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Blog Archive December 2013

Citizen Detectives: On Online World of Investigations

Inside the world of crime fiction, a story starts with a murder.

Nothing has changed since ancient days that people murdered one another.

What has changed is how modern society investigates a murder. While the ancients incorporated the supernatural or other irrational into their explanation of a murder, it was the Enlightenment that enshrined reason, logic, and scientific proofs as the basis for detection.

Wikipedia  picks up the Enlightenment cognitive thread from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which was used to create the modern detective narrative with “all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.”

Four hundred years later, building upon the thought processes constructed by the Enlightenment, technology has provided a wide range of detective tools. Just as important as the tools are the accessibility to such tools has passed from the hands of government officials and professional investigators and into the hands of intelligent, interested, and knowledgeable amateurs.

There is great political power in maintaining a monopoly over the narrative flow that detects and solves crimes in general and murder in particular. An essential part of the social contract between citizens and their government is the trust that the government’s narrative is truthful. When a government lies about a murder or a disappearance, they close the door to truth. In times of civil unrest, street protest and demonstrations, the intensity of emotional rage threatens to return us to the pre-Enlightenment era where gossip, speculation, the supernatural, biases, and radical beliefs evolve narratives to solve the mystery surround a murder.

Our ancestors consumed a diet rich in official narratives slanted to suit the interest of the powerful. The tension between power and authority and truth and justice is the rope pull contest, which in the past the authorities, with police, armies and guns, mostly won.

In 2014, in circumstances of political turmoil, we are going to see far more citizens going over the head of government officials, investigative experts, and mob leaders who are less interested in solving a murder than spinning a narrative that advances their interest.

Thailand’s political troubles has produced murder victim in 1976, 1992, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013. The probabilities are there will be more murder victims in 2014 arising from the political activities in Bangkok streets and upcountry venues where demonstrations occur. It is human nature that both sides will blame the other for a murder. Whether the victim was one of their own or on the opposite side, the standard trope is the other side pulled the trigger.

Though in Thailand, the tradition of both sides blaming a ‘third hand’ is popular. A third hand is an anonymous player, usually in a tight band or group, with powerful friends and allies and seeks to gain advantage through violence. In Thailand in recent times they are called ‘the Black Shirts.’ The murky third hand, dressed in their black shirts, plays the role of the supernatural in the ancient narratives. It is anti-Enlightenment, anti-evidential, secretive phantoms, who like all characters in a good ghost or superhero/villain stories appears, on the surface, a convenient and plausible explanation.

The third hand is also a good excuse for the authorities to limit their investigation or to sidetrack it on a wild goose chase for the elusive third hand. Like a supernatural story the third hand player acts as a wonderful piece of distraction.  After a while people, forget about the person who was murdered as everyone is baying for the third hand to be revealed.

The house of cards is about to fall.

There are several reasons for this kind of stonewalling and distraction to become increasingly more difficult to work in the near term.

First, the visual evidence is often overwhelming, graphic, and damning. The video evidence is from a rainforest of CCTV cameras ringing every street and alley, government and private, and the hand-held devices everyone carries. With the emergence of drone technology, you can expect another layer of visual surveillance to capture the moment a murder is committed.

You’ve likely seen on YouTube and elsewhere citizen video footage uploaded from the scenes of demonstrations from around the world. Political acts of violence are also on the increase. This increase correlates with the rise of video images of acts of political violence. A case in point, was the horrific murder and beheading of an off-duty solider in the streets of London.

In the case of the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London concern has been raised as to whether showing the video footage will mix hatred and disgust into the volatile cocktail of moral rage. There is no little irony that the most advanced products of our technology are causing a pre-Enlightenment irrational emotional reaction to the images captured and displayed in a courtroom.

It isn’t just the jury or those inside the courtroom that responses emotionally to visual acts of graphic violence, the ripple effect swiftly flows through the larger community. After the Rigby murder there was a surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes in England.

Second, official deniability is curtailed with visual records that suddenly go viral, and in minutes people around the world are seeing with their own eyes an act of violence. The jury is no longer confined to a courtroom. The jury is now in the millions and it is convened twenty-four hours a day. There are many YouTube videos showing abuse of power of authorities.

