A Touch of Class

*Originally published January 28. 2014

Just Another Case of History Repeating

When the Coup Group of 1947 introduced the interlocking notions of Nation, Religion, and King as the fundamental elements of the Thai state (which only the Army could defend and uphold), they set the predominant  pattern and tone of Thai politics down to the present day. The constitution they issued returned most of the powers and privileges that had been taken from the monarchy in 1932, and this in turn cemented the relationship between royalists and the military that also continues to this day.

The rationale they offered for their coup has also provided a template that shapes, with modifications due to the passing of the cold war, not just post-coup rationalization statements, but much of what passes for political discourse in contemporary Thailand. They justified their intervention on the twin grounds of eliminating both communism and corruption.

“Communism”, in this case, really meant Pridi Banomyong and his followers and allies, and any remaining influence they might have had in either the government or the military.

“Corruption”, on the other hand, is harder to define at this distance in time, and in that sense is the most salient “ideological” gift that Choonhavan et al passed on to those who intend to seize power by non-democratic means in 21st century Thailand.

When the generals of the Ratchakhru Group settled into power, they also settled into seats on the boards of directors of the major business concerns of the country, seats vacated by the “corrupt” administrators of the previous government of course. In other words, “rooting out corruption” essentially involved cutting the strings connecting the old governing faction to Thai capitalists and establishing new ones that replaced Khana Ratsadon people with Generals from the Group.

Seni Pramoj, one of the early leaders of today’s Democrat Party, was awarded a cabinet post in the junta for his cooperation in the coup. Thus was another precedent set that, outside of a few years when military rule became very unfashionable with Bangkok’s “civilian” middle and upper-middle classes, has remained relevant until today, with the Democrats essentially operating as the “political wing” of the royalist-military anti-democratic faction.

And so it is that when corrupt “former” Democrat party leader Suthep Thaugsuban leads a movement calling for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on the grounds of corruption, and the head of the Thai military suggests that the “door” is neither open nor closed to a coup, and a member of the royal family uses Instagram to post photos of herself adorned in the paraphernalia associated with Kamnan Suthep’s insurrection, no one should be fooled into thinking that we are witnessing something “new” in Thai politics, nor that the consistent refrain of “Thaksin, Thaksin, Thaksin” means that these past 8 years of turmoil has been caused primarily by the man from Dubai.

On the contrary, the current round of protests is simply the latest expression of the network of individuals and groups that have coalesced at times of crisis over the past eight decades to ensure that “democracy” never takes root in Thailand.

Democracy: U and non-U versus the Great Unwashed?

But what about the protestors themselves? Aren’t many of them the same people who agitated against military government in 1992? Have some of them not been involved in pro-democracy movements as far back as 1973?

As has been pointed out time and time again over the past few months, the educated Bangkok middle classes are providing both money and bodies to keep this movement alive, and they themselves deny that they are anti-democratic, insisting instead that their intention is to “restart” the democratic process that has been hijacked by the “parliamentary dictatorship” of the Thaksin “regime”. It is difficult, not to say churlish, to flatly deny that these people believe themselves to be acting out of a desire to uproot corruption and install an improved democratic system in Thailand.

However that may be, “parliamentary dictatorship” is an interesting term to be bandied about by people claiming to support democratic governance, not least because the very notion of dictatorship is a hard one to correlate with the 650 members of the mostly elected Thai houses of parliament. “Tyranny of the majority” might be the more cogent choice, or even “dictatorship of the proletariat”, were it not so firmly associated with an ideology that is even harder to hang on Thaksin than “democrat”.

But like so many elements of the struggle for power that has marked the past 8 years of Thai politics, “parliamentary dictatorship” is a term drawn from tradition.

