The Way We Are: Creating Our Own Realities I

Watching the Trump Show, aka the 2016 Presidential elections, has been a real eye-opener.

Apparently there is a problem with racism in the United States of America, and it is just recently coming out of the deep dark hole it has hidden itself in since the last time American racism was on display for all the world to see.

Now there are those who might think that the fact that American police officers kill black men at an alarming rate with impunity for just about any reason at all at just about any time is the face of American racism, but they would be wrong.

There are others who might think that the American record of mass slaughter of non-white people around the globe over the past half century is the face of American racism, but they too would be chuckled at for even suggesting such an absurdity.

No, ladies and gentlemen, the face of American racism is Donald Trump and his white working class supporters. Serious liberals, and even more serious conservatives, are throwing  the f-bomb around like someone had spiked the punch at the Pundits Ball. And the f-bomb I refer to is FASCISM.

Yes, folks, those overweight, badly dressed, gun-wielding, low-class white people with their religion and their shitty jobs are turning to fascism in their frustration with their loss of absolute control of the American dreamscape.

They want their America back. They want America to be great again. And they want someone to set things up so they don’t have to work two jobs, both requiring silly uniforms and obsequious sloganeering, to pay the rent on their crappy houses.

Fascists, or what?

Fortunately for the liberal hegemony we have all come to know and love, Trump is on course for a thrashing by Hillary Clinton, whose liberal credentials include the astounding fact of her gender. She is woman. Hear her speak to Wall Street. Then watch the millions stream into her bank accounts.

Women love Hillary of course because glass ceilings need to be shattered and Hillary is certainly the woman for the job.

Neoliberals love Hillary because, no matter how much bogus “leftward movement” has been forced on her by the traitorous Bernie, she is one of them. Wall Street will continue to run the American economy as it has done for decades, and when Hillary gets out of the White House in 8 years she will have more seats on boards than the Titanic had deckchairs.

Neocons love Hillary because she is a firm believer in America the Exceptional and Indispensable Nation and will gladly use whatever weapons are available to prove it. This is not to be confused with the neo-fascist desire to make America great again because neocons just want to pound the living shit out of some third world country because America is already great and it has a duty to do so.

Black people apparently love Hillary but I can’t for the life of me understand why. While Wall Street was reaping billions in profit from the mortgage fraud that decimated many black families, maybe Hillary was having buttons printed up somewhere about “rainbows” or “POC” or something similar. Maybe black Americans forget who torpedoed welfare and set the militarized police forces across the nation on the course they are on today.

And “liberals” love Hillary because she is a woman and because “liberals” will be on a real “liberal” streak when they deliver the one-two “liberal” punch of a black POTUS followed immediately by a woman POTUS. Because, after all, what else does “liberal” signify? Besides membership in or support for the Democratic Party.

Those of us in the reality-based community outside the American media wonderland, outside the Beltway, and outside Wall Street and the circle of those who really really admire Henry Kissinger, can only shake our heads in wonder.

And what about those crazy Thais, eh? Voting for an anti-democratic constitution? And those Filipinos? Electing a man who brags about extrajudicial executions! Wow. You’d almost think they were Thai!

Leaving the EU: Goodbye To All That?

Although the journalistic winds are beginning to shift a little after the hurricane of abuse that was initially unleashed on “stupid bigoted” Leave voters, there is still a steady breeze of lament from those who apparently see the EU as a bastion of human rights, liberalism and all that is decent and good in this world.

The view from SE Asia suggests that this may be a form of selective vision.

The EU has recently acquiesced to the demand of the newly elected “democratic” government of Myanmar for the word ‘Rohingya’ to be erased from polite discourse while Aung San Suu Kyi and the Generals find a (final?) solution to the problem of “the Muslim community in Rakhine province”, which is their preferred designation for the Rohingya.