On New Year’s Day the Bangkok Post reported along with a video of a policeman slapping a Russian tourist across the face leaves little room for the old standby: this was a misunderstanding. Constable Nop was swatting a mosquito when the Russian woman rushed in front of the insect at the last moment to rescue it from death.  This doesn’t do much for the official version of welcoming tourists to enjoy Thailand, and no doubt damage control will spring into action. Someone will be dispatched to give the Russian woman flowers, a basket of cookies, and free tickets to the crocodile farm. She might want to think twice about using the latter.

Third, is the emergence of online Sherlock Holmes who gathers and analyzes the forensic evidence that can be acquire by searching Google Maps, having a knowledge of firearms and ammunition, and eye witness accounts from the ground.  If you have a reasonable level of online research skills you can apply those skills to a murder.

A good example of such an online investigation that asks the question: Who shot and killed the Thai policeman on 26th December 2013 near Gate 3 of the Japanese Stadium at Din Daeng. Anti-Government protesters were at the stadium to block and disrupt registration of political parties for the 2nd February elections. Those on the side of the protestors pointed the finger at the government as the killer, saying the fatal shot came from the top of a government building.

The Philip Marlowe who conducted the murder investigation explains his motivation for the investigation:

“I write this not to answer wider questions about the rights and wrongs but to try to clarify a narrower question of whether a policeman was killed by mysterious gunmen stationed on top of the Labour Ministry, which is – obviously – under the control of the government. The protesters claim that these men were most likely hired by Thaksin to shoot both protesters and police alike in order to paint the protesters as violent. To my knowledge, the government have yet to clarify who these men were, but have accused two protesters of firing down at police from nearby flats.” (The police have confirmed that the men in black on top of the Labour Ministry building were policemen.)

In the fog of street demonstrations and violence there are bound to be multiple perspectives and not everyone will agree that the evidence presented support the conclusion offered. Some media and citizen reporters reported, for example, that black-clad men were on top of the Labour Ministry, and that police attacked a protester’s vehicle smashing the windows. In the heat of street battles, the lines shift, the roles of attacker and victim shift causing confusion. Emerging from the confusion are conflicting reports.

Our online Philip Marlowe provides a detailed investigation into the gunman’s location, the height from which the shot was made and distance from the shooter to the spot where Pol Senior Sgt. Major Narong Pitisit was killed. Our online investigator presents his case to us, the jury, to decide whether given the trajectory of the entry and exist wound, the position of the body, the reports of the direction of other gunfire at the same time, that the killer, whoever he or she was, had not fired the shot from the top of the Labour Ministry.

The chaos of violence in a street demonstration makes detection of a precise killer more difficult. With multiple gunmen firing shots from various locations, and masses of people in and around the turmoil, it is often easier to conclude who couldn’t have fired a fatal shot than to pinpoint the actual gunman.

The private citizen investigation into the murder of the police officer Narong by using informational online resources has shaped a credible scenario that eliminates the rooftop of the Labour Ministry as the location of the gunman. Because something is credible and plausible doesn’t mean it is true or the final word. But it does put pressure on the authorities to either confirm or repudiate the scenario from the evidence they’ve gathered. The result is the creation of a new kind of courtroom for the digital age. Courtrooms and judges, prosecutors, police and witnesses are evolving into something new. Like the monopoly of information, the monopoly of justice is being disrupted by new technology.

The fourth reason for the house of cards to fall is that worldwide millions of people are aware that political, economic and social life is being disrupted. These hugely powerful institutions appear fragile, vulnerable and weak. Like high-rise buildings following a powerful earthquake, the question is whether they can be repaired before they collapse. The elites with the most to lose take to the streets to demand governing systems that leave them in control. They wage conflict against those they fear will demolish what has given them identity, privilege, wealth, status and power. Murders committed inside this landscape have significance as the identity of the gunmen effect the legitimacy and credibility of the government and the anti-government forces. Each side wants the other side to have pulled the trigger.

