Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Deconstructing Nidhi Eoseewong: Is Thai Nationalism Antithetical to Democracy?

Why Thai nationalism is antithetical to democracy


Sanitsuda Ekachai, in her column in the Bangkok Post, asked what flaw it is in Thailand's culture that makes us always wind up, if not with crooked politicians, then with military dictators?

I am trying to cure a case of the hiccups by pondering an answer. The first ones that flooded into my head were the ones that we hear so often:

Thais lack patience and endurance.

I don't necessarily think that this is true. Actually, I think Thais have a lot of patience and tolerance when it comes to politics. Tolerating 17 coups in 75 years? Thais, I think for the most part, are a passive aggressive people more than an impatient people, and think that is one reason for the cyclical nature of Thai politics.

Thais prefer to look for quick, superficial solutions rather than principles that offer long-term benefits.

I think that answer to this is yes and no. The vision for long-term solutions is there, but the commitment to keeping the vision is lacking. In other words, many Thais talk a good game, but the actions that follow the talking are weak. For example, there was nothing wrong with the 1997 Constitution, but the people who were supposed to be responsible for protecting it were weak and/or corruptible. Why was all the focus on Thaksin and the executive? How come the media and academics never focused its spotlight on the Senate, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the constitutional and administrative courts, the referendum and recall processes, civil rights that supposedly supported political freedom, the auditor-general, and the host of other institutions that were responsible for checking the power of the executive?

Thai society is too weak to find political solutions to big problems on its own, so we elect leaders to act as bosses rather than servants.

There is a difference between civil society and the government. In fact, Thai society is much more resilient and self-sustaining than the government. Most of Thai society is handling its own problems without the government already. And I think one could make the argument that the government and the politicians are the parasites of Thai society. What do Thai politicians and bureaucrats exist for except to look like big shots, use their positions to attain private wealth, and once in high position to use the legal system to write and enforce laws that protect their financial and social interests and those of their clients that support them?

Then, when the boss misbehaves we have to find a new boss by way of the ballot box.

Huh? No, when the boss misbehaves, he keeps misbehaving as long as he wants until somebody with more power than the boss in cahoots with others kicks him out--and it is not by way of the ballot box.

Democracy is a culture of which Thais are not a part. And so on.

I agree with this.

This seems to be working. My hiccups are going away, so I've been able to focus my mind enough to formulate some questions and answers of my own.

The answers are all true, but at the same time each one invites a lot of new questions.

I'll start with a simple one: Are the traits mentioned above part of a permanent, unvarying Thai culture, or of one that changes in response to the prevailing situation?

Which Thai culture? The Thai culture that has developed gradually for hundreds of years or the Thai culture that has been recently manufactured by the elite to keep the people disempowered, ignorant and impoverished. If one looks closely, there really is no difference. Both Thai cultures reinforce social structures that sustain hierarchical relationships and social stratification.

I think that some Thais would answer one way and some the other. I myself would say that there is change because I believe that culture is the product of relationships that are always changing according to what is taking place around it. But believing that, I then have to ask: when these traits appeared and under the influence of what situation? I will try to answer just this question, without mentioning the many others that it invites.

The writing is just bad. Again, the question should be: Is Thai culture a product of power politics or is power politics a product of Thai culture?

But before answering I'd like to point out that the cultural traits cited above cannot be explained in terms of Thai history once you go back a certain distance into the past.

How can he explain these traits before the modern period, especially when he is referring to electoral politics that didn't exist before 1932?

In fact, sometimes we encounter their opposite. For example, it is said that Thais lack endurance, but we did put up with many ineffectual or oppressive monarchs. King Prasatthong, for example, is said to have been extremely cruel, but he died naturally on his sickbed.

King Prasotthong was a compulsive liar and a mass murderer, but he was also a clever politician.

The question should be is how come the masses never unified to overthrow a despotic system of government. Weren't the Thai masses just ignored for the most part except in time of war and corvee labor, and didn't politics center around the capital and population centers?

And what makes King Prasotthong any different than those in power now?

And what about all the God/King propaganda?

What about all the Buddhist propaganda that spouted that everybody's fate is determined by karma?

In ancient times, God/King propaganda, the notion of karmic fate, enforced social stratification and violence were the things that held the Thai state together.

What else has changed in 800 years?

