Populism and nationalism in Thailand | 7.11.05

Few things elicit instinctive distaste from the mainstream international media like populism and nationalism. Elitist at heart, worldly journalists can’t believe anyone would succumb to such base impulses. Or rather, they can, which is why they despise so much politicians who stoke them in the ignorant, manipulable mass.

And rightly so. Populism and nationalism are indeed dangerous sentiments, especially when combined. And too many people are indeed prone to fall for them. Beyond a certain level and with a critical mass, authoritarianism is only a natural by-product. Taken all together, they recall Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela at best and Mao’s China at worst. The international media’s general anti-populist and anti-nationalist stance is thus understandable, even commendable.

Unfortunately, in its coverage of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thailand, that stance has deteriorated into a Pavlovian reaction. Gullible international observers respond to every push of their anti-populist, anti-nationalist buttons by the prime minister’s semi-sophisticate detractors, who have made sure to do so early and often. Overlooking obvious contradictions in those allegations, they seem assured that people wise enough to level populist/nationalist charges must know what they are talking about, and certainly cannot be populist and nationalist themselves. Prejudice feeds on itself, sloganeering becomes conventional wisdom, and cocksure international correspondents are now themselves the ignorant, manipulable mass. They doggedly decry Mr. Thaksin’s alleged populism and nationalism and merrily ignore his opponents’ real and rabid strains that are staring at them in the face.

The politicians

That is not to say that Prime Minister Thaksin has never made any gestures or policies that can be described as populist and nationalist. He certainly has. Some of them are even almost as bad as the Democrats’…

No, I’m sorry, pardon my rhetorical gimmick. In fact, nothing I’ve ever heard from Thaksin or his Thai Rak Thai Party comes close the Democrat Party’s pandering demagoguery in the last general election. Here’s a high-profile example from the Democrats’ campaign, whose details were reliably overlooked by the international media: the “201” drive:

Democrat Party's “201” campaign

Appealing for 201 out of 500 parliament seats in order to pass the threshold for a censure motion against the prime minister, the massive advertising blitz was portrayed in the international media as the Democrats’ plucky and piteous last stand. Personally I find an election pitch based on the electioneers’ unpopularity and low prospects more pathetic than anything else. But anyhow, here’s the sting that lies just below the appeal (marked here with red arrows, click on the image to see a higher-resolution version):

“เมื่อกลุ่มทุนผูกขาดรวบอำนาจรัฐ ประชาชนก็เป็นได้แค่ลูกจ้างหรือผู้บริโภค”

“When capitalist groups monopolize state power, people can be only employees or consumers.”

With this demagoguery, the Democrats managed to be both populist and elitist at once. What’s wrong, one wonders, with being employees and consumers, especially when capitalists are so obviously undesirable? Are they advocating a return to the glorious days of serfs’ self-sufficiency under feudal lords’ protection? (“Self-sufficient economy” — “เศรษฐกิจแบบพอเพียง” — happens to be the No. 1 item on the Democrat’s economic agenda.) Very well then, Sires, but what is one to do with prominent Democrats like Korn Chatikavanij (fifth from right), a former president of JP Morgan (Thailand), or Khunying Kalaya Sophonpanich (sixth from left), a member of the clan of the Bangkok Bank fame?

Showcase them, apparently. The Democrats’ way of dealing with a glaring contradiction seems to be to flaunt it so that it becomes blindingly glaring. And it works, too. Not only in the “201” marketing blitz (where they fell more than 50% short but no one accused them of hypocrisy), but also in their policy platform. It is stated here by Deputy Party Leader Trirong Suwankhiri in the Bangkok Post Economic Review:

Public policy rarely can be split into black and white. Many policies undertaken by Thai Rak Thai over the past several years, whether the village investment funds or the 30-baht health care programme, are extensions of initiatives first put in place by the Democrat Party when we led the government.

We will continue and expand the existing policies that are worthwhile. Our policy platform has been crafted based on what is needed by the country, what is feasible and what represents a prudent consideration of possible risks.

Our policy platform is centred around five separate initiatives:

  • Free education up to Matthayom 6;
  • Address the debt problems faced by rural communities with work programmes;
  • Guarantee jobs for new graduates;
  • Offer added financial security for the underprivileged elderly with payments of 1,000 baht per month;
  • Offer free, quality health care for all citizens.

In education, we will ensure that the government, not parents, takes responsibility for providing for not just school tuition, but also uniforms, books, computers and English lessons. We will expand educational grants and loans, ensure free milk for all students up to Matthayom 3 and free lunches for the poorest students.

Titled “Firm on Principles”, the article begins with a condemnation the Thaksin government’s populism.

Without Nexis, I can only suspect that the Democrat’s extravagant election promises didn’t get the attention they deserved in the international media. Although the Economist did pick it up, the renowned weekly proved as much tolerant of outright contradiction as Mr. Trirong. In the very same issue that they were reported (rather dismissively as an inevitable response to the Thai Rak Thai Party’s first strike), an editorial called the Democrats “technocratic and progressive” in contrast to the “well-defined nationalist and populist” TRT. In the old days, I used to argue that “populism” is something that appeals to many people but not the speaker. I was too naïve. In the Thai political discourse, populism has come to mean something — anything — from Thaksin, and Thaksin only.

In foreign relations, the Democrats turned Mr. Thaksin’s outrageous “strictly neutral” stance on September 14, 2001 (reversed two days later following a National Security Council meeting) into a written policy:

2. ธำรงไว้ซึ่งความเป็นกลางในเวทีโลกและให้ความร่วมมือภายใต้มติของสหประชาชาติเท่านั้น

3. สร้างความเป็นอธิปไตยเหนือดินแดนมิให้ประเทศใดเช่าสนามบิน หรือจุดยุทธศาสตร์ความมั่นคง

2. Maintain neutrality on the world stage and cooperate only under [the authority] of United Nations resolutions.

3. Foster sovereignty [by] letting no country lease an airport or a strategic location.

One might argue that the Democrats are being more anti-American than nationalist here, and one would be quite right. A mendacious conflation has no place in my argument. (For that type of fallacy, see Thaksin opponents’ crude reference to his current single-party government — as opposed to a coalition — as one-party rule, invoking the CCP’s China.) Still this shows that the Democrats had no qualms about employing nationalistic tropes to woo the rabidly anti-American media, “academia”, NGOs, whose claim of speaking for the “educated” is believed by many hemidemisemi-educated half-wits like themselves. The Democrats want part of that claim, too.