The citizen detective, armed with investigative skills, is entering a hotly contested political realm where murder is the collateral damage of that conflict.  Or it may be that murder is part of the theatre of the absurd to discredit and topple the opposition. In other words, pinpointing the killer is driven less about the truth of the murder as to the political fallout from arresting a person associated with one of the political sides. Political killings appear on the surface to be like all crimes of passion. The reality is a cold-blooded calculation is made about the merits of violence to achieve political ends. That is the classic definition of war.

We head forward with new and powerful tools of detection, and with skilled and dedicated online detectives, but none of this changes the fundamentally irrational nature of man. We are predictable in our capacity for unpredictability, driven by deep-seated forces of language, culture, indoctrination, and biases. The reality of our lives, is when the house of cards falls; there is no evidence modern technology will do much to reduce murders in the political arena, or to detect the killers. Lee Rigby’s killers knew they were being filmed. They performed the gruesome murder in front the camera.

What is happening in the streets of Bangkok are mirror in many places around the world as 2014 witnesses a continuation of a battle waged between those allied with pre-Enlightenment forces who are pushing back hard against forces of the Enlightenment. The anti-democratic movement wants the benefit of all the technological advantages which have emerged from the Enlightenment while maintaining a medieval political structure and a belief system that sidetracks science to the margins. It is an old war that flares up in intensity as the technology accelerates social and economic change.

What is it about that philosophy of the Enlightenment that ignites the flames of politic conflict? The answer takes us back to David Hume, who famously wrote “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Our blood lust and self-interest have traditionally trumped appeals to evidence and reason. The slave can’t be allowed to use evidence and reason to control the master. As a result we are left with moral outrage and when the elites lead a mob to jump the fence of reason, we return to a pre-Enlightenment political era. We will have to look into a deeper future before this flaw in the human software can be patched. Only then will the slave have a chance for genuine freedom. Meanwhile, we will look to the citizen detective to bring images and voice to the slave’s case. 2014 may give birth to the online Spartacus who adopts the tools of the Enlightenment to break the chains of enslavement.

Posted: 1/2/2014 7:39:45 PM 

 

2013 Ends With Information Overload and a Deepening Divide

The reality check idea is we need to be mindful of how we find information, where we find it, how we analyze it, and finally how we act on it. Along with my fellow bloggers in 2013 we expanded our essays beyond the limit of the law enforcement sphere.

Barbara Nadel, Quentin Bates, and Jarad Henry, my fellow bloggers, have added an international element to the joint enterprise, covering the UK, Iceland, Turkey and with me adding Thailand. We sent to each of you our very best wishes for the New Year 2014. And we hope that you will return in 2014 to read our latest take on crime, courts, justice, language, culture, politics, economics and technology.

This will be my last blog for 2013 and I’ve thought whether to strive for something memorable until I thought for a moment—that never works. If something is memorable we almost never know it when we see it. It is only later with the engine of memory that certain things stick, and most things are blown out the back of the large harvester as so much chaff.  That is an introduction to the topic of this essay.

The big story is the sheer, unimaginable quantity of information that we process each day.  When this blog started in July 2009 we had a glimmer of this happening. The idea was to zero in on a social justice or law enforcement story at issue, and examine the reality of the events, causes, connections, and outcomes. The idea, in one way, now seems quaint as a social gathering in a Jane Austen novel. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed how every dance floor, every dancer and their cellphones were being processed into a vast, secret system.

How does a democracy deal with the capacity to collected unlimited information about everyone? Or do we have to accept that information of this quantity, with the capacity to exploit it, means another form of government will emerge?

I started International Crime Authors Reality Check with several goals in mind. Since the Enlightenment, rationalism and empiricism have been urged as reliable tools to discover reality through experience and evidence. Were the facts knowable, testable, and true? What were the limitations on what we know? What (and whose) interests were being served? Were outcomes consistent across class, ethnic, gender, age or sexual identity groups? I am beginning to think that I had it wrong—at least with so much information it is possible to say the information, and those who control it, is the force that drives and shapes our perception of reality.

