Something rather complex just happened in Thailand. Within the last 48 hours, an extremely brave piece of investigative reporting from Channel 3, as well as a piece by the Associated Press, raised an issue of concern not to undermine the military government but to bring Thailand into line with international standards on human trafficking and thereby lessen inequity and improve international perception of Thailand’s fishing trade – thus ensuring its continued trade with valuable markets.
General Prayut, evidently concerned about Thai reporters investigating the human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry due to the worry that it could affect Thailand’s rating in an upcoming EU report similar to the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report, ripped into the Thai media and then did something of an about face which saw him both accept some sort of investigative role for the media and underline a commitment to combating human trafficking.
What happened to provoke this? A US Department of State employee pointed out that media concerns about human trafficking were valid. Later in the same day, the National Legislative Assembly passed amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act covering penalties, inspections and protection for witnesses. General Prayut then softened his stance on the role of the media and has now made it clear that all Thai fishing boats from April 1 onwards will be checked as to their compliance with EU regulations. He has also spelled out the fact that he expects the bureaucracy and private industry to cooperate. And, rumor has it that the EU will postpone a decision on whether or not to aware a yellow card to Thailand while it considers the effectiveness of Thailand’s reinvigorated stance on human trafficking.
In other words, even under a military government, and even though it was not especially pretty to watch, a form of checks and balances system worked. The local media did its job and demonstrated the ability to conduct investigative reporting. Legislation has been passed and the military has made very clear it expects the bureaucracy and private sector to comply. The international media is reminding General Prayut that he committed early on to both fight and win a war against human trafficking. The international community, especially the US and the EU, is acting as a guardian of principles and human rights which most people in Thailand do agree with.
In fact, many would argue that it is only because there is a military government that this much has been done. It is difficult to contest this position given Thailand’s ignominious slide into Tier III of the US TIP Report over the last decade. But perhaps the clearest lesson to come out of this episode is the role of the international public sphere in what is a post-modern form of warfare. Within the part of the English-speaking international public sphere which concerns itself with Thailand – and this must include the big Thai dailies, The Bangkok Post and The Nation, as well as major international news organs such as The Guardian, the BBC, Associated Press and major blogs etc. – there is clearly a war being fought at multiple levels - both a war of words and a war of wills.
It is not a conventional war then, nor is it, except at the periphery of the sphere, a class war or any other kind of semi-conventional war such as an insurgency/counter-insurgency operation. It is something that US military commanders refer to as fourth-generation warfare – 4GW. 4GW is an information war, a war of ideas, a war for hearts and minds being fought between a nation state and the “enemy”.
In this kind of war, which can last for decades -- which perhaps has lasted for decades in the case of Thailand - what is important is that the political goals are achieved. Typical opponents in 4GW have been identified as the Sandanistas and the Nicaraguan government, the PLO and Israel, the IRA and the UK, and of course the US and Al Quaeda and now ISIS. 4GW is a kind of war where truth can be the first victim – in fact, where everything can be sacrificed for an ideology or a religion. It is typically a war where the will of a nation state comes under attack and increasingly where the wider international community can become a de facto player by either withholding or granting legitimacy.
4GW is messy. In 4GW, Insurgency 101 does teach insurgents to claim abuse and torture, which should be highlighted by a nation state, but this in turn becomes useless if you actually do practise torture, either unofficially, as in the case of the Abu Ghraib Scandal, or officially, in the case of US water boarding. The only recourse in the case of torture allegations therefore is firstly, not to practise it, and secondly, a swift and independent investigation. The alternative is that the logic of torture can easily lead to cases of enforced disappearance as junior officers realise they may need to cover up misguided attempts to please their superiors.
