The nomination of a member of the king’s immediate family as a candidate for the post of unelected Prime Minister by the Shinawatra-aligned Thai Raksa Chart Party is the bombshell news of the day in Thailand.
Opinions will differ over whether this represents a stroke of brilliance on the part of Thaksin, a move by the King to consolidate his control over yet another branch of the Thai state, or a subtle combination of the interests of both men in concert to punish the present Junta for having overstepped the bounds of what a military dictatorship can be expected to do in contemporary Thailand.
What should be clear, but will likely not be overly stressed in any media, is that this is not the first time Thaksin has attempted to make a large symbolic gesture to create an alignment between ShinCorp and the Palace.
When Samak Sundaravej was chosen to act as Thaksin’s proxy back in 2007, it was clearly Thaksin’s way of trying to dispel his image as some sort of republican democrat. A staunch royalist with the dubious reputation of having played a role in the Thammasat Massacre, the nomination of Samak was clearly intended as a signal to the far right elements among Thai royalists that Thaksin’s intentions were as far from democratic and revolutionary as could be. Less commented upon at the time was the other obvious symbolism involved in parading this crude proto-fascist as the face of the party of popular choice– a middle-finger in the face of the Thai liberals who in spite of their commitment to democracy had joined in the movements that brought him down.
Equally unnoticed at the time of Yingluck’s election was the intended symbolism of Yingluck’s 20-million baht gift to King Bumiphol of the rice paddy in Ayuthaya where he initiated a number of his most celebrated royal projects. The photograph of the civilian Prime Minister on her knees offering up a symbolic piece of Ayuthaya to a king dressed in full military regalia speaks more than the thousand words that made light of the act back in 2012.
Samak was not loved by many factions in both the RTA and the Palace and so was not a successful offering. As is the way with the “independent bodies” brought into being or reinforced by the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997, he was dispensed with by what Brazilians now recognize as a “judicial coup”.
The gift of Ayuthaya by the lady PM went virtually unnoticed and uncommented on. Even the ever vigilant Christine Grey failed to generate her usual word salad in search of arcane meanings in Thai political contexts. If the attempted genuflection was intended to invite an alliance with ShinCorp versus the military, the choice of military dress was all the answer this particular move elicited.
Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, aka “Ake”, the billionaire leader of Thailand’s newest oligarch-owned and operated political vehicle, Future Forward Party, presents himself as an aggressively masculine opponent of military dictatorship. Like most Thai liberals who hail from the upper reaches of Thailand’s highly stratified society, he conflates “democracy” with the writing of constitutions and the staging of elections and little else.
In a recent interview he made it clear that his priority in power would be “dismantling the senate appointment system, the 20-year strategy and other legacies of the military” and that he would happily cooperate with any other political party willing to sign on to this agenda.
It goes without saying that he promises to rewrite the constitution as one of his first steps toward undoing the evil wrought by Prayuth and the NCPO. In the 86 years since the military-civil coalition known as Khana Ratsadon or “People’s Party” very politely and half-heartedly staged the bloodless coup that ostensibly made Thailand into the constitutional monarchy it is today, Thais have lived under 21 constitutions, which is roughly the same number of general elections that have been held during the same period (23?). Put another way, Thailand has new constitutions more frequently than many democracies have elections. So, when a billionaire promises a new constitution, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are faced with Change You Can Believe In™.
If we take the promise to erase the legacy of the NCPO seriously we only have to revisit the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra to see how Thai democracy was flourishing before Big Joke and Big Brother Tuu “stole” it from the Shins.
Under Yingluck, neither the military nor, ultimately, the police were available to enforce order in Bangkok while the proto-fascist PDRC staged their “Shutdown Bangkok” in order to induce the military to stage a coup. Three years earlier, when the country was devastated by floods that cost the country an estimated 40-50 billion dollars in damages and lost production, the Governor of Bangkok resisted the orders of the national government to sacrifice parts of Bangkok in order to lessen the suffering of people upcountry, and the military went out of its way to set up its own rescue operations, successfully portraying the Yingluck administration as incompetent and unconcerned with the well-being of ordinary Thais. This insubordination and the accompanying PR campaign went a long way to restoring the image of the military that had been tarnished by the 2006 coup and subsequent ham-fisted governing record that led to a quick return to a Shinawatra-led government in 2008.
It is normal in Thailand that the writ of the national government does not run into all the nooks and crannies of what is essentially a semi-lawless society, but the brazen disregard for parliamentary authority that was demonstrated from day one by many branches of government, including of course the military, means that the notion of returning to “pre-coup democracy” sounds much better as rhetoric than it might actually manifest in reality.
