THAI POLITICAL SITUATION: WHERE FROM AND WHERE TO?
On the cold and windy evening of the 29th January 2010 over 200 people turned up at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery for a panel discussion over the current Thai political situation. Most were Thai students from all over the UK, but there was considerable attendance from other segments of Thai society in the UK as well as a smaller number of other academics.
Giles Ungpakorn politely gave out handouts entitled ‘Free all Thai Political Prisoners! Return the country to Democracy!’ much to the dismay of one elderly Thai lady who seemed to grimace when he handed one to her, but graciously accepted and read with interest by others. The handout gave a brief summary of the past 4 years events and a list of convictions due to lese majeste and the computer crimes law. It went onto scrutinise Borwornsak Uwanno who has once served Thaksin but changed sides at the last minute. Suchit Boonbonkarn was called ‘an apologist for the military coup and the systematic destruction of democracy’. The handout ended with a plea for freedom of speech, for genuine democracy, a smaller military, for those who commit human rights abuses to be brought to justice and a welfare state.
In the hall, we were welcomed by the SOAS Thai society and were given an introductory talk by H.E Mr Kitti Wasinondh, the Thai Ambassador to the UK. He greeted everyone with wishes for a happy new year in his friendly manner and spoke of Thailand explaining that the word Thai not only means free but that each letter of the word has meaning for him: T (Tasty food) H (Hospitality) A (Attractions) I (Investment & trade). He went onto explain that the Thai political situation has not been as smooth as his previous picture painted. However this has not deterred visitors as 757,000 UK tourists entered Thailand last year and he is glad of this British confidence.
Ex-Ambassador to Thailand, David Fall was next to welcome everyone to the debate and introduce the speakers; Borwonsak Uwanno, Suchit Boobongkarn, Duncan McCargo and Peter Layland. He asked for fairness and for everyone to follow the ‘Chatham house rules’ in order for everyone to have a free and frank discussion, something he said, we can’t do in Thailand.
Here are our notes on what the panel said during the discussion:
Professor Suchit Boonbongkarn (Chulalongkorn University)
The first speaker was Prof. Suchit Boonbongkarn. He started talking about the increasing changes taking place in Thai society, starting with Thaksin and the hope for a new democratic government. He gave the familiar story of how Thaksin had projected himself as a form of new leader in an era of globalisation. TRT’s success with the electorate has now meant that democracy has been institutionalised. However, the story ends with Thaksin’s greed for power ruining this with his attempts to dominate the legislature which resulted in protest from Sonti Limthongkul and the yellow shirts. This resulted in increased conflict between red and yellow shirts. The new constitution and new elections have not stopped the divisions within Thai society. This has ultimately led to people questioning democratic principles in the country.
Suchit’s answer to this was to look at the role of the movements. Yellow shirts stand for traditionalism, hierarchical structure, Buddhism, bun and merit and conservatism. The Reds are against this. The Red shirt movement is uncohesive and doubtful. They simply want Thaksin to come back. He argues that the Red shirt movement has been unable to gain the support of wider society, therefore this wider society must agree with the conservatives. He labels this silent majority as the 3rd force in Thai politics. They have no leader and no organisation.
Suchit then moved onto the current government, the coalition under Abhisit faces problems because of its need of survival. Abhisit must make compromises in order to survive and this is why his party has adopted ‘populist’ politics in order to gain rural support. Suchit argued that these problems come from class conflict in Thai society. They will not be solved by another coup, because the current government is a civilian regime (but wasn’t TRT a civilian regime too?!). He also argued the problems facing Thailand are too complicated to be solved by a military coup. In his belief the military is not strong enough to deal with the problems.
He finally gets around to the issue of the monarchy, stressing that they have done ‘nothing unconstitutional’ this can be proved by their inaction during the airport protest of October-November 2008 and the King’s refusal to appoint a Prime Minister in 2006.
Suchit next defended the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision to sentence Thaksin to 2 years in jail, and the dissolution of PPP over election fraud resulting in many members being banned from politics for 5 years. He argued that the Supreme and constitutional courts have been criticised by the Thaksin camp. It is a mistake to rely on the judiciary to solve the country’s problems.
In what was probably his ‘whereto’ part of his speech, Suchit recommended lessening corruption and the need to institutionalise clean governance and ethics in political society. A strong civil society is important because without this democracy is not sustainable. He also mentioned that business is now a leading force and has overtaken the role of the bureaucracy. Lastly, he emphasised that it the silent majority, the people’s sector that needs to be strengthened.
