June 24, 2008
Thai communitarian nationalism and the NGO movement
Rethinking the nation in times of crisis ,
Full citations may be found in the published edition
Democracy, civic engagement and community
In March 2002 the highly esteemed Dr Prawet Wasi issued a public letter to Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. The letter mirrored the thrust of King Bhumipol’s speech in late 2001 to the effect that the government needed to be more tolerant of different opinions. Prawet warned that Thailand was facing the gravest crisis it had ever faced. Having lost economic sovereignty in the 1997 currency meltdown, the country was now faced, he asserted, with the loss of political sovereignty. In response to this threat he called for the government and people to work together as a civil-state (pracharat). Such calls for unity have become endemic in Thailand, particularly following the crisis. Perhaps the most famous call came from Thirayut Bunmi, who provided a popular Thai reading of the idea of good governance (thammarat) by linking it to a strategy to overcome the economic crisis. Thirayut’s intellectual intervention, which kicked off a minor discourse boom on good governance, aimed at taking the reform movement beyond the prevalent liberalism of the new constitution, and towards a new and extensive project of economic revitalization through social and political reform. A good governance ‘movement’ outside of the state, he argued, was needed. In place of state- or society-centred approaches, Thirayut proposed the creative interaction of state, business and social forces. Economic recovery was possible only through the cooperative effort of all. With his calls for common sacrifice for the nation, alongside the king’s call for self-reliance and modesty, Thirayut sought a revisioning of the Thai nation.
These ubiquitous calls for unity have been operationalized through the promotion of civic participation, particularly since the passing of the ‘people’s constitution’. Civic politics is effectively an attempt to foster informed public opinion that has the capacity to influence the broad policy terrain of governments, and to bring into being a body of citizens capable of free and meaningful association across an array of issues. The contemporary rise of civic politics in Thailand can be traced broadly in the development of a public sphere instantiated by media, publicly engaged NGOs, and intellectuals acting as articulators of the public interest from the 1980s onwards. The density of this sphere has intensified, witnessed by the arrival of many new public formations seeking to broaden the legitimate scope of engagement around anti-corruption, election monitoring, consumer watchdogs and public health—to name a few. Since 1997 one can speak of a qualitative leap in terms of this intensity, with networks of activists, intellectuals and the media using the constitution to push forward social justice agendas and people’s participation. Such politics have become influential for several reasons. First, the failure of the party political system to function as an interest aggregator and articulator gives these movements significance despite their relatively small size. Second, their significance is also derived from positive factors: a long accumulation of strategic knowledge and resources, and the formation of dynamic networks. Third, the contested reformation of the state over the last twenty years has provided a space for reformists in the bureaucracy to interact with such currents, leading to a process of appropriation and partnership. What is more, inasmuch as civic education waged by government and non-government bodies is highly abstract, the politics of civic engagement provides, according to its advocates, a greater learning ground for bringing into being informed citizenship. The rise of civic politics marks the shift away from state-based democratic education programmes towards the intervention of new ‘civil society’ forces into the ideological recomposition of Thailand following the political and economic crisis of 1997.
In focusing on civic politics in this chapter, much of the more radical activity of forces in pro-democracy networks and more radically oriented NGOs is necessarily overshadowed. This focus is warranted because the forces of civic engagement have had a degree of organizational and ideological impact on the state. Moreover, while there is ideological and strategic differentiation among NGOs and social movements, it is clear that in practice there is an orientation to the politics of constituting a functioning public sphere. This project, a reflection of the crisis of development and money-democracy, has been influenced by intellectuals, NGOs and activists who have sought to revisualize Thailand as a place of community, citizenship and nationhood. While the National Identity Board was busy articulating the ideology of the king as head of state, figures elsewhere were eager to break from the fossilization of ideology and seek a reformed nationalism of the people based on local knowledge and wisdom, but still drawing on Buddhism and monarchy. Their communitarian perspective on democracy within a newly imagined nation of Thais has drawn succour from the ideological and real crisis faced by the Thai state, especially after 1997. In the following, a tentative genealogy of the formation of reformed nationalism is offered that highlights the interrelationship of significant actors and circumstances in fuelling new national imaginings. Like liberalism, this is an emergent formation and its origins are fragmentary and circumstantial.
The chapter begins with a discussion of NGOs, not because they are uniformly part of civic politics, but because the context of their operations in the 1980s led NGOs to promote rights-based discourses beyond the more select development aspects of their work. These organizations, working on the ground, through networks, and finding exposure in various media, significantly reworked and challenged the rights and citizenship framework of the state and the liberals. Indeed, through NGO practice and its ideological effects, the state’s monolithic ethos of the Thai common good would come to be pluralized into many localized common goods. This undermined the hegemonic effect of conservative national ideology (Thainess), and liberal invocations of the individual. When local peoples and activists raised banners against particular development programmes (dams, for example) that were purportedly ‘in the national interest’, they put pressure on the delayed liberalism of the state, pushing for a more fertile realization of liberty and responsibility in the locale.
NGOs, rights and development
The emergence of development NGOs, which had their modern origins in the late 1960s among reforming elites, was a matter of great historical consequence. The history of NGOs in Thailand is customarily related to the efforts of the late Puey Ungphakorn, a leading government economic technocrat, who famously began to criticize the government’s growth-oriented economic policy and was instrumental in the establishment of the Thailand Rural Reconstruction Movement. The moderately reformist Puey would be later hounded out of the country by right-wing fanatics in the wake of the massacre at Thammasat university. In this atmosphere, NGOs operated under extremely difficult circumstances, with state elements continuing to portray them as communist fronts right into the 1990s.
In considering the influence of NGOs, it will be useful to focus on the small but important and enduring human rights organization, the Union of Civil Liberty (UCL). Formed in November 1973 with figures such as Kothom Ariya and Saneh Chamarik at the forefront, the UCL addressed the issue of democracy from the perspective of institutionalizing human rights. Dedicated to educating and socializing people around constitutional and human rights, the UCL’s first constitution expressed its objectives thus:
At this moment the Thai people have a tacit understanding that any form of government which lacks respect for, and the promotion of, the freedom and rights of the people is but a way for corrupt and decadent state administration…which subverts security and the progress of the individual and the nation.
Tirelessly working to propagate rights and dispense advice, the group soon found itself inundated with grievances from farmers and workers. However, in the charged atmosphere of the times, the UCL was hard pressed for credibility. While right-wing paramilitary organizations were gunning down working-class and peasant leaders during 1975–76, the UCL failed to issue condemnations of alleged official involvement. It was also being pressed by left-wing activists to join in the popular movement, while military radio was calling it part of the communist current. Such issues led to great tension as some members sought to join up with the popular movement while others sought to remain formally neutral. In any case, the group was effectively silenced after the 1976 coup. It was revived in July 1979, and thenceforth pursued political neutrality, as well as making an explicitly endorsing ement of non-violence. Throughout the 1980s the UCL bravely functioned as a human rights monitoring group, as well as a launching pad for the formation of other groups. A number of Thailand’s prominent NGO workers have been associated with the UCL in some way.
In the first half of the 1980s, some communist and student returnees from the jungle, and other left-wingers, debated new strategies for the revolutionary movement, searching for answers to the failure of the CPT and the popular movement. Arguments ranged from seeking a rethinking of radical politics along reformist and socialist humanist lines, to others wanting to rebuild the left along Leninist lines. Others were simply demoralized. Somkiat Wanthana paints a picture of a depressed left:
The mentality of the age…was inert. Among the progressive sector it was melancholy. The glass that cracked, the idol that fell from the shelf, the world that turned upside down…were the images that many students and intellectuals surely had in their heads.
The period signalled a shift from broadly Marxist-oriented left politics towards issue-based politics and engagement with the state and political sphere where possible. Considering the failure of the CPT, and given the dual challenge facing the left in the 1980s—the attempt to entrench military and bureaucratic notions of democracy and the rise of parliamentary democracy—Thai Marxists attempted to find a new strategic path. The editors of the radical political economy journal Warasan Setthasat Kanmeuang argued that the constitutional struggle of 1983 was essentially an argument between the various leaders of the capitalist state, namely: traditional rulers who want an amendment to the constitution so they can receive support…of the traditional capitalists who have partly developed from landlords and have influence in the bureaucracy.
The editors gave qualified support to elites struggling to strengthen parliamentary politics, but noted it would be the task of radicals to extend the struggle so that proper principles of democracy were established. These were defined as ‘participation of the people in defining their destiny, and opening up opportunities in different types of elections to allow broad social participation in the economy, society and politics’. The idea of civil society (prachasangkhom) would come to describe these developments, although the term itself was understood in a broadly Gramscian way in the mid-1980s. With the rise of local struggles and then the emergence of the democratic struggle of 1991–92 the moderate idea of civil society as a normative force against an overbearing state gained wide influence. Based on a critique of older forms of class-based struggle, civil society became a new way of conceptualizing a broad-based struggle for justice around pluralist politics and new norms of civic engagement.
