walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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All The King's (Cyber)Men

In a windowless room within a giant government compound in Bangkok sit technicians whose job is to scour the web for material that could offend the Thai king or his family. They have been very busy: about 60,000 websites have been banned because of anti-monarchy content. As the NYT tells us,

The technicians work in what is called the Office of Prevention and Suppression of Information Technology Crimes. The government that came to power in July prefers to call it the “war room,” the headquarters of a vigorous and expanding campaign to purify the Internet of royal insults.

The crackdown, which officials have vowed to intensify, is being carried out by a team of 10 computer specialists led by Surachai Nilsang, whose title is cyberinspector.

In the generally opaque world of Thai politics, few things are certain, but this looks like part of the deal between Thailand’s new “red shirt” government, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the ousted prime minister Thaksin, and some of the “yellow shirt” elements linked to interests and figures closer to the traditional Thai power structures more closely identified with the Palace.

The silent stability in Thai politics since the last election has been remarkable — and the world press has paid it little attention.  The political and sometimes street fighting between “yellow shirts” (yellow is the color traditionally associated with the monarchy and was chosen by protestors to signal their identification with and veneration of the Throne) and “red shirts” who often represented what Americans might call a “red neck” or populist constituency from the relatively backward and impoverished rural parts of the country, almost tore the country apart.

The red shirts support ousted billionaire and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose populist policies involved spending government money on health care and development funds for rural villages.  He was the first Thai politician to win solid parliamentary majorities and there are signs that some palace figures saw his vast personal popularity as a potential rival to the King in the affections of the Thais.  The urban, educated middle classes didn’t like his populism and feared what looked like the personalistic style of rule he was introducing.  (Scrupulous respect for the fine points of the law and the rights of minorities have never been the hallmarks of Thai politics, and despite periodic efforts at reform, mighty rivers of money wash through the political system.)

For the last few years, Thai politics have been extremely tense and frequently violent.  The red shirts cannot be defeated at the polls, but the yellow shirts are so powerful in business, the professions, the military and the power structure that surrounds the revered and aged King, that the red shirts have not been able to govern.  Thaksin is in exile, but his shadow over the country looms large.

In the most recent elections, Thaksin sister Yingluck’s red shirt forces won a landslide victory — and the Thai crisis mysteriously calmed.  Those cybercops trolling the web for anti-royal content look like part of the reason.  Yingluck and the yellow shirts seem to be learning to live with each other.  The government is moving aggressively to squelch criticism of the monarchy, and the yellow shirts aren’t mobilizing against the red shirts in power.  Thai politics are not noted for their transparency; it would appear that this is one part of a wider compromise.

The present King of Thailand has an extraordinary place in Thai history and in the affections of his people. But King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 84 years old and has been on the throne since the start of the Cold War. Not every member of the royal family is as respected or as popular, and the more venerable he becomes the more inevitably thought turns to the future of the dynasty.

The Thai monarchy was dragged into politics during the red/yellow conflict, and being touched by party politics is never good for a constitutional monarchy.  Queen Elizabeth II rarely gives the world even the tiniest hint of her political sympathies, and if the British royals were seen to tilt to one political party or another, the British would start thinking about a republic.

The political polarization between red and yellow combined with the approach of a new era for Thailand’s royal house makes for a delicate transition.  It is easy to see how the Prime Minister and the Palace could agree on the need for a period of calm in Thai politics.

While I don’t like censorship any more than anyone else, and believe that Thailand must ultimately move toward a more open political system, the bipartisan preference for quiet and compromise makes sense.  A new reign will come, and when that happens the Thais can get back to constructing their future.  But the passions that opened up in the yellow shirt, red shirt violence of the past few years showed just how much frustration and social tension exists in the country often called “the land of smiles”.

Because of Thailand’s position on the border of China, what happens there is of great interest to people and powers around the world.  Instability in Thailand could complicate US-Chinese relations and would not do much for what looks to be a slow thaw in the Country Formerly Known as Burma.  Let’s wish the King of Thailand a long and peaceful old age, and let’s hope for political and legal reform as Thailand goes forward that allow greater freedom of expression, a more robust political process, more transparency in government and a more consistent rule of law — without endangering the country’s economic growth and political peace.

For now, the Thais seem to have found a way to compromise a political struggle that at one point threatened to blow the public apart.  Part of the price of that compromise is greater vigilance in enforcing strict lese-majesty laws that even many friends of the monarchy think are in need of reform — hence the cybercops in the boiler room described by the Times.  One hopes the success of the compromise will soon permit the reform of the laws.

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  • Stephen

    Good analysis. Thaksin’s considerable power, what some see as his anti-royalist sentiment and the unpopularity of the Crown Prince raise concerns with the coming succession.

    Thaksin’s power, populism, and policies favoring rural constituencies at the expense, some see, of Bangkok has raised expectations of rural communities, often poor. His banishment has frustrated many and cracked open the rural versus urban tensions that have long been there below the surface calm.

  • Emilio Esteban

    Thailand’s ICT is reponsible for the jailing of hundreds of innocent Thais for posting critical comments of their king on the internet.

    Calling for political hackers to smash ICT’s webs is a legitimate non-violent way to fight back! We must protect the privacy of those exercising their right to free speech on the internet.

    Hackers smash ICT!

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