September 8, 2007
Democracy From Below: Nidhi
Democracy From Below: Nidhi Eoseewong, Thailand
Michael K. Connors
(To appear in modified form with full citations in
Vin D'Cruz (ed.) Contemporary Actors and Ideas in Asia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2007.)
It is 2006 and Bangkok born Thai-Chinese scholar Nidhi Eoseewong (1940 -), based in the northern city of Chiang Mai, is visiting the majority-Muslim province of Pattani to deliver a lecture on the region’s ancient history. Pattani is one of three southern provinces that since 2004 has been subject to militant violence and brutal state repression, leading to several thousand deaths.
Addressing an audience of ethnic-Malay Muslims, Nidhi brings out the common nature of shared periphery:
"I am a Bangkok native who now lives in Chiangmai. Natives of Chiangmai put a lot of importance on the name Sirimankhalaacaan, a monk whose accomplishment was the writing of text that allowed for the teaching of the Pali language. This is a point of pride for people of Chiangmai... it means nothing to Bangkok people. It is just like Pattani having meaning for people here [referring to Pattani as a centre of Islamic scholarship] that other Thai people are not aware of...This phenomenon of regional pride … should be something that all Thai people can accept and understand."
Even though they share a history of incorporation into the modern nation state of Thailand, Chiang Mai and Pattani are worlds apart.
Chiang Mai’s population is predominantly Buddhist and Thai speaking; the history of its royal courts has been incorporated into a popularised version of Lanna culture which provides the basis for the proud identity of its more civic-minded folkloric residents. Moderate climate and folkloric richness has made of Chiang Mai a tourist destination of choice; its people are admired for their light skin and gentle manner. There is no provincial shame attached to Chiang Mai; the residues of its historical distinctness have found expression in the modern meaning of Thainess.
It is from this place and its eponymous university that Nidhi writes to undo the silence and violence of state nationalist politics. In doing so, he has become Thailand’s foremost public intellectual, ceaselessly writing and educating for a politics beyond nationalist assumptions.
Chris Baker, a leading historian on Thailand, notes that one of Nidhi’s early writings, a 1964 short story on the horror of war, ends with a thank you note to ‘love, friendship, understanding, empathy, mutuality, and peace – everything which inspires confidence, hope, love and warmth in humanity… everyone who reads this story with the feeling of being beyond the assumptions in the word “nation”’. It is as if Nidhi’s intellectual life has been dedicated to those he thanks, and his political struggle – through his writing and commitment to education and campaigns – is dedicated to the eradication of their antonyms.
And it is in the Muslim South of Thailand that the antonyms have most stirred. It is the violence of nationalist assumptions that means many Bangkok Thais think of the deep South as disorderly, dangerous and home to unpatriotic dark-skinned Muslims. Language and education policies to assimilate this population of Malays into Thai identity have failed, despite the effort of accommodating Muslim elites. Experience of cultural oppression, brutal repression and the petty arrogance of a conquering state, have led significant numbers of people in the Muslim South to consider themselves more strongly Malay than ever before. It has led some of them to horrific violence in the name of their desired nationhood, Pattani.
The separate stories of Pattani and Chiang Mai reflect the diverse regions and peoples of modern Thailand. They are truly separate ‘nations’ in terms of language and culture. Only state nationalism, seeking to nationalise people by language policies and centralized curriculum, can ignore this fact. And it is this state project that Nidhi attacks. His writings expose the vanities of state nationalism and invokes the potential of common people to do good.
Nidhi in context
The role of the public intellectual - as trusted and probing interrogator of the every-day, of poking fun at national vanities while giving voice to higher aspirations, of making sense of capitalist development from the perspective of those made subject to it - is one that Nidhi clearly cherishes. What makes public intellectuals unique is the manner of their engagement with the very society that they are seeking simultaneously to evoke and transform, and how this engagement shapes their work.
Nidhi’s prolific writing is motivated by a politics of pluralistic national identity and renegade rejection of the state and power. He opposes Thai bureaucratic ideology that views history as the succession of kings and that promotes a rarefied Thai culture. He pokes fun at official versions of Thainess. Let me take just one example, an article on Krengjai. Roughly translated krengjai means ‘considerate deference’; it is used to explain how Thai social interaction is smoothened by mutual respect and consideration. It is seen as being a paramount Thai characteristic. Why, if this is so, asks Nidhi, do people drive madly on the roads endangering others? He bemoans that Thailand is not a krengjai society, that there is not deep respect for individuals. Why? His answer is that krengjai is actually part of a patronage system, that Thai manners reflect hierarchies, that people are krengjai only to their superiors. Secondly, as a legacy of history, the public sphere is seen as part of the state or crown, and citizens thus have a poorly developed sense of regard for it, no krengjai. People will only have this regard when they are part of the system, and this means more democracy. Note how deftly Nidhi shifts the meaning of krengjai, from its hierarchical past to assume in the present the meaning of an ethos of consideration for society. Moves such as this, taking hold of the arsenal of Thai identity and subjecting it to friendly fire, characterises much of his writing.
