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Thailand's time of troubles

The mainstream coverage of Thailand's time of troubles is actually not awful -- here, here, here, and here, along with the invaluable Bangkok Pundit -- I'm guessing because the powers that be can only manufacture one crisis at a time, Ukraine, not to mention there's no faction in Thailand the U.S. would care to back (partly because Thailand really was never a colony, I think). And the whole situation causes me more than a little pain, because I love the country and have friends on different sides of the political divide, which is way worse than Red State/Blue State. [Adding, frankly, the whole situation stresses me so much I'm having a hard time writing about it.] (For those who came in late, here's my summary of the players[1].)

And lost in all the detail and the maneuvering as I have been researching and writing this, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that we're following a story where democracy itself is at stake. That's a big deal! Even if the elite and the oligarchs are maneuvering as they will do, and the party system is deeply corrupt, nevertheless one side in the conflict was elected and wants to hold an election, and the other hasn't been for twenty years, and might well not. The kayfabe in Thailand involves lives and blood.

In the last two days, there have been two rulings against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (Red, Pheu Thai, allied with the United Front for Democracy and against Dictatorship, or UDD). In the first, two days ago, the (Yellow, Democrat) Constitution Court (CC) removed her from office on the grounds that an administrative transfer was legal, but (I kid you not) immoral; a non-Shinawatra relative official was replaced by a "relative," where the ex-wife of Yingluck's brother, former Prime Minister and telecoms squillionaire Thanksin Shinawatra, is defined as a relative. Says the Economist:

For all the pretence of due legal process and distaste at Ms Yingluck’s nepotism, this was not an offence that merited the ousting of a prime minister. Instead, the ruling is a measure of quite how far Thailand has fallen, how deeply it is divided and how badly its institutions are broken. Unless Thais step back from the brink, their country risks falling into chaos and anarchy, or outright violence.

In the second, yesterday, the National Anti-Corruption Commission [NACC] determined that Yingluck was guilty of "dereliction of duty" in a failed rice subsidy scheme (think Benghazi plus the Farm Bill), and forwarded her name to the Senate for possible impeachment; the Senate is half elected, half appointed, and the NACC and Yingluck's political enemies control nearly half of it, although it takes a three-fifths vote to convict. Perhaps that's why the NACC is also, from the same fact set, preparing a criminal indictment.

Although it's quite clear that the CC and the NACC are holding the Yingluck government to different standards than other cases, involving political allies, they have before them, it's also important to note that the decisions weren't nearly as one-sided as they could have been. BBC's Jonathon Head:

There was, predictably, jubilation in the camps of the anti-government protesters in Bangkok. But they did not get everything they wanted.

The judges stopped short of holding the entire cabinet responsible for transferring the national security adviser. Only nine ministers, directly involved in approving the transfer, have been ordered to resign. So the cabinet survives, although still only in a caretaker role, until another general election can be held.

The government wants that on 20 July. But the opposition Democrat party is likely to repeat its boycott, and the protesters it now allies itself to are sure to obstruct it.

The key point here being that there is a functioning government, even if only a "caretaker" government until the next election (hopefully July 20, but the Election Commission -- another (yellow, Democrat) "independent" commission -- is dithering about initiating the formal process that would schedule a real date (and although the EC can draft an election decree, it's also not clear whether a caretaker PM can forward that decree to the the King for endorsement).

The game for the Pheu Thai is to avoid a "power vacuum" until the next election, which they would win. (The UDD have the same goal, with the exception that their goals, as a coalition of grassroots interests, are not always in complete synch with the goals of Pheu Thai; the fault line is the Shinawatra family interests.) The game for the Democrats, their backers, and their front group, the PRDC, is to create a power vacuum, then rewrite the rules so that the Democrats can win (apparently, writing the 2007 Constitution after a coup wasn't enough, and running a Consitutional Court that doesn't publish decisions or adhere to precedent isn't enough). Then again, perhaps after a power vacuum the Democrats/PRDC won't hold an election at all; true, their slogan is "reform before election," but in an abortive snap election in February they chained polling places shut, physically harassed voters, prevented ballots from being distributed, and refused to nominate elected officials. So it's not clear how strong their commitment to democracy really is.

And on Friday, we have this event:

After months of street protests led by Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy premier from the opposition Democrat party, anti-Thaksin forces sense they have the upper hand. They are calling for a mass rally, symbolically set for 9.09am on Friday May 9. This is a coded reference to the long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama the Ninth, whose legacy the protesters claim to be defending. But this is the 11th time Mr Suthep has called for a “final battle” to oust the Shinawatra clan. He repeatedly urges “the people” (meaning his own groups of supporters)[2] to seize “sovereign power”, as though hot air alone could topple the government.

