Tuesday, 21 March 2017

I am back! New projects on the way...

After a long absence from this blog, I come back to it!

I spent the last two years teaching at Oxford, doing some more research, writing new stuff, and working on a graphic novel on Thailand.

 My next academic book is schedule to come out in November of 2017 and now I am dedicating myself full time to the graphic novel, in collaboration with the amazing artist Sara Fabbri.

Stay tuned as I post more about that!

For now just some initial images

Monday, 30 June 2014

Some thoughts on Thai political crisis

On May 22th 2014, the Army Commander General Prayut seized power, completing the 12th successful military coup in Thailand since 1932 and the second one in the last eight years. The junta presented the coup as a solution to the wheel of crisis that has encompassed the country since 2005. What the coup, however, has achieved is nothing more than the dusting off a political strategy—that of direct military intervention—that not only has already failed to bring an end to the crisis in 2006, but has entrenched it as it will, unquestionably, do once again.

Beside the junta’s boastful and grotesque attempt to bring peace and happiness through silence and repression, almost everybody, among both opposite sides of the political spectrum and academics, agrees that the never-ending crisis is an epiphenomenon of a deep drift in Thai society, one that may shift the role of the monarchy, the future of democratic politics, and the reciprocal position of Thai elites and popular masses.

My argument is that this drift is the product of an oscillation between two social structures. By this I mean, following Edmund Leach, “a set of ideas about the distribution of power between persons and groups of persons” (Leach 1954: 4) and, I add, of concrete techniques for mobilizing people and governing the nation. On one side, a social structure that conceptualizes power as springing from barami, a charisma that comes from moral conduct and reside with “good people” (khon dī). On the other, a structure that conceives power residing in the ability to mobilize masses, whether through loyalty and patronage or through democratic elections, as in the case of Thaksin Shinawatra. The former way of legitimizing power lies behind the Yellow Shirts’ and traditional elites’ rhetoric and practices, their call for moral leaders, their distrust for electoral democracy, and hate for the “Thaksin system” (rabop Thaksin). The latter, instead, animates the Red Shirts’ demands to respect electoral results and to question established economic, political, and legal inequalities.

As in Leach’s analysis of the Kachin Hills Area, however, these two social structures do not exist as actual totalizing realities but as “ideal models” or, as Leach would have said, “as if descriptions—they relate to ideal models rather than real societies” (Leach 1954: 285). In other words, barami and popular support, have coexisted, and will coexist in Thai society but their balance is always in a flux, and the present crisis is a struggle over what this balance may look like in the present and the foreseeable future.

Up until the early 2000s, the equilibrium between these two ways of organizing power revolved around the figure of King Bhumibol as the center and ultimate source of barami while also the holder of unmatched popular support and “a ‘super-mandate’ from the people, one that trumps the electoral mandates of political leaders” (Mc Cargo 2005: 505). This position has been clear in the political turmoil that unsettled the Thai polity in the 1970s and the 1990s. In both cases, Bhumibol was able to cast himself as the arbiter and ultimate power broker, overseeing which way the social structure would oscillate, either toward democratic politics after the 1992 crisis, or toward the dictatorship of “good people” after the 1970s. However, due to the King weakening health, the rise of political consciousness among Thai population, and the palace uncharacteristic choice of clearly taking side since 2005, this role has entered into question. The surge of lese majesty charges since 2006 to silence critiques and questioning of the palace’s role in politics is just one sign of the palace’s growing weakness and the breaking down of previous social structures. The Yellow shirts’ repulsion for the Thaksin’s system, which they see as replacing “moral authority” with corrupt electoral populism, is another.

Similarly, the idea that power should spring from popular support, rather than moral stamina, has been gaining momentum around the figure of Thaksin Shinawatra. A media tycoon, son of a fairly wealthy political family from northern Thailand, Thaksin was able to become the first elected Prime Minister in Thai history to complete a full mandate. After this he confirmed his position through highly popular policies, obtain an unprecedented one-party victory in the 2005 elections, and, through proxy leaders, in every single democratic election since. Even though many of his supporters would acknowledge the Yellow Shirts’ claim that Thaksin had been involved in corruption while in office, they maintain that electoral victory should be respected and that these accusations should be persecuted through a fair legal process and not through military and judiciary coups with the purpose of replacing him with supposedly “moral” leaders. 