With the political left in organizational and ideological disarray in the 1980s, a modest ‘movement’ based on local developmental problems gradually took hold. Indeed, as one NGO activist explains it, between 1979 and 1980 a number of progressive intellectuals involved in the mass movements of the 1970s consciously shifted towards small-scale NGO-type activity, seeing this as localized and less likely to provoke state repression, as it would be perceived as less threatening to those in power than other forms of activity. For many, the politics of the UCL, as neutral and issue-based, seemed more realistic in this situation. Kothom Ariya noted how the 1980s offered the opportunity for a more modest politics to take shape:
When the left-wing wind is blowing I am lagging behind, at the times when the CPT advocated armed struggle I was speaking about non-violence, so out of tune, but what I claim as a credit is when the opposite wind blew I was in front and many retreated.
Kothom also positively appraises the advances made by the NGO movement in its shift from an oppositionist stance in the early 1980s to winning acceptance among the business and bureaucratic sectors later in the decade. As a one-time president of the Thai Development Support Committee, he was a central player in the Campaign for Popular Democracy, before moving to Pollwatch and becoming a Commissioner of the Electoral Commission of Thailand.
NGOs’ local focus provided a breeding ground for new strategies that eventually merged into a loose national network aiming to promote sustainable development and participatory democracy. In this context, groups such as the UCL and its offshoots provided much of the rights discourse, cementing different groups with a common language. UCL’s founding president Saneh Chamarik wrote extensively on human rights and also linked the dominant NGO discourse of people-centred development with the recovery of local community culture. Saneh, close to the UN development research community, assumed the chair of the important NGO-Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD) in 1989–92, and was central in the propagation of community rights over resource management, a position that was fermenting within the multitude of local struggles spread throughout the nation. This provided developmental NGOs with a language that articulated local developmental needs, seen as ‘alternative development’ with rights-based discourses aimed at constitutional structures and the state, a process that would gain momentum in the 1990s.
The intersection of unbalanced economic growth, its environmental and social consequences for local communities, and the response of critics to this, led to rapid growth of the developmental NGO movement, from some thirty or forty organizations in the early 1980s to over 300 in the late 1990s. Such origins do not offer up an orderly pattern of development. However, it might be useful to follow Suthy Prasartset’s discussion of NGO development. Suthy argues that there have been four overlapping strategies within the NGO movement, what he calls the four-corner strategy. In part, each strategy is seen as a phase, but cumulatively the four-corner strategy is held to describe the Thai NGO movement.
To simplify Suthy’s schema somewhat, the four-corner strategy is first marked by the ‘search for alternative livelihood’. NGOs in the early 1980s promoted self-reliance and people’s participation in local development. Such activity was characterized by promoting small cooperatives and various commodity banks for the benefit of small producers. Such a local focus gave rise to popular discourses of community culture, economic delinking from the global economy (present in the form of agribusiness as well as older forms of merchant intermediaries) and integrated farming for self-reliance. Concomitant with this was a promotion of ‘local wisdom’, which entailed elevating the knowledge of local leaders who were seen as the repository of a community’s learning evolution and encyclopaedic in their appreciation of local circumstance. Developing from this first stage was the second corner of NGO strategy, which entailed promoting networking among NGOs and people’s organizations. This resulted in the formation of numerous networks across the nation which were based on information exchange and solidarity around common issues. Third, as Thailand entered its accelerated boom in the mid-1980s, placing pressure on natural resources, there emerged a generalized conflict, ‘pitting the state and corporate sector against the popular sector’. A consequence of this was the third strategy: the urgent need to articulate policy alternatives and raise public awareness. In this regard NGOs proposed an alternative People’s Development Plan, emphasizing, among other things, just development and support for the agriculture sector without linkage to agribusiness. Finally, Suthy notes that NGOs began to consciously devise a strategy of alliance building, the fourth corner, with state officials and others so as to coordinate their projects and win greater legitimacy. Furthermore, they aimed at galvanizing broad support from the urban middle class and academics.
The above may suggest a coherent politics, strategy and historical progression, but it is important to recognize that NGOs did not form a unified movement. Indeed, there were many ideological tendencies in the NGO movement. However, by the mid-1980s many development NGOs presented a generic united front which was critical of mainstream development (macro-economic focused, industrialist, GDP-focused) and authoritarianism. They also rejected strategies of mass mobilization and class struggle. In its Directory of 1987, the Thai Volunteer Service provides something of a broad-brush depiction of NGO political orientation:
The NGDOs [Non-government development organizations] reject the use of power conflicts or violence as a way of solving problems. They associate such methods with dictatorship and feel that their use can only lead to further misery, conflict and violence. NGDOs feel that developing people’s consciousness and carrying out small-scale peaceful, practical activities is a more appropriate and secure path to social change in Thai contexts. Thai NGDOs view social development not as an overt struggle but as a long, peaceful process of change in consciousness. A great deal of this theoretical orientation is rooted in prevailing cultural values and an appreciation of current political realities, particularly local government officials’ distrust of NGDOs. The unhappy experience of many Thai intellectuals with constitutional and rapid popular mobilization efforts, right-wing violence and an ideologically backward Communist Party during the 1970s have also played a part in producing a reaction against much radical social theory and the confrontational political activism practiced in other Asian Countries.
If disillusion with older forms of struggle was motivating a more modest practice, as well as a modest expectation of what could be achieved, the overwhelming nature of foreign funding for these organizations further accentuated this tendency. One comprehensive analysis of the staffing and financial structure of 135 NGDO groupings in the late 1980s found them mostly foreign-funded with limited means and staff. International NGOs and foreign governments were funding NGOs according to their own agendas. Some of these funding mechanisms might be seen as promoting the expansion of either international social democracy or liberalism, depending on the funding body. To the extent that NGOs were dependent on funding they were required to plan, justify and develop programmes in line with the international developmental ethos whose endpoint was forms of just capitalism. Equally, this meant developing professionalism, accountability and integration with international agendas of ‘just’ development. Inevitably, this also entailed a degree of bureaucratization, career ladders, self-advancement and funding for projects that were not based on popular demands but on NGO prerogative. The pressures for moderate approaches were further felt when, in the early 1990s, it looked as if Thai NGOs would lose a significant proportion of foreign funding (as Thailand was no longer considered a poor nation). The Thai Foundation was set up to develop the fundraising capacities of local NGOs and to promote the philanthropic sensitivity of Thai business and the middle class. Such moves further differentiate NGOs into those promoting a responsible and socially useful image, integral to the public good and Thai society, and those remaining more critical of capitalist development and its greed ethos.
Another significant aspect of the changing nature of development discourses was the active engagement of government with NGO forces and ideas. Reformist elites were by no means outside the development of the NGO ‘social-political infrastructure’, as Suthy names it. As early as 1984 NGOs proposed the establishment of a joint committee of NGOs and government agencies, a proposal supported and acted on by the National Economic and Social Development Board. Such developments pressed on the NGOs the need for a national coordinating body, which came into being in 1985 as NGO-CORD, to which many NGOs are affiliated while maintaining their own organizational autonomy. As Prudhisan and Maneerat observe, this was not a matter of co-option by the state, but represented a greater negotiating power on behalf of NGOs. To varying degrees, NGOs coordinated their projects with state officials, depending on the campaign and receptiveness of officials. As the boom spread, however, and pressure on resources grew, this relationship became increasingly tense, with some NGOs becoming supportive of people’s confrontation with ‘maldevelopment’ projects. In turn, state and private sector actors resorted to repressive tactics. Nevertheless, attempts were made to seek coordination and dialogue with both the bureaucracy and parliamentary institutions. A series of seminars in the late 1980s and early 1990s, aiming to open a dialogue on mutual work and promote the exchange of information, brought together NGO leaders and MPs. Such moves hinted at the strategic advance of NGOs in staking a legitimate position within the political sphere.
In 1992 important sections of the NGO movement and their intellectual allies issued the Declaration of the Customary Rights of Local Communities. In many ways this document provides the clearest exposition of NGO strategic thinking in the 1990s. It presents a critique of development as practised by the state-capital alliance and proposes alternative development measures as well as outlining a political strategy. Thai industrialization is said to have been achieved by the extraction of the rural surplus from Thai farmers, a process now threatening the rural communities. With the state supporting the private sector, there had been environmental degradation, the impoverishment of rural communities and the emergence of agribusiness. This is said to have occurred against a backdrop of authoritarianism, which had been justified by the need to harmonize and stabilize development. The document notes that state legislation dating from 1964 gave the state ownership of all forest reserves, resulting in the usurpation of traditional ownership by local forest dwellers. As the state moved to enforce its ownership, in order to provide natural resources to the private sector during the boom years, conflicts regularly flared up between officials and locals. Interestingly, the declaration cites one of the king’s speeches that pointed to the precedence of the property rights of individuals over retrospective legislation transferring ownership to the state:
In forests designated as reserved or restricted, there were people there already at the time of delineation. It seems rather odd for us to enforce the reserved forest law on people in the forest which became reserved only subsequently by the mere drawing of lines on pieces of paper. The problem arises in as much as, with the delineation done, these people became violators of the law. From the viewpoint of law, it is a violation, because the law was duly enacted; but according to natural law the violator of the law is he who drew the lines, because the people who has [sic] been in the forest previously possessed the rights of man, meaning that the authorities has [sic] encroached upon individuals and not individuals transgressing on the law of the land.
