January 8, 2011

Notes Towards an Understanding of Thai liberalism

"Notes Towards an Understanding of Thai liberalism"
Michael K. Connors

forthcoming in Bangkok, May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) edited by Mike Montesano, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Aekapol Chongvilaivan.

(parts of this piece have previously appeared in The Age and this blog)

It is easy to understand the plausibility of the case that the principal struggle unfolding in Thailand today pits democracy against authoritarianism. The events of the past four years seem to speak for themselves: the 2006 coup against the ‘pro-poor’ Thaksin government, the manipulated pro-military constitutional referendum of 2007, the judicial dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai (2007) and its successor People’s Power (2008) parties, and the subsequent military-supported installation of a Democrat-led coalition government in late 2008. Then of course comes the spilling of blood that feeds the democracy-authoritarianism narrative: the bloody crackdown in April – May 2010 against Red Shirt protestors and the imposition of a draconian state of emergency, human rights violations, and the suspension of due process for hundreds of political detainees.

The "democratic versus authoritarian” narrative, connected to the idea of a popular struggle against a rich establishment, has captured international attention. It is also at the heart of the self-presentation of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), so brilliantly exemplified by the etching of the world phrai (commoner) onto red tee-shirts. There are elements of truth in this formulation. But the same general tension – democracy versus authoritarianism – could just as easily substitute for a short history of human society, with one problem: it explains everything generally, but nothing particularly. In recent times the formulation has led to skewed analysis of Thailand’s crisis, and to a cheer-squad mentality that fails to capture intra-class/state conflict and inter-class/state agency cooperation. It obscures the nature of Thailand’s recent past and its likely trajectory. Moving beyond such a simplistic analysis makes possible a more serious probing of the specific nature of the conflict and of the possibilities for its resolution. Early-twentieth-century Marxist Antonio Gramsci offers the best argument against simplistic representation: "A given socio-historical moment is never homogeneous; on the contrary, it is rich in contradictions." To understand Thailand’s rich contradictions, it is better to drop the catch-all explanation and to come to grips with the specificity of the crisis at hand.

These notes toward an understanding of Thai liberalism are, I suppose, an uncomfortable call for observers to stand at some intellectual distance from the daily malaise of democracy in Thailand and to seek more sensitive lenses through which to examine both the interests and ideologies behind the competing claims of now fundamentally antagonistic elites, and the popular bases with which these interests and ideologies are articulated.

While rich in contradiction, the Thai context nevertheless has a dominant dynamic. That dynamic includes the largely unexplained pacting during 2005 and 2006 of statist conservatives and elite liberals against the emergent and competitive authoritarianism represented by Thaksin Shinawatra. It also includes the re-pacting of those same elements upon the emergence of the Red Shirt movement (itself composed of some liberal elements).

I say “unexplained” because, for the most part, political liberalism in Thailand is not taken seriously by analysts. It is seen as rhetorical and mealy-mouthed. When it is recognised, it is viewed as having been eclipsed by the instrumental politics of competing networks. There is thus nothing to explain. Scratch a political liberal in Thailand, and underneath is a snivelling courtier ready to serve monarchy, military and bureaucracy, or any paymaster – or so it is claimed. This view of Thai elites holds that ideas and social projects do not matter; only venal interest are deemed relevant. The view also broadly endorses a conspiratorial understanding of politics. This understanding has it that a monolithic elite self-consciously acts as the puppet master in all matters. This view does not recognize the fragmented and hostile relations between liberals and conservatives, because it takes Thai liberals and conservatives to be, fundamentally, one and the same.

At another level, a number of non-governmental organizations, activists and public intellectuals have taken a non-antagonistic, if not sympathetic, position to the anti-Thaksin side. Arguably, this position makes these groups and individuals distantly complicit in the authoritarian resolution to the crisis. But, just as differences between liberals and statists are elided in the conventional narrative, so too are those between elite liberalism and the social liberalism espoused by Thailand’s NGOs. NGOs’ failure to rally to the Red Shirts leads critics to bundle them together as part of the amaat (the bureaucratic-aristocratic establishment), as if those who have struggled for social justice over the last generation have suddenly become concerned only with their own interests and those of Thai elites. By the force of this logic, those who do not side with the Red Shirts are merely morally defective and opportunistic.

