Narcissus and Echo Do Thailand

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

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

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

A figure who can only bear to gaze upon his own representation is desired and endlessly repeated  by a figure who can never actually say anything but what has been said just before by another.

Sound familiar?

It’s not hard to see how one interpretation of this ancient story could be applied to a critical examination of “western mass media” (one of whose outstanding characteristics has even been labeled an “echo chamber”)  and its treatment of “the other”, particularly governments and institutions native to areas outside the conventional boundaries of “the west”.

Like Narcissus, western media tends to love to gaze upon its own image, judging the world in all its variety by its similarity to that image, which for all intents and purposes may be called “liberal democracy” and all that that entails.

When “international opinion” is generated and reflected in the media it is more or less always an opinion that says little more than that “ours is the most beautiful image and the only one desirable”.

In relation to Thailand, of course, the most recent manifestation of the western scribes’ tendency to enact the eternal recurrence of the tale of Narcissus and Echo is in taking place on New Mandala, among other sites both on and offline.

Whatever else we can know about what is happening behind the curtains in back rooms with closed doors that create in effect a black hole, we can be sure that there will be “sources” of information that simultaneously deny and affirm that no information is getting out about what is actually going on.

“Source” of course, in French, means “spring”, as in The Spring of Narcissus, which Pausanius located in the territory of the Thespians. And when you consider the degree of dramatization involved in what these sources/springs are leaking out you can see how apt his choice of locale was.

You can also see that “sources” never give out information that does not reflect  the image of our dear scribe/Narcissus and his superior values. Whether this is because Narcissus simply cannot see what is not himself or because  a wise “source” will never waste time emitting information that can never be received anyway is unclear.

What is clear is the tendency for many of the writers on the website to reflect and amplify the speculations and outright fantasies of other writers there.

There is also a remarkable tendency for commenters to celebrate the paucity of real information by echoing the self-congratulatory tones of the writers with such exclamations as “courageous!” and “eye-opening!” when something written by an armchair observer of Thailand ensconced comfortably thousands of miles and unscalable legal mountains away from any threat has simply reflected the “sources” and built an article on pure guesswork.

Both Echo and Narcissus died by attrition, by wasting away from afflictions very much like those of contemporary media. Narcissus could not see

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anything, could not love or desire or value anything but the image of himself, and so died longing to possess what he could not and already did.

Built as it is upon the most shallow acceptance of the nostrums of “liberal democracy” as a cure-all for what ails the world outside the west, even media like pseudo-academic websites can do little more than gaze into a pool of bogus reflections when confronted with people and systems that care little for the westerner’s loudly proclaimed self-regard.

And the absolute need to parrot, to echo, whatever it is that the pool of journalists and academics have decided is the “true” reflection of what is going on in a situation like the Thai succession gives off more than a whiff of death by incessant repetition of empty banalities, especially since it is all predicated on the insistence that nothing can really be known at all.

In that it reminds me of how “old Thailand hands” have a tendency to say things like “It’s all smoke and mirrors, lads. We can never know what is really happening and never understand how they think, these Thais” just before they launch into the definitive version of “what is really happening” and “what Thais really think”.

Narcissus and Echo indeed.

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Leaving the EU: Goodbye To All That?

Although the journalistic winds are beginning to shift a little after the hurricane of abuse that was initially unleashed on “stupid bigoted” Leave voters, there is still a steady breeze of lament from those who apparently see the EU as a bastion of human rights, liberalism and all that is decent and good in this world.

The view from SE Asia suggests that this may be a form of selective vision.

The EU has recently acquiesced to the demand of the newly elected “democratic” government of Myanmar for the word ‘Rohingya’ to be erased from polite discourse while Aung San Suu Kyi and the Generals find a (final?) solution to the problem of “the Muslim community in Rakhine province”, which is their preferred designation for the Rohingya.

The decision to support Suu Kyi’s call for the Rohingya to be denied the right of self-identification was announced one day after the UNHCHR, Zeid Hussein, reported on the possibility of crimes against humanity being committed against the Rohingya. The EU decision stands in sharp contrast to the American refusal to deny the Rohingya the right “to decide what they are going to be called“.