When the Chatchai government was removed from office by military coup in 1991, one of the charges leveled by the generals as justification for the coup, besides the classic “corruption”, was “parliamentary dictatorship”. It is easy enough to read this particular charge as meaning little more than “insufficiently grateful” to the bureaucrats and generals who permitted the politicians to kin pathet at the buffet; the Chatchai government, like the Thaksin regime, tried to establish civilian control over the military and legislative control over the bureaucracy, but worse than either of those, also like the Thaksin administration, it failed to share the spoils. Thus has “corruption” come to be understood at the highest levels of Thai society.

As was the case in 2006, there was a general sense of relief when the Chatchai government was removed from power, even if there was also unease at the return of military government. By appointing a “good person” like Anand as interim Prime Minister, the coup group managed to allay much of the initial resistance they would otherwise have met, particularly from the media and the international community. Nevertheless, when an election was held roughly one year after the coup and a military-controlled government was elected, the stage was set for the “mobile phone mob”, the Bangkok middle class, to come out and demonstrate for a return to “real” democracy.

What that constituency meant by “democracy” may be best understood by looking at the oft-lamented 1997 Constitution, the “People’s Constitution” as it is sometimes known.

Just as Suthep and the PDRC of today demand a “time-out” for a group of “good people” to formulate a constitution that will ensure a “genuinely” democratic Thailand free of corruption, the framers of the ’97 Constitution, “good people” all, aimed the bulk of their effort at the same goal.

Most strikingly perhaps, the People’s Constitution eliminated the opportunity for roughly 90% of Thai adults (95% in rural areas) to run for election in the national government by requiring a candidate to have at least a BA or equivalent. This was done apparently in the belief that having a university education would somehow prevent a candidate from indulging in vote-buying during elections and other forms of corruption once installed in parliament. The suggestion is clear: “educated” equals “good”, or at least more likely to be so.

There was also a provision insisting that the government provide education to “instil right awareness with regard to politics and a democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State”, presumably in order to correct the tendency of less-educated people to misunderstand what the middle-class framers understood by “democracy”.

In order to avoid politicians actually chosen by voters gaining too much power or access to graft, constituency candidates could not sit in cabinet unless they resigned their seats and funded the resulting by-election. The purpose of this was obviously to keep people involved in electoral politics out of the cabinet, hardly an endorsement of democratic procedure to say the least. By restricting cabinet membership to party-list MPs, it was hoped that only “good people” would have access to the juiciest spoils in the trough.

The document also created the much-celebrated “independent bodies” that were to provide the “checks and balances” necessary for the operation of an honest and fair democracy. In practice, however, these bodies, made up as they are of “good people” and “experts”,  have simply meant, for example, that the 5 members of the Election Commission could overturn the decision of thousands of voters by disqualifying a member of parliament, or indeed negate the votes of millions by the simple expedient of disbanding a political party. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the “one man, one vote” principle that many would argue is fundamental to democratic structures, even if not sufficient to their maintenance.

While it would be foolish to deny that there were at least some good intentions behind the various provisions of the ’97 Constitution, it would be delusional to ignore the emphasis on “good people” and the equating of “educated” with “good” that established an essentially anti-democratic tilt to the People’s Constitution. The “people” in that formulation are essentially the Bangkok middle class and its outliers in the provinces, and definitely not the vast majority of the Thai electorate.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Truth

So there is a certain truth to the Suthep mob’s insistence that they are not “anti-democratic”; it’s just that the “democracy” they long for is one that requires a great deal of at least partial disenfranchisement of the Thai electorate, most of whom do not belong to the Bangkok middle class. And that, to be blunt, is really not democracy at all.

For anyone with a sense of Thai political history, it should not really be all that surprising to find the old “mobile phone mob” and its contemporary descendants out shouting for the very things that the military juntas of past Thai political crises have claimed to represent.

In 1973, the middle class supported the students in their demand for democracy. In 1976, that same middle class supported the return to military dictatorship because they were shocked to find that democracy actually involved the active participation of trade unions and farmers and coalitions of poor people, none of whom fell under the self-regarding definition of “good people” as “people like us”.

When it came time for the military government to start killing protestors in 1992, the educated middle classes were essentially nowhere to be found. Not one of those killed in Black May had a university degree. It would seem that “dying for democracy” is something the servants can do for the Thai middle class.

