Clip exposes gamut of inconvenient truths
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Clip exposes gamut of inconvenient truths

The controversial audio clip that has reverberated around Thailand over the past two weeks refuses to go away. On it, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and current Deputy Defence Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa held a wide-ranging conversation which ran the gamut from mutual acquaintances and personal virility to military promotions and Thaksin's homecoming drive through an amnesty decree.

The script, its tone and details indicate an authentic conversation because they are too embarrassing, damaging and compromising for both Thaksin and Gen Yuthasak to have been doctored.

How they were recorded and leaked is a matter of speculation and conspiracy but their authenticity is difficult to deny. The clip brings Thaksin no closer to his opponents while alienating himself from his support base.

For Gen Yuthasak, the expose is tantamount to political suicide as he made compromising comments about top military protagonists from the Privy Council president to each of the armed forces chiefs.

Unsurprisingly, he consequently tried to resign in vain but Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra still needs him to manage relations with the top brass.

Overall, this unauthorised audio record reveals the state of Thai politics as it stands today.

It contains inconvenient truths that Thai society generally is unprepared to accept at this time. Among its myriad revelations, several are instructive.

First, Thaksin has disappointed both sides of the Thai fault line. His remarks do not fit the narrative of either side. He is neither a champion of social justice and equality, nor a revolutionary for the red shirts and anti-establishment proponents who demonstrated for genuine electoral democracy in recent years.

The rank-and-file of the red-shirt movement does not figure centrally in Thaksin's frame of mind.

His opponents can take comfort in Thaksin's vacuous stand on the cause of social justice. To the extent that a broad-based political awakening of the electorate has come out of his years in office and policy programmes, it is unwitting and unintentional.

The man is out there for himself, his clique and associated business interests, not for Thais.

This fits neatly into the anti-Thaksin narrative of a corrupt upstart from outside the system, manipulating and usurping power at the expense of the status quo and established hierarchy, an omnipresent and all-purpose menace to Thai society.

Thailand's polarisation and protracted problems are thus reassuringly explainable through the interests, mind and actions of one man.

Where this conventional and convenient narrative falls short is Thaksin's posture and position towards the establishment. If he is lame on principles, he is humble when it comes to royalism.

An upright graduate of the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School and police academy, he is proud of his royalist credentials and creed, not at all the anti-royalist, republican nemesis his opponents have portrayed him to be.

This is why the anti-Thaksin yellows, the multi-colour columns, and the Democrat Party have not made that much of a fuss over the audio clip. It deprives them of their main charge that he is an anti-monarchist.

To be sure, Thaksin is just another elite from a newer breed who fell out with the old elites. Yet all of them are ultimately in the same boat. Thaksin and Gen Yuthasak discussed in some detail how to bring the former home. Thaksin's suggestion of compromise, which even sounded like an aspiration, was to work as an unpaid adviser to the untaxed Crown Property Bureau, a position that is supposed to neuter him politically and prevent his potential retribution and revenge against the likes of the Privy Council president.

His safe passage home and the end of his political career are to work for the chao nai, or royal bosses.

The second most protrusive finding from the clip is the "X" factor. The audio was muted over the name of a higher authority than the Privy Council president. The higher authority was able to consecutively summon army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha and Gen Yuthasak to tell them to make nice with each other.

Since then, and broadly since Ms Yingluck took office in August 2011, civil-military relations have been surprisingly smooth. Gen Prayuth has been granted much latitude over army affairs, and has returned the favour by allowing the civilian government to administer without overt and implicit threats of a military coup from the army's high command.

This revelation of the X factor is not convenient because the conventional narrative attributes Thai tensions as between Thaksin and his opponents in the military, judiciary and opposition party.

We are not supposed to have higher authorities than those who are accountable in Thailand's contested liberal democracy. But we do, as many already know that we do but just won't say it aloud. It suggests further that the machinations and manoeuvres of Thai politics are really power plays among high authorities and elites.

A third revelation feels almost like a bombshell. It has to do with Myanmar. Thaksin is chummy with Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who apparently even gave Thaksin some land in Yangon.

Thaksin has plans for Myanmar, and Gen Yuthasak has egged him on.

Gen Min Aung Hlaing and a wealthy Myanmar minister are said to be Thailand and Thaksin's gateway to Myanmar's future, including the elusive Dawei megaproject. This revelation will of course be denied by officials on both sides but it is hard to believe that Thai-Myanmar relations will not be adversely affected by it in the longer term.

Other tidbits are also worthy of mention. Thaksin called his sister by her nickname twice and most other times referred to her as the PM. The master puppets should have been out on display much more but was not.

Thaksin sounded surprisingly deferential to his sister, although he still occupied the driver's seat enough for Gen Yuthasak, and countless others, to pay homage and respect to him.

Ms Yingluck's decision to take over the defence portfolio from Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat caught military watchers by surprise. She took over the job because he was seen as too aggressive and heavy-handed in dealing with the military.

These findings from the audio clip are disconcerting and disorienting, unfit for the main narrative as told through establishment-biased lenses and outlets. They also will not sit well with critics and opponents of the establishment.

To the red shirts, Thaksin is part of the enemy. To the established elites, Thaksin sees and wants himself to be a part of them.

They may well take him back into their fold if he can convince them to trust his word that he will stay away from politics for good.

Thai politics will soon revert back to its more comfortable story of good versus bad because of the inconvenient truths that in this contested land there is no black and white, only shades of grey.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Associate Professor of International Political Economy and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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