December 30, 2007

Thailand: Another Country

Another Country:
Reflections on the politics of culture and the Muslim South

Michael K. Connors
School of Social Sciences
La Trobe University

Paper Presented at the Thai Update, Australian National University, September, 2006 (with some updated material).

A country in Southeast Asia: armed soldiers occupy Buddhist temple compounds protected by sandbags and barbed wire to protect themselves from insurgent attacks. The same security forces use sniffer dogs to search the homes and schools of local Muslims, well knowing that this is deeply offensive. Militants, some say inspired by perverted notions of the Islamic faith, behead victims, seemingly in emulation of so-called “jihadists” elsewhere. There appears to be some mercy though: the beheading take place after death. Young men, suspected of insurgent activity are released from custody and ‘disappear’. The whispered talk of the town in the small tea-shops that populate the main strip is whether there will be ‘an attack tonight.’ Welcome to the Malay-speaking ‘border provinces’ of southern Thailand: Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, where since 2004 over two and a half thousand people have died in a murky conflict between Malay-Muslim insurgents, criminal networks, and security apparatuses of the Thai state. It feels, in many ways, like another country.

For many outsiders, including myself, the deep South of Thailand has largely been a peripheral concern; studying Thailand has meant studying Buddhist and nationalist Thailand. For the most part, my own work has been motivated by an interest in how nationalism and ideology bind fissiparous social formations. Integrative and almost religious in their combined power, national identity and nationalism (the weapon and the bullet) continue to confound expectations of a post-national age. Thailand seemed to be a good example of this. This interest has led me to pursuing an overly narrow interest in the ‘success’ of Thai nationalism and its various expressions. Events in the South of Thailand, where some form of struggle for national recognition is underway, has brought home just how misplaced such an assumption regarding Thai nation-building can be. More than that, it has introduced to much of the world, including keen observers of Thailand, and Thais themselves, a largely mis-fitting part of that nation-state (as it is currently constituted): the Muslim majority provinces of the deep south.

On my first visit to Pattani in October 2005 I pursued an interest I was then developing in Thailand’s Ministry of Culture. I visited its provincial office on the fourth floor of the sala jangwat, the large building that brings together in one provincial location most of the offices of the Thai state. How, I wondered, would a ministry so identified with Buddhism and devotion to the monarchy, work in the Muslim South? This is something I am still working on, but my basic finding is that middle ranking provincial officials - Buddhist and Muslim - can be quite inventive in their interpretation of central dictate, becoming agents of a more sensitive and nuanced cultural policy. This has meant that provincial offices of the Ministry of Culture are now involved in the process of promoting Malay culture, rituals and the preservation of sites that give the deep provinces their distinctive character. And to indicate the complexity of cultural politics in the South, note that as officials from the Ministry of Culture belatedly promote Malay culture (kite flying, dance forms, theatre), supported by cultural networks, they face hostility from Islamic fundamentalists who outwardly reject Malay identity and who see Malay culture as a contaminating influence that preceded the coming of Islam to the region (field notes, October 2005, January 2006).

Moreover, this seemingly pluralist promotion of Malay culture takes place under the rubric of Thai identity, leaving provincial officials of the Thai state in the deep South caught at the borders of “Thainess”; they end up rhetorically supporting a nation-state project that has little experiential reference in the locality in which they work. This is especially so when they are compatriots of an ethnic grouping (ethnically Malay-Muslims) whose diverse ways of life fails to resonate with the triadic ideology of nation (Thai), religion (Buddhism) and monarchy (Buddhist and patron of all religions). With these thoughts in mind – that the South is a cauldron of competing projects, interests, identities - I’d like to make some general points about events in the South framed around the question of nationalism.

First let me signal where I am coming from: I am increasingly of the opinion that there is a nationalism in the South, which is really to say that there is a state-less ‘nation’ (a language and ethnic community), that is in the process of re-mobilisation and re-generation and perhaps still defining its form. The fact of this ‘nation’ will outlive the current insurgency, and any resolution to the current situation will be long-standing only if it comes to terms with this politically-made reality. That requires a will to undertake a critical examination of Thai-centric nationalism (even in its progressive disguise of localism) and to come to terms with a significant second national body (and perhaps others) within the borders of the Thai state. Whether that recognition comes - if it comes at all - from an internal and deliberative process of reform or is foisted through an insurrectionary act can not be predicted.

It will be well known to those who are familiar with Thailand that it is a deeply nationalist country, and in part this nationalism is refracted through attachments to Buddhism and the monarchy. More recently there has been a progressive evolution of that nationalism into one that has come to valorise local difference as part of the great diversity that makes up the Thai. This has found expression in terms of cultural diversity – now the official policy of the Ministry of Culture (see discussion in Connors 2005, 532-535). This idea was orthodox by the 1990s and seemingly opened a space in which repressed cultures could be recognised and flourish. This shift was matched, or perhaps driven by, democratic openings in the 1980s that provided an avenue for Muslim elites to enter the political sphere. By the early 1990s it was commonly believed that militant separatist groups were in terminal decline. Signalling this sentiment, in part, was the Thaksin government’s dismantling, in 2002, of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SPBAC), the chief body that was charged with administration of the region and which incorporated local forces (for an overview see McCargo 2007, 35-68).

The liberalisation of policy can be seen in a somewhat schematic way by comparing policy thinking on the South. A 1988 publication by the SBPAC saw insurgent activity as a threat to national security and, to quote, “…geo-political stability which are chiefly dependent on the integrity of Thailand’s national religion, traditions, customs, language and culture, and monarchy” (SBPAC 1988, 10). The booklet set out national policy in the South which included promotion of Thai language, “to use more Thai as the medium of communication” , “to enhance positive attitudes toward being their [sic] ‘Thainess’, not members of a minor group” ( SBPAC 1988, 11). The organization also noted the centrality of the monarchy to incorporation of the ethnic Malay (or by the preferred nomenclature, “Thai Muslims”) into the national body. It notes that the king “appoints a respected Islamic religious leader as Chularajamontri, or Supreme Counsellor for Islamic Affairs”. And of the king’s sojourns at his Southern Palace it is said that “the warmth, the supreme happiness, and the charismatic effects always fill up the hearts of all Thai Muslim populace…” (SPBAC 1988, 20). A decade later, reflecting the shift in national culture policy, then deputy permanent secretary of the Interior Ministry Phalakon Suwanrat and Director of SBPAC noted

In the past the attempt to solve the problems in the Southern border provinces using assimilation has proven to be completely wrong…Today we must change from thinking ‘Thai people must be completely the same’ or ‘Unity is all being the same’ to ‘Thai people do not have to be the same’ and ‘Unity can arise in diversity’ (SBPAC 1999, p. ii ).

In this spirit, The National Security Policy for the Southern Border Provinces (1999-2003) states as its vision for the border areas: “Every person…will live in happiness, based on their specific religious and cultural identity, especially Thai Muslims.” (Office of the National Security Council 1999, p. 4). There is evidently some concession to difference here, but it is difficult to locate acceptance of a second national body in official nationalist discourse– hence the endless debates about how to designate the Malay-Muslims in the South (See Jory, 2006). What is apparent, and more on this below, is that “Thainess” can not escape its origins as an ethno-ideology (Kasian 1996 ) and while subordinate identities can flourish under it, none can stand equal to it. This surely is a part of the puzzle that continues to confound those seeking an explanation to recent events in the South.

The violence that has escalated since 2003-2004 has historic precedents, erupting throughout the twentieth century. The Malay Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand (and parts of Songkla) were once home to the Malay sultanate of Patani. Full administrative incorporation into the Thai nation-state in the early years of the twentieth century has led to quite unremarkable economic, cultural and political grievances among Malay Muslims (for background see Gilquin, 2005). I say “unremarkable” because they inevitably emerge given a situation marked by a predatory and largely chauvinistic state structure, and, more latterly, a pragmatic and opportunistic Muslim political class that has worked with that structure. In this context, no amount of social engineering (read token reconciliation) will eliminate the ebb and flow of separatist or militant-religious inspired politics in the South unless it moves beyond the contradictory strategy of incorporation of opportunist elites and low-level cultural recognition. The 1980s and 1990s is instructive in this regard. During that time, the SBPAC was held to have succeeded in delivering a burgeoning peace in the region, by incorporating Malay-Muslim elements into administrative structures and thus providing for some form of local elite input into governance structures; this at a time when the Thai state was heavily centralized. The SBPAC also embodied a two-decades social compact in the South that recognised, integrated and legitimised various interests. Although it was claimed that separatism was quelled by the late 20th century, one can detect many ebbs and flows through the period. Most startlingly, a read through the Thai-language magazine Muslim News from the 1990s reveals that its editors were publishing articles that narrate the history of Siam’s encroachment and, ultimately, annexation of ‘Patani’. This nationalist historiography was published under the nose of the SBPAC, while at an ideological level - in the identity producing agencies of the state at the centre - it was ignored.

The sources for an enduring nationalism in the South are fertile, if currently in flux and perhaps inchoate. But one thing is certain: no can one underestimate the contribution made to nation-formation by the subjective and communal experience of what may be experienced as a form of colonialism. Yes, I am alluding here to the idea that in some ways the experience of the southern provinces is analogous to that of a colony. From this standpoint, nationalism is, in part, worked into shape by the corrosive chisel of humiliation that inheres in the colonial encounter. Take but one example: how some local Muslim civil servants feel about the majority of officials in the region who are largely non-Malay speaking Buddhist Thais from elsewhere. The Thai bureaucracy has always seen itself in a paternal relationship to the rural populations across the nation (although it now embraces the language of clients and modern management shibboleths); in the South this assumes a hyper-civilising posture, seeing Malay-Muslims as a group of people who need to be economically and culturally developed (which includes acquisition of Thai language and culture). That the Thai elite have not similarly experienced a process of colonization by a foreign-tongued conqueror perhaps make some of them incapable of empathy.

