November 17, 2009

Working Paper on Human Rights

Please see the new working paper on "Ambivlalent about rights" regarding Thailand at the Southeast Asian Research Centre's working paper series

The paper explores the conditions that give rise to human rights abuses in Thailand.

November 2, 2009

The Long March on Bangkok

Category Fiction: How it all ends.

“The Prime Minister is Back”

Thaksin, under protection of red guards secretly enters Thailand through the Cambodian border and immediately heads to Chiang Mai. After necessary preparations for the long march to Bangkok an SMS alert is sent to the red network, announcing the commencement of the “Prime Minister is Back” convoy. Thaksin appears on red tv calling on supporters to join him.

Surrounded by a gathering throng of supporters the convoy sets off on a tour to the Northeast, in each location gathering thousands more supporters for the million person bus-car-tractor March on Bangkok to bring the government down. Thaksin says at every stop: "They have robbbed me of justice, and you of democracy. But no more. Let them arrest me, but will you let them? Will you save me? Salt of the earth, I am one with you, let us take our country back!"

The government is helpless, neither the police or army are willing to confront the convoy and arrest Thaksin. From town to town to city to city, the old power network is broken up or defects to the red camp. Red dye sells out. By the time the convoy reaches Korat Thaksin announces his alternative Cabinet and calls on the government to resign. It refuses. Newin offers to mediate, to hoots of hysterical laughter, until Thaksin expresses interest in the idea.

The convoy descends on Bangkok and the government dissolves into thin air. PAD goes into hiding until an amnesty is announced. Thailand’s peaceful revolution is over.The following day the new government issues a statement. Flanked by his UDD supporters and Newin, Prime Minister Thaksin announces that the new government will restore the 1997 constitution, committing the government to following the rule of law, and the constitution – “as we always did”.

October 24, 2009

Ambivalent State, Ambivalent Rights

A month or so ago I posted the first part of a paper on human rights in Thailand, in which I focused on the War on Drugs. That part appears here. I've had several requests to post the remaining paper. The second half is likely to undergo significant reworking in the published piece to appear in a volume on Human Rights in Asia, but I've decided to post it in any case. The paper meanders a bit as I am still thinking through some of these issues, and the paper covers some material that will be quite familiar to anyone who reads on Thailand.

Part Two of paper presented to Human Rights in Asia Workshop, University of Melbourne, October 1-2, 2009.

Ambivalent About Rights: “Accidental” Killing Machines, Democracy and Coups D’etat.

Ambivalent State: Ambivalent Rights

Fairy tale narratives of Thai democratization abounded in the 1980s and 1990s. Thailand’s relatively open “semi-democracy” of the 1980s transformed into a fuller democracy of the late 1980s, when General Prem resigned as prime minister (1980-1988) and an elected MP assumed the prime ministership. And despite the “hiccup” of the 1991 coup and the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in May 1992, for which the military issued itself an amnesty, the progress of democracy seemed inexorable. Having forced the military out of office in 1992 reformers of various political persuasions produced the 1997 Constitution, a product of relatively open public deliberation. That constitution was liberal communitarian in its rights regarding articles, liberal in its desire to divide the exercise of power, but authoritarian in its desire to provide mechanisms for a strong executive. By focusing on formal structures, elections, and constitutions, superficial observers (including in part this author), with a comparative bent, could beguile themselves into believing that despite obvious flaws on the whole Thailand was doing as well as might be expected. What was missing in these accounts was willingness to square up to the nature of the regime forces and contestation that occurred behind the formal edifice of parliament and elections, of the different social forces fighting for power and control. To make sense of those forces required revisiting the founding of the “ambivalent state” and its destruction of popular forces and, with that founding, the removal of a social base for rule of law.

By ambivalent state I refer to the lack of any fundamental agreement (the lack of what Schmitter calls contingent consent among elites for a bounded regime of contestation) on political order on the part of competing regime framers since the popular movements of the 1970s were decimated by a mixture of repression, murder and imprisonment. Thailand’s “ambivalent state” is the fundamental condition for human rights abuse in Thailand because it facilitates the exercise of authoritarian power and the perpetuation of its effects, and simultaneously closes off possibilities of sustained reform while allowing for piecemeal addressing of grievance. The political contest within the ambivalent state has been about state capture by competing elite forces (including the bureaucratic class), and the public goods that the state provides have been diminished.

