This post is part of New Mandala’s series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies. These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field. The tenth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Professor Charles Keyes, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and International Studies at the University of Washington.
Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Keyes, thank you very much for taking the time to be involved in New Mandala‘s interview series. As one of the giants of Southeast Asian Studies, many of our readers will obviously be very familiar with your work in the region. Can you tell us what first attracted you to the study of Southeast Asia? Before you set out to become an anthropologist what other career paths did you consider?
Professor Charles Keyes: Giant? Very doubtful, but I am putting on weight as I get older.
I had a vague interest in China as a child when during World War II I recall hearing some returned missionaries speak about the need for aid for children in China. But this vague interest was throughout my youth overshadowed by a strong interest in science, a consequence of my father working for a contractor at a nuclear research laboratory in Idaho. When I entered college I was intent in pursuing a career in physics or mathematics. Each summer during my college days I worked at the laboratory as a physicist’s assistant. By my junior year, however, I had discovered anthropology through taking a course to fulfil a requirement. Although I continued with a major in math, I added a joint major in anthropology. By the time I reached my senior year I realized that I was more interested in people than in subatomic particles.
One of my anthropology professors moved to Cornell University and strongly encouraged me to apply for graduate work there. When I entered Cornell this professor suggested I meet with several senior faculty members who had a comparative project on modernization. I was most impressed by Professor Lauriston Sharp who had carried out work (the famous Bang Chang project) in Thailand in the late 1940s and the 1950s. He suggested a few things to read and on the basis of these and what he told me about his own work I made a rather arbitrary decision to study the Thai language (Cornell was then one of only two institutions in the US that offered instruction in Thai) and to take a minor in Southeast Asian studies. I was very fortunate in this decision because the Southeast Asian Studies Program at Cornell had already become the major centre in the English-speaking world for promotion of studies of the cultures, society, and political-economies of the countries of the region.
Nicholas Farrelly: You have, I must add, now completed field research throughout Southeast Asia over the course of many decades. Can you tell us more about how the field research context has changed since your earliest forays into the region? Obviously, in the 1960s the geopolitical and economic situation was quite different. You even began your 1966 article, “Ethnic Identity and Loyalty of Villagers in Northeastern Thailand”, with the statement that “in recent years the various players on the international chessboard of Southeast Asia have come to view the northeastern region of Thailand as a crucial factor in the determination of Thailand’s future”. How did this impact the types of research that could be undertaken?
Professor Keyes: I would like to begin in reflecting on your question by referring to a novel I have just finished reading. The novel, Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski, is about an anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, who dies in a Chiang Mai jail where she had been imprisoned for the murder of a missionary. Martiya commits the murder because she has so identified with the Dyalo (the fictitious name the author gives to the upland people Martiya worked and lived with) that she decides the missionary threatens their culture. On one of her rare visits to Berkeley where she had begun to work toward her PhD, Martiya found that neither her professors nor her fellow graduate students had any real interest in her long-term fieldwork among a preliterate people. “The winds of anthropological fashion had shifted while Martiya was in the field” (p. 251).
It is not, however, the case that by the 1970s and 1980s the type of fieldwork that had been characteristic of anthropology since Bronislaw Malinowski first carried out his famous research among the Trobriand Islanders just before and during World War I had simply fallen out of fashion. Even in the late 1950s and early 1960s when I was a graduate student at Cornell both faculty and graduate students recognized that fewer and fewer peoples in the world were leading lives that had not been influenced to some degree by the penetration of the institutions of nation-states and the expansion of global capitalist markets. While some anthropologists of my generation looked for remote peoples who could be studied as ‘primitive isolates’, a growing number of us undertook ‘community studies’ which entailed fieldwork in villages where many social and cultural patterns were shaped not only by local custom but also by state institutions and markets. Nonetheless, we followed the traditional model of fieldwork in living for extended periods in such villages and carrying out our ‘participant observation’ by acquiring competence in the language or languages used by villagers.
