Thitinan Pongsudhirak deserves just a little praise for rather suddenly (and almost) taking a stand. His call to Bangkok’s middle class suggests that criticism of the military junta in elite circles is gathering some steam. While we don’t see Thitinan ever being a political rabble-rouser, he does speak the language of the Bangkok middle class:
Headed by Prime Minister [he means The Dictator] Prayut Chan-o-cha, a retired general and former army chief, the current military government that seized power by force will soon reach its three-year mark in office without the kind of civil society resistance and opposition that ousted ruling generals in October 1973 and May 1992. Whether the current Thai apathy in the face of military rule is attributable to a political culture that privileges order over liberty, and to what extent this phase of Thai political tameness extends, will be decided over the next several years.
What he means is that the middle class hasn’t risen. He continues:
Either [middle class] Thailand will break out of its military repression and return to a system of liberalising popular rule with an open society, or it will descend firmly into military-authoritarianism in the guise of illiberal democracy, dressed up with ersatz elections and rigged rules.
Well, yes, but that’s been the junta’s plan all along. It hardly takes three years to work that out. Again, he’s asking the middle class in Bangkok why they love the military and anti-democrats. He continues:
Not a week goes by without some kind of questionable government actions and top-down decision-making without public input and any semblance of accountability.
That’s true, but it began when the junta seized power. But, wait, there’s an excuse:
In the early months of the military government, the Thai public largely gave the benefit of the doubt to the generals who did put an end to endless street protests.
[And then there was] There was also a once-in-a-lifetime royal transition to consider, and a military government seemed most suited to oversee this delicate interval.
The latter is buffalo manure. Do think about what the military has managed through succession! Hope you are happy in the shophouses and apartments with the new arrangements. But, truly, if the military hadn’t been mutinous, and if they hadn’t been supported by the self-interested in Bangkok, maybe the anti-democrat street demonstrations could have been brought to an end without the coup the Bangkok middle class craved.
But what about the repression and the “deaths in custody” and the ridiculous fabrication of lese majeste cases? Thitinan sort of gets there:
Certainly, those in Thailand who dissent have been prosecuted and persecuted. Clearly, the quelling of dissent and spreading of fear are core reasons why Thais are putting up with military rule….
Related to fear is the lack of leadership. In social movements against military rule, only the Oct 14 uprising in 1973 was organic, spontaneous and broad-based. It was led by university students but they had wide support among other segments of society, including the media and merchants. In May 1992, the catalyst in what was dubbed a “mobile-phone mob” was the leadership of former Bangkok governor and popular politician Chamlong Srimuang and the Bangkok middle class.
This position is not supported by the historical evidence. One can only say that 1973 was “broad-based” if the working class and farmers are forgotten. When those groups did get involved, when electoralism developed, the middle class deserted in droves and cheered the military and its murderers in 1976. It was also the middle class that supported the coup in 1991 and then changed its collective mind. When it again felt that the working class and farmers were getting uppity by rejecting anti-Thaksinism, they supported the military again.
Reflecting this democratic ambivalence, he then drops the ball. His “solution” is: “some kind of civil-military compromise, as seen in Myanmar now and Indonesia in the recent past.” He means a negotiated solution that allocates the military thugs power and prestige and gives the middle class a disproportionate political weight. He ends with this lament:
Nevertheless if the Thai people don’t do something about their military rule, they may well end up with a government they deserve.
The middle class has its government.