Growing-up under Totalitarianism with a Gun in your hand

Totalitarianism seems to have some kind of sick and twisted fascination with the youth. To totalitarian governments, the affection of the young is pure and untarnished, which adds a layer of sheen when it comes to perfecting propaganda. Youngsters, who are oftentimes susceptible to outside influence, could be easily mold into defenders of a regimented system of governance. More importantly, the young generation is a vehicle that carries on, and actively enforces the state’s poisonous ideology imbued with sadism, hatred and cruelty, usually doing so with a lethal weapon in hand. The following is a collection of photographs showcasing the grotesque combination of cold hard steel and ruddy young faces.

Preparing for a possible gas attack. Stalin's Soviet Union, 1937.

Training for a coming chemical attack. Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1937.

Hitler youth training for war, 1943.

Hitler youth preparing for war, 1943.

Little Red Soldiers. Cultural Revolution, China.

Little Red Soldiers. Cultural Revolution, China.

Young Khmer Rouge fighters with captured American firearms.

Young Khmer Rouge fighters with captured American firearms.

Jihadi baby from ISIS territory.

Jihadi baby surrounded by guns and grenades. ISIS territory.

Nine year-old with rifle in ISIS controlled Iraq.

Nine year-old with rifle in ISIS controlled Iraq.

Young girls are no exception. Everybody must learn how to kill.

Young girls are no exception. Everybody must learn how to kill.

I do not know what this little fella is talking about. But what I do know with crystalline clarity is that the future of children growing-up under ISIS is heading towards a very dark direction. There is nothing more sinister than a young boy holding up a gun while delivering an impassionate hate speech in a former place of worship. Almost like a scene out of Children of the Corn or Omen, except this time it is real.

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Machinations on Army Day

The first day of August occupies a premier slot in the Chinese lexicon of state sanctioned holidays. Observed annually, Army Day, popularly known as bayi or August 1, commemorates the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1927 and its progressive maturing over the last eight decades. Besides cheerful festivities across the country, August 1 also provides a convenient opportunity for Chinese politicians to pay homage to the mighty PLA.

This year’s August 1 is especially worth noting given the ongoing housecleaning within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With all eyes on the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), it is widely expected that Xi Jinping’s gestures towards the armed forces would closely coordinate with the intense round of political weiqi (encircling chess) taking place among the ruling elite. Though not a native of Fujian, Xi earned his spurs in the southeastern canton after seventeen years of administrative service, including a seven years stint as first commissar of the Fujian provincial anti-aircraft artillery reserve division. In a sense, Fujian is Xi’s second home away from Beijing. On the afternoon of July 30, Xi, the now supreme commander of the PLA returned to the military barracks of Fujian where he cut his teeth as a soldier.[1]

Xi, the young commissar. Copyright: China.org.cn

Xi, the young commissar.
Copyright: China.org.cn

Xi’s decision to travel thousands of miles away from the Chinese capital encourage deeper analysis of the situation given the evolving machinations at the imperial court. Considering the facts available, it is clear that the rough-riding Chinese honcho made careful calculations before embarking upon his Fujian tour, all with clear political goals in mind.

A lively welcome for Fujian’s favorite adopted son. Copyright: Xinhua

A lively welcome for Fujian’s favorite adopted son.
Copyright: Xinhua

First and foremost, Fujian’s location as a frontier province created a geographical distance separating the Chinese supremo from the purge in Beijing. With the anti-corruption campaign reaching an apex in the party’s business and security apparatus, Xi’s decision to quietly remove his presence from the scene of the dogfight is a deliberate move to protect and cultivate his public image as a righteous ruler with excellent qualities, who is well above the shady skullduggery typical of Chinese power politics.

Moreover, bear in mind the weight of regionalism as a decisive factor in Chinese politics. Xi’s visit placed the armed forces of Fujian under the national spotlight on a holiday of substantial political significance. The commander-in-chief’s formal salute to the Fujian servicemen, in particular members of the resident 31st Army Group bestowed the provincials with vocal support from the center, hence smoothing the path for loyalist Fujian officers as they move up the ranks.