In a truly educated environment, any such claim by the Democrats would be found to be in contradiction with their frequent boast about southerners having been taught to vote Democrat since they were born. However, since all sides pretending to the spokesmanship of Thailand’s “educated” class are quacks, facts and logic are not an issue. Instead, the obstacle to the Democrats’ assertion lies in the animosity toward them from many in the aforementioned triumvirate — the media, “academia”, and the NGOdom. The Thai Post (ไทยโพสต์) newspaper, Thirayuth Boonmi, and the NGOs were the Chuan government’s fiercest critics, too. Its stewardship of the loathed IMF reforms is reason enough, but there may be others factors as well.

Nevertheless, since thrown into the opposition by voters in 2001, the Democrats have been making all the right noises from the triumvirate’s point of view in issues ranging from troops participation in Iraq to free trade agreements to genetically modified food to privatization (all against). It certainly helps that they have a former academic like Perayot Rahimmula in their ranks. Here the fresh-faced party-list MP responded to Thailand’s very own terrorist bombings at the airport and a superstore in Hat Yai:

ส.ส.ปชป.เชื่อ”ต่างชาติ”มีส่วนแทรกแซง

นายพีรยศ ราฮิมมูลา ส.ส.ระบบบัญชีรายชื่อ พรรคประชาธิปัตย์ และอดีตนักวิชาการที่เชี่ยวชาญเรื่องปัญหาความไม่สงบในพื้นที่ 3 จังหวัดชายแดนภาคใต้ กล่าวกรณีนายโสภณ สุภาพงษ์ ส.ว.กทม.ระบุว่า เหตุการณ์ลอบวางระเบิดที่ อ.หาดใหญ่ จ.สงขลา อาจเป็นการวางแผนโดยสหรัฐอเมริกาเพื่อแทรกแซงกิจการภายในของไทย ตามแผนเพนตากอนว่า เรื่องต่างชาติเข้าแทรกแซงในเหตุการณ์ความไม่สงบของภาคใต้ถือว่ามีส่วนจริงอยู่บ้าง เพราะสังเกตว่านับตั้งแต่มีเหตุการณ์ความรุนแรงมาเป็นเวลา 2 ปี ก็มีเจ้าหน้าที่จากสถานทูตของประเทศในทวีปยุโรปและเอเชียหลายประเทศลงไปในพื้นที่ 3 จังหวัดชายแดนภาคใต้ ขณะนั้นยังมีฐานะเป็นอาจารย์ที่มหาวิทยาลัยสงขลานครินทร์ วิทยาเขตปัตตานีอยู่ จึงถูกเชิญไปให้ความเห็นต่อเจ้าหน้าที่สถานทูตเหล่านี้ตลอดเวลา

สงสัย”น.ศ.ยุโรป-อเมริกา”แห่วิจัยไฟใต้

“ที่น่าแปลกใจก็คือ มีนักศึกษาโครงการปริญญาเอกจากยุโรปและอเมริกาจำนวนมากมาทำวิจัยสถานการณ์ความไม่สงบในภาคใต้ แต่พวกเขาทั้งหมดกลับทำวิจัยในหัวข้อเดียวกัน จึงเกิดคำถามว่านี่มันคืออะไร นอกจากนี้ เมื่อมีการอภิปรายร่วมกันของ 2 สภา เรื่องปัญหาความไม่สงบใน 3 จังหวัดชายแดนภาคใต้ ก็มีเจ้าหน้าที่จากสถานทูตสหรัฐอเมริกาเข้ามาสังเกตการณ์ในสภาอยู่เพียงประเทศเดียว อาจทำคิดได้ว่าน่าจะมีซีไอเอเข้ามาเกี่ยวข้องกับสถานการณ์ความไม่สงบในภาคใต้” ส.ส.พรรคประชาธิปัตย์กล่าว

Democrat MP believes “foreigners” have a hand

Regarding Bangkok Senator Suphon Supapong’s indication that the bombings in Hat Yai, Songkhla, may be a plan by the United States to interfere in Thailand’s domestic affairs according to the Pentagon[’s] plan, Perayot Rahimmula, a Democrat party-list MP and former academic with expertise in turmoil in the three southern border provinces said that the story of foreign interference must be said to contain some truth because [he] has noticed that since [sic] the two years of violence, there have been many embassy officers from many countries in Europe and Asia traveling down to the three border provinces area. At the time [he] was still a professor at Prince of Songkhla University (Pattani campus) and therefore was always being invited to comment to these embassy officers.

Suspicious of “European, American students” flocking to research Southern Fire
[“Southern Fire” is Matichon’s pet name for violence in the South]

“What is surprising is that there are many Ph.D. students from Europe and America researching the turmoil in the three Southern border provinces area, yet all of them do research on the same topic. So there arises a question: what is this? When there was a joint-session of the parliament to discuss turmoil in the three southern border provinces, there were only officers from the United States embassy [and no other embassies] so [that] may be reason enough to think that there is probably CIA involvement in the turmoil in the South.

Mr. Perayot continued that the event of bombing in Hat Yai was an attempt to make the event have similarities to international terrorism [— for example,] similar to intervention from al-Qaeda or JI [—] so as to open up the possibility for a superpower to come in and intervene in Thailand’s domestic affairs. So what Mr. Sophon said [must] be considered an affirmation of the fact that took place.

[Translated from Thai by yours truly.]

It’s unnecessary this time to discuss whether the rhetoric is more anti-American and anti-West than nationalist (and which nation would that be in any case?). What makes an ism repugnant is bigotry, and to accuse European and American Ph.D. students of CIA dirty work based on nothing but their countries of origin is as bigoted as… well the usual remarks from Thailand’s professorial class. Perhaps that’s what The Economist meant by “technocratic and progressive”.

And lest one forgets, Thaksin was once accused of anti-American and anti-West inclinations, too.

