Legitimacy crises in Thailand, Prof.Duncan McCargo
( Last edit 2009-08-29 )
An Excerpt from Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand
The Pacific Review, Volume 18, Issue 4 December 2005 , pages 499 – 519
Thailand has faced three major political crises since 1992, all of them crises of political legitimacy. The first was Chavalit government's legitimacy crisis following the July 1997 baht devaluation. How could any government s continue in office, when it had just presided over the creation of the Asian economic crisis?
The second was the 2001 Thaksin assets declaration case, which almost saw a recently elected premier banned from politics for five years. Ideas of electoral legitimacy were pitted against the provisions of the 1997 constitution, under which powerful individuals were supposed to be subordinated to explicit 'rules of the game'.
The third was the 2004 collapse of state legitimacy in the Southern border provinces. For the first time in decades, Bangkok was losing control of an important sub-region of the country.
On 28 February 2005, Thailand’s Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda made a major public speech in Bangkok about the deteriorating security situation in the Muslim-dominated southern border provinces. More than 500 people had been killed in violent incidents there during the past year.
Prem urged prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to accept advice from the King and Queen, adopting a peaceful and cautious approach to the problems of the South, rather than hastily sending in force without a proper understanding of the situation. His speech was given at a seminar entitled ‘Joining forces in solving problems in Southern provinces based on royal speeches’, and referred directly to a 24 February 2004 royal speech advocating understanding (khao jai), accessibility (khao thueng) and development (pattana).
Thaksin had been present at the original speech, but had failed to act accordingly. Prem explained that everyone, ranging from community leaders to state officials, academics and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), should study the royal advice and adopt the same language (Thai Press Reports, 3 March 2005). Within days, Thaksin government had created a National Reconciliation Council to deal with the Southern unrest – a complete departure from the previous policy of securitization.
Thailand’s Muslim majority southern border provinces experienced a serious upsurge in political violence from January 2004, linked to a longstanding separatist movement as well as increasing religious intolerance. At the same time, domestic political factors also played a central role (McCargo, 2006).
Thaksin saw the deep South as hostile territory for his Thai Rak Thai Party, a sub-region dominated by officials loyal to Prem, the palace and the Democrats. In 2002, he dismantled the existing Army-led security structures, notably the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre created by Prem and his allies in the early 1980s – arguing that the old insurgency had degenerated into mere banditry – and put the police in charge of maintaining order.
Although ostensibly motivated by a desire to rein in the excesses of the Fourth Army, which had long been a law unto itself in the deep South, Thaksin’s actions undermined a delicate local social contract, and quickly precipitated a wave of extra-judicial killings and disappearances. More than 850 people were killed in violent incidents in the deep South between January 2004 and mid-2005 (see International Crisis Group 2005).
The most serious incident took place on 28 April 2004, when 108 lightly armed militants and five security personnel were killed during and after coordinated attacks on checkpoints. The day’s bloodshed culminated in a siege of Pattani’s historic Krue Se mosque, where 32 Muslim men were shot dead at point blank range. Tensions reached a peak on 25 October 2004, when eighty-four Muslim demonstrators were killed at Tak Bai, most of them suffocated after being piled into army trucks.
CLICK to see the detail of Thaksin's selective atrosity to the Muslim people in the south.
The monarchy had long taken a special interest in the area – the Queen normally spent several weeks each year at their palace in Narathiwat – and was horrified by the turn of events. On 13 October, two officials in a palace car were murdered in Narathiwat, apparently while buying fruit for the Queen herself (Xinhua News Agency, 15 October 2004, 17 November 2004).
Addressing over 1000 people at Chitrlada Palace in November, the Queen said she felt compelled to break her silence following a two-month visit to the South, her longest in many years (Bangkok Post, 17 November 2004). She denounced Muslims ’she had never known’ as the brutal killers of many government officials and ordinary citizens. She called upon the 300,000 Thai Buddhists in the region to stand firm and not leave the area. Thais could defend themselves by learning to shoot, added the Queen, saying that ‘even at the age of 72, I will learn how to shoot guns without using my glasses’.
The following day, the King granted an audience to 510 newly promoted police and army officers. In a speech also broadcast on radio, he called for greater unity and cooperation between the police and the army, declaring that such cooperation could have avoided some of the ‘unrest and disorder’ Queen Sirikrit had witnessed during her stay in the South (AFP, 18 November 2004; AP, 18 November 2004). These unusual public statements by the King and Queen illustrated the extent to which the deteriorating situation in the South posed a threat to the legitimacy of the Thai state.
