March 4, 2013

Understanding Lese Majeste - intent and crime

Understanding Lese Majeste in Thailand - intent and crime

One of the most outstanding features of the masterful  Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-majesté (London: Routledge, 2011) by David Streckfuss is its unprecedented attempt to lay bare the logic of thinking by those who protect Thainess through the monarchy (or the monarchy through Thainess). Streckfuss's  idea of a "defamation regime" is not a casual shot at coining a nice easy term, but is a systematic  rendering, informed by deep theory, of the logic of the Thai state.

I had the pleasure of interviewing David Steckfuss about his book and the edited transcript was published in Critical Asian Studies in 2011. As we ponder why people like  labour and red-shirt activist Somyot Prueksakasemsuk  and others are locked behind bars for what amount to thought and speaking crimes, the temptation is to blame the sheer callousness of the authorities.  That doesn't add up. As commentator after commentator notes, the thoughtless and ruthless application of the lese-majeste law  and the inhumane sentencing that occurs  might sensibly be thought to diminish the position of the monarchy in Thailand - any cost/benefit analysis would suggest as much.

Something else is going on so that the lese majeste  machine sentences and imprisons at will.  And it has come  recently in Somyot's case to  more explicitly expand its rationale for imprisonment  to the supposed  "intention" of the accused.  Sentencing  doesn't go through a cost/benefit committee charged with protecting the image and reputation of the monarchy.   There are other reasons behind what is happening other  than sheer instrumental repression. Truth and Trial in Thailand is a conceptually rich that book gives us deep insights  into this ghostly machine. Critical Asian Studies has made the full transcript and accompanying book review available here .  

At a minimum government agencies such as Thailand's   Office of the Attorney General, government and opposition spoke-persons  and public intellectuals ought express a preference for bail,  lighter sentencing and stricter thresholds for prosecution. The idea that  the issue is too sensitive to address openly  is a convenient infantilization of Thailand's public sphere and a misguided attempt to reconcile with something that isn't tangible.

December 19, 2012

30th Anniversary of the Franklin River Blockade

30th Anniversary of the Franklin River Blockade

30 years ago this month the Franklin River Blockade changed the face of environmental politics. Several thousand people converged in Southwest Tasmania to protest the construction of a hydropower dam in a world heritage indigenous and forest area.

I spent the summer of 1982-1983 involved in the protests. It's over thirty years ago now, but the buzz of the time still resonates. I was privileged to also be present at a small party that walked into the forest and stood round a tree and issued a declaration on the area's status. We arrived late in Strahan at night, stayed at an old local building (very secretly)  and left for a boat ride some time later.  How I got there is lost in memory, but I recall a fellow called Peter Wolf (?) who worked for Greenpeace inviting me to get involved. All because one day I walked into the Wilderness bookshop.....I then attended a planning workshop some way out of Launceston for several days on a rural property, and my involvement grew from that.

This is a brief account of my experience at the Franklin River Blockade It's short on history and context and really is just one person's memories. A wonderful website someone recently suggested to me  on the Blockade is here.

December 9, 2012

A God-King for Our Times or a Fetish Commodified?

The Journal of Contemporary Asia has made my extended discussion of the edited collection (Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager  eds) Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand (NIAS PRESS)  freely available

Below is an excerpt that discusses the valuable contributions made by Jackson and Sarun to understanding the Thai monarchy

A God-King for Our Times or a Fetish Commodified?

The opening chapter of the book is Peter Jackson's important critique of the “virtual divinity” of the monarchy. The chapter fans out to question the predominantly Buddhist image of Thailand, following Pattana Kitiarsa's (2005) revisionist argument that understanding Thailand's religious culture requires seeing it as fundamentally hybrid and fluid, free of state control. It is this latter condition that provides some understanding to the re-deification of the monarchy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Jackson argues that we can understand the near god-king status of Bhumibol only as a product of several related processes, including the “spectralisation” of the world in the neo-liberal era. Contrary to Weber's secularisation thesis, modernity has delivered a vibrant mysticism in the form of capitalist prosperity cults that aim to solicit the aid of the spirit world in aggrandising wealth. Spectralisation partly connotes that such spirits and ghosts come to have a real existence, they inhabit people's calculations, they are worshipped, solicited and they become manifest in symbols or are embodied in otherwise real people; time is no longer linear but people experience a world awash with ghosts of the past. The king who embodies the historical syncretism of Thai cultural practices would seem to be a spectral figure, and monarchy haunts the Thai imagination as an idea that transcends time. This cultural non-ideological texture of Thai mentalities recurs in forms that defy linear progression, the bricolage of traditions surrounding the monarchy being symptomatic. In that sense, monarchical politics are not always instrumental or consciously activated; they draw on a deep reservoir of Thai cultural being, if we take culture to mean a mélange of life practices subject to the tensions of power and freedom.