(A side note: Thaksin is in fact as pro-American and pro-West as Thai politicians come. On my more depressed days, I think of him as the last bulwark against a fanatical takeover — a democratically-elected Musharaf, if you will. That leaves an opening for those who want to argue that Thaksin, like Musharaf, is authoritarian and an authoritarian ally is worse than none at all. Well, I can’t vouch for Musharaf but I can talk at length about Thaksin’s alleged authoritarianism. Not in this article, however, as I already have more than enough on my plate with two isms. Besides, it may be futile anyway to reason with those who see no irony in the Thai media’s silencing screams about being silenced.)

So while one can find grounds to paint Thaksin with the populist/nationalist brush, just as you can John Forbes Kerry and Jacque Chirac, the question remains about what to call the Democrats. Feudal hangovers? Communist reactionaries? Or, my favorite, opportunistic NGO pimps?

The professors

Once you’ve picked a suitable label for the Democrats, then you can consider how to characterize Mr. Peerayot’s former colleagues in the “academia”. Here four of them discussed the Thaksin government’s proposed amendments to the Alien Business Act to allow foreigners to invest and operate in service industries ranging from banking and brokerage to schools and cinemas without the need for authorization: [Matichon, Oct. 16 2005]

“หากประเทศเสียเอกราชเพราะนำอาวุธเข้ายึดก็เป็นอีกเรื่อง แต่ขณะนี้ไทยกำลังจะเสียเอกราชเพราะเปิดประตูบ้านต้อนรับโจรให้เข้ามาปล้นบ้านกลางวันแสกๆ”

“It’s another story if the country loses sovereignty because [foreigners] took it with weapons. But at this moment Thailand is losing sovereignty because [the government] opens the front door to welcome bandits to come and rob the house in broad day light”

[Translated by yours truly.]

ส่วนนายเจริญ คัมภีรภาพกล่าวเสริมว่า ทราบมาว่ามีความพยายามจะออกกฎกระทรวงนี้เมื่อ 2 ปีก่อน ซึ่งน่าตกใจ เพราะคนที่ผลักดันเรื่องนี้เข้า ครม.คือนายวิษณุ เครืองาม รองนายกรัฐมนตรี อาจารย์สอนกฎหมายคนหนึ่ง ซึ่งเป็นเหมือนเป็นการยื่นเครื่องมือประหารให้ทุนต่างชาติเข้ามายึดครองธุรกิจคนไทย

“ผมคัดค้านเพราะเห็นว่า 1.การเปิดเสรีธุรกิจบริการ 20 ประเภทครั้งนี้เป็นการเปิดเสรีมากกว่าเงื่อนไขขององค์การการค้าโลก(ดับเบิลยูทีโอ) ที่ละเลยผลประโยชน์สาธารณะ เป็นการเปิดเสรีเพียงฝ่ายเดียวเพื่อหวังผลให้ทุนต่างชาติไหลทะลักเข้าประเทศ รัฐบาลประกาศเสรีธุรกิจบริการโดยไม่สนการมีส่วนร่วมของคนในชาติ ทั้งที่รู้ว่านักธุรกิจไทยต้องแพ้แน่นอน

Mr. Charoen Khamphiraparp adds that [he]’s learned that there was an effort to pass this law two years ago, which is frightening, because the person who pushed this issue into the cabinet is Deputy Prime Minister Visanu Krue-ngarm, a law professor, which is like handing execution tools to foreign capitals to seize Thais’ businesses.

“I object because [I] think 1. this liberalization of twenty service industries is a liberalization that exceeds the Word Trade Organization’s conditions, that is a one-sided liberalization that aims to have foreign capitals inundate the country as a result. The government liberalizes service sector without regard to participation of people in the country, knowing full well that Thai businessmen will surely lose.”

“Thai businessmen”? Now that’s an uncommon term. Whatever happened to the menacing, monopolistic “capitalist groups” we’re always hearing about, including in the Democrats’ advertisement above? Well nothing, except the change of context. If they do well, they’re crony capitalists and it’s the government’s fault. If they do badly, they’re benign businessmen and it’s also the government’s fault. Just the usual “four legs good, two legs better” routine that we’ve seen before and come to expect.

“หาก ครม.คลอดกฎกระทรวงออกมาจะทำให้ประเทศไทยไม่เหลืออะไรเลย คนไทยแทบไม่มีที่ยืน รัฐบาลอำมหิตมาก ทำไมถึงได้นำคนไทยเข้าสู่แดนประหารทางเศรษฐกิจเช่นนี้” นายเจริญกล่าว

“If the cabinet passes this ministerial regulation, [it] will cause Thailand to have nothing left, Thai people to have virtually no place to stand on. The government is very cold-blooded. Why does it lead Thai people to the economic execution chamber in this way?” Mr. Charoen said.

Now just to give you a little perspective, here’s a passage from the same Economist editorial that called Democrats “technocratic and progressive” and Thaksin’s TRT “well-defined nationalist and populist”:

However, the more telling charge to be laid against Mr Thaksin is not so much what he has done as what he has not done. A great deal of Thai commerce remains a cosy oligopoly run by a handful of huge family-owned businesses, of which Shin Corp is one. Mr Thaksin has not initiated nearly enough of the deregulation, privatisation or opening to foreign competition that Thailand needs to assure its longer-term future. True, the record in most of the rest of South-East Asia is no better. But the whole point of putting a businessman in charge of the economy ought to have been to make Thailand’s economy more competitive.

Well, he’s been trying, but as you can imagine that’s rather difficult with crude xenophobic and protectionist fervor being stirred up by the…

What? As I asked above, how do you describe these people politically? Following the journalistic convention that reserves “populist” and “nationalist” for Thaksin and his government, I’ll instead use a highly-descriptive term favored by the Thai and international media alike: academics.

Well, it’s descriptive for those who, unlike starry-eyed Thai and international reporters, really know the Thai “academia” for what they are.

Charoen Khamphiraparp (Jaroen Compeerapap) is Silpakorn University’s “Vice President for Intellectual Property Rights and Traditional Knowledge”. Somchai Ratanasuesakul, he of the “sovereignty” quote, teaches law at — hear this — the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce and is pursuing a Ph.D. in business law at Thammasat University. They were joined by Banjerd Singkhaneti, director of Thammasat University’s Law Institute and Thanabul Jiranuwat, a Rangsit University law professor.