Having offered a critique of the state of development, the declaration then moves to its political position. It notes that industrial development has spawned a middle class which, it states, is the core of the human rights movement in Thailand:
The emergence of the human rights movement among the middle class could, to a certain extent, help contain the military dictatorship’s role and influence. It also opens up opportunities for business–industrial groups to rise to power in the politico-economic arena. This is the rationale for the formation of the business group for democracy.
The Declaration notes some positive developments among business groups relating to democratic development, but strikes a cautionary note on the self-interested attitude of business to democracy. Furthermore, the freedoms and rights of business in the new democracy are said to be at the expense of the ‘majority rural-agricultural sector’. Coming to the strategic question of how the NGOs might relate to the capitalist and middle classes, the ball is rhetorically thrown into the potential allies’ court:
A choice is to be made as to whether the newly-emerged capitalist and middle class would continue to follow the authoritarian path…. Or whether they would take a democratic path which is the common aspiration of all sectors in society, not just for the middle class.
By deed, many NGO activists have answered that question themselves. Suspicious, but hopeful, NGOs pursue a strategy of working with progressive sections in state agencies and business, hopeful that with the institutionalization of democracy they will be in a better position to address the issues of maldevelopment. It is this tension between suspicion and hope that characterizes NGO approaches to the liberal elite, in pursuit of a ‘minimum’ programme.
This battle to win acceptance of business and the state to alternative development visions and new forms of participatory democracy, which places importance on communities, has shaped public discourse in the last decade. It has served to link local community issues to national political levels and it has spawned a broad current of thought known as ‘localism’ (thongthinniyom), which became something of a generic slogan for a strategy of recapturing a past communitarian ethos to help local communities negotiate their way through the hazards of the global market economy. The guiding theme of localists is the necessity of rooting development (in the sense of people’s wellbeing) strategies in people’s own practices by a process of consciousness-raising. Localism takes a participatory approach to development as a process of learning, where the reference point is rooted in existing culture and communities. Its focus on community rehabilitation means that localism is also seen as a way of strengthening and remoralizing the nation after the perceived moral collapse into materialism during the economic boom. Against the background of ‘maldevelopment’ and responding to popular antipathy to unbalanced developmental capitalism, a number of prominent intellectuals theoretically intervened in the NGO movement in an attempt to place a theoretical unity across their diverse practices and constituencies. The intellectual attempt of the so-called community culture school to extract some ‘indigenous’ core from peasant and rural life practices, as a basis to return cultural dignity to a nation they see being degraded by materialism, was, in the first instance, a radical political critique of existing society. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, intellectuals within and close to state organs such as the National Economic and Social Development Board and the National Culture Commission developed a moderate brand of localism which has come to have a significant impact on reformed notions of national identity and democracy. There is a sense in which it may be said that localism became mainstreamed. What was essentially a counter-hegemonic position in the 1980s was in the 1990s, by a process of appropriation and partnership with state agencies, a key ideological and organizational resource in saving Thai capitalism from itself. It might be useful to see moderate localism as part of a broad ideological current that Somchai Phatharathananunth terms ‘elite civil society’. This is characterized by state society cooperation and involves potential domination by the state of civil society forces. At another level, though, it may also be possible to suggest that emergent forms of cooperation are also part of the changing nature of the state; it is not necessarily a strategy of defensive co-option in order for things to stay the same, but a process of adaptation as the integral state undergoes liberal change.
From radicalism to reform
The radical position is articulated in the work of Chatthip Nartsupha, whose Marxist historical work on political economy has, in recent years, been superseded by his shift to a somewhat anarchist position on community culture (watthanatham chumchon), and his liberal position on national democratic structures. In a recent preface to an English translation of his The Thai Village Economy in the Past, Chatthip tells of how he moved from a study of the economy and culture of the state, to a study of village economy and culture, which meant a shift in research methodology from documents and statistics to ‘interviewing ordinary people and listening to the account of their lives, difficulties and struggles for subsistence’. This is a significant observation, for it registers the shift to an epistemology of the local, and a strategy built on local knowledge in the 1980s. The base position of this approach was to turn villagers themselves into crafters of their own development by drawing on local resources of knowledge and community affection. Armed with their own self-knowledge, confident with their local identity, villagers could negotiate development on their own terms. At its most radical, the community culture orientation preached de-linking and a rejection of the market economies. Few villages have actually taken this path, and few NGOs are proponents of this position. Instead a more general theme has emerged on the importance of drawing on local resources for development, rather than development being a project led from the outside.
One implication of the culturalist focus of Chatthip is seen in his argument on the need to Thai-ify development such that the Thai bourgeoisie becomes encultured in village ways of life, rather than slavishly following ‘Western’ consumerism and the high culture of the royal court. Addressing the failure of the Sino-Thai capitalist class to lead the ‘Thai’ masses in a bourgeois democratic revolution, Chatthip curiously proposed that the Sino-Thai capitalists mix their tentative embracing of liberal democracy with community culture:
if [I]f the Thai bourgeoisie were to accept this mixed ideology that contains both Western liberalism and peasant culture, then the bourgeoisie will be more Thai, will more consciously identify with the development of the country. When they share the same identity as the majority of Thais, the bourgeoisie will be stronger and may become a true vehicle for the advance of ideology in Thailand.
This fusion would be a form of ‘progressive’ Thai nationalism, which disavows the high culture of the centre and revalues the ancient Thai traditions of kind-heartedness, said to be rooted in the spiritual values of village communities. This suggestion of cultural politics, of changing the identity of the Thai elite, partly motivates the broad localist current.
One question emerges from all of this: why would the Sino-Thai bourgeoisie concern itself with peasant culture in a bid to legitimate itself as fully Thai? For Chatthip, the Thaification of the Sino-bourgeoisie becomes a historical possibility because, as he argues, community culture discourse and strategy is not one centred on class polarization but stresses the ‘people’, a term that encompasses the middle class. This disavowal of Marxist class struggle seemingly breaks a barrier, for the progressive bourgeoisie should be willing to form an alliance with the people, since there is no threat of class revolution. Reflecting his Marxist past, Chatthip lays his cards on the table:
in [I]n reality, what we face is capitalism. We should therefore have a maximum program and a minimum program. The maximum program is anarchism and the minimum program is progressive capitalism. In other words, we demand that a progressive middle class share administrative power and the management of the economy with village communities.
Pasuk and Baker, in a review of Chatthip’s recent work, note how he later moved away from the minimum programme and has instead focused on the building of rural community networks that retreat from relationships with the state and capital. Certainly, the anarchism of Chatthip’s version of localism places him on the radical edge of anti-statism.
Others, however, while critical of the state, pursue a politics of collaboration with state agencies, in the hope of advancing self-capacity as part of a reduction of the role of the state in an effort to enhance the capacity of ‘civil society’. This current may be termed ‘moderate localism’. Moderate localism is a different animal than earlier manifestations of localism as theorized by Chatthip under the rubric of the ‘community culture school’.
The shifting forms of localism are partly exemplified in the thought of Saneh Chamarik. Saneh, who is best located between radical and moderate localism, is an influential thinker and has sought to propagate village culture and local wisdom within a Buddhist frame, without the Marxist and anarchist colouring of Chatthip. If Chatthip’s work spoke to more radical elements in the development sector, Saneh has a broader appeal, unclouded as it is by hopes of radical peasant federations.
Saneh’s critique of capitalism is really a critique of capitalism without human values. For Saneh, the neo-classical approach to economic growth places the interests of a minority at the centre while depriving the majority ‘of their productive potentials, and, most significantly, right to development’. It is not the market which is the problem but rather the idea that it can rule unregulated. Indeed, the market is described as an outcome of the great evolutionary scheme of history ‘when societies and the world at large come to be interdependent’. It is the conditions under which it operates, and whether actors are equally placed to deal with its exigencies, that concerns Saneh:
The market is a necessity, as is producing for the market, but farmers should not only focus on this dimension because we must accept that the agricultural basis of our farmers is as petty producers.
Thus practical strategies for development have preoccupied Saneh. Among his proposals is the call for state aid in research and development to assist small farmers to be able to respond to the world market. More recently Saneh has connected the issue of local wisdom to the development of small and medium enterprises. Given Saneh’s diagnosis, the challenge for NGOs was to enter the policy bodies of the state such that its unbalanced development policies could be addressed.
Saneh’s critique of existing conditions is embedded in a critical Buddhism in which good politics can only emerge when linked to wisdom and ethics. For Saneh, Thai Buddhist institutions needed to be more effective in propagating the Buddhist philosophy of a state based on dharma and virtue. Such propagation could influence the practice of secular politics. Critical of political reform as simply a technocratic attempt to counter money-politics, Saneh proposes that solutions be found at the local level, where petty producers, working cooperatively, could impact on the national political structures:
[V]arious community economic networks will combine and become a new social force to change the structure and relations of power towards balance and freedom…according to the processes of grassroots democracy.