The Thai military bureaucratic complex is, because of Thailand’s long experience as a “domino state” in the Cold War, reasonably well versed in 4GW, the origin of which has been traced back to Mao Zedong. In fact, the modern Thai military had as its proving ground one of the main theaters of 4GW -- the Vietnam War, together with the insurgency of the Communist Party of Thailand and a philosophically-driven Leftist student movement which was unfortunately defeated in a way which was disastrous for the soul of the nation and acted as a spur to sustained resistance in the form of the October 6, 1976 Thammasat University Massacre. What exactly happened on that day is a classic example of the fight over information and one where the facts cannot be discussed in the public sphere in Thailand.
This, then, is a war on many fronts. It is a war over whether Thai-style democracy is a betrayal of a Western democratic paradigm of individual-based rights and responsibilities and a perpetuation of a feudalistic order or whether Thailand is plagued by political corruption that has subverted the Thai way of life and the socio-political order. It is a war over whether principle-driven party politics can even exist in an arena dominated by machine politics and personal fiefdoms.
It is a war over whether slavery and torture exist in Thailand and the extent to which they are official or unofficial, over whether there is a justifiable, historically driven war that merits the description of a “civil war” in the deep South or whether radical Islamic terrorists are running rampant, and, increasingly so, it is a war over the validity of the lese majésté law.
The enemy are not well defined by the government except as those who would cause violence and Thaksin – who in a first, very obvious, and pilloried shot in the current phase of the war was written out of the official textbooks. The purpose of the government is reasonably clear in its lack of clarity – it is not a good idea to start branding whole aspects of your population as the enemy and therefore alienate them as irreconcilable. And, the lack of a clear enemy allows the military to claim for itself a sustained period of martial law, as there are no precise criteria for transition to civil rule except elections.
And, despite one of the main stated aims of the military government being to reconcile the different elements of the Thai socio-political sphere, there is no doubt that Pheu Thai, the Red Shirts, and former members of the now defunct UDD are seen as less reconcilable than the citizens of Bangkok, many of whom were reconciled to the military with a number of parades, the announcement and implementation of the 12 Core Thai Values, and a military leader who is patently diligent and seemingly sincere if somewhat idiosyncratic and quite possibly over-worked. From this “reconciled” point of view, those not supporting the military are potential “Red” sympathizers who do not understand the situation, are paid mercenaries, or are not Thai “enough”.
The problem is that within this worldview potential “enemies” now include nation states and regional groupings comprising almost the entire Western bloc as well as members of the Thai media, local civil society, international civil society such as Human Rights Watch and now Amnesty International, and both the Thai Left and the very few “Hard Left” Thais including revolutionary communists and republicans.
And if that list sounds a bit like the Thai military has quite a lot to deal with, human trafficking, slavery within the fishing trade, and now increasing allegations of torture are not that easily shrugged off. The US did not impose sanctions against Thailand after downgrading it in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report to Tier III. However, it was a public relations disaster (as well as a confirmation of the personal, very human tragedies that the report’s statistics convey), and the ranking does inform how others, such as the EU, continue to view Thailand and the Thai fishing trade, in particular.
And these things do add up. They add up in the minds of those who work in the international community in Thailand, the scholars of Thailand, the foreign media, and the international community in general, especially the West, and in particular the public sphere in Europe, where organizations such as Amnesty International are usually seen as reasonable, impartial and worthy of support. They also add up in the minds of those business leaders who are seeking to invest in a country and develop an export base.
And so it is in this international aspect of the public sphere that the Thai military risks not winning this fourth generation war of hearts and minds – with consequences as yet unknown and unclear. Crucially, both King Rama IV and King Rama V realized that how Thailand was seen internationally – its public image as what has been called a geo-body or nation state – is, actually, critical to its survival. At the same time as promoting images of a western state – such as sanitary districts and uniforms, King Rama V and Prince Damrong folded Tai ethnic peoples into Siam via provincial reorganizations and adopted Western communications and transport technology. King Rama V completely reformed court education and initiate a wider model merit-based system which led to the creation of Thailand’s first university. Furthermore, the concept of a “Thai land” emerged with a national identity scheme, initially similar in concept to “Britain” and “British”, which was understood and respected by the international community. In this period, other neighboring countries as well as the colonial powers became the mirror which reflected back Siamese identity.
