June 22, 2012

Stirring the dust under the feet

Just before the Thai  July 2011 General election I was asked by Bloomberg: “What are the prospects of a power-sharing arrangement between Thaksin and his opponents?” My response in part was:

“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.”

More recently I’ve been asked about the lack of support for amending Article 112 that concerns lese majeste. My response was:

“There is actually broad but muted support among some sections of the elite to amend the law, liberal royalists have come out in favour of amendment and of course red-shirt elements are strongly in support. The proposed amendment in the “people’s bill” are smartly pitched and in a situation where public policy was rationally debated you’d have to say the bill would go some way to answering the needs of both sides of the political divide.

But rational public debate is playing second fiddle to various political imperatives. These include constantly changing attempt to appease hardline royalists and not provoke mobilisation. You can see in the mobilisation against the amnesty bills what is possible. You’d expect greater mobilization to oppose the Campaign 112 Bill, given the monarchy’s place in Thailand’s symbolic politics.

Pheu Thai forces made it very clear in the days after the July 2011 election that the monarchy was their most vulnerable point and they would need to move slowly. They’ve lived up to that expectation, with people still in prison, and Chalerm’s war room to monitor lese majeste. But the plea by government sympathisers to understand Pheu Thai’s constrained political environment can also be self-serving - it creates a space for Thaksin forces to use anti-monarchy sentiment among supporters as their strongest bargaining point with the establishment to try and forge a power-sharing arrangement. “Deal with us, and we can stop this” is the message. This attempt largely defines the last year of political bargaining.

It is evident that while party-connected red shirts and those surrounding Thaksin do not totally control the red-shirt movement, they are in a position to largely shut down anti-monarchy discourse or at least alienate it from the more cautious elements of the movement. This is what they offer at the bargaining table. In some senses, the future of the monarchy depends on what agreements can be made to share power.

A final point to make would be that the reluctance to amend reflects a national condition of impending crisis. There is respect on both sides of politics for the king. This is a cultural condition that does not necessarily reflect agreement on the monarchy or the lese majeste law , but a sentiment that says so late in the reign it would be disrespectful to make these moves. For those who feel the king’s presence as the father and soul of the nation – and these ideas are really felt – amendment that is politically motivated appears as ingratitude. For that reason, amendment will likely quickly follow the passing of King Bhumiphol.

Amendment is only likely to happen in this reign under two conditions. Either a signal comes from the palace, so that the amendment is seen as part of the narrative of a democratic kingship or controversial amendment, even abolition, occurs as part of an increasingly polarised struggle for total power. Amendment based on rational debate is a distant possibility.”