Friday, January 31, 2014


(published in the Bangkok Post, February 1, 2014)


by Philip J Cunningham

Thailand is suffering from electoral dysfunction syndrome; it’s a hard problem, and it’s hard to talk about. There’s no cure-all pill for it either; the only dependable cure is the restoration of health of the whole body politic.

To an impartial observer, it should be obvious the so-called democratic process is broken; it’s a rigged system that has been gummed up and gamed by a wily political clan. It consistently produces undemocratic results; enriching the rich, and strengthening the hands of strongmen. The sad reality of the torn and twisted status quo is that every vote cast brings Thailand closer to dictatorship than democracy.  

Doesn’t it make sense to want less rather than more of something that’s bad for you?

Doesn’t it make sense to fix things now for the future of the country in the long run?

Maybe so, but don’t tell the Western media about that. The West has a thing for elections; if the votes don’t ring, it doesn’t swing.

Look at it this way. Every society has its piety, every nation its fascination

The Hindus taught the world that eating meat is offensive; it’s not something they are in any position to enforce or impose on others, but, please, respect it when and where you can.

Needless to say, Islam has its pieties too, and not eating pork is one of them. Forcing Indian soldiers to handle the fat of pork used as coating bullets led to the Sepoy mutiny.

Christians have the highest respect for Jesus and the saints. If you don’t agree, do so tactfully. Ditto for Judaism. If you unfairly single out or generalize about Jews, you risk running foul of heartfelt sensitivities finely-honed by centuries of anti-Semitism, brought to a horrible conclusion in the Holocaust.

Buddhism is arguably the most tolerant of the major religions, but peaceful coexistence with Buddhists is bettered by observing simple signs of decorum, taking shoes off in temples and treating Buddha statues with respect. The perfidious blast that took down the giant stone Buddhas in Bamiyam will not soon be forgotten.

The secular West is rightly proud of the advances it has made in science, and generally the march of science and growth of individualism has served to reduce dependence on mass-held superstition.

However, while some societies may be more impious than others, there’s no such thing as a value-neutral society. Americans, for example are not only not free of petty pieties, but they are full of them, left, right and center.

If I refer to the hapless individual who was thrown in the brig and incarcerated for downloading US State Department cables on a military computer and sharing the eye-opening results with the world via Wikileaks as, “Bradley Manning,” gender-bending leftists will scream, “How dare you say that, he is not Bradley, she is Chelsea!” Wikipedia has had to wrestle with that. 

The point is that political correctness comes at a price. If you focus on the secondary issue of gender, you miss the real miscarriage of justice was meted out on, dare I say it, a man called Bradley Manning.

The American right has its hard-core pieties about gun rights and oil exploitation rights and other toxic tea party stuff; too much of a headache to go into here.

But what unites almost all Americans; man, woman and transgender alike
is a shared piety about democracy. It’s more than a system of government, it’s a religion for a secular nation. It’s a matter of identity. It helps justify all the unjustifiable things done around the world in the name of the US people.

It’s what makes Americans American.

So should you come to the conclusion, as has Noam Chomsky in his sublime political isolation, that US democracy is a sham, don’t broadcast it too loudly to red-blooded Americans, for they’re liable to lose it. And you ought be careful with the British, too, junior partners in America’s crusade (nope, strike that word) America’s program to make the world safe for democracy.

It's one thing to be quietly "undemocratic" like Saudi Arabia, which suits US and UK interests just fine, as do various tyrannies that fall under the rubric "special relationship." But to be noisily "anti-democratic" riles the political correctness police all the way from the Potomac to the Thames.

That’s why, when it comes to Thailand, you can depend on the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC and CNN and other US and UK media outlets to continue getting it wrong, just as they have been consistently getting it wrong all along.

They can’t report on Thailand for one minute without seeing a reflection of their narcissistic democracy-loving selves. 

In conclusion, if you stumble upon the insight that democracy is a flawed system, and you want to fix it, do so quietly, otherwise you are going to irk John Bull and Uncle Sam. Western critics can dish it out, criticizing Thailand's sacred cows, but they get all bent out of shape when Thais criticize elections and democracy, the secular religion of populist imperialism.

Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics

Wednesday, January 22, 2014



by Philip J Cunningham

The State of Emergency is bad news for Thailand, bad news for believers in peaceful struggle and bad news for newspapers.

Lethal forces that could unwittingly plunge Thailand into civil war are in play, and while it is not too late for sane minds and the better angels of Thai political nature to prevail, time is running out.

The caretaker government’s declaration of State of Emergency has unfortunately pushed Thailand’s doomsday clock to an interval perilously close to midnight. Such an act, with the belligerent Chalerm Yubamrung at the helm, bodes poorly for peace and unity in the nation’s future.