The decision to support Suu Kyi’s call for the Rohingya to be denied the right of self-identification was announced one day after the UNHCHR, Zeid Hussein, reported on the possibility of crimes against humanity being committed against the Rohingya. The EU decision stands in sharp contrast to the American refusal to deny the Rohingya the right “to decide what they are going to be called“.

The EU, which has been threatening Thailand with a “red card” over its inadequate approach to the problems of human trafficking and slavery, has been negotiating on various fronts with Myanmar to open the floodgates of investment, which might go a long way toward explaining the EU’s decision to deny the Rohingya the right to self-identification.

Ironically, although not untypically, Thailand has recently graduated to Tier 2 in the annual TIP rankings while Myanmar has been relegated to Tier 3, along with North Korea and South Sudan. It will be interesting to see how the EU responds to Myanmar’s well-deserved placement at the bottom of this particular league table. Unlike Myanmar, which is a potential goldmine for new investment for EU corporations, Thailand’s economy is far more mature and therefore less attractive to a certain kind of investment.

The EU has also indefinitely suspended free trade talks with Thailand as a result of Thailand’s most recent coup. In what is apparently standard EU hypocritical style, around the same time that the Thais were slapped for their failure to be “democratic enough” the Egyptians were rewarded with opening of talks to expand free trade with the EU.

The military coup that saw the murderous Sisi regime installed in Egypt apparently somehow meets the EU’s definition of “democratic enough”,  not to mention the reticence  of the EU to “yellow card” Egypt for its failure to protect children from abusive labor practices in the industries involved in trade with the EU. There is no question that the Sisi-led junta is a far more violent and oppressive regime than the Thai equivalent.

The real question is why the EU would pretend its trade negotiations are contingent on democracy and human rights when this is just so obviously not the case.

The point here is not that the EU is hypocritical. All modern states, beginning with the very model of hypocrisy itself, the USA, and continuing down to petty despotisms like the Prayuth regime in Thailand with its blatantly false claim of being “99% democratic”, engage in this sort of hypocritical clinging to the “universal” values of democracy and human rights.

The point is that all the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over the perception that Brexit marks a definite UK shift toward illiberalism and bigotry, and over the Leave movement’s  leaders’ obvious hypocrisy, is itself shot through with falsehood and hypocrisy at best, and brainwashed ignorance at worst. There really is nothing to this image of the EU as a stalwart of liberalism and human rights, especially as it interacts with the wider world.

Just ask the Greeks. Or the people who supported Morsi’s democratically-elected government. Just ask the Rohingya.

 

 

 

 

Leaving the EU: Hell is “Those People”

On the morning after the vote, a BBC radio reporter welcomed politicians to his studio as old chums. “Well,” he said to “Lord” Peter Mandelson, the disgraced architect of Blairism, “why do these people want it so badly?” The “these people” are the majority of Britons.

Doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the #Brexit vote are various renditions of one of Winston Churchill’s two famous buzz-phrases regarding “democracy”, namely “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The irony of “progressives” and “liberals” quoting the wisdom of an  arch-conservative imperialist  in support of their contempt for the working classes would be delicious if it weren’t so indicative of the state of liberal democracy in the western world.

The same people who wag their fingers and cry “oppression! human rights abusers!” regarding the non-democratic governments of Asia and Africa are quick to distance themselves from democracy when the elites they identify with are the ones being accused of “oppression”.

As the Arab Spring in Egypt demonstrated with utter clarity, when democracy produces a result that liberals cannot tolerate, democracy dies under the wheels of tanks, and liberals cheer as soldiers mow down “those people” who had the temerity to vote their preference. The EU actually opened negotiations to expand “free trade” with the Sisi government regardless of documented problems with child labor, a military coup and 800 dead Egyptian citizens who protested the coup.

That is the measure of the EU and its commitment to workers’ and human rights.

The “perfect storm” of the racist xenophobia of the Trump campaign in the US and the racist xenophobia of the Brexit campaign in the UK has given “progressives” the perfect opportunity to express their moral superiority to and their contempt for the working classes in both countries.

