Reviews and reads

9 03 2016

Readers might be interested in two more reviews of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis. We posted on earlier at least eight earlier reviews of the book, and these reviews can be found here.

The first is probably already widely known as it is by Andrew Walker at New Mandala. In a lengthy review, Walker states:

It certainly is a myth-busting tour-de-force showing how Thai kings, and the elites that surround them, have regularly generated political crises, which also reflect competition between narrow sectional interests.  However, whether or not the book will achieve its myth-busting objective is hard to tell. Most readers, I suspect, will already be converts to MacGregor Marshall’s position. By contrast, those who subscribe to the royal mythology will probably be confirmed in their view that unsympathetic Westerners like MacGregor Marshall are determined to slander the royal institution.Kingdom in crisis

Walker concludes:

… Marshall’s preoccupation with the succession points to a broader problem with this book.

Despite its provocations and iconoclasm this is very much a royalist account of Thai history. Like Thailand’s royalists, MacGregor Marshall places the king at the heart of the Thai polity. In A Kingdom in Crisis, contestation over royal power is the engine room of 21st century Thai politics, as it has been over the past millennium (p  213).

The mass of people sometimes do feature, but they are peripheral to MacGregor Marshall’s central purpose. When they do enter into the narrative, it is as an undifferentiated mass of “ordinary  people” who are struggling against the elite in pursuit of “greater freedom and a fairer society” (p 109).

This two-dimensional and a-historical model — a cut-throat elite ruling over a repressed population — is classic orientalism and contributes little to an understanding of the complex and cross-cutting social and economic forces that have brought Thailand to its contemporary political impasse.

The other review is by Jim Glassman in the journal Pacific Affairs. The review can be freely viewed. The review begins:

The publication of Andrew MacGregor Marshall’s A Kingdom in Crisis has been a much-awaited event among Thai scholars. Marshall, a Scottish journalist who used to work for Reuters, has been releasing large pieces of this study for a number of years now, at his “#thaistory” blog. The book adds something to this material but will not be a huge surprise to those who have read his work at the blog site.

Glassman adds that the book is really rather thin:

Given the relative paucity of accessible and critical English-language writing about the Thai monarchy, and the risks that such writing entails, A Kingdom in Crisis should be considered a significant accomplishment, and Zed Books should be given credit for being willing to publish it….

For many scholars and people fairly familiar with Thai politics, some of Marshall’s analysis will nonetheless prove fairly thin gruel. It is not only that there has actually been a string of books in recent history that raise telling issues about the monarchy and challenges of succession—for example, the works by Benedict Anderson, Paul Handley, Soren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, William Stevenson, David Streckfuss and Thongchai Winichakul, which the author cites, as well as works by Kevin Hewison, Rayne Kruger and Somsak Jeamteerasakul, which he doesn’t cite—but Marshall’s explanation of the current crisis is somewhat one-sided.

Acknowledging shortcomings in the book, Glassman concludes:

A Kingdom in Crisis is a useful read, particularly for those unfamiliar with the roles of royalist-military elites (and their international allies) in shaping Thailand’s ongoing struggles for democracy. It will certainly find its place on the bookshelves of Thai democracy activists—provided they do not live in Thailand.

In the same issue of Pacific Affairs there is an article which is of interest because it is based on a survey of serving military officers. The authors of “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military” are Punchada Sirivunnabood of Mahidol University and Jacob Isaac Ricks of Singapore Management University. The abstract states:

Thailand’s military has recently reclaimed its role as the central pillar of Thai politics. This raises an enduring question in civil-military relations: why do people with guns choose to obey those without guns? One of the most prominent theories in both academic and policy circles is Samuel Huntington’s argument that professional militaries do not become involved in politics. We engage this premise in the Thai context. Utilizing data from a new and unique survey of 569 Thai military officers as well as results from focus groups and interviews with military officers, we evaluate the attitudes of Thai servicemen and develop a test of Huntington’s hypothesis. We demonstrate that increasing levels of professionalism are generally poor predictors as to whether or not a Thai military officer prefers an apolitical military. Indeed, our research suggests that higher levels of professionalism as described by Huntington may run counter to civilian control of the military. These findings provide a number of contributions. First, the survey allows us to operationalize and measure professionalism at the individual level. Second, using these measures we are able to empirically test Huntington’s hypothesis that more professional soldiers should prefer to remain apolitical. Finally, we provide an uncommon glimpse at the opinions of Thai military officers regarding military interventions, adding to the relatively sparse body of literature on factors internal to the Thai military which push officers toward politics.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of Contemporary Asia, a third paper from the forthcoming Special Issue, Military, Monarchy and Repression: Assessing Thailand’s Authoritarian Turn, has been published. “Inequality, Wealth and Thailand’s Politics” is by well-known political economist Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit of Chulalongkorn University.

