What’s Been Did & What’s Been Hid

The disappearance of the plaque commemorating the 1932 coup that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand has provoked a flurry of responses that inadvertently highlight one of the major problems with Thai democracy: a refusal to deal honestly with either history or the realities of the present.

The idea that the bloodless coup of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchy pops up repeatedly in spite of the glaringly obvious fact that Thailand only ever had “absolute monarchy” for roughly 50 years. Before Rama V managed to gather the reins of power into his own hands, Thailand’s system of government was more similar to feudalism than anything remotely like what we mean by absolutism.

When McCargo labeled the modern Thai system “network monarchy” he was underlining the dispersed nature of power in contemporary Thailand. As was the case under the sakdina system that many equate with European feudalism, under the network monarchy power is shared and shifting according to alliances and the vicissitudes of conflict and economic competition that underlie them.

And regardless of scholarly attempts to establish that this loose yet effective network  has morphed into a more structured “deep state”, it is evident that Thailand is still governed by a network of networks centering on the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and Bangkok capital.

By constantly identifying “royal absolutism” or “absolute monarchy” as the primary obstruction on the road to Thai democracy, analysts are deliberately or otherwise obscuring the realities of power in Thailand.

Directly related to this misidentification of the locus of power is the pointless and often hysterical emphasis on lese majeste legislation- the notorious 112– and the absurd suggestion that making it impossible to criticize one element in the network cripples all attempts at political critique.

The education system in Thailand, with its emphasis on rote learning and hours and hours of time wasted in exercises designed to promote group cohesion and military-style obedience, is not protected by 112. Neither is the justice system which keeps the wealthy immune to prosecution. The various corrupt police organizations in the country are not protected by 112 and neither are the ministries and departments whose “officials” routinely ride roughshod over ordinary Thai people and make a mockery of any law, never mind laws controlling “free speech”.

At the same time as commentators constantly misidentify the historical conditions that were “overthrown” in 1932, they overstate wildly the “democracy” that was thereby established.

plaque

The Promoters, as the group of military and foreign-educated civilians that made up Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) are known when the subject is the Revolution of 1932, were a near-perfect embodiment of how “Thai democracy” has played out in the 85 years since they established constitutional monarchy in Thailand.

Half military, half civilian, and all elite, the men of Khana Ratsadon did not support the establishment of political parties and did not trust the people of Thailand to constitute a democratic electorate until sufficiently “educated” by their betters. Although initially determined to place severe limits on the power of the monarchy, within months of the coup, Khana Ratsadon gave in to demands from the palace for more authority. This refusal to trust the people of Thailand and reflexive deference to a version of droit de seigneur characterizes Thai politics to this day.

The People’s Party, as is the case in all subsequent Thai political history, was divided by its military and civilian factions and each faction had a leader who would go on to play an outstanding role in the development of “Thai-style democracy” with its endless back-and-forth between elite liberalism (disguised as democracy) and military dictatorship (disguised as protector of democracy and the monarchy).

What is called “pro-democracy” activism in Thailand is always only anti-junta or anti-military dictatorship. There is nothing “pro” about it because there is not and has never been a democratic movement in Thailand, outside of a few heady years in the late 60s and early 70s when left-wing radicalism related to the communist and nationalist surges taking place throughout SE Asia caused a temporary glitch in the normal flow of elite liberalism versus royalist military conservatism that constitutes Thai political reality.

There are many possible reasons for this lack in Thai politics but one that never changes is the nature of the Thai middle classes, none of whom sees any advantage in moving toward a democratic system that would enfranchise the people of Thailand.

This is as true of the supporters of military dictatorship and quasi-fascist thugs like Sondhi Limthongkul and Suthep Thaugsuban as it is of the academics and journalists who go on and on about the constitution and free speech but never address the real questions of what democracy is good for, what it requires beyond the right to say mean things about your betters, and, most importantly of all, who can be entrusted with its administration.

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Beacon, Beacon: Who’s Got the Beacon?

Smoke and Mirrors

A few days ago, Nicholas Farrelly of New Mandala published a piece in Myanmar Times that is essentially an extended riff on the “beacon of democracy” lament that I blogged about here.

The usual application of this journalistic trope is to suggest that in the years before the 2006 coup, Thailand was a “model democracy” for Southeast Asia. Carefully elided or simply omitted due to ignorance are the actually existing and highly inconvenient facts concerning the nature of that democracy.

I mean, what, after all, do a few thousand extrajudicial executions and dozens of journalists removed from their jobs for criticizing an elected government have to do with democracy?

But Farrelly has been a little more clever than those who assumed (correctly for the most part) that no one would care about the long-past democratic deficits of the Thai Rak Thai administrations. He has pushed the Golden Age of Thailand…

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Narcissus and Echo Do Thailand

Smoke and Mirrors

narcissus-and-echo-500x280

Everyone knows the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful young man who so loved to look upon his own reflection in the surface of a pool that he lost his will to live and wasted away and died there.

