Facing Up to Politics

 |  November 29, 2011

In this second instalment of my series on local opinions of the past, present and future of politics in Thailand, we come to a representative of western intellectual thought: Dr. Paul Chambers.

Dr. Chambers has extensive experience in the region, first as an envoy of the United States Peace Core in the mid 1990s, then as an English teacher, university lecturer and his current post as the director of research at the South East Asian Institute of Global Studies at Payap University.

The first question we may ask a western academic living and working here is, why Thailand? Dr. Chambers answers this with a personal history. Following developments on the ground in Central America during the early 1990s as an aspiring journalist, he describes an attraction to the more volatile elements of global political emergence. Gangs of Contra guerrillas operating in Nicaragua and their C.I.A connections to his own country of birth gave him his first

taste of explosive, hardline politics in the developing world. So began his deep-seated interest in analysing these movements and immersing himself in places where the effects of policy and political action are vividly played out in the public realm. This interest led to a specialisation in political science after an initial undergraduate degree in ‘Letters’ (something akin to a Liberal Arts degree) from the University of Oklahoma in the late 80s. He completed an MA in International Affairs and Political Science from Ohio University and then a PhD in Political Science from Northern Illinois University, writing his dissertation here in Chiang Mai on democratisation and political parties in Thailand.

Dr. Chambers analyses politics in two ways; prescriptively and descriptively. In a prescriptive sense, it is a method by which constituents can utilise the outwardly malleable, publicly accountable forms of policy to improve their lot. Descriptively, it is simply a name for the ways in which the powerful maintain their power.

“Unfortunately,” says Dr. Chambers, “in Thailand, it’s much more of the descriptive, realist variety, in which you see these gangster politicians lording it over the poor and getting more for themselves, extracting rent, so it’s just another vicious circulation of elites.” But these ‘gangster elites’ are not the ones with the true power; this is reserved for the deeply entrenched civilian and military bureaucrats who control about 90% of the system itself. So thes
oscillations of elites in public office are merely superficial grabs at the pocket change of the country, without any real power to effect change within their short, parabolic ascents and descents from seats of power. Without a sustained, multi-term run in office like Thaksin Shinawatra’s, very little of the hierarchy of command and distribution of influence can be altered by any one party or figurehead.

General Prem Tinsulanonda’s government of the mid 1980s marked a distinct shift in modes of thought within the entrenched bureaucracy; from an insulated precipitation of policy advice to an externally focused, business oriented methodology. This oversaw the rise and consolidation of various business organisations such as the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Thai Federation of Industries; allowing greater freedom for aspiring provincial business magnates, and thus nurturing the rise of business leaders and future political figures such as Chuan Leekpai, Banharn Silpa-acha and, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In this way, it could be argued that Thai Rak Thai’s meteoric rise to power represented the culmination of these economic forces and the inevitable political baptism of these hitherto business oriented power-bases. So, without speculating too much about the underlying opinions of the ‘powers that be (or were)’ at that time, it could be said that following Thaksin’s landslide victories at the polls: “what happened (from) 2001-2006 was the realisation, by some of these traditional (metropolitan business) interests, that Thaksin was challenging them, and could get the better of them. So they turned against him”‚Ķsparking the immolation of Thailand’s longest ever period of unmolested political development in it’s perpetually recurrent history of iron-fisted military arbitration.

And so we come full circle, to the present political dynamic. In analysing this, Dr. Chambers draws from the political theories of Dr. Wolfgang Merkel, a renowned German professor of political science, and his ‘five dimensions of democracy’; electoral regime, political rights, civil liberties, checks and balances, and effective power to govern. The electoral regime we currently see is greatly sullied by unethical vote buying practices and the military’s continual adulteration of electorates. ISOC (the Internal Security Operations Command) has long been used as the political limb of the ruling clique within the military to funnel money into propaganda campaigns “to sway, to try to dominate”. Chambers describes this body as “a parallel state,” totally unaccountable to elected officials and the public alike.

