November 28, 2008

The politics of coups in Thailand 2008

Comment on the crisis in Thailand

"Consequently, we also need to disaggregate Thaksin's pro-poor policies and realise that the brilliance of his strategy was to appeal to middle layers of farmers - what once might have been called the petty bourgeoisie. Such class elements are open to various political projects, and Thaksin won them to his."

Who knows how the military will settle, and on what side (?), after the seizure of Bangkok's international airport by the People's Alliance for Democracy on 25 November. This latest militant attack on the government by PAD is a consequence both of its own desire to bring the crisis to a climax (having failed to do so previously) and to halt constitutional amendments that would turn the political clock to the pre-coup period.

PAD ideologues continue to fashion a hybrid civic, liberal-conservative, royalist and corporatist rhetoric to justify its claims and actions. Its essential argument being that in the face of an illegitimate government, civil disobedience is a right and a duty. Yet, as was manifestly clear from Sondhi's speeches in June 2008 and the espousal of "new politics", sections of the PAD leadership effectively wish to replace the imperfect but majoritarian electoral democracy currently in place with one that returns Thailand to the "semi-democracy" of the 1980s, although one reconfigured as more virtuous and wise. This is the only solution some elitist liberals and conservatives can envisage in the face of the electoral strength of the pro-Thaksin forces. The willingness of those forces to develop Thailand in a manner that departs from the liberal-conservative compromise that characterised the 1990s is an added incentive to turn back the clock.

As flagged previously, a Bonapartist solution to the prolonged crisis is not out of the question. Such a solution would deal a death blow to both currents in the drama now playing itself on the streets of Bangkok, and would lead to a regime hostile to the politics of both camps.

Speculation on which side the military will fall is just that, and perhaps if a coup occurs in the next few hours or days it will be one of those rare events when the military turns on itself.

Below is an extract on coup-regimes in Thailand from a paper to be published next year. The paper examines the origins of the current crisis by looking at competition between regime framers (liberal, statist and plutocratic). It argues that the current conflict is not simply a consequence of succession politics or intra-elite conflict over capture of state power, but is fundamentally about competition over regime form. Why liberals and statists in Thailand have pacted against Thaksin and his political populism requires explanation beyond the popular idea that the conservative and liberal elite were so against the pro-poor policies of the Thaksin regime that they overthrew it. The politics of the 2006 coup, and subsequently, reflect fundamentally a conflict over regime form rather than differing orientations to the "poor". It is arguable that the forces antagonistic to Thaksin can accommodate the "pro-poor" policies of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, evidenced by the Democrat Party's outdoing of TRT's policies in the 2005 election.

In place of the idea that this is a conflict between poor and rich, city and province, consider that the Thaksin regime progressively threatened an elite settlement between liberals and conservatives (in form since the 1980s) that envisaged a generational programme of regime change in a liberal political direction; a settlement that protected both the military and the palace. Class and geographical politics were certainly part of the equation in the 2006 conflict that led to the coup, but it is the subsequent conflict that has brought them to the fore.

Consequently, we also need to disaggregate Thaksin's pro-poor policies and realise that the brilliance of his strategy was to appeal to middle layers of farmers - what once might have been called the petty bourgeoisie. Such class elements are open to various political projects, and Thaksin won them to his.

The extract below attempts to explain the nature of "decisionist regimes", and suggests that the 2006-2007 decisionist regime was significantly different than previous episodes because of its implicit pacting with liberal elements.


"Liberalism, authoritarianism and the politics of decisionism in Thailand" (forthcoming) Pacific Review
Michael K. Connors

Decisionist regimes

Decisionist regimes are centred on junta control of state apparatuses, with real or nominal support from the palace. They are premised on the fact that a state of exception, one which the existing constitutional order cannot resolve, is held to exist (by them). Decisionist regimes suspend the existing order and assume effective sovereignty. In deciding that a state of exception exists a junta declare themselves, by their actions if not in name, sovereign, in accordance with Carl Schmitt’s (1988: 5) anti-liberal formula that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. As Heiner Bielefeldt (1998: 26) notes, “the state of exception in which the entire legal order is at stake, reveals the factual primacy of ‘rule of man’ over ‘rule of law’”. In rupturing the messy and emergent expressions of liberal or other forms of political legitimacy by a political decision that suspends existing order, a decisionist phase is the moment when all political actors can see who holds sovereign-might to regulate social order. Recurrent decisionist phases in Thai politics indicate the fragility of constitutional order and the persistence of authoritarianism in the military and palace. This is codified in Thai law and enables decrees and a constitution issued by military junta to enduring force of law. This ‘convention’ was given legal precedent in a Supreme Court ruling in 1952 that concluded that a government established by a coup d’etat may not at first be legally legitimate, until people come to accept the new government. This acceptance bestows effective legitimacy. It concluded this had occurred, and ruled the Phibun government legitimate (see Somchai 2007: 193-95). This has provided a legal basis for all subsequent coup regimes and the laws they issue.

In some senses, the regularity of decisionist interventions in Thai politics has meant that the ability to define states of exception is in part seen by the political classes as one more component of the arsenal of state power that lies above regime form. Whether welcomed or not, it forms an overarching possibility that structures political behaviour. It also explains the strategic compulsion requiring that Thaksin staff the military with loyalists. While a state of exception is far from the norm, the mobilisation by statist forces to threaten or indeed act in a decisionist manner is a long term feature of Thai politics and accounts for constant coup rumours, even during the liberal-conservative period (1988-2000). When non-negotiable statist military and palace preferences are ignored the use of a reserve veto is often the penultimate stage before the exercise of a state exception. Veto is largely exercised in unknown dealings of power brokers. Decisionist intervention may be understood as a consequence of certain political boundaries being transgressed and vetos ignored or defied. The politics of 2005-2006 witnessed an extraordinary exercise in brinkmanship, with Thaksin testing how far he could go - emboldened by popular support - in entrenching a new power balance between statists, liberals and pluto-populists. In that sense he provoked a decisionist intervention.

Decisionist phases are not particularly amenable to structural analysis, but are rather impelled by the particular mix of institutional and voluntarist elements that play themselves out at crisis moments (in some senses, these may be seen as pent up demand from structuralist pressures) when state actors utilise positions to usurp regime forms. The 1991-1992 decisionist phase that attempted to restore the liberal bureaucratic-authoritarian status quo of the 1980s, was occasioned by military and bureaucratic actors threatened by the rise of capitalist control over the state. Statist forces utilised the networks of village heads around the nation to support their re-entrenchment, gathering millions signatures in support of the pro-military 1991 constitution (Amon 1992: 82). This ended with the persistence of cross-class protests demanding an expanded democratic space and a non-political role for the military (see Hewison 1993). Blocked and defeated, the military withdrew from excessive public intervention for some years, but not until the massacre of May 1992. In this decisionist phase a military installed government passed numerous laws favouring business interest and regulation. At the head of that government was Thailand’s most renowned liberal, Anand Panyarachun, who was the main protagonist of an authoritarian legislative process for the purpose of capital interest. This liberal-statist alliance during a decisionist phase is indicative of Thai liberalism’s ability to pragmatically work with statist regime framers.

The decisionist regime of 2006-2007, the building of which re-activated the social base of statist regime framers, involved the wholesale suspension of the 1997 settlement, the imposition of martial law across the country, draconian restriction on political activity, overwhelming media control and the mobilisation of state resources for the political objectives of destroying the Thaksin regime. This objective entailed direct deployment of power by circumvention of the formal process in the representative realm. Yet, the 2006-2007 decisionist regime was in some senses liberal-regarding, reflecting elements of the social base that supported the coup.

The regime’s interim constitution of October 2006 declared a commitment to the international norms of human rights, while ensuring the process of governing and re-constitutionalisation of power was under its control. The “permanent constitution” of 2007 - put to a highly manipulated referendum and passed in August 2007 - sanctioned the reproduction of key elements of the 1997 constitution, including the liberal agenda of rights and the independent agencies of the state. In effect, notwithstanding the odious curtailing of political activity and its flagrant abuse of human rights and the international norms it pledged to uphold (Asian Human Rights Commission 2006), the regime put in a place a constitution that promised the maintenance of liberal historic gains. It did so while opportunistically re-asserting the position of the bureaucracy and military through a semi-appointed senate and by passing a new draconian Internal Security Act. It also enhanced the power of judicial oversight, at a time when that judiciary was judged to be politicised and corrupt. The regime returned the country to electoral rule in just over a year, and reluctantly accepted the December 2007 election that returned pro-Thaksin forces to power. This decisionist regime is best understood as occasioning a pragmatic understanding between erstwhile competing liberal and statist regime framers to offset Thaksin. The constitutional settlement of 2007, in the unlikely event that it survives for long, is the ground upon which new statist/liberal contests will be played out – assuming that residual elements of the electoral populist regime are dealt with. Until that time more statist-liberal alliances can be expected.

November 10, 2008

King-People Mutuality and the Thaksin gamble

During his phone-in to the 80, 000 strong anti-coup rally of November 1 in Bangkok, organised by the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra noted that after his conviction in the Rachadapisek land case and the imposition of a two year gaol sentence, only two things could bring him back to Thailand - the kindness of the king or the power of the people.

This has been interpreted in some quarters as a threat to force a royal pardon. But on the night of the phone-in Thaksin was asked if this reference to the king and the people touched the idea of Rachaprachasamasai. He replied in the affirmative. There is no correct way of translating Rachaprachasamasai; king-people-interdependency comes closest. I use king-people-‘‘mutuality’’ below to suggest something of the pacting nature between king and people inherent in the term.