Less well-known is the story of Echo, the nymph who loved him, and who, because of her own inability to communicate anything but a repetition of the last part of the last thing she’d heard, was unable to help Narcissus find his way back to the hunt from which he’d become separated, thus inadvertently leading him to his death beside the spring.

As always with Greek myths, whether in their “raw” versions or after being “cooked” by a subtle chef like Ovid, the psychological suggestiveness and ever-shifting hints of possible meanings in this tale are tantalizing to say the least.

A figure who can only bear to gaze upon his own representation…

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White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand

Smoke and Mirrors

Television news, as everyone knows, is essentially idiotic.

It is idiotic partly because the simplification required to say anything meaningful about current events–Syria, say, or Putin or Trump or the recent coup in Brazil– in the time allotted by the format makes intelligent commentary or analysis utterly impossible.

So what television news deals in is better described as little snippets of ideology which act as “sentences”, if you will, to the morphemes of “soundbites”and “lexical” imagery: video clips of war-torn cities, pictures of dead children and weeping parents, maps with arrows showing advance and retreat.

A pre-existing frame of ideology is invoked and confirmed, a commercial is shown, and the viewer goes back to Orange is the New Black feeling edified and responsible.

One element in the standard western ideology of course is free speech. Democratic societies encourage freedom of thought and speech, and the media, especially television news, provides…

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LADY GAGA: FASCIST IS AS FASCIST DOES

I’ve always liked Lady Gaga.

In spite of the fact that her “friend of the marginalized” routine was done better by David Bowie and Madonna, she has always seemed like a genuine pop talent. It’s hard not to like Just Dance.

I will say though that Born This Way struck me immediately as a ripoff of Express Yourself and so maybe it would be better to say I used to like Lady Gaga.

Taking a bit of persona from Madonna and Bowie is one thing; blatant plagiarism is another altogether.

I wish now that I’d gone to see Madonna when she came to Bangkok doing that sarky mashup of the two songs as a way of letting everyone know what she thought of the bitch stealing her music.

And then came the recent Democratic primary. Both Lady and Madonna came out for the warmongering Saudi supporter Hillary Clinton and blew all respectability right out their celebrity asses.

I mean, Margaret Thatcher was a woman too, right? She who destroyed British unions and led the Anglosphere charge into atomistic neoliberalism? She didn’t so much break a glass ceiling as smash a champagne bottle and shove it right up the workers.

But the show Gaga just did for the ever-tawdry SuperBowl was the last straw.

After showing up in Michael Jackson’s Prussian drum major outfit at a Hillary rally and causing a TwitStormFuhror over her apparent Nazi appearance, it was hard not to read her mouthing God Bless America against a backdrop of drones rendering Old Glory in a night sky subtly reminiscent of Baghdad back in March ’03 as a paean to the perpetual fascism that is and has been America since The Donald was just a lad.

I don’t really care who’s land that land is or who it was made for. It sends its sons and daughters of all races and sexual orientations to kill kids wherever brown folks live in relative poverty.

And celebrating that puts Lady Gaga right up there with Leni Riefenstahl, except of course that Leni was blessed with a brilliant visual sense and Gaga’s choreographers on this occasion could only have been blind.

Trump(ets) of Doom

February 3 2017

These two tweets are a perfect distillation of one of the many things ailing “the left” these days:

It’s possible that Murtaza isn’t old enough to know what the “decades of struggle” he is talking about were actually about. They were not about getting racist speech out of the public sphere. They were about voting rights and discrimination in housing and employment.

One of the side effects was to make public expression of racism impolite and extremely unattractive and uncool.

People like Murtaza apparently think it’s the side effects that matter. And that politics can be conducted as a class in deportment and etiquette, and so long as saying racist things is uncool, all is right with the world.

Question: What if they instituted a new Jim Crow and no one ever said the n-word?

Trump(ets) of Doom

January 29 2017

Well here we are at last, ladies and gentlemen. America is waking up.

America is waking up to the shocking sight of itself in the mirror provided by Mssrs Trump and Bannon and– surprise, surprise– much of America doesn’t like what it sees.

America and Americans and the thuggo halfwits they call “the troops” slaughtered and tortured and napalmed their way through SE Asia back in the day, but America is shocked by Mssrs Trump and Bannon because that was only 4 million non-white folks that died.

America and Americans have funded and trained and armed and provided tactical support for death squads and rightwing insurgents bent on overthrowing popular governments throughout Latin America, but America is shocked by Mssrs Trump and Bannon because banana republics are like that, don’t you think?

America is missing its most recent President because he glided through 8 years with dignity and grace and a lovely family and America just loves to watch that kind of reality TV while the thugs are out acting on the orders of President Dignity-Grace, killing kids and sustaining brushfire wars wherever The Dignity decides.

But America is shocked by Mssrs Trump and Bannon because one or both of them seems to think that all the hiding of what Amerika really is is no longer necessary and so might as well let it all hang out.

So fuck you all America. Let’s see how you like it.