Friday, February 23, 2007

The Thai Academy: Is It At The Heart of Thailand's Illiberal Political System?


The silence of the intellectual lambs

The Sept 19 military overthrow of an elected government has placed Thailand's academics in a difficult position


The political earthquake that has rocked Thailand over the last year damaged more than just the country's political institutions; it has also shaken the academic establishment.

Since Sept 19, 2006, university presidents, deans and professors have accepted positions in legislative assemblies appointed by the military junta; "public intellectuals" write columns legitimising the regime, and political scientists have written revised accounts of some of the most sensitive incidents in Thailand's political history.

In a country where academics can exert great influence over public opinion, the political stance of many of Thailand's best-known intellectuals, both before and after the coup, has been called into question as never before.

Criticism has been especially strong on the webboards and blogs, which, because of the censorship of the mainstream media, have become one of the freest forums for academic debate in Thailand.

The role of intellectuals in the political crisis raises the uncomfortable question: Did their failure to support strongly enough the principle of respecting the result of democratic elections help legitimise the coup and the royalist regime it has put in power?

Did academics, who for so long have portrayed themselves as supporters of the "people's movement", betray the very people they professed to represent, who had voted overwhelmingly for Thai Rak Thai on three occasions?

Last month's publication by the academic journal Fa Diew Kan of a compilation entitled, "The Sept 19 Coup: The Coup for the Democratic System with the King as Head of State", may provide an answer to these questions.

This is a compilation of interviews, articles, statements, letters and even web postings by some of the most prominent Thai intellectuals, including Nidhi Eoseewong, Sulak Sivaraksa, Chaiwat Satha-Anand, Kasian Tejapira, Thongchai Winichakul, Somsak Jiamthirasakul, and many others.

The positions of intellectuals during the crisis can be broadly divided into three groups.

The first group gave their full support to the anti-Thaksin movement, and particularly to the People's Alliance for Democracy.

They also backed the call for royal intervention to resolve the crisis, through the use of Article 7 of the (now abrogated) 1997 Constitution.

A number of them have continued to publicly support the royalist regime that was installed after the coup.

The second group enthusiastically joined the movement to oust Thaksin Shinawatra, but rejected the call for royal intervention.

This is the group that was subject to withering criticism by Thammasat political historian Somsak in a series of widely circulated webboard postings, which are included in Fa Diew Kan's "The Sept 19 Coup".

Mr Somsak accuses the academics who took this position of "opportunism", since knowingly or not, their support for the anti-Thaksin movement helped pave the way for the overthrow of the Thaksin government.

The third, much smaller group, whose voices were mostly confined to webboard postings, took the position that no matter what one thought of Mr Thaksin, one had to respect his legitimacy based on the fact that he had been elected on three successive occasions by an overwhelming majority of the people.

Sept 19 placed Thailand's intellectuals in a difficult position.

Many of them had a pedigree deriving from the student democracy movements of the 1970s, and played leading roles in the "people's movements" of the 1990s.

Yet in the crisis of the last year they were unwilling to support the democratically-elected prime minister in the face of a movement that had declared its intention to do everything possible, including using extra-constitutional means, to depose him.

How can one explain their lack of support for the democratically-elected government?

Some believed that Mr Thaksin had abused the political system to the point that its check-and-balance mechanisms could not function.

Others were outraged at alleged human rights abuses, particularly over the government's handling of the war on drugs and the violence in the South.

But there is perhaps another explanation.

Money Quote:

Underlying these criticisms one can also detect among many academics a deep-seated distrust of liberalism, which explains their discomfort with the principle of elections, politicians, and their obvious distaste for capitalism and globalisation.

Most of these academics had their overseas academic training in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when social-science departments in the Anglo-American academic world were heavily influenced by a variety of anti-liberal theories: classic Marxism, post-colonialism and Third World nationalism (with a good dose of anti-Americanism) and, more recently, post-modernism.

