One of the legacies of the Thaksin era is what some regard as an unprecedented level of division among academic commentators on the Thai political scene. Email exchanges and web-board posts reflect both an increase in the level of academic vitriol and some anxiety about the danger of vigorous academic exchange spilling over into more fundamental misunderstanding and conflict. There is nothing wrong, of course, with vigorous exchange. Some would argue that the Thai academic scene has been populated by altogether too many sacred cows. A necessary part of the opening up of new lines of discussion and enquiry is that some heat, as well as light, will be generated along the way.

But there is some risk that productive discussion will become obscured by personalities, institutional rivalries and unhelpful distinctions between insider and outsider perspectives. As one contribution to avoiding this, I want to attempt an initial mapping of some of the key academic positions associated with Thaksin and the coup. Let me say in advance that this is a most rudimentary mapping of a complex and subtle debate. I am putting it forward as an initial framework for ongoing elaboration and discussion. It may well be a framework that can be quickly discarded.

As a start, I will set out a simple matrix of four possible positions based on attitudes towards both Thaksin and the coup.


1. Pro-Thaksin and Pro-Coup. On the face of it this appears to be a contradictory position. But perhaps it is not as strange as it seems. In fact, this is the position that is attributed by many in the local and international press to much of the Thai electorate who (we are told on the basis of possibly dubious polling) endorsed the coup despite their strong electoral support for Thaksin. I have detected some elements of this sentiment among Thaksin supporters in rural northern Thailand. Soon after the coup there was some sentiment that it was a desirable development because it appeared to bring an end to a period of turmoil and political disruption. Support for the coup was not motivated by anti-Thaksin sentiment but by a desire to avoid ongoing political turmoil. Are there any key public advocates of this pro-Thaksin/pro-coup position?

2. Pro-Thaksin and Anti-Coup. This is a rather obvious position that has received considerable coverage on New Mandala, however the pro-Thaksin label is not one that is worn proudly by too many academic commentators. “Pro-Thaksin” is, of course, a rather crude label that embraces those who are personally supportive of Thaksin and/or his government’s policies and those who (whatever their personal feelings) would prefer to emphasise the legitimacy of Thaksin’s electoral mandate. This pro-Thaksin/anti-coup position seems, at present, to be the public face of the anti-regime demonstrations and for some commentators a pro-Thaksin (or pro-Thai Rak Thai) standpoint seems to be a key tactical move in promoting an anti-royalist position.

3. Anti-Thaksin and Pro-Coup. This is the mirror image of position 2. While few academics holding this position would be enthusiastic in their support for the coup they are inclined to paint it as the “lesser of two evils” given what they claim is the Thaksin’s government’s appalling electoral record. Those in this position often describe the coup as “resetting” a failed democratic system. This often seems to be combined with a good dose of royalist sentiment.

4. Anti-Thaksin and Anti Coup. This is a position taken up by a number of key academic commentators in Thailand and abroad. Whatever the merits of this position, it does seem to be the least intellectually comfortable one to hold given that it involves reconciling a democratic anti-coup sentiment with a seemingly less democratic rejection of Thaksin’s electoral mandate. (I am not suggesting that this reconciliation is impossible, just a little uncomfortable!) This discomfort has been heightened by the strong pro-Thaksin element in recent anti-coup protests.

As I said above, this is a very preliminary and crude mapping of positions. The picture would become rather more complex if other variables, such as attitudes towards the monarchy, were bought more fully into the picture. As a number of people have commented on New Mandala, there is no simple relationship between a pro-Thaksin and an anti-royal (or anti-sufficiency economy) position.

Further reflection on these positions (and their various permutations) would be very welcome!