September 2, 2008

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.

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