Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Alessandra Radicati from Cultural Anthropology recently interviewed me on my latest article.

The February 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Framed by Freedom: Emancipation and Oppression in Post-Fordist Thailand,” by Claudio Sopranzetti, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that London School of Economics graduate student Alessandra Radicati conducted with Sopranzetti about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.
Alessandra Radicati: How did your ethnographic engagement with motorcycle taxi drivers begin? Are they the main occupational group you follow in your research? How do drivers and the theorization of freedom you offer here fit into your larger body of work?
Claudio Sopranzetti: Motorcycle taxi drivers were a landing spot, rather than a starting point. When I began this project my idea was to conduct an ethnography of urban mobility. During my time in graduate school, I saw a gap between urban theories—which stressed the role of infrastructures, transportation, and circulation in the birth, growth, and ongoing life of cities—and ethnographic engagements that often focused on specific locales, enclaves, spaces, or social groups and ignored the work needed to keep the city connected. It was as if all that urban thinkers had taught us was suddenly sacrificed on the altar of traditional ethnographic methods, which were developed to investigate bounded physical and social spaces. I saw that many urban ethnographies kept using the oldest trick in the anthropological book: study a community and assume a metonymic relation between its scale and that of the city. This, it seemed to me, missed an essential aspect of how the urban comes to be, how it is lived, and how commodities, people, rumors, aspirations, and power circulate through its veins.
With that in mind, I began my fieldwork by tracing the circulation of objects, documents, and commodities around Bangkok. First, I followed the circulation of newspapers but soon expanded to explore how different local companies move retail products around the city and ensure their timely delivery. Almost every conversation I had would bring me to a motorcycle taxi driver as the last leg of this complex system of circulation. If large-scale water infrastructure always ends with a tap, the circulation of people, commodities, and ideas in Bangkok often ended with a driver. They were Bangkok’s urban taps, so to speak: the final connectors that allowed the city to function.
During my first extensive fieldwork in Bangkok, however, I realized that taps can be both open and closed. In March 2010, the people who normally allowed the city to remain connected shut it down, as part of the Red Shirts protest that took over the city. With that, what had started as an investigation of urban circulation turned into something larger. As my article shows, I was working with people who experienced, made sense, and made do with an epochal transformation in the structures of Thai capitalism. Through the protest, I witnessed collective action emerging among precarious workers who had come to think about themselves as individual entrepreneurs but were now adopting circulation, and the ability to take control of it, as a technique of political mobilization. In this sense, the theorization of freedom among the drivers is just a small piece of a project that, over the last five years, has explored the entanglements between emerging logics of capital, transformations of everyday life in terms of mobility, labor, and desire, as well as emerging forms of political mobilization (Sopranzetti, forthcoming).
AR: You begin the article by talking about the importance of local, contextual understandings of freedom and anthropology’s unique capability for getting at these—even though anthropologists, as you point out, have not always made use of this capability, relying instead on understandings of what you call “freedom with a capital F.” Reading this, I could not help but think of Anna Tsing’s (2005) Friction, and wondered if her approach to the idea of universal concepts and how they travel had any bearing on your own thinking? If so, how?
CS: This is a very perceptive question and one that allows me to discuss something that appears in the background of this article, but that I only touch on in passing: the relationship between what you call universal concepts, a global hierarchy of values, and local configurations.
Anna Tsing’s exploration of the modalities of contact between concepts affiliated with global projects and the specific locales in which they lodge themselves has been very central to my thinking. Friction is an example of this analysis, but even more important to me is a less widely known book that she edited called Words in Motion. This text starts from the assumption that words can produce worlds, and it analyzes how specific concepts travel across the globe and get adopted and transformed in specific contexts. This process often follows unexpected routes and ends up transforming how local actors envision what Tsing calls global modernity. I find this analysis convincing, but I believe that something else can also happen: local actors can use the aura of concepts associated with global modernity to legitimize local political and economic transformations—what in the article I call making sense and making do. Sometimes, as with the concept of ‘itsaraphāp, these transformations align with global trends like entrepreneurialism and precarity. At other times, they diverge radically. Let me give you an example of this second process, which is taken from another article that I recently published (Sopranzetti 2016).
