Monday, June 13, 2011

Thailand's Specious Conspiracy Map

The military creates a six-degrees-of-separation chart to attempt to conflate a plot to overthrow the monarchy

In recent weeks, I have come across a confusing chart developed by Thailand's military, made public by the Department of Special Investigation, reportedly approved by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The chart map 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 in Thai.

The chart was basically designed to identify the enemies of the monarchy. Thai army spokesperson Col 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 peoples whose names appeared in the chart, Col Sansern was eventually compelled to clarify some points. He said, "I was assigned to distribute this document to the media. Names that appeared on the document did not necessarily mean they were involved in the movement to overthrow the institution, but on 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 reveals the irresponsibility, indeed conspiracy, on the part of the state authorities. If the military and the DSI have more important, credible evidence confirming the existence of such a lom chao network, they must show them to the public, not just deliver up the names without any explanation. This irresponsible act will do more harm to a society which has already been polarised and divided.

Coincidentally, a Thai historian recently suggested that I look into the infamous "Afghanistan Stability/COIN Dynamics—Development Slide", a brash reference to the US counterinsurgency 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 nominating enemy?

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 hard-headed no-nonsense look at what really lay behind America's war against terrorists and Thailand's war against anti-monarchists. Yet, presenting the maps this way as a bowl of spaghetti, only unveil certain realities in their patriotic wars—confusion, bewilderment, and stupefaction.

Even Gen. Stanley McChrystal, leader 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."

The fact is that a chart that merely connects A, say a patriot, to B, perhaps his cousin, to C, the cousin's mortgage-holder, and so on through Z allows the originators to connect A to Z despite the fact that they have never met and probably never will. This is the famous six degrees of separation, also known as the Human Spiderweb, which posits that everyone on earth is approximately six associations away from everybody else, so that a chain can be established to connect any two people in six steps or fewer. Another specious example is below, which purports to connect the family of George HW Bush and his son, George W Bush, the 41st and 43rd presidents of the United States to organized crime.

In the Thai context, a myriad of questions must be raised. For example, what are the criteria for including someone in the chart? What kinds of evidence do the authorities have in order to accuse someone of attempting to overthrow the monarchy? What types of relationship are among those names in 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 map remains ambiguous. In Thailand, "nominating the enemy" has always been a slippery and dangerous process. Communists and pro-democracy students alike were at one time branded as enemies to 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 monarchy and replace it with a system they deemed incongruent with the Thai way of life.

As one commentator wrote about this sort of 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 a conceptual art, one must put aside logic, as well as any attempt to understand it."

Perhaps, this is also a relevant practice, in abandoning logic, as one looks at the controversial lom chap map. I attach all three chart maps below.

By Pavin Chachavalpongpun fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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