After SOAS, Giles’s second stop of his tour of major UK campuses to deliver his critique of contemporary Thai politics brought him to Oxford, where he now lives in exile with his wife and son. Around 60 people attended his talk, which I chaired, virtually all of them Thai, some sympathisers and some hostile. Before the talk began, a young yellow-shirt – actually wearing a yellow shirt with a royal insignia – asked if he could speak against Ungpakorn and ‘defend my king’, and for permission to distribute a one-sided A4 critique of Ungpakorn. A recording of the talk can be heard here.
Giles rehearsed many of the themes of his book, A Coup for the Rich, which had landed him in trouble with the Thai authorities, arguing that the coup had been launched and supported by generals, oligarchs and middle-class elites with contempt for the poor and democracy, in defence of their ‘interests networks’, upon which Thaksin had been intruding. He continued to reject Handley’s suggestion that the king is ‘the most powerful person in Thailand’, depicting him as a weak figure manipulated by more powerful forces. Giles added that the current government was, as a result of the manoeuvres which brought it to power – chronicled extensively on New Mandala – ‘installed by the military’. He also rehearsed his severe criticism of Thaksin’s abuses of power, but noted that charges of corruption could be – but in practice were not – extended to every Thai politician; likewise, charges that Thaksin dodged tax could also be extended to the king. However, Giles argued, at least Thaksin ‘was modern’, in formulating a real political party with real policies that the poor could evaluate and choose to support. While continuing to brand the PAD ‘fascist’, he also rehearsed his criticisms of the Thai left for its fragmentation into single-issue groups and its depoliticisation, which led it to hardly criticise the coup.
He also extended his analysis to the contemporary situation, which is obviously not covered in his book. Giles argued that neoliberalism had been enshrined in the new constitution by dint of the references to ‘fiscal discipline’, and that the king’s regressive concept of ‘sufficiency economy’ was likewise emphasised. Coupled with the precedent of the Democrats’ ideologically neoliberal response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, he argued the present Thai government is simply incapable of addressing the impact of the present global financial crisis on Thailand, which requires massive fiscal stimulus ├а la the UK and US. Perhaps the most contentious assertion of his talk was that the redshirts represent the ‘rebirth of civil society’ in Thailand. There are signs, he said, that redshirts have gone well beyond their initial situation of being mobilised by Thaksin cronies; autonomous, self-organising and -financing groups are now starkly apparent among a relatively incoherent mass movement of over 100,000 people. Many of these groups have backward ideas, attacking lesbians and gays, for instance. But, Giles suggested, this was not reflective of the whole and merely reinforced the argument for people to join forces with the redshirts to help them develop in a more progressive direction. Giles himself appeared in a red shirt and proclaimed his own membership.
The event was then opened up to the floor, with questions, statements and debates strongly encouraged. The audience was clearly divided as to the merits of Giles’s ideas. Among the most notable points made were:
- Pretty nasty ad hominem attacks from the aforementioned yellow-shirt, along with questions as to whether the half-British professor was really Thai. A long-term Western resident of Thailand expressed her regret that she would never be accepted as Thai. Giles was also accused of running down the country and saying nothing positive.
- If Thailand’s political chaos continues, China might invade!
- A practicing Thai doctor argued that universal healthcare was a policy stolen from the Ministry of Health, which just encouraged the worried well to overwhelm hospitals, and suggested Thaksin raked in bumper profits at his chain of private hospitals as middle-class people sought higher-quality care.
- What is the meaning of ‘sufficiency economy’?
- Aren’t the redshirts too close to Thaksin and thus not ‘political free’? Aren’t they just the PAD redux?
- Aren’t Thais different to, say, English and American people, and thus why should they copy UK or US institutions and practices?
- What should the king do? What would Giles have done, had he been the king? What was he going to do next? What were his intentions?
- Could Thailand maintain its coherence as it undergoes a tense modernisation process without the king? What will happen if the king dies? What is Thailand if not a space/people defined by fealty to the king and Buddhism? Isn’t the crucial thing not so much institutions but Thailand’s ‘political culture’ and the king’s centrality as a ‘value-concept’? One Thai suggested that if people chose to vote for Thaksin, they equally chose to ‘love and worship’ the king. Strong support was expressed for the king from some audience members: one spoke of her mystical encounters with him; another held up a portrait, gave a short speech about how wonderful he is, and cried ‘long live the king’, at which around fifteen people applauded.