Some of the battles in the ongoing war are not new and are not misunderstood by the military. They are also of great consequence and go to the core of Thai identity. Thailand has high income inequality with a regressive taxation system, has a clear social system and hierarchy regarding its ethnic minorities which is correlated with historical levels of poverty and under-development, and has entrenched bureaucratic and political corruption. Furthermore, “Thainess” has developed along lines which sees Bangkok at the pinnacle of a utopian Buddhist kingdom which is more developed than both the other regions of Thailand and is seen by its own people as more “civilized” than its neighboring countries.
The problems, therefore, are multitudinous. The initial measures to try to make the taxation system more progressive have been abandoned, the response to the ethnic problem is a chauvinist discourse lamenting the loss of a mystical Pan-Tai state rather than decentralization, and aspects of the international NGO community have for several months been warning that Thailand does not go far enough on combatting human trafficking. In addition, technology manufacturers are moving to Vietnam due to lacking sufficient, trainable students educated in a vocational system as part of a wider educational system which actually works instead of caters to image-sensitive Thais desperate to get their children a degree at any cost – in fact, at the cost of colluding in a collective act of saving face which has seen Chulalongkorn University drop out of the top Asian university rankings, while the task of initiating root-and-branch reforms at the Ministry of Education has stalled.
As all this happens, the reality gap – between what English-speaking Thais and foreigners experience of the military-generated discourse and what they hear and know through what they see as more balanced media, academia, and intelligence -- grows. From watching General Prayut’s Friday evening performances and focusing only on the substance and not the idiosyncrasies, this may seem unfair. And, there is clearly an attempt at a huge socio-political re-engineering at work that may be able to give a voice to philosophically driven smaller parties and the organized Left through a hybrid proportional representation system.
But, these will have little effect on bolstering Thailand’s image in the ongoing information war if the underlying causes of suffering in Thailand are not addressed by the military in a rational way which the international community can parse. And, just as in the case of human trafficking in the fishing trade, it is quite possible that only the Thai military can address them. A land and property tax goes against the interests of machine politicians and landlords – as just highlighted by the local NGO Local Action Links - and needs to be revived by the Thai military in order to introduce normative standards to this aspect of the Thai taxation system. There is also a real risk that the proposed inheritance tax falls by the wayside now that it has been slashed to 5% from 10% and the ceiling raised from 50 million baht to 100 million baht. The socio-economic import of these bills is so great that they should not fail. Losing them is equivalent to the Thai military unnecessarily depleting its armory.
Furthermore, one of the main enemies in the war is entrenched bureaucratic corruption in procurement contracts, with a corruption rate which the Thai Chamber of Commerce estimates at 25%. To show the kind of progress that can be achieved when Thailand aligns with international partners to address a problem which is identified and understood in similar terms by all parties, UNDP Thailand has been supporting public procurement reform for some time as an anti-corruption measure. Together, the UNDP along with the Office of Public Sector Development Commission, the Office of Public Procurement Management Department of Comptroller General’s Department Ministry of Finance, the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand, the State Enterprise Policy Office and additional stakeholders, conducted an integrity risk assessment as part of their joint Mitigating Risks to Integrity in Public Procurement project. The assessment showed that the size of the public procurement sector, as well as significant gaps in legislation, are major contributing factors to the existence of corruption within the sector.
The government has actually adopted an instrument recommended by the lead international NGO in this field -- Transparency international – an “Integrity Pact”, with the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority NGV bus procurement and the MRTA Blue Line serving as two pilot studies. Three additional projects being folded into this initiative are the machinery procurement of the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, the X-ray machine procurement of the Customs Department and the investment of the Public Relations Department.