Although my original fieldwork was a ‘community study’, it was shaped by a theoretical question concerning the relationships of rural Lao-speaking villagers to the Thai nation-state. My wife, Jane’s and my second major research project was also problem-centred, but the ‘community’ was much more broadly conceived. In 1967-68 we carried out research based in Mae Sariang District in northwestern Thailand on the relationships between upland-dwelling Karen and Lua’ peoples and peoples in the lowlands. While we lived in the small district town of Mae Sariang, my research entailed travelling to many villages in the district and even to the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son.
In today’s terms my Mae Sariang research was ‘multi-sited’. Such research has now become the norm as Thai as well as foreign anthropologists working in Thailand now follow networks that link people in many different places. The best anthropological research still retains some of the hallmarks of the original model – namely that the anthropologist spends an extended period (at least initially) as a participant observer among those who are the interlocutors in the research and the anthropologist also acquires competence (if she/he does not already have it) in the language(s) spoken and used by these interlocutors.
Researchers today now have a large body of anthropological and other social science research to draw on that did not exist when I first carried out my fieldwork. When Tom Kirsch, Cornell professor and my close friend whose intellectual exchanges I greatly benefited from until his death in 1999, first carried out research in northeastern Thailand in the early 1960s, there was only one other person who had previously carried out extensive fieldwork in a northeastern village – William Klausner. Today, my bibliography of works on rural society in northeastern Thailand includes nearly a thousand entries of works not only by anthropologists, but also sociologists, geographers, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, and even a few economists and political scientists. The same is true for every part of Thailand or for every people whose networks connect them to others outside of the country. The existence of large bodies of relevant literature is certainly a boon to the budding researcher, but it also creates a problem. It leads to the new researcher often becoming much more focused on issues that are often quite narrowly defined than was the case for my generation of researchers.
Nicholas Farrelly: It was forty years ago that you received your PhD from Cornell University. Many New Mandala readers will know that at that time many of the major figures in Southeast Asian Studies congregated in Ithaca. How would you characterise Cornell back in the 1960s? What impact did your training there have on your subsequent development as an academic anthropologist?
Professor Keyes: Cornell in the 1950s and 1960s was truly a very exciting place to be a graduate student in anthropology and Southeast Asian studies. Cornell and Yale had, in the postwar period, essentially created Southeast Asian studies in the United States. By the late 1950s, SEA studies at Yale had fallen on hard times, a consequence in part of the death of two of its founding professors. Only Cornell of all institutions in the United States continued to offer all the major SEA languages.
As I said earlier, I had not gone to Cornell with the intention of studying Southeast Asia, but after arriving there I was so impressed by Professor Lauriston Sharp that I decided to do so. I have never regretted this decision.
My primary reason for going to Cornell was to pursue graduate work in anthropology. At the time, Cornell anthropology was at the vanguard of anthropology departments in the U.S. in preparing students to study peasant communities that were undergoing ‘modernizing’ transformations rather than to study peoples who were deemed to still be ‘tribal’. I was like a number of other students whom since the early 1950s had been encouraged to combine training in anthropology with training in area studies. This meant that we all undertook intensive study of a language and we also participated in a number of interdisciplinary courses. As a consequence of combining the study of anthropology with the study of Southeast Asia I developed strong interests in the work of other social scientists and especially the work of historians.
During the 1950s and early 1960s Southeast Asian studies at Cornell was also strongly influenced by US government policies in Southeast Asia. In the immediate post World War II period, American policy had looked favourably on the anti-colonial and nationalist movements which had emerged. After the success of the Communist revolution in China in 1949, however, American policy shifted radically towards supporting governments or parties which could contribute to the containment of Communism. At the time I studied at Cornell, the emphasis of the Southeast Asian Studies Program on learning how to understand the world from the cultural, social, linguistic, and political perspectives of Southeast Asians was much more in tune with the former US policy – a consequence of the experiences that Lauriston Sharp and George Kahin, the founders of the program, had had during and immediately after World War II. By the mid-1960s, the time I finished at Cornell, the program had begun to foster significant critiques of American policies in Indochina and Indonesia. Because of the orientation I had acquired at Cornell, I was quite surprised when I became a faculty member at the University of Washington to find little support for dissent from the growing American war in Indochina.