For Jackson the king has become spectralised as a divine figure. How this has come about is the subject matter of his chapter. As such, he furthers our understanding of the wide-eyed awe that some Thais have for the king. He shows how Buddhist discourses of dhammaraja that envisaged virtuous rule of the Buddhist monarch have gradually been supplanted, or perhaps cross-fertilised, with Brahmanic discourses of god-kings, with the latter becoming increasingly prevalent. The surprising element to Jackson's claim is how capitalist social forces – the money-seeking middle classes of shop owners and small workshop owners and, in part, the middle layers of the professional classes – have paved the way to this divination by imagining King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1905) as an ancestor spirit with special powers. The Chulalongkorn cult has been articulated to Bhumibol in some popular religious paraphernalia, and this emerging conflation of kings, a work still in hydra-headed progress, puts Bhumibol in a reflected aura. Not that he needs to bask in the glory of others, for the elements of god-king status have long been in place. Many Thais already assume the king to be a sammuttithep, which Jackson describes as a “virtual deity,” a god by convention, rather than an actual god. Sammutthithep, he explains, “is a key concept in Thailand's hybrid Buddhist-Brahmanic discourse in which royal power is legitimated by the king's ritual performance of godlikeness rather than from an ascription of literal divinity” (p. 38). For Jackson, the dual images of kingship are not simply parallel processes, for they bear some intimate relationship. He notes that in the Hindu pantheon of Gods, Buddha Gotama is the ninth incarnation of Vishnu. So rather than seeing contradictory processes of traditions of kingship that defy orderly progression, Jackson advances an understanding of differential permutations of religious lineages, adding up to a present in which the past is always there. The question now is whether the king has moved from this virtual realm of divinity to the real in popular belief? Indeed, it is not clear if this distinction has had much purchase even among some royal admirers (p. 39).

One way of testing this blurring of distinction is to ask what attributes of power attach to the monarchy. Jackson suggests that there are three notions of power operative in Thailand: amnaat (raw power to act on things); barami (charismatic power of the virtuous); and saksit, described by Jackson as the “magico-divine power possessed by holy objects” (p. 33). Bhumibol is conventionally held to have an enormous store of barami, in keeping with conceptions of Buddhist kingship, but in recent years saksit has also attached to his person, giving him an aura of divinity. It is this development, Jackson (p. 34) contends, that enables Bhumibol to simultaneously aggrandise more raw power, against, we might add, a fourth notion of “procedural democratic power” that has emerged in struggles for democratic constitutionalism.

This god-making process is partly driven from below. Jackson tells the fascinating story of King Mongkut's conjuring of the protective deity Phra Siam Thewathirat to watch over the new capital in the nineteenth century (pp. 29-42), while noting that god-making around Bhumibol is no longer the preserve of the court. It has become demotic, for much of the holy view of the current king has been manufactured not in the workhouses of state identity agencies, but from the waves of mania and insecurity among social classes negotiating a pluralised spirit world and a life of commerce to create “occult economies.” If an early corporate aristocracy was suckled by the monarchy from the 1960s in highly specialised relationships (Gray, 1986 8),  in a more developed form of capitalism it is fitting that a more numerous middle class seek favours by offering worship, whatever their chosen god.

