ASEAN Conflict & disaster

[2208] Of here is to Thailand

A Malaysian diplomat once told me that among the neighbors of Malaysia, Thailand is our closest. He reasoned that despite stark difference in culture, Thailand has never been hostile to Malaysia, unlike Indonesia and the Philippines, which are supposedly our brothers. Thailand even helped Malaysia when the communist waged war against the federation.

And compared to Singapore, the sometimes fierce causeway rivalry is non-existent. He somehow forgot to mention Brunei but that is probably because unlike other neighbors, Brunei is not as important.

In return for Thailand’s reliable friendship, he firmly believes in the territorial integrity of Thailand. He chides Malay irredentism that exists in Malaysia and in southern Thailand.

I am unsure about Thailand being our closest friend, especially after seeing Thaksin Sinawatra in power. I remember that the Thaksin administration looked for a scapegoat in hope to divert attention away from him. He found Malaysia. A very close friend would not do that.

Nevertheless, I truly believe that a stable neighborhood is beneficial for Malaysia. That means stable and developing neighbors. As a regionalist, I believe in European-like integration for Southeast Asia. As such, I am happy that Indonesia has managed to sort its problems out after all these years. In the same vein, I am concerned with the situation in Thailand. Any effort of integration must take Thailand into account. After all, Thailand is the original six members of ASEAN.

A free and fair election is the solution for Thailand. Only a free and fair election will solve the problem of Thailand. Unless there is a free and fair election, a large section of Thai society will continue to question the legitimacy of the government of the day. And really, I find it hard to see how the current government is legitimate, even if the previous Thaksin-connected governments were unconvincing. A new mandate is required.

I was in Bangkok in 2006, just about four months before the military coup took place. I love the city and it breaks my heart to see such a beautiful city becoming a war zone. Streets that I have walked at this very moment have snipers readying to shoot. Protesters are fighting back. Smoke billows.

I do not intend to choose sides here. I do not have the appetite for such debate. In fact, the two sides of the divide do not appeal to me. All I hope all this will be resolved soon.

Here is to Thailand.

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams.

ASEAN Conflict & disaster Politics & government Society

[1951] Of we do not want to go down the path Thailand is on

Thailand has been a popular role model for monarchists in Malaysia, who believe that the monarchy has the potential to be the umpire for an increasingly competitive Malaysian democracy. Now that Thailand again finding itself in shambles, the same Malaysian monarchists are no longer quite as willing to cite our neighbor up north. For others like me, who have always been uncomfortable with the idea of an activist monarchy, this reaffirms our commitment to organic politics.

Thailand finds itself in a quagmire because its government refuses to return to the Thai people to earn mandate to govern. Rather than appealing to the electorates, the ruling class preferred a top-down approach to legitimize their grip to power.

In a society that stresses great respect for the monarch, appealing to the monarchy may be the best way to obtain the mandate to rule. It is hard to ignore the influence of the Thai King over the Thai people. In discussing the politics of Thailand, various publications inevitably work extra hard to remind all of that fact.

Slowly however after a series of unending political conflicts, the reverence for the King may be slowly becoming irrelevant. The latest episode of uprising may finally force a rethink of that reverence as the red-shirted Thai people — Thaksin supporters — organize themselves to confront the yellow-shirted royalists, who are Abhisit’s supporters.

There were multiple opportunities for those holding power to return to the Thai people ever since the military coup d’etat against the Thaksin administration in 2006. Each time the opportunity arrived, however, the yellow shirts — he People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and supporters of the current Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva — misused that opportunity. They either appealed to the monarchy — at the expense of democracy — or pressured the government that they disliked to step down without returning to the ballot boxes fairly.

PAD did this because they know they cannot win a general election fairly.The rural population makes up the majority in Thailand and the ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, together with his allies, are popular in the rural areas.

The politics of Thailand is more or less defined by this rural-urban divide, with allowance for those in the south who aligned themselves to the urban elites. The urban elites — almost synonymous to the educated class — align themselves with the royalists. Tyranny of the majority is a real concern when the majority is bent on threatening the rights of the minority. Such majoritarianism is distasteful.

To address such majoritarianism, a liberal democracy where individual rights are secured is required.

But distaste for crass majoritarianism is one thing. Distaste for democracy is another.

What is happening in Thailand, however, is not distaste for majoritarianism but, rather, distaste for organic politics in favour of a top-down approach. The royalist elites’ low opinion of organic politics is visible when PAD proposed what they called ”a new politics”. They wanted a Parliament whose membership is not earned through the ballot boxes but granted by the King.

Such a political maneuver can only certainly disenfranchise the majority while it unduly strengthens the minority, making democracy redundant. Clearly, the word ”democracy” in PAD’s acronym is not worth much. Democracy is only a convenient empty rhetoric to PAD as well as to the Abhisit-led Democrat Party.

