At a dinner table in a common Isaan household, a spirit appears, asking, “What’s wrong with my eyes? They are open, but I can’t see a thing.” The spirit’s appearance initially renders it a menacing threat, but it soon becomes clear that the spirit is the family’s guardian. This scene takes place in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, alongside many other images of superstition and banal rural life in Thailand’s Northeast. The film was produced at a moment of immense change in Thailand, as the military continually interfered in civilian political processes between 2006 and 2010, sometimes causing violence in the suppression of street protests. The film, aware of its context, notes the country’s history of military interventions when the eponymous protagonist laments his past murder of communists under the false and exaggerated premise of nationalism.
The more recent military action that removed elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power in 2006 occurred along a polarized divide between the urban and the rural, between business and agriculture, and between the bourgeoisie and the poor. The film’s threatening spirit guardian represents this rural working poor, who simultaneously form a foundation of Thai identity but stoke fear among urban elites through their electoral power. Although 2006 saw the successful removal of Thaksin, the resumption of new street protests in recent months demonstrates the anxieties over rural power that still exist in Thailand. Key elements within a “deep state” of military, royal and business elites have unsuccessfully offset the interests of rural peasants, even as they have utilized and managed support from civil society movements opposed to government corruption. To shift the polarization in Thai society and politics, greater understanding of the historical experiences of the Thai subaltern – the rural and working poor – can bridge the divide.
Although the Shinawatra-associated parties of Pheu Thai [PTP] and previously Thai Rak Thai [TRT] won four elections between 2001 and 2011, the deeper powers of the Thai state have not necessarily shifted with the changes in government. Rather, as McCargo has suggested in his work on the Thai network monarchy, the entrenched military, royalist and business elements have continued to operate the state at a deeper level than any superficial electoral shift. Yet in the face of PTP’s continued electoral mandates for programs of healthcare provision and rural development loans, this deep state may no longer feel so empowered.
Through studies of bourgeois hegemony in his Prison Notebooks, the Italian communist leader, Antonio Gramsci, noted society’s role when a state lost control over politics. As he noted, “When the State trembled a sturdy structure of civil society was at once revealed…[as] a powerful system of fortresses and earthenworks.” Thaksin’s mutation into a populist force outside the Bangkok establishment encouraged support among those that the leading Democrat Party had long ignored, including the geographically marginalized North and Northeast as well as the socioeconomically marginalized rural poor and migrant workers. It was assumed Thaksin held ulterior motives, but corruption and cronyism were not new features of Thai democracy; what unnerved the urban elite to a greater extent was his ability to consolidate such wide support from the voting public, for this had the capacity to threaten future policymaking and their deeper interests. This elite struggle resulted in and revealed the real forces within civil society taking part in street movements and fighting over sociopolitical hegemony: the urban bourgeoisie and the rural poor. As the dominant bloc of political elites lost control over the government, bourgeois elites now fear losing hegemony over the rural and working poor.
Recent events in Bangkok have amplified the anti-rural noise, referring to potential PTP voters as either ignorant or susceptible to bribes. Thongchai Winichakul has noted the discrepancy in criticizing vote-buying among rural populations but ignoring similar strategies of localized spending within the urban context. The cynical discourse surrounding development in rural areas does not exist concerning commonly used tax breaks or transit improvements in Bangkok. Andrew Walker has also argued that urban elites wrongly presume that money dispensed during elections will directly determine voting outcomes, an assumption that indicates not only urban bias but also urban ignorance of the realities and rational choices of rural populations.
Herein lies the paradox at the crux of the divide: the deep state of military, royalist and urban business interests view populist efforts as a threat to their wider support, but what truly threatens their grasp on power is their own mischaracterization of that wider public as threatening. Instead, these elements should view the rural populations as a foundational spirit of their power. The king once achieved his prominence and earned his wide appeal through years of concerted public engagement with rural farmers, for example. However, the monarchy and its networks have presently come to fear the rural population’s intractable power and related support for the Shinawatras.
There is a distinct possibility — even probability — that Thaksin capitalized on the subaltern of rural farmers and urban poor in a clever attempt to assuage populist sentiment without true action. Recent protests among Northern farmers still awaiting their promised subsidies reinforce this notion. However, the opposition’s emphasis of this claim only aims to manipulate the subaltern for purposes of its own. As such, Thai political and civil society regularly engage in debates that reinforce the status quo and protect the hegemony of the dominant bloc of the ruling class and the state. The selective removal of Thaksin Shinawatra as a singular example of corrupt politics denotes not only the level of unease among elites in response to his continued support among the rural population and the working poor, but also the continued entrenchment of an elite class on either side of the political divide. The monarchy’s Privy Council, the military and the courts – the structural tools of the deep state – only began to pursue Thaksin’s removal from office after his resounding 2005 re-election, after ignoring his and others’ corruption as a banal normalcy within Thai politics.
Thongchai Winichakul labels the events of 2006 “a royalist coup,” with the military and the courts as accomplices and with the support of an electoral minority but crucial element called “the people’s sector,” made up of activists, intellectuals, media outlets, and the business elite. This sector, weighted towards the attitudes and interests of the urban bourgeoisie, has failed to appreciate those of rural citizens. The lengthy movements of 2006 and 2008, the violence of 2010 and the renewal of action in recent months indicate the deep intractability of the divide that continues to separate the country. The invention of “the people’s sector” has resurfaced in the past few months, as protestors have rallied against elections and called for the instatement of a “people’s council.” The current protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban, speaks of moral opposition to Thaksin’s corruption and his sister Yingluck’s leadership failings, even as he minimizes his own alleged involvement as the deputy Prime Minister who ordered the deadly military crackdown that killed 93 red-shirt supporters of Thaksin in 2010. Such a selective memory extrapolates beyond Suthep’s personal evasion: his circle of elite and urban-based support has consistently justified the previous acts of violence perpetrated on the social movements that first caused the state to tremble (to use Gramsci’s phrasing).
What truly needs to change in Thailand is a shift in civil society; street protests evoke the vestiges of civil action, but they merely actualise the political gamesmanship on both sides of a purely political debate. Understood as such, a Gramscian framework is more illuminating with regards to ongoing events in Thailand than the conventional analysis of democratization, which focuses too much on political power and policy. The opposition is correct that Thailand needs more than new elections, but Suthep and other yellow-shirt elites have ideologically manipulated the discontent of their supporters for their own political entrenchment. The series of trembles to the Thai state over the past eight years have revealed the cracked earthenworks of division and misunderstanding that lay between the key interests of society. A Gramscian framework provides greater agency to the subaltern: “If yesterday it [the subaltern element] was not responsible, because ‘resisting’ a will external to itself, now it feels itself to be responsible because it is no longer resisting but an agent, necessarily active and taking the initiative.”
For subaltern elements to entrench their own sense of agency, they must resist the hegemony within their own ranks – red or yellow. The alternative Gramscian framework has suggested they can accomplish this through direct emphasis on their own cultural strengths, ideological dominance, and incumbent moral superiority. Modern Thailand faces the task of reconciling an increasingly polarized populace, divided by political ideology as much as geographic and industrial background. Yet the battle is taking place and must continue to take place not within political society but within civil society. Until urban elites interpret the incentives and interests of the rural poor not as a threat but instead as a foundational spirit, the hegemonic Thai system will continue to move forward blindly, as with open eyes that cannot see.
Daniel Mattes is a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science