Saturday, March 3, 2007

Irrawaddy: On Thai Nationalism

The Pros and Cons of Thai Nationalism

By Pavin Chachavalpongpun

February 28, 2007

In the world of political trend-setting, nationalism is never unfashionable. This is very true in the case of Thailand, where nationalism possesses supreme power in the minds of the elites and the ordinary people alike. Although in fact ill-defined, nationalism drives nations into conflicts and demands sacrifice by the people for what is ultimately deemed to be national survival.

The release of the film epic “The Legend of King Naresuan” signals once again that nationalist sentiment has never faded in the Thai consciousness. Beyond its entertaining quality, this epic film has effectively renewed a sense of nationalism in every Thai during one of the most critical times in the country’s modern history.

Why does a country need to instill a sense of nationalism? Nationalism is a powerful socio-political tool, molded and remolded by national elites in order to seek popular support for their policies and more essentially their legitimate rules. Presently, nationalism is no longer invented in the state’s backyard alone. Big conglomerates employ nationalism to fulfill their commercial thirsts, too.

However, what Thailand is experiencing has nothing much to do with defending itself against external enemies—such as Burma being painted as Siam’s perpetual adversary. The current scene pertains to the competing hegemony between two political entities, the military government and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The battlefield has extended beyond domestic politics; it also creeps into the realm of Thailand’s foreign relations.

What appears now is the clash between two types of Thai nationalism that cause a massive impact on social divisiveness. There are no judges or referees. There is no silent audience. Each side fans the flame of nationalism to attest that its own brand of patriotism is more genuine than the other’s.

In employing nationalism against each other, the military government and Thaksin have been exercising three important steps as main elements of their winning strategies.

The first is to prove their legitimacy and mandate to rule. The military staged the September 19 coup on the grounds that the Thaksin government lacked legitimacy, being involved in large-scale corruption and instigating social divisiveness. More serious was the allegation that the deposed premier had lost respect for the monarchy. He might have forgotten that the royal institution is one of the three pillars of the Thai national identity.

Once Thaksin was ousted from office, he turned the tables by accusing the National Security Council of breaching the people’s aspiration for democracy, overthrowing an elected government by unconstitutional means and tarnishing Thailand’s reputation as a democratic defender on the international stage. To Thaksin, all forms of non-democratic government are illegitimate and hence unnatural to the Thai nation, whose meaning is nothing more than love of freedom.

The second step is to depict the image of the enemy. In every fight in the name of nationalism, the existence of an enemy is quintessential. Under the current government, Thaksin is being treated as someone even more alien than any of Thailand’s historical enemies, such as the Burmese or the communists. Thaksin has been conceived as sharing qualities of those outside the national realm, as a threat to national unity and national institutions.

On many occasions in which Thaksin was alleged to be referring to the monarchical institution in an improper way—such as when he said he would relinquish power if His Majesty the King as much as whispered in his ear—he immediately became a threat to the nation, considering how sanctified the monarchy is within the Thai state.

In return, Thaksin and his followers branded the military government an enemy to Thailand’s democracy, claiming it effectively moved the country back a few decades to a time when despotism flourished. The self-appointed military government, in Thaksin’s eyes, went against the global wave of democratization, which would also generate negative repercussions on economic development.

The presence of an enemy provides legitimacy to both sides while increasing their political influence. But again, this raises an interesting question—whether the necessity of having an enemy might further divide the already fragile Thai society.

The third step is to collect public support. The force of nationalism is sustained by a sizeable public backing. The race to win public support has therefore been fierce. While Thaksin has been counting on his supporters at the grass-roots level, who in the past benefited from his populist programs, such as 30-baht healthcare and the OTOP scheme, the military government has sought understanding from Bangkok’s middle-class and royalists in the countryside.

Judging from where the wind blew at the beginning, the situation suggested that the race to gain public approval was really about the struggle between the good guys versus the bad. The military government represented the good when it claimed to tightly uphold respect for the monarchy and vowed to get rid of immoral politicians. That explained why the public in general chose not to condemn the coup of September 19.

But just as one cannot predict which way the wind will blow next, the public is showing signs of growing tired with the current regime. Most Thais, not necessarily those in the pro-Thaksin camp, are exhausted with the mounting troubles in Thai politics, ranging from the conflicts in the South to the Shin-Temasek deal saga and the inability to find any wrongdoings attributable to Thaksin while he was in power.

These three steps are guides to the resurgence of Thai nationalism. On the down side, it engenders social fragmentation and the healing process may take years. On the bright side, different thoughts and opinions as a result of competing nationalisms are the commended practice in a vibrant society. Unity is not always the ultimate goal of democracy.

Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Singapore-based Thai academic, is the author of "A Plastic Nation: The Curse of Thainess in Thai-Burmese Relations"

I'm not going to deconstruct this article right now. It is a badly written piece. But I like the photo of King Naresuan.

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