Benedict Anderson: Outsider view of Thai politics
Benedict Anderson, professor at Cornell University and author of Imagined Communities, offered his view on Thai politics at a forum organized by the Midnight University and the Faculty of Humanities of Chiang Mai University on 26 Jan 2011.
I have been asked to offer you some kind of “outsider” view of Thai politics these days, and I will try. But I am not sure what the meaning of an outsider really is. Is it simply a polite substitute for a farang, ie a Westerner who is not a Thai citizen, but knows something about Thai politics; who has the advantage of distance, but the disadvantage of not being deeply and constantly involved?
The implication is that farang who write about Siam think in a very different way from educated Thai. But my strong impression is that farang journalists and scholars in fact are heavily dependent on their Thai opposite numbers. On the other hand, there is Chris Baker, very English, a longtime resident in Siam, in good command of Thai, who writes quite distinctive and excellent columns on Thai politics, has penned the best modern books on Thai politics in partnership with Pasuk Phongphaichit, and with her too has just published a monumental English translation of Khun Chang Khun Paen. Is it right to call him an outsider?
But aren’t there millions of citizens of Siam who may be outsiders too?
Let me tell you a good story. Some months ago, I had a long chat with a taxi driver who was taking me to Ngong Ngu Hao [Suvarnabhumi Airport]. He was over 50 and came from Bangkok’s Chinatown. I asked him what he thought of Thaksin, and his answer surprised me. “Thaksin is wonderful, I support him 100%.” When I asked him why, he said Thaksin is a Hakka like me. They are the best Chinese: brave, tough, honest, and hardworking. Hakkas were the leaders of the great Tai P’ing rebellion which conquered South China and nearly toppled the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty. His enemies here are Hokkiens, Hailamese, and Teochiu. Aphisit’s family is Hokkien mixed with Vietnamese. Sonthi Liem [Limthongkul] is a Hailamese. Hokkiens are snobbish, lazy liars. Hailamese are dirty and opportunist. The Teochiu are tricky and dishonest.”
What about the Thai, I asked. He said: They are easy-going and happy-go-lucky. They only think about food and sex. Finally, I said that in that case Siam’s politics is just like the politics of Sam Kok [Romance of the Three Kingdoms]? And the taxi driver laughed in agreement.
How do Malays in the Deep South think about Thai politics, or the Chao Le [fisher folks], or the Khmer in southern Isan, or ordinary people tang jangwad [upcountry]? Of course, there are surveys now and then, but people have to respond to the categories of thought popular among the survey-makers. I don't know of anyone who has yet tried to see Thai politics through the eyes of minorities, small town and rural people. You could guess that they might be far more ‘outside’ than the run of farang reporters or scholars, especially when you remember the strong regionalist outlooks that have come to the surface over the past 15 years, and the widespread dislike and distrust of ‘Bangkok.’ This said, let me now turn to some probably mistaken opinions of my own.
Kasian Tejapira, one of the very best students I ever had, has been describing the present system as a ‘semi-democracy.’ This is the commonest way that outsiders tend to describe the political orders of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. But in my opinion all these states, including Siam, are actually controlled, to varying extents, by oligarchies, clusters of interlocking families, whose children go to the same schools, whose businesses are interconnected, who marry among themselves, and share a common set of values and interests.
This does not mean that they do not compete among themselves, sometimes fiercely. Nor are they entirely exclusionary; they are flexible enough to assimilate various kinds of semi-outsiders, but on their own terms. They even have a kind of code of conduct – one element of which is not to use sexual scandals against each other.
A good sign of oligarchy is the absence of a coherent, well-managed opposition; another is the easy and rapid movement of sor-sor [MPs] between so-called parties as shifting governing coalitions get formed. Ne Win was one day the right hand man of Thaksin, and the next the builder of the anti-Thaksin present Aphisit government.
Crucial to a successful oligarchy is astute control of the electoral system. After Indonesia undertook its first ‘free elections’ following the fall of Suharto -- elections which were hailed as democratization in the Western press -- I ran into a senior American colleague who specializes in electoral systems, and, in fact, advised the Indonesian government. When I asked him his opinion, he shook his head and said “They have the worst electoral system I have ever experienced. This is not an accident, nor a sign of stupidity. The political leaders knew exactly what they were doing in framing the laws on elections.”