The EU, which has been threatening Thailand with a “red card” over its inadequate approach to the problems of human trafficking and slavery, has been negotiating on various fronts with Myanmar to open the floodgates of investment, which might go a long way toward explaining the EU’s decision to deny the Rohingya the right to self-identification.

Ironically, although not untypically, Thailand has recently graduated to Tier 2 in the annual TIP rankings while Myanmar has been relegated to Tier 3, along with North Korea and South Sudan. It will be interesting to see how the EU responds to Myanmar’s well-deserved placement at the bottom of this particular league table. Unlike Myanmar, which is a potential goldmine for new investment for EU corporations, Thailand’s economy is far more mature and therefore less attractive to a certain kind of investment.

The EU has also indefinitely suspended free trade talks with Thailand as a result of Thailand’s most recent coup. In what is apparently standard EU hypocritical style, around the same time that the Thais were slapped for their failure to be “democratic enough” the Egyptians were rewarded with opening of talks to expand free trade with the EU.

The military coup that saw the murderous Sisi regime installed in Egypt apparently somehow meets the EU’s definition of “democratic enough”,  not to mention the reticence  of the EU to “yellow card” Egypt for its failure to protect children from abusive labor practices in the industries involved in trade with the EU. There is no question that the Sisi-led junta is a far more violent and oppressive regime than the Thai equivalent.

The real question is why the EU would pretend its trade negotiations are contingent on democracy and human rights when this is just so obviously not the case.

The point here is not that the EU is hypocritical. All modern states, beginning with the very model of hypocrisy itself, the USA, and continuing down to petty despotisms like the Prayuth regime in Thailand with its blatantly false claim of being “99% democratic”, engage in this sort of hypocritical clinging to the “universal” values of democracy and human rights.

The point is that all the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over the perception that Brexit marks a definite UK shift toward illiberalism and bigotry, and over the Leave movement’s  leaders’ obvious hypocrisy, is itself shot through with falsehood and hypocrisy at best, and brainwashed ignorance at worst. There really is nothing to this image of the EU as a stalwart of liberalism and human rights, especially as it interacts with the wider world.

Just ask the Greeks. Or the people who supported Morsi’s democratically-elected government. Just ask the Rohingya.

 

 

 

 

Leaving the EU: Where Was The Left?

It’s a shame that Corbyn and the real left in the UK allowed the Brexit push to be dominated by the right, especially on the issue of immigration. There are many good arguments, solidly left wing arguments, for the UK getting out of the increasingly neoliberal undemocratic EU.

Here in SE Asia we are very aware of the massive American push to have Asian countries surrender the autonomy of their economies to the TPP. Although this secretive treaty is presented as a “free trade” deal it is in fact a legal method of locking Asian companies and governments into American-controlled IP law, among other regulatory cages.

One effect of Thailand joining the TPP would be to immediately put a significant number of HIV and Hep C drugs out of the financial reach of sufferers. The Thai government has been praised for standing up to the US and BigPharma and resisting attempts to insist on the “real” drugs and the “real” prices rather than the licensed generics allowed by law here.

In Europe of course it is the equally secretive, elite-driven TTIP that the EU is negotiating with the US. Any North American who considers themselves “liberal” or “left” and watched in horror as EU/Bundesbank austerity was used to strip the people of Greece of their democracy might want to consider that TTIP will make that series of attacks against Greek society look positively benign.

The bottom line here is that with the rise of the BRICs, white people in the global north have seen their dominance of world economic activity threatened by loss of control over the old mechanisms like the WTO. To get around this loss of control to uppity nations like China and Brazil, these two universalizing “trade deals” are being negotiated behind closed doors to lock in the neoliberal order as permanently as possible and ensure the continued economic hegemony of the US/EU, insofar as we consider those entities as little more than their transnational finance and corporate bodies.

So getting out of the EU has been presented by so-called “liberals” as nothing more than racism and xenophobia and imperial nostalgia. It would be ridiculous to deny that a portion of the leaders and the voters on the Leave side fall into that category, but to suggest that that is the whole story is to fall prey to the neoliberal “free market” propagandists who have successfully silenced much of the real argument through control of media and decades of having made anything but FREE TRADE FREE MARKETS FREEDOM sound like the swan song of the loony left.

