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Benedict Anderson: Outsider view of Thai politics

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Fascinating lecture given by a Cornell professor in 2011...talks about a Thai oligarchy





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.

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