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

1 comment:

R. Dayley said...

Yes, something more fundamental is revealing itself. Current events are less about violent or non-violent tactics than about irreconcilable assumptions over political life that have begun to harden. The likelihood of a return to a general consensus on the rules of the political game seems less and less possible with each new event. The chasm between the PAD and pro-Taksin forces is wider than the narrow path to democracy that defined political conflict under the most recent negotiated consensus (i.e. the post-Anan coalitions and the 1997 charter).

Barring a new negotiated settlement between these two groups Thailand seems destined to months and years of ongoing instability and danger. The erstwhile, standers-by (the powerless Democratic Party, urbane intellectuals, and others unwilling to express loyalty to either of the two mulish groups)are hopeless to see their own liberal democratic ideals emerge intact after such an improbable negotiation.

The PAD’s loyalty is to ideas that are unworkable. The Pro-Taksin forces, and the majority ballot system that supports them, has lost universal legitimacy. Yet to both groups losing is not an option. The new game has ill-defined rules. The risks of losing remain unknown and loyalty to principle thus trumps all. The breakdown in consensus on the game of politics is acute. This is a conflict about changing the rules, not winning within established ones.