Back to the Future with Future Forward?

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.

thanatorn

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.

dastardly duo

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.

shins

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.

democracy not my goal
It’s easy to forget how panicked people were by Thaksin’s overwhelming success at consolidating power under a constitution explicitly constructed to provide a system of checks and balances.

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.

wat dead
When people talk about Thai Democracy and how it has been “killed” by the coup-makers of the RTA, they are not wrong. But they are far from telling the whole story.

 

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We Are All Liberals Now

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).

https://thedisorderofthings.com/2017/08/07/liberalism-in-and-out-of-time/

Beacon of Democracy Moves to Malaysia

The journalists who cover SE Asia for the Anglophone world, aka “the international community”, are back on the “beacon of democracy” hobby-horse.

Malaysia has just shown the world that democracy is alive and well in SE Asia. And in much the same way as happened in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in the Myanmar elections just two and a half years ago, the poor, junta-ridden Thais are being twitted for their failure to keep up. If only Thailand could have an election, a genocide, and a widening civil war on multiple fronts, it could get the same sort of plaudits Burma got from the brain trust of white men that constitute the international media hereabouts.

There is precious little in the way of awareness of the gaping irony that Malaysia’s democratic phoenix is manifest in the form of a 92-year-old former demagogue who once imprisoned his closest party rival for being gay, who was accused of every kind of corruption in his almost 23-year run as the head of a one-party state that blatantly and unapologetically promoted the interests of one ethnicity over those of others, and who grew more illiberal, less democratic, and more anti-western as his time in office went on. And on.

When the “shock” victory was first announced, it was confidently announced that Mahathir would stay in office for only a month or two, until Anwar Ibrahim could be released from prison and seated on the Prime Ministerial throne. Two days later, Mahathir was in the media announcing that it would actually be a year or two. There is every possibility that this will turn out to be a lifetime position for the old demagogue.

Mahathir famously once said of Ibrahim that he “would make a good prime minister of Israel”, a very sharp jab indeed in an anti-semitic nation like Malaysia, but in SE Asian democracies there are no permanent enemies or friends, only bodies that can be stepped on to get that much closer to power. While Ibrahim really has been released from prison already, this is not the first time that such an amnesty has been granted the former student activist. And if he gets sent back in, that won’t be a first either.

The local media definition of ‘democracy’ seems to be little more than “election that can be spun for headlines”.  Given the state of the liberal-democratic world, they may be onto something. Either that or they have simply made it so by communicative fiat.

 

Nothing Left

Well, well. Here we are again.

You really have to ask yourself why it is that Americans will flock spontaneously to their local airports to protest their president’s illegal banning of immigrants but can’t be bothered to do the same in equal numbers to protest their president’s illegal bombing of yet another war-torn nation in the global south.

It could be that immigration falls naturally under the “racist-white supremacist” clause of the identity politics version of the social contract, whereas illegal wars that take place far away among “people of colour” who are on all kinds of different “sides” just cannot be comprehended in the “racist-white supremacist” analysis of the world.

It could also be that Americans of whatever political stripe are vaguely in favor of war because they can never really be sure whether it is for good or for ill, so best to just let the bosses have at it.

But really, the failure of the American “left” to actively oppose American imperialist militarism since the last gasp of that One Big Rally back when Cheney and Rumsfeld organized Bush II into invading Iraq is not a failure of any actual “left”.

Because for all intents and purposes there is no American left, just a simulacrum thereof consisting of online identity politicking claiming the leftist label and the occasional socialist-materialist leftist so frightened of the attacks from the Id Pol Vampire Squad that they might as well be on the radical liberal team themselves.

The Emperor has orange hair and bad clothes and zero effective internal opposition.

May we hope that Russia and Iran backed by China will step up where leftists fear to tread?

The Lonely Planet Guide to Democratic Retreat: Parts One & Two

I

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 what that might be. And while they tend not to like populists, even when elected with significant majorities, and even when they remain popular with majorities of their electorates, military juntas are really really really bad.

The paragons of liberal evangelizing do, however, always seem to avoid discussion of Egypt when going on and on about the evils of military governments, perhaps because the Obama State Department was loath to label the coup there as a coup (because Muslims?) and because the EU has mysteriously maintained and supplemented its trade relations with Egypt, at the very same time as it has put all discussion of free trade with Thailand on hold until such time as what passes for democracy in Thailand has been restored.

It may be because the Thai junta has curtailed freedom of speech and expression and jailed some 100 people for violations of Lese Majeste and other laws limiting speech while the Sisi junta has only murdered some 800 protesters and jailed and tortured thousands.