Last but not least, the tour of the Fujian garrison is a neatly orchestrated maneuver corresponding to the unfolding plot in Beijing. After unveiling the sturdy gibbet prepared for former security and petroleum czar Zhou Yongkang on July 29,[2] Xi needs a show of force via military means to counter the undercurrent moving against his political desires. Borrowing the strength of outlying forces to achieve political ends at the center is a long-held custom of Chinese imperial intrigue. Widely recognized as a man who hoists high the banner of classical knowledge, Xi is definitely not a stranger to such fundamental praxis of quanshu (Chinese-style Machiavellian stratagems). In fact, he has demonstrated impressive knacks when it comes to the artful application of rewards and punishments.

Zhou Yongkang in his days of glory. Known as an unscrupulous man with traits of a desperado, Zhou once presided over the powerful Central Politics and Law Commission (CPLC) and rode roughshod over his opponents. Note his badge number. Copyright: South China Morning Post

Zhou Yongkang in his days of glory. Known as an unscrupulous man with traits of a desperado, Zhou once presided over the powerful Central Politics and Law Commission (CPLC) and rode roughshod over his opponents. Note his badge number.
Copyright: South China Morning Post

 

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

[1] 王士彬, 代烽, and 欧阳浩, “习近平八一前夕看望慰问驻福建部队官兵,” 中国军网, accessed August 3, 2014, http://www.81.cn/jmywyl/2014-07/31/content_6074813.htm.

[2] “中共中央决定对周永康严重违纪问题立案审查,” 人民网, accessed August 3, 2014, http://politics.people.com.cn/n/2014/0729/c1001-25365212.html#.

China’s Latest “Negative Teaching Material”

Governing by virtue is an ideal that dates back thousands of years in human history. Common to many cultures around the world, the outstanding characteristics of the political supremo are often times made into an item of governing legitimacy. In traditional China, a benevolent “Son of Heaven” with the gift of righteousness is highly valued and appreciated. The China of today is of no exception. Each generation of Chinese leaders since 1949 have attempted to portrait themselves as high-minded philosopher-kings, and members of the governing elite, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), are expected to live up to the standard set by the head party honcho through emulating certain state-sanctioned “socialist role models”.

The concept of socialist role model is far from an entirely Chinese phenomenon, in fact, it may be argued that it is a tradition in almost all countries led by communist parties. From Soviet labor hero Alexey Stakhanov to “the party’s good cadre” Jiao Yulu, men who exhibited excellent socialist core values have been used as raw materials for positive propaganda under many different circumstances, more often than not to promote a timely message that the party wishes to convey with the general population or its cadres.

Propaganda poster featuring Jiao Yulu, a prefectural CCP cadre who dedicated his entire life to serving the everyday people. After his passing in 1964, he was fashioned into a paragon of Chinese socialist core values.  Copyright: China International Press.

Propaganda poster featuring Jiao Yulu, a prefectural CCP cadre who dedicated his entire life to serving rural China’s plebeians. After his passing in 1964, he was immortalized as a paragon of Chinese socialist virtues with the state’s sponsorship.
Copyright: China International Press.

Parallel to the socialist role models, in the Chinese context especially, is a group collectively known as the fanmian jiaocai or “negative teaching material”, mainly composed of disgraced officials that failed to live up to the party’s moral and ethnical criterion. The latest member of this socialist hall of shame is none other than the former vice-chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission (CMC), General Xu Caihou.

General Xu Caihou back in the cheery old days.  Copyright: Xinhua.

General Xu Caihou (with Leon Panetta) back in the cheery old days.
Copyright: Xinhua.

