like to have advising him when he’s king. The council serves at the will of the monarch, so the prince can boot out the current crop of aged men dominated by military and judicial appointments. The article cites an unnamed “foreign scholar” as saying that the prince’s men “will definitely not have the calibre” of the current council. That’s a big claim for the current lot seem to have created the very situation that the Economist frets about.

Usefully, the Economist also cites the long-running saga of the failed appointment of a police chief. It says that this impasse is reflective of the prince’s poor judgment as Abhisit’s “choice for police chief was blocked by members of his own team, including Nipon Prompan, an aide to Prince Vajiralongkorn, who lobbied for another candidate. A ‘powerful and mighty’ backer was reported to be pushing the second man, a former head of national intelligence under Mr Thaksin. Mr Nipon later resigned from the cabinet. Mr Abhisit was unable to confirm his man, who is currently acting chief. The row exposed Prince Vajiralongkorn’s clumsy meddling. It also provoked apoplexy among King Bhumibol’s courtiers, says a palace source. Prince Vajiralongkorn was told that ‘we don’t do things like this,’ the source says.”

But as the article points out, this is something of a fib as “the palace has long patronised loyalists in the army and bureaucracy.” Indeed, the palace always makes known who it wants in important position. Thaksin has plenty of time to regret the palace-pushed appointment of 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin as army chief. The article states that “Vajiralongkorn is itching to meddle in the annual autumnal shuffle of senior jobs in the armed forces and extend his support base, says a senior Asian diplomat. How far he succeeds may determine how long he lasts.” And, it raises the “possibility [of] … a royal pardon for Mr Thaksin so that he can return to manage state affairs for the new king.”

The Economist then turns to the question of what to do about the monarchy and succession, suggesting that a “way out of this predicament would be to shrink the Thai monarchy back to its previous size. Top-down reform of the institution is more palatable than a push from below with republican overtones. Under King Bhumibol its stock has fallen already from its zenith…”. PPT is not sure why republicanism is to be feared. After all, there are plenty of stable republics around. We would have thought that a shrinking of the monarchy would only be useful if it is combined with an enhancement of democratic governance.

The Economist seems to write of PPT when is observes that: “Some might argue that King Bhumibol shares the blame for the failure of democratic institutions to take root in Thailand.” That’s undoubtedly true, and was a point made many years ago by the Australian academic Kevin Hewison when he noted the king’s personal disdain for political principles associated with democracy. In part because of this disdain and the fear of the masses, Thailand has become “a cautionary tale of a botched democracy.”

Of course none of this debate about the monarchy and succession is the stuff of national debate and consideration in Thailand. This is due to the threat of “arrest under the lèse-majesté laws or a new, equally nasty computer-crimes law.” It is claimed that under the present king “the silencing of opponents has been controversial, but many tolerate it out of respect. Prince Vajiralongkorn can expect no such leeway.”

Then a really neat piece of gossip is added, from Sulak. He claims that the king has sent out “three trusted emissaries to present ideas for reforming the institution…”. Interesting, but with the article, PPT agrees that a “radical rethink seems unlikely.” In any case, the article then cogitates for a few paragraphs on potential reforms and worries about the monarchy’s total lack of transparency, most especially on the public funds that it takes by the truckload. It also worries about the grand patronage system means that “elected ministers who care about their careers are continually looking over their shoulders for signals from the palace. Mr Abhisit attends so many royal ribbon-cuttings that it is hard to imagine how he finds time to govern…”.

The article finishes by noting that this debate should be held in Thailand, but that “Royal censorship has kept much of this debate under wraps. That is a pity.”

Open Net Initiative on the press in Asia

17 06 2009

The Open Net Initiative has just posted a report on internet freedom across Asia. Thailand is discussed throughout the report, but PPT readers may be most interested in this passage:

“In Asia, Thailand may present an example of an alternative to the approaches taken by China and Singapore. Thailand also blocked YouTube in April 2007 for hosting a number of videos that insulted King Bhumibol Adulyadej or his family, which constitutes a crime of lèse majesté, punishable under Thai law by up to fifteen years’ imprisonment. By May 2007, YouTube agreed to remove a number of the specified videos for violating its terms of service, and the block on the YouTube domain was lifted in August 2007 upon Google’s creation of a program of geolocational filtering for blocking access to specified videos for users in Thailand. In 2008, investigations by a project of the MIT Free Culture group appeared to have uncovered the code for a technical mechanism that YouTube uses to allow certain videos to be seen everywhere except in those locations specified in a media restriction tag. Although Thailand’s filtering of the Internet has been ramped up in recent years, Thai law also requires court authorization to block a Web site. Thus, Thailand has secured the cooperation of the world’s dominant video aggregator site in implementing selective geolocational filtering on its behalf, without having to resort to a formal or transparent legal process.”

This lack of transparency is deeply concerning to PPT.

Read the entire report here.

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