This, despite caretaker Yingluck’s solemn pledge to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon that she would not declare a State of Emergency, as recorded in the transcript from the Secretary General’s office on the 38th floor of the UN that was made available in New York last week.

What happened? There is strong anecdotal evidence that Yingluck might actually have liked to step down earlier this month, but she didn’t. A week ago she was saying she had no desire to impose a state of emergency, either, which by its very legal clauses deprives citizens of rights, and rights to legal redress.

Why did Yingluck change her mind on so crucial and divisive an issue? Did a little bird whisper something in her ear? Could it be the same out-of-the-country source who persuaded her and the party she supposedly leads to accept the last-minute inclusion of convicted felon Thaksin Shinawatra in an ill-conceived and unpopular amnesty scheme?

While it is not possible to pinpoint in each and every case when the caretaker PM has been her own woman, and when she has been a medium for her fugitive elder brother, I think everyone would agree that it is high time for the real Yingluck to stand up and set a good example for women and girls in the kingdom. It’s high time she showed the courage of her convictions instead of reflexively kowtowing to her bossy big brother. It’s not too late for her to show the entire electorate that being independent, principled and holding the highest civilian office in the nation are not incompatible things.

The transcript of Yingluck’s telephone conversation with the UN chief reveals a person with good manners, good protocol but a lack of original thought and imagination.

She has the dispiriting tendency to evade difficult truths, and tends to repeat a party line that has been formulated by others. On the one hand she told Ban Ki Moon there would be no state of emergency, on the other hand she trotted out the usual crackdown excuses, saying that “drugs” and “weapons” could be found among her political enemies, while not acknowledging evidence of the same among her allies.

Elections are not necessarily the problem, as some of Suthep’s followers seem to believe, but elections are not the answer at the present time. If a Tammany Hall type of electoral-based political cult is causing a nation to rip its heart out, and the State of Emergency narrowly focused on Bangkok promises to do just that, then the system needs reform before a periodic flick of the wrist at a voting booth is going to produce decent democratic results.

The obsession with elections smacks of Cold War political theatre, the sort of thing that tyrants like Ferdinand Marcos perfected, installing superficially democratic regimes that then went on to rape, rob and pillage the wealth of the nation for decades to come.

A free press is a pillar, indeed, a necessary precursor to a truly democratic election. Thaksin’s systemic long-term attacks and attempts to buy the Thai press are almost as well known as his extrajudicial campaign of murder in the so-called “war on drugs.”

Based on the evidence, it is fair to say that Thaksin’s rule by proxy represents not democracy but its polar opposite.

Thirayuth Boonmee, a key member of the 1970’s October generation of rebels, is still fighting tyranny and corruption, unlike some of his erstwhile comrades who have joined the Shinawatra bandwagon. He recently offered an original analysis of how Thaksin’s “anarchy,” as he calls it, has destroyed the independence of the state bureaucracy and is set to ruin the country.

It’s a far more penetrating analysis than silly, communist-sounding platitudes about how two plus two equals four and some of the other lame attempts such as “respect my vote,” which seeks to make peace with a corrosive political machine in which votes are abrogated and used, not respected.

If nothing else, Thaksin, and his assorted proxies have never wavered from the view of democracy as a “winner-takes-all” lottery for the ruling party, with maximum benefit accruing to the man on top, to the detriment of the nation as a whole.

 While I don’t pretend to understand Mr. Suthep’s politics, I believe he is honest in portraying himself not as a new strongman for a country that is weary of domineering figures, but as a short-term bridge figure, to lead Thailand out of the Shinawatra-rigged political trap into a neutral zone where national affairs can be gotten into order and cooperative norms of Thai political behavior can be restored.

There’s no need to make a big deal about the need for elections in February, they can and should come later.

One doesn’t get the feeling that the millions who have demonstrated in recent weeks were unduly concerned with what foreign journalists at the New York Times or BBC might say nor did they resort to phony democratic rhetoric only to please the powers that be in Washington.

Nor is the crowd going to kowtow to Tokyo and Beijing. Japan’s former defense minister Yuriko Koike wrote an embarrassingly pro-rightist piece equating Thaksin with a tough stance on China, slyly hinting that the street crowd is pro-China. On the other hand, Beijing has tolerated Thaksin’s active politicking from its dominion of Hong Kong where he regularly holds “audiences” with top aides who measure their success in the number of minutes he grants each of them respectively.

It is unknown what effect the Yingluck caretaker government’s emergency decree will have on free press in the weeks and months to come, but if past behavior is any judge, the consolidation of Shinawatra political and economic fortune will see a decline of free speech and media diversity

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Where is Thailand’s answer to Gandhi or King?