Or could it just be that since al-Sisi has been elected with a landslide 97% of votes in a recent election, the Classics Illustrated definition of democracy has been adhered to and there is no need to wonder about what would otherwise be a glaring discrepancy? Inquiring minds want to know.

We all need a sense of proportion I suppose.

Perhaps “‘Tis a muddle, and that’s aw” as Stephen Blackpool in Dickens’ Hard Times might have said of this odd discrepancy, and it’s best to leave it at that. As anyone who has ever tried knows, asking difficult questions of liberals is often the quickest and easiest way to find yourself  accused of racism and/or being a cast member of “Literally Hitler”, since not holding the approved opinions is obviously an indication of holding the evil ones.

And Myanmar, which just a couple of years ago was the journalist’s and NGO’s emerging “beacon of democracy” for the region, is mired in tragedy with 700 thousand Rohingya having been forcibly relocated to Bangladesh and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having had her portrait removed from the foyer of some building in some college in the UK. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of those things strikes western people as more ‘significant’, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

The British colonization of Burma rarely if ever comes up in journalistic accounts of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar, regardless of the fact that it’s plainly a case of the British colonial policy of ethnic mixing for the purpose of creating division and weakness having foisted on the Burmese an intractable problem that most of these journalists and all of the NGO folks probably believe GOOGLE could solve with a Diversity Memo, as long as people like James Damore are kept out of the loop. Why won’t these “Burman supremacists” just recognize that diversity is strength and that decade after decade of endless inter-ethnic war is not evidence to the contrary?

We are not, after all, dealing with intellectuals when we talk about journalists and NGO people. They are more like a species of the (usually) male backpackers who, having read and reread their Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, sit in cafes and guesthouse restaurants throughout the region holding forth to the less literate members of the fraternity on the exotic wonders of the cultures of SE Asia. Given half a chance, these westsplainers will even launch into lecturing the locals on what their cultures are really all about. At that point, said backpacker is half way to a career in NGO finger-wagging or journalism.

 

And this is how the rest of the world comes to understand SE Asia.

II

As horrible as the situation of the Rohingya unquestionably is, the people of Myanmar stand solidly behind both Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, an organization many of them most definitely did not like or trust until just recently. The democratic legitimacy of the present hybrid administration in Naypyidaw is not really in doubt, except of course to those whose preference for liberalism over democracy leads them to the conclusion that Burmese Buddhists are just another “basket of deplorables” in need of correction by the UN, if not even more forceful foreign “democratic” compulsion.

Perhaps Hillary could convince her friends in Saudi Arabia to contribute to the process of enlightening the benighted Burmese in much the same fashion as they are doing in Yemen. Perhaps liberals in the media and NGOverse could offer explanations as to why the Rohingya “issue” has received so much coverage and the tragedies unfolding in Yemen and South Sudan so little by comparison. But then again, Ken “Interventions ‘R’ Us” Roth of Human Rights Watch is hardly a voice to be trusted in relation to actual human lives as opposed to human rights.

But Thailand and Burma have been superseded as exemplars of “Democratic Retreat” in SE Asia, as the international news cycle churns, and audiences become immune to yet another heartbreaking photo of doe-eyed Rohingya children and one more chilling portrait of a clown-faced Thai general making cracks about women who wear bikinis asking for rape.

The “beacons” of populism and authoritarianism most in the spotlight these days are Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines and Somdech Hun Sen of Cambodia, a pair of worthy contestants in the media competition to crown the Most Evil Destroyer of Democracy in SE Asia.

Duterte seems a likely champion: he has overseen and joked about and justified the extrajudicial execution of some 8000 mainly very poor people in his war on drugs. He makes Thaksin, the on-again off-again hero of democracy in Thailand, look like a real piker for only having killed between 1300 and 2700 in a similar deployment of police-based death squads.

Duterte, like Prayuth in Thailand, makes rape jokes that send the outrage monitors spiraling out of control around those parts of the globe that go in for that sort of thing, but Duterte seems to have ingested a witches brew of curdled testosterone and methamphetamines before he does his repulsive performances of toxic masculinity. He goes so far as to claim to have killed personally in his quest for justice and suggests that gang rape would be OK if only he gets to go first. Trump is an amateur at provoking PC outrage in comparison to Duterte.