People who agree with this should at least have the dignity to stop pretending that there is anything “left” about their politics and proudly wear the NeoLiberal Identitarian t-shirt next time they go to an anti-racist rally sponsored by the people who are helping to undermine Brazilian democracy as we speak.

Much is being made of the skew in votes according to age, with younger people massively supporting Remain. Anyone not familiar with how this is being spun hasn’t read this far anyway so I will just point out that the age groups that want to stay in the EU are made up of people who have never known anything other than Thatcherite neoliberalism and Blairite “third way” neoliberalism. Perhaps understandably such people no longer show up to vote in elections as evidenced by participation stats. I would suggest that this indifference to electoral politics is just that, indifference.

And people with little or no interest in politics tend to prefer to put their faith in elites that make their political decisions for them, hence the EU’s appeal. That and the opportunity to work abroad for a few years; how can democracy compete with that?

14 Ways Revisited: Two Years Later

Originally posted 3 days after the coup, it is time I re-evaluated my sense of what was happening at the time.

1. Contrary to popular belief, the men who have undertaken this coup do, in fact, intend to return Thailand to democratic governance. General Chan-ocha does not plan to remain in office as El Jefe Supremo until one of his children takes over and neither does he intend to rule the country for years as was the case with coup generals until the coup of 1991.

Technically correct but essentially mistaken. While it may be true that there is no Chan-ocha dynasty in the making, it is clear that the people behind and around this coup intend the militarization and “de-democratization” of Thailand to become as permanent a feature as they can make it.

2. Thailand’s deeply flawed democracy will be tinkered with, adjustments made here and there, and then returned to the “sovereign people” of Thailand, of this you can be sure. And like the “democracy” that has existed in fits and starts since 1976, it will be a managed or supervised democracy, a democracy in which a weak parliament will appear to “govern” the country, a “free” press will be free to criticize politicians and their coalition administrations, and a loose and ever-shifting congeries of soldiers, bureaucrats and wealthy business families will sit in the half-light of media inattention making sure that parliament does not ever get to actually govern the country.

This one is much closer to correct but I clearly did not foresee the willingness of the military to remain front and center in the facade of democracy that would follow the coup. Clearly, the people who run the country are no longer content to remain out of the limelight, probably because they worry that semi-hidden, indirect control may no longer be sufficient to keep the people of Thailand out of the sovereignty loop.

3. This coup is not primarily about the “succession crisis”; it is about democracy. It is not about deciding to abandon democratic principles that have never had much actual play in Thailand, but about shaping a democracy that the oligarchy can live with. In this way, the Thai democratic project is not dissimilar to democracies around the world, pace all those who like to see Thailand as a uniquely dysfunctional construct.

Fundamentally correct. Again, however, it must be emphasized that, at the moment, the “deep state” movers and shakers are obviously prepared to drop much of the pretense that has characterized “Thai democracy” since 1976.

4. To a very great extent, this coup is about Thaksin and his family of potential “clones” more than it is about that other wealthy Thai family that provides a cynosure for both praise and criticism while the real work goes on elsewhere. And this is not because the Shinawatras represent the shining future of democracy and popular sovereignty as guaranteed in constitution after constitution. It is because they represent the possibility of a rival “network” of generals. bureaucrats and wealthy families who threaten to supplant what some call “the old guard” (as if they don’t have children and heirs).

Yes.

5. It is not possible to discuss here the finer points of how succession might in fact fit into the overall picture in which this present coup fills the foreground because one of the purposes of the coup is to make sure that it continues to be an express trip to a prison cell to do so. Like most Thai people, I have no wish to go to jail.

Indeed.

6.The Thai people want democracy, at least a majority do. They have come to understand and are now insisting on popular sovereignty. This coup has been undertaken to deny that sovereignty and begin a process of re-establishing a simulacrum of it that will keep the lid on for a few more decades.

I am no longer sure at all that this is the case. 

7.While there are unquestionably “fascist” elements in the “old guard” network, and techniques and approaches drawn from European and Asian fascisms over the past century are especially prominent in the “street wing” of the Yellows, there is no desire to set up anything resembling a Thousand Year Reich behind this coup. The RTA for all its faults is capable of rational practicality and this coup is neither more nor less than a tool in the hands of the traditional elite.

