You Can’t Get There From Here: A Road Map for Thai Democracy (Part One)

“Roadmaps” are popular in Thai political circles.

Thailand’s-roadmap-to-reforms2

Lately it seems that whenever anyone out of power in Thailand is demanding something that someone in power doesn’t want to give, someone in power comes up with a “roadmap”. Said roadmap is usually a vague list of more or less concrete steps to be undertaken before “democracy is restored” or “reconciliation is achieved”, whichever is perceived to be the demand or need of the moment. Over the past five or six years, it is usually both: first reconciliation, then democracy.

One reason these roadmaps never seem to guide the nation to its destination has to do with the rather pointed lack of a shared definition of ‘reconciliation’, to a minor extent, and, far more significantly,  of ‘democracy’ itself. Conveniently for all concerned, neither term has a fixed meaning. And equally conveniently for all concerned, both terms fairly glow with positive connotations. Who, after all, could be so churlish as to deny the value of either one?

Pared down to basics, the royalist-military-conservative wing defines ‘reconciliation’ as “STFU and do as your betters tell you”, a formulation hardly likely to endear itself to the vast majority of the Thai people thus being told to know their places.

Similarly, ‘reconciliation’, to the various levels of Thaksinite political expression boils down to “Bring Thaksin home and let us get back to running Thailand Inc.”. In many ways it is the same definition directed at a different group. Everyone just wants everyone else to shut up and take it lying down. *

It makes for difficult politics.

As for the competing definitions of ‘democracy’, well, even on a roadmap it’s better to stay away from that one. But in the interest of “reconciliation” some delineation may be beneficial.

To those who define themselves primarily by opposition to the coup and all forms of military dictatorship in Thailand, ‘democracy’ conveniently means “elections”.

Once elected, Aleister Crowley’s injunction “Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be The Whole of the Law” becomes the predominant mode, unless of course the Royal Thai Army, the Constitutional Court, or any one of a number of independent bodies originally mooted by the oft-cited People’s Constitution of 1997 says you can’t.

Then it’s time to STFU and do as you are told or call another election and get democracy back on track.

Unless the Election Commissioners won’t let you. At which juncture it’s time for yet another coup to put an end to the undemocratic chaos, take a time-out, and rebuild “democracy”, as defined by those who support military coups as a means of restoring Thailand to the true path of ‘democracy’.

This group tends to define ‘democracy’ as rule by a group of people who are not greedy, and who are most definitely not dishonest politicians, and who are content to stay behind the curtain operating the levers that the PM and her cabinet and the houses of parliament push here and there in a kind of dumbshow until the real leaders accept a setting that most accurately expresses the will of the Thai people, as divined by these “good people”.

Generally speaking, the “good people” who provide the real leadership behind the scenes in this definition of ‘democracy’ are the same people who step out in front of the curtain and run things under military rule.

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So, given that one way or another, the same people are in fact sovereign in Thailand regardless of what any given “constitution” might say, or what party any given election might return to nominal control of the government, what seems to be the problem?

To Be Cont’d…

 

*It should be noted that the one area of conscious and loudly-trumpeted agreement is that those who have offended against the lèse majesté laws, the notorious Section 112, are not important to reconciliation. Everyone agrees that these monsters should rot in prison or in exile until a higher form of amnesty is decreed from on high. More liberal observers of the Thai political scene tend to view any suggestion of ‘democracy’ that doesn’t include protected speech as somewhat lacking, but neither side in the present conflict cares much about that, as can be seen from their shared emphasis on “STFU” as a necessary component of ‘reconciliation’.

 

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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.

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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