Newly arriving officials in the South are presented with Primers and Manuals outlining the cultural specificity of the region (see SPBAC 1999; Interior Ministry, 2002). It’s as if they have arrived at a colonial outpost readily armed with manual providing directives on how to treat the natives. One can imagine that the people-to-civil- servant encounter has affinities to those encounters that characterised colonial trusteeship, and its underbelly of abuse, in the early to mid twentieth century. It goes without saying that many Muslims are integrated into this system, and so stand in an ambivalent position.

The sketch above is undoubtedly generalised, but it does reflect things on the ground. One informant, a civil servant, from Yala reported that local Muslim officials who came into touch with central Thai bureaucrats were often subject to the superior airs of their Thai Buddhist colleagues who were armed with the language, education, culture and authority of the centre (field notes April 2006). The SPBAC put in place cultural and language orientation activities for the constantly rotated band of Thai speaking and Buddhist bureaucrats. The same informant explained to me that those local officials charged with the cultural and language orientation of the newly arrived officials often sensed indifference and sometimes contempt for their efforts. The incentive to learn the local language and culture was not great for redeployed bureaucrats: for many the next posting would, hopefully, be elsewhere.

It is from such humiliations that the handmaiden of nationalism often emerges: resentment and anger. Recent events have done much to contribute to a hardening of religious-nationalist sentiment. On April 28th 2004, the anniversary of a brutal crackdown on Muslim dissidents in 1948 that left hundreds dead, over one hundred Muslim men, including many teenagers, armed mostly with knives, apparently and so far, to my mind, inexplicably staged doomed attacks on checkpoints and police stations. In one case they retreated into the sacred Krue Se Mosque, where over 30 were killed. In total 107 were killed during the attacks and subsequent retreat. Some of the attackers were summarily executed. On October 25 in Narathiwat province security forces arrested over a thousand protestors, and transported them to an army camp. En route, 78 people died, some by suffocation. This is the stuff from which militant nationalism is strengthened, and from which revenge flows. Military-run re-education camps that suspected insurgents or sympathisers are forced to attend are unlikely to diminish the historical memory of 2004.

The question now being asked is ‘when will the violence stop’? In June 2006, after a year of deliberation, Thailand’s National Reconciliation Commission (2006) released its final report on the causes and proposed solutions to the violence in the southern border provinces of Thailand. Led by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, the NRC used the problems in the South as a platform upon which to note the deterioration of democratic rule in Thailand under Thaksin Shinatwatra (2001-2006).

The NRC report notes that the problems that exist in the South also obtain in other regions - poverty, abuse of power, flawed judicial processes. What distinguishes the southern border provinces, and what has thus led to the present low intensity conflict is that these problems play out in a context marked by religious, language and cultural difference. These provide all the necessary ingredients for a further deterioration if grievances are not addressed.

And, as the NRC notes, these grievances are also mobilised by non-ideological forces who use the opportunity provided by the securitisation of the conflict to continue with criminal forms of behaviour such as cross-border trade and drug trafficking. Interestingly, the NRC reports that in close to half of the so-called red-zone villages (where insurgents are held to be operative) conflict over resources is an ongoing issue, thus suggesting that economic issues continue to fuel unrest. Provincial level- statistics showing relative and improved wellbeing in the South, need to be taken lightly and broken down to the district-level to locate pockets of desperation.

While accepting the existence of militant networks, the NRC sees the violence in the South as a consequence of militant, criminal and state-based actors interacting with resource grievances and structural factors such as forms of rule that do not respond to local needs.

Working out who is behind the violence is no easy task (see Askew 2007; Connors 2006, McCargo 2007). While various organizational names are presented to the media, such as BERSATU, BRN, RKK, PUSAKA, few accounts can be definitive, not least because the intelligence forces offer contradictory accounts. The NRC report notes the lack of consensus among state officials. For example, in the first half of 2005, the Thai police were unable to determine who was responsible for around 80% of the violent incidents on record. Furthermore, the military claimed that only half of the violent incidents in the first quarter of 2004 were attributable to militants.

The key recommendation of the NRC is that an Act of Reconciliation be passed which brings into being three new organisations: the Border Provinces Area Development Council; the Peaceful Strategic Administrative Centre for Southern Border Provinces; and a permanent fund to support reconciliation work.

The proposed Border Provinces Area Development Council, which is seen as a response to more radical calls for autonomy, sounds good on paper; but as an advisory body only, with no official power, it fails to address local calls for more substantive reform. In not dealing with genuine political re-organisation, tensions on the nature of political rule in the deep South will continue. The second body, the Strategic Administrative Centre, essentially recreates the SBPAC that the Thaksin government disbanded in 2002. It is not at all clear that re-establishment of that organisation in all but name will end the crisis. SBPAC's success was not simply related to its organisational efficiency. It also embodied a two-decades social compact in the South that, as noted above, recognised, integrated and legitimised various interests. The last five years have seen those interests embroiled in conflict, violence and reconfiguration. The balance of power that held in the SBPAC cannot now be resurrected by simple administrative decree, as evidenced by the post-coup government’s limited success in this regard.

The NRC report also stresses the importance of working towards increased cultural understanding in the region, including the possible expansion of Sharia law. What this means practically will depend on local Muslim interpretation. The NRC also recommended making Malay a ‘working language’ in the region. The significance of such a proposal cannot be underestimated, nor can the immediate rejection of the proposal by the Thaksin government and figures such as Privy Councillor Prem Tinsulalond. As reported in The Nation (20 June 2006), NRC member Ahmed Somboon Bualuang called on the state,

to be more opened-minded and not feel threatened by the Malay language… Ahmed said Malay was an integral part of the southern community and was used in their daily lives - and in their teaching of Islam. Ahmed said the fact that nearly 300 million people in Southeast Asia speak the Malay language in various dialects should prompt the state to look at the idea as an investment in human capital and in economic prospects.

I want to say more on language. Thai is a minority language in border provinces, barring Satun, with a dialect of the Malay language spoken by upwards of 60-70% of the population. The trend, according to the Bureau of National Statistics is towards Malay. For example, in 1990 in Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and Satun, 70.5, 77.9, 62.4, and 2.8% of people spoke Malay respectively. By 2000 the figures had drifted higher (Pattani, 76.6; Narathiwat 80.4; Yala 66.1; and Satun 9.9%). The four provinces also experienced a several percentage point rise in the proportion of the resident Muslim population during the same period (this before the current rumours of an exodus of Thai Buddhists from the region). While it is true that many of those who report Malay as their primary language will also speak some Thai, it might be plausible to argue that there is a growing language divide in terms of usage because of two structural features: the first is the rural bias of ethnic-Malay settlement and thus distance from Thai speaking centres, and the municipal bias of Thai Buddhist settlement. Secondly, there is the continuing presence of Malay speaking informal schools and religious centres, and the non-presence of many Muslim school aged youth at Thai speaking state schools, especially in the rural areas (exacerbated by the current situation). For educational reformers in the South, language is key. A Malay-Muslim educational advisor who is involved in developing a promising bilingual curriculum told me that when he went to primary school in the 1950s he was hit for speaking Malay (field notes January 2006). Thai was the language of instruction to an uncomprehending class. The language divide is easily observable. I have attended meetings in Pattani where state officials speak Thai to a Malay-speaking audience. People leave those meetings or sit indifferently, as they can’t comprehend what is being said (field notes October 2005).

Culture is lived through language. Devaluing the language spoken by the majority of the people in the southern border provinces in the name of promoting national integration, has bred resentment and antagonism, entrenching a sense of alienation towards the state among some Malay-Muslims in the South. The NRC language recommendation has the potential to provide a long-term solution to the anomic violence that may, in part, flow from social exclusion. If you can't speak in your own voice, how can you be a citizen? The introduction of a new language policy would be an expansion of citizenship rights in Thailand.

The response to language from the government and figures such as Prem points to a more general point: the inability to imagine that a ‘nation’ may warrant some form of autonomous rule. This has proved a stumbling block for the NRC too, as its report failed to raise the question of autonomy for the South. In so doing, the Bangkok liberal elite and their Muslim interlocutors were incapable of working on a political solution, thus reducing the likelihood of halting the downward spiral of fear and hopelessness that, in turn, breeds insecurity, mistrust and violence.

Indicative of just how prevalent is mistrust in the region, travelling with colleagues in April 2006, we met and interviewed a respected Muslim Senator from one of the three provinces. He told us that the government, pursuing repressive measures with abandon, had alienated even the most moderate elements in the South. Even those working with state agencies had been rounded up and taken in for questioning. Asked what solution he foresaw he resolutely called for United Nations intervention. The call makes sense from the perspective of human security. To be a Muslim and a Malay speaker involved in community life is enough to get a person on one of the various blacklists that circulate among security forces – and if worse comes to worse that person becomes one of the “disappeared”. The head of a private Islamic College in Pattani province explained to me that even though he sits on various government committees and has a good relationship with state officials, the military still interrogated him. “If they can’t trust people like me, who can they turn to?” he asked me (field notes October 2005). It is precisely because of this indiscriminate suspicion that anger and mistrust grows, and the presence of a neutral peace-keeping force grows more urgent.