The People's Alliance for Democracy has been attacked for its ultra-royalism. Yet, the pro-Thaksin camp is not without its strident royalists. There are various groupings within the anti-coup/pro-Thaksin camp, some more anti-royalist/royalist than others. A read of the pro-Thaksin Thai language press shows that the more mainstream elements of the pro-Thaksin forces are eager to play the royalier than thou card at times. While this may be opportunistic, as is PAD's use of royalism, it is not unworthy of analysis. Consider for example the attacks by Prachathat on PAD for suggesting a redirection of the royal funeral procession.

Different political forms can attach to the monarchy. It is wrong to think that the current struggle in Thailand is between royalists and republicans, just as it is wrong to think it is simply between democrats and anti-democrats. Attention to political discourse on the ground can reveal a lot more insight into what is being fought over.

If the pro-Thaksin camp is not anti-monarchy as such, and I would suggest on the whole it is not, it may be against forms of liberalism that have attached to the monarchy over the last generation. Moreover, this stance might also be informed by political confidence and the feeling that for too long economic meritocracy has suffered under a culture that is heavily aristocratic. Although Jakraphop Penkair’s speech to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club last year more than hinted at this antagonism, for the most part this element of the struggle has been muted and instead turned on individuals (such as Prem) and on abstractions such as the “the elite”.

However, as Thaksin faces further obstacles in his attempt to make a come back (loss of visa to the UK, among other things) it is possible that he will bring the more left-wing elements of his support base to the fore (note the mention that Thaksin is being considered for the Simon Bolivar medal in the press recently!) in an effort to put popular pressure behind constitutional amendments and a possible amnesty. In pushing beyond the populist pro-poor and politically ambivalent position that has so far characterised the pro-Thaksin camp, a more leftist strand might be mobilised. This would also entail a more openly critical approach to the monarchy and further investment in the idea of democracy. If politicians have been running the Thaksin rehabilitation campaign so far, we might now see those leftists activists who have banded behind him upgraded to HQ. Leftist support of Thai Rak Thai pro-poor policies and their antagonism to 'feudalists' has been a useful prop for Thaksin in the media, but has not really mattered greatly in the provinces where Thaksin has needed few ideological embellishments. It may now become more meaningful in the Grandmaster's play.

Certainly, many in the pro-Thaksin camp have been waiting for Thaksin to launch a more offensive war, and to mobilise popular sentiment against "elites". And Thaksin’s threat to “start naming names” (10 November 2008) after his UK visa was revoked, might see the abstract elite actually “named and shamed”. Much earlier than expected, Thaksin may well deliver on his post-flee promise to “tell all” .

The question for those who have backed Thaksin thus far is why it has taken two years after the coup to promise to "tell all". Since many Thaksin supporters attack the Bangkok elite as looking down on people in the provinces, and in this they are broadly right, it is reasonable to ask why Thaksin has not entrusted the truth to the provincial folk. Is it that they can not deal with the truth?

This of course points to one of the key features of the current conflict: both sides are mobilising political messages that are deliberately misleading. And the leadership of each sees popular support as if it were a piece on a chess board. Now seemingly facing a perpetual stalemate, Grandmaster Thaksin might well believe he can use his mass support base as so many pawns in an all out dash to the first rank whereupon a pawn can be promoted to a higher rank. Indeed, in linking a royal pardon to people's power, however unclearly, the pro-Thaksin forces were making an interesting statement that hints at a reversal of the balance of power in elite conceptions of rachaprachasamasai (see below).

Many people of course do not envisage themselves as pawns, and will be acting with their own interests in mind, lending a transformative potential to mass mobilisation from either side.

I wrote on the idea of king-people mutuality last year and I reproduce that discussion below for clarification.


Rachaprachasamasai and the Origins of Article 7
Taken from pages 148-150 Michael K. Connors "Article of Faith: the failure of royal liberalism in Thailand" Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 38, No. 1, February 2008, pp. 143 – 165.

"The calls to “return the royal powers” in 2005 and 2006 were premised on Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution. It states: “Whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be decided in accordance with the constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State” (Kingdom of Thailand, 1997).

Article 7 was originally used by anti-Thaksin forces in 2005 to support monarchical intervention to “kick start” a new round of political reform. As those forces grew into a broader movement in 2006, interlocking networks of individuals, political parties, professional associations, civic organisations and NGOs used Article 7 to call for a royally appointed interim government (see Kasian, 2006; Nelson, 2007). 3 The use of Article 7 was accompanied by the revival of the term rachaprachasamasai. These two elements enabled an intellectual argument and a political slogan to be built around returning power to the king. Before examining their application in political struggle, an examination of Article 7 and rachaprachasamasai offers insights into their political substance.

The Public Relations Department (1998) reports that in 1956 the king visited the north-east of Thailand and met people inflicted with leprosy, whereupon he initiated a royal project under the Ministry of Health. Royal funds established the Institute of Rachaprachasamasai and its eponymous foundation in 1960. From that time rachaprachasamasai has been associated with public health. The most significant political inflection to the term came in 1972, first in Siam Rat, and then in a seminar discussion featuring Kukrit Pramoj (Kukrit et al., 1972) concerning the possibility of democracy in then military-ruled Thailand.

Kukrit, having courted favour with the military regime, expressed concern that the divide between the people and the increasingly integrated and self-interested bureaucratic and business classes provided the Communist Party of Thailand with opportunities to win people's allegiance. Also at play was the fact that Kukrit's long-term ambition to forge a metaphoric unity between king and people/nation was being undermined by the rise of left-wing currents among students and intellectuals (Saichon, 2007: 181, 263-368). Kukrit noted that rural people, facing various injustices and disadvantages, lacked group identity and a “sense of belonging” (Kukrit et al., 1972: 30-1). To overcome this Kukrit proposed that the king undertake more rural visits to create a sense of belonging and, as a consequence, the monarchy would be identified as one with the people. Arguing that the king and the people were “outside the circle” of power, Kukrit envisaged an interdependency that strengthened them (Kukrit et al., 1972: 39). Importantly, Kukrit's stated ambition in strengthening the bond between the king and the people was to counterbalance the increasingly integrated bureaucratic and business circles, indeed to break them apart so that the bureaucracy could govern impartially (Kukrit et al., 1972: 34, 38). This mutuality he labelled rachaprachasamasai. Kukrit outlined a political project for reform that began with a rachaprachasamasai constitution: a directly royally appointed parliament that gradually opened up to popular election. A royally appointed parliament would have sufficient legitimacy and prestige to counter vested interests (Kukrit et al., 1972: 40-1). Kukrit envisaged the monarchy acting as a moral exemplar of the principles of public rule: this could discipline predatory elites by orientating them to the public good. This strategy requires seeing the monarchy in terms that are abstracted from its own institutional interests. This is precisely how Thai liberals and conservatives understand the monarchy today. The quid pro quo of this bargain, obscured by a mythic social contract, might be crudely stated as: you perform the legitimacy function of symbolic unity and assume power of last resort. In return you are eulogised and made sacral, your earthly endeavours will be ignored.

The term rachaprachasamasai was taken to a wider audience at a mass rally in November 2005 when Sondhi claimed that Thaksin was attacking the mutuality of king and people - their joint sovereignty - by usurping the relationship through constant reference to his majoritarian support of “19 million votes” (Khamnun, 2006: 336, 342). 4 He also called on officials and the military to break from the government. The use of Article 7, to return power to the king, was conceived as a practical expression of rachaprachasamasai- the people were active in returning power to the king, given that the constitution had been subverted. Rachaprachasamasai need not be consciously invoked by political forces, although it was in 2005-06; its utility lies in indicating that a form of “people's politics,” of whatever political persuasion, can attach to the monarchy.5

Rachaprachasamasai was the intellectual substance that lay behind the use of Article 7: it expressed the mythic belief of the mutuality of king and people. The question arises as to whether Article 7 was or was not originally formulated to give expression to this doctrine. While the 1997 draft constitution had been subject to many public hearings, Article 7, originally an amendment to Article 6, was exempt from this process and appears to have been introduced into the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) in July 1997, after public hearings ceased. Internal CDA reports, however, record an interesting debate (CDA, 1997a). Controversy erupted when the CDA was presented with an amendment to Article 6 to add the wording that would become Article 7. Framer Somkhit Sirisangkhom argued that the amendment was taken from previous interim constitutions issued by coup groups; the brevity of those constitutions required an expansive article allowing the exercise of broad powers (CDA, 1997a: 58). 6 Perhaps Suni Chaiyarot offered the greatest challenge: “How to interpret democracy with the king as head of state? There have been many times when this was the system, and it was not really a democracy. So, how to interpret it?” (CDA, 1997a: 69-70).

Bowonsak Uwanno, the constitution's primary framer, replied that the amendment was required to guide the Constitutional Court's deliberations. The constitution could not anticipate all exigencies; the amendment would provide the required interpretative freedom, allowing the Constitutional Court to judge according to the traditions of “democracy with the king as head of state” (CDA, 1997a: 70-1). Hinting at rachaprachasamasai, Bowonsak noted that the right to petition the king was not in the draft constitution and yet this right could be invoked in terms of the amendment (CDA, 1997a: 72-3). However, Bowonsak principally presented the amendment as limited in scope - an attempt to avoid legal loopholes.