I obviously overestimated either the rationality of the RTA and associates or underestimated their confidence that a blatant imposition of authoritarian rule by a self-selecting elite would encounter little resistance. 

8. This coup does not represent the failure of Kamnan Suthep’s Great Mass of the People movement. Neither does it represent the failure of any of the various versions of PAD that have taken shots at the YL administration since its election in 2011. The coup is the culmination of all those “movements” and their fulfillment.

This is probably more correct than even I understood at the time of writing. The PAD/PDRC program of rolling back even the chimera of democratic governance is powering along like a steamroller.

9. A large minority of Thai people are not adamantly opposed to the coup, and a number of those are active and vocal in their support for it. One reason so many people are willing to accept this end to months and years of wrangling in the streets is that they are exhausted, bored and frustrated with the endless apparent chaos. The speeches, the marches, the reports of parliamentary shenanigans, the blocked roads, the confusing arguments pro and con, the courts and independent bodies and their controversial judgments, the deaths in the streets: a look back over the past few years of Thai political “news” is enough to depress and confound anyone without a fixed commitment to either “side” in the conflict. Families and friends argue or have stopped speaking to each other altogether. There is a natural desire on the part of many to simply want it all to stop.

Fundamentally correct, but this point assumes that there will come a time in the immediate future when even those people willing to accept yet another coup for the sake of a period of relative calm would start reacting. We are still waiting.

10. So when the generals and their technocratic assistants, the tame academics and loyal bureaucrats, scramble to make possible a swift return to democracy, it is only natural that many people will want to give them the benefit of the doubt and embrace the new constitution and the new/old Thai-style democracy with relief and just a touch of sadness and regret.

Given that this point relies heavily on the assumptions behind points 1 & 2, it remains to be seen whether there will be “a touch of sadness” or an outburst of rage.

11. It seems likely that this coup, unlike the last coup, will be met with a considerable degree of popular resistance, and not just from Thaksin-associated elements of the UDD and more genuinely pro-democratic Redshirt splinter factions. There seem to be a surprising number of middle-class Bangkokians reacting very quickly indeed with courageous defiance both on the streets and in social media.

Could not have been more wrong on this point. Popular resistance has been either laughably incoherent and insipid or utterly stifled by the junta’s tactics of intimidation. People who “oppose the coup/junta” offer nothing as alternatives except an election or the return of the 97 Constitution. And we know where that has got us. Repeatedly. Since 2000.

This military government, however, will not be as patient as the one fronted by Abhisit and Suthep from late 2008 till the election in 2011. There will not be months of rallies cruising the streets of the capital and there will be no long occupations of intersections a la Rajprasong 2010 or just about anywhere earlier this year. The moment the apparently spontaneous rallies get too large or too boisterous, or the moment they begin to take on a serious Red tint, there will be bloodshed. And it is highly unlikely that the Bangkok middle-classes will be there when the dying begins. It’s not their way.

Whereas I expected resistance and immediate violence on the part of the coup-makers we have had relative silence and threat. My sense that the junta would tolerate little real protest was correct; I failed to see that they would not face any.

12. It seems highly unlikely that this coup will lead to the civil war that many commentators are warning about and have been warning about for years now. At least not in the sense that it will have the character of a popular insurrection, with troops fighting for democracy on one side and oligarchical monarchism on the other. There may be a brief struggle within the army itself but that is more likely to take the form of Thaksinite elements versus the old boy network, with fringe involvement of officers who see their road to promotions blocked by the dominance of cliques and classes they don’t belong to. Hardly the sort of thing to enable western “liberals” who long for the victory of democracy to comfortably cheer for one side or the other. Not that some won’t, mind you.

This point deserves a post or series of posts. Media darlings like BBC’s Jonathan Head and Andrew  MacGregor Marshall and one or two prominent UDD/Pheu Thai Tweeters were constantly on about this during the lead-up to the coup. They were promoting the existence of armed cells just waiting to start an insurgency.