Police and security forces regularly carry out surveillance. A ustad, a religious teacher, in a so-called ‘red zone’ of alleged insurgent activity, told how the police regularly visit his pondok, an Islamic boarding school, ‘just to introduce themselves’. He says he is neutral in the ongoing conflict and all he wants to do is provide his students with Islamic guidance. The school is surrounded by basic brick huts that the students have built themselves. He wants to give them skills that they can take to the outside world (field notes October 2005). For the moment, religious teachers and students are high on the list of suspected militants.

Hundreds of citizens from the South have been charged on various counts only to be released or acquitted because of lack of evidence. Some see the arrests as pure intimidation, bereft of legal purpose. A prime example is that of Waemahadee Waeda-oh who was jailed in 2003 while awaiting trail for JI membership and plotting to bomb Bangkok. In 2005 he was acquitted and then went on to win a seat in the now aborted Senate election of 2006. His victory was not an endorsement of JI politics. Waemahadee symbolized a defiant rejection, by a mobilised population, of repressive government measures, including an emergency decree which virtually suspends due legal process in the southern border provinces, and which the United Nations has judged to be in violation of human rights. (Matichon, 2006)

Fear of course works both ways. Muslims who work closely with the state also fear attacks from militants – and indeed many of those killed by militants are officials or associates of local government with a Muslim background (see Srisomphob 2007, 89-111). A high level Muslim civil servant who works for the government in Pattani province told me that he never travelled at night, fearful of being targeted by militants as a collaborator (field notes August 2006). Lots of people carry private guns for protection with good reason: the insurgents have proven to be callous and monstrous in their effort to carry out symbolic killings as a means of coercing non-cooperation with the state (see Human Rights Watch 2007).

There is also the under-reported story of mass graves. In November 2005 news surfaced of hundreds of unidentified corpses being found in unmarked graves in the Southern border provinces. News on this has been surprisingly sporadic. Conflicting reports in the Thai language press suggest that there are 200 unidentified bodies in Yala and over 300 in Pattani province (Prachathai 2005)

Kraisak Choonhaven, then care-taker Senator, and Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, speaking at a public rally in Bangkok in May 2006 against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, claimed that the graves may be linked to ‘missing’ Muslims (Prachathai 2006). In Melbourne, in late July 2006, Mr Kraisak spoke to me about unofficial death squads targeting blacklisted alleged militants. He claims that ‘people who complain have also disappeared’. Mr Kraisak says that the corpses in the mass graves are of recent origin, and are evidence ‘that indiscriminate suppression has become acceptable’. In March, the Bangkok based Nation newspaper reported an official saying that the bodies may well be those of Cambodian immigrants who locals described as having a “tendency to get drunk and fight’, a claim that Mr Kraisak describes as ‘preposterous’.

Islamic Councils in the provinces have indicated that exhumation of the deceased for the purposes of autopsy would be acceptable, but Thai forensic scientists efforts to undertake an investigation has been frustrated by government and bureaucratic stone-walling over budget allocation and jurisdiction (Phujutkan 2006). (Updated Note August 5th, 2008 - I am informed by a human rights activist that a budget is in place for this, but the forensic team is not in a position to begin its work because of the insurgency - apparently the team visited Indonesia to look at mass exhumation in preparation for their own work).
The majority of the bodies have been deposited in the graves by a local burial foundation, with little regard for registration. Kraisak told me that in 2004 security forces had a ‘semi-open policy’ of notifying the relatives of those it killed. This led to hatred and hostility among those relatives who came to collect the bodies. Now, death squads are simply leaving the body to be collected by foundations: “They [the killers] would prefer the families to have doubts about where they [the missing relatives] have gone to…”. While some of the bodies may well be a legacy from the ruthless war on drugs of 2003, there is a widespread belief that some of the deceased are “the disappeared” (Prachathai June 4, 2006).

Which brings us back to the question of cultural politics and the status of this “other country”. When life is so cheap (both ways), why should any one imagine cultural policy will make any difference? Indeed, a cultural policy that envisages diversity as a source of unity – as proclaimed national policy - is at odds with the very real political mobilization of nationalist sentiment by security and political forces and the mobilization of nationalist and religious myths by insurgents.

In a country where the nationalist establishment (the monarchy, palace patronised foundations, state agencies etc.) are intent on inculcation of Thainess, and where the population would seem to have largely embraced many of its elements, especially the “monarchy” as the soul of Thainess, the Malay-Muslims may well constitute an identity dilemma for the normative Thai. Consider a hypothetical Thai person: having been taught what Thainess is, and having internalised such notions as part of a personal identity, how does such a person confront a Thai citizen who speaks a different language, worships Allah, and who does not fully participate in rituals associated with elevating the embodiment of Thainess – the King? If they are not Thai, are they Malay? Are they trouble makers? While means of cooperation and co-existence and, indeed shared life, have been found at the local level among mixed Buddhist Thai and Muslim communities (as enduring periods of peace testify), the centralised highly ideological state currently provides no such means for co-existence as equals at the national level. Indeed the mechanisms of the state, and the actions of insurgents, are driving a wedge between communities – the stuff of communal resentment and ultimately an endless cycle of violence. This takes shape in stories that are passed from person to person – for example, stories that Buddhist shopkeepers must employ Muslims to work in shop fronts otherwise no Muslim customers will enter; or stories of Thai civil servants humiliating Malay Muslim men by speaking down to them, so that Muslim women take on tasks involving contact with the state. Other stories point to the possibility, in a distorted way, of shared fate and identity – the story of a Buddhist vocational teacher who is repeatedly warned by several of her Muslim students to avoid certain areas ‘tonight or tomorrow night’ because an “incident” is planned (field notes October 2005, January 2006).

It is unclear what lies ahead. Should the current flow of violence ebb and the insurgency move to a latent phrase, either as a result of a transitory political or military solution, it will be tempting for many strategic actors to put aside the difficult task of recognizing that another nation of language and culture exists in the South. In so doing they will be preparing the ground for a future insurgency or instability of some kind. Better to make the recognition of another nation (in whatever political form) the starting point of any process of peace building. Yet, as Thailand-based scholar Patrick Jory (2006, 43) has observed “within official discourses of Thainess while there is a place for Muslims, it appears there is no place for Malays”. Indeed, if one returns to documents prepared by the SPBAC under the auspices of the Interior Ministry one finds an explicit prohibition of recognising the Malay-Muslims as Malay:

Civil Servants and officials of the state in the border provinces should avoid the following behaviour: the use of words that create dissatisfaction or which create division between people who hold different religions. For example, calling Muslims “Khaek” or using words that make Thai Muslims understand that they are Malay, such as saying “orang maleyu” (SBPAC, 1999, p. 48).

The question remains of whether official Thai nationalism and its custodians can entertain some kind of autonomy or national federation in the long term. That starts with the Malay question in its national sense.

Askew M. (2007) Conspiracy, Politics, and a Disorderly Border: The Struggle to Comprehend Insurgency in Thailand's Deep South, East-West Center Washington; Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Connors MK. (2005) “Ministering Culture” Critical Asian Studies, 37,4, 523-551.

Connors MK. (2006) “'War on Error and the Southern Fire: How Terrorism Experts Get it Wrong', Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, 151-175.

Gilquin, M. (2005) The Muslims of Thailand, Silkworm: Chiang Mai.

Human Rights Watch (2007) No One Is Safe Insurgent Attacks on Civilians in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces Available at:

Interior Ministry (2002) Khu Mue kanpatibatrachakan nai jangwat chai daen pak tai [Civil Service Manual for the Southern Border Provinces]
Bangkok: Interior Ministry.

Jory, P. (2006) “From Patani Maleyu to Thai Muslim”, ISIM Review, 18, pp. 40-43.

Kasian Tejapira (1996) Globalizers vs Communitarians : Post-May 1992 Debates among Thai Public Intellectuals." paper presented at ‘Direction and Priorities of Research on Southeast Asia’ at the Annual Meeting of the U.S. Associations for Asian Studies in Honolulu, 11-14 April.

Matichon (2006) "Yu en chee pho. ro. ko. lamaet sithi ‘human right’ [UN says the Emergency Degree Violates Human Rights] “Matichon (online) , 20 July.

McCargo, D. (2006) “Thaksin and the resurgence of violence in the Thai South: Network monarchy strikes back?”, Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, 39-71

McCargo, D. (ed.) (2007) Rethinking Thailand’s Southern Violence, Singapore, Singapore University Press

National Reconciliation Commission (2006) Report of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC). Overcoming Violence Through the Power of Reconciliation, NRC: Bangkok.

Office of the National Security Council, Naiyobai kwammankhong haeng chat kieo kap jangwat chai daen pak tai (2542-2546) [The National Security Policy for the Southern Border Provinces, (1999-2003)], mimeograph.
pp. 95 - 117

Prachathai (2005) “Mo Phonthip daen na phisut 300 sop rai yat yeu fai tai ” [Dr Phonthip makes progress on the 300 unidentified victims of the southern fire] 24 November, 2005.

Phutjakan (2006) Ko. Ko. Isalam [Islamic Committee] May 30.

Srisompob Jitpiromsri1 and Panyasak Sobhonvasu (2006) “Unpacking Thailand's southern conflict: The poverty of structural explanations”, Critical Asian Studies, 38, 1, pp. 95-117.

Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (1999) Ekkhasan prakob kanprathumnithet jangwat chai daen pak tai pi 2542 [A Primer on the Southern Border Provinces, 1999]

Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (1988), Thai Muslims in Southern Border Provinces, Yala: SBPAC.

November 21, 2007

Thailand: Article of Faith

Article of Faith: The Failure of Royal
Liberalism in Thailand


Introduction from article that appears in Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38, 1, 2008.