The abstract for the paper states:

Acemoglu and associates argue that resistance to democratisation will be stronger where inequality is high. Piketty shows that shifts at the upper end of the distribution may be historically more significant than overall measures of inequality. In Thailand, the high level of income inequality has eased slightly since 2000, but there is a ‘1% problem’ as peak incomes are growing faster than the average. Newly available data show that inequality of wealth is very high. At the top of the wealth pyramid, family holdings of commercial capital are growing. A significant proportion of top entrepreneurs have emerged within the past generation. A second tier of the wealth elite has developed over the past generation from rising property values, financial investments and professional incomes. Although their individual wealth is much less than the corporate elite, their numbers are much greater. The existence of the prospering ‘1%’ and the emergence of the second-tier wealthy may corroborate Acemoglu’s proposition, but there are tensions within the wealth elite which may favour democracy.

New book on the current reign I

1 12 2011

PPT can’t yet judge it because we haven’t yet seen it, but we will be interested to assess a new book – “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work” – on the current reign that results from a project overseen by former prime minister and ardent royalist Anand Panyarachun at the head of an editorial advisory board.

It was launched a couple of days ago.

The Nation reports that Anand promises “deep, previously unknown insights into King’s life and the monarchy with ‘no attempts to hide the truth or run away from debates’.” He says it is “not a sugar-coated description of the world’s longest-reigning monarch and the work in English was written by a group of experts with knowledge and long experience in Thailand.”

The experts are said to be Chris Baker, David Streckfuss, Porphant Ouyyanont, Julian Gearing, Paul Wedel, Richard Ehrlich, Robert Horn, Joe Cummings, Robert Woodrow, Nicholas Grossman and Dominic Faulder.

Baker is certainly a respected writer on Thailand but has seldom trespassed in any critical manner on issues related to the monarchy. Streckfuss is the expert on lese majeste and Porphant is the leading expert on the Crown Property Bureau. Respectfully, and wishing to be fair but critical, none of the rest are more than long-term journalists, some of whom haven’t written much for a very long time (e.g. Wedel), others write pretty lightweight journalism (e.g. Cummings) and some are pretty much yellow-shirted monarchists.

The book is meant to “help Thai and foreign readers understand the whole gamut of Thailand’s 750-year-old institution and all related implications, real or imagined, especially those related to HM the King, his role and life-long work.” The idea that this current reign is the inheritor of an eight-century tradition is, in fact, one of the inventions of palace propaganda.


Anand says the book even features “negative aspects” related to the monarchy; we’ll be interested to know what these aspects are. He refers to “both sides,” and “not hiding the truth,” and adds that “we also do not want to persuade anyone to change their ways of thinking…”. Such language suggests how deeply debates about the monarchy, despite the stifling impact of lese majeste, have gone.

Anand says more on this when he adds: “The Thai monarchy has been subject to heavy criticism in the past few years not based on facts, so I have used my role as an adviser to tell the truth to foreign audiences…. The book features accurate information, which is fair to all sides, and is regarded as a reference for anyone without true knowledge about the monarchy.”

Anand claims that the book is entirely factual: “we did not use details without reference.” He does, however, note that as “the adviser to this publication, [I] did not alter any inputs of information, but [I did] have put in some details as fulfilment, to create greater balance.”

In line with the palace view that the public has recently “misunderstood the monarchy,” he says “I want all Thais to read it, and to know about a lot of things [about the monarchy] not known before to the public…”.

The topics discussed, apart from a piece on the Privy Council and that on the CPB and lese majeste, seem pretty much the regular features of the hagiographical accounts, so it remains to be seen if they introduce anything that is critical on sufficiency economy, royal projects and so on.

The comment that the article on lese majeste concludes that: “Thailand currently has the most severe lese-majeste law seen anywhere in more than a century, comparable only to Japanese wartime legislation,” is suggestive of some criticism of the law, as would be expected of Streckfuss.

The story concludes, unfortunately with an inaccuracy: “In the past, books about the monarchy have been banned in Thailand. Paul Handley’s ‘The King Never Smiles’ was banned…. So was William Stevenson’s book “The Revolutionary King”, written in 1999.” Of course the latter is sold in Bangkok, but not the more thorough and more accurate Handley book.

Academic pandering to royalists?

