Thai elites and coups, it’s all about controlling the people

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A DISCUSSION WITH ANDREW MARSHALL

Text and Photos: Andre Vltchek, unless otherwise noted
Andrew Marshall in Phnom Penh.

Andrew Marshall in Phnom Penh.

[A]ndré Vltchek: There was a coup in Thailand, recently. It appears that the old elites are regaining control of the country. The Thai monarch endorsed the military, which has been, for decades, very close to the United States, and the West in general.

AM: Well you are exactly right. What we are seeing is an old elite that has monopolized power behind the scenes; really behind the scenes, having the last gasp battle to hold on to its power.

Thailand has changed a huge amount in the past decade. We’ve seen ordinary people learning the power of their vote and starting to understand that they deserve equality under the law. They deserve each vote to be equally counted. And Thailand is a society like many in Southeast Asia, and around the world, where for centuries the entrenched elite made ordinary people feel like they are nothing and anything they get from the elite is like a gift, rather than their right. Now, people are beginning to realize that they have rights. And, as a result, the old elites are paranoid and frankly they are getting desperate. So what we are seeing is a dying elite desperately trying to cling on to its power and using a very old-fashioned-style coup as a last attempt to really hold on to their political and economic privileges, because they can’t win elections so all they can do is to use the military to try and defend their power for them.

AV: Are we seeing, actually, a showdown, a battle between feudalism and modern capitalism?

AM: I think that is definitely true. One key difference between Western style feudalism and Thai style feudalism is that in Thailand it is all about control of people, rather than land.  Status in Thailand for centuries has been determined by how many people you control in your entourage. Because land is plentiful, and people who wanted to escape state control in Thailand, would often flee to some uncultivated area of land and reestablish themselves there. But this old style hierarchical exploitative society, this has really persisted in Thailand for centuries. And one thing that makes Thailand slightly different from the rest of the region is that there has never been a large nationalist movement against colonialism.

We are still seeing same old people in charge, but they have to compete with a different world now, as we have social media, we have economic migration, and we have all these new technologies that allow ordinary people to see what the rest of the world looks like, and realize that they had been lied to and oppressed. So they don’t want to accept it, anymore. And the old elite has tried propaganda; it has tried soft coercion. Those are not working anymore, so now we are seeing a coup and hard coercion.

AV: There were several elections and the followers of the former, deposed, Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, kept winning those elections, or more precisely, the parties that were formed to support his legacy were winning them. What followed were coups and brutal crackdowns against Shinawatra’s supporters. It was going on and on: people spoke but elites silenced them and reversed their choices, until this final coup of May 22 2014 took place – the coup that put the end to even some vague semblance of democracy. Where do you think this situation is going to lead?

AM: I think what we are really seeing is a showdown and a final battle between these two elite groups, and neither of them is particularly admirable. We have an old entrenched Thai elite that believes the poor should know their place. They don’t believe in economic development; they believe in traditional obsequiousness to authority and deference to royal family. On the other hand we have Thaksin who is a modern capitalist, with all the benefits and problems that that brings. And he is not looking to save Thailand, but he has offered the poor a chance to better their economic situation in the way that previous royalist hierarchical leaders never did. So we are seeing a showdown between two different models neither of which we could support unhesitatingly. But if we are looking at the model that is the best for ordinary Thais, it’s clearly the one in which their votes are counted, they are equal under the law, freedom of speech is allowed, and that means the Red Shirt movement and to some extend it means Thaksin.

AV: Thaksin is of course not an ideal, or ‘idealistic’ ruler. But he is a very pragmatic man, and he understood already for many years that in order to compete with Japan, Korea or China, Thai people have to eat well, to count on free medical care, and on affordable housing. They have to live longer, live healthier lives, to be better educated. Is this actually what has irritated the old elites so much, that the gap between the ordinary people in the provinces and the Bangkok upper class, had been shrinking dramatically under the Thaksin leadership?

AM: Absolutely, Andre! I think in one of the articles I read that you wrote for Counterpunch, you talked about the Thai elites don’t just need to be rich and powerful, but they seem to have a need for the poor to prostrate to them and to lick their boots; they need to feel superior. And that’s one thing that Thaksin, for all his faults, has never bought into. He genuinely thinks that for Thailand to progress, ordinary people have to get richer. And Thaksin is not necessarily democratic, but there is interesting parallel between Thaksin’s model and China.

We have an old entrenched Thai elite that believes the poor should know their place. They don’t believe in economic development; they believe in traditional obsequiousness to authority and deference to royal family.

China is not necessarily ‘democratic’ by Western norms, but ordinary people there have become immensely richer, in the last couple of generations, and they regard that as a fair trade. And to me, Thaksin employs a similar calculus: he does not look down at ordinary people; he wants to lift up their economic situation. Whereas the old elites still believe in this medieval hierarchical society, where the poor should crawl on the ground and ‘know their place’.  So if you have to pick up a side, as an ordinary Thai, clearly you’d vote for Thaksin, because he is the one who is improving the lives of the people.

vltchek-Thai-Elite's power - before the coup in Bangkok-1

Elite’s power – before the coup in Bangkok. (Click to enlarge.)

