Saturday, May 16, 2009

There’s a new awakening in Thai society

Thai Takes

THITINAN Pongsudhirak, a Thai political lecturer, believes space for intellectual honesty is tightening in Thailand.

This tightening space, which Thitinan likened to a box, has a ceiling – lese majeste (insulting the monarchy). From the bottom pushing up there’s an “effective longstanding official indoctrination”.

And on the sides compressing the box are the military, the Democrat-led coalition government, and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, better known as the Yellow Shirts).

“This space is shrinking,” said Thitinan, an associate professor of international political economy at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalong- korn University.

In the past three years the space for misbehaviour (seizure of airports and prime minister’s office in Bangkok and scuttling of the Asean Summit in Pattaya) has expanded and the space for proper behaviour has tightened.

“I operate within this space. So no fireworks tonight,” he said, before speaking on Political reform in Thailand at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok on Wednesday night. The audience comprised mainly foreign journalists and diplomats.

To ensure that there were “no fireworks” that night at the FCCT, which he described as “a bit of a pit for controversy and trouble” (in reference to a lese majeste case filed against Jakrapob Penkair, a Thaksin Shinawatra loyalist, for comments made in an FCCT event in 2007), Thitinan’s wife and friends showed up to make sure he behaved.

What we are seeing in politically turbulent Thailand, according to Thitinan, is a grand transition – a quest for a new and workable equilibrium in Thai society.

“Certainly everyone accepts that this is not a normal time,” the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand’s leading think tank on foreign affairs, said.

“The Prime Minister (Abhisit Vejjajiva) said this is not a normal time. He wants normalcy. Everyone wants normalcy.

“When was the last time normalcy existed in Thailand?”

Answering his own question, he noted that the last time normalcy in Thailand flourished and prevailed was in the 1990s

“(During that period) you can more or less know what to expect,” he said.

“Things were also topsy-turvy but there were certain perimeters, a certain understanding and certain consensus among the Thai elite (monarchy, military and bureaucracy) on how things work and who called the shots. And underneath that there was some manoeuvring room.”

The elite consensus provided Thailand with a long period of political stability (despite various coups). “And this explain why the Thai economy was so successful,” he added.

The elite consensus has now broken down. And Thitinan often asks himself “why has it broken down, and why now”.

“It was bound to break down,” he said. “And my view is that the long boom we had from the late 1980s – except for the 1997-98 contraction – saw economic growth concentrated mainly in Bangkok, resulting in disparity.

“The elite consensus was shaken up because the disparity exacerbated over two decades from the late 1980s. And along came Thaksin, a consummate politician, who exploited this disparity with his patronising, corrupt, populist platform.

“Thaksin never had any intention to promote equality and reduce disparity, it was a means to an end.”

But the unintended consequence of Thaksin’s rule from 2001 to 2006 awakened many strata in Thai society.

Thitinan likened the Thais’ political awakening to a westerner’s first taste of sticky rice and mango. “If you never had it, you would never miss it. But once you’ve had it, you might want another bite,” he said.

“There is a new stratification of people who may want different things and who have different expectations and demands.

“This changed the face of Thai politics, and since then we just have prolonged turbulence.”

The 2006 coup to overthrown Thaksin, the only Thai prime minister to serve a full term, was an attempt to restore the previous elite consensus.

“Suffice to say the coup did not work or has not worked. They (the elite) are still trying, and they may or may not succeed in the end,” Thitinan said.

There seems to be no end in sight for the Thai political crisis, Thitinan conceded.

Looks like the boxed-in political lecturer has to continue to operate in an environment where “fireworks” comments can be deemed dangerous.

(Published in The Star on May 16, 2009)


Talen said...

Hopefully the lese majeste laws will fall one day. I would love to see the King come out against them.

It seems the political party dujour will keep using these laws to quiet dissenters.