Possibly the biggest “tiger” this year to be thrown behind cage bars by president Xi Jinping’s huntsmen, General Xu’s dishonorable downfall sounds a crescendo of political cleansing inside the Chinese armed forces. Accused of “suspected bribery”, General Xu was placed under investigation in as early as March of this year, and was expelled from the party on June 30. According to Xinhua, investigators found General Xu “took advantage of his post to assist the promotion of other people and accepted bribes personally through his family members” and “[sought] profits for others in exchange for money and properties, through his family members”.[1] The media outlets loyal to the party wasted no time in tearing up General Xu’s character on a nationwide scale. The People’s Daily compared him to a “borer that must be dug out”.[2] In an article conveniently titled “Resolutely Support the Party Center’s Correct Decision”, a People’s Liberation Army Daily commentator called on “party organs at all levels to use Xu Caihou’s severe violation of party discipline as negative teaching material” to educate party cadres for the sake of “sustaining the party’s vanguard nature and purity”.[3]

As the national campaign to learn from Jiao Yulu “the party’s good cadre” revs up with president Xi’s personal endorsement,[4] another campaign with a drastically different purpose is simultaneously underway. Once a powerful figure in the Chinese military, General Xu is now officially a VIP member of the “negative teaching material” club, a community that is only going to grow larger as Xi’s shock troops take down more “tigers” and “flies” in the party’s latest crusade against graft, corruption, and Mammonism.

 

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

[1] Jianing Yao, “PLA Supports Graft Probe into Xu Caihou,” China Military Online English Edition, accessed July 6, 2014, http://eng.chinamil.com.cn/news-channels/china-military-news/2014-07/01/content_6027385.htm.

[2] Xin Wang and Jun Liang, “People’s Daily Scolds Ousted Military Leader,” People’s Daily Online, accessed July 6, 2014, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/n/2014/0703/c90785-8750033.html.

[3] 本报评论员,“坚决拥护党中央的正确决定,” 中国军网数字报, accessed July 6, 2014, http://www.chinamil.com.cn/jfjbmap/content/2014-07/01/content_80386.htm.

[4] 周光扬 and 王子晖, “习近平重访兰考:焦裕禄精神是永恒的,” 新华网, accessed July 6, 2014, http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2014-03/17/c_119810080.htm.

Is the ISIS Blitzkrieg Already Losing Steam?

ISIS propaganda mural pointing out its adversaries. Note the curious absence of the American flag. From: @ajaltamimi

ISIS propaganda mural pointing out its adversaries. Note the curious absence of the American flag.
From: @ajaltamimi

The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, popularly known by its acronym ISIS in the English speaking world has been on a roll since its surprise attack on Mosul, northern Iraq’s most important metropolis. The Iraqi armed forces, initially caught off guard by ISIS’ speedy offensive, are now fighting back against the black-cladded militants in defense of their homeland. Though recently released ISIS propaganda videos are dominated by shots of advancing ISIS militants shouting cries of victory in jubilation, the situation on the ground speaks otherwise. As ISIS shock troops sped towards central Iraq atop of their all too familiar Toyota Hiluxes, they met stiff resistance and were halted as early as June 12 during clashes near Samarra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s hometown.[1] In the subsequent days, ISIS was again beaten back in several locations by Iraqi forces. Such signs, yet to be picked up by the global media, perhaps adumbrate the weakening of the ISIS blitzkrieg and an imminent new stage in the ongoing conflict. The ISIS leadership, despite being shrewd and calculating, had committed two grave errors in its latest offensive that are possibly going to prevent their men from seizing any place of strategic importance beyond the Samarra frontline.

First and foremost, ISIS failed to open a western front in Anbar province. Whether it is due to the lack of manpower or strategic considerations, the absence of a concentrated eastwards thrust towards the priced capital of Iraq implies that ISIS is quickly losing the chance to pull off a military envelopment upon Baghdad. This means the forces of the central government, reinforced by newly formed Shia militias, would have the opportunity to confront ISIS’ frontal jab head on in a more predictable sector of Baghdad, and would likely achieve a victory in the forthcoming fight.

