April 8, 2010

Double Standards and Political Positions

Double Standards and Political Positions

"Whoever has been killed in this manner [unnaturally], their relatives may bring their grievances to the prime minister, because we have central [agencies] that can go down and ensure justice, but [I] believe that [the relatives] will not be so brave because today the majority of those killed have experience [in the drug trade]"

Thaksin, responding to criticism that innocent people were being killed during the war on drugs.

See full discussion at


The Reds have a bandanna; from memory it says "everything I do is wrong and everything you do is right". It is a perfect statement of the double standards the reds have attempted to expose in Thai society.

That double standards exist is doubtless. But they are not the double standards of colours, but of class, hierarchy, connection and position. They are diffused throughout the system and were as rampant under Thaksin as they were/are under any government. They are systematic and are not the product of one leader, although leadership has a role in determining how acceptable they are.

Daniel Unger’s piece in Asia Times “Bewildered in Bangkok” also brings up another double standard, and that is of truth: The ease with which news is twisted and turned to suit political agendas. This issue is fundamental because it goes to the question of the place of honesty in social change, and the way in which views of the past are set by prejudice upon prejudice. This post is about issues raised by Unger's piece, rather than the cut and thrust of current events.

An example of the way partisanship has yet to deal with recent events is provided by PAD in 2008.

The ultra nationalist royalist politics of the People’s Alliance for Democracy during protests in 2008 made it difficult for commentators to countenance objective treatment. Little was said of the violence inflicted against the protestors – or if it was it was’ self-inflicted’, it was’ provoked’. Figures are unclear but it seems 6 PAD supporters were killed and hundreds injured. The scurrilous discussion on websites of whether the picture of a mutilated leg of a PAD supporter was real or doctored completely overlooked the fact that PAD supporters were actually subject to attack and anonymous intimidation. Indeed some commentators called for and supported a crackdown because PAD were ‘fascist’, and supported police action against PAD. Incidental acts of violence by PAD supporters were turned into examples of a systematic campaign of violence by the PAD. The use of photographic images to promote these agendas was pervasive. An arms cache found in government house, after PAD ceased its occupation was immediately assumed to have been PAD's, without any evidence. On these matters I remain uncertain, just as I am to believe various claims about current events.

Now it is clear that the PAD has terrible politics by the standards of liberal democracy, and its opportunistic use of nationalism and royalism was dangerous and suited to undemocratic purposes. Some of its abrasive and dehumanizing rhetoric from the stage was fearful. It is clear that it had support in high and unsavoury places. But do such facts require that interpretation be completely directed to demonization? Are inconvenient facts to be set aside lest they get in the way of presenting the news as one wants to see it? Is it also a case of everything they do is wrong, everything we do is right?

Indeed I would argue that if PAD was of a leftist persuasion, interpretations of its actions would have been different. The occupation of the airport would have been seen as a brilliant strategy of the angry masses desperate to bring down the government. Random acts of violence would have been seen as the work of the ‘third hand’ attempting to discredit the movement.

The mythic image of PAD now built up around a few totemic images borders on erasure of its origins in a pre-coup context fighting against Thaksin in order to return Thailand to a liberal political path – and by liberal, yes I mean elitist, with the accompanying inequalities entailed in the 1997 constitution.

A long road has been travelled since 2006, and the dynamics of the struggle have transformed, but the same logic of interpretation remains in place. And while the faces may look the same, four years has changed and hardened thinking and strategies.

PAD was and is regularly indicted for treating people who support Thaksin as ignorant and gullible. Such claims by some people in PAD have been made and quite vulgar ones at that. But the basic claim during 2006 was that without access to information and impartial analysis (yes, laughable coming from the Manager newsgroup), people could not make informed judgements. Anyone who listened to this discussion on the PAD stage would have been struck by how “media studies” the discussion was. Actually, such a claim is common to most political persuasions (Marxist included), and that is why most practical politics comes down to vanguard and strategic leadership to win people to a particular view of the world on the basis of where they are. Of course there are anarchists and populists (mediums of the popular will) out there who imagine some transcendent will of the people finding spontaneous expression if it happens to suit the way they also see the world. Another view common to many political persuasions is that political struggle is political education, and its best source. The question, of course, is the content of that political struggle. PAD and UDD obviously see this differently too.