When the Thaksin government was removed from power in 2006, the Bangkok middle class repeated its performance of 1991, relieved that the corrupt regime was ended, if a little uncomfortable with the way it was done, and eager to see a return to “real” democracy.

By “real” democracy of course was meant one that would not be overly influenced by “the people”, who had somehow managed to circumvent the restrictions on their participation enshrined in the People’s Constitution.

This typically middle-class equivocation led to the adoption of the long-since-discredited song mai ao position that in one form or another still characterizes much of middle-class discourse in both the mainstream and social media; “good” Thais are all for democracy but against Thaksin and against the return of military government. What this means in reality is that they reject the options the real world offers and prefer to “talk” as if something else were possible, thereby retaining their self-concept as “good people”. But it hardly matters in any democratic sense because the Thai electorate has evolved its own understanding of what democracy means and has voted its understanding and its preference consistently now for over a decade and through four national elections.

And that, not Thaksin, and not the “anti-democratic” tilt of the middle class protestors, is the “new thing” in the present repeat of all the old patterns in Thai politics.

It remains to be seen whether the majority of Thai voters will finally be integrated into the democratic system or whether the pretense of “democracy” is to be abandoned altogether, in favor of some system that will reinforce the sense of Bangkok’s middle class as part of the “good people” without their having to kill too many of those who will undoubtedly lack the understanding of “democracy” that would see them yet again disenfranchised and oppressed by their betters in the City of Angels.

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Morning Muse: Corruption and Institutions

Many of the articles dealing with the most recent round of “protests” aimed at dismantling Thailand’s ever-fragile democratic governance speak of the need for “strong institutions” to provide the “checks and balances” necessary to protect against corruption and other abuses of power by elected officials. This theme is hardly new in Thai politics. The ’97 Constitution was designed with just these “institutions” in mind.

This article from Bloomberg puts it clearly: “Only strong judiciaries, anti-corruption arms and networks of government watchdog agencies can ensure accountability.” And whereas I am sure all good liberal-democrats everywhere will nod their heads in agreement (as I found myself doing as I read it), a moment’s reflection is enough to realize that this sort of suggestion is equivalent to proposing that Thailand adopt “Mom, Apple Pie, and The American Way” as a bulwark against everything bad. Which is just silly.

Thailand is an early-adopter of what is being recognized as a major trend in anti-democratic strategizing around the world: the so-called “judicial coup”. In order for groups or individuals aligned against democratic governments to avoid resorting to the much-maligned military coup, a “strong judiciary” is a good substitute. A wealthy oligarchy with a matched set of judges in its arsenal is going to benefit from a “strong judiciary” far more than the voting public with their “one man, one vote” weapon of choice.

The same thing goes for all of the “institutions” needed to provide the “checks and balances”. The stronger the institution the more powerfully it can be used to either bolster or utterly destroy an embattled democracy like Thailand’s.

Corrupt judges cleared the way for Thaksin Shinawatra to become Prime Minister when he had been caught hiding his assets under his maids and chauffeurs, and corrupt judges have been beavering away ever since to remove him and his associates from Thai politics.

To run through the catalog of similar abuses by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission) and the EC (Election Commission) over the past decade or so would be a waste of time. The point is clear: without honest, law-abiding men and women to staff the strong institutions that provide checks and balances to government power, these institutions serve only to shore up the power of extra-governmental, anti-democratic forces within the country.

What this means of course is that Suthep and his followers calling for “good people” to set the Thai system of government back on democratic track is absolutely correct. The irony of a corrupt politician (charged with murder and being allowed to avoid reporting to the police because he is too busy overthrowing an elected government) nominating himself and his cronies to be part of a committee to choose those “good people” is painful.

Corruption in Thailand begins at the top and flows downward. At some point in the process, that corruption has gathered sufficient power unto itself to threaten the livelihoods and lives of anyone who would challenge it. It is going to require a lot more than “strong institutions” to save democracy as the preferred form of government in a country where just about everyone in the middle class and above is heavily implicated in the very corruption they pretend to abhor.

