On November 14, 2006, Khun Sondhi Limthongkul spoke on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle about the Thai political situation. His visit was arranged by Thai students at the University. An audience of approximately 350 people attended the event; most were Thai by origin who live in the Seattle area, although some came from as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia. There was also a scattering of non-Thai in the audience, including the former US Ambassador to Thailand, Darryl Johnson, who is currently a lecturer at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
Khun Sondhi first spoke in English for about 45 minutes and then took questions from the audience for another 20 minutes. He then turned the microphone over to Khun Karun Saingam, a former MP and former senator from Buriram. Khun Karun spoke in Thai for about 45 minutes. After a break, Khun Sondhi then spoke and answered questions in Thai for another hour.
A few Thai students, led by Khun Anusorn Unno, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Washington, distributed a handout in both Thai and English, entitled “9 Myths about the September 19, 2006, Coup.” Although a brief dispute arose because the organizers demanded that the protestors not have their signs in the foyer outside the lecture hall which had been booked for the event, this was resolved when the protestors moved outside the front door of the hall. A photo of Khun Sondhi, Khun Karun, and Khun Anusorn appeared with the story published the next day in the online edition of the Thai newspaper The Manager. (For this story, see http://www.manager.co.th/Politics/ViewNews.aspx?NewsID=9490000141271).
Khun Sondhi said that while he was not happy with the coup, he was very happy it had happened. He reiterated the reasons he has presented many times before about why former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had so abused power that only a coup could remove him. He said that if the coup had not happened on September 19th there would have been bloodshed the following day in a confrontation between those attending a rally to protest his continuing in office and Thaksin’s supporters.
He argued that there cannot be electoral democracy in Thailand such as is found in the West because most people outside the middle class lack sufficient knowledge to understand how power can be abused. The rural people only vote, he claimed, for those who pay them either directly through party organizers (hua khanaen) or indirectly through the populist programs. He compared the populist programs of Thaksin to those of Peron in Argentina. Khun Sondhi said that in the future he himself will work only with the middle class who have sufficient education to truly understand how populist politicians can abuse power. He added that while the middle class is found primarily in Bangkok, it is also represented in the urban areas of each province.
Khun Sondhi said that politicians of all parties in Thailand are characterized by kilet, a Buddhist term that in Thai means greed for power, wealth and fulfillment of sexual passion. He was quite dismissive of a written constitution as the basis for governance in Thailand. He said that only if the people have a spirit of democracy can democracy truly exist. Without a constitution, the only institution that can assure good governance is the monarchy. He said that ‘royal prerogative’ (phraratchamnat) is deeply respected and embodies the spirit of the nation.
The audience was generally very receptive to Khun Sondhi’s interpretations.
My own assessment is not so positive. I am aware that I am not a Thai, but I have been involved in studying Thai society, particularly in rural areas, for many decades. I find very disturbing Khun Sondhi’s assumption that rural people are ignorant and are not capable of making good political choices unless they are ‘bought’. I have found just the opposite. Rural people today are not the peasants of yesteryear and it is a myth that they are ignorant (ngo). Villagers today are very much aware that unless political leaders are chosen who will respond to their needs for government services such as healthcare, education and government-sponsored loan funds they will continue to be very disadvantaged in Thailand’s capitalist economy. Khun Sondhi’s position seems to me to contribute to the growing class division of Thai society. I also found his dismissal of a written constitutional basis of governance and emphasis on ‘royal prerogative’ to, in effect, turn back the clock on the governing of Thailand to the system that existed prior to the revolution of 1932.
I am happy, nonetheless, that Seattle and the University of Washington should have been put on the map of Thai politics through Khun Sondhi’s visit.
Charles (Biff) Keyes