September 27, 2011

When the walls come crumbling down: Monarchy and Thai-style Democracy

The following is the extended introduction to my review of Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, edited by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (2010) published by NIAS Press

Full reference Connors MK (2011) "When the walls come crumbling down: Monarchy and Thai-style Democracy," Journal of Contemporary Asia, 41, 4, pp. 657-673.


Some observers may think that the Year Zero for contemporary critiques of the Thai monarchy begins in 2006 with Paul Handley's biographical The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej (Handley, 2006) Because of a single publishing gesture, the reading public glimpsed the king as a man concerned/perplexed with the knots and polish of ruling and power amidst a courtly world of intrigue and military fatigues. Far from the images of sacred humility proffered by state and private agencies alike, the decidedly human account of King Bhumibol was as shocking as it was treacherous to those invested in the psychological panaceas and legitimating prop of a benevolent monarch; publication had to be stopped (the government tried) and the book was banned in Thailand (Hewison, 2008). In his review, Duncan McCargo (2007) noted the book's cathartic effect; in “saying the unsayable” Handley had offered a “re-imagining of Thailand's modern political history.”

Saying the Unsayable: Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand, edited by Søren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager (2010), takes up this challenge of re-imagining. The contributors offer engaging reflections and critique, departing from Handley's biographical focus to survey a broader political and cultural world that the monarchy inhabits. In his review, historian Chris Baker (2011) avers this is a “careful book which has nothing personal or strident, no whiff of revolt.” Radical pamphleteering it is not, but there is revolt in the fashioning of wide-ranging and well-grounded arguments that carefully mould the unsayable into the sayable. This approach has ensured the book remains on sale in Thailand, despite its challenge to monarchical myths.

Handley's explosive biography and its wall-crumbling (not yet tumbling) effect were not totally unprecedented. Kevin Hewison's (1997) book chapter “The Monarchy and Democratization” critically expounded what he described as the “Standard Total View” of the Thai Monarchy (STVTM). Hewison's ironic riff on Michael Vickery's term “Standard Total View” announced both a very political critique of an institution that aspires to transcendence and the presence of a cult ideology which few had cared to name. His piece also touched on the Crown Property Bureau (Hewison,1997), the monarchy's stance during the events of 1973 and 1976, and on the conservative nature of Bhumibol's political outlook
To simplify, in its original and controversial usage, Vickery meant by Standard Total View that analysts were creating a one-dimensional picture – the standard total view – of various phases of the genocide in Cambodia (1975-79) that traced the death toll to evil intentions by the Khmer Rouge to purge the nation of former regime elements, its sympathisers and “intellectuals” (Vickery, 1999; originally published in 1984).

Absent from such accounts were accident, imperialism, war and contingency and a forensic accounting of the actual death toll. At the heart of Vickery's critique was the place of evidence, argument and motive in the presentation of controversial moments of brutal social change. His motive in coining the phrase was to point out how flawed and totalising narratives become accepted as fact. Notwithstanding the merits or otherwise of Vickery's account of Cambodia, the application of the idea to the Thai case is clear – how did the Thai monarchy come to have such an elevated and, until recently, largely unquestioned position?
Ivarsson and Isager (2010) following Hewison, describe the Standard Total View of the Thai monarchy in the following terms: as a protector of tradition, the nation and democracy; as an egalitarian development king who modernises as he instructs governments to care for the welfare of his subjects; and as an institution as natural to Thailand's political and social culture as rice is to the Thai diet. Clearly, Hewison's piece on the Thai monarchy was very contrarian, ensuring a limited impact. There was no open political disenchantment propelling widespread dissemination, but it was translated for a Thai audience and reportedly read in the palace. The monarchy was left alone by more cautious writers on Thailand. Even Hewison's modest success in opening up inquiry was not enjoyed by earlier pioneers. As few as they were, such works were ignored, most notably, the now eagerly ploughed work of Christine Gray. Her research showed how Buddhist ritual and kingship “played a central role in advancing western capitalist ideologies and practices in Thailand” (Gray, 1986). Among other things, Gray brilliantly depicted the Thai-ification and legitimation of Sino-Thai capital and the naturalisation of capitalism in general by their articulation to monarchical prestige, mediated by rituals such as merit making by capitalist elites in royally-sponsored ceremonies. This also provided a means by which the king could build up the royal treasury (Gray, 1986). From an anthropological view, Gray (1986) noted that the growth of ritual in the Chakri court was also the growth of the king's naming prerogatives and his ability to structure perceptions about life, production and power in the world. This power was a right by virtue of his kingly position as among the highest interpreters of the Buddhist dharma (Gray, 1991: 44-5). Gray also revealed the contradictory notions of kingship at play in the royal court: a bricolage of Hindu/Buddhist prescriptions that are ever-adaptive to a changing world order and in which even the blood lineage of the monarch requires obscuration because of the democratic temper of the times. During her fieldwork Gray was granted privileged access to court and ceremonial functionaries and she repays the gift with fine scholarship.

As Gray was exploring these issues from the early 1980s to early 1990s, a strident re-hegemonising of the Thai social field around the “democratic” monarchy was underway. This was no less than an attempt to conceal and gloss the brutal massacre of October 1976 at Thammasat University. The elevated status of the monarch derives from this ideological work; its proximity being so recent one wonders at the mechanisms of its success, and the cultural residues on which that success drew. Until Handley explicitly drew attention to Gray's “underappreciated dissertation” (2006: xi), most academics ignored her powerful critique of the monarchy. This, perhaps, evinces an academic caution all too familiar to scholars who worked on Indonesia during the Suharto period or indeed on any region where academics either obscure critique or accept certain matters as untouchable. The caution was odd given that Thailand was then becoming valorised as the beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia (even as it was given the qualifier “semi”). That there was room for critical engagement is evident. Towards the end of his widely acclaimed Siam Mapped, Thongchai (1994) writes excoriatingly of the monarchy's symbolic violence in promoting Thainess. Pasuk and Baker (1995) provided scholarly interpretation of Thailand's broad transformation and, in the process, examined the role of the monarchy with critical balance. My own account of the monarchy explored its ideological rehabilitation after the trauma of 1976, showing the very constructed nature of the idea of “democracy with the king as head of state” and the many agencies of state that sent it out into the world (Connors, 2001, 2003) McCargo (2005) confronted the issue of palace politics head on in his “network monarchy” article, anticipating current debates. He proved it was possible to be very controversial. It is true that all of the above largely played the institution, not the person.

