Mitigating Factors? Arguing Thaksin’s Case, II

(Readers starting at the top of the blog are strongly encouraged to read the three immediately previous posts before moving on to this one.)

Now consider a different set of “mitigating” arguments that could be offered on Thaksin’s behalf. These arguments presume that the war on drugs was indeed a bad, even a nasty thing, but want to suggest that this does not mean Thaksin himself is an awful person or leader.

1. Thaksin meant well, even if his methods were misguided.

Here the argument is that Thaksin exercised poor judgment in planning the war on drugs, but that he meant well and did it all out of love for the Thai people. In the United States, this sort of argument is increasingly used with respect to George W. Bush: i.e., “Iraq is a disaster, but Bush has a good heart and just wants to defend freedom.”

That sort of argument is essentially non-falsifiable; none of us can confidently presume to judge the deepest contents of a politician’s heart. (I have a theory about Thaksin on that score—and Bush too!—but I’ll save those for another day.) However, politicians and leaders are properly judged on the consequences of their actions, so even if true this only takes Thaksin off the hook so far. But one could imagine a plausible argument saying a) Thaksin did mess up the war on drugs but b) he meant well and still is a good person so c) his errors in the drug war don’t make him unfit to run a football club or any other business.

2.Thaksin’s disastrous war on drugs needs to be weighed against the other benefits of his regime.

This argument is more promising. Plausibly stated, it might go something like this: okay, put one in the minus column on Thaksin’s ledger for the whole war on drugs bit. But look at the good his regime did in other areas: expanding health care for the rural poor, for instance. Surely that saved more lives than were lost in the drug war. Or the continued economic development of the nation. Or the reported reduction in poverty. If you take these all together, you’ll find Thaksin was a net plus for the Thai people, especially the rural base that elected him, despite the problems with the drug war.

In my view there may well be something to be said for this argument, if one adopts a utilitarian barometer for judging leaders. But non-utilitarians (such as those pesky human rights groups) will not be so easily swayed by this kind of argument. On the other hand, a quasi-Marxian view might hold that the liberal human rights groups like Amnesty International place too much emphasis on the bourgeois rights, and not enough on socio-economic rights such as the right to live free of poverty. From this point of view, the concerns of human rights groups are entirely too narrow; death from malnutrition or poor health care is just as awful as death at the hands of police conducting a drug war, but only the latter gets the headlines, it could be claimed.

Trying to adjudicate the merits of these different points of view is beyond the scope of this blog; for now it’s enough to point out that what one thinks about claim #2 will depend on both one’s reading of the facts about Thailand’s overall development under Thaksin and what standard one uses to judge leaders and public policy.

3. Other leaders around the world commit human rights violations too, but you don’t see the British getting up in arms about that; Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq War led to far more deaths than Thaksin is even accused of. But there wouldn’t be this uproar and scrutiny if it were Tony Blair trying to buy an English football club.

The force of this argument is that it’s easy to pick apart the faults of other regimes while being blind to the much bigger faults of our own regimes. In particular, entire academic industries in the developed West are devoted to studying emerging democracies, often with a faintly condescending tone as contained in distinctions between “emerging” and “mature” democracies and so forth; yet media and academic attention doesn’t focus as easily on the undemocratic features and tendencies in our own societies, and quickly moves on or forgets when the actions of nations like the UK or the US lead to human rights violations abroad.

There is clearly something to be said for this argument, but it’s not really successful as a defense of Thaksin per se. Rather, its value is in its demand for moral consistency. If we are to pick apart Thaksin’s apparent complicity in the war on drugs, we must do the same for other leaders, or other new owners in the Premiership. Shouldn’t the media be running the rule over Tom Hicks, the crony and donor of George W. Bush, as complicit in human rights violations? And why haven’t the media really ever gotten to the bottom of the Roman Abramovich story? These are fair points, even if they don’t really exonerate Thaksin.

4. In evaluating Thaksin’s record on human rights, you have to compare him not simply to an abstract standard of respect for liberal human rights, but to plausible political alternatives in Thailand. Thaksin may have been bad for human rights, at least in some respects, but isn’t the military junta that replaced him just as bad, or worse, or even much worse?

Call this the “realist argument.” The realist argument raises an excellent question, one leading into the themes of the next couple of major posts–the first looking a bit harder at just what human rights groups do, the second (to appear next week) on the impact of Thaksin on prospects for democracy in Thailand. It will suffice to say here that one can consistently criticize Thaksin for the war on drugs, yet also be anti-coup and aghast at the military junta’s curtailment of political freedoms.That in fact is the implicit position, with several variations, of many academics studying Thai politics.

What is the upshot of all this? To lay my cards on the table, it seems fairly clear to me that the war on drugs was a human rights disaster, and I hope independent inquiries will one day lead to a genuine reckoning and some measure of accountability. Freedom House’s three recommendations from 2005 effectively specify what ought to happen:

“Thailand should immediately hold a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the war on drugs of 2003 and the extrajudicial killings associated with it.

Those suspected of involvement in any extradjudicial killings, including senior officers, should be brought to trial.

Firm action should be taken against state officials allegedly responsible for human rights abuses, torture, and disappearances in the south, including criminal trials when appropriate.”

The only caveat is that “immediately” needs to be amended to “immediately after the establishment of a new government in Thailand.” Any inquiry led by the junta that implicates Thaksin or his government will immediately be tainted as politically motivated and will lack the needed credibility. Judging from comments by Thaksin’s lawyer last week, his client would be pleased to have the opportunity to clear his name in a formal setting. It would be great for all concerned if he were to have that opportunity.

