coup

ConstitutionNet: Thailand’s next post-coup constitution: The dictatorship of the ‘good people’?

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on May 29, 2015

There is a persistent theme in Thailand’s ongoing political crisis often touted by one side of the spectrum: the call for the “good people” or barami in Thai. Barami, a Buddhist term for “charismatic power” or “meritorious prestige,” has historically been linked to the Thai concepts of power. In an increasingly polarized Thai political and societal reality, frustration with unstable and often scandalous governments has led to a popular political rhetoric that centred on the need for “good people,” implying that the democratically elected leaders of the country fall short of basic moral standards.

The crisis that started in the mid-2000s and the protests against then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra led to the revival of barami. PM Thaksin was as popular among the electorate in the rural North and Northeast mostly due to his populist policies, as he was loathed by the upper-middle class and the political establishment in Bangkok for his illiberal tendencies. The latter ultra-nationalist group, commonly known as the “yellow shirts” saw Thaksin as a perversion of electoral democracy and desired a leader, who is “morally clean” above anything else.

The next decade saw many, at times undemocratic, changes of governments. Thaksin is now in self-exile, but he still wields considerable influence. After several street protests, two military coups, and clashes between political stakeholders, those calling for a takeover by the “good people” got what they asked for with the coupof May 2014 - or so they thought. The military that sees itself as part of the “good people” took firm control of the political discourse by outlawing public gatherings, detaining dissenting opponents, and enforcing a high degree of media censorship.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, oversees nearly all branches of government. Most NCPO members are also members of the cabinet, most notably former army chief, junta leader, and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The NCPO appointed most other government bodies, including the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) acting as the ersatz-parliament, the National Reform Council (NRC), which hands out political and legislative recommendations, and the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC). The limited political freedom the packed CDC enjoyed while drafting the new constitution became even more obvious last week, when the NRC proposed a striking 129 revisions to the draft the Committee presented in April. Nevertheless, the CDC is confident that it can incorporate all amendments and forward the final draft to the NRC for approval by July 29.

The new constitution is supposedly designed to re-balance the lopsided party landscape, introduce more checks and balances, and crack down harder on corrupt politicians. However, the underlying political motivation appears to be to curtail the power of elected officials and to transfer power to unelected ones. All junta actions seem to point in the direction of diminishing the electoral strength of Thaksin-associated political parties, which have won all national elections since 2001, and of fueling people’s contempt about electoral democracy in general.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

One year on: Future looks grim under Thailand's ruling junta

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 22, 2015 When Pink Floyd’s vocalist and bassist Roger Waters wrote the 1979 rock classic 'Another Brick in The Wall', he was thinking about the authoritarian teaching and rote learning he encountered in his school days that would produce, in his opinion, more proverbial bricks in the wall of mental detachment.

I recently came across somebody online pointing out the difference between a teacher and a professor: a teacher makes sure that students learn, a professor on the other hand (ideally) only points them to the general direction and leaves it up to them once they encountered the ”fountain of knowledge”. He then went on to say that a government should be similar to the professor’s job, which creates a free environment where discussions can be held and ideas can flourish. The current Thai government is more like the teacher that not only decides what we have to learn, but also when and how.

And boy, what a teacher we have right now!

It’s been exactly a year since Thailand’s military has launched the country’s 12th successful coup, toppling what was left of the embattled and besieged government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It was the end of over half a year of anti-government protests that eventually morphed into anti-democracy rallies, but it was just the beginning of Thailand under martial law and military rule. On that day, we saw the death of Thai democracy as we knew it.

While martial law was revoked earlier this year (with the now already infamous Section 44 in its place instead), the military junta still has a tight grip on the whole political discourse and is busy re-writing and revamping almost everything about it.

The blueprint of the country’s political future is being drafted in the next constitution. But all signs show that this charter does nothing but constitutionally enshrine the steady regression of democracy by massively curtailing the powers of elected governments or otherwise leave the door open for extra-parliamentary interventions. Amidst these legislative changes, The Economist has aptly called it a "baby sitter’s-charter”.

Perhaps this is a better way to describe how the Thai military junta government rules over the country: Not only is it like a bad teacher that expects its students only to obediently memorize the stuff, but also like an overbearing nanny overlooking us on every step.

And no other person exemplifies this "teacher-nanny-in-chief"-dom than junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Driven by what I once described as "compulsive loquaciousness", Gen. Prayuth sees himself forced and challenged to say something about everything, no matter how ill-advised or confrontational it comes across. Same goes for his weekly TV addresses every Friday night (in a total of 40 hours of airtime since last year).

But it’s not only the former army chief himself who has delayed his retirement. Several other military officers have become either junta members, cabinet ministers, or more often than not both - mostly old men who may or may not have been good at commanding troops, but so far have failed to command the country to their liking.

The economy is at best floundering. But the military junta and their supporters have not realized that they are not part of the solution but an essential part of the problem - a delusion that has befallen them for a year now.

This week also marked the 5th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on the anti-government red shirt protesters. Back then, at the very early beginning of my blogging career, I said that "the worst isn’t over - the mess has just begun". Unfortunately, it seems that I was right.

In the past decade, there has been no real sincere, lasting effort from both sides of the political divide to repair the gaping wounds in the nation’s fabric. Instead, it has been covered by exactly the same "blanket over the ever-increasing rift and [blind preachings of] ‘peace, love and unity’ until the next escalation" that I warned about in 2010 - and what we got since then were more escalations and more blankets. But at this point, the wounds are wider and deeper.

It is this political short-term memory loss and cognitive dissonance that has led Thai democracy astray, weakened and easy prey for those firmly not believing in it and adamantly opposing. It is quite sobering to see those in command of the 2010 crackdown now ruling the country.

The near-term future looks rather grim. The junta has recently approved a referendum on the country’s next constitution, but at the cost of delaying possible elections until September 2016 - and even that is not guaranteed, as Gen. Prayuth threatened to stay on if the charter is rejected.

The past 12 months have contributed truckloads of bricks in the mental wall that has been growing and growing in this political crisis, making it even more difficult and daunting to tear it down.

In May 2010, I expressed my doubts that a lasting change towards a more open, free and democratic Thailand will happen anytime soon.

Five years and a military coup later, I’m still waiting.

ConstitutionNet: Thailand’s next post-coup constitution: Uncharted territory to ‘true democracy’ or same old trodden path back to authoritarianism?

Originally published at ConstitutionNet on April 30, 2015

On the afternoon of 22 May 2014 Thailand’s military launched a coup in response to which even the most casual observers of Thai politics and history would have sighed an exasperated ‘not again!’. Indeed, this is the Kingdom’s 12th military takeover of power since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The most recent coup was the climax, toppling the besieged government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra - or rather what was left of it following her ousting from power after the Constitutional Court found her guilty of an illegal personnel transfer.

The coup came after nearly half a year of political gridlock due to sustained street protests in the capital Bangkok, where opposition politicians instigated chaotic actions that at times have turned violent. Such gridlock is just the latest episode of a much longer crisis that has rocked the Thai political landscape. Since 2006, the clash of multiple issues and stakeholders often beyond the realm of stable democratic politics had led to colour-coded street protests and military coups. And yet again we have a military junta that has complete control over the political discourse. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the junta officially calls itself, has outlawed public gatherings, detained dissenting opponents and enforced a high degree of media censorship.

In Thailand, military coups detats seem to follow a distinct pattern: after seizing power and declaring martial law, the first few orders dissolve parliament. Shortly after that, comes an order declaring that the current constitution has been suspended. The duration of this legal void until a new constitution is promulgated, differs from coup to coup. This time, it lasted about two months as the junta adopted a new interim constitution that whitewashes its own actions, declaring all its past and future acts legal and constitutional. Such convenient clauses are also included in the interim constitution of 2014, while the touted emphasis is on ‘reforming’Thailand’s political system to end the country’s long-running divisions. In other words, the military junta’s (official) plan is to ‘bring back reconciliation’ to Thai society and to rid politics of corruption - a catch-all justification to demonize elected politicians.

CONTINUE READING AT CONSTITUTIONNET

Bizarre Hitler scene sneaks into Thai junta propaganda movie

A screenshot from the short film '30' shows students painting a picture of HItler. Pic: AP. A bizarre and brief scene depicting Thai students painting a picture of Adolf Hitler has made its way into a propaganda short film financed by the military government. "30" by director Kulp Kaljaruek is part of the "Thai Niyom" ("Thai Pride") movie aimed at promoting the "12 core values" drawn up by by junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha shortly after the military coup of May 22, 2014.

These commandments "12 values" are essentially the junta's guide to becoming a "good" Thai citizen. It includes values like showing respect to superiors, resisting the temptation of "religious sins", upholding "Thai customs and traditions", and sacrificing oneself for the good of the country. School children (and sometimes even adults) are advised to recite them daily, and to further push their agenda the military junta has financed short films based on said values.

And so we have the short film "30", about a spoiled brat young, wealthy and neatly-kempt Thai boy and his underachieving, goofy (and darker-skinned!) best friend in school (a private school, mind you!), learning about friendship and acceptance. This would all be as expected if it wasn't for that intro sequence stylized like a children's coloring book showing the different school activities,  one of which involves the protagonist standing in front of a  portrait of Adolf Hitler during art class, while winking suggestively at the camera (0:54 min. in video below).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFu5whDYq-Q]

The movie was uploaded to YouTube and was unsurprisingly removed from official channels after a sufficient amount of baffled outrage on social media at the odd inclusion the scene. As usual, bootleg copies have popped up elsewhere already. This not the first time that there has been outrage at the insensitive or just simply misplaced use of Nazi symbols and Adolf Hitler depictions. In the past unsuspecting school and university students (and certain Bangkok hipster shops) have been criticized for their trivial use of such images.

But was this just yet another lapse in judgment and a show of ignorance stemming from a rather dismal education system? Or - given the apparent winks and nods throughout the whole short film (e.g. rich, spoiled, overachieving boy living in mansion attending a private school) - is this part of an almost satirical subtext undercutting the whole "12 core values" and the military junta's re-imagineering of what makes a "good" Thai?

(MORE: Thailand’s junta brings its message to the silver screen)

Whatever the case may be, it must have somehow flown over the heads of the officials - Thai junta Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth and several other ministers are credited in the movie as sponsors before the actual cast and crew - and thus found its way to an astonished general public. Certainly not what the generals had in mind.

UPDATE [Dec 9]: The colleagues at Khaosod English have talked to "30" director Kulp Kaljaruek and he seemingly shows no regret or remorse or any deeper meaning at all:

"As for Hitler's portrait, I have seen so many people using it on T-Shirts everywhere. It's even considered a fashion. It doesn't mean I agree with it, but I didn't expect it to be an issue at all." [...]

When asked whether "30" was an attempt to poke fun at Gen. Prayuth's Twelve Values in a subversive way, Kulp insisted that he did not intend the film to be political at all.

"Director Defends 'Hitler Scene' in Thai Junta Film", Khaosod English, December 9, 2014

Just as much as Hitler is sometimes being treated as a pop cultural icon in Thailand (see above), his production company "Kantana Motion Pictures" (and part of one of the largest TV and film companies in Thailand) also seems to like some of the same motifs and color schemes...! The director continues:

"[Hitler] is the character of this child," Kulp explained, [...] "He's always been 'number one,' and he's selfish. Hitler is also a 'number one,' in a bad way," Kulp continued. "He was good at persuading a lot of people, but he refused to listen to the majority. He was always arrogant. That's why the war happened."

"Director Defends 'Hitler Scene' in Thai Junta Film", Khaosod English, December 9, 2014

Apart from incorrectly stating almost any historical fact about Hitler and the Third Reich (is he suggesting that Hitler started World War 2 out of arrogance and there was widespread opposition against him? Really?!), he has absolutely fumbled artistically justify that scene other than making a shrewd reference to the dangers of a charismatic evil swaying the population - which is further supplemented by a military junta spokesman:

Col. Sansern Kaewkumnerd, spokesperson of the Office of Prime Minister, admitted that he has not had time to see the film, but offered a possible explanation of why the Hitler cameo was included. "If I were to make an uneducated guess, it may have been intended to say that democracy has good and bad sides," Col. Sansern said.

"Director Defends 'Hitler Scene' in Thai Junta Film", Khaosod English, December 9, 2014

Uneducated indeed, since Thai ultra-conservatives - including the anti-government protesters, whose actions this and last year have paved the way for the military coup - like to often play the "Hitler-also-came-from-elections"-card in order to denounce democracy as a whole, as we have previously discussed here, here and here.

UPDATE 2 [Dec 11]: The Prime Minister's Office Minister Pannada Diskul told Reuters, after apologizing for the understandably upset Israeli ambassador, that "The director had decided to make changes to the film even before it made news to ease everybody's concerns." That's rather surprising to hear since, as seen above, the director initially said that he  "didn't expect to be an issue at all"...!

Thailand's military junta to delay elections to 2016 - is anyone surprised?

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 28, 2014

In the immediate aftermath of the military coup of the May 22 earlier this year, there was some early hope by rather optimistic (but ultimately naive) observers that this hostile takeover of powers would be just a "speed bump" or a "slight setback" for Thailand's democracy. The hope was that, as with the previous coup in 2006, powers would be returned to a quasi-civilian government that would organize fresh democratic elections within a year.

However, the 2006 military takeover failed to purge the political forces of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his sister Yingluck taking power in 2011, only to be ousted earlier this year. This time the military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has been particularly cagey (as mentioned here) about the near- and mid-term future of Thailand's political discourse - particularly about when elections will take place - so much so that the piercing questions by the media at one press conference provoked a walk-out by the junta leader.

In the weeks following that the junta set the agenda: the so-called "roadmap" sees "reconciliation" by the "reform process" as a main pretext before democratic elections can be eventually held. Now six months after the coup, with the establishment of a fully junta-appointed ersatz-parliament called the "National Legislative Assembly" (more than half stacked with active and retired military officers), a fully junta-appointed "National Reform Council" tasked with making reform recommendations, and the rather exclusive "Constitutional Drafting Committee", the institutional bodies for the junta's political groundwork have been set, joined by a cabinet of ministers that is largely the same as the military junta at the top.

The junta said that, all going to plan, elections could be possible in late 2015. However, that prospect is now very unlikely:

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also defense minister, said elections will take place in 2016, citing groups opposed to the junta, or National Council for Peace and Order, as it is formally known, as one reason for the delay.

"We will be able to organize elections around the start of 2016 once the constitution is drafted," Prawit told reporters. "Right now there are elements opposed to the National Council for Peace and Order."

"Thai election pushed back to 2016: deputy PM", Reuters, November 27, 2014

This should come as NO surprise to even the casual observer. There have been quite a few times already that a delay of elections has been hinted at. Here they are in reverse chronological order:

Speaking to the BBC's chief business correspondent Linda Yueh, [Thai finance minister Sommai] Phasee said that from his conversations with Gen Prayuth "I think it may take, maybe, a year and a half" for elections to be held.

He said both he and the prime minister wanted to see an end to martial law, but that it was still needed now "as his tool to deal with security".

"Thailand elections 'could be delayed until 2016'", BBC News, November 27, 2014

[สัมภาษณ์กับนายเทียนฉาย กีระนันทน์ ประธานสภาปฏิรูปแห่งชาติ (สปช.)]

"กฎหมายลูกที่ต้องร่างเพิ่มเติมภายหลังได้รัฐธรรมนูญจะใช้เวลาเท่าไร บอกไม่ได้ ตอบได้เพียงว่าไม่นาน รวมเวลาการทำหน้าที่ของสปช.ทั้งหมดน่าจะห้อยไปถึงปี '59"

[Interview except with Thienchay Keeranan, President of the National Reform Council]

"How much time it will take to amend the constitution [for a referendum] once this is set - I cannot say. I can only say that it won't take long, the work of the National Reform Council will be done by 2016."

"แนวทางปฏิรูป-กรอบร่างรัฐธรรมนูญ - สัมภาษณ์พิเศษ", Khao Sod, October 27, 2014

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (...) said on Wednesday that elections planned for 2015 will depend on whether wide-ranging national reforms can be completed within a year.

"I outlined a roadmap. The election must come with a new constitution and eleven reform areas," said Prayuth. "Everything depends on the roadmap so we must see first if the roadmap can be completed. Elections take time to organize," he added, giving no further details.

"Leader of Thai junta hints at delay in return to elections", Reuters, October 15, 2014

The actual reasons for the delay are pretty simple: the so-called "reform" plans by the junta - aimed at marginalizing the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra's political forces even at the cost of disenfranchising nearly half the electorate - are apparently taking longer than initially believed, despite all the government institutions being dominated by its political allies.

Furthermore, martial law is still in place in order to quash any form of opposition, seen this past week (read here and here). It is these public displays of dissent that the junta will use as a pretense to claim that "reconciliation" hasn't been achieved yet and thus an election cannot be held under the present circumstances. At risk of sounding like  broken record, the real problem isn't the fact that there is opposition to the military junta, it is rather that the opposition is banned from expressing it publicly  - if at all, it should be done silently, says the junta.

The junta's attitude to its commitment to the "roadmap" (and a lot of other things) can be summed up by what junta Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister (and largely assumed main backer of the coup) General Prawit Wongsuwan said earlier this month at a press conference after a case of junta interference in the media (we reported):

I would like to remind the media that the government, the NCPO are currently in the process to achieve reconciliation in this country. Everything that is an obstacle to reconciliation… everything that will create divisions – we won’t let that happen! Let it rest, wait for now. [...] so wait… for a year! We have our roadmap, the government, the NCPO are following it, they’re following their promise. So why the hurry?!

Why the hurry indeed when you cannot be actually held accountable for missing the deadline...?

Why are some opinion poll results so positive about the Thai junta?

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 24, 2014

”The streets are quiet, there are no protests and people are happy!”

This is a common justification of the military coup in Thailand. And often - despite apparent ongoing repression of dissent - the proponents of the army's actions base these claims on the results of opinion polls.

A couple of months ago we highlighted the flawed fallacy of taking opinion poll results as a serious indicator of the mood among Thais and what they think of the current political situation, especially about the junta and their work.

Apart from the general problems with Thai opinion polls (i.e. dodgy methodology and phrasing, small sample sizes, questions about representation etc.), the circumstances since the coup - such as the crackdown on criticism on the street, online and in the media - are discouraging people from expressing their true feelings:

According to one pollster, a number of respondents refused to be interviewed when asked about their political views for fear that they would be “summoned” by the junta.

As a result, the respondents are dominated by either yellow-shirt supporters or people who are politically neutral, said the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.

Mainstream polls have provided glowing praise of the performance of the National Council for Peace and Order since it seized power on May 22, amid orders curbing freedom of expression of the media and anti-coup protesters.

NCPO ‘deterring’ honest opinion polls”, Bangkok Post, August 3, 2014

Besides the likely skewed results by the established opinion poll institutes like ABAC, Bangkok University and Suan Dusit (whose results and methods have been also often criticized in the past), a new organization is raising suspicion with findings such as this:

Up to 95 per cent of the public support junta chief and PM-elect Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as the prime minister, the Master Poll survey has found. The survey was carried out by Thai Researchers in Community Happiness Association among leaders of 622 communities around the country on Friday and Saturday.

"Prayuth receives public overwhelming support as PM: survey", The Nation, August 24, 2014

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has gained increased popularity since it seized power in May with latest poll by the Thai Researchers in Community Happiness Association revealing the junta's popularity now rises to 81 percent from 70.1 percent.

"Military junta’s popularity rises", ThaiPBS, September 22, 2014

The "Master Poll" surveys (no reason given why they're called that) are conducted by the Thai Researchers in Community Happiness Association (TRICHA), which emerged very shortly after the military coup on May 22, 2014. Its first poll on June 14 right away found that 80.8 per cent among 1,209 people are "happier" ever since the hostile takeover.

Other surveys in the past couple months included asking 599 people about the weekly Friday evening TV address by outgoing army chief, junta leader and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha (90 per cent are watching it regularly! 95 per cent like it!) or asking a diminutive sample size of 424 moviegoers if they liked the junta-organized screenings of the of the fifth installment of the nationalistic, dramatized biopic series of the 16th-century King Naresuan - guess what: 93.7 per cent of them came out "happier" because they got to see a movie for free!

Not only are nearly all results of their "Master Poll" surveys suspiciously overwhelmingly positive towards the junta, despite a relatively small sample size (in most cases below a 1,000), but also the sudden appearance of TRICHA itself shortly after the coup does raise some questions.

In a message on TRICHA's website (in which the survey results are in Thai, but everything else oddly is in English), it states that, "As one of private companies in Thailand, (...) the Master Poll and Policy, Co., Ltd. plays a leadership role as one of the country’s organizations for academic research and policy making." (sic!) This message is signed by an unnamed "Association's Chief", whose profile on the website is empty as of writing, as are many other sections.

A look at the website's domain registration reveals that both masterpoll.net and tricha.net are registered to Mr. Noppadon Kannika, who has also been occasionally named as TRICHA's director in the Thai press (e.g. here). According to his bio from his Alma Mater University of Michigan (where he graduated in Survey Methodology), he was director of the ABAC Poll Research Center and has held "some official positions," including one at the Royal Thai Army - indeed, he has been research advisor to the commander-in-chief in the past.

According to his profiles on Twitter and LinkedIn, he left ABAC to pursue another Master degree at Georgetown University in Strategy and Policy Management, while his Twitter bio still links to ABAC Poll, but has been regularly tweeting news articles about the "Master Poll" results. The masterpoll.net domain was registered on May 15, 2014 - one week before the military coup. That could be just a coincidence. However, Mr. Noppadon's LinkedIn page lists the "Royal Thai Army" as his current employer while his job title is, according to himself, "unknown"!

Given the relative lack of information on the TRICHA's website, the apparently suspicious career choice its director made recently and ultimately a bunch of questionably one-sided survey results are ultimately clear indicators that these are very weak foundations to base an universal assessment of the Thai people's happiness - especially in the current political climate where only very few options and opinions are tolerated.

7 observations about Thailand's new, junta-picked cabinet

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 1, 2014 One hundred days after Thailand's military launched a coup and toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the establishment of an interim constitution, a so-called "National Legislative Assembly" (NLA) and its appointment of army chief and Thai junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister, Thailand now has an interim cabinet.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej endorsed the cabinet on Saturday and the names were published in the Royal Gazette on late Sunday afternoon (PDF), thus making the announcement official. This marks another step by the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), as the junta calls itself, in its proclaimed roadmap to substantially "reform" Thailand's political system and to bring what they say is "true democracy" that will result in elections some time late 2015.

Here's the list of the 33 members of the cabinet "Prayuth 1":

  • Prime Minister: Gen. Prayuth Chanocha
  • Deputy Prime Ministers: Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, MR Pridiyathorn Devakula, Yongyuth Yutthawong, Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn, Wissanu Kruea-Ngam
  • Defense: Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr (deputy)
  • Interior: Gen. Anupong Paochinda, Suthi Makbun (deputy)
  • Foreign Affairs: Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn, Don Pramudwinai (deptuy)
  • Justice: Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya
  • Finance: Sommai Phasi
  • Transport: ACM Prajin Juntong, Akom Termpitayapaisit (deputy)
  • Energy: Narongchai Akrasanee
  • Commerce: Gen. Chatchai Sarikalya, Apiradi Tantraporn (deputy)
  • Industry: Chakkamon Phasukvanich
  • Education: Adm. Narong Pipatanasai, Lt.-Gen. Surachet Chaiwong (deputy), Krissanapong Kiratikorn (deputy)
  • PM's Office: ML Panadda Diskul, Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana
  • Social Development and Human Security: Pol.-Gen. Adul Saengsingkaew
  • Public Health: Rachata Rachatanavin, Somsak Chunharas (deputy)
  • Labor: Gen. Surasak Kanjanarat
  • Culture: Veera Rojpojanarat
  • Natural Resources and Environment: General Dapong Ratanasuwan
  • Science and Technology: Pichet Durongkaveroj
  • Tourism and Sports: Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul
  • Information and Communication Technology (MICT): Pornchai Rujiprapa
  • Agriculture: Peetipong Phuengbun na Ayutthaya

Here are some observations of the new Thai junta cabinet, in no particular order:

1. Timing of the not-so-subtle signs

As with many other announcements and decisions made by the military junta, it was really just a matter of time before the cabinet would be announced - albeit on a relatively short notice. This time however, the signs in the run-up to the announcement were quite obvious: the resignation of several National Legislative Assembly members such as Narongchai Akrasanee (now Energy Minister), Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul (Tourism) and Ratchata Rachtanavin (Public Health) within a week signaled that a finalized cabinet line-up was imminent, since according to the interim constitution one cannot be both. On top of that they're joined by Pornchai Rujiprapa (MICT) and Gen. Surasak Kanjanarat (Labor), who resigned from the boards of the state-owned energy company PTT and the public broadcaster MCOT, respectively. Also, Pridiyathorn Devakula and Wissanu Kruea-Ngam have quit the board of Post Publishing (who brings out the Bangkok Post among others) to become the new deputy prime ministers.

While it may surprise some that the announcement was made on a Sunday afternoon, the crucial date of August 31 wasn't such a surprise. Not only can the new cabinet get right onto work on Monday, September 1, but it also allows some crucial decisions to be made that are due this coming month: the 2015 budget draft is set to be rubber stamped by the NLA and, more importantly, the annual reshuffle of military officers is taking place this month. Not only can the military leadership further cement its position by demoting any potential dissenting officers and promoting loyalists, it also doesn't have deal with any opposition in the Defense Council anymore, since all seven positions (defense minister, his deputy, permanent secretary for the defense, supreme commander and the chiefs of army, navy and the air force) are filled with military men.

2. Double duty for a very green cabinet

Among the 33 cabinet members, 13 of them hold military or police ranks - practically the entire upper echelon of the Thai military are at the table: besides army chief and PM Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, there are his predecessors Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan (now dep.-PM and Defense) and Gen. Anupong Paochinda (Interior), his deputy army chief Gen. Udomdej Sitabuir (dep. Def.-Min.), assistant army chiefs Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya (Justice) and General Chatchai Sarikalya (Commerce), supreme commander Gen. Tanasak Patimapragorn (dep.-PM and Foreign Affairs), air force chief ACM Prajin Jaunting (Transport), navy chief Adm. Narong Pipatanasai (Education), permanent secretary for defense Gen. Surasak Kanjanarat (Labor) and deputy army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Surachet Chaiwong (dep. Edu.-Min.).

The military is occupying the key ministries, especially concerning economics and national security - including the appointment of National Intelligence Agency director Suwaphan Tanyumvardhana (who reports directly to Gen. Prayuth, the junta chief and now also to Gen. Prayuth, the PM) as minister of the PM's office. Also, with Prawit and Gen. Anupong are two key persons behind the prolonged anti-government protests that enabled the military coup back in powerful positions in addition to their advisor roles in the Thai junta.

Furthermore, a lot more familiar faces are on the list as nearly the entire military junta aka the NCPO, including its advisory board, forms the cabinet (with the notable exceptions of junta advisors ACM Itthaporn Subhawong and Somkid Jatusripak), since the junta is going to stay on alongside to the interim government with wide-raging powers guaranteed by its own constitution.

3. Retirement plans for life after the military

As mentioned above, the annual reshuffle of military officers is set to take place this month and five key personnel have reached the age of  60 years and thus mandatory retirement: army chief Gen. Prayuth (PM), supreme commander Gen. Tanasak (Foreign Affairs and dep.-PM), air force chief ACM Prajin (Transport), navy chief Adm. Narong (Education) and Pol.-Gen. Adul Saengsingkaew (Social Development). Whether or not they are actually going to retire from their military ranks and find new 'employment' in the junta and the cabinet is unknown at this point.

4. The Foreign Ministry has some explaining to do

The Nation reported on August 20 that several officials at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) would find their work "difficult to explain to their foreign counterparts and the international community" if a military officer takes up that portfolio, since they "have plenty of capable diplomats," for the example the new deputy foreign minister Don Pramudwinai, who previously was Thai envoy to the UN.  Now that supreme commander Gen. Tanasak is going to represent the Thai junta to the world, the diplomats will have their work cut out, since "two military coups in a decade is already hard enough to explain," according to a MFA source quoted in The Nation.

5. Operation: education

As the sole cabinet portfolio, the Education Ministry has been assigned two deputy ministers to support Education Minister Adm. Narong Pipatanasai. That's not a big surprise considering Gen. Prayuth's much-touted "reform" plans for Thailand's poor education system involve a 19.3 per cent cut of the total 2015 budget (498.16bn Baht or $15.66bn, to be precise), but also a big emphasis on "Thai values and morals" rather than an overhaul of the curriculum for the promotion of critical thinking and analysis. It also doesn't help that an apparent follower of pseudoscience and a paranormal cult has been put in charge of reforming the public school curriculum.

6. The many more hats of Gen. Prayuth

Last week before his nomination and eventual confirmation as prime minister, we talked about the "many hats" Gen. Prayuth is already wearing as army chief and junta leader. In fact, we forgot to mention that ever since the military coup he's now wearing a total of 15 different hats, meaning he's the chairman or president of several government committees, TV channels and even sport clubs. There's also news that he's even going to take over command of the 4th army region, which Thailand's troubled South. With his mandatory retirement as army chief anything but certain, it begs the question if he will be able to juggle everything?

7. Other observations

Continuing the trend of severe gender imbalance set by the NLA, there are only two women in the cabinet: Deputy Commerce Minister Apiradi Tantraporn and Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul. The latter is also currently - quite puzzingly - CEO of Toshiba Thailand, but no apparent conflict of interest has been signalled here yet, despite two members stepping down from their board positions at Post Publishing (see above).

Two new cabinet members were also cabinet members in the last junta government 2006-07: Mr Pridiyathorn Devakula (then Finance, now dep.-PM) and Yongyuth Yutthawon (then Science, now dep.-PM)

And finally, the average of the "Prayuth 1" cabinet members is 62.4 years old. As of now, the abilities and knowledge of the new ministers who'll lead the ministries' policies are yet to be proven.

Thai Studies, Harvard University and the problem with political lobbyists

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 26, 2014 It is an unfortunate reality that many areas of study at universities across the world will never have the same draw than others. Very often, the more exotic the area, the less attractive it is for most prospective students.

There can, however, be certain benefits to taking the road less traveled. With (theoretically) smaller student to faculty ratios and (theoretically) a broader range of topics to cover, the more exotic subjects provide students with an opportunity to study something that is substantially less crowded than, say, law, economics or medicine, engage in cultural and academic exchanges with foreign cultures, and maybe even become a rare expert in that area.

Despite being often ridiculed as such an exotic fringe subject (or as the Germans say an ”Orchideenfach”, comparing it to an orchid flower - small, expensive and useless according to some) by the general public, Thai Studies at foreign universities actually have a tradition going back several decades. Cornell University was the first in the United States to open a Thai Studies center in 1947.  Formal Thai-language education in Germany dates back to the 1930s. Today, a number of Thai Studies programs with vastly different specializations are being offered at universities worldwide.

One of the institutions that may, or may not, be added to this list is Harvard University in the United States, considered to be one of the elite universities in the world. That is the wish of Michael Herzfeld, professor of anthropology at Harvard and a key figure behind the initiative to establish a Thai Studies program there.

In 2012, the first seeds were sown:

On April 18, Thai Studies at Harvard was launched with an inaugural lecture on "Thailand at Harvard." (…)

The targeted $6 million in funds will enable the programme to provide Thai language instruction; fund a chair (professorship) of Thai studies; and host seminars, workshops, lectures, and a film series focusing on Thailand. (…)

Prof Herzfeld emphasised it was crucial to establish a Thai programme in perpetuity at Harvard. He maintains the only way to do so was to create a dedicated professorship and a dedicated programme of Thai language instruction, and seminars and lectures on Thailand across the entire university. These facilities would provide resources for people in the community who have interests in working in, or doing research about Thailand.

According to the plan, the chair of Thai studies would be open to researchers on Thailand from any academic discipline. This would be a tenured position for a senior professor and would have a title that includes the name of the chair. The incumbent could be of any nationality.

Harvard plans to launch Thai studies initiative”, The Nation, May 21, 2012

Last week, The Harvard Crimson - a student-run college newspaper - published an article by Harvard alumni Ilya Garger that focuses on the current state of the Thai Studies efforts, in particular its financing and its supporters:

(…) Harvard is collaborating with key supporters of the recent coup to create a permanent Thai Studies program at the university. These individuals, most prominently former Foreign Ministers Surin Pitsuwan and Surakiart Satirathai, have spearheaded a campaign to raise $6 million for the program, which they have characterized as a means of promoting Thailand’s monarchy and national interests. Professor Michael Herzfeld, who is leading the initiative, wrote in an emailed statement to me that the program would not be tied to specific political interests and Harvard conducts due diligence on its donors. (…)

(…) At a fundraising event I attended in Bangkok last August, Surakiart declared that the Thai Studies at Harvard was intended as “a program to honor the King.” (…)

(…) Surin used the word “beachhead” to describe the envisioned role of the Thai Studies program. (…) Surin announced donations from several tycoons, and said he was seeking funding for the program from the King’s Crown Property Bureau, which manages the monarch’s wealth of more than $30 billion.

The Thai Studies program’s proponents at Harvard include well-intentioned and politically astute individuals who are aware that the some of the money being raised comes with an agenda. Michael Herzfeld in particular has a strong record of standing up for academic freedom. Harvard must ensure that the program is funded and run transparently, and that it is not co-opted by coup apologists (…)

”Troubles with Thai Studies”, by Ilya Garger, The Harvard Crimson, August 18, 2014

The article also elaborates on Harvard University’s ties to members of the Thai royal family. That is likely the reason why the article and the allegations made in it got even more attention when it was taken off The Harvard Crimson’s website last Wednesday because of ”concerns about the personal safety of its author” during his stay in Thailand at the time of publishing.

”The fact that we were compelled to temporarily remove the piece certainly was surprising,” said Crimson president Sam Weinstock in an email reply to Asian Correspondent. "We avoid removing content from our website in all but extremely exceptional circumstances.” Weinstock also added that he is not aware if a similar situation has occurred before at the college newspaper.

Indeed, given the tone and sensitive issues raised in the article, the author might well have put himself in the crosshairs. An apparent death threat was made  against Garger by a Los Angeles-based Thai national on Facebook, but that reportedly happened after the removal of the critical article and also not on the Facebook pages of anybody directly involved.

A day later the article was put back up on the Crimson website with a note that the author Ilya Garger had left Thailand. The Hong Kong-based founder of a business research service told Asian Correspondent that the request to temporarily remove his article from The Harvard Crimson’s website ”wasn’t in response to any individual threat. (…) No one has personally contacted me with any threats, ” but admitted that the response to his article was ”stronger than expected.”

Garger added that the Thai Studies initiative at Harvard has progressed as far as it is has ”because relatively few people knew about it.” While lauding Prof. Herzfeld in his article for his strong standing for academic freedom, Garger thinks Herzfeld made ”too many concessions in exchange for donations. (…) I wrote the article because I think that with more scrutiny, this program will be carried out in a more responsible way.”

In the aforementioned article, two Thai politicians are named the main campaigners raising the estimated $6m for the Thai Studies program. One is Surakiart Sathirathai, former deputy prime minister under Thaksin Shinawatra, with whom he split after the military coup of 2006. The other man is Surin Pitsuwan, former foreign minister under Chuan Leekpai and 2013 ASEAN secretary-general. The latter publicly supported the anti-government protests (at least in their early stages) that preluded the military coup of May 22.

Both Harvard alumni, Surakiart and Surin invited members of the Harvard Club of Thailand for a fundraiser evening in August last year. The event, which was attended by high-ranking members of the Democrat Party (as shown in a ThaiPBS news report), held a reception for Michael Herzfeld and Jay Rosengard of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

In the invitation seen by Asian Correspondent, Mr. Surakiart and Mr. Surin called for a permanent Thai Studies program ”for the benefits of our own Thai people,” but also ”Harvard scholars and students to learn Thai, to study our rich history and our proud culture” in order ”to offer solutions to our issues of the day within a larger global context, to help increase competitiveness of our human resources, to raise our profile and that of our products and services, among others.”

The event also highlighted the need for scholarships and fellowships to Harvard University are for Thai students ”less privileged than us” and a need for Thai professors ”hold prominent teaching and research positions” at the Thai Studies program at Harvard.

Herzfeld declined to respond to Asian Correspondent’s questions about the Crimson article, and also more general questions about the current progress of the Thai Studies initiative. Instead, we were referred to a Harvard spokesman, who issued a statement  saying that ”faculty searches and appointments are conducted independently, and faculty members determine and pursue their own research interests and teaching” whenever donations are accepted.

The involvement of Thai politicians and apparent supporters of Thailand’s recent military coup shows the difficult relationship between academia and politics, especially when it comes to fundraising. It remains to be seen that due diligence will be conducted in the creation of a Thai Studies program at one of the top ranked universities in the world, and whether the initiative will spawn a multi-disciplinary and critical program that upholds academic freedom or it becomes solely a training ground for Thailand’s political elites.

Junta chief Prayuth named new prime minister of Thailand

Originally published on Siam Voices on August 21, 2014 UPDATE: Thailand's hand-picked parliament appointed junta and military chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new prime minister of Thailand Thursday morning in a unanimous vote. There was little doubt about the outcome of today's vote. Prayuth is due to retire from the armed forces next month and the change appears aimed in part at ensuring the military maintains its grip on power as it  implements major political reforms in the months or possibly years ahead.

+++ ORIGINAL ARTICLE +++ 

Thailand's National Legislative Assembly (NLA) is expected to appoint army chief and junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha as the next prime minister on Thursday morning. And there's a very high degree of certainty there will be no opposition. Here's why:

Earlier this week on Monday, the NLA passed the 2015 draft budget - which allocates a large chunk of its 2.58 trillion baht (US$81.08bn) to education and at the same time increasing military spending yet again (read our infographic break down here).

What was significantly telling was not only that 183 lawmakers voted for the budget and only three abstained (while 11 others apparently failed to show up), but the whole entire process before the actual vote:

Of the 197 members in the assembly, only 17 reserved their right to speak on the budget bill in the first reading on Monday - and none of the 17 hailed from the military. As for the so-called debate, all the NLA members did was to praise or applaud the junta or express their gratitude to the paramount leader for choosing them to sit in this honourable post.

It is not true that Thai military officers do not like speaking in public, especially since junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha spent more than an hour proposing the bill and concluding his speech.

"Rubber-stamp NLA could be waste of time and money", The Nation, August 20, 2014

It would have been both ambitious and foolish to assume that the NLA would be any kind of a legitimate legislative government body, but the utter lack of debate and high degree of kowtowing by the junta-appointed legislature further underlines that the assembly is an unnecessary House full of yes-men.

A 'yes' vote this morning seems a foregone conclusion:

The first step to be taken in the selection process Thursday is for NLA members to nominate a candidate or more for prime minister. (...)

If there is only one candidate, the NLA members will be called by their names in a roll-call to verbally say whether they agree with the nomination. (...)

The winning candidate must get more than half or 99 votes from the 197 NLA members.

"NLA to vote for PM by roll-call", Bangkok Post, August 20, 2014

While the role-call procedure isn't new during a PM selection, it is highly likely that there will be a rare unanimous vote in a Thai parliament.

Speaking of rare, on Monday junta leader, showed up wearing a business suit instead of an army uniform during his long, rapid-fire address to the NLA, in which he said:

"Thai people are capable. Many of them are nearly clever but others are not so smart. We need to help each other," he said. "Does anyone have any problems? Does anyone disapprove [of the bill]?"

"NLA session ran like well-oiled Army machine", The Nation, August 19, 2014

We all know by now that nobody disapproved, to which Prayuth quipped:

"Nobody had any problems. Nobody disagreed," Prayuth said.

"NCPO aims to avoid debt", The Nation, August 19, 2014

According to a NLA spokesman, Gen Prayuth actually doesn't have to give a speech or even show up at the assembly during his endorsement for prime minister (UPDATE: He actually will not be present at the NLA), as the 197 members will say 'yes' to his name one by one (with the possible exception of the assembly president and his two deputies).

In April 2011, a column in The Nation described Prayuth as somebody taking on too many roles, thus in the words of the author wearing too many hats:

Here are just some of the hats that Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has put on over the past few weeks: (…)

- That of a not-so-convincing denier of coup rumours: Prayuth can never be convincing on this subject because of the role he played in the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra. How can he, who was involved in a coup then be denying the threat now?

- That of an adviser to all Thai voters: “Vote to protect monarchy” was the instruction from Prayuth that this newspaper carried on its front page last week. He was also quoted as saying that a high turnout was the key to safeguarding the monarchy and democracy. But what if the majority of Thai voters vote for the “wrong” party? Will there be another military coup? (...) Surely, he can’t be serious.

- That of chief censor and promoter of the lese majeste law: Prayuth has ordered the Information and Communication Technology Ministry to block more websites and has told his soldiers to file lese majeste charges against red-shirt leaders for what they allegedly said during the April 10 rally. This was even before the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and police could make a move.

These are just some of the many hats that Prayuth has enjoyed wearing recently, though one can’t help but wonder if they really fit an Army chief.

An army chief who dons too many hats“, The Nation, April 20, 2011 (hyperlinks inserted by me)

Fast-forward three and a half years and a military coup later, General Prayuth today is not only wearing the proverbial hats of army chief (as he's reaching retirement next month), of the junta leader and quite possibly the hat of Thailand's prime minister No. 29.

And should by some oddity somebody else become prime minister today and Prayuth stays on 'only' as army chief and junta leader, he will still have his hands firmly on the rudder...

"Don't worry who will be prime minister or cabinet members. Whoever they are, we can control them and ensure they can work,'' Gen Prayuth said.

"NLA waves through budget", Bangkok Post, August 19, 2014

The Thai junta's 2015 draft budget, explained in 4 graphs

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 19, 2014 Thailand's National Legislative Assembly (NLA) approved the draft for the 2015 budget in its first reading on Monday. The body, whose members were all picked by the military junta and is thus dominated by active and retired military officers, rubber-stamped the budget bill with 183 votes and three abstentions (assumed to be the assembly president and his two deputies). Noting the lack of votes against the bill, junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha quipped: "Nobody had any problems. Nobody disagreed."

An ad-hoc committee will screen the budget bill and it is expected to be completed by September 1 and put to a vote on September 17, all well before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1. By then a new cabinet is expected to be in charge of the interim government.

The proposed 2015 budget sees a total allocation of 2.58 trillion baht (US$81.08bn) - 50bn Baht ($1.57bn) or roughly 2 per cent more than the previous budget. According to the Budget Bureau's published draft (translated spreadsheet) from last month it breaks down like this:

Not only are ministries listed, but also civil servants, the bureaucratic system, provincial funds, the so-called "independent" government agencies (e.g. the obstructionist Election Commission) and many others.

As is evident above, education set to get a big chunk out of that pie chart with 498.16bn Baht ($15.66bn) being allocated to the Education Ministry, but more on that later.

But not only the Education Ministry can look forward to an increased budget as the next graph shows:

The increased budgets for the ministries of transport, interior and agriculture are not surprising.

On the transportation front, the junta has recently approved 741.46bn Baht ($23.3bn) for the construction of two high speed train routes from Thailand's industry belt on the eastern coast up to the north and north-east to Chiang Rai and Nong Khai respectively. The main goal seems to be to improve freight links with China, as evidenced by the fact that neither or fthe routes will pass through the capital Bangkok.

The Interior Ministry is also in charge of many administrative issues down to the local level  (e.g. appointed provincial governors). Whether that money will be used for any decentralization efforts has yet to be seen, even though that looks very unlikely at the moment.

And with the military junta pledging to help rice farmers get the money that the toppled (elected) government's rice subsidy scheme couldn't pay out, the rise of the Agriculture Ministry's budget is unsurprising. On the other end of the spectrum, the massive cut for the Finance Ministry could also be related to the rice scheme and thus a punishment of sorts by the military junta.

The loss of almost a third of the Tourism Ministry's budget appears to be counterintuitive, as tourist arrivals are currently down 10 per cent compared to this time last year - unsurprising, given the prolonged political crisis and its (politically) violent resolution.

The next two graphs are by ThaiPublica and focus on a trend of government spending in the past decade, regardless of who is in power. Let's start off with the education spending between 2008 until today:

As regular readers of this blog know, Thailand's education system leaves muchto be desired and is a serious concern not only when it comes to regional competitiveness, but also - in the opinion of this author and others - one of the root causes of why Thailand has a prolonged political crisis in the first place.

Previous governments in Thailand were already spending a sizable amount of its national budget for education, but ultimately more money was thrown at the problem rather than a complete and long overdue overhaul of the curriculum.

Noteworthy is the repeated emphasis by junta leader and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha to re-examine and thoroughly reform Thailand's education system. The 498.16bn baht ($15.66 billion) are more likely to be spent to teach Thai children about the "Thai values and morals" that Gen Prayuth has been preaching and to re-enforce the archaic, militaristic attitude at Thai schools, rather than critical thinking and individuality on the part of the students.

The last graph is on military spending in the past 10 years and the trend should be quite obvious:

After the military coup of 2006 (or 2549 in the Buddhist calendar) the defense budget rose annually between 25 to 33 per cent until 2010, before levelling off in 2011-2012.

However, in a bid by Yingluck's government to appease the military, the defense budget increased again gradually - we all know by now how well this worked out for her and her government...

Thus, it comes to no surprise that military spending has grown over 100bn Baht ($3.14bn) or 135 per cent over the last 10 years and with next year's budget draft, the junta is adding another 5 per cent, or 193.07bn baht (US$6.07bn).

While these graphs are a good indicator about where Thailand's military junta is putting its emphasis, what they cannot directly visualize is the character of the junta and its leader Gen Prayuth, who said that if Thailand doesn't "purchase new weapons, then nobody will fear us".

Prayuth also stressed that the junta only has "limited time" to govern before an eventual promised return of civilian power sometime later next year, but as stated in the interim constitution, Gen Prayuth and the junta will be calling the shots until then - and most likely beyond that, including complete control over the country's finances and an assembly to rubber stamp it.