The ambivalent state is a product of a very political struggle. In the 1970s a major realignment of forces occurred. The month of October in 1973 and 1976 metaphorically - but only just - bookends this period by funeral pyre. In October 1973 students were shot down by a military regime intent on holding power. In October 1976 students were killed by the mobilization of paramilitary elements - with apparent links to the palace - against students at Thammasat University, which paved the way for a hardline coup d’état backed by palace and military/bureaucratic forces. Between the bookends, antagonistic forces struggled to define the nation’s fate, from communist insurgents, nascent unions, radical students, nation-royalist scouts, business corporatists, farmers associations, political elites, Buddhist progressives, para-military rightists – the list is endless. Human rights were observed more in the breaching than in the protecting. The 1976 coup group at once consolidated the position of the palace and then paved the way, by its own demise in 1977, for a political settlement of a very limited liberal bureaucratic order in the1980s, which had at its centre the monarchy. It is to this period that we must look to understand the persistence of Thailand’s ambivalent state and the resulting abuse of human rights into the first decade of the 2000s.

The most fundamental condition of human rights abuses in Thailand is not the absence of the rule of law – which only begs the question of why it should be absent – but resides in the cumulative destruction of social and class forces that would make meaningful the constitutional rights and dignity afforded to Thai citizens, in either liberal constitutionalist or other forms. The history of this is evident in the repression of popular forces in 1975 and 1976, continual intelligence and security interference in union movements and social movements, repressive actions, use of nationalist and royalist appeals to peace and conciliation and, in thousands of sites around Thailand where forces for change have been silenced, some killed. The constant harassment of forces for social change, in a relatively open system of contestation, has resulted in diminishing the impact of such forces on the larger body politic. Moreover, with the destruction of anti-hegemonic forces, Thai governments (authoritarian and formally liberal or democratic) have provided space for reformist actors within elite defined boundaries to advocate within for change and reform, thus producing an accommodation to state structures and predominant social mores, leading to a royalist reading of democratization and rights observance that I have named “royal liberalism".

This tautological formula – that rights are not real because they are not realized by relevant forces – has implications for understanding the uneven nature of rights application in Thailand. The seemingly solid edifice of formal rights in the constitution (1997 and 2007), and the networks and discourses that promote them, are peripheral to the dominant forces that occupy state apparatuses. Those forces, a periodically varying mixture of statists, liberal and conservative reformers and plutocrats are in continual struggle over possession of the state, with no single force predominating and no social compromise being established on which rights could be advanced. Each has its own distinctive view of what Thai society and capitalism should be, and each views radicalism and action from below as dangerous to its interests. Each force has in its own way been hostile to popular forces for progressive and empowering social change. In the absence of stability and a rule of law to codify the resulting constitutional order, the exercise of power has largely been authoritarian, no matter what formal regime was in place.

This is not to say that rights have not advanced or that all elites are careless about rights, but it is to say that the social fabric that grounds rights (social movements and resulting norms of a widespread sense of a right to rights) as a thing of this life as against a thing of metaphysical ‘law’ has not become a social fact. There are indeed tendencies in this direction both within communities making citizenship claims on the state (there are hundreds of such instances in the last decade) and within the judiciary, as noted by a number of decisions that have applied constitutional principles to rule on violations of rights on citizenship, corruption, freedom of speech. But this is to say that the very state that the international human rights regime expects to observe and monitor rights observance and protection is the very state that has undermined rights. The cumulative failure to embed an agreed regime form in which law serves as a regulating function for all is easy enough to see. Coup decrees have the force of law even after “constitutional rule” returns. This is a contradiction that nicely sums up the generalized status of law as an instrument of raw power, not of protection. But original sin is not the military’s alone. Moneyed-interests buy judgements, harass witnesses, and are given special treatment and draconian lese majeste laws protect a cabal of insiders.
Against this backdrop of political “unsettlement” and the weak position of law, in the 1990s it appeared that liberal currents and institutions would prevail and that Thailand’s move to liberal democracy would be consolidated. Yet the achievement of the 1990s (most notably the 1997 constitution) was at the national political level that had little concrete resonance or support among Thailand’s population, it was at once a project of some abstraction from their needs for responsive policy and government that had been achieved at the cost of alternative political orders demobilized during the 1970s and 1980s.

The fragile nature of this emergent liberalism would find its tentative hold challenged by the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra, who by virtue of forging a “social contract” with Thailand’s long disenfranchised and alienated electorate would secure support to challenge the liberal order by a politics of limited redistribution of economic goods and of political power. In coming to power in 2001 Thaksin inherited the detritus of thirty years of elite rule: a public culture of impunity , of hierarchy, and of surreal image above substance, what Jackson has termed a “regime of images”. Combined with his desire to consolidate power, demonstrate his capacity to control complex social issues, and willingness to shortcut process and deliberation with action, Thaksin’s inheritance of this detritus made for a fatal mix that produced the accidental killing machine.