While existing analyses acknowledge this shift in ways of organizing power in contemporary Thailand they often focus on the specific actors, social groups, and strata—whether elites, bureaucrats, or social masses—rather than on the shift in social structures which is activating all of their reactions. In so doing, these readings take trees for the forest and obscure the larger struggle. Once again Edmund Leach comes to our help and reminds us that “when we refer to structural change we have to consider not merely changes in the position of individuals with regard to an ideal system of status relationships, but changes in the ideal system itself: changes, that is, in the power structure” (Leach 1954: 10). Such changes, I argue, are the engine behind the Thai wheel of crisis, an engine that runs through oscillations and not in a linear progression.

A linear view of structural change, in fact, has been the other shortcoming of present analyses. Even scholars as Michael Nelson and Björn Dressel, who take a more holistic approach and recognize the emerging struggle between “the traditional conception of a stratified paternal-authoritarian state where power emanates from the king” (Dressel 2010: 446) and “claims [of] popular sovereignty as the basis of legitimacy” (Dressel 2010: 447), assume a teleological progression from one to the other. Children of democratization theory, such views, are part of the political arsenal used in this conflict more than actual analytical construct. However, as James Stent has argued, “since the revolution of 1932 […] the political history of Thailand has been a history of gradual swings of the pendulum, with dictatorial conservatism, generally backed by the Army, alternating with more democratic rule” (Stent 2012: 22). What we are witnessing now is one of such oscillation, as violent as what happened with the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and with the bloody struggle of the 1970, but equally uncertain and impermanent. As the endless circle of elections, protest, military coup, counter-protest, judiciary coups, and once again military coup that have taken over Thailand demonstrates, the outcome is up-for-grabs and the conflict risks to tear apart the unstable equilibrium that has dominated Thailand since its transformation in a constitutional monarchy.

Dressel, Björn, “When Notions of Legitimacy Conflict: The Case of Thailand,” Politics and Policy, Vol. 38, 2010: 445-469,
Leach, Edmund, Political Systems of Highland Burma, G.Bell & Sons, 1954
McCargo, Duncan, “Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand,” The Pacific Review, Vol. 18 No. 4, December 2005: 499–519
Nelson, Michael H., “Some Observations on Democracy in Thailand,” Hong Kong: Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong, 2012
Stent, James, “Thoughts on Thailand’s Turmoil, 11 June 2010,” in Bangkok May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand, ed. by Michael J. Montesano, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Aekapol Chongvilaivan, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012: 15-41.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Living under dictatorship

After a very very long time of not posting anything, I feel the need to talk, in a time where everything would push us to stay silent.

I am in Bangkok right now and I can tell you that I have never seen anything like this before. I was here in 2010 doing  research on the Red Shirts when 80 protesters were killed by army snipers and urban guerrilla raged for 6 days and it was nothing like that we are experiencing now. Today the streets are calm, people go about their life totally normal and often say that at least with the coup the violence that has colored the street of Bangkok for the last few years stopped. But if you are involved in direct actions and critical speech the circle is slowly closing around you: censorship, arbitrary detention, accusation of lese majeste, and the treat to be processed by military court instead of civil court (meaning having no appeal and no trained lawyers who are not military able to defend you). People are called in everyday, detained in undisclosed in military camps for up to 7 days and then released upon signing a document in which you declare that you were not mistreated (which so far people have not been, or at least the people who are being detained in Bangkok - no one knows about upcountry) and that you will not take part in any political activity. If you do you agree in the document to be persecuted (probably by military court) and to have your assets frozen. 

