Saturday, June 11, 2011

Caught in Thailand’s web of the 'red-shirt anti-monarchy chart'

A Thai historian recently suggested that I look into the infamous "Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics Development Slide", a brash reference to the US counter-insurgency strategy - "COIN" for short - which the Obama administration is currently exercising in the Afghan war. Once I got hold of the slide, I was puzzled by its immense complexity. Is this a serious military strategy, conceptual art, or indeed a discursive way of denominating the enemy?

Then, I came across an equally confusing chart cum map developed by the Thai military, made public by the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), and reportedly approved by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The chart links several people, mostly associated with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the red-shirt movement, in a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy. Thus, it is also called a lom chao chart.

The chart was basically designed to identify the enemies of the monarchy. Thai Army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd specifically pointed the finger at the red-shirt leaders who, in Sansern's words, "used false information with the intention of attacking the high institution which is loved and respected by all Thais".

Threatened with a series of lawsuits by a number of people whose names appear in the chart, Colonel Sansern was eventually compelled to clarify some points. He said, "I was assigned to distribute this document to the media. Names appear on the document, but that does not necessarily mean they were involved in the movement to overthrow the institution, but describes how they were related to each other. We only distributed it and let the public decide what to believe."

Plotting to overthrow the monarchy is a serious crime in Thailand. Releasing this contentious chart and later backtracking on it reveals irresponsibility, or indeed a conspiracy, on the part of the state authorities.

If the military and the DSI have enough, and more importantly, credible, evidence to confirm the existence of such a lom chao network, they must show this evidence to the public, not just the names without any explanation. This irresponsible act will only do more harm to a society that is already polarised and divided.

One can see some similarities between the American COIN dynamics chart and the Thai version. Both maps have a strong political dimension. Both offer a no-nonsense look at what really lies behind America's necessary war against terrorists and Thailand's war against alleged anti-monarchists. Yet, presenting the maps this way, as a bowl of spaghetti, only unveils certain realities in these "patriotic wars" - confusion, bewilderment and stupefaction.

Even General Stanley McChrystal, head of American and Nato forces in Afghanistan, sarcastically said during a press conference in Kabul last summer, "When we understand that slide, we will have won the war."

In the Thai context, a myriad of questions must be raised. For example: What were the criteria for including someone on the chart? What kind of evidence do the authorities have in order to accuse someone of plotting to overthrow the monarchy? What types of relationship are there among those names on the chart? What would be the next step for the authorities now that they have managed to identify the supposed anti-monarchists?

Interestingly, while the faces of the enemy are identifiable, the rationale behind the making of the chart remains ambiguous. In Thailand, "denominating the enemy" has always been a slippery and dangerous process. Communists and pro-democracy students alike were at one time branded as enemies of the state because they supposedly aspired to overthrow the monarchy. But such branding failed to hide the reality, in which the creation of enemies was also used to uphold the political interests of the power-holders.

In modern times, the royal institution continues to be manipulated as a convenient tool for certain authorities to alienate their opponents by accusing them of undermining the much-revered institution and wishing to replace it with a system they deem inconsistent with the Thai way of life.

As one commentator wrote about this sort of discursive chart, "The eddy of lines and arrows swirling across the chart, pulling the viewer into the impenetrable text that floats on the surface of it like an opaque cloud, only points to the futility of attempting to make sense of the situation. To fully appreciate what seems to be conceptual art, one must put aside logic, as well as any attempt to understand it."
By Pavin Chachavalpongpun fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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