Along similar lines, this month Thailand joined the Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) UK/World Bank initiative, with the expansion of Suvannabhumi Airport by the Airports of Thailand serving as a pilot project. The aim is to apply international standards for disclosure and publicise every stage of major construction projects in detail so that they can be publicly scrutinised. However, only one pilot project seems somewhat half-hearted – and given the fact the airport expansion could take years, a great many more pilot projects started now would produce better data on effectiveness, drive down corruption more comprehensively – and look good for the government.
Also this month, a new idea has come through which could address the problem of populist political policies. Deborah Lucas, the director of the Centre for Finance and Policy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, suggested Thailand should set up an independent parliamentary budget office along the lines of the US Congressional Budget Office. The CBO, together with the Joint Tax Committee, which estimates tax revenue, enjoys relatively high public confidence ratings in the US because it is seen as impartial and effective at estimating the effects of policies.
This remarkably good idea comes from a country where such a system has been tried and tested, and though the CBO has been criticized for providing single point estimates rather than ranges with confidence intervals, it can be applied to Thailand. The CBO includes budget analysis; financial analysis; health, retirement and long-term analysis; macroeconomic analysis, and tax analysis. This comprehensive system in combination with the normal forecasts provided by the Bank of Thailand could bring to politicking the kind of impartiality that Thailand realized was essential to its banking system after the 1997 crash.
The alternative to a suite of reforms which are seen as cutting through to the core issues facing Thailand, which are well publicized through transparency and not intractability, is almost imaginable. The implications of the military feeling it is “losing” the information war are not particularly bright. In fact, it is illegal to discuss certain aspects of the potential threat to Thai socio-political stability. This is not a position of strength. It is a position which can be exploited by those very few who would support a violent revolution in Thailand as somehow cathartic.
And on the question of the exact definition of the “enemy”, Thailand’s ongoing 4GW is full of paradoxes. While the military does have to placate the Right, those it needs to reach out to are the organized Left – which, given the fact that the Left was, at least temporarily, mostly absorbed by Thai Rak Thai and then Pheu Thai and has not been able to create a Left version of the Democrat Party in the last couple of decades or more - is a problem. Also, in 4GW, an extreme position is definitely a losing measure, as ISIS is discovering. As such, the demonizing of Thaksin risks giving him the caché of a savior instead of allowing a reasoned public debate to identify his appeal to the public – an appeal not in the end based on 500 baht at an election but on a raft of socio-economic proposals which were actually implemented and which made a tangible difference to people’s quality of life.
It is this “appeal” that Thailand’s generals have to replicate if they are to win hearts and minds and so win the war. Thailand can win it by showing to internationally agreed human rights standards that it truly is civilized, and it can do it without abandoning its core values by conducting an examination of the underlying causes of suffering and then addressing them. The high moral ground needs to be seized. To paraphrase Gandhi – who knew by experience and by education how to win an information war – the true measure of any civilization is how it treats its weakest members, and this is the measure the international community is consistently applying as it responds to the military’s every move. But, the military needs to act quickly if it is to regain the momentum it achieved after intervening to separate what appeared to be two intransigent political factions and so save the lives of innocent bystanders.
In doing so, it needs to be recalled that a "Restoring Happiness to the People" program made little sense in the international public sphere in the context of a military government, and that the campaign really required either another level of explanation tailored for the international audience or a campaign which might make sense in both the Thai and international spheres. Words matter. "Safeguarding Our Children's Future" simply sounds better than “Restoring Happiness” – at least in English.
A recent strategic move which could be capitalized on – and which was received with some surprise in the international public sphere – was to allow a group of eight Isan NGOs to meet at Thammasat University and air their grievances publicly. Acknowledging the basic inequality driving protest and realizing that it could not be addressed within the status quo is one of the factors that turned Britain against being a colonial power. Inequality is also the key factor in international support for the Palestinians despite the right of the Israeli state to exist. Accordingly, Thailand’s military could adopt a visibly and measurably more equitable position by further encouraging Thai civil society to dialogue in public and engaging with international NGOs in the area of human rights.