Map of Baghdad by sectarian composition. From: fastblogit.com

Map of Baghdad by sectarian composition.
From: fastblogit.com

Second, ISIS tirades against Shia Islam are only serving to incentivize Iraqi Shias to rush towards the firing line with the imprimatur of their religious leaders. In his latest harangue, the official spokesperson of ISIS, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged “ISIS members to push on through Baghdad and into Karbala and Najaf”, cities of utmost religious significance to Shia Muslims.[2] Such statement of extreme hubris is especially alarming given the documented evidence of barbaric treatment of Shia Muslims by ISIS militants. While the goal to conquer Baghdad may be considered political and directed towards the secular regime headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the ambition to sack Najaf and Karbala threatens the very authority of a much greater power axis, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. For more than two decades Ali Sistani has been the most venerated spiritual leader of Shia Islam. The bearer of the title al-marja al-akbar or the “greatest object of emulation”, the Grand Ayatollah is commonly recognized as a paragon of virtue who wields enormous clout over the actions of Shias worldwide.[3] The impetuous statements made by ISIS may be interpreted as an outright threat against the Najaf power center. Not surprisingly the corollary of such recklessness was Sistani’s June 13 promulgation of a fatwa calling for Jihad, an order faithfully heeded by tens and thousands of zealots from Iraq and beyond, thus unleashing the Shia leviathan that ISIS simply cannot subdue singlehandedly.[4]

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful figure in Iraq. Copyright: www.sistani.org

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful figure in Iraq.
Copyright: http://www.sistani.org

So what is the likely trajectory of the Iraqi internecine strife in the coming weeks? The differences between Maliki and Sistani were publicized today,[5] but an intra-Iraqi Shia conflict is unlikely to develop since ISIS poses a much greater danger that must be defeated. If the government troops could hold the line at Samarra and hopefully eject ISIS fighters out of Baiji, it will likely compell the Islamic state to focus on consolidating its grip over Sunni-dominated northern Iraq instead of bullheadedly pushing towards Baghdad. In spite of the fact that ISIS still carries heavy momentum at the moment, the lack of a western front and a prematurely declared war against arguably the most powerful man in Iraq, Ali Sistani may well be the double jeopardy needed to stymie ISIS’s strategic objective of unseating the Baghdad government, and furthermore forcing the group into assuming a defensive posture.

 

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

[1] Bill Roggio, “ISIS’ Advance Halted at Samarra,” The Long War Journal, accessed June 19, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/06/isiss_southward_adva.php#.

[2] “ISIS Urges ‘March to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf,’” ITV News, accessed June 19, 2014, http://www.itv.com/news/update/2014-06-12/isis-urges-march-to-baghdad-karbala-and-najaf/.

[3] Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani Succession In Iraq Not Just About Piety,” Huffington Post, accessed June 20, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/07/grand-ayatollah-ali-al-si_n_528102.html.

[4] Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Spiritual Leader of Iraq’s Religious Majority Calls for Citizens to Take Up Arms Against Rebels,” Slate, June 13, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/06/13/iraq_sistani_cleric_calls_shia_to_defend_government.html.

[5] “Iraq’s Top Cleric Increases Pressure on Al-Maliki – US News,” US News & World Report, accessed June 20, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2014/06/20/army-militants-regrouping-in-iraq-refinery-attack.

Growing Strong in No Man’s Land: Why the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

ISIS convoy.  From: hamodia.com

ISIS convoy.
From: hamodia.com

Taking over a city of 1.8 million inhabitants in just a few days is not an easy task. But the world received a shocking surprise yesterday morning when the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) overran key sectors of Iraq’s second largest metropolis, Mosul. A strategic chokepoint rich in petroleum resources, the lost of Mosul raises serious queries regarding the Iraqi military’s defense capabilities and general morale. Moreover, the event places ISIS once again under the international limelight as a force to be reckoned with in the years to come.

