Debate surrounding Thailand’s latest political crisis is characterised by a good deal of what has been aptly described as “dangerous nonsense.”

A good deal of this nonsense relates to the issue of corruption. One common claim, made both implicitly and explicitly, is that supporters of the government who have voted for Thaksin and his allies five times since 2001 don’t care about corruption. What Thailand needs, according to the fans of squeaky-clean Suthep Thaugsuban, is an anti-corruption vanguard that can take the reins of government and lead it in the directions of virtue and morality. Electoral democracy has failed, they argue, because voters passively recycle corrupt leaders.

This is a gross misrepresentation of the political culture of Thailand’s voters.

Working in northern Thailand, in one of Thaksin’s rural heartlands, I found that corruption was a dominant preoccupation among local voters. The use of public office for private benefit is the subject of never-ending comment, gossip, speculation and critique. As government activities at district and village level have proliferated over the past few decades, rural people have gained intimate insights into the realities of corruption.

The problem for elite commentators in Thailand is that grass-roots evaluations of corruption are both sophisticated and pragmatic. They don’t fit well into the black and white templates that the self-appointed defenders of public morality like to rely on.

The rural people I have worked with in Thailand evaluate corruption, unsurprisingly, in terms of a distinction between personal and public benefit.

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