You can spot oligarchies also by the hierarchical language they use to generate legitimacy. The key word to look out for is “give.” The kind-grandfather regime will “give’ the national grandchildren almost free education, subsidies for farmers, tsunami warning apparatuses, cheap loans, computers for elementary schools, blankets and seeds for ‘backward’ ethnic groups and so on.
I am not a great admirer of either the US or the UK political system, but people in those two countries would find it odd and even insulting if the President or the Prime Minister talked about, say, ‘giving’ one million new jobs. I’m afraid that even the best Thai scholars do not yet pay enough detailed attention to the Thai oligarchy’s language. In Indonesia today, you will often find oligarchs complaining that the rakyat masih bodoh, which means the masses are still stupid/naïve. The phrase was coined in the period just after independence was achieved 60 years ago, when people thought this stupidity, created by the colonialists, would now soon disappear. Today the oligarchs without shame use the same language clearly meaning that the masses will always be stupid, and that is why the good-hearted fatherly oligarchy is necessary.
It is not a matter of great surprise that this fascination with pseudofeudal hierarchy is quite visible among the aspiring middle classes, but at this level without the word ‘give.’
In 1910, close to one third of the adult population of New York was working as maids, nannies, chauffeurs, guards and so on. Twenty years later, with the mass production of mechanical tools for cleaning and upkeeping houses, this population vanished.
Not so with the middle classes of oligarchic SE Asia, who also own these tools. Maids have become a sort of status symbol, and have frequently been abused physically, mentally, and financially, by the mother or grandmother of the bourgeois family – which tells you something about the mentality of quite a few middle class, maid-employing feminists.
In the old days, feudal aristocrats regarded their servants as their entourage, and often kept up long-term relations with them.
Middle class parents do not see the maids as ‘entourage,’ pay them stingily, and regularly fire them. The maids are usually regarded as unreliable, lying, thieving, and lazy girls – not people to be trusted.
For more than 10 years I have been giving New Year bonuses to the guards, mae ban [maids], and office personnel working at the middleclass condo where I live. I took it for granted that all the other 250 or so inhabitants of the condo were doing the same thing. Only this year did I discover that only Ajarn [teacher] Charnvit Kasetsiri and I did this. The condo inhabitants regard these people, whose names they rarely bother to know, as ‘servants,’ who shouldn't be ‘spoiled.’ Spoiling is only for their own often bratty children.
You can go to restaurants and malls and find middle-aged, middle-class people calling waiters, waitresses, and young salespeople ‘nong' [younger brother or sister]; which might sound friendly until you see that they never bother to know the names of these ‘nong,’ and would be angry if the nong called them ‘phi’ [older brother or sister]. People in universities giving talks liked to address their audience with the feudal ‘than,’ rather than words like ‘colleagues,’ or ‘friends.’ The country still has khunyings and Thanphuyings, which seems to me laughable in these modern times. English uses the words ‘brothers’ to indicate equality and solidarity, but the word can’t be translated into Thai, who have to use the hierarchical terms phi nong [older and younger brothers and sisters], which imply inequality and subordination. You could even argue that semi-feudal hierarchy is built deeply inside the Thai language.
Let me now turn briefly to two other important aspects of today’s politics, before concluding with a few simple remarks on possible futures which are not commonly spoken or written about.
The first is regionalism. Anyone who attended the early days of the Red Shirts’ huge demonstration last spring would have noticed the predominance of banners indicating the protesters' origins in Isaan [northeastern]. But what struck me was that most of the Isaan people were not young – not teens, not students, but people around 50 and up, both men and women. I wonder whether this has ever happened before in Siam. Why should it be so, given the region’s reputation for massive vote-buying and jaophor-ism [patronage system under local influential persons]?
In my opinion, only modern history can explain this. Up until the late 1970s, Isaan was, politically speaking, leftist – the outcome of poverty and Paak Klang [central region] and Bangkok’s humiliating attitude. The Communist Party of Thailand had its strongest support there.
In Siam’s one really democratic election, in 1975, it was the only region to elect MPs from the Socialist Party and Palang Mai. It was the region that suffered most from military oppression under the dictatorship of Sarit and his successors, and experienced most painfully the collapse of the CPT.
After 1976, there were no more leftist political parties of significance. Hence the drift towards selling votes as the only way to get any small benefit from the oligarchy-controlled electoral system. Youngsters who grew up in the 70s are now in their 50s and 60s, and Thaksin opened chances for them to enter politics again, beyond simple vote-selling and submission to jao phor [godfathers]. Hundreds of thousands of Isaan people have been coming to work in Bangkok and elsewhere outside Isaan (even Chinatown is now perhaps fuller of Isaan people than Chinese).