At the “bottom” of the Thai system of “democracy”, farmers sell their votes to whoever offers them a few hundred baht and then go ahead and vote for whomever they want. At the “top”, judges and professors and journalists and politicians sell themselves for varying amounts of money, prestige and power, thus ensuring that the votes those farmers sold mean nothing anyway.

And what can strong institutions do about that?

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Ten Things to Remember When Thinking About Thai Politics (concluded)

10. Unlike the farcical productions that pass for “politics” in western countries, Thai politics are real. At the moment, the political choice in Thailand is not between two political parties with virtually identical policies dictated by international capital and the military-industrial complex, but between two systems of government.

On one side is democracy and on the other is military-supported oligarchy. It is possible to spin these two simplistic formulations into infinitely ramifying complexities in discussion, and no doubt citizens of liberal-democracies will want to do so. The problem is of course that this is not a matter for “discussion” in Thailand; it is a matter for decision.

It would also appear to be a matter of life and death. Repeatedly over the past 40 years, the Thai oligarchy has demonstrated its willingness to kill to resist democratization. And elements of the pro-democracy movements over the same period have demonstrated a willingness to die.

It’s hard to see how, given the seriousness of the situation, this conflict can be resolved through discussion. To continue to push for democratic government in Thailand will almost surely end in violence.

The question then becomes: Is it worth it?

 

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Ten Things to Remember When Thinking About Thai Politics (cont’d)

4. It is not the case that significant numbers of the protestors on either side of the vast divide are “pawns”. It is a commonly held view that the “ordinary” Thais who make up the bulk of the street protestors in both movements are neither acting out of rational self-interest nor principle. Somehow or other they have been bamboozled, brainwashed or bought.

The corollary to this is of course the oft-stated belief that the protracted crisis in Thai governance over the past 8 or 9 years is nothing more nor less than an intra-elite conflict. Disagreement exists over just exactly who makes up the “sides”, but that they are members of the elite and it is they who are driving the conflict is generally accepted. There are also disagreements about what is really at stake, with opinions ranging from the purely financial, the “it’s about the graft” position, to the belief that this is and has always been primarily about controlling the upcoming succession in the monarchy.

5. The simple fact of the matter is that at its root this is a class struggle. As distasteful as it has become in these neo-liberal times to refer to anything as a class struggle or a battle of rich against poor, it has to be acknowledged that without the vast divide that exists between rich and poor in Thailand there would be nothing to catch fire when the elite rhetoric courts and sparks.

These posts by Bangkok Pundit, http://tinyurl.com/lbq4cqg & http://tinyurl.com/kqnaqrg, provide a little more substance to what should be obvious to anyone observing the protests over the past 5 years.

Neither movement is “pure” in terms of class membership. Pointing out that Thaksin and the leadership of the UDD are not from the lower classes is the usual “argument” presented by those whose anti-democratic impulse feels the need to hide its face while spewing vile classist and racist imprecations regarding the “ordinary Thais” who make up the bulk of the Redshirt/UDD movement. There are also the large numbers of “ordinary” Thais who attend the PDRC rallies who come in for their fair share of classist jibes from the more “liberal” side of the commentariat.

I suppose this could mean that the number of middle class whites who worked and fought for the Civil Rights movement in the USA meant that that movement was not primarily about race. Or that because Lyndon Johnson was a racist pig who married a woman who made millions for the couple while Lyndon was still in the military, his successful promulgation of Civil Rights and Great Society legislation somehow didn’t count. LBJ was motivated by a drive for power more than any notion of justice or racial equality; does that mean that people supporting him were tools?

As the first Thaksin administration aptly demonstrated, voters can gain advantages from electing governments that feel constrained to follow through on promises they made to get their votes. These people, who no one before Thaksin ever bothered to welcome into “Thai-style” democratic politics, learned fast, and the result is what has been happening in the political arena over the past 5 years.