9 10 2011

It is a pretty regular thing to observe Thai academics pandering to royals and royalists, and donning yellow shirts (or whatever the color of current political demands, as long as it isn’t red).

What is less regular is the promotion of foreign academics who are essentially pushing the establishment line. Sure, Stephen B. Young was trotted out by The Nation some time ago, but he hardly has the credentials of a regular academic. His assigned role was to babble about royalist interpretations of a “good” Thailand.

PPT was initially taken aback by the Bangkok Post’s decision to highlight the ideas of Gerald W. Fry whom it describes as “an expert on Thai culture and politics.” We were taken aback because we would not have considered this a realistic assessment of one who has had little demonstrable impact on these fields.

Fry has a trickle of publications that might be seen as academic, although their impact has been limited (see, for example, Google Scholar for this to be confirmed). Fry’s joint-authored book, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations  is claimed in the article to be “a bible and reference about Asean nations.” Oddly the “bible” it barely cited. Google Scholar lists one citation for a book published in 2008. One online bookstore lists it as ” Children’s Nonfiction.” The publisher’s page lists it as a school book for “Reading Level: Grades 9 and up.”

Essentially, Fry is located in the same category as Stephen Young, saying things that quicken the beating of the hearts of all royalists.

There has been an attempt in recent years by elite and royalist Thais, like Anand Panyarachun and long-time palace favorite Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn, to suggest that foreigners can’t really understand Thailand and most especially they can’t understand the supposed special relationship between the monarchy and the serfs people.

These royalists simply love to hear this line repeated by foreigners. Hence Fry gets to be in the Bangkok Post. But what does he say and how much truth is there in his assertions?

The article asserts that Fry frets about “parachute writers”,  who spend only “brief periods in Thailand _ weeks, months or less than a year or so _ but still managing to pen tomes on the history of Thailand or mini-encyclopedic academic analyses.” According to the article, Fry is one of “a few critics who question these writers and their views on the Land of Smiles.” The latter term reminds us of 1960s journalism or the Trink of yore.

Fry is said to be “undertaking content analysis research on the coverage of last year’s Bangkok riots by international news agencies, CNN and the BBC. The work will be completed this year.” PPT thinks Fry and/or the reporter repeatedly confuse reporting and academic writing when referring to “parachute writers.” After all, the only mention of a “tome” is in this paragraph:

Some writers visited Thailand for a very short period of time yet managed to pen a book. As a classic example, he cited Louis E Lomax, a respected American journalist and writer who visited Thailand for three weeks in the mid ’60s and managed to pen Thailand: The War That Is, The War That Will Be _ an early work by a Western writer on Thai culture.

Lomax was a remarkable African-American journalist and political activist who died in mysterious circumstances while researching the FBI’s role in murders of African-American political activists. His Thailand book was published in 1967. The claim that it “misrepresented” was also made by scholar Herbert Philips in 1979. Lomax was remarkable for barging into nascent debates then dominated by white, often CIA-supported, academics deeply embedded in funding regimes controlled by and for the U.S. state.

His critics could point to errors in the book but the main complaint was that Lomax was taking a Black Power-driven and anti-American war in Indochina position. Lomax wrote that U.S. policy in Thailand and the country’s military-authoritarianism meant that Thailand was likely to become the “next Vietnam.” His book only has 17 citations at Google Scholar, so would have to be regarded as having had very little academic impact despite its truly novel positioning.

In addition to Lomax, Fry has a PowerPoint (a large download) where he writes of “Misrepresentations, Misunderstandings, and Ignorance” in Margaret Landon’s book, Anna and the King of Siam, which has been long known as a fantasy, even misrepresenting Anna Leonowens writings, and William Stevenson’s The Revolutionary King, which was lambasted on publication. Nothing new there.

Fry’s “unreserved admiration” is for Charles Keyes, Craig Reynolds and Chris Baker. He doesn’t say why he chooses these three over scores of others. Citing Said’s Orientalism, his “scepticism regarding certain [other] Western writers in Thailand” seems to be based on their failure to understand “Thai culture.” Without providing a single example, Fry is reported to observe a “tendency to make false assumptions which underlie Western attitudes toward less developed countries, a long tradition of romanticised images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture and an essentially supremacist attitude.”

PPT tends to think it sees more of the tradition of Orientalism in Fry’s work – with his reliance on essentialized ideas of “Thai Buddhism” and “royalism” than in most recent scholarship on Thailand. Take these examples from the Post report and tell us this doesn’t resonate with 19th Century Orientalism:

In all, the 69-year-old professor is still mesmerised by Thailand as he has always been.

