Coup, King, Crisis

As new publications trickle out from a much delayed production process, the latest is a book review by JCA editorial board member Michael Connors.

He reviews a collection edited by exiled Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Coup, King, Crisis: A Critical Interregnum in Thailand, published by Yale Southeast Asia Studies as Monograph 68.

This book had quite a trip to publication, with the original publisher NUS Press accepting the book and processing through production to printing and then abruptly deciding to cancel the publishing contract in March 2020. As usual in authoritarian states, no explanation regarding the withdrawal was provided, but presumably under pressure from state and university authorities. NUS Press is a disgrace.

Thankfully, Yale took up the collection, leading to the review.

The book includes an Introduction and 14 chapters. While Connors notes the unevenness usually seen in collections, he assesses it “an important volume that sets a new tone for the future of scholarship in Thai studies. It is adventurous because the contributors have mostly written original, empirically based, theoretically pluralistic pieces that are mostly uninterested in policing disciplinary boundaries.”

Kevin Hewison’s Chapter 5 is described as a:

Chomsky-like skewering of King Vajiralongkorn. Vajiralongkorn’s natural uncouthness, to be polite, seems to have been exacerbated by the ‘maladies of several decades of waiting for a royal parent to die’ (119). There is a point to Hewison’s painful detailing of an unfortunate misfitting of personality and destiny: he disagrees with the idea that Thai politics from the late 1990s to the present has been dominated, even determined, by the politics of royal succession. Hewison traces the succession crisis to the 1970s, but not in terms of who would sit on the throne, but on how to manage the long wait for an ill-fitting heir apparent. The chapter is weighty with grotesque details regarding the consolidation of the heir’s power, touching on palace insiders’ imprisonment and alleged murder. Hewison’s chapter is likely to make for uncomfortable reading for those who thought King Bhumibol’s successor would be more democratically inclined.

Overall, Connors detects that the chapters “are recognisably about political morbidity,” with this engendering “a melancholy to the book that takes full flight in the contribution of the long-time scholar of lèse-majesté, David Streckfuss (Chapter 13)”:

Streckfuss provides an inventory of the mechanisms for state repression against speech, recounting episodes of surveillance by the military dictatorship in the post-2014 period to nullify resistance. ‘Absurdist’ is how he casts these things for what they do to the protagonists and victims. Some years ago, Streckfuss sought stories about self-censorship regarding the monarchy. His respondents testified the damage done by holding back (most, including this author, have done so). Streckfuss draws on those ‘confessions’ to explore the soul-damage, individual and public, that results. It says a lot that even the iconoclast Pavin reports to Streckfuss that he self-censors on the monarchy when the context seems right or that third party damage might result. The chapter’s conclusion is a fitting conclusion for the book: ‘The Thai military government and its manifestation was neither terrifying nor brutal, but rather absurdly banal and profoundly stupefying. The junta did not just seize power; it heralded a new age where Thai society will have little chance to communicate and might in time become paralysed’ (333).

Connors also adds an commentary on the path of contemporary social science, observing that “the volume eschews that kind of social science rigour that produces rigor-mortis that habitually stiffens everything it touches into rarified variables in the positivist hope that the human laboratory, controlled through research design, will yield generalisable laws.”

In contrast, this “volume speaks to the strained human spirit in the face of the bleakest of situations – a country run by dictators and usurpers.” While the contributors don’t guess at what will happen next, they do provide “multiple scenarios.”

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