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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Brasilia on the Chao Phraya: Same Same but Different

As has become apparent to all but the most dedicated right-wing neoliberals, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil is in all essentials a coup.

In a nation whose political system is rife with corruption from bottom to top, there is something almost amusing about a po-faced left-wing bureaucrat like Rousseff, who is quite possibly one of the few incorrupt actors in the farce, being removed from office for corruption by the votes of corrupt senators and deputies on the recommendation of corrupt judges.

Anyone who pays attention to Thai politics will be familiar with the notion of the corrupt removing the corrupt from office on charges of corruption. Also familiar will be an opposition which has proved itself utterly incapable of winning at the polls stirring up street protests with the assistance of a mendacious media in order to create the appearance of a popular uprising against a sitting government. And then there is the willing involvement of elements of the judiciary in support of the coup.

Rousseff, like Yingluck Shinawatra, was the first woman to hold her country’s highest office and both women have undergone impeachment by their respective parliaments.

But at that point, the differences become more significant than the similarities.

The women themselves could hardly be more different. Whereas Rousseff entered office at 64 after a lifetime of political involvement, which included 3 years spent in prison on charges related to her activities as a Marxist-Leninist urban guerrilla, Yingluck was elected at age 44 as her brother’s stand-in after 20 years working as an executive in companies connected to her brother’s communications empire.

While it could be argued that the flatly uncharismatic Rousseff could not have been elected without the support of Ignacio Lula, whose chief of staff she was for 5 years, her political bona fides are all her own. She was a founding member of the Democratic Labor party, a left-wing social democratic party. And while she has clearly migrated rightward over the years, which is one of the reasons she has lost popularity with her party’s voters, she has been involved for decades in ideological politics.

The inexperienced Yingluck proved surprisingly adequate as a Prime Minister and her obvious beauty and apparent kindness inspired devotion in a good many Thais. Like the party she represented, however, she has no ideology to speak of. “Populist” is a label that gets thrown around in relation to all the Thaksinite parties that have dominated electoral politics in Thailand for the past 15 years, but an electoral technique is not an ideology.

And for all intents and purposes, that is why ultimately there is very little significance in the superficial similarities between the recent series of military and judicial coups in Thailand and the quasi-constitutional “coup” in Brazil.

Brazil, in spite of the weaknesses of its democratic institutions, has a political system wherein parties of the left contest with parties of the center and parties of the right for control of the presidency and the houses of congress. Since the military was forced out of power in 1985, Brazilian politics have been chaotic and deeply corrupt but what you see is what you get.

As in all contemporary democracies, money talks, and the Brazilian media is far more concentrated and biased than its Thai equivalent, but there is no “deep state” in Brazil. To the extent that it is possible anywhere in these neoliberal, “globalized” times, the Brazilian government actually governs.

The Thai system is not at all similar to this. In many ways, electoral politics is little more than an intra-elite competition over control of great chunks of the national budget and the graft generated as that budget is dispensed. Vast bureaucracies, none vaster than the military, operate as independent fiefdoms, sometimes cooperating and often opposing whatever party or coalition is “in power” at any given time.

Whenever a parliamentary force rises up to challenge the elements of this state within a state, there is a coup. In recent years, judicial approaches to coups have been experimented with but ultimately it is the “Thai way” to have the generals move to the foreground when an elected government threatens to become powerful enough to threaten the real power in the land.

When the dust clears in Brazil, there will still be labor unions and associations of the poor standing behind a left-wing party that will stand for elections, no matter how many individuals are tainted by the corruption scandals presently unfolding.

In Thailand, if the military government succeeds in its bid to remove significant portions of the Shinawatra family’s extended phuak from politics, there will be the usual jumble of political parties built around one man’s wealth or a small cadre of ex-generals or a regional godfather to contest for the chimera of government that is the elected parliament.

