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Thailand's grapes of wrath in the making

New book outlines jagged landscape of recent Thai politics

Nine essays by seven Thai and foreign scholars in the book Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand perfectly explore themes and issues and well-depicted episodes arising from the ongoing confrontations that engulfed Thailand's political life, state and society from the year 2008 to early 2010.

The book, No 5 in the King Prajadhipok's Institute Yearbook series, for 2008/9, might be considered by hard-core followers of Thai affairs a belated bite on the turbulent Thai political terrain, but the profound and thorough observations and documentation prepared by the well-known writers have systematically explained the pre- and post-2006 coup; Thailand's life of "unfinished" structural adjustments which can be easily imagined as some grapes of wrath still brewing for the near future.

The uninspiring dull colour of the book cover aside, its caricatured combatants are instinctively capturing that transitional year's Red vs Yellow fights - coupling with the title of the book to point a finger at the contemporary crisis in the used-to-be smiling land being rooted in legitimacy problems in all the concerned institutions.

From the initial outstanding legitimacy issues stemming from the changing face of the stable electoral bodies bestowed by the 1997 Constitution to the policy-corruption, interference with the press, alleged manipulation of the Senate and independent agencies by the Thaksin administrations, the book illustrates that the 2006 coup which followed the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD)-led street rallies divided the population, and the restoration of a new constitution in 2007 did not heal but drove a deeper wedge between the contestants.

As the PAD, known later as "yellow-shirted" receded, the red-shirted movement, which opposed the coup and supported Thaksin, staged comprehensive mass actions against the Abhisit government's legitimacy to rule the country, saying that it was formed through military intervention.

The March-May demonstrations that ended with 92 deaths and hundreds of injuries took place during the final production of the book, but the astute editor Marc Askew, University of Melbourne's senior fellow in anthropology in the School of Philosophy, Anthropology and Social Inquiry, covered the gap with the book's ending narration about this important episode.

Until today, Thais and foreigners alike have been trying to get rid of the bloody hangover effects, and find some clues to peacefully end the mess. Yet, a number of riddles have yet to be seriously debated by the Thais.

The book, published by Silkworm Books in October this year, should help reignite fresh discussions of how the Thai society could be realigned to become more egalitarian - the process of which would certainly demand a reconceptualisation of the country's elite and grass-root classes, taking into account the differing and competing cultural, sociological and intellectual dimensions.

Yet, it might need another book to delve into how or whether the core institutional players in this country would fine-tune means to address the structural malaises.

With his rich and direct experiences in Thailand's Deep South, the Pattani-based Askew has smoothly woven in the parallel crisis of state legitimacy in the southern Muslim-dominated provinces alongside chapters on the politicisation of the Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear) temple issue (by Pavin Chachavalpongpun); the People's Alliance for Democracy and its "New Politics"; the politicisation of the Thai media; and the revived role of the Thai military in influencing politics and governance (by Paul Chambers).

In his synopsis, the Australian scholar Askew highlights the extreme level of paranoia over the "endangered monarchy" induced by the rise of the cunning politician Thaksin, complexes about bureaucratic polity, judicialisation of politics, and the return of praetorian military as some of the core issues of Thailand's polarisiation.

His book-ending chapter on the recent Red-Shirted crackdown also explains how the spectre of violence has become the dominant characteristic of contemporary Thai politics.

Hitting the press in its forehead is Chapter 5, "Distorted Mirror and Lamp: The Politicization of the Thai Media in the Post-Thaksin Era" by Pravit Rojanaphruk and Jiranan Hanthamrongwit.

Not because there is something unknown to the public unveiled therein, but readers would get goose bumps, and if they were cadres in the media - they would have to answer harsh criticism, due to critical views on the "unspoken" problems in the mainstream print media like the "unprecedented loss of public trust" - the result of its own side-taking and/or self-censorship positions.

The 35-page chapter, "Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy: From 'New Politics' to a 'Real' Political Party?" by Michael H. Nelson is a rich analysis of how the peoples' movement such as PAD, and its extended party arm NPP, played a major role in the 2008/9 political scene.

The German scholar Nelson foresaw that the movement, deprived of its leaders due to follow-up criminal and civil airport-siege lawsuits, might find it hard to survive as a serious political force.

It would be quite a complement for the thirsty readers if the book could also provide a parallel chapter on the PAD counterparts - the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and its kin Puea Thai Party which have been in disarray despite the stronger anti-government sentiments within the varied fabric of Thai households.

Missing from the 328-page "Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand" is a separate chapter on the rise of the juristocracy, or convergence towards judicial supremacy, that has been dictating the fate of two pro-Thaksin governments and extending the lifeline of the ruling Democrat party, preventing it from being dissolved.

But readers may be soothed, when digging into all of the essays, by discovering this very issue, along with other controversial subjects such as monarchy reform is stitched together as parts of the core arguments of what the future Thailand might be like.

Particularly enlightening is a chapter by an American historian, Michael Montesano, who tries to unlock the myth of Thailand's uniqueness held by many Thai scholars "whose invocation served as a national placebo, obviating a clear-eyed diagnosis of national pathologies".

Montesano cautiously refers to other nations as examples (Japan and South Korea) of how their citizens have re-conceptualised and transformed the roles of very key institutions such as the monarchy and the military into modern democracy.

While Thailand designated King Bhumibol a "maharaj" (the Great King) in December 1987, South Korea has gradually transformed from a politically unstable troubled military dictatorship to the direct popular election of its president, said Montesano.

"Coups such as those that Thailand suffered in 1991 and 2006 and judicial shenanigans such as those that ousted Samak and Somchai did not have a part in South Korea political transitions during this period," writes the Singapore-based Montesano.

But the more important message resides in his emphasis on economic and education reform, "Thailand's educational failings played a large role in making it vulnerable to a plutocratic populist like Thaksin."

The author notes that Seoul's long-departed dictatorship was run by far harder men than Bangkok's airport-seizing reactionaries of 2008.

He says in domains ranging from utopian constitutional design to proposals to resolve its far southern crisis, the country suffers from too many simplistic remedies to complex problems.

"These failed remedies reflected inadequate appreciation of Thailand's early 21st century pathologies, and a refusal to accept the magnitude of the change that attention to those pathologies would require," said Montesano.