May 23, 2016

The politics of the General Will in Thailand

Excerpts from
Michael K. Connors
International Journal of Cultural Policy        2016.

Available at:

From cultural enforcer to networker: the Cultural Surveillance Centre (Ministry of Culture)

Despite its seemingly Orwellian appellation, the CSC’s activities are not unlike those practised by other nationally-based cultural guardians – either state or societal – who doubt the moral and political competencies of their respective cultural charges. Given the work of the CSC to constantly remind people of Thainess through its newsletters, public exhibitions, workshops, media appearances, a case may be made that the CSC is merely an add-on to the cultural infrastructure that functions to banally remind people, as Billig (1995)) describes, to be self-conscious of the nation-root of identity, of which subjectivity should be an expression. Such a view places the CSC in a stream of hegemonic politics whereby the coupling of self-nation identification has historically served a broader hegemony of the dominant power bloc of senior bureaucracy, palace and business (Thongchai 2008;Reynolds 2002); this hegemonic bloc emerged through the twentieth Century, although events since the coup of September 2006 have led to a fracturing of that hegemony and splits in its conceptualisation (Glassman 2011).

Viewing the CSC as a persistent ‘identity reminder’ also entails recognising that its cultural surveillance work seeks to generate real-life manifestations of embedded ‘modest’ and ‘decent’ social norms among Thai citizens in market capitalism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the agency is attempting to nurture and embed national identity as a public good, embodied in officially endorsed notions of culture as a way of life (which agencies seek to shape). As a public good, national identity acts as a normative institution that tempers the possessive individualism of capitalism. This understanding of culture – as a public good/general will – consciously derives, in part, from UNESCO’s instrumental elevation of culture as a prime resource that drives sustainable development, an understanding that has demonstrably shaped MOC policies (Connors 2005;        Surapan, Chareonsap. 2011 ;UNESCO 1998) As Miller and Yudice (2002, pp. 12–15) have pointed out, cultural policy is in part an iterance of the foundational position of all educational projects: that the subject is ethically incomplete and requires reform; and taken in a national context that reform serves simultaneously the nurturing of a civilised individual and nation.

The CSC aims to extend the legislative capacity of ‘the people’ to rule themselves through the principle of the general will – which can only ever be understood as a decision about what is the right way to live together. It is evident that to the iterative Legislator (any usurping governmental agency tasked with constituting the people-body), an enabling capacity for making that decision means engagement in the bio-politics of Thainess, or varied governmental intervention. Thainess works to authorise legislation without an electoral democratic mandate, for it is the enabling condition of the assumed social contract between the Thai state and its subjects, at least among conservatives. Here then we find at its rawest the mentality of many in the moral reform agencies of the Thai state. Its logic in the cultural realm is mirrored in the political realm. In the absence of a capacity to form a general will, in the presence of fractious politics of interest and ideology, limited forms of democracy are viewed as necessary so that the people can be led towards the general will. If one were seeking to find the general tenor of politics informing the justification for suspending Thailand’s electoral democracy, it may be found in embryonic form in the CSC and other pedagogical agencies of state and society. Its surveillance activities form one channel through which a general will may appear and citizens ‘forced’ to be free. That Thailand has, since 1932, never succeeded in embedding any constitutional form (in 2015 and 2016 it deliberated its 20th constitution) means that the figure of the iterative legislator (military coup, government agency, monarchy, etc.) is constant in the modern period.

In the voice of Locke and Mussolini? ‘new politics’ for Thailand?

In the voice of Locke and Mussolini? ‘new politics’ for Thailand?

On August 26, thousands of demonstrators from the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) seized government house in a bid to thwart proposed constitutional amendments and to oust the government. Other sections of the organisation momentarily seized the national broadcaster, and in the following days thousands of protestors occupied two international airports in the south of Thailand. The ‘general uprising’, more a campaign of militant civil disobedience, had begun. Warrants for the arrest of PAD leaders on charge of treason were issued, but they remained at large. The government's inability to deal with PAD became clearer after it declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, which shifted responsibility from the police to the military for the removal of PAD from government house. At the time of writing, two weeks after the ‘uprising’ the military had still failed to act, leading thousands of government house staff to set up office in Bangkok's old international airport.
PAD had been the main force against the Thaksin government in 2006, mobilising a highly opportunist royalist politics mixed with political liberalism and nationalism, broadly consistent with ‘royal liberalism’ and its fear of electoral majorities (Connors, 2008a10. Connors , M.K. 2008a. ‘Article of faith: the failure of royal liberalism in Thailand’. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38(1): 143–65)