Well, whether or not Suthep is (in this instance) full of hot air really depends on Suthep's backers, doesn't it? As for Suthep seizing "sovereign power," what can that mean? Royal Institute fellow Professor Likhit Dhiravegin:

Jomquan: For a person to “declare sovereignty”/ him or herself “sovereign” in a traditional or historical practice, how does this work?

Prof Likhit: As I already said: 1) Use force to give yourself power [like] a coup d’etat, once that’s done, you become sovereign. When the Council of Democratic Reform (CDR) staged a coup d’etat in 2006, Khun Sonthi Boonyaratglin became sovereign. All power was in his hand. That’s why the first order was to declare a democratic system of government with the King as the Head of State and effectively return the sovereign power to the King—theoretically speaking. 2) Royal succession. In ancient regime it was called ราชาภิเษก (raja-phisek – “coronation”)—that’s the sovereign. If with the use of force, ปราบดาภิเษก (prabda-phisek – “enthronement”). 3) Election. Who has the most votes get to be prime minister or president. 4) If none of the above, use personal charisma, which doesn’t happen any more these days so no need to talk about it. These are four means to become sovereign. Not suddenly declaring and claiming what? Article 3? Is it claiming for just yourself? Or for a group of people? How many? What about the other side? They can also claim it. Where do you get the legitimacy to say you are superior? A great many people? How many? How do you measure the number?

FWIW (and I'm not on the ground) this looks to me like the PRDC wants their coup legitimized by a member of the royal family, the military not being available, an option not listed by Dhiravegin, but that's been ruled that by the King himself (via an arcane discussion of Article 7). So, again I don't see how that works.

Anyhow, Friday's today, so here's what the PRDC is doing:

So, six stages, not including the permanent installations at Lumpini Park and Chang Wattana (we've discussed stages in the Thai protests before.) First, that means that Suthep still has funding. Second, the PRDC intends to surround and/or invade and close all those buildings, including the TV stations. Third, they've done all this before because the PRDC is seemingly so fucking stupid they don't understand that a State is not equal to its buildings. So what can they hope to gain by doing it again, unless the fix is in? But what does the fix look like? I still can't see the Army intervening, and I can't see another institution (see above) approving Suthep's seizure of sovereignty. Will Democrat officials simply walk in, sit down at the desks in government house, and start issuing orders? Finally, seizing TV stations concerns me, because that's what coupsters seize after the Winter Palace. But if the PRDC wants to seal in Bangkok, how does that work in the Internet (and cellphone) age? They have the technical means to do it, because all Internet traffic is monitored for lese majeste violations, but shutting down the Internet didn't save Mubarak.

I go back, again, to the brute fact that the Pheu Thai/Red Shirts have 60% of the vote, a strong geographical base, they're politically conscious, and they're very organized. How do the Yellows/PRDC force a form of sovereignty on them that they cannot accept, short of massacre? And how does that massacre work? Do they shoot every taxi driver, factory worker, maid, and policeman in Bangkok? Who does that? The Army? The PRDC's repellent, undisciplined, meth-skinny guards? I don't think so.

And then on Saturday:

Pro-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) chairman Jatuporn Prompan, meanwhile, confirmed Thursday that the red shirts would hold a major rally Saturday on Utthayan Road.

This to the north of the city, away from the PRDC stages, presumably to avoid mass clashes. Note, however, that the last rally didn't have predicted attendance -- but then the provocation of the court decisions didn't exist either.

The UDD would also invite Ms Yingluck to the gathering, Mr Jatuporn said.

Jataporn is a firebrand; she'd be nuts to do this.

He said political developments in the country have been shifting rapidly, as the movement to overthrow democracy was speeding up its attempt to install a new prime minister through Section 7 of the constitution.

Most pundits who are not PRDC/Yellow say Section 7 does not apply, and the HM has ruled it out. So I don't see how this works.

The red-shirt supporters should now prepare to fight the [unnamed] person who has been pulling the strings of the independent agencies which are trying to oust the caretaker government, he said.

"Here is the message to all UDD leaders and red-shirt supporters: Our current enemy is the 'smart [probably a typo for ammart, "elite"] elite system'," Mr Jatuporn said.