When the military executed the coup d’etat with blessings from the monarchy in 2006, the action was presented as an effort to save Thai democracy. At that time, this appeared to be the case and the military and the yellow-shirted masses deserved the benefit of doubt, given the issues associated with the Thaksin administration.

The involvement of the monarchy in breaking the deadlock then was immediately hailed as a wise move, even in Malaysia. Seizing the moment, Malaysian royalists argued that without the monarchy, Thailand would have descended into further chaos.

Never mind that the ones who caused the chaos, the ones who became the judge and the ones who benefited from the involvement of the monarchy were, suspiciously, from the same side — the Thai royalists and their allies, the yellow shirts.

Approximately three years have passed since that royal intervention. And as time progressed, the real effect of that coup d’tat and royal intervention has become clear.

At this juncture, neither has Thai democracy been saved nor does royal intervention appear wise. Instead, in retrospect, the intervention has worsened the situation, from protest by the elites to protest by the masses.

What is visible now as Bangkok falls into a state of emergency once again is the failure of the top-down approach. This is a direct rebuke to monarchists in Malaysia who opined earlier that the monarchy has a greater role to play in Malaysian politics.

The top-down approach and, specifically, the act of deferring to the monarchy, does not work because it does not address real organic differences that exist among the masses. These real differences can only be addressed through the will of the people and not through the will of the monarchy. The answer for Thailand is the ballot boxes and not further royal intervention.

The Thai monarchy — as well as the military, which has shown royalist tendencies — has to be taken out of the equation.

Only a free and fair election can truly break the deadlock. The losers, at the same time, must accept that result of such an election and stop trying to bring down a government that earned its mandate from the people.

Refusal to do so will prolong the chaos.

And if the losers continue to return to the monarchy to subvert the will of the majority, sooner or later that respect the majority has for the monarchy will suffer erosion. The majority will become tired of witnessing their rights being abused again and again by the royalists and the monarchy.

If that abuse happens once too often, Thailand will become a republic.

Already the majority has decided to openly challenge a side that always hides behind the Thai throne. In the past, the Thai royalists’ association with the monarchy is enough to discourage opposition, for fear of being seen to be disrespecting the King. That fear appears to be diminishing now.

For the Thai King’s own sake, he should disengage himself from Thai politics before it is too late.

In a more democratic Malaysia where the monarchy enjoys much less reverence from the people compared to our neighbor to the north, deferring to the monarchy on various issues such as languages and selection of Prime Minister is undesirable.

Unless we dream to subvert our problematic but maturing competitive democracy, and unless we want to risk the status quo for our monarchy, our country must continue to be driven by wisdom of the people.

We should not tread the path the Thais are on if we ourselves do not wish to progress — or regress — further along the evolutionary line of forms of government.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on April 14 2009.

ASEAN Economics

[1273] Of a tit-for-tat with a happy ending

In game theory, tit-for-tat is one of the most common strategies utilized with cold effectiveness. Recently within the realm of ASEAN, Thailand played such tactics on Malaysia due to the latter’s protectionist automotive policy. Accusing that thee Malaysian approved permit system acts as a non-tariff barrier, Thailand refused to grant ASEAN Free Trade Agreement tariff on Malaysian vehicles. Malaysia later relented, probably realizing that a better outcome could be reached if the two cooperated with each other to lower down trade barrier. Defection is a sad strategy, no matter how efficient it is.

Thanks to such sensibility, Thailand has agreed to lower down the barrier its imposed on Malaysian automotive goods:

The Thai Cabinet agreed on Tuesday to slash the country’s import tariff on Malaysian cars in line with the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA), an assistant government spokesman said Tuesday.

The move came after Malaysia had abolished its own trade restrictions protecting its automotive sector, Mr. Chotechai Suwannaporn said.

The reciprocal moves are recognised both as gestures of goodwill within ASEAN, but also as tangible steps on the part of both countries to work towards an integrated regional trade area.

The former Thaksin administration delayed implementing tariff cuts for Malaysian cars, arguing that the neighbouring country had been implementing trade measures that were the main obstacle keeping Thai-built cars from penetrating its market. [Thailand to cut tariff on Malaysian Cars. Bangkok Post. June 27 2007]

Ah. A tit-for-tat with a happy ending. Hip hip hooray. More free trade please and let us tore down the wall of protectionism!

Photography Travels

[1230] Of Vajiravudh in Bangkok

I have just realized that I am yet to wrap up my Bangkok trip. In hope of finally tying up a loose end, I am posting a picture of Vajiravudh’s statue at Vajiravudh College in Bangkok as a reminder to myself.

By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved.

The last stop mentioned before I unceremoniously forgot about finishing up the travelogue is the Democracy Monument.