Ordinary Thais have yet to find real political representation in their genuine desire for democratic governance. NGOs and “civil society” tend to lean right and support anti-democratic forces that would keep the populace in a constant state of dependency. Unions, when they do not also support the right, are almost completely powerless. There is no political representation on the left. More importantly, there is apparently no one who actually supports even the basics of liberal democracy.

And that is very different from the situation in Brazil.

 

 

 

 

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.

ASEAN Countries_Fotor_Collage.jpg

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.

Laughin’ Just to Keep from Cryin’ (The Contradictions of Thai Democracy)

One of the more frustrating aspects of dealing with the people who deal with Thai politics in both the traditional and the new media is the tendency to simultaneously acknowledge and deny certain undeniable truths about Thai politics.

1) Everyone agrees Thailand has never been a democracy. This never stops people from claiming that the most recent coup has destroyed… yep, you guessed it… Thai democracy.

2)Everyone knows that “Thai-style democracy”, in one variant or another, has been what passes for democracy in Thailand for decades. This never stops anyone from sarcastically pointing out that the new constitution whenever it finally gets enacted will only return Thailand to “Thai-style democracy”.

3)Everyone knows that constitutions in Thailand have not only very limited lifespans but equally limited effect on how Thailand is actually administered. This never stops people from foaming on and on about the pernicious effects on Thai democracy (see above) that the upcoming constitution will inevitably have.

4) Everyone knows that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. Barking this sententious cliche never stops the barker from failing to list the 1000-plus citizens murdered by state-sanctioned death squads when they do the ‘Lest we forget’ number concerning the Octobers and the Mays from Thai history.

5)Everyone knows that the Prime Minister who ordered the death squads is the de facto leader of the party that is likely to win the election that everyone sees as the first step toward “restoring Thai democracy” (see above). This never stops anyone from insisting that to repeatedly recall the history of his crimes against humanity is to indirectly support the Junta.

6)Everyone knows that the Junta and its twisting of vocabulary and its denial of history is Orwellian. (See above)

What’s Free Speech Got To Do With It? Update #1

wai kru

A Thai Fairy Tale

Your stepdaughter, a  very ordinary young girl of 15, comes home from school one day complaining of harassment by a local boy, also 15, who has apparently asked her a number of times to be his girlfriend and been rejected politely but firmly each time. He has started following her around both at and outside school, sometimes entreating her, other times berating her. She is too embarrassed to go into detail but you establish that there has been no physical contact besides the one time he grabbed her by the arm to demand that she listen to him.

Your wife talks to her mother about the situation and grandma suggests just letting time take care of the problem. She is very insistent that approaching the boy’s parents to complain will have nothing but negative consequences and the same goes for going to the school administration.

The context here is utterly “Thai”, or perhaps “Asian”. The boy’s family is distantly related to the richest family in your neighborhood. The land that all your houses are built on used to belong to the boy’s grandfather’s half-sister’s husband’s family. The school the two young people attend is headed up by a corrupt autocrat who has made a habit of tearing up and rebuilding various outlying buildings and gardens on school property as a way of using the capital budget to generate graft and kickbacks in a way that subtle one-time improvements to the students’ environment just would not.

You don’t really see the significance of these elements of the context until the boy actually physically assaults your stepdaughter outside the school one day soon after, leaving her cut and bruised and emotionally traumatized. A few of her friends accompany her to your home and your wife’s mother immediately takes her to hospital. A few other students follow behind as the little group half-carries the crying and limping teen to your door. It turns out that once the law becomes involved in this situation, there will be two groups of students “giving testimony”: a group of “her friends” and a group of “his friends”.

At this point you have to imagine yourself straining at the bit to simply walk out, find the lad and kick his ass for him, leaving him in just a little bit worse shape than he has left your stepdaughter. Failing that you insist again and again against the hushing and shushing and suggestions to calm down that the police need to be called and charges must be pressed, regardless of the reputation for incompetence and corruption of the Thai police. Against the urgings of  your mother-in-law and just about everyone else in the immediate vicinity your wife finally decides to go to the police.