A number of works have used euphemisms such as “establishment” in English or “sathaban” (institution) in Thai to indicate who or what was being spoken about, enabling probing if cautious accounts of the palace. In the 1990s, some Thai scholars wrote newspaper columns that deliberately avoided using, as is customary, Bhumibol's full title and instead simply referred to him as king (kasat), indicating at least a disenchanted stance towards the monarchy. One such scholar explained to this author that he chose not to bother with royal language (the verbal prefixes and nouns that sound very affected) in a deliberate attempt to demystify the institution. He explained his good fortune in not getting into trouble on the basis that he was not important. On that point, the then not so well-known Giles Ji Ungphakorn, at the Eighth International Thai Studies Conference (2002) in the north-eastern city of Nakhon Phanom, said that he preferred a republican form of government over the current system. This clearly contravened the constitutional prohibition on advocating for any political system that challenged “democracy with the king as head of state.” No action was taken against him although over 300 people heard his comments. As his prominence grew as an anti-coup activist and after he attached himself to the red-shirt movement in 2008, he was hit with charges of lèse-majesté for his book A Coup for the Rich (Giles, 2007). In exile and feeling free of the suffocating caution required when writing about the monarchy, his work has grown more critical both of the monarchy and of those who want to make it a central issue: as he sees it, the military is the might behind the throne (see Walker and Farrelly, 2009). Such overtly political prose that reaches a sizeable audience and that aims at political action is clearly not allowed. And it is the latter, of course, which is the more dangerous. But before recent events forced open the window for critical commentary, it was clear that academically critical works could be published and that there was no reason for silence. The silence was in part born of fear – reasonably held by Thais – of excommunication; but the silence was also purposeful in the sense that it represented a willingness to see the political world the way the national elite fashioned it (see Ockey 2005), and a reactive belief that if the monarchy could not be resisted then it could be harnessed to progressive purpose and that claims could be made upon it. This reactive response colours the last two decades, and it is this more than the STV which is now under threat.

That the work under review is not obscure, oblique, or pollyannaish about the monarchy bespeaks a new time when popular and intra-elite struggle has punched a hole through the quasi-consensus surrounding the monarchy, expanding the space for a more honest reckoning of Thai history. That such a point has been reached can be seen in several respects. Most obviously, there are the relentless attacks on the Privy Council which began very soon after the coup d'état that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Since 2007, predecessors of the anti-coup red-shirt movement called for Bhumibol to remove several appointees to the Privy Council, including its President General Prem Tinsulanonda, for his apparent role in the coup of 2006. In July 2007, this author saw protestors at Sanam Luang throw ping-pong balls and darts at a caricature of General Prem, drawn with pursed pink lips and an ornate earring garnishing the side of his face. This was a shocking sight to anyone acclimatised to the obsequious behaviours solicited/elicited by social superiors. It was in its own way no less than a public death of deference: the constitution states that appointment or removal from the Privy Council is the sole prerogative of the monarch, but the red shirts continue to call for Prem's removal.
Critical, if oblique, works have emerged or re-emerged in the Thai language, with broadly constitutionalist interpretations of the monarchy in competition with reactionary accounts that assume unrestricted royal power. For example, against the proliferation of commentary on the king's royal prerogatives (see Pramuan, 2005), in 2008 a law press published a seemingly innocuous title, Exposition on the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1968 and Governing Regulations 1972: Regarding the King. In a preface that recounts law specific to the monarchy, Worajet (2008) demonstrates that the monarchy's ascension during the post-1976 era comes with greater control over its own affairs. Previously, amendment to the Palace Law of Succession (1924) followed procedures relevant to any constitutional amendment, but in the 1991, 1997 and 2007 constitutions amendment to the succession law is the sole prerogative of the palace. On this Worajet (2008) observes: “there has never been any expert explanation of whether this is a case of legislative royal prerogative or not, or whether [the palace prerogative to amend the succession law] …conforms to democracy and the principle of division of powers.” The book is a reprint of the work of Yut Seang-uthai, the influential jurist and Secretary General of the Council of State from 1953 to 1968. Yut pressed for a constitutionalist interpretation of the monarchy until his death in 1979, earning accusations of lèse-majesté along the way. Just to take one example, Yut (2008) writes “royal addresses through radio must be done in accordance with recommendations by the cabinet, as there must be someone responsible for the speeches.” Such an interpretation almost reads like sedition to the present mentality of prerogative royalists. The king's speeches are largely palace affairs and are not directed or approved by the government. Such limitation as proposed by Yut would certainly strip the king of an important source of legitimacy that comes from his now conventional right to chide governments in public, and to define and interpret situations as if above them. It would lead, practically, to a secular kingship devoid of a mechanism to be the “Great Definer” of the nation's fate.

If the king's prerogative to speak remains intact, the impact has been dulled by the relatively widespread disillusion with the monarchy since the 2006 coup. It is now not uncommon to hear highly critical comments about the monarchy which often stem from what some red-shirts describe as an “awakening” (ta-sawang) when the Queen attended the funeral of a member of the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy in October 2008. This was interpreted as an endorsement of the movement to overthrow the pro-Thaksin government of the time. As one red-shirt protester explained to this author in 2009 at a demonstration in Bangkok, “how can a mother chose between her sons?” Some protestors also refer to being “orphans.” These family references are a response to the widespread promotion by state agencies of the king and queen as father and mother of the nation. Explicit reference to Thailand's wealthiest conglomerate, the Crown Property Bureau, can also be heard in conversation.(The work of Porphant (2008) has been influential in opening up discussion on royal wealth).

This broad willingness to speak openly about the monarchy contrasts with the adulation or enforced silence that prevailed a decade ago. The shift is best exemplified by the curious case of the brash and brave Thai historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul whose writings on Thai web-boards and in academic papers constantly trash any imposed code of self or socially-expected censorship in a quest for truth about the monarchy's historical and contemporary role. His work predates the current growth of commentary, and it was only in early 2011 that police moved to investigate charges against him of lèse-majesté.

Royalists, that is to say various state agencies, the military, the People's Alliance for Democracy, and the governing Democrat Party have responded to this fragmenting consensus by stoking fears of a movement to overthrow the monarchy and building up state and social surveillance, a topic explored by pseudonymous Han Krittian (Chapter 8). There has been a wave of unprecedented and unmanageable lèse-majesté cases, as chronicled in David Streckfuss' Chapter 5. From an average of five cases per year between 1992 and 2004, the total number of cases tried between 2006 and 2008 jumped to 231 (see pp. 107, 123). Streckfuss (2011) reports that a police source suggests that in 2009 some 3000 potential cases were being investigated. The lèse-majesté cases should not simply be read as state persecution – the vagaries of the law allow individuals acting as concerned citizens to play a role in launching a lèse-majesté case, as Streckfuss carefully outlines. However, Streckfuss (2011)) notes that the failure of an enduring ideology around the monarchy is largely behind the spate of lèse-majesté cases. The monarchy does have a strong conservative and opportunistic social constituency and that constituency, now seeing the wall of the STV crumble, is groping for ways of patching it together before the debris gathers at their feet.

