Back to the Future with Future Forward?

Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, aka “Ake”, the billionaire leader of Thailand’s newest oligarch-owned and operated political vehicle, Future Forward Party, presents himself as an aggressively masculine opponent of military dictatorship. Like most Thai liberals who hail from the upper reaches of Thailand’s highly stratified society, he conflates “democracy” with the writing of constitutions and the staging of elections and little else.

thanatorn

In a recent interview he made it clear that his priority in power would be “dismantling the senate appointment system, the 20-year strategy and other legacies of the military” and that he would happily cooperate with any other political party willing to sign on to this agenda.

It goes without saying that he promises to rewrite the constitution as one of his first steps toward undoing the evil wrought by Prayuth and the NCPO. In the 86 years since the military-civil coalition known as Khana Ratsadon or “People’s Party” very politely and half-heartedly staged the bloodless coup that ostensibly made Thailand into the constitutional monarchy it is today, Thais have lived under 21 constitutions, which is roughly the same number of general elections that have been held during the same period (23?). Put another way, Thailand has new constitutions more frequently than many democracies have elections. So, when a billionaire promises a new constitution, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are faced with Change You Can Believe In™.

If we take the promise to erase the legacy of the NCPO seriously we only have to revisit the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra to see how Thai democracy was flourishing before Big Joke and Big Brother Tuu “stole” it from the Shins.

dastardly duo

Under Yingluck, neither the military nor, ultimately, the police were available to enforce order in Bangkok while the proto-fascist PDRC staged their “Shutdown Bangkok” in order to induce the military to stage a coup. Three years earlier, when the country was devastated by floods that cost the country an estimated 40-50 billion dollars in damages and lost production, the Governor of Bangkok resisted the orders of the national government to sacrifice parts of Bangkok in order to lessen the suffering of people upcountry, and the military went out of its way to set up its own rescue operations, successfully portraying the Yingluck administration as incompetent and unconcerned with the well-being of ordinary Thais. This insubordination and the accompanying PR campaign went a long way to restoring the image of the military that had been tarnished by the 2006 coup and subsequent ham-fisted governing record that led to a quick return to a Shinawatra-led government in 2008.

shins

It is normal in Thailand that the writ of the national government does not run into all the nooks and crannies of what is essentially a semi-lawless society, but the brazen disregard for parliamentary authority that was demonstrated from day one by many branches of government, including of course the military, means that the notion of returning to “pre-coup democracy” sounds much better as rhetoric than it might actually manifest in reality.

If it is objected that “pre-coup democracy” is better understood as referring to the good old days when Thailand was still a “ beacon of democracy in the region“, usually meaning from the late 90s to the tragic return to authoritarian rule in 2006, it should be remembered that in those halcyon times, somewhere between 1300 and 2700 Thai citizens were extrajudicially executed under the orders and supervision of the popular Prime Minister of the time, an early instance of SE Asia’s version of the ever-popular War on Drugs that has vaulted Roderigo Duterte to “evil-demon-threatens-democracy” status in “international media”, even while said demon maintains popularity and trust levels with the Philippine people not seen since the People Power Revolution chased Ferdinand Marcos et famille to Hawaii.

Press freedoms in the “Beacon of Democracy” were under intense pressure from Thaksin’s administration; human rights defenders were disappeared and lost their lives; police corruption flourished; Muslims were murdered in military “police actions” that kick-started an intensification of the southern insurgency; Bangkok capitalists in bed with Shin Corp were experiencing the thrill of genuine and highly profitable corporate governance under a CEO PM: and all of this was taking place under the aegis of the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997, a temporary document much celebrated for its theoretical improvements in Thai governance that nevertheless was subverted as resolutely as all Thai Constitutions have been so that whoever happened to hold power at the time could reap the benefits thereof.

democracy not my goal
It’s easy to forget how panicked people were by Thaksin’s overwhelming success at consolidating power under a constitution explicitly constructed to provide a system of checks and balances.

It should also be pointed out that, like many elite liberals in Thailand, “Ake” makes much of the “anachronism” of the appointed Senate. It is hard to know what to make of this sort of historical illiteracy. The Thai parliament has swung back and forth- between a royally-appointed senate in the context of a bicameral legislature and a unicameral legislature with no senate at all- regularly and frequently since the first senate was appointed in 1947. There has been precisely one all-elected senate in Thai history-  the one elected in 2000 under the provisions of the ’97 Constitution, which forbade senators from membership in political parties.

As with everything Thai elite liberals touch, the ’97 constitution was designed to keep “democratic politics” as far away from real power as possible, hence the non-affiliated status of candidates for the Senate and the similarly intended insistence that Cabinet appointees not be sitting members of parliament. The result of the senate elections in 2000 was as predictable as rain in October. A Nation Weekend headline before the election, commenting on the affiliations of the non-affiliated candidates, renamed the upcoming senate The Assembly of Siblings and Husbands and Wives (sapha phi-nong sapha phua-mia).

If a political party cannot field candidates for an elected senate, then surely individual party members can put forward their brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and children, all of whom will then be indirectly funded and supported by the political party they are not affiliated with. A post-election article in Thai Post was headlined  “A Bad Joke! An Assembly of Slaves” and went on to talk about the irony of chao pho (godfathers) and the children and wives of MPs delegated to reform and constrain their husbands and fathers in parliament.

Within two years of the establishment of the first elected senate in Thai history, it was evident to all and sundry that it was functioning as yet one more wing of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai juggernaut. So whether or not an appointed senate is an anachronism, an elected one is surely not a surefire road to democratic heaven in the context of actual-existing Thai politics.

That is the real Thai constitution of course, but don’t tell that to Thai liberals- they and their families are the beneficiaries of that history of corruption and so do not appreciate having it highlighted by the light shone from another sort of “beacon” altogether.

wat dead
When people talk about Thai Democracy and how it has been “killed” by the coup-makers of the RTA, they are not wrong. But they are far from telling the whole story.

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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)