While these worthies may largely be nonentities to the international media (they certainly were to me before I read the article), their tirades simply echoed those of the granddaddy of the Thai “academia”, whom foreign correspondents doubtlessly know well. Thirayuth Boonmi himself played the sovereignty card earlier this year:

Bangkok Post's front page: “Thirayuth hits out at PM”

Speaking on likely changes after the election at Thammasat University yesterday, Mr Thirayuth, a sharp critic of the government, said Thai Rak Thai was developing a form of post-modern capitalism that capitalised everything — even national sovereignty.

He warned Mr Thaksin not to change laws to sell sovereignty.

Special economic zones which wooed investment, the sale of radio frequencies and rights in the sky, and financial authority which allowed foreign businesses to introduce financial products including credit cards, debt instruments and debentures, all put sovereignty at risk.

This should certify the xenophobic diatribes by Charoen et al., incidentally also hosted by Thammasat, as a bona fide “academic” discourse in Thailand.

The “People™”

There was nonetheless one panelist at the xenophobes’ confab with no university post. Kannikar Kijtivejakul was a representative from an organization that calls itself the official sounding “กลุ่มศึกษาข้อตกลงเขตการค้าเสรีภาคประชาชน” (“People-Sector Free Trade Agreements Study Group”) in Thai but rebrands to the international world as the snappy “FTA Watch”. She was no odd woman out, however. Indeed, considering her good work at that organization, I’m surprised Thammasat hasn’t made her an honorary professor already.

Some charming examples of the FTA Watch’s public-relations work (not to be confused with the government’s populist, nationalist propaganda):

“American Breakfast” by FTA Watch

“Don’t let us be next.”

“อเมริกัน สมคบ 10 ตระกูลยึดประเทศไทย” by FTA Watch

“Americans conspire with ten clans to seize Thailand. Sign up to oppose…” Lest anyone misses the point, “Americans” is set with a larger type. But hold on, aren’t the Men in Black the good guys?

“FTA Kill FARMERS” by FTA Watch

Not to mention good grammar.

“Michael Moore look-alike” by FTA Watch

“Sign up to topple…”
Accompanying an article titled “Yankie FTA more restrictive on plant species than drugs” (“เอฟทีเอมะกันคุมพันธุ์พืชดุกว่ายา”), this portrait is a double-play for Michael Moore: good meal and good cause.

“SOVEREIGNTY NOT FOR SALE” : Book by FTA Watch

Of course not. Its propaganda — I mean, sentimental — value is too great.

The only thing that’s missing from this wonderful collection is the picture of Supinya Klangnarong protesting the Thai-Australia free-trade agreement with a sign saying “FTA= Free Thaksin Agreement”. That model of NGO witticism made the Bangkok Post front page some time before Shin Corp’s libel suit made Supinya a D-list celebrity. Now, thanks to an international reaction that’s quite the opposite of that in the George Galloway’s case against the Daily Telegraph, our multi-purpose professional protestor is known as a media reform campaigner, press-rights advocate, free-speech Joan of Arc, and what have you. And not just to the brain-dead Thai media who takes her self-styled Campaign for Popular Media Reform (คณะกรรมการรณรงค์เพื่อการปฏิรูปสื่อ) at face value, but to the equally brain-dead world media as well. Perhaps an uncorrupted Post insider with a handy access to the Bangkok Post archive can help me fish out the photo.

None of these public relations drives, mind you, are populist or nationalistic. According the international media’s stylebooks, Prime Minister Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party (the name says it all!) alone are populistic and nationalistic. FTA Watch and the rest of the NGOdom hate Thaksin, so they are… I don’t know, the good guys?

Make that the “people sector” (“ภาคประชาชน”). That’s the name Thailand’s unelected, unrepresentative, and unaccountable NGOdom would rather you call it, not-so-implicitly putting itself above the seedy arenas of the public (politics!) and the private (capitalism!). In trying to usurp the word “people” from the people, it is in the enviable company of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s republic of China, and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Still, those foreign saviors of the people at least derive their legitimacy from hard-fought civil wars, here in Thailand the “people sector” is publicly staging a coup with the international media’s connivance, if not outright support. Real people, meanwhile, are too preoccupied with their public and private lives, for in a democracy — yes, including even a Thai one — everybody has a role in both the public sector and the private sector. None but a hectoring handful, however, have any role in the “people sector” (see my “ภาคประชาชน พากย์ประชาชน” post for a cri de coeur about this in Thai).

As it happens, the latest issue of the Economist came out with this article on India titled “Democracy’s Drawback”:

Touches of xenophobia

India’s antiquated laws are not only preventing it from exploiting the textile boom as successfully as China (whose textile businesses are so successful that they provoke retaliation). They are also pushing it far behind China in terms of foreign direct investment. FDI has been the most important driver of China’s growth, not just because of the money involved (more than $60 billion last year) but also because of the technology, expertise, marketing relationships and much else that this money represents. India’s showing has been far less impressive: about an eleventh of China’s haul last year (see chart 3).

One chief reason for the discrepancy is that India imposes caps on FDI in a host of economically important, or politically sensitive, sectors: insurance, aviation, coal-mining, media and much else. Chief among these is retailing. Though franchise operations are allowed, foreign direct ownership is banned, which explains why even Delhi’s smartest shopping areas are scruffy and chaotic places with limited stock.

When he speaks of following the “Chinese model”, Mr Singh seems to admit this. But it remains sadly true that the free market that has helped the tigers so much often works better in Communist China than in India — not least thanks to India’s own democratically elected Communist politicians.

Thailand’s democracy, on the contrary, has twice resoundingly brought to power a man who is as pro-economic-liberalization, pro-West as a Thai politician can possibly be. And the Economist and its world media peers are doing their darnedest to undermine him and glorify the pseudo-communist xenophobic ochlocrats. I hope that concerted effort doesn’t get anywhere. But if it does, don’t blame democracy.

