In his closing comments on the Critical Transitions in the Mekong conference, longstanding Mekong commentator Phil Hirsch expressed some surprise that one of the most critical transitions had received very little attention at all. He noted that there was only one paper (mine) that addressed the issue of Thailand’s recent transition to military rule. And, what’s more, the topic of the coup seemed to emerge infrequently in the ongoing conference corridor chat. Very puzzling, especially at a conference with such a strong “rights-based” agenda. Despite all the very legitimate talk of the importance of participation and the need to open up public spaces for marginalised people in the region, the abrogation of electoral rights seems to have had limited impact on academic blood pressure.
For those interested, here is the introduction to my paper on “Beyond the rural betrayal: lessons from the Thaksin era for the Mekong region.” I will post a full copy of the paper in a few days (once I have tidied up a couple of rather rough sections).
When I prepared the title and the abstract for this paper in mid-September last year I had no idea that, within days, the three-time elected Thaksin government would be overthrown by a military coup. This coup was very unfortunate for democracy in Thailand but it was rather more fortunate for my paper as the coup, and the reaction to it, underlined many of the points I was planning to make about what I call “the rural betrayal.” This paper is an extension of my previous work in which 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. Here I will suggest that these activist perspectives–given a recent boost by the military regime’s enthusiastic promotion of the royalist sufficiency economy approach–provide a poor basis for defending the economic and political rights of rural people in and elsewhere in the Mekong region. I propose that the key lesson from the Thaksin and post-Thaksin era is that many common approaches to rural politics, society and economy in the region need to be rethought.