Fear mongering has become rife. Numerous books on an alleged movement to overthrow the monarchy have appeared in the last year. One book, running into multiple editions, features Thaksin dressed in royal regalia and claims that the republican movement is inspired by the overthrow of monarchies in France, Russia and, more recently, Nepal (Kongbannathikan, 2010). Similar claims of republican intent are made on leaflets and banners. For example, in the 2007 election, campaign leaflets were discreetly distributed saying that a vote for the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party was a threat to the monarchy. These were secretive, unsigned leaflets distributed in the north-east, probably by security forces. The Phum Jai Thai party, composed of elements that defected from the pro-Thaksin forces in late 2008 to enter into a coalition government with the Democrat Party, makes such allegations on banners in some provinces with the slogan: “Resist the new Thai state.” This is a slant against the alleged anti-monarchical leanings of the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and its parliamentary ally the Pheu Thai Party. Moreover, the Phum Jai Thai Party's control of the powerful Interior Ministry has led to the setting up of pro-monarchy networks, partly in response to the “red-villages for democracy” that spread across the north-east in defiance of the crackdown of May 2010 (Somphok, 2011: 24-5). These villages also pledge loyalty to the “democracy with the king as head of state.” Even so, some members explicitly await the return of Thaksin as prime minister (Somphok, 2011: 24-5). While many international supporters of the red shirts enthuse about the movement's apparent anti-royalism, a glance at the red-shirt press over the last two years demonstrates that the more tabloid elements, such as Red News and Truth Today, have attempted to promote a positive relationship to royalism, seeing themselves as more credible protectors of the Crown. Mainstream red-shirt attacks have mostly concentrated on individuals within the so-called network monarchy, or more discretely, the Queen. There are occasional renditions of the royal anthem at red-shirt demonstrations, and the republican element in the movement is a small minority. The movement has put the STV up for scrutiny, but it has yet to crack it (for a more optimistic view, see Glassman, 2011).

As might be expected, Saying the Unsayable advances an alternative to the STV. That it does this with unusual turns of argument and the tensions that form between the chapters makes reading this book a novel experience rather than one of déjà vu. Saying the Unsayable does not merely record what people have long been saying – as some wrongly assert of Handley's The King Never Smiles. Saying the Unsayable goes beyond easy sneers at the monarchy, and offers insights into cultural, political and governmental processes.

The full review of the book appears at

Full references in the original

September 11, 2011

Thinking about authoritarianism in an ambivalent state

The full paper with tables, matrix and references may be read here

In the context of a fascinating surge in discussions on the nature of the Thai state at various forums, I reproduce a section of my attempt to think about unpacking the nature of authoritarianism in the ambivalent Thai state. The full paper may be read by clicking the link above. A much shorter version of this paper was published in Pacific Review as "Liberalism, Authoritarianism and the Politics of Decisionism". That version did not contain my attempt to think about authoritarian power.


This paper is an attempt to think through the nature of authoritarianism in Thailand by arguing that the focus of analysis should be on the exercise of political power, rather than regime form, in the context of the failure to settle on forms of legitimate power at the state and regime level. It first offers a way of thinking about authoritarianism, markers of its existence and, importantly in the Thai context, its articulation to liberalism. It advances this argument by noting the synchronicity of liberal and authoritarian modes of power across a range of regime forms in Thailand since 1976. Rather than situating authoritarianism in specific institutional sites (though it surely resides there – see Table 1), attention is given to the failure to establish and consolidate rules for the exercise of power as a consequence of Thailand’s specific ‘democratic transition’ that entailed a liberal and security settlement based on repression of progressive democratic forces, and the entrenchment of the monarchy at the centre of a national power bloc. Consequent to that settlement, competing groups of strategic elites in Thailand exist in a permanent state of insecurity and revert to authoritarian modes to secure their position, even as liberalism progressively deepens its reach.

Liberal and authoritarian regime framers, those forces that on balance support liberal or authoritarian forms of social order, are not exclusively identifiable in specific institutions, they are trans-institutional and trans-social class, and manifest in political exigencies. The contest and co-existence between the two currents reflects competing agendas for social order that are formed around different and changing coalitions of social forces. Since 1976 the complex pattern of forces that have come to occupy each current has shifted, their realignment contingent on a range of factors that come to bear on the task of social order and capital accumulation. As much as Hewison can speak of ‘contingent democrats’, to indicate the shifting position on democracy of the Thai bourgeoisie and the middle class, one may also speak of ‘contingent authoritarians’, to recognise those liberal regime framers who will utilise power, or condone its use, for the purposes of stemming power from below or in the struggle against authoritarian regime framers. Indeed, the contemporary situation (post-2006) is marked by a suspension of liberal modes of conduct at a national level, implicitly sanctioned by liberal regime framers, as different political forces compete to establish dominance in the Thai state, mobilising various resources and legitimating strategies.

Authoritarianism of power, not of regime.

Rather than viewing the 2006 coup and the resulting political fallout as ushering in new forms of authoritarianism in Thailand, this paper will speak of continuities and repetitive pathologies of state power, encased in the different regime forms since 1976. It will argue that the failure to settle the pattern of domination that lies at the heart of state structure requires that we think less of distinct regime forms (semi-democratic, democratic, authoritarian) and more of an ambivalent state of power in which shifting and differential patterns of liberalism, electoralism and authoritarianism have momentarily congealed as regimes.

This approach entails moving beyond the prevalent dichotomous models of regime form in democratization literature that posits authoritarian or post-totalitarian and democratic endpoints as opposite poles on a transition-continuum. As Thomas Carothers has argued, those regimes whose ‘transition’ to democracy has seemingly stalled may not have stalled at all, rather they are stubbornly squatting somewhere tangentially forked-off the linear continuum. The existence of hybrid regimes is now widely accepted: seemingly in temporary holding positions of their authoritarian leaders in “democratic transitions”, these “hybrids” have become embedded regime forms around which political behaviour is structured.