The press

All of the actors we’ve mentioned need the media as their amplifier. The need is particularly acute for academics whose academic work is practically unheard of and the kind of “people sector” that will make Lady Diana’s “people’s princess” moniker seem genuine by comparison. Luckily for them, the Thai press by and large shares their politics and is implausibly even more libertine than the global media about the use of the words populism and nationalism. Paradoxically, that makes Thai-language newspapers much more enlightening to read than the English for those who do know what populism and nationalism mean.

Ignorant of the stark irony that they’re presenting, Thai journalists have no need to tone down or cherry pick quotes to make Thaksin critics sound more respectable or at least less farcical. If anything, they have a proud tradition of turning the loose talk that they rather mundanely transcribe in the actual article into explosively sensational headlines. Here is, for instance, front page headline of Matichon’s story that stenographs the xenophobe’s get-together above:

เสนอครม.เปิดทางต่างชาติ ฮุบ20กิจการ

นักวิชาการแฉลักไก่เขมือบไทย ทั้งร.ร.-โรงหนัง-การเงิน-หุ้น

นักวิชาการรุมค้านรัฐบาล”ลักไก่” เตรียมออกกฎกระทรวง กำหนดธุรกิจบริการที่ไม่ต้องขอใบอนุญาต ที่เตรียมเข้า ครม. 18 ต.ค.นี้ ชี้จะทำให้คนต่างด้าวเข้ากุมธุรกิจไทยกว่า 20 สาขา ทั้งธนาคาร โรงหนัง โรงเรียน และ บ.หลักทรัพย์ ปิดกั้นอาชีพคนไทย หวั่นต่างชาติเข้าฮุบทุกอย่าง ซัด รบ.ทำเพื่อเอาใจการเปิดเอฟทีเอไทย-สหรัฐ จี้ส่งศาล รธน.-ศาลโลก วินิจฉัย

Propose to cabinet opening way for foreigners to gobble up twenty enterprises [industries, PWCAU –ed.]

Academics expose as furtive devouring of Thailand — schools, movie theaters, finance, stock [brokerage]

Academics rally to oppose government’s “furtive” attempt to pass ministerial regulation, stipulating that service industries don’t need to apply for permits, that is being readied for submission to the cabinet October 18; Argue will cause aliens to take over Thai businesses in as many as twenty branches [industries, PWCAU] including banking, movie theaters, schools, and stock brokers, [and] to block Thai people’s careers; Fear foreigners coming in to gobble up everything, Slam govt. as doing to woo [pave way for, PWCAU] the opening [signing, PWCAU] of Thai-US FTA; Push to submit to World Court for arbitration.

[Translated by yours truly.; PWCAU stands for “poor word choice as usual”.]

“Gobble up” (“ฮุบ”) is, of course, the word the Thai media, including most of all Matichon itself, used to describe GMM Grammy’s takeover bid for Matichon and Bangkok Post. How considerate of them to lend this abusive sensationalism in service of the country and its capita…, I mean businessmen. How gallant. How selfless. How unnationalist.

During the short-lived takeover bid and in the immediate aftermath, Matichon got its 15 minutes of fame in the international media, whose idolatrous portrayal of the daily is exemplified by this snippet from Reuters

Matichon has built a reputation for integrity and investigative reporting over its 28 years of existence through a succession of military governments and the re-emergence of democracy.

It is a thorn in the side of Thaksin’s government…

Even without the benefit of my long promised dissection of Matichon (and with it all Thai-language newspapers), I believe all reasonable people would agree after reading the “gobble up” off-lead (plus the uncritical propagation of Peerayot Rahimmula’s abovementioned twaddle about CIA operatives under the guise of Ph.D. students) that the “integrity” and “investigative reporting” bits are frothing nonsense. The second, “thorn in the side” claim, however, is not so readily disprovable. Indeed, I wish it were true.

However, even today, after the takeover bid and Thaksin’s taking a stance on various issues (from FTAs and privatization to GMO and foreign affairs) that is the opposite of the one held by the newspaper and its beloved “academics” and “people sector”, Matichon is not a viciously and uniformly anti-Thaksin organ the way The Nation and Thai Post are. Only a year or so earlier, it was decidedly one of the more pro-Thaksin newspapers, right up there with Thai Rath and Manager. (See former PM Chuan Leekpai made a jab at that in response to a Matichon reporter’s sexual crime allegation against then-senior Democrat Sanan Kachornprasart. Matichon later retracted the story following Mr. Sanan’s 100-million-baht lawsuit.)

Of course, even when Matichon was relatively pro-Thaksin, it was always somewhat torn between the Thaksin government on one hand and the “academics” (Thirayuth Boonmi in particular) and the “people sector” on the other. Needless to say, it has since drifted away from the former and toward the latter. The Manager group went through a similar, but more dramatic transformation. Now, is this because the two firebrands have become disenchanted with Thaksin’s populism and nationalism, or rather something completely opposite?

I can almost hear the world’s worldly journalists wailing: No fair! We can’t read Thai! Well, if that’s the case — and if they can’t even hire a resourceful and honest translator to help them keep tabs on front-page headlines in Thailand’s “most respected” newspaper — then you would expect them to be a bit more circumspect about parroting crude clichés in their “news” and “analyses”, wouldn’t you?

Besides, much information about the Thai press’s basic political instincts is available in English. Both the Bangkok Post and The Nation approvingly covered the xeno-bashing at Thammasat. Although they sanitized it somewhat (and I shouldn’t need to tell you to whose benefit this is), the Bangkok Post’s report does contain the “handing weapons to foreign investors to kill Thais” and “day-time robbery” remarks while the Nation has a longer version of the latter (slightly different, of course, with sovereignty mistranslated as “independence”) plus earnest echoes from the Democrat Party. Then on Wednesday, when spineless government officials were backtracking in full damage-control mode, the Nation “Streetwise” columnist, she who once used the word “patriotic” as a gibe during the Suvarnabhumi Airport’s crackpot cracks episode, opined:

On Sunday, newspaper readers were greeted with the shocking news that the Commerce Ministry would unlock the entry barriers to foreigners who want to invest in Thai banks, insurance companies, securities companies, and even pawn shops.

This would have indeed been shocking if it had been true. After all, no Thai wants the government to let foreigners penetrate industries that should be kept for Thais.

