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."