Possible Worst Case Scenarios for Thailand


Now that the election has gone quite well, it should be noted that there are still some ways things could get nasty in Thailand.

The Return of Thaksin

For example, the winning Pheua Thai party, could bring back Thaksin to Thailand, giving him amnesty, and maybe even try to return part of the money seized from his fortune. If this happens, there’s a high likelihood that something would put Phuea Thai out of power. Could be a series of yellow shirt street protests (and the many colors they have adapted since), followed by a military coup, or other a “judicial coup”.

It pretty much depends on what Thaksin wants – if he can contend himself with pulling the strings from abroad, things could go well. The thing is, with a man like him, you never know.

The Elite Toppling Election Results

It’s no secret that the elite, the Democrat party, certain elements of the palace and the army aren’t happy with the election results. And some of them might just pull some strings that put Phuea Thai out of power.

The Democrats are currently trying to abolish the Pheua Thai party on legal grounds. To be more precisely, one Democrat member says Yingluck was cooking rice noodles during her campaign, and handing it out to her supporters, which would have been illegal.

But the Democrat party also recommended the Election Commission to abolish Phuea Thai because banned politicians (particularly Thaksin and Chaturon Chaiseng) participated in the campaign.

There are also other “plans of attack” how Phuea Thai could be ousted – and one might feel as if those who want them out of power are assembling a collection of trump cards that they can play out to undo the election results.

One main difference though is that Yingluck and many of the lawmakers around her aren’t executives this time – thus, they could reform a new government under a different party name (seems like someone thought ahead). Yet, before we get involved in subtle nuances of the law too deeply, we should remember that in Thailand “where there’s a will there’s a way” when it comes to those kinds of matters.

If this would happen, it would revive red shirt protests and escalate the conflict, probably to levels of violence.

Two kinds of stupid

Now both things – Thaksin returning, or abolishing Phuea Thai – would require probably an equal amount of stupidity and recklessness that could throw Thailand into mayhem.

The next Defense Minister

A lot of it depends on who will be the next defense minister, and who will be in charge of the military power in Thailand. One of the main reasons why the 2006 coup happened was because Thaksin was trying to fill up high military ranks with people loyal to him.

There are rumors of a secret deal being made between Thaksin, the army and the other one, and hopefully that will be the way things go – they find a way to share the pie without tearing the country to pieces.

Thaksin Gets Global Media Attention


Thaksin’s back in the media spotlight this week. Here just a couple of recent articles on him and interviews with him:

 

Consolidation of Power In Security Forces – New Commander of Royal Thai Army & Police Chief


Time magazine has published an interesting article about the appointment of the new commander of the Royal Thai Army.

Thailand’s opposition movement expressed fears Friday over the appointment of General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new commander of the Royal Thai Army, comparing the general to past military dictators and predicting he will be tougher on dissent. Prayuth’s promotion, along with the appointment of a new national police chief, consolidates power in the security forces among officers with strong royalist views.
[…]
Along with most of the generals appointed to top positions, he [Prayuth] is a veteran of the Queen’s Guard unit, as is the new chief of the Royal Thai Police, General Wichean Potephosree. The police were widely seen as sympathetic to Thaksin and the Red Shirts during the protests and were nicknamed “tomatoes” by the public. Factions of the military are also seen as still loyal to Thaksin, and some analysts have raised concerns that the apparent preference for placing power in the hands of officers from one particular unit and holding one particular political viewpoint will increase divisiveness within the military.
The 21st Infantry Regiment is also known as Queen’s Guard, because their special assignment is guarding HM the Queen, and who are strongly opposed to the red shirts. Soldiers of the queens guard are also responsible for securing Privy Council, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, PM Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.

Thailand’s Military Spending: Up, Up, And Up Some More

Meanwhile, Andrew Walker has published an interesting graph that shows what has happened to Thailand’s military spending. From 1998 until 2006 it was pretty much steadily on the decline. Whereas, ever since the 2006 coup it has risen sharply again.
There have been quite a lot of corruption scandals about military spending, like the purchase of highly overpriced explosive detectors that didn’t work  – of course, after a bit of fuzz in the media, pretty much happened. The fact that the media did take notice of these incidents is rather surprising too, given the fact that the spending often is not transparent.

Rural Thais & Urban Thais: Stupid Buffaloes & Rich Snobs


One of the most senior and best-known observers of rural Thailand said that the continued rural-urban divide was “probably the most burning issue that needs to be addressed” in order for the country to successfully transform into a democratic and less hierarchical society that adheres to the rule of law.