On Monday, officials at the ministry came out to say the criticism was based on a misunderstanding.

And no, she’s not being ironic this time.

Likewise, Nation columnist Thanong Khanthong was not making a parody, not consciously at least, when he began his article titled “Economic populism creates more losers than winners” thus:

With the first chapter of the Golden Age of Thaksinomics about to come to a close, it is clear who the winners and losers are in the game of economic populism. The rich and the political cronies of those in power have grown richer and the poor have become poorer. And, unfortunately, this income imbalance is likely to widen in the years to come.

Most people are in shock and awe over the dramatic increase in the wealth represented by just the stock market holdings of the Shinawatra family, which ballooned by almost 150 per cent between 2001 and 2004, from Bt12.76 billion to Bt31.54 billion. Most big businesses, particularly those that have ties to the government, have been clear winners from Thaksinomics. The people in finance, the stock market, real estate, construction materials and automotive, telecom and consumer products have been enjoying a heyday as domestic consumption takes the bite.

Yet over this four-year period, the average man on the street has been taking home less pay if inflation is taken into account. While household incomes have been growing at almost 20 per cent, household debt has outpaced them at 52 per cent. The top 20 per cent of the country’s 63 million people account for 56 per cent of the gross domestic product, while the bottom 20 per cent counts for only 4 per cent. About 30 million Thais earn their livelihoods in the agricultural sector, which accounts for only 13 per cent of GDP.

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Big business = clear winners. Heyday for finance, the stock market, real estate, construction materials and automotive, telecom and consumer products at the expense of “the average man on the street”…

With an enemy like Mr. Thanong, populism doesn’t need friends.

(Continue to the second half of “Populism and nationalism in Thailand”.).

23:43 ▪ politics, media

« Populism and nationalism in Thailand (cont.) | Main | EGAT privatization »

ติ ชม ผสมโรง [13]

1
poststaffer 12.11.05

Populists, nationalists - and other ratbags. I couldn’t believe this when I read it:

—‘The National Reconciliation Commission and Muslim leaders want the three provinces in the deep South to be developed into a “special administrative zone,” which is not a form of separatism, for peaceful co-existence of people of different races and cultures.

The NRC has assigned leading universities to conduct studies to find a suitable form of administration for the three provinces - Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.’

***
Read it in your Bangkok Post tomorrow. Dreamy academics, or sinister nation-splitters?

2
Leonidas / Germany 26.11.05

Sorry for my bad English, but i have a question. Today i spent a lot of time on your page and i miss your distance to Khun Thaksin Shinawatra especially in his kind to handle your country in that bad way!

You are a so intelligent man, why do you close your eyes when its indeed necessary to condemn this man who is ruinising Thailand.

3
Leonidas / Germany 28.11.05

You wrote above:

“With an enemy like Mr. Thanong, populism doesn’t need friends.”

May be Mr. Thanong doesn’t need friends, but may be a master of populism, aren’t you?..)

4
scuba22 3.12.05

Dear Tom V:

I must echo Mr. Leonidas from Germany. Your arguments are well formed and convincing - you make an excellent case for the hypocrisy of major government critics and point out the shallowness of many of these critiques. Well done.

However, I wonder if you mean to imply that the shoddiness of the critiques and critics of the government is some kind of evidence that the present government is good for Thailand. Thaksin and the TRT continually assert that their policies are moving the nation forward - do you agree with this? Even if you don’t intend this, it is a conclusion easily reached from your incisive dimantling of government critics.

That does not mean that government critics are above criticism; rather I wonder why not take your substantial analytic skills and apply them to people who actually have power and are affecting peoples lives - the government; not the toothless opposition and powerless academics. Why spend time knocking over ill-constructed anthills while the roof is caving in?

Unless you honestly believe that the current government is taking Thailand forward - in which case I’d love to hear your defense of that position.

Best regards,

Scuba22

5
poststaffer 3.12.05

Why spend time knocking over ill-constructed anthills while the roof is caving in?

That’s your opinion, and not everyone has to share it!

Unless you honestly believe that the current government is taking Thailand forward - in which case I’d love to hear your defense of that position.

Sounds like you believe no one in his right mind could possibly hold such a view.

6
Tom Vamvanij 3.12.05

Scuba22:

I wonder why not take your substantial analytic skills and apply them to people who actually have power and are affecting peoples lives - the government; not the toothless opposition and powerless academics. Why spend time knocking over ill-constructed anthills while the roof is caving in?

Your supposedly toothless opposition and powerless academics, in collaboration with the People Sector™ and the media, have just managed to delay, if not block, the EGAT privatization (and note that the Domocrats promise to reverse it when they return to power). That, I believe, will have adverse affects on people’s lives, mine included.

However, I wonder if you mean to imply that the shoddiness of the critiques and critics of the government is some kind of evidence that the present government is good for Thailand.

I mean what I say, and having said so much, there is little left to “imply”. The only purpose of this post is straighforwardly to debunk the “populist/nationalist” tag that Thaksin and the TRT have been stuck with for five years and counting. I do hold a small hope, made explicit in the conclusion, of prompting the reader to ask what else can be wrong about his or her perceptions of the Thaksin government, given that the first and best-known characterization of it is so patently false. As someone who’s swimming against an enormous tide, however, I know better than to count on that hope. Unfortunately, Scuba22, you confirmed my pessimism.

The roof is not caving in, although I do get a feeling virtually everytime I read anything about Thai politics — in Thai or English, on-line or off-line — that a band of populist, nationalist, and xenophobic fanatics are taking over with the help and support of well-meaning but rock-dumb foreigners. When that happens, I remind myself that Thaksin Shinawatra is still the prime minister of Thailand.

Unless you honestly believe that the current government is taking Thailand forward - in which case I’d love to hear your defense of that position.

You should be able to tell from this very post that I support the current government’s policies on:

  • Free trade
  • Privatization of state-owned enterprises
  • Generally resisting the populist, nationalist, and xenophobic faux Marxists (media, “academics”, and NGOs) and those who pander to them (the Democrats).

If you stand against these, then I’ll give you a chance to defend your position first.