Bowonsak's explanation is not convincing. Internal documents of the CDA that record reservations within the drafting committee about each article make no mention of what was to become Article 7 (CDA, 1997b). Why had the drafter not considered the introduction of the Article during the committee stage months earlier? Why was it introduced in July? The answer may lie in controversial deliberations over Article 3 that preceded deliberations on Article 6. Article 3 stated that “sovereignty comes from the people.” Against the wishes of the CDA president, Anand Panyarachun - the doyen of Thai liberalism - the CDA debated a motion to change the wording of Article 3 to “sovereignty belongs to the people” in early July. Thongthong Chandarangsu argued against the amendment on the basis “of the principle of rachaprachasamasai” (CDA, 1997c: 110). A slim majority voted for the amendment (CDA, 1997a: 133). 7 Opponents lobbied for the CDA to overturn its decision (Bangkok Post, 11 July 1997). Conservatives and royal liberals were concerned that such changes, along with the very expansive rights written into the new charter, were moving away from traditional concepts of political order, in which the monarchy figured greatly. The newly worded Article 3 challenged some key aspects of juridical thought, in which the monarchy is said to have given sovereignty to the people, and that sovereignty in the last instance always resides with the monarchy. Article 3 raised fears that the king's power and prerogatives were being eroded and that the CDA was being too strident in its various articles relating to rights and freedoms. Here, perhaps, is the mystery of Article 7 unlocked: the effect of Article 7 was to limit the reach of all of these new claims by empowering a traditionalistic and royalist interpretation should one be so required.8 While Bowonsak's case to the CDA for amendment was quite limited, an examination of his influential juridical thought suggests a greater depth to his thinking.

Eager to re-affirm the role of the “traditional constitution” in Thailand in the context of the first political reform movement, Bowonsak (1994: 9) argued that “if one analyses deeply in all spheres … no one could deny that the Thai monarchy … and the people are the main institutions in the democracyness of Thai society.” By using the phrase “the king of the people, by the people, and for the people” (Bowonsak, 1994: 12), he elucidated what was meant by the term “traditional constitution.” 9 In this formula, the king is the mediator of democracy; it is through him that popular will is manifest. Sovereignty is seen as residing jointly in the king and the people, a condition that is said to have emerged when King Prajadhipok “bestowed” the 1932 constitution (Bowonsak, 1994: 25). So, what happens in the aftermath of a coup, an event sufficiently frequent to affect judicial principles and law? The modern Thai judicial system operates on the basis of judgements made from the 1950s onwards that condone coups as legally legitimate if they pruportedly win the acceptance of ''the people''; thus, law issued by coup groups is held to be binding. Speaking from this vantage point, Bowonsak argued that during a coup sovereignty returns to the king. In this state of suspension the coup group drafts a constitution upon which the king deliberates, and then, if the draft is accepted the king returns sovereignty to the people (Bowonsak, 1994: 25).10 Bowonsak explained that the king's customary powers must be interpreted in terms of traditions of government (Bowonsak, 1994: 28-9). This “traditional constitution” by convention, Bowonsak argued, supplements the king's right to warn and advise with extra powers. This included the ability, in the face of crisis “to dissolve parliament … he may even remove the prime minister in order to end a crisis because according to the constitution he is the owner of sovereign power with the people …” (Bowonsak, 1994: 29). Further, should the people petition the king (having been through various other procedures):

He has royal prerogative according to the traditional constitution to command that the civil service act, and the civil service must respect this and act accordingly. This royal deliberation is effectively law as He wields sovereignty for the people … he is the Supreme Ombudsman … (Bowonsak, 1994: 30).

Bowonsak made scant reference to these ideas in his defence of the amendment in the CDA, but that did not stop people arguing for Article 7 being used in its most expansive sense."


October 20, 2008

Parliamentary Cretinism of the Commentariat

Parliamentary Cretinism of the Commentariat
Appearing in the Bangkok Post, 21 Oct, 2008.

In the next few days it is possible that blood will fall on the streets of Bangkok, as anti-Thaksin hand-clappers meet pro-Thaksin foot stompers. Impending constitutional amendments and the coming judgement on the Rachadapisek case, the proximate cause of the mobilisation, will be met with acclaim or opprobrium depending on which side of the chimerical divide you stand. In time, if found guilty by the courts, ex prime minister Mr Thaksin may be absolved by amendments

In preparation for the war of international opinion, eager propagandists from the pro- and anti- Thaksin sides will have been in touch with their respective Western conduits, spinning tales of arms purchase, blood-letting intentions and military machinations. These Western mouth-pieces can feel the brush of history on their cheeks and readily spray innuendo and hearsay to the media, all the more to be one with the great Event.

Each side speaks of a likely coup from the other side, each of a violent denouement induced by the other. As disciple-zealots go into overdrive, their account of events will be partisan. Prepare for more stories of the kind that followed October 7, of amputated limbs of uncertain status, of naturally combustible people, and of police following ISO standards for crowd dispersal.

As wannabe royalist guardians (the People’s Alliance for Democracy) face off against authoritarian apologists (The National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship) and respectively don the masks of law versus democratic-mandate, the shrill, international media Chorus of Misunderstanding grows louder. “Settle your differences by the ballot”, they say. “Respect the election outcome”, and all other sorts of sanctimonious dross.

The naïve among them will expect that the Thai political system functions like any other electoral democracy, even given the contending forces now antagonistically poised. The pro-Thaksin propagandists will pretend that the system can function – because they hold the House.

The Chorus of Misunderstanding will explain to its attention-deficit audience that middle-class Thais have forgotten the beauty of institutionalised conflict by numbers, that they have given up on parliamentary democracy. And suitably impressed by their superior morals they will move on to the next story, Angelina and Brad’s efforts to save Africa. The Chorus will conveniently forget the very corruption of the institutionalised system of conflict by numbers (2001-2006) by the pro-Thaksin forces they now support; they’ll point an accusing finger only at those who swept away the debris (the coupsters and their backers), and those who now challenge the PPP government.

What might one make of the call made by the pro-Thaksin commentariat to let the government govern and for PAD to go home. Pious and admirable calls no doubt, but the Chorus is talking to itself, while also spinning a tale that says there is a workable system of democracy in Thailand.

Karl Marx in his brilliant reflections on the rise of simpleton Louis Bonaparte (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 1852) coined the term “parliamentary cretinism”. He scorned the efforts of the effete parliamentary opposition who assumed, even in those exceptional times, that the parliamentary chamber was the locus of power, and who therefore chose to fight there. He noted that such ‘parliamentary cretinism’ robbed people of sense and captured them in an imaginary world of nominal struggle, while all around them ‘the rude external world’ intruded on fundamental questions of power and sovereignty. Marx recounts that these cretins imagined a ministerial scalp was taking them closer to victory, while baton-in-hand the Bonapartist coup of December 1851 approached.

What strikes anyone looking at Thailand right now is the absence of domestic parliamentary cretinism. Few strategic actors believe that things can be settled in orderly parliamentary debate and electoral competition, the struggle is no longer contained by rules of the game. The cretinism is external, imposed by a commentariat that is conceited about their own nation’s democratic credentials, and who are more than willing to take a bet on Thaksin’s pro-Western and pro-democratic stand, while glossing his regime’s authoritarianism.

In the realm of parliamentary politics, the pro-Thaksin forces are unparalleled in their knowledge of the rude external world and what is required to master it. They eschew parliamentary cretinism, even if they realise the value of an electoral majority in the current battle against the conservative establishment that threatens them. They wish to control the state, to penetrate its inner sanctums and to ensure that the state’s general line accords with their party preference.

As for the anti-Thaksin opposition, it too is not to be accused of parliamentary cretinism. Their mobilisation of a mixture of royal liberalism, reactionary nationalism, military apologism and state-corporatism reflects ample knowledge of that ‘rude external world’ which will decide who wins this current battle.

That there are not enough institutional incentives to induce parliamentary cretinism is one reason for the high likelihood that blood will colour red the streets of Bangkok in the coming days.

October 15, 2008

PAD and non-violence

Email Interview with Christian Science Monitor, 14 Oct, 2008

* Are there cultural/social reasons why nonviolent protest is/isn't
part of Thai democracy struggle? Has PAD shifted tactics since 2006?

Non-violent protest has been the pre-dominant feature of Thai popular struggles over the last thirty years - in strikes, street protests, petitions, and the like, with varying levels of success. Non-violence works best in a responsive political system where predictable protest routines and signals are measured and fed back into policy outcomes.

Crisis moments however have not generally been characterised by the success of non-violent protest and such moments tend to spiral towards a violent conflict. By crisis moments I mean those times when fundamental issues of political order are at stake between strategic actors who mobilise resources against rivals. The deployment of violent means in 1975-1976 by elites to withstand a popular challenge is one case in point, the use of military force against democracy protesters in 1992 another. Then, though, the violence was instigated largely by statal forces.

Speaking of the current situation, the extraordinary development of 'self-defence' units on both sides is partly a result of memory and circumstance. In that sense the implicit violent rhetoric of both sides in terms of eliminating the other makes imperative some form of protection. But of course, once armed, the genie is out of the bottle and public pronouncements of non-violence in the Gandhian mode are belied by actions.

It is now conventional wisdom to state that PAD protest leaders actually want violence in order to invite a coup against the government - I can see how this might logically flow from their actions, which is to say it is one possible outcome. It can also be deduced from some of Sondhi's comments. But I am not comfortable with that idea being defined as PAD's key strategy: it recycles reactionary ideas about the way in which protest is merely the plaything of conspiracy and the cynicism of leaders. Something more fundamental is going on in Thailand right now.

It's interesting to see the way in which the key PAD leader Chamlong Srimuang is being demonised by some commentators as some kind of puppet master. This kind of commentary draws on Thai debates about his role in the 1992 protests against the Suchinda government, when Chamlong's leadership is said to have led to the May massacre after soldiers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators. To suggest that Chamlong wanted the massacre to happen as part of some grand strategy grants Chamlong extra-ordinary powers of prescience and manipulation. It also lets off the hook those who did the shooting. The implications of that analysis for the present should be clear. The casual and tendential assertion of motive hardly illuminates the fundamental conflict that set up the present crisis.

* Don't people's power movements in Asia usually rely on support from
within security apparatus? I'm thinking Philippines in 1986.