Moving beyond regime form at a macro level requires recognition that the yielding of power in state agencies, through political institutions, and in collaboration with business interests, may be remarkably similar whatever regime formally holds. This insight can often be lost as a consequence of giving too much credence to formal regime appellation. I have argued at length elsewhere that a significant force shaping the modern Thai state (understood both as an institutional apparatus concerned with the making and enforcing of public decisions and as a relationship of power that reaches into society) is liberalism, this despite the hold of the military and the bureaucracy over important state resources. I would extend my argument to note that within liberalism generally, and Thai liberalism specifically, it is possible to detect moments of authoritarianism that are not contradictory to the liberal project, but inhere in it (and this is so of liberalism in general). And, conversely, within authoritarian regimes one will find liberal moments of pluralism, intra-regime opposition and tolerance that would belie a harsh exterior. I would argue that it is these ambivalences (“contradictions” only if we accept ideal types) that can best illuminate recent Thai politics and its apparent authoritarian backsliding.

No one definition of an authoritarian regime will suffice to make sense of the existence of authoritarianism in Thailand. Rather than offer a definition, I offer, drawing from Linz, four angles from which authoritarianism may be examined and diagnosed. The angles are designed purely for heuristic purposes relevant to this paper, and do not claim universal relevance. For the purposes of understanding current Thai politics it seems to me that it is important to capture the spirit of authoritarianism as an approach to the exercise of power and the mechanisms to secure it, rather than as a specific type of regime. In this way, authoritarianism may be understood as present across many regime types.

An authoritarian state is one in which an apparatus of arbitrary power (what may be called an ensemble of dictate) exerts control, and often undirected influence, over physical life and/or a social field defined by imposed limited, hierarchical pluralism. Although patterned, the deployment of power is arbitrary by virtue of its relative unaccountability/un-responsibility, and though pluralism is sometimes controlled (it is always hierarchical) in contradistinction to ideal-type totalitarianism, it is not obliterated. An authoritarian state tends to exert coercive force in the extension of its quasi-legitimacy. To elaborate:

1. Un-responsible power/unrestricted restriction of freedoms.

An authoritarian state may be defined as that which, through internally ill-defined institutional patterns, exercises arbitrary and unaccountable power over the spheres of human existence and association, and which, by dictate, restricts free movement in those spheres. The former exercise of power concerns the derogation of the life of individuals and “natural” communities, while the latter entails the perversion of the relatively free range of collective political possibilities that might exist in an open public field. Both spheres are potentially subject to unrestrained power and power’s neglectful indifference, and are likely to mutate under both.

2. Universal claims.

When applied to national level state-society formations, which is what concerns us here, the term “authoritarianism” entails that on balance the exercise of power is illiberal and based on the authority of those who hold the centre (either formally or obscurely), and to those they delegate or defer. That authority is often legitimated by democratic, authoritative and mythic claims to universal representation, or some combination of all. Such universal claims are not matched by institutional arrangements. Those who exercise power at the centre are enabled by this legitimating claim to demobilize opposition through mechanisms of repression, cooption, and toleration, enduring strategies of depoliticisation, or even electoral mandates and parliamentary majorities.

3. Hierarchy of linkages.

Authoritarian states that are not edging towards totalitarian control will be differentially marked by vertical and sectoral linkages between different levels of power, mediated by actors who react to and shape the institutional features of the regime, according to prevailing incentive and disincentive patterns and the domain of intervention (health, education, industry policy etc.). This provides room to move. Authoritarian state institutions can articulate to regimes of various colours: bureaucratic-authoritarian, institutionalised one-party rule; competitive authoritarian, electoral populist, developmental liberal. While political typologists will rightly characterise regimes according to the dominant impulse at work in the centre (democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian etc) most regimes are complex multi-level systems of considerable institutional overlap; different and even contradictory impulses may be found within and across their respective state levels. An authoritarian state, in any particular regime form, may be, in restricted domains, articulated to a liberal imperative.

4. Propensity to coercion.

The deployment of coercive force is not unique to the authoritarian state, but it does have a marked propensity to coerce under the logic of exclusion by which it operates. Authoritarian states are rarely wholly legitimate ones. They tend to work on the principle of a dual exclusion. Firstly, there is the exclusion of the dissident or oppositional forces that are subject to significant constitutional/legal and extra-legal pressures in the conduct of their affairs. At best, it is the power of bureaucratic and technical coercion that is used to frustrate the formation of oppositional blocs or agendas. At worse, violence is employed. Secondly, there is is the exclusion of some social element by virtue of which the national citizenry may be formed over and over again. Authoritarian states - shaped as bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, as formally democratic regimes, as military regimes - are apt to communicate exclusion by public or hidden coercive measures extending from control to violence. In such a state, when resources, power or status are at stake the possibility of extra-legal coercion or violence is ever present, and shapes decisions. Authoritarianism gives free rein to a politics of fear.

This loose matrix of four features may be used to propose that while individual actions may be labelled authoritarian - as might particular policies, decisions, and ideologies - authoritarianism only emerges as an ensemble of dictate when on average a state’s organization of power over the social body it claims to represent, and its actions on it, are un-responsible and coercive by direction or consequence. To speak of “averages” allows that in any ensemble of dictate, particular instances of sub-regime liberalism are entertained and may be functional to the enduring nature of authoritarianism. It is also possible to speak of an apparatus of dictate in regard to sub-regime levels, much the same as Schmitter suggested that in looking at democratic consolidation a better picture was available by paying attention to the multiple sites in which different structures of behaviour were processed in relations between the state and society; these he called “partial regimes”.

July 4, 2011

Questions on Pending Thai Election: Bloomberg

On 27th June I emailed responses to three questions from Bloomberg News about the pending election.

1. What's at stake for the military/monarchy in this election?

This is the election in which fundamental decisions about Thailand's future will have to be made. I do not mean by that the electoral choices of the Thai people which have long been subverted even before the 2006 coup, but how the incumbent royalist and militarist elite will react to the electorate's choice and, conversely, what strategies the pro-Thaksin counter elite will employ.

The key question should the Democrat Party not have sufficient numbers to form a coalition government, is whether its backers in the anti-Thaksin establishment will remain in denial about the recurrent rejection they face at the ballot box. This is a possibility. Should they choose that path, no doubt with splits along the way, they know that more violence will follow. The military-on-military and militia violence witnessed during April-May last year may return with greater intensity. So, it's a high cost strategy, so high its protagonists may not win over the less hawkish elements.