In other words, the Thai military needs to develop a fundamental message to the international public sphere. As Colonel Tomas X. Hames, USMC, the US’s pre-eminent theorist on 4GW eloquently describes the US fundamental message in his book The Sling and the Stone: “The fundamental message of the United States is the most powerful message ever created by mankind: we treasure the individual and provide an environment where every person can strive for his or her own dreams. Here, each person knows he can make a better life for his children. The millions of people clamoring to come to America prove this is a widely accepted and valued message. By making this fundamental belief an integral part of the message, we take advantage of the exceptional strength our open society has in a 4GW conflict. No society has ever had a more powerful message to share with the world.”
Thailand’s military needs to send a similarly fundamental message, both to its own people and to the world. The key ingredient for such a development - compassion - is prominent within the Thai psyche. It simply requires a broader application throughout the Thai polity. General Prayut's plan early on in the military administration to legalise illegal migrants via an amnesty for employers was seen as decisive leadership, was implemented rapidly, was well received by the international community and was positively acclaimed in the international public sphere. The fact that the military government may, with some cajoling, actually see this one through to the end is to be praised. If it achieves an upgrading by the US, this is also something that could be advertised as a compassionate act by removing the fear, uncertainty and danger that plagues the life of a trafficked individual.
Compassion, in fact, is central to Theravadan Buddhism, and the Ongkhuliman sutra and accompanying tradition is well known to most Thais. In brief, Lord Buddha outsmarted and out-strategized both Ongkhuliman and Ongkhuliman's previous teacher's command to collect a thousand thumbs, which was leading Ongkhuliman to even attempt to kill his mother until the Lord Buddha offered himself as a target. However, Thailand is not well known for its compassion. For example, Thai prisons have become known worldwide for their barbaric nature due to the writings of foreigners who have survived them. Tackling how compassion can be applied as a governing principle to Thailand’s human rights issues head on can only help.
It is only pragmatic to note that compassion can be exploited. The "Ongkhuliman card" was likely being played by Thaksin in the attempt to pass a broad amnesty bill. Thaksin is also well known for hiring reasonably adept public relations agencies and in terms of 4GW is a skilled tactician. It may well be legitimate for the military to see Thaksin as an enemy of the Thai state. It is certainly a debatable position, though the full facts cannot be discussed in Thailand. However, it is not legitimate for the majority of the Left to become the enemy, nor is it a winning move for half the people to be treated as the enemy by subjecting them to martial law.
The Thai military instead needs to focus on achieving the long-term political objectives: a normative, functioning political system with costed policies; a more progressive taxation system and so less income inequality that would otherwise drive a factionalised political system; a drive to provide increased equity to the country’s ethnic minorities; a more equitable and transparent education system which can provide the poor with opportunities, the elimination of human trafficking and implementing of safeguards against torture, including a new Act which actually defines torture; and an expansion of the fight against entrenched corruption in the bureaucracy, especially in procurement and construction.
In other words, the real enemy in 4GW is not the Left. It is not even people. Nor is it neighbouring countries. It is the inequalities and inefficiencies in the system which threaten Thailand’s socio-political stability. Engaging with the media and civil society, both domestic and international, including supranational UN bodies such as the ILO and UNDP, to address these inequalities is both good tactics and a way that the Thai military can rule with a reasonable expectation of achieving its objectives. It may then be able to exit the conundrum it finds itself in with sufficient honour intact to be able to successfully cooperate in a genuine rebirth of the Thai socio-economic and political situation.
About the author: John Draper
BA Mod Hist (Oxon), MA App Ling (Hons, University of Southern Queensland)
Project Officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Program (ICMRP)
College of Local Administration (COLA)
Khon Kaen University