Rather than concentrate on everything that was said at this event, I want to concentrate on what Duncan McCargo said and the behaviour of the Thai audience and panel members. From what he said their attitudes and behaviour were a microcosm of Thai society.
Even before the talk began, rifts were in evidence as royalists gave out pamphlets on the king’s self-sufficiency economy whilst Giles Ungpakorn and his supporters handed out a sheet denouncing royalists. Some (both Thais and foreigners) were suspicious of the Thai Embassy’s motives when it was noticed that they were filming the event. Most worryingly they were filming the faces of those asking questions and the audience.
The main point of McCargo’s talk was that the Thai people have gone from being politically pragmatic to being dogmatic which has led to the present deadlock. When he first started studying Thai politics he believed the greatest problem was what he termed “excessive pragmatism”. He could not understand why Thai people were so flexible and why they changed their loyalties so rapidly. But in the past five years he has witnessed an unanticipated “remarkable reversal”. As he put it, there is now “insufficient pragmatism” and “Thailand has become a country characterised by incredible dogmatism where husbands and wives cannot speak to each other and their kids can’t speak to each other People can’t meet together with old groups of friends from college or go out to lunch with people from work without something coming up and them feeling divided and uncomfortable or not wanting to say things.” McCargo sees no benefits in people being so dogmatic and occupying such polarised positions. He thinks Thais should try to recover some of their pragmatism, which he now realises can be seen as a strength of Thai politics, as well as a weakness.
He believes that the problems in the South, which he has studied extensively, are the same as the problems in the rest of Thailand. They are problems of politics and legitimacy. There is very little space for the people to “carve out their own identity” because they are administered by provisional governors and district officers sent from Bangkok. Privately, many senior officials, policemen and army officers McCargo spoke to said there was a “legitimacy deficit”. He said this needs to be discussed but it cannot happen because there is no opportunity to create public space for more open discussions. This means people are scared to speak out and have difficulty engaging with each other. This lack of discussion combined with the new dogmatism has led to a situation where the red and yellow shirts seem diametrically opposed. But, according to McCargo: “Just beneath the surface there is a fairly substantial consensus that can no longer be articulated.”
We only had to wait until the question and answer session to see evidence of Thai dogmatism. (Due to the question and answer session being held under the Chatham House Rule I cannot reveal the identities of the speakers.) Many of the Thais in the audience seemed hostile to the Thai panellists and some of the questioners were clearly very angry with them. The third questioner, a Thai woman, denounced Bowornsak for switching political allegiances. The chairman was forced to interrupt her and ask her to stop making personal questions. She ignored him and loudly demanded Borowonsak explain why he destroyed the 1997 constitution to approving applause from some of the audience. The chairman nicely diffused the situation by asking for a question from “the man in the red shirt” which bought relieved laughter from the audience. The (Thai) man proceeded to make a short, critical speech rather than ask a question. He accused the king of weakness, criticised the lese majeste law, suggested redistribution of wealth from the king and army, and questioned the suitability of the crown prince to rule. When the chairman asked him if he had a question the man ignored him and continued ranting without asking a question. Finally the chairman had to tell the man his question would be about the lese majeste law. The red shirted man sat down to a loud round of applause.
When responding to this man one of the Thai panel members at first even refused to call him by his name, despite knowing it well. They then ignored the chairman and bickered with each other over what either of them had or had not said to loud shouting and complaints from the audience. Finally the panellist challenged the man to discuss the matter in Thai, which brought more shouts and forced the chairman to step in and restore order.
A non-Thai panel member suggested that maybe the reason so many Thais had attended was because in Thailand they are scared to have such discussions about political issues and aspects of legitimacy due to the lese majeste law. There were certainly Thais present who had very strong opinions on these matters but there was less evidence of reasoned discussion. The Thai panellists and questioners and many of the audience members were openly partisan. Those that spoke (from both sides) seemed more interested in making pre-prepared statements than having a meaningful debate. There was plenty of McCargo’s dogmatism on show and little pragmatism.
Many Thais are not used to freedom of expression or familiar with having such discussions. Maybe it is not so surprising that such debates degenerate and emotions run high. As McCargo has said, Thais need to have the freedom to debate. Once they have that space they may become more used to discussing their differences and may eventually reach some sort of pragmatic consensus, instead of being so dogmatic and oppositional. Judging by the recent behaviour at SOAS it will be a while before that happens.