Of course, this fascinating concatenation of events also let’s us see “progressives” in all their hypocritical glory. They will cheer Clinton and justify whatever bombing campaign she orders against whatever group of “brown people” she decides need a dose of Democracy, Freedom and the American Way. They will cheer and gloat when the neoliberal elites of Britain and the EU find a way to overturn the vote for Brexit, because it really looks like they will.

They will wave their placards when the TIPP deal finally goes public and pretend that they haven’t provided massive support for the very neoliberal programs that are presently sewing up control of two thirds of the world’s economic activity so that the white elites of the global north can maintain their position astride the globalized masses.

Undemocratic elites in countries like Vietnam have recognized how this works. You just have to find a way to please the “progressive” demands that the US and EU use to maintain dominance in these “trade” negotiations. They have been welcomed into the TPP, which is the Asian chapter of Europe’s and America’s way around the BRICs in the WTO.

Vietnamese people cannot vote. They go to jail for speaking their minds. They are gassed and beaten when they protest the poisoning of their environment by capitalist industry. But Vietnam is celebrated as a leader in the gay rights field in Asia because they have lifted the ban on same-sex marriage.

The split between the class politics of the traditional democratic-socialist left and the identity politics of the so-called “progressives” has never been clearer.

Leaving the EU: Where Was The Left?

It’s a shame that Corbyn and the real left in the UK allowed the Brexit push to be dominated by the right, especially on the issue of immigration. There are many good arguments, solidly left wing arguments, for the UK getting out of the increasingly neoliberal undemocratic EU.

Here in SE Asia we are very aware of the massive American push to have Asian countries surrender the autonomy of their economies to the TPP. Although this secretive treaty is presented as a “free trade” deal it is in fact a legal method of locking Asian companies and governments into American-controlled IP law, among other regulatory cages.

One effect of Thailand joining the TPP would be to immediately put a significant number of HIV and Hep C drugs out of the financial reach of sufferers. The Thai government has been praised for standing up to the US and BigPharma and resisting attempts to insist on the “real” drugs and the “real” prices rather than the licensed generics allowed by law here.

In Europe of course it is the equally secretive, elite-driven TTIP that the EU is negotiating with the US. Any North American who considers themselves “liberal” or “left” and watched in horror as EU/Bundesbank austerity was used to strip the people of Greece of their democracy might want to consider that TTIP will make that series of attacks against Greek society look positively benign.

The bottom line here is that with the rise of the BRICs, white people in the global north have seen their dominance of world economic activity threatened by loss of control over the old mechanisms like the WTO. To get around this loss of control to uppity nations like China and Brazil, these two universalizing “trade deals” are being negotiated behind closed doors to lock in the neoliberal order as permanently as possible and ensure the continued economic hegemony of the US/EU, insofar as we consider those entities as little more than their transnational finance and corporate bodies.

So getting out of the EU has been presented by so-called “liberals” as nothing more than racism and xenophobia and imperial nostalgia. It would be ridiculous to deny that a portion of the leaders and the voters on the Leave side fall into that category, but to suggest that that is the whole story is to fall prey to the neoliberal “free market” propagandists who have successfully silenced much of the real argument through control of media and decades of having made anything but FREE TRADE FREE MARKETS FREEDOM sound like the swan song of the loony left.

People who agree with this should at least have the dignity to stop pretending that there is anything “left” about their politics and proudly wear the NeoLiberal Identitarian t-shirt next time they go to an anti-racist rally sponsored by the people who are helping to undermine Brazilian democracy as we speak.

Much is being made of the skew in votes according to age, with younger people massively supporting Remain. Anyone not familiar with how this is being spun hasn’t read this far anyway so I will just point out that the age groups that want to stay in the EU are made up of people who have never known anything other than Thatcherite neoliberalism and Blairite “third way” neoliberalism. Perhaps understandably such people no longer show up to vote in elections as evidenced by participation stats. I would suggest that this indifference to electoral politics is just that, indifference.

