Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Thailand example a warning for Iran optimists

The parallels between Thailand and Iran are both more numerous and far deeper than many people would imagine. A post in Salon by Greenwald, who has urged readers to temper their hopes concerning Iran, got me thinking about this. Greenwald wrote:
Newsweek's long-time Middle East reporter Christopher Dickey persuasively warns against the emerging assumption that the anti-Ahmedinejad views expressed by middle class and cosmopolitan Iranians and promoted by the Western press are representative of a majority of Iranians. In Brazil, if you ask middle class, professional and/or educated Brazilians what they think of President Lula da Silva, you would conclude that he is an intensely despised figure, when -- in reality -- he is profoundly popular among a majority of Brazilians largely due to the deep support from that country's poor and under-educated population (much the same way that you'd get vastly disparate responses if, in 2004, you went to Manhattan and then to rural Kansas and solicited opinions of George Bush). Dickey suggests that the same dynamic exists in Iran.
If a visitor to Bangkok asked "middle-class, professional and/or educated" Thais what they think of deposed/convicted/exiled/fugitive Prime Minister Thaksin, of course, that visitor would likely conclude Thaksin was deeply unpopular. But he or she would be mistaken. Like Ahmedinejad, Thaksin seems to be loved throughout much of the countryside.

The comparison is very easily made. In fact, one can develop Iranian parallels with Thailand much further than one can carry any comparison between Iran and countries such as Brazil or the US.

The population and GDP of Thailand (62 million, $245 billion) and Iran (65 million, $295 billion) are strikingly similar. But it is the political similarities that are most intriguing. Both Thailand and Iran are "democracies" where considerable power -- many would say real power -- is vested in unelected, unaccountable bodies led by divinely-sanctioned heads of state. One might perceive certain similarities between the military-backed Iranian clerics and the military-royalist elite of Thailand. Iran has its "Revolutionary Guard," Thailand has its mysterious blue shirts.

Both Persians and Thais have experienced the censorship and self-censorship of websites and the press. In both countries you can end up in jail if you criticize the wrong people. Whereas Thailand has lese majeste (the crime of insulting the monarchy), Iran has Apostasy:
Apostasy convictions are meted out not only for openly renouncing the religion of one's birth, but also for criticizing clerical rule (as in the case of Aghajari), defaming Islam, conversion from Islam, attempting to lead others away from Islam, among other reasons.
Both systems have their innocent victims: On one hand you have persecuted writers like Giles Ji Ungpakorn or Harry Nicolaides. On the other you have Hashem Aghajari or Taghi Rahmani. If Iran is the worse offender, it seems to be a question not so much of principle as of degree.

Stepping back, it would be an interesting project to compare the way the courts have functioned in Thailand and Iran. For example, both countries have experimented with operating a separate system of justice for dealing with drug crimes. Whereas in 2004 Thailand carried out a policy of extrajudicial killings of drug traffickers, in Iran secret Islamic Revolutionary Courts have covered "all crimes involving smugglings and narcotic items."

Even in terms of current political tactics there are parallels between Bangkok in April and Tehran in June. Just as in April the royal palace chose not to intervene directly when protesters filled the streets of Bangkok and gunfire rang out, so far at least, Iran's top cleric refrains from saying much of anything publicly about the street demonstrations. Elites in both countries appear at times of crisis to rule through a political class that acts within a democratic arena, but is inherently expendable. Democratic systems, elites with veto power. By this arrangement, it may even be possible for the real power brokers to shed a once-favored political party as a snake sheds its skin.


  1. AnonymousJune 17, 2009

    interesting post !

    however you've made a mistake: Black Songkran events in Bangkok were in April (8-14), not in May.

    also, to add just a bit - in Thailand there are several large paramilitary groups, which are quite involved in politics and many other cases (like Tak Bai, draug war etc.) you may consider reading book "Militia redux"

    (see: http://www.selectbooks.com.sg/getTitle.aspx?SBNum=042941

    also read its review:

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/IE11Ae01.html )

    so, what's your conclusion about current events in Iran - is it rather back-clash from the reactionary middle-class and elite, as it was in Bkk ?

  2. Thanks, I corrected the error with respect to the month.

    Will check out the militia books.

    Concerning Iran, I wouldn't want to discount that it's mainly the urban educated who are revolting -- before more is know, suggesting otherwise.

  3. AnonymousJune 21, 2009

    I recommend to read the article on A. Times, which at least provides some insights that situation in Iran is quite complex, and not so simplistic as Western media try to present it :

    Beijing cautions US over Iran

    "A parallel with Thailand

    China anticipated the backlash against Ahmadinejad's victory. On Monday, The Global Times newspaper quoted the former Chinese ambassador to Iran, Hua Liming, that the Iranian situation would get back to normalcy only if a negotiated agreement was reached among the "major centers of political power ... But, if not, the recent turmoil in Thailand will possibly be repeated". It is quite revealing that the veteran Chinese diplomat drew a parallel with Thailand.

    However, Hua underscored that Ahmadinejad does enjoy popularity and has "lots of support in this nationalist country because he has the courage to state his own opinion and dares to carry out his policies"...