Regime change or attempted regime change is always much more messier than post-triumphalist histories present. And in the current stand-off in Thailand one can speak about a conflicted state in which both sides have support right across a range of state-agencies. In the end, if the stalemate continues, it is not impossible to imagine a move against both sides by a draconian faction within the elite who use the vacuum of power to reestablish order and sweep away this conflict. Of course, for that to happen, it won't be a 'soft' coup. Alternatively, an elite compromise could be reached which leads to the popular arms of both wings being amputated and a deal done.
Various scenarios discussed here

October 12, 2008

Getting into detail

It is not often that The Economist adds to the political literacy of a situation. Like the Wall Street Journal, certain fixed ideas direct interpretation in such a way that the nuances of a political struggle are reduced to the reflexes of western capital interest. The nébuleuse probably believe these publications are the most direct form of communication with Big Capital. Afterall, the mastheads of these esteemed tribunes are said to process global intelligence as if it were from God Himself (God with a capital M)

Allow me to draw attention to a recent article in The Economist on Thailand's turmoil. Instead of the lazy and repetitive mantra that has been bandied about in various newspapers and online that PAD is purely fascist and that it wants a parliament composed of 70% selected delegates (a position which changed a month or so ago), The Economist has rightly recognised PAD'S diverse make up. Yes, there are virulent rightwing streams in the organisation, but it also has a strand of "royal liberalism", which the Economist defines as " the idea that a powerful crown can act as a check on rapacious politicians." In the Thai literature the king has been called the Supreme Ombudsman.

I am of the opinion that the current struggle in Thailand is full of contradictions, and the position of royal liberalism is only one part of that contradictory whole. The point about royal liberalism, as it has developed in Thailand, is not that it defines the role of the monarch at all times, but rather it idealises what the monarchy might be in the face of corrupt electoral democracy. As a social force, royal liberalism is an attempt to direct the institution of the monarchy to a particular role. It neither countenances a Cambodian-style politicised monarchy, nor one completely identified with national security complexes. The Thaksin regime - in eroding the 1997 constitutional settlement - challenged both a liberal and conservative establishment.

I have written about this in "Article of Faith: the failure of royal liberalism in Thailand" in Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2008, 38, 1.

As long as the western media sees what is happening in Thailand as a struggle between a democratically elected government and a reactionary social movement with establishment backing, it will continue to interpret the events as if they were happening in Washington, Canberra or London. They are not. They are happening in Thailand.

Recognising that there is some tension in the anti-Thaksin movement is an advance. The next advance, given that the reactionary and undemocratic nature of some of PAD's support base has been well established, is to recognise the extradordinary reactionary and undemocratic nature of elements of the pro-Thaksin camp.

Post edited for clarity and to remove rhetorical excess: on Sunday night at 7 PM.

October 9, 2008

Q & A on Thai crisis

Bloomberg email interview conducted on the afternoon of October 8th.

Q. Just wondering your thoughts on the latest Thai developments. Specifically, does this represent a major change in tactics for the PAD?

A. A stalemate between the pro-and anti-Thaksin forces has been the key characteristic of 2008. Each has its support base in state agencies and the media and each has tried to paint the other as destroying Thai democracy. The arrest of the PAD leaders was clearly an attempt to break PAD in order clear obstacles to constitutional amendments.

While amendments are warranted, given the coup-origins of the 2007 Constitution, the PPP's transparent intent was to destroy the corruption cases against Mr Thaksin and others associated with Thai Rak Thai and PPP, and to revoke anti-Thaksin appointments to the various "independent agencies of the state" such as the National Counter Corruption Commission.

The PPP selection of Somchai, Thaksin's brother in law, as Prime Minister was effectively an announcement that the pro-Thaksin forces were going for broke, which in the current context means that a zero-sum game between the opposing sides is in play.

Q. Do you see an end game in all this?

A. Several outcomes are possible, none knowable: a coup could be launched against the government or there could be a pro-government coup, perhaps in the form of a temporary martial law/state of emergency.

Possibly, a coup could also move against both sides (pro-Thaksin and pro-PAD) and enact a tough period of military rule under a civilian prime minister to beat down both claimants on power in order to establish order. The new regime might well incorporate elements of the PAD 'new politics' agenda but probably would cut loose PAD's social base.

The government could mobilise a mass support base onto the streets to beat back an anti-government coup. This base has so far failed to show itself other than at the ballot box and rallies of indifferent size.

Perhaps the coalition will splinter and defect to a new coalition formation to pre-empt a coup. Remember, factions in the governing coalition are pragmatic. Before PPP elected Somchai as prime minister it was momentarily possible that a Democrat led coalition government might have taken shape as some elements in the PPP and the minor parties were weary of fighting all the way and were ready to do a deal.

Another possibility is the emergence of a government of national unity, which has been flagged several times. Such a government would presumably be convened under the threat of a coup and it would most likely cut the Thaksin link.

As always, predictions are always overtaken by reality.

What can be said is that at some point in the next week an enduring resolution to the stalemate may well emerge. Events of historic proportion are often dictated by a logic that defies transparent interest, a number of realignments might emerge which no one can imagine.

Q. If a new election is called, do you think it's likely a Thaksin-linked party will win again, and if so will this conflict just continue indefinitely?

A. If an anti-government coup occurs I would expect that this time there would be greater repression and manipulation to ensure that in any future election a repeat of the PPP victory would not occur: the school burnings that occurred in 2007 in the North and Northeast might well be a symbol of what will come.

If the House is dissolved and a new election is held and the current balance of popularity remains in place, a PPP led coalition government would be the most likely outcome, although that would depend on the stand taken by the minor parties.

Q. What does the current fight say about Thailand's democracy?

A. Thai democracy is in a state of immolation.

Additional Commentary/10/10/08

Odd, given the massive erosion of the THaksin/PPP position through the court system, that I should have missed adding a role for the courts in the various scenarios discussed above.

October 7, 2008

Conclusions: A Thaksin return can not be ruled out


Today's events in Bangkok when PAD blocked parliament and the police moved to disperse the protestors are a climax long in the making, delayed only by an uncertain balance of forces. Several outcomes are possible, none knowable: a coup could be launched from either side (even Thaksin considered a pro-government coup). Possibly, a coup could also move against both sides and enact a tough period of military rule to beat down both claimants on power in order to establish order - think Bonapartism. The government could finally mobilise a mass support base onto the streets to beat back an anti-government (Thaksin) coup. This base has so far failed to show itself other than at the ballot box and rallies of indifferent size. As always, predictions are always overtaken by reality.

What can be said is that at some point in the next week an enduring resolution to the stalemate may well emerge. Events of historic proportion are often dictated by a logic that defies transparent interest, and it is not unlikely that a number of realignments might emerge which no one can imagine. Below, I have reproduced the conclusion from an article I wrote a month ago "Four Elections and a Coup" to appear in Australian Journal of International Affairs at the end of the year. The excerpt "The King Can Do Wrong" in the last post also comes from that piece.

During the 1990s, liberal impulses emanating from within Thailand merged with the international discourse of good governance. This process was halted when Thaksin’s rise coincided with global security discourse in the wake of the ‘war on terror’ and the pressure to conform to international forms of political liberalism receded. This was a dynamic broadly reminiscent of geo-politics of the Cold War. Now, with the region and the globe entering a new phase of geo-political conflict in which China and Russia are highly assertive, and the US is in retreat, the liberal politics that have largely dictated Thai pro-western foreign policy inclination may retreat further as states in the region gravitate more decisively to China.

Thaksin’s emergent authoritarianism and political challenge to elite power centres influenced the convergence of rightist fear of disorderly electoral democracy and middle-class concern for ‘good governance’. It has left Thailand’s political system faltering under a mass of contradictions that are not easily categorised. The current trajectory of Thai politics is impossible to predict. As system level contradictions simultaneously implode, the resulting conflagration may give birth to odd formations. Alternatively, politics might return to a status quo ante of corruption, electoral mobilisation and capital capture of the state. Certainly, when all sides play with the rules of the game, the crisis will remain intractable, perhaps until a rupturing historical event provides relief. One thing, though, is certain: the future of Thai politics will be extremely uncertain, precarious and subject to momentous change once the current king’s interventionist role, on the side of conservatism, is absent. With that in mind, at the very least a Thaksin return in some form can not be ruled out.

Postscript (10th September)

On September 9, 2008, in a unanimous verdict the Constitutional Court disqualified Samak as prime minister on the relatively trivial grounds that his hosting of a television cooking show while prime minister, violated Article 267 of the constitution, relating to conflict of interest. In July, Samak had bemoaned the smothering nature of the constitution, noting, ‘In the past, it was considered an honour to join the Cabinet. Now being a minister is like having one's leg in jail already’ (The Nation, 2008). This latest development might enforce the idea – as propagated by the respective protagonists - that Thai politics is like a social laboratory pitting the ‘rule of law’ against ‘democratic majoritarianism’. In reality, venal and vested political interests mix with popular aspirations on both sides of this elite conflict. Those interests have historic roots and structural properties. They are unlikely to lie down before moral censure that demands conformity to the rule of law or submission to the ballot box. In taking politics back to year zero – establishing the rules of the game – the current Thai conflict is a reminder that most social and political orders are established by the right, first, to be dominant. Such a right necessarily involves contradiction, selectivity, and myth. Currently, that right is contested, leading to parallel contradictions, selectivities and myths.

September 29, 2008

"The King Can Do Wrong"

Excerpt from

Connors MK (forthcoming) "Four Elections and a Coup D’etat: Giving Democracy a Break in Thailand", Australian Journal of International Affairs.