And people with little or no interest in politics tend to prefer to put their faith in elites that make their political decisions for them, hence the EU’s appeal. That and the opportunity to work abroad for a few years; how can democracy compete with that?

14 Ways Revisited: Two Years Later

Originally posted 3 days after the coup, it is time I re-evaluated my sense of what was happening at the time.

1. Contrary to popular belief, the men who have undertaken this coup do, in fact, intend to return Thailand to democratic governance. General Chan-ocha does not plan to remain in office as El Jefe Supremo until one of his children takes over and neither does he intend to rule the country for years as was the case with coup generals until the coup of 1991.

Technically correct but essentially mistaken. While it may be true that there is no Chan-ocha dynasty in the making, it is clear that the people behind and around this coup intend the militarization and “de-democratization” of Thailand to become as permanent a feature as they can make it.

2. Thailand’s deeply flawed democracy will be tinkered with, adjustments made here and there, and then returned to the “sovereign people” of Thailand, of this you can be sure. And like the “democracy” that has existed in fits and starts since 1976, it will be a managed or supervised democracy, a democracy in which a weak parliament will appear to “govern” the country, a “free” press will be free to criticize politicians and their coalition administrations, and a loose and ever-shifting congeries of soldiers, bureaucrats and wealthy business families will sit in the half-light of media inattention making sure that parliament does not ever get to actually govern the country.

This one is much closer to correct but I clearly did not foresee the willingness of the military to remain front and center in the facade of democracy that would follow the coup. Clearly, the people who run the country are no longer content to remain out of the limelight, probably because they worry that semi-hidden, indirect control may no longer be sufficient to keep the people of Thailand out of the sovereignty loop.

3. This coup is not primarily about the “succession crisis”; it is about democracy. It is not about deciding to abandon democratic principles that have never had much actual play in Thailand, but about shaping a democracy that the oligarchy can live with. In this way, the Thai democratic project is not dissimilar to democracies around the world, pace all those who like to see Thailand as a uniquely dysfunctional construct.

Fundamentally correct. Again, however, it must be emphasized that, at the moment, the “deep state” movers and shakers are obviously prepared to drop much of the pretense that has characterized “Thai democracy” since 1976.

4. To a very great extent, this coup is about Thaksin and his family of potential “clones” more than it is about that other wealthy Thai family that provides a cynosure for both praise and criticism while the real work goes on elsewhere. And this is not because the Shinawatras represent the shining future of democracy and popular sovereignty as guaranteed in constitution after constitution. It is because they represent the possibility of a rival “network” of generals. bureaucrats and wealthy families who threaten to supplant what some call “the old guard” (as if they don’t have children and heirs).

Yes.

5. It is not possible to discuss here the finer points of how succession might in fact fit into the overall picture in which this present coup fills the foreground because one of the purposes of the coup is to make sure that it continues to be an express trip to a prison cell to do so. Like most Thai people, I have no wish to go to jail.

Indeed.

6.The Thai people want democracy, at least a majority do. They have come to understand and are now insisting on popular sovereignty. This coup has been undertaken to deny that sovereignty and begin a process of re-establishing a simulacrum of it that will keep the lid on for a few more decades.

I am no longer sure at all that this is the case. 

7.While there are unquestionably “fascist” elements in the “old guard” network, and techniques and approaches drawn from European and Asian fascisms over the past century are especially prominent in the “street wing” of the Yellows, there is no desire to set up anything resembling a Thousand Year Reich behind this coup. The RTA for all its faults is capable of rational practicality and this coup is neither more nor less than a tool in the hands of the traditional elite.

I obviously overestimated either the rationality of the RTA and associates or underestimated their confidence that a blatant imposition of authoritarian rule by a self-selecting elite would encounter little resistance. 