    The daily pointed out that a pre-election public opinion poll conducted by the Washington Post newspaper showed Ahmadinejad having a 2-1 lead over his nearest rival and some opinion polls in Iran also indicated more or less the same, whereas, actually, "he won the election on a lower margin. Thus, the opposition's allegations against Ahmadinejad come as a trifle surprising"...

    Chinese media have closely followed the trajectory of the US reaction to the situation in Iran, especially the "Twitter revolution", which puts Beijing on guard about US intentions. Indications are that the US establishment has begun meddling in Iranian politics. Rafsanjani's camp always keeps lines open to the West. All-in-all, a degree of synchronization is visible involving the US's "Twitter revolution" route, Rafsanjani's parleys with the conservative clergy in Qom and Mousavi's uncharacteristically defiant stance...

    Mousavi is the affable front man for the mullahs, who fear that another four years of Ahmadinejad would hurt their vested interests. Ahmadinejad has already begun marginalizing the clergy from the sinecures of power and the honey pots of the Iranian economy, especially the oil industry...

    ... Obama must be au fait with the deviousness of Rafsanjani's politics.

    If Rafsanjani's putsch succeeds, Iran would at best bear resemblance to a decadent outpost of the "pro-West" Persian Gulf. Would a dubious regime be durable? More important, is it what Obama wishes to see as the destiny of the Iranian people? The Arab street is also watching. Iran is an exception in the Muslim world where people have been empowered. Iran's multitudes of poor, who form Ahmadinejad's support base, detest the corrupt, venal clerical establishment. They don't even hide their visceral hatred of the Rafsanjani family.

    Alas, the political class in Washington is clueless about the Byzantine world of Iranian clergy. Egged on by the Israeli lobby, it is obsessed with "regime change". The temptation will be to engineer a "color revolution". But the consequence will be far worse than what obtains in Ukraine. Iran is a regional power and the debris will fall all over. The US today has neither the clout nor the stamina to stem the lava flow of a volcanic eruption triggered by a color revolution that may spill over Iran's borders."

  4. AnonymousJune 21, 2009

    so, I think this article by Bhadrakumar has much more value than most of Western MSM writing nowadasy about Iran's events.

    also, it proves that situation in Iran is quite similar to Thailand: there is more than meets the eyes or what the general international public may read from the MSM newspapers. as in Thailand, in Iran there are powerful infuential non-elected guys (in Thailand called Amartayathipathai) who orchestrated the PAD rallies, then military coup and later 2 judiciary coups, and act as a reactioany anti-democratic force ...

    and apparently in Iran there are similar forces - mullahs and conservatives.

    the same thing what they do is: they reject the results of elections which show that country's poor - the MAJORITY - win the elections !

    but hey, that's the meaning of the Democracy - no? otherwise shouldn't call it a Democracy at all and claim themselves being pro-democratic.

    ironically though, both in Thailand and Iran those reactionary forces (supported by "behind the curtains" non-elected elite or religeous clergy) and the ultra-right wing anti-democratic middle class are trying to present themselves as "Democratic".

  5. Antipadshist,

    The article provides an interesting complement to the often shallow Western media analysis of the situation in Iran.

    Concerning the Tha comparison, you wrote:

    the same thing what they do is: they reject the results of elections which show that country's poor - the MAJORITY - win the elections !

    but hey, that's the meaning of the Democracy - no? otherwise shouldn't call it a Democracy at all and claim themselves being pro-democratic.

    I think we need to keep in mind though all this that what most people today mean by "democracy" is really "constitutional democracy."

    In the modern world, the premise of simple "majority rule" is completely unacceptable to those of us who value our civil liberties.

    We agree that governments formed by democratic majorities must respect the rights of all citizens.

    Therefore, a "democratic revolution" orchestrated by a minority against the will of a majority, can be entirely within the spirit of democracy wherever the a majority government has grievously violated the human rights of the people.

    Arguably, this is the case with respect to the urban minority of Iran. Especially in view of the recent bloody crackdown, but also with respect to the regime's track record of persistent and murderous human rights abuses -- against women, gays, intellectuals, religious minorities such as the Bahá'í, journalists, etc.

  6. AnonymousJune 24, 2009

    well, of course you're right about respecting everyone's right. but it can be equally applied to the current situation in Iran and especially to ongoing developments in Thailand (already 3 years) : as much as majority have to respect the rights of minority, the same principle should be applied to minority to respect the will of majority.

    and I don't know the exact details of how it is in Iran - but in Thailand clearly the minority repeatedly rejects the rights of majority, that's what the whole political mess is all about !

    so, both have to respect each other. but unfortunately the reality is (pretty much everywhere in the world) that usually the MINORITIES dominate and rule over the majorities.

  7. AnonymousJune 24, 2009


    don't miss the article on Asia Sentinel :

    Is Iran More Democratic Than Thailand?

    I think not many Thai reporters and academics would dare to draw such parallels and raise such questions as Devakula does. I expect it will stir up quite a big discussion all over Thai blogs and forums, and even Thai MSM.

  8. Antipadshist,

    and I don't know the exact details of how it is in Iran - but in Thailand clearly the minority repeatedly rejects the rights of majority, that's what the whole political mess is all about !

    Your point is well put.

    It's worthwhile to note that whereas the situations in both countries share similarities, this is one important difference.


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