A morally charged critique based on the alleged defective character of those with whom one disagrees does not advance understanding of different strategic positions. Rather, it leaves one in the realm of puppet play, of good and evil, and of caricature. It results in accounts lacking in explanatory power, their rhetorical force notwithstanding.

Illumination of the contradiction of Thai liberalism’s pact with statist conservatism, only one of many pacts now in operation, requires an answer to one crucial question: why was Thaksin deposed? The answer is clear: Thaksin threatened a tentative liberal-conservative pact, one that emerged in the 1990s, on sharing power. The pact put Thailand on a trajectory toward a more liberal democratic polity. A variety of social forces, their interests differentially entangled in that project, mobilised against Thaksin. This mobilisation culminated in the September 2006 coup d’état. Subsequent developments have certainly transformed the nature of the struggle from an intra-elite contest to a broader societal conflict.

Confronting the transformation of the pro-Thaksin side into a messily conjoined quasi-popular/counter-elite movement advancing egalitarian positions, the liberal-conservative pact has hardened. The “soft coup” of 2006 has become a distant memory.
In this moment of profound structural crisis, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva symbolises the liberal pact with statist conservatives. His government’s maintenance throughout 2010 of the Emergency Decree invoked in April 2010 subsequent to the crushing of the Red Shirt rebellion reveals the foundations of sovereign power in force. But this is not naked power, even if it is abusive. Its purported aim is to prepare the ground for the realization of liberalism’s preferred state form in the post-crisis period. Such is Thai liberalism’s current internal logic and public message: judge us not by situational logic and actions, but by our long-term project, to which we now turn.

After the February 1991 coup – an attempt by statists and conservatives to roll back the emergence of a more open and democratic society - a politically liberal reform movement emerged in Thailand. Elites recognised that the semi-democracy of the 1980s was the creature of an age gone by. This movement resulted in the celebrated 1997 ''People's Constitution'', which formally enshrined liberal doctrine at the heart of the Thai state. Henceforth, executive power (rooted in a democratic mandate) would be subject to a variety of liberal checks and balances. An electoral commission and constitutional and administrative courts would scrutinise the exercise of that power. No one expected a smooth path to liberal democracy in Thailand. The military's corporate interests remained. Networks around the monarchy continued to wield power. Corruption was pervasive. The liberal project was understood to be gradual and generational.

Then the project came unstuck. While in government during the Asian economic crisis of 1997-2000, the liberally oriented Democrat Party failed to offer anything except implementation of an International Monetary Fund austerity program and the creation of a social-welfare safety valve in the form of the Social Investment Fund. Such liberal feebleness paved the way for Thaksin and his brand of authoritarian populism and ‘pro-poor’ policies.

During his term as prime minister (2001-06), Thaksin tore up the aspirational liberal settlement. His disregard for human rights and the institutions intended to subject executive power to checks and balances is well documented. So too is the level of electoral support that he enjoyed, which won him power in 2001 and 2005. His project was a modernized and globalized Thai capitalism whose midwife would be elected authoritarianism. Liberalism, such as it was, and democracy, such as it could be, parted ways.

The Yellow Shirt movement against Thaksin that arose in 2005-06 brought together liberal middle-class elements, members of the rural poor and unionists opposed to privatisation programs. It also included elite conservative elements fearful that Thaksin was pushing them out of their traditional roles as powerbrokers. These elements viewed Thaksin as a threat to the social order and, importantly, to the monarchy.

Since 2006, Thai liberals have joined with conservative elements in the state, and with the Yellow Shirts, to defeat Thaksin and his supporters. Together, they played a role in bringing down the elected pro-Thaksin governments in late 2008. They were and are driven by a flawed logic of gradually returning Thailand to something like the liberal-conservative settlement of 1997, with all of its compromises and more besides. Liberalism’s dependence on its erstwhile statist competitors in the military and bureaucracy make those additional compromises necessary.

From liberal-conservative pact to liberal authoritarianism
Two compelling fears drive Thailand’s now transformed liberal authoritarianism, by which I mean the use of authoritarian means to return Thailand to its elitist liberal trajectory.