Those perceptions are also a product of emotions and traditional morality. Neither logic, critical analysis, evidence nor experience have tamed or limited our capacity for rage, anger, or hatred. What is being called the Age of Endarkenment evidenced by the emergence of neo-reactionary forces who wish for a pre-enlightenment world and are active in engineering that return. David Hume in the 18th century identified the tension: that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”. It follows that people who are vested in the traditional rules of morality are mostly likely to co-operate in efforts to ‘kettle’ the assault forces of reason.

In a more information scarce world the events close to home were the ones we paid attention to—and I suspect the ones most of us still pay attention to. We have a horse in the local race. We can cheer or boo from afar at some foreign race being waged with attack helicopters, mines, drones, tanks and small arms, but we are wired to care (as a general rule) about how those races are played. Unless our government claims there is some immediate stake to protect, then we have a dog that enters the foreign race.

The government collects big data; corporations collect it has well. Most of this data we freely hand over each time we go online or make a phone call or walk down a street lined with CCTV cameras. We are watched, tagged; our preferences, biases, choice, medical and family histories recorded in words and images. We not only consume huge amounts of data; we leave a large data trail behind us every day.

We are, by nature, tribal. Whether the locus of the tribe is a football team or a research department of Google, we co-operate with other members of our tribe and that means we can compromise with them to keep the co-operation intact.

The world of big data has spawned thousands if not millions of new digital tribes. Whatever your belief system, hobby, obsession, fantasy, dream, or talent, you can join a tribe that thinks, believes, shares, and promotes your worldview. We take the ladder down the echo chamber that replays our thoughts in other voices. And suddenly our tribe culls through the large data and finds those parts that are supportive of tribal affiliation and loyalty.  Because there is so much data to mine, random chance alone guarantees a steady stream of self-serving data will enhance the core beliefs of the tribe.

That becomes a problem as tribes are manufactured with big money to colonize the political, economic and social spheres. The top 1% has the resources and technical knowhow to have ushered in a new era of colonialism where they are the colonial masters. The very rich stand to gain even more wealth as they occupy and exploit the thoughts of vast numbers of data consumers. In prior colonial times, the colonials felt the oppression. In the new colonies, political, entertain and consumer choices merge into the artificial reality that consumers are free to choose.

Big data, if it is one thing you can count on, is the pathway to loss of personal freedom. I suspect that freedom has always depended on limited information possessed by rulers. People could slip between the cracks. Now even people who supposedly live ‘off the grid’ are profiled on social media. And no one seems to notice the irony.

There is another important side to information overload. It has played hell with the censorship regimes that have kept elites as the only source of information. That enormously powerful ability to control communications from phones, radio, and TV is over. The Internet has shot it in both knees and it continues with a brave face to struggle ahead as if nothing has happened. Like the scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when the knight’s arms, one at a time, and then legs one at a time, are hacked off and still he continues the fight.

In Thailand, there are many reasons for the current political unrest. But among those reasons, one should include the social media, computers, and cellphones. Everyone is plugged in. On the BTS or MRT (the two public modern train systems in Bangkok), you find more than half of the passenger absorbed with their cellphones. Few of them are using them to make phone calls. They are playing games, checking Twitter, Facebook, or email. Keeping in contact with their tribe. What is remarkable is how the various sides of the political divide have herded their followers in cattle pens on Facebook or Twitter. They feed on the emotional hay thrown to them. Though it looks like information it is actually misinformation, disinformation, opinion, gossip, sprinkled here and there with source information that shares their bias.

Big information is making it very difficult to govern a large group of people. The use of myths to create a designer identity for the group worked when the government was the sole author of stories, the source of facts, the fountainhead of reality. When reality can be fact checked, the weaknesses, lies, deceit, and misinterpretation can be exposed. That causes conflict. Challenging an official version of a founding story has always been dangerous and dealt with swiftly. That approach worked when critics could be picked off one at a time. It works less well when the critics are clustered in small tribes, scattered around the world, interconnected in ways that picking off one person only incites more people to replace him or her. The old state monopoly over violence was always its Ace up its sleeve. Like the information monopoly, the violence monopoly is fractured. In Thailand, for example, it appears the police are unable to arrest demonstrators who have committed acts of violence, or otherwise broken the law. In fact, the demonstrators have even held the police inside police stations in what looks like custody for hours.

