October 28, 2007

Thailand: Educating for Democracy: Elites and Political Development Plans

From Democracy and National Identity in Thailand: A section from Chapter 8. Text taken from pre-proof copy. Citations available in book version.

I am placing this here as an indication of how historically repetitive are the current concerns among bureaucrats, educationalists, the military and scholars for providing "democratic education" to Thai citizens.

Institutions and planning democracy

One manifestation of the collaboration of politicians and liberal academics was the establishment of the King Prachatipok’s Institute in 1994. This was initially located within the secretariat of the House of Representatives and later became an independent body by an act of parliament in 1998.

Its aim was to promote an understanding of the ‘parliamentary democratic system with the king as head of state’. The addition of ‘parliament’ in this formulation is significant, for it marked the permanence and connection of parliamentary democracy with the older ideology of democracy with the king as head of state, propagated by the bureaucracy. King Prachatipok’s Institute was also required to assist in the legislative process, research democratic development and to make its research public. Marut Bunnag, then Parliamentary President and one-time education minister, claimed to have had a hand in the setting-up of KPI precisely because of his distrust of the Interior Ministry and its dubious capacity to carry through democratic education.

The range of the institute’s first curriculum was extensive, covering the principles of democratic government, labour and environmental issues under the conditions of globalization, policy formation and political ethics. The instructors included many familiar faces from the Thai political science scene, including Chai-Anan Samudavanija, Prudhisan Jumbala, Suchit Bunbongkarn, Kramol Thongthammachart and Anek Laothamatas. Specific curricula were also designed for community leaders, political party members and youth. In effect, with a larger budget, greater recognition and hence greater participation of academics, KPI might be seen as the indirect prodigy of IPPS.

Bowonsak Uwwano, the key framer of the reform constitution, who became Director of KPI in 1999, sees it as playing a crucial role in promoting democratic education for all strata of society from top-level bureaucrats to politicians and right down to villagers. In assuming this new position Bowonsak perhaps sees himself as an intermediary actor between society and the state. Speaking of his role in political reform, Bowonsak observed that

NGOs, they know only the suffering of the people but they don’t know how to cure the suffering, meaning that they know the problems of the people and they suffer with the people but they cannot find anyway out, just to protest, protest and protest. And apart from that, political power and state power in Thailand is very strong. This power more or less ignores the NGO movement. Sometimes they blame the NGOs for threatening the national security by receiving funds from foreign countries—the gap is very strong. As academics you have one challenging problematic, how you can bridge that gap. You cannot take sides by jumping into NGOs and being activists yourselves, because doing so you are going to share the suffering without finding the way cannot jump into the state power either—doing so you would ignore the suffering of the people. So the role of the academics should be the bridge between the two and that bridge, in order to be strong, has to generate a way out…I try to do so.

In the grand tradition of liberal academics exemplified by Chai-Anan, Bowonsak exudes the optimism of one who has the ear of the elite, one who is called on, by the elite, to clean up the stables of government. And yet, in a familiar reversion to the people problem, of organizing them productively, KPI’s strategic focus is largely on building civic capacity for responsible participation. Thus the rationale of the institute is rooted very much in the same manner of Interior Ministry propagation projects; that is, the people do not have democratic consciousness, and this acts as an obstacle to further democratic development:

Government in a democratic regime, even though it began some sixty years ago, has faced the constant problem of people’s understanding of that system of government, in realizing their rights and duties as a citizen of the nation that is governed with a parliamentary democratic regime with the king as head of state…if this cannot be created it will lead to setbacks in the system of government as in the case of Thailand. This truth may be seen by looking at Western societies which have been able to develop government in all dimensions.

Another manifestation of the new political liberalism was the call for a political development plan among members of the DDC. Among the recommendations of the DDC (see previous chapter) was the establishment of a Political Development Council. This was acted on by the Political Reform Committee, the body established in 1996 by the Banharn government. A number of prominent political development theorists were involved in drafting a political development plan, and while it remains pretty much a white paper, the plan gives an indication of how liberal democratic structures were to relate to the development of a new political culture in Thailand.

The idea for the plan was first aired after the crisis of 1992, when the political science and public administration branches of the National Research Council were called on to develop a plan in order to stabilize political development. Presenting an analysis of the vicious cycle of Thai politics (constitution—parliament—crisis—coup—interim constitution- constitution—parliament—crisis—coup, etc.) rooted in the failure of political parties to develop, in the bureaucracy acting as blocks to political development and the lack of political ethics, the plan sought to map out an orderly progress for political development.

