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.