(Originally written and posted on what was going to be a very different blog in 2006)

The Thai New Year celebration, Songkran, is the third “new year” celebrated each calendar year by the festival-loving people of Thailand: first, of course, since by calendar year I mean the western calendar, is “Phi Mai”, celebrated on December 31st and January 1st in much the same way that New Year is celebrated in much of the rest of the world; then comes Chinese New Year, usually in February, with a dragon parade through Bangkok’s Chinatown and various other Chinese-style celebrations held throughout the country, with a special degree of intensity and flair in areas with traditionally high populations of Sino-Thai people, like Chantaburi and Hat Yai. Songkran is also known as “Thai New Year”, and if there is any holiday celebrated in Thailand that communicates a better sense of Thai culture and Thai people, I don’t know what it is.

Not that Songkran is universally endorsed by the Thais themselves; there are those who feel that the celebration often gets out of hand and reflects poorly on Thailand as a modern civilized country.

It is particularly despised, and I suspect feared, by many in the large ex-pat community in Thailand. Picture yourself walking along Sukumvit Rd. in Bangkok on a sweltering afternoon in April, the hottest month of the year. A pickup truck passes, the back full of soaking wet Thais bearing gigantic high-pressure water guns and plastic bowls full of water drawn from the barrel sitting in the middle. Imagine a sudden barrage of cool water soaking you to the skin. Or perhaps a young child flings a bowl of water in your direction and then a young comrade runs up offering to daub your wet face with talcum powder; admittedly, not everyone’s idea of a good time. As I write this, my trusty old Nokia is in pieces and I hope drying out, soon to return to full functionality. It is not wise to have your phone in your jeans pocket as you do your stroll down Sukumvit; we live and learn. And neither is it wise to wear heavy absorbent cotton clothes; you will stay wet for a very long time if you do.

The number of traffic deaths, high at the best of times in Thailand, soars through the four days of Songkran, most attributed to drunken driving, some to dangerous driving conditions created by the unbelievable amounts of water flowing in the streets after a few hours of “water-play”. Even Songkran aficionados will admit that there are definite drawbacks to the excesses the holiday provokes in certain celebrants. But cracking down on Songkran activities or attempting to eliminate the most extreme behaviors associated with it would be a definite case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in this case from the back of a pickup truck. And that’s no way to treat a baby.

The Songkran holiday begins with the rather subdued and beautiful washing of Buddha images with small amounts of water poured by people who line up to take their turns to do so. Songkran rituals are almost all associated with cleansing, a kind of cosmic spring cleaning if you will; as a matter of fact, April 12th, the day before Songkran begins is the day when many Thais do a thorough cleaning of the house. On the 13th, the first day of four, people also pour water over the hands of parents and grandparents as an expression of respect and a blessing.

For most peoples living in tropical climates where rice culture is attuned to the seasonal monsoons and the radical shifts between long hot dry periods and shorter intensely wet ones, water has always taken on the characteristic of the sacred; in this, the Thais are not unique. The Mekong River, one of the longest in the world, beginning in the Himalayan foothills close to Tibet and running through southern China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, down to its vast mouth in the South China Sea, is still worshipped as a divinity in all the Buddhist cultures it bathes in its life-giving waters. Several of these countries celebrate a similar water festival to mark the beginning of spring, but Songkran in its modern, and some would say debased, form is a uniquely Thai expression of this reverence for water, without which, of course, no human life would be possible.

It is also, and this is the simple wisdom of so much folk-culture, a great way to cool down for a few minutes or hours as the temperature hovers in the vicinity of 40C. And what a great excuse for a party.

I more or less missed the first day of “water-play” on this, my first, Songkran. What I did do was watch from the balcony of my hotel room as a group of children set up their water and talc supplies, looking for all the world like a five-cent lemonade stand, on the sidewalk across the street and subsequently began dousing passing taxis and pedestrians with small amounts of water thrown from brightly coloured plastic bowls of a kind I’ve always associated with traditional squat toilets, not the greatest association, I admit. I was curious to see whether foreigners, farangs in Thai, would get any special treatment, hoping to thus gauge what my experience would be like once I did in fact hit the streets.

What I saw was instructive; anyone, whether Thai or farang, who indicated by the least apparent gesture of refusal to engage was spared a dousing. The application of matching stripes of talc on either side of the face was always offered rather than thrust on the recipient. The way these children of eight or nine or ten years applied the talc was reverent in a way that reminded me of the colored spots placed on foreheads by holy men in Katmandu. Many of the Thais wai-ed after receiving this powdery blessing as a way of saying thank you, which is, I’ve learned, the “proper” way to respond.

