The junta’s lock

20 07 2018

The military dictatorship has now had more than four years to lock-in its rule and its rules. In establishing control over the military, it has had longer.

Around the time of the 2006 military coup, royalist elements in the military, aligned with the palace directly or through privy councilors Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and Gen Surayud Chulanont, marked certain military officers as untrustworthy due to their perceived alliance with Thaksin Shinawatra. These officers were sidelined, stymied and seen out of the military, mostly through the efforts of four generals: Sonthi Boonyaratglin, Anupong Paojinda, Prayuth Chan-ocha and Prawit Wongsuwan. Sonthi was soon discarded as too weak but the others remain, ran the 2014 coup and now plot and plan for the continuation of military guided “democracy” into the future.

That planning for the future involves something that Gen Prem did for years on behalf of the palace: managing succession in the armed forces so that loyalists are on top. In this context. loyalty means to the palace and to the junta and its regime.

It has been known for quite some time that the chosen successor for Gen Chalermchai Sitthisart as Army chief is Gen Apirat Kongsompong. Apirat is a ruthless rightist who has vowed support to The Dictator and taken a leading role in suppressing red shirts and other political opponents.

Last year, when the new King Vajiralongkorn approved the military promotion list, it was widely assumed that Gen Apirat had the king’s approval as Vajiralongkorn takes a strong interest in what happens within the armed forces. However, in May this year, there was an unconfirmed report that Apirat may have fallen foul of the erratic king. Within a couple of months, however, an announcement in the Royal Gazette saw Gen Apirat granted special special status as a member of the king’s personal security unit. If Apirat had fallen foul of the king, he must have completed his penance and/or service with flying colors, at least in the king’s eyes.

This has been followed by Gen Apirat getting plenty of media attention as the Defense Council is scheduled to meet on 25 July to discuss promotions and appointments, with the meeting chaired by Gen Prawit. Interestingly, most of the media stories are almost exactly the same, suggesting that this is a strategic leak by the junta, paving the way for Apirat and acknowledging that the king’s approval has been given.

Apirat, a graduate from Class 20 of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School, and in the military’s feudal system, “belongs to the Wongthewan clique and not the powerful Burapa Phayak circles of elite commanders — of which Gen Prayut and his deputy Gen Prawit are members — [yet] he is one of the regime’s most trusted lieutenants.” He has pledged allegiance to The Dictator. His loyalty has been earlier tested in 2010 and his bosses appreciate Apirat’s willingness to shoot down civilian opponents.

If the junta does decide to hold its rigged election next year, Gen Apirat will be expected to use his 200,000 + soldiers, the Internal Security Operations Command and various other resources of the state to deliver the votes needed for the “election” to appear to have been won by the junta’s parties.





That plaque

19 07 2018

We won’t repeat the story of how the plaque commemorating the 1932 Revolution, people’s sovereignty and the end of the absolute monarchy disappeared.

No one has officially claimed responsibility for that act of political vandalism and the plaque being replaced by one extolling the wonders of royalism.

Interestingly, in a story at Prachatai, there’s an official clue as to the status of the thieves and vandals. (We must add that we are pleased that the English version of Prachatai has suddenly made a comeback after a hiatus over the past months or so.)

A second part of a report on a seminar that assessed the 1932 Revolution reports the presentation by former lese majeste prisoner and longtime activist Somyos Prueksakasemsuk:

Somyot stated that today he came [to the seminar] with a police car leading him. He considered it was a great honour for the police officers show respect to him by asking him for details and asking about certain matters that are inappropriate to be speaking about.

We would have guessed that the police wanted to silence him on lese majeste, the monarchy or his case. But no: “The issue they asked him to not talk about was the disappearance of the Khana Ratsadon plaque.

That suggests to us that the junta must have authorized the plaque’s removal or is officially covering-up for the real culprit. (Many assume that King Vajiralongkorn ordered its removal.)

Somyos went on to explain that:

… the disappearance of the plaque is nothing new because there have always been attempts to destroy the symbols of the 1932 revolution all the time, including the misrepresentation of the history of 1932 as premature where the revolution went ahead even though King Rama VII was getting ready to bestow democracy. The … date of the national day has been changed and Khana Ratsadon architecture such as the Supreme Court building, has been destroyed.