The first is fear that an alternative modernizing network of politicians, statists, and business, under the leadership of Thaksin, and possibly with support of a new monarch, will block a return to the circumscribed but pluralistic competition for power that characterized the emergent liberal-conservative period of the 1990s to early 2000s. ). Corporate interest also drives those who would stand to lose from the end of that regime of circumscribed competition. And when self-interest finds justification in pious commitment to a visibly threatened social order – brutal action unremarkably follows. Thaksin’s modernizing authoritarianism was antagonistic to an established historical bloc whose members believed that, all things being equal, it was edging Thailand in the right direction. That bloc is not intent on establishing a Burmese-style junta, or on returning to policies of benign neglect of the poor. Should it succeed in its goals, the most likely outcome will be a partially reformed (for survival requires some degree of reform) but nevertheless elite-controlled order. Evidence for these likely goals is to be found in the way in which the Abhisit government is accelerating land reform and addressing other socio-economic grievances whilst simultaneously trying to bring political contestation under control.

A new logic is now also present, one that transcends earlier fears of populism. The roots of this second fear lie in apprehensiveness over the unleashed expectations of Thailand’s less powerful classes coupled with a relentless organizational drive to return to power by Thaksin. It is also rooted in concern over those classes’ new-found fury at the bare-faced authoritarian posture of the Abhisit government and its hardline backers in the Thai military. The very existence of armed elements in the Red Shirt camp (incredulously denied by Red Shirt sympathisers or explained away as a desperate strategy) fuels this contingent authoritarianism, and forces it to reveal itself.

In this post-coup phase, in which might is doubly right, situational logics and political choices have brought into being a reactionary societal current that gives partisan legitimacy to the government. Relief that the Red Shirts have been “dealt with” gives rise to exaltation of the “handlers.” Take as one example the adulation of Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation spokesperson Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, as in The Nation’s 30 May 2010 article “Saluting the kingdom's coolest colonel.” It is a legitimacy that rests on portraying the Red threat as criminal and terroristic, and therefore not worthy of political engagement.

The threat of social upheaval, of a world turned upside down, has brought all sorts of pathologies to the surface: witch-hunts, educational ostracism, dehumanising portrayals of those who disagree, bloodcurdling snobbery and a recapturing of the city of angels by sovereign consumers speedily spending the country out of crisis. Unsettled by the emergence of a rival state in the heartland of Bangkok during April and May of 2010, as exemplified by the imposition of Red Shirt authority on street corners and influence on sections of the state’s police and armed forces, people began to howl in mid-2010 for a political cleansing as malignantly intended as it would be destructive. Liberalism looks at itself in the mirror and wonders how it got to this state.

Thinking about liberalism as a problematic, not as a doctrine

The question arises, does what we are discussing have anything to do with liberalism? In reply, I would note that it is best to think of liberalism in general and in the Thai case in particular not simply as a philosophy of the conditions for individual autonomy, but as a response to the problems of governance in complex societies in which modern state structures emerge, power centres are plural, and conflict and public interest require regulation and adjudication to preserve defined liberties. At a minimum, liberal aspiration accords with the division and accountability of power. I am speaking more of a political than individually-centred philosophical liberalism. Liberalism, in its own way, asks, What is to be done?

What is to be done with an electorate – judged in part to be dependent and lacking in capacity because of information flows - that keeps returning to office (in 2005 and 2008) a political class that will move Thailand away from the liberal-conservative settlement of 1997? Thai liberalism is no different from historic forms of liberalism that feared the “tyranny of the majority” and the egalitarian impulse of democracy. Many liberals are disposed to support or at least condone aristocratic tutelage over citizens who need to be “developed” before they can be sovereign. It took several generations in many countries for liberalism to settle into democratic realities. It still does not quite fit, and liberals the world over must constantly deal with the populist underside of democracy and the illiberal nature of big business and the security state.

What is to be done with a political class that is highly corrupt and money-driven? Classic liberal themes of public interest, of conflict of interest, and of virtue come into play. Everywhere, liberals rally against the decline of virtue. But in its present moment, elite liberalism makes compromises and is articulated with corrupt or conservative elements “on the right side.” Its pragmatic side is a reflection of politics as the art of the possible. Think of the pragmatic alliance between the Democrat Party and its coalition partners. Presumably, virtue’s day will come.