They were apparently also convinced by their “sources” that the leadership of the RTA was riven with dissent and were therefore unlikely to stage a coup. Even after the  illegal declaration of martial law that was the clear prelude to the coup, these “manly men” were poo-pooing any suggestion that a coup was in the offing. 

The role played by the “international media” in the coverage of Thai politics deserves more attention than it is ever likely to receive from that group of old boy mansplainers and their confident spreading of enough horseshit to fertilize the Canadian prairies.

If anything like this civil war scenario eventuates, it will most likely take the form of a low-level insurgency similar to the one that has plagued the south for a very long time now. Without the glue of religion or the memory of an independent country assimilated some time in the recent past, it is unlikely that any Isaan or Lanna insurection would have the staying power of the Malay-Muslim struggle down south. And who knows. maybe the moves toward decentralization and regional autonomy that were hinted at by the Yingluck admimistration will be acted upon by the future “governments” in Bangkok, thus drawing even the southern chapter to a close.

13.This coup is taking place in Thailand. Not on the Internet or in social media if you prefer that term. It is not taking place in a world flattened and shrunk by globalization. It is not taking place in a world wherein the End of History has been reached and liberal-democracy has been assured a place at the end of every nation’s inevitable evolution. It is taking place in a country that is less than 100 kilometers from the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and that shares land borders with Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaysia. And what that means is that it is happening in a country that when the tanks are put away and “democracy” restored still looks more democratic than any other country in the region.

This point also requires expansion and repetition. The “international media” consistently reinforces the myth of Thai exceptionalism, primarily by treating the country and its governments and its politics as if they all existed on a separate planet altogether from the rest of the world. In typical “western liberal” fashion, they excoriate Thai conservatives for promoting Thai exceptionalism at the same time as they modify and amplify it for international consumption.

It is important to note this because “international media” and “the international community” are invoked again and again by journalists and social media people to prove to themselves that people like Suthep can never “win” and coups just can’t “succeed” any longer in the modern world. And Thailand is a part of that modern world. Just look at Facebook stats and Line and Instagram stats! Absolutely EVERYTHING in this world, and not just “the revolution”, WILL BE TELEVISED ONLINE!

And the world will judge.

The impotence and self-aggrandizing delusions of social media “dissidents” and their abettors in the media are clear indicators of the utter failure of genuine political resistance to the global resurgence of authoritarian governance that is the inevitable accompaniment to the ever-deepening hold of neoliberal capitalism all around the planet. 

14. Well, maybe. But it’s more likely that Thaksin said it best when he said, “The UN is not my father”.

He could have been talking about this coup and all the various people behind it. Come to think of it, he probably was.

This point remains the most salient of the piece.

Thai authoritarianism does not really go away when elected governments are installed.

Under normal conditions, meaning from 1976 till 2000, elected governments act as scrims behind which the people who run Thailand pull the strings and levers out of sight if not quite out of mind.

With the epoch-making election of Thaksin’s TRT administrations, we witnessed the most concerted effort in Thai political history of an elected government attempting to wrest control of the levers of power from the people behind the curtain. With the Yingluck administration we saw the same group of people trying to make obeisance in the right direction so that they would be allowed to continue in the tradition of governments that do not really govern.

It is hard to know exactly what has encouraged the Thai elites to step out from behind the scrim and attempt to impose their particular form of authoritarian government on Thailand without attempting to hide behind a false front of democracy at this particular time. 

Obviously the rise of Thaksinism and the electoral power wielded by his political parties was the immediate cause. But the withdrawal of American power and influence from the Asian sphere, pace Obama and the pivot, has  been instrumental in making the facade of democracy much less important for the business of doing business. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese are likely to balk at trade, investment or the sale of armaments to a blatantly non-democratic regime in Thailand. And with the Chinese now constituting the world’s largest tourist market, this flagship industry, and its role as Thailand’s primary PR machine to the world, seems secure for the foreseeable future.

The hypocritical absurdity of international actors like the EU making noise about their insistence on “returning Thailand to democracy” while simultaneously encouraging the abuses of the Sisi regime in Egypt is proof of where “the west” really stands on issues of democracy and human rights: nowhere at all.