In many ways, despite drastic political, socio-economic change, the country remains as mysterious as ever.

Everything in Thailand is more complicated than it seems,” he said, observing that there are always layer after layer underneath a seemingly simple event.

“Thailand is such a complex society,” he said. “I think foreigners need to be more careful [when writing about the country]. Their hearts are in the right place, yet they might not understand the country or the culture.”

Fry claims the unnamed writers who misunderstand Thailand particularly distort “gender, monarchy and women.” Unfortunately, in the PowerPoint, his examples are not of Western scholars but of journalists, films, dictionaries and “incidents” associated with advertising. It is as if Fry hasn’t read recent scholarship and is unable to distinguish scholarship and reportage.

He then proceeds in the PowerPoint to list a series of “Factual Mistakes” in the Historical Dictionary of Thailand. Somehow the next edition of the Dictionary is in Fry’s hands. As well as having produced a kind of compendium of how he plans to “correct” and royalize the new edition (with almost all the “missing” entries having to do with royals and their supporters), Fry’s PowerPoint lists “mistakes.” These include getting the number of national holidays wrong, recording “Thai Rak Thai having 248 seats in the 1996 Parliament; and 375 seats in the 2001 Parliament,” and stating that “Thaksin’s trial on concealing assets occurred the year before he was first elected Prime Minister; actually it occurred about seven months after he was in office.”

PPT doesn’t think that holidays matter too much as several recent governments have declared several more, but perhaps Fry is flummoxed by the fact that royal holidays are missed. Does it matter? On seats in parliament, Fry himself gets it wrong. The 2005 edition of the Dictionary says Thai Rak Thai won 248 seats in 2001 and “approximately 375 seats” in 2005 (the Dictionary was published in 2005, so it is clear the authors are writing about the time of the election). Most sources agree that TRT did win 248 seats in 2001 and 375 in 2005. The Thaksin assets case sentence in the Dictionary is mangled simply because it is being brief.

Fry is said to have “often found factual errors and misunderstandings in articles and books penned by foreign writers and journalists about the recent political crisis.” He is cited: “They create distortion…. A writer wrote that CentralWorld [where red-shirt protesters gathered last year] is three times larger than the Mall of America. In fact, the Mall of America in Minnesota is 10 times larger than CentralWorld.”

PPT doesn’t follow malls all that avidly, but a quick scan of a couple of web pages (here and here) devoted to the topic show that CentralWorld isn’t bigger than the Mall of America, but that Fry’s “10 times larger” is equally wrong and CentralWorld is about double the size of the Mall of America in terms of retail space. We guess readers are getting the picture: the man claiming errors is making them himself.

Fry’s claim to fame is his royalism. He claims his “next project is about education development in Thailand, focusing on outstanding educators.” Of course, this includes “HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.” Sirindhorn gets the odd credit for public comments on education and she is often seen sporting military attire giving lectures to military cadets, but that hardly makes her an “outstanding educator.”  Fry is simply a royal posterior polisher.

To make our point, Fry babbles on about the alleged “lack of understanding” as applying to the “unique relation between Thais and the monarchy.” Fry states: “I don’t think foreigners truly understand how much admiration Thais have for His Majesty the King…”. Anand has made exactly the same point and Fry is apparently parroting it.

PPT doesn’t think Fry understands much about contemporary Thailand that isn’t royalist nonsense. That’s exactly why the royalists like him.

Wikileaks cables, truth and Thailand

28 06 2011

A PPT reader has sent us his account of Andrew Macgregor Marshall’s Thailand’s moment of truth, which is the first narrative trying to make sense of American diplomatic cables regarding Thailand made available through Wikileaks.

The first volume (the second just out) has been published as a free electronic book. Marshall’s work and his perspective received some media attention, particularly in the UK and there has been considerable discussion among circles interested in events in Thailand, notably on some of the blogs.

Marshall’s work weaves together a review of Thai history over the last century, including the life of the king, excerpts from credible works by Paul Handley and Duncan McCargo as well as William Stevenson‘s questionable biography, and of course dozens of the leaked cables.

This first volume has considerable value for people with limited knowledge of Thailand and its society. The selection of cables will be especially interesting to observers who focus on elite perspectives. For those who take a broader view and are open to the possibility of the common person, or phrai, being an active force in these heady times, Marshall’s work will be but of less interest, perhaps as an occasional reference for reasons which will be elaborated.