Over the next two days, a number of things become absolutely clear.

1] Your stepdaughter’s injuries will heal quickly, she will not be scarred physically nor does she have any broken bones. She is already insisting that everything is alright and you are told to not upset her by suggesting that she must be feeling upset by what happened. Apparently attempting to deal with the trauma by acknowledging it is in fact tantamount to creating it. You imagine things might have been like this for your mother’s generation and grudgingly accept it in spite of everything you believe about emotions and their place in a healthy life.

2] The police will not actually “investigate” the incident until they have received ten thousand baht to do so. Once they have received the ten thousand baht to cover the expenses of the “investigation”, they will be prepared to accept a delegation from each side to present the case as it appears to them. What this really means is that each family must find a suitably “influential” person to advocate for them with the police. Unbelievably, everyone around you seems to feel that this will be the deciding factor in whether or not charges are laid or any further “investigation” is undertaken.

3] The school head has made it clear that for a suitable payment (unlike with the police there seems not to be a set fee for this service) he will gladly back up one of two possible stories. If the boy’s family pony up it will transpire that the lad was the victim of a seductive vixen playing hard-to-get who finally just pushed her game-playing a little too far for the poor innocent boy to control himself. If you are the successful bidders (and this is why no set price was initially announced) it will turn out that the lad has made a nuisance of himself on a number of other occasions and your little girl is just his latest victim.

Most outrageously to your alien sensibility, the two groups of  student “friends” will be available as back-up for whichever scenario goes forward. The teacher who communicated all this to a friend of grandma’s after a tutoring session with one of the girls in your step-daughter’s “friend” group was apparently urging you all to simply let it go. It was not good for the students to be involved in this sort of “unclean” dispute.

In the end, which seemed to come rapidly out of absolutely nowhere to you with your alien expectations of police procedures and the workings of justice when a crime has been committed, the boy went to your home with his mother and apologized to your daughter, who was accompanied by her mother and grandmother. And that was that.

What had led to this denoument was instructive. While the boy’s connection to the local big family had led everyone to believe that you would end up somehow in the wrong and have to make some payment to the boy’s family for having wrongfully accused him, grandma’s husband, who no longer lives with her or has any meaningful contact with your in-laws, called on an old connection with someone very high up in the police force, who put in a brief appearance and “out-big-faced” the boy’s “uncle”. Case closed.

Interestingly enough, no money changed hands between the officer and the old gentleman estranged from your part of the family for over a dozen years, and the ten thousand baht payment to the police was returned. You don’t imagine the boy’s family got their “investigative fee” returned and you never found out whether the “uncle” was being paid for his appearance or some of other “family value” was invoked to bring him onside.

Yingluck and police

What remains is a simple question: What does a fictional story like this have to do with either “free speech”, Thai politics or the ubiquitous Democracy?

The answer is:

1)Nothing, to Thai liberals and their insistence on the primacy of things like elections and free speech.

2) Everything, to people who understand that without rule of law and equality before the law, abstract principles like “free speech” and hollow extravaganzas like elections have nothing to do with what is actually intended when people utter the word “Democracy”.

 

At some point, inevitably, many people begin to talk about “Thai culture” and “patronage” and “corruption” as if these things were among the immutable building blocks of Thai society.

It is obvious that this sort of mindset cannot co-exist with either rule-of-law or equality before the law but it is just as obvious that this tendency is deeply engrained in the thinking and the emotional responses of Thai people. That after all is what is meant by ‘culture’ in this context.

Given that this is the case, even the most intrepid “reformer” will sigh and suggest that it will take generations to move Thai people out of this way of thinking.

And this is simply wrong.

That is the wonderful thing about legal liberalism: it doesn’t matter whether you agree or not, or whether your emotional responses are in synch or not .

If something is against the law, it is, not to put too fine a point on it, against the law.

And it doesn’t matter who your great grandmother slept with or whose Mercedes your uncle drove for 20 years, when you break the law, you stand before the law like anyone else.

