Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Chang Noi on Thailand's Praetorian Guard

A New Cold War Underway in Thailand

The Nation

Chang Noi opines:

The Army seems to have its own view of the current situation in the country, and has defined for itself a prominent role in confronting this situation

This conclusion comes from various documents that are floating around, the authenticity of which has not been denied. It is confirmed by recent actions and policies which are consistent with this way of thinking.

The Army's analysis of the current situation goes like this. There is a "war for the people" in process, meaning a contest for popular support. On one side is the Army. On the other are politicians, and especially former communist activists who lurk in the background of party politics.

A generation ago, the Army won the cold war in Thailand by dragging the communist rebels back from the jungle to a normal life in the city. But, this analysis contends, the activists have never changed their way of thinking or forsaken their ambitions. They aim to use popular support to grab state power, and then to use state power to implement their own agenda, which includes the overthrow of the monarchy. Although they now seek popular support through the ballot box, this is not significantly different from the old guerrilla strategy of mobilising the villages.

Their tools now are the populist policies offered to the electorate. These policies are designed solely to win popular support and gain election to political office. They do not truly solve the problems of the people. Unless something is done to halt this trend, the Army analysis concludes, Thailand will find itself in the same situation as Nepal where Maoists have built massive popular support and are trying to replace the monarchy.

According to this view, the Army has no greater duty at present than fighting this new cold war. Threats to the country from the outside are insignificant, except for the intrusion of drugs and illegal immigrants. Even the situation in the far South is judged less serious. But the Army seems to be already on the defensive in this "war for the people". It feels it must "win back" the people, especially at the grassroots level.

Now, recently I blogged about the CIA report on Thailand from 1968:

The CIA on the Thai military:

There is a timelessness about modern Thai politics that is as comforting as it may be misleading. On the surface, nothing important seems to change. For 36 years, Thailand has been ruled by a tight coterie of military officers. In order to run the country, the military has maintained a profitable alliance with civilian politicians and bureaucrats, with whom it joined in 1932 to bring down the absolute monarchy. The civilians have exercised considerable influence, but the relationship has always been fundamentally one-sided. With the exception of a few short periods, the military establishment has called the tune.

Against its better instincts, the military oligarchy is taking its case to the Thai people. Although there is every reason to believe the military leaders can negotiate the transitional period with their hold on power intact, the subtle pressures that brought them this far may take them a good deal farther than they are presently prepared to go. A great deal will depend on how they run the elections, and, finally, on how well they do.

Sound familiar?

The CIA on the Left:

Of all the political groups that are now surfacing in Thailand, none faces the upcoming elections more dispirited, fragmented, or with slighter hopes than the Thai left. Harassed by the government and associated in the public mind with foreign interests, there is good reason to question whether once-influential leftist figures and parties can pull themselves together in time to be a factor in the elections. A number of the more prominent leftists, including some who have spent long years in government prisons for alleged Communist activities, will join government forces in the near future...

It is possible, however, that the left may do better in next year's elections than its current strength would suggest. Most of the leftist politicians come from the northeast, where regional identity is strongest in Thailand, and have managed through the years to identify themselves with the region's aspirations. Some of these politicians paid a high personal price during the 1950s for airing the northeast's grievances in Bangkok. It is entirely possible that they will reap their reward at the polls next year.

Chang Noi illuminates these points in the column.

The position of former Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, last of the promoters of the 1932 coup, is one additional factor on the left that could conceivably have some bearing on next year's election. Despite the fact he has spent the past 20 years exiled in Communist China, Pridi is still a name that has to be reckoned with in Thailand. As the country's best-known leftist, and the founder of its leading university, Pridi has become something of a legendary figure among intellectual circles in the capital. The amount of pro-Pridi sentiment in the country as a whole is difficult to determine, but judging by the regime's refusal to permit him to return to Thailand, it may still be a political factor. The revival of political activity in the country may give fresh inspiration to Pridi's periodic thoughts of leaving China. If he gets out, even if only to Western Europe, the weight of his voice and activities on behalf of opposition elements may exert some influence on the way the voting goes.

Even though this bit about Pridi is dated, I think it is important to include, because many on the reformist left and old left still consider Pridi their ideological godfather.

The CIA on the Center:

It is still too early to determine how many political parties will field candidates in the upcoming election. The government's political party law prohibits independent candidates, however, and therefore between now and the elections there may be a proliferation of small parties with little ideological standing and few direct ties to the past. In addition, there may be a number of second-echelon politicians with past connections to pro-Phibun and pro-Sarit parties(replace with minor pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin parties) who, not finding a home in the government's party, strike out on their own in the hope they can make a better deal after the elections. The electoral fortunes of these elements will depend on the local appeal of their candidates. Despite an electoral law that minimizes the influences of local-based politicians, splinter parties will probably manage to elect a few lower house representatives.

The CIA on the Issues:

The way the Thai voter casts his ballot next year is likely to be determined more by the personalities of the candidates and the impact of local or regional interests than by anything else. If past elections are any guide, the influence of substantive issues will be all but lost as the voting moves from Bangkok into the villages. Thai political parties have never managed to generate issues or a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo that could precipitate a voter rebellion in the countryside. There is no indication, at this stage of the game at least, that they will be more successful this time.

I think this is important. I think regional consciousness will play a factor in the election. The idiots at The Nation think the election will be about Thaksin, vote-buying, and populist goodies. On the surface, this might be true, but I think there may be an underlying political-regional consciousness that will want to reject the patronizing attitude of the Bangkok elites and the Thai military that has continually disenfranchised them for decades.

