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Democracy and National Identity in Thailand

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Democracy And National Identity in Thailand, by Michael Connors. University of Hawaii Press. 293 pages.

Many readers may find the language used in this book somewhat obscure and confusing, perhaps even bombastic with concepts such as “organismic metaphors” and “democrasubjection.” It may be a heavy read, but it is nevertheless worth reading in order to understand Thailand’s often bewildering political developments. Michael Connors, a lecturer at La Trobe University in Melbourne, analyzes Thailand’s rocky road toward democracy over the past century, and how it has related to the formation of a Thai national identity. This long road began with King Chulalongkorn, who reigned from 1868 to 1910 and built the administrative structure of the nation-state in response to the threat of colonialism.

His son and successor Vajiravudh passed a Nationality Act which simultaneously excluded and included different sections of the Chinese population. He also introduced compulsory education, a new flag and Thailand’s first university—and proper names and surnames for everybody. Until then, most ordinary Thais had been known only by nicknames such as Brother Frog or Sister Sugarcane. Thailand was becoming a modern nation, but, the author quotes Thai academic Seksan Prasertkul as saying:

By dividing the Chinese into natives and aliens, the Thai state was able to weaken the capitalist class politically, and re-establish its political dominance in relationship with the local bourgeoisie, it was a situation in which capitalism was allowed to grow but not the political influence of the capitalist class.

Power remained in the hands of the Thai aristocracy, but the modernization of Thailand, and the emergence of a strong military and bureaucracy, led to the 1932 “revolution” and the abolition of the absolute monarchy. “Democracy,” Mr. Connors writes, “was seen as just one more component in the package of modernity towards which the new elite aspired.”

But the “democracy” that emerged differed considerably from the parliamentary systems of the West. The Thai system is what Mr. Connors calls “democrasubjection,” or, in plain words, democracy from above. He argues that the people are subjected to “imaginary forms of self and collective rule.”

Under that system, various strongmen have emerged, often riding on waves of nationalism, sometimes verging on jingoism. This, Mr. Connors argues, has led to tug of war between authoritarian nationalism—and royal liberalism, manifested by the re-emergence under the present monarch of the palace as a strong, moral force in society.

Mr. Connors outlines in chronological order events throughout the 20th century which have shaped Thai polity and identity, from the kings to Phibun Songkram, Sarit Thanarat and Thanom Kittikachorn—military strongmen who have ruled through what Thai academic Thak Chaloemtiarana has called “the politics of despotic paternalism,” a concept perhaps not that different from “democrasubjection.” Thailand’s type of democracy is based on “benevolent regimes” and “dependent subjects”—not egalitarianism and active, popular participation in the political process.

The most recent “authoritarian nationalist,” former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was a businessman, not a military man, and he won two elections on populist agendas such as cheap, universal health care and rural development programs. But he was also not just engaged in a “tug of war” with traditional power centers. He challenged them, which led to the September 2006 coup. According to Mr. Connors: “When the coup group say they launched the coup for the sake of democracy, they mean Thailand’s ‘constitutional monarchy.’” And although the coup, at first, was popular among the population at large, it soon lost that support. Mr. Connors argues that, “If under Thaksin the rule of law had been in the intensive care unit, the CDR (the junta) has taken it to the mortuary table. They annulled the constitution, banned political gatherings, censored the press, and declared theit decrees to have the status of law.”

The first edition of Mr. Connors’ book was published in 2003—before the putsch against Mr. Thaksin—so he has added a postscript to this reprint, which analyzes more recent developments. But he did not anticipate the December 2007 election victory for the People’s Power Party, which basically is a reincarnation of Mr. Thaksin’s disbanded party, Thai Rak Thai. So it is hardly unlikely that “the coup group, in cooperation with other establishment forces, may move Thailand towards a more conservative law-and-order democracy.”

On Feb. 1, 2008, Jon Ungphakorn, a former senator for Bangkok and now chairman of the Thai Non-Governmental Organization Coordinating Committee on Development, wrote in the Bangkok Post that the new government, headed by Samak Sundaravej, was “A dream team for a nightmare.” It includes some rather shadowy figures, and has revived many of the old TRT’s populist policies as well as the controversial “war on drugs,” which in 2003 led to extrajudicial killings across the country. Many of the over 2,000 victims had nothing do to with drugs.

But Thailand’s new government was elected by the populace, which shows that the “democrasubjection” model pursued by the 2006 to 2007 military-installed government had not been entirely successful. Perhaps Thailand is on the threshold of a more modern democracy discourse? Only time will tell, but this book will help many better understand the complexities of modern Thai politics, its various actors—and why, in Mr. Connors’ words, moves to create democratic institutions in Thailand have been largely “still born.”

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May, 2008

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