What’s Been Did & What’s Been Hid

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

The idea that the bloodless coup of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchy pops up repeatedly in spite of the glaringly obvious fact that Thailand only ever had “absolute monarchy” for roughly 70 years. Before Rama V managed to gather the reins of power into his own hands, Thailand’s system of government was more similar to feudalism than anything remotely like what we mean by absolutism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

plaque

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand

Television news, as everyone knows, is essentially idiotic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissus and Echo Do Thailand

narcissus-and-echo-500x280

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

narcissus-caravaggio-300x363

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

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

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

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

Narcissus and Echo indeed.

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.

 

 

 

 

Beacon, Beacon: Who’s Got the Beacon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ASEAN and Press Freedom

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

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

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

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.