It seems inevitable that the 2005-06 protests against the elected right-wing populist,Thaksin Shinawatra, will be remembered for the sea of pro-monarchist yellow
t-shirts worn by some protestors and the slavish rhetoric of the slogan to ‘‘return
the royal powers.’’ Any plausible account of those protests must proceed from the
premise that behind the deployment of royalism lay a rational strategy. This article
unpacks the politics of a number of actors who mobilised against Thaksin and
argues that their appeal for monarchical intervention was intended for liberal
purposes. I do this for the purpose of analytically separating the anti-Thaksin
movement (up until the end of April 2006) from the royalist coup d’e´tat that finally
felled the Thaksin government in September 2006.1 The mass mobilisations of 2005
and 2006 were a genuine historical movement and should not be conflated with the
illiberal military and palace networks that eventually ended Thaksin’s rule.
The support by various ‘‘progressive’’ actors for the 2006 coup has given rise to
much soul-searching and polemic. Giles Ji Ungpakorn’s (2007: 30) memorable
phrase ‘‘tank-liberals’’ calls to account those progressive actors who legitimated the coup by participating in the post-coup political institutions. However, Thaksin’s rise to power through the ballot box should not be allowed to disguise his fundamentally anti-democratic politics. The elected Thaksin regime (2001-06) was authoritarian in inclination even if the formal institutions of democracy were in place.

Despite Thaksin’s arguably pro-poor policies, the depth and quality of Thailand’s democracy was greatly diminished under his rule (for a more qualified interpretation see Case,(2007). A basic premise underlying the analysis that follows is that left-wing critiques of authoritarian democracies should proceed from the position that majorities which serve authoritarian ends are hegemonically and coercively structured and do not reflect the free conditions upon which a genuine democracy may be embedded. Of course, the same can be said – substituting ‘‘majorities’’ with ‘‘vanguard elites’’ –of the illegitimate assumption of power by the 2006 coup group.

With this premise in mind, this article analyses the mobilisation of royal ideology
and the call to ‘‘return the royal powers’’ (thawaikheun phrarachaamnat) that
emerged in 2005-06. In the first part of this article, I briefly look at what may be
termed ‘‘royal liberalism’’ – a liberalism shaped by fear of an uneducated citizenry
unschooled in appropriately restrained democratic practice and manipulated by
demagogues, otherwise known as the ‘‘tyranny of the majority.’’ The political rise of
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave life to these fears. In the second substantive
part of the article I address how the intervention of a one-time Thaksin supporter,
opportunist media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul (The Nation, 29 November 2005),
bolstered the fading fortunes of Thai liberalism, giving rise to calls, on the basis of Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution (see below), for power to be returned to the king.

To examine the elite liberalism behind this strategy, I look at the origins of Article 7. Relatedly, it is necessary to look at the revival of the neologism rachaprachasamasai (royal-people-mutuality), which was used to demonstrate how calls for royal intervention were in accord with ‘‘the traditions of Thai democracy.’’2 It will be argued that this mobilisation reflected a long-term project to establish a liberal state based on the ideological power of the monarchy. I then discuss how key actors differentially invoked Article 7. Finally, I consider the implications of royal liberalism’s failure to solve the crisis.

Before I begin, a qualification: it may be argued that monarchy and liberalism are
dichotomous, given that conservative monarchists understand rights in terms of
cultural heritage rather than something given to the universal nature of the
individual as in classical forms of liberalism. All ideologies, more so than doctrines, contain contradictory strains. My interest here is in the adaptation of monarchy and ideals around it to the emergence of a Thai liberal political settlement out of messy institutional, political and ideological struggles: that is, political liberalism not philosophical liberalism.

October 28, 2007

Thailand: Educating for Democracy: Elites and Political Development Plans

From Democracy and National Identity in Thailand: A section from Chapter 8. Text taken from pre-proof copy. Citations available in book version.

I am placing this here as an indication of how historically repetitive are the current concerns among bureaucrats, educationalists, the military and scholars for providing "democratic education" to Thai citizens.

Institutions and planning democracy

One manifestation of the collaboration of politicians and liberal academics was the establishment of the King Prachatipok’s Institute in 1994. This was initially located within the secretariat of the House of Representatives and later became an independent body by an act of parliament in 1998.

Its aim was to promote an understanding of the ‘parliamentary democratic system with the king as head of state’. The addition of ‘parliament’ in this formulation is significant, for it marked the permanence and connection of parliamentary democracy with the older ideology of democracy with the king as head of state, propagated by the bureaucracy. King Prachatipok’s Institute was also required to assist in the legislative process, research democratic development and to make its research public. Marut Bunnag, then Parliamentary President and one-time education minister, claimed to have had a hand in the setting-up of KPI precisely because of his distrust of the Interior Ministry and its dubious capacity to carry through democratic education.

The range of the institute’s first curriculum was extensive, covering the principles of democratic government, labour and environmental issues under the conditions of globalization, policy formation and political ethics. The instructors included many familiar faces from the Thai political science scene, including Chai-Anan Samudavanija, Prudhisan Jumbala, Suchit Bunbongkarn, Kramol Thongthammachart and Anek Laothamatas. Specific curricula were also designed for community leaders, political party members and youth. In effect, with a larger budget, greater recognition and hence greater participation of academics, KPI might be seen as the indirect prodigy of IPPS.

Bowonsak Uwwano, the key framer of the reform constitution, who became Director of KPI in 1999, sees it as playing a crucial role in promoting democratic education for all strata of society from top-level bureaucrats to politicians and right down to villagers. In assuming this new position Bowonsak perhaps sees himself as an intermediary actor between society and the state. Speaking of his role in political reform, Bowonsak observed that

NGOs, they know only the suffering of the people but they don’t know how to cure the suffering, meaning that they know the problems of the people and they suffer with the people but they cannot find anyway out, just to protest, protest and protest. And apart from that, political power and state power in Thailand is very strong. This power more or less ignores the NGO movement. Sometimes they blame the NGOs for threatening the national security by receiving funds from foreign countries—the gap is very strong. As academics you have one challenging problematic, how you can bridge that gap. You cannot take sides by jumping into NGOs and being activists yourselves, because doing so you are going to share the suffering without finding the way cannot jump into the state power either—doing so you would ignore the suffering of the people. So the role of the academics should be the bridge between the two and that bridge, in order to be strong, has to generate a way out…I try to do so.

In the grand tradition of liberal academics exemplified by Chai-Anan, Bowonsak exudes the optimism of one who has the ear of the elite, one who is called on, by the elite, to clean up the stables of government. And yet, in a familiar reversion to the people problem, of organizing them productively, KPI’s strategic focus is largely on building civic capacity for responsible participation. Thus the rationale of the institute is rooted very much in the same manner of Interior Ministry propagation projects; that is, the people do not have democratic consciousness, and this acts as an obstacle to further democratic development:

Government in a democratic regime, even though it began some sixty years ago, has faced the constant problem of people’s understanding of that system of government, in realizing their rights and duties as a citizen of the nation that is governed with a parliamentary democratic regime with the king as head of state…if this cannot be created it will lead to setbacks in the system of government as in the case of Thailand. This truth may be seen by looking at Western societies which have been able to develop government in all dimensions.

Another manifestation of the new political liberalism was the call for a political development plan among members of the DDC. Among the recommendations of the DDC (see previous chapter) was the establishment of a Political Development Council. This was acted on by the Political Reform Committee, the body established in 1996 by the Banharn government. A number of prominent political development theorists were involved in drafting a political development plan, and while it remains pretty much a white paper, the plan gives an indication of how liberal democratic structures were to relate to the development of a new political culture in Thailand.

The idea for the plan was first aired after the crisis of 1992, when the political science and public administration branches of the National Research Council were called on to develop a plan in order to stabilize political development. Presenting an analysis of the vicious cycle of Thai politics (constitution—parliament—crisis—coup—interim constitution- constitution—parliament—crisis—coup, etc.) rooted in the failure of political parties to develop, in the bureaucracy acting as blocks to political development and the lack of political ethics, the plan sought to map out an orderly progress for political development.

One central objective of the plan was to produce ‘democratic personalities’, meaning ‘individuals realizing their own potential and the potential of others such that they would respect the rights and freedoms of themselves and others’. This would be assisted by the creation of a National Ideology Committee. The vision presented of Thailand in 2555 (AD 2012) was that the bureaucracy and military would have no political role, the bureaucracy itself would be decentralized, political parties would have a mass base and ideology, there would be a guarantee of universal human rights including the right to full participation in the political process, and there would be a high level of democratic culture among the people. As for the role of the monarchy in this new democratic culture, it would ‘remain’ above political conflicts and would continue to act as a role model for society by ostensibly abiding by the ten virtues of a Buddhist king.

In 1996 the Political Reform Committee selected Likhit Dhiravegin, a political development theorist, to lead the drawing-up of a political development plan. This plan, based on the NRC version, basically sought similar institutional outcomes as those proposed by the political reform lobby. It also took a longer-term view, seeing the need to root democratic culture as the only guarantee of stability. Political development was seen as a long-term and dynamic intervention responding to societal and economic change. It was hoped that in the short term planners could help ‘bring into being a political culture that is facilitative of developing and preserving democracy with the king as head of state’. This would be achieved by engineering change through a series of educational measures, intervention into the mass media and creating role models. In the long term a fully developed democratic culture would emerge. In this new culture political participation was expected, but would be guided by the liberal principle of respect for the rights of the minority, and would be within the rule of law. Citizens would live life in a democratic way, which is to say they would be disciplined and responsible. In struggling for their own rights and interests they would be mindful of the common good. In disputes they would act rationally and use ‘scientific logic’ in order to solve problems peacefully. While much of the rhetoric of democratic education is the same as that preached by LAD, as is the reverence shown to the monarchy, what is significant is that the new agents of political socialization, proposed in this plan, are the family, parliament, political parties and interest groups. The apparatus of the bureaucratic-capitalist state had been dethroned, but its moral projects of citizen construction survived.