6. Thaksin, for all his wealth and “political” savvy, unlike his opponents, is 100% dependent on the democratic system and the votes he has attracted from huge numbers of Thailand’s less privileged citizens. He is “using” his supporters, particularly those attached to the UDD, to gain power and wealth; they are “using” him to gain and retain enfranchisement in the country’s flawed democratic system. Thaksin, then, is a traitor to his class and has earned their undying emnity; his supporters are representing their class and using Thaksin’s money and organization to do so.

7. Bangkok’s middle classes are not in the main all that interested in democracy. They have nothing to gain from a genuine democratic system: they can afford the bribes they offer to get a “good” education for their children from kindergarden up; they are not victimized by the police checkpoints that pull over motorcycles and taxis and extract the 1 or 200 baht fines that help them put their children into the same schools; at work, obsequiousness and ass-kissing are much easier to achieve than the hard work, skill and intelligence that would be demanded in a more meritocratic system. And so they align themselves with the asses they’ve been raised to kiss since birth.

8. The southern Thais, who have provided loyal and unquestioning support for the non-democratic Democrat party for over two decades, have their own reasons for preferring the old system over any move toward more genuine democracy. Bottom line in the south is that graft and influence have paid better for all concerned than real democracy might, so it’s better to stick to the laughable faith in “clean politics” that supporters of the Democrats tell themselves is what Abhisit and Chuan Leekphai represent (while mafioso like Suthep keep things running in the background).

You have to wonder how long this blatant self-deception can continue to operate now that Kamnan Suthep, king of Palm Oil and Land Distribution, is actually the most public face of southern politics.

9. This most recent round of yellow fascist insurrection should put paid to the mythical notion that the southern electorate is somehow more “sophisticated” than their poorer, less-educated brethren in the north and north-east of the country.

In interview after interview with northern and north-eastern Thai supporters of the Redshirts, these less educated folks admit to Thaksin’s corruption and the imperfections of his “regimes” before going on to give reasons for their support of such a “bad” man.

The reasons always fall into two categories. Self-interest is invoked when talking about the “populist” policies that go back to the initial TRT victory at the beginning of the millennium. And the principles of democracy and equality, however “imperfectly” understood, are invoked when vilifying the military and judicial coups which have repeatedly disenfranchised  voters who have repeatedly supported Thaksin over the past 13 years.

Southerners, on the other hand, while even more eager to label Thaksin as an evil and corrupt man, then turn around to explain their support for the Democrats and the “good people” who will  no doubt find a way to put the Democrats back in power by invoking the “goodness” of “good” people like Kamnan Suthep. No doubt their “sophistication” would extend to include Newin Chidchob in the “good” column if their Democrat masters told them it would be a “good” idea. After all, to sophisticates and “educate” people like these, “goodness” means whatever the “good people” say it does.

King Lear would have understood the meaning of this sort of “sophistication”.

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Ten Things to Remember When Thinking About Thai Politics

1. Thailand is not now and has never been a fully functional liberal-democratic state. Pretty much everyone acknowledges this but then many conveniently forget it when criticizing various political actors for not behaving like people working within a liberal-democracy. This is a problem for both “sides”, both in the actual arena and in the various boxes and cheapseats that make up the popcorn gallery.

So, for example, when people question the wisdom and/or courage of Yingluck and her administration for not cracking down on Suthep, or for not taking a stand on LM laws and their abuse, or for not doing more for UDD political prisoners, they are assuming that the “government” of Thailand has the power to do so. They don’t. There are powerful forces in the miltary, the bureaucracy, and the palace circles that can call out the yellow dogs any time they wish. This is also why it was a blunder of epic proportions for Thaksin to have attempted to initiate his return from exile with the amnesty bill fiasco that provoked this most recent round of realpolitik-in-action.

2. The Puea Thai government, aka The Thaksin Regime, was elected in an election that is acknowledged to have been free and fair by all but those who hate Thaksin and all his works. This makes it different from the previous Democrat-dominated coalition government of Abhisit and Kamnan Suthep.

