Wednesday, 23 May 2007

The 70 people who trekked out to the second site of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at Vernon Square for this event went, I’m sure, expecting to hear about the advertised topic – “Thailand after the coup”. Unfortunately, very little of what was said touched on the big issues that must figure in any analysis of the post-coup situation under Thailand’s royalist, military dictatorship.

In this report, I hope to provide sufficient information so that New Mandala readers can make up their own minds about this event’s content and approach. My report is based only on my own notes and does not benefit from a formal transcript of proceedings. If I do become aware of a full write-up or, even better, a video of what was said, then I will be sure to post it to New Mandala.

Obviously, many people around the world will have their own comments and thoughts on this controversial event. A number of New Mandala readers were in the audience. I have no doubt that they will have their own thoughts on what they saw and heard. Reader opinions and comments are, as always, very welcome here.


The evening began a few minutes after 6 pm when Dr Rachel Harrison, third from the right in the picture, and Senior Lecturer in Thai Cultural Studies at SOAS, began her introduction. She reflected that in her position as chair of proceedings she was “masquerading as a student and a member of the Thai Students Society”. I guess she wanted to make clear that the event was hosted by “the SOAS Thai society in conjunction with the Royal Thai embassy”.

Harrison welcomed the audience to SOAS and, in particular, to the “elusive second campus at Vernon Square”. She stated that this panel of speakers was giving a series of talks in Germany and the United Kingdom and that she was “very pleased” they had come to SOAS.

She introduced each of the speakers to the audience, which included many Thai students. The Thai speakers – some of whom actually spoke very little during the 1.5 hour session – were (from right to left):
Thailand after the coup, SOAS, London, 2007

Pirongrong Ramasoota Rananand – Assistant Professor, Faculty of Communication Arts,Chulalongkorn University.

Charas Suwanmala – Professor and Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Surat Horachaikul – Lecturer, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He was the main speaker on this occasion.

Surasee Kosolnavin – Commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission. Unlike the others on this panel, his comments (brief as they were) were delivered in Thai.

Sulak Sivaraksa – Writer and activist.

Kraisak Choonhavan (not pictured) – Former Thai senator.

The main speech by Surat Horachaikul

Before launching into his very deliberate statement defending the coup and attacking Thaksin, Surat, a graduate of the London Guildhall University, reflected that he was “very happy to be here”. The first question that he then set out to answer was “why are we here?”

Surat said that this visit to London was paid for by the Thai government. He obviously knew that many members of the audience had come to see the government’s well-funded public relations machine in action. There was no point in hiding the sponsor. Surat stated that “they paid for my ticket, accommodation and food, but no cash payment”. New Mandala readers looking for more context on the background to this statement will find information from The Nation, and from the New Mandala archives, particularly helpful.

With a convoy of Embassy vehicles parked out the front, there was little question that this event would seek to legitimise the current government and, more specifically, the coup that brought them to power. Surat mentioned that among the speakers themselves there was some dissent and that Sulak Sivaraksa, in particular, “is not happy with the current government”. On a personal level, Surat said that he did not share all of Sulak’s concerns. He then went to some lengths to point out that “I will fight for this government…I salute the government for CL [Compulsory licensing of drugs]”.

Surat moved on to spend most of his speech outlining the many sins of what he called “Thaksinism”. His general argument about the Thaksin years was framed by his criticism of what he saw as a recent global media effort to report negatively on Thai issues. Surat stated his special distaste for reporting on the issue of Thailand’s response to high-priced HIV medication. He said that “stories like this are seriously detrimental to Thailand’s image”. But, just when the audience could be mistaken for thinking that Surat would provide a thorough critique of the global media and its support for multinational drug companies he pivoted towards his real target.

“Thaksinism” was in his cross-hairs.

Surat’s criticisms of Thaksin began with the maid and driver asset imbroglio from back in 2000 and 2001. He then called the system under Thaksin, “parliamentary absolute system of authoritarianism”. According to Surat, “parliament became absolutely dominated by Thai Rak Thai” and was beholden to “Thaksin’s personal agenda”. He mentioned the “War on Drugs” and the Krue Se and Tak Bai incidents. For Surat, Thaksin controlled “the regime”.

He reflected that “to say the Thaksin government was the elected regime is controversial”. He even took this one step further and went on to question “whether the coup toppled an elected regime”. According to Surat, “what [Thaksin] did in the past 5 years was de-democratization”. He talked about the loan that Thaksin provided to Burma and said that the Burmese dictatorship “is the regime Thaksin sponsored”.

