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.