The prime minister should step down? An unelected senate?

Calls for the prime minister to step down or cheers for an unelected senate once again draw attention to the strangeness and opacity of the Thai world.

Below are two editorial cartoons we translated in recent months along with some updated comments that shed light on the calls for the PM to step aside and the desire for an unelected senate.

Some blanch at editorial cartoons from the Manager–and not just because the cartoons conflict with their own views and thus they want them censored. Manager cartoons often utilize vulgar or violent themes in a matter-of-fact way. However, these cartoons reflect a very traditionalist view as well as the Thai version of common sense that may be very different from international assumptions. Editor Ron Morris’ book, The Thai Book: A Field Guide to Thai Political Motivations, is available in the Kindle Store.

From Manager, October 2, 2013
Yaowapha Wongsawat: Is what Brother Sin ask Nong Poo to do too risky? [Yaowapha is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra and big sister of Premier Yingluck Shinawatra. She is a Pheu Thai MP and one of the most powerful people in the government. “Poo,” meaning “crab” in Thai, is the nickname for PM Yingluck. “Brother Sin” is a nickname for Thaksin using the style of making a nickname from the last syllable of a name.]
Thaksin Shinawatra: She doesn’t know, Daeng, that it’s risky. [“Daeng” is nickname of Yaowapha.]
Caption: Not knowing due to stupidity… or knowing it, but being bad?

[This cartoon refers to the decision to have Prime Minister Yingluck present a constitutional amendment bill to the monarch for signing despite legal challenges that were going to be filed against it in the courts.

The point here is a concept somewhat unusual to the non-Thai. The idea is that the monarch must not be pressured or ever put in a compromising position–for instance, to be in the position of not signing a bill (for instance, because of pending legal challenges to the bill).

The act of submitting an amendment that has not cleared judicial review and which the opposition contends is an attempt to solidify the government’s hold on power shows a brazen effort to force through something that the government desperately wanted passed.

In doing so, it puts the monarchy into a position of not being able to fulfill its ceremonial position of countersigning bills. Even a perceived delay in signing opens the institution to charges it is involved in politics (the same sort of gambits with the monarchy occurred when Thaksin was prime minister).

Thus, the cartoonist contends that submitting the bills shows a sense of impoliteness and crassness that violates the unspoken conventions by which politicians should interface with the monarchy. It is this alleged breach of protocol and deference that is behind calls for the prime minister to resign once the courts deemed the bill unconstitutional.

Of course, there is no chance the PM will step down, but the anti-Thaksin opposition will simply add this incident to the list of perceived slights against the monarchy stemming from Shinawatra family rule.]

From Manager, September 30, 2013
President of the Parliament: Senator, please stop debating with members of parliament. It’s so loud and it is disturbing them.
Caption: Next year, it will be a couples’ parliament.

[This cartoon illustrates the fears about a constitutional amendment that would return the senate to be a fully elected body. The cartoon jokes that if constitutional amendments are in place to return to a fully elected senate, it will once again be packed with the spouses of MPs as it was when Thaksin was prime minister.

The supposedly neutral senate, which has traditionally been composed of academics, high borns and especially military men, is, in theory, designed to restrain elected MPs from obtaining too much power for their own political cliques. In the past, this limit on the power of the elected also resulted in weak governments and usually put the brakes on real reform or greater empowerment for voters.

Complaints about the army appointing uneducated and greedy military men to hamper the will of the electorate, coupled with a desire for fuller democracy, led to the people’s constitution of 1997 and an elected senate.

During the years when Thaksin was prime minister, the senate became dominated with spouses and relatives of political party MPs. Since the senate was supposed to be non-political, this packing of the chamber with the spouses of MPs from the ruling party was seen as a threat that the popularity of Thaksin’s political machine could override the intent of the constitution for a neutral senate that could check the expected overreach of the elected.

It should also be remembered that present constitution that is being amended was promulgated by a post-coup government and approved in a national referendum in which a “no” campaign was suppressed by the military. Thus, it is not surprising that those who wish to rewrite it hold little reverence for the document.

Amending the present constitution to allow a fully elected senate again would certainly strengthen the Pheu Thai Party’s control over the parliament and thus the spoils of government. A Pheu Thai senate packed with spouses of MPs further alarms opposition politicians along with those who contend that all government efforts are aimed at affording Thaksin a return to political power.

This concept of “checking the elected” seems strange to the Western ear, but the Thai world still usually lauds the learned academic and the appointed over the elected. The elected are still seen as compromised and working for their own ends while they dole out power to their family and friends (this is simply regarded as a common sense notion in the Thai world). The Pheu Thai Party’s conduct in wheedling multiple attempts at amnesty for Thaksin does nothing to dispel this perception (and leads to opponents labeling government supporters “slaves”).

While times are changing, the fear that those in power will become too greedy and still need to be checked can still override Western notions that elections and rule by the elected are the ultimate goals.]

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