8. This coup does not represent the failure of Kamnan Suthep’s Great Mass of the People movement. Neither does it represent the failure of any of the various versions of PAD that have taken shots at the YL administration since its election in 2011. The coup is the culmination of all those “movements” and their fulfillment.

This is probably more correct than even I understood at the time of writing. The PAD/PDRC program of rolling back even the chimera of democratic governance is powering along like a steamroller.

9. A large minority of Thai people are not adamantly opposed to the coup, and a number of those are active and vocal in their support for it. One reason so many people are willing to accept this end to months and years of wrangling in the streets is that they are exhausted, bored and frustrated with the endless apparent chaos. The speeches, the marches, the reports of parliamentary shenanigans, the blocked roads, the confusing arguments pro and con, the courts and independent bodies and their controversial judgments, the deaths in the streets: a look back over the past few years of Thai political “news” is enough to depress and confound anyone without a fixed commitment to either “side” in the conflict. Families and friends argue or have stopped speaking to each other altogether. There is a natural desire on the part of many to simply want it all to stop.

Fundamentally correct, but this point assumes that there will come a time in the immediate future when even those people willing to accept yet another coup for the sake of a period of relative calm would start reacting. We are still waiting.

10. So when the generals and their technocratic assistants, the tame academics and loyal bureaucrats, scramble to make possible a swift return to democracy, it is only natural that many people will want to give them the benefit of the doubt and embrace the new constitution and the new/old Thai-style democracy with relief and just a touch of sadness and regret.

Given that this point relies heavily on the assumptions behind points 1 & 2, it remains to be seen whether there will be “a touch of sadness” or an outburst of rage.

11. It seems likely that this coup, unlike the last coup, will be met with a considerable degree of popular resistance, and not just from Thaksin-associated elements of the UDD and more genuinely pro-democratic Redshirt splinter factions. There seem to be a surprising number of middle-class Bangkokians reacting very quickly indeed with courageous defiance both on the streets and in social media.

Could not have been more wrong on this point. Popular resistance has been either laughably incoherent and insipid or utterly stifled by the junta’s tactics of intimidation. People who “oppose the coup/junta” offer nothing as alternatives except an election or the return of the 97 Constitution. And we know where that has got us. Repeatedly. Since 2000.

This military government, however, will not be as patient as the one fronted by Abhisit and Suthep from late 2008 till the election in 2011. There will not be months of rallies cruising the streets of the capital and there will be no long occupations of intersections a la Rajprasong 2010 or just about anywhere earlier this year. The moment the apparently spontaneous rallies get too large or too boisterous, or the moment they begin to take on a serious Red tint, there will be bloodshed. And it is highly unlikely that the Bangkok middle-classes will be there when the dying begins. It’s not their way.

Whereas I expected resistance and immediate violence on the part of the coup-makers we have had relative silence and threat. My sense that the junta would tolerate little real protest was correct; I failed to see that they would not face any.

12. It seems highly unlikely that this coup will lead to the civil war that many commentators are warning about and have been warning about for years now. At least not in the sense that it will have the character of a popular insurrection, with troops fighting for democracy on one side and oligarchical monarchism on the other. There may be a brief struggle within the army itself but that is more likely to take the form of Thaksinite elements versus the old boy network, with fringe involvement of officers who see their road to promotions blocked by the dominance of cliques and classes they don’t belong to. Hardly the sort of thing to enable western “liberals” who long for the victory of democracy to comfortably cheer for one side or the other. Not that some won’t, mind you.

This point deserves a post or series of posts. Media darlings like BBC’s Jonathan Head and Andrew  MacGregor Marshall and one or two prominent UDD/Pheu Thai Tweeters were constantly on about this during the lead-up to the coup. They were promoting the existence of armed cells just waiting to start an insurgency.

They were apparently also convinced by their “sources” that the leadership of the RTA was riven with dissent and were therefore unlikely to stage a coup. Even after the  illegal declaration of martial law that was the clear prelude to the coup, these “manly men” were poo-pooing any suggestion that a coup was in the offing. 

