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.

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