Making sense of the last four years is not fundamentally a dispute about who did what when, and who shot first, who shot second– these empirical matters will never find settlement in the turmoil of the present, and they will keep, for a long time, the trolls in the cyber world busy wearing finger tips thin. The real dispute for those not in a position to influence events is where this conflict began and where it ends and for what purpose and future. On such matters a more honest discussion is a better option than mudslinging and sloganeering.

What is at the heart of the matter is not strategy or violence (since these can always be conveniently massaged and explained away in partisan circles) but rather the question of politics and the side one takes in that. Is it possible to explain one’s position, even non-position – without being taken for a lackey of Thaksin’s or the bureaucratic-aristocratic elite? At the moment, no. Where that space will emerge in the current contest is unclear.

Before the beginning of the current round of protests the UDD disowned militant elements (Sae Daeng among others) that wished to displace the current UDD leadership in order to pursue a more aggressive approach. Such forces it may be speculated were possibly behind some of violence inflicted on the yellow protests in 2008.

Since the protests began, a systematic campaign of targeted attacks (around 20 so far) on government and political buildings has been unleashed as if to demonstrate the viability of an armed path should the current campaign of civil disobedience fail. No doubt it signals to military elements relative impunity for courses of action contrary to government direction. Of course the convenient third hand can be invoked as being behind the bombings, as it was in the assault on the prime minister’s car during the Songkran demonstrations, but the logic of such a claim is weak.

This bifurcation of red shirt (not specifically the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) strategy, if that is what it is, is hardly commented on by those who now see the reds as the hope of the future and support calls for an immediate election so that a pro-red (and pro-Thaksin) government would come to power (probable but not certain). But the campaign of bombing points at least to one possible unpleasant future should the current government fall. Any new government will have a place for all the old elements of the bureaucratic-aristocratic elite (if we take the bureaucratic-aristocratic elite to be a broad class and not a clique) as long as they are on the right side.

Any campaign of double standards needs to be just that, and whatever the outcome of this current fight, the barracks against double standards shouldn't be dismantled too quickly.

Can the red movement guarantee that any pro-Thaksin government it brings to power will be subject to ruthless and necessary accountability? If so, how? What has it done to build alternative political organizations for parliamentary power, so that the forms of popular participation now evident are maintained to ensure future governments exercise power democratically and submit themselves to checks and balances that are constitutionally sanctioned (assuming a rewriting of the current constitution or its replacement)?

I have attended both yellow and red demonstrations over the last four years, I’ve always been struck by a similarity of purpose among those sitting below the stage: fair government. Certainly, the red movement has over the last year found a mobilizing idiom in class that has introduced a much needed element into Thai political discussion, and which is fundamentally going to impact future Thai democratisation. If the level of popular organizing can outlast the crisis that has brought it in to being, Thai democracy will be stronger for it.

For detractors – no I do not support a crackdown on the reds
No I do not grovel at the feet of the monarchy
No I do not share tea regularly with PAD leaders
No I do not want the return of royal liberalism and virtuous leadership
No, just because I have not repeated every possible disclaimer does not mean I subscribe to its opposite.
Yes, I support the repeal of the current constitution
Yes, I support the repeal of lese majeste laws
Yes, I support the immediate release of all those imprisoned under those laws
Yes, I call for retrial of all cases conducted under law built on the back of a military assumption of power.

UPDATE THURSDAY AFTERNOON - the imposition of a state of emergency has led to blackouts on media is clearly important that people get the right kind of news and, one of the few balanced and diverse news sites in Thailand, clearly is not the right kind of news.