Below is the text of my remarks at the FCCT on 18 February 2010, reconstructed from my notes and my memory. Because I wasn’t reading from the notes (and haven’t reviewed the audio yet), please note that this is not *exactly* what I said – sometimes I deviated from the text I had prepared and condensed some of the things I had planned to say. However, this is probably close enough; the most provocative things in there were said pretty much in these words.
The first thing I have to say is this: Are you kidding me?
We are being lectured by Ajahn Panitan on “patience,” “democracy,” and the “rule of law?” Consider what it took for his government to come to power: a military coup, the dissolution of the only meaningful political party ever to emerge in the history of Thailand, a new constitution, the illegal occupation of the government house, the illegal occupation of the country’s busiest airports, and the bribery of members of parliament who needed to be persuaded to jump ship. For Ajahn Panitan to lecture us on “patience,” “democracy,” and “the rule of law” is the equivalent of Tiger Woods lecturing us on marital fidelity. Are you kidding me?
I remember the precise moment I became interested in Thai politics as more than just a case of failed democratization. It was the middle of July 2006. I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel on Sukhumvit Road, sipping on some coffee, reading the morning papers, when I came across an article entitled: “Military Must Back the King.”
The reason why the headline caught my eye is that up to that point I had never sensed anything other than the deepest, most sincere reverence for His Majesty the King. Why would there be a need to remind the military to “back the king?” I assumed that every enlisted man in Thailand swears an oath to protect the institutions of the state; it struck me as obvious, in this sense, that the military would be loyal to the King. So why would such an obvious statement deserve prominent placement in a national newspaper? Who is questioning the military’s loyalty to the country’s Head of State?
Then I read the article, which reported a speech given by a now 89-year-old retired general to a group of graduating cadets. As it turns out, the speech had nothing to do at all with the King; it was rather about the country’s elected government. In that speech, this old general openly encouraged the military to pay no attention to the orders coming from the elected government. He suggested that the elected government was a worthless appendage, certainly not worthy of commanding an institution quite as important as the Thai military. It struck me as a statement of incredible arrogance; one worthy of a RayBan-wearing dictator of some sub-Saharian African country, not of a supposed statesman in a country as civilized, sophisticated, and modern as Thailand is.
“You belong to the Nation and His Majesty the King,” Prem was reported to have said.
The problem with this statement is that modern democracy is founded upon the idea of representation: the elected government represents the nation; it is the expression of the nation’s will. And so how can the military be loyal to “the nation” and disloyal to the government that the nation has chosen? The implication seemed clear. What the electorate thinks it wants is irrelevant, Prem appeared to say. The will of the people, the interests of the nation, are what I say they are.
Of course, I have long since found out that the idea that the elected government should be severely limited in what it can or cannot do, that it should not really exercise any control over the military, is a key tenet of “Thai-style democracy.” I have also since found that this old general and his predecessors – people like Sarit and Thanom – know so little about the outside world and think they are so clever that they believe they are the first to come up with this idea.
The reason why I was intrigued is that I come from a country, Italy, with a long history of claims akin to these. Indeed, it could be said that it was the Romans who invented “Thai-style democracy” some 2,500 years ago. About 2,500 years ago, Rome’s patricians struck a deal with plebeian soldiers who had taken shelter on the Aventine Hill, refusing to fight in the service of a patrician-dominated polity. In return for getting the soldiers back to the battlefield, the deal essentially allowed the common folk to elect their representatives, who came to be known as “plebeian tribunes.” But whereas “plebeian councils” were thereafter allowed some limited authority to make laws, the real power remained with the Senate, to which only patrician families had access.
It struck me that Prem was saying that Thaksin was a mere “plebeian tribune.” As the elected Prime Minister, he may well have the authority to pass a few laws here and there. But he was certainly not fit to lead the country and order the military to do much of anything.
More ominously, perhaps, Prem’s statement reminded me of my country’s more recent history. Words from Benito Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism” echoed in my mind:
Fascism is opposed to Democracy, which equates the nation to the majority, lowering it to the level of that majority; nevertheless it is the purest form of democracy if the nation is conceived, as it should be, qualitatively and not quantitatively.