If it is objected that “pre-coup democracy” is better understood as referring to the good old days when Thailand was still a “ beacon of democracy in the region“, usually meaning from the late 90s to the tragic return to authoritarian rule in 2006, it should be remembered that in those halcyon times, somewhere between 1300 and 2700 Thai citizens were extrajudicially executed under the orders and supervision of the popular Prime Minister of the time, an early instance of SE Asia’s version of the ever-popular War on Drugs that has vaulted Roderigo Duterte to “evil-demon-threatens-democracy” status in “international media”, even while said demon maintains popularity and trust levels with the Philippine people not seen since the People Power Revolution chased Ferdinand Marcos et famille to Hawaii.
Press freedoms in the “Beacon of Democracy” were under intense pressure from Thaksin’s administration; human rights defenders were disappeared and lost their lives; police corruption flourished; Muslims were murdered in military “police actions” that kick-started an intensification of the southern insurgency; Bangkok capitalists in bed with Shin Corp were experiencing the thrill of genuine and highly profitable corporate governance under a CEO PM: and all of this was taking place under the aegis of the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997, a temporary document much celebrated for its theoretical improvements in Thai governance that nevertheless was subverted as resolutely as all Thai Constitutions have been so that whoever happened to hold power at the time could reap the benefits thereof.
It should also be pointed out that, like many elite liberals in Thailand, “Ake” makes much of the “anachronism” of the appointed Senate. It is hard to know what to make of this sort of historical illiteracy. The Thai parliament has swung back and forth- between a royally-appointed senate in the context of a bicameral legislature and a unicameral legislature with no senate at all- regularly and frequently since the first senate was appointed in 1947. There has been precisely one all-elected senate in Thai history- the one elected in 2000 under the provisions of the ’97 Constitution, which forbade senators from membership in political parties.
As with everything Thai elite liberals touch, the ’97 constitution was designed to keep “democratic politics” as far away from real power as possible, hence the non-affiliated status of candidates for the Senate and the similarly intended insistence that Cabinet appointees not be sitting members of parliament. The result of the senate elections in 2000 was as predictable as rain in October. A Nation Weekend headline before the election, commenting on the affiliations of the non-affiliated candidates, renamed the upcoming senate The Assembly of Siblings and Husbands and Wives (sapha phi-nong sapha phua-mia).
If a political party cannot field candidates for an elected senate, then surely individual party members can put forward their brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and children, all of whom will then be indirectly funded and supported by the political party they are not affiliated with. A post-election article in Thai Post was headlined “A Bad Joke! An Assembly of Slaves” and went on to talk about the irony of chao pho (godfathers) and the children and wives of MPs delegated to reform and constrain their husbands and fathers in parliament.
Within two years of the establishment of the first elected senate in Thai history, it was evident to all and sundry that it was functioning as yet one more wing of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai juggernaut. So whether or not an appointed senate is an anachronism, an elected one is surely not a surefire road to democratic heaven in the context of actual-existing Thai politics.
That is the real Thai constitution of course, but don’t tell that to Thai liberals- they and their families are the beneficiaries of that history of corruption and so do not appreciate having it highlighted by the light shone from another sort of “beacon” altogether.
These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.
But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.
And they say we live in a post-colonial world!
Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say…
So two young men- likely underpaid by Reuters because that is how these news services work in SE Asia- and their families will suffer for 7 more years and an AP journalist analyzes this as the Myanmar government “wreaking revenge” on Reuters.
The stupidity of the media in this part of the world is never to be underestimated.
When I was a high school student, back in the 60s, I used to trot out the “but that wasn’t real socialism/communism” canard whenever anyone threw Stalin and Soviet Russia in my socialist face. I was probably just being a good son to my father who often lamented that “socialism is probably the best theoretical system of government but people are not really capable of applying it” whenever I asked him about Russia and the Soviet Republics.
50 years later and the same thing is happening everywhere you look. Right-wingers and self-identified liberals fling Venezuela and Pol Pot into the ring whenever they feel a “democratic socialist” coming on. And the “left” is still trotting out the canard.
The particular spin put on the classic canard by many of America’s contemporary “millennial socialists” and their slightly older confrères involves naming Norway and Denmark as real exemplars of socialism, in spite of the frequent denials by Norwegians and Danes that such is the case.
So the rule on the American left is: if a nation has undergone a socialist revolution and calls itself a socialist or people’s republic, it is absolutely not really socialist but two tiny constitutional monarchies, the Kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, are.
The point of this absurdist exercise is clear: whereas the history of capitalism and its ugly backside imperialism is fair game when it comes to debating the merits of systems, the history of socialism is yet to be written so all we can refer to are the tracts and tweets that make up socialist reality.