At the same time it can be said that patience and endurance haven't been pushed to excessive levels by the Thais of the past. Thai history provides more than a few examples of public uprisings against resented rulers, especially in the North and in Isan. And cases of citizens simply walking away from public registry districts without notification to the authorities were common throughout Thailand.

This is true. I love how Nidhi conveniently forgets to mention how that during the early Rattanakosin (Bangkok period) Thais were branded with tattoos like cattle. But the Thais who resisted this either fled into the jungles or became monks. They didn't organize to overthrow the state. They didn't demand political representation.

Before saying that Thais prefer the quick and superficial, it is important to specify the situation. There are people who use a large part of their income to make merit and offer charity in the hope of rewards in their next life, or of attaining Nirvana. How can they be called impatient or interested only in quick fixes and superficial measures?

What does making merit have to do with politics? One could ponder why so many Thais dedicate so many resources to the supernatural but could care less about the here and now, especially concerning politics. Does "Thai Buddhism" promotes individualism over social responsibility? The paradox of Thai Buddhism is that it promotes that idea that one should do good in this life to have good results in the next life, yet also promotes the idea that we are all victims of fate because of past karma. One should ask why the elite propagates the idea that we are all in our social stations because of karmic justice. Shouldn't we be concerned with real justice that is happening in the present? Isn't that the real fruit of knowing dhamma?

Nor can it be said that democratic principles are absent from Thai culture. Thai tradition has great respect for the minority voice, especially in the countryside. Even when the wishes of the majority are being followed, care is taken to ensure that the minority do not lose face. This respect for the minority opinion can be called the soul of Thai-style democracy. Otherwise we would have a tyrannical system where 19 million or 16 million voices always decided everything.

Great respect for the minority voice? He has got to be kidding. This paragraph is just incredibly stupid. The soul of Thai democracy is making sure the minority doesn't lose face? To me, this paragraph demonstrates to me, once again, how Thai academics know nothing about democracy and political theory. Making sure the minority saves face has nothing to with democracy. A system in Thailand where the majority tyrannizes the minority? Who is he kidding? That possibility has never existed in Thailand.

Thailand has always been ruled by a monarch, in cahoots with a handful of families and cliques, and together they have always exploited the masses. Nidhi talks about respecting the minority. Yeah, the minority of one or a few has always ruled.

On the other hand, it is also true that so much consideration is given to the minority opinion because the channels that Thai culture offers for dissent are traditionally very narrow, so it is necessary to try to "swallow" the minority view and counter it gently.

What the hell does this mean? What is the evidence in the media, the academia, and the intelligentsia of dissent? 1. Mediocrity 2. Conformity 3. Cowardice. Regardless, what dissent exists in Thai society is strictly controlled by whatever the parameters that the powers at be set for it.

And where is the evidence that the majority co-opts and integrates the opinions of the minority?

Did the political systems of the absolute monarchy, the military dictatorship, and the recent quasi-democratic regimes allow for dissent, minority opposition, and compromise?

This is why it is difficult to talk in absolute terms about a democratic culture. I doubt that a culture that is purely democratic exists in any society. We admire the idea of a culture founded on democratic principles, but in trying to create it we only choose those features of Western-style democracy that we want and casually discard those that don't fit our specific case.

Again, Ajarn Nidhi has no idea what he is talking about. Who in Thailand admires democracy and democratic principles? Who even understands these principles? Are they in the majority? If the majority cares nothing about democracy, then why have it as a system of government? Or would you rather have phony democracy so Thailand doesn't look like a backwards uncivilized country to the West?

Why should Thailand adopt a democratic system when it never lives by any of the principles of democracy in both the private and public spheres of society, and never did so in the past?

Therefore, I think it is necessary to understand the conditions facing Thai culture as it is now, and what it is that makes us fall victim to the destiny that Ms Sanitsuda speaks of.

Fall victim? Destiny? Again, no wonder Thailand is such a failure at this system of governance.

Even if some aspects of it are the same as they were in the ancient past, the conditions in which it exists now are different. The force that sustains the culture consists exclusively of the conditions that we happen to encounter now, and is not a heritage that we have been handed down from the past.

Huh? Who edited this?

I believe that the culture which does not allow us to govern ourselves as a democracy is entirely one that came into being together with the formation of our nation state in the recent past.