And while there is no doubt that no liberal democratic society in the real world has ever achieved this perfect equality or a method of parsing law in such a way that all instances of certain behaviors are clearly either legal or illegal, these imperfections do not come anywhere near the tawdry lawlessness of the present Thai state.

Usually when people think of ‘patronage’ they think about “vote buying” or “crony capitalism”or opportunities for advancement at work working more on the “who you know” than “what you know” system, raising loyal incompetents to high positions and holding back the competent who cannot attach themselves to the right patron.

And all these things are true enough. They do however fail to capture the all-pervading nature of ‘patronage’ and how it corrupts and undermines any and all attempts to use law as a means of ordering society. It makes democracy itself a meaningless term to be appropriated and abused by all and sundry.

What do the young people involved in this scenario learn?

They learn that there is neither good behavior nor bad behavior, neither legal nor illegal action, only power. And the money it takes to purchase a little power when it becomes necessary.

They learn that the “truth” of a matter is less important than who your friends are and which ‘truth’ will benefit them more.

The adults involved learn nothing, of course, having lived all their lives under the system.

The adults already know that the police are corrupt and will do absolutely nothing for “ordinary” people unless sufficient money changes hands.

They already know that the school system is rife with administrators who are little more than thieves and that there is nothing they can do about it because it would require corrupt police or other more highly-placed and equally corrupt bureaucrats to “investigate” the administrator’s corruption. And since corruption pays so much better than most honest livings in Thailand, and since becoming a school head requires a patron in the first place, there is absolutely no chance of justice in the system.

DEMOCRATIC DREAMS:(il)LIBERAL REALITIES

I

It seems that everyone in Thailand is a supporter of democracy.

Even General Prayuth, the man who led the most recent overthrow of an elected government, has insisted that his government is “99 percent democratic”, in spite of his never having been elected, his virtually unlimited power under the notorious Article 44 of the interim constitution, and his somewhat contradictory analysis of Thailand’s problem over the past decade and a half as being the result of “too much democracy”. 1

“Democracy”, the word anyway, has been used in so many ways to describe so many different styles of government over the years as to have become almost meaningless unless accompanied by either a definition or a qualifier. My own use of the term outside of scare quotes refers to what is commonly known as liberal democracy, with liberal being used in the political-legal sense of a set of laws and institutions that work to limit state power and thereby protect the rights and freedoms of the individual.

“Democracy” unqualified by such things as rule-of-law and equality before the law is, as Tolstoy is supposed to have said of the difference between state violence and revolutionary violence, different from dictatorship “as dog shit is different from cat shit”. And like the old reactionary, I don’t like the smell of either one. It would appear, however, that this is where I part company from many observers of Thai politics.

Since the most recent coup in May of 2014, a spate of articles in international media and literally thousands of tweets, Facebook comments, and blog posts have condemned Prayuth and the Thai military for having destroyed, dismantled or otherwise terminated something constantly referred to as “Thai democracy”. A few of the articles and many of the various denizens of social media have gone so far as to lament the passing of Thailand as a “model” or “beacon” of democracy for SE Asia and to situate this halcyon past in the early part of this millennium:

Just a decade ago, Thailand was a beacon of democracy in the region, trusted by Western democracies to nudge Myanmar out of authoritarianism. Now, the reverse seems imminent.  2

If we journey back to 2005 and the Thailand that was a “beacon of democracy”, we find a nation governed by a popular and powerful Prime Minister who over the previous few years had initiated and defended death-squad style extrajudicial executions of over a thousand young men supposedly involved in the drug trade, successfully muzzled almost all criticism in the Thai media through manipulation of government advertising budgets, lawsuits and outright purchase of outlets, not to mention having his cousin put in charge of the Royal Thai Army’s television stations, i.e. most Thai television, and on and on.

Given the facts of the matter one can only conclude that what is meant by referring to this period and this administration as a golden age of Thai democracy is that he was really really really elected.  Because, as so many subsequently published books and articles made clear, the Thai Rak Thai administrations were many things, some very positive and progressive, but invested in liberal democracy was not one of them.