For Saneh, the economic crisis of 1997 provided an opportunity to commence a debate on development. It could also lead to a highlighting of the need to work towards modest economic growth at local levels, based on self-reliant methods whereby communities raised their own credits and worked through various mechanisms to lift the level of capital within a community. Furthermore, local economic development would ultimately benefit national capital in its dealings with foreigners, for it would provide Thai capitalism with an economy rooted in local strength. This would be aided by a return to Thailand’s ‘cultural capital’ (thun watthanatham) held to be embodied in Buddhist wisdom.
Saneh’s critique of capitalism, at times rhetorically powerful, becomes, in the circumstances of national crisis, a critique of neo-liberalism and the market’s inability to lift the agricultural sector up to a real functioning market level. In essence, Saneh proposes a reformed national capitalism that draws sustenance from local communities so as to be able better to compete in the world economy. Such a position has become influential in directing the work of a number of rural NGOs.
Prawet Wasi similarly argues for the need to develop local capital in Thailand in a manner consonant with local culture and wisdom. The designation of Prawet as an advocate of localism is somewhat limiting, as this is just one aspect of his Buddhist communitarianism. Prawet’s localism is conversant with international trends which began to value the local in development from the mid-1980s onwards. Prawet has been a long-term board member of the National Economic and Social Development Board, the body responsible for producing Thailand’s broad five-year development plans, and has used that position to push participation and the importance of community in development. At the same time, a central figure in the Local Development Institute, Prawet has been an influential figure among moderate NGOs. Critical of the ‘compartmentalized’ thinking that produces an emphasis on material development as the measure of progress, Prawet suggests that a more holistic approach to development would see a return to culture—which is simply conceived as situated wisdom and integrated knowledge of local places, within an overarching Buddhist rationality. Following the broad stream of localism, Prawet argues for the need to develop local capital in Thailand in a manner consonant with the local culture and wisdom of the people.
Prawet’s basic communitarianism emerges in his conception of communities as places of common locality and identity where citizens come together to solve problems and advance their wellbeing. For Prawet, communities are the basic component of democracy, a place where individuals as members of groups cooperate, share knowledge and work towards creative solutions to common problems. People in communities, not necessarily geographic, share common ideals, beliefs and objectives. They have love, fraternity and collective learning. Supplementing this broad communitarianism is the more developmental concern with growing social capital in communities, and on this Prawet is clearly conversant with the ‘Putnam School’ and its stress on social capital (norms, networks and trust) as the social underpinnings of growth. In this way of thinking, communities are seen as democratic building blocks because the extent to which they are able to be self-reliant in generating solutions to their problems, is also the extent to which democracy can be consolidated at the national level. It is at local sites that the imperatives of civic responsibility and public mindedness can best be nurtured, and it is therefore there that communities, with adequate social capital, can establish a strong moral base to sustain democracy.
Although broadly embracing a communitarian position, Prawet is first and foremost a thinker who repeatedly integrates his social critique with Buddhist themes; principal among them is the need to possess ‘right thinking’ (sammaditthi)—which is no less than ensuring a full understanding of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, regarding development Prawet says:
The Thai path of development is, therefore, not a desperate chase to keep up with farang [Westerners]. We have learned that the western model of development is a mistake because it is based on a money chase. Our path must transcend this. We must stay one step ahead of the world by remaining faithful to the right concept, or sammaditthi, of development. It is one which focuses on goodness while interlocking the economy with mind, family, community, culture and the environment.
With Prawet’s Buddhist position comes an ethic of impermanence and detachment—ideas that are used by Prawet to propagate non-anger and non-violence on the basis of non-attachment to positions, and which seemingly positions him above polarized conflicts based on material interest. Buddhism also provides Prawet with his rationale for human rights and respect of human dignity, which is seen to lie in each individual’s capacity for right understanding. As much as Prawet seeks to inculcate right thinking into individuals, he sees it also as immanent in the social whole, by a logic of reciprocity whereby a good society and right understanding are mutually reinforcing. Thus he roots individual potential—or the capacity of right understanding—in the social conditions that prevail.
Underlying these seemingly progressive positions lies a strong current of elitism. The elitism itself comes out in the various pronouncements that Prawet makes about the state of the Thai people. In an open letter to the prime minister, for example, Prawet explained that Thais possess a small conscience and that ‘people still cannot think more of the public interest than themselves and their cronies’. Prawet is a disciplinary thinker who makes no bones about the need to educate the masses in the ways of rationality and public-mindedness. Importantly, in discussing the lessons of May 1992 when confrontation between democracy protestors and the Thai military led to scores of people being shot dead, Prawet argued that the hope for Thai democracy was the middle class because they were educated and their lifestyle required rational calculation. Thus he thought more effort needed to be put into making them a new moral force. As for workers and peasants, the vast majority of the Thai population, Prawet implicitly argued that their efforts for social change were prone to violence. For Prawet, then, it is the middle class who best encapsulate the values of the rational citizen. Here the middle class is construed as teachers, shopkeepers, civil servants, business-people, etc. What marks all of these groups is a reasonable degree of economic independence. This underlines one aspect of elite communitarian thought—the need for communities to provide a basis of economic growth such that the people populating them come to have the characteristics of the middle class, namely rationality. ‘Self-reliance’ and ‘self-sufficiency’, then, all comes down to providing the material conditions for a deliberative rationality, a prerequisite for democracy. By a long detour one may say that Prawet arrives at a proto-modernist position on the role of the middle classes in democracy.
Prawet’s elite communitarianism and democratic outlook converge. Collectively, for him, communities are sites of learning as they endeavour to move towards higher moral states embodied in the principle of self-reliance. In this, intellectuals are seen as having a responsibility to lead by first understanding the conditions and worldview (local wisdom) of the villagers (chaoban). This comes about not through abstract discussion or education but through engagement with issues that emerge in communities and which become points of organization, grievance and, hopefully, community deliberation.
In response to the growth of state power, Prawet proposed the strengthening of civil society/community by focusing on increasing people’s own power. However, rejecting the idea that the state and business sectors were ‘all rotten’, he proposed that the state and business sector be utilized in building up the strength of society: ‘Don’t let us think that they are enemies like communists, we must think in terms of allies.’ Influenced by development concepts of participation, and in pursuit of unity in development between the state and other actors, Prawet proposed new structures for deliberation that bring various groupings under the rubric of what he calls ‘penjapakkhi’ or a partnership of five sides, including state officials, NGOs, people’s organizations, academics and the private sector. In this is, perhaps, Prawet’s most important contribution to the ‘participatory’ aspect of democratization in Thailand, having led to the establishment of prachakhom, or provincial-level civic assemblies throughout Thailand. At Prawet’s suggestion, the Eighth National Development Plan called for the establishment of prachakhom, described as ‘assemblies for the purpose of formulating development plans and guidelines for the provinces’. What is significant in this development is the institutionalization of state/society relations through civic assemblies in which each sector discusses development issues. Although the bodies have no binding authority, they are meant to provide popular input into programmes.
In the above we can identify quite clearly the manner in which Prawet is a disciplinary thinker. He aims to mould the nature of citizens by inculcating a form of rationalism which will be educed by taking account of local circumstance and the nature of emergent knowledge in the locale. Any citizen’s engagement with this process is to be one that conforms broadly to principles of rational thought (the right way) and which envisages a consensual process of learning which avoids polarity and conflict. Prawet, despite the local, comes to sanction the unity of the Thai, and the prachakhom are an organizational embodiment of this.
Socializing political reform, mitigating the economic crisis
While at one level, and corresponding to structural interests, political reform might be conceived as part of the politics of capitalist good governance, at another it may also be seen as a basis on which to build social justice around communitarian ethics encased in a liberal political shell. Taking the latter as their framework, a number of organizations associated with localism have embraced the opportunities for participation afforded by the new constitution and new rhetoric of participatory development embraced by the NESDB and bureaucratic bodies. To illustrate this connection, the following looks at the collaboration between the Local Development Institute (LDI) and Civicnet.
The LDI has, in one form or another, been an influential actor in the domestic NGO scene for close to two decades, its leaders being prominent persons such as Saneh Jamarik and Prawet Wasi. A mediator for international aid, it also relates closely to reformist elements in the bureaucracy. It has long been involved in local development projects and providing support for small-scale development initiatives, assisting in hundreds of these in the last decade. Soon after the crisis the LDI formed the Save the Nation Forum (prachakhom kopban ku meuang) to provide an alternative explanation of the economic crisis and to suggest solutions rooted in localism and nationalism. It aimed at forming a pluralistic cross-class movement based on ‘collective learning’ to overcome materialism, Westernization, patronage culture and corruption. The forum was short-lived (April–May 1998), with limited reach, although it provided a basis for the creation of some new networks countrywide.