For Jackson, what is most significant is that the state agencies have not resisted this process. Instead they have inserted the monarchy into the process by using “technologies of enchantment.” On this, contributor Martin Platt (p. 101) recounts seeing a video, set to modern folk music, on the Skytrain in Bangkok: “An elderly woman is showing reverential respects (or wai-ing) in front of a picture of the King. When her granddaughter asks who it is in the picture, the grandmother replies, “thewada thi mi lom hai jai” (a living, breathing angel). Visitors to Thailand are now greeted with a video presentation while waiting in line at the passport desk, telling them that the king “sees possibilities that no one else sees.” Such depictions depart from the more prominent rational discourses surrounding Buddhist kingship popular in the 1960s and 1970s, when both military dictatorships and elected governments sought to end people's reliance on superstition and the spirit world. Of the political impact of the new divinity surrounding the monarchy, Jackson notes that those who have promoted rational images of kingship and constitutionalism – advocates of “royal liberalism” – have done very little to protest these developments, viewing as they do the monarch's apparent anti-materialism as a support against the corrupt money politics that troubles them (p. 51). In as much as the monarchy is now a cult, the cult is about a spirit/ghost-in-the-world which is beyond control. In all, Jackson's piece helps greatly in imagining a social and anthropological place of the monarchy beyond the instrumentalism that some commentators have sometimes largely attributed to it.

The pseudonymous Sarun Krittikarn (Chapter 3) offers a counter-point to spectralisation by suggesting an inter-subjective reading of the monarchy that strips away the aura produced by the divination processes explored by Jackson. For Sarun, the king has become part of what he calls “entertainment nationalism.” This is defined as “a kind of nationalism channelled through the fleeting and volatile desires and emotions of sensation gathering and pleasure seekers” (p. 63). Sarun explores how the inter-subjective gaze between king/royals and subjects instantiates an identity in subjects that is dependent and childlike. In effect, the claim is that observance of royal performance can lead to the internalisation of the propagated discourse of family-like relations between the parental royal family and the childish subject. Just as the process implores the royal family to continually perform itself in royal guise, so the king has become a logo “easily turned into a fetishized commodity” (p. 77). For some, the king's gaze is “warm, protective, forgiving, full of self-sacrificing love and care” (p. 69). Still, for others, the gaze can involve “total subjugation to superior power” (p. 69). Sarun is at her/his interpretative best describing the celebrations of the King's sixty-year reign in June 2006:

At that moment [when a photo was taken by a member of the royal family during the 2006 celebrations] the abstract sadomasochist relationship was materialised into a tangible object of the photograph, the individuality of the people in the Royal Plaza was temporarily dissolved into a mass uniform larger Self the self of being Thai, under the protective royal patronage (p. 70).

Here, as Sarun notes, the gazer is the king looking out at the masses. He is the subject who provides the foundation of the collective subject of the nation. It/they in turn look back, getting a shot of nationalism refracted through the monarch. They see themselves. This electrifying essay carries with it the burden of all cultural critiques influenced by the aesthetics of the Frankfurt School on modern mass culture – its assumption of a mass psychology and a thinly disguised distaste of mass processes. So the conclusions should be read as critique, not empirical reality.

Sarun's essay touches on themes explored at a 2008 photographic exhibition entitled Waiting for the King, by Manit Sriwanichpoom, at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne, Australia. Taken while a massive crowd waited for Bhumibol to appear during the 2006 June celebrations, the pictures are long, thin and grey. They show a tired heat-stricken people, some brushed by a slight wind. Rusty street barriers exclude the people from the path of the imminent royal procession. Despite the presumably joyous occasion, worrisome and furtive looks make up the bulk of dispositions. Is this a corralled people waiting for a glimpse of divinity or a people waiting for their own brand of entertaining nationalism? The gaze then might be in the eye of the beholder. Manit set the exhibition on opposing walls so that when viewers walked through the space it was as if they themselves were in the procession, perhaps becoming Sarun's looked-at-king who is fashioned by a disturbing assembly of people and consumers. Coming to the end of these images, viewers gazed upon enlarged photographs of children tied and bound in Thai flags. Further still, viewers confronted a picture of a slit-throated chicken hanging above the flag and dripping blood. And finally viewers were confronted by the jarring image of a pig's heart so red it could still be pumping, sitting nonchalantly on the flag. The image symbolises, perhaps, the entirety of the processes that have led to an exclusionary and corrupt politics of all nationalisms, not just the Thai brand (Manit, 2008 20)
The tensions between the varied reading of the monarchy by Jackson and Sarun are evident. How can we align the occult magico-power of the divine kingship as spirit in the world with the mundane gaze of gossip and celebrity implied by entertainment nationalism so stridently described by Sarun? That both authors seem to be saying contradictory things and yet are able to offer convincing accounts reflects the monarchy's multiple registers and interactions with different, and frequently even opposed, audiences.