Possibly the most appropriate term for what Thaksin achieved and was on his way to imposing as a long-term substitute for more traditional forms of “Thai-style democracy” is “democratic authoritarianism”. As Thitinan Pongsudhirak pointed out in 2003:

On paper, Thailand under Thaksin as governed by the 1997 Constitution is more democratic than ever. In practice, Thaksin’s rule is increasingly authoritarian, so much so that it can be compared to past military dictatorships.

In 2002-2003, when the true nature of TRT “democracy” was becoming evident, it was possible to imply an equivalence between previous military dictatorships and the Thaksin administration without being labeled a “fascist-royalist” reactionary. In those days, all you needed to be– to be able to see and comfortably label Thaksin’s authoritarianism as what it was– was a liberal. Jump ahead a dozen years and two more military coups and it is no longer possible to discuss the nature of Thaksin’s democratic authoritarianism without suffering the slings and arrows of outraged “pro-democracy” folks.

II

Not that “pro-democracy” commentators attempt to deny Thaksin’s authoritarianism. “Oh no”, they will tell you when you question their apparently context-free condemnations of the Thai military for its destruction of Thai democracy, “everyone knows Thaksin was authoritarian. But at least he was elected. I think the Thai people should at least have the right to choose their leaders.” While it is impossible for a liberal democrat to disagree with this sentiment, it is absolutely necessary to point out at the same time that this is in no way, shape or form a defense of democracy, but merely a call for elections, no matter what the sordid results.

It is at this point that contemporary discourse surrounding Thai politics enters and re-enters the fog-bound, mist-enshrouded land of smoke and mirrors, where a democratically-elected leader who sets up death squads and gives them quotas in order to eradicate the scourge of drugs from the nation is not held responsible for the crimes against humanity thus committed but is in fact exonerated by the expedient of referring his crimes to Thai state traditions, to the many people of all social classes who supported the killing, in other words, to a version of Hillary’s “it takes a village”.

Again, what you get when you question this rather interesting approach to identifying legal responsibilities in democratic governance is something along the lines of “Oh no. Of course Thaksin was responsible for the deaths. But so was everyone else who applauded them, which was almost everyone. And you know, he got the word from on high…wink wink nudge nudge…

So all those Palestinians dancing in the streets to celebrate the bringing down of the World Trade Center should have been hauled in and renditioned so Obama’s predecessors could “torture some [more] folk”? The mind boggles.

So even though constitutionally he was the Prime Minister and therefore the head of government, some extra-constitutional authority giving the nod should actually be recognized as sovereign and therefore more guilty than the PM? And that is how we defend democracy?

“Well, no, of course not,” the pro-democracy advocate of today will sigh, “everyone knows his government never really had full control. Parliamentary democracy in Thailand is not what it seems. Real power lies outside the political realm.” So, the democracy that was destroyed in 2006 was not really democracy at all? “Right. Not really democracy.” But this discussion began with…

At this point, unless it is going to be just another endless round of ins-and-outs of the fog of illogic and inconsistency that is meat and mead for these “pro-democracy” advocates, someone usually has to say “I am bored talking about Thaksin. That was then, this is now.”

III

In 2011, after five years of wandering in the non-democratic wilderness of one junta, one quickly aborted elected nominee Thaksin government, and a military-backed “legitimate” government headed by Abhisit and strongman-insurrectionist-monk Suthep that ordered the killing of almost 100 protesters demanding elections in May of 2010, Thailand was returned to “democratic” government.

Having spent those five years as one of the “democracy” advocates that I am, admittedly, somewhat unfairly (though not much) castigating in this article, I decided to step back and watch.