William J Klausner said that urban people still view rural people as uneducated and provincial, which is a stereotype that doesn’t match reality anymore.

Equally crucial was the fact that rural folk “realised they have been looked down upon for so long”.

“The villagers want respect. They want others to recognise their dignity and not to be looked down upon and stereotyped as uneducated water buffaloes.

Although it seems that for certain parts of the population, giving respect to those who can’t afford the latest iPhone is a very challenging task.

Of course, there was a funny incidence when the “educated high-so” yellow shirt protesters went to the streets to protest the uneducated yellow shirts, holding up boards proclaiming “uneducate people” – when the point they wanted to make was that the red shirts were uneducated people. While they also displayed their own lack of education in other ways… (have a look at the picture)

“The villagers are no longer uneducated and they’re no longer provincial. They are connected, aware and understanding of the world outside,” Klausner said. Five decades ago, rural villagers got information in the form of tales and news from Isaan folk performers such as ‘mor lam’ singers, or from visiting relatives who returned from Bangkok. Today they have mobile phones, televisions, satellite dishes and “even the odd computer in the village”.

In many villages, villagers stopped listening to the radio or watching TV news after the red channel got banned, reasoning that “listening to the government lies will only upset us more”.

Klausner attributed the change to the end of the “new land” frontier. In the past, there was always new land for the oppressed to seek if they were pushed off existing plots. What’s more, traditional mechanisms to control behaviour, such as superstition and Buddhism, were becoming redundant, except for a few of “development monks” active in the Northeast.

“Not everything is about red and yellow. One must be willing to have some sense of empathy. This will serve the Thai body politic well and will not be a zero-sum game,” he said, making a plea that both rural and urban Thais try to understand each other. Klausner feared, however, that would take a generation to materialise.

[…]

He ended on a rather pessimistic note fearful about the country’s future. “I am concerned that the spirit of reconciliation and compromise seems be in short supply and that ‘third-force’ civil society views are muted,” he said.

Which strikes a similar tone to what Dr. Thinitan said (repression, not reconciliation)

Thai Central Bank Chief Calls For Political Reform


Not many people know that one of the most influential people in Thailand’s banking world is a woman. Tarisa Watanagase has been educated in the USA and in Japan. She joined the Central Bank in 1975, and has helped to oversee Thailand’s economy ever since.

Now, she’s about to let former Kasikorn Bank president Prasarn Trairatvorakul take over her position as Central Bank chief and go into a not yet clearly defined form of retirement, although she will still be involved.

I found it particularly interesting what she said about the state of politics in Thailand.

“If you look at the economic front, we have been through some major reforms and that is why right now we are resilient, but in terms of politics we haven’t yet seen major reforms,” she told AFP.

Tarisa is clearly disappointed that the economic progress the country has made has not been replicated in a political system prone to accusations of corruption, scandal and military interference.

“I would like to see that we can migrate from a developing country to a developed one and that does not require only economic progress,” she said.

In the AFP article, they go on to explain a bit about the current situation in Thailand with the red and yellow divide. And then they write this interesting statement:

Tarisa said dialogue, a more socially minded attitude and moves to address inequality — a key Red Shirt demand — were crucial for the country’s progress.

Addressing inequality would in fact probably be one of the most helpful things for Thailand right now. Specially if you consider that there are a lot of people who spend more money on a handbag than or a necklace than most citizen earn in a year. Which of course in and of itself is not a bad thing – but the fact that these people most often enjoy these privileges because of the families they are born into, or power networks they bought their way into, rather than because of individual achievements is saddening. Specially if you take into account the attitudes which they often display towards people of lower social status. And that they in fact are pretty much able to get away with whatever they do.

A friend of mine recently lost her job – she is contractually entitled to three months of compensation, of which she will never see a single baht. Why? Because her employer has so much money that any attempt to sue for her rightful compensation would be futile.

How the Thai Government Is Dealing With Students Who Criticize Them


Suranand Vejjajiva has written (yet another) interesting article. This one is titled Teaching our kids about democracy and dictatorship. It talks about the case of 5 university students from Chiang Mai.

All the students did was write up cardboard signs which stated: “I saw dead people at Ratchaprasong”, “Prime Minister, don’t revoke the Emergency Decree because the government will collapse”, “The Emergency Decree must be maintained to conceal the truth”.

