Last Friday I spoke at the 2007 Thai Update hosted by the National Thai Studies Centre at the ANU (update-program.pdf). Over the next few days I will post some notes about some of the key presentations. But for now, you will have to make do with the text of my presentation! Regular readers should find a lot of it familiar, as New Mandala has been a useful forum for developing and testing out my ideas over the past year. But I hope there is something new in the way the various issues are combined. As usual, comment are very welcome!

Seven Threats to Thailand’s Democracy
Andrew Walker
Thailand Update Conference
31 August 2007
University House
The Australian National University


Today I will be talking to you about what I see as seven key threats to Thailand’s democracy. Don’t ask me why I chose seven, it just seemed a good number when I nominated the topic and it gave me room to explore some of the complexity of the current situation. And, in fact, I’ve decided to talk about 6 threats and one opportunity.

My aim in doing this is not to provide a detailed analysis of the recent politics of military rule in Thailand. There are others far better qualified than I am to provide that sort of analysis. Instead I will take a more cultural direction – I am an anthropologist after all – and explore some of the more general attitudes, beliefs and social processes that I think pose key threats to the future development of Thai democracy. I should say that I appreciate that some of you may find some of my comments provocative. Some Thai commentators have expressed outrage at Western media and academic commentary on Thaksin, the coup, the monarchy and the recent referendum. In one recent case here at the ANU these complaints took the form of a rhetorical nationalist rejection of what was portrayed as neoliberal western bullying.

Well, if I fall into the camp of neoliberal bullies then so be it. But I do feel that this crude nationalist stance does little justice to the vigour and sophistication of debate that is going on within Thailand about its future political directions. This is a real debate that is carrying on despite significant restrictions on freedom of expression and the continued application of martial law in many parts of the country. The attempt to construct a dichotomy between Thai insiders and western outsiders is an attempt to paper over the very real political divisions that exist within Thailand. [I then very briefly reviewed the key political milestones over the past year.]

Rejecting the ballot box

So, lets move on to the key threats. The first is the rejection of the legitimacy of the ballot box.

The Thai coup of 19 September 2006 derived ideological legitimacy from the view that the Thaksin government’s electoral mandate was illegitimate because it had been “bought” from an unsophisticated and easily manipulated electorate. This was not the only rationale, but the denial of electoral legitimacy was fundamental in justifying the removal of a government that had been elected three times. And, with a further election scheduled for late 2006, those seeking to defend the coup relied heavily on the argument that the electorate was in no position to make a reasonable judgement about the Thaksin government’s well-publicised faults. Faced with the likelihood that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party would win yet another election, the coup-makers argued that the army’s intervention was the only way to resolve the political standoff.

This rejection of the legitimacy of voter’s decision has taken some interesting twists during and after the referendum campaign. Remember, less than a year ago anti-Thaksin and pro-coup advocates were very keen to discredit the validity of the electoral process. Electoral politics was condemned and electors were slandered as uninformed, parochial and self-interested pawns of party canvassers. But in the lead up to the recent constitutional referendum electors were urged to return to the voting booths and to cast their votes in a process that, according to Prime Minister Surayud, would help secure Thailand’s democratic development.

So what changed? Why this new found enthusiasm for electoral politics. In fact, as we know in the referendum voters were given no meaningful choice. The referendum was a take-it-or-leave-it offer: if you want elections and a semblance of stability then vote yes. For those considering a no vote there was only the option of handing power to the military government to nominate a constitution of their choosing. Unlike the referendums that most of us are used to, in this case there was no clearly defined constitutional status quo that would be the outcome of a successful no vote. So, here we have some indication of the shape that sufficiency democracy is taking in Thailand. The advocates of sufficiency democracy, or guided democracy, are very happy to urge electoral participation when the electorate really has no choice. When voters do exercise choices, their electoral judgements are slandered as being the result of money politics.

Resort to the power of the gun

The second key threat is the ease with which resort is made to the power of the gun. One of the most unsavoury aspects of the Thaksin’s government’s term in office was the so called “war on drugs” which is said to have claimed the lives of thousands in a spate of extra-judicial killings. And one of the most unsavoury aspects of Thai political culture is that this brutal campaign (which turned a blind, and sometimes even approving, eye to official abuse and the violent settling of numerous local scores) proved to be a substantial electoral asset. Respect for people’s electoral wishes does amount to an endorsement of specific electoral motivations. People make electoral decisions for all sorts of reasons, some of them repugnant. That’s how a warts and all democratic system works. And it’s important to remember that support for the hardline action taken during the war on drugs extended to the highest levels of Thai society.

Of course, as we know it was resort to the gun of quite a different type (this time with a yellow ribbon tied around its barrel) that bought about Thaksin’s demise. Some commentators have argued that the coup was justified given Thaksin’s record of human rights abuse. Of course this is very much a retrospective justification. It is fanciful to suggest that the coup was motivated by Thaksin’s human rights abuses and that it represented some sort of turning point towards greater recognition of human rights.

