Yesterday I attended the National Thai Studies Centre’s sufficiency “discussion” on the current political situation in Thailand. As noted in previous posts the panellists for the discussion were the members of a Thai government public relations team coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office. There were four speakers – Surat Horachaikul, Charas Suwanmala, Somchai Homlaor and Kraisak Choonhavan. Surapong Jayanama, the head of the delegation from Surayud’s office, sat alongside his colleagues but did not speak. (See the invitation for further details on the speakers.)

Rather than summarise each presentation I will set out the main themes and lines of argument raised by the speakers. (Note that the main presentation by Surat was very similar to that presented at SOAS earlier this year.) Let me emphasise that this summary is based on my notes and recollections. Anyone else who was present is very welcome to contribute additional comments or suggest corrections.

The major argument was that the Thaksin government had an appalling human rights record. The extrajudicial killings that took place during the war on drugs, in particular, were discussed at length and some specific cases were outlined in confronting detail. Particular outrage was expressed that western commentators, governments and embassies in Thailand had done little to condemn the war on drugs. Various other negative aspects of the Thaksin government were also emphasised – corruption, abuse of power, surrendering to market principles, free trade agreements, manipulation of institutions and electoral fraud.

The second key argument was that the appalling record of the Thaksin government justified the coup. All coups are not the same. The coup did not overthrow a democratically elected government given that the 2006 election had been annulled and Thaksin had outstayed the 90 days permitted for a caretaker prime minister. There was some anger at the western response to the coup. Surat attacked both Alexander Downer and Kevin Rudd for their statements following the coup.

There was some description and defence of the new constitution, particularly by Charas. There was little attempt to discuss the referendum result in any detail. Again, Surat attacked the western media’s portrayal. Accounts of the referendum in the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald were singled out as misleading and inaccurate (and disrespectful to those who voted yes because their relatives had been murdered by Thaksin!). Surat was determined to give us “the facts.”

Speaker presentations were followed by an extended period of questions, comments and response. I expressed my concerns (previously discussed on New Mandala) about a university hosting a Thai government organised forum where the Thai government nominated the speakers and vetoed a proposal for additional speakers. I made two other points relating to the presentations:

First, all in the room would agree that there were significant human rights abuses during the period of the Thaksin government. But to suggest that the coup was staged in response to human rights abuses was fanciful. In response to Surat’s condemnation of western nations for their alleged silence in relation to human rights abuses I asked what the panel’s view was about the silence, and possibly even endorsement, of the Thai king in relation to the war on drugs (for extensive discussion on this issue see the comments on this post).

In relation to the referendum I made the point, made previously on New Mandala, that the constitution had attracted less support than Thaksin did, at the height of the political crisis, in April 2006. In relation to the regime’s preoccupation with the issue of vote buying I asked why the referendum count had been undertaken at polling booth level.

On the issue of the king’s attitude to the war on drugs, the panel members denied that he had endorsed it. Surat stated vigorously that whether or not the king had made any comment was irrelevant and did not change his (Surat’s) approach to the issue. He asked, to some audience applause, why it was necessary to bring the king into this matter.

On the issue of the referendum count. Surat asserted that there was evidence that vote counting at electorate (rather than booth) level had facilitated ballot box stuffing during the Thaksin era. I may have misheard, but I think he made reference to “six million” stuffed ballots! Charas also argued that the turnout in the referendum was relatively low because voting was non-compulsory. There were many people from Isan, he suggested who did not travel back to their village to vote (perhaps not such a good example given the strong no vote in Isan!).

Other questioners addressed a range of issues – the appropriateness of the opposition boycott of the 2006 election, the need to overcome Thailand’s culture of corruption, the need for more open discussion in Thailand about the role of the monarchy in political affairs, the future of Thaksin-era health care reforms, the extent to which the constitution had been overly focussed on countering Thaksin, and the amnesty granted to the 2006 coup makers.

All in all the public relations and propaganda purpose of the event was clear. There was limited discussion of the current political situation, which was the advertised purpose. The primary purpose was to justify the coup by highlighting the human rights abuses that occurred under the Thaksin government. In terms of the quality of the presentations I suspect a good number of members of the audience were surprised at what a loose cannon Surat, as the main speaker, was. His presentation was an emotion-charged diatribe against Thaksin and his “cronies.” And many of his arguments seemed to be motivated by nationalistic resentment of “neoliberal” western criticism of the coup . His claim that the western media had never criticised the United States after the controversial Gore-Bush presidential election, was so ridiculous that even audience members with the most yellow-tinted glasses may have had doubts about his grip on reality. By contrast the presentations by Charas and Somchai were much more sober affairs (Kraisak was Kraisak – lets talk about me!). I had some sympathy for Somchai who clearly has very strong human rights credentials. But I was left wondering why he feels that participating in this tawdry public relations exercise is the only way he can take his case to the world. I have no doubt that human rights organisations and academic institutions around the world would welcome him with open arms. Allowing his case to be cynically used to justify a coup, staged by those who care little about human rights, does his cause no good at all.