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.


Anonymous said...

It is an interesting and thoughtful commentary. However, the analysis feels somewhat "unhinged" to me. There is no attempt to look at the material interests that underpin debates and struggles that are presented here as being conducted at the ideological level. Leach did talk about changes to the power structure, and this was part of an analysis of social structure that had a material basis. We need more of that for Thailand.

Anonymous said...

interesting and thoughtful, but no oscillations, Thailand has never been democratic; it has always been under dictatorial elite-monarchy rule. It is just an illusion to democracy that we have seen over the past sixty years. Rather than Leach an analsyis of contemporary fascism would suffice, to wit, a basic emotional attitude of suppressed individuals to an "authoritarian machine civilisation and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life..." (Wilhelm Reich). the question is: when will to 50% Thais still mesmerised by this illusion wake up!

Arnaud Dubus said...

Interesting approach. For a more historical view, it is also interesting to refer to the post-script of "A History of Thailand" (Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, 1st edition) on the opposing tradition of the strong state based on privileges and mystical unity and the tradition of open society, based on embracing diversity and the rule of law.

Michael H. Nelson said...

Interesting article. I just want to point out that, as far as I am concerned, I am not a child of democratization theory. In fact, first, I used "Democracy" in the title rather reluctently, and mainly to make the text visible to those who need such labels, such as people following democratization theory. Second, the text is certainly not teleological, but based inductively on long-time observation.