I figured this is how Prem could separate “the nation” from the “elected government.” The will of the majority is irrelevant; governments elected by majority rule are unworthy of the army’s loyalty because majority rule is an inadequate expression of the interests of the nation. Incidentally, though neither Sondhi nor Chamlong are quite as articulate as Mussolini was, this statement is also quite reminiscent of rhetoric routinely employed by the PAD.
Over the past four years, I have come to Thailand often. I was here for several months after the coup. I was here during the 2007 constitutional referendum. I was here right before Samak’s election. I was here for the PAD’s sit-ins at the Makkawan Bridge and its occupation of the Government House. I was here on one of the first flights allowed in after the siege of Suvarnabhumi was lifted. I was here for Abhisit’s rise to Prime Minister. And I was here in the weeks after the Songkran rebellion. But I can’t say I have ever sensed an atmosphere quite as charged as today’s. Not since the middle of July 2006, I think, have we seen signs so ominous that something major is about to take place.
The specter of an impending military coup has now returned to haunt the city of Bangkok. Thailand’s Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of seizing all or part of Thaksin’s remaining fortune. The military appears to be divided; not much between “yellow” and “red” factions, but rather more importantly between moderate conservatives and hardline conservatives. Abhisit Vejjajiva’s elite-backed government hangs on for dear life; after the Democrat Party balked at constitutional reforms proposed by its allies, junior coalition members scoffed at the Prime Minister that his days are numbered. Tensions with Cambodia continue to simmer. The southern insurgency rages on, with no resolution in sight.
Meanwhile, Thailand staggers through an economic slump aggravated by unending uncertainty and prolonged political upheaval. The rural masses and the urban working class show unmistakable signs of restlessness. For the first time, they have figured out that the idea of “Thai-style democracy,” the foundation of a social contract they were forced to accept at gunpoint in the late 1950s, is a fraud.
Perhaps most troubling, Thaksin’s red-shirt supporters prepare for the kind of sustained mobilization that many fear might lead to further violence and chaos – indeed, that some on both sides hope will lead to further violence and chaos. The government’s posture, in this regard, is far from reassuring. With the daily scaremongering, the constant demonization of its opponents, and the suspicious explosives attacks, one gets the feeling that the Reichstag is about to burn down – that the government is fishing for an excuse to impose the Internal Security Act and allow the military to crack down hard on the protesters. Or that, in a trick out of an old playbook, the army is looking for an opportunity to step in and seize power to “restore order” and “protect the unity of the nation” – never mind that the military has been most consistently responsible for undermining both over the past 35 years.
Of course, nobody here knows whether a coup is actually in the works, but I would suggest one observation. No matter how stuck some old generals are in the 1970s, this is not 1976, when a gruesome massacre can go unnoticed in much of the country. Things are much different today than they were in 1973, 1976, or even 1992. This time, the red shirts do not embody the lofty democratic ideals of a relatively small, largely urban minority. The red shirts are rather the vehicle for the anger and frustration of perhaps tens of millions of people living in some of the country’s most populous regions. These people are tired of being second-class citizens. They are tired of being disenfranchised. They are tired of being told by those who have gotten rich through bribery and exploitation that they are too goddamn stupid, ignorant, or dark-skinned to have the right to elect their own leaders, speak their own minds, and enjoy a minimum of economic opportunity.
It is still quite possible that, if a coup were to take place, it might go off without a hitch in the very short term. But this time there is a good chance that any general who seizes power might not be able to subsequently waltz out of office quite as easily as Suchinda did in 1992, after dozens of people were murdered on his watch. If this is the game plan, if a coup really is in the cards, I can’t imagine that it would make sense to stage one unless you are an 89-year old retired general who only has a few years to live and does not want to witness the destruction of the system of government he has built. But I would caution younger military leaders like Gen. Prayuth. The future of Thailand does not belong to you. The future of Thailand belongs to the Thai people. And so it is much better to go down in history as the first general who gave Thailand real democracy, who got the military the hell out of politics, than it would be for you to run the risk of ending up like Nicolae Ceaucescu.