While Thai politics oscillates between military dictatorship and flawed and corrupt parliamentary democracy (Thailand has had 18 constitutions and nearly as many successful or attempted coups d’etat), Nidhi writes of the common people as the articulators of a common-sense democratic mentality. This is uncommon. Ever since Thailand abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932 and embraced quasi-constitutional rule, Thai citizens have been subjected to mass education campaigns on the virtues of democracy. When democratic space opens up and the military retreats this invocation to act as proper democratic citizens reaches a crescendo: Don’t sell your vote to corrupt politicians! But the nature of Thai parliamentary democracy, with non-ideological parties forming networks of corruption, has alienated most people. So, elections can be cynical affairs. Thais have dubbed pre-election nights ‘the night the dogs howl’: vote-canvassers make late-night visits to bought voters to ensure compliance. Their nocturnal meanderings stir sleeping dogs and villagers wake up to the howling: an apt sound for an aching democracy.
The idea that most Thais are ignorant and unprepared for democracy is remarkably persistent. In September 2006 the government of Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a coup d’etat. Thaksin, a right wing populist, had won massive support because of a range of concrete policies perceived as helping ordinary people. Whatever the causes of the coup, liberal intellectuals and the military pronounced that Thaksin’s electoral mandate was illegitimate because it was either bought or based on ignorance. Several days after the coup Nidhi published ‘Untitled Article’ and called for restoration of the abolished 1997 constitution (suggesting, mockingly, that the military simply amend only those parts of the constitution on change of government). He challenged the military on the question of sovereignty:
"This article is written in some confusion by someone who has not studied law; when a constitution is abolished, does sovereignty return to the people, or otherwise to the king (this is a controversial point among law academics)? Most certainly it is not returned to the coup group. If sovereignty is returned to the people, then freedoms and liberties are boundless, because they have returned to a state of nature, and therefore the publishing of this article can not be illegal. If sovereignty is returned to the king, then the limiting of rights or freedoms has to be by royal command, and if other laws still stand, which were established by royal command, then it may be held that political expression in the public sphere is not wrong."
In late September 2006 Nidhi appeared on television and tore up the military’s dictatorial interim constitution. This was at a time when many of Bangkok’s intellectual class and most certainly many of its middle classes supported the coup, feeling that the Thaksin regime was deeply corrupt, brutal and self-aggrandizing.
The Public Writer
Nidhi’s public life as a writer began in the mid-1960s. A military dictatorship, ruling in the name of Thai-style democracy, was in place. Liberal elements were stirring, and the Communist Party of Thailand was also emerging as an insurgent force. Nidhi was clearly of a liberal colour, contributing to the Social Science Review, a magazine that published critical commentary; it was funded in the name of the US’s freedom diplomacy. In 1966 Nidhi wrote on the role of public intellectuals stating that they,
"should be leading thinkers in society that is, if there is any problem be it economic, cultural, political … they should offer solutions…An intellectual is not someone who simply has knowledge for themselves without looking at the problems in society or humanity. "
Famous Thai writer and editor Sujit Wongthep, remembers being a student in the mid 1960s who was comfortable with failure. He came across the high achieving Nidhi at a meeting of the literati speaking on intellectuals, and found him disagreeable. He spoke in a fancy manner, wore whites and had the airs and graces of a student from the prestigious Chulalongkorn University. Sujit recounts hating Nidhi even more when several of his works appeared in print. Sujit later learned that Nidhi had gone to the US (1971-1975) to pursue a PhD and had then returned to teach in Chiang Mai. He expected that would be the end of Nidhi, and that Chiang Mai would have to bear the weight of his airs and the added arrogance of an overseas’ PhD. What Sujit didn’t know is that having arrived in the US, Nidhi wondered what was the point of doing a PhD on Thailand with a westerner and set about learning Indonesian. He completed his PhD on Indonesian elites, literature and class – a theme he would return to in his own historical work on Thailand.
