Today I attended another Canberra event staged by the Australian National University’s National Thai Studies Centre (NTSC). The speaker was political scientist Professor Suchit Bunbongkarn. His topic was “Thailand: Building Unity Amidst Internal Division”. Suchit’s talk covered a range of issues, including:

  • The multi-dimensional complexity of the current political division in Thailand. It is not just a manifestation of class conflict (between the poor and the elite) as some Western commentators have argued.
  • The political role of the military. The September 2006 coup may suggest that the military is politically powerful again. But, in fact, it is no longer a strong political force. It may be able to stage a coup but it cannot rule. Public opinion will make it very difficult to stage a coup in the future.
  • The role of the king in politics. The king is politically neutral but he has intervened in time of crisis to avoid bloodshed. The king is above politics but he is deeply concerned about political instability. When asked about the political implications of the king’s death and the royal succession, Suchit said that while the issue is informally discussed in Thailand it is not a subject for open debate: “The more we discuss it the more division there will be.”
  • The role of the king in relation to the coup. A coup is not made legitimate by the king; it is made legitimate by the acceptance of the population.
  • There is a need for constitutional reform, perhaps with some reversion to elements of the 1997 constitution.
  • Constitutional reform alone will not solve the conflict. There is also a need to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Recognition of the community rights of rural people can play an important role – this is democracy at the grass roots. The influence of political corruption, vote-buying and patronage must also be reduced. Political ethics and good governance must be promoted. Civil society needs to play a part – there is a silent majority that is neither red nor yellow.
  • In conclusion – Thai democracy must survive alongside constitutional monarchy!

During question time I asked Suchit, indirectly and then more directly, if his visit was part of a Thai government international public relations initiative to discredit Thaksin and promote the Abhisit government’s political reform agenda. From his response, and later discussions with the ANU organiser, it was pretty clear that it was.

As an academic at the ANU, I am uncomfortable about this.

Don’t get me wrong — I have no objection to the ANU welcoming speakers from all political positions and perspectives. Suchit’s presentation was an eloquent statement of the need for political reform, on the unifying role of the monarchy and on the dangers of single party domination. It was certainly much better value than at least one other high profile NTSC-Embassy production to which I also objected. But an event that is organised as a public relations initiative by Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be transparently publicised as such (here is the publicity brochure). That would give the audience an opportunity to place the content of the presentation in its full context.

If the NTSC is keen to promote frank and open academic discussion (and the chairman today worried out loud, as he has on other occasions, about the reluctance of students, many of them Thai, to participate in the discussion) then a more independent stance in relation to the Royal Thai Embassy may be worth considering.