A group known for its predilection for brutality and narrow sectarian outlook, ISIS, a self-proclaimed Islamic state was officially declared in early 2013. A successor of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), ISIS filled in the power vacuum in northern Syria after the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Previously an organization primarily operating in Iraq, ISIS had since established itself around the Syrian city of Raqqa as a full-fledged totalitarian theocracy. Like all other totalitarian governments, ISIS is structured around the idea of “oneness”, meaning one leader, one ideology, under one banner. Though such polity might generate little traction during a time of peace, it works relatively well in a warring environment. Its fighters’ blind adherence to terror extraordinaire Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, extremist Islam and the black banner of Jihad gave them strength in unity, an important factor absent in ISIS’ main opponents, specifically the Iraqi government and competing Syrian opposition groups.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS' ultimate impresario.  Copyright: Mirror.co.uk

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The ultimate impresario of ISIS terror. 
Copyright: Mirror.co.uk

Regardless of its ruthless statecraft predicated upon a noxious ideology and its penchant for grisly medieval punishments, ISIS is unlikely to be subdued anytime soon because of two main factors, it’s geographic advantage, and the lack of coordination and cooperation among its regional adversaries.

Formerly confined to Iraq, ISIS broke out of its constrictions in 2012 and established bases across the border in Syria. Its position in the no man’s land tucked between the non-ISIS Syrian rebels, Assad forces, Maliki forces, the Kurdish Regional Government and Turkey proved to be strategically invaluable, given the fact that none of these entities mentioned above have the wherewithal to singlehandedly subjugate ISIS, or would earnestly consider combining their forces for an all-out offensive against the Islamic state.

The non-ISIS Syrian rebels, already drained of their resources, focus more on fending off Assad’s onslaught than organizing attacks against ISIS. Unwilling to fight against a much stronger opponent imbibed with religious fanaticism, the Assad government is otherwise interested in sustaining ISIS and making it into the bogey needed to intimidate rest of Syria’s population into submitting to Damascus. Faced with never ending internal squabble, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki rules a fractured country torn by sectarian hatred which extends deep into the Iraqi military. His troubled relation with the Kurdish Regional Government jeopardizes any genuine chance of mobilizing the Kurdish Peshmerga into confronting ISIS. Holed up in their mountainous homeland, the Iraqi Kurds sees no benefit in jumping into what they view as an Arab slugfest. Lastly, Turkey, once a tacit supporter of ISIS had since cut its ties with a group so extreme that it was expelled from Al-Qaeda. Turkey had targeted ISIS in the past, but refrains from taking a firm stance against ISIS because at the moment, the pugnacious Jihadists serve as a check on the Syrian Kurds by launching periodic attacks against their bases in northeastern Syria.

ISIS Actual Sanctuary June 2014. Copyright: Institute for the Study of War Iraq Updates

ISIS Actual Sanctuary June 2014.
Copyright: Institute for the Study of War Iraq Updates

A dark pall is now descending over the refulgent star of Mesopotamia. Reports so far have indicated that close to half-a-million residents of Mosul had fled across the Tigris. In existence now is the quandary of ISIS gaining more influence and territory without much concerted reaction from surrounding regional powers. If such state of affairs persist, the tightly structured and highly disciplined Jihadist state will soon be able to crush its divided adversaries one after another with ease. First the Baghdad government, then certain Syrian rebel factions, and then whichever the ISIS leadership decides to conquer next. This is far from a false alarm, but a real possibility in the foreseeable future.

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

Ten Recommendations for the Pheu Thai Party to Secured a Landslide Electoral Victory in 454 Days

Pheu Thai Party From: Thai PBS

Pheu Thai Party.
From: Thai PBS

On May 30, the chieftain of the recently formed Thai military junta, General Prayuth Chan-ocha delievered a televised speech stating that elections would not be held until a year and three months later, a development that constituted another heavy blow to the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party and its associated mass organization, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, commonly known as Red Shirts). Representing an old guard institution with enormous amount of rancor towards Pheu Thai’s populist politics, General Prayuth’s speech had made it very clear that the military is plotting to use all means possible to prevent a Pheu Thai return to power. In the next 454 days, the party must prepare for a fierce struggle to recapture its former powers lost to the military on the coup d’état of May 22. Supported by the populous north and northeastern provinces, Pheu Thai would likely score a decisive victory in the upcoming the general election, given it would be free and fair. Nevertheless, Pheu Thai must quickly mold into shape a comprehensive strategy to consolidate and expand its clout over the Thai voters. The following ten recommendations represent my personal view of how Pheu Thai should ready itself, as well as its allies to overcome the obstacles ahead and secure a landslide electoral victory in 2015.