They were also wearing surgical masks on which were written the words “Reconciliation” and “No love for a dictatorial government”. They walked around the local market and all the way up to the provincial governor’s office before they were arrested.

Police said they were monitoring the students’ Facebook folios which contained messages considered to be of a similar offence. The high school student’s notebook computer was confiscated.

This was obviously enough for the police to serve arrest warrants, because they were accused of breaking the emergency decree:

the students were charged with “gathering in public with more than 5 people, stirring public unrest, presenting and distributing news through print and other messages that could cause fear among the population, or distorting news and information that leads to misunderstanding about the emergency situation which affects national security”.

If five high school students carrying cardboard signs are a threat to national security, then the situation must be really bad.

the mother of the high school student and another local businessman who was seen talking to the protesters were also called in to report to police. The high school student was also asked to join a psychological treatment programme but the mother refused and told reporters there was nothing wrong with her child

Trying to send high-school students with different political opinions into a mental facility is not something that is exactly typical of a democratic regime.

Suranand also touches on the abuse of the emergency decree by the government:

The emergency powers are designed to ensure peace and stability in the face of violent acts from rioting to terrorism. It is designed as a tool to protect democracy and freedom, not to be abused and used to infringe upon citizens’ basic rights and liberties.

In disregard for democratic principles, this government adopted the emergency decree as a rule book in political suppression of the opposition. The hardline attitude is signalled through interviews and press conferences to the bureaucracy and government political sympathisers which in turn implement it as policy and/or start a witch-hunt, online and off.

At the same time, the government has talked a lot about reconciliation, and if you listen to Abhisit speaking, he sounds like a very reasonable man – it’s just the dichotomy between his words and his (and the current governments) actions, that is frustrating.

If people are not allowed to express themselves other than the official version of the truth, there is no use in calling for public participation – it will only enforce the view that the whole process is just a charade played by the government.One of the signs held up at Chulalongkorn University carried JFK’s warning: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Let’s hope that it will not come this far, because nobody wins, and everybody loses when there are violent revolutions. If you look at countries where there have been violent changes of powers – even if the previous powers were obviously “evil” (even more so than the current Thai government) , countries often take a turn for the worse after “good” violent revolutionaries take over. Violence is not an acceptable means of political progress, but it is at least partly the current governments responsibility to also prevent the eruption of violence – not just through strong-handed force, but also by employing (truthfully) reconciliatory strategies.

Specially students, who have been very apolitical in recent years – the harder they try to muffle dissent among students, the higher the likelihood that they are just pouring gasoline into the fire and isolated radicalization may occur.

Mind Control Education


There is an interesting article about how the Thai government is trying to influence student activities at universities to protect natural security. (Of course, some people feel that national security is a new synonym for we don’t want to lose our grip on power just because of democratic elections or any other reason for that matter).

Thailand’s university rectors must keep watch over student plays that could contain “distorted political content and incite unrest and divisiveness in society”, according to the government’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) in a recent letter sent to all universities and circulated to faculty members last week.

Student plays being essentially theatre performances that students organize themselves.

Suda Rangkupan, a linguistics lecturer at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University said about the student plays: “They are just entertainment. I don’t see why (the authorities) needed to issue such a circular.”

According to several other sources mentioned in the article, there really was no need for this circular, because the student plays were not political. It is possible that the authorities have sent it out because three decades ago, it was a student play at Thammasat university that sparked unrest.

Although no particular play has been singled out for government attention, students suggested that a play at Thammasat University called ‘Dalit’ about low-caste people in India, may have been interpreted by nervy officials as mirroring class issues in Thai society.

Which of course would fit well into the red-shirt prai narrative.

Later, after a lot of criticism, Education Minister Chinavorn Boonyakiat said the state had no intention of controlling or censoring the content of plays. But he nonetheless requested universities to try not to “hold activities” which were not “reconciliatory”.

Remember though that Thailand is a country where reading between the lines is a much more common way of communicating.

Reconciliation?


The Abhisit government has talked a lot about reconciliation since the protests ended in May. And that sounds good when you listen to it on the radio, on TV or read about it in the papers.

One can’t fail to wonder every once in a while though which definition of reconciliation they use. The dictionary defines reconciliation as: “the process of making (oneself or another) no longer opposed” or simply the “settling of a quarrel or difference”.

It is not so obvious where exactly this has happened. As Pavin Chachavalpongpun pointed out:

Reconciliation has now become a vocabulary discursively used to legitimize certain policies and behavior of the power holders.