Duncan McCargo- “The critical critic has become optimistic”
This was a much more light-hearted presentation on the political situation in the South. After a short reminiscence on his PhD topic on the leadership of Chamlong Srimuang and previous constitutions, he noted interestingly that it goes to show “what goes around, comes around” when it comes to Thai politics.
His first intention was to argue that the problem in Thailand has been excessive pragmatism (there have been 13 Prime Ministers and 3 major constitutions in the last 10 years). But this has changed recently to ‘insufficient pragmatism’. His choice word was ‘dogmatism’ described well the current stalemate seen whereby husband and wife cannot talk to one another due to polarised positions. McCargo misses all the pragmatism stressing that it was a strength as well as a weakness in Thai politics.
On this issue of the South, he briefly talked over his recent research there which lasted for 1 year. He felt he has reached clear conclusions but unfortunately many people do not want to agree with him in public. These conclusions were that-
- The problems in the South are political, not because of militants or about religion
- The problems are about legitimacy
- Southern states feel they have no power
- There is limited space for them to show their identity in a very centralised state.
In his discussions with others, there is agreement that over centralisation does not work anymore. However, the problem arises with free expression of this position. Those that critique the current order are labelled as separatists or as disloyal to the monarchy.
However, McCargo stresses that many do agree, even those such as Chalerm Ubumrung (Pheu Thai Party) and Dr. Prawit (Wongsuwan, Defence Minister) express that the Southern problem is a political problem. Chavalit Yongchayodh (ex Prime Minister) and Abhisit also agree. However because of their allegiances with different camps, all cannot agree in public.
This is a reoccurring problem, there is considerable commonality in what they all say on the Southern problem, but no one can agree on a solution because ‘people keep changing sides all the time’. There is currently deadlock which cannot be broken, which is very frustrating because just under the surface there is this consensus within Thai society.
The way forward for the South is to have decentralisation. However there is a lack of space for open discussion. To sum up, McCargo gave an optimistic account of something which his host family once told him when he arrived in Thailand- Thai’s get bored easily- will they in the case of the South? In a self confessed style- McCargo, the ‘critical critic has become optimistic’?
Prof. Peter Layland (London Met University)
Thailand’s constitutional rollercoaster ride and the search for constitutionalism
In a very well researched and presented talk (maybe his slide presentation will become available?), Professor Layland asked the questions
- Why has constitutionalism in Thailand been so elusive?
- Do the recent 1997 and 2007 constitutions contribute anything to democracy?
- Is the 2007 constitution more enduring?
- Is there a magic formula?
To start with he argued that in order to answer these questions, constitutionalism itself must be defined. He gave a quote by de Smith-
“The idea of constitutionalism involves the proposition that the exercise of governmental power shall be bounded by rules, rules prescribing the procedure according to which legislative and executive acts are to be performed and delimiting their permissible content – Constitutionalism becomes a living reality to the extent that these rules curb the arbitrariness of discretion and are in fact observed by the wielders of political power, and to the extent that within the forbidden zones upon which authority may not trespass there is significant room for the enjoyment of individual liberty.”
He said that in the UK people actually resign over scandals because constitutionalism in the UK is connected to the rule of law. This rule of law ‘seeks to subordinate naked power’ (quoting Harden & Lewis) and there must be a need to adhere and recognise these rules. But the question in the case of Thailand is- How do you do this? Layland argued that there must be institution building. For example the Parliament needs to be held accountable. “The key is to follow the rules and not just have them”.
Thailand has come some way in its reforms by strengthening watchdog bodies such as:
- Electoral commission
- National Counter Corruption Commission
- Human Rights Commission
- Anti money Laundering Commission
- Constitutional Court
- Public Sector Ombudsman
- State Audit Commission
These new bodies mean that Thailand has been equipped with the “cutting edge of the constitutional technology”. These bodies have the power to disqualify people for wrongdoing. For example, the electoral commission and NCCC can suspend politicians from politics for five years. The EC can nullify elections. These institutions have been given more power. It proves that a separation of powers has been established as a constitutional principle. The government is responsible to an elected parliament and legal limits have been established by the court.