When Sujit established the revisionist and popular history magazine Silapawatthanatham (Art and Culture) in 1979 as an outlet for radical thinking, he discovered that Nidhi had become famous among historians for his revisionism. From the late 1970s until the mid 1980s Nidhi produced Thailand’s most innovative historical works that, among other things, challenged the national school of history centred on the anachronistic conflation of monarchy and nation. Given Nidhi’s reputation, Sujit invited him to contribute to Silapawatthanatham. The present purposes for which Nidhi wrote history also attracted Sujit. Writing in 1980 Nidhi comments,
At a time when the state in all its forms tries to control information, the heart of the history discipline, namely its attention to critical evaluation of facts, is even more necessary… History should teach people how to cope which the information which they receive from various sources in a well-rounded and creative way, in the hope that they will be able to deal intelligently with hearsay; and that there will never again be a time when a small group of people will be able to fool the majority and create political chaos through radio.
After his work appeared in Silapawatthanatham Nidhi was amazed at the public response that popular writing could provoke. A public intellectual was born. Nidhi went on to work with Sujit and other publishers to produce some of Thailand’s finest popular cultural history and analysis. In 2001 Nidhi was awarded the prestigious Sripurapha award for this contribution. The citation reads:
The importance of Nidhi Eoseewong is the use of his pen and his status as a writer and academic to point to the importance of ordinary people by noting again and again that ordinary people are the creators of history…and with this belief he established, with the faculty from Chiang Mai University, the Forum of Academics for Poor People and Midnight University…in order to strengthen and advocate for ordinary people across the country.
Nidhi has over 2000 published articles, many of them witty takes on politics, culture and Thai society. As the citation notes, Nidhi has also been involved in grassroots education initiatives and in supporting solidarity networks with villagers in their varied struggles over community rights against the market and the state. Emblematic of Midnight University, an informal after-hours university, is the way it works with local villagers and leaders in recognition of their wisdom and knowledge. Farmers and villagers with no formal education beyond primary school or lower high school have been appointed as faculty and have received honorary degrees.
Nidhi and the Cultural Constitution – Explaining Thai Democracy
If Nidhi’s contribution as an historian is indisputable, it is only in the last decade that he has begun to be recognised not simply as a chronicler of the times, but a profound thinker about liberal democracy from below.
People familiar with Thai history associate the phrase ‘Thai-style democracy’ (TSD) with the height of military dictatorship from the late 1950s to the early 1970s when the military held that the will of the people was manifest in the institutions of the state, and that elections were superfluous. Nidhi has taken the term up for his own purposes.
In the late mid-to-late 1980s the military was struggling against an emergent bourgeoisie over the desirable form of democracy. Writing at that time Nidhi notes that TSD was primarily about attacking Western institutions as inappropriate to Thailand, while it ignored the values that make democracy. Military radio attacked parliamentary democracy as corrupt but Nidhi defended it for at least allowing bad people to be voted out of office. Furthermore, TSD rejected pluralism because of its acceptance of competing interests, but Nidhi notes that political systems are about the distribution of interest. The central issue was not whether there should be division, but whether that struggle was open or secretive. In a society defined by a monolithic Thai unity, this was an argument against the ability of any institution to monopolise representation.
Working through Nidhi’s argument is an implicit economic and political pluralism which allows him to suggest that the universal values of democracy - freedom, liberty, equality, and fraternity (which he sees as originating in capitalist struggles against the absolute monarchy in the West) - should be part of Thai democracy: ‘Thinking about Thai-style democracy is thinking about how to allow those possibly universal ideals of democracy to exist in Thai society’. This requires that the bargaining power of the people be increased, by tapping into local wisdom and village life, and by building independent organizations. Furthermore, TSD, in its radical manifestation, should be about linking interests with political parties that are capable of formulating policy. Moreover, freedom of the press and information will be the prime condition for realizing democracy.
But how to understand people’s relationship to the then existing flawed parliamentary regime? While written constitutions come and go, Nidhi argues that there are norms and values that emerge in the life practices of Thai people which make up what he calls the ‘cultural constitution’. The idea of a cultural constitution is powerful, in its wake the image of an ignorant electorate evaporates and ordinary people’s behaviour can be seen as simply trying to make good with the resources they have at hand in a system that is against them. On this, Nidhi describes how ordinary people ingeniously navigate their way through the formal power of the state and the influence of local rich notables in a manner that plays one against the other, to the people’s own advantage. The ingenuity displayed in these strategic manoeuvres is part of the cultural constitution. However, as Pasuk notes, with the increasing integration of the state and local politicians through various networks (for example as businessmen and local officials conspire to build dams which displace whole communities), the space for this manoeuvre is diminishing. Given this, Nidhi suggests the necessity of controlling power and influence by embedding the rule of law. The implication is that liberalism arises not in the struggles of the bourgeoisie against the state, but in popular struggles to survive the play of power and influence by Thai elites.