AV: Thailand is a divided society, not only socially, but lately also geographically. There were some fears expressed, that it could break into two, or into several parts. Do you believe that such scenario is possible?

AM: I think it is unlikely that we would see Thailand falling apart. But like many countries around the world, not just in Southeast Asia, Thailand is a slightly artificial construct. In medieval times in Southeast Asia you had powerful cities, with king in the center, and these cities were strong, they exhorted influence over a wide area, and when cities got weaker, the area they influenced, shrank. So for a long time Thailand had influence over previous kingdoms like Chiang Mai in the north, or Pattani in the south, and also Laos… these days because we are seeing respect for Thai monarchy dying, we are seeing influence of Bangkok shrinking. The Thais often boast they’d never been colonized by a foreign power; that’s only partly true because Thailand was a semi-colony of the West for many centuries. But if you look at Thailand, much of Thailand is a colony of Bangkok, for you have the Bangkok elite extracting resources from the country. And now we are seeing the fall of the central Bangkok state unraveling. An interesting point to notice is that, in the deep south of Thailand, for many centuries, we have seen an ethnic Malay insurgency, because the people in the deep south of Thailand don’t consider themselves Thai, largely, and they don’t believe that they should be ruled by Bangkok. And the Bangkok state has no legitimacy in the south. So we’ve seen this very damaging insurgency that has gone on for a long time. It has flared up again since 2004.

So in my view, what you are seeing now in Thailand is that “the Bangkok state” has also lost legitimacy in the north, and the northeast, so those areas are almost gravitating towards the situation in the south. You are seeing a dying state in the center, desperately clinging to power, using evermore harsh and undemocratic methods, and people all around the fringes of the kingdom no longer have faith in the legitimacy of the central state.

AV: Andrew, the West has been playing a very important, and mostly negative role in the development of Thailand. It helped to reintroduce monarchy. It also used Thai territory for its military bases. The most important US air force base during the Vietnam War was set up outside the city of Pattaya. Most of the horrible carpet-bombing missions aimed at destroying Laos, Cambodia as well as Vietnamese cities and countryside, were originating from Thailand. Elites and the military fully collaborated with the West. Is the West still supportive of its old allies?

The West’s official protestations and expressions of regret at heavy handed authoritarian rule are only for the cameras. Behind the veil, it’s common class interests that determine actual policy. 

AM: The situation is quite fluid. And you are absolutely correct; there are immense ironies in the modern history of Thailand – the West propped-up authoritarian military governments in Thailand for decades. And I remember reading a leaked US cable from the 1950’s, which talks about the fact that ‘free Asia’, would have to remain authoritarian, for the foreseeable future, to ‘avoid Communist influence’. They didn’t recognize the irony that ‘free’ and ‘authoritarian’ don’t really belong in a same sentence. You also saw the United States and other Western powers funding the opium trade from Thailand, which is something that had blown back to haunt them in a similar way as their actions in Afghanistan in the 1980’s had blown back to haunt them now.

But for better of for worse, in the 21st century, the West is obliged by its official ideology, to stand up for the electoral process, to stand up for the rule of law, to oppose the military coups. Now obviously, in many cases, behind the scenes they may be pushing for a different agenda. But that’s their public ideology, and they have to push that. So, they’ve condemned the recent coup in Thailand. Universally, United States has condemned it, Britain, France, Japan. And so, what we are seeing is the old Thai elite feeling slightly disoriented.

AV: Abandoned…

AM: Abandoned. Because they always believed that the West understood them and supported them. Now publicly at least, the West has abandoned them, and they are very upset about that. We have seen some remarkable scenes – the Westernized Thai member of the elite, have been protesting outside the US embassy, burning US flags and so on. So, the situation is fluid.

AV: Yes, it appears that the Thai elites are really in pain. The issue is that they, as well as the elites in other Southeast Asian countries are thoroughly overindulged, acting like some spoiled brats. One feels like telling them the truth: “Don’t you cry, baby. Your handlers are still loving you, and that little slap meant really nothing – it is only for the cameras. You will be fully supported, soon again, in your quest of plundering your own nation.”

*

About the discussants

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. The result is his latest book: “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”.  ‘Pluto’ published his discussion with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. His feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” is about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter

Andrew MacGregor Marshall is an influential Scottish journalist, former Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad from 2003 to 2005, and Middle East managing editor from 2006 to 2008 (More biographical details are at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_MacGregor_Marshall

In June 2011 Marshall announced he had resigned from Reuters to publish a set of stories about Thailand that the news agency had refused to run. This is the page on his upcoming book on Thailand: http://zedbooks.co.uk/node/17806

This is the first part of our discussion, which took place in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in early August 2014. The second part will be published soon, and will be focusing on Andrew’s take on the mainstream media and his work as Reuters bureau chief in Baghdad. Audio version will also be available.

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