When I finally ventured out into the night, leaving the quiet soi behind, I found that the children’s respectful and essentially joyful mischief was not the model for everyone flinging water and talc at passersby, although it did appear that most of those who made it very clear that they did not wish to get wet were spared a drenching. And I do mean drenching. Groups armed with hoses and high-powered water guns were stationed on most corners, directing their ministrations mainly toward passing vehicles and especially those pickups full of revelers, but occasionally turning on pedestrians. Most of the “water-players” were themselves wet to the skin and many faces were caked with talc, giving them mask-like visages reminiscent of carnival in its many forms from around the Christian world.

As uniquely Thai as Songkran is, there is something so fundamentally universal about it that you begin to feel a part of some timeless expression of human being, besides, of course, cool and wet, and oddly discombobulated, as you stroll soaking wet past five-star high-rise hotels and tailor shops and travel agencies on Sukumvit Rd.. It is also, I might add, a great opportunity to for once not look like the typical perspiring farang in a city of disconcertingly cool and dry-looking Thais. This is just one of the ways in which Songkran “water-play” acts as a great leveler in a society that is riddled with hierarchical distinctions.

One of my principle tactics when I wander the streets of Bangkok, a city that I have grown to love over the eight years that I’ve been visiting, is to simply “follow the music.” The little jewels of experience I’ve discovered this way range from elaborate performances of traditional Thai dance and music to thunderously loud presentations of young Thais singing out-of-tune Christmas carols in the 30C heat of a December night. The tactic did not let me down on this occasion. In fact, on the second day of “water-play”, it led me to one of the finest moments of Dionysian bliss that I’ve ever known.

Emerging from the cool, dry environs of a subway station I’d entered only to avoid crossing the vast and chaotic intersection of Sukumvit and Asoke Rd., I was entranced by the very loud strains of mor lam music pouring out of the tiny Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok’s “notorious” redlight districts. Drawing closer, I noticed that there was what looked for all the world like a river of talc-stained water pouring out into Asoke. What I saw when I turned into the soi made my heart leap: hundreds of soaking wet people dancing and whooping and spraying jets of water into the brilliant afternoon light. And this was only four o’ clock in the afternoon. Have I mentioned how much I love this intensely rhythmic Isaan music, mor lam? Here was one celebration of Songkran I was not going to miss out of a misplaced sense of propriety or any other sensible folly that would excuse my not getting into the spirit of the “water-play”. I plunged in, dancing and whooping and splashing with the best of them. It was here, I’m sure, that my cell deep-sixed. A small price to pay.

There’s little more to say, except to note that for the first time in years, I wished I had a camera (equipped, of course, for underwater shooting), or better yet a video camera. I wanted the sound, the colour, the sense of continuous movement; I wanted to record the three women who placed an ice-cube, drawn out of one of their blouses, onto the ground and began spontaneously to pass their hands over it like witches summoning a spirit, then fell in a soaking heap, giggling at their own invention; I wanted to record the katoey in a mumu who leapt atop a high table and danced in haut camp joy and the people who solicitously caught him when he slipped and fell; I wanted to record the stiff tourist faces melting into huge easy smiles once the inevitability of what they’d let themselves in for by entering the soi bore in on them. For a brief moment, I wanted to record it all. But then I remembered that it would all begin again next year, just as much a part of the seasonal round as the monsoon or the hot dry winters. And so I went back under, as Nietzsche might say, losing myself in the dance, in the music, in the water that we were all soaked in, and the water that we are all made from. What better blessing or cleansing could a man ask for on his fourth day in his newly-adopted hometown?


The Apostrophe

We are now rapidly approaching what Frank Zappa might have called “the crux of the biscuit” in this most recent round of the Thai political struggle. The February 2 election has been officially annulled and soon there will be a Senate to deliberate the question of Yingluck’s impeachment.

All of which means, of course, that the Redshirts will likely be back on the streets of Bangkok some time in the next few weeks. And that brings to mind another 20th century giant of the apt phrase:

                                                    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
                                                   Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Indeed. What will happen if and when the UDD under it’s battle commander Jatuporn Prompan returns to the streets of the capital?

One thing that will almost surely happen is that the journalists, bloggers and social media boffins that have harshly criticized Suthep and his anti-democratic PDRC, will begin to turn their disapproval on the Reds.

This has happened before of course. Many commentators in May 2010 blamed the Redshirts for the eventual crackdown that involved snipers and headshots because they had continued to insist that the Abhisit government step down and call new elections. They pointed out that there were armed guards at Redshirt camps and that Reds engaged in violence.