One central objective of the plan was to produce ‘democratic personalities’, meaning ‘individuals realizing their own potential and the potential of others such that they would respect the rights and freedoms of themselves and others’. This would be assisted by the creation of a National Ideology Committee. The vision presented of Thailand in 2555 (AD 2012) was that the bureaucracy and military would have no political role, the bureaucracy itself would be decentralized, political parties would have a mass base and ideology, there would be a guarantee of universal human rights including the right to full participation in the political process, and there would be a high level of democratic culture among the people. As for the role of the monarchy in this new democratic culture, it would ‘remain’ above political conflicts and would continue to act as a role model for society by ostensibly abiding by the ten virtues of a Buddhist king.

In 1996 the Political Reform Committee selected Likhit Dhiravegin, a political development theorist, to lead the drawing-up of a political development plan. This plan, based on the NRC version, basically sought similar institutional outcomes as those proposed by the political reform lobby. It also took a longer-term view, seeing the need to root democratic culture as the only guarantee of stability. Political development was seen as a long-term and dynamic intervention responding to societal and economic change. It was hoped that in the short term planners could help ‘bring into being a political culture that is facilitative of developing and preserving democracy with the king as head of state’. This would be achieved by engineering change through a series of educational measures, intervention into the mass media and creating role models. In the long term a fully developed democratic culture would emerge. In this new culture political participation was expected, but would be guided by the liberal principle of respect for the rights of the minority, and would be within the rule of law. Citizens would live life in a democratic way, which is to say they would be disciplined and responsible. In struggling for their own rights and interests they would be mindful of the common good. In disputes they would act rationally and use ‘scientific logic’ in order to solve problems peacefully. While much of the rhetoric of democratic education is the same as that preached by LAD, as is the reverence shown to the monarchy, what is significant is that the new agents of political socialization, proposed in this plan, are the family, parliament, political parties and interest groups. The apparatus of the bureaucratic-capitalist state had been dethroned, but its moral projects of citizen construction survived.

Liberal mouthpieces
Prominent individuals have popularized the liberal position. One important latecomer to the cause of political liberalism was Anand Panyarachun. His joining the bandwagon needs to be seen both as a result of the failure of the existing political system as well as his engagement, as a leading representative of globally engaged capital, with the world market. Anand is a member of Transparency International, that agent of ‘good governance’.

The economic imperative of the new democrasubjection is best highlighted by a speech made by Anand on the eve of the March election in 1992. In this speech Anand speaks of the end of communism and the success of democracy:

As for Thailand we do not need to copy anybody’s democracy, we only need to uphold the principle of democracy which is that the government must come from the people, it must be of the people, and it must be for the people.

Anand goes on to argue that elections are only one point in the democratic process, and argues that the people, with democratic hearts, need to struggle to take part in policy determination. This struggle and participation is defined by the boundaries of the rules of the game, being the law and the constitution. In linking economy and polity, Anand continues:

In the last 13 months the policy of the government, whether it be in economic or other dimensions, if it is analyzed well, it will be seen that the policy was open. I had an open economic policy, that was transparent, that was competitive that…also had a tax system that was just. These things are important factors in leading towards complete democracy…. Any country that uses an open economic system…history tells us that the political system must follow also, the political system must have competition.

It was imperative, Anand considered, that the open economy in Bangkok be spread to the provinces:

If and when this takes place, we can see an emergence of a rural middle class that can make better and more effective use of their greater autonomy in managing local affairs and issues.

For Anand, then, a free market economy was the basis of democracy, and, given that this had been established, he urged people not to be demoralized but to be patient with the gradual progress of democracy. Importantly, the growth of democracy would be supported by broadening the participation of ‘the young, the learned, and the middle, white-collar and managerial classes in political parties’. For Anand, ‘[t]hese groups of persons are some of the most important constituent parts of our economic machine.’

The participation of these classes in the provincial politics would support the process of decentralization and help in addressing the economic disparities, which were seen as threat to a stable democracy. Anand adopts the seminal analysis of the problem of Thai democracy developed by Anek Laothamatas regarding transforming peasants into urban citizens (see below). This, presumably, would then provide them with a stake in the system. Anand argued that the cycle whereby rural people elected vote-buying MPs and ‘middle-class’ Bangkokians brought down governments with cries of corruption and incompetence, would end when the status of the rural population was lifted. Presently, the people were not ‘interested in whether the government is good or not’, rather they were just interested in a government that ‘digs wells and makes roads’. Education and higher social-economic status would lead to a broader social vision, one which would provide rural people with the ability to differentiate between good and bad governments.