So I guess by Monday we will know whether the PRDC/Yellows, plus their backers, have succeeded in creating a "power vacuum" or not. My guess is, absent a deal or fix, they will not. Leaving a long hard slog to the election. Here's the view of the Bangkok Post (yellow, but regretful at the thuggish PRDC they did so much to create) on what such a fix might involve:

Action begets reaction. Now, the ball is in the court of Thaksin [Shinawatra]. Then there are the 15 million Pheu Thai [red] ]voters to consider, and the UDD [independent red organization]to reckon with.

The threat issued by Chalerm would mean a legion of red-shirts descending upon Bangkok [as on the Saturday]. This could trigger a chain of reactions. Two possible scenarios could occur. 

The first scenario is the PDRC could successfully persuade the military to put down [massacre, as above] the red-shirts, thereby using force to defeat those supporters of Thaksin. 

But if the military cannot be persuaded [so far, they have not been]. Or if there’s division in the military's ranks. Then physical confrontation between the two sides could at its worst lead to a civil war. 

For this scenario to occur, Thaksin would have to have decided to go for broke, fight to the bitter end. 

The second scenario would have the red-shirts threatening, but it wouldn’t amount to an actual confrontation. 

This would be because Thaksin had accepted the judgement as a sign that he cannot win [not defined], and thus sit down to work out a compromise that would likely lead to the Shinawatra family bowing out of politics altogether. 

This could actually make Pheu Thai a healthier party, and UDD a stronger organization, so it might not be a bad thing.

For the UDD to become a factor, they would need financial support. This is not in the vein of vote buying, Simply, the logistics and resources needed to organise a mass demonstration and to sustain it requires a large amount of money. 

I'm not so sure what the budget for a stripped down stage system would be. And I'm not sure that demonstrations are the only means open to the Reds; a general strike really would shut down Bangkok, and would cost a lot less than the stages.

That money is not going to come from red village communities. That money will have to come from Thaksin and his political and business allies. If he decides not to fight, then there won’t be a financial supply line. Thus there won’t be a massive and sustainable demonstration by the UDD.  

Action begets reaction. It is up to Thaksin how he will play the game next. Hell could very well be coming,  as Chalerm has promised. But Thaksin is the one who will decide whether or not to unleash hell. 

However, there is also this. After last week's coronation ceremony:

"I" being the King. "He" being the Crown Prince, heir to the throne, and close -- so it is said, to Thaksin and the Shinawatra's (Red/UDD/Pheu Thai).

* * *

Anyhow, all this pontification... We'll know a lot more soon; it's well over past 9:09AM on Friday in Bangkok now.

NOTE [1] See the full post, of which this is an excerpt:

6. In one of those great (over-)simplifications strategic hate management tries to bring about, the competing bourgeoisies are labeled yellow and red. The yellows, although they have a firm grasp on the city of Bangkok (roughly 60/40 voting), are a minority of the country as a whole (though not in the South), where the reds are a majority. The yellows have a front group, the PRDC, and a party, the Democrats. The reds have a front group, the UDD, and a party, Pheu Thai. The Democrats haven't won an election in decades, though they have been installed by coups, and boycotted the last election (really, the current election, not yet completed). Pheu Thai and the UDD are less unified than the Democrats and the PRDC, because as they North came to class/regional/cultural consciousness they developed a strong civil society. The conflict between the reds and the yellows has been going on since at least 2001, though I won't bore you with details. (In fact, if the reds organized a general strike of food stall vendors, transport workers, food stall vendors, maids, and construction site workers, the city of Bangkok would grind to a halt immediately; a city doesn't live by office workers alone, after all. I'm not sure whether the reds have not done this, or cannot; where does the strike fund come from, after all?)

7. I tend to be more sympathetic to the reds, since what the yellows want is a council of unelected "good people" to "reform" the country before the election of the next Prime Minister. I think we've seen that sort of thing tried, and it doesn't end well. In addition, the yellows not only boycotted the election, they actively sabotaged it, not only by blocking polling places, but by throwing institutional obstacles in its way. Finally, the yellow front man, Suthep, is very, very bad news. I don't lke the yellow tactics, I don't like their rhetoric, and I don't like their goals.

8. However, it's important to recognize that the yellows have real fears that should be respected. I think that "democracy" really does include a proper system of checks and balances to safeguard minorities, even (relatively) well-heeled minorities like the yellows; it doesn't take a lot to have somebody shot here, after all.

NOTE [2] Personally, I think the PRDC use of "the people" for themselves is vicious and reprehensible, since the corollary is that their political opponents are subhumans or animals, a view PRDC constantly reinforces.