Recommendations on political positioning:

  • Do not attempt to play the role of the Great Conciliator. Focus the limited resources on party construction and electoral objectives. History has repeatedly shown the enduring difficulties in closing the social barriers created by economic disparity in a deeply polarized nation. For the latest example of a failed “bipartisan peacemaker”, Google “Barack Obama”.
  • Transform policies and principles associated with Thaksin into a coherent ideology. The enterprising statesman’s unique approach in confronting challenges endemic to Thaialnd is without a doubt widely respected by voters across all strata of Thai society. In other words, the time is ripe to formulate an -ism that would cement Thaksin’s towering place in Thai politics for generations to come. Moreover, a 10-points or 5-points party program for the future of Thailand based upon Thaksinism would be more than helpful in channeling the party’s vision to Thai voters and the global audience.

Recommendations on party construction:

  • Expand the Red Shirt Village movement to areas beyond the Thai countryside. While securing the loyalty of rural Thailand is fundamental to Pheu Thai’s existence, the party must simultaneously ensure firm urban support for its ideals. The Red Shirt Village movement should be further augmented into major Thai cities, one urban unit at a time. However, do make sure to tone down on the ostentatious ceremonial aspects because urban centers are very diverse in terms of political surroundings. Initially, the cities of the north and northeast would be great experimental plots for such strategy.
  • Establish auxiliary organizations, mainly youth organizations. Getting the youth involved in the country’s politics is pivotal. Like in Western countries, political discussion clubs may be formed to educate the future leaders of the nation on their share of the task.
  • Restrain firebrands in both Pheu Thai and UDD. If the upcoming election is free and fair, a Pheu Thai electoral victory is ineluctable. For this reason, any recklessness from the Young Turks of the party and UDD would jeopardize the party’s chances and play directly into the hands of the junta. The ensanguined crackdown on Red Shirt demonstrators during April 2010 had made clear that the Thai military has no qualms in mowing down peaceful protesters. So instead of throwing human flesh against fusillades of live rounds, taking power via the ballot box is the most cost-effective method.
  • Prepare immediately for the formation of a new party. The military junta, led by the hostile General Prayuth Chan-ocha is likely going to attempt to dislodge and destroy the Pheu Thai Party by any means necessary. A cause célèbre harkening back to the 2007 court dissolution of the pro-Thaksin Thai Rak Thai Party is much closer to reality than one could imagine. Therefore, while seeking to consolidate and expand the party’s power, Pheu Thai must bite-the-bullet prepare for this imminent danger by grooming next-generation party leaders and organize all other necessities needed for a new party.

Recommendations on forging alliance:

  • Construct a united front with responsive elements of society. Every time the Thai military conducts a coup d’état it looses the support of some sections of society. Pheu Thai and associated organizations need to make overtures to these disgruntled groups, and win them over in the next election. Though anti-coup individuals might not be amenable to all of Pheu Thai’s ideals, their resolute stance in preserving and safeguarding the democratic process more than complement Pheu Thai’s political aspirations.
  • Win over central, southern, and eastern voters. This could be quite difficult due to the stratification of Thai society along socio-economic and regional lines. But the inclusion of more politicians with central, southern, and eastern background could be a starting point. Besides enhancing the party’s mass appeal, they may serve as barometers of their home region’s popular sentiments vis-à-vis Pheu Thai. Either way, an initiative should be made to puncture the regional divide for the future success of Pheu Thai as a genuinely national party.