 PAD is an amalgam of anti-Thaksin forces from the business, security, union, and civic sectors. Although PAD is widely described as composed of the ‘Bangkokian middle class’ its protest base is much broader both in class and spatial terms. Although campaigning in the name of democracy, PAD's internal structure is undemocratic, with decision making confined to its core leaders. Its protests are sustained by significant financial support from a variety of sectors, and income from protest merchandise. It is, perhaps the first, protest movement to have a dedicated satellite television station. Many commentators see PAD as the instrument of a third hand (the security and palace complexes) because it has won support from elite sectors of society including the aristocracy and elements in the military. However, its key leader Sondhi Limthongkul – a former Thaksin supporter and media mogul – has argued that the elite establishment stood at a distance from the PAD until they realised its ability to mobilise tens of thousands against Thaksin. Speaking of elite supporters in 2006, Sondhi says:

I fought Thaksin and I was able to pull up the mass, and they [elites] were excited because [the elites] never thought in their minds-and later on they admitted it-that so many people would come out… So, all the elites were pulling all their forces behind me (cited in Crispin 2007)

Although Sondhi is vague on details, it is widely believed that PAD was backed by some powerful elite figures, including ex-security chief Prasong Sunsiri, associates of General Prem, and numerous business and banking families. In 2008 PAD was more openly associated with elite and military figures, including officers who were implicated in some of the alleged human rights abuses that PAD had highlighted in 2006. And while PAD leaders refused positions offered by the Junta, with the exception of Major General (rtd.) Chamlong Srimuang who joined the NLA, by mid-2007 PAD leaders were calling on the junta to take a harder stance against Thaksin supporters.
PAD was inactive when the Samak government took office. With the imminent return of Thaksin from exile in late February it issued a statement announcing its regrouping (People's Alliance for Democracy 2008a)
 The statement criticised the close relationship between Thaksin Shinawatra and the Samak government, criticised the ECT for being pro-Thaksin and allowing cases of electoral fraud against PPP to stall, and expressed concern about interference in the judicial system that favoured Thaksin. PAD stage-2 had begun.

In the face of the government's declared intention to amend the constitution, on May 25 PAD commenced what would become a continuous demonstration, leading eventually to the seizure of government house in the ‘general uprising’ of August 26. In its battle against Samak, PAD mobilised ultra-nationalist sentiment over the joint Thai-Cambodian agreement that it claimed forfeited sovereignty over contested territory to Cambodia, leading to the Constitutional Court's annulment of the agreement. PAD's political rhetoric became less and less liberal and the already strong royal-nationalist features of its discourse became absolute.

Facing the reality of an electorally popular government, PAD began to turn its disquiet about the quality of governments thrown up by electoral democracy into a vague program for ‘New Politics’. PAD had long expressed doubts about electoral democracy's viability in a society where electoral weight was predominantly with the rural poor and farming classes, who were seen to be caught in a patronage culture of vote-buying. Sondhi gave this politics an ethnic dimension. He clearly viewed the Sino-Thai middle class in Bangkok and in the urban areas of the provinces as PAD's constituency. While PAD leadership is made up of various currents, as do the people who attended PAD rallies, Sondhi professes to speak for this grouping. He has argued that this class was being quashed by ‘evil’ monopolistic capitalism (led also by the Sino-Thai) and by the rural masses dependent on populist policies (Nation sutsapda 2008)). By mid-year key PAD leaders, and others, were beginning to express an interest in moving beyond electoral democracy, claiming that it merely returned corrupt governments to power. Even veteran educator of liberal democracy Chai-Anan endorsed a return to the ‘semi democracy’ of the 1980s, in which power was shared between the military, the bureaucracy and the parliament (Chai-Anan 2008)
In a series of statements beginning in June and extending into July, PAD expressed support for a system of democracy which extended representative channels to occupational groups, with suggestions that 70% be appointed. Although the discussion was laced with talk of extending active citizenship through public hearings and citizen referendums (Scandinavian countries were cited as examples), ‘New Politics’ was decidedly corporatist in conception (Suriyasai 2008)  Sondhi went so far as to speak of ‘functional democracy,’ suggesting a family resemblance with Mussolini's Italy and Suharto's Indonesia. (Nation sutsapda 2008;‘Phim kiew kan muang mai’ [Green Paper: New Politics] July 11 .)
The idea was also reminiscent of a strand of Thai military thinking from the 1980s that argued elections resulted in parliamentary dictatorship and proposed a form of corporate