Thursday, November 30, 2006

“Making Sense” of Thai-Style Democracy

A Jotman reader from Thailand writes in response to a previous JOTMAN.COM posting entitled Beware of Thai-style democracy.
I think you were rather unfair to Pattana Kitiarsa or did not take a look at his paper in full. The paper can be found online here.

The second quote on your post should be attributed to Sulak Sivaraksa, not Pattana. I think Pattana quotes such 'drivel' to make a point on the stance of some of the more conservative Thais. Ditto for the first quote.
Thank you for pointing this out. I have edited the posting to credit Sulak Sivaraksa with the drivel.

The Jotman reader continues:
The point of the paper was not to champion 'Thai Style Democracy.' Rather it was more of an anthropological study of seeking to understand what cultural factors have led some Thais to react to the coup in a positive way.
Pattana is sold on the idea that most Thais supported the coup (“The public overwhelmingly welcomed the military’s move…” he wrote). This view -- prevalent in the Thai media -- is based on tenuous, unreliable evidence (for example: a poll conducted two days after martial law took effect). Also, the paper isn't anthropological in the way that I would have liked it to be: where is the fieldwork? I see no evidence that Pattana had recently been out in the hinterlands of Thailand talking to Thais about their interpretations of the coup. His purported aim is to help us see how Thais make sense of the coup, but methodology would seem to preclude achieving this aim, and his sources stem from the Thai elite -- any number of whom may well enjoy official patronage.

The Jotman reader quotes from Pattana:
I do not mean to defend the coup, but how it is politically and morally justified in Thailand amid the international concerns needs to be understood properly. I argue that the protagonists of Thai-style democracy have built their rationality based on the Thai Buddhist-based cultural paradigms, which emphasize improvisational, compromised, and flexible adjustments to their social world.
"... the protagonists of Thai-style democracy have built their rationality based on Thai-Buddhist cultural paradigms..." Does the good Buddhist construct truth or discover truth? The outstanding problem I had with the paper could be summed up this way: The paper asked how the Thai population “made sense of the coup,” yet managed overlook the cruel absurdity of the question itself.

The following passage points to this absurdity. Pattana Kitiarsa refers to Thongchai Winichakul’s critique – long extracts of which I previously posted on JOTMAN.COM (here and here):
Thongchai Winichakul argues that the 19/9 coup is not a military coup, but a “royalist coup with purposes” including “toppling Thaksin” and creating desirable transitions from the present to the next reign (e.g., a popular choice of heir, a submissive government, and a strong Privy Council). “Thaksin threatened the royalist plan. To royalists, he seemingly sought to adopt for himself the role of kingmaker. The royalist coup consolidates power to General Prem and the royalists, putting their plan on track.” Of course, engaging in this type of interpretation is prohibited by law and almost unthinkable for the protagonists of Thai-style democracy and most, if not all, Thai subjects.
“Engaging in this type of interpretation is… almost unthinkable for… most, if not all, Thai subjects.” Here may lie the key point with respect to making sense of the coup: Wherever entertaining such interpretations is “unthinkable,” truly “making sense” of the coup is impossible (if by “making sense” of something you mean to include an understanding of how and why it happened).

Once -- for whatever reason – you throw out a potentially fruitful line of inquiry (in this case, potential coup instigators and their motives), you throw away hope of “making sense” of something. Restrictions on political speech are fundamentally incompatible with a flourishing democracy.

Pattana writes:
I argue that the protagonists of Thai-style democracy try to make sense of the coup based on (1) their Buddhist-oriented frames of reference ... (2) the cultural construction of power... and (3) the particularly impatient character of the Thai elitist leadership and the public... historically shaped by.. the hero-oriented national historiographies. (my italics)
I think to suggest coup protagonists are helping the people to "make sense of the coup” or seeking to "make sense" of it for themselves is pure euphemism. The apologists for the coup are not concerned with improving peoples understanding of events; they are interested in justifying the coup. This paper is replete with variations of this kind of euphemism.

For the apologist of the coup, myth, legend, and religious morality are means of undermining sense and reason. I might add that underlying this project seems to be an unspoken assumption that the masses are not capable of critical thought. One may detect a self-fulfilling circular kind of logic at work here.

Pattana Kitiarsa wrote: “I do not mean to defend the coup, but how it is politically and morally justified in Thailand amid the international concerns needs to be understood properly." The public effort of the Thai elite to propagate pro-coup propaganda and the private struggle of the average Thai person to "make sense of" events are two different processes. Pattani fails to clearly distinguish between the two. It is not as if such aims are compatible.

The Jotman reader continues:
I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to understand the root of how societies react differently to events, whether it's the Thailand of today or WWII Japan or Nazi Germany. As for the idea of 'Thai Style Democracy' itself, I'm one Thai person who doesn't buy it. But I'm glad that Pattana has written the paper and gave me understanding of the perspective of the other side.
In my opinion, elaborations of cultural uniqueness applied to the political sphere may be positively harmful when they fail to acknowledge the possibility of conflicting class interests; also when they ignore obstacles to the advancement of those interests. Why? Because the appeals to cultural uniqueness – “Thai style democracy” etc. – is part and parcel of the agenda of those groups who stand to gain power (or prestige, money, and status) when universal rights and freedoms are undermined.

The scholar who seeks to interpret and convey the national mythology enters the political dynamic not as a spectator, but as a participant. What kind of participant will the scholar be? Pattana seems to be saying that whereas "radicals" like Thongchai have sought to interpret what actually happened, others “make sense of the coup” on behalf of Thais, for the greater good of Thailand by employing "conventional frames of reference" (i.e. the national mythology). Pattana writes:
Thongchai’s radical interpretation of this coup may or may not be valid, but I think the people, by whom Thongchai and his colleagues were heavily criticized, are not politically naïve or short-sighted. Rather, they are more practical and realistic, focusing on the nation’s integration, security, and spirituality. They have sought for some conventional frames of reference and produced explanations… (my italics)
Pattana apparently views the coup apologists as high-minded folk concerned mainly with the greater good. Yet, the issue at stake today for Thailand is the restoration of durable mechanisms of government. To function as a democracy, Thailand requires first and foremost an informed populace capable of holding rulers accountable. Within a democratic framework, the good ruler is secondary concern -- under a functioning democracy the bad ruler will be fired anyway. With regards to this most urgent need, the fanciful ideas propogated by coup appologists (designed to help Thais "make sense of the coup") deserve to be viewed as part of the problem.

Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment of the Jotman reader: "I'm glad that Pattana has written the paper and gave me understanding of the perspective of the other side."

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