What is to be done with the statist and conservative institutions of monarchy, military and bureaucracy, and with the networks that permeate them? Precisely because this problem deemed less serious than the Thaksinite threat, it is momentarily put aside. Should the Thaksinite and populist threat be neutralized, one may expect a return of the ongoing contest between liberal and statist conservative elements. That the peak statist element of “the network monarchy” is a gerontocracy gives the advantage to the elite liberal network.

One particular way in which liberals have sought to engage and gradually transform the monarchy is by embedding what I have called “royal liberalism”. In doing so they are re- enacting liberalism’s historical flirtation (in France and England) with monarchy as a guardian centre above “politics”, what leading Thai legal scholar Bowonsak Uwanno describes as the “the supreme ombudsman”. In that role, the crown supposedly acts as the liberal regulator, ensuring the division of power and protecting the public interest. Aside from its legitimating function, the idea of “royal liberalism” is a reforming, indeed disciplining discourse directed at the Thai monarchy and at those who mobilize the institution for illiberal purposes. It is a claim on the monarchy as a public institution. The aspiration for liberal monarchy is challenged by the reputed relationship between Thaksin and the Crown Prince. That relationship would raise the spectre of a weakened “ombudsman”, and a directly politicised monarchy. Of course, the status of the current “ombudsman” is not up for discussion among Thai liberals. This is one limit, among many others, of Thai liberalism.

What is to be done to bring future stability and to secure a political settlement? Here the liberal impulse is strongly evident in the habitual selection of two prominent royalists, Anand Panyarachun and Prawet Wasi, to head government-sponsored reform and reconciliation committees. The re-emergence of organic intellectuals of the emergent liberal state of the 1990s, after several years of effective silence, to spear-head the Abhisit government’s reconciliation plan comes just when liberalism’s pact with state authority is at its apex and there exists a supra- state of exception. Nevertheless, and to repeat, while some predict a lurch toward Burma-like scenario and military ascendancy, the evidence suggests a return at some point to the elite liberal politics of the 1990s accompanied and diminished by strengthened military corporatism. Such permutations are the stuff of history.

I am suggesting that, despite the rupture of the 2006 coup, a great deal of continuity links 1992 to 2010 – something evident in the content of the 2007 constitution, notwithstanding its roll-back in some important areas. It is easy to label politics after May 2010 as laden with fascist intent and practise, but the charge hardly makes sense if one considers historic forms of fascism. Moreover, sloganeering and misdiagnosis preclude the development of a progressive strategy to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the existing contradictory situation.

It is necessary to come to terms with Thailand’s liberal tendencies, however unhandsomely Thai liberalism enters into pacts with authoritarianism in moments of crisis and with conservative social traditions as part of its commitment to nation-building. The contention that the current authoritarian phase in Bangkok’s politics makes liberalism all but redundant betrays an unfamiliarity with liberalism as a problem solving orientation as much as a series of principles, and with its history of siding with order over disorder. It is a history that has involved, for example, a certain fondness for Bismarck, a recognition of monarchy, and an aristocratic disposition masquerading as virtuous citizenship. Liberal problematics and discourses are not simply an iterance of settled doctrine. Rather, they are unique expressions of an endeavour for openness in the prevailing power relations specific to a given society at a given time. Thai elite liberalism resonates with historical forms of what Alan Kahan calls “aristocratic liberalism”.

Thai liberalism may be wrong in its strategic readings of the balance of power, opportunistic in its pacting, and elitist in its assumption of guardianship. But it is in its stated ambition a form of liberalism, however diminished and enfeebled. When Abhisit proclaims himself a political liberal, I believe him.

Prerogative rule by the executive in extraordinary times is not a concept alien to the liberal tradition. But such rule does bring an obligation for authoritarian liberalism to make clear how, if at all, its actions will return politics to a liberal democratic pathway. At the moment of writing, this is the paramount problematic facing the Abhisit government.

Michael K. Connors teaches politics in the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

Sources available in the forthcoming hardcopy.

This piece was written in August 2010.