It is perhaps courting trouble to consider and critique only the first volume when the three subsequent volumes have yet to be published. The first volume does not provide a clear introduction to the subsequent three volumes. Therefore, it is only possible to consider the first volume as it is and assume it sets the approach, perspective and tone for the subsequent volumes.

In brief, the cables that form the spine of the account are accounts of discussions between American diplomats and figures from royal circles as well as Thaksin. The volume reports there are several significant fissures within the amart, doubts and debates over the succession, and concerns for the future of the monarchy and by implication the current structure of power, and some confusion within the elites. In short, no groundbreaking insights, perspectives or explanations on what is or might be happening in Thailand.

If the cables are the basis for the book, it is how the cables are understood and interpreted that matters. It is here where the book falls a little short. The cables are lightly classified. They represent only a part of the information available to the American government. No access has been provided to highly classified cables, nor do we know the range of electronic and human intelligence assets that are reporting to the American government. Therefore the cables must be treated with care and caution.

Marshall sets them up as gold. Some of them may be lead. A thorough assessment and interpretation will only be possible in the years ahead after events have unfolded and historians are able to go to work. Only then may it be clear if what has been told to American diplomats was accurate. For now, they must be considered preliminary. Moreover, consideration has to be given to the motives of the elite interlocutors and their agendas. This is absent from the first volume.

The cables often appear to peddle the rumors that surround what one U.S. ambassador calls an opaque monarchy. This is seen in accounts attributed to elite actors on the health status of the heir to the throne and his young son. Some of which is conveyed in the cables. However, in person they appeared healthy to American diplomats. Of course it might be said that there is no smoke without fire. The prince, and perhaps even his son, may not be 100%. We simply do not know and should perhaps treat such claims coolly until proven otherwise. Indeed given the distaste for the prince among privy councillors (and many not in the elite) it is hardly surprising if ill thinking about the prince translates into whispers and gossip.

The cables presented are exclusively about discussions with elite actors. Several interpretations arise. It seems that American diplomats are not sending many cables about the state and change in mass society. This leads Marshall to a bias towards elites and an implicit discounting of the agency and power of subaltern actors, experiences and perspectives.

Those with some knowledge and experience of Thailand and its society, especially the dramatic changes in life and economy over the last decade or so, will see numerous weaknesses in Marshall’s elite-centric perspective. The masses barely exist, whether by accident or design the book implies politics and political change in Thailand are solely the business of the elites. In so doing, the work, unwittingly perhaps, tacitly accept claims made by the elite and some other observers that the mass is incapable of thinking or acting or being anything other than bystanders and buffalo to be lead in as muscle when needed. The most striking recognition of the great changes in society is a cable reporting a discussion with a friend of the prince who points out that people under 40 may be less enamoured with the monarchy because of pressures and entertainments of modern life.

The king is portrayed as honest, wise and a victim and universally adored when in fact there are several good accounts and arguments of why he is an active player and backs the winner in disputes such as 1973, 1976 and 1992. It is curious that early in the book Marshall discusses 1973 and 1992 as examples of the king supporting change and progress (questionable in any case) while ignoring the monarchy’s support for the fascist backlash in 1976.

His repetition of the tired media line, itself a mindless broadcast of elite propaganda, that all Thais love the king and respect the monarchy is simply bizarre given recent events. The monarchy is, among significant segments of the masses, looked upon with disdain. Such developments are not always obvious but are built up through countless conversations with ordinary people and by watching the reporting of the past couple of years.

Thailand is in period which might be described as one of paradigmatic or revolutionary change. The coup of 2006 was unusual, even unique. It toppled a prime minister with unparalleled popular legitimacy expressed through winning two consecutive elections (leaving aside the odd 2006 election). Part of this legitimacy stemmed from the innovation of campaigning nationally on a policy manifesto attuned to the needs and interests of the masses and then acting upon it. Many people perceived they were benefitting directly from government policy for the first time. This is a new era.

The coup against a prime minister holding such legitimacy can be interpreted as a move by the amart to contain and halt this change that could have fundamentally restructured the distribution of power in society. The coup was a reaction against the change heralded by the action of the majority of voters in selecting and delivering power to the prime minister through their votes. So while it might be said that most of the time in most societies the masses don’t matter a great deal it might be said that when it comes to big change they matter absolutely because it is they that collectively hold the power to force change in one way or another including de facto alliances with certain elements of the elite.

Thus the cables and Marshall’s work is important background, especially for what elements of the elite were telling American diplomats and policymakers. What is needed is a more thorough, comprehensive and nuanced account that uses the cables and situates them within the context of a country living with great uncertainty and the politics of subaltern revolt.

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