Nicholas Farrelly: You have been a member of staff at the University of Washington since 1965. As I understand it, your contributions there have only been interrupted by occasional visiting professorships at places like Chiang Mai University in Thailand, Göteborg University in Sweden and the University of California in Los Angeles. It would be interesting to hear your reflections on whether the approach to the study of Southeast Asia has changed during your time at the University of Washington. Have all the changes been for the better?
Professor Keyes: Your question seems to me to have two quite different parts. One has to do with the implications of my having had one primary institutional affiliation for over 40 years and the other concerns my approach to Southeast Asian studies.
It is relatively unusual for American academics to spend most of their career at one institution. In the mid-1960s when I was finishing my PhD job possibilities were quite numerous, a consequence of a significant expansion of universities and colleges that would continue well into the 1970s. I had a choice between several institutions which had offered me entry-level positions. I decided on the University of Washington for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that the UW had a very good department of anthropology and it was one of the few institutions in the U.S. where instruction in Thai language was offered.
The University of Washington proved to be very supportive during my early career. I was able to get leave only two years after joining the faculty to return to Thailand to carry out 18 months of field research in northern Thailand. In 1972 after being promoted to associate professor I was granted leave for another two years while I carried out additional field research in the northeast and north and served as a Fulbright lecturer at Chiang Mai University. I had also received strong support from colleagues for recruiting and training a number of graduate students. By the mid-1970s when I was into the middle part of my career, I was aware that others of my academic cohort were engaged in moving from one institution to another as a means to advance their careers. I chose not to follow this route – although I would have a number of opportunities, some of which were quite attractive, to move over the next twenty-five years. By remanning at the University of Washington, I realized I would be able to train many more graduate students than if I had moved several times. I also subsequently found strong support from the University of Washington for developing a new Southeast Asia centre.
In the 1980s, when I devoted considerable time and energy to laying the foundation for Southeast Asian studies at UW, the situation was very different from the 1950s when Southeast Asian studies was first developed at Cornell. First, the end of the war in Indochina led to Southeast Asia no longer being viewed by Americans primarily in political terms. To the contrary, as I myself found through my work with the Joint Social Science Research Council / American Council of Learned Societies Committee on Southeast Asia and the Indochina Studies Program of the Social Science Research Council, it was becoming possible to promote study of postcolonial Southeast Asia. This represented a marked shift in approach from Southeast Asian studies during its formative period in the United States.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s at the University of Washington, as at many other universities especially on the West coast of the U.S., many of the students who were becoming interested in Southeast Asian studies were those who had themselves or whose parents had come from one of the former countries of French Indochina. Their entry into the field contributed to blurring the line between those who undertook research about Southeast Asia and the Asian ‘others’ whom they studied. This ‘de-Orientalizing’ (as I call it) of Southeast Asian studies also developed because of the increasing number of students from Southeast Asia who came to study at American (and European and Australian) universities.
I have been very fortunate to count among my own students a significant number of Thai and Vietnamese (as well as a few Japanese and Chinese). Through my interactions with these students, I have sensed that a new scholarly discourse emerges, one that draws on the intellectual traditions from which the students have come as well as on the one in which I have been trained and contributed to. A short answer to your question, thus, is that Southeast Asian studies today is becoming one that entails intellectual exchange that is very much more “dialogical” rather than “us” analysing “them”.
