No such thing as the “Deep State” in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The theory of the “Deep State” often wrongly presupposes that there is such a thing as a “regular state” which is visible, accountable and serves the people. The Deep State is supposed to be a unique set up in some countries appearing as “a state within a state” which is unaccountable to democratically elected governments. This flies in the face of reality.

For a start, states in the modern world today exist in order to facilitate the dominance of the capitalist ruling class over the majority of the population who are working people. This can be seen in many ways. For example, the state enshrines the so-called “right to manage and own” whole sections of the economy by business leaders. There is no requirement for them to be elected by the population or the workforce. Investment decisions affecting millions of people are never subjected to democratic control. The so-called “hidden hand” of the free-market attempts to claim that this is the “natural order”. The views of business leaders are given much more importance than the views of ordinary citizens. The media is mainly controlled by big business. Police and the military are used to break up strikes by trade unionists who try to redress the balance of power. These armed bodies of men are never used to arrest CEOs for closing factories, sacking staff, cutting their wages or moving investments out of communities.

In most Western countries which claim to be democracies, the secret services, top civil servants, judges and military commanders are not subjected to democratic election and are mostly a law unto themselves. In the past, the policies of elected governments, such as Labour governments in Britain, have been frustrated by these sections of the state, working with big business. It is a myth that controlling parliament means controlling the state.

The use of the term “Deep State” might be useful when talking about core remnants of the security apparatus which originated from a repressive authoritarian time and still exist under parliamentary democracy. The term has been applied to Turkey and some Latin American countries. However it is extremely questionable whether it is a useful term in Thailand. Yet, Eugénie Mérieau, in a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, and also at a seminar at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, has attempted to use this concept in analysing the Thai political crisis.

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In order to argue for the existence of a so-called “Deep State” in Thailand, the author has had to exaggerate the power of the king, overlook the long-running fractures within the military, ignore the fact that the Thai judiciary have never been strong nor independent of those in power and write mass movements out of Thai history. Her theory is yet another one-sided top-down view of Thai society, much favoured in the past by right-wing academics.

The author seems to imply that the so-called Deep State always opposed Taksin. Yet, she has to ignore the fact that Taksin Shinawat, as a member of the ruling class, commanded a great deal of influence over sections of the military and judiciary in his early days as Prime Minister. He was very popular among nearly all sections of the ruling elite because of his promise to modernise Thailand after the 1996 economic crisis. The king even praised his brutal extra-judicial killings in the War on Drugs. The conservatives only turned against him when they could not compete with his electoral advantage because they were either not prepared to join him, or were not prepared to offer the population the kind of policies that would improve their lives. The conservatives are extreme free-market neo-liberals.

It is not some Deep State that is fearful of the loss of privileges, as claimed by the author. Taksin never threatened privilege nor wealth. He was no socialist. But he did threatened their share of political power by his overwhelming electoral base. Instead, it is the whistle-blowing crazed middle-classes who saw the rural electorate as a threat to their privileges. Yet the middle-class do not appear in this paper.

Thailand does not have some stable, unchanging core, of conservative reactionaries embedded deep within the state. There are fluid and dynamic bonds between members of the ruling class as the various factions make or break alliances in an opportunistic manner. Some of Taksin’s faction were drawn from the left, others came from the conservative and royalist right-wing who took part in attacks against democracy during the Cold War.

Mérieau argues that the Deep State is trying to use the judiciary as a surrogate king as Pumipon nears his last years. She implies that the “power” of the king is being transferred to the judiciary. Yet, Pumipon has never been powerful. He is, and always has been, a tool of the elites, especially the military, who turned him into a semi-god for their own purposes. The king symbolises the conservative ideology which gives legitimacy to the authoritarian actions of the military and their allies. It is a double act of military “power” and royal “ideological legitimacy”. In this double act the weak-willed King has no real power, but he is a willing participant. Taksin also used the king during the time that he was Prime Minister. His Government took part in the hysterical promotion of the King around the 60th anniversary of his reign and started the “Yellow Shirt Mania”, where everyone was pressurised into wearing royal yellow shirts every Monday. Both the Taksin and Yingluk governments were keen to use the lèse-majesté law. All evidence points to the fact that Taksin is a royalist.