At this point about 400 people have been summoned, about 60 did not show up and are in hiding or already out of the country. They started with high profile politicians and political leaders, they then moved to occasional protesters and activists, progressed to academics and journalists and in the last couple of days the military started to summon people who have been vocal against the previous coup in 2006, student organizers, local activists. And this are datas from cities, what is happening in villages remains very unclear and based on information that brave people are collecting locally. And this will not stop. This progression represents an eerie escalation of the junta’s attempt to take hold of power by silencing potential dissenting voices and undoing the organizational structure of the popular movements that have dominated recent Thai politics.

Phone and internet communications (probably including this) are being listened, read, controlled, and stored. Not aligned traditional media  have been shut down, social media accounts are constantly blocked as well as many sites. As I write to you, at night, only channel 5 (military owned) broadcasts images of the military helping people in the countryside while every other channel is frozen on a static image of army logos with underneath it, in a white font, "National Council for Peace and Order". Today, a taxi driver was arrested on  charges of lese majeste after a passenger registered their conversation on inequality in Thai society and reported him to the police. I have not read 1984 in a while and I am scared to pick it up again and find out we are living in it.  I feel immensely sad and powerless. I never thought we would live under a regime like this, my Thai colleagues never thought they would be back in time to the repression of the 1970s. Everything is filled by a twisted silent dark feeling of fear while all around us everything seems normal and usual. It crawls around us, ready to bite whoever takes a wrong step. We don't know where it hides or which step could actually be the wrong one. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

I have not posted anything for a long while. Left Thailand and got to work on my dissertation and teaching.

I just published a book with Silkworm which analyzes and describes the red shirt protest, as i encountered it and saw it during my research.

If you enjoyed the blog you will also like the book.

check this out

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Aphisit's gift

On 9 January 2011 the Abhisit government announced its “gift” to the Thai population. In a white box with a light blue ribbon was deposited the new policy, presented under the name of Prachawiwat, or progress of the people. The neologism carried nine presents to the people, allegedly addressed to expand social and labor security to the declared 24 million workers in the “informal economy”, to moderate the growing cost of living in Thailand, to guarantee access to credit to operators of taxis and motorcycle taxis, and to address crime. The Thai PM stressed that the gift would not cost much for the Thai population.

After a few days of confusion, trying to understand what the policy actually looked like, a large debate has been sparked in the Thai media and universities. Most of this debate revolves around three questions: How is the Prachawiwat different from Thaksin’s Pratchanyom? Is this a genuine policy or just an attempt by the government to win votes before the next election? Who will pay for this and how much? Unfortunately much of this debate has not yet reached the English-speaking media but in the next days a number of articles will be published on these discussions by major international newspapers. Leaving this task to people better equipped than me, I just want to present these nine gifts (I now sound like my Sunday school teacher talking about the Magi) and to offer my personal take on them without going into the details but rather focusing on their conceptual framework.

Presentation of the gifts

Gift 1: Expansion of the social security system to 24 million Thais operating in the informal economy (nok rabob), according to the government. This scheme provides two levels of social security based on a co-payment system between the workers and the state. The first level amounts to 100 baht per month, divided between 70 baht paid by the workers and 30 baht by the state. The second one amounts to 150 baht, in a 100+50 formula. Different from the actual welfare state scheme offered to regular workers and government officials these policies cover the cost for health care, death insurance (which could be collected after a minimum of 15 years of payment), and a retirement scheme.

Gift 2: Access to credit for taxi drivers, motorcycle taxi drivers, and street vendors for a minimum loan of 5000 baht at an unspecified low interest rate. The government will also provide a 5 percent discount on down payment on the taxi to drivers who have been operating for more than 3 years and a special loan for those with more than 9 years of experience.

Gift 3: New registration procedure for motorcycle taxi drivers with the purpose of eliminating local mafia influence over the drivers. The government will at first re-register the drivers who were registered in 2003 by the Thaksin government and then expand the process to the new drivers who have entered the system since. This policy will be first implemented in Bangkok starting on 15 February.