Liberal mouthpieces
Prominent individuals have popularized the liberal position. One important latecomer to the cause of political liberalism was Anand Panyarachun. His joining the bandwagon needs to be seen both as a result of the failure of the existing political system as well as his engagement, as a leading representative of globally engaged capital, with the world market. Anand is a member of Transparency International, that agent of ‘good governance’.

The economic imperative of the new democrasubjection is best highlighted by a speech made by Anand on the eve of the March election in 1992. In this speech Anand speaks of the end of communism and the success of democracy:

As for Thailand we do not need to copy anybody’s democracy, we only need to uphold the principle of democracy which is that the government must come from the people, it must be of the people, and it must be for the people.

Anand goes on to argue that elections are only one point in the democratic process, and argues that the people, with democratic hearts, need to struggle to take part in policy determination. This struggle and participation is defined by the boundaries of the rules of the game, being the law and the constitution. In linking economy and polity, Anand continues:

In the last 13 months the policy of the government, whether it be in economic or other dimensions, if it is analyzed well, it will be seen that the policy was open. I had an open economic policy, that was transparent, that was competitive that…also had a tax system that was just. These things are important factors in leading towards complete democracy…. Any country that uses an open economic system…history tells us that the political system must follow also, the political system must have competition.

It was imperative, Anand considered, that the open economy in Bangkok be spread to the provinces:

If and when this takes place, we can see an emergence of a rural middle class that can make better and more effective use of their greater autonomy in managing local affairs and issues.

For Anand, then, a free market economy was the basis of democracy, and, given that this had been established, he urged people not to be demoralized but to be patient with the gradual progress of democracy. Importantly, the growth of democracy would be supported by broadening the participation of ‘the young, the learned, and the middle, white-collar and managerial classes in political parties’. For Anand, ‘[t]hese groups of persons are some of the most important constituent parts of our economic machine.’

The participation of these classes in the provincial politics would support the process of decentralization and help in addressing the economic disparities, which were seen as threat to a stable democracy. Anand adopts the seminal analysis of the problem of Thai democracy developed by Anek Laothamatas regarding transforming peasants into urban citizens (see below). This, presumably, would then provide them with a stake in the system. Anand argued that the cycle whereby rural people elected vote-buying MPs and ‘middle-class’ Bangkokians brought down governments with cries of corruption and incompetence, would end when the status of the rural population was lifted. Presently, the people were not ‘interested in whether the government is good or not’, rather they were just interested in a government that ‘digs wells and makes roads’. Education and higher social-economic status would lead to a broader social vision, one which would provide rural people with the ability to differentiate between good and bad governments.

The ‘democracy’ expressed here is an urban one—dependent on an educated middle class and their assumed rationality. The economic task is how to develop the rural areas so that this form of middle-class citizenship can be made real. To this question, Anek Laothamatas, Anand’s apparent inspiration, provides an answer. If the perennial problem of urban/rural split in Thai politics is to be overcome then the rural sector, he argues, needs to be thoroughly commercialized with the consequence of either the embourgeoisment or proleterianization of the Thai peasants. Only on this economic basis can the middle-class rational citizen arise. In this frame, then, economics precedes politics, the subjects of democracy do not yet really exist, and the peasants in the countryside are the ghosts of underdevelopment waiting to be buried. Indeed, it is only by engagement with the liberal regime that the new people will be constructed. Participation becomes a mode of transformation—but this does not rule out the need for democratic instruction.

It would be wrong to imagine that the aims of the liberal project could be confidently achieved in economic processes alone. Many liberals see civic politics and education as a means to ideologize the proposed process from peasant to citizen. Just as state democrasubjection provides concrete steps towards citizen construction, so does the emergent liberal discourse—in its commentary on civic competence—provide steps towards liberal democrasubjection. It should be clear here that the intellectual elites have premeditated the meaning of democracy, its function and its processes. The central task was simply how to make this meaning tangible. This entailed, in part, working on the raw material of the people, making the subjects into citizens in the narcissistic self-image of the virtuous, public-minded and rational intellectual. It is thought that democracy without a ‘rational’ political culture is unworkable. Anand put it more eloquently:

Democracy is a reflection of the level of the people who vote…if they vote for bad persons, democracy will deteriorate. If people still vote as if they were 2,000 year old turtles, who then should take the blame except the people themselves?

Similarly, Anek argues that one problem for Thailand has been the absence of a long period of democratic development. His basic point is that Western democracy arose gradually as the franchise widened to assimilate lower classes who had been appropriately educated to perform their democratic responsibilities. According to Anek, the Westernized revolutionaries who came to power in 1932 ‘gave’ democracy to all people instantaneously. This premature designation of the democratic franchise, he argues, has been the root problem facing Thailand ever since: democracy has been taken like technology, ‘before the order of our historical development’. The premature embracing of democracy leads, according to Anek, to the prevalent practice of vote-buying as well as the poor quality of politicians and the strength of the military. For him, then, the project of reconstruction of citizenship becomes a societal revolution of mind and economy. While the economy leads, there is the need for education on citizen virtue in a liberal space (see below).

After the rise of the political reform movement, both Anand and Anek became prominent proponents of liberal democratic development. This has included praising the idea of a ‘non-ideological civil society’ and the idea of ‘good governance’. For Anand capitalism, with a human face, is the wave of future. Ideological questions are now seen as obsolete, with new questions being focused on how governments can best serve their citizens. The central question for Anand is no longer any doctrine of government, but its capability and legitimacy. On this matter he is full of praise for the practice of governance in Singapore, which is said to have responded well to people’s needs. This tension between democracy and good governance, regardless of form, was resolved by linking the instruments of good governance to democracy: transparency, freedom of information, scrutiny, balance of power and rule of law. This is the liberal project writ large, ensuring that any excessive demos and its mutations of freedom are constrained by a properly designed liberal democracy. New channels of communication and institutionalized participation would ensure this.

What of the king in this new liberalism? If the symbol of the monarchy functioned to consubstantiate a nation of difference around embodied Thai identity in the old order, the question now arises of what might the symbol mean in the liberalizing ‘democratic’ regime. Coming from a prominent spokesperson of the liberal current in Thailand, Anand’s speeches on the king reflect the continued importance of this institution in a liberal Thailand.

Anand’s writings on the monarchy are far-reaching and not merely ritualistic. He adheres to the royalist version of the king governing not on the basis of divine right but on fulfilling the role of a Buddhist king. He notes the king’s ‘nearly two thousand projects’ have assisted the poor and that the king himself has approached local communities pragmatically by tapping into local wisdom and culture. Such work with the poor has led to the strengthening of the ‘social fabric of our society and fortifying our national cohesion and identity’. Anand’s speeches on the king are an attempt to constructively integrate the monarchy around the new liberal political project. In one interview he recounts the king’s following of the legislative programmes of the parliament and notes that he is ‘strict’ about using his rights to warn, encourage and to be consulted. Indeed, Anand considers the king as Thailand’s ‘number one public servant’, and furthermore, one who is accountable: ‘what he does is seen by the people. Not accountable in the legal sense of the word, but…there is transparency in what he does.’ Finally, Anand presents a picture of a monarch who has reached the highest stage of wisdom, a position of detachment where the ego is erased. According to Anand, the king has achieved this and is thus able to serve as Thailand’s ‘guiding light’: a king for a liberal society.

Liberal civic education and civil society
If the liberal current recognizes the primacy of economic factors in spawning new historical subjects of democracy—the ‘middle class’—this is not left to chance. Hence studies of political culture are part of the liberal project of instilling in would-be citizens liberal dispositions and the capacity for self-rule. This brings forth the necessary project of liberal civic education. As a disciplinary aspect of the new liberal democrasubjection, civic education should be understood by reference to the developmental metaphor and its privileging of subject/object relations between the rulers and the soon-to-be rulers. An examination of the thought of Anek Laothamatas reveals a strong normative bias on the nature of citizenship that requires acquisition of virtue.

Anek is a strong proponent of civic education and a leading liberal intellectual in Thai society. A proponent of political reform, he has also been involved in KPI and civic education programs. For him civic education should be an ongoing process from primary school to university. Speaking of the mass of students in the education system and the purpose of civic education, Anek says: ‘Let these people have dignity, even though they have less economic status than others, but they do not have less rights, duties and political respect.’ Anek sees such civic education as being bound by the treasured civic culture of Thailand. Anek, however, argues that the official ideology is not ‘authentically Thai’ but rather has been adapted from other cultures. This is not quite apostasy of the essential ‘Thainess’ examined in Chapter 6. Certainly, the body of work that deconstructs and challenges the meanings of official ideology, such as Thongchai’s, is apostate. However, Anek is disturbing, or nudging, the apperception of the Thai ideology to its constructedness, in order to bolster it. He grasps the developmental metaphor that has haunted ‘Thai authenticity’ as an unspoken and ideologically productive contradiction, and turns it into the essential virtue of Thainess: Thai identity is marked by its ingenious assimilation of other cultures for its own needs. It is a moving historical body premised on becoming rather than being, or rather on being-in-becoming. This strategic reading by Anek unceremoniously provides liberalism with an entry point into the powerful symbolism of the triad, while not surrendering to the Thai chauvinism of the National Identity Board.