And this guy calls him an academic? Is he serious? Siam/Thailand never had a democratic political system before 1932. The country was ruled by an absolute monarchy and the factions that supported it. Hierarchical relationships, social stratification, tyranny, oppression of the majority, slavery and lack of respect for the rule of law existed in Siam for hundreds of years, but Ajarn Nidhi lays the problem of not having democracy at the feet of the formation of the modern state in the last hundred years.

There would have never been a democratic consciousness without the modernization of the Thai state. And the modernization of the Thai state came about because of the influence of the farang. Ironically, it was the monarchy that was the driving force behind Thailand's economic and political modernization. It was the monarchy that dragged the rest of the country into the modern age. Yet now what is interesting today is the propagation of a political and economic Thai feudal ideology sponsored by the crown and the military as the answer to the problems of modernization. Is a 16th century economy and political system(sakdina sufficiency theory) the answer to globalization and the failures of Thai democracy?

Consequently, it can be called a "national culture", and this Thai "national culture" does not run well on the tracks of the democratic system. This is the reason why Thailand's progress on the road of democracy has always been one of fits, starts and jolts.

What the hell is this nonsense? What exactly is "national culture?"

Thailand's attainment of nationhood occurred gradually under a system of absolute monarchy, beginning during the reign of King Rama V, and it did not come into being independent of the absolute monarchical system. On the contrary, it was constantly directed, guided and managed by that system.

Huh? This writing is horrible, as usual. What does nationhood mean in this context? What is a national consciousness? Did it exist before the advent of European influence in Siam/Thailand? Also, if I understand his English correctly, he is saying that the monarchy is responsible for fomenting Thai nationalism.

But the institutions that guided the creation of Thai national identity weren't created until after Plaek Pibulsongkran came to power. In other words, as the monarchy was sidelined between 1932-1959, the military and the bureaucracy were shaping Thai identity and Thai nationalism that was independent of the monarchy. Actually, Thai popular nationalism sponsored by the military was a reaction to the overwhelming shadow of the monarchy on all aspects of Thai political and cultural life.

Thai nationalism is of a kind that has spread down from above. The upper strata of the social structure were the first to be assigned importance in the nation, and the phenomenon gradually spread downward to the lower strata of the social structure, the common people.

One could argue there were two early phases of Thai nationalism: Late Rattanakosin Period and the early period of the modern era 1932-1959. One nationalism was driven by the monarchy and the aristocracy and the other driven by educated commoners who were educated by schools of propaganda that had roots in fascist Germany, Italy and Japan. I can make the argument that Thai military nationalism came from the commoner classes. There were days when Thailand flirted with fascism with a military general as the ultimate leader instead of the king. Plus, "volk nationalism" was also propagated to the masses during this time. What exactly do you call the Thai national anthem? That type of racist nationalism is meant to appeal to the hoi polloi. What about Nawaphon, the Red Guar, and the village scout movements?

And what about the nationalist movements during the 50's, 60's and 70's that were hostile to military and the monarchy? Couldn't the Thaksin phenomenon (Thai Rak Thai?) be considered a non-military, non-monarchy based national movement with democratic legitimacy? You could argue that is why it was crushed by the military and the monarchy.

After the monarchy's rehabilitation by General Sarit and the military, a monarchy centered nationalism emerged again.

This process was the direct opposite of the pattern which nationalism has followed in many other societies, where the lower levels of the structure were the first to acquire importance

Huh? What does "lower levels of the structure were the first to acquire importance" thing?

As a result, when the Thai people began to realise that there was a new entity _ the Thai Nation _ that they were a part of, and that it was an important aspect of their identity, the nation already had an anti-democratic nature. Since then the ideals of nationalism in Thailand have been used to obstruct or oppose the attainment of democratic ideals right up until the present.

What the hell does this mean? Again, more crappy English and no copy editing. What exactly is his argument? That the those who propagated the concept of Thai nationhood were anti-democratic and that the Thai people instilled those anti-democratic notions through osmosis and that is the reason why Thailand is a democratic failure?

A country like the US has a strong anti-democratic religious and corporate culture, but has a very democratic civil society and political system.

I just don't totally buy into Nidhi's notion that elite controlled propaganda concerning the primacy of the monarchy and its anti-democratic, militaristic message is the source of Thailand's weak democracy.