Nicholas Farrelly: After his death on 31 December 1993, you wrote a touching obituary of Cornell’s Professor Lauriston Sharp – the “founding father” of Thai Studies in the United States. Your tribute provides a remarkable overview of his life and of the establishment of Thai Studies as an academic specialty. What was the impact of Lauriston Sharp on your own approach to academia? In your obituary you noted that “As one who today often finds himself caught between competing demands of administration, scholarship, and teaching, I can now better appreciate Lauri’s accessibility to students. He always seemed able to find time to help a bewildered student rework a draft paper or a proposal or to offer insightful guidance for class assignments or research”. Are there other parts of his approach to Thai Studies that have influenced you?
Professor Keyes: Lauri was truly the founder of “Thai studies” in the United States. He told me that he had first become interested in Thailand in the 1930s after a visit there on his way to or from Australia. He was not, however, able to pursue this interest until after WWII when he conceived of the project to study a village near Bangkok that was on the verge of major change because of modern political and economic influences. This became the Bang Chan project, the first research project undertaken in Thailand by American scholars.
He assembled a team that included agricultural economists, nutritionists, psychologists, as well as sociologists and anthropologists. One member of this team was G. William Skinner, then a PhD student at Cornell who had had to abort his research in Sichuan, China because of the revolution there. Lauri’s closest associates were Lucien (June) and Jane Hanks, a social psychologist and anthropologist. The publications of the members of the Cornell team became and remain the seminal studies on which Thai studies is based.
One influential scholar at this period who was not at Cornell was the anthropologist, John Embree, at Yale. Although Embree’s work prior to the War had been in Japan, after the war he was in Thailand as the cultural attaché at the American embassy. On the basis of his non-systematic but very insightful observations among Thai he proposed that in contrast to Japan, the Thai had a “loosely structured social system.” This characterization was picked up by some in the Cornell project – most notably the anthropologist Herbert Phillips. As a result the Thailand project at Cornell subsequently was also associated with the “loosely structured social system” notion.
Not all Cornell students of Thailand found the notion to be as valuable as others did. Those of us who undertook work outside of rural central Thailand where Bang Chan was located which turned out to have been something of a frontier area, and particularly those of us who worked among the Thai-Lao of northeastern Thailand and Khonm├╝ang of northern Thailand (not to mention those working among upland peoples), disputed the general applicability of the concept to all elements of Thai society. Indeed, the second generation of scholars trained at Cornell (I see the first generation as emerging in the 1950s, and the second in the 1960s), took our lead from Skinner whose very significant work on the Chinese in Thailand demonstrated that the ‘Thai’ were far from being an homogenous people. Much of my own research has aimed at pursuing the ‘de-construction’ of Thailand, to provide detailed accounts of some of the significantly different regional, ethnic and religious communities in Thailand. I owe my approach to my training at Cornell under Lauri and Bill Skinner.
As I wrote in my obituary, Lauri was very pained by what became known as the “Thailand controversy” which first erupted in the Association for Asian Studies and American Anthropological Association in 1970. Lauri had been slow to realize how much the relationship between the academy and the U.S. government had changed since he had worked for the State Department immediately after World War II. Even as I sought (and still seek) to have others recognize Lauri for the truly humane person who was truly empathetic with Thai that he was, I also learned from the pain he experienced because of the Thailand controversy to be deeply distrustful of ideologues whether within government or out of it.
In August this year I was able to visit Ruth Sharp, Lauri’s widow, who is now 96 years old and living in a retirement home in Ithaca. Seeing her again reminded me of the great warmth she and Lauri extended to students at their home.
Nicholas Farrelly: Some of our readers may be unaware of your reputation as a wonderful teacher and mentor. When it awarded you the 2003 Distinguished Graduate Mentor Award, the University of Washington wrote that you have “mentored so many graduate students that it is almost as if [you have] established [your] own brand of scholars”. Reflecting on the 145 graduate student committees you have sat on and the 33 graduate student committees that you have chaired, you said that to “To produce a Ph.D. student is as much work as writing a book”. What, from your perspective, are the major challenges faced by graduate students studying Southeast Asia today? How do you think they can be helped to overcome the obstacles that confront them?