The King can do wrong

It is sometimes claimed that Thailand’s current crisis is about the impending succession to the throne. The incumbent, King Bhumibol is 80 years old. The most likely but by no means certain successor to the throne is Prince Vajiralongkorn, rumoured to be, or to have been, close to Thaksin. The coup, in this account, aimed to block a Thaksin-influenced succession (Handley, 2006b 424-5; 2006a) Like much analysis surrounding the monarchy, this is speculative but also plausible. Given that the interests surrounding the crown are extensive and fan out from palace grounds, to military camps, to schools and the bureaucracy, it would be natural for there to be great concern about the succession. A life of socialised royalism through the education system has inculcated an immense respect for the monarchy. For genuine royalist liberals and conservatives, a Thaksin-influenced succession would be repugnant.

Official discourse on the Thai monarchy constantly invokes the idea that the king can do no wrong – indeed this has been one of the abiding elements of the ideology ‘democracy with the king as head of state’. Popularly, the idea of infallibility is understood to relate to the semi-divine nature of kingship in Thailand. But the phrase actually relates to the functions of a constitutional monarchy, namely that a monarchy signs into law legislation and executive decrees, but is not responsible for them. Likewise, court decisions under the authority of the crown do not entail any royal responsibility. It is in this constitutional sense that the ‘the king can do no wrong’. The Thai monarch’s role is to symbolically manifest, by royal imprimatur, the unified sovereignty of the people, through the three arms of government (the judiciary, legislature and the executive). But the Thai king’s role has expanded well beyond this.

In the last five years an incipient debate has emerged in the twilight years of King Bhumibol’s reign. There are those who believe that the monarchy and its interventions at crisis moments (1973, 1992, and 2006) are required in the current stage of Thailand’s political development: the monarchy acts as kind of para-political institution, it intervenes when the contradictions that have attended Thailand’s political transition break out into violence. The king is like an all seeing rational citizen able to adjudge, in times of crisis, the general interest. This view reflects that over two generations the monarchy has extended its role well beyond that of a constitutional monarch in a democracy (right to warn, consult etc.). Accounting for this expanded role, liberal royalist discourse portrays the incumbent as a supreme ombudsman, who has accrued powers by convention and wisdom. Moreover, in the foggy world of practice, liberal discourse merges with traditional Buddhist notions of monarchy based on righteousness (see Bowonsak 1994; Connors 2008a). The coup and the battle against Thaksin then might be seen, in part, both as a struggle to defend the expanded role of a Thai constitutional monarchy, and all the interests that have coagulated to it, and for control over succession.

Indeed, in 2005, the former was how the issue was framed in public debates about Thaksin’s alleged transgression of royal prerogative (Connors 2008a). In the political struggles of 2005-2006 the monarchy was used instrumentally by both anti and pro Thaksin forces in a bid to gain popular favour. But the monarch was more than eager to claim his own space at this time. In his annual birthday speech in 2005 Bhumibol chastised Thaksin for being sensitive to criticism (Thaksin had a penchant for defamation suits) and suggested that even the king could be criticised. This was an extraordinary statement, given the strict enforcement of lèse-majesté. In his speech, Bhumibol (2005) invited criticism of his own role – declaring that the idea that the ‘king can do no wrong’ was a form of condescension on his own person, as if he were not human. Indeed Bhumibol declared that that ‘the king can do wrong’, and welcomed criticism. By saying that he could do wrong, by explictly rejecting the constitutionalist interpretation that 'the king can do no wrong', Bhumibol may well have been expressing the view that his role extends well beyond the symbolic. In short then, the king’s speech might be interpreted as an attack on those who argue for a restricted palace role in administration of the nation. This is a belated public recognition that Thailand’s constitutional monarchy is an activist one. It is, in an oblique way, also a recognition that the king has enduringly headed a national power bloc intent on shaping the nature of Thai capitalism and society (Connors 2007: 131). Thus, in as much as a struggle over succession and the role of the monarchy are to be understood as central to the current crisis, these elements must be mapped on to the broader struggle over regime form.

Comment: this is from a larger article about the events of the last year. Bhumipol's speech on 'doing wrong' was actually a restatement of his December 2003 speech(see below). I can only guess that people simply couldn't comprehend what he was saying the first time round. Even the second time round, the idea didn't sink in: if I remember correctly Matichon Sutsapda, several days after the December 2005 speech, had on its front cover in English "THE KING CAN DO NO WRONG".

Just as the struggle against Thaksin was hotting up in September 2005 I wrote about the 2003 speech thus (published in 2007 Democracy and National Identity in Thailand, pp. 259-260):

"In some respects, the great energy expended in the last decade on democracy promotion, civic education and anti-vote buying campaigns (in short - when tens of thousands of people acted as the shock troops for liberal democrasubjection) has done little to abate the influence of money and power in the political system. Indeed, it might be argued that promoting ‘good citizenship’ in Thailand has led to a moralistic type of politics that permanently displaces questions about power and structure in determining political outcomes. Self-organization is what can transform these democratic institutions into instruments that serve the interests of ordinary people, workers and peasants. Civic politics needs to be complemented with class-based activism in trade unions and farmers federations. Only this can ensure that national politics is not subject to the whims of aggrandizing elites.

In the interests of elite liberalism, and to forestall political instability, action from above may preempt the emergence of a mass progressive movement; and Thaksin may fall in front of a jury of his peers.

Indeed, there is considerable concern about the current political situation among elements of the Thai establishment. The king himself has expressed some cogent concerns that indicate fear of mass disaffection with the political system. In late 2003, the king raised some interesting questions about the future implications of Thaksin’s mode of rule. Offering sympathetic comments on the ‘war on drugs’, the king nonetheless suggested that more had to be done to satisfy critics who claimed the government was responsible for thousands of deaths. The king noted that responsibility was continually shifted from the ‘superman’ prime minister through to ministers, civil servants and through to the people and law, who then might shift responsibility on to the king, ‘which is against the constitution, as the constitution says the king has no responsibility at all… so we agree that none of us are responsible for the nation’. In the same speech the king notes that those responsible in government should accept criticism when it is warranted:

[If] they are right then thank them, if they are wrong tell them, quietly…The person who is greatly troubled by this is the king, because no one can reproach him… We did not tell those who wrote the constitution that no one can reproach or violate the king. Why this was written, I do not know. If one can not be violated how can one know if one is right or wrong?

A system of no accountability is a volatile system, and it is clear that the king’s comments relate not just to the war on drugs but extend to the style of governance that Thaksin has embraced. By implication, if the king is open to criticism, although it is not allowed, Thaksin should also be able to tolerate it. By reprising his role as a cautious liberal king, Bhumipol furthers royal mythology.
Whether a popular movement, a push from above, or an implosion from within TRT removes Thaksin is a matter for speculation, as is his longevity. But if Thailand is to break from the familiar tug of war between authoritarian nationalism, which draws on the three pillars of national identity, and royal liberalism, a movement from below that transcends both streams will need to emerge. Otherwise, a return to the royal embrace will be yet one more historical impasse for Thailand’s poor."


September 2, 2008

Comments on Thailand's Crisis 1st September

A short interview I did on Australian Network TV

Pick the story at the bottom of the list: "Thai Protestors Dig In"

This was recorded before the recent clash and declaration of a state of emergency.

Playing with the rules of the game: states of emergency

Below, is a pre-edit version of a question and answer exchange between and myself.


1. What do you see as driving the PAD? How would you describe them as a force in Thai politics? Are they a force for democracy or is their proposal for "New Politics" anti-democratic?

The PAD is a multi-faceted protest machine, and now an insurrectionary one, that brings together an odd alliance of business interests, ultra-royalists, military-bureaucratic interests and what once might have been called "progressive" anti-Thaksin forces. The alliance's objective is the destruction of all remnants of the "Thaksin system" - this binds what would otherwise be a grouping of widely divided views and interests.

In the interests of their declared objective, PAD has united under a banner of hyper-nationalism and royalism. Their democratic and liberal credentials, such as they were in 2006, have now receded. PAD's proposal, made in July 2008, that Thailand needed "new politics" suggests that they have been listening to old military ideologues who have long sponsored the idea that representative democracy was a shell and that greater democratic outcomes are possible through a system of occupational representation (this is the core of PAD's new politics).

Sondhi, the key PAD leader, even used the term "functional democracy" in an interview. That's a term associated with Mussolini's Italy. Some critics have noted the similarity between Sondhi's proposal and what obtains in Hong Kong. It should be noted that several PAD leaders have rejected the idea that "new politics" is official PAD policy - and they also say that occupational representatives won't be "appointed" but elected by their relevant constituencies.

2. Somewhat related, how would you characterize Sondhi Limthongkul? If Samak goes down does that make him suddenly the strongest man in the country? Does he really care about democracy or just himself?

After the 2006 coup Sondhi virtually disappeared. He was no darling of the coup group - and there is no reason to believe that the establishment forces against Thaksin see him as their chosen leader. I would say this is more an alliance of convenience.

While it is easy to see Sondhi's motivation as a personal vendetta against Thaksin, that seems a fairly simplistic explanation. While it may play a part, one man's vendetta does not launch and sustain a mass movement for so long. Clearly different sides are now mobilising different visions of democracy. Sondhi's vision has been made very clear - to circumvent electoral democracy in order to cut out what he and others call "patronage politics" whereby corrupt politicians buy themselves into power and then pillage the public purse.

In 2007 Sondhi and allies discussed intentions to build a party of the middle class - he was trying to tap into middle class grievance across the nation that the Thaksin government had used middle class taxes to fund populist policies that were, in the end, allowing Thaksin to be so popular as to ride roughshod over the liberal elements of the 1997 constitution. He said that the party would not contest elections for five years. Maybe he will form something, if he survives the current crisis, and if something like "new politics" and state corporatism emerges.

3. Sondhi's mantra is that poor Thais are illiterate and just receive money for votes, and then the bought MPs simply raise their hands in Parliament. Is Sondhi onto something here or are Thailand's poor smarter than he thinks?