The role played by the “international media” in the coverage of Thai politics deserves more attention than it is ever likely to receive from that group of old boy mansplainers and their confident spreading of enough horseshit to fertilize the Canadian prairies.

If anything like this civil war scenario eventuates, it will most likely take the form of a low-level insurgency similar to the one that has plagued the south for a very long time now. Without the glue of religion or the memory of an independent country assimilated some time in the recent past, it is unlikely that any Isaan or Lanna insurection would have the staying power of the Malay-Muslim struggle down south. And who knows. maybe the moves toward decentralization and regional autonomy that were hinted at by the Yingluck admimistration will be acted upon by the future “governments” in Bangkok, thus drawing even the southern chapter to a close.

13.This coup is taking place in Thailand. Not on the Internet or in social media if you prefer that term. It is not taking place in a world flattened and shrunk by globalization. It is not taking place in a world wherein the End of History has been reached and liberal-democracy has been assured a place at the end of every nation’s inevitable evolution. It is taking place in a country that is less than 100 kilometers from the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and that shares land borders with Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia. And what that means is that it is happening in a country that when the tanks are put away and “democracy” restored still looks more democratic than any other country in the region.

This point also requires expansion and repetition. The “international media” consistently reinforces the myth of Thai exceptionalism, primarily by treating the country and its governments and its politics as if they all existed on a separate planet altogether from the rest of the world. In typical “western liberal” fashion, they excoriate Thai conservatives for promoting Thai exceptionalism at the same time as they modify and amplify it for international consumption.

It is important to note this because “international media” and “the international community” are invoked again and again by journalists and social media people to prove to themselves that people like Suthep can never “win” and coups just can’t “succeed” any longer in the modern world. And Thailand is a part of that modern world. Just look at Facebook stats and Line and Instagram stats! Absolutely EVERYTHING in this world, and not just “the revolution”, WILL BE TELEVISED ONLINE!

And the world will judge.

The impotence and self-aggrandizing delusions of social media “dissidents” and their abettors in the media are clear indicators of the utter failure of genuine political resistance to the global resurgence of authoritarian governance that is the inevitable accompaniment to the ever-deepening hold of neoliberal capitalism all around the planet. 

14. Well, maybe. But it’s more likely that Thaksin said it best when he said, “The UN is not my father”.

He could have been talking about this coup and all the various people behind it. Come to think of it, he probably was.

This point remains the most salient of the piece.

Thai authoritarianism does not really go away when elected governments are installed.

Under normal conditions, meaning from 1976 till 2000, elected governments act as scrims behind which the people who run Thailand pull the strings and levers out of sight if not quite out of mind.

With the epoch-making election of Thaksin’s TRT administrations, we witnessed the most concerted effort in Thai political history of an elected government attempting to wrest control of the levers of power from the people behind the curtain. With the Yingluck administration we saw the same group of people trying to make obeisance in the right direction so that they would be allowed to continue in the tradition of governments that do not really govern.

It is hard to know exactly what has encouraged the Thai elites to step out from behind the scrim and attempt to impose their particular form of authoritarian government on Thailand without attempting to hide behind a false front of democracy at this particular time. 

Obviously the rise of Thaksinism and the electoral power wielded by his political parties was the immediate cause. But the withdrawal of American power and influence from the Asian sphere, pace Obama and the pivot, has  been instrumental in making the facade of democracy much less important for the business of doing business. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese are likely to balk at trade, investment or the sale of armaments to a blatantly non-democratic regime in Thailand. And with the Chinese now constituting the world’s largest tourist market, this flagship industry, and its role as Thailand’s primary PR machine to the world, seems secure for the foreseeable future.

The hypocritical absurdity of international actors like the EU making noise about their insistence on “returning Thailand to democracy” while simultaneously encouraging the abuses of the Sisi regime in Egypt is proof of where “the west” really stands on issues of democracy and human rights: nowhere at all.

In that sense, the “new Thai normal” is in step with the reality of the world it thrives in.

 

 

Brasilia on the Chao Phraya: Same Same but Different

As has become apparent to all but the most dedicated right-wing neoliberals, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil is in all essentials a coup.

In a nation whose political system is rife with corruption from bottom to top, there is something almost amusing about a po-faced left-wing bureaucrat like Rousseff, who is quite possibly one of the few incorrupt actors in the farce, being removed from office for corruption by the votes of corrupt senators and deputies on the recommendation of corrupt judges.

Anyone who pays attention to Thai politics will be familiar with the notion of the corrupt removing the corrupt from office on charges of corruption. Also familiar will be an opposition which has proved itself utterly incapable of winning at the polls stirring up street protests with the assistance of a mendacious media in order to create the appearance of a popular uprising against a sitting government. And then there is the willing involvement of elements of the judiciary in support of the coup.

Rousseff, like Yingluck Shinawatra, was the first woman to hold her country’s highest office and both women have undergone impeachment by their respective parliaments.

But at that point, the differences become more significant than the similarities.

The women themselves could hardly be more different. Whereas Rousseff entered office at 64 after a lifetime of political involvement, which included 3 years spent in prison on charges related to her activities as a Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla, Yingluck was elected at age 44 as her brother’s stand-in after 20 years working as an executive in companies connected to her brother’s communications empire.

While it could be argued that the flatly uncharismatic Rousseff could not have been elected without the support of Ignacio Lula, whose chief of staff she was for 5 years, her political bona fides are all her own. She was a founding member of the Democratic Labor party, a left-wing social democratic party. And while she has clearly migrated rightward over the years, which is one of the reasons she has lost popularity with her party’s voters, she has been involved for decades in ideological politics.

The inexperienced Yingluck proved surprisingly adequate as a Prime Minister and her obvious beauty and apparent kindness inspired devotion in a good many Thais. Like the party she represented, however, she has no ideology to speak of. “Populist” is a label that gets thrown around in relation to all the Thaksinite parties that have dominated electoral politics in Thailand for the past 15 years, but an electoral technique is not an ideology.

And for all intents and purposes, that is why ultimately there is very little significance in the superficial similarities between the recent series of military and judicial coups in Thailand and the quasi-constitutional “coup” in Brazil.

Brazil, in spite of the weaknesses of its democratic institutions, has a political system wherein parties of the left contest with parties of the center and parties of the right for control of the presidency and the houses of congress. Since the military was forced out of power in 1985, Brazilian politics have been chaotic and deeply corrupt but what you see is what you get.

As in all contemporary democracies, money talks, and the Brazilian media is far more concentrated and biased than its Thai equivalent, but there is no “deep state” in Brazil. To the extent that it is possible anywhere in these neoliberal, “globalized” times, the Brazilian government actually governs.

The Thai system is not at all similar to this. In many ways, electoral politics is little more than an intra-elite competition over control of great chunks of the national budget and the graft generated as that budget is dispensed. Vast bureaucracies, none vaster than the military, operate as independent fiefdoms, sometimes cooperating and often opposing whatever party or coalition is “in power” at any given time.

Whenever a parliamentary force rises up to challenge the elements of this state within a state, there is a coup. In recent years, judicial approaches to coups have been experimented with but ultimately it is the “Thai way” to have the generals move to the foreground when an elected government threatens to become powerful enough to threaten the real power in the land.

When the dust clears in Brazil, there will still be labor unions and associations of the poor standing behind a left-wing party that will stand for elections, no matter how many individuals are tainted by the corruption scandals presently unfolding.

In Thailand, if the military government succeeds in its bid to remove significant portions of the Shinawatra family’s extended phuak from politics, there will be the usual jumble of political parties built around one man’s wealth or a small cadre of ex-generals or a regional godfather to contest for the chimera of government that is the elected parliament.

Ordinary Thais have yet to find real political representation in their genuine desire for democratic governance. NGOs and “civil society” tend to lean right and support anti-democratic forces that would keep the populace in a constant state of dependency. Unions, when they do not also support the right, are almost completely powerless. There is no political representation on the left. More importantly, there is apparently no one who actually supports even the basics of liberal democracy.

And that is very different from the situation in Brazil.

 

 

 

 

What’s the Matter With Southeast Asia?

Part One

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In spite of the tendency for journalists and academics to routinely nominate one ASEAN country or another as a sign that democracy can and possibly will finally take hold in the region, there is very little real evidence that, beyond the desire to take part in elections, the people of Southeast Asia care very much at all about such things as rule of law and human rights.

And while it may be argued that there is a silent majority in the region who do care about these things, it has become very evident that the middle classes absolutely do not. It goes without saying that Southeast Asian elites, like their confreres around the world, never do, no matter what lip service they feel required to perform to maintain trade relations with the EU and US.

The people of the Philippines have just elected “Asia’s Donald Trump”, an experienced politician who campaigns by making jokes about going first in gang rapes and bragging about the criminals he has executed. Personally, that is. He promises to kill 100,000 more as President. Far from denying charges of human rights abuses, he used his links to “death squads” as part of his platform. His overwhelming victory coincides with a return to international visibility of the Marcos family, with son Bongbong losing the vice-presidency by a slim margin while mom Imelda and sister Imee retained their positions in the House of Representatives and a Governor’s mansion.

Myanmar, everyone’s “democratic favorite” of the moment, has just elected its first “civilian government” since 1962. It is no coincidence that the de facto leader of this administration is the daughter of the “Father of the Nation”. Regardless of her family connections to the history of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is only partly in charge of the government and even the areas she may have control in are subject to military veto. Suu Kyi has always talked a good game when it comes to  democracy and human rights but she has refused to adopt a democratic position regarding the Rohingya, having gone so far as to request that the US no longer refer to them as such, thus signalling her acquiescence to the Buddhist nationalists who prefer to insist on the foreign status of a people they are engaged in “slow genocide”against.

 

In Cambodia, the opposition party sends almost as many people to jail as to the parliament and its leader is forced to live in exile.  Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 31 years, once said “What the U.N. says doesn’t bother me. The problem is my people and whether they support me.” This was in response to a question about a UN report confirming the political executions of 41 opponents. Executions of opponents and imprisonment of labour and other activists continue apace.

Thailand is ruled by an increasingly brutal and absurdist congeries of Generals who also make jokes about women in bikinis getting raped and murdered while ordering the arrest and imprisonment of a dissident university student’s mom for posting “Yeah” on Facebook. The most successful democratic politician in Thai history once famously said “The UN is not my father” when asked about human rights observers coming to investigate the more than one thousand extrajudicial executions he oversaw during his War on Drugs. The death squad-style killing and a raft of genuinely beneficial pro-poor policies garnered him a landslide victory after becoming Thailand’s first ever elected PM to serve a full term.

Singapore under Harry Lee perfected a form of “soft authoritarianism” and hid it under a steaming pile of “Asian values”, a somewhat paradoxical strategy to be adopted by a Cambridge-educated son of parents whose first language was English and whose grandfather was educated in English at the utterly colonial Raffles (as was Harry). Like the people who went on to create authoritarian governments in South Korea, Lee Kwan Yew collaborated with the Japanese during WWII. And like Brunei, the only absolute monarchy in the region, Singapore’s “democratic” leadership operates on the hereditary principle.

Of the four remaining old-style “communist” states in the world, two are in Southeast Asia. Lao PDR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, while not quite as venerable as either Cuba or China in terms of longevity, have been one-party  states since the Americans ran off with their tails between their legs in 1975 after slaughtering 3-4 million people in order to make Southeast Asia “safe for democracy”.