In that sense, the “new Thai normal” is in step with the reality of the world it thrives in.

 

 

Beacon, Beacon: Who’s Got the Beacon?

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

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

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

But Farrelly has been a little more clever than those who assumed (correctly for the most part) that no one would care about the long-past democratic deficits of the Thai Rak Thai administrations. He has pushed the Golden Age of Thailand as Democratic Beacon of the Region back to the mid-nineties and managed to get the ever-popular People’s Constitution in there.

That was the constitution that eliminated 90% of the Thai electorate from eligibility to run for parliament and enjoined the state to be responsible for educating “the people” in the ways and meanings of properly understood democracy.

The intention of the drafters of the 97 Constitution, much like the intentions of the folks who’ve produced the most recent soon-to-be-disposable version, was to ensure that the people would not have so much effective input into the choice of their rulers that those rulers might end up being drawn from the vast pool of “not-good people”.

Like the PDRC and the NCPO, the PAD and the deliberately mistranslated CNR, the ostensibly liberal drafters of the People’s Constitution wanted to limit democracy as much as possible while ensuring the kind of good governance that could only result from severe limits on the powers of the electorate.

There are many problems with labeling the Thai governments of the nineties ‘democratic’ (unless of course we are conflating “elected” with “democratic” and leaving it at that). As is usually the case in Thai governance, there was little to no effective parliamentary opposition in those good old days. That job was usually, and admirably, taken up by Thailand’s remarkably free press.

Not, mind you, the broadcast media with which most people spent most of their leisure time and from which the masses drew their view of the world around them. That was owned by either the military or the state and so tended not to disrupt anyone’s sense of the ultimate goodness of the good people running the country. (During the TRT “golden age of democracy” the one independent TV station was bought by the PM himself and any inconvenient news programs were removed from the air.)

But in the lead up to the promulgation of the 97 Constitution and earlier, when the democratically-elected Prime Minister was none other than former coup-leader Suchinda, it was the print media that played the role of effective and occasionally “vitriolic” opposition, moreso than the parliamentary opposition itself.

And while it is important to acknowledge the role played by Thai newspapers in those increasingly hopeful days, no one elected the owners of those papers to be the opposition to the elected government, any more than the ugly biased “reportage” that smoothed the way for Thailand’s most recent coup was done at the behest of the sovereign people of Thailand. Critical commentary from journalists is a necessary component of a democratic society but it is absolutely not democracy itself that is functioning when the press takes over the role of the opposition.

It needs to be recognized that while it may be true that people in journalism and in academia were excited about the democratic thrust of Thai development back in the day we can see clearly now that it really wasn’t all that much of a muchness where democracy is concerned. It was, as is so often the case in the media weltanschauung, the illusion of democracy and not the thing itself.

Otherwise it is difficult to understand what people mean when they talk about the Thai Redshirts and the ta sawang or Awakening. If Thailand before Thaksin was such a “model democracy” what could there possibly have been to learn from the electoral success and fulfilled platform promises of TRT?

All Thailand and the Thai people have ever had of democracy in any meaningful sense is its possibility, increased or decreased by one condition or another. And that is very far from being a democracy, or a beacon or model thereof. If anything, it has been a simulacrum.

And so we come to Myanmar, with its constitutionally-ordained 25% military presence in parliament and military control of three of the most powerful ministries in the government. As has been pointed out, the election of Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be the result of a cult of personality and a pseudo-religious faith rather than a response to programs offered in a platform. There is still nothing more than the possibility of democracy in Myanmar and even less of one than exists in poor dictatorship-ridden Thailand.

No doubt Myanmar offers the exciting prospect of massive development and capital infusion that neoliberals everywhere slaver for. It seems rather disingenuous though to refer to this situation by ending an article with “[r]ight now, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s best democratic bet”, as Farrelly does. It’s almost as if Indonesia and Joko Widodo weren’t the beacon of Southeast Asian democracy just a mere few years ago.

But that is apparently what is behind much of the journalistic boosterism that Farrelly’s article is such a perfect example of. Myanmar is a land rich in natural resources and just chockablock with poor people whose wages in factories and services will reliably remain lower than those in Thailand for a long time to come.