Big data is breaking down how we are governed, what the notion of government means, and how to factor in the consent of the governed. Once the veil of government-controlled messages was lifted, even slightly, the whole governing enterprise became unstable.  Appealing to tradition is one way of responding to the challenge. The tradition paradox becomes evident as the most conservative and traditional members of the society are also the ones that benefited the most from the explosion of wealth unleashed by a full-blown global consumer-based society.

Consumers, whether in the city or the provinces, want pretty much the same thing. They want something new.  They have grown accustomed to leaving messages, having a voice, being counted and participating in the way that their parents and grandparents never had.

To try and reset that consumer mind to value old traditions, beliefs and mindset is a large challenge.  Consumer culture fed by limitless digital information and shaped by tribe membership has been overtaking political culture.  In Thailand, that conflict of mindsets is scheduled into the New Year. The new identity is shaped by this new culture and way of thinking. That’s what makes the divide in Thailand so dangerous. Neither side will compromise—or perhaps the gap between them is too great for that to happen—as they want and value different identities and no longer respond to the threats, structures of authority, or nostalgia.

For the first time in my memory in Thailand the Thais are no longer avoiding confrontation and the possibility of conflict. They seem resigned to it happening. No one is fact-checking reality. When that capability is switched off, a cold darkness shoots through as you realize all of those Hollywood endings where everyone shook hands and kissed were a delusion. In 2014 the world will, now and again, check in on the Thailand story. People should pay attention and here’s the reason why—how things go down in Thailand will have implication elsewhere.

Thailand’s politics is like the ancient Greek Oracle—tell us the future of how a divide between the traditionalists and those seeking broader participation in the process of governance can be resolved peacefully or spin into civil war.

In 2014 remember that great noir philosopher The Joker, who had some advice for Batman:

“Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak–like me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other. Ya see I’m not a monster, I was just ahead of the curve.”

For a weekly update of what gets dropped, what is broken, what can be salvaged and the costs of the whole enterprise, we hope that you will drop in at International Crime Authors Reality check if for no other reason than to see if 2014 will be the year of the Joker.

Posted: 12/26/2013 7:52:14 PM 

 

Lost in a Cloud of Selfies

Selfie is an ugly word that conveys what we’ve let ourselves become. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the President of the United States is taking a selfie with the Prime Minister of Denmark. Smiling, self-absorbed faces removed from the place, time and mood of the funeral for a great man.

Remember that moment. A funeral. Technology seducing our sorrow. The seduction is just beginning. This is an essay on where it is leading us.


Global Post

In Thailand, the political turmoil, the time of great discontent and violent, hateful speech demonstrators in the street also took pictures of themselves. We are on display for ourselves, in love with these selves, and can’t wait to share ourselves through vast digital networks.

Selfies are our gateway out of paying attention to those around us. Once we no longer pay attention, finely tuned attention to the details of those around us, we retreat further into our own world. Technology has found our sweet spot of narcissism and imprisoned us with our own smiling faces.

We are in the midst of a grand succession. We are the first intelligent species to engineer our own replacement as the most intelligent life form. AI (Artificial Intelligence), stimulations, emulations, or machine intelligence—the name of our successor isn’t settled. But it will be. And it won’t be taking selfies of itself. We are close to inventing a technology that will ultimately render its own intelligence  an obsolete, low grade system constricted by inferior, slow, unpredictable and biased filters, and degraded search, storage, access and low level information capture and conversion. We won’t understand what means. But we’ll get the hint we’ve fallen behind. Once that succession takes place, we will find ourselves in a race we can’t and won’t win. We are harnessing the tools of evolution and building new technology at the same time. This evolution is accelerating at a rate that Darwin couldn’t have predicted.  It’s only a matter of time before this process blows past us like the Roadrunner.

We aren’t there. Yet.

We are in transition. That selfie by President Obama may be the defining moment years from now, as others look back and wonder what happened to us on the way to our second-class status. We were so worried about our status, our power, our wealth that we forgot that we were one species that had so much in common. That our differences, as great as we perceived them, were minor compared with our position in a world where a form of intelligence slipped out of our control.