This was the intellectual culture that many Thai graduate students at that time imbibed while completing their PhDs.

Money quote:

On their return to Thailand, where liberal principles have never been able to firmly establish themselves since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932, the Marxist, post-colonial/nationalist or post-modern critiques of Thai society engaged in by these academics were strangely in line with the conservative political culture that has taken hold since the 1970s, which historian Thongchai refers to as "royalist nationalism".

The similarities are striking, and were on display in the academic debate of 2006: a willingness to discount the importance of democratic elections; a loathing for capitalism; an elitist distaste both for elected politicians (especially from the provinces) and businessmen; and perhaps most importantly, a belief in the intellectual's right to "speak for the people".

The mantra recited by many of Thailand's intellectuals during the standoff between Mr Thaksin and the forces aligned against him was that "elections are only one part of democracy", "Thaksin had already destroyed democracy", "Thaksin lacked morality", "the villagers sold their votes", or "the villagers are not educated enough".

What is most surprising is that the intellectuals who demonised the elected prime minister week after week throughout the 2006 crisis, have been generally silent on the royalist-military coup of Sept 19.

Some have even accepted positions in the appointed National Legislative Assembly and the Constitution Drafting Committee.

The essays and comments contained in Fa Diew Kan's compilation, "The Sept 19 Coup", may thus read as an attempt by academics to justify the positions they took before Sept 19.

It will therefore make essential reading for those wanting to understand why a majority of academics and intellectuals in 2006 refused to support a government elected by the majority of the people of Thailand.

The writer is with the Regional Studies Programme, Walailak University, southern Thailand.

First, I want to thank Bangkok Pundit for pointing this out for me. If anybody has been following my blog, I absolutely agree with this analysis.

There are many problems with the Thai academy, some of which that have been suggested here.

Again, like I have written before, it is not only the monarchy and military that are at fault for Thailand's illiberal political system. The Thai academy, the Thai media and free-lance intellectuals are also at fault because they let the powers at be off the hook at the top of society and they don't nurture Thai democracy with education at the bottom of it.

The Ajarns win both ways, of course. They are called upon the elite to justify their rule, and because of the hierarchical nature of Thai society, the masses are expected to to kow tow at the feet of the Ajarns without question. And so the Thai world turns.

The Thai academy is a failure in its role as a producer of criticism, theory, research and quite frankly, democratic indoctrination/education. Why? See the answer above.

And what sucks about the Thai Academy, or most of the Thai professors who comprise it, is that it doesn't believe that it has to reform itself. It doesn't know that it sucks. Don't they ever ask why Thailand never produces any scholarship or scholars worthy of international recognition? Don't they ever wonder why the country seems to be falling apart and the political system is in shambles? Or are they too busy kissing phuyai ass and patting each other on the back for their sub-standard performances?

The Thai academy thinks it can coast on shoddy research, plagiarism, low standards for its undergraduates, its political and economic connections, ritual, form over substance, and its venerated sacred cow status. How does any of that serve Thai democracy? How does any of that serve the academy? It doesn't of course, but it does serve the powers at be and it serves the selfish interests of academics, who are incapable of doing anything for the greater good.

The Thai academy is setting Thai political development back. Of course, instead of taking any responsibility for itself and for Thailand, it does what this article suggests: Blame globilisation, blame capitalism, blame the farang, blame the Americans, blame the stupid villagers who get seduced by western consumerism and sell their votes, blame the faceless and nameless politicians and bureaucrats (without naming names, of course, because actually doing the work to uncover who is responsible puts their careers at risk). And they even have the audacity of blaming the institution of democracy itself.

And who is the Thai academy's partner in crime and chief enabler: The Thai media.

Instead of shining a big light on the problems of the Thai academy, the Thai media just adopts the same strategies that the academy does, which is to ignore the core problems and blame "the other." The Thai media has elite status in Thai society. Why rock the boat with the truth? Why put the media's profits at stake? Why not just broadcast horrible programming and royalist propaganda and pick up the checks?