Then, once this initial attack on Thaksin was over Surat went on to say, almost as an aside, that “we don’t like this coup either”. I had thought that after seeking to de-legitimise Thaksin’s government, Surat would provide similar treatment to the coup-makers and their mismanagement. Isn’t that the story of “Thailand after the coup?” There was, I must report, nothing of the sort.

Instead, Surat’s attack pivoted quickly from Thaksin to the “international community”. He asked, “Who would save us without the coup?” He stated that “the international community…was not there to help us”. As he railed against foreign criticisms of the coup, he stated “it is highly questionable whether all coups are the same”. In fact, he questioned whether there was a “binary opposition” between democracy and coups. Turning back to the excesses of Thaksin’s democratic rule, he asked, somewhat mockingly, “Where was our beloved European Union?”

Under the new government, the goals, he said, are to “prevent cronyism, prevent corruption, prevent those human rights abuses”. Of the current military dictatorship, he also said, “I am critical of this government for many things”. Unfortunately, we will just have to take Surat’s word for it because he didn’t follow this statement with any sustained critical scrutiny. For the main speech of a session supposedly focused on “Thailand after the coup”, there was very scant analysis or insight that engaged with what has happened in Thailand since 19 September 2006.

Questions and answers

The questions were all reasonably straightforward and gave the other speakers on the panel an opportunity to provide their own analysis of Thaksin and the current situation. There was, quite clearly, some dissent among the speakers – Kraisak and Sulak were notable in their criticisms. However, New Mandala readers will be interested to know that even in response to relatively general queries it was Surat Horachaikul who ended up talking more than the others. In many cases, he had the final word in answering questions.

At times, Surat abruptly brought the discussion back to his criticisms of “Thaksinism”. He reiterated that “this particular coup d’tat is not the same as previous coup d’tat”. He also referred to the “authoritarianism of Thaksin” and called the Thaksin government “evil”.

Kraisak, in answering a question about constitutional problems, attempted to offer criticism more relevant to a session on “Thailand after the coup”. He said that Thailand has “even more” political prisoners than Burma and that the “military Prime Minister…is probably trained to perpetuate human rights abuses himself”. Kraisak wanted to see more international attention because “Thai people are helpless”. Kraisak also proposed some type of “international court” for prosecuting alleged human rights abuses in Thailand. He said that “due process of law” was currently lacking. Such prosecutions would, in his mind, focus on the abuses of the Thaksin years when there were “huge numbers of atrocities, more than I can imagine”.

Sulak then answered a question about the type of democracy that would be acceptable to “the leftwing elite”. He said, “I don’t like the coup and I don’t like this government particularly”. But he said the ruling generals were more “tolerant”, especially when “compared to [the] Thaksin regime”. He also reflected that in Thailand “democracy is part and parcel of our culture”. Sulak said he hoped to implement a fuller democracy and work out how best it can serve the interests of the poor. In a provocative rhetorical flourish he even told the audience that “this is a wonderful democratic country but you allowed Mrs Thatcher to stay for so long”. The point was that all countries have governments that are considered “bad”.

After this answer, Surat came in to clear up Sulak’s more critical outburst. He intimated that everybody on the panel is a “free individual” but he wanted to emphasise that even with elections a government’s “popularity is questionable” and a “democratically elected regime can hurt the poor”. He then went on to say that many Thais wanted to get rid of Thaksin and “tried to oust him because he violated human rights”.

In response to further questions, the other speakers – Pirongrong, Charas and Sulasee – made only very limited contributions.All other perspectives were obscured by an agenda and argument that was, very clearly, dominated by Surat.

In response to that agenda, some of the final questions were particularly notable. One was on the Thai education system and the way it inculcates passivity and conformity in its students. According to the question-asker, the Thai students that he teaches at the London School of Economics are “viscerally incapable of questioning authority”. This drew a response from Sulak that criticised the foundations of Thai democracy and the education system, right back to the reign of King Rama V. There is, Sulak said, still a “state-centric” approach to education. He said that “without questioning authority they [Thai students] will become good bureaucrats”.

The other final question was on the lack of space given to Thaksin’s perspective, or other critical views, at events hosted by SOAS. According to Rachel Harrison, Thaksin was invited to speak at SOAS after the controversial October seminar. She said that “he was invited after the last talk but did not reply”.

Thank you for your attention to this long post. Comments, questions and ideas from New Mandala readers are, of course, very welcome.