Given Thailand’s tradition of extra-constitutional interventions by the monarchy, some leading Buddhist and Muslim activists began to call for such an intervention to address the problems of the South (Croissant 2005: fn. 62). Some hoped that the King might create a caretaker government of national unity, such as the one formed after May 1992. In October 2004, the Bangkok Post carried a front-page story headlined ‘Muslims to ask King to change govt’ (29 October 2004).
According to the story, Dato Nideh Waba, chairman of the private religious school association in the Southern border provinces, as well as deputy chairman of the Islamic Council, was behind a proposed appeal to the King to establish a royally appointed government. He was quoted as saying: ‘We have no alternative apart from asking our beloved King, who is our father, to give us a royal government to tackle problems down here hellip In a critical time like this, who could we turn to if not our fatherly King who is our sole hope since all Muslims down here regard him with the utmost respect’ (Bangkok Post, 29 October 2004). While the petition plans came to nothing, both Muslims and Buddhists continued to talk privately about the desirability of a royal intervention.
The King signalled his disapproval of Thaksin’s policies by elevating government critics to the Privy Council, and by urging the prime minister privately to adopt a conciliatory stance. Instead, Thaksin backed hard-line measures, including the use of martial law, which further inflamed the situation. Finally, following the February 2005 election, Prem made the remarkable public intervention discussed at the beginning of this article.
The outcome was Thaksin’s surprise decision to establish a National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) to address the Southern crisis. The new body was chaired by Anand Panyarachun, with the ubiquitous Prawase Wasi as vice-chair. The episode demonstrated that once an issue became sufficiently serious, even a prime minister with Thaksin’s formidable powers and resources had to bow to royal pressure. As Thaksin’s popularity fell in the months following the February 2005 election, the NRC came almost to symbolize an alternative government for Thailand, comprising the wise men of network monarchy, dedicated to keeping alive the spirit of the 1997 constitution.
This contrast was seen vividly in a pivotal 28 July 2005 televised discussion on the South between Anand and Thaksin, broadcast live from Government House: two prime ministers (one past, one serving), two approaches to the South (peace versus security) and two contrasting political styles (discursive versus dominating).
Yet following Thaksin’s hasty promulgation of draconian emergency powers by Cabinet decree in July 2005, suspicions increased that he was not sincere in seeking reconciliation in the South. Rather, Thaksin had created the NRC simply to neutralize his critics, while using state power to regain the upper hand over a resurgent network monarchy.
Professor Duncan McCargo
School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds
An Excerpt From An interview to Nicholas Farrelly of the New Mandala On August 7th, 2008
My book on the South has just been published (Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), and three years of intensive focus on the political conflict in the region are now drawing to an end. It’s hard to summarise the arguments of the book in a few sentences, but essentially I am viewing the Southern Thai conflict as a political problem. Both the Islamic and the political elite of Malay Muslim society were largely coopted by the Thai state from the 1980s onwards; as a result, they have lost their leadership roles in society, creating a vacuum into which a resurgent militant movement has entered. Given the generally inept (occasionally brutal) response by the Thai security forces, the militants have been able to gain considerable legitimacy, while the credibility of the Thai state has been in freefall. I argue that the only solution to the crisis is to restore the legitimacy of the Thai state through new governance arrangements, which might involve some form of decentralization or ‘autonomy’ (probably called something else)
Writing the book was a challenge. I spent a year based in Pattani, interviewing more than 270 people and travelling all over the three provinces, including lots of really dodgy places. The book is based almost entirely on my own fieldwork; I’m really tired of this trend towards academic books and articles that have virtually no empirical basis, endlessly reviewing secondary sources, journalistic accounts, and material found on the internet (although I have sometimes written such pieces myself, of course). I’d urge people to get off-line and to get out there (wherever it is for you) if at all possible.
My original plan was to base myself in the Pattani town of Saiburi, in order to do a kind of political ethnography of the conflict, but my Thai and Malay-Muslim friends and colleagues encouraged me to work from the PSU Pattani campus instead, essentially for reasons of security. As a result, my book has more breadth and less depth than I first envisaged. The PSU campus is an agreeable and relatively safe place to spend a year, but part of me still wishes I had been bold enough to stick to the original plan. I would encourage others to conduct fieldwork in the South, but you have to find a way of doing this that works for you. It’s not a place where you can easily operate unsupported; you need to establish a local network, and be ready to take people’s advice. If you can do this, the rewards are enormous – there is just so much to be learned.
Suthicahi Yoon's Interview of Professor Stephen Young: Why Thaksin Did Not Have Moral Legitimacy To Lead