The media's role is to force a debate in public rather than regurgitate the party line of politicians and academics. A lesson that the Thai media certainly hasn't learned.

The Thai media shouldn't be taking sides or playing one side off the other. It should be challenging everybody, including the sacred cows: the Thai academy, the military, and the monarchy.

The duty of every journalist and academic is the same: The search for the truth.

In this regard, the Thai media and Thai academy have both failed.

And when there is no search for truth, no criticism, no core analysis, no challenging of authority, sooner of later the state will either wither or settle into a state of perpetual mediocrity.


Anonymous said...

<\i>The Thai academy thinks it can coast on shoddy research, plagiarism, low standards for its undergraduates, its political and economic connections, ritual, form over substance, and its venerated sacred cow status.<\i> Specific examples of shoddy research, plagiarism, and low standards, please!

Let me give you a specific case of babbling nonsense. Kasien Tejapira, allegedly one of the better academics, explained the coup as an action-reaction phenomena. Casting Thaksin as an "elected capitalist absolutist", his fate is sealed because "one absolutism draws out the other". What the f*** kind of explanation is that? What political school of thoughts could that statement have been grounded? And how might this piece of intellectual gem shed light on the history of Thailand's political development? There were 17 other military coups. What are those 17 absolutisms that drew out those military putsches?

And he is an associate professor, for christ sake!. Good thing that Thai academic career is a bureaucratic career. Folks like Kasien would not make tenure in a true competitive academic environment. Ever wonder why they never want the universities to opt out of the bureaucratic system?

Fonzi said...

I couldn't agree more.

Another thing I have noticed. All the notable Thai academics have left Thailand.

What is truly amazing to me is that some Thai academics went to incredibly good schools. But I have been told that once they come back here they lose all their discipline and descend right back into mediocrity.

On a personal level, I know some really smart Thai professors, but it seems they have dumb themselves down to survive in Thailand.

Anonymous said...

Well, most acharn lack PhDs in the first place. I have plenty of friends who graduate with undergrad degrees and immediately become acharn. Plenty of older acharn (the 60's/70's generation, who today lead their institutions) have at most a masters degree.

And the reason you see so few full Professors is because most academics never do any published academic research. Published work (and especially work published in international peer-reviewed journals) is the key criteria for promotion, and many acharn are satisfied at coasting their entire careers as assistant professors.

Look at Acharn Kasien. He's one of the most widely quoted academics and enjoys great public prestige. But after all those decades in academia, he's still just an Associate Professor. Most of his "publications" are raving newspaper columns.

To survive as a Thai academic, you either have to have a very rich family or you must have very low standards. How else could a new PhD hope to survive on salaries 10x lower than their university peers. I've known lecturers who had to leave academia when they got married because a university job alone couldn't provide for their families.

p.s., fonzi, you should use links to for the Bangkok Post. Otherwise, the Post deletes their satic web sites after about a week or so. will store those articlese permanently on their servers.

anon said...

Thai academics have other more important things on their minds, like whether their students are wearing underwear in public or not.

Fonzi said...

I want to make the distinction that the Thai academics that I know have Ph.ds.

From what I know about how Thai academics are compensated, I know that salaries at public universities are horrible, especially at the starting levels, but they get other goodies. They get cheap loans for cars and and housing. And they can get sideline jobs as consultants.

This is Thailand. Enough money always gets passed on to the right people.

I went to a seminar that a Thai academic had once at Chula. It was a small group. You could say the professor was an old school leftist. I looked down at his wrist and saw that he was wearing an expensive Rolex. And no, he didn't come from a wealthy family, but his wife could have been rich.

And thanks for the citebite suggestion.

I didn't know the links go dead.

Bangkok Pundit said...

Glad I could be assistance. I also thought it was an excellent article and was pleasantly surprised that the Bangkok Post published it.