Recommendations on conducting international work:

  • Initiate massive global public relations campaigns to garner international support for Pheu Thai’s cause. Mobilizing international public opinion would be an influential factor in shaping domestic preferences in the upcoming election. In addition to publicity drives through multimedia mediums, significant figures of Pheu Thai, or perhaps UDD should travel abroad on speaking tours with the mission of emphasizing the importance of the world’s support to Pheu Thai’s struggle for the indigent population of Thailand.
  • Invite international observers to ensure the next general election is free and fair. Already planning to rewrite the constitution, the military and its political cronies are most likely going to tweak the election by quasi-legal or worse, illegal means to make the results favorable for Pheu Thai’s nemesis, the Democrat Party. Thus, the invitation of international observers may function as a stricture on the military’s furtive designs to impede Pheu Thai’s march towards a total electoral victory.

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

The Two Thailands: Thailand’s Path Forward after the Coup of 2014

Scene of Thai protest 2013-2014.  Copyright: AFP/Getty Images/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Scene of Thai protest 2013-2014.
Copyright: AFP/Getty Images/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

Six months of paralyzing street protests in the Thai capitol Bangkok met an abrupt end when the Commander of the Royal Thai Army, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced a coup d’état on May 22, 2014. The dropping of the sword of Damocles, surprisingly, did not generate a massive outpour of negative reactions from the capitol’s general population. Besides the fear of reprisal from state security forces, it seems as if the people of Bangkok has had enough of the chaos and instability and are ready to move on with their daily lives. Four days later, under the auspices of Thailand’s beloved King Bhumibol, the political helm of the country was officially transferred into the hands of the newly formed military junta led by General Prayuth, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Although the generals secured a legal basis for the coup, they nevertheless face a daunting task. Lying in front of them is a Thailand in agonizing pain, injured by deepening fault lines developed over the past decades. How to move Thailand forward without risking an all out civil war is the million-dollar question still anticipating a definitive answer.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and company appear before a news conference.  Copyright: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and company appear before a news conference.
Copyright: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

At present, two distinct Thailands exist on multifarious levels. On one hand there are the well-to-do Thais and royalist elites, mostly concentrated in Bangkok and around central Thailand. Their members identify themselves as the Yellow Shirts. Well-connected, their intimate ties with the Thai establishment (the monarchy, military and existing bureaucracy) gives them enormous power in overturning the democratic process, if it contradicts their interests. On the other hand, there is the toiling population of urban and rural Thailand that benefited tremendously from the populist policies of former prime ministers Thaksin and protégé Yingluck Shinawatra. Collectively known as the Red Shirts, the majority of them resides in Thailand’s north and northeast, two regions culturally disparate from central Thailand, and has a history of uneasy relationship with the ruling elites of Bangkok.

The leader of the Red Shirt Village movement, Arnon Sannan. The movement is a political initiative started by Thaksin's followers to consolidate rural support for pro-Thaksin parties. Copyright: AFP

The leader of the Red Shirt Village movement, Arnon Sannan. The movement is a political initiative started by Thaksin’s followers to consolidate rural support for pro-Thaksin parties.
Copyright: AFP

The gap that exists between the Reds and Yellows are steep and multitudinous. The increasing animosity between the two Thailands are not merely borne out of class or regional dissimilarity, it is a combination of political, social, economic, cultural as well as regional factors that presents a head-scratching equation to Thailand’s incipient military government. The failure of the current quasi-democratic political system to adequately address the centrifugal forces in society culminated in the 2006 and 2014 coup that ended with the illegal removal of prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and subsequently Niwatthamrong Boosongpaisan (a close ally of Thaksin that succeeded Yingluck as prime minister following the latter’s dismissal from office by the Thai constitutional court on May 7). In retrospect, the coup of 2006 had a minimal impact upon curing Thailand’s socio-economic and political ills, if anything, it only served to further polarized the two Thailands.