The concept of good governance was introduced to Thailand by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank after the 1997 economic crisis. Those institutions kept repeating that economic growth in Thailand had stalled because of the lack of good governance. With this expression, they referred to an alleged failure to live up to a set of technocratic standards, a failure that they saw as the original sin of developing countries. When the Thai economy crashed in 1997 those institutions, after years of praising Thailand for its management of economic success, imputed what was happening to a failure of good governance. Once the concept entered Thai political discourse, a political scientist named Chaiwat Satha-anand translated it as thammarāt—literally meaning governance of dhamma. With one simple neologism, a technocratic concept was transformed into a moral one, which gestured toward a connection between good governance and governance that aligned with the King of Thailand, who is also known as the thammarāchā. Since then good governance has become a central tool of Thai conservatives who advocate against democratic politics, on the understanding that electoral politics does not necessarily lead to the governance of moral people (thammarāt).
Now, what are we to learn from these two examples? Are the ideas of freedom and of goodness in governing universal concepts? Or are ‘itsaraphāp and thammarāt examples of radical alterity and incommensurable worldviews? The answer to these questions intersects with debates around universality and difference that have been at the very core of anthropological theory for decades, debates that have recently been driven by proponents of the ontological turn. I find the dichotomy that these debates presuppose misleading, and I think Anna Tsing’s early work helps us to get out of it.
Concepts, practices, and forms of life are neither universal nor particular. They are always local, but at different scales. We live in a world in which specific people, organizations, and institutions—whether religious leaders, financial institutions, media conglomerates, or political movements—are capable of creating and diffusing concepts on a global scale as well as positioning them along what Michael Herzfeld calls the global hierarchy of value. Yet this hierarchy is neither stable nor singular. The hierarchies proposed by ISIS and by the American empire may be different, but they are equally global. As a consequence, they always intersect with other actors operating at different scales, whether national, regional, urban, or whatever. Those global hierarchies of value, because of the military, economic, or political powers with which they are associated, operate as fetishes—inviting actors at smaller scales to orient and submit themselves to them and providing powerful tools for legitimizing their practices. What interests me are the processes through which those hierarchies are produced, reproduced, and challenged, and how in specific contexts words and discourses align or come into conflict with political-economic transformations. Anna Tsing’s work is absolutely central to this analysis.
AR: It strikes me that a concept closely related to freedom is dignity; you mention this word a couple of times in the article, and it is implied negatively through your descriptions of how rural workers are treated in humiliating ways (scolded, compared to animals, and so on) when working in factories. Could you say more about how dignity and freedom relate to one another, based on your ethnographic engagement with drivers in Bangkok? You explain the origins and connotations of the Thai word for freedom in the text, but is there a similarly charged or significant term for dignity?
CS: One thing that struck me when I started to talk with the drivers about changes in labor practices was that they never referred to the Thai word for dignity (kīattiyot). I had previously  been involved in the anti-precarity movements in Italy and there, as in other southern European contexts (see Narotzky 2016), the word dignity (dignita’) was central, as something that had been lost with the flexibilization of labor and needed to be taken back. Now, I have not thought at length about how these two contexts might be compared, but it seems to me that there are two main differences at stake: one to do with political-economic configurations, and another to do with the word’s connotations.
When motorcycle taxi drivers looked back at the Fordist moment, they did not associate it with a sense of dignity. This may have to do with the absence of social-welfare programs during that period in Thailand or with an industrial configuration in which enterprises were rarely family-based and lacked the kind of paternalism that defined the southern European context. Whatever the reason, the factory floor was not remembered as the site of a moral economy—as was often the case in Italy or Spain—and therefore flexibilization was not seen as having taken workers’ dignity away. Quite the contrary.
Secondly, the Thai word kīattiyot is used to refer both to dignity—in the sense of as a universal characteristic of human beings—and to prestige or honor—a characteristic defined by status or rank (yot). As a consequence, the word does not have the same egalitarian meaning that it does it English and it would sound odd coming out of the drivers’ mouths, given their relatively low social status in Thai society.
AR: You mention the work of Mary Beth Mills on female migrant workers in Thailand, but your own informants are men. Is it correct to assume that this motorcycle taxi driving is coded as masculine? What else can you tell us about how gender and notions of masculinity shape the understandings of freedom you describe in the article? Might freedom be different for women?