- Why is the lèse majesté law required if the king is really so universally loved and admired? Doesn’t such an extreme response suggest royalists are afraid that this might not be the case?
- Would Giles accept the outcome of a referendum on lèse majesté?
- Does a lèse majesté law have any place in a modern democracy? People seemed quite reluctant to debate this central point, and one speaker suggested the universal jurisdiction of the law might make people afraid to speak out even in the UK. However, one Thai attendee asserted that the very question was so stupid it would not even appear on a basic political science syllabus – the clear answer being that freedom of expression is a sine qua non of democracy.
It must be noted that many of the most critical points – in terms of going against the established orthodoxy – came from the handful of Western attendees, while several Thais in the audience were apt to praise the king in fairly conventional terms – that he had worked hard and selflessly to help the people, that he was universally beloved, and so on. There were one or two vocal exceptions to this rule. And one Westerner made some very ahistorical remarks about the centrality of the monarchy.
Giles gave a single response at the end:
- Healthcare: Thaksin did adopt the policy from elsewhere – to his credit. Political parties should develop policies that distinguish them and offer people a real choice. Hospitals were overwhelmed by people in genuine need, not the worried well; and funding should be increased through progressive taxation to resolve that.
- Sufficiency economy: a fundamentally reactionary, anti-welfarist concept, entrenching people in their respective economic positions.
- Thai culture: rather than the king, an appropriate ‘value-concept’ would be a commitment to equality, freedom and solidarity. True respect for elders requires a welfare state to take care of them. Thai culture is not unified. Thai manners taught in school imbibe deference and hierarchy, causing Thais to respect only the higher-ups, rather than to respect everyone as equals. But it is also Thai culture to defend democracy – which has been more on show in Thailand than Britain of late.
- The king: Giles would never serve as a king; but a constitutional monarch should defend the constitution and democracy, and if he is incapable of doing so, announce the fact and stand aside. Citizens should be able to help the king fulfil these duties. The idea of a universal or timeless adoration for the king is simply ahistorical. In the 1930s, there was ‘complete disregard’ for the monarchy. The king did support the bloody crackdown on the left in October 1976 as a response to ‘too much democracy’. He criticises welfare as making people lazy. His projects have helped some, but far fewer than successive governments and the people who have really developed Thailand – farmers and workers. Lèse majesté is not currently protecting the monarchy but discrediting it. Abolishing lèse majesté and seeing what happens would be a real test of the extent of adoration for the king. A referendum would be acceptable, but only if held every five years and under conditions where open debate was possible. Contempt of court laws, which protect judges from criticism, should also be scrapped. Once the present king dies, the throne will pass to the universally despised crown prince. A republic would be more desirable.
- Redshirts: are not unified, but have grown well beyond Thaksin’s cronies. Autonomy of various elements displayed in their home-made banners declaring themselves part of different groups. Likely to outgrow TRT’s ‘backward’ policies. Thais have a duty to join this pro-democracy movement and make it more progressive and more independent from Thaksin.
Probably the most interest aspect of the night, for a student of Thai politics, were the claims made for the redshirts. Probably Giles would admit their promise is more potential than real right now, but the eruption of open social conflict on the streets of Thailand in the last few years has clear evoked a significant mass movement to counter those mobilised by the Bangkok middle classes. How it develops will, as Giles suggests, depend very much upon who joins and how it is led; a reactionary bent is hardly out of the question given the way Thaksin combined welfarism and right-wing domestic policy to great popular acclaim. It will be interesting to watch and we should keep a close eye on developments. Finally, it was striking how many highly educated Thais (many in the audience were students) had clearly imbibed the ruling orthodoxies about the monarchy. Again, it will be interesting to see how long this lasts when the throne passes to the crown prince.
Giles’ next stop is in Cambridge.
Lee Jones is the Rose Research Fellow in International Relations at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. His website is available here.
UPDATE (4 March 2009)
This article has now been translated into Thai and is available here.