Last night the special issue of the Journal of Contemporary Asia on the coup was launched at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand. Here is the speech given by one of the editors, Kevin Hewison:
The last time the Journal of Contemporary Asia produced a special issue on Thailand was in 1978, it was a response to the bloody events of 6 October 1976 that marked the end to an important 3-year democratic interlude. The focus of that issue was on the destruction of democratic politics and the remarkable divisions that had emerged in Thai society, especially the divisions between the haves and the have-nots.
In hindsight, many now view the events of 1973-76 as a prelude to democratisation over the following three decades as a period of military-led political tutelage under General Prem Tinsulanond’s semi-democracy – we might call it “Thai-style democracy” – eventually gave way to parliamentary politics, at least until the coups of 1991 and then in 2006.
That a second Journal of Contemporary Asia on Thailand should be produced following the 2006 coup is a sad reflection on the troubled course of democracy in the country. Thaksin Shinawatra, the only Thai prime minister to win two successive general elections, projected himself as the political saviour of the domestic capitalist class following the 1997 economic meltdown, and became the self-declared saviour of the poor and dispossessed.
Thaksin led a political party that fundamentally changed the nature of Thailand’s politics. It also generated remarkable division.
Since the coup, these divisions have become deeper as the palace, the military and the bureaucracy have embedded their power and asserted their political and social dominance.
Tonight I do not want to detail all aspects of the special issue – that would be too time-consuming as the collection of papers deal with a number of aspects of the events leading up to the 2006 coup and the interpretation of the coup itself. And, we have some of the authors here tonight who can say a little more about their individual chapters and answer questions.
Let me begin by saying that this collection does not accept that the September 2006 coup was a “good coup.” In taking this position, among the various themes that can be seen in the collection, I think there are three that I should briefly mention.
The first relates to the conception of democracy in Thailand. So-called Thai-style democracy is a conservative definition of hybrid regime that allows an elite to maintain control over the political agenda against the demands of the disadvantaged masses. It does this by ensuring that political parties are weak and that political control is maintained through unelected positions. This conception has been developed and articulated since 1932, but has been embedded since 1957. Thus, in Thailand’s chequered history of democratisation the 2006 coup is yet another episode in the conservative elite’s attempt to control the political agenda.
A second and related theme is that the conservative control of the political agenda does not go unchallenged. Indeed, it is the disadvantaged (and sometimes disenfranchised) masses who pose the greatest challenge.
Whereas Thaksin supporters have often been painted as ignorant vote-sellers, studies in the north and northeast, show that rural electors have a preference for local candidates who support and deliver services to their constituency, and show strong leadership. Local politics is complex, and voters find themselves linked in many ways with local figures on all sides of political contests. Their preferences become a “road map” through the multiple demands of an election campaign. In this context, Thaksin’s populism was a response to the demands and insecurities of the poor and dispossessed. The problem was that this response was challenging to other constituencies and especially to the conservatives.
A failure to recognise the legitimacy of rural electoral decision-making and the demands of the dispossessed remain fundamental challenges for Thailand’s democracy.
Finally, the monarchy is placed at the centre of political events. The problem is that this also means that the monarchy – always said to be “above politics” except in times of crisis – is now situated at the heart of ongoing political struggles. Everything royal has substantially more political weight and political meaning than before the coup. Nationalist discourses place the monarchy at their core. Symbols of the monarchy are symbols of loyalty. The coup and its subsequent events – the constitution drafting and the upcoming election – may have been initially considered by conservative royalists as a political triumph. However, the coup may also be read as a failure of a “royal liberalism” – led by, for example, Anand Panyarachun and Prawase Wasi – associated with the 1997 Constitution.
Let me also quickly say what the collection doesn’t do. It doesn’t provide a detailed critique of the Thaksin period of government, its authoritarianism, its failed policies in the south, its cronyism and its human rights violations. Most of the authors in the collection have engaged in that criticism elsewhere. Pasuk and Baker have produced an important book on the Thaksin period and Ukrist is a co-author (with Duncan McCargo) of another significant study on The Thaksinization of Thailand. Other authors, myself included, have written numerous critical papers about the Thai Rak Thai government.
Finally, the collection does not specifically address the issue of whether the return to a ‘‘Thai-style democracy” will be successful. However, I think the thrust of the papers is clear: the emergent political system is unlikely to be inclusive; it will be dominated by a conservative palace, the royalist-military and the dead weight of the bureaucracy. Frankly, political demobilization and increasing the volume of highly conservative and nationalist discourses, promoting national forms of capitalism, and state-led campaigns teaching people the “proper” exercise of citizenship appear to be a recipe for political control rather than for reconciliation and democratisation.