The ‘democracy’ expressed here is an urban one—dependent on an educated middle class and their assumed rationality. The economic task is how to develop the rural areas so that this form of middle-class citizenship can be made real. To this question, Anek Laothamatas, Anand’s apparent inspiration, provides an answer. If the perennial problem of urban/rural split in Thai politics is to be overcome then the rural sector, he argues, needs to be thoroughly commercialized with the consequence of either the embourgeoisment or proleterianization of the Thai peasants. Only on this economic basis can the middle-class rational citizen arise. In this frame, then, economics precedes politics, the subjects of democracy do not yet really exist, and the peasants in the countryside are the ghosts of underdevelopment waiting to be buried. Indeed, it is only by engagement with the liberal regime that the new people will be constructed. Participation becomes a mode of transformation—but this does not rule out the need for democratic instruction.

It would be wrong to imagine that the aims of the liberal project could be confidently achieved in economic processes alone. Many liberals see civic politics and education as a means to ideologize the proposed process from peasant to citizen. Just as state democrasubjection provides concrete steps towards citizen construction, so does the emergent liberal discourse—in its commentary on civic competence—provide steps towards liberal democrasubjection. It should be clear here that the intellectual elites have premeditated the meaning of democracy, its function and its processes. The central task was simply how to make this meaning tangible. This entailed, in part, working on the raw material of the people, making the subjects into citizens in the narcissistic self-image of the virtuous, public-minded and rational intellectual. It is thought that democracy without a ‘rational’ political culture is unworkable. Anand put it more eloquently:

Democracy is a reflection of the level of the people who vote…if they vote for bad persons, democracy will deteriorate. If people still vote as if they were 2,000 year old turtles, who then should take the blame except the people themselves?

Similarly, Anek argues that one problem for Thailand has been the absence of a long period of democratic development. His basic point is that Western democracy arose gradually as the franchise widened to assimilate lower classes who had been appropriately educated to perform their democratic responsibilities. According to Anek, the Westernized revolutionaries who came to power in 1932 ‘gave’ democracy to all people instantaneously. This premature designation of the democratic franchise, he argues, has been the root problem facing Thailand ever since: democracy has been taken like technology, ‘before the order of our historical development’. The premature embracing of democracy leads, according to Anek, to the prevalent practice of vote-buying as well as the poor quality of politicians and the strength of the military. For him, then, the project of reconstruction of citizenship becomes a societal revolution of mind and economy. While the economy leads, there is the need for education on citizen virtue in a liberal space (see below).

After the rise of the political reform movement, both Anand and Anek became prominent proponents of liberal democratic development. This has included praising the idea of a ‘non-ideological civil society’ and the idea of ‘good governance’. For Anand capitalism, with a human face, is the wave of future. Ideological questions are now seen as obsolete, with new questions being focused on how governments can best serve their citizens. The central question for Anand is no longer any doctrine of government, but its capability and legitimacy. On this matter he is full of praise for the practice of governance in Singapore, which is said to have responded well to people’s needs. This tension between democracy and good governance, regardless of form, was resolved by linking the instruments of good governance to democracy: transparency, freedom of information, scrutiny, balance of power and rule of law. This is the liberal project writ large, ensuring that any excessive demos and its mutations of freedom are constrained by a properly designed liberal democracy. New channels of communication and institutionalized participation would ensure this.

What of the king in this new liberalism? If the symbol of the monarchy functioned to consubstantiate a nation of difference around embodied Thai identity in the old order, the question now arises of what might the symbol mean in the liberalizing ‘democratic’ regime. Coming from a prominent spokesperson of the liberal current in Thailand, Anand’s speeches on the king reflect the continued importance of this institution in a liberal Thailand.

Anand’s writings on the monarchy are far-reaching and not merely ritualistic. He adheres to the royalist version of the king governing not on the basis of divine right but on fulfilling the role of a Buddhist king. He notes the king’s ‘nearly two thousand projects’ have assisted the poor and that the king himself has approached local communities pragmatically by tapping into local wisdom and culture. Such work with the poor has led to the strengthening of the ‘social fabric of our society and fortifying our national cohesion and identity’. Anand’s speeches on the king are an attempt to constructively integrate the monarchy around the new liberal political project. In one interview he recounts the king’s following of the legislative programmes of the parliament and notes that he is ‘strict’ about using his rights to warn, encourage and to be consulted. Indeed, Anand considers the king as Thailand’s ‘number one public servant’, and furthermore, one who is accountable: ‘what he does is seen by the people. Not accountable in the legal sense of the word, but…there is transparency in what he does.’ Finally, Anand presents a picture of a monarch who has reached the highest stage of wisdom, a position of detachment where the ego is erased. According to Anand, the king has achieved this and is thus able to serve as Thailand’s ‘guiding light’: a king for a liberal society.