CS: You are quite right, both in assuming that driving is coded as masculine and that notions of masculinity are central to the drivers’ understanding of freedom. In my larger work I explore in more detail the role of masculinity in the drivers’ choices around migration and labor trajectories. The capsulized version is this: as the late Pattana Kitiarsa (2012) extensively explored, during the 1990s a heroic manhood became dominant among Thai rural migrants. This form of masculinity was characterized by an often unresolved tension between the drinking, smoking, and gambling womanizer on one side, and the moral breadwinner, committed to his family, his village, and his woman back home, on the other. ‘Itsaraphāp as described and lived by the drivers offers a way to reconcile the two images, presenting them as both risk-taking entrepreneurs, gambling their lives with each trip, and bread-winners, working to provide something for their children.
That said, however, the language of ‘itsaraphāp is by no mean exclusive to men. Many women who experienced a parallel shift toward more insecure labor arrangements after the crisis of 1997—by becoming street vendors, for instance, or freelance prostitutes—also used the language of freedom to make sense and make do amid this transformation. I have not, however, conducted sufficient in-depth research with these women to know whether behind the use of the same word is a different, gendered understanding of it.
AR: Thailand has been in the news as of late with the coup of 2014, which continues today in the form of rule through military junta. Coupled with aggressive persecution of those deemed to have disobeyed lèse-majesté laws, questions of freedom in Thailand are anything but abstract. Have you been able to return to the country since the military took charge? Can you explain how the current political situation has impacted the lives of your informants?
CS: I am actually writing to you from Bangkok. You are correct: questions of freedom, and especially freedom of expression, are anything but abstract at the moment and, unfortunately, this is not going to change in the short run. I invite anyone who is interested to read the new Thai constitution drafted by the junta, as an example of how you can design an authoritarian regime that lives inside the empty shell of democratic institutions.
This configuration does not only apply to the new administrative structures designed by the military dictatorship. It also organizes my informants’ lives, as much as the lives of anyone in Thailand. Life under the new regime, as under any dictatorship, is divided and contradictory. On the one hand, it goes on normally. Shopping malls and restaurants are crowded and streets filled by the usual frenzy of vendors and office workers. On the other, people involved in direct actions and critical activities are watched, controlled, and silenced. Among them, the dominant feeling is one of being inside a perimeter that is slowly closing in around you, while the rest of society quietly pretends not to see it. Hundreds of people, especially local political organizers, radio hosts, journalists, academics, and activists, have left the country for fear of repression. Since the coup, the regime has banned political activities, censored unfriendly media, and heavily policed Internet discussions. The army has summoned more than one thousand people, arrested more than seven hundred, and tried more than two hundred in military court, with no right to appeal. Even more viciously, as you mention, the lèse-majesté law, which punishes anybody who criticizes members of the royal family with detention for between three and fifteen years, has been used with unprecedented frequency to attack political opponents. In the last three years, at least eighty-six people have been charged while, at the time the coup, only five people were in jail after being convicted of these charges and five more were awaiting trial. The actions that count as criticism of the royal institution have also been expanded to include criticizing the law itself, liking pictures on Facebook, and even mocking the king’s dog.
Some of my informants are, unfortunately, among those affected by this new wave of repression. During my fieldwork between 2009 and 2011, many of the motorcycle taxi drivers played a prominent role as political mobilizers, guards, and fighters in the Red Shirts protest that opposed military and monarchic intervention in politics. I do not discuss this in my Cultural Anthropology article, but my book (Sopranzetti, forthcoming) focuses largely on this aspect of their presence in the city. Since the coup, the army has been working to bring the drivers under control by registering them, so to make them visible and legible, and by terrorizing and harassing the families of their leaders. Let me give you a couple of examples of what this has meant for two drivers: Yai, one of the drivers’ political leaders; and Adun, who appears in the article.