My preference is to see a continuity between the extra-judicial gun culture that Thaksin endorsed and the extra-judicial, extra-constitutional and extra-electoral military intervention staged in September last year. In both cases the political assertion is made that force can resolve complex and seemingly intractable problems. Engendering respect for human rights and the rule of law is hardly served by using military force to tear up a constitution.

The constitution

So let’s consider this new constitution.

First let me make one empirical point. In the referendum held on the 19th August the constitution was endorsed. But not endorsed very strongly. 14.7 million out of 45 million voters voted yes. About 10 million voted no and about 20 million didn’t vote. But I don’t want to dwell on the referendum as I don’t think we yet have enough good quality data to make more than the most general speculation.

In relation to the provisions of the constitution there are clearly mixed opinions. On the one hand the constitution has been praised for its provisions in relation to human rights and the participation of civil society in the political process. On the other hand it is clear that one of the key aims of the constitution is to limit the power of elected representatives and to minimise the chance of single party dominance. But others are much better placed to talk about these specific provisions than I am.

The point I would like to put today is that, in a sense, the specific provisions of the constitution don’t matter. Rather than providing a general framework for government this constitution is a tool for achieving specific political objectives. What Thai voters were asked to endorse was a process whereby constitutions are only as good as the limit of military tolerance. In the wake of the September 2006 coup, the promise of a future election was undoubtedly attractive but it was also hollow, precisely because the reinvigorated threat of a coup strips legitimacy and moral force from the electoral process. The explicit request of the military government was that Thai voters endorse a constitution; but the implicit request was that they endorse the future abrogation of that very document if it delivers a government unpalatable to those who wield the power to overthrow it.

We can see the ideological groundwork for this being laid already with the usual tired claims about vote buying in relation to the substantial no vote in the northeast and the north. And this claims come from a government that spared little in terms of incentives and expenses for villagers mobilised as part of the yes vote campaign.

Sufficiency Economy

The fourth key threat may take some of you by surprise given its benign public face.

Let me introduce sufficiency economy by reading a short extract from a fairy story produced in Thailand. It is the story of a little kingdom and its good king, who triumphs over a series of dark forces. One of the king’s triumphs occurred during his many travels around the kingdom.

In a far off place, the king came across a village that had almost no one living there. “Where has everyone gone” the king asked the small group of remaining villagers. The villagers answered their king: “A demon of the dark called “GREED” came and visited and asked the people to leave the village. Most of the villagers abandoned the village and went to live in the “City of Extravagance”. The king thought for a moment and then gave the villagers a radiant seed. The villagers took the seed and planted it and it grew into the “radiant tree” that grew large branches and spread its radiance in all directions. The king told the villagers that the “radiant tree” is called “SUFFICIENCY.” The radiance of the tree shone to far off places, as far as the City of Extravagance. And many of those who saw it travelled back to return to their village.

This should give you some idea about the sufficiency economy philosophy. I don’t have time to go into it in detail today. Suffice to say that it is a theory proposed by the Thai king that places a strong emphasis on a “firm foundation in self reliance” as a basis for human development. The concept has been embraced with a passion by the current regime to help discredit Thaksin’s market driven model of economic development. Much of this adoption of sufficiency is rhetorical with local development projects funded by Thaksin quite literally re-badged as sufficiency economy or sufficiency agriculture projects. This is amusing and relatively trivial.

But there is a more fundamental issue. Sufficiency economy has become an ideological tool that seeks to moderate rising rural expectations for economic and political inclusion. Whatever sufficiency economy thinkers may have to say about urban consumers or businessmen, it is towards rising rural expectations for economic and political inclusion that the sufficiency economy urgings of moderation, reasonableness and immunity are most clearly directed. Not only are rural people to be shielded (or excluded) from full and active participation in the national economy but their full and active participation in electoral democracy is also delegitimised and the power of their elected representatives constrained. In this elite vision of electoral participation the problem lies in money politics – the demon of greed. The solution lies in the royally bestowed tree of local sufficiency.

Cultural Elitism

This issue leads us more fully into the cultural domain. Here, when I refer to cultural elitism I am using a rather crude term to describe a complex process. And in discussing this I want to get even more speculative.

One of the interesting characters to emerge from the puppet government established after the coup is the Culture Ministry’s Mrs Ladda Thungsupachai who is said to be the director of the Cultural Surveillence Centre. She’s not a big political player but she’s been involved in some interesting public discussions which, I think, are relevant to the current directions of Thai democracy. Let’s have a look at a couple of these.

The first relates to the so-called Coyote Girls. After Loi Kratong in 2006 the queen raised concerns after seeing television footage of a temple fair in Nong Khai at which Coyote dancers performed. The Culture Ministry stepped in and Ladda was quoted as saying that “Coyote Girls have to be in the right place, like an animal has to be in the zoo.” Eventually a ban was put in place on such performances in the proximity of temples and the Education Ministry was encouraged to provide the girls with training for alternative livelihoods.