The quote comes from his article Thailand’s Disheartening Aftermath published on Asia Sentinel.

For example, the “Independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission” is headed by former Attorney General Kanit na Nakhon. Former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun and social critic Prawes Wasi lead the national reform panels.

Should the current government, also a party in the political conflict, be given the right to set up a reconciliation commission and national reform panels?

Setting up an “independent truth and reconciliation commission” is of not so much use when one party is unilaterally in charge.

Moreover, none of these handpicked personalities have ever been elected into office. Anand was an appointed prime minister twice without having to go through the democratic process. Clearly, the discourse of “relying on good people [khon dee] in time of crisis” is still a powerful self-legitimization tool. But the so-called khon dee happen to be on the side of the Thai traditional elite.

The fact that they have not been elected into the positions they hold is of course a situation that current prime minister Abhisit is very familiar with.

Some red-shirt members are convinced that the reconciliation roadmap is nothing more than Abhisit’s delaying tactic to postpone the push for real political reform or fresh elections.

It would of course be quite a smart tactic.

Third, the Abhisit government, during the past three months, has been busy indeed, not so much in making peace with its opponents as entrenching itself in political power through a variety of channels. The ruling Democrat Party managed to win a by-election in July, boasting that it had regained the trust of Thai voters and therefore approval of its policy toward the red-shirts. Yet its candidate, Panich Vikitseth, defeated his Puea Thai rival Korkaew Pikulthong, also a core leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), by just 14,000 votes.

It should also mentioned that Korkaew was imprisoned on terrorism charges during the whole election period, and that some of the messages he wanted to share with prospective voters were not allowed to be publicized.

After all, this was a fight within a Bangkok constituency, the Democrat’s stronghold. Only about 50 percent of the voters were enthusiastic enough to turn out.

Disillusioned disinterest was the most common feeling towards the election process among many people here in Bangkok, which I personally noticed.

Prime Minister Abhisit also had his hand firmly on recent reshuffles within the army and the police. He has picked two royalists and pro-government figures, General Prayuth Chan-ocha as a new army chief and Police General Wichean Potephosree as a new police chief. The opposition considered such appointments a part of the establishment’s plot to strengthen its power position, especially in a possible post-election period in which those associated with the red shirts might form a new government.

Along the way, the Abhisit regime has solidified its rule in other ways, such as through the curbing of freedom of expression. More anti-government websites are blocked every day. More have been arrested for insulting certain institutions in Thailand.

It should also be noted that “anti-government websites” is a term that is used quite loosely, and the ministry in charge of censorship really doesn’t need to justify any of it’s decisions.

Silent Anger In Isaan


David Streckfuss published an article in the Wall Street Journal that is very critical of the current government’s strategy. Worth a read, specially in terms of how it portrays the current situation in Isaan:

Fearing arrest or worse, many leaders have fled the region, gone underground or remained silent. They worry they are being watched and that their phones are bugged. Many are reluctant to meet with journalists or human-rights groups. There is a perception among red shirts that the government can do virtually anything it wants under the emergency law.

[…]

Left without access to red-shirt radio or television, many families have chosen to listen to nothing at all. They say watching the government-controlled news or even reading the newspaper upsets them too much.

[…]

The silence and the appearance of normality in the northeast, however, is deceiving. They mask feelings of fear, frustration, disgust and anger.

Historically, the mood now is not like after the coup in 2006 or even after the military crackdown in 1992 when scores of demonstrators were reported killed. It is more like Thailand after the bloody suppression of students at Thammasat in October 1976.

But best to read the whole thing here: Life Under Abhisit’s Thumb: The Thai government cracks down on dissent in the restive northeast

Is the PAD an Organ of the State?


Is the PAD an organ of the state? As Marxist thought indicates, ‘the state, in the last analysis, consists of armed bodies of men.’ The PAD is certainly a body of armed people – most of the guards appear to be men, while the women act as human shields – in common with most if not all right-wing movements, the PAD maintains strict divisions in duties and responsibilities dependent on gender. However, it is accurate t consider the PAD an organ of the state?

What are the characteristics of an organ of the state, given the characteristics of Thailand in which unelected figures wield the real power either by means of behind the scenes action or else in full public view but in a society which refuses to discuss what is plain and obvious.

First, the organ must do the will of the state where the state is defined as those unelected figures who have genuine power.

Second, the organ must be loyal only to the state and refuse to consider negotiation or compromise with non-state interests (including elected politicians in the case of Thailand).

