ICG, Southern Thailand and the coup

[This is a comment by regular New Mandala reader, Republican, on the International Crisis Group's recent report on southern Thailand: icg-2007.pdf.] 

Over the last year one could be excused for having grown used to the disparagement of democratically elected government in Thailand by Thai academics, the foreign Thai Studies community as well as various international institutions. Prestigious centers of Thai Studies such as SOAS and the University of Washington host talks by the coup plotter Sondhi Limthongkul; the UNDP waxes lyrical about the wonders of the king’s “sufficiency” theory; foreign academics try to convince us that strengthening the monarchy will actually make Thailand more “democratic”, and the international Thai studies community is already preparing to honour the king at the 10th International Thai Studies Conference. But even I was surprised by the International Crisis Group’s enthusiasm for Thailand’s current royalist-military dictatorship in its report on the violence, “Southern Thailand: The Impact of the Coup”, released last month. When an “independent” organization such as the ICG, whose job is supposedly to impartially propose ways to resolve violent conflict, suggests that a military dictatorship “under the King as Head of State” has a better chance of peacefully resolving the crisis in the south, then even someone who has imbibed too deeply of the stagnant waters of Thai Studies scholarship such as myself has to raise their eyebrows.

The report’s argument is that the coup “opened the way for improved management of the conflict in the Muslim South… ”(p. i). More than that, the ICG actually awards the government “high marks” for its initial efforts (p.23). All this despite the fact that, as the report itself admits, the violence has escalated under the current government, not declined. For the ICG, as for so many others, anything was better than the former democratically elected government, even a dictatorship, and this partiality shows throughout the report.

Just consider the appalling bias the report shows in regard to the September 19 coup. In one sentence it casually states that over 80% of the Thai population “welcomed” the coup (p. 4). The source for this extraordinary statement is in fact an article published in the Bangkok Post TWO DAYS after the coup took place; ie. the “research” for the “poll” must have taken place on the day after the coup took place. Assuming that, like the researchers at the ICG, one is willing to trust a poll published by one of the leading anti-Thaksin English language newspapers, conducted within a single day after the military has carried out a coup d’état and imposed martial law, then if over 80% of Thai people supported the coup, why on earth stage a coup, when an election was only a month away? But this seems beyond the comprehension of the ICG, which obviously prefers not to put its trust in election results. If this is the quality of the research conducted by the ICG one would be justified in questioning how far one can trust the rest of its research on the conflict in the south. (On a related point, one has to question the ICG’s wisdom in relying substantially on the daily English language newspapers, published in the restricted media environment of a royalist dictatorship, as source material for such an important report).

Then there is the ICG’s gullibility regarding what it calls the “sincere efforts” (how can the ICG know? a military regime that has just carried out a coup can be “sincere”?) of the “government” (note: not “military regime”) to “reach out” to the southern Muslims (p.4). The ICG appears to have been blind to the way that the regime, desperate to gain some legitimacy from the international community after its overthrow of a democratically elected government, used the issue of the conflict in the south to try and regain support from the international community by pretending to wave an olive branch at the insurgents. Politically the conflict in the south had the same function for the regime as the new Suwannaphum airport: it was an issue by which to discredit the former Thai Rak Thai government. The “historic apology” by Surayudh on November 2, was the clearest example. As the ICG admits, the Thai population at large did not approve of the apology. But how can the ICG fail to see the significance of this? A royalist-military regime does not NEED support from the population, but it does need support from the international community. The ICG might give the dictatorship “high marks” for gestures such as these made deliberately for the television cameras, but anybody who knows the game that is being played would understand that it was a cynical act of public relations. The ICG swallowed it, in the face of all the evidence that the coup has actually led to a dramatic worsening of the conflict. Common sense would suggest that a royalist dictatorship might not be the best way to solve such a complex problem, but that seems to be lost on the ICG.

We are by now familiar with the bias of many scholars and international organizations towards royalism and members of the royal family compared with their general repugnance towards the democratically elected Thai Rak Thai government and Thaksin in particular. In the ICG’s report part of this bias is apparent in what is lacking: the report makes no mention of the junta’s constant invocation of the king as protection against criticism (everyone, including the southern Muslims, were free to criticize Thaksin, but just try criticizing the real head of the current regime); it seems oblivious to the fact that lèse majesté might cloud our understanding of what is happening in the south or in Thai politics generally; it fails to mention the significance that Surayudh was a former privy councilor nor that Sondhi Boonyaratklin was a Palace loyalist. Why is the report not more critical of the very obvious bias of the Queen and the Crown Prince towards the Buddhist victims of the violence? The ICG condemns Thaksin for his hardline approach to the violence in the south, but where is its condemnation of the Queen’s frequent provocative statements, including her wholehearted support of weapons training for local Buddhists in the region? The ICG is always willing to criticize the democratically elected Thaksin (who did not enjoy the luxury of being protected by lèse majesté), but refuses to make any comment critical of the monarchy’s involvement in the crisis, particularly in the aftermath of the overthrow of a democratically elected government carried out in the name of the King. Of course, such criticisms can not be made in Thailand, but the ICG is not bound by lèse majesté. Why can the ICG not mention such things in a report which is supposedly “independent”?