And political violence, as any resident in a liberal democracy will tell you, is not only bad but anti-democratic.

Problem for the UDD and all Thais who would prefer to live in a democracy is the rather simple and obvious fact that Thailand is not a democracy, liberal or otherwise. So to judge the actions of the UDD by the standards of a liberal-democracy is irrational at best and disingenuous at worst.

You can’t really expect democracy to be won by “voting” when elections have the solidity of air and you can’t win democracy and free speech by talking and writing because there is no free speech and most domestic media is owned by, or kowtows to, the “other side”.

This means that there is no choice for the UDD but to hit the streets. And when you are on the streets. violence will occur, as we saw yesterday with the monk who decided it would be a good idea to start lecturing a group of Reds who were engaged in tearing down a PDRC stage.

So-called “liberals” like Nation journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk instantly condemned the violence, calling down shame on the heads of the Reds. Later that evening, two grenades landed at the site, presumably lobbed by the military-backed PDRC, who Pravit considers an equal “side” to the elected government of Thailand.

The notion that a group of anti-democratic, some would say fascist, thugs who have spent the last three months tearing down what shreds of democratic governance remained in Thailand should be acknowledged as a “side” in negotiations with an elected government is, quite simply, little more than one move in the argument being made by the anti-democratic “network” that comprises the real or “deep” state. So much for this particular version of “liberalism”.

The fundamental contradiction that such commentators thrive on is this: slap a monk and you will be condemned for not maintaining liberal-democratic standards; but tear down democratic structures using street violence, corrupt courts and a passive-aggressive anti-democratic military, and you will be awarded a seat at the negotiation table where a new system of government will be hashed out with the elected representatives of the Thai people, presumably in recognition that democratic structures are not yet in place.

The hypocrisy is staggering, but status quo for the Thai middle and upper class “liberals” who value theoretical liberal principles over the messy reality of democracy, ignoring the fact that only a messy democracy can give meaning to those principles in a state like Thailand.

And that is the real “rough beast” that we can anticipate arriving any day now. And his name shall be Moral Equivalence.

Morning Muse: Potemkin Election Anyone?

UPDATE March 21: So the CC has now invalidated what was never going to be anything other than a shadow-play anyway and I have to say: It is hard to know what to make of all the faux surprise and crocodile dismay being expressed in the wake of yet another foregone conclusion.

It is hard to know what to make of all the fuss surrounding tomorrow’s election.

The mere physical act of voting is subject to speculation. How many polling stations can the PDRC effectively block and what tactics will they use to make up for lack of numbers? Will there be violence? Will voters have to climb walls and clamber over crowds to get to the polling stations, thus providing the ever-hungry media with dramatic, “iconic” photographs with which to telegraph the continuing saga of Thai democracy?

And what about the results? Will Puea Thai lose votes due to the one-two punch they have self-administered with the rice scheme and the amnesty bill? Or will they gain votes due to the electorate’s wish to punish the Democrat Party and its street wing? Will people vote No? Will there be a significant number of spoiled ballots with No choice indicated?

Most interesting of all is the swirl of questions regarding the legal, constitutional requirements for deadlines and quorums and by-elections and parliament formation.Fortunately Yingluck has not been starring in a cooking show, so not a lot of electrons spent on whether her recipe-sharing may result in her banishment from the country altogether.

You would almost get the impression that any of it mattered, when the simple fact is it doesn’t mean a thing. Nada. Zilch.

At best this “election” will provide poll-type information regarding Puea Thai’s and Yingluck’s popularity and yet more undeniable evidence to prove that the Thai people want to live in a democracy.

At worst it will be a massive waste of time, money and a few lives that serves to extend the time available for backroom negotiations as Thaksin and his party wrestle with the question of how much more parliamentary and executive power to abandon to the old network so they can continue to recoup money wasted and seized in previous rounds of Thai realpolitik.

The real question of course is “What if they held an election and no one who mattered cared?” Because that is what is happening here.

Better to start a pool on which geriatric “good person” will be wheeled out to head the Committee for Public Safety or Council of Really Morally Upright People Who Love to Kowtow-for-Cash with the King as Head of State (CRMUPWLKCKHS) that will “govern” for the next year or eighteen months while another council of equally “good” people apply the lipstick to the pig and call it a new Constitution.

Then the only question left will be directed at the Thai electorate, all of it. Not just the Redshirts and those few Yellows who actually do understand and support democracy, but all of it. And in particular that group of white-shirted, candle-bearing peaceniks who’ve been holding visually lovely vigils and making all the right pro-democratic noises.

That question is: What are you going to do about it?


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.


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?


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?



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, &, 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”.