Those who actually take the time to study rural political behaviour in depth usually come up with very different conclusions to those who rely on popular stereotypes or occasional discussions with taxi drivers and maids. An excellent example is the nuanced and fine-grained research of Yoshinori Nishizaki (who is now based at National University of Singapore after an all-too-brief stint at ANU). In the most recent Asian Studies Review, he provides an intriguing account of “Constructing moral authority in rural Thailand: Banharn Silpa-archas’s non-violent war on drugs” [nishizaki-2007.pdf]. Here are some brief extracts:
Banharn (b.1932) has been a Member of Parliament (MP) from the agrarian province of Suphanburi, situated about one hundred kilometres north of Bangkok, since 1976. Since 1994, he has been the leader of the Chart Thai (CT) Party, one of the oldest parties in Thailand. In 1995–96 he even served as prime minister. In his seemingly illustrious political career, however, he has been implicated in numerous corruption scandals. His (and other politicians’) misuse of office was allegedly so egregious that the military used it as a pretext for ousting the civilian government in 1991. His short-lived administration and its bungling of financial policies are also believed to have contributed to the economic crisis of 1997. Most scholars and journalists therefore depict him as one of the debased provincial strongmen whose rise to power in post-1973 Thailand has hampered sound democratic governance. He is typically labelled an “old-style politician” who stays in power by resorting to vote-buying, patronage, or pork barrelling. …
Why do Suphanburians view someone who is seen as a nefarious villain by Bangkokians as their morally correct leader? How has Banharn constructed his authority in Suphanburi? This paper explores one answer. I argue that Banharn’s moral authority derives, in good part, from his non-violent campaign against illegal drugs, especially highly addictive methamphetamine pills or yaa baa.
The paper provides a very detailed account of Banharn’s “Good Youth of Suphan” project through which Banharn pursued a “non-violent war on drugs.” This sort of nuanced account of local political attitudes and activities is, with a few notable exceptions, sorely lacking in much academic and popular commentary on rural political behaviour. Here are Nishizaki’s closing comments:
[Middle class commentators] tend to ascribe rural voters’ thoughts and behaviour to their lack of education. Several Bangkok-based scholars of Thai politics have advanced an argument that reflects and has shaped such perceptions. These scholars then propose a quite banal solution to the “problem”: educate rural voters on the meaning of “democracy”. As one well-known scholar argues, “political education [must] be given to rural voters . . . to provide them with a proper understanding of the objects of elections and their mechanisms, as well as to arouse political awareness” (Suchit, 1996, p. 200). Scholars who embrace this kind of view, however, are doing enormous symbolic violence to rural voters’ worldview. They are in effect waging a morally condescending, dogmatic offensive without realising it. Scholars’ “objective” assessments, no matter how objective they may claim to be, constitute nothing less than ideology in a broadly construed sense (Foucault, 1973; Mannheim, 1991). In light of this, scholars who use the power of their pens (or computers) to dismiss rural voters’ thoughts and behaviour as reflecting their low educational levels are unknowingly implicated in constructing and perpetuating a vast ideological edifice that serves to reproduce their superior social positions – an edifice manifested in the value-ridden binary opposition between politically sophisticated Bangkok and the unsophisticated countryside. If rural voters are “stupid” enough to think of an allegedly depraved politician like Banharn as a good leader, they are no less “stupid” than welleducated Americans who regard President Bush as a great leader who is building a strong America and a free democratic world.