But consistent with the liberal horrorshow vs democratic success pattern I am outlining here, as of January this year Duterte had the highest approval ratings, including a measure of “trust”, of any Philippine president since the 80s and the People Power Revolution. As was the case with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, who won a historic second term in a landslide after years of consistent criticism for human rights abuses (including the extrajudicial executions in his drug war and repeated flagrant attempts to intimidate and silence media voices), Duterte maintains his democratic legitimacy and the support of his electorate.

But here, of course is where the liberal media and the liberal NGOs and the liberal academics beg to differ. Having the support of an electorate is not a sufficient condition for claiming democratic legitimacy. especially when that electorate is made up of poorly educated ‘peasants’ or desperately poor people who are angry at the people who occupy the liberal, predominantly white, empyrean, where all justice is just and all jokes have been cleared by the PC censors before any politician dares utter them.

For this unseemly constellation of personalities and mass emotion we have the handy term ‘populism’, which is used to refer to “Rule by the Basket of Deplorables” by people who would rather not be frank about the class and race hierarchies they cling to even as they deny them utterly. You might say of people like Duterte that while “they may be sonsofbitches, they are most definitely their sonsofbitches”, and so need to be excoriated and deposed if at all possible.

Bouquets and Brickbats for the Blessed

The ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State in Myanmar is a still-unfolding horror for the victims of the Tatmadaw and Rakhine militias who have deliberately, and with wide-ranging support from almost all sectors of Myanmar society, driven more than 600,000 stateless people into squalid makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The effects of this latest round of forced displacement have rippled out beyond the sufferings of the Rohingya people to include the destruction of Aung Suu Kyi’s carefully cultivated image as an icon of human rights advocacy. Her brazen denials that anything untoward has taken place, even going so far as to offer praise for the military’s success at maintaining “stability” in difficult circumstances, almost deserve some sort of reward for obstinacy in the face of massive international disapproval.

In reality she has been stripped of a few meaningless awards from virtue-signalling institutions like St. Hugh’s college (who have gone so far as to remove her portrait from the main entrance)  and the City of Oxford. Her honorary membership in a UK trade union will also be suspended.

One might be tempted to wonder how Unison feels about her Ministry of Labour offering a $3.50/day minimum wage law in the face of Myanmar union insistence that even $5.00/day is barely enough to cover daily expenses for most workers. But what has that to do with union membership, really?

Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar
Pope Francis shakes hands with Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Max Rossi

Also caught in the harsh light that such brutality brings to bear on the difference between media imagery and real-world behaviour is Pope Francis, whose moral cowardice in refusing to utter the word Rohingya while calling for “peace” with all the grace and aplomb of a Miss World contestant deserves far more scorn than media outlets are apparently willing to express.

Rather than castigating him for what is by any measure a failure of moral responsibility, media outlets have been almost unanimous in excusing his silence as “tactical” and subsequently praising him for finally uttering the taboo-in-Burma term on his last day in Bangladesh. Emotionally charged photographs of a Rohingya man shedding tears of joy over Francis’ concession to decency accompanied the articles praising Francis for what is in reality nothing at all.

Such “icons” of humanistic values are thin on the ground these days and wise editors don’t want to toss yet another hot clickbait item into the dustbin of history.

Suu Kyi in Rakhine: A Job Well Done

It has been 6 weeks since State Councillor Aun Suu Kyi gave her stellar performance of Myanmar’s defiance of the international community regarding the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Rakhine State.

In that time, the media complex that frames and colors and highlights “news” emerging from SE Asia has shifted from a tendency to blame Suu Kyi for not speaking out and attempting to stop the unfolding tragedy to focus instead almost exclusively on the perpetrators, the conveniently named Tatmadaw.

Precisely how these ethical calculations are undertaken isn’t clear, but the difficulty of rebranding Suu Kyi from “democracy and human rights icon” to “Hitler-clone monster” after the fashion of Sadam or Gaddafi or Kim is obviously a major consideration, even if it is an “unconscious” one.

Yesterday, Suu Kyi visited the afflicted area of Rakhine for the the first time ever. She made stops in Rakhine during her election campaign but not in the north where the ethnic cleansing has been undertaken.

While there, aside from posing for photos, State Councillor Suu Kyi met with a group of Muslim religious leaders and told them three things: “they should live peacefully, the government is there to help them, and they should not quarrel among each other”, as reported by one of the religious leaders who attended the meeting.

And with yet another defiantly flung finger in the face of the UN and all the various human rights organizations currently vilifying the Tatmadaw and other security forces in the region, she congratulated the police and soldiers for a job well done under difficult circumstances.

suu kyi in rakhine

As I said in an earlier post, breathtaking.