From Accidental Killing Machines to Generalized Law?
The war on drugs has now faded from view, pushed into the background by the magnitude of formal and substantive rights violation in the post-coup period. In the face of a raw struggle for power, in which networks of military, bureaucratic and capitalistic cliques have been revealed, the tendency has been Thaksin redux , to restore the status quo ante, circa 2006. Given the knowledge we possess about the abuses that occurred under the Thaksin regime we need to ask what form of political order, given the balance of forces and accompanying political projects in present day Thailand, would best secure rights? And it is this question that has largely motivated various human rights actors - democracy activists, rights defenders, social justice activists, and even human rights commissioners – to don colours.
Although the tendency has been to defame one side or the other as “sell-outs”, people with highly respected contributions to human rights in Thailand have found themselves on opposite sides of the fence for reasons of pragmatic principle more than opportunism. One side hangs its commitment to human rights on a developing democracy under the aegis of royal liberalism – a belief that the monarchy (as an institution) can help embed liberal values of tolerance and in which the “non-political” centre of the monarchy obstructs power consolidation of anyone political actor. In a process of inflation, that side has also developed ultra-nationalist politics stepped in royalism.

The other side hangs its commitment on a movement to restore to power the people’s choice for government – Thaksin Shinawatra – and thereby break down a generation of enforced deference to society’s “betters” by overturning the results of a coup d’état. Evidence also suggests that within that camp a democratic current is emerging that is critical of Thaksin. These are, admittedly, simplistic representations of positions and much lies between and beyond them, but in essence this is the public face of the respective sides. And of course, forces within the military and bureaucracy have articulated themselves to both agendas. The machinations within elite circles, including pro-Thaksin elements, for compromise and post-succession order (on the passing of King Bhumipol) is another story altogether, and the near to medium future may well see some compromise emerge that casts aside the respective mobilized movements of red and yellow shirts.

Costs to principled rights and democratic positions are entailed in embracing either side. For neither the monarchy nor Thaksin are sound vehicles for rights protection. They are concrete actors aligned with a range of forces and interests, some of which are inimical to observance of rights. Taken historically, the emergence of a form of royal liberalism portends a Thailand in the future where a hierarchical type of elite polyarchy is embedded (period from late 1980s to early Thaksin period). That at least was its trajectory, although it had not yet dealt with the veto powers of palace and military. The 1997 constitution was in part an attempt to map Thailand’s future. Thaksinism is a more recent phenomenon borne of the confluence of Thailand’s 1997 economic crisis and the political opportunity afforded by the strengthened executive provided by a number of articles in the 1997 constitution. Characterized by some as pluto-populist the Thaksin trajectory seemed to be decidedly authoritarian, perhaps evolving towards one-party rule of some kind based on winning popular support by decisive interventions and redistribution of economic goods (Pasuk and Baker). The post-coup period has seen a reflexive return to democratic ideas and political pluralism among Thaksin fellow travelers. Indeed this highlights one of the paradoxical outcomes and dangers of the coup against Thaksin.

Thaksin Shinawatra has emerged as a useful symbol of democracy for the political leaders of the red shirts movement in Bangkok and the north of the country, and as a symbol of “edible democracy” among a mass of grass roots supporters. His portrait adorns various protest posters and publications. His “phone-ins” to big and small red rallies alike maintain momentum and keep the pro-Thaksin support base hitched to activist agendas. In the post-coup environment of 'red' media representation Thaksin’s downfall is framed within Thailand’s pround dissident history from the struggles of Pridi Phonomyong in the 1930s to the struggles for a participatory democracy in the 1990s. His fall is presented by his supporters as punishment by authoritarian forces for his democratic commitments. Significant elements of the “red-shirted” movement aim to restore his prime ministership and to knock out various corruption and political cases against him designed by post-coup authorities. For many people Thaksin - or now perhaps Thaksinism - has become, by the oddest of historical routes, a symbol of the most fundamental right of the people to chose who will rule them and for what purposes.

This development says something not only of Thaksin’s potent ability to stand in for anything at anytime (Laclau’s empty signifier) but also of the missteps along the away by authoritarian elites who sought to battle Thaksin’s popularity and threat to their own privileged position by clumsy anachronistic dictatorial intervention and paternalism. For example, a little more than a year after the coup, a pro-Thaksin coalition took office in January 2008 despite a year-long campaign of clumsy propaganda and patronage by the coup-installed government. The coup and subsequent judicial actions against Thaksin and his electoral popularity thwarted legitimate means for removal from office of Thaksin and his supporters. Inadvertently, Thaksin’s enemies delivered to him the mantle of martyrdom.

