The Lonely Planet Guide to Democratic Retreat: Parts One & Two

I

These days, when the intrepid journalists and NGO press release writers (is there a difference?) who “cover” SE Asia talk about the “Retreat of Democracy” hereabouts, they almost always mean the retreat and/or failure of liberalism.

But that doesn’t matter to these people because, in the western chauvinist view, any regime that isn’t liberal is, by definition, not democratic– no matter how much support it has from its people– because what makes a regime in the old colonial world “democratic” is the support of western journalists and NGOs.

And they say we live in a post-colonial world!

Thailand, which as anyone will tell you was once a “beacon of democracy” in the region, is sliding down the league tables for everything from democracy to freedom of the press to simple all-round freedom. If there is anything a western liberal hates more than a military junta it’s hard to say what that might be. And while they tend not to like populists, even when elected with significant majorities, and even when they remain popular with majorities of their electorates, military juntas are really really really bad.

The paragons of liberal evangelizing do, however, always seem to avoid discussion of Egypt when going on and on about the evils of military governments, perhaps because the Obama State Department was loath to label the coup there as a coup (because Muslims?) and because the EU has mysteriously maintained and supplemented its trade relations with Egypt, at the very same time as it has put all discussion of free trade with Thailand on hold until such time as what passes for democracy in Thailand has been restored.

It may be because the Thai junta has curtailed freedom of speech and expression and jailed some 100 people for violations of Lese Majeste and other laws limiting speech while the Sisi junta has only murdered some 800 protesters and jailed and tortured thousands.

Or could it just be that since al-Sisi has been elected with a landslide 97% of votes in a recent election, the Classics Illustrated definition of democracy has been adhered to and there is no need to wonder about what would otherwise be a glaring discrepancy? Inquiring minds want to know.

We all need a sense of proportion I suppose.

Perhaps “‘Tis a muddle, and that’s aw” as Stephen Blackpool in Dickens’ Hard Times might have said of this odd discrepancy, and it’s best to leave it at that. As anyone who has ever tried knows, asking difficult questions of liberals is often the quickest and easiest way to find yourself  accused of racism and/or being a cast member of “Literally Hitler”, since not holding the approved opinions is obviously an indication of holding the evil ones.

And Myanmar, which just a couple of years ago was the journalist’s and NGO’s emerging “beacon of democracy” for the region, is mired in tragedy with 700 thousand Rohingya having been forcibly relocated to Bangladesh and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi having had her portrait removed from the foyer of some building in some college in the UK. Sometimes it’s hard to know which of those things strikes western people as more ‘significant’, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

The British colonization of Burma rarely if ever comes up in journalistic accounts of the ethnic conflict in Myanmar, regardless of the fact that it’s plainly a case of the British colonial policy of ethnic mixing for the purpose of creating division and weakness having foisted on the Burmese an intractable problem that most of these journalists and all of the NGO folks probably believe GOOGLE could solve with a Diversity Memo, as long as people like James Damore are kept out of the loop. Why won’t these “Burman supremacists” just recognize that diversity is strength and that decade after decade of endless inter-ethnic war is not evidence to the contrary?

We are not, after all, dealing with intellectuals when we talk about journalists and NGO people. They are more like a species of the (usually) male backpackers who, having read and reread their Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, sit in cafes and guesthouse restaurants throughout the region holding forth to the less literate members of the fraternity on the exotic wonders of the cultures of SE Asia. Given half a chance, these westsplainers will even launch into lecturing the locals on what their cultures are really all about. At that point, said backpacker is half way to a career in NGO finger-wagging or journalism.

 

And this is how the rest of the world comes to understand SE Asia.

II

As horrible as the situation of the Rohingya unquestionably is, the people of Myanmar stand solidly behind both Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw, an organization many of them most definitely did not like or trust until just recently. The democratic legitimacy of the present hybrid administration in Naypyidaw is not really in doubt, except of course to those whose preference for liberalism over democracy leads them to the conclusion that Burmese Buddhists are just another “basket of deplorables” in need of correction by the UN, if not even more forceful foreign “democratic” compulsion.

Perhaps Hillary could convince her friends in Saudi Arabia to contribute to the process of enlightening the benighted Burmese in much the same fashion as they are doing in Yemen. Perhaps liberals in the media and NGOverse could offer explanations as to why the Rohingya “issue” has received so much coverage and the tragedies unfolding in Yemen and South Sudan so little by comparison. But then again, Ken “Interventions ‘R’ Us” Roth of Human Rights Watch is hardly a voice to be trusted in relation to actual human lives as opposed to human rights.

But Thailand and Burma have been superseded as exemplars of “Democratic Retreat” in SE Asia, as the international news cycle churns, and audiences become immune to yet another heartbreaking photo of doe-eyed Rohingya children and one more chilling portrait of a clown-faced Thai general making cracks about women who wear bikinis asking for rape.

The “beacons” of populism and authoritarianism most in the spotlight these days are Roderigo Duterte of the Philippines and Somdech Hun Sen of Cambodia, a pair of worthy contestants in the media competition to crown the Most Evil Destroyer of Democracy in SE Asia.

Duterte seems a likely champion: he has overseen and joked about and justified the extrajudicial execution of some 8000 mainly very poor people in his war on drugs. He makes Thaksin, the on-again off-again hero of democracy in Thailand, look like a real piker for only having killed between 1300 and 2700 in a similar deployment of police-based death squads.