Civicnet, formally established in the aftermath of the economic crisis, was an initiative of individuals who had been closely associated with the Bangkok Forum, environmental groups and LDI. One key member, Anuchart Puangsamli, noting how the power of the middle class was traditionally seen to be centred in Bangkok, explains that one motive behind the formation of Civicnet was to tap into the power of emerging middle classes in the provinces. Given the limited engagement of the Bangkok middle class post-1992, it became apparent that new sources of change needed to be identified: ‘We tried to look at the people in the provinces, there are a number of educated people there, a number of professionals and business peoples.’ While NGOs focused on disaffected groups and organized around particular issues, the provincial urban middle class (itself often the leadership of these NGOs) had few places to congregate and deliberate on public issues. Civicnet would provide an avenue for the formation of a politically engaged middle class that could intersect and inform other movements. Indeed, a key organizing activity of Civicnet is training programmes to equip individuals and groups with the capacity to be ‘change agents’. It sees its work as one of providing training to bodies of activists and publicly minded middle-class persons with the skills and wisdom to confront local and national problems through processes of deliberation and learning. As Chaiwat Thirapan, a leading member of Civicnet, explains:
We don’t want to work as a protest or pressure group; we want to create the opportunity of new alternatives, and to develop strength from positive action and thinking…. We work with many groupings and we have observed that through dialogue with other groups and institutions, they start to change their minds.
In line with these politics of dialogue, Civicnet was a supporter, along with LDI and Prawet in the NESDB, of the formation of prachakhom (civic assemblies) as new spaces for deliberation:
We tried to think very hard of how to set up some sort of social space for people at the provincial level to come together and talk, because we think that the citizenship wouldn’t happen if people don’t have space to exercise their ideas…they wouldn’t have place to learn. So that is why we try to encourage this idea…we didn’t mean to set up an organization, rather set up a forum for people to talk.
The prachakhom have been subject to significant criticism by several observers who see them as sites where state officials and local notables have come to dominate. These criticisms bring into focus the issue of the nature of deliberative processes when participants come together in cultural settings where power is scripted around status, position, gender, wealth and sexuality. LDI and Civicnet are not oblivious to these problems, indeed they seek a long-term redress to them through participation and the creation of public opinion which will gradually act as a social sanction. Nor are they naive about some state actors’ intentions, thus counselling caution in relations with the state. Nonetheless, theirs is a strategy of engagement which follows from a firm belief in the power of dialogue and learning processes, and the possibility of bringing into being moral counterweights to the decadent practices of money-democracy, bureaucratic theft and local thuggery.
In 1997 the LDI shifted its focus from the formation of prachakhom to what it termed ‘the period of social reform and macro mobilization’. Seeking to expand its influence nationally through various networks, and by propagating the formation of collective learning through deliberative forums and campaigns, the LDI posed for itself a grand quest itemized in a nine-point strategy: the establishment of a social reform refund to ‘develop central co-coordinating committees to work with agencies under the principal ministries’, help develop consumer networks, assist in the development of media for social reform, assist prachakhom to reform education and the value system, assist prachakhom for the reform of law and the macro economy, and open the state to more people’s participation in order to strengthen communities.
The work of LDI and Civicnet has largely converged around the project of social reform. In the face of the economic crisis and the resulting national reflection on its causes, localism and its embracing of local wisdom and self-reliance became a key public discourse. Also, calls for fresh and paradigm-breaking thinking were heard. This positioned the two organizations as significant actors in the ideological maelstrom resulting from the crisis. People, and in particular Prawet Wasi, began to speak about utilizing social energy—the power of local communities in interaction and in a process of learning—as a way out of the crisis.
In November 1999 the LDI co-coordinated a number of public intellectuals, including Prawet Wasi, Chai-Anan Samudavanija, Bowonsak Uwanno and Seksan Prasertkul (a mixed bag to say the least) to support a joint statement outlining what was described as the ‘Forces of the Land Strategy to Solve the National Crisis’. In the face of foreign domination, the authors counselled that
Time has proven that the power of the state is not sufficient to solve the national crisis, it is necessary that the social or people sector consolidates its power and takes part in solving the crisis. There is no power that can solve such complicated problems besides the power of society (SOCIAL ENERGY). Social energy comes from the coming together to think and act—all over the Thai nation, in all places, all organizations, on all issues—as a force of the land (phalang phaen din)…. This social energy should have three methods, act by oneself, work with the state, scrutinise the state…. In the age of globalization neither the state nor society alone has sufficient power to preserve the country’s economic sovereignty. The state and the people need to integrate as a civil-state (pracharat).
Although the term pracharat is contained in the national anthem, a more recent meaning was elaborated by the liberal royalist Chai-Anan. In a series of articles concerning globalization and change, Chai-Anan tapped into popular writings on the changing nature of the state to produce a broad dichotomy between the older nation-state and the ideal state of the global era. While the nation-state was characterized by such features as uniformity, submission, dependence, compulsion and control, the civil state promotes diversity, freedom, autonomy, pluralism and empowerment and good governance (including institutionalized relations between the state and civil society), as prescribed by the United Nations Development Programme.
If the idealized prachakhom might be seen as miniature versions of pracharat in local and provincial settings, the next stage was clearly to have the same kind of idealized interaction and integration at the national level. This is what partly lies behind the idea of ‘forces of the land’. This is not to say that there is any illusion about a pracharat coming into existence; rather, as an ideal it motivates the activities of the organizations concerned, and acts as a regulating goal for their work. The idea of the civil-state articulates liberal and communitarian positions: the civil-state and its inherent liberalism will foster the strength and revitalization of communities. One illustrative example of this kind of politics is the Forces of the Land Forum (wethi phalang phaendin), which is discussed below.
The Forces of the Land Forum
In 1998 the newly established Thai-rak-Thai party, in an effort to broaden its appeal and to rebut criticisms of it being just another capitalist party, began to meet with communities, NGOs and public intellectuals in an effort to hammer out a policy platform. In the course of discussions, TRT edged towards a number of seemingly progressive positions including suspension of farmers’ debts, cheap health care and increased village funds. Its nominal membership base also rose from tens of thousands to a reputed eleven million by mid-2001. In its policy documents, the party also spoke of harnessing local wisdom for the wellbeing of the nation.
The apparent openness of TRT led to a number of dialogues between the party and public intellectuals, with the Strategy to Save the Nation (see above) clearly being aimed at the electioneering parties. It was Thaksin who most ambitiously drew on localism discourse. Indeed, Phonladej Pinpratip, the present Secretary-General of LDI, informs that a number of key reformist members in TRT, including the prime minister himself, began to use the term palang paen din. There was even talk of the government issuing a general Prime Ministerial Order similar in effect to Order 66/2523 (to defeat communism), but LDI suggested this would just make it too formulaic and defeat its intention.
In the few months after the TRT election victory, dialogue between TRT and LDI continued and in the end TRT gave its formal blessing to LDI, with Civicnet, to launch a forum to gather people’s opinions on what could be done to solve local and national problems. According to Phonladej,
The strategy of palang paen din is a combined project between the Office of the Prime Minister and my institution, the LDI…. Both of these work together, with the Office of the Prime Minister needing us, [because] we have connections with many networks all over the country, who can come and help think about the strategy of palang paen din.
Phonladej was quick to note that although the project had formal government blessing, it was independent of government interference. The basic idea was to gather various networks around the country and to build up a composite picture of local wisdom, mediated by change agents, and to formally present to the government some proposals. Dialogue, learning and communication for social change were to not only influence the government and its policy agenda, but they were also to be seen as part of the process of self-empowerment of communities and individuals alike. Although it would be facile to give too much rigidity to the notion of ‘forces of the land’, given that it, like so many other Thai phrases, goes through a boom-like use and then becomes redundant, the meaning of the term associated with the LDI comes from Prawet Wasi, in a document distributed at Forces of the Land workshops:
That Thailand is poor, with no money, doesn’t mean that we have nothing. We have something of greater value…the Thai people, that is we our very selves, Thai people who love the land are capital (thun) that is greater than money, greater than anything.
Thais who come together and think together across the land will be a great force of the land that can defeat any obstacle.
Prawet then goes on to speak about how coming together can solve numerous social ailments:
A strong community is a force of the land which is a moral force.
Force of the land is phumi phala, phumi is land, phala is the force of the land. The force of the land is the name of the Rama 9th [Bhumiphon] of Rathanakosin. If you think of the King, think of the force of the land, if you think of force of the land, please think of the power of community.
This sloganistic conflation has purchase in Thailand because the king is constantly invoked as the embodiment of all Thais. However, the reasoning behind this conflation is interesting, for while it would seem to suggest mere homage to the king, Phonladej explains that
We think in Thailand that the institution of the monarchy is loved by the people, so in thinking of a strategy that can be accepted by the people, we think we need to find something that is symbolic of this, and so the name of king is Bhumiphon, it can be translated as palang paen din…. Given that for sometime Thai society has been weakening, we must revive its strength, which corresponds with the name of the king, thus we devise the strategy of palang paen din.