Another aspect of the electoral system that is yet to reflect the true aims of democratic representation is the military appointments to the senate, which greatly hinder the expedience and fairness of this primary body. 74 seats are appointed and 76 elected, with a quota within the appointments for high ranking ex-servicemen from all three services. These appointments mean that “if the elected people want to win all the time, they have to make sure that not one of them is going to the toilet.”

Political rights and civil liberties both relate to the fundamental ability of a country’s inhabitants to exercise their will in the public sphere, and no area is more telling in this regard than freedom of the press. Thailand has recently witnessed a healthy boom in mass media enterprise; from print and broadcast media to online publications and social networking outlets for opinion and forum discussion. These have developed in tandem with NGOs, both domestic and international, that have formed a standard of documentation and accountability “which has allowed civil society to thrive in this country”. This combination has overseen the rise of civil society organisations such as the Red and Yellow Shirts, which, despite their obvious counter-productive, destabilising tendencies, have the potential “to become more permanent lobbies for the interests of constituents outside of the party system”.

Despite these positive steps in the direction of truly public forums within the mass media, “there’re a lot of challenges that the government provides, such as the Lese Majeste laws (and Computer-Related Crimes Act), that keep the media from developing in a healthy fashion.” Though Dr. Chambers maintains that “it’s going to be a daunting task for the state to keep these media at bay”.

In terms of political rights, there are three edicts that Thai authorities can employ to restrict political space from growing. These are, more recently, the Emergency Decree Law of 2005 and the Internal Security Act of 2008, the first of which can be used by the prime minister, “basically, to make sure people don’t have a right to assembly or a free media”. The security act, as its name implies, can be invoked to contain perceived threats to the security of the state. This, along with the archaic Martial Law Act of 1914, has been imposed in the far south by an increasingly “irredentist” and “arch-reactionary” military to contain the fomentation in this volatile region.

These laws, in theory, allow “Thai authorities to make, if they wanted to, Thailand more like a Burma”. Already “soldiers can go in and kill people with political impunity”, which lays bare the inequities of the system of checks and balances within the executive and judicial systems. Chambers describes the situation as one in which “enormous power is given to the executive branch (which, in turn means) the legislature has had much less authority, and now after the 2007 constitution, you have this judiciary with the power to oust a prime minister (Samak Sundaravej) from office for being on a cooking show, and accepting 100 baht!”

Lastly, and most importantly, we come to effective power to govern. This is an extremely sensitive and difficult subject to broach in a country to which the monarchy means so much more than a figurehead; from which so much of the development of the national psyche and, unquestionably, the nation itself, can be attributed. The palace’s deliberately apolitical stance on almost all issues concerning the prosaic machinations of government leave a yawning gulf between what can be defined as pure, directly observable control and less tangible, but equally powerful, spheres of influence.

Without taking these somewhat uncharted regions of the political landscape into consideration, we can find no truly comprehensive picture of the state of play. With this in mind, we find that the vituperative salvos launched from either side of the political divide represent a more fundamental aspect of the psychology of politics for Thai people: “Thailand (is) idiosyncratic enough that Thais turn to royalty, specifically this king, to be their unifier. So perhaps you can say that because the king is their unifier, each party doesn’t have to be interested in reconciliation”. Moreover “it’s like they don’t want to have any unity, but want to use the anger of their constituents to try to keep themselves in power”

Finally we come to the crux of the matter, which is, as it so often has been in Thailand, the issue of the military and its role in political development. The coup of 2006 was “like a U-turn to the past”; a past dominated by “arrogant” military leaders such as the present commander in chief of the armed forces, Prayuth Chan-ocha, under whose leadership we now see a military that “has been spiralling up in its prerogatives”, which the current government is doing nothing to curtail. In fact, “Yingluck (is) playing games with the military; giving them a big budget, giving them a huge role in telecommunications… trying to co-opt (them).”

So ultimately we are left with the question “that a lot of people should have: ‘How are we going to turn this around?'”