Ever a political optimist, Somyos explained:

As for the missing plaque, … its disappearance today is alright. When one day we have democracy, and a government, we can install a new one. At least it can be an ideological symbol of democracy and Khana Ratsadon.

We can only hope he’s right and support those who favor electoral democracy of military dictatorship.





Making royal propaganda from the cave II

15 07 2018

While PPT refrained from commentary on the remarkably uplifting cave rescue, we have said a few things about its use for palace propaganda purposes (here, here and here). Our point has been to point out that the kind of royal propaganda is nothing new, but that this is an opportunity for the palace to boost the image of the new king in ways that are not all that different from his father. Royalism is so deeply embedded in the military and bureaucracy that there is a constant search for opportunities to make the monarch look good, kind, generous, loving of his people, etc.

The latest efforts have involved both a familiar pattern and one that strikes us as somewhat new. The familiar involves the promotion of the former Navy diver who died in the cave and providing a royally-sponsored funeral ceremony. If academic Serhat Unaldi referred to something called “working towards the monarchy,” this propaganda exercise kind of reverses the process, allowing the monarchy to gain credit from the death of someone considered popular, a hero or worthy in other ways. Such actions are not always simple and cynical efforts by the palace but invariably bestow considerable credit on the monarch.

Governor Narongsak

The less familiar involves something we noted in our first comment on the efforts in Chiang Rai. In that post we observed the dress of Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn. Initially in the search, he appeared in a “loyalty” outfit. Appearing appropriately loyal is required in royalist Thailand under the military dictatorship. At the time, we thought he might be wearing a sky blue Snoopy cap,along with a yellow scarf.

In fact, the cap bears the king’s rather childlike cartoon figures which also recently appeared on shirts. He wasn’t the only one wearing the outfit in the early days of the cave drama. Narongsak seemed to ditch the outfit as the search became very serious and he handled himself commendably. So did others.

However, after the huge elation following the successful rescue of those in the cave, the blue caps and yellow scarves are back in big numbers. As hundreds showed up to volunteer to assist in the cave area clean-up, it seems that they were all provided with these symbols of loyalty. Remarkably, the regimented volunteers all managed to show up in very similar yellow shirts.

This “uniform” was also on show in some of the very early pictures that came from the boating tragedy in Phuket where 48 persons seem to have perished. It seems that the idea of associating monarchy with a tragedy saw the “uniform” ditched.

The Bangkok Post has a some pictures from Chiang Rai following the joyous outcome there. The “uniform” is de rigueur. We clipped one of those here.

Way off in the distance in the photo is the picture of the king that the volunteers are saluting, all lined up in their identical outfits. It is clear that there’s a palace propaganda effort underway. Yellow and sky blue are the kings chosen colors.





An interfering monarchy II

13 07 2018

Just over a week ago PPT commented on the cave rescue and the king’s self-selected role.

We noted that the king had ordered – a “royal order” – that “cave search-and-rescue training will be introduced to the curriculum of all branches of the armed forces…”. That was announced by The Dictator. The report cited went on to say that the king was “[w]eighing in on how the nation’s armed forces should be trained…”, and ordered that “the skills and knowledge used to rescue 12 boys and their football coach be incorporated into their training…”.

Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha immediately did as decreed, declaring: “[We] can adapt the rescue plan into diving and swimming lessons for the special operation forces in the future.”

We asked what business does the king have in “decreeing” how the military should be training? We also asked how many similar emergencies are there likely to be in the next few decades?

But in royalist Thailand, he who must be obeyed gets what he wants. Naval Special Warfare Command chief Rear Admiral Apakorn Yukongkaew has stated that “[s]kills unfamiliar to Thai Navy Seals but key to the successful rescue” of the kids and their coach in the cave “will be added to the training regimen of the Navy’s elite unit to better prepare them for unexpected situations.” He says that the operation prompted thinking “about arming themselves with the skills needed to navigate flooded, dark and murky passageways.”