It is hard to deny that money plays an enormous influence in buying political allegiance - but often that is allegiance of politicians not the electorate. Given Thaksin's various policies on health, micro-credit and so on, people made a choice [to support Thaksin] based on self-interest. Why didn't people make a choice of government that also held concern for the liberal elements of Thai political settlement? Well, I think the issues relating to "checks and balances", "human rights" "abuse of power" were probably abstractions to many people when they faced the concrete policies of the Thaksin government and benefited from them.

The challenge in the future is to unite progressive economic policy with a concern for freedoms and rights.

4. Finally, Samak is a right-winger now aligned with many leftist student activists like Surapong. Sondhi is a businessman who is touting conservative causes but also receives backing from the unions. Can this conflict be defined on traditional right-left ideological grounds? How can these apparent contradictions be reconciled?

I think that predominantly this is "right on right" contest at the moment - with the 'left', liberals and centrists now marginal to the events but hoping that the victory of one side or the other might advance their own side. Both sides are full of contradiction.

What does it mean to describe people such as Surapong as a leftist when he fronted a government that showed little regard for human rights? And what does it mean when PAD leaders normally associated with the left mobilise anti-Khmer sentiment and ultra-royalism in order to defeat Thaksin? If there are "lefts" on either side, they have chosen to obliterate their own politics and have instead waged a war in the idiom of the right, notwithstanding the fact that both sides claim to be democratic.

I would say that one way of understanding what is happening in Thailand right now is that in the absence of genuinely independent politics of the left, each ersatz-left has decided to bundle its fate with what it sees as the most progressive force. On one side the ersatz-left chooses the pro-Thaksin camp, seeing it a progressive capitalist grouping that might well advance Thailand's bourgeois revolution against an ageing bureaucratic-military-palace establishment. The anti-Thaksin ersatz-left that works with the PAD choses to bundle its interests with that establishment because it sees monopolistic capitalism and the authoritarianism that Thaksin represented as more dangerous. In short, they think a return to the 1980s when political power was shared between the parliament, the military and the bureaucracy is worth risking, at least it's better than allowing pro-Thaksin forces to emerge victorious.

I would also say that the anti and pro-Thaksin camps have since 2003 resorted to fighting outside the "rules of the game". The 2003 Thaksin government's War on Drugs, resulting in thousands of deaths, was a highly significant event that indicated the direction of the government's orientation towards law and justice. Overtime, the political opposition considered the consolidation of Thaksin's power and wealth a threat to its right to play on a level playing field. Loyal oppositions don’t stay loyal when there is no chance of scrutinising a government. Hence, the now open warfare [and defacto state of emergency] since the 2006 coup and the attempt to control state apparatuses to advance one side over the other. What will come of this, is anybody's guess.

Some other comments
There are times when the world watches the sparks of a conflict it can not control nor contain, and in which public moral judgement from afar is futile unless it concerns the obvious desire to forge a peaceful solution, and to abhor indiscriminate violence. The current Thai crisis, now a declared state of emergency, is one such time.

To stand on a soap box and tell people not to make their own history and to wait for another election, or to tell them to allow the law to take its course, is in the current circumstance to tell people to let others make history and bury them. Both sides believe that their enemies want to bury them.

I do not think the current struggle staged on the streets of Bangkok is between democratic and anti-democractic forces, but between a coalition of liberal-authoritarian elements against a coalition of authoritarian capitalist- and interest politics elements. Each has its bad and good, now mutated into an ideological misfit. And each has carried with it the good will and intentions of its popular support base.

My natural sympathies in the current context lie with liberal and democratic political outcomes, but I do not think PAD's strategy will lead to that, in part sections have disavowed such an outcome with talk of "functional democracy". Nor do I think the Samak government can lay claim to liberal inclinations. I think both sides are now intent on taking Thailand down a road in accord with limited notions of representative democracy. Thaksin was building a hegemonic party system and moving towards competitive authoritarianism on the basis of a strong electoral support. A victory for pro-Thaksin forces may well see a resumption of that project. Elements of the Democrat Party were trying to build a very circumscribed liberal democracy, or polyarchy, that preserved the power of the capitalist elite and the monarchy, and which was willing to compromise with the corporate interests of the military. These contenders are historic forces, and when they clash they do not lie down in the face of moral censure. At the moment I think the task is to explain how it all came to this.

August 17, 2008

Dismemberment and Thai Politics

It's been a tough few months for some people; the cartoons below capture something of the situation. This week, the Election Commission of Thailand may consider recommending the dissolution of the Democrat Party, after one of its executive members admitted distributing free movie tickets. Also in the pipe line is the case against the governing People's Power Party, after executive member Yongyuth was found guilty of electoral fraud.

It's hard to see how anything can be achieved by pursuing the dissolution of parties on the basis of actions by individuals - the dissolution of Thai Rak Thai by the Constitutional Tribunal in 2007 being a case in point.

Of course, the constitutional article (Article 237) on this matter doesn't stipulate that a party must be dissolved if an executive member is found guilty of electoral fraud/corruption, only that the Constitution Court consider the matter.

In the mean time, with Thaksin in exile, the effort to undo the post-coup political settlement continues by anti-coup/pro Thaksin forces. The June 24th Democracy Group will this week commence a new round of protests to try and dislodge the National Counter Corruption Commission on the basis that its nine members were not royally appointed (they were appointed by the 2006 coupsters). It considers the NCCC and the entire post-coup legal and political order illegitimate, with the exception of the elected parliament.

(UPDATE 18th August) And on another front the campaign against Jaravan, the Auditor General, heats up. Citing Article 301 of the 2007 Constitution, Prachathat, the pro-Thaksin newspaper, has called for Jaravan to leave office. Article 301 stipulates that: "The selection for the State Audit Commission and the Auditor-General shall finish within one hundred and twenty days as from the date of appointment of the President of the House of Representatives and the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives after the first general election of members of the House of Representatives under this Constitution and, if the President of the Constitutional Court from the selection proceedings under this Constitution does not exist, the Selective Committee shall consist of the existing members."

Cartoon from Khao Sut 15th August. The text reprises Thaksin's assurance - after speaking to an astrologer - that after July 2nd everything would be okay.

Cartoon is from Naew Naa 17th August. A tree (People's Power Party) is cut down by a saw-wielding man (The Election Commission of Thailand).

August 5, 2008

Asia Sentinel Article on Judicialisation of Thai Politics

"The Morass of Thai Law":

"This week’s guilty verdict on tax evasion charges against Pojaman Shinawatra, the wife of the ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has been described as politically loaded. Had the Criminal Court’s decision been otherwise, it would have also been so described."

Read More

Please note that I made a mistake in the piece above, regarding Truth Today's presentation of the case against the Auditor General. Their evidence regarded her ability to afford builing on the property, not the property itself. Their basic point is that she appears to be unusually wealthy. A clarification of this issue would be good, both for the integrity of the office of the Auditor General, and for questions of accountability of all public servants and politicians.

Thailand’s Media and Law Wars: the hijacking of state media.

Thailand’s Media and Law Wars: the hijacking of state media.

When you take up Sondhi’s Manager newspaper or watch ASTV “protest TV” you know what you are getting: the politics of the People’s Alliance for Democracy. I am not sure, but my guess is that ASTV is probably a first in history: a television channel dedicated to broadcasting ongoing protests and making those protests, and its stage entertainment and addresses, its full content. These outlets are private concerns, and while they probably violate every rule of objectivity (such as it is), they are not media instruments of the state.

Some weeks ago Prime Minister Samak indicated he would expand his weekly television address to a nightly show to answer his critics. That idea was dropped, but for the last two weeks “Truth Today” has been broadcast on a nightly basis on NBT, the national broadcaster.

The program is fascinating viewing. It is unashamedly pro-government. It declares itself against PAD and the Democrat Party (describing this as the party that works with dictators); it wages a relentless attack on the Constitution Court, the National Counter Corruption Commission, the constitution and the Auditor General.

Truth Today’s basic premise (also argued for in the pro-Thaksin paper Prachathat) is that the coup was illegitimate and therefore everything that has flowed from the coup is illegitimate, including the cases against Thaksin. The constitution is a child of a dictatorship. What makes the tv program absolutely fascinating is its decidedly politicised nature. It holds no punches, being hosted by leading members of the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship, or the DAAD: Veera Musikapong (former Democrat Party member who led a defection from the party in the 1980s and who was found guilty of lese majeste for rather innocent comments), Nattawut Saikue (former deputy spokesperson for the Thaksin government), and Jatuporn Prompan (People’s Power MP).

Truth Today is firebrand television. Veera is one of the leaders of DAAD who moved protestors to General Prem’s (President of the Privy Council) residence in mid 2007, accusing him of being behind the 2006 coup against Thaksin.

The three presenters were also involved in the formation of the pro-Thaksin PTV channel that faced opposition from the coup group in 2007. They have now graduated to state television for an hour each evening, waging a war of accusations and argument in the manner of PAD.

Last night (August 3) the presenters launched an assault on the opposition Democrat Party as a party that supports dictators. The presenters discussed plans to try and appoint Democrat Party leader Aphisit as prime minister after the December 2007 election, but they noted that the numbers made it impossible for the Democrats to form government. They spoke of electoral fraud, and the unclear issue of excessive ballot papers (on that matter, no one has ever explained the party list vote of December which initially gave the the Democrat Party and the People’s Power Party 14 million votes each, in the end both got around 12 million). On the same evening Veera read an announcement of PAD, and paid especial attention to PAD’s professed support for democracy with the king as head of state. Ah, “we are on the same side” he declared.

The presenters have also spoken about Article 309 and the need to abolish it (this is an Article that Samak has reserved judgement on). It declares as legal all actions of the 2006 coup group. His reticence on that question may have something to do with when Samak served as Interior Minister after the massacre at Thammasat University in October 1976. Following that event he served in a government formed by the coup group and governed under a temporary constitution that had a very similar article (Article 29 of the 1976 Constitution basically states that all that the 1976 coup group did was legal).