Another example is the ICG’s discussion of the issue whether the state should support the Patani Malay dialect. The ICG report claims that “attempts to introduce the Patani Malay dialect as an additional language in state primary schools and to promote its use in government offices have fallen flat in the absence of high-level political support…” Why is the report so vague? What is the “high level political support” that was absent? Did the ICG not know that the proposal was publicly rejected soon after it was proposed (in the National Reconciliation Council’s 2006 report) by Gen. Prem Tinasulanonda, Chairman of the Privy Council, representative of the King, and widely believed to have been the mastermind behind the coup. Given the King’s well-known concern for the purity of the Thai language one would have to assume that Prem represents the King’s own thinking on this issue. Why did the ICG not mention this in its report? If not, then the ICG failed in its basic duty of fact-finding. The information was freely available. Or did the ICG know, but prefer not to say? If so then the ICG has been even more negligent for not revealing the true reason the proposal was rejected. The ICG is never reticent to attribute and condemn policies proposed (or rejected) by Thaksin; why the silence on role of the monarchy?

The subject of the Thai language is one very close to the heart of the king. If one goes back and looks at the phraratchadamrat, phraboromrachowat, birthday speeches, etc. one will find that maintaining the purity of the Thai language is a recurring theme. Those who listen to the morning radio news on Or. Sor. Mor. Thor. will know that after the coup a new segment was introduced urging Thais to “love” the Thai language, to use it “correctly”, in order to honour the king. (Actually, there is a thesis here for someone to write about how the king’s insistence on the importance of the Thai language to Thai identity and the education system’s systematic neglect of the English language has had the effect of rendering most Thais prisoner to a conservative, feudal Thai language discourse dominated by the ratchakan state, and thus largely unaware of liberal ideas carried through the English language. On this point the Patani Malay nationalists are absolutely right about the political objectives of Thai linguistic policies).

In fact, the real crux of the problem is that the ICG has failed to understand the political significance of the September 19 coup. If it did then it would be far less confident about the regime’s ability to successfully handle the situation in the south. Essentially September 19 meant the return of the ratchakan state with the King at its head and the military as its guardian. Everything the regime has done since September 19 has been to ensure that a democratically elected government will never again threaten this status quo – through to the latest proposal by the Constitutional Drafting Panel for an appointed Senate, which would essentially mean that the Senate would return to its earlier pre-Thaksin function of being an organ of political control for the monarchy and its “network” of cronies over elected politicians. The question is then whether the ratchakan state and its feudal culture of authoritarianism, hierarchy, intolerance of diversity and lack of transparency (through the use of lèse majesté) would be more successful in dealing with the difficult problem of the south than a fully democratic government, where the ratchakan are the servants of the elected government, not its master.

Now, if one is to be honest one must admit that the three southern border provinces are the least royalist part of the country (this is another “inconvenient truth” not mentioned in the ICG’s report). This, perhaps more than anything else, is the real obstacle to national integration. If one reads Ibrahim Syukri’s popular history of Patani the true villains responsible for Patani’s subjugation are the Thai kings. One should not forget that it was the founder of the Chakri dynasty that destroyed Patani’s “independence” in the late eighteenth century. The present king’s grandfather abolished the Patani sultanate, imprisoned its last sultan, and negotiated the treaty that secured the historic Patani heartland as part of the Thai nation-state. These facts are staples of Patani nationalism. The “royalist nationalism” which has returned with a vengeance after the Thaksin interlude, while tolerated in other parts of the country is unlikely to endear the local Malay Muslim population to the Thai state post-September 19.

So the conflict in the south, if it is to be resolved, is unlikely to improve under conditions where the Thai monarchy is once again at the centre of Thai politics, and the military and the ratchakan, untouchable through their association with the monarchy, carry out its bidding. What this means is that, like so many other problems in the country, the situation in the south must wait for a democratic solution to problems at the centre. If the ICG had grasped this basic fact instead of heaping praise on a royalist dictatorship then it could have made a real contribution to an understanding of the situation in the south.

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