In a book surveying the Western tradition of civil society and citizenship, Anek clearly endorses notions of negative freedom, the minimal state and citizen self-reliance. In an extended discussion on the meaning of civil society, as if it were a living organism, Anek characterizes it as all those associations, groups, forums, foundations and institutes that mediate between the individual and the state and which are characterized by two dispositions:

1)[Civil society] dislikes and does not accept state hegemony, even though it will accept assistance from the state and will cooperate with the state, but it is able to appropriately control and resist the state. 2) It does not like the doctrine of extreme individualism, which promotes selfishness…and non-recognition of the common good.

Thus, even though the three elements of society—‘the state, civil society, the individual’—were independent of each other they were also connected in a simultaneous activity of conflict and unity.

The rise of civil society as a counterbalance to the state required a shift from subject consciousness to citizen consciousness. He argues that simply providing the mechanisms of local democracy will not be enough:

We should not just stress the structure of local government but local civil society as well, by training the people to be citizens; even when they vote they should vote like a citizen, not a client.
He then criticizes the electoral practices of the people as premised on their own private interest rather than the public interest. In his view, elites need to develop ‘enlightened self-interest’, which is an attitude that disposes one to the pursuit of self-interest without destroying the public interest. This would ultimately foster a more beneficial cooperative environment for the further pursuit of one’s interest. Self-described as a ‘left-wing liberal’, Anek considers one of the duties of civic education as doing away with dependence on the state and developing an ethic of self-reliance, particularly among the poor who, he says, consider democracy as being simply a matter of welfare. The task then was to give new meanings to democracy as ‘self-government, or political expressions with dignity’. This would be aided by the fostering of civility, of manners, of a willingness to listen, learn and share. In regard to civic virtue, Anek revisits the Greek polis, in search of the characteristics of the ‘full human’ (a person with civic virtue), and also finds some examples in Thailand of the polis where people are directly involved in issues, freely sacrificing themselves, being responsible and using their own resources. While interest groups were part of civil society, for Anek greater emphasis was to be given to groups that stress the public interest.

October 7, 2007

Oh, the Dumb Things

Oh, the Dumb Things

Michael Connors
An edited version of this now appears on October 16, 2007

In October’s edition of The Australian Literary Review (2, 9, pp. 3, 14-16) journalist Paul Kelly offers an intellectual road trip, riffing on the theme of “The Lucky Country”. Kelly devotes two thousand words too many to an exploration of “second rate” Australian public intellectuals’ incapacity to appreciate the Australian electorate’s genius in electing a first rate political leadership. This is such a hackneyed theme (elitism of the intellectual class, not the genius of the Australian electorate) that it would be surprising if Kelly had anything fresh to say. As it turns out, he doesn’t, unless the spectacle of a journalistic “national treasure” delivering a home-song eulogy to prime ministers Hawke, Keating and Howard counts as such.

In his version of the “The Lucky Country” Kelly argues that current Australian prosperity (that is the emerging American style wealth-divide) is the fruit of successive Labor and Liberal party political acumen, epitomised by their respective management of the US alliance and their differential, but consonant, agenda of working with Asia, particularly China.

I would say that apart from the brazen act of currency deregulation under Hawke in 1983 and that act's related consequences, Australian prosperity has been delivered in spite of government policy, in the same manner as a randomly thrown dart at an inventory of stock exchange listed companies is better at picking winners than the Mercedes-chasing stockbroker selling his expertise. Truly a nation of gamblers. The rest of the Australian Story has been about management, packaging, marketing and keeping the game on the road.

In Kelly's Eastern Suburbs – detour via Canberra road trip, the vantage point is not the slum, the junkie’s needle point exchange, or the sweat of an AWA, rather it is the six-lane highway of national achievement; a vantage point, he claims, that the precocious “second- raters” of the aristocratic left have ignored in their supposed rush to condemn the Australian electorate as inane and immoral.

Kelly’s derivative self-denying ironic title,“The Lucky Country" - following the title of Donald Horne's famous 1960s book - should have been a warning to the literary editor that this was going to be an article of imprecise hackdom. Kelly lives up to the dull title. In what counts as the intellectual equivalent of grievous bodily harm, he takes a handful of thinkers as representative of the total sum of anti-Howard intellectuals, and then narrows the field further by concentrating on an easily beratable, shrill and fanciful David Marr. Marr's over the top statements about Howard’s Australia in his Quarterly Essay "His Master's Voice: the Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard", are easy enough to dismiss. Kelly paints Marr as a kind of Jeremiahic Bertrand Russell in the antipodes, minus the math. All this leads Kelly to a lamely ironic twist: that Horne's supposed depiction of a country with second rate politicians and first class intellectuals has been reversed.

Kelly is right to point out that some ridiculous analogies have been doing the rounds among the intelligentsia (that there are homologies between pre-Nazi Germany and contemporary Australia), but he fails to then offer a single word about the Right’s own disingenuous mob of time-servers, Kelly’s News Limited colleague Janet Albrechtsen or the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt. Is there some unwitting aesthetic judgement on Kelly’s part that these people should not be taken seriously as intellectuals? They have been singing the praises of first rate political leadership for a decade. Is he jealous of their foresight?

What Kelly’s atrociously selective piece does is to suggest that public intellectuals (meaning "Howard-haters") are so far removed from the ordinary concerns of life that the necessarily pragmatic and compromised nature of politics that supposedly delivers national prosperity and relative domestic and regional cohesion are seen by them to be contemptible.

There is certain hubris in Kelly’s rant about second-rate public intellectuals: he should have declared his own interest as a fellow traveller. “The Lucky Country” marks a low point in his political journalism, an altogether too confident declaration of his undiluted national-interest account of the sublime art of Australian compromise.

While Kelly’s decades of access to the corridors of power may have led to the production of a certain banal commentary, he is not completely incapable of the lyrical insight of his namesake troubadour. Just as clichés capture certain truisms, Kelly’s journalistic writing, as do all journalistic writings, reflect some wilful zeitgeist - the first draft of history. In this instance that zeitgeist now has it that Australia has enjoyed national prosperity and relatively moral and sincere leadership. Kelly’s imaginative leap is to turn Donald Horne’s devious title into a homily. Australia is lucky because Howard is incapable of duplicity and mendacity on the big questions – so Kelly believes. Rarely has the first draft of history looked so needy of revision.

September 24, 2007

Thailand: Standing in neither camp: the coup a year on

Standing in neither camp
Michael Connors

A year after the September 2006 coup d’etat debate still rages on whether the anti-Thaksin movement is in part responsible for inviting the military to stage a coup. A quite legitimate but difficult question is being asked of those who opposed Thaksin for his undemocratic, or at least illiberal politics, and for his abuse of power: why not level your charges elsewhere (?), meaning most obviously the palace and those surrounding it. This is a bold challenge.

For several years there has been a steady advance in critical writings on the palace, both in English and in Thai. The Thai material is especially brave, for it courts royal-nationalist hysteria and legal sanction. It doesn’t matter that in December 2005 the king said he can do wrong and that he welcomes criticism (interesting to see how that defence would work out in a court of law), lèse majesté law remains on the books. Moreover, the yellow-shirt mentality is merely a surface expression of something deeply rooted. This might partly explain the muted response to the challenge.

There may of course be other reasons, including a genuine belief that for all its faults the monarchical institution has indeed played the safety valve role attributed to it, being the ‘Supreme Ombudsman” as various people have described the monarchy. Some in Thailand are seeking, mistakenly in my opinion, to embed liberal forms of rule by deploying the monarchy in a manner that reads it as the original liberal institution. I have taken up this issue elsewhere, arguing that this represents an elite liberal reading of the monarchy and involves substantial mythicising.

The monarchy in Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with special powers; anyone who imagines that Walter Bagehot has said all there is to say about its functioning ("the right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn”) is missing the extraordinary conventional powers that have accrued to the institution, a product of both design and historical evolution. Neither the design nor the evolution would have occurred without a particular constellation of forces, including the demobilisation of radical forces in the 1970s, in which the monarchy played a key role, and the continuing elevation of the institution into the metaphoric soul of the nation.

To recognise and analyse the role of the monarchy in Thai politics is not to endorse that role. It is, however, to appreciate how the balance of forces in Thailand are constituted beyond normative appeals to ‘democracy.’ The monarchy and the military are enduring historical institutions in Thailand. Deeply rooted in various networks, ideologically and culturally embedded, and organizationally present. These are powerful institutions, as former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra learned. While some are now trying to script Thaksin as a bourgeois revolutionary he was always too poorly equipped and lacking in vision to play that role. Thaksin played an insider’s game and lost. Many supporters want to paint him as a democratic martyr; his actions suggest a terrible authoritarian in the making. Any legitimacy he may have had as a consequence of being selected prime minister by elected representatives was negated by his actions in that position.

Does Thaksin’s authoritarianism justify a more insidious authoritarianism in the form of the military coup? No. Other channels were available to restrain or fell Thaksin: further popular protest, the weakening of his parliamentary dominance, the use of legal measures. The military intervened, pre-empting these possibilities, to remind all that behind the flow of contested politics a ‘state of exception’ always lurks. The instrument of that state of exception, the military, bluntly and arrogantly inserted its own solution, showing up the fiction that lies behind people-sovereignty.