June 22, 2012

Stirring the dust under the feet

Just before the Thai  July 2011 General election I was asked by Bloomberg: “What are the prospects of a power-sharing arrangement between Thaksin and his opponents?” My response in part was:

“Apart from hardline elements who mistakenly view Thaksin as the nadir of monarchist Thailand, my guess is the economic and political costs of protracted conflict is now weighing heavily on some of the incumbents who still want to steer Thailand to a prosperous and modern future. There must be considerable distress felt in royalist circles at the anti-royalist feeling that is emerging among rank and file redshirts and frankly the only genuine way to stop this growing is by bringing Thaksin back into the fold. Thaksin has time and time again shown his willingness to abide by most public protocols in relation to the monarchy. The inane propaganda efforts of the various security agencies are a lesson in blowback and the stupidity of force feeding people with "correct ideas". The more men in khaki wax lyrical about the royal family the more their standing is diminished. Thaksin has always signalled his willingness to do a deal and moreover is happy to deploy royalist imagery. This is what he offers and no one else can play this card. This will be the basis of any power-sharing arrangement.

In some senses the stark choice facing the rival camps is continued conflict at the cost of mutual destruction and seeing Thailand meltdown, or some step back from this and working out a formula for power sharing or at the very least a situation in which a "loyal opposition" has a credible chance of electoral victory at the following election. And should something be "agreed" this raises another question, how would such a historic anti-climax be received among those mobilised yellow and red -shirted citizens. This takes us to the final of the many unknowns of the post election period: the potential of a rising democratic mass in the face of this intra-elite bargaining and game-playing. Of all the possible game changers, this seems the least unlikely on the balance of probabilities. I'd like to be proven wrong.”

More recently I’ve been asked about the lack of support for amending Article 112 that concerns lese majeste. My response was:

“There is actually broad but muted support among some sections of the elite to amend the law, liberal royalists have come out in favour of amendment and of course red-shirt elements are strongly in support. The proposed amendment in the “people’s bill” are smartly pitched and in a situation where public policy was rationally debated you’d have to say the bill would go some way to answering the needs of both sides of the political divide.

But rational public debate is playing second fiddle to various political imperatives. These include constantly changing attempt to appease hardline royalists and not provoke mobilisation. You can see in the mobilisation against the amnesty bills what is possible. You’d expect greater mobilization to oppose the Campaign 112 Bill, given the monarchy’s place in Thailand’s symbolic politics.

Pheu Thai forces made it very clear in the days after the July 2011 election that the monarchy was their most vulnerable point and they would need to move slowly. They’ve lived up to that expectation, with people still in prison, and Chalerm’s war room to monitor lese majeste. But the plea by government sympathisers to understand Pheu Thai’s constrained political environment can also be self-serving - it creates a space for Thaksin forces to use anti-monarchy sentiment among supporters as their strongest bargaining point with the establishment to try and forge a power-sharing arrangement. “Deal with us, and we can stop this” is the message. This attempt largely defines the last year of political bargaining.

It is evident that while party-connected red shirts and those surrounding Thaksin do not totally control the red-shirt movement, they are in a position to largely shut down anti-monarchy discourse or at least alienate it from the more cautious elements of the movement. This is what they offer at the bargaining table. In some senses, the future of the monarchy depends on what agreements can be made to share power.

A final point to make would be that the reluctance to amend reflects a national condition of impending crisis. There is respect on both sides of politics for the king. This is a cultural condition that does not necessarily reflect agreement on the monarchy or the lese majeste law , but a sentiment that says so late in the reign it would be disrespectful to make these moves. For those who feel the king’s presence as the father and soul of the nation – and these ideas are really felt – amendment that is politically motivated appears as ingratitude. For that reason, amendment will likely quickly follow the passing of King Bhumiphol.

Amendment is only likely to happen in this reign under two conditions. Either a signal comes from the palace, so that the amendment is seen as part of the narrative of a democratic kingship or controversial amendment, even abolition, occurs as part of an increasingly polarised struggle for total power. Amendment based on rational debate is a distant possibility.”