If the oath of allegiance of judges to the Thai king is evidence that the king controls the judiciary, as claimed by Mérieau, then Britain must be ruled by an absolute monarchy! We need to understand the ideological and ceremonial roles of monarchies in the modern world.

It is also rather too simplistic for many people to make glib conclusions that middle class demonstrators who hold up pictures of the king or military officers who wrap yellow ribbons around their troops are acting “on behalf” of the king or that they are under his command.

The only difference between Taksin and his supporters and the yellow shirts and the military is that Taksin’s side could use economic and political policies to legitimise their role alongside royalism. The yellow shirts and the military could only use royalism.

Mérieau’s Deep State theory about Thailand is just another way to express the opinion that the king has been an all-powerful figure at the centre of the state. The dominant academic view which sees the king as all powerful, includes Paul Handley, Duncan McCargo, Same Sky (Fa Deaw Kan) Press, Kevin Hewison, Michael Connors and Niti Eawsriwong. There is a suggestion by these academics that Pumipon organised the 2006 coup and had been manipulating politics since the 1970s. Many of these intellectuals rely, consciously or unconsciously, on the old Maoist analysis, from the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), that under-developed countries like Thailand had yet to complete their bourgeois revolutions and were therefore “semi-feudal”. This analysis sees the major confrontation among the elites as being between the old semi-feudal order and the new rising capitalists. It is a mechanical and banal application of the 1789 French Revolution to Thailand in the 21st century.

This school of thought ignores the fact that the ruling class networks which support the monarchy also include the major bankers and industrialists, including Taksin. They also ignore the capitalist nature of the king’s vast investments. They therefore believe the Yellow Shirt accusation that Taksin and TRT are crypto-republicans. This is the logic of Duncan McCargo’s network conflict and the logic of those who believe in the 2006 “Royal Coup”.

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The Thai judiciary, civil service and bureaucracy have always been weak and under the control of whoever was in power at the time. Those with power or influence can always intervene in the bureaucracy and subvert the rules in order to obtain what they want. This is the reason for a total lack of any standards of justice and also the reason for rampant corruption among the entire bureaucracy. The mountains of paper work associated with the Thai bureaucracy only prove that all the individual petty bureaucrats are fearful of making any decisions themselves and hide behind red tape, passing decision making responsibilities up the ladder.

The military have always been divided by factionalism. This has often limited its power, although the military are the only force that was able to topple elected governments in recent years. Some military leaders accept democratic elections and others are more authoritarian. Some military leaders were against the monarchy in the 1950s, and others have shown leanings towards left-wing politics. Prayut’s faction is the extreme right-wing of the military today. This is not a unified part of a so-called Deep State. What affects the power of the military more than anything is the strength of social movements. Thailand’s political history since the early 1970s is a history of struggle from below against the power of the ruling class. Periods of democracy were the result of the strength of pro-democracy movements. Ironically, the present period of dictatorship has also been determined and influenced by the social movements. Firstly, because many social movement activist called for military intervention, but also because the conservative elites are still mindful of the democratic current within society. The democratic current means that the present junta need to write a constitution that fixes elections rather than just returning to the days of the dictator Sarit. Eugénie Mérieau acknowledges that this democratic spirit means that judiciary intervention is a preferable choice for the conservative elites to direct intervention by the military or even the king. But the key role of mass movements is totally ignored. For Mérieau it is almost as though the elites granted democracy to the plebs as some kind of experiment.

The concept of a Thai Deep State may appear to be an exciting, sexy, new fad in the rarefied world of academia, but it does not help us understand the Thai political crisis.

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