I think the problem is that the monarchy's relationship to the country is the same at the microcosmic level. It isn't just about the monarchy and the military. All social relations are stratified in Thailand.

The Thai revolution of 1932 changed the system of government from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, but it wasn't a genuine populist revolution. It opened the way for politicians, and especially military leaders, to use the nation as a tool to destroy the democratic rights and freedoms of the people, and with their assent or at least an unwillingness to resist on their part, too.

How can the military destroy rights and freedoms that never existed for Thai people in Thai history? Why would the Thai people resist oppression and tyranny when a democratic consciousness and notions of social equality never existed in the Thai people? Democracy is a foreign product, an import, and it has never been part of Thai political culture, which is why the Thai people, except those influenced by foreign political theory, could care less about it. In other words, without the farang, this debate about Thai democracy would not exist.

I think that this cultural weakness in Thai society under the democratic system that we hear about so often is partially the result of the newness of the nation that has shaped itself in Thailand only recently, and not a national trait that has been passed down through the ages.

Democracy's failure in Thailand has nothing to do with the nation, per se, but because there really has never been a democratic consciousness disseminated among the Thai people. The military and the monarchy built the concept of the nation on the notions of absolutism, hierarchy, social stratification, exploitation, and Thai exceptionalism which were notions already integral to Thai culture.

At the same time, there are many more aspects of this weakness whose causes I suspect can be found in Thai nationalism. For example, our impatience in the arena of politics _ our unwillingness to allow democracy the time it needs to correct and stabilise itself. This tendency is connected with the national "spirit" that we have conceived.

Again, more meaningless bullshit. What does this mean? Unwillingness to allow democracy to correct itself? 75 years is not patience? Not enough time to stabilize itself?

What do we mean when we talk about a national spirit? I think it is primarily a memory connected with the country's past or, to put it another way, the nation's history. And as we well know, memories of a nation's history, any nation's history, are entirely constructed. I think that the Thai history that we remember teaches us that Thais are incapable of waiting.

Thai history teaches us that Thais are incapable of waiting? Where is the evidence for this? It took Siam a long time to recover from the Burmese invasions. In terms of modernization, Thailand is behind many parts of the world. After 75 years after the end of the absolute monarchy, Thailand is still politically backwards. In everyday life, Thais are not exactly the most eager, go getters who are impatient and on the move. I'd argue that Thais are too complacent and care free instead of impatient.

This is because Thai history is a record of leaders and great men, not of the nation as a whole. So people infected with this kind of national spirit always look to leaders to solve problems. They don't think that they themselves have the potential to solve national problems.

Why is this? People infected with a national spirit created by the monarchy and the military is the reason why Thailand is not a democracy? Is he serious with this bullshit analysis?

I've already said a lot about this issue, and don't want to say any more.

You haven't said anything original or important. And I am sure you will go see King Naresuan and support all the right-wing nationalist bullshit in it that you say is a root cause for Thailand's political problems.

There is one more area of Thai history that I would like to discuss, and I wonder if there are others who will agree with me: When we read Thai history, I get the sensation that it always moves directly ahead in a straight line, with no meandering or a zigzagging off to the sides. No matter what part of history is taken as a starting point, development is seen to take place in stages.

Who is to blame for this? Thai historians who don't do the research that they should do--either because they are lazy and incompetent or they write the story that their peers and superiors force them to write in order to keep their ajarn social privileges at the universities. And where are the mavericks now? Do they even exist? Why aren't the alternative histories being told? And whose fault is it that they aren't being told? Perhaps the political problem in Thailand is that the Thai academy is failing in its duties to educate the public about the benefits of democratic governance. Maybe the Thai academy has failed in the sense that it is too cowardly to attack the two big sacred cows: the monarchy and the military.

Beginning with the unification of the country, there is incessant advancement: the consolidation of power at a central point, contact and trade with foreign countries. If an enemy sacks the capital, after a short time sovereignty is restored and the country is back on its way ahead. Make some adjustments to bring things up to date and you have the modern and progressive country that we see today.

Incessant advancement? Modern and progressive? Is he kidding? Thailand is economically and politically backwards more than it is modern and progressive. And whatever modernity and progress Thailand has made, it owes mostly to the farang. Nidhi reports that he is uneasy with the linear meta-narrative of Thai history, but even that narrative is chock full of lies and bullshit.

