Lese Majeste and the Post-Election Settlement in Thailand

September 1, 2011

I am among 112 international scholars who have signed an open letter to Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra calling on her government to respect freedom of speech and academic freedom in Thailand by rescinding the law of lese majeste and the Computer Crimes Act.

The letter has been released today as the trial of the webmaster of political website Prachatai gets underway. This is just one of dozens of cases where the government has used the lese majeste laws to silence political opponents (see report in the Bankok Post today). The full letter and list of signatories is available at Prachatai itself.

What is particularly disturbing about the current situation is that, with the election of Puea Thai, the party backed by the red-shirt movement whose members have been so egregiously victimised by these laws, many people – not least red-shirts themselves – assumed that the government would move to release Thailand’s numerous political prisoners and, if not reform the lese majeste laws, at least stop abusing them in this fashion. In fact the reverse is true. The new government has explicitly committed itself to ‘defending the monarchy’ by vigorously prosecuting the ‘crime’ of lese majeste.

In fact, the Yingluck government’s position on lese majeste is just one of a number of disturbing signs of an emerging inter-elite reconciliation in Thailand. The case is put most concisely by Giles Ungpakorn on his blog. In short: lese majeste has been reinforced, signalling a regrouping/ reconciliation of elites around conservative social and political institutions; an army general has been appointed defence minister, reinforcing the army’s political power and diminishing the likelihood of any justice for the red-shirts gunned down in Bangkok last spring; and Puea Thai’s modest plans to try to resolve the conflict in the deep south, which are opposed by the Democrats and the network around the palace, have been quietly shelved. What Giles does not mention is that the Democrats, too, have shifted ground somewhat over the last few years. In a desperate attempt to cultivate greater legitimacy after the backroom, military-backed manoeuvres which brought them to power in 2008, they adopted some Puea Thai policies designed to give some crumbs to the poor, and they made similarly inflated spending promises during the 2011 election to those issued by Puea Thai. There is therefore a growing elite consensus that some – but not too many – concessions need to be made to the poor to maintain social peace. Although there is still considerable distrust and animosity between the main elite protagonists, there is nonetheless a growing basis for inter-elite accommodation and reconciliation, on a platform that will mostly favour elite interests rather than those of the recently mobilised masses of Thailand.

That all this is possible reflects the critical weakness of the red-shirt movement, which I pointed out at the SOAS panel event on the Thai crisis I participated in last year: despite remarkable mass mobilisation and growing political consciousness, the red-shirt movement has failed to develop its own, independent political party. It relies instead on a party dominated by oligarchic elites whose principal interest is to gain access to state power for their own rather venal ends. Thai Rak Thai, or its successor, the People’s Power Party, or its successor, Puea Thai, is distinguished from other oligarchic parties only by virtue of its leaders’ recognition that winning and holding political power in a modern democracy, and maintaining the conditions necessary for the reproduction of capitalism, requires some kind of social contract to be struck with the lower orders whereby a flow of ideological and material concessions sustains their support. Thaksin Shinawatra did not introduce 30 baht healthcare because his heart bleeds for the poor, just as his sister did not promise to double to minimum wage because she is some sort of socialist firebrand.

At the SOAS event, I underlined that since 2006 a significant transformation had taken place as millions of poor, traditionally marginalised people had discovered their own sense of agency – and this is not something that can be simply wiped out overnight. So I was optimistic that, despite the huge blow inflicted by the Bangkok massacres of April-May 2010, the red-shirts would not simply disappear, but would regroup and eventually resurge. We saw that to some extent with the mass presence of red-shirts during the election. It was they who enabled Yingluck to win.

Yet, I also said that the red-shirts risked being sold out by their oligarchic political leaders if they failed to develop a political party that was genuinely their own. Unfortunately the red-shirt leadership, having backed Puea Thai to the hilt, reinforcing the cult of personality around Thaksin and even joining Puea Thai as party-listcandidates, now apparently see little option but to cling to the government in the hope that it will deliver on some of its promises (many of which were disowned to a greater or lesser extent within days of the election), declaring that red-shirts’ role is to defend the government against some alleged plot to bring it down in December. Unless the red-shirts managed to assert some alternative agenda to the one being pursued by the government and act to hold Puea Thai to account, the scene could well be set for a new accommodation within the Thai oligarchy which will see the masses pushed decisively to the sidelines.

posted in academic freedom, free speech, media, politics, thailand by Lee

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