Duterte, like Prayuth in Thailand, makes rape jokes that send the outrage monitors spiraling out of control around those parts of the globe that go in for that sort of thing, but Duterte seems to have ingested a witches brew of curdled testosterone and methamphetamines before he does his repulsive performances of toxic masculinity. He goes so far as to claim to have killed personally in his quest for justice and suggests that gang rape would be OK if only he gets to go first. Trump is an amateur at provoking PC outrage in comparison to Duterte.

But consistent with the liberal horrorshow vs democratic success pattern I am outlining here, as of January this year Duterte had the highest approval ratings, including a measure of “trust”, of any Philippine president since the 80s and the People Power Revolution. As was the case with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, who won a historic second term in a landslide after years of consistent criticism for human rights abuses (including the extrajudicial executions in his drug war and repeated flagrant attempts to intimidate and silence media voices), Duterte maintains his democratic legitimacy and the support of his electorate.

But here, of course is where the liberal media and the liberal NGOs and the liberal academics beg to differ. Having the support of an electorate is not a sufficient condition for claiming democratic legitimacy. especially when that electorate is made up of poorly educated ‘peasants’ or desperately poor people who are angry at the people who occupy the liberal, predominantly white, empyrean, where all justice is just and all jokes have been cleared by the PC censors before any politician dares utter them.

For this unseemly constellation of personalities and mass emotion we have the handy term ‘populism’, which is used to refer to “Rule by the Basket of Deplorables” by people who would rather not be frank about the class and race hierarchies they cling to even as they deny them utterly. You might say of people like Duterte that while “they may be sonsofbitches, they are most definitely their sonsofbitches”, and so need to be excoriated and deposed if at all possible.

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What’s Been Did & What’s Been Hid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand

Television news, as everyone knows, is essentially idiotic.

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

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

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

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

Quite often we get a panel or a pair of pundits, usually described as “experts” or former officials or journalists with extensive experience covering A, B or C, who perform “disagreements” that are also already inscribed in the basic ideology.

The standard “disagreement” of course is that of “right versus left” and everyone is familiar with how that plays out depending on the orientation of the network presenting the “disagreement”.

Big news items get the “pundit debate” presentation that provides a simulacrum of “free speech” and “freedom of thought and opinion” but the pundits are always or almost always “experts” at one important unspoken skill: their opinions and arguments are circumscribed by an acceptance of the fundamental elements of the western ideology.

This is why experts like Noam Chomsky rarely show up in mainstream media, and slightly less offensive but still outside the dominant paradigm pundits, like Glenn Greenwald who do, are often ridiculed or at least questioned more harshly than is normally the case.

With the election of Donald Trump, a phenomenon not yet successfully incorporated into the media’s ideological apparatus, there is a possibility that something will have to change and a space for real discussion may be opened up, in print and online media at least, but television will still have to find a way to fit the new “disagreements” into the time-limited formats that were more than capacious enough to handle the previous standard “disagreements” within the ideological frame.

This, however, is decidedly not the case with “smaller” news items: anything concerned with politics in a medium-sized Asian country like Thailand, for example.

In these cases, we get a pure, one-sided affirmation of the western ideology and nothing more. There is almost never a debate, although Al Jazeera may have once or twice had a token representative of something other than the dominant ideology on to be made to look foolish by the other “experts” on the panel.

This tends to be true of all of Southeast Asia as it is presented in the mainstream media. We learn that all of these societies are less democratic, more corrupt and plagued with more official violence than the gold standards upheld by the west.

The junta in Thailand, for example, is usually presented as both violent and unjust, using examples of torture claims and excessive sentences for ridiculously petty instances of violation of the lese majeste law. We are expected, of course, to understand these criticisms in the frame of the ideology of the west regardless of the rather glaring fact that Thailand is not and never has been a part of the west.

The effect of  “experts” placing the reality of a country like Thailand into the frame of pure ideology is to reinforce the essential rightness of that ideology.

It allows the pundit to present himself (for they are invariably male) as an advocate for better things for the people of Thailand  (better here meaning more inline with the ideological fantasy he weaves with his “critique”), and as such come across as an “oppositional” figure, thus creating the simulacrum of “disagreement” without actually presenting any other viewpoint.

In short, we are in the realm of neo-imperialism, with white male talking heads taking up “the White Man’s burden” and playing the role of “the best [we] breed”. (It might be relevant in this context to look at a work like Owen Jones “The Establishment” and see how many of the white male Thai “experts” attended either Oxford or Cambridge.)

A more interesting and enlightening approach to presenting the situation in Thailand might be to compare the reality of, say, US torture, imprisonment and corruption with the comparable realities in Thailand.

Rather than invoking the glories of “free speech” as an ideology and lamenting the capacity of Thai citizens to think freely due to the rigid controls on free expression in Thailand, it might be more informative to compare the Thai case with how corporate media and its funneling of all information through the ideological filter has influenced the capacity for Americans and American “talking heads” to think and speak freely.

But of course if anyone were to attempt to do so in the soundbite format and by attempting to step outside the ideologically correct syntax of allowable discussion, they would wind up like Chomsky, silenced by mainstream media.

It must be just so much more personally satisfying to follow Kipling’s advice to journalists covering these “sullen peoples, half devil and half child”:

By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.

Of course, any attempt to measure how anyone other than the pundit himself “gains” from the simulacrum of “open speech and simple” will run up against the rather simple fact that no one does. No one, that is, among the people singled out for their usefulness in confirming the ideology that provides the context for their presentation to the world.

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.

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.