Analysis: The strange editorial about Thai politics in the New York Times

Above: Can Egypt Learn From Thailand?, The New York Times, August 22, 2013

Analysis: The strange editorial about Thai politics in the New York Times

In recent years, coverage of Thai political events in the international press has been more nuanced and comprehensive than ever before.

So it is surprising to read that the “trouble really began in 2006…” in Thailand in an op-ed in the New York Times (Can Egypt Learn From Thailand?) as well as that Yingluck is a political peacemaker. The op-ed piece is not even from a professed Thaksin lobbyist, but by the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. While not telling us anything about the real state of Thai politics, it may cast some light on how outsiders see Thai politics.

The op-ed is certainly out of place coming during a time when the government, already in power and able to do most anything it wants, has brought it foes back onto the street and stoked controversy by again pushing amnesty and constitutional amendments designed to cement its power. The writer’s sentiments might have held true earlier this year before the government and its Red Shirts started intimidating the courts, but now the government is in the middle of another battle royale over efforts to confer amnesty on its exiled leader.

This is a brief overview of the dynamics of what is actually happening:

From its earliest pronouncements, the Pheu Thai-led government has given the impression that its first priority is to enable a Thaksin return (this might also be interpreted as the scheming of political figures, like Chalerm, to curry favor with the real party boss).

Various centers of power, both in the government and outside of it, have their own concerns and agendas. However, they all face the prospect that, if Thaksin returns, he will undoubtedly become prime minister again.

In a political world that has had the expectation that political factions take turns holding power and graciously swap MP positions from election to election, the return of Thaksin would be a sea change for Thailand. Having defeated a coup and numerous attempts of the traditional Thai state to hobble him, his return would be an acknowledgement that his political ascendancy cannot be stopped. [Update: Just to clarify, I don’t mean to imply that Thaksin is set to return this week or this month, only that the return of Thaksin is the only actual goal of this government and the ultimate question that stirs up politics now.]

The fear is that a Thaksin return would lead to something akin to Singapore or Malaysia in past decades where one party–holding sway over the media, military and business–has the clout to remake and reform the nation to its own liking. It is this fear of a loss of power that unites many disparate influences that see their prerogatives weakened by this possibility.

It is likely that even some government MPs would prefer normal governing to high-risk legislative gambles for Thaksin’s sake–after all they are already in a sitting government. However, time and again the government risks it all to push through amnesty.

The current anti-government movement does not seem to be based on widespread public sentiment. Protests have been relatively small. Only late last year the government handily put down a similar attempt to unseat it so they are likely confident of handling the situation. There does not seem to be widespread public agitation or even deep interest in parliament and amnesty.

For those who oppose Thaksin, they simply wish for stalemate. This is the easiest outcome–allow the government to legislate as long as it does not try to change the rules for Thaksin’s return. Allow the government to slowly lose popularity over time. Every missed chance at amnesty would convince politicians that Thaksin will never be allowed to return to power.

This is also the reason that Thaksin has to act now rather than later. He can no longer wait for another year or a better time. There is no better time. That is why the government must finally pass some sort of amnesty as soon as it can.

So let’s take the New York Times op-ed piece at face value. It betrays a very U.S.-centric way of seeing the world. This is the American view that there is an innate desire in people for representative democracy–it is what people naturally aim for. However, as we have seen in Iraq, Egypt and much of the Arab Spring nations, while the U.S. attempted to interpret these movements as a desire for freedom and democracy, they were actually more about one disadvantaged political sphere trying to take their turn at power and disadvantaging all others. This might be the start of democracy, or better than what it replaced, but the societal impulse for openness, inclusion, and accountability is usually lacking.

The Pheu Thai in Thailand, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, even Erdogan of Turkey were voted in and thus seemed to be what the people wanted. All rode a wave of popular support and have a public image based on a contrast with previous restrictive or unrepresentative regimes. Like Morsi in Egypt, the Pheu Thai and Thaksin’s Red Shirts are cheered by their supporters when they attempt to enact measures that strengthen the executive and weaken judicial and other checks on the sitting government’s actions.

The fear of the courts in particular is not unfounded in Thailand as courts have emerged as a method of dissolving political parties. Also, a case can be made that the corrupt and relatively chaotic way of doing things in Thailand could be straightened out by a couple decades of Malaysian or Singaporean-style one-party rule. Certainly the Thai opposition has shows little innovation or relevance in Thaksin-dominated Thailand.

The West can only hope that these proto-democratic movements can someday generate a functional multi-party system.

The Times op-ed also shows us how some in the international community see Thailand and what they expect of the nation. Thailand might not be afforded its nuances and contexts such as “Thaksin overreached for power during his time as prime minister.” Or that Thai concepts of fairness trump the rightness or wrongness of the situation. Or that democracy is suspect in the Thai world and must be moderated by outside forces because of long-held feelings about family and the nature of corruption.

These are all real arguments as well as twisted rationales informed by the deeply different Thai worldview. But for many Western observers, Pheu Thai was elected and that is the end of it. Thailand is not big enough nor important enough in a global sense for much more consideration.

Did the “trouble really began in 2006” with the coup as the op-ed suggests? No. It starts and ends with Thaksin and his ambition to influence and direct Thailand’s sitting government. And it also hinges on a traditional Thai mistrust of democracy made real by Thaksin’s time as prime minister from 2001 to 2006.

But if Thaksin were totally removed from the political landscape, what are we left with? The political opportunist MPs of the government that circled their wagons around the Thaksin cause? Or going back to the 1990s with the Democrats and Banharn and Chavalit and even Chalerm? After all these years, is this all the Thai political world has to offer its constituents? No wonder Thaksin remains popular.

The Thai government is making progress on its goals. Amnesty is finally on the table as are constitutional amendments. Rumors are flying that the great unelected powers of the Thai world have made a grand bargain. The result may eventually mean a Thaksin return as prime minister.

But Thaksin as PM again is not really the messy “compromise” of democracy that a U.S.-centric worldview supposes. It is something many nations seem to lurch to on a twisting road to proper representation for all–an underrepresented majority demanding their turn at power to rule unopposed and enjoy the spoils of political battle.

And earlier article with more background on the buildup to what is happening now: The Wheel Begins to Turn: Weekly Rallies and Disapproving Academics

Update: It seems even the New York Times could not stomach the many false assertions in the op-ed:

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