And now to come back to the difficult position of what force will secure rights: should human rights activists, broadly speaking, support a movement that would restore this figure to power? Should they support the counter movement of various anti-Thaksin forces: “yellow shirts”, described by some as a movement of the nation’s fascistic middle classes with powerful establishment backers [a view not shared by me]; what of liberal elites pacting with authoritarian agencies of the state who would erect at best an elitist form of polyarchy combined with worship of monarchy; and a bureaucratic statist movement of clean government and virtue that is very selective in its critiques of corruption and lack of transparency. Where to stand? Finally, what is the role of human rights “impartiality” in this struggle, if impartiality merely means the inability to influence which force will prevail and the resulting political space on which rights struggles will be based in the future? I doubt that these dilemmas are new to any place where political order has not settled, but from the vantage point of the international rights regime they must induce the kind of discomfort that leads to hasty proclamations of the obvious - routinely calling for all sides to respect the law and rights.

Both sides have claimed to seek the rule of law and both sides have noted the existence of double standards. Each side has a point. In the current conjuncture the pressing need to establish just law is apparent, but the mechanisms to so produce are not obvious. If historical struggles have a dialectical element one may wonder if the selectivity on legal sanction evidenced in red and yellow discourses might cancel each other out leaving the question of general law as a real possibility. This would entail something of a revolution, but one that would in its own right offer massive gains to human rights in the way that a return to Thaksin or royal liberalism would not (there is no need to speak of further military rule in this regard).

The moral ambivalence of legal institutions to relations of power remains a central issue for the future of human rights in Thailand. In focusing on this, we now put human choice at the forefront, noting how legal institutions have undermined the legitimacy of law and its ability to shape a just social order. Institutions have been willing accomplices in the raw pursuit of power by failing to abide by any dictate other than that of positive law and power. In the Thai context this means to accept a coup’d’état as a “law creating fact” and to give it effective legitimacy as argued by (Prasit 35-36). The contamination of law that follows from this disposition is axiomatic. In a suggestive accounting of Thai law Prasit notes how positive legal theory in the 1940s and 1950s influenced the Thai judiciary. Such law was concerned to make sense of new states and their respective legal positions. The international system of states required sovereign states as interlocutors. This being so, the forms of power assumption was secondary to who controlled the state. Thus in legal terms a coup d’état did not impact on the legal status of the state; a fact that was then internalized. Influenced by positivist legal theory, where a sovereign command is law (and where that sovereignty is about effectiveness not legitimacy) jurists actively collaborated with coup regimes to write law and accept the legal status of a coup government, a pattern that commenced in 1947 and which has persisted since, most recently in 2007. The documentary excess of coup law lies stretched across the Thai legal landscape like so much rubbish along a highway. Each instance of coup law has assailed the idea of law as a force for good at the highest level, even if at various lower levels committed jurists and advocates have attempted to put the house in order. That most coupsters go unpunished - their actions seen as part of the safety value for a developing democracy - is a startling fact of law. It seems that the highest law is no higher than the person who overthrows it. On average (I guess) that is about 5 foot, 7 inches.
As Prasit argues, it is not that the judiciary has had no course of action in the face of an illegal assumption of power. It could resign, it could argue that the issues before it are issues for politics not law, it could unambiguously rule a coup d’état illegal. Prasit, ever concrete, offers Article 113 of the Criminal Code (which remains in place during states of exception) as the grounds for prosecution against coupsters. Prasit goes one step further and notes the role of monarchs in Spain and elsewhere in protecting the constitution, implicitly noting the silence of the Thai king on coups. The legacy of positive legalism and the role by which law has served power is again evident in the post coup environment when many decisions have clearly advanced the cause of the coup group.

However, in the developing struggle between reds and yellows and in the courts, the very purpose of law has now become a public debate. And it is here that we may identify new drivers for human rights. The current political turmoil and the mobilization of popular sentiment against legal decisions that have decimated one political side in the current political contest, may mean that Thailand is on the verge of mass conscientization where expectations of what law does is matter of public debate and scrutiny in ways that are unprecedented. This can only be beneficial for developing a more robust legal climate for human rights observance. Society-wide knowledge of the law, of its purposes, and a consciousness that demands this purpose be fulfilled has been lacking, leading reform efforts to piecemeal achievements, significant in their own right, but which fail to touch on the structural violence that underpins Thai order.

In lieu of a detailed accounting of the current struggle and its engagement with law, I offer the following closing comments.

