Waiting for change

Readers may be interested in another story that claims that there is opportunity for political change following the death of the king. This one comes from Foreign Policy. We earlier mentioned a similar claim about change being expected here.

The authors are Raphael Mimoun who is “the executive director of Build A Movement, an organization that researches nonviolent movements and trains activists on strategic nonviolence, digital security, and the role of civil society in democratic transitions” and Joseph Brennan “is an independent researcher and consultant on democracy and political movements in Southeast and East Asia. He is the cofounder of Zoba, a travel startup that analyzes political and security risks.”

We are not sure that these positions make then informed observers of Thailand’s political future.

Their op-ed has a lot of detail and interpretation about politics in recent years, not all of it accurate. For example, it argues that, since the May 2014 military coup, the “democratic opposition has remained internally divided and mostly passive on the national stage.”

We are not sure why the authors make no mention here of arrests that targeted red shirt leaders and organizers to the village level and continuing heavy repression. They account for much of the “passivity.”

They do mention repression later, but too late for the point they are making here. In fact, much of the detail they present contradicts these initial claims.

Political change for the authors will come from “the adoption of the junta’s constitution this August — and even more significantly, after the death of the … King … several weeks ago…”. The authors argue that “a new political landscape has been taking shape.”

We think they are misinformed on the provisions of the junta’s constitution. More on the monarchy below.

The claim that the “junta has consolidated its power and gained an electoral mandate, but lost the popular legitimacy it derived from a beloved and revered king” seems odd, although we think they mean the junta’s draft charter was “passed” in a referendum and that the legitimacy from the king dies when he passed away. Either way, the claims are dubious, and we are being polite.

The junta and these authors seem the only ones to consider the “referendum” to have been an act of electoral legitimation.

Remarkably, the authors confuse the Democrat Party with the “democratic opposition.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ignoring the repression that they do mention, the authors think the “democratic opposition” only needs a bit of organizing to overthrow the military dictatorship. That seems both arrogant and misunderstand the regime.

They claim that “the impending death of king Bhumibol had kept opposition groups indecisive, as they knew it would destabilize the junta’s power base if they only waited.” They add:

Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is a divisive figure who enjoys far less legitimacy. Already facing growing challenges to its authority, the monarchy — and thus the military junta — is likely to lose a great deal of its popularity during the royal succession.

We do not think this is at all accurate. In any case, the regime has been consolidating its power and preparing for succession for some time. The heavy use of lese majeste is an act of repression that says much about how succession is being managed. The regime is emphasizing monarchy as “the institution,” building a king’s “great” legacy and preparing the ground for the next king. At the same time, the military has clearly seen itself as the senior partner int he military-monarchy alliance of some 60 years.

The organizer-authors believe that “following a period of mourning for the … king — the dust will settle and a new political landscape will come into being.” They assert:

In this new environment, the democratic opposition will be able to organize and mobilize far more effectively for a return to democratic rule. It will be able to capitalize on the unpopularity of the new king, mobilizing populations who were unwilling to challenge the junta and its royal mandate. It will also be able to unite various groups around common strategies and campaigns, now that the uncertainties of the referendum and the king’s health have passed. These campaigns might target the new centers of power, or use elections as mobilizing opportunities, or focus on uniting both major parties against the junta.

We think this is mostly nonsense. The “elections” might be a way to organize for the opposition, but the outcome of the election is already known – more junta control. The elections will also allow the junta to identify and target opponents, as they did in the “referendum.”

We don’t presume to know what Thai activists or the “democratic opposition” can or should do. Oppositions to repressive military rule in Thailand have not usually emerged from opposition unity or from elections. Rather, they tend to come from sparks generated by a corrupt and arrogant regime. They also have tended to have a long gestation period. Whatever happens, it is Thais who will decide their political future and their response to the junta.

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