Gift 4: Allocating 20,000 new areas for street vendors in Bangkok with the purpose of making these places into tourist attractions.

Gift 5: Controlling the cost of oil by lifting the price control on LPG for the industrial sector but leaving it in place for private vehicles and transportation providers.

Gift 6: Providing free electricity to an estimated 9 million households who consume less than 90 units a month by raising the cost of electricity for heavy consumers by 1 percent.

Gift 7: Cut the cost of animal feed to make the final price lower and also make the change in prices public at all times to avoid speculation. Moreover the government will introduce an experiment of conducting the egg trade in kilograms and not in pieces with the purpose of cutting the price by 5 to 10 satang per kilo.

Gift 8: Increase the diversity and transparency in the trade of agricultural product with the purpose of giving better choices and prices to consumers

Gift 9: Increasing security and crime control, especially in 200 unspecified locations, in conjunction with an upcoming police reform.


The package proposed by the Thai government does take some steps toward addressing growing problems of inequality and access in Thai society and it pushes the on-going path toward labor security in Thailand a step forward. However, in my opinion, the conceptual framework in which these steps are taken reaffirms conservative ideas about the relationship between citizens and the state, the relationship between the capital and the rest of the country, participation, and welfare schemes. These are conservative ideas that the majority of Thai society, including both the red and yellow shirts, seems to be questioning and trying to leave behind.

Let us first look at this idea of Prachawiwat, the progress of the people, as a “gift”. Anthropology, my discipline, has been long fascinated by the dynamics and implications of gifts and gift-giving. Out of the rivers of ink written on the subject two main streams of thoughts have emerged.

Firstly, the idea that gift-giving establishes or re-affirms an un-equal relationship between the givers and the receivers in which, by virtue of their giving, the former pose themselves as superiors. An example of this dynamic in international politics that left many observers puzzled, was the refusal of India, after the 2004 tsunami, to receive “economic help” from Western powers, particularly the United States. Proudly, the Indian government, worried by the position that aid will put them in, not only declined the “gift” but also offered economic aid to other affected areas, especially Sri Lanka. Despite the destroyed homes of many citizens the Indian government refused to be put in the position of a receiver and showed its strength and autonomy, framing itself as a regional power, a giver.

Secondly, the framing of a “gift” as an invitation to reciprocity, an act that puts the received in debt and therefore calls for another gift, to re-balance the exchange and further the social relationship. Examples of this are constantly visible in contemporary Thailand where small gift-giving is an essential part of daily life, office work, and new acquaintances. More than once I came across the story of a foreigner failing to fulfill this call to reciprocity be seen as “rude” or not “generous”.

In the context of the Prachawiwat scheme both aspects give government’s “gift” an eerie tone. Framing this policy as a present takes the functioning of a government out of the political arena. Withdrawing from an expanding discussion in the Thai political landscape over rights and duties, access and taxation, the actions of the state are pushed back into the realm of paternalistic politics. As a motorcycle taxi driver put it to me “I receive a gift paid by my taxes and I should also thank them.” In this realm an established benevolent and superior entity, the state, offers a present to a structurally lower receiver, the population. This relation, framed in the language of the patronage system, brings us into the second aspect of this gift-giving: what reciprocity is the government seeking? Often, forms of reciprocity between governments and population, or between clients and patrons, are based on “gifts” in exchange for “support”, meaning in this case electoral support or, at least, silent acceptance. This “gift-giving”, smilingly presented by an excited Abhisit as a cheap present, in many ways condense the conceptual problems with Prachawiwat and represent a major step back in terms of the conceptual framing of the relationship between the Thai state and its citizens. In this sense Thaksin’s Prachaniyom, if not framed in the language of rights, was indeed predicated on questions of access, access to a state-controlled capitalist system of capital, loans, and investments under the mantra of “transforming assets into capital”, but access nonetheless. With this new policy we are back to square one. This in general seems to me the biggest mistake for a policy that was presented as having its strength in participation and equality.