Indeed, so common is this kind of article that to declare coup law as illegitimate is indeed to wage a war against the body of law of Thailand. That war is long overdue, and just as the embedding of the rule of law in the cases against Thaksin have found a strange handmaiden, so to one might reflect on the oddity of a government led by Samak being the one to launch a reform of Thai law (if indeed it goes beyond a mere consitutional amendment).

By the way, this evening’s episode of Truth Today (4th of August) ended with a reading of one of the king’s addresses on the role of justice. It seems that both sides support democracy with the king as head of state. Each is attempting to present itself as loyal to the monarchy.

July 15, 2008

Thailand: Coup? New Politics? Rule of Law?

Thai politics six months from now?

Some people have given up trying to understand current events in Thailand. They figure, I suppose, that they will pick up the thread once it’s all sorted.

That thread has several possible endings.

It might be a Democrat Party led coalition government in power, aided by military machinations of some form. Thaksin Shinawatra would be in exile (if he can get away), with ex-prime minister Samak sunk by allegations of corruption relating to the time he served as Bangkok Mayor. This possibility emerges on the assumption that the various court cases against Thaksin and the government proceed, and the coalition government splinters in the face of indictments and the dissolution of pro-Thaksin political influence.

Another possibility would be a resurgent People’s Power Party (PPP) government (sans Samak?). This outcome would require more of the counter demonstrations that are breaking out across the country against the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). This is the so-called “Udon model”, which entails breaking up PAD rallies wherever they occur in the provinces. Empowered by the mass mobilisation of its support base, the government would simultaneously amend the constitution and in doing so end the cases on corruption and party dissolution. This outcome would assume significant military support to offset anti-Thaksin forces in the military.

To get that outcome would require a judicial revolution of its own. It would mean invalidating the work of the Assets Examination Committee (which was the body that forwarded some of the corruption cases to the courts) by claiming that it had no legitimate legal status because it was established by the coup group. But for sixty years, laws that have been issued by military juntas have been judged legally binding by the Supreme Court. Such decrees and laws remain in force today. The status of ‘coup law’ was recently re-affirmed by the Constitution Court in regard to the AEC. However, in the face of mass mobilisation - and one assumes some degree of military backing to the government - the courts might revisit the question.

Alternatively, pressure may be applied to have the various cases withdrawn, thus avoiding a legal challenge that might unravel the entire system. For that to occur some deal might be done that brings about a political truce. Not many people can imagine a truce right now.

Another possibility is a coup d’etat against the government. It is hard to imagine such a coup d’etat merely restoring the situation preceding the elections in 2007. This is where PAD’s ideas of recasting politics into a “functional democracy” of occupational representation comes to the fore. By appointing most representatives to parliament in the post-coup environment, and making this permanent in accordance with PAD's New Politics , pro-Thaksin forces would be marginalised. Such a system could only emerge with immense acts of repression and endure with the same.

There is a less destabilising possibility.

The PPP government could muddle through in its own way, surviving or stumbling according to parliamentary convention. An agreement could be reached on a constitutional amendment that abolishes Article 237 (see below) dealing with party dissolution, and which currently looms over the Coalition government. In return, the cases relating to corruption would proceed. All parties would pledge to non-interference in the courts and support a fair trial.

Undoubtedly, something else will happen.

Article on Party Dissolution in 2007 Constitution

"Section 237. Any candidate in an election, who has committed, created or supported any person to commit any act in violation of the Organic Act on Election of Members of the House of Representatives and the Taking of Office of Senators or orders and announcements of the Election Commission, causing the election not to be proceeded in an honest and fair manner, shall be deprived of his or her voting rights in accordance with the Organic Act on Election of Members of the House of Representatives and the Taking of Office of Senators.

If any such act of person under paragraph one appears to have convincing evidence that the leader or an executive member of his or her political party has acknowledged or ignored that action or has known of the act but failed to prevent or rectify it in order to ensure an honest and fair election, that political party is assumed to have sought to gain power in state administration by means other than what is provided in Section 68 of the Constitution, and in case the Constitutional Court consequently orders its dissolution, the voting rights of its leader and executive board members shall be revoked for a period of 5 years as from the date of issuance of the party dissolution order."

Taken from an unofficial translation of the constitution.

Thai Military Ranks: Cut and Paste

Perhaps its time to brush up on Thai military ranks?


จอมพลอากาศ Marshal of the Royal Thai Air Force
พลอากาศเอก Air Chief Marshal(พล.อ.อ. ACM)
พลอากาศโท Air Marshal (พล.อ.ท. AM)
พลอากาศตรี Air Vice Marshal (พล.อ.ต. AVM)
นาวาอากาศเอก Group Captain (น.อ.Gp.Capt.)
นาวาอากาศโท Wing Commander (น.ท. Wg.Cdr.)
นาวาอากาศตรี Squadron Leader (น.ต. Sqn.Ldr.)
เรืออากาศเอก Flight Lieutenant (ร.อ. Flt.Lt.)
เรืออากาศโท Flying Officer (ร.ท. Flg.Off.)
เรืออากาศตรี Pilot Officer (ร.ต. Plt.Off.)
พันจ่าอากาศเอก Flight Sergeant First Class (พ.อ.อ.FS 1)
พันจ่าอากาศโ Flight Sergeant Second Class (พ.อ.ท. FS 2)
พันจ่าอากาศตรี Flight Sergeant Third Class (พ.อ.ต. FS 3)
จ่าอากาศเอก Sergeant (จ.อ. Sgt.)
จ่าอากาศโท Corporal (จ.ท. Cpl.)
จ่าอากาศตรี Leading Aircraftman (จ.ต. LAC)
พลทหาร Airman (พลฯ Amn.)


จอมพล Field Marshal
พลเอก General พล.อ. Gen.
พลโท Lieutenant General พล.ท. Lt.Gen.
พลตรี Major General พล.ต. Maj.Gen.
พันเอก Colonel พ.อ. Col.
พันโท Lieutenant Colonel พ.ท. Lt.Col.
พันตรี Major พ.ต. Maj.
ร้อยเอก Captain ร.อ. Capt.
ร้อยโท Lieutenant ร.ท. Lt.
ร้อยตรี Sub Lieutenant ร.ต. SubLt.
จ่าสิบเอก Sergeant Major 1st Class จ.ส.อ. SM 1
จ่าสิบโท Sergeant Major 2nd Class จ.ส.ท. SM 2
จ่าสิบตรี Sergeant Major 3rd Class จ.ส.ต. SM 3
สิบเอก Sergeant ส.อ. Sgt.
สิบโท Corporal ส.ท. Cpl.
สิบตรี Private 1st Class ส.ต. Pfc.
พลทหาร Private พลฯ Pvt.

จอมพลเรือ Admiral of the Fleet
พลเรือเอก Admiral พล.ร.อ.Adm.
พลเรือโท Vice Admiral พล.ร.ท. VAdm.
พลเรือตรี Rear Admiral พล.ร.ต. RAdm.
นาวาเอก Captain น.อ. (ชื่อ) ร.น.Capt.
นาวาโท Commander น.ท. (ชื่อ) ร.น. Cdr.
นาวาตรี Lieutenant Commander น.ต. (ชื่อ) ร.น. LCdr.
เรือเอก Lieutenant ร.อ. (ชื่อ) ร.น.Lt.
เรือโท Lieutenant Junior Grade ร.ท. (ชื่อ) ร.น. Lt.JG.
เรือตรี Sub Lieutenant ร.ต. (ชื่อ) ร.น. SubLt.
พันจ่าเอก Chief Petty Officer 1st Class พ.จ.อ. CPO 1
พันจ่าโท Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class พ.จ.ท. CPO 2
พันจ่าตรี Chief Petty Officer 3rd Class พ.จ.ต. CPO 3
จ่าเอก Petty Officer 1st Class จ.อ. PO 1
จ่าโท Petty Officer 2nd Class จ.ท. PO 2
จ่าตรี Petty Officer 3rd Class จ.ต. PO 3
พลทหาร Seaman พลฯ

Military Insignia

July 9, 2008

The Law is an Ass-et. Coups, Law and Corruption Cases

The Asset Examination Committee/Asset Scrutiny Committee

In late June 2008 the Asset Examination Committee/Asset Scurtiny Committee (depending on the translation) wound up its activities. Vilified and loved in the same measure, the AEC was commissioned in the aftermath of the 2006 September coup against the caretaker Thaksin government to investigate losses to the state during the Thaksin administration. Some of its members were well known anti-Thaksin figures and their impartiality was quite reasonably questioned. However, the AEC had no authority to determine guilt, but merely to investigate. Its evidence had to be forwarded to the appropriate authorities and courts.

Recently, the Constitutional Court ruled the Committee was a lawful organization, after lawyers argued its coup-origins made it an illegitimate body. This was always going to be a long shot: Thai law proceeds on the premise, and has done for nearly 60 years, that coups are legal once the resulting government has, de facto, established its right to rule. This then enshrines all coup decrees as legal. Of course, the new constitution also verifies that "fact" - hence the layered, complex mess that is Thai law.

It is worth noting that the cases that are now before the courts, including the Rachadapisek land purchase) are merely the tip of the iceberg. Below, for the purposes of information, I summarise the cases that the AEC have determined should be pursued. Only a few are now in process. The ASC claims that the 21 cases it examined involve a loss to state revenue of 1.8 saen laan baht The information comes from Vote Magazine, July 2008 issue.