Undoubtedly, there will be some brinkmanship, as those most committed to the 2006 coup hold to the hope their long denied objectives of breaking Thaksin forces can still be executed. But the last five years prove otherwise, and they now confront a mobilised movement with depth well beyond anyone imagined. My guess is that even though there are elements willing to go for broke, the exhausting toll of the last five years weighs very heavily on those who rode with the coupsters, but who are dismayed by the securitisation of Thailand's politics and the repositioning of hardline military and royalist elements. The highly corrupt and repressive nature of elements of the current Thai regime, by which I different forces that are articulated to the state apparatuses not just the government, is not what they wished for when they tacitly supported the coup. They really did envisage an elite liberal outcome. But they bought into a logic of decisionist politics which meant embracing highly repressive politics rather than abiding by constitutional niceties, in order to to defeat a perceived enemy. But that repressiveness has almost become a norm, not the exception. These fellow travellers of the 2006 coup might be eating humble pie and make a conditional deal. Thaksin for his part will be happy to oblige. Bringing some kind of settlement together in the form of a smooth transition will be extremely difficult. At the same time, there might be an alliance of convenience among the authoritarians in both camps. Thus, think of the future as one of further mutations and splits.

2. What would a win for Pheu Thai mean for the establishment that backed the coup? What is the likelihood that Pheu Thai will be able to govern?

There is certainly a chance that Pheu Thai may have the numbers to form government in coalition. Such a prospect, for the anti Thaksin forces will be a loss of face, and will threaten their existing position. For some of them it will mean permanent marginalisation from the centres of political life. Thaksin is an astute coalition builder and one can expect that in the event of a Pheu Thai government being formed, the chairs will quickly be rearranged and space made available to everyone who plays the new game. But some soft payback can be expected; it will also be a time for the upper echelons to consider retirement. The other option facing the incumbent forces - to fight a Pheu Thai victory - would mean buying into a genuine rewriting of Thailand's constitutional settlement well beyond the electoral democracy it still adheres to (notwithstanding recent retreats). The charade of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy's "new politics" , of limiting the number of elected MPS and moving towards a form of selectocracy might be one outcome. Even though it has looked like a fanatical reactionary fringe stoking up war and hatred for the last year, the seemingly anti-political agenda of "new politics" has powerful backers, who are waiting for an opportune moment.

So, oddly, Thailand may face a situation in which the western-oriented royalist establishment, by refusing to accept a Pheu Thai victory, faces up to its failure to win in the game of elite liberal democracy by abandoning the facade of democracy and move towards a more transparently authoritarian politics.

Alternatively, should Thaksin finally emerge triumphant (and I see this as the long term scenario) you would have a government claiming a democratic mandate pursuing a look East and South policy, and merging populist rhetoric with authoritarian structures. Either prospect looks disturbing if your interest is in genuine democracy.

As for the movement of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, the redshirts, will it be able to hold any new pro-Thaksin government to democratic standards? The sad fact is that for all its shedding light on double standards and political hypocrisy, it has only done so selectively. When will the UDD publicly be honest about the authoritarian nature of the Thaksin years?

That said, we can not discount the possibility that a Pheu Thai victory will reluctantly be accepted, and new energies will be put into using constitutional avenues (sanctioned by the 2007 military sponsored constitution) and political strategies to fight Thaksin at the next election. Such an extraordinary outcome would mean a public return of democracy, while various machinations take place behind the scenes. That is what most democracies amount to these days.

3. What are the prospects of a power-sharing arrangement between Thaksin and his opponents?

Apart from hardline elements who mistakenly view Thaksin as the nadir of monarchist Thailand, my guess is the economic and political costs of protracted conflict is now weighing heavily on some of the incumbents who still want to steer Thailand to a prosperous and modern future. There must be considerable distress felt in royalist circles at the anti-royalist feeling that is emerging among rank and file redshirts and frankly the only genuine way to stop this growing is by bringing Thaksin back into the fold. Thaksin has time and time again shown his willingness to abide by most public protocols in relation to the monarchy. The inane propaganda efforts of the various security agencies are a lesson in blowback and the stupidity of force feeding people with "correct ideas". The more men in khaki wax lyrical about the royal family the more their standing is diminished. Thaksin has always signalled his willingness to do a deal and moreover is happy to deploy royalist imagery. This is what he offers and no one else can play this card. This will be the basis of any power-sharing arrangement.

In some senses the stark choice facing the rival camps is continued conflict at the cost of mutual destruction and seeing Thailand meltdown, or some step back from this and working out a formula for power sharing or at the very least a situation in which a "loyal opposition" has a credible chance of electoral victory at the following election. And should something be "agreed" this raises another question, how would such a historic anti-climax be received among those mobilised yellow and red -shirted citizens. This takes us to the final of the many unknowns of the post election period: the potential of a rising democratic mass in the face of this intra-elite bargaining and game-playing. Of all the possible game changers, this seems the least unlikely on the balance of probabilities. I'd like to be proven wrong.

April 16, 2011

Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-majesté.

The following is a review of David Streckfuss' new book Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-majesté. London: Routledge, 2011.

Full Version Available at

David Streckfuss's Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lese majeste builds on what was already an extraordinarily accomplished PhD dissertation taken at Wisconsin-Madison (1998) under the supervision of Alfred McCoy and Thongchai Winichakul. The original material has been revised and expanded in the context of Thailand's regime-shaking struggles since the 2006 coup d'etat that felled Thaksin Shinawatra and the accompanying excess of defamation and lse-majest claims. Truth in Thailand is also marked by the author's recent engagement with the theorists of the “state of exception,” Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben.1

It is with Agamben and Schmitt that Streckfuss can claim that Thailand's legalization of “abnormal times” since the 1950s entails a permanent suspension of constitutional order—or a state of exception in which sovereign power defines the possible. The ghost of Foucault is also present, though more as a disposition than an explicitly referenced master. Introduced briefly on the matter of “regimes of truth” (43-47), Foucault then largely fades from view, but the idea of productive discourse shadows the entire book. How could it be otherwise when Streckfuss aims to make sense of the order of things—of Thai-ness, of monarchy, and of nation, and the power that works through them?

Streckfuss thinks through these matters with ruthless clarity. Under his scholarly scrutiny the way in which Thai law has regulated the “characterisation of things” across a dispiriting one hundred years is laid bare. Central to this project has been what Streckfuss calls the “defamation regime”: “a social and political formation that over time develops a kind of 'defamation thinking' and 'impulse' that focuses on the insult of the defamatory statement, often at the expense of the truth” (xv). His expert narrative shows how courts, inspired by wider state discourses, try to establish the intent of those who have allegedly defamed the nation, the monarchy, or Thai-ness—and in so doing make visible the logic of the regime's self-image. In shining a spotlight on these legal moments Streckfuss is illuminating the underlying collective logic by which power has been consolidated in Thailand.

