Serious Politics and the Democrats

One feature of political parties that have enjoyed power in a democracy and then been voted out, especially when the defeat has been resounding, is that those who are committed to returning to power under democratic means have not only re-examined their ideology and the policies that flow from this but, perhaps even more important, is the discipline that leading party members are obliged to accept as the price for returning to credibility with the voters. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Democrats under Bill Clinton and especially Barack Obama are perhaps the most obvious examples of this – party ideology was (often in a series of bloody confrontations in political terms) forcibly readjusted to the new reality brought about by electoral victory by opponents and leading member required to keep on-message in supporting those changes. This is not perfect since the process colludes with the political environment stimulated by modern media that regards all forms of discussion or debate as evidence of disunity or the result of a ‘gaffe.’ Important debates are, therefore, stifled or held in secret without much public participation.

To what extent has Thailand’s Democrat Party followed this process? Well, there has certainly been little public debate of ideology or policies. In opposition, the Democrats consistently opposed every policy of the democratically-elected government, frequently in ad hominem terms. Now placed in power as a result of a series of deeply undemocratic activities, the Democrats have appropriated many of the same policies, albeit occasionally under different names. It would be reasonable to say that the Democrats have changed their ideology as a result of a shift in public opinion except that there is no coherent ideology and government spokespeople continue to talk in terms of being ‘virtuous’ and ‘technically-competent’ people – it is managerialism with the Thai characteristics of patriarchy and deference to the ruling classes.

Distinct from what they do, can anyone honestly say what, apart from office, the Democrats stand intellectually?

As for discipline, well, the Cabinet is already a shambles. The latest idiocy is a series of outright, inflammatory lies from Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. One Cabinet Minister has already been forced out after a corruption scandal and several more are likely to follow – and this with all the ‘institutional benefits’ that the government supports. Are these people really serious politicians? Or are they just exercising their birthright of power?

Year in Review I

Fortunately, there are some compensations for those of us who are positioned closer to the revolutionary than the reactionary end of the continuum. There are two main aspects to this: the first is the optimistic belief that things can change for the better and, no matter how grim matters may appear to be, there will always be hope. Look, for example, at the election of Barack Obama, which is an occurrence that could scarcely have been imagined four years ago when the American people were re-electing George W Bush.

Second, there is the belief that the worse the situation becomes, the closer comes the inevitable revolution that will save us all. Marxists, for example, believe that it is necessary for the capitalist system to destroy itself before the arrival of the revolution that will usher in the age of equality. Christianity, too, requires the most devastating event possible to occur before the redemption is possible: without Judas, that is, there can be no crucifixion and then no resurrection. Other belief or thought systems with (variously defined) progressive aims have similar paradoxes at their core.

In this light, therefore, we can look at what has happened in Thailand this year with a slightly less depressed air than would otherwise appear necessary because, let’s face it, this has been a terrible year for Thailand. The armed coup of 2006 demonstrated that army personnel (in the form of sad little General Surayud – who always appeared on television like the little boy on his first day at school wearing his older bother’s discarded uniform) are now completely incapable of running a modern economy – back in the 60s and 70s, generals could run the economy more or less successfully, as they demonstrated. That is no longer the case and, as mentioned, the 2007-7 junta showed it to be the case. So, after ceding power to a democratically-elected government for a brief period (buy paying the PAD to prevent them from actively governing effectively), the powers that be launched a Silent Coup this year to give power to the quisling politicians who can be trusted to maintain the army’s extreme conservative agenda. Preventing the police from acting (this is well documented), the army encouraged (and celebrity sponsors helped pay for) the PAD to occupy not just Government House but Bangkok’s two international airports among a welter of violence aimed at the police and the general public. The closure is likely to cause a million extra job losses and costs of up to 100 billion baht. Weeks after the army-brokered agreement (allegedly) with the PAD to end the occupation in return for the dissolution of the ruling PPP party on a pretext by junta-appointed lawyers and a place in the new Democrat-led coalition – and the Foreign Ministry was indeed given to a prominent PAD spokesperson, to the absolute bemusement of the international audience. No PAD supporter has yet been prosecuted for any of the catalogue of crimes for which more than ample evidence exists that were committed on a premeditated basis.