The second point of concern in relation to this new package is its disproportionate attention to urban areas, especially Bangkok. The government has pointed out that the reform will start from Bangkok and then be expanded to the rest of the country, without specifying when this is supposed to happen. Moreover, if we stop to analyze the nine gifts it becomes clear that few of them are oriented to a rural constituency. Some of them (2, 3, and 4) are obviously directed to urban workers and even the schemes connected to agricultural products focuses mostly on transparency and price control for consumers, without really addressing the problem from the perspective of the producers, who are increasingly squeezed between the raising production prices and the low selling prices. For these rural producers these policies will hardly do anything. In term of the social security scheme, the pearl of these gifts, from the direct admission of Ajarn Sungsidh, the head advisor to Abhisit on Prachawiwat, the proposed welfare scheme is will not affect agricultural workers, who represent the large majority of the 24 million informal workers presented as the beneficiaries of the new policies. At most, it will benefit 5.2 million urban informal workers. This disproportionate focus on the city – even though it is not surprising for government opponents such as a motorcycle taxi driver friend who promptly told me “Claudio, this is nothing new. These people have been convinced that the whole of Thailand is Bangkok for a long time” – seems at least short-sighted and at most suicidal, especially given the new movements and discourses that populate the broad Thai political landscape.

The third point is that the offers of Prachawiwat which are great when seen from afar are greatly scaled down when analyzed in detail. The social security scheme, presented by the Thai government as a visionary and unprecedented expansion of the welfare state to the informal economy, is, in fact, NOT a welfare scheme. The conceptual foundations of a welfare scheme are normally a holistic approach to labor security, education, health, retirement as well as its extension to the family of the assisted. Both elements are lacking in the case of Prachawiwat. What the Abhisit government is offering – undoubtedly a step forward in terms of labor security for informal workers – is a so-called “social insurance” scheme, meaning a system of co-payment between the private payer, and only the private payer, and the state with the purpose of guaranteeing health insurance, life insurance, and retirement money, based on a 3 percent interest rate accumulated over the years. No service is offered to the family of the assisted. This scheme offers nothing more than other private insurance would offer, apart from the co-payment help.

In conclusion, the package developed with the help of think tank that was offered a meager five weeks to come up with a policy theoretically effecting more than a third of Thai population, seems to me to offer, in practice, some interesting steps toward a re-conceptualization of the role of the informal economy in Thai society but without framing them in a solid and substantial plan toward guarantying access, rights, and responsibilities to the actors involved.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Filling the gaps

I have been quite absent from the blog, mostly focusing on my research and redacting two months of posts into a manuscript which is up for review now.
I take advantage of this for putting up all my posts from April 10th to May 15th, which i did not had time before to check and upload. If you have time take a look at them.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

October 10th- Democracy Monument

(sorry again no time to put up pictures, will do as soon as i get a moment)

We woke up in the morning and decide to get out and check around as some twitters reported movement of riot police around Ratchaprasong. We drove through the empty Rachadamri, few people in red shirts walking around and police officers lounging around in the heat. The reported barricades going up around intercontinental hotel were not there. We arrive at an empty Ratchaprasong around 11 as a roar comes from Rama I, echoed by the cement ceiling of the skytrain rails.

From that direction a caravan of red shirts in motorcycles gets closer to the intersection, giving full voice to their horns. In front a man I met many times carries the head-bones of a buffalo painted in red with written in thai “stop double standard”, besides him an older woman sits on the back of a motorbike wearing a big plastic hat with the shape of Democracy monument . Around him a river of red flags and few Thai flags. We decide to follow them and drive back into Ratchadamri. It must be around 300 hundred bikes, many of them motorcycle taxis, either wearing the orange vests or recognizable by the yellow plates on their bikes. “It is a matter of ideology” a driver tells me later “some people put on red shirts and take out their vests, some other, like me, come to protest as motorcycle taxis, with the vest.”

