Here is an article by Viroj Na Ranong which appeared in the Bangkok Post on 14 February. It is certainly not a love letter to Thailand’s intellectuals. I have reproduced it here in full given that the Bangkok Post archive lasts about one day.

Nightmare on Intelligentsia Street

Will the intellectuals and urban upper class dare to wake up to reality, or will they dream on?


If 2006 was the year of suffering for many so-called intellectuals because they had to push a seemingly hopeless series of political campaigns and protests against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, to the point that some of them had to shut one or both eyes when they finally got the desired changes through the barrel of a gun, 2007 was the year of dreams gone wrong under the coup-installed Surayud government. And the year 2008 is turning out to be an outright nightmare for these people.

During the past two years, many members of academia jumped out of their ivory towers to engage in almost every possible area of politics.

Judging from some of their actions – especially when many of them also now hold (or seek) political or parliamentary positions – it is very hard to know if their comments or actions were based on academic analysis, or on political motives.

During the past year there were concerted efforts to rouse the people’s ”morality” and campaigns against a party suspected to be the nominee of the ”Thaksin regime.”

But the result, as we know, is that the newly-founded People Power party (PPP) deflected all obstacles thrown at them and emerged as the clear electoral winner. Consequently, PPP has become the core of the new coalition government, with a cabinet roster that has made even the new prime minister uncomfortable, hence the name ”Ugly Cabinet”.

To no one’s surprise, these member lists have caused a considerable sense of nausea among the anti-Thaksin, anti-politician ”intellectuals”. At the height of alienation, some of them simply consoled themselves by sarcastically saying it might be time to move to another country or find some deserted isle on which to live.

For these academics, the situation they find themselves in today should not be beyond the grasp of their expectations, since this is merely the result of the polarisation process in which they themselves have been active partners over the past few years.

It is true the intelligentsia were not the initiators of this polarisation so much as were Mr Thaksin and his former propagandist-turned-enemy Sondhi Limthongkul – who almost single-handedly started the yellow-shirted Thaksin Auk Pai! (Thaksin Get Out!) campaign, but the intelligentsia and their like-minded fellows in many civil society organisations joined the alliance so quickly and eagerly. In despair, many even reneged on the democratic principles they used to praise and turned to request royal intervention.

Even after the coup, many continued their crusade so actively that they became disappointed with the slow actions of the coup-makers’ Council for National Security and the CNS-appointed prime minister in demolishing the so-called Thaksin regime.

The mass media was also a crucial partner in the polarisation process.

For a profession that normally reveres neutrality, it is disappointing – though not surprising – to see that media organisations like the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association would be quick to support an incredulous ”academic” study by the Media Monitor Group, which found after carefully monitoring all of the half-dozen free TV channels last November that there was only the now-defunct TITV channel which aired politically-biased content; very good news, indeed, for Thai viewers.

In the past, including during the Thai Rak Thai government, we had been doubtful of the mass media’s independence, so it was good news indeed to know that things had turned around so well that most TV channels – especially the two channels owned by the military and the one run by the government – had been able to preserve their neutrality so well during the junta period!

The inevitable result of the polarisation – this ”either-us-or-them” process – has been that, over time, moderates were gradually weaned off, leaving only extremists in charge at opposite poles.

This is partly because people who do not want to go along with extreme opinions usually step back from the movement, if they are not blocked from the decision-making core or even banished altogether.

It is true that in the face of an antagonistic contest, each camp’s extremist leaders – not to mention those who appointed themselves so – are usually seen as ”heroes/heroines” in their eyes, and as scoundrels in the eyes of the other group.

This is why the PPP’s victory has translated into such a nightmare for many intellectuals who opposed the regime.

In reality, these intellectuals (bar a handful) do not have enough financial resources – and more importantly, the academic reputation – to relocate to another country. Even among those who are able to break these barriers, most would probably prefer to live in their beloved homeland.

What options do these heart-broken intellectuals have? I can see at least two.

First, they can remain in the clouds with the nightmare and continue their dream crusade. After all, they once dreamt that a majority of the masses would desert one political party for another. They dreamt that a certain party would follow a revered elder’s wish to prevent the formulation of the PPP-led coalition government. Or that it would have enough pride to back away when its five-point request was brutally rebutted. Some even dreamt that House Speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat would somehow not receive royal endorsement, which would have led to a significant change in the prime minister’s nomination!

They could continue to dream on and to fight for those dreams. For example, they could dream that a verdict from one or another court will change everything. That there will be a dissolution of Party A, then of Party B, which would also affect Party C and, finally, the coalition government’s stability.

Certainly, these dreams have a chance of coming true (even though not as good a chance as the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party last year). But then, there is also the large possibility that they won’t.

Another alternative for these intellectuals – who have already lived long enough through the years of nightmarish political development – would be to wake up from the dream conjured up by their own desires and learn more from the ordinary man in the street. They should pause and ponder why, after such a long series of never-ending protests and campaigns, they could not overcome the ”new power” even though it had taken root only a few years ago and was gravely injured by the 2006 coup and the party’s dissolution?

Why were many rural people, who’d come to work in Bangkok, willing to sacrifice days of their working time (and their hard-earned money) plus the expense of travel, to go back to their hometowns to vote? The costs they had to bear would hardly have been covered by the money that ”we” believe they may have received in return for voting. And unlike some of ”us,” it is almost certain that they did not do that because they were afraid of losing their political rights!

If we stop hurting and start to consider these questions and the situation of these rural people, we may realise that the ”grassroots” world of villagers – which we often overlook or dismiss as full of uneducated, short-sighted and disillusioned people, is actually evolving with its own set of reasons.

They are real people with real wisdom, from whom we should learn more – hear their voices and respect their choices and decisions more than we have done – if we truly believe in democracy and uphold the hope of doing good things for the people.

Dr Viroj Na Ranong is a senior research specialist at Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). The opinions expressed here are his own.