What Political Scholars Say
( Last edit 2009-06-01 )
Anek Laothamatas. 1996. “A Tale of Two Democracies: Conflicting Perceptions of Elections and Democracy in Thailand.” In The Politics of Elections in Southeast Asia, ed. by R. H. Taylor, pp. 201-223. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press.
Similar to Suchit’s contribution in the same volume, Anek views the current state of Thailand’s political system as being characterized by a strong difference between urban or middle class voters and those who live in the countryside. This represents the dominant view held by most Thai and foreign observers (for an empirical illustration see LoGerfo 1996). It is said that both groups follow different conceptions of democracy. Whereas the middle class stresses political princples, policies, and the national interest, rural voters aim “to bring greater benefits and official attention to themselves and their villages” (202). This makes the middle class angry because they perceive the resulting government as “corrupt and unqualified” (203).
The body of the article, then, consists of two descriptions regarding, first, the logic of voting behaviour in rural areas (summarily and inaccurately attributed to “the poor”) and, second, the middle-class view of democracy (with a special perspective on middle class-military relations since Chartchai). Both conceptions are said to be incompatible. More than that, they are said to be of equal value: “The rural interpretation is as legitimate and rational as that of the urban middle class” (222). Consequently, the middle class must not try to “remake” rural voters via their “favorite solution”, namely educational projects. Instead, the middle class should accept the rural dwellers’ goal of improving their lives but make them “change the means villagers employ to achieve it” (223). They “are to be convinced that principle- or policy-oriented voting brings them greater benefit than what they may get from local patrons” (ibid.). Also, efforts must be directed towards rural development in order to turn poor farmers into “middle class farmers or well-paid workers” (ibid.).
Rather than viewing rural voters as proponents of an alternative model of democracy, as Anek seems to suggest, one may see their behavior as a reaction on a specific element of the middle-class concept of democracy, i.e. elections. Elections open up new opportunities for rural people without them having to understand or adopt the entire model. Accordingly, there does not seem to be one alternative or competing model developed by Thailand’s rural population, but rather a myriad of separately localized reactions on the original model. Villagers integrate this new opportunity into their existing local structures. As Anek puts it, “Rural people do not regard their voting as separate from other sociocultural obligations” (221). In other words, they are acting outside the society’s political system the function of which is to generate collectively binding decisions. The decisions are binding for them as well, but rural people have hardly any part in determining them since they do not join the system’s ‘public’ nor it’s ‘politics’ (political parties).
In fact, Anek himself does not take his relativism too seriously, i.e. he does not propose that the middle class should adopt or at least tolerate the villagers ‘model’, or that the middle class should give rural people an opportunity to participate in developing a model of democracy suitable for both groups. Instead, there is no doubt that the middle-class concept of democracy (which is the name for a functionally differentiated political system comparable to other such systems, e.g. the economy, law, medicine, education) has to be expanded to be operational in the entire territory of Thailand. To achieve this aim, rural voters must be shown that their rational voting decisions are actually irrational because they are based on seriously incomplete information. Had they only known how democracy at the national level works to bring benefits to the citizens, they would have created and selected this option as the one promising the highest return. And if this strategy does not work to convince villagers to change their means, then (or probably at the same time), Anek suggests, let us use rural development to ‘remake’ those villagers into members of the middle class who would more or less automatically adhere to the same model of democracy as the established middle class at the center already does.
Anek, a former dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University, was an advisor to former Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasat (Democrat Party; who was once banned from politics for five years because of a wrong asset declaration). He was a party-list MP for the Democrats.
McVey, Ruth. 2000. “Of Greed and Violence and Other Signs of Progress.” In Money and Power in Provincial Thailand, ed. by Ruth McVey, pp. 1-29. Singapore: ISEAS; Chiang Mai: Silkworm.
McVey starts with a description of Thai provincial life (everywhere in Thailand!) as it was until the 1950s. She pays particular attention to the relationships between local leaders, civil servants, and traders. These groups are said to represent contrasting “social models” or “cultural styles” (9): the models of the phu yai (local personal relationships), bureaucracy (hierarchical relationships), and market (bustling with life). A legal model is said not to have existed at that time leading a reliance on personal relationships for justice. Foreign observers in the 1950s and 1960s are said to have overlooked that there indeed were social structures of various kinds in the provinces. They instead assumed that “the bureaucracy [was] the only locus of power” (9).