The evergrowing power of the mass media also reflects to them their status in Thai society. When was the last time you saw a dark Isaan beauty in films or TV soaps? Bangkok’s consumerist middeclass is dominated by luk jin [Chinese descendants], so that the image of TV beauty is as far from Isaan as possible – the desired ‘look’ is luk jin or luk kryng [half-western, half-Thai].
Isaan people are relegated to the sphere of comedy, slapstick, and farce, the traditional sphere of servants. But there is more to Isaan regionalism than that. During the Red Shirt demonstrations, I noticed that skilled orators like Nattawut and Jatuporn almost never mentioned the Deep South, which is actually treated much worse than the people of Isaan. The total killings in Bangkok, some by Reds but more by the military, were regarded and treated by the Reds and the Bangkok media as national calamities. No one mentioned that the murders at Tak Bai alone were more numerous than the deaths in Bangkok, let alone the casualties of the war in the Deep South over the past decade. Isaan regionalism is focussed on its own troubles. Middleclass Bangkok could not care less about the Deep South. You feel that as long as the territory remains ‘Thai,’ the local Malay Muslims should simply disappear.
The second topic is the politics of the Bangkok middle class or kratumpi [bourgeoisie], kratumpi yai [big] and kratumpi noi [petty]. Part of the mythology of progress and democracy in the West attributes a crucial role to the middle class or bourgeoisie and this legend is by no means wholly false. (It’s so easy to forget that more people were executed in the two weeks it took the middle class to destroy the Paris Commune of 1871 than during the whole of the French Revolution).
There is no doubt that the 19th century effloration of so many great novelists, painters, poets, playwrights, architects, social thinkers, and philosophers came out of the rise of middle classes to cultural dominance. The contrast with Siam could not be more striking. So far as I know, Bangkok has yet to give birth to a great novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, architect, or social thinker. It is Kongkhaen, not Bangkok, that gave birth to Apichatpong Weerasetakul who, barely in his 40s, is internationally regarded as among the very top of world cinema directors, and this year won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. You might have expected that an artist of this calibre would be the object of immense pride by a bourgeoisie always anxious to show its international credentials. But no, the bourgeoisie continues passively to swallow up Hollywood junk, repetitive Chinese martial arts junk, imported videogames and trashy soaps. Middle class Bangkok, if one reads the advertisements, is interested only in good food, fashions from abroad, expensive resorts, and shopping trips in East Asia and Europe. It is really hard to find a beautiful public building in the Thai capital, and there is no Thai temple that can beat Wat Xian Thong in Luang Prabang. The shameful hubbub about Preah Wihan is one way of covering up what should be obvious to anyone, i.e. that there are no Thai-thai buildings than can compare with Cambodia’s Angkor, Java’s Borobudur, or Burma’s Pukan. One can suspect that Bangkok has a hidden inferiority complex in this regard. Two minutes at Preah Wihan tells anyone with brains that this gorgeous building is Khmer not Thai, so some Thais can’t bear this, so it has to be ‘ours.’
It would be difficult to expect anything from a capital city middle class of this type. It timidly supported the demonstrations of October 73, but turned its back on the students in 1976. It timidly supported the early Thaksin social policies, but very soon turned against him, and now expresses itself through noisy support for the monarchy and the Yellows. I should say that in this way the Bangkok bourgeoisie isn’t far from that of Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Jakarta: timid, selfish, uncultured, consumerist, and without any decent vision of the future of the country.
Why it should be so is something that scholars have only begun to investigate. I am reminded of French Prime Minister Clemenceau’s devastating verdict on the US. He said that the US has progressed from barbarism to decadence without any intervening period of civilization.
Finally, let me turn, also timidly, to the future. The great Italian Marxist Gramsci famously wrote that” When the old refuses to die, and the new is struggling to be born, monsters appear.” He was thinking of the rise to power of ex-socialist Mussolini, the populist rightwing dictator who invented the word ‘fascism’ and imprisoned Gramsci for many years. I would like to ask you to consider this rather overdramatic idea.
My timid sense is that the old is dying though it still refuses to do so. What are the indicators to think about?