But everybody needs to apply the rule of law. In Thailand, this has not yet been achieved as the appointment process to the watchdog bodies has been politically captured.
There is also a Thai dimension to constitutional law-making. There is a strong sense of social order; everybody is ranked by wealth, power, birth and status.
The King is at the pinnacle of all this. No one can successfully prosecute offenders in these cases for fear they will be seen as being disloyal to the King.
Another dimension is the lack of faith in the legal processes.
There must be a commitment to the rule of law, can’t go back to 1932 where the monarchy solves all the problems. The 1997 constitution failed to deal with these conflicts of interest. The Senate for the new constitution was not politically neutral. Thus 2007 was not a new beginning it does not have the same legitimacy as the 1997 constitution. Having said this, the 2007 constitution still retains some of the 1997 elements. For example, watchdog bodies. The new constitution is more robust on conflict of interest for example the Samak conviction. But the problem with democratic politics is still unresolved as well as the problem of lese majeste law.
The whole situation is framed in uncertainty over the royal succession and how to deal with Thaksin. However, it has been a positive that the political aspiration of the military has been reduced. Another positive is there is a well established civil service (but inadequately remunerated)
In Thailand, these constitutions have come about because of significant events. As the result, there are semi impose as the solution of these events. Politics and parties evolve around wealthy individuals. These individuals payroll MPs. There has to be the evolvement of the grassroots.
There has to be a prominent role for the opposition. There has to be power sharing between the main political fractions. For example, in the UK, if the chairman of the BBC is conservative, the vice chair would be labour.
Other ways forward are devolution for more power in the regions and changing the selection of the senate.
In conclusion, wrongdoing by the elite (including politicians, judges and civil servants) must be punished so that justice is seen to be done. The constitution cannot be imposed, there must be inclusive negotiation. There must be agreement on compliance to these new constitutions by all major parties. (Constitutionalism does not happen overnight).
Borwornsak Uwanno (King Prajadhipok Institute)
Borwornsak stated at the beginning of his presentation that he would like to focus on the ‘where to’ question, and that he has devised away forward which can be emailed to everyone in the audience, as the time slot of 15 minutes was not adequate to go into much detail. However, his entire presentation mostly focused on the ‘where from aspect’.
He started to explain that Thailand has been in an endless circle of political uncertainty for more than four years and that this has been mainly in the form of Thaksin and the red shirts VS the yellow shirts. Bowornsak argued the real problem is structural and is over the distribution of resources and power. He explained since 1961 and the first national economic social development plan which was export orientated that wealth was highly concentrated. This has resulted in the rich and middle classes in urban areas having access to resources. These people are the ‘haves’ and support the Yellow shirts. The ‘have-nots’ support the reds. He explained the gap between the rich and the poor has not changed much. Forty years ago, the richest 20% of the population and owned 59.9% of the country’s wealth and in 2006, this figure had only decreased to 56.2%. Also in 2006, the richest 20% of the population owned 69% of the country’s assets. He also cited 70,000 saving accounts contain 42% of all the money in Thailand. Only 11 families are owners of the top 5 companies in the stock market. He also illustrated the Gini coefficient from 1960 -2000 actually increased in Thailand but all the rest of Southeast Asian declined. Therefore, the gap between rich and poor has grown.
Bowornsak argued all of this has had an impact on Thai politics. The poor are dependent on patrons; it is these rural rich patrons that get elected. For them, power is desired as national resources are under state control. State concessions are good business opportunities; therefore politicians get wealthy in a short time. The political reform of the 1997 constitution did not address this dependency. TRT only made things worse as in 2001, the poor realised the power of their votes. TRT won a landslide victory in 2005. It was the first single party in the history of Thai politics. But it only increased dependency on benefits. TRT kept this vertical dependency in place and clientelist mentality.
Bowonsak’s opinion is that the public did not appreciate their roles from keeping the government in check. Also elected watchdogs were not able to keep the government in check because the government managed to interfere with the appointment process.
The yellow and the red divide have left its mark on the political landscape. Even though it is calm now, there is still concern the reds want to protest again after New Year. We need to tackle the real problem. We need a better system. We need to resolve problem with politicians in relation to the constitution. We need more reform. We need to reform the imbalance in Thai society. He argued to do this; we need to lessen the in equality. The current system has kept patronage systems alive. Voters need to hold politicians accountable and the poor should have access to resources without the government handouts. We need a welfare state gradually.