Professor Keyes: Mentoring graduate students has been the most rewarding facet of my career. While one’s writings are, in the end, mostly ephemeral or destined for dusty archives (or does dust no longer exist when archives are digitized?), those one has helped to launch on their careers are part of a lineage every bit as much as if they were biological descendants. In October 2007, the Southeast Asia Program at the University of Washington sponsored a conference and celebration in honour of my retirement, 70th birthday, and role in creating the program 20 years earlier. It was truly a moving experience to me and Jane to hear presentations by so many former students. At the event a number of Thai scholars who had been my students presented me with a book of articles in Thai in which they (and a few others) critiqued my writings on Thailand.
As I have been reading through these articles, I find that they are what every professor could hope for. They are far from hagiographic and several take strong issue with some of my ideas. They do so from the vantage of their own innovative research and reading of other scholarly works. Thus, while I take great pleasure in the lineage I have helped to create, I also am very pleased that, like Lauri Sharp, I am not seen as being the founder of a “school.”
Many of the challenges faced by those seeking graduate work in Southeast Asian studies are much the same as they have always been – obtaining the necessary qualifications, finding funding, and gaining admittance to the institutions where they would like to study. What is different today is that the competition has become much keener as more and more qualified students seek support from what I believe is a decreasing number of non-governmental funding agencies. At the same time, more institutions within Southeast Asia are offering graduate training for students.
It is very difficult to offer general advice to students. I have found that most of the students whom I have worked with have been “hand-crafted” in that I have had to think in each case what funding agency would be appropriate and how to guide them in pursuit of their unique projects.
Nicholas Farrelly: I will pivot towards Thai issues in a moment but, before I do, I would like to ask you briefly about Vietnam. In the case of upland areas of Vietnam you once noted that “the prospects for the survival of highlander ethnicity are bleak” (American Ethnologist, 1984). Do you feel this is still the case? Is the situation in Vietnam considerably worse than in Thailand or Laos?
Professor Keyes: The article you refer to was published nearly a quarter of a century ago, a decade before I myself had the opportunity to carry out research in an upland area of northern Vietnam. My view today is much better expressed in my presidential address for the American Association for Asian Studies. In that article, “‘The Peoples of Asia’: The Science and Politics of Ethnic Classification,” I argue that in order to understand ethnic identities, it is necessary to understand the politics of ethnicity.
What has happened in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, as has been far better described by Oscar Salemink than by Gerry Hickey whose work was the subject of my earlier article, is that premodern forms of social structure (which have been romanticized by some anthropologists) have been radically undermined by policies of successive regimes – French colonial, Republic of Vietnam, and Socialist Republic of Vietnam and by decisions made by upland peoples themselves about how to adapt to such policies as well as to global economic forces (notably, in this case, the world market price of coffee). Today, pan-ethnic or religious (notably evangelical Christian) identities are often more salient than what would have been considered to be traditional ‘tribal’ identities.
At the same time, the peoples of Vietnam’s highlands share with the peoples of upland Thailand, Southern China, Burma, and, to a lesser extent, Laos, the situation of being marginalized within the nation-state frameworks in which they are situated. If we take conflict and/or poverty as the measures of whether certain peoples are worse off than others, then those in the Greater Mekong Subregion facing the most difficult circumstances would seem to be such peoples as the Karen in Burma, the Akha, Lisu, and Lahu in Thailand, as well as the Central Highlanders of Vietnam. On the other hand, the Hmong, who are found in southern China, northern Vietnam, northern Laos, and northern Thailand, seem to have made the most successful transition from a village-based people to a people who are mostly well adapted to the modern world. But to truly provide a comparative analysis of the situation of all upland or former upland peoples would require a book, not a few comments.