This estimate, however, is not as firmly based as it may appear. First, a number of important if not revolutionary changes in the countryside have taken place in the ten years since Thailand's last election. New roads have opened up isolated areas, new markets have been created, mass communications methods have been introduced, and new patterns of living and perhaps of desires have been created in the villages. Even though the impact of these changes on the substance of rural life should not be overstated, there is little doubt that some of the insularity of the average Thai villager has been worn away in the past ten years.

I agree.

It is reasonable to assume, however, that although personalities and local interests will still be the most important factor in the voting, next year's election is likely to be more issue-oriented than any in the past. And the opposition, whether or not it is able to exploit them, has several reasonably good issues. By all odds, the most damaging to the government will be corruption. No one issue seems to evoke a more universal and deeply felt response among the Thai people than that of corrupt practices of Thai officials. Young or old, villager or urbanite, educated or illiterate, everybody is against corruption, and everybody thinks the government--from the wayward constable to the venal cabinet officer--is riddled with it.

This is obvious. What choices do the voters have? They can choose between the corrupt Democrats, the corrupt Thaksinistas, the corrupt Barnharnists, the corrupt Prachaists, the corrupt militarists, etc.

There are also a number of domestic issues relating to the allocation of economic resources and the establishment of developmental priorities that may provide grist for the opposition's mill. Although Thailand has made considerable economic progress under the military regime, and its growth rate compares favorably with that of other nations, the fact remains that its per capita income is still extremely low. There are some people in Thailand, although they are few in number and exercise only marginal influence, who are asking whether the country's economic gains are being made in the right areas and are reaching the right people. It seems likely that some of the opposition politicians will try to make profit in next year's election by suggesting that there is more to economic progress than a building boom in Bangkok.

The opposition will almost certainly argue the economic issues along the long-standing battle lines separating Bangkok and the central plain from the other major regions. As a general rule, the farther one gets from Bangkok, the easier it becomes to translate differences in economic policies into regional quarrels. Regional differences and attitudes appear to have yielded only grudgingly, if at all, to the considerable changes that have taken place in the countryside since the last election.

In the south, for example, observers have noted that local politicians, businessmen, and teachers--precisely the kind of people who normally would back the establishment--are growing increasingly bitter over what they regard as Bangkok's indifference and neglect. A decline in the price of rubber--a mainstay of the south's economy--has not helped matters, nor has the example of Bangkok's relatively new-found interest in the northeast sat particularly well. Even in the northeast, where Bangkok has mounted its strongest developmental effort over the past five years, there is little reason for believing that the area's strong sense of regional identity will not be a large factor in the lower house elections.

Bring both economic neglect and terrorism into the picture. The South will go to the Democrats, not because I think the Democrats do a magnificent job in representing the South, but because there aren't that many choices. It seems all the other parties have written off the South as a Democratic stronghold.

In the CIA's final analysis:

The government may well fail to secure a clear-cut majority in the lower house. Certainly, the record of legislative elections in past years, and the slow progress the government has made organizing for the upcoming one, suggest that the military group may have to settle for something less. The failure to win a majority of the 219 lower house seats will make the government's job somewhat more difficult, but with all of the considerable assets of both friendly and unfriendly persuasion at their disposal, the military leaders should have little trouble patching together a working parliamentary majority from among fragmented and, in all likelihood, opportunistic opposition elements.

With the military firmly in control of the media and all the election apparatuses, including the EC and Interior Ministry, will they be able to pull off their little conspiracy and remain in control?

The Nation is obviously worried that the military won't pull it off and the Thaksinistas will win. And The Nation will become increasingly hysterical as the election draws closer. Read Thepchai Yong's column today and you will get the picture.

Even if such an arrangement is not forthcoming or there is some major surprise in the election results, it is not likely that the lower house will prove overly obstreperous. Whatever their other traits, the opposition politicians currently on the scene are neither idealistic enough to push for fundamental changes in the way the country is ruled, nor foolish enough to think that they could possibly succeed.

I think this attitude has changed. However, one might argue that when you have every major and minor political party promising the sun, moon and stars that is cynicism at its worse.

Although they may not enjoy quite as much freedom of choice as they once did, the present leaders will continue to rule Thailand after the elections and, at least for the short term, in pretty much the same way. The new constitution and the elections, then, are not likely to bring any important changes in Thai domestic or foreign policies in the near future. The larger question, which cannot yet be answered, is whether the new constitutional arrangement proves to be a first step toward fundamental change in the power system that has been in force since 1932, or only more of the same. Only time will tell.

OK, now for the rest of Chang Noi's column.

He outlines the military's plan of attack for winning the hearts and minds of people upcountry, which does resemble the military's former strategy to win over the countryside during the Cold War. Ergo, the name of Chang Noi's column is apt to the current situation.

The only thing different this time around is that you don't have right-wing para-military groups enforcing the military's agenda. Instead of Village Scouts and Red Gaurs of yesteryear, now you have Sufficiency Economy propaganda, the co-opting of the media and universities, the Cyber Crime Act, the Internal Security Act, the Culture Ministry, royalist pageantry, and all the insidious activities that Chang Noi mentioned in the column.

Note: When the CIA is referring to the government, it is referring to the Thanom government, which eventually won the election of 1968 with heavy financing from the US government. A couple years later Thanom staged a coup against his own government supposedly because of massive corruption from the Praphat factions in parliament.

No comments: