Bloody Events Have Mixed Legacy

Bloody events have mixed legacy - Bangkok Post, May 20, 2005

[For once the Post has a truly extraordinary editorial. A Chulalongkorn University lecturer writes an impartial and calm article that reminds us of the circumstances surrounding the events and the results of Black May. Perceptive points are the fine line between success and failure for Suchinda, the outrageous corruption of the elected government that was overthrown, and 'People's Constitution" that led to the Thaksin government.]
...For the relatives of May 1992 victims killed by government-initiated gunfire, those days will never be closed. Those responsible for their loved ones' deaths have never faced justice.
...Moot as it may seem, Gen Suchinda's true intentions from the outset remain a subject of debate for historians. What if he had kept his word and ushered in a newly elected government under the caretaker cabinet of Anand Panyarachun before returning to the barracks? In the event, Gen Suchinda was engulfed by the forces and demands around him, ultimately succumbing to his corruptibility of power when he accepted the premiership after the March 1992 election.
...The genesis of May 1992, lest we forget, was the blatant and unmanageable corruption of the elected government of Gen Chatichai Choonhavan. Its manner of corruption led to the damning description "buffet cabinet".
...Mr Thaksin has apparently learned from Gen Chatichai. Appearances of corruption have been actively managed for public consumption, and conflicts of interest involving the personal business interests of those elected to power may have replaced the crude corruption involving the budget. Corruption, in short, has become nuanced and sophisticated.
...The 1997 constitution has not worked out as intended. It has perhaps produced too much of a good thing: an elected government so stable and effective that it has ruled by fiat at times.
...The constitution already has designed an eclectic set of institutions. It is best to leave more time for these institutions to work themselves out. That these institutions have not functioned as envisaged may be less due to their design than to the intentions and interests of the people who man them...


[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

ANALYSIS / REMEMBERING MAY 1992
Bloody events have mixed legacy

The price paid was heavy in terms of loss of life, but there were positive results derived from May 1992

By THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK

The domination of newspaper headlines this week by the bomb scanner procurement scandal and the world beauty pageantry has made it difficult to put into perspective the solemn events of May 17-20, 1992.

Although those critical days of 13 years ago changed the face of Thai politics indelibly, they have since come and passed year in and year out without much fanfare. It is as if May 1992 is destined to become a neglected chapter in Thai political annals. Its commemoration pales in comparison to the political crises of Octobers 1973 and 1976, even though the impact of May 1992 may be much greater.

A closer look at what May 1992 has wrought for Thailand reveals a mixed legacy of closures and continuities in Thai politics.

For the relatives of May 1992 victims killed by government-initiated gunfire, those days will never be closed. Those responsible for their loved ones' deaths have never faced justice.

As part of the royally sponsored settlement on the night of May 20 between Maj-Gen Chamlong Srimuang, on the side of the demonstrators, and Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon, for the government, a royal decree was immediately promulgated absolving all involved of any legal wrongdoing in the death of the scores of protesters. The closest semblance to justice has been the ostracism from society of Gen Suchinda and his cohorts, although Gen Suchinda does still celebrate his birthday each year with much fanfare in traditional strongman fashion.

Closure did come, however, for the military's role in Thai politics. While it is always unwise to rule out military coups in Thailand, May 1992 unmistakably drew the curtain on the military's involvement as we had known it.

The event was the end of a long continuum from the 1940s to 1980s during which the military lorded over the political landscape. It gradually yielded to the inexorable tide of democratisation in the 1980s, but came back for one last hurrah in the February 1991 putsch against the government of Chatichai Choonhavan.

Moot as it may seem, Gen Suchinda's true intentions from the outset remain a subject of debate for historians. What if he had kept his word and ushered in a newly elected government under the caretaker cabinet of Anand Panyarachun before returning to the barracks? In the event, Gen Suchinda was engulfed by the forces and demands around him, ultimately succumbing to his corruptibility of power when he accepted the premiership after the March 1992 election.

Yet one by-product of Gen Suchinda's rise and fall was the two terms of government headed by Mr Anand. Thailand had its cleanest and most effective cabinet of professionals and bureaucrats steeped in their respective technical expertise. It was the paradox of Thai democracy that such a government had to be appointed by coup-makers in uniform instead of being elected at the ballot box.

Mr Anand's two short tenures accomplished more in policy terms than each of the previous elected governments. Initiatives well-known today, such as the Asean Free Trade Area, hark back to the Anand period.

The Thai media today have much to learn from the months of junta (also known as the National Peace-keeping Council) rule. At the height of the confrontation, when hundreds of thousands of protesters moved from Sanam Luang to Ratchadamnoen avenue for what turned out to be a violent showdown with armed soldiers, the media were divided.

The state-owned electronic media became government mouthpieces, spouting outrageous distortions. Local viewers had to rely on foreign news broadcasts to know what was going on at home. The print media kept to their pens, and became a galvanising force for the protest movement.

During this time, the international broadcast and print media played a crucial role in factual reporting. When the domestic media cannot be relied upon for factual accuracy, especially when television channels are still largely controlled by the state, the international media have an important obligation to carry out their duty. It was that way then as it is today.

The genesis of May 1992, lest we forget, was the blatant and unmanageable corruption of the elected government of Gen Chatichai Choonhavan. Its manner of corruption led to the damning description ``buffet cabinet''.

The Chatichai period coincided with the launch of mega-infrastructure and telecommunication projects, not dissimilar to what we are seeing today under the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Gen Chatichai, however, could not keep the public perception of corruption at bay. The corruption led to the erosion of his political legitimacy, paving the way for the February 1991 coup.

With corruption as the underlying cause of public criticism, Gen Chatichai was also accused of presiding over a parliamentary dictatorship. Mr Thaksin has apparently learned from Gen Chatichai. Appearances of corruption have been actively managed for public consumption, and conflicts of interest involving the personal business interests of those elected to power may have replaced the crude corruption involving the budget. Corruption, in short, has become nuanced and sophisticated.

The singular most important outcome of May 1992 was the political reform process. It led to the drafting of a new constitution over five years before promulgated in October 1997. This process began from the ground up and drew on a pool of experts and an inclusive set of provincial representatives.

Foremost in the minds of the constitution drafters was the ills and defects of the political system that gave rise to the February 1991 coup and its aftermath, leading to the May 1992 violence. Every effort was made to rid Thai politics of corruption, to promote stability and an effective political system, and to foster transparency and accountability of government.

The 1997 constitution has not worked out as intended. It has perhaps produced too much of a good thing: an elected government so stable and effective that it has ruled by fiat at times. Other institutions set out by the constitution to ensure accountability and checks and balances, such as the Senate, the Constitution Court, and the National Counter Corruption Commission, have been politicised and divided. Not surprisingly, many have called for constitutional amendments to restore the balance of power and political forces.

Amending the constitution, however, is tricky. It is akin to opening a can of worms. All kinds of legitimate grievances as well as wicked ploys and manipulative moves are bound to emerge.

The constitution already has designed an eclectic set of institutions. It is best to leave more time for these institutions to work themselves out. That these institutions have not functioned as envisaged may be less due to their design than to the intentions and interests of the people who man them. Dealing with these people and prompting them to mend their ways and operate in accordance with constitutional objectives hold the key to Thailand's democratic future.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a lecturer with the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University
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