The New Year’s lull offers a chance to pause and take stock of the most recent anti-Shinawatra demonstrations that have energized, empowered and exasperated so many during the last two months of 2013.

Simply put, it’s ridiculous that people have to march in the hundreds of thousands, even millions, to free their homeland from the predations of a parasitic clan.

Watching Thailand over the past few years has offered a spectacle of rapidly reversing polarities in which reds go on the rampage under yellow administrations and yellows go on the rampage under red administrations, each emulating the brash tactics of the other until everyone loses equally. 

There’s no future in it; it’s a little like the right hand and left hand taking turns, one pounding the other, alternately, ad infinitum.

If someone, anyone with a brain and a good heart can get those hands not to be at odds but to work cooperatively in tandem, then we are talking about true leadership and not another partisan power grab.

That’s why it is disappointing that the orators and organizers at the Rajdamnern stage spout unimaginative partisan speech and do not offer a more heartfelt welcome to red-shirts fed up with the Shinawatra shenanigans.

Red shirts minus the billionaire constitute a viable social movement with innovative programs for the poor. Recently, red shirts in the fray also showed admirable restraint by self-dispersing when street fighting broke out on the outskirts of the demonstrations.

With an increasing number of reds saying no to Thaksin, abjuring violence and avoiding conflict, a historic turning point was at hand, the window for which is rapidly closing, but not yet closed, that both sides could come to joint terms out of a shared desire to save the country from self-inflicted crisis and the spectre of civil war.

One need only look at Syria to get an idea of why a civil war is the worst possible way of solving a domestic conflict.

To resolve the conflicts caused by squabbling politicians is not worth a single human life.

For those lives already lost and those who have suffered injury on the rough edges of both sides of the barricades, there is no outcome that can undo the damage done. But damage control can stop the contagion of more violence.

Casualties that take place during a political upheaval are especially vulnerable to being romanticized or politicized in a way that sets the stage for retributive violence, even before the smoke has cleared.

The feral desire to run amok in the melee that follows a violent act offers scant comfort and no recompense to those grieving fallen comrades.

Now that blood has been spilled on the streets of the big city, it begs the question; can both sides pull back from the brink?

It’s too late for an entirely graceful outcome. The time for peaceful denouement came and went before the first casualty. Just before then, PM Yingluck cancelled a plane journey out of Thailand that would have included a retinue of many top aides. An extended absence on the part of a divisive proxy leader would have been a boon and a salve for a sorely divided nation.

Ms.Yingluck is a woman possessed of superb decorum and good manners, but knowing when to step aside and to do so out of compassion for citizens on both sides of the divide would have been more beautiful than any photo op she has ever done. To keep the peace is an act more supple, humble and wise than any choreographed genuflection she may perform in the future.

Is it really fair to expect the vast multitudes of people who so ardently waved the flag in defense of a dying nation to pack up and go home only to let the unjust status quo fester and rot as before?

Isolated but sinister acts of terror such as sniper shootings, bombings and the cowardly acts of undercover agents provocateur only serve to hasten the descent into civil madness and civil war. Because of the sensational nature of the news business and its morbid priorities, a few acts of violence can overshadow the transformative accomplishments of an uplifting, peace-abiding mass reform movement.

And yet, the beauty of so many people demonstrating in so orderly, peaceful and disciplined a fashion is more “amazing” than anything the moribund Ministry of Tourism could come up with.

The nay-sayers who complain about tourism being affected by street demonstrations pout the loudest when their political opponents seem to be getting the upper hand. Does anyone think the bloody red-shirt revolt of 2010 was good for tourism?

A peaceful revolution is not a dinner party but neither is it a free-for-all. For it to work at all, discipline and decorum are high order priorities. Never should violence be employed against people, though civil disobedience is the norm and some property damage is probably unavoidable.

While it is natural, perhaps even necessary that protesters be fired up with enthusiasm and stand firm in their idealism, (cash subsidies don’t begin to explain the willingness to endure the privations of living on the streets and putting one’s body on the frontline) there is always a danger that a peaceful but stoked-up crowd can lose control of itself or become agitated to the point of crossing the line into retributive violence.

If peaceful protests are to draw on the hidden power of ahimsa, remaining meek, charitable and unarmed in the best tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, then it is absolutely imperative to avoid inflicting hurt on others or putting one’s own people in serious jeopardy.

Although Nelson Mandela did not exclude violence as a tool of revolution, in his ripe old age he came close to Gandhi and King in his willingness to embrace erstwhile foes with a generous view of human nature that refused to reduce a struggle to us-versus-them.

Thailand needs visionary leaders who do not make expedient use of the very real hatreds simmering in society but instead seek cooperation and common ground.