Mrs Ladda reappeared in the press in May this year when she condemmed Thailand’s Miss Universe contestant, Fahroong Yutitam, for appearing at the competition in Mexico in a costume that clearly had strong ethnic minority elements. Ladda condemned her for not appearing in Thai national dress. Thai National dress, Ladda said, must be Thai. “It also must be in line with the official, royal designs and it must be used for proper occasions. Miss Fahroong has failed in her duty as Miss Thailand. She should show the outside world an authentic national Thai dress. Wearing an ethnic dress but calling it Thai could confuse young Thai minds and set a bad example for the youngsters to emulate.”

Of course, these are relatively trivial incidents. But as with the re-badgeing we saw in relation to sufficiency economy there is something rather more important going on. Of course there is nothing new or particularly Thai about this sort cultural elitism. But I would suggest that in the current political context it both draws some strength from, and helps to reinforce the view, that the “masses” are not completely legitimate participants in shaping the country’s future. As with sufficiency economy we have the notion that large segments of the population, and especially the rural population, have become detached from appropriate cultural values. And once again the solution is expressed in terms of the need to return to relatively narrowly, and sometimes royally, defined sense of morality.

But I also think there is something more specific going on. And here I admit to being quite speculative. One of the anxieties produced by the Thaksin government is that he had derived influence from cultural forces that lay outside the domain of the centre. Of course, part of this anxiety lies in his clear electoral power in the north and northeast. But it’s not just about electoral power. There was also concern, I think, that Thaksin tapped into and perhaps even created or energised aspirations and forms of social and cultural expression that were seen as in some way inappropriate. One example of this is the regular condemnation of Thaksin’s village fund as enabling farmers to purchase motor bikes and mobile phones. A more extreme expression of this elite anxiety and outrage were the common references to Thaksin’s dealings with hazardous spiritual forces which were often defined in explicitly non-Thai terms – the Burmese astrologer and the khmer voodoo. Efforts since the coup to define appropriate forms of cultural expression – including the semi-obligatory wearing of yellow shirts on certain occasions – can be party seen as an attempt to re-establish the royal centre as the primary source of cultural inspiration.


Which leads us back to the key silence that lies at the heart of Thai political debate. This is, of course, the legally enforced silence about the monarchy.

As we all know open discussion, let alone criticism, of the role of the king in Thai political matters is exceptionally difficult. One illustration of this is the fact that Paul Handley’s scholarly biography of the king is banned in Thailand, though scans of the book circulate widely on the internet. In the absence of open public discussion there is, of course, a proliferation of rumour, gossip and even the occasional video. There is also some vigorous debate about the role of the monarchy on some Thai web boards. This may represent some opening up of discussion but there is a lack of serious and concerted public discussion about the role of the monarch in the Thai political system.

It is not necessary to take a strong anti-royalist position to recognise that the king’s contribution to political events, to rural development and to human rights has been uneven. This uneven record is natural and normal for any leader. But this natural and normal situation is silenced.

This silence has an important implication for the development of Thai democracy. What it allows is the persistence of a largely uncontested image of virtuous and disinterested leadership. This becomes an ideologically potent standard of leadership against which elected politicians are assessed. And it is an ideologically convenient standard that can be readily drawn upon by those seeking to overthrow elected governments. The ideological potency of this unrealistic image of leadership would be diluted via more open public debate and discussion.

An opportunity

I thought it would be good to end on a positive note. So I would like to discuss what I see as one of the key, and often unrecognised, opportunities for the development of Thai democracy.

In a recent paper I have written about what I call a “rural constitution”. The rural constitution is made up of the various values that inform peoples’ electoral decisions about political leaders. Based on my research in the north of Thailand these values relate to things like effective and accessible local representation, support for economic development, sound administration, strong leadership and an appropriate balance between private and public interests.

I am certainly not trying to romanticise rural political culture – as in any political system there is plenty that is ugly and unpleasant about it. But what I am suggesting is that there is a rich store of sound democratic sense within the Thai electorate. The notion that Thaksin’s electoral support was rock solid and readily mobilised through patronage networks is highly misleading. The 2006 election was sabotaged by the Democrat Party, who were too scared to contest it, but the result did show that the Thai Rak Thai vote was soft, even in its electoral heartland. It is very likely that Thaksin would have won the election scheduled for late 2006 but in all likelihood his parliamentary dominance would have been diminished.

We are often told that the democratic checks and balances failed during the Thaksin era and that the military had to intervene to put things right. But I’m not convinced. The fundamental check and balance of electoral judgement was in place. Thaksin’s faults were well known and they were having an electoral impact. Just because a party is elected two, three or even four times in a row does not mean that this judgement has failed. The rural constitution is alive and well.

Political elites in Thailand often like to pontificate about the need for democratic education. After the coup General Sonthi declared:

Many Thais still lack a proper understanding of democracy. The people have to understand their rights and their duties. Some have yet to learn about discipline. I think it is important to educate the people about true democratic rule.

But perhaps the most pressing need for political education is at this elite level. Some concerted exposure to the rural constitution may be a good place to start.