Somsak Jeamteerasakul has noted that some who would normally be identified as progressive activists or democrats feel indifferent to Thaksin’s fall and feel no outrage at the military’s actions. I was against the coup, but I can not claim to have felt especially angry. At that time my opinion was that Thaksin was worse than the military – a coup d’etat, the construction of national security complexes and human rights abuses are to be expected from a military steeped in the kind of history the Thai military has. The military was living its soul. And of course it continues to do so , pressing for national security laws and the continued imposition of martial law, thereby illustrating that some of its claimed reasons for the coup to have been excuses or self-delusional. Certainly, the military, at least sections of it, as the instrument of force for national unity was concerned about disunity and apparent slights on the monarchy; but its stated concerns for the health of Thailand’s democracy and the level of corruption have purchase only if we suspend good judgement. The military did in 2006, and does now, what the military can be expected to do.

Thaksin was worse because one might have expected better from the first prime minister elected under the reform constitution. As an elected politician Thaksin de-instutionalised the political system (protected by his hegemonically constructed majoritarianism), aggrandised wealth and power, engaged in intimidation of those against him, and recklessly and with fatal consequences abandoned the rule of law in the war on drugs, thus negating the social compromise effected in the 1997 constitution – however flawed that constitution was. To those who scoff the rule of law as a bourgeois abstraction, consider it from the perspective of those who never had a chance to plead “not guilty” during the wave of extra judicial killings in 2003.

What is implied, but never stated, by those who see a direct line of causality between the anti-Thaksin camp and the coup is that progressive forces should have endured the Thaksin era because it was a popularly elected regime. This is a retrospective argument, made in the light of the coup. So too is the argument that organizing opposition against Thaksin laid the basis for a conservative military backlash. This is a retro-subjectivist view of history, putting hindsight at the steering wheel. It is to say that history is made by will, intent and prudent choices. In part maybe, but not wholly.

The anti-Thaksin movement was a legitimate movement, and like all movements it attracted attention from forces with other agendas and interests who sought to manipulate it for other purposes. By the time that movement was demobilised as a consequence of its misconceived and politically opportunist dependence on Article 7 in April 2006, the game moved to the elite sphere. Social forces on the ground were not sufficiently organized to determine the political outcome. In that context the “no to the two camps” (สองไม่เอา) position makes sense. It opposes the coup and forces arrayed behind it and it equally opposes the deepening authoritarianism represented by Thaksin.

I happen to believe that wellbeing and social justice, democratic socialism, are secured by deepening both the democratic and liberal gains of historical struggle – something neither Thaksin, the monarchy nor the military have intended to do.

September 18, 2007

Thailand and the United States

Thailand and the United States of America: Beyond Hegemony?
Draft of article that appears in Bush and Asia, edited by Mark Beeson, Routledge, London 2006
Michael K. Connors

This paper explores US-Thai relations in the context of a rapidly shifting global and regional landscape since the end of the Cold War. The days when US Cold War objectives twinned with a militarised Thai state are well over. Bereft of this unifying theme, any analysis of the Thai–US relationship immediately confronts a range of seemingly contradictory phenomena. In the last several years, for example, Thailand has been declared a major non-NATO ally at the very time that it has been coy about support for US strategy in the Middle East. The Thai government initially opposed the war in Iraq, but Thailand was the first Asian nation to send troops to Iraq as part of a ‘post conflict’ humanitarian mission. Having earlier announced that US forces would not use Thai airbases for transit to Iraq, the government cited treaty obligations to explain subsequent US access. Confronted with these inconsistencies, it is easy to see the attraction of the popular metaphoric phrase ‘bending with the wind’, which originated in the 19th Century to describe Siam’s adaptation to evolving structures of imperial power. In the current period, a more appropriate phrase might be ‘bending US hegemony’, suggesting that Thailand has not simply glided hither and thither according to prevailing winds. Rather, it has closely associated itself with the US, while obviously seeking to pursue its own elite defined ‘national’ interests.

If we understand hegemony in the manner proposed by Antonio Gramsci (1972), we are interested in the problematic of how a ruling strata is able to integrate subordinate elements into a hierarchical order on a seemingly consensual basis. Robert Cox (1987, 7) extends this problematic to the international level arguing that “the dominant state creates an order based ideologically on a broad measure of consent, functioning according to general principles that in fact ensure the continuing supremacy of the leading state or states and leading social classes but at the same time offer some measure or prospect of satisfaction to the less powerful.” Neo-Gramscian perspectives move beyond the territorial state as the articulator of hegemony, developing analyses of the role of transnational capitalist classes, and their impact on the nature of trading and investment regimes, and on the functioning of international financial institutions. For his part, Cox (1997, 60) has recognised the growing power of what he terms the ‘nebuleuse’: “a loose elite network of influentials and agencies, sharing a common set of ideas that collectively perform the [international] governance function.” These include the World Bank, the IMF, the WEF, the OECD, the ADB and so on. By virtue of the structure of the global economy and US dominance, and the presence of the world’s major TNCs there, sections of the US state are powerful within these agencies. These considerations are relevant to the status of inter-elite Thai-US relations.

In the Gramscian perspective hegemony, does not principally entail direct forms of domination under duress, nor does it indicate identical interests. The constitution of hegemony requires that over a range of crucial areas of interstate and international life (security, trade, sometimes regime form), metropolitan and peripheral elites share broad understanding of economic and security matters, and move towards similar objectives. Such understandings are mediated by the prevailing structures of economy and security, projects for change, patterns of socialization, and by the constitution of forces within territorial states and in transnational spheres. For the most part, Thai peripheral elites have contended and cooperated in an international order structured by US hegemony. While accepting US leadership over the last half century, there have been disagreements and significant divergences in particular arenas. Divergence does not necessarily entail the end of hegemony, a threshold needs to be reached where matters of substantive difference over crucial arenas outweigh matters of agreement and compliance. The Thai state has rarely strayed from a broad subaltern position vis-à-vis the US and the nebuleuse: this is despite countervailing pressures emanating from its regional environment, and apparent Thai doubts over the 2002 US National Security Strategy. The hegemonic relationship is also sustained by the partly deterritorialised nature of the nebuleuse, which allows some elements of the internationalised Thai elite to benefit by entering its ranks and assuming a hegemonic role (a Thai national and former Finance Minister currently heads the WTO). While many economic sectors remain nationally based, the rise of international and transnational elite spheres blurs the line between metropole and periphery.

The Thai relationship to US hegemony is historically fluid, with material, security and political elements of the relationship differing over time. This paper explores some of the characteristics of this fluidity. From the 1950s to the early 1970s, US-Thai state elites shared strong affinities across all three elements. Between the late 1970s and 1980s these affinities weakened, although they were sufficiently robust to survive Thailand’s drift into regionalism. In the 1990s the Thai state underwent a significant process of economic and political liberalization. This reflected the emerge of new domestic forces, and an increasingly transnational Thai-based nebuleuse. In tune with the US concerns to press for democratic enlargement in the post cold war era, the two states moved closer together. In the current period, commencing in 2001 with the arrival of the Bush and Thaksin administrations, the hegemonic relationship has taken on a new form, with security and resource imperatives compelling the US to extend its relationship with a Thai state that remains uneasy about US global strategy. Furthermore, the democratic convergence of the 1990s has receded, with Thailand moving towards authoritarian forms of rule. The hegemonic relationship has become strained. The rest of this chapter explores these different periods, with the spotlight on more recent times.

Read the full draft here

September 15, 2007

Juvenelia: Australia and the United States

The Imperative Grammar: Australia and the United States
Michael Connors

During the Sydney APEC Summit in early September the Howard administration and Bush administrations inked the Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty, deepening Australia’s access to US military technology and contractual rights. The agreement underscores the intensifying nature of the US-Australia alliance. For some Australian nationalists the agreement is further evidence of Australia’s lapdog approach to foreign policy; a sign of dependence and its prolonged adolescence on the world stage.

Don Watson’s 2001 Quarterly Essay Rabbit Syndrome: Australia and America captures this mood in its suggestion that Australia should petition the United States to become the 51st state of the Union; “The United States will get a state instead of a colony and Australians wouldn’t have to go on pretending our souls are our own.” Watson falls into the camp that laments, for having laid to rest the pursuit of Australia’s own ends, Australia’s endless quest for great and powerful friends.

The key instrument in Australia’s permanent infantilisation is held to be the 1951 ANZUS treaty. As New Zealand’s role in ANZUS treaty is currently redundant, the treaty effectively defines the terms of the US-Australia bilateral alliance. Until its invocation after the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, the treaty was an umbrella under which hundreds of more concrete agreements worked, including intelligence sharing and the terms of military exercises.

Approaching the question from a different angle, assuming that Australian foreign policy elites are ruthlessly pragmatic and far-thinking, is it not possible to think of the alliance as indeed serving particular state-defined national interests? Furthermore, is it not possible to reverse the typical image of dependency and move to an image of the tail wagging the dog – at least on occasion: sometimes Australia’s aspired benefit comes at a cost to the United States.

Ambrose Bierce in his 19th century Devil’s Dictionary defined an alliance as: “In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.”

Bierce’s wit is a suggestive starting point to undo the dependency thesis and begin to unravel what interests are served through the alliance. What does Australia get from the alliance?

In its important foreign policy statement Advancing the National Interest (2003) the Howard government states:

The depth of security, economic and political ties that we have with the United States makes this a vital relationship. No other country can match the United States' global reach in international affairs…Further strengthening Australia's ability to influence and work with the United States is essential for advancing our national interests.
(Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2003)

And speaking in 2001 Howard claims that

The ANZUS pact between Australia and the United States has done more to deliver the security of the Australian nation in the years that have gone by since World War II than any other international arrangement.

The first quotation is unremarkable: Australia’s government seeks to align itself with the hegemonic superpower. Access to that power, by support of that power, is seen as advancing the wellbeing of Australian security. The second quotation is remarkable, indicating that the government’s skepticism of the collective security arrangements and an emerging international order based on the efforts of the United Nations goes so far as to discount anything but the US as the key to global order.