What we see, then, in the Force of the Land Forum, is the fusion of localism, monarchism, nationalism and the attempt to forge new forms of participatory democracy through civic assemblies. Hardly reactionary nationalism, the movement gives voice to the ‘people’, who are perceived to be lacking both in the capacity to speak ably as yet, and also lack the space in which to speak. This invocation of ‘people’ is significant, for it elides significant class differences and purports to see a generalized common interest.
Prawet goes on to speak about needing to interweave the civil-state (pracharat) with the force of the land, noting that the people or state alone cannot solve problems. Rather with the power of society, culture, morality, new organizations and wisdom, national problems could be solved in a sustainable fashion:
The state is composed of politics and bureaucracy, the people are the villagers, communities, society, localities, business, monks, academics, artists, the media etc. Pracharat thus means all sectors of Thai society or Thai people combine together transcending parties…[and] cliques, and having a new consciousness which sees the common interest of the nation, ready to create force of the land or force of the nation to defeat the national crisis and move towards wellbeing.
Forces of the Land meetings were held in over ten subregional locations in mid-2001. Approximately 1,000 community leaders, teachers, doctors, villagers, NGO activists and unaffiliated individuals from various prachakhom attended the three-day workshops. In a workshop in Khon Kaen held in July 2000, participants were treated to introductory speeches in which Prawet’s sentiments were recounted by different speakers. Facilitators and speakers addressed the meeting on the nature of social communciation, the power of civic action and the need for the accumulation of knowledge. Equally, there were calls for all sectors of society to work together. Participants broke into teams to consider key problems of Thai society, coming back to share their findings, with facilitators drawing a general picture. Moving from problems, participants were asked to suggest solutions. Most groups were keen to advance ‘community strengthening’ and local wisdom, with calls even to institutionalize the Forces of the Land movement. In November, delegates from the various subregional meetings met to generalize their findings and prepare a report for the Thaksin government. The findings of the various subregions were divided into four general areas, all seen as falling within the strategy of palang paen din: creating the power of networks; creating the power of pracharat; creating the power of wisdom; and creating the power of the media. Under each topic, prescriptions were given on the necessary organization and structural outcomes for each area to be advanced, as well as a description of the kinds of activity that could be undertaken. The campaign has called for the establishment of a fund for Forces of the Land which would provide umbrella support for various groups: it could support the establishment of an institute for development of regional-level civil society networks; networks of over 100,000 people to work according to the new constitution; support anti-corruption and antidrugs campaigners who confront difficulties in their livelihoods as a result of their work. In practice, these formations are to push forward decentralization and the reform of the bureaucracy, assist in the creation of local economies and self-reliance, scutinize the work of the local authorities and be part of the creation of public space to develop ‘healthy public life’ and local culture. Second, in creating a people-state an interweaving network of civil society/state groups are to assist in the implementation of the village fund (an initiative of the Thaksin government) and prachakhom, assist in moving the bureaucracy away from backward practices, take part in the discussion on amendments to the constitution and push forward anti-corruption measures, strengthen the ECT, push for the Community Forest Law and push for land reform legislation. Third, an ‘Institution to Develop Local Wisdom’ is to be established, backed also by a local wisdom fund and a’Local Wisdom Learning Council’. These will assist in research and the drafting of local development plans, drawing up ‘corruption maps’ and using the media to further local wisdom. Finally, a fund for social and community media is to be established. This will fund radio and television programmes ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’.
The proposals are a programme for a revitalized nation organized around rural networks, interaction between state and society, and so on. In effect the proposals were a crystallization of the politics of civic participation and reformed nationalism. It can be seen that in moderate localism, exemplified in the phalang phaen din campaign, localist activists seek a participatory democracy characterized by communitarian institutions, modes of participation and ideologies that, in tying in with the state, try to reform it. In the context of a contested democratic transition, localists and civic activists attempt to bring about institutions and processes that can facilitate the formation of a Thai public consciousness. As has been indicated, it is important to note the disciplinary aspects of this, inasmuch as the ideal citizen becomes one who has regard for the Thai triad and acts through their ‘Thainess’. While there is room for local identities in this mode of politics, localist politics are connected to the broader wellbeing of a reformed and reimagined Thai nation. Certainly, it is hard not to see this as a step forward from the atavistic nationalism of the National Identity Board. However, the figures of the ‘people’, ‘citizen’ and ‘community’, so central to localist, communitarian and civic discourses, do not quite exist. The organizational and ideological invocation to be proud of the locality, to be a participant in the locality, is part of the process of bringing them into being as a new ideological reference point for a new Thai nationalism. This process of democrasubjection is steadily gaining ground in Thailand precisely because of the break-up of older modes of association (neo-patrimonialism), and it also works against the formation of a more class-based consciousness. Seen in this light, the politics of civic engagement are not insignificant, despite being pitted against powerful old-style politics. They are part of the process of new forms of order and discipline. With the state in crisis, and the economy in free fall, localism works worked to harness the power of the nation in producing order and identity, by relaxing its borders in order that they such borders could be strengthened.
Culture and democracy: a campaign
Thus far it has been suggested that there is an emergent reformist discourse that integrates concerns around development, moral personhood, democracy, community and civil society, and that links activists and reformist elites. This intellectual trend is partly manifested in the work of the Office of the National Culture Commission (NCC), established in 1979. The NCC was formed in an attempt to propagate an awareness of the ‘oneness of Thais’ despite their diverse and regional cultures. Located within the Ministry of Education, the first few years of its activity involved the establishment and integration of provincial- and district-level cultural offices where both local and national culture was displayed. In 1982 The National Culture Commission launched a campaign to address the cultural deficits of Thais in terms of promoting self-reliance, diligence and responsibility, thrift, discipline, law-abiding behaviour, development of a religious ethic and getting the people to follow the slogan of ‘nation, religion and monarchy’. According to the commission’s secretary-general, this was seen as an important aspect of the struggle against communism. One official of the NCC nicely sums up its reason for existence: ‘if we are not the same we will break up’. Certainly, national policy makers were concerned with the destruction of traditional culture and the fading of old ways, as well as what they considered to be bad elements of Thai culture. Premised on anti-communist sentiment and cultural propagation, the NCC would find itself adrift in the late 1980s as the security complex broke up and its rationale of oneness against communism wavered. Furthermore, as the CPT declined and NGO and local struggles emerged, there was a certain ideological crossing of some bureaucrats and the NGOs. This is particularly so of Ekkawit Na Thalang, a former high-ranking bureaucrat in the Ministry of Education and Secretary-General of the NCC from 1988 to 1991. Ekkawit was intellectually close to Prawet’s reformist Buddhism and the project to promote local wisdom. By the mid-1990s he was arguing for the government to encourage NGOs’ involvement in culture propagation. Ekkawit is intellectually important in making respectable the move from notions of unified culture towards an acceptance of diversity as non-threatening and part of a greater uniformity of Thai culture. Within this reformist current of Thai nationalism there is also a more explicit appeal to the religious underpinnings of democracy, such that Buddhist virtue would be the regulating principle of a moral democracy.
Cognizant of local wisdom and its varied expressions, there nevertheless remains the attempt by Ekkawit, and Prawet, to project a rational Buddhism onto the communities. The relevance of Buddhist wisdom to political reform, decentralization and self-government in reform Buddhism is expressed best by Peter Jackson:
In rationalist Buddhism…rationally guided ethical action is posited as the source of legitimate secular power. This power is immanent in ethical action and is believed capable of transforming the social world for the better. It is universally accessible to all ethical individuals and is thus decentralized, becoming manifest wherever an individual chooses to act ethically and to place reason above unreason.
Important as the reformist elite recognition of community culture and local wisdom was, this was qualified by Buddhist propagation, self-reliance and moral strictures as to the qualities of a self-governing person: this was rationalist Buddhism acting as a disciplinary discourse.
In 1990 the Chatichai government adopted the NCC plan for developing national culture, perhaps reflecting its own apparent cultural anxiety about money and materialism. As a rationale of the plan, the NCC noted the lack of faith in local wisdom and the corresponding elevation of foreign-influenced Bangkok culture. This contamination of culture was said to be spreading to the regions with the result that ‘the integrity, honour and pride in old local culture…is declining everywhere’. In 1994 the NCC launched a major campaign for the preservation of Thai culture. Concerned with the declining interest in things ‘Thai’ and the rise of materialism, the campaign sought to address the cultural problems that had occurred under a period of accelerated economic development. To distinguish its work from the kind of ‘decreed’ culture of the Phibun era, an effort was made to emphasize that there was no element of compulsion in its campaign:
under a democratic system of government there is one thing that is generally accepted and that is democratic culture…[and thus] the state probably should not be the one to stipulate all cultural standards, since it is a basic freedom of the people to seek their own ways appropriate with their private circumstance.