As we drive around some people timidly applaud or waive to the caravan, to show their support, mostly vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, or motorcycle taxis sitting at their station. The procession drives down Ratchadamri road and turn left into Sarasin. There another smaller caravan drives in the other direction, dialoguing with us through the horns. Right again into Wittayu road, left into Rama IV, Sala Daeng then back in the direction of Ratchaprasong. On Rama IV small groups of police officers waive to the caravan and take pictures, smiling. As we drive around more people join in, enlarging the ranks of the caravan retracing the geography of deaths during the May protests. Along the way the procession stops often, to remain compact. Some people shout “Here people die”, the new slogan of the Red Sundays, or voice their disappointment. “Fuck the people who order the killing” they repeat over and over again.

In front of the entrance of Lumpini Park the caravan stops to join with another group of people waiting there, parking bikes on the concrete pavement in front of the statue of Rama VI. Some people wai to the statue as other organize the group and distribute small hand-drawn maps of the route to take. The new plan is to drive in the direction of Victory Monument before going back to Democracy Monument, where the caravan started. A couple of people offer me I ride as the group that was waiting at the park gets on the bikes. A young woman covers her face with a banner “May 19th. 91 people died.” The procession starts again, back into Ratchadamri road in the direction of Ratchaprarop. The bikes are now more crowded, kids sitting on the front and red gadgets everywhere. Down the road a small groups of people stand on the side carrying a big picture of Seh Daeng, which the people greet as they pass by. As the group arrives to Ratchaprasong, directed by a larger number of police officers it stops again underneath the flyover, hoping to get some relief from the intense heat.

A man on a big bike tells me proudly “I brought my son” pointing at a small kid clung to his waist. “He needs to see this.” People around distribute red roses before getting moving again. As we get out of the area in the direction of Ding Daeng more people appear on the street, cheering the moving protest. The caravan keeps growing in size. There must be about 800 bikes by the time we get to Victory monument. Two laps of the round-about. Red shirts and flags with the backdrop of two big pictures of the Queen and the metallic statues of military jumping out of the monument. Again and again the group stops to remain compact as a young woman, carrying a big red flag and a plastic uzi gun, shouts directions to the first lines that then pass it back to the rest of the caravan. Soon enough the procession reach Ratchadamnoen, stretching on the large boulevard. Few hundred meters before Democracy Monument, where again red robes have been tied to form a spider web, the caravan stops. Performance is always a part of politics, especially in this country. The large group of red shirts filling Democracy Monument starts cheering. On this other side the horns answer, as the bikes stand still. A long moment of staticity, two groups staring at each other in the heat.

Few minutes after the flows break open and the red shirts at the monument shout and cheer as the caravan parades on the roundabout before parking. The monument has been once again reappropriated and transformed by the red shirts. Two large plastic banners, held up by people circle the monument. On the lower level images from the April and May events, the dead, the injured, the military firing. On the upper level old pictures of 14th October 1973, black on white. From these banners to the core of the monument red robes create a web, tied by a group of older women sitting in the shadow cast by the monument’s wings. Around the monument people are starting to write messages on the ground with pieces of chalk. Behind them two women hold up two boards with written in English “Take your happiness back. Give red shirts life & Democracy” and “We need Justice”. Around them people are dancing in the street, with music pouring out of the speakers of pickups and cars parked around.

Soon the crowd starts growing and the ubiquitous red shirts merchandise start popping up on both directions in Ratchadamnoen. In few hours the foot paths are overflowing with t-shirts, flip-flops, Cds, books, food, music, wrist bands, mugs. I meet one of the book sellers I know who always puts up shop at protest and he tells me of the September 19th protest in Chiang Mai and being stopped on the way at a police road block where the officers checked his books and told him to keep fighting also for them. Behind us a police trucks pass by, with a big red flag attached on a side. I greet him and walk into Dinso road where the pictures of the people that died on April 10th are laid out on the ground with sparse red candles burning in front. A donation box sits among them, where people stuff bills to support their families, often left without a breadwinner. We walk around for a bit and decide to get back home, consumed by the heat, as the protest keeps swelling. It is going to be a long evening at Democracy Monument.