The evidence for this transition is everywhere. But we are too blind to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The advances in robotics, the algorithms, advances in nanotech, and physics are reported as small, isolated steps within a particular domain. One day these domains will merge. At that point, whatever grievances we have with one another will pale in comparison with an intelligence that dwarfs our ability to understand and comprehend.

How will we know when that day comes? We will have advance warning: we will have long since stopped paying attention to each other in the analog world of the restaurant, living room, subway, or the street. Our attention will be focused on our place, our face, traveling inside the digital world, linking into that network on its way through an intelligent universe. We hitch a ride and find that journey is the only one that provides pleasure. Our endorphins rush through our bodies as we plug into the grid. Like a flea on a dog we will we will one day owe our very existence to another species. This is how it starts. The most powerful man in the world snapped a selfie at the funeral of a great man who endured years of imprisonment to achieve an ideal for his country. Think for an undistracted quality one minute what that means for you.

When Nelson Mandela died, an age, a feeling, an attitude and a way of living died with him. Had he lived in a world of selfies would he have had those admired human qualities that allowed him to rise above his sacrifice? Look around at our world with Mandela no longer amongst us, and ask yourself, and see the trend line. Selfies define the stage we occupy. We are cut off from our surroundings, from the past, from the greats who brought diagrams of our lives fit together as families, neighbors, friends, and strangers. And how we struggled to understand their body language, gestures, and words, and attribute meaning. Our lost art is paying attention to people in our presence. We filter them out. We erase them from our days and nights as we go for our digital fix.

We are addicts of the worst kind. Machine intelligence will know best how to feed that addiction. Look around you. How hard would be? Not very. And like all junkies we will do whatever it takes to hear that magically ‘bing’ noise as someone, somewhere, ‘likes’ our selfie.

And what does that mean for you and for me, or our children and grandchildren?

After the great succession takes place, it means their future will no longer be in your hands. They will likely have enhanced intelligence and have infinitely greater resources at their disposal. We will be small part of their overall digital relationships, and like an icon they would send a message as and when needed. But we will no longer control the encryption keys. It is open to question whether our signal will be lost in the noise of the system. That will also be a transition period of short duration. The future won’t be in our hands or our children’s.

Look at the way we have treated each other. Look at the way we’ve treated other species. How can we expect a super-intelligent entity to treat us any differently than the top 1% treated the bottom 99%. The elites will have the toughest time adjusting to joining the species and in a place as they never assumed was possible—a world without them at the top of the food chain. We will spend more and more time in the cloud chasing after selfies, those butterfly like moments, forgetting the fields of flowers have changed hands.

The selfie is our new expression of ‘self’ and in our mirror we find ourselves bewitched by this most seductive of all illusions—the reality of self, its unity, coherence, and permanence.

Others have written similar pieces. You will find them nailed them on digital lampposts . In fifty years, what appears here, and lodged in a few other places, will be evidence that we had an inkling of what was coming. But we largely ignored the warning signal framed in the famous presidential selfie. That image will be defining moment when we celebrated rather than questioned our central vulnerability. Once we no longer define our identity through our relationship with others but through our own mirror, we will hardly notice AI will upgrade that mirror until we disappear inside it. By then we will have forgotten how empathy was at the heart of what we once were, and what was required to claw back this principle that defined our humanity. Not that long ago, it was normal to pay attention to those around us.  Empathy worked best face-to-face and once it is gone, no intervention of a technological will bring it back. In the end we will have surrendered our humanity as the last selfie is posted in the cloud.

Posted: 12/19/2013 7:51:51 PM 

 

Ordinary Shareholders and Thailand’s Political Buffet

I like this quote:

“The poor have objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”–G.K. Chesterton

When I posted it on Twitter this week a lot of other people liked and retweeted it. The reason G.K. Chesterton’s quote resonances today in Thailand and many other countries is it sums up the class dissatisfaction that both the rich and the poor feel about being governed.

Let’s face it. Government is a necessary evil we need in order to find a way to live with each other. Anarchy as an alternative creates a dystopia more bleak, dark and dangerous than just about any political system (unless you have the misfortune to live in North Korea or Somalia). Most other systems are in various degrees of crises, revolution, or civil war. Government is a tough racket to keep from running into the ditch.

