Over the past few years I have been critical of the strategies pursued by NGOs and activist academics who seek to defend the rights of rural people in Thailand. My view has been that these strategies too readily resort to simplified and romantic images of communal solidarity, subsistence orientations and other-worldly pursuits.
In the latter period of the Thaksin era it has become clear that many of these leftish-leaning commentators have been bewildered by the “rural betrayal.” Contrary to the images promoted in the various campaigns for political empowerment (such as the long-standing campaign for community forestry) many rural voters seem to have embraced Thaksin’s vision of market-oriented economic diversification. The result has been an increasing disconnect between academic and activist commentary and the rapidly changing livelihoods and aspirations of people in rural areas. The disconnect is powerfully expressed in the NGO/academic rejection of Thaksin in contrast to his broad electoral popularity in many rural areas. As I argued in a previous post, the constant disparaging of Thaksin’s electoral support has contributed significant ideological legitimacy to the military takeover.
So where to now? There will be a great deal of fallout from recent events in Thailand. But perhaps one thing that might come of it is some rethinking of academic and activist attitudes to the rural populace. The disconnect from the rural which arises from the anti-modern and anti-capitalist thinking of many of Thailand’s leftish leaning commentators leaves them poorly placed to defend the rights of Thailand’s majority to participate in democratic national politics. Thaksin has badly wrongfooted them, displaying a more acute understanding of rural aspirations than many of these “grass roots” commentators. And the wrong foot is not a good place to be when confronting a coup.
Now is the time for some serious re-engagment.