We doubt that. This is coming from up high. When Rear Admiral Apakorn was asked “to name a priority for his Seal unit after returning from the cave rescue mission” he states that “Seals need cave-diving training…”.

To be honest, this is a bizarre response that only makes “sense” in the context of the royal command. And that makes very little sense.

Perhaps there’s also some nationalism at work when it is reported that the Navy team “handled the risks and pressure at Tham Luang well, but they still needed to be guided by world-renowned cave divers who also joined the rescue operations.” Nationalism is dangerous in such circumstances and the administration’s quick action in calling in experienced cave divers from all over the world was exactly the right thing to do.

We think the BBC gets it right too when it asks and answers:

Could the Thais have done this on their own?

No, and few countries could. Cave diving is a very specialised skill, and expert cave rescuers are even rarer.

Thailand was fortunate that an experienced caver Vern Unsworth has explored the Tham Luang cave complex extensively, and lives nearby.

He was on the scene the day after the boys disappeared, and suggested that the Thai government needed to invite expert divers from other countries to help.

The Thai navy divers who went down initially struggled, because both their experience and equipment were for sea diving, which is very different. They were driven out of the caves by rapidly rising flood water, and finding the boys seemed a hopeless cause.

Once foreign divers arrived, from many different countries, the Thai authorities allowed them to devise first the search, and then the enormously complex rescue. It was a huge logistical operation involving hundreds of people, building guide rope and pulley systems, putting in power and communication cables.

It is to Thailand’s credit that it was organised so well, and there was no attempt to diminish the foreign contribution.

So when a king who wasn’t at the scene and has no experience in caves or rescue operations provides daft advice, he should be ignored, not blindly followed. Monarchs need to be kept in their legal and constitutional place.





King, sangha and returning royal power

8 07 2018

Some time ago, the BBC’s Jonathan Head reported on Wat Dhammakaya that skillfully weaved a story that ended with this:

Thailand is in the midst of a complex and potentially dangerous, triple transition; a delicate royal succession, a battle over the future of Buddhism and a still uncertain political transition to a military-guided democracy.

More than a year later, the dictatorship and the king have again come together in defining the future of the Buddhist sangha.

In 2016, the puppet National Legislative Assembly passed an amendment to the 1962 Sangha Act. The amendment was designed to delay the appointment of Somdet Phra Maha Ratchamangalacharn, known as Somdet Chuang, after he was nominated by the Sangha Supreme Council to be Supreme Patriarch. He was considered by the military junta and palace to be too close to Wat Dhammakaya.

The amendment gave great power to the king as it was he who “selects and appoints a supreme patriarch while the prime minister countersigns the appointment.”

Apparently, though, this was not sufficient. It is now reported that the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly on Thursday “endorsed the Monk Act, which will enable the [k]ing to appoint or remove senior monks and members of the supreme council of monks.”

“Voting” in the puppet NLA

Speaking to the puppet Assembly, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said that the king “is recognized in the constitution as the patron of Buddhism and other religions. He said it would be fitting for the [k]ing to appoint or strip senior monks and members of the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand of their titles, as stipulated in Article 3 of the act.”

Wissanu essentially explained this as a throwback act: “… such royal prerogative was practiced between the reign of King Rama V to King Rama VIII. King Rama VIII’s reign ended in 1939.”

This might be poor reporting as Rama VIII’s reign ended in 1946 when he was found dead by gunshot. What was meant, we think, was that the Act was amended in 1941. We are not sure why 1939 is stated, but perhaps there are readers who know more on this.

The linked article cites Buddhist scholar Surapot Thaweesak on the most recent junta-sponsored amendment.

He stated that the amendment “is tantamount to returning royal power relations between the King and the Sangha to those of King Rama V’s time…”.

Surapot added that “this is a return of royal power.” He concluded: “Thinking from the standpoint of the … state, there will be greater control of the Sangha… But from a democratic standpoint, [Thailand] should be a secular state…”. Surapot correctly claimed that “the act in general will make Buddhism and the Sangha a mechanism to support conservative ideology.”

