Sondhi Limthongkul and Kraisak Choonhavan are good communicators. At the SOAS seminar last Saturday they presented a clear vision of political change in Thailand. As Nicholas Farrelly indicates in his previous summary post a key aspect of this vision is the political mission of Thailand’s middle class. In Sondhi’s eyes the urban middle classes (not just in Bangkok but in provincial centres throughout the country where the anti-Thaksin no-vote was strongest) can act as a vanguard for changing the political hearts and minds of the rural population. Sondhi argued that his so-called pro-democracy movement has to focus its attention on the most receptive social groups (that is, the middle class) who can then extend their new forms of political knowledge to the more slow-moving masses.

This is an unashamedly elitist vision. Sondhi baulked (claiming his poor English had generated some misunderstanding) at a playful but penetrating questioner who wondered out loud if uneducated rural votes should be disregarded altogether. Of course, rural people should have the vote, Sondhi protested. But both he and Kraisak argued that democracy in Thailand was fundamentally flawed given the lack of political education among the rural voting masses. Any doubts about just how patronising this perspective really is were removed when Sondhi commented that northern Thai villagers supported Thaksin because they are both “kind hearted” and “soft headed” (unlike the hard headed Democrat voters of the south). Both he and Kraisak painted a picture of voters in the north and northeast as pliant, respectful of authority and so mired in traditional social relations as to be easily persuaded by populist handouts.

In my question to Sondhi, I put it that this view ruled out the possibility that rural people in Thailand are capable of rational political decision-making. In response, Sondhi cited the impact of the free trade agreement with China on Thai garlic farmers. Longer term readers of New Mandala may recall that this is an issue that I am have been following for some time as a result of ongoing research in a garlic producing village in Chiang Mai province. Sondhi suggested, correctly, that many farmers have suffered as a result of the influx of cheap Chinese garlic (though he had nothing to say about the diverse ways farmers have responded to this changing economic context). His punchline was that northern Thai farmers did not even know that Thaksin’s free trade policies had caused them such pain. In their politically ignorant state they were incapable of sheeting the blame home to Thaksin and, as obedient as puppies, cast pro-government votes in return for populist handouts.

This is plainly ridiculous. Farmers are well aware of the free trade agreement and regularly talk about the local impacts of the talaat seri (free market) with China. They are only too aware of the large quantities of Chinese garlic coming into the market place. Does Sondhi really think that farmers don’t discuss (with brokers, officials, middle-men, politicians, researchers, NGOs and each other) the policy and economic factors that impact on their livelihoods? Does he really think that they don’t read the newspaper, watch television or listen to the radio? Is he unaware that a not insignificant number now have internet connections? In fact, over the past couple years the government’s compensation scheme (which pays small subsidies to farmers who reduce their area of garlic cultivation) has been a regular topic of discussion in garlic growing areas. This scheme, which is directly related to the influx of Chinese garlic, is much criticised for its ponderous administration and painfully slow payments. And discussions about these specific subsidies regularly develop into broader discussions about the perceived lack of support by Thaksin for the agricultural sector.

The point I am making is that farmers (if I can generalise rather too liberally) are politically rational actors who weigh up the pros and cons of various policies and administrative pratices. The image of farmers blindly supporting Thaksin out of a politically unsophisticated respect for authority is a gross stereotype that is being wielded by Sondhi and others to undermine the importance of elections in the Thai political system. It is a gross sterotype that was liberally used to attack Thaksin and it is now being deployed to provide ideological endorsement for the coup.

I am sure that many rural dwellers in Thailand would happily participate in new forms of education. Most, quite sensibly, see education as a key strategy in developing secure and diversified modern liveilhoods. But before a middle class educational vanguard is unleashed on the rural electorate it may help if their leaders go back to school themselves. Cast aside the country bumpkin stereotypes and go and talk to farmers. Simple as that. Sit down in a field hut and talk to farmers about prices, policies and politics. Stay the night, eat the food, and go out and do it again. There may be some surprises in store.