MOTE Thailand is a monarchy, and the lèse-majesté laws are enforced, even against foreigners. Therefore, readers, criticism of the Thai monarchy or royal family is off-topic. Guests in Thailand must obey its laws. Their house, their rules, and I hope to return.

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V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...was never colonized and Thai's are very proud of that fact. There is a very strong sense of nationalism here.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

I realize this is a purely theoretical question, but what would happen if the king made a statement on the side of democracy? Would that shut some of this down or just make the situation worse?

Submitted by lambert on

But if you look through the piece carefully, you'll see a few (laudable) "strong statements," both in words and deeds. As to why those statements haven't been listened to, that is a topic for research.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

Haven't been listened to?! Now, that surprises me. Interesting.

(And, um, VArnold? Sometimes you've been, quite understandably, not quite up to the minute with US expressions, acronyms, and memes. Should we all be saying Google It in future?

I didn't know all mention was forbidden. I thought it was only criticism or disrespect. That's why it didn't occur to me to "research" it.)

Submitted by lambert on

Applies to whoever "defames, insults or threatens," but those terms are not defined. The King has been quite clear on his human status, and status as a Constitutional monarch (see link above on Article 7), but royalists may not be so clear. Best to keep it light, neutral, and ambiguous or polysemous. Communications strategies that Thais themselves are adept with!

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

Yeah, me too, actually. And Ixquick. Bing just for the pictures, very rarely to search.

Cheers too :D

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

(And, um, VArnold? Sometimes you've been, quite understandably, not quite up to the minute with US expressions, acronyms, and memes. Should we all be saying Google It in future?

You indeed bring up a good point. Time away and almost no western contact other than a few blogs puts one (me) well out of touch with currency of culture. I do appreciate your humor; I just have to be more, make that less, serious when reading responses which is to say lighten up, me... ;)

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...11 years what I have learned is not to try to understand the politics; it's an enigma, within a mystery, surrounded by a conundrum for non-Thais. The parts I have understood (via my wife) I can't speak to for the obvious reasons.
I am not saying a westerner/non-Thai cannot penetrate and understand the body politic. However, without fluency in the language and having an intimate relationship with the culture (which requires language) then one is left with an inability to form a meaningful opinion and I personally doubt (without the aforementioned) that it is possible.
This article in the Economist is not complete and only hits on a very few points;

I am by no means trying to come across as an expert here; I am not. But, I have become acutely aware of my limitations through a modicum of understanding.
Re the Economist: Historically, Thailand has survived worse than the present situation.

Submitted by lambert on

... and hence posts like this. (It's one thing to move to Italy for the climate, the cost of living, and the cuisine; it's quite another to move to Italy for the climate, the cost of living, the cuisine, and Mussolini, if you see what I'm saying.) So I have to stagger on, partly with the help of informed people who do know the language, partly with such decoding skills as are transferable to the Thai context from the American (which are perhaps not many; I would love to know what the iconography of traffic cones is, but I don't).

Anyhow, to me, this is about the most fascinating story going regardless of the grip I have on it. And while I'm sure I can only get a very rough approximation, being outside and not in, I also think that "the inscrutable East" as a concept denies our common humanity, and buys into the "farang can never understand Thainess" thing -- when sometimes they do! I mean, I know enough not to buy emeralds from a tuk tuk driver...

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on want to dive. The other thing is access; most foreigners do not have nor will get access to the truly insider view. As to our common humanity: Remember my saying? Culture is the cloth in which we wrap our humanity; do not discount the cultural aspects. I am talking about the powers that be on all sides; not the *commoner/villager*, as is said here. There is also a curious aspect of Thainess (I hate that term) and that is the *use* of lies in the most mundane of situations. IME, this most commonly comes from people of wealth and position. I have been directly lied to more than once when wanting to know the truth of something that will directly affect me. By western standards, there was no reason for this, but...
I laud your efforts at working to understand the culture here. This is uncommon IME.
Coming here often for visits can never equal a long term (many years) stay and immersion.
I know far too many westerners who come here for 2 months over a ten year span and think they have some special knowledge of Thai culture.

On another note; in consulting the one who must be obeyed; she is not concerned by what's going on politically; SNAFU. Another teacher I know (an activist) says she's very concerned.
These are both highly educated and savvy people. Me? I'm keeping my powder dry...

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...I do not get overly concerned/involved in the political side of things here. First, it's illegal; second, it's not my country and never will be; and third, I'm far better off here than stateside.
And I'm married to my best friend...

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...the thing not mentioned here is the elephant in the room, corruption! Factor that in and the picture starts to focus a little...