One month after the army takeover in 2014 I met with Yai. He was uncharacteristically beaten down. “Claudio,” he said, “the military is here to stay. They understand our weaknesses and they are using them. We are fighters, you have seen that too. They attacked us with tanks and we remained in the streets. We were ready to fight, but we have families. If they attack us, we fight back. But now it is our wives who ask us to stop protesting, it is our kids who are scared for their fathers. Things are changing; now your own loved ones are the army’s best allies. It is easy to tell the army to fuck off, but to tell your wife that, to tell your kids that, it is really hard.” Since the coup, Yai’s family, like those of thousands of other activists, has become the target of unprecedented pressure from the army. Their house has been raided multiple times, always when only his wife was inside. A small group of soldiers has repeatedly visited his son’s kindergarten, asked his teachers about Yai and his family, and lingered outside the school as the students are let out. Through these tactics of intimidation, more often directed toward families than the activists themselves, the junta is marrying affect and domination, as totalitarian regimes always do. They are, in Yai’s words, transforming the activists’ families into allies, agents who beg mobilizers to stop protesting and organizing out of love.
While these personal attacks have been directed at organizers in particular, all motorcycle taxi drivers have been subject to a new level of control in recent years. Less than a month after the coup, the new dictator General Prayuth, having experienced firsthand the subversive potential of motorcycle taxis when he directed the army’s dispersal of the Red Shirts in 2010, launched a campaign to register the drivers. In June 2014, military officers started to approach motorcycle taxis around Bangkok, lecturing them about passenger security and an alleged plan to remove local mafia from their operations. Soon thereafter, the military demanded that drivers register with their local municipality and get a special vest with visible photo identification. Those who refused were heavily fined and their driver’s licenses revoked. Adun was one of them. Aware that the junta’s actions were aimed at taking control of the drivers, he quietly refused to register. For the first seven months after the vests were distributed, he managed to continue carrying customers. By the summer of 2016, though, he had accumulated so many fines that working as a driver was losing him money. Frustrated, he put down his name and entered the state’s archives.
AR: I am always interested in the writing process and in how anthropologists working with complex, enormously varied bodies of data produce articles like yours, which manage to give a rich sense of place and context as well as developing a sophisticated theoretical argument.  Could you give us a sense of how this article was conceived and how it developed over time? What process led you to your theorization of freedom with respect to the experiences of these taxi drivers?
CS: I am not sure how to answer this question. First of all, after years of working in the precarious labor market of contemporary academia, applying for funds and positions only to get rejections and then suddenly getting a job when least expected, I have learned that managing to do something is often a matter of luck more than anything else. More broadly, though, your question seems to imply that context and place—let’s call it everyday life—exists in opposition to sophisticated theory and that some sort of reconciliation is needed. I do not see them as separate at all. The motorcycle taxi drivers I worked with are intellectuals in the Gramscian sense: they constantly make sense of the reality around them and they do so through concepts that they adopt, dismiss, transform, and create. When you ask what process led me to the theorization of freedom with respect to the drivers, the only honest answer I can give is by listening and trying to learn as much as possible from and about them so to attempt to make sense of how and why they think the way they do.
I do not see this process as significantly different from engaging with Foucault, Marx, or Gramsci, except that drivers are still alive and I can ask them for clarifications. When you read any of those theorists, though, you start from their sophisticated theory. You struggle with it and make up an idea of what they are saying. Then you start expanding, reading what they wrote beyond the specific subject you are addressing. In time, if you sit with them long enough, you develop a sense of the style of their writing and thinking, and you are able to predict where they are going with their next sentence. Sometimes, however, you realize that you are off-target. So you start reading about their everyday life: their upbringing, the books they read, the magazines they liked, their idiosyncrasies, tastes, and obsessions. You read their letters to friends and loved ones. You start feeling like you are growing close to them; you become a sort of posthumous stalker. To me, ethnography is a very similar enterprise, but with an opposite progression: you start off as a kind of stalker and you end up enchanted by someone’s thought.


Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2012. “Masculine Intent and Migrant Manhood: Thai Workmen Talking Sex.” In Men and Masculinities in Southeast Asia, edited by Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons, 38–55. New York: Routledge.
Narotzky, Susana. 2016. “Between Inequality and Injustice: Dignity as a Motive for Mobilization during the Crisis.” History and Anthropology 27, no. 1: 74–92.
Sopranzetti, Claudio. 2016. “Thailand's Relapse: The Implications of the May 2014 Coup.” Journal of Asian Studies 75, no. 2: 299–316.
_____. Forthcoming. Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok. Oakland: University of California Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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.