There are trends to suggest that the sources of a new legal order in Thailand will be many and varied, making it more robust. These are tendencies, and contradictory ones at that. Even during the period of semi-democracy conservatives within the public law tradition were making inroads to checks and balances on the bureaucracy. A grievance committee considered thousands of cases in a period of twenty years, ruling in favour of complainants a considerable number of time. Human rights activists working through a committee in the Lawyers Council of Thailand, working from a different angle, have likewise used legal, media and appeal channels to highlight abuses and seek redress. And structurally speaking, the very complex nature of Thailand as a modern state with a diverse population facing massive conflict of interest, will present the possibility of the need for a functioning system of law which will erode the “prerogative state” that has brought so much tragedy to Thailand. The possibility is present not because of functional imperatives but because there exists a critical mass of support for such a project, evident in the struggles and discourses of the last two decades. The common resources available for the reconstruction of a general law seem evident, they stretch across the political spectrum and no one movement or class holds a monopoly of right. In a non-partisan interpretation it is possible to see how liberals, conservatives and radicals have been part of the process of constructing a more general law, however unevenly and at cross purposes. Each by different strategies has challenged the particular, and now as Thailand confronts the crisis of the particular – a populist with prerogative tendencies versus a liberal-statist coalition willing to wield law for the destruction of a political foe – the need for a general law is ever felt. It is in that general law, emerging from public consciousness and contingent consent for a settlement to conflict that a more abiding regard for human rights, even in the context of ongoing inequality, can be wrought. This may well be the legacy of the 2006 coup, which opened to public viewing the bowels of power and in a matter of several years, by a process of struggle, fundamentally unsettled old platitudes masquerading as certitudes of national virtue: monarchy, religion and nation.

Historical outcomes are rarely the product of design or the fulfillment of a political agenda. In that sense the possibility of a more robust human rights regime in Thailand as a consequence of the debilitating political struggles of the last three years is no one’s doing and everybody’s.

October 15, 2009

If you want to escape terrorism don’t ask Rohan Gunaratna what train to catch

If you want to escape terrorism don’t ask Rohan Gunaratna what train to catch.

With his new co-authored book The Terrorist Threat in Southern Thailand (deliberately unread by this author, as I’ve had my fill of fiction reading for the year) Rohan Gunaratna is perhaps hoping for the most improved award and a plaque on the wall of the Pentagon.

Gunaratna’s last foray into the southern insurgency produced a book (Conflict and Terrorism in Southern Thailand, 2005) of such breathtaking incompetence that I find myself almost admiring his tenacity to tackle the Southern insurgency once more in 2009. Or perhaps the first book was a draft and this is the real thing? In which case, let’s hope he thanks his many reviewers.

The blurb for the new book promises astute analysis and recommendations for policy regarding the insurgency in Thailand:

“the authors find that there is the possibility that this predominantly localized conflict could escalate into an international Islamic jihad. In addition to analyzing the insurgents' capabilities and opportunities, the authors provide a critique of government policies and make astute suggestions for resolving the conflict.”

The use of the word “astute” implies shrewd judgment and perceptive treatment. I can only hope that Gunaratna has removed the many errors that appeared in the first draft. In my extended review of that book (“War on Error and the Southern Fire” Critical Asian Studies, 2006) I noted just several of the errors thus:

"Most books have some errors, but few books that aspire to such authority contain as many as this one. The mistakes are both historical and contemporary. The authors’ positioning within terrorism studies (knowing a little about lots of conflicts) might explain the flippant attitude to historical context and facts: the authors have nothing more than a casual acquaintance with the history and modern-day politics of Thailand and presumably assume that their readers are not well informed either. Below, some errors are presented.

One example demonstrates the authors’ ignorance of one of the most important events in southern history: they mistakenly describe Haji Sulong, an important southern Muslim leader of the twentieth century, as the leader of the 'Dusun Nyiur incident' in April 1948. He was, in fact, in jail at the time. (The authors return to this event and attribute the leadership to another person, without realizing they are writing about the same event using a different transliteration, naming it the 'Duson Nyor Revolt' For the same event the authors have created two different leaders, two different names, and a different estimation of the numbers killed.)

At times inaccuracy slides into prejudice: the authors speak of the threat potential of Islam, writing, 'The presence of a significant Muslim community in the rest of the kingdom, including Bangkok…has the potential to disperse the threat beyond its current epicenter in the south'. This failure to differentiate between militant violent politics and the Islamic faith in Thailand reveals nothing but prejudicial ignorance.

Topping the list of errors is the claim that Thai Rak Thai MP Wan Muhammad Nor Matha lost his seat in the 2005 elections, which saw TRT lose all of its seats in the border provinces (88). He did not; in fact he retained his seat as a party list MP (based on total national vote of the party). That the authors are mistaken about the status of Wan Nor, one of Thailand’s leading Muslim politicians and a key, though controversial, member of the Wadah group, illustrates their failure to do the basic background work. Negligence becomes absurdity when the authors claim that the 1993 bombing at the Hat Yai railway station was directed at non-Muslim citizens since, they claimed, 'few Muslims use this train station'(36). Hat Yai railway station is a gateway into the border provinces; it is the last major stop before Malaysia and many of its passengers are Muslims."

I am happy to provide Mr Gunaratna with a more extensive list should he wish, but I didn’t hear from him after the review.

Inventing Terror Groups.