PS I don’t much care for Thaksin’s new War on Porn and old order that bars close by 2am. But those vital concerns are just about outweighed by the sum of lesser issues like the three above and a few others. Just about, really.

7
hehe 23.12.05

Here are some of the policies before the Thaksin government listed in “Poverty Targeting in Asia” by J. Weiss:
-Cash transfers to poor families and the elderly administered by the
Department of Public Welfare of the Ministry of Labor and Social
Welfare.
-In-kind transfers, of which the major example is the means tested low income
Health Card aimed at providing for medical services run by
the Ministry of Public Health. Other examples are the School Lunch
Program (Ministry of Education) and subsidies for housing.
-Income generation programs such as the Poverty Alleviation Program,
run by the Community Development Department of the Ministry of
Interior, which gives interest-free loans to low-income households for
income generation activities and the Student Loan Scheme, by the
Ministry of Finance, for students of low-income families at upper
secondary and tertiary levels of the education system.
-Special off-budget programs, often begun at the initiative of incoming
governments or ministers.

8
scuba22 10.04.06

Dear Mr. Tom:

Many apologies for the lateness of this reply. I have read over your comments to me several times and they are still leaving me quite confused. Let’s get one thing out of the way – the main thesis of your essay here is that while the TRT gets slammed for being “populist and nationalist”, other parties who are at least equally “populist and nationalist” are not consistently criticized for that.

On that point, I have no contention – though I do feel it’s was a fairly irrelevant observation while the TRT still had its hands on most levers of power. Pointing to the EGAT privatization as proof of anti-TRT power ignores too much to take seriously. First, this incident was at the tail end of several years of unprecedented power held by a democratically elected government with tremendous goodwill. They managed to implement just about all their policies, take over supposedly independent oversight agencies, delay reforms that might have been difficult for themselves (creating the NBC for example) and sweep scandal after scandal under the rug (remember Alpine Golf Course? CTX scanners? PTT share allocations?). All this gradually whittled away the goodwill the government enjoyed among the chattering classes who pay attention to these things, including it seems the Administrative Court, leading to the EGAT injunction.

Second, the EGAT situation warrants discussion in itself. I don’t agree with a knee-jerk anti-privatization sentiment, but at the same time you must realize that not all privatizations are good things, and not all state owned enterprises are disasters. Especially in energy, deregulation and privatization can lead to horrible results if not done carefully and with integrity – witness Enron’s shenanigans in California. On the other hand, Singapore’s Temasek and GIC are both examples of government involvement in industry to benefit their people (though I have issues with those, that’s another topic).

I don’t agree with the specific issues raised to block the EGAT privatization – just as I don’t agree with the specific issues used to bring down Thaksin (of all the aweful things he’s done, not paying tax is hardly the most offensive, IMHO). However, energy deregulation, of which the EGAT privatisation is a part, must be done with far more thought and care than the government has shown – for a fuller discussion, please see the 2bangkok site where we started getting into details of network management.

But now that reforms are on the horizon, it does make sense to open the question of the opposition again, but this is where you lose me.

First, you comment that “populism and nationalism are indeed dangerous sentiments, especially when combined”. We can argue about what these terms mean, but unless you build negativity into the definition, I don’t see how a politicial philosophy emphasizing the grassroots (populism) or drawing on national sentiments (nationalism) is any more dangerous than any other political philosophy. Pacifism can be dangerous, capitalism can be dangerous – anything can be dangerous. The issue is not the fundamental sentiment itself, but the way in which it is used. Someone on 2bangkok – i think it was either you or Mr. BKpundit – made an astonishing comment that implementation of policy was irrelevant so long as the policy sounded good, as if I could hit you on the head with a brick and call it love. I hope you can agree that it matters not just what is said, but what is done and how it is done – otherwise, we’re just discussing rhetoric, not reality.

Moving on… in your reply to me, you state “the first and best-known characterization of [the Thaksin government] is so patently false” by which I assume you mean the charges of “populism and nationalism”. Yet in your essay you also state “That is not to say that Prime Minister Thaksin has never made any gestures or policies that can be described as populist and nationalist. He certainly has.”

So then, which is it? If Thaksin’s policies can be described as populist and nationalist, then your charge of “patently false” does not hold, though I am all in favor of taking an factual look at these policies, which I have trouble finding anywhere amidst all the rhetoric.

Simply put, pointing out that his opposition is MORE “populist and nationalist” does NOT mean that Thaksin is not these things. If you want to make the case that Thaksin is not populist and nationalist, then you need to do that. But you can’t. Because he is (how can you describe his rural development programs as anything else?). And I would argue that that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s all a question of what form this populism and nationalism takes.

The same holds for of free trade, privatization and rural development. I am in favor of all these things, and that is exactly why I oppose the TRT’s policies. Thaskin talks about these things incessantly, but his own personal history and the implementation of his policies in these regards puts the lie to the rhetoric. I can’t comment specifically on the FTAs since I don’t know what’s in them, but given what I’ve seen of the privatization and rural development programs, it wouldn’t surprise me to find seriously illiberal components masquerading as “free trade”

On the privatization and rural development policies, I would be glad to discuss the specifics of PTT, EGAT, 30-B health care, OTOP, SML, million-baht fund, debt moratorium, or other loan schemes. In every single one of these cases, Thaksin has used modern marketing tools to make some very dubious activities sound palatable, and it appears you are among the many who fell for it, especially since you seem unable to discuss any policy specifics beyond platitudes. I’ve started these discussions on 2bangkok, and I’ve noticed that you were strikingly unprepared to delve into the specifics of any of these items. If you are unable to discuss the practicalities of implementing policies and their real impact, why should anyone pay attention to your pronouncements on abstract concepts like “free trade” “populism” or “nationalism”?

Cheers,

Scuba22

9
scuba22 11.04.06

Mr Poststaffer:

I said “Unless you honestly believe that the current government is taking Thailand forward – in which case I’d love to hear your defense of that position.”

To which you replied:” Sounds like you believe no one in his right mind could possibly hold such a view.”