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
Q 1. The first question was from a Thai student at Oxford University. She made an emotional appeal to bring the coup makers to justice. Asking when the courts would bring charges against them?
Q 2. From an academic at Surrey University, He asked for the panel to expand their concept of ‘populism’. He asked whether they thought TRT was populist. In his belief TRT offered a manifesto, and delivered the policies which are why they won the next elections. Is populism the problem? Or are they just pushing the real problems under the carpet?
Q 3. Another Thai in the audience aimed their question at Uwanno, they reminded him that he was a former TRT supporter and then resigned from the cabinet. During his resignation he promised that he would not get involved in politics again or be an advisor. But in 2006 he was a coup advisor. He changed sides. Why did he do this and go against his word?
Q 4. The next question came from Giles Ungpakorn. He started with his assertion and his distaste that it is the army that claims its legitimacy from the king. He went onto explain that lese majeste laws have imprisoned people for speaking out. He pleaded for the lese majeste laws to be scrapped and for freedom of speech in Thailand. Thai people should have the right to discuss their political beliefs without the fear they will be arrested. He is glad to hear that Uwanno mentioned the creation of a welfare state.
Q 5. An Oxford academic next bought up the topic of institutions and how they have evolved. He argued this is very important to look at. In Europe organised labour was strong before the creation of a welfare state. However in Asia this is not the case, labour is very weak. Just what do the panel think about how a welfare state will come about? He warned that a welfare state should not be imposed and asked the panel how they thought Thailand could move away from the current oligarchy.
Answers from Suchit: Suchit was the first panellist to respond. He felt that the issue of freedom of speech, the abolition of lese majeste laws and reform of the political system should depend on culture in his ‘own personal belief’. He argued that in comparison, Thais are freer than people in Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. In his assertion, these things were against Thai culture and against their beliefs.
As for the issue of immunity of the coup makers, he agreed that a coup is illegal. However if a coup is successful then the coup makers become “sovereign”. If they had failed in their coup attempt they would have been sentenced to death. A t the time of King Prajadhipok a coup took place and it was agreed that the coup makers could have immunity at that time. (I think his point was very unclear here)
Next to respond was Borowrnsak Uwanno. He defended himself from earlier scrutiny by stating that the 1997 constitution was long dead before the 2006 coup, and so he had no reason to stick to it. He retaliated against the question from Giles saying that his critic used to criticise Thaksin and is now his supporter. (At this point there were disturbances in the audience as many people shouted that the panellist should read Giles’ book and listen to what he has to say against Thaksin).
Uwanno went onto argue that there have also been accounts that the Coup has been ‘A Good Coup’ here he cited the work of Connors. He argued that the Coup had been legitimised in various ways (he cited a court case), but what is important now is to focus on stopping another coup from happening now. Everyone now knows a coup will not solve all of the problems.
Next Uwanno retaliated against Giles Ungpakorn again, saying that Ajan Giles accused the King as being behind the coup and this was wrong. (again there were disruptions in the audience and calls for him to read Giles’ work). Uwanno said there was no evidence against the King. Next he explained his reasoning, he explained that the only people that could form a coup against the King were the military, and this would prevent the King signing any acts of parliament. Then the coup leader would have all of the power in the country. This means that the monarchy is a fragile institution and needs protection so this does not happen. In fact, he also stated that the monarch ‘is the most fragile institution’. This is because the King cannot defend himself. He then stated the King had to sign the coup leader into power in 2006 and that we should not be unfair to the King that he did this.
Suchit then gave his opinion on lese majeste laws in Thailand. He stated that everyone accused of lese majeste is equal and that all face the equal rule of law, and everyone accused can appeal to the Supreme Court. In his opinion, maybe the accused will be sentenced at first, but they can always appeal it. He then also defended the secrecy that surrounds these court hearings by saying that secrecy is needed because there is sensitive information about the issue of defamation. He went onto explain that every country has to protect their head of state.
It sounded like he did admit to some changes needed to lese majeste cases. Suchit did profess to the fact that the government has now set up a committee to look into how cases are bought about, as right now anyone can file a charge. He also said it is not right for lese majeste to be used for political purposes. If the offender did not mean to cause ‘malicious intent’ then they should be treated differently and different penalties imposed. However, if the government is to change lese majeste law, then they need public agreement, but he said at this time “the people want the law”.