With the economic take-off in the 1960s, “serious money” started penetrating the provinces. In the 1970s, branches of Bangkok-based banks were to be found even in small market towns. They introduced a fourth “model of civilization” to provincial social life making “rural folk” hope for glamour, luxury, and wealth as “the key to prestige and success” (10). Since the legal system was still weak, banks had to link up with local and provincial strongmen. At that time, these strongmen had not yet entered public life because participation did not offer enough profit. This changed with the capitalist expansion and the bureaucratic-military complex’s loss of power. “Increasingly, businessmen stood for public office themselves” (13). When these provincial people exaggerated their profit seeking behavior under the leadership of Chartchai Chunhavan as prime minister, the Bangkok elite and middle class backed the NPKC’s military coup in February 1991.
McVey then puts in a long section on provincial chao pho (crime bosses-cum-businessmen-cum-politicians), perhaps because she sees them as “emblematic of the unacceptable face of Thai capitalism” (14), a point of view I find difficult to follow. The concluding part of this article contains some, rather tentative, remarks on the questionable importance of the middle class (the more recent catch word ‘civil society’ is mentioned in passing) and on the further course of Thai political development. Present transformations are seen as being “very narrowly based” (23) and excluding most of the rural population as well as workers. Whether the political model dominant at the center—a result of “the cultural consolidation of the political and economic elite” (20)—can be expanded to the periphery “will depend very much on how it is mediated by those who shape it in the provinces” (23).
Michael Smithies (in his review in The Nation of May 6, 2001) called McVey’s essay “challenging” and “a remarkably well-written analysis”. It is not easy to agree with this evaluation. I found it rather irritating that McVey describes Thai provincial life without providing substantiation. True, she lists many titles in her footnotes. However, they serve the purpose of pointing the reader to the academic production on Thai politics but they are hardly related to her story. Since McVey has certainly not observed Thai provincial life during all this time herself, one wonders on what kind of sources all her statements on how things were in the past decades and what people thought and felt during this time are based. Although this is the introductory article to a book about “money and politics”, and the author even found it useful to include a long section on chao pho, an analysis of provincial Thai politics is practically absent (no word about phuak, electoral structures and behavior, or about local governments). McVey’s description of provincial change, certainly as far as politics is concerned, is therefore rather incomplete and even distorting. To remain at the level of ad-hoc talk about “social models” or speculation about “the new Thai order” (23) and whether it can make “itself central to the way in which the Thai people imagine their world” (23) cannot satisfy given that sociology provides us with the theoretical tools necessary to deal with these phenomena and resultant questions in a much more substantial way. Furthermore, it is not sufficient to concentrate on money and mention politics and law only in passing. More systematic analysis and theorizing, that also includes all other functional areas of society (such as medicine and education), is asked for if we want to seriously aim at understanding contemporary central, provincial, local Thailand and the interaction of these levels. Under present conditions of societal development this has to include references to world society (‘globalization’).
Robertson, Philip S. Jr. 1996. “The Rise of the Rural Network Politician: Will Thailand’s New Elite Endure?” Asian Survey 36 (9): 924-941.
Rural network politicians are defined as MPs whose influence in their constituencies derives from the distribution of money and patronage. The author describes their rise and relates it to the political parties’ lack of institutionalization, to the malfunctioning of the bureaucracy, the increased monetization and materialism in rural areas and to coercion as well as to cultural factors (karma, conflict avoidance, hierarchy). Instead of distinguishing between influence and its various sources, the author presses them together in a narrow patron-client approach. “Patron-client networks”, “webs of relationships”, and “local networks of influence” then all seem to denote the same thing. It is therefore not surprising that the vital importance of phak phuak (the local clique a politician belongs to) is completely overlooked. The author seems to suggest that government agencies in the provinces do not provide any services which makes local people “dependent” on their MPs and on chao phos (the decline in kinship support and the increase in perceived needs being contributing factors) -- a grossly distorted picture of reality. And it is odd to place MPs and chao pho qualitatively at the same level. Finally, it is difficult to follow the author’s description since most generalizations, interpretations, and historical information are given without substantiation or reference to the relevant literature.
Thai Politics Bibliography
Compiled and annotated by Michael H. Nelson
Center for the Study of Thai Politics and Democracy
King Prajadhipok Institute