Though a dyed-in-the-wool royalist staunchly opposed to Thaksin and Yingluck’s brand of populism, General Prayuth is closely emulating Thaksin’s statecraft characterized as the “iron fist and velvet glove”. In Thaksin’s own words: “in social service role you use velvet glove, if you do the law enforcement role you use the iron fist”.[1]

“Iron fist” policies were immediately applied after the military captured power. The junta quickly detained a number of influential figures in the Thai capitol. On the local level, Thaksin’s allies fell one after another in a swift purge orchestrated by the junta.[2] Moreover, security forces raided facilities belonging to Red Shirt groups and seized firearms and explosives, evidence used to substantiate the necessity of martial law.[3]

Particular kinds of “velvet glove” policies were adopted to calm the frustrated Thai population. The junta promised additional reforms before calling the next election, but its moves so far seems more tactical than genuinely reformist. The rural rice farmers that make up the core of Thaksin and Yingluck’s supporters are the junta’s primary targets. Under the rice-pledging scheme of Yingluck’s administration, the government would purchase rice from Thai farmers at a price above the market value. However, due to six months of political deadlock the government was unable to secure a budget to pay the rice farmers. Once in power, the junta quickly allocated 2 billion Thai baht as late payment to the Shinawatra’s core supporters, a crafty stratagem that not only ameliorated the vitriolic situation in the Thai countryside, but also secured for the time being the goodwill of Thai rice farmers.[4]

Yet despite the “iron fist and velvet glove” way of governance, the junta still has a long way to go before bringing Thailand back to normalcy, if that’s even possible. The use of heavy-handed tactics to restore order, and financial means to appease the agitated rice farmers may very well treat the symptom, but it does not cure the root causes of the rural and urban poor’s frustrations against the established Thai polity’s inability to address their long-term aspirations.

After tossing out both Thaksin and Yingluck, it is easy to imagine the anger and sense of betrayal felt by their loyal supporters. Well organized, financially competent and much better informed than eight years ago, the underprivileged population of Thailand wants active reforms championed by an artful man like Thaksin who creatively conjures up new ideas to the benefit of their interests rather than passive reforms under his opponents.[5] Since the Red Shirts are unlikely to take up an armed struggle for power – a development that would totally delegitimize their ticket to winning a landslide electoral victory – the junta would be facing once again a quandary as it ponders its next move.

2011 Thai election results, when the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party won a sweeping victory.  Copyright: The Nation

2011 Thai election results, when the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party won a sweeping victory (click image for higher resolution). Note the regional divide. 
Copyright: The Nation

Presumably, the junta, under the command of General Prayuth would pull all strings possible to appoint a balanced candidate to represent the interests of the royalists without inflaming the caustic sensitivities of the Red Shirts. But the chance of that candidate winning a general election would be slim given the Red Shirts’ overpowering numerical advantage among other factors. The most fearful aspect in the coming years would be the occurrence of another coup that overthrows a government legally elected by majority vote, an event that will most certainly engender radical factions of the Red Shirt movement and drive Thailand farther down the road of potential civil war. The esteemed King Bhumibol, already 86 years old, seems to be the only determinant keeping Thailand from falling apart. The Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, notorious for his decadent lifestyle, largely lacks his father’s enchanting clout over the Thais. If appropriate measures are not implemented by the incoming administration to address the aspirations of Thailand’s majority before the current King’s imminent passing in the next decade, long held grievances of the two Thailands may possibly unravel and bring a dreadful civil war upon the dreamy land of smiles.

 

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)

 

[1] 杨澜访谈录泰国Thailand领导人他信Thaksin Shinawatra专访, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9uoISzBZOo&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

[2] Manop Thip-Osod, “Police Shake-up Cuts Ties to Thaksin,” Bangkok Post, accessed May 29, 2014, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/412363/police-shake-up-cuts-ties-to-thaksin.

[3] Wassana Nanuam and Aekarach Sattaburuth, “Fears of Red Shirt Uprising after Weapons Seizure,” Bangkok Post, accessed May 27, 2014, http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/411608/fears-of-red-shirt-uprising-after-weapons-seizure.

[4] “Rice Farmers Overjoyed as Payments Begin,” The Nation, accessed May 27, 2014, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/national/Rice-farmers-overjoyed-as-payments-begin-30234699.html.

[5] For more information on Thaksin’s populist policies, see Patana Tangpianpant’s article titled Thaksin Populism and Beyond: A Study of Thaksin’s Pro-Poor Populist Policies in Thailand

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