Last month, the magazine Fa Dieo Kan put out a special issue on the coup. The editor apologises upfront for making no pretence of even balance. This publication is unremittingly and furiously against the coup. The contents include articles, speeches, interviews and translations by 20 people, so there is no single argument, and much disagreement. But the book's overall message is daring, revealing and very challenging.Regular Jotman readers may recall that University of Wisconsin historian Thongchai Winichakul was the author of an earlier statement denouncing the September 19 Thai coup d'etat. It was entitled, "Bad Excuse for a Coup".
The cover tells it all. The graphic lampoons the generals' protests that it was not really a coup. The title is: "The Coup for Democracy with the King as Head of State." The book's first main point is that you cannot start to understand this coup, or current Thai politics at all, without confronting the role of the monarchical institution. (my emphasis)
In these writers' usage, the monarchical institution is not an individual or family but a much larger collection of people including Privy councillors and royalist supporters. This monarchical institution is like a "black box" in economic or scientific theory. You cannot see inside so you don't know how it works. But you can see what it does and what the effects are on the outside world. Several of the writers argue that the major role of the black box in this coup is undeniable. You need only consider the role of Privy councillors both before and after. These writers then ask why this happened and what are the consequences?
Thongchai Winichakul answers these questions using a long perspective. The history of modern Thailand has tended to be written as good democrats combating bad soldiers. But the crucial battle of that war was fought in 1973, and the war ended by 1992. Instead Thongchai suggests the whole dreary history of coups from 1947 onwards should be seen as an attempt by self-serving elites to control the consequences of what happened in 1932. Their goal is not to return to monarchic rule, but to a form of elite rule that clings to the monarchy for legitimacy. But over time the politicians and the people have become pushier. One counter-strategy of the old elites is to go on and on about corruption and money politics. In itself, this criticism is not bad. But it can easily become a tool to discredit parliamentary politics as a whole, and overthrow the fundamental concept of democracy, the sovereignty of the people. In Thongchai's words, "If a government supported by a popular majority is only a 'jockey', then in the end the government machinery belongs to the king" . . .
This book argues that the big issue now is not the military or political corruption or populism, but how to prevent an elite minority controlling politics and keeping the masses as passive partners, in part by exploiting the symbolic power of the monarchy.
Given that in recent months The Nation has behaved as little more than a propaganda arm of the Thai junta, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this Chang Noi column.