When disingenuous supporters of the status quo, like Voranai at the Bangkok Post, prate about the “moral equivalence” of Suthep and Yinglak, many foreign heads nod at the wisdom expressed therein (thus disproving the oft-claimed superiority of western education). One is a proto-fascist agitator for the dismantling of what democracy exists in Thailand and the other is the head of an elected government; only a halfwit or a slimy propagandist would suggest that these are somehow equivalent in the context of the Thai political drama unfolding recently.

3. There is nothing particularly “educated” about the Thai middle classes. In fact, an argument could be made that the longer one has spent in Thai schools and universities –learning to grovel rather than think, to parrot nationalist and royalist nonsense rather than express opinions, and at best to tune out the drone of  “teachers” rather than listen carefully and critically to what is being said– the less likely one is to have the capacity to think, speak or behave like a rational citizen in a democratic system.

The same goes for those whose wealth and privilege has enabled them to get the much-vaunted “western education”, although not for the same reasons obviously.

The cost of study in countries like the US and UK is, relative to average incomes in a country like Thailand, astronomical. At minimum, Thai students studying abroad are spending in one month what many Thai families live on for six. The likelihood of someone receiving this sort of bounty from the operation of the Thai political and economic system genuinely finding fault with it is not great; at best, you get “hip” young adults who talk a good game while out with friends in the fashionable restaurants and night-clubs of Bangkok but go home and abuse the servants, while at worst you get the lying, manipulative, corrupt “ajarns” and journalists that proliferate like bacteria in a sewer in Thailand.

And anyone who has worked in or around western universities catering to foreign students knows that it is unspoken policy that “you pays your money and you gets your degree”, not to mention the outright cheating, the papers written by “tutors” in the guise of “proofreading”, and the simple fact that instructors have all but given up trying to maintain any sort of standards in the classroom. As is evident from the lack of critical thinking on the part of ex-pats who go on and on about the lack of critical thinking amongst Thais, a “western education” guarantees absolutely nothing.

For the few whose English is proficient when they leave Thailand and enter “good” universities abroad, of course a real education is possible. Abhisit Vejajjiva is the perfect example of what you get in this case: someone who talks like a liberal democrat and impresses foreigners while relying on backroom deals with generals and thugs to have any sort of “political” career at all.

*More to come as time allows.

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Morning Muse: Illiberal Liberalism

*Originally posted December 29th 2013*

 

The people attempting to tear down Thailand’s flawed democratic system do not believe in the principle of one man-one vote. In this, they are in agreement with earlier liberal reformers in western nations where the poor, the halt, the lame, the ‘colored’ and the women were excluded from the franchise as “unfit”. Modern liberal democracies still exclude large numbers of their citizens from the voting population based on judgements that they are not capable of democratic responsibilities.

In those western nations, there is a large consensus concerning something we might best call “equality”, no matter how qualified and restricted by conditionality. Observation would suggest that this broad sense of “equality” does not share the same large social consensus in many Asian nations, even those where it  is enshrined in law.

In Thailand, which we hear again and again is a Buddhist country, the belief in some version or other of the notion of accumulated merit is spread across a large number of people and is enshrined both explicitly and implicitly in institutions and behaviors that make up Thai society and culture. Put in simple terms, to many Thais some people are born “better” than others. So when anti-democratic protestors call for a council of “good people” to rule the country, they are not just pulling this notion out of a rhetorical bag of tricks to justify their inherent fascist tendencies (although there is that too); they are speaking out of a firm societally conditioned belief in inequality.

Many years ago, my first real Thai friend explained to me why it would be a “sin” for her to give money to a beggar. We were in Vancouver at the time so the question was relevant to our shared daily experience. Because there was the possibility that a beggar would use the money for drugs or some other evil purpose, and because she would be responsible for said evil as the financial enabler, she would gain demerit for the beggar getting stoned. When asked about whether the government in Thailand should be giving money to alleviate the poverty there, she reacted the same way. Poor Thais would waste the money, being uneducated and therefore irresponsible. The poor should be taken care of rather than empowered to take care of themselves. “We” had the responsibility.