Third, the organ must receive its authority and needed resources from the state.

I think it is fairly clear that all of these grounds have been met, even if the law prevents open statement of some of the consequences. In the eyes of some members of the state, then, the PAD has more legitimacy than the police, whose loyalty is also commanded (now to only a limited extent) by the will of the people as expressed by government.

Does this matter? It would if certain legal suits were possible.

Why No Mention of Human Rights Abuses?


Some extracts from a post at Thai Politico by Giles Ji Ungpakhon (i.e. not including the bits that may be illegal) (and possibly not the original source – he has a blog of his own somewhere as I recall):

What is the root cause of this crisis?

The root cause of this crisis is not the corruption of the Thaksin government in the past. It isn’t about vote-buying, good governance, civil rights or the Rule of Law. Politicians of all parties, including the Democrats, are known to buy votes. The elites, whether Politicians, Civil Servants or Military, have a history of gross corruption. Even when they don’t break the law, they have become rich on the backs of Thai workers and small farmers. The Democrat Party is stuffed with such millionaires.

Ironically, the Thai Rak Thai party was helping to reduce the importance of vote-buying because it was the first party in decades to have real policies which were beneficial to the poor. They introduced a universal health care scheme and Keynesian Village Funds. People voted on the basis of such policies. The Democrats and the conservative elites hate the alliance between Thaksin’s business party and the poor.

The Red Shirts, who are organised by government politicians, are the only hope for Thai democracy. They have now become a genuine pro-democracy mass movement of the poor. This is what is meant by “Civil Society”, not the PAD fascists. Thai academia fails to grasp this basic fact. But the Red Shirts are not a “pure force”. Many have illusion is ex-Prime Minister Thaksin. They overlook his gross abuse of human rights in the South and the War on Drugs. But these human rights issues are also totally ignored by the PAD and their friends.

So, my question today is, why do so many of Thaksin’s and Thai Rak Thai/People’s Power Party/ Puea Thai’s enemies ignore these ‘human rights abuses’? Bear in mind that several committees have sat to find evidence and not brought any prosecutions. Readers will be aware of the low level of evidence now required by the courts to hand out prison sentences and other punishments. So why nothing?

Possibilities:

1)      life is cheap in Thailand and no one cares – the ‘War on Drugs’ for example was so popular (and some argue it was successful in getting methamphetamines out of schools, which is what people were really worried about) that the PPP government tried to bring it back twice this year alone.

2)      Thaksin is innocent or at least there is no smoking gun. It is illogical to argue that the government controls the police and the army when we have seen both police and military repeatedly to refuse to obey the orders of the government and Thaksin was, in any case, ousted by a military coup.

3)      Bringing prosecutions would reveal the complicity of a number of people whom the elites who now control the courts do not wish to see revealed. In this case, Thaksin may or may not be guilty.

Any other explanations (apart from conspiracy nonsense about Thaksin stooges controlling the world, possibly in the form of eight foot high lizards)?

Leftism in Thailand


Of all the numerous stories in the press recently about ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (most of them transparently false), one of the most intriguing is that he is to be awarded a ‘Bolivarian’ medal by one or another South American government.

Simon Bolivar is renowned as one the great liberators of the South American people and as one of the founding fathers of the independent continent. He is, in short, something of an icon for the left, especially at a time when progressive leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales have come under such sustained assault from western interests and the international media.

Might khun Thaksin, therefore,  be regarded in the same liberational light? Well, it is certainly true that the policy development process that took place in the early days of the Thai Rak Thai party was facilitated by a number of those who had gone into the jungle as Communists and returned to mainstream society after the announcement of an amnesty. Moreover, the redistributional nature of the policy manifesto (continued by its successor the People’s Power Party) is certainly progressive in nature – voters turn out in their millions for a Thai government which, for the first time, ranks the interests of the rural poor alongside the urban middle classes.

However, khun Thaksin was motivated also by other political priorities that found no favour with what passes for the progressive community in Thailand – notably, privatisation and the pursuit of Free Trade Agreements. Others, including the Ungphakon group, also blame khun Thaksin for the human rights abuses that took place when he was in office, prior to the military coup.

Anyway, there appears to be a small window of opportunity for those supporting democracy in Thailand to associate the will of the people with a progressive social and economic agenda. This, if it is to be done, will have to be expressed using a non-ideological vocabulary since any talk of the left is routinely met with the strident (although false) claim that such people are unpatriotic.