Nicholas Farrelly: Thailand has undergone a great economic and cultural transformation since your earliest research. Over this time, economic inequalities have increased across the country just as incomes have increased and poverty has declined. With your vast experience of Thailand, and particularly of some of its poorest regions, what do you find is more important to people on the ground: increasing relative poverty (compared, say, to their urban peers) or declining absolute poverty (compared to their parents’ generation)? Do you think that Thai government policies adequately reflect the various aspirations of the country’s poor?
Professor Keyes: To answer this question in any complete way would require a book and, as a matter of fact, my current project is just a book. As I already have noted, Jane and I carried out fieldwork in the early 1960s in the village of Ban N├┤ng T├╝n in Mahasarakham province. We made a second study of the village in the early 1980s and then a more recent study in 2005; in addition we have visited the village many times in between these dates.
Through our research we have been able to trace the transformation of a relatively self-sufficient community where almost everything that was consumed was produced locally to a community whose members today are just as likely to be living and working in Bangkok, or Taiwan, or Israel than in Ban N├┤ng T├╝n itself. To anticipate one of our major findings, it is clear that while villagers initially sought to improve their lives through expansion of agriculture supplemented by some circular migration, they eventually abandoned this strategy for one that entails working for extended periods in non-agricultural jobs and using the capital generated from this work to invest in local non-agricultural enterprises and in better living conditions.
What is striking is that the village still remains a viable community. Non-residents return regularly for festivals and many come back to settle permanently in the village. It remains because it provides a moral world centred on Thai-Lao Buddhism which people find meaningful. This is why in my keynote address for the International Thai Studies Conference in Bangkok in January I argue that the northeastern village economy is both a capitalist and a sufficiency economy.
The extraordinary growth of the Thai economy has not produced positive consequences for all. Although most villagers in northeastern Thailand today enjoy a much higher standard of living than their parents or grandparents, they remain very much aware that relative to people in the urban middle class they are still much less well off. Moreover, they are also acutely conscious of the costs of their higher standard of living, particularly the long separations between members of the family. There are, moreover, some within the rural areas who are very poor; the Northeast has a higher incidence of poverty than any other part of the country. But northeasterners who have been marginalized in the national economy are still able to find material as well as personal support from kinsmen and friends within the moral world of the village.
This is also true for many others from rural northern Thailand and from upland minority villages as I have observed from my other work in northern Thailand as has been is being documented in other studies.
Nicholas Farrelly: In a 1984 article, “Mother or Mistress but Never a Monk: Buddhist Notions of Female Gender in Rural Thailand”, you conclude that, “Few women…will remain prostitutes for prolonged periods of time…In one sense, prostitution is, for many who enter it, an extended period of adolescence as viewed in terms of traditional village culture. The tolerance that Buddhist teaching inculcates into villagers in Thailand leads them to accept reformed prostitutes back into their home communities with little stigma, although they would not be so welcome if they continued within the village context to ply their trade”. This is not an argument that one sees made very often. Could you tell us some more about how you see this “extended period of adolescence”? And, related to this, what have been your experiences of Thai young people in the 2000s? Do you think they are radically different from previous generations?
Professor Keyes: The article you refer to seems to have attracted more attention than almost anything else I have published. Unfortunately, most do not read the companion piece, “Ambiguous Gender: Male Initiation in Northern Thai Society.” I sought in these two papers to offer an analysis of gender concepts in Thailand that are rooted in Buddhist practice and understandings. It is not possible to understand the culture of gender which relates to females without understanding that which relates to males.
In the “Mother or Mistress” paper, I tried, at the end, to offer an interpretation of prostitution in Thailand that is not predicated on the usual critiques that exists in Western literature. Before the AIDS crisis, which led to a marked decline of Thai women entering prostitution, prostitution was viewed negatively, but was often seen by young village relatively uneducated women as the only option they had to make significant amounts of money which could be used to help their parental families.