Whatever wanderings that do occur in the line of history are very short-term and are caused by the harmful actions of outsiders. Those who embrace the Thai national spirit, therefore, have no awareness of long periods of suffering. They count on a process of change in which they move ahead into the future together with a population strong in body and mind. I think that anyone possessed by a spirit of this kind will not have the patience to deal with problems, because he will feel that any problem that persists over time is unnatural.

Who is his audience? He sounds like a babbling old fool. I get what he is saying, but how does he expect 99% of the Bangkok Post readership to get it. Regardless, I don't agree with his assessment. Why would anybody in any country who reads history or sees it presented on TV or movies really get what actually happened when it happened? This analysis is just plain stupid. There are plenty of countries in the world whose people don't reflect on their country's "long duree" yet are highly successful and democratic. I think part of the problem that Nidhi is hinting out, but not articulating well is that Thai history is poorly told and documented, at least that is what I think, which is why many of the common folk really don't get the big picture. Most Thai history is written by poorly trained proffesors for the attention span of a people who enjoy bad dramas on TV and comic book literature.

(Compare this view with the history of China, especially that of the Warring States Period, before there was a single Chinese emperor, which went on for centuries. The annals of China record much more misery than happiness among the Chinese people. Problems were more natural than the lack of them.)

Where are the annals of Thai history? How can you reflect on something that doesn't exist?

Again, I think the Thai academy is the problem.

Unnatural events are portents of bad things to come, and must quickly be set right. Any method can be used to put them straight, just as long as they are corrected. Other matters can be dealt with later.

Unnatural events? What is an unnatural event? What does this paragraph mean? He is babbling incoherently again or the copy writer is an idiot.

In conclusion, it may make some people uncomfortable, but it has to be said that if democracy is to be securely established in Thai society, we will have to revise our concepts of nationhood and of nationalism, because our nation, as we have been taught to embrace it, is an enemy of democracy, and has always subverted it.

This is an idiotic analysis. He is basically saying that the "concepts" (concepts he doesn't mention) that back Thai nationhood are antithetical to democracy. Let me try to get this: He is arguing that Thai national propaganda that spouts the primacy of the monarchy and militarism in politics has a bigger impact on Thai democracy than the actual social relations that exist between real people in Thai society at the present moment.

In other words, blame the nationalist propaganda and let the people off the hook, which is an attitude that does nothing to support Thailand's democratic development. Also, he lets the historians and the political scientists off the hook when they are obviously whoring themselves to the powers at be. Otherwise, where are the mavericks? Where are the rebels? Where is the alternative history? Why isn't the Thai academy up in arms about the lese majestie laws that have killed any real chance of understanding the monarchy's impact on political and social development on Thailand in the modern and post-modern era?

If the nationalist "spirit" and nationalist propaganda that promotes the primacy of the monarchy and militarism disappeared tomorrow, would Thailand become a Jeffersonian democracy overnight?

If Thai historians focused more on writing about real people instead of monarchy, would Thailand become a democracy overnight?

If the military and monarchy literally disappeared tomorrow, would Thailand become a democracy over night?

If Thailand didn't have nationalist propaganda, no military and no monarchy, plus more patience to work out all the kinks in the system, would that solve all of Thailand's political problems?

I think the answer is no to all these questions.

Again, I have to say that Professor Nidhi and his colleagues in the Thai academy better start doing some soul searching, because this column reflects a huge problem in Thai society: the weakness, the cowardliness and the incompetence of the Thai academy.

If the monarchy and the military are dominating the discussion as well as the parameters of discussion concerning what Thai nationalism is and its impact on democratic development, then the academy has failed to do its job in terms of its role of critic and theorist.

Prof Nidhi Eoseewong is a noted historian and social activist based in Chiang Mai, who initiated the "MidNight University". This translated article will appear in a publication associated with the Documenta 12 art event in Germany.


anon said...

Nitpicking here, but did King Prasatthong really die "naturally" on his bed? I thought he was poisoned? Succession in those days was a difficult issue (as it is today).

Fonzi said...

King Prasotthong had a long reign.

I have two sources that say he died from natural causes.

The two kings that followed him were "eliminated" quickly before King Narai took power.