Yet despite this seeming openness, the eleven issues to be propagated in the campaign were familiar rallying cries of the cultural infrastructure. Starting with the inculcation of nation, religion and monarchy (institutions which are said to ‘give pride to being born Thai’), the campaign was to give emphasis to knowing the origins of the Thais, to understanding democracy with the king as head of state, and to have the people realize the king’s compassion as expressed in various royal activities. The traits the campaign was to promote were principally not those for ‘preservation’, but those that the disciplinary agencies of the state had been trying develop. The same contradiction that was noted in the promotion of identity replays itself in this campaign: to be Thai, to have Thai culture, is to develop discipline, orderly family relations, self-reliance, religious virtue, etc. This developmental aspect was of course complemented by the abiding essentialism of Thainess. Thus, as was the case with campaigns of national identity and democracy, the campaign for culture was also one of partly developing what Kasian has called the ‘ethno-ideology of Thainess’. In this ideology the Thai nation is ‘imagined as a happy and calm village’, an immemorial and morally bounded community of intimate ties. Yet there are certain cracks in this ideology, witnessed by the proposed voluntariness of the campaign.
If the cultural warlords have become less belligerent, this owes something to the new democratic openings and the cultural space won by the struggles of local communities. Nevertheless, articulators of the Thai nation, in the age of globalization, are now using those struggles as part of the material to regenerate Thai nationalism within a refurbished traditional frame of the triad, in which the nation is a call to unity; the king is an overarching guardian of the nascent democracy of his subjects, preaching Buddhist virtue and industriousness and generating in the people an affective orientation towards hierarchy and duty; and religion provides the moral codes of the people. What makes this nationalism different from the ultra-right version of the 1970s is that there is a recognition of things not being right, that the nation is more than high culture, that religious institutions are crumbling edifices requiring doctrinal reform, and that the state, as the upholder of Buddhism, has dubious claims on this capacity. There is of course continuity. Reformist nationalists are the inheritors of the seemingly unquestionable position of the monarch, and thus no matter how badly the nation and religion are faring, the prime institution, which in any case embodies the others, is robust and developing an almost god-like status. These are the cultural tensions present in liberal Thailand, a project that requires a new imagining of Thai unity within a democracy.
The new nationalism in Thailand aims to do the work of creating unity, of developing within people affective orientations to the geo-body of Thailand. With no ulterior motive, it is clearly geared towards assisting reformed Thai capital’s venture into the global economy.
Liberalism, communitarianism and possible futures
In this and the previous chapter, the focus has been on two major currents of thought: political liberalism and its attachment to the Thai common good, and a communitarianism that subscribes to the institutions of political liberalism. It has been suggested that for the foreseeable future this is the terrain of ideological struggles in Thailand, as both sides will attempt to formulate new democratic imaginaries within the bounds of national ideology. This is, admittedly, a simplistic picture since it misses the monarchy as a nodal point connecting both streams of elite communitarianism and liberalism. This nodal point suggests there is a good deal more unity than division between the two positions. However, this unity is tensely poised, given that liberals are more attached to a national project of economic growth and modernization that would be likely to undermine rural communities.
However, it should be noted that some liberals, taking a developmental perspective on democracy and capitalism, also see ‘communities’ as a necessary step in the fulfilment of a Thai modernity. Thus while localists speak of communities as if they were impermeable entities, refuges from the perils of globalization and the market, some also think in terms of transition, building up the capital of local communities, of connecting with national and global markets. This tension, which plays itself out in the attempts to rearticulate national ideology around the local, is most apparent in liberal renderings of the ‘community’. Bowonsak Uwanno provides some insights into this. Taking the stance that democracy is now a universal phenomenon, Bowonsak attempts to articulate an element of Thainess to it. The new constitution, he believes, reflects Thai philosophy in its support for ‘community rights’. Noting that the West had shifted, in the eighteenth century, from collectivism to individualism, he flags the Thai aspect of democracy:
legally, constitutionally speaking there is in the Western legal tradition the state and the individual but in between there is nothing. We are trying to put something in between, that is to say the community.
Involved with Saneh and Prawet in a three-year research project on community rights, Bowonsak had popularized the idea that such rights existed under the absolute monarchy. Interestingly, he argues it is the section on community rights that provides the new reform constitution with ‘the Thai contribution’. This section, he says, ‘is more or less eastern’. This is also how he integrates the king to the constitution, for he argues that the king’s thought parallels that of many NGOs on community rights. Thus what is seen as among the most radical elements of the constitution—community rights—is presented as having a relationship to ‘Eastern’ collectivist ways and is linked to the pondering of the philosopher king. Some exploration of this reveals a fairly pragmatic commitment to this ‘Thai’ aspect. Bowonsak, who would seem to straddle both the liberal and communitarian camps, presents an ideal picture of democracy:
Democracy is successful in the Western world because the majority of the people in the Western world are middle class. They stand by themselves and are not dependent on others. But the Thai majority are dependent on others, but if we can make them more independent the culture will change.
Bowonsak unexpectedly reveals that the ‘Eastern’ aspect of the constitution is a stop-gap measure:
if [I]f people depend on community it is better than asking them to be totally independent, the idea of urbanization will take at least fifty years. The middle path is how to strengthen the communities, it would seem the ideas of Dr Prawet and the King are the way out.
Bowonsak then moves on to speak of the idea of developing civil society to strengthen groups. These supportive comments on civil society clearly situate Bowonsak within a modernizing gesture, for between community and civil society there seems to be an ineluctable transition awaiting Thai peasants. Clearly, some community discourses are part of the transitional ideological underpinnings on the road to a more vital national capitalism. The idea of community need not be seen as a journey into the past, rather it might just as well be seen as a temporary solution to the failures of the market to develop all sectors uniformly.
This posture finds support in an important book analysing participatory rural development in Thailand. Shin’ichi Shigemoti notes that many of the cooperative aspects of contemporary rural communities are truly recent, while traditional communities unpenetrated by the market were likely to have more individualistic and family-orientated activities. What many in the community culture school take to be echoes of an idyllic village past (cooperatives, rice banks, etc.), Shigemoti argues, are really organizations which have emerged to mitigate the direct impact of the larger external money economy; they are essentially about mobilizing local capital in productive ways. Thus the collective pooling of resources is seen to be ‘based on a calculation that cooperative organizations are more beneficial than a market economy, even in terms of the individual pursuit of profit’. However, organizational commitments such as these are transitory, a process which provides some individuals with the skills to make the transition to a market economy. Shigemoti argues that when cooperative organizations confront severe competition, the ‘know how which the villagers do not yet have (i.e. the ability to manage a private enterprise) will become vital. This opens a new stage of organizing among the villagers’.
The strength of Shigemoti’s argument is that it makes explicit the tacit acceptance of the market by many in development circles. It also draws out the logic of this, that many NGOs are assisting in the process of nurturing a capitalist mentality within a transitory cooperative-protective shell. Community, then, is not the fulfilment of Eastern collectivism, but rather the filament that will play its role in the fertilization of local potential for the capitalist transition. Given this, it would appear that the more urban rhetoric of civil society is destined to overwhelm community and, indeed, there has been a growing popularization of this idea among NGOs and related intellectuals.
A communitarianism for a liberal future
Through a broad range of local activities and attempts at policy mobilization, NGOs succeeded in at least flagging their work as a credible alternative or modification of existing state practices of development. NGOs were able to influence political discourse by bringing into the public arena notions such as integrated farming, community rights, self-reliance, local wisdom, and so on, which gradually permeated governmental discourse. The various calls and campaigning for community control over resources, participation in policy determination, public hearings and feasibility studies, were all part of a more generalized political offensive against the hegemonic state that had succeeded in locking out alternative voices through a measure of ideological mobilization and, where necessary, repression and coercion. These movements and the response of the state led to heated conflict and contest over numerous spheres. With state calls for unity increasingly falling on deaf ears, and with new political openings making it difficult to engage in suppression, state and political actors have partly accepted the new institutionalized settings for dispute resolution, but have done much to subvert them towards their own interests. Nevertheless, the myriad forms in which the state/NGO contest was pursued allowed for a constant engagement between the two, with the consequence that in some quarters there was a cross-fertilization of ideas and practices, particularly in the development field. Furthermore, there are actors within and without the state who do seek genuine redress of legitimate grievances, and see a precondition of this the creation of means of communication between conflicting sides, so that—through dialogue—more appropriate action in the pluralized national interest can take place. This broad experience has been significant in reshaping reformist versions of nationalism and democracy.
On a more critical note, it may be noted that a pragmatic communitarianism lies at the heart of some civil society intellectual currents. This does not mean that there is a cynicism about the fate of communities. What it does suggest is that it is a communitarianism that engages with the liberal spaces of the market and the institutions of liberal democracy. It seeks to imprint on these a communitarian concern that morally transcends the enlightened self-interest of elites. Thus communitarianism provides a stronger moral claim on the public good. It is not surprising, therefore, that this current is represented by prominent lay Buddhists, former communists and activists. Nor is it surprising that such claims are taken up and profiled in state centres such as the NCC There is a logic to this seeming contradiction: in the present circumstances of Thailand, for the rationale of self-governance to be speakable to a moral community, such as intellectuals believe they are addressing, an ethos that binds that community but which articulates it with political liberalism is needed. In all respects the notions of civic virtue, of responsibility, of self-reliance, in communitarian discourse, while located first as principles for the community, are also addressed to individuals. Furthermore, a careful analysis would suggest that ultimately, even if communitarian thinkers believe morally market-based local economies provide the basis of community sovereignty, it would be utopian to imagine the circulation of capital and its attendant commodification of life would not destroy the communitarianism they seek to embed.