The cases acted on by the Asset Examination Committee are classified into four types:
1. Those currently in progress in the courts

1.1 Tax avoidance in transferring Shinawat Computer Inc. Communications involving Khun Ying Pojaman Shinawat –Bannaphot Damaphong Case number : 1149/2550 commenced 26 March 2007
1.2 The sale of land in the Rachadapisek district by the Financial Institutions Development Fund (FIDF) to KY. Pojaman Shinawat. Both Thaksin and Pojaman are defendants
1.3 The case regarding the 2/3 number lottery project by the The Government Lottery Office. 32 political office holders and 16 officials.

2 Those cases which have been sent to the office of the auditor general but which were not decided by the Attorney General before the ASC ended its tenure:

2.1 Projects regarding electrical cable laying at Suwannaphum airport involving former Minister of Transport Suriya Jungrungreangkit and a top official in the Ministry of Transport
2.2. Case involving baggage systems and CTX 9000 scanners at S.Airport involving 26 politicians, civil servants, officials of state enterprises, juristic persons, and entrepreneurs. Loss to the state estimated at 6, 937 million baht.
2.3 Case involving “loan irregularities loan irregularities extended to the Krisda Mahanakorn Group” by the Krung Thai group. The case involves Thaksin, his son Panthongtae and 31 (former) board members of Krung Thai Bank.
2.4 Five cases that allege the former prime minister Thaksin used his position to benefit his own businesses, causing loss to state assets.
2.4.1 Case on the order to convert mobile phone operator concessions to an excise tax, leading to a loss of the Telephone organization of Thailand of 30, 667 million baht.
2.4.2 Case regarding reducing revenue share paid to TST ทศท from prepaid mobile services from 25 to 20% leading to a state loss of 70, 872 million baht.
2.4.3 Case relating to AIS and its reduction of payments by treating networks separately for payment purposes to TOT. Loss of 18970579711 baht during the term of the concession. This gain enabled rise in Shin Corp before its sale.
2.4.4 Various breaks given by the Board of Investment for IPSTAR satellite projects within Thailand.
2.4.5 Case regarding Treasury officials in tax negotiations regarding the sale of Shin Corp.

3. Those cases under consideration by the AEC but not forwarded to the OAG before 30th June.

3.1 Case regarding Sky Train Airport link with losses to the state of 1, 200 million baht.
3.2 Three Cases regarding Ua Athon housing project that involves builders, officials (3.2.1/3.2.2/3.2.3 )
3.3 A case involving the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and its dealings with private companies worth 300 million baht.
3.4 The case involving the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority’s purchase of fire trucks involving a loss to the state of 1, 900 million baht.
3.5 The cause of unusual wealth in Thaksin’s purchase of Manchester City

4. Those cases which have been returned after the Attorney General determined not to proceed.

4.1 The Export-Import Bank and the loan to Burma (which involved purchase of Shin Corp products). Claimed loss of state amounting to 670,436,201 baht (EXIM) 140,349,000 (Treasury). Gains to Shin Corp 593,492,815 baht.
4.2 Case involving Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives and rubber plantations project. Loss to the state of 1, 400 million baht Case involves 44 people including Newin Chidchop, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture. Various accused are being asked to pay compensation of 1,109 million baht.

5. Those cases sent to the Tax office to recoup tax.

5.1 Pojaman Shinawat and Banaphot Damaphong transferred shares with no tax. Tax outstanding approximately 546 million baht.
5.2 Thaksin’s children Phongthongtae and Thongtha Shinawat bought shares in Shin Corp from Ample Rich Invesment (164.6 million each) at a cost of 1 baht before they sold it to Temasak at 49.25 baht, which is subject to tax. In August 2550 requested Tax Department to seek payment of 11, 809, 294, 773 baht in tax.
5. 3. Ample Rich tax issue, as it was active in Thailand for four years, but never paid tax.

Thailands "new politics" Charade

Please click on title to read article on the People's Alliance for Democracy (Phase 2) as it appeared on Asia Sentinel

or click here for Bangkok Post version

The 'New Politics' charade
Bangkok Post 8th July

By Michael Connors

No longer content with the old slogan of Thaksin Tid Khook, Samak Awk Pai (Thaksin in gaol, Samak get out), Sondhi Limthongkul, the core leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), has called for "New Politics". I heard Mr Sondhi's New Politics speech delivered from the stage on July 4, near Government House in Bangkok. It was the 41st day of the PAD's new round of street protests.

New Politics turns out to be a startlingly reactionary proposal to move Thailand's parliamentary system towards a form of appointed corporatism, or what might be called a selectoral democracy: 30% of MPs would come from elections, perhaps one per province, and the rest of the MPs would derive from various occupations and associations. Mr Sonthi says the proportion is not fixed, it's up for debate.

The rationale for wanting to dismantle Thailand's electoral system is evident: pro-Thaksin forces keep winning elections. And as Mr Thaksin is said to represent everything bad about Thai politics, he cannot be allowed to wield power directly or indirectly. Thus, for Mr Sondhi - and it would seem the PAD leadership as a whole - there is now a need to bring about a revolution in political representation.

The idea of examining alternatives to electoral democracy is not without some merit, for it is common knowledge that massive amounts of money are required to win parliamentary seats, making parliament a millionaire's playground and a source of further monopolisation and corruption.

It wasn't always so, Mr Sondhi told the rally. In the 1970s, socialist politicians in Thailand could get elected on the basis of their ideology and popular support, but the emergence of dirty politics in the 1980s crushed any such possibility in the present.

New Politics has interesting antecedents. The PAD leadership has clearly been speaking to military figures (this is now well-documented in the Thai-language press) who tried to stifle the emergence of parliament in the 1980s.

Indeed, selectoral democracy nicely fits with corporatist visions of the old "Revolutionary Council". The council, to which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was said to have an association, held that elections merely led to parliamentary dictatorship and proposed a form of corporate representation to realise the "general will" of the people.

A former communist, Prasert Sapsunthon, was the inspiration for this Thai appropriation of Rousseau, the French theorist of the social contract. Mr Prasert became a leading intellectual among military circles calling for non-elective forms of democracy.

When the Revolutionary Council effectively declared itself a provisional government during the political crisis of 1988, the elected Chatichai government took it to court for treason. It then faded into obscurity, but its ideas have never quite gone away, finding support among small rightist groups and even in some labour circles.

"New Politics" is unashamedly pro-military and even codifies the conditions under which military intervention may occur. Mr Sondhi has spoken of four conditions for military intervention: when charges of lese majeste are not acted on; when a government is incompetent; when corruption is rife; when a government betrays national sovereignty.

It is not clear if permissible military intervention according to the PAD's envisaged system of selectocracy is to be in the form of a coup d'etat or the exercise of some new administrative power to compel government agencies to rectify a wrong.

But what is clear is that the PAD has explicitly sanctioned ongoing military intervention in politics.

Of course, anyone looking at the Thai military will know that it is a conflicted organisation, with pro- and anti-government factions and both corporate and individual commercial interests. How such an organisation might work to protect the "general will" of the people is not at all clear, notwithstanding the fact that politicised militaries the world over become deeply corrupt and self-serving.

In part, the answer for the PAD lies in who controls the military. An important feature of Mr Sondhi's speech that went unreported in the press was the proposal to take the Ministry of Defence out of government control and place it under the Crown. At a time when Thailand is urgently facing the need to institutionalise its politics around public rules, the PAD is proposing to formally enhance the power of the monarchy.

For many observers, the PAD's latest thinking comes as no surprise. They say that from the start the PAD was associated with opportunist use of nationalist and royalist discourse in its call for a royally-appointed government to replace the Thai Rak Thai caretaker government in March 2006. That the PAD should now become an agent of political regression, willing to hand power to the military and bureaucracy, flows from the logic of its initial strategy to beat Mr Thaksin with the royalist and nationalist stick.

On the contrary, I would argue that whatever one may make of the early anti-Thaksin movement, its politics were, in part, a form of royal liberalism; it was legitimately concerned with the authoritarian slide during the Thaksin era.

And this means that the PAD's current phase is a significant departure from its earlier stance and is of great significance.

Most dangerously, the PAD's new turn has the potential to lend a significant social base to a conservative and reactionary form of corporatism.

In the 1980s, the semi-fascist corporatist politics of the Revolutionary Council were marginalised as Thai politics democratised. The council became a laughing stock and the organisation was dubbed the "Joke Council". Somehow, the PAD seems to have reversed Marx's dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

The PAD's metamorphosis comes at an odd moment when it seems to be making ground. It played an opportunistic role in capturing the ministerial scalp of Jakrapob Penkair. It gave support to the legitimacy of the Assets Scrutiny Committee (ASC), whose constitutional standing was questioned by pro-Thaksin forces. The Constitutional Court affirmed its standing. And if the Office of the Attorney-General appears unconvinced of the readiness of many of the cases presented by the ASC, the National Counter Corruption Commission seems ready to take on some of the cases.

Just as its demands are being met, the PAD has now put itself at the extreme margins of Thai politics. Many people have already deserted the PAD because of its hyper-nationalism and attacks on progressive activists who express views different than its own. Some people have, it seems, been forced to leave. There are reports that speakers from the stage have called on Democrat party members to leave the rally.

How far the PAD has travelled is perhaps illustrated by reference to a rally I observed in the middle of last week. A well-known rock star called on the spirit of the 1950s dictator Sarit Thanarat to deal decisively with corruption. The best that can be said of that episode is that people were applauding on cue - after four weeks of clapping, it's almost a reflex.But the PAD leadership has no such excuse; it has embraced a politics so contrary to its starting point that it now looks as bad as that which it sought to slay.

"New Politics" may well be the dying breath of the PAD, as those who thought they were fighting for a form of liberal democracy desert its ranks.

A protester I was sitting close to was visibly angry with Mr Sondhi, shouting out: "Who are you to abolish parliament?"

Actually, that's an appropriate question for the last generation of Thai politics.