May 30, 2010

Measured Barbarity and Responsibility

Measured Barbarity and Responsibility

The continued crackdown, arrests, and censorship throughout Thailand indicate that the Democrat Party led coalition government believes it can drive home its advantage from the bloodbath of May. Having taken it so far it is hardly surprising that the government is willing to weather criticism of further human rights abuses, including holding people without charge under Thaksin-sponsored 2005 Emergency Legislation, which the Democrat Party opposed in office.

There are two compelling fears driving Thailand’s liberal authoritarianism – which is to say the use of authoritarian means by which to return Thailand to its elitist liberal disposition.

The first is fear that an alternative modernizing network of politicians, statists, and business, under the loose leadership of Thaksin, will displace Thailand’s erstwhile pluralistic competition for power (1992-2005) that took place within the conservative social order of monarchy and ever weakening bureaucratic control – what I call Thailand’s emergent liberal-conservative phase. Relatedly, the vested interests that stand to lose from that displacement are also driven by corporate interest. And when self interest finds justification in piety to a social order – brutal action unremarkably follows. So it has been, increasingly so. A mixture of conservatives and liberals, able to mobilise state apparatuses to their side, viewed Thaksin as an existential threat and sought to terminate him and his project. His modernizing authoritarianism was antagonistic to an established historic bloc that believed that, all things being equal, it was edging in the right direction. That is the measure of diminished virtue in Thai politics. This is the struggle they are waging. It is not to establish a Burmese type junta, or to return Thailand to policies of benign neglect of the poor. It is a political struggle about power and defining social order.

A new logic is now also present, that transcends earlier fear of populism. it is the fear of the unleashed expectations of popular classes coupled with new found fury at the bare-faced nature of the authoritarian posture of the Aphisit government and its hardline backers in the military. Moreover, the very existence of armed elements in the red-shirt camp (incredulously denied by red-shirt sympathisers or explained away as a desperate strategy) fuels that authoritarianism, and forces it to reveal itself.

Those who Ji Ungpakorn once named “tank liberals” are now revealing how social orders are often defended or founded – not by ideas or by social contracts, but by violent acts that act like moral amnesia. The big clean up of Bangkok is a hope to purge the city of its memory.

In this post-coup decisionist phase (where might is doubly right), driven by situational logics and political choices, there has emerged a societal current that gives morally partisan legitimacy to the government. Its willful conferral of legitimacy derives from the relief that the redshirts have been dealt with. In relief’s wake, exaltation of the “handlers” is expressed. Take as one example the adulation poured over spokesperson of the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation – Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, in The Nation’s article “Saluting the kingdom's coolest colonel.” It is a legitimacy that rests on excising the red-threat as criminal and terroristic, and therefore not worthy of political engagement.

The threat of social upheaval, of a world turned upside down has led to all sorts of pathologies revealing themselves, witch-hunts, educational ostracism, dehumanising portrayals, bloodcurdling snobbery and a recapturing of the city of angels by sovereign consumers speedily spending the country out of crisis.

Unsettled by the semi-emergence of a rival state in the heartland of Bangkok, exemplified by redshirt authority imposed on street corners and on sections of the state’s police and armed forces, people now howl for a political cleansing as malignantly intended as it will be destructive.

And while in the harsh business of judgement from afar, what of those redshirt clad demonstrators who believed in the essential non-violent nature of their struggle, who were not privy to the machinations of another wing of the redshirt movement, and who assembled with good cause? They had no reason to believe that violence would escalate, or be part of the strategy to topple the regime. They were given messages that portrayed the violence as a one-way street directed by the government. May they detest the state for its "measured" barbarity and may they call to account those redshirt factions that cynically manipulated them into a position of fatal vulnerability.

We, and they, need to learn more about the relationship between the red paramilitary (however basic or shambolic as some would have it) and, if any, communication between the public leadership of the movement. We also need to learn more about the Thaksin factor in the movement - not to demonize, but to understand. Some believe these are settled matters: partisan politics rarely makes good history.