What precisely is the democrasubjection sought in this tension between liberal and communitarian? In this space, national ideology emerges as a diverse and encompassing one which interpellates citizens as members of a self-reliant community which, standing on its own, can legitimately speak and address the national arena. It coaxes from such communities uniformity to moral precepts that define the inner life of communities as ultimately self-determining. Citizen Community acts like Citizen Subject: responsible and productive. In this frame the imagined democracy is localized into community and then projected back to the national stage as communities neither in bondage to the state nor degraded by the evils of patronage and subjection to external powers.
FUll Citations of sources may be found in the published edition.
Thai Commentary and part-translation of this chapter:
พบ Blog ที่น่าสนใจโดยบังเอิญ คนที่สนใจเหตุการณ์บ้านเมืองอาจจะอยากเข้าไปดู เขาตั้งชื่อ Blog ว่า Sovereign Myth เขียนโดย Michale K. Connors อยู่ที่ Melbourne ออสเตรเลีย http://sovereignmyth.blogspot.com
มีบทความหนึ่งชื่อ Thai communitarian nationalism and the NGO movement โพสต์ไว้ตั้งแต่วันที่ 24 มิถุนายน ที่ผ่านมา [คลิกอ่านตรงนี้ http://sovereignmyth.blogspot.com/2008/06/thai-communitarian-nationalism-and-ngo.html] เป็นบทความที่พูดถึง “ชุมชนนิยม” (communitarianism) ที่ผู้เขียนมองว่าเป็นกระแสคิดหลักของเอ็นจีโอในเมืองไทย มีการย้อนเล่าถึงการก่อตัวของแนวคิดนี้ตั้งแต่ทศวรรษ 1960s เรื่อยมา โดยโยงเข้ากับประวัติการก่อเกิดเอ็นจีโอในเมืองไทย และบริบทของสถานการณ์บ้านเมืองในแต่ละช่วงเวลา
ในส่วนท้ายของบทความมีการวิเคราะห์ communitarianism ว่ามีตำแหน่งแห่งที่อย่างไรในสถานการณ์การเมืองไทยในปัจจุบัน โดยพาดหัวข้อย่อยว่า “ชุมชนนิยม เพื่ออนาคตอันเสรี” (A communitarianism for a liberal future) เนื้อหาส่วนนี้สรุปย่อ ๆ ได้ว่า.. .
[แนะนำให้ผู้ที่อ่านภาษาอังกฤษได้ไปอ่านต้นฉบับใน blog ที่ระบุข้างต้นจะรู้เรื่องกว่า เพราะ blogger ตีความมั่วซะเยอะ]
นับว่าเป็นความสำเร็จของเอ็นจีโอในการปักธงทางเลือกให้แก่สังคม เพื่อท้าทายแนวทางการทำงานพัฒนาของรัฐ เพราะเอ็นจีโอได้สร้างอิทธิพลต่อวาทกรรมทางการเมือง ทำให้มีการพูดถึง เกษตรผสมผสาน สิทธิชุมชน การพึ่งพาตนเอง ภูมิปัญญาท้องถิ่น และอื่น ๆ ในพื้นที่สาธารณะ และวาทกรรมเหล่านี้ได้ค่อย ๆ แทรกซึมเข้าไปในวาทกรรมการปกครอง จากการรณรงค์เคลื่อนไหวมากมายเพื่อเรียกร้องสิทธิเหนือทรัพยากรของชุมชน เรียกร้องให้ชุมชนมีส่วนร่วมในการกำหนดนโยบาย มีการรับฟังสาธารณะ และการศึกษาความเหมาะสมก่อนการดำเนินโครงการพัฒนา จนกระทั่งสิ่งเหล่านี้กลายมาเป็นประเด็นหลักที่ใช้ต่อรองกับรัฐในทางการเมือง
ขบวนการเคลื่อนไหวทางสังคม และการตอบโต้ของรัฐ นำไปสู่ความขัดแย้งที่ร้อนแรง การที่รัฐเน้นแต่การสร้างความเป็นเอกภาพก็ทำให้รัฐหูหนวกไม่ได้ยินเสียงเรียกร้องของประชาชนมากขึ้นเรื่อย ๆ แต่ด้วยการเปิดโอกาสทางการเมืองแบบใหม่ ๆ ก็ทำให้รัฐไม่อาจใช้วิธีการปราบปรามแบบเดิม ๆ ได้ ด้วยเหตุนี้รัฐและผู้ปฏิบัติการทางการเมืองจึงยอมรับการจัดตั้งสถาบันใหม่ ๆ ขึ้น ซึ่งแม้จะอ้างว่าเป็นกลไกเพื่อคลี่คลายแก้ปัญหา แต่ส่วนใหญ่ก็ยังทำไปเพื่อผลประโยชน์ของพวกเขาเอง
กระนั้นก็ตาม รัฐและเอ็นจีโอก็เห็นความสำคัญของการเจรจากันมากขึ้น และการสร้างเครื่องมือในการสื่อสารระหว่างคู่ขัดแย้ง ซึ่งเชื่อว่าจะช่วยคลี่คลายปัญหา และเป็นผลดีต่อผลประโยชน์ของชาติโดยรวม
ชุมชนนิยมได้รับความสนใจจากภาคประชาสังคมอย่างกว้างขวาง แต่แนวคิดของมันอาจจะไม่ค่อยสอดคล้องนักกับบริบทสังคมไทยในปัจจุบันที่เน้นการเปิดตลาดเสรีและระบบประชาธิปไตยเสรี ซึ่งเอื้อต่อผลประโยชน์ส่วนตัวของชนชั้นนำ
ชุมชนนิยมเน้นเรื่องจริยธรรมที่ให้ความสำคัญต่อผลประโยชน์ส่วนรวม ดังนั้น จึงไม่น่าแปลกใจที่แนวคิดนี้ถูกนำเสนอโดยชาวพุทธ อดีตคอมมิวนิสต์ และนักกิจกรรม (แต่ไม่ได้ถูกเสนอโดยชนชั้นนำ) และมันก็ไม่น่าแปลกอะไรถ้ารัฐจะหยิบแนวคิดแบบนั้นไปใช้ด้วย
แนวคิดที่พูดถึงกัน ได้แก่ แนวคิดว่าด้วยการปกครองตนเองของชุมชน จริยธรรมของชุมชน และเสรีนิยมทางการเมือง มีแนวคิดว่าด้วยการเป็นพลเมืองที่ดี ที่มีความรับผิดชอบ พึ่งพาตนเอง แนวคิดเหล่านี้แท้ที่จริงเป็นส่วนประกอบของความเป็นชุมชนที่บรรจุอยู่ในวาทกรรมชุมชนนิยม แต่ต่อมาได้ถูกอ้างถึงว่าเป็นหลักปฏิบัติ (ที่ดี) ของปัจเจกบุคคลด้วย
มีข้อวิพากษ์วิจารณ์ว่า แม้ว่านักคิดสายชุมชนนิยมจะเชื่อว่าการพัฒนาระบบการตลาดในระดับระดับท้องถิ่นจะช่วยทำให้ชุมชนมีอธิปไตย แต่มันอาจจะเป็นเพียงความเพ้อผัน (Utopian) หรือเป็นเพียงแค่จินตนาการว่าการหมุนเวียนของทุนและกระบวนการทำให้ชีวิตเป็นสินค้าในระดับโลกจะไม่เข้าไปทำลายความเป็นชุมชน
ผู้เขียนชี้ให้เห็นว่าในวาทกรรมชุมชนนิยมที่ถูกนำเสนอในบริบทที่มีการปลุกอุดมการณ์ชาตินิยมขึ้นมาด้วยนั้น ได้ทำให้เกิดความไม่ลงตัวระหว่างความเป็น เสรีนิยม (ระดับชาติ) กับ ชุมชนนิยม (ระดับท้องถิ่น) กระแสชุมชนนิยมได้เสนอให้พลเมืองเป็นสมาชิกของชุมชนที่พึ่งพาตนเองได้ และก็เป็นพลเมืองของชาติที่มีความเป็นเสรีนิยมในขณะเดียวกัน
พลเมืองที่ดีจะต้องเชื่อฟังคำสอนทางจริยธรรม เป็นปัจเจกชนที่กำหนดตนเอง รับผิดชอบดูแลตนเอง และสร้างการผลิตที่มีคุณภาพ การจินตนาการถึงประชาธิปไตยได้ถูกทำให้เป็นเรื่องของท้องถิ่น แต่ก็โยงไปสู่ระดับชาติ ด้วยการมองว่าชุมชนไม่พันธนาการอยู่กับรัฐ และไม่ได้ขึ้นอยู่กับระบบอุปถัมภ์อันเลวร้ายที่ดำรงอยู่ในสังคมไทย