The book's thirteen chapters are rich in detail and observation, and many Old Thai Hands will learn much from each of them. Thematically organized, the chapters offer an incomparable history of lse-majest, law and Thai-ness, public opinion, and the science of traitorology. Of especial relevance given the recent discussion of the judicialization of politics in Thailand is Streckfuss's remarkable account in chapter 5 of the institutionalization of the “state of exception” by Thai courts working in conjunction with the police and military. Tracing the use of “indistinct, legal concepts such as 'peace and order' or 'threat to national security'” (113) and working through court transcripts, Streckfuss shows the essential reasoning behind the constitutional standing of the hundreds of coup decrees that have the status of law. No one hoping to understand the hybrid nature of Thailand's authoritarian-liberal mix can ignore this chapter, even if some (including me) will take exception to his argument that the country has been in varying states of exception for decades. Even if technically correct in the sense that extra-constitutional acts found Thai political order and shadow it—and that such acts announce themselves with disturbing frequency—the idea of a permanent “state of exception” can lead to overgeneralization. It can gloss, for example, Thailand's shifting regime forms since the 1950s and the differential relationship each has to law.

Many readers will be intrigued by Streckfuss's attempt to explain with Buddhist logic the actions that precede and follow coups d'etat, more than ten of which Thailand has witnessed since 1932. He writes:

This pattern [of a coup d'etat and self-issued amnesty and constitution] seems inexplicable unless we look at the practise as ritual purification—a public act certified by Thai Theravada Buddhism that recognizes a sacrifice (staging a coup), acknowledges a necessary murder (the killing of a constitution), and rewards giving (a new constitution, a new political order). (122)

Some might read as overly culturalist this account of coups d'etat as purification rituals that establish the pure intent of their protagonists (following a Buddhist inclination to stress right intent). At the very least the argument is provocative and offers original insights that expand our ways of thinking through the cultural aspects of Thai politics. Indeed, those hoping to understand the thinking of the Thai establishment and its social intermediaries may well feel they can finally name what has been hitherto a vague sense of Thai elite mentality. Streckfuss's desire to understand, and his dedicated patience in doing so, allows him to render visible the authenticity of a conservative Thai worldview that is often forgotten or cynically understood as mere venal interest. In short, Streckfuss has captured, on a political rather than aesthetic register, what Raymond Williams calls a “structure of feeling” and its practical consciousness.2 This is what Streckfuss means when he speaks of a “defamation regime.”

It remains to be said that if a certain ironical grin accompanies Streckfuss's extensive and persuasive documentation of the defamation regime, present also is horror at the human cost that this regime extracts. Such sentiment hints at the deep humanism that drives his scholarship. No one can read the book's last page on the “Ghosts of Forgotten History,” reminiscent of Walter Benjamin's portrayal of the Angel of Progress, and not shudder at the thought of future Thai troubles on the way to democracy. When the “'Ghosts' of the Duson-nyor massacre, 6 October, Black May, and Tak Bai” (315) are finally granted an audience, Thailand will not be the same.

This monumental volume is destined to take a leading place in the field of critical studies of Asia.

The review appears in the: Connors MK and Streckfuss, D (2011) 'Michael K. Connors in conversation with David Streckfuss, author of Truth on Trial in Thailand', Critical Asian Studies, 43:1, 139 - 149

January 8, 2011

Notes Towards an Understanding of Thai liberalism

"Notes Towards an Understanding of Thai liberalism"
Michael K. Connors

forthcoming in Bangkok, May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) edited by Mike Montesano, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Aekapol Chongvilaivan.

(parts of this piece have previously appeared in The Age and this blog)

It is easy to understand the plausibility of the case that the principal struggle unfolding in Thailand today pits democracy against authoritarianism. The events of the past four years seem to speak for themselves: the 2006 coup against the ‘pro-poor’ Thaksin government, the manipulated pro-military constitutional referendum of 2007, the judicial dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai (2007) and its successor People’s Power (2008) parties, and the subsequent military-supported installation of a Democrat-led coalition government in late 2008. Then of course comes the spilling of blood that feeds the democracy-authoritarianism narrative: the bloody crackdown in April – May 2010 against Red Shirt protestors and the imposition of a draconian state of emergency, human rights violations, and the suspension of due process for hundreds of political detainees.

The "democratic versus authoritarian” narrative, connected to the idea of a popular struggle against a rich establishment, has captured international attention. It is also at the heart of the self-presentation of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), so brilliantly exemplified by the etching of the world phrai (commoner) onto red tee-shirts. There are elements of truth in this formulation. But the same general tension – democracy versus authoritarianism – could just as easily substitute for a short history of human society, with one problem: it explains everything generally, but nothing particularly. In recent times the formulation has led to skewed analysis of Thailand’s crisis, and to a cheer-squad mentality that fails to capture intra-class/state conflict and inter-class/state agency cooperation. It obscures the nature of Thailand’s recent past and its likely trajectory. Moving beyond such a simplistic analysis makes possible a more serious probing of the specific nature of the conflict and of the possibilities for its resolution. Early-twentieth-century Marxist Antonio Gramsci offers the best argument against simplistic representation: "A given socio-historical moment is never homogeneous; on the contrary, it is rich in contradictions." To understand Thailand’s rich contradictions, it is better to drop the catch-all explanation and to come to grips with the specificity of the crisis at hand.

These notes toward an understanding of Thai liberalism are, I suppose, an uncomfortable call for observers to stand at some intellectual distance from the daily malaise of democracy in Thailand and to seek more sensitive lenses through which to examine both the interests and ideologies behind the competing claims of now fundamentally antagonistic elites, and the popular bases with which these interests and ideologies are articulated.

While rich in contradiction, the Thai context nevertheless has a dominant dynamic. That dynamic includes the largely unexplained pacting during 2005 and 2006 of statist conservatives and elite liberals against the emergent and competitive authoritarianism represented by Thaksin Shinawatra. It also includes the re-pacting of those same elements upon the emergence of the Red Shirt movement (itself composed of some liberal elements).

I say “unexplained” because, for the most part, political liberalism in Thailand is not taken seriously by analysts. It is seen as rhetorical and mealy-mouthed. When it is recognised, it is viewed as having been eclipsed by the instrumental politics of competing networks. There is thus nothing to explain. Scratch a political liberal in Thailand, and underneath is a snivelling courtier ready to serve monarchy, military and bureaucracy, or any paymaster – or so it is claimed. This view of Thai elites holds that ideas and social projects do not matter; only venal interest are deemed relevant. The view also broadly endorses a conspiratorial understanding of politics. This understanding has it that a monolithic elite self-consciously acts as the puppet master in all matters. This view does not recognize the fragmented and hostile relations between liberals and conservatives, because it takes Thai liberals and conservatives to be, fundamentally, one and the same.