But while I’m persuaded the war on drugs was a major offense against human rights that Thaksin should have to answer for to an independent inquiry, the questions of whether, in evaluating his regime as a whole, this harm was outweighed by other good things Thaksin helped bring about, or whether the plausible alternatives to Thaksin are or would have been worse, are less clear cut.

To address those questions, we’ll have to examine an issue that (in my mind anyway) is even more important than that of specific human rights abuses: the impact of Thaksin and Thaksinization on democracy in Thailand. On the one hand, Thaksin is often defended with reference to the legitimacy that comes from winning elections; on the other hand, many critics believe that Thaksin’s commitment to democracy was superficial at best and charge him with undermining a free civil society. This is an important set of questions, particularly if one holds the view (as I do) that establishing and maintaining democratic norms is the precondition for upholding human rights and quickly rectifying their violation.

So we’ll take that up next week. And, we’ll also circle back (believe me) to the question of Thaksin’s fitness to own Manchester City, as well as the related question of whether Thaksin’s ownership of City somehow makes the club and its supporters complicit in his alleged offenses against human rights. (My answer on that is a qualified no; more explanation next week.)

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5 Comments on “Mitigating Factors? Arguing Thaksin’s Case, II”

  1. Vichai N Says:

    Very thoroughly and fairly analyzed and I congratulate the author.

    Quite frankly it allowed me to view the human rights abuses of a democratically (I will half-heartedly half-convincingly concede the point that Thaksin was democractically elected) elected leader in new different perspectives. It did NOT however improve my low opinion of our ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

    Let me add a few points that would suggest that Thaksin’s extrajudicial rampage was inspired by megalomania and that Thaksin was a psycopath. Thaksin is/was a well educated police lt. colonel, who possessed a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Sam Houston University at Texas, USA. And during all the time that the anti-yaa baa war was going on, from start to horrific finish, the FACE of this war had always been Thaksin Shinawatra(Thaksin wanted the glamor of the kill, so to speak) Thaksin Shinawatra therefore, by his police background and educational achievement, and by his position of PM of Thailand should have insisted that RULE OF LAW should be observed religiously while his war on drugs raged on. At no time, when the reports of abuses and extrajudicial killings were coming out did Thaksin hesitate to investigate or to ask for a pause in the killings. That famous “The United Nations is not my father” outburst of Thaksin Shinawatra was the highlight of exactly where Thaksin Shinawatra stand was in the extra-judicials; e.g., he wanted the Thais and the world to know he was the Maestro.

    And further, Thaksin Shinawatra as PM of Thailand at that time, and possessing overwhelming unassailable majority in Thai parliament could have authored the most punishing anti-drugs laws, but DID NOT, but instead chose to deliver shoot-to-kill entertainment to the guillible Thai rurals. That certainly allowed Thaksin Shinawatra to feed his megalomaniac lust to be god-like . . . unfortunately at the expense of horrific carnage to many innocents.

  2. fall Says:

    War on drug.
    Hmm.. hot potato.

    I would say I dont condone police killing of any innocent people, but never have much faith in Thai police anyway.
    An investigation into this matter would, at least, bring some semblance of order into police bureau.

    Investigative questions should at least contain the following:
    1. Does PM have authority to authorize “war on XXX” with shoot-to-kill directive?
    This is important, it could mean the PM does/ does not have authority, which would goes as over duty. But if he does (ie. war on terror), it would be judicial kill, not extrajudicial.

    2. Is there any hit list directly order by the PM?
    This would circumvent the first question and directly against the law.

    3. Does any directive that result in death of human be categorize as fault of negligent policy issuer or malpractice of policy carrier? (sorry if wording unclear)
    This is kinda gray area. With a directive of War on Drug that being hand to police and police use excessive force. Will this contribute a gross negligent of policy issuer to known subprofessional police? Or is it subprofessional police fault in carrying it out? (ie. owner order shepard to kill a wolf. If shepard kill a lamb, it’s shepard fault. But if owner known shepard cannot tell a wolf from lamb, its owner fault)

  3. thadw Says:

    Interesting post fall. Those are good questions. I haven’t seen evidence about #2. And yes I imagine if I were a lawyer defending Thaksin on this, I would want to try to show that the entire policy was constructed through legitimate channels, i.e. through law and legislation implicitly approved by the Thai people, and that any faults were matters of execution beyond the prime minister’s direct responsibility.

    Now I’m very dubious about that argument morally, but if I were Thaksin’s lawyer I’d go as far as I could down that path.

    On the other side, if I’m prosecuting Thaksin I’d start by pushing very hard on the idea that he exercised a willfull negligence and derelicion of duty to uphold the law by refusing to seriously investigate the killings.

  4. jeru Says:

    Falls Q1. Does PM have authority to authorize “war on XXX” with shoot-to-kill directive?

    Thaksin Shinawatra, and his lawyer Noppadol, won’t be protesting everyday at Manchester city that ‘Thaksin did not condone extrajudicial killings’ if it was ‘authorized’, would he? I can’t even imagine the Thai parliament, whether it was overwhelmingly Thaksin’s Rak Thai party, being a party to indiscriminate shoot-to-order kills on mere suspicion, I doubt it.

    No Thaksin Shinawatra alone has to take sole responsibility for the extrajudicial rampage during his anti-drugs war – – Thaksin started it, Thaksin did not stop or pause when the extrajudicial killings start being reported, and Thaksin did NOT investigate or cause an investigation post-deaths.

  5. […] democracy to crumble in the process) due to his mega-corruption, extrajudicial killing whimsy and megalomanic bent. […]

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