When thinking of Rohan Gunaratna’s science fiction expedition into the Southern Insurgency I am always reminded of Graham Brown’s debunking of the kind of ill-informed terror analysis that confidently assumes its facticity, and in particular the contribution of Zachary Abuza, a fellow traveler in the style of Gunaratna (see Brown, G. K., 2006. “The perils of terrorism: Chinese whispers, Kevin Bacon, and Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia - A review essay.” Intelligence and National Security, 21 (1), pp. 150-162.)

Brown reveals disregard for evidence and context, and somewhat revealing errors, the kind that exemplifies Gunaratna’s first book on Thailand. Brown writes

"Much of Abuza's analysis of Malaysia is devoted to the 'Kampulan Mujahidin Malaysia' (KMM), although this is [citing Abuza] 'only one of many radical organizations, [including] the Al-Ma'unah, Kampung Medan, and older groups such as the Islamic Revolution Cooperative Brigade' (p.24). Kampung Medan, however, is not any kind of organization, but rather a place where an incident of ethnic rioting took place. Abuza appears to have misunderstood the newspaper article which he cites as his only source here, containing the following sentence: 'On whether a Government white paper to address the Al-Maunah, Kampung Medan and KMM groups would be tabled in Parliament, [Home Minister] Abdullah [Ahmad Badawi] said it would be done after the cases in court were completed'. Casual reading of this sentence by an uninformed observer might well lead to the erroneous conclusion that Kampung Medan is the name of an organization and thus, if his role is indeed that of an uninformed observer, Abuza might be forgiven this error."

If you buy Gunaratna’s latest book on Thailand, do so with a generous spirit and forgiving mind: keeping up with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates is a difficult task and casualness is part of the terrain. Apparently policy makers who seek expert terror advice don’t seem to care, so why should we?

What is troubling about such mistakes - and they are legion - is the way they enter broader commentary, as people continue to cite the work. Casual mistakes and over-calls by Gunaratna get picked up by others and circulated - reinforcing the distance between policy discourse and reality.

Why, if people know the fundamentally flawed record of such authors, does such work keep getting cited (positively and as authoritative). It can only be that bullshit trumps a concern with accurate representation and truth (as much as we can honestly struggle to establish what is true).

In his short work on On BullShit philosopher Harry Frankfurt was pained by our generalised indifference to bullshit, our willingness to just brush it aside rather than face up to the way it structures and perpetuates purposes that are less than benign. Frankfurt writes of bullshitters : “the truth-values of [his/her] statements are of no central interest to him [her]; what we are not to understand is that his [her] intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it”. The intention rather is to "suit his purpose". Bullshit steers us away from the way things are - and in this instance serve alarmist ends by feeding generalised prejudices and ignorance about complex questions of power and inequality. Prejudice or a willingness to serve never had much need for facts.

May 19, 2009

Taking a Break

For the greater part of this year Sovereign Myth will be inactive - to be honest it has been inactive for several months now.

Thanks for visiting this site.

March 31, 2009

Country Needs Change, So He Wants to Make History

This piece appeared in the Bangkok Post on 2nd April "Country Needs Change, So He Wants to Make History"

Going for History

Having long hoped for an intra-elite solution to his circumstance, and having failed dismally, Thaksin Shinawatra has now opted for history making. And he’s inviting the people to make it with him, to bring back “true democracy”.

“Thailand Needs Change”, read the banner behind the ex-prime minister as he delivered his address from an unknown location to his red-shirted supporters gathered around Government House in Bangkok on Monday night (30th March).

On screen he attacked the Privy Council and the military. Having promised to name his opponents when he fled to England last year, it has taken visa revocation, further legal stings and the termination of two crony governments by the courts to untie his tongue.

The will to take on a system fully and in name is a watershed moment, but Thaksin is only half there, reserving his fatal revelations only for the Privy Council. Thaksin has rarely looked like the bourgeois revolutionary that others have hoped him to be. His pledges of loyalty to the monarchy, his prostration before a picture of the king while in exile in Hong Kong, and his government’s genuflection to sufficiency economy while in office do not suggest a republican sentiment. Ideologically speaking, Thaksin never had a republic in mind, and his continued public declaration of loyalty to the monarchy should not be taken as a ruse.

But now, with all the fervour and emotion of focus-group demographics, he is striding forth as the symbol of that promiscuous variable – democracy. This, even as some in the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) have long believed that Thaksin uses the popular movement for his own ends. They too are willing to use him.

The question to ask is why does a self-declared democratic movement fall back on someone like Thaksin, a gifted but impulsive political operator so frightfully contradictory that any popular movement that returned him to power would need to watch its back.

The answer to that question, and to progressive acquiesce to rival elite camps more broadly, lies in organization and politics. As long argued by Ji Giles Ungpakorn, there is a lack of independent pro-democratic and leftwing forces of sufficient size and clarity to intervene in struggles in such a way as to advance a progressive agenda. In such organizational absence, individual leftists and progressives have joined both the yellow and red camps, seeking a free ride through history for their more radical politics.