At another level, a number of non-governmental organizations, activists and public intellectuals have taken a non-antagonistic, if not sympathetic, position to the anti-Thaksin side. Arguably, this position makes these groups and individuals distantly complicit in the authoritarian resolution to the crisis. But, just as differences between liberals and statists are elided in the conventional narrative, so too are those between elite liberalism and the social liberalism espoused by Thailand’s NGOs. NGOs’ failure to rally to the Red Shirts leads critics to bundle them together as part of the amaat (the bureaucratic-aristocratic establishment), as if those who have struggled for social justice over the last generation have suddenly become concerned only with their own interests and those of Thai elites. By the force of this logic, those who do not side with the Red Shirts are merely morally defective and opportunistic.

A morally charged critique based on the alleged defective character of those with whom one disagrees does not advance understanding of different strategic positions. Rather, it leaves one in the realm of puppet play, of good and evil, and of caricature. It results in accounts lacking in explanatory power, their rhetorical force notwithstanding.

Illumination of the contradiction of Thai liberalism’s pact with statist conservatism, only one of many pacts now in operation, requires an answer to one crucial question: why was Thaksin deposed? The answer is clear: Thaksin threatened a tentative liberal-conservative pact, one that emerged in the 1990s, on sharing power. The pact put Thailand on a trajectory toward a more liberal democratic polity. A variety of social forces, their interests differentially entangled in that project, mobilised against Thaksin. This mobilisation culminated in the September 2006 coup d’état. Subsequent developments have certainly transformed the nature of the struggle from an intra-elite contest to a broader societal conflict.

Confronting the transformation of the pro-Thaksin side into a messily conjoined quasi-popular/counter-elite movement advancing egalitarian positions, the liberal-conservative pact has hardened. The “soft coup” of 2006 has become a distant memory.
In this moment of profound structural crisis, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva symbolises the liberal pact with statist conservatives. His government’s maintenance throughout 2010 of the Emergency Decree invoked in April 2010 subsequent to the crushing of the Red Shirt rebellion reveals the foundations of sovereign power in force. But this is not naked power, even if it is abusive. Its purported aim is to prepare the ground for the realization of liberalism’s preferred state form in the post-crisis period. Such is Thai liberalism’s current internal logic and public message: judge us not by situational logic and actions, but by our long-term project, to which we now turn.

After the February 1991 coup – an attempt by statists and conservatives to roll back the emergence of a more open and democratic society - a politically liberal reform movement emerged in Thailand. Elites recognised that the semi-democracy of the 1980s was the creature of an age gone by. This movement resulted in the celebrated 1997 ''People's Constitution'', which formally enshrined liberal doctrine at the heart of the Thai state. Henceforth, executive power (rooted in a democratic mandate) would be subject to a variety of liberal checks and balances. An electoral commission and constitutional and administrative courts would scrutinise the exercise of that power. No one expected a smooth path to liberal democracy in Thailand. The military's corporate interests remained. Networks around the monarchy continued to wield power. Corruption was pervasive. The liberal project was understood to be gradual and generational.

Then the project came unstuck. While in government during the Asian economic crisis of 1997-2000, the liberally oriented Democrat Party failed to offer anything except implementation of an International Monetary Fund austerity program and the creation of a social-welfare safety valve in the form of the Social Investment Fund. Such liberal feebleness paved the way for Thaksin and his brand of authoritarian populism and ‘pro-poor’ policies.

During his term as prime minister (2001-06), Thaksin tore up the aspirational liberal settlement. His disregard for human rights and the institutions intended to subject executive power to checks and balances is well documented. So too is the level of electoral support that he enjoyed, which won him power in 2001 and 2005. His project was a modernized and globalized Thai capitalism whose midwife would be elected authoritarianism. Liberalism, such as it was, and democracy, such as it could be, parted ways.

The Yellow Shirt movement against Thaksin that arose in 2005-06 brought together liberal middle-class elements, members of the rural poor and unionists opposed to privatisation programs. It also included elite conservative elements fearful that Thaksin was pushing them out of their traditional roles as powerbrokers. These elements viewed Thaksin as a threat to the social order and, importantly, to the monarchy.

Since 2006, Thai liberals have joined with conservative elements in the state, and with the Yellow Shirts, to defeat Thaksin and his supporters. Together, they played a role in bringing down the elected pro-Thaksin governments in late 2008. They were and are driven by a flawed logic of gradually returning Thailand to something like the liberal-conservative settlement of 1997, with all of its compromises and more besides. Liberalism’s dependence on its erstwhile statist competitors in the military and bureaucracy make those additional compromises necessary.

From liberal-conservative pact to liberal authoritarianism
Two compelling fears drive Thailand’s now transformed liberal authoritarianism, by which I mean the use of authoritarian means to return Thailand to its elitist liberal trajectory.

The first is fear that an alternative modernizing network of politicians, statists, and business, under the leadership of Thaksin, and possibly with support of a new monarch, will block a return to the circumscribed but pluralistic competition for power that characterized the emergent liberal-conservative period of the 1990s to early 2000s. ). Corporate interest also drives those who would stand to lose from the end of that regime of circumscribed competition. And when self-interest finds justification in pious commitment to a visibly threatened social order – brutal action unremarkably follows. Thaksin’s modernizing authoritarianism was antagonistic to an established historical bloc whose members believed that, all things being equal, it was edging Thailand in the right direction. That bloc is not intent on establishing a Burmese-style junta, or on returning to policies of benign neglect of the poor. Should it succeed in its goals, the most likely outcome will be a partially reformed (for survival requires some degree of reform) but nevertheless elite-controlled order. Evidence for these likely goals is to be found in the way in which the Abhisit government is accelerating land reform and addressing other socio-economic grievances whilst simultaneously trying to bring political contestation under control.

A new logic is now also present, one that transcends earlier fears of populism. The roots of this second fear lie in apprehensiveness over the unleashed expectations of Thailand’s less powerful classes coupled with a relentless organizational drive to return to power by Thaksin. It is also rooted in concern over those classes’ new-found fury at the bare-faced authoritarian posture of the Abhisit government and its hardline backers in the Thai military. 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 this contingent authoritarianism, and forces it to reveal itself.