He notes, also, that part of the cultural constitution is the popular utilization of symbols when people are struggling against power, including the monarchy. The monarchy is an indivisible part of Thailand’s cultural constitution since time immemorial; it is perceived as having sacred powers to rule over people and care for their wellbeing. While Thais have seen constitutions come and go, if the cultural constitution is threatened they rise up. In his discussion of royal succession Nidhi makes his most dramatic point. By differentiating between the institution of the monarchy and the present and future incumbent, Nidhi sees the cultural constitution as endowing the people with the right to a monarchy worthy of the position (that is, the relationship is based on a form of social contract), thus implicitly sanctioning some kind of elective principle, by whatever means, of the future Thai monarch.
Nidhi reads into the Thai ‘cultural constitution’ some of the universal values of democracy, but grounds them in existing institutions and changing levels of consciousness, thus making the cultural constitution a dynamic and changing entity. ‘Thai-style Democracy’ and ‘The Cultural Constitution’ were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s respectively. They are prescient. The cultural constitution that Nidhi so brilliantly outlined continued to influence the shape of popular politics and helped shape Thai liberalism in the 1990s.
Transgressing Boundaries: the Public Intellectual
If this is a profile in courage it is of a man who sought to give authentic voice to the culture and people around him. He appears untouched by the lure of power, and while others clamour for committee appointment, Nidhi stands at a distance. Nidhi’s courage is not greatly different than that of the thousands of people in Thailand who seek truth and justice in the matters that affect them. Nidhi shares with these people an ability to withstand the powerful taboo against transgressing official notions of Thainess. Kasian Tejapira notes that since the1980s academics have not been subject to physical intimidation. Instead the state sought to go soft on them, to bring them back into the national body. In this context, instead of violence, fear prevails in the service of self censorship. That fear is based, Kasian says, on a well inculcated sense of the boundaries across which one may not pass: the nation and the monarch, or Thainess. In being conscious of these boundaries, academics have cultivated a disposition that, when confronted with injustice, they are afraid to act in ways that would upset social order. They are afraid that, ‘their superiors in their academic circles will not dote on them or give them patronage’; that they will be denied access to position, status and privilege. This is the “voice in the head” that makes them servants of the state and capital. It’s a process well and alive the world over, including Australia. While Nidhi has been greatly transgressive of boundaries, he demonstrates cognisance of limits when it comes to commentary on the contemporary monarchy, an institution protected as much by harsh laws against lese majeste than by the cultural constitution. All involved in the study of Thailand police themselves on this question.
One major flaw in Nidhi’s work is that in his progression from accomplished historian to the public intellectual, he is not above playing the “Us and Them” card in the service of defining his pluralistic notion of national identity: Westerners (farang) rarely appear in his popular writings as individuals or people with different and competing ideals, rather they stand as a monolithic entity that acts as a foil for the things in folk culture that Nidhi reveres.
In closing, let’s return to history. In his preface to the English translation of Pens and Sails Nidhi writes, ‘I’m…not certain whether the English version of this book will be of much use to students of Thai history, because these people should be able to read Thai already’. This seemingly Thai-centric view of the world hides something much more nuanced. For Nidhi, history is active engagement in one’s own society: we can read him here to be saying that history is only worth it if there is critical agency behind it: it is the present interrogating the present through the past.
As a historian and commentator, Nidhi appears content in his conviction that his old friends (empathy, love, understanding) have been worth serving. The dedication has paid off: his evocations of the popular mood, his sociological and ethnographic insights are rich and alive because he brings to his craft as public intellectual an ability to arouse surprise, anger, laughter and empathy. Reading Nidhi’s work makes me want to engage more with my own society, to be part of the hustle and bustle of ideas and struggles that shape it, to understand the people that great ideologies claim to speak for. That is what I understand Nidhi to mean when he says that people should learn to read Thai.
Some of the history in this this piece derives from Chris Baker's concluding chapter in a translation of Nidhi's Pen And Sail: Literature And History in Early Bangkok including The History of Bangkok in the Chronicles of Ayutthaya Available via amazon.com