Plus the Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway of course.
Besides this utterly American tendency to prefer the fantasy of discourse to the discourse of history, this denial is related to the contemporary American left’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish itself from the liberalism that pervades the atmosphere of all American “democratic socialist” discourse.
According to much of the American left, democratic socialism is going to both “deepen democracy” and “make people free”. This sounds good until you begin to ask yourself what sort of “freedom” a “deeper democracy” is going to grant to communities of evangelicals and fervent Trump supporters. Will a democratic socialist America grant regions the “freedom” to ban abortion and institute racial discrimination in schooling and employment if local majorities support such policies? Will some localities be empowered to ban the hijab and the building of mosques?
The liberal answer to all such questions is to simply equate the individual rights doctrine of liberalism with “real” democracy and dismiss the preferences of the demos as bigoted reactionary ignorance.
What will the “millennial socialist” answer be?
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting to hear. There are some questions that are better not asked because the answers are all equally unwelcome.
On social media you can always tell when you are dealing with a liberal when they call for reasonable discussion and then proceed to label any and all fundamental disagreement as “evil”, “insane”, “brainwashed”, or simply “right-wing”.
And since we know that “right-wing” is next door to “literally Hitler”, that ends the “discussion”, because who in their right mind discusses anything with Hitler?
Anglospherean “leftists”, specifically those who identify as “socialist” or “democratic socialist” take a different tack. They tend to label any and all fundamental disagreement as “in bad faith”, “concern trolling” or (and this is my favorite) “crypto-reactionary”.
And since we know that “crypto-reactionary” is next door to “crypto-fascist” (and the ever-popular “literally Hitler”) that ends the “discussion” because blah-blah-blah-dee-blah.
I have come to believe that this is because whatever their self-identifying strategy, these people are all liberals. And if there is one thing that characterizes what remains of liberalism in the 2nd decade of the 21st century it is its utter refusal and/or rank inability to imagine “otherness”.
As noted liberal spokesperson Ben Affleck put it to equally noted bigots Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Real Time back in 2014:
“How about more than a billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, pray five times a day, and don’t do any of the things you’re saying of all Muslims. It’s stereotyping.”
No matter how well-intentioned Ben may have been in his defense of the world’s Muslims against the outrageous slander of people like Maher and Harris, his rhetorical erasure of the specificity and difference that makes Muslims Muslim (and his utterly liberal universalization of sandwiches) and not Anglospherean liberals is characteristic of the most egregious solecisms of the American version of Liberal Imperialism.
As Egyptian-American writer Shadi Hamid has put it:
Ben Affleck was essentially saying, “Muslims eat sandwiches too.” And I thought to myself, well, yes, Muslims do eat sandwiches, but you can eat sandwiches and still believe that Islamic law should be implemented, you can still believe in religiously-derived criminal punishment.
The same phenomenon permeates both journalism and social media “discussion” here in SE Asia. “The Thai people just want what we all want” is a common refrain when the subject is either democracy or military dictatorship. Of course the “we” being invoked as the universal citizen here is almost always a white middle-class man with a job that pays somewhere in the region of 10–20X what most of the “Thai people” they claim the privilege of speaking for earn.
And whenever those same Thai people evince a tendency to favor authoritarianism over liberalism, corruption over rule-of-law, or racist assumptions over middle-class university-educated white people’s posturing around race, the usual liberal march of villains is trotted out for our perusal: they are brainwashed, corrupted, mentally deficient or simply cowering in fear.
It just isn’t possible that they don’t share the universal values that liberals can no longer see as either culturally specific or contingent on wealth and comfort.
Nous sommes tous Americains never summed up a diseased ideology so well as it does these days in reference to liberalism as it manifests in the world shaped by American imperialism.
As Duncan Bell points out in the Coda to this broad-ranging, richly textured and masterly exploration of the relationship between liberalism, Empire and imperialism in nineteenth century British thought, it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking. In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld’ (371).
Without question, the death of IWW member Heather Heyer at the hands of a Nazi-sympathizer while she protested Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia has put an end to the most recent phase of the far right’s struggle to gain traction in the mainstream of American discourse.
As Angela Nagle put it at Baffler recently, referring to the online horde of alt-right ironists that make up what was heretofore the most visible face of the movement, “But how many of these racist trolls are committed to the real-life violence and potential state repression that the movement’s goals will now summon forth? ”
I imagine “very few” would be the most likely answer to that rhetorical question. The ever-popular metaphorical “mom’s basement” may be a lonely place but it beats the hell out of bending over to pick up the metaphorical soap just dropped by that shaven-headed thug with the swastika tattoo in…