In this post-coup phase, in which might is doubly right, situational logics and political choices have brought into being a reactionary societal current that gives partisan legitimacy to the government. Relief that the Red Shirts have been “dealt with” gives rise to exaltation of the “handlers.” Take as one example the adulation of Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation spokesperson Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, as in The Nation’s 30 May 2010 article “Saluting the kingdom's coolest colonel.” It is a legitimacy that rests on portraying 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 brought all sorts of pathologies to the surface: witch-hunts, educational ostracism, dehumanising portrayals of those who disagree, bloodcurdling snobbery and a recapturing of the city of angels by sovereign consumers speedily spending the country out of crisis. Unsettled by the emergence of a rival state in the heartland of Bangkok during April and May of 2010, as exemplified by the imposition of Red Shirt authority on street corners and influence on sections of the state’s police and armed forces, people began to howl in mid-2010 for a political cleansing as malignantly intended as it would be destructive. Liberalism looks at itself in the mirror and wonders how it got to this state.

Thinking about liberalism as a problematic, not as a doctrine

The question arises, does what we are discussing have anything to do with liberalism? In reply, I would note that it is best to think of liberalism in general and in the Thai case in particular not simply as a philosophy of the conditions for individual autonomy, but as a response to the problems of governance in complex societies in which modern state structures emerge, power centres are plural, and conflict and public interest require regulation and adjudication to preserve defined liberties. At a minimum, liberal aspiration accords with the division and accountability of power. I am speaking more of a political than individually-centred philosophical liberalism. Liberalism, in its own way, asks, What is to be done?

What is to be done with an electorate – judged in part to be dependent and lacking in capacity because of information flows - that keeps returning to office (in 2005 and 2008) a political class that will move Thailand away from the liberal-conservative settlement of 1997? Thai liberalism is no different from historic forms of liberalism that feared the “tyranny of the majority” and the egalitarian impulse of democracy. Many liberals are disposed to support or at least condone aristocratic tutelage over citizens who need to be “developed” before they can be sovereign. It took several generations in many countries for liberalism to settle into democratic realities. It still does not quite fit, and liberals the world over must constantly deal with the populist underside of democracy and the illiberal nature of big business and the security state.

What is to be done with a political class that is highly corrupt and money-driven? Classic liberal themes of public interest, of conflict of interest, and of virtue come into play. Everywhere, liberals rally against the decline of virtue. But in its present moment, elite liberalism makes compromises and is articulated with corrupt or conservative elements “on the right side.” Its pragmatic side is a reflection of politics as the art of the possible. Think of the pragmatic alliance between the Democrat Party and its coalition partners. Presumably, virtue’s day will come.

What is to be done with the statist and conservative institutions of monarchy, military and bureaucracy, and with the networks that permeate them? Precisely because this problem deemed less serious than the Thaksinite threat, it is momentarily put aside. Should the Thaksinite and populist threat be neutralized, one may expect a return of the ongoing contest between liberal and statist conservative elements. That the peak statist element of “the network monarchy” is a gerontocracy gives the advantage to the elite liberal network.

One particular way in which liberals have sought to engage and gradually transform the monarchy is by embedding what I have called “royal liberalism”. In doing so they are re- enacting liberalism’s historical flirtation (in France and England) with monarchy as a guardian centre above “politics”, what leading Thai legal scholar Bowonsak Uwanno describes as the “the supreme ombudsman”. In that role, the crown supposedly acts as the liberal regulator, ensuring the division of power and protecting the public interest. Aside from its legitimating function, the idea of “royal liberalism” is a reforming, indeed disciplining discourse directed at the Thai monarchy and at those who mobilize the institution for illiberal purposes. It is a claim on the monarchy as a public institution. The aspiration for liberal monarchy is challenged by the reputed relationship between Thaksin and the Crown Prince. That relationship would raise the spectre of a weakened “ombudsman”, and a directly politicised monarchy. Of course, the status of the current “ombudsman” is not up for discussion among Thai liberals. This is one limit, among many others, of Thai liberalism.

What is to be done to bring future stability and to secure a political settlement? Here the liberal impulse is strongly evident in the habitual selection of two prominent royalists, Anand Panyarachun and Prawet Wasi, to head government-sponsored reform and reconciliation committees. The re-emergence of organic intellectuals of the emergent liberal state of the 1990s, after several years of effective silence, to spear-head the Abhisit government’s reconciliation plan comes just when liberalism’s pact with state authority is at its apex and there exists a supra- state of exception. Nevertheless, and to repeat, while some predict a lurch toward Burma-like scenario and military ascendancy, the evidence suggests a return at some point to the elite liberal politics of the 1990s accompanied and diminished by strengthened military corporatism. Such permutations are the stuff of history.

I am suggesting that, despite the rupture of the 2006 coup, a great deal of continuity links 1992 to 2010 – something evident in the content of the 2007 constitution, notwithstanding its roll-back in some important areas. It is easy to label politics after May 2010 as laden with fascist intent and practise, but the charge hardly makes sense if one considers historic forms of fascism. Moreover, sloganeering and misdiagnosis preclude the development of a progressive strategy to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the existing contradictory situation.

It is necessary to come to terms with Thailand’s liberal tendencies, however unhandsomely Thai liberalism enters into pacts with authoritarianism in moments of crisis and with conservative social traditions as part of its commitment to nation-building. The contention that the current authoritarian phase in Bangkok’s politics makes liberalism all but redundant betrays an unfamiliarity with liberalism as a problem solving orientation as much as a series of principles, and with its history of siding with order over disorder. It is a history that has involved, for example, a certain fondness for Bismarck, a recognition of monarchy, and an aristocratic disposition masquerading as virtuous citizenship. Liberal problematics and discourses are not simply an iterance of settled doctrine. Rather, they are unique expressions of an endeavour for openness in the prevailing power relations specific to a given society at a given time. Thai elite liberalism resonates with historical forms of what Alan Kahan calls “aristocratic liberalism”.

Thai liberalism may be wrong in its strategic readings of the balance of power, opportunistic in its pacting, and elitist in its assumption of guardianship. But it is in its stated ambition a form of liberalism, however diminished and enfeebled. When Abhisit proclaims himself a political liberal, I believe him.

Prerogative rule by the executive in extraordinary times is not a concept alien to the liberal tradition. But such rule does bring an obligation for authoritarian liberalism to make clear how, if at all, its actions will return politics to a liberal democratic pathway. At the moment of writing, this is the paramount problematic facing the Abhisit government.

Michael K. Connors teaches politics in the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

Sources available in the forthcoming hardcopy.

This piece was written in August 2010.