Next to provide discussion answers was Prof. Layland. His response was that in his belief constitutional reform on its own is not enough to solve everything. What is needed is a strengthening of civil society, at the moment trade unions are very weak and people need to organise themselves more effectively for change to occur.
Lastly, Borwornsak Uwanno made it clear that in his opinion the red and yellow shirt movements are positive in a sense that they generate a greater sense of awareness amongst the poor. He believes that it is the poor that should be at the centre of every political party’s platform. In this sense populism is dangerous in the sense that is the same as buying votes. It is too similar to giving money to people in exchange for voting for a particular candidate. He argued that what is needed to solve this problem is a welfare state. It is true that labour unions in Thailand are weak but the red and yellow are something different, now there are more community movements and also the Assembly of the Poor is an example of successful movements, so there is hope.
Question round 2:
Q 1: A Thai female in the audience asked whether changes should occur form the top down or bottom up?
Q 2: Why are there different rules for different people in Thailand?
Q 3: From a SOAS student. They asked what laws there are that can be evoked about the crown prince and his ability to succeed the King, especially if the princess is so popular.
Q 4: A Thai student commented that it is all very well to be fair to the King, but what is more important is to be fair to the people. What is the role of the Privy Council?
Suchit was the first to respond. He explained that the Privy Council acted as an advisor to the King of Thailand. There is no evidence that they were behind the 2006 Coup d’état. One of the members is 90 years old now, he retired 30 years ago and has no authority. General Prem has ‘bun-barami’ but this cannot force people to proceed with a coup. Suchit next turned to the topic of freedom of speech on this topic. He stated that Thai culture does not want this kind of debate, ‘public debate is out, and it’s against public interest’ (…yes he actually said this!)
According to him, freedom of speech did not seem to be the problem, what he argued was more important was the double standards some people have and the development of civil society. He explained that personal relationships are very important in Thai culture and this is the reason for the current system. He argued that grassroots development needed to be strengthened and to work ‘from the bottom-up’.
Duncan McCargo came forward with some interesting insights. He feels that the current situation is frozen and that people just can’t wait for change. He believes there is restlessness in the South, North and Northeast which is a signal for reform, decentralisation and public debate. He stressed that people must feel comfortable to have open and frank debates. At present, only Bangkok has the right to elect its own governor, in the rest of the provinces this position is by appointment. There needs to be more equality. Also, rather than wait for succession, people should be able to have open debate on what will happen next with the political situation.
Uwanno Boonbonkarn selected the topic of the courts to respond to. He feels there must be more understanding about the enforcement of the law by the court. People have to understand that police are under pressure from politicians of the day. In his opinion the case against the yellow shirts should be dropped because if it were to happen then it would be the police that would be charged with unfulfilment of their duties and this would cause a lot of problems. He went onto defend the actions of the administrative court (as he said it only followed the sentiments of the day) and then he bought up the Thai-Cambodia case and said it was right that the court changed its jurisprudence. As for the judicial court, he said that they were involved in a lot less activism than the Supreme Court or the Administrative Court. What was the problem was the constitution, stating that ‘the problem of standards should be treated carefully’.
Professor Layland added that it was difficult to answer any question on the Privy Council because of the secrecy surrounding the institution. What was needed was more transparency.
We left the debate with more questions than answers. We both felt that Suchit especially, did not convince us with his arguments. We will be writing a more in depth opinion paper on this shortly, but for now these are our preliminary thoughts:
When talking about lese majeste and freedom of speech Suchit boiled everything down to ‘Thai culture’ and assumed everyone in Thailand had conservative values. His statement that most Thai’s have not joined the red shirts and so this meant that they are conservatives is a very large assumption on his part.
Borworsak and his argument that ‘the King and monarchy is the most fragile institution’ also left us thinking of the truthfulness of this statement. Does he really believe this? It would only be fragile if it was an unpopular institution, wouldn’t it?
Also, Borwornsak’s argument for a ‘welfare state’ was extremely vague. He made no clarification on the type of welfare state he was thinking of. His idea that ‘populism’ was bad and it was just handing out money to the poor, ‘like buying votes’ left us wondering that his ideas were in fact, incommensurate and opposing. It was as though he was using catch terms like ‘welfare state’ only because it would buy him points with the audience.
Patra Thirakornratch is from Sheffield Business School and Susan Upton is at Bath University.