As a matter of fact, one of Southeast Asia’s best-known human rights activists, Andy Hall, is pushing to have working conditions for Myanmar’s migrant labor improved. In Thailand. Not, as would be less welcome to neoliberal capital, in Myanmar.

If the generals and the plutocrats of Myanmar manage to remain hidden behind a journalistically-hung curtain of democratic simulation as effectively as have their counterparts in the more sophisticated version that has effectively kept democracy at bay in Thailand for the past 84 years, it will be with the assistance of well-meaning folks in media and academe and the ubiquitous civil society denizens who practically worship Suu Kyi.

But it won’t be democracy. And it won’t help the people of Myanmar to insist on the pretense that it is.

 

ASEAN and Press Freedom

In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, Thailand has slipped two spots and is now in the bottom 25% of countries ranked, more evidence for those who need it of the pernicious effect of the military Junta that has ruled since the coup in May 2014.

Over the two years since the coup, media pundits and their social media mini-clones have been lamenting the inevitable decline of Thailand as a regional performer in terms of foreign investment, tourism and human rights. For many, it would seem, there can be nothing worse than a military coup and a military junta for maintaining basic rights and freedoms in the modern world, to say nothing of economic growth.

Interestingly though, if we compare Thailand to its nine fellow ASEAN members (a few of whom are constantly held up as likely to overtake Thailand in one measure or another as a result of the coup), we see that Thailand has the 3rd freest press in the region.

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At the very bottom of the ASEAN press freedom rankings are the two remaining “communist” nations in the region. Whenever a pundit is pointing out the economic disadvantages of Thailand’s coup-prone governance style, it is often Vietnam that is held up as the likely vanquisher. Apparently this is because foreign investors prefer stability to human rights.

When the pundocratic discussion is more purely focused on issues of democracy and human rights, oddly enough it is Burma that is seen as Thailand’s ironic better. Apparently this is because there is nothing so likely to promote freedom and democracy as a pretty face; with Yingluck gone, the lovely Aung San Suu Kyi obviously outshines the unfortunately porcine Prayuth in the “face of the nation” competition.

Singapore, of course, tends to be everyone’s darling in the region, in spite of its ranking almost precisely half way between the horrid Thailand and the Stalinist nightmare of Lao PDR. Apparently this is because a city in the authoritarian swamp of SE Asia that nevertheless manages to look like it belongs in Canada just has to be “good”. Fast internet too!

If we compare the 2016 report with the one issued in 2013, the one that comes closest to measuring how the democratically-elected administration of Yingluck Shinawatra performed as an enabler of press freedom, we find that Thailand has slipped a whole ONE spot, both in the world and in ASEAN.

How ASEAN fared in 2013:  

Brunei – 122
Thailand – 135
Indonesia – 139
Cambodia – 143
Malaysia – 145
Philippines – 147
Singapore – 149
Myanmar – 151
Lao – 168
Vietnam – 172

I’ll leave it to the reader to make what they will of that.

Gonzo Sean vs Real Journalists

The recent kerfuffle over Sean Penn’s execrably written bit of gonzo in Rolling Stone is illuminating.

“Real journalists” are all over Twitter attacking the article for its horrible prose and obvious lack of editorial oversight; both criticisms are more than valid. Sean needs to keep his day job and Jann Wenner should be glad he didn’t have to pay for the writing.

But what is also happening is something quite different from the expression of a professional’s justified disdain for a clumsy amateur’s foray into her area of expertise.

Penn is being accused of whitewashing El Chapo, of condoning murder, and of insulting the memory of those Mexican journalists who have died trying to expose the reality of the brutal drug lords and their ongoing war with the equally brutal US-backed Mexican state security forces.

This is coming from the keyboards of people whose jobs might better be described as “group think status quo government amanuensis” than anything implied by the phrase “real journalist”. What they are accusing Penn of is a failure to insist on highlighting El Chapo’s evil in spite of the fact that he makes it clear that that is exactly the sort of cartoon journalism he intends to confront by presenting El Chapo as a human being.

Not something “real journalists” are comfortable with, I guess.

And that is precisely how not to honor those who have died trying to expose the truth rather than resting content with the official version out of Washington or the DF.