In doing so, they have momentarily ironed out contradictions, refused to reveal their politics, and failed to come to terms with the limits of their influence. This strategy of simplification reveals itself as a politics of alliance, silence and accusation; alliance with the “lesser evil”; silence on the former and on their own politics; accusations directed at the “greater evil”.

They have surrendered in part the responsibility to offer criticism publicly (necessarily circumspect) of things they criticize privately. Both red and yellow movements are partly led by phrase-coiners and image-makers who deliberately, on message, manage and distort, seeking to win support by insincere argument and selective truth.

This raises the question of the place of honesty and openness in social change. And it raises the issue of political adventurism, for a failure to fully appreciate the social forces at play in street politics is prone to dangerous consequences.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy may be episode one in this scenario, the DAAD episode two.

Since the coup of 2006, each incident has been grist for the mill of partisan interpretation. Countervailing facts are not to get in the way of propaganda, winning an argument, or making the case for the anti or pro-Thaksin forces. Moreover, there has been moral and peer compulsion to take sides, with people’s commitment to democracy questioned depending on the perspective of the judge and executioner.

“Democracy lovers” the world over have rallied hard and long for the pro-Thaksin forces (red-shirts, politicos and an amorphous mass), while painting the anti-Thaksin forces as reactionary and under the control of conspiratorial elements in the military, palace and privy council. There is little recognition of the democratic and liberal impulse that mobilized thousands of people against Thaksin. Moreover, Pro-Thaksinites or pro-redshirts have painted NGOs as stooges and out of touch, long-time human rights activists are maligned by those who judge their work to be tainted by political bias, and one time pro-democracy heroes are denounced as fascist demagogues.

Given the events of the last three years, it’s not hard to see how a plausible case can be made that the principle struggle now unfolding is between democracy and authoritarianism (with pro-Thaksin forces awkwardly assuming the democracy mantle). The facts seem to speak for themselves: coup, contested constitutional referendum, party annulment of TRT and PPP, and the recent installation of a Democrat-led coalition as government.

To that case, the famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci has the best response: “A given socio-historical moment is never homogeneous; on the contrary, it is rich in contradictions.” The “democratic versus authoritarian” narrative that has captured international attention is as misconceived as it is overbearingly homogenous.

Little attention has been given to the contradictions that exist in Thailand today, with political discourse captured by yellow/red-coloured politics of illusion/delusion, and their respective cheer squads.

The struggle has multiple dimensions, no doubt, but a dominant feature of recent events has been the pacting of statist conservatives and elite liberals against the emergent competitive authoritarianism that Thaksin represented before his fall from office. The politics of the recent past have not been a war of the rich against the poor – a view that has oddly become popular - but of regime type against regime type.

The statist-liberal pact is a historical compromise of some weight, with various institutional and ideological mechanisms in place (including network monarchy/royal liberalism). Since the 1980s liberals and statists have co-operated and contested regime form. After May 1992 and successive defeats, statist conservatives and liberals moved to an uneasy compromise represented in the 1997 constitution. As history now records, that attempt to politically engineer the emergence of liberal democracy with a “strong executive” partly assisted Thaksin’s authoritarian rise.

And so now it is back to the future, with the current situation being one of liberals and statists occupying a complex political terrain of contest and cooperation (something short of an alliance). They seek to return Thailand to a path that is mutually acceptable, some form of elite liberal-conservative hybrid democracy.

They may not succeed in this.

Protests led by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship may intensify and develop the infrastructure required for long term political mobilization. Open sentiment against aristocratic privilege and bureaucratic/ military power may become a political force. The shoddy ambitions of a one-time authoritarian leader might well morph into a more enduring egalitarian ethos that comes to challenge the historical pact of statists and liberals.

But where such politics will end in the absence of principled political leadership which can speak openly about the failings of its chosen symbol, and which acknowledges the democratic malaise (2001-2006) under the man who now promises to return Thailand to a “true democracy”, no one knows.

January 21, 2009

Lèse majesté and Solidarity: the Case of Ji Giles Ungpakorn

On Freedom of Expression

Very few people are able or willing to fight lèse majesté charges in Thailand. Understandably. The prospect of a long term in gaol (any time is a long time in a Thai gaol), the chance of blowing a royal pardon if one pleads not-guilty, the breaking of social norms, such fates must weigh heavily on the minds of those charged with a crime that should have no place in modern law. This law is so morally politicised that its employment is equivalent to the imposition of a religious creed.

For some years the fear that has surrounded lèse majesté has been ebbing, and writings in the Thai language have ventured beyond royal hagiography. The future of Thai democracy will be more robust, in part, because of such work.