April 23, 2012

Two-timing China

On the politics of two-timing: China, the U.S. and Australia. Hear the clinking of glasses? Hardly. It’s a celebration that must be muted for fear of raising the ire of the Chinese government. Even so, there must have been many a quiet toast to the profound intensification of the Australia-US alliance marked by the arrival this week of US Marines in the Northern Territory, whose rotating ranks will swell to several thousand in coming years.

With a little bit of the Pentagon now firmly on Australia’s northern shores, the impulse is further expansion. Last week reports re-surfaced of possibly extending US presence in Australia to ports in Western Australia and even Queensland, and of locating drones and surveillance facilities on Cocos Islands, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean (unknown to most). This comes on top of the United States’ increased engagement with states such as the Philippines and Singapore in what is a thinly disguised balancing of a rising China’s power.

Hear the thud of protesting feet? Hardly. No Eureka nationalists have taken to the streets against these militarist developments. Even for some anti-war veterans, Midnight Oil’s anti-militarist anthem “US Forces” looks lamely juvenile, penned for a less complicated era. Where have all the flowers gone, indeed. Still there will be those who bemoan these developments as yet more evidence that Australia might as well apply for status as an American state. Some will shudder at the utterly banal reality of Australia’s two-timing between Chinese markets and American warships and wonder how a better future was lost. It is small comfort to observe that sooner or later two-timers get caught out.

These developments come at a significant moment in debates about Australia’s role in international politics. Several years ago in his 2010 Quarterly Essay Power-Shift ANU Professor Hugh White was honest enough to let his simplistic realism lead him to a terrifying conclusion: Australia should advise the United States that its top-of-the-pops post-Cold War run was soon to be over and that it needed to accept China as a Great Power. That meant, among other things, respecting China’s legitimate regional interests and non-interference in its internal affairs. White is no star-striper ingrate. He values the US’s military presence in the region, especially in Japan and South Korea, as allowing relative peace to endure. That time is now over.

Some Japanese are itching to be “normal” and transform the Japanese Self Defense Forces into a proper military. The Chinese for their part are eyeing a world of enlarged military and security possibilities on the back of massive economic growth. In this context, White and others advance a position that with US unipolarity in decline it is necessary for countries in the region to avoid war by planning a careful power transition. That transition must allow a Concert of Powers, in which China sits as an equal, to replace US unipolarity. A Concert of Powers, functioning to prevent any Great Power from predominating, presumably will ensure balance and restraint. At its table will be the predictables: China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia, India, and other states. They will respect each other’s legitimate interests, which is to say they can play around in their own backyards as long as they don’t seek primacy against others.

This message was not the kind of thing Australian diplomats want to deliver to their great and powerful American friends over cocktails. White earned rebuke and insult for his efforts, with The Australian’s Greg Sheridan calling White’s paper “the single, stupidest strategic document ever prepared in Australian history by someone who once held a position of some responsibility in our system.”

Well, now it seems that the Australian government has chosen a smart path. In expanding the presence of the U.S. military Australia appears to support and defend the U.S. position in the Asia Pacific into the future. It signals, some would argue, a shared strategic conception of the world that aims at maintenance of U.S. unipolarity. Maybe not.

Many analysts will read the expansion of the US presence here as vindication of the insurance doctrine that underlines Australia’s relationship with the U.S. That doctrine holds that Australia must do whatever it can to keep the US engaged and present in the region. This can involve exaggerating threats, offering incentives, being a hyper loyal ally by fighting wars of no conceivable national or international interest, and pleading common values. There is no greater insurance than a deepened presence by the US, one which potentially involves massive infrastructure of great strategic significance. Counter-intuitively, having the US more firmly anchored here, will give Australia a vantage point from which to disagree and counter US direction when this is judged to be contrary to national, regional or international interest.

The day may come when the diplomatic cocktail party is upset and Australia advises the U.S. government that its position at the top of the pops is no longer tenable. U.S. reliance on a deepened Australian security role will give weight to the unwelcome argument that security in the region will be best managed by a Concert of Powers. Two-timers celebrate, it seems you may have your China and be with the U.S., as well.

Michael Connors teaches politics at La Trobe University. He is the co-author of New Global Politics of the Asia Pacific, Routledge, Second Edition (2012). A shorter version of this article appeared at