Now we move into 2009 in the face of possibly the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s with an army puppet PM with no idea of the extent of the problems facing the country. So, on the optimistic note on which I started, is the situation now so desperate that it will lead to real change?

Assassination and Vote-Buying

It costs between 30-50,000 baht to have someone assassinated in Thailand, apparently. There are various gangs of killers for hire around the country, according to the Bangkok Post and police seem to know who they are but lack evidence to prosecute gang leaders. A senior officer is claiming that there may be an increase in the work of assassins if a new election is to be called in a couple of months, which is what rumours suggest will happen and that a new political party will contest it wearing yellow. Political killings have been a feature of public life for decades, as I have written here before. Some killings are intended to terrorise people who might wish to challenge the status quo (e.g. labour union activists, human rights lawyers, environmentalists) and others are intended to remove rivals or their key supporters.

Now that court-decisions have acted to end the use of ideology in Thai politics, voting will return to the money politics, personality politics and vote-buying that was so prevalent prior to the 2001 election. An interesting paper in the Journal of Asian Studies by Katherine A. Bowie suggests that vote-buying has not been endemic in rural Thailand but was an aberration of the 1990s that was brought about by conflicts between laws aiming to decentralize politics and older laws from the absolute monarchy period. Outside of that time period, vote-buying has not been a significant issue in reality, although a different perception might well be gathered from paying attention to the national media here. The paper is “Vote Buying and Village Outrage in an Election in Northern Thailand: Recent Legal Reforms in Historical Context by Katherine A Bowie. The Journal of Asian Studies. Ann Arbor: May 2008. Vol. 67, No.2.

Thailand’s George W Bush

Is it really possible that Thailand’s George W. Bush will become Prime Minister? As Andrew Walker at New Mandala puts it: “With the assistance of a military coup, two party dissolutions, a new constitution, an activist judiciary, royal backing, an ultra-nationalist crisis, six months of escalating street provocation, military insubordination, and an economically disastrous airport shutdown, the Democrat Party now seems to be within striking distance of forming Thailand’s next government.”

Since Abhisit W. Vejjajiva is leader of the Democrats, he is most likely to get the nomination from his side, if the deep-pocketed influencers who are buying the loyalty of former PPP-coalition MPs manage to convince enough to turn their coats.

In what way is he Thailand’s George W Bush. Let me count the ways:

Born into a family of wealth and enormous privilege

Enviable academic record made possible by family influence rather than personal ability

Never managed a useful day’s work in his life

Draft dodger (allegedly. Well, it is true but being disputed)

Awarded office by court decisions rather than the ballot box

Hopelessly incapable of understanding the problems facing his country and likely to pass all real political work to extremist and secretive background people

The kind of guy you’d like to have a beer with – that always struck me as a strange thing with Bush, who of course is a currently non-drinking alcoholic (since we must discount the curious pretzel choking rumours and the … on second thoughts, I have deleted the end of that sentence).

It is not definite that the Democrats will be able to put together a coalition and, even if they do, how stable it will be, since numbers are likely to be close and a number of the new coalition members will face severe criticism from voters over their behaviour and many will be voted out and can spend more time with their newly-swollen bank accounts. The army has started to talk about ‘unrest’ in the north which could be true, of course or else preparation for a military crackdown (possibly re-imposition of martial law) in areas unhappy about the Silent Coup now taking place.

Let us live in boring times.

PAD Almost Finished

Well, we were promised the final battle, when the people of Thailand would rise up in their multitudes to tear down an unjust, nay a tyrannical government. What was the reality? The few thousand remaining ultra-rightist anti-democracy PAD goons launched another pointless wave of violence across Bangkok for absolutely no purpose. Buses were highjacked, police officers beaten and spat upon, innocent people terrorized once again by the PAD goons, under the protection of their celebrity sponsors – but government decided simply to cancel the session scheduled and, hey presto, the end of the world will come on Wednesday instead. The ‘national strike’ promised by the few class traitors among trades union leadership who have disgracefully sided with the PAD thugs has also failed to materialize. Of course, the last time the class traitors threatened a general strike the more sensible union membership refused to support ultra rightist policies. Perhaps they remembered rather more clearly how many labour activists were murdered by just the kind of military junta that the PAD ringleaders and their celebrity sponsors seem so enthusiastic in restoring to unearned power.