Here we had what everyone had been clamoring for: free and fair elections had been held, the people’s choice had been made resoundingly clear, and the beautiful Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin, had been installed as Prime Minister at the head of a Pheu Thai administration, whose election slogan was “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts”, thus assuring the faithful that they had in fact elected, yet again, Thaksin Shinawatra to lead the country. (And at the same time making it appear rather ridiculous when “pro-democracy” advocates insisted that Thaksin was not really in charge any longer.)

Anti-Thaksin people at this point made much of the farce of a “democratic” administration in fact run by a self-exiled convicted abuser of power from hotel rooms in Dubai and over Skype. Most of us were prepared to overlook this “small” irregularity in order to give the YL administration the opportunity to establish its democratic credentials on its own merits.

As was soon made evident, however, this government was very far from in control. During the flooding in 2011, both the royalist Democrat governor of Bangkok and the RTA made it absolutely clear that they were not taking orders from the national government.

As a result, of course, the Yingluck people were made to appear incompetent and the Royal Thai Army, whose image had been tarnished somewhat by the fumbling inadequacy of the ruling body set up following  the coup in 2006, emerged with its public face shining and its role as savior of the nation and its people reinforced by daily news videos of soldiers effectively dealing with the floods in spite of the incompetent Shinawatra administration.

Things never really got better for those of us watching for signs of the government’s commitment to liberal democracy. Yingluck did not publicly  criticize  either the head of the army or the governor of Bangkok, both of whom should have been held up to fierce criticism if not charged with subordination and dereliction of duty for their refusal to cooperate with the government during the flooding.

There were a few attempts at legislating “improvements” to Thai democracy, like altering the constitution to return the Senate to all-elected status, but clearly most of what was initiated could just as easily be read as moves to shore up their parliamentary control.

And of course when the Pheu Thai government finally did try something risky it was not anything involving radical change to the desperately undemocratic forms of the Thai state, it was nothing more or less than a sleazy attempt to bring brother Thaksin home under a half-hearted amnesty bill that failed to address the real problems with the politics of the Thai justice system and how it had played out over the previous eight years.

IV

The most interesting new twist that the Yingluck administration’s clear lack of authority over anything but the non-military aspects of the national budget has added to the “pro-democracy” vocabulary of contemporary nonsense is the amazing revelation that its less authoritarian nature is NOT the necessary result of having surrendered its authority to the military in order to be permitted to govern but should be understood as evidence of an increasingly “liberal” nature.

When Suthep and his genuinely fascistic PDRC people shut down a number of intersections in Bangkok and took over government buildings, holding them for long periods of time with almost no one present, the Yingluck government did nothing to assert control or maintain order. For many “pro-democracy” people, who at this point are better described as “pro-Thaksin” rather than “pro-democracy”, this lack of control has been transmuted by the magic of words into evidence of “increasing liberalism”.

Of course, they had no security forces to order to do so anyway. On the one occasion when the police looked like moving in on the insurrectionists, they were called back. Apparently even the police, long believed to be in the “pro-Thaksin” camp, were not prepared to attempt to enforce the law when those breaking the law were under extra-constitutional protection. Clearly the word had gone out from the military that the Yellows were not to be interfered with, as had been the case with the equally genuinely fascistic PAD back in the day. It was clearly time to pull the curtain back and let us see the little man controlling the levers of power for real.

And there was absolutely no resistance by  Pheu Thai or the UDD people because by staying quiet and being good Thai citizens following orders from the military they might just be eligible next time the wheel comes round to the “Thai democracy” setting. Only a fool would stand up for liberal principles like rule of law when that is really not how things are in Thailand.

And, ultimately, that is what it comes down to: when you begin to interrogate the apparent contradiction that in a country where seemingly everyone supports “democracy” everyone apparently agrees that democracy isn’t really possible. The belief that the Thai electorate is not yet ready for democracy has been the ideological cant behind the pronouncements of all and sundry on the anti-democratic side of the long-running conflict in Thailand since forever.

Now that it has been taken over by the “pro-democracy” side as  justification for repeatedly calling for elections that have zero likelihood of resulting in anything remotely democratic you really have to wonder.

What is to be done?