Despite the brief dalliance of the Labor years (1983-1996) with middle-power diplomacy – the idea that middle powers require the comforting structure of international rules and regulations as a safeguard against the capricious nature of an international system dominated by great powers – Australian governments have largely responded to security questions using the grammar of the US alliance, often intuitively.

Policy and intellectual communities surrounding the government are keyed into the grammar. In a 2003 Melbourne Asia Policy Paper Paul Dibbs, one time architect of Australia’s security policy, declares that any dispassionate analysis would confirm the indispensability of the alliance, which he holds to be self evident. In 2004 ANU Professor Hugh White, agonizing over the Iraq war, and thinking with the grammar of the alliance, ludicrously confirmed the unprincipled nature of alliance logic when he admitted the possibility that sometimes going to war for the sake of maintaining an alliance can be a wise decision:

…And what of the first policy judgment: that we needed to support the invasion to protect our alliance with the US? This is a respectable argument. It sometimes makes sense to go to war to support an ally if you expect them to support you when your turn comes. It would have been unwise to say no to Washington about Iraq. But we did not need to rush to say yes either.

For some leading academics of international relations, Mr Howard is a "prescient political seer, (in) position to extract substantial and enduring benefits from the ANZUS affiliation including the culmination of a wide-ranging bilateral Australia US free trade agreement."

None of these views, including those of the government, indicate servile and wretched lapdoggery in the face of a great and powerful friend. All of them indicate a rather calculated approach to the alliance, even going so far as to speak of extracting benefits that might well be seen as costly to the superior partner in the alliance.

The Australian state and its ruling elites are not victims of dependency, but beneficiaries of an alliance system that secures a global hierarchy of states and economies in which Australia sits comfortably. Australia is a partner in what has been described as a system of global apartheid, where access to the goods that deliver wellbeing are skewed heavily in favour of advanced capitalist economies.

The alliance does not tie Australia into slavish dependence: in fact Australia has significant strategic independence. That the Australian government may appear to lack this simply reflects a convergence of interest. It is arguable that the Howard Government’s 1997 foreign policy paper, In the National Interest actually anticipates the hard-nosed disavowal of the United Nations by the Bush administration.

Rather than following the US into Iraq, the Howard government saw such action as the consummation of its own security outlook, or more specifically as a means to advance that outlook. This is to suggest that the alliance is not just about poor choices or misguided policy; there are structural features of Australia’s place in the world that compel it to bandwagon with the US, and sometimes to be a step ahead.

If there is to be substantive and enduring change in foreign policy, there needs to be a fundamental and substantive change in the grammar of Australian society, economics and politics. Without such changes Australia’s alliance relationship with the United States will always be an active/reactive one within a space that takes as given the global hierarchy and Australia’s rightful place in it.

Slightly different version of the piece appears on New Matilda. ( 14th
November, 2007.

September 14, 2007

How Terrorism Experts Get it Wrong

Excerpted from “War on Error and the Southern Fire: How Terrorism Experts Get it Wrong” in Critical Asian Studies, 2006
Michael Connors

Citations in the original.

…Terrorism studies has its origins in studies of violence in the Middle East and in
Western Europe. In decline during the 1990s, the sub-discipline found new impetus
after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. What does terrorism
studies offer? Over a decade ago, Mike Smith noted that twenty years of
terrorism studies had failed to generate much genuine insight into the dynamics
of local conflicts. The literature tended toward high-level generalizations
around tactical modality and causality that emerged from superficial comparative
analysis of incommensurable conflicts (for example, the IRA and the Red
Army Faction in West Germany).10 Smith asked: “So who are the experts on terrorism?
Answer, there are no experts, just people who know a little about a lot of
small conflicts.”11 This insight is significant, for it implies that so-called experts
on terrorism have little to offer relative to conflicts they are unfamiliar with.12 As
will be shown, [Rohan Gunaratna’s] Conflict and Terrorism is a good example of Smith’s thesis: forall its pretense about being an up-to-date manual on the violence in South Thailand, the book was produced by authors who seemingly know little about Thailand,
but who are equipped with the language of terrorism studies.

Burnett and Whyte, in their more recent review of terrorism studies, or
“terrorology,” note that during the 1990s a complex interaction of government-
sponsored research programs, think tanks, and academics produced a
discourse on “new terrorism” that informs post-9/11 commentary. The “new
terrorism” (hereafter without quotation marks) thesis claimed to be about a terrorism
that dispensed with traditional structures of hierarchy and command,
that was prone to use weapons of mass destruction, that was indiscriminate in
its targets, and that was pathological and beyond rational engagement.13 Such
ideas have informed much of the contemporary writing on terrorism, leading to
a politicized academic literature siding with the U.S.-driven “war on terror”
(hereafter without quotation marks). Conflict and Terrorism shares some of
these traits, although its conclusion that Thailand remains as yet a localized
struggle allows it to escape from an overzealous application of the new terrorism
thesis. Nevertheless, it is the shadow of the threat of new terrorism that
lurks behind the book’s examination of international linkages, and explains
why the book will interest terrorism analysts (59–68).14

Something also needs to be said about the current context in which writings
on terrorism are produced. This is a period in which terrorism analysts operate
in a tense civilizational, geopolitical, and ideological context that inevitably colors
their output. Even if Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis is
pure ideological and ethnocentric fury, it has captured the disposition of some
terrorism analysts who can but view Islam with suspicion; this is so for the authors
of Conflict and Terrorism (104). It is also noteworthy that the securitization
of U.S. foreign policy, whereby economic liberalization policies have been
trumped by pressure to conform to U.S. security policies, has led to greater
claims on U.S. allies in the so-called war on terror, leading to a global retreat
from human rights and democracy.15 In the West this has meant highly politicized
news reporting, often quoting academics sympathetic to the war on terror.

These reports typically conflate local conflicts with “terrorism” and downplay
human rights abuses. Conflict and Terrorism does raise some concerns
about excessive use of force in Thailand, but it tends to see the state as being
forced into repressive measures as a result of terrorist strategy (see discussion
below on Tak Bai). Furthermore, the intensification of relations between intelligence
agencies and universities provides an opportunity for some analysts to
conform to state policies and agendas and to downplay issues of “state terror.”16
It is true that many terrorism analysts are legitimately concerned with the root
local causes and trigger factors for acts of terrorism, and attempt broad-based
analyses that run counter to state interests. Such work shows up the shallow nature
of some media and academic commentary.17 But the pressure to follow
state interests and the rewards this subservience brings have increased in the
post-9/11 environment, increasing the number of opportunists in the field.18
This politicized environment has lowered the bar on the standards of analysis
and research for some terrorism analysts.

For the well-connected terrorism analyst, research extends to connections
with intelligence agencies and access to secret documents—selectively offered,
of course. Often welcomed into the corridors of power, s/he is the civilian face
of networks of intelligence that have their own agendas to advance. The politically
significant function of such opportunists, who identify or work closely
with governments, is to take the conclusions of intelligence agencies into the
public sphere in modified form, and lend such conclusions legitimacy by virtue
of being an apparently independent mouthpiece.19 Backed with megabucks for
research, sought out by police commissioners and security ministers, and
courted by media, such analysts feel free to comment on any act of terror anywhere,
anytime. This commentary-promiscuity is why they so often get it wrong.

September 13, 2007

Howard, a retiring man

Howard, a retiring man; Rudd, the class A jerk

Having done his utmost best, with his party’s backing, to turn the electoral cycle of Australian politics into a presidential-style circus of idiocy focused on the populist imagery of ‘everyman’ (for it remains everyman), John Howard’s latest spin (12th September on the 7.30 Report) that leadership is a team thing and ‘that’s a good thing’ marks the end of the politician as we know him.

It appears Howard has been trumped by all-style no-substance Ruddy-good two shoes. Rudd has mastered the presidential game with fervour. Even Rudd’s naughty escapades at a US strip club played in his favour; recasting him as the favoured son of the church to be redeemed. Cast a vote so he can still go to heaven.

Rudd, the man who believes he can smile with his faith, played class jerk at APEC and won them over with his impressive Mandarin. There is much to be said about this; for Rudd stands at the historical conjunction of Australia’s two-timing poise between the US and its client, the Japanese state, and the mightily rising Chinese behemoth.

When Rudd visited La Trobe University in 2005, as then shadow spokesperson on foreign affairs, I asked him at a public lecture what his stance would be regarding Chinese human rights if Labor won office. His response surprised me; he was upset by my criticism that Labor has always been willing to put national interest well above human rights considerations. His response reflected the luxury of the opposition benches, and also the presence of a dim part of the brain that represses memory of East Timor.

Yet, it’s hard to see how a Labor government under Rudd will deviate from the Howard government’s closed door private dialogues on human rights with China.

When the feudalistic and beatific Dalai Lama visited Australia in June, Rudd showed great sensitivity only agreeing to meet with the eminent Presence of the Buddha in Compassion, after Howard intimated he might do so. Presidentialism is also followerism.

Howard’s presidentialism stumped the Labor Party’s committee people: they could not contemplate as leader the articulate Julia Gillard, so they went through a range of potentials such as Crean-Latham-Beazley, succeeding only in proving the law of diminishing returns. Rudd rode to the leadership on a wave of desperation. He is desperation’s destiny.

Howard’s recent declaration of playing with the team holds promise for a more substantive politics, one focused on big questions as opposed to hair-style and grandfatherly comforting and giving succour to religious congregations. At last, I have found something on which I can agree with Howard. Yeah, sure.