Some PAD goons and their useful idiots went out to Don Mueang, where the government has decamped while the illegal occupation of government continues but that is unlikely to last long since it is quite a long way away from their comfort zone.

Pro-democracy supporters have, as usual, remained level-headed and avoided PAD provocations and violence.

Expect more overnight ‘grenade attacks by unknown assailants’ which are, of course, PAD ringleaders blowing their human shields up with the utmost callousness.



Meanwhile, in the grown-up world, the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) has claimed that the number of unemployed in Thailand might rise to 1.1 million as a result of the current financial crisis. Union leaders have previously claimed that employers are deliberately exaggerating the problems as a pretext for laying people off. Pretext or not, people will be laid off – I expect job losses to start really hurting by the end of the year, although paternalistic employers may try to keep employees on until after Chinese New Year.

Courts at Centre of Politics Once More

Attention returns to the various courts, once more, where steps are being taken to try to resolve Thailand’s political future – not, unfortunately, being decided by the will of the people or the competition of ideas and ideologies but the decisions made by individuals appointed in often contested circumstances (which is yet another code).

First, the Constitution court has repealed three laws passed during the junta period of 2006-7, when the jackboots ruled through the ‘National Legislative Assembly’ of appointed cronies. This includes a conflict of interest law which is clearly unworkable. However, in typical Thai fashion, the laws were repealed not because they are unjust or brought about by an illegitimate military junta but because there was not a proper quorum in the assembly when they were passed.

An attempt will be made to revoke other junta laws, including the banning of 111 Thai Rak Thai MPs for whatever pretext it was that was used. Meanwhile, the PPP (largest party in the ruling coalition and successor to TRT) continues to work towards changing the constitution – perhaps even the one giving the junta and its cronies immunity for its seizure of the country. That will be controversial, of course.

Dozens more lese majeste cases are also being prepared, including one against ‘veteran social campaigner’ Sulak Sivaraksa. One problem is, for those trying to understand what if anything it all means, is that no one is allowed to repeat what the allegations are or they will be charged as well.

Ten ‘inactive’ political parties are about to be disbanded, apparently. There is a lot more – a worthless busybody is making more allegations about Thaksin, for example, while public prosecutors are preparing more charges against the public ringleaders of the PAD mob – which is incidentally refusing to allow the royal funeral motorcade to pass along Rajdamnoen Nok Avenue.

Court jaw jaw is better than war war, of course, although it is hard to be enthusiastic about legal proceedings as a way of making policy. Never mind, let’s see what happens after the Royal Funeral and the ASEAN meeting.  

Political Killings in Thailand

Khun Angkhana Neelaphaijit, wife of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit who disappeared a few years ago, has wondered whether one of the police officers identified by witnesses may have faked his own death. The officer concerned, Pol Maj Ngern Thongsuk, was reported to have been washed away on September 19th during the construction of a reservoir. The body of his relative, Khun Naruechai Chinwannarat, was apparently recovered but that of the Pol Maj has not been. He had been identified by witnesses as being involved in forcing Khun Somchai into a car on Ramkhamhaeng Road on the night he disappeared. Many people assume that he was killed (since his body has not been recovered, this is just an assumption by people) in connection with his defence activities of people in the deep south. Few court cases are brought about in the region despite the many thousands of deaths caused by the insurgency and a wide range of other alleged crimes.