Last year, the Bangkok Post briefly noted that ten years ago there were still 6 million male Thais wearing yellow robes, either as full monks or as nen [novice]. Today the number has fallen to 1.5 million – a 75% loss. No doubt this drastic drop is partly a reaction to the commercialization of wats [temples], the regular financial and sexual scandals, and so on, which are obliquely recognized in the previously banned film Naak Phrok. But is surely also connected to a middle class feeling that putting their sons into wat, even if briefly, is a waste of time.
I know plenty of adult males who have never been ordained and have no plan to become, even for a few weeks, a monk. Some months ago Ajarn Nidhi wrote an insightful column about the language used by urban girls and young women. He argued that these young women use the yaap [indecent] language of young men and boys to insist on their right to equality and to reject gender hierarchy.
I have no doubt that he is partly right, though my very limited observations suggest that this yaap language is more common among girls together rather than in mixed company. But it can also be read more complexly. Western soaps, where girls often use the same limited coarse language of the boys, probably have their influence. Bangkok TV soaps regularly centre on spoiled, screaming girls who will say anything to shock or to punish. The change may also reflect both a democratization as well as a coarsening of public language.
The oligarchy’s code of silence on sex was actually first breached by Ai Lerm [Chalerm Yubamrung], who drove PM General Prem from power by threatening to call the elderly general a ‘tut’ [faggot] in parliamentary debate. But it was really Natthawut, the first brilliant orator in modern Siam, who openly attacked Prem (who else could he attack?) as a tut, even though Prem’s sexual life had nothing to do with his political maneuvering.
That Nattawut was code-breaking, and nothing more, or less, was shown by his welcoming on the Ratprasong stage of a cute teenage krathoey [transvestite] who had recently become a Red Shirt, even though the embarrassed boy confessed that his wonderful pua [husband] was a tahan [soldier]. Nattawut led the wild and friendly applause that the little tut created.
Western Europe shows many examples of sexual attacks on the ruling classes, from the 18th century on. In any case, we can be sure that all these trends are not going to disappear in a hurry. Democratization means both the right of the phrai [subjects or ordinary people] to demand, rather than to be ‘given’ something, as well as plenty of ugly language directed at the oligarchs. (If you don't believe this, look at the really repulsive language directed at Obama by American rightwingers.)
The other side of this development, enormously accentuated by the new culture of unstoppable blogs, cell phones, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook etc) is the coming crisis of the pivot of the oligarchy. This is not something in the least peculiar to Siam.
From the beginning of the 20th century, monarchy in Europe came under enormous pressure, with the rise of popular literacy, tabloids, etc etc. One basic cause was certainly the triumph of a secular culture. Traditionally monarchs were believed to be special God-blessed people, who even had the power to cure diseases among their subjects by the laying on of royal hands. This power ceased to exist in England in the early 18th century, and in France two or three decades later.
Out of this came eventually the idea of constitutional monarchy, and the end of the old magical aura of kingship. Monarchs had to adapt to the rise of nationalism inside ancient empires that included dozens of nationalities, by identifying themselves with one nationalism or another. They also had to deal with the expectations of the rising bourgeoisie. The age of royal debauchery was coming to an end, not least thanks to the spread of newspapers. In this way, bourgeois monarchy came into existence to replace feudal monarchy. The old idea that the fall of a dynasty would mean the rise of a new one, gradually disappeared. All European monarchs began to realize that if they fell, there would be no replacement. The fear was shown to be real between 1911 and 1920, when the dynasties in China, Russia, Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Great Germany all disappeared, together with the foundation of the League of Nations. Only in victorious UK, with its empire, did Class A monarchy survive, and it had to be as good bourgeois as possible. (But aura-less monarchy had a hard time of this, since its traditional legitimacy depended on aura).
In the UK this kind of monarchy survived pretty well until the unhappy marriage of Crown Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The secularization of the British monarchy meant that the tabloids, helped by computer hacks, showed that both husband and wife were adulterous. By then Diana, at least, had discovered a frail new way to achieve an aura. A true member of her generation, she found it in the mass media, as a super-celebrity. In the company of film stars and rock stars, both more beautiful, more creative and more intelligent than she, she had in her hand the ace of spades – she was royalty a status which no singer of film star could attain. But she did not understand that while media celebrities thrive on sexual and other scandals, royalty can not. She also did not realize how ephemeral celebrity really is. It works for the short period of aura that every film star has. She did enormous damage to the British monarchy, which is trying to make sure that the old bourgeois monarchy is revived. She was lucky to be still only a princess. Had she lived to become Queen, and still wished to be a celebrity, she might have brought monarchy to an end in the UK. We can learn from this.