I haven’t heard anyone yet make a credible defense of Thaksin’s rural development, health care, or privatization efforts as they have been implemented. Indeed, pro-Thaksin commentators like Mr. Tom here or Mr. Pundit elsewhere appear to know very little about either the details of these policies or about the global experience in these areas, pretending instead that it’s a simple matter of “free trade vs. Marxism”. My critique of Thaksin is a firmly capitalist critique – bear in mind that Adam Smith warned very strongly against businesspeople getting involved in public policy making. Thaksin being a capitalist (or even a true businessman) is a far bigger misperception than him being a populist. To think otherwise requires a bizarre view of what capitalism is.

Best regards,

Scuba22

10
Tom Vamvanij 12.04.06

Scuba22:

I don’t have time now to respond to your specific comments. In a few months, perhaps.

Any brave fool can readily parrot clichés or make things up (you did both) and pass off as informed and convincing among his peers. But it takes a serious effort to comprehensively debunk him (or usually, them) the way I did in this post and the ones about Veera Prateepchaikul, the King’s speech, Anand Panyarachun’s myth-making, an alleged election conspiracy, and Manusaya.com.

Oh, sorry, you can’t read the last two because it’s in Thai, the official and common language of the Thai people. Can you imagine me going to your country and, in spite of my illiteracy in its language, make grand statements about its politics? And, to add insult to injury, base them on “I haven’t heard” this and that? Like I said, brave.

If it’s all too difficult for you to step outside your favorite echo chamber, where the designated local doesn’t read Thai well enough to follow daily newspapers and has to rely on a dated book by a guy named Duncan McCargo for “reference”, then how about doing an internal research to determine precisely whether it’s me or Bangkok Pundit who said the “astonishing comment” that you cited? I’m sure they have the “find all posts by… ” button over there. That just about sums up why I cannot respond to your specific points right now. I’m not as brave as you. I’m afraid of looking like a total idiot.

11
scuba22 12.04.06

Mr Tom:

You have done very thorough work debunking several specific points, though I cannot comment on the accuracy of your translations. However the points I am raising have nothing to do with anything you have “debunked”. As I mentioned before, I have no quarrel with your contention that Thaksin’s opposition are even more populist, nationalist, or pretty much any other label that they have called him. Pots calling kettles black is not a new or uniquely Thai phenomenon, so while I agree with your thesis, I find it singularly unexiting, but that’s just my taste. You clearly feel that you’ve made some significant contribution, and if that makes you happy, so be it.

Yet that does not automatically mean that Thaksin and TRT are not all those things – your own post even admits this. I’m sorry you’re hurt that I pointed out your contradiction, but it’s no reason to run away from civil dialogue about specific issues and divert attention to various other irrelevant commentary and name-calling. Unless of course you really don’t know much about Thaksin’s policies, what impact they have had at the frontlines, and where they stand in the context of global experience in the particular policy matters. If that’s the case, just admit you’re unprepared to discuss these policies and move on. What’s the point in the ad hominem attacks and diversionary tactics?

I am not prepared to discuss the FTAs, and I admit that. We can’t all be experts at everything. And I am not making “grand statements” about Thai politics. I am making very specific statements about very specific people and very specific programs and policies that I am prepared to back and have backed up – with you running away and slinging mud at every attempt. How do you suppose that makes you look?

Hiding behind a language barrier is childish, Tom. Isn’t part of the purpose of your little blog here to inform people who don’t read Thai? If not, why bother with all the translations? Besides, must one read Thai to understand health economics? To know something about rural development? Do Adam Smith’s words mean something different in Thai? Are income statements and balance sheets different in Thai?

No Tom, they’re not. You don’t need to read or speak Thai to know that universal capitated health financing doesn’t work. You don’t need to read or speak Thai to know that making money by winning a procurement bid you wrote yourself for your father-in-law’s department is not “free market capitalism”. You don’t need to read or speak Thai to know that wanton increase in a local money supply does not automatically lead to long-term economic growth, especially in rural areas. All of these are well documented in literature that I am happy to share with you if you’re interested in understanding why TRT’s activities will lead to disaster, despite the rhetoric that has you so enamored.

But given the number of times that I’ve tried to enage you in substantive discussion regarding real policy impact, I’m suspecting that you’re not interested in that at all. You’d rather spend your time picking on media and minorities.

Well, I’m glad you found a calling that makes you feel good. You’re right, I am not afraid of looking like a total idiot – I find that’s the best way to learn something new.

Be well my friend,

Scuba22

12
scuba22 12.04.06

“Can you imagine me going to your country and, in spite of my illiteracy in its language, make grand statements about its politics?”

Sorry, this was too delicious to pass up… So. Therefore:

Unless you speak Arabic, do NOT make any comments on Islamic fundamentalism

Unless you speak Hebrew, do NOT comment on Israel

The global anti-apartheid movement should not have had any non-Afrikaans speakers (Zulu too?)

Nobody who doesn’t speak Swahili should have any comment on Robert Mugabe

Anyone who doesn’t speak Burmese should just shut up about the junta there

And of course…

All non-English speakers have no business commenting on the United States.

Thanks, Tom, for this bit of non-idiotic non-foolishness. Well done.

Scuba22

13
scuba22 12.04.06

Sorry, just one more… (waiting for a plane with time to kill)

“how about doing an internal research to determine precisely whether it’s me or Bangkok Pundit who said the “astonishing comment” that you cited”

It’s irrelevant to the point, Tom. The question is whether rosy rhetoric means anything if it’s not related to action and results on the ground. Someone said that “implementation doesn’t matter” – and I found that astonishing.

If you disagree, then say so now, and let’s get on with the discussion about actual policies, their implementation, and their impact.

You state you agree with this government’s privatization position – that’s easy to say. But can you really defend the PTT privatization? Or the EGAT privatization? Do you actually know anything about either one – how PTT went down, or what the plans were for EGAT? If you do, I’d really like to hear your defense; if not, then what does it mean to support some kind of abstract position without knowing how they’re being implemented? I agree that the rise of religious fundamentalism is a serious problem and needs to be dealt with, but that’s a far cry from condoning prisoner torture.

Be careful what you’re supporting Tom, you may be quite disappointed to learn what it really is behind the wonderful words and pictures – even if they’re in Thai and others can’t read them.

Cheers,

Scuba22