Liberal civic education and civil society
If the liberal current recognizes the primacy of economic factors in spawning new historical subjects of democracy—the ‘middle class’—this is not left to chance. Hence studies of political culture are part of the liberal project of instilling in would-be citizens liberal dispositions and the capacity for self-rule. This brings forth the necessary project of liberal civic education. As a disciplinary aspect of the new liberal democrasubjection, civic education should be understood by reference to the developmental metaphor and its privileging of subject/object relations between the rulers and the soon-to-be rulers. An examination of the thought of Anek Laothamatas reveals a strong normative bias on the nature of citizenship that requires acquisition of virtue.

Anek is a strong proponent of civic education and a leading liberal intellectual in Thai society. A proponent of political reform, he has also been involved in KPI and civic education programs. For him civic education should be an ongoing process from primary school to university. Speaking of the mass of students in the education system and the purpose of civic education, Anek says: ‘Let these people have dignity, even though they have less economic status than others, but they do not have less rights, duties and political respect.’ Anek sees such civic education as being bound by the treasured civic culture of Thailand. Anek, however, argues that the official ideology is not ‘authentically Thai’ but rather has been adapted from other cultures. This is not quite apostasy of the essential ‘Thainess’ examined in Chapter 6. Certainly, the body of work that deconstructs and challenges the meanings of official ideology, such as Thongchai’s, is apostate. However, Anek is disturbing, or nudging, the apperception of the Thai ideology to its constructedness, in order to bolster it. He grasps the developmental metaphor that has haunted ‘Thai authenticity’ as an unspoken and ideologically productive contradiction, and turns it into the essential virtue of Thainess: Thai identity is marked by its ingenious assimilation of other cultures for its own needs. It is a moving historical body premised on becoming rather than being, or rather on being-in-becoming. This strategic reading by Anek unceremoniously provides liberalism with an entry point into the powerful symbolism of the triad, while not surrendering to the Thai chauvinism of the National Identity Board.

In a book surveying the Western tradition of civil society and citizenship, Anek clearly endorses notions of negative freedom, the minimal state and citizen self-reliance. In an extended discussion on the meaning of civil society, as if it were a living organism, Anek characterizes it as all those associations, groups, forums, foundations and institutes that mediate between the individual and the state and which are characterized by two dispositions:

1)[Civil society] dislikes and does not accept state hegemony, even though it will accept assistance from the state and will cooperate with the state, but it is able to appropriately control and resist the state. 2) It does not like the doctrine of extreme individualism, which promotes selfishness…and non-recognition of the common good.

Thus, even though the three elements of society—‘the state, civil society, the individual’—were independent of each other they were also connected in a simultaneous activity of conflict and unity.

The rise of civil society as a counterbalance to the state required a shift from subject consciousness to citizen consciousness. He argues that simply providing the mechanisms of local democracy will not be enough:

We should not just stress the structure of local government but local civil society as well, by training the people to be citizens; even when they vote they should vote like a citizen, not a client.
He then criticizes the electoral practices of the people as premised on their own private interest rather than the public interest. In his view, elites need to develop ‘enlightened self-interest’, which is an attitude that disposes one to the pursuit of self-interest without destroying the public interest. This would ultimately foster a more beneficial cooperative environment for the further pursuit of one’s interest. Self-described as a ‘left-wing liberal’, Anek considers one of the duties of civic education as doing away with dependence on the state and developing an ethic of self-reliance, particularly among the poor who, he says, consider democracy as being simply a matter of welfare. The task then was to give new meanings to democracy as ‘self-government, or political expressions with dignity’. This would be aided by the fostering of civility, of manners, of a willingness to listen, learn and share. In regard to civic virtue, Anek revisits the Greek polis, in search of the characteristics of the ‘full human’ (a person with civic virtue), and also finds some examples in Thailand of the polis where people are directly involved in issues, freely sacrificing themselves, being responsible and using their own resources. While interest groups were part of civil society, for Anek greater emphasis was to be given to groups that stress the public interest.