In Thailand, on the political front, no one is happy with the current impasse. Two polarized sides blame each other for every failure, problem, or mistake over the last dozen years. Now it has all come to a head. The last couple of weeks saw an increase in strong emotions on both sides and once that happened, finding a way to lower the temperature inside the political cauldron has proved elusive.

Over the last few weeks, the traditional elites and their middle-class allies in Bangkok have taken to the streets. Their initial action was in the best traditions of a democracy where people march and give voice their objections to Government policy and decisions. The right to demonstrate is healthy for a democracy. Like freedom of expression, protest demonstrations are an essential part of the democratic process.

The initial goal of the most recent round of demonstrations was to pressure the government to drop an amnesty bill that would have cleared criminal and civil actions against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that goal was achieved. Success didn’t stop the protest but embodied it to moved on to pressuring the government to accept the validity of a questionable decision by the Constitutional Court that effectively bars the government from amending the Constitution.

The controversial constitutional amendment passed by the Government would have returned the partially elected Senate into a wholly elected body it was before the 2006 coup. And finally the protest demanded that the prime minister and cabinet resign and a caretaker government be appointed. A house dissolution and election were insufficient. The protesters demanded a “People’s Council” to take over governing. But who elects the People’s Council?

There lies the rub. Elections. Thailand’s urban Bangkok elites, who mainly support the Democrat Party, have failed to out vote their upcountry cousins in the North and Northeast who consistently walk away with an electoral majority for the Pheu Thai Party headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted Thaksin’s sister. The last time the Democrat party formed a government they had the assistance of the military to lever them into the driver’s seat. Following the 2006 coup that tore up the 1997 constitution and removed the government, the Democrats replaced the government, which had won an election mandate to govern.

The demonstration leadership under ex-Democrat MP and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, having tasted success and had the Government on the run, saw an opening to implement his plans to radically alter the existing constitutional and political system and install a wholly new system. It is no longer an anti-government demonstration; it was a strange bird, part-coup, part-revolution, part-rock concert with portable toilets, tents and bamboo matt and a well-stocked mobile kitchen. It turns out the real complaint is not just the Government but the political system enshrined (irony alert) in the 2007 Constitution written under the careful eye of the military. How can we put it—the military inspired constitution proved too much on the side of a liberal democracy for the Bangkok elites.

A couple of metaphors might be helpful to understand evolving political handbook the opposition wishes to replace the one in the Constitution. Although I am aware that arguing by metaphor presents dangers and distortions and this attempt will be no exception—especially when the metaphors are “corporations” and “food”.

Despite the polarized political divide in Thailand, both sides are pro-business, pro-capitalists. No one is arguing the free-market economic system in Thailand (where there is full-employment) needs to be destroyed and replaced with a different economic model. It’s not that kind of revolution.

The political issue arises because of a fundamental disagreement of who should be in charge of economic and political systems. Like a large company, Thailand’s resources are spread over a large number of people. Call them voters, or stakeholders, or call them shareholders. In a company, the dividend paid out depends on the earnings and the Board of Directors determine the amount of the distribution to the shareholders. Also the members of a company board of directors stand for election and the shareholders vote. In a parliamentary system, the government acts as the board of directors. Citizens, like shareholders, they choose with their votes among those competing for positions of authority and power.

Political systems also distribute dividends and that is why the stakes are so high and elections are so important. This is where the food metaphor kicks in. To add another layer to the metaphorical cake, think of a buffet. Everyone demands a big share of the buffet and for someone else to pick up the check at the end of the meal. The buffet isn’t unlimited. As the number of chairs around the table expands, it is viewed by the original diners, that these new people are threatening to eat them out of Bangkok condo and holiday house.

The problem for the opposition in Thailand is the new diners feel they’ve had enough of the traditional Bangkok elites who offered them crumbs and leftovers. They had started demanding their fair share of the main course and the pie, cigars, and brandy. Competition comes into play. Like in the corporate world, in the political world those who have a monopoly see no reason to give it up. What we witness in this drama is a page out of the human nature newsreel as people fight over a place at the table, one of the chairs, the food, and the bill. Greed rears its head, talons and fangs appear, and fat cats and skinny cats circle each other around the table. Voters choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, but an important one is they will fairly distribute that buffet to them. Another way of looking at populism is the buffet line becomes much longer.