Pious king

King Vajiralongkorn has a particular interest in Buddhism and has engaged politically on the sangha several times as crown prince and now as king.





Making royal propaganda from the cave I

7 07 2018

A couple of days ago PPT commented on the making of royal propaganda and the king interfering in events and institutions that are not his preserve. In it, we observed how the palace propaganda machine in the previous reign regularly claimed a royal interest in events that elicited public sympathy. We don’t doubt the interest but the point was about how that interest became grist to the royal propaganda mill.

The ongoing efforts by rescuers to bring the soccer team out of the cave has continued to provide that propaganda opportunity.

In another message from the king’s palace he issued a statement “of appreciation, commendation and encouragement to the Thai and foreign teams who have located 12 young footballers and their coach…”.

The message allows the king to rehearse a message that was his father’s mantra: “there was unity of effort exerted by all in a disciplined manner, supported by great knowledge, dedication and sacrifice…”.

With the death of a former Navy seal, while tragic, provided another opportunity.

The king intervened, giving “instructions that Petty Officer 1st Class Saman be given dignified funeral rites.” The king “also gave instructions to that the dead diver’s children be well taken care of.”

In another effort at bolstering the “caring-ness” of the palace, Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti Has “handwritten card … [that] urged 12 young footballers and their coach trapped inside a northern cave to stay strong, and thanked everyone involved in the attempt to rescue them.” He wrote it in German.

The 13 year-old son of the king is generally considered most likely to become crown prince in a few years. He is at school in Germany.

Such efforts will occur at every available opportunity, as they did in the past reign.





Updated: An interfering monarchy I

5 07 2018

One of the characteristics of the last reign was for the palace propaganda machine to claim a royal interest in events that elicited public sympathy. The idea was to present the king as a monarch who cared for his subjects. As his reign developed and as his public persona was accepted more widely a a good, generous, caring patriarch, that king came to have an opinion on almost everything, from agriculture to art, music to flood control, to governance and much more.

For the new king, creating the image is not so easy because of Vajiralongkorn’s erratic past, aloofness and self-centeredness. Even so, the palace propaganda machine and the military junta has been image-making in ways that seem little changed from the past reign.

With the most recent events associated with the young group of footballers trapped in the Chiang Rai cave, there has been much community and social effort rescue the boys. There’s also been a high-profile royal effort at support.

But, as Thai PBS reports, some of Vajiralongkorn’s “charity” amounts to royal interference, suggesting that the king is not about to allow the affairs of state to proceed as they should in a constitutional monarchy, where a monarch reigns under the government of the day and sovereignty resides with the people.

Deputy Dictator Gen Prawit Wongsuwan says “the King wants the 12 young footballers and their coach, stranded in Tham Luang cave since June 23, to be brought out as soon possible…”.

Well, we suppose that most people would agree with that sentiment, but is this “advice” likely to lead to poor decision-making?

More in line with the “caring king” propaganda of the past, Prawit said the king “also wants all parties taking part in the search and rescue operation, including foreigners, to be taken care of.” Yes, but does that need stating and does it need to be the king making the statement?

More indicative of the king’s approach is seen in a Khaosod report: “Upon a royal order, cave search-and-rescue training will be introduced to the curriculum of all branches of the armed forces, the leader of the ruling junta announced Wednesday.”

The reports states that “[w]eighing in on how the nation’s armed forces should be trained, King Vajiralongkorn has decreed that the skills and knowledge used to rescue 12 boys and their football coach be incorporated into their training…”.

The junta seemed to have accepted this “decree.” Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha declared: “[We] can adapt the rescue plan into diving and swimming lessons for the special operation forces in the future.”

What business does the king have in “decreeing” how the military should be training? How many similar emergencies are there likely to be in the next decades?

Monarchs need to be kept in their legal and constitutional place even when dealing with toady military dictators.

Update: In another report it is stated: “Instructions were given by the King that everyone [rescuers] must bring out the children as quickly as possible…”. Instructions issued by a layman with little education in anything much at all and not on the scene makes little sense except in a royalist Thailand.