Political killings have been quite common in Thailand of course. Notorious criminals such as Field Marshall Sarit would run up and shoot (according to my informant in this area) various Chinese workers accused, however lightly, of gangsterism and shooting them. These killings, like many others, tended to go unreported in the press – a few weeks ago, a letter to the Bangkok Post pointed out a shooting death almost at the gates of Chulalongkorn University which has subsequently gone unreported. Benedict Anderson, in an article in the New Left Review entitled ‘Murder and Progress in Modern Society’ some years ago distinguished between two principal categories of murder: ‘national’ killings which were performed by agents of the state and were anti-middle class in intention so as to reinforce the political status quo and the ‘local’ killings, which were performed by private mercenaries and were pro-middle class and intended to intimidate members of the subaltern classes and their self-appointed tribunes – that is, union leaders, community leaders and others standing in the way of progress.

There are too many guns available. The killings almost certainly continue, one way or another.

Violet Elizabeth Abhisit

Well, we made it through another weekend without a military coup or widespread violence. Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is talking about patience and seeing out the problems caused by the anti-democracy mob, which is besieging Government House. Around 10,000 mob members (according to the BBC, the Thai media claim many more than that) advanced on Government House over the weekend and, apparently, ‘easily outwitted’ the police and their road blocks – outwitting the Thai police, eh, they said it couldn’t be done. Perhaps this is one reason why.

As a sop to the mob and their supporters in the Senate, now of course stuffed with junta appointees, Khun Samak has assented to a frankly inappropriate series of censure motions against the government, which has had just four months to sort out the mess left by the disastrous junta period and the obstruction of parliament. The motions will presumably by led by Violet Elizabeth Abhisit (if he can drag himself out of bed long enough), who has threatened to scream and scream and scream until he gets his way. VE Abhisit, a workshy quisling, has many things in common with the mob: both are the results of privileged backgrounds with nothing but contempt for the democratic process or the votes of the millions of rural poor who have repeatedly rejected the policy-free Democrat Party. Second, rather than create a new party politics with policies people might want to vote for, VE Abhisit would prefer to bring down democracy in Thailand, which he proved with his shameful decision to boycott the election of 2006.

Despite the fact that a court (it is illegal to criticize Thai court decisions) banned more than one hundred leading politicians from the Thai Rak Thai Party and dissolved it altogether, the Democrats were once again heavily defeated by the newly-formed People’s Power Party, which continued the pro-poor policies of Thai Rak Thai. In response, the Democrats, a once powerful party with a proud history, have done nothing. Fifty of its MPs will be involved in the no confidence debate which it has no chance of winning. One and a half days of debate will feature the Democrats moaning about supposed mistakes by the PM and seven members of the Cabinet instead of doing their proper job of articulating an alternative set of policies and persuading people to vote for them.

No Coup This Weekend At Least

Well, we survived the weekend without another military coup but it was touch and go for a while. The problem continues to be the anti-democracy mob which wrongly calls itself the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). This group, which receives enormous support from the media, is holding the country to ransom. The group is led by convicted criminal Sondhi Limthongkul, who openly advocates removing the vote from the poor.

Bangkok witnesses plenty of protests and demonstrations throughout the year and life continues but this one is different – not because the mob is baying for democratically elected Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign but because certain people behind the scenes are using the mob to create tension and perhaps violence to provide a pretext for the military to step in again. The PM was (as is often the case) a little intemperate over the weekend and these remarks are being taken as a reason for intensifying demonstrations. So far, cool heads are prevailing and the mob is being left to sit in the rain for a while.

If ABACpoll is to be believed (and based on its track record that is a big ‘if’), the majority of residents believe not just that the situation will get worse. Also, 94% of people want peace to prevail in the country – who are these 6% people who do not want peace? What kind of a question is that anyway? Do you want peace to prevail in the country? No thanks, I’d rather there were violence and misery on a daily basis.


Khun Somchai Madeupname writes: Well, John, you work for Shinawatra University and Khun Thaksin pays your wages. Why should we believe anything you say?

Reply: well, Khun Somchai, I certainly do work for Shinawatra University but I have never had any interference with anything I want to say or to write – on the other hand, this is Thailand and everyone who works here has to practice a fair amount of self-censorship. I will certainly write what I think as much as I can but, from time to time, topics arise which it would be potentially dangerous to write about honestly and, in those cases, I will remain silent.