Manchester City Supporters’ Reaction to Thaksin: Four (and a half) Views

Over the course of the protracted takeover saga this summer at Manchester City, City fans’ emotions and reactions ran the gamut from frustration to jubilation. Lots of discussion, much of it interesting and critical, about the merits of Thaksin’s takeover at City took place on fan message boards, including discussions of the political and moral issues highlighted in this blog.

By the start of the season, most City fans had rallied around their new chairman, for at least four reasons. First, for most City fans the immediate emotional reality coming out of last season was despair, frustration, or sheer boredom; just about everyone associated with the club welcomed the idea of a takeover that could provide a fresh impetus to the club, expressed both through finances and statement of ambition. Second, the drawn out nature of the saga wore City fans out, making any kind of resolution to the situation a welcome relief.

Third, as time went on, voices particularly critical of Thaksin tended to drop out from debates. The logic of this is not hard to understand: fan communities are ideologically, politically, and geographically diverse, linked by one thing—in this case, support for Manchester City. Consequently, in any divisive argument, whether a development is good or bad for City naturally tends to become the moral benchmark for evaluating persons, events, and arguments. This is especially the case when both the relevant facts and the relative criteria for evaluating the facts are in dispute, as is certainly case with Thaksin. A typical fan, exposed to both harsh anti-Thaskin arguments and praise for the former prime minister, is likely to think “well, there’s no way I can judge who is right in this dispute, so let’s just go on what’s best for the club.” Conversely, many of those with the harshest assessment of Thaksin and the club’s decision to sell to him have dropped out of the conversation.

Fourth, Thaksin hasn’t put a foot wrong yet since taking over as club chairman. He’s hired a top class, highly professional manager whose very presence lifts the stature of the club; he’s financed the signing of eight quality new players; he has come across as charming, sincere and committed to City in interviews; he’s embraced Manchester City supporters and said he understands fans are the heartbeat of the club. To be sure, this is still very much the honeymoon period, but City fans like a nice swoon as much as anyone else. Moreover, it’s natural to judge people based on what one sees of them rather than one hears about them; what Thaksin is doing for Manchester City appears real and visible; what may have happened in Thailand four years ago during the war on drug a distant rumour covered in fog and uncertainty and easily pushed out of mind.

But this doesn’t mean all City fans have the same attitude towards the takeover. One can meaningfully distinguish four points of view that have emerged.

The first view goes something like this: football is football, politics is politics, and I just don’t care who owns the club. What matters is results on the field; all of you lot arguing about Thai politics are just wasting your time. This is a very common standpoint, but even it has logical limits. Would such fans be happy if a Robert Mugabe or similar character took over the club? I would doubt it. And if not, then one has to at least explore the question of what sort of person and leader Thaksin is, as well as the question of where one draws the line between acceptable and unacceptable ownership.

The second view engages these last questions, and reaches the following conclusion: Thaksin is an admirable leader, a popularly elected leader who implemented policies benefiting the rural poor, a leader who tried to make things happen. Maybe not all of the initiatives went as well as planned and there were some unfortunate results along the way, but that’s normal for a politician. He was ousted by a military coup, and never has been convicted of any wrongdoing. This is not just someone City fans can accept, it’s someone City fans can embrace.

City fans who have a left or progressive political orientation and read the evidence on Thaksin this way will experience no cognitive dissonance, no tension between their core political values and their continued support of City at this time. I can understand how one comes to read the evidence this way, and don’t think this viewpoint is completely wrong. But I can’t embrace it either, in lieu of both the compelling evidence of serious abuses in the war on drugs and the general negative effect of Thaksinization on democracy in Thailand.

Put another way, in assessing a given leader in a different country, a reasonable strategy for proceeding is finding persons within that country who share one’s basic values and political orientation, then asking them what they think. Most civil society, NGO-oriented activists committed to building a democratic society (in both senses of the word) in Thailand whose opinions I have encountered have a deeply negative view of Thaksin. This in itself is not definitive, since, as we have noted before, the class bias problem looms large in trying to evaluate Thai discourse; the rural majority’s views are badly under-represented in the English-language media and discourse centered in Bangkok. But the sharp criticisms of Thaksin from committed civil society activists is sufficient to prevent me, at least, from being able to accept this second view of Thaksin.

The third orientation evident among City supporters is a bit different. These supporters admit some concern about the human rights and corruption charges against Thaksin, and aren’t perhaps as gung-ho about his political achievements as those in the second group. This group thinks that any human rights charges should be investigated, and if appropriate charges brought. But in the meantime, the doctrine of presumption of innocence until proven guilty must be respected, and judgment about the complexities of Thai politics left in the hands of the government and other official parties. It’s neither my place or my responsibility as a football fan to judge Thaksin for what may have happened in Thailand; that’s the government’s job, and if they find a reason for giving Thaksin the boot, more power to them. In the meantime, he’s here, he hasn’t broken any law, and the responsible authorities haven’t given any indication that he’s a menace to society or someone whose activities should be curtailed in anyway.

This strikes me as an eminently reasonable viewpoint, and one I do not blame any City fan for embracing, though again it is not one I am fully comfortable with. The reason I’m not fully comfortable with it is because it explicitly hands over one’s own critical judgment to that of government or other official bodies. Obviously, we all must do this all the time in many areas of life—I’m perfectly happy to turn over judgment about acceptable milk safety standards to the government. But alienating one’s judgment in this way with respect to matters one considers fundamental to one’s integrity, or which affect one’s core interests, is a different matter. Put another way, it reflects the mentality of “we in the government know what’s best about war and peace; trust us to decide in your interests.” Accepting that offer takes one a step away from democratic government and a step towards government by experts.

Again, no one can deny that taking that step is often necessary in contemporary democratic societies, but it’s not a step to be taken likely. If I care about something as much as I care about Manchester City, I want to learn all I can about the issues affecting it and form my own independent judgment, even it means taking a crash course in Thai politics. That’s my personal viewpoint, as well as that of a number of others, but it’s certainly not every City fan’s viewpoint, and I’m not quite prepared to say it should be their viewpoint, either.

That observations leads us into discussion of the fourth orientation towards Thaksin evident among City fans: Quite simply, those who are disgusted with the takeover, to the point that they’ve had to question their continued support for the club in some fashion. Now some of the fans in this camp may simply harbor racist anti-Asian attitudes; others may be against foreign ownership of teams; others may be against organizing football clubs as capitalist enterprises, period. I have discussed none of these perspectives on this blog; suffice it to say that the racist objection is obviously totally unacceptable. The other two objections I find more interesting and take us into questions of the proper governance of football, a topic of great importance and interest but not a central topic in this blog to this point. (We may come to it eventually.)

But most City fans I’ve seen express views along these lines are troubled primarily or exclusively by the human rights charges against Thaksin. For fans in this camp, all the alleged benefits of Thaksin’s regime cannot offset the horrific reports of extra-judicial killings in Thailand; neither does the mere fact that he was democratically elected and took actions against drugs that broadly speaking were quite popular. Nor does the “innocent until proven guilty” doctrine suffice to ease these fans’ minds: after all, the presumption of innocence is a legal doctrine forbidding official state punishment against those who have not been convicted, not a doctrine against the public shunning of persons who for various reasons may never be convicted of a crime or moral wrong that there is excellent grounds to think they are in fact responsible for. And the question of whether City and the Premiership ought or ought not to have shunned someone like Thaksin is precisely the question that’s in play. Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch did not write to the Premier League to ask them to put Thaskin in jail, he wrote to suggest they consider shunning doing business with him.

For fans who read the evidence about Thaksin in the same harsh light of the human rights groups that have tried to call attention to the war on drugs, Thaksin’s ownership of the team represents a potential challenge to their political and moral values. It is a normal, admirable human aspiration to want to live a life of moral and political integrity, in which one’s actions and activities match one’s deepest values in a coherent way. This includes activities like spending lots of time and investing lots of emotion in following a sports team. If I’m going to do this, one might think, I want to know that I’m not doing something that contradicts my deep beliefs about justice and fairness, or helping prop up someone or something that my political and moral conscience finds offensive. And that means, I can’t wholeheartedly or unquestioningly support a team run by someone who’s widely believed to have committed human rights abuses, whether he’s been convicted in a court of law or not.

This particular City fan has alternated between all three of these latter positions (Thaksin is a democratically elected populist, Thaksin may be bent but it’s government’s call to make, Thaksin is a human rights abuser) several times over the last few weeks, and I can see the merits and attractions of each position. I’m especially suspicious of the second position however, since it’s most convenient from the standpoint of my desire to continue supporting City, and the most convenient argument is always to be distrusted from a moral point of view. But that in itself does not mean that there is not something to be said for the second position, especially if one can find a way to rationalize the human rights issues.

Likewise, the attraction of the third position is that it allows one to take an agnostic position, i.e., I read one thing from a pro-Thaksin person one day and feel convinced and indignant and those who would rationalize removing a popularly elected leader; I read something from an anti-Thaksin the next day (or hour) and feel convinced and indignant at this manipulative leader. I can’t make up my own mind on how to read the evidence; maybe I should turn it over someone else who’s much more familiar in a firsthand way and let them make the decision.

The fourth view is the one I most often gravitate towards—unfortunate for me because it is the most painful one to accept as a City supporter. Now, I do think that the harms of the war on drugs and other abuses of human rights and democracy, important as they are, are not the whole story concerning Thaksin, and certainly not the whole story concerning Thai politics. Any narrative that paints Thaksin as the unequivocal bad guy of Thai politics and his most powerful opponents as the good guys is deeply flawed, for reasons previously discussed in this space.

And yet, one remains haunted by the thought that this guy appears to have encouraged, enabled, and allowed police to go on a rampage without limits in the war on drugs, then expressed indifference about the negative consequences for human rights. How can I fail to be troubled by my club’s willingness to embrace someone capable of such callousness?

Good question. In the next post we’ll explore further the situation of the supporter in this camp, and discuss the question of whether one can support a football club whose owner and close associates one believes to be probably culpable for serious abuses of power and disregard for human life.

Before going on to consider that question however, it’s worth observing that there is an alternative, fifth position a City fan might take, hinted at previously in this post.

This fifth position is based on the following observation: to the extent that one’s moral concern in this matter is not just with the reputation of MCFC, and with wanting to support a team that stands for moral decency, but also with what is best for Thailand and the future of democracy in that country, one reaches the following surprising conclusion:

Namely, that the lower the regard one has for Thaksin as a leader of Thailand, the happier one should be that he is running a football club and a not a country. This conclusion only holds, however, if Thaksin is not in fact using City as a springboard back into political power.

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One Comment on “Manchester City Supporters’ Reaction to Thaksin: Four (and a half) Views”

  1. Mark Hodges Says:

    A very well researched and written piece. However, the concentration is about Thaksin’s human rights violations. Having lived here for ten years now and been through the worst of his over-inflated egocentric excesses, I get the feeling that the arguments put forward assume that the Thai justice system is somehow similar to England’s. It is far from that. Just one example is the Monson case, that was scheduled but never brought to trial here (see http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2006/08/24/headlines/headlines_30011851.php). When a powerful politician with a lot of money decides to go for broke the following things happen: all heads of government agencies, the army, the police, the judiciary, et al are replaced by Thaksin’s own men. It has happened again with the new government, headed by the PPP, changing all the faces of the previous administration into Thaksin-friendly folk who are hell-bent on amending the constitution to get him off the court cases against him. Look at http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2007/12/25/opinion/opinion_30060178.php for information on the Assets Examination Committee of Thailand, which is in the course of being disbanded. It is true, he did help the farmers in the north, yes, but only when it became politically clear that by getting their votes everything was politically winnable, and with it huge graft. If he had been such a Mr Nice Guy looking after the poor people of Thailand then why did he find it in his soul to evade tax on the sale of Shin Corp? That’s the hubris that unseated him. Going back a para or so, in Thailand, everyone is bribeable; every large company engages in graft. It’s the culture. So it’s not just that his human rights abuses should be taken on their own, but the whole gamut of corruption, bullying, cronyism, graft, cheating and lying must be taken into the equation of whether or not he is a “right and proper” person to run a football club. He isn’t and the fans should now be able to see his true colours with the sacking of Sven. He will take you up and his hubris will dump you in the shite later on. I cannot see Scolari interested in being a puppet to this unsavoury wretch, meaning a sub-standard manager and City languishing in the bottom half of the table when all the players have had enough of him too.


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