The AIDS crisis came at a time when many new occupations became possible for now rather better educated women from villages. As Mary Beth Mills has shown in her work, many young village women have found working in factories in Bangkok to offer them a way to pursue their own interests (which she found could be subsumed under being thansamai or ‘modern’) before settling down to marriage. Thus, what I noted about the ‘extended adolescence’ of those who became prostitutes today is characteristic of women working in other occupations.
As many demographic studies have shown, the average of age at which all Thai marry has increased significantly over the past few decades. A growing number of urban middle class and upper class women are not marrying at all (Bangkok has the highest rate of never-married women of any city in Asia). However, most of those from villages do still marry, but usually a number of years after they have completed schooling. Thus, ‘extended adolescence’ is now very much a characteristic of most women born in villages.
Nicholas Farrelly: Turning, at last, to a more political question, I would like to ask you about a 2006 comment that was reported by Asiamedia. You reflected that “Thai Rak Thai won because the Democrats didn’t succeed in reaching the rural people….Even if they really were being bought, they really did have a sense they were voting their interests…Sondhi and Thaksin are two of a kind… [Sondhi] has always been manipulative in the same way Thaksin is manipulative…[he] is sophisticated in his use of the media, but uses it to manipulate public opinion”. You have, over the years, observed many ructions in Thai politics. Are you optimistic about the future of democratic institutions in the country? Does Thailand need to be saved from the “Sondhis” and the “Thaksins”?
Professor Keyes: I should begin by saying that I am deeply sceptical of all politicians – after all, I live in America where politics has been dominated for the past 7 years by the most disastrous president the US has had in at least a century. And Bush was elected twice! (I won’t even mention four-term Prime Minister John Howard.)
This noted, I am not at all comfortable as a farang in proposing any ‘salvation’ for the political situation in Thailand. Even for the US, I do not see any permanent solution to whatever political problems beset the society at any one time. Nonetheless, I feel it is imperative to speak out when one is aware of situations that clearly are unjust.
Because I have been so deeply engaged with Thailand for the better part of a half century, I am able to have some perspective on the trends and patterns in Thai politics, albeit, my perspective is based not on conversations or interviews with politicians I have known, but on what people in rural northeastern Thailand and upland villages in northern Thailand, and friends who are academics and workers with NGOs have told me.
In the interview you quote, I was reacting to Sondhi’s view – presented in talks in Seattle and elsewhere in the US – that rural people are stupid or venal because they vote for whomever pays them enough and not because they have made a reasoned choice. Because he has commanded a wide audience among the urban middle class through his newspaper and website, his characterization has come to be accepted by many in the class as conventional wisdom. Because of my own experience, I know this characterization is false. Those who vote in rural constituencies today – and voters include many urban working class people who retain residency in upcountry villages – make thoughtful choices based on their class interests.
Thaksin and Sondhi are similar in being very effective in using the media to advance their political views, but those views, which had originally been very similar – because they share a common class situation – were very divergent by the end of 2005. As Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have shown, Thaksin created a genuine populism which will continue to be an influence on Thai politics even if Thaksin himself never returns to power because rural people now know that some politicians can truly represent their interests even if they come from a very different class.
Nicholas Farrelly: Finally, can you tell us something about your current and future activities?
Professor Keyes: As to my other activities, I see as a primary obligation at this stage of my career preparing as much of my now very extensive collection of materials generated through my researches as I can to make these available for future scholars. With digitization – albeit the process is very slow since much of my research was undertaken before computers were readily available – it will be possible to have copies of much of these materials available in Thailand as well as in the United States and some of it will be made accessible on-line by the University of Washington archives.
Nicholas Farrelly: That sounds wonderful. Professor Keyes, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. It has been a great pleasure to have you involved!
Professor Keyes: Thank you for the opportunity to reflect some on my career.