Most western academics working on Thailand who care about truth have probably, somewhere along the line, written something that could be construed as lese majeste if their writings were to fall into the wrong hands.

Western academics have been reasonably protected by the language barrier. Generally their work is not translated into Thai and it rarely reaches a Thai audience. Perhaps it is also because their work is not published in Thailand.

Thai Marxist Ji Giles Ungpakorn, an Associate Professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, for some time has been willing to test what can be said about the monarchy in both English and the Thai language.

Quite rightly, he is motivated by a desire to understand and explain the nature of Thai politics. You can not do that without talking about the monarchy.

In his fearless book "A Coup for the Rich" he makes some comments about the monarchy and the use of that institution by the military. His right to make those comments should be supported by anyone who cares about freedom of speech, regardless of whether they agree or not with his argument.

Yesterday, the 20th January 2009, he was charged with lèse majesté because of "offending" passages in that book. For this "crime", if proven guilty, he may be imprisoned for up to 15 years.

Liberals, in the classic sense, typically believe in free speech. They assume that the best argument emerges from the free deliberation of citizens. But most political liberals in Thailand have long believed that the monarchy is a safety valve, a para-political institution that can help smooth the processes of economic, social and political transition. They generally fear an unmediated democracy where all are equal. Their willingness to trade the freedom-principle for stability in the name of elite liberalism (and their willingness to pact with statist conservatives) means that they are unlikely to support free speech.

Indeed, some will be pressing for "due process" in this case; that means the application of a "law", the merits of which even the incumbent king, Bhumiphol, questioned in 2005.

If this case goes ahead and Ji Giles Ungpakorn contests it, much more than the very important freedom of one person will be at stake. It is important that anyone who supports freedom of speech opposes the politicised use of lese majeste. I can think of no use of lese majeste that is not politicised.

For more information on Ji's case go to

On Jakraphop's lese majeste case see here

January 5, 2009

Four Elections and a Coup

Crediting Historical Figures.

The Australian Journal of International Affairs has provided free access to my article,"Four Elections and a Coup".

Written before the Constitution Court's dissolution of the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) it covers three main areas: the pro-Thaksin side, the People's Allliance for Democracy (PAD), and the issue of the monarchy.

In general I see the events of last year as confirmation of the contingent pacting between liberals and statists against Thaksin (discussed in the post below). I see the struggle as primarily one over regime form, and do not consider that the statist, conservative and liberal elites primarily pacted against Thaksin because of pro-poor policies.

It is generally agreed that the military exerted pressure to break up the PPP led- coalition. However, I do not see a co-ordinated conspiracy against Thaksin that links the PAD, the ECT, the military, the courts, the palace or "network monarchy" and the Democrat Party. Each element has worked against Thaksin and the pro-Thaksin forces, but with different means and towards different objectives, and in ways that may well be antagonistic to other anti-Thaksin forces.

I previously flagged the idea of a Bonapartist solution - one that disarms the "extremes" of both camps and rules above contending forces. It will be interesting to see whether legal cases against the PAD leadership (representing the anti-Thaksin extremity) will proceed. Of course, a Democrat Party led government, no matter how it came to power, is not quite a Bonapartist solution despite Aphisit's suggestions that PAD will be dealt with according to law. The current situation signals the accomplishment of PAD's key objective of removing the pro-Thaksin government (however tentatively).

Moreover, should that objective actually be realised in the medium term (there being no parliamentary re-alignment) PAD in its militant form would most likely disappear. And should the Democrat led government survive, one can expect that PAD's "new politics" will become the detritus of an unlikely circumstance that momentarily saw individual military figures, ultra-nationalists/royalists and democracy activists work together. Perhaps think of "new politics" as a kind of mutating political offspring generated by the pragmatism and opportunism of those who were willing to use any means to beat Thaksin.

Their struggle, among many others, has not returned Thailand to the politics of semi-democracy of the 1980s, nor has it returned it to the politics of the 1990s, when liberal politics and polyarchic democracy were ascendant, nor the mid-2000s of Thaksin's emergent authoritarianism. Having so often suggested that some resolution was close at hand in this epic struggle, I'll desist such a position now.

It appears that the mythic conflation of Thaksinism and democracy (speaking of another mutating political offspring) is going to be around for a while yet - such a powerful myth is socially grounded in the electoral dispossession experienced after the coup, in the social and economic policies of the Thaksin government, and in the activities of party cadre/democracy activists and their interaction with people. Most pointedly, it is grounded in the electoral feats of the pro-Thaksin forces, resulting from a combination of old-style politics, and the Thaksin government's connection with popular aspiration.

Thaksinism, and the threat it posed to the old elite's relationship with the country's population, may well have given speed to the elaboration of its antithesis, a socially embedded liberalism (in sections of the Democrat party and elsewhere).

It would seem that when you are a historical figure, you get a lot of credit.