I learned on my first visit to her home in Bangkok that a well-respected monk made regular trips from his wat in the countryside to give talks at her family compound. The faithful who came in surprisingly large numbers received both spiritual and physical nourishment and family members and the live-in servants were eagerly involved in doling out both. I had never thought to see something so like “noblesse oblige” operating at this level in my lifetime. I must admit, I was horrified.

Like those old Calvinists who believed that the mark of their predetermined ascent into heaven was their wealth, many Thais, both rich and poor, believe that material abundance is a measure of moral superiority. To be born into money is a sign of merit; to be seen to scrabble for it (as is the case with the loathed provincial politicians who play the role of bogeyman in these people’s horror tales about democracy), is a sign of many things, none of them good, but it mainly signals an unwillingness to know your place.

So to call the refusal to accept the notion of “equality” of all citizens immoral, as someone has done recently in my Twitter stream, is to reject out of hand the morality of people who think differently. And to suggest that they have the “right” to believe in the superiority of certain people but not to force others to accept it while at the same time insisting that the principle of equality be made the basis of a one-man one-vote democratic system for formulating and enforcing laws is to indulge in an unconscious hypocrisy so vast that it beggars the imagination.

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Morning Memo: Down by Law

Lawyers everywhere argue definitions of terms, interpretations of clauses, and whether or not particular acts or circumstances fit those terms and clauses as defined and interpreted in their arguments before a court. Judges everywhere do the same when making and justifying their decisions. The law may be an ass everywhere, but in countries that follow “rule-of-law” it is an exhaustively rational ass that, while liable to being bent out of shape, is rarely actually broken in the legal proceedings in and before a court.

In Thailand, as in much of Asia, what we witness is not so much “rule-of-law” but “rule-by-law”, which means that law is applied selectively and interpreted strategically rather than universally and rationally.

It means that the law is both political and personal, and, given that the personal is the political in Thailand in a way that ’68ers never imagined might be the case if their beloved formula were actually put into practice, it means that “persons” rule in Thailand, not law.

So when Thaksin Shinawatra was looked on favorably by the military and the bureaucracy and the palace, henceforth to be known as the phuyai or “big people”, and he was charged with deliberately concealing assets during his first election campaign as head of Thai Rak Thai, it was the duty of the court to find him not guilty and thereby allow him to slide into the Prime Minister’s chair with a clean record.

A few years later, when he had enraged the bulk of the phuyai by refusing to act like “one of the boys” in dealing out graft and sharing power amongst the usual suspects, a specially convened court found him guilty of helping his wife buy a piece of property. Oddly enough, the property in question was bought at market rates and it is difficult to see why it required the weight of the PM’s office to get the sale closed.

No matter. The military coup that had removed him from office had been justified by charges of corruption, so it was the court’s duty to find him guilty of corruption. The difficulty for the court was not so much to find instances of corruption that would “stand up” in court as it was to find an instance that did not risk involving supporters of the junta and the wider circle of phuyai. And given the near-impossibility of that task, they did well under very adverse conditions.

Since that time, a Thaksin “nominee” administration has been removed from power by this sort of “legal” means and the present incarnation under Thaksin’s sister Yingluck has been blocked from exercising its constitutional legislative powers by equally suspect “legal” decisions on a number of occasions. It seems that we are about to have another such decision put an end to both this administration and the planned elections that would undoubtedly return it to power and reinforce its legitimacy.

Given that this “rule-by-law” approach is SOP in Thailand and has been brazenly used repeatedly over the past 7 years, it is curious to see so many commentators on the situation puzzling over the legality of such things as delaying the election.

Legal arguments do not decide how things are done in “rule-by-law” states, just how what is decided and done is justified after the fact. The difference is immense.

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