To return to the idea of political system having similarly with a corporate governance system, it is important to understand the purpose of a stock market, which  is to raise capital. Capital formation depends on convincing shareholders to invest in shares. The democratic political process operates on a similar idea. Politicians need to raise political capital and are willing to pay hard cash to do so meaning that political capital is more than an ego trip. A company raises capital on the financial markets by persuading investors to part with their money. Politicians raise political capital by promising voters benefits so they will vote for them. And in Thailand that can often involve a cash transaction (and no side has clean hands in vote buying). A political system also needs to raise political capital. We judge the legitimacy of a political system by the ways it sets the rules as to how politicians are required to raise political capital sufficient to send them to parliament. Once elected many of those promises may be compromised or forgotten but sooner or later a politician knows that he/she is answerable for an accounting at the next election.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, has a plan to restructure the political process, which would result in eliminating a citizen’s right to vote. Viewed from a company standpoint, the effect is to replace the ordinary shareholder with the preferred shareholders. Other than calling them the ‘good people’ these preferred shareholders are entrusted with the right to vote, and they will vote for the board of directors of ‘good people’. In other words, the minority calls the shots and there is no mechanism for voting the minority out of office. Back to food: The buffet line is closed. No more chairs at the table. The newcomers are shown the door.

This suspicious looks like a backdoor, hostile privatization of a public company. It is more like an old-fashioned nationalization of shares without compensation for the loss to the ordinary shareholder. In the capitalist world, throwing shareholders out of the buffet room is viewed with suspicion. Drones were built for that eventuality. No ordinary shareholder is going to except the excuse that their interests are better served by the preferred shareholders.

In the case of Thailand, should a trial balloon to suspend election become a reality and should the appointment of a self-governing People’s Council come about, the effect would be to annul general elections. And perhaps be the spark for considerable violence. Inside this, the newly privatized political process, the preferred shareholders, call all of the shots, including the suspension of ‘populist’ policies tricks that anti-democracy proponents believe are the heart of the problem.

As the weekend approaches in Bangkok, there are many unanswered political questions being raised in Thailand. Voters, like ordinary shareholders, like the buffet spread that Thaksin Shinawatra’s political parties have delivered to them. Taking away their plates, spoons and forks and chase them from the table won’t be an easy task. What price will the preferred shareholders, the Bangkok urban elite, pure capitalists in their hearts, be prepared to pay to take back the buffet room for themselves? The answer is unclear.

What is more clear is that many anti-democratic protestors unite around the idea that political capital is only raised from the ‘good people’ and ordinary shareholders aren’t clever or educated enough to be considered ‘good’ and are excluded from direct involvement in the political process. That idea underestimates them. Once you’ve been to a good buffet no one can take away that memory. To be tossed out the door not because you’ve lost an election but because an elite thinks you’re stupid is the kind of argument that won’t win a lot of friends.

The opposition argument isn’t about winning friends; it’s about defeating an enemy. And at the end of the day, a basic complaint by conservative forces is that liberal democracy helps ‘bad’ people obtain political power over the ‘good’ ones. The assumption is that ordinary people should be happy that the good people, the preferred people, are committed to running the system according to old values, traditions, and customs as to running the ‘company’ and the ‘buffet’.

But you other lot—you go back to your bowl of sticky rice, fish sauce and som tum. And this is your karma, actually it is your own fault we are protesting. You, the ordinary shareholders, with your upcountry snout in our Bangkok buffet are enablers of an evil, corrupt family that abuses political power. Besides you are trying to sit in my chair and eat off my plate!

It is doubtful that members of this group of anti-democratic elites would ever go to the capital market to raise funds for one of their companies with such a policy statement set out in their prospectus. But when it comes to the political buffet, in Thailand people are debating the idea in the streets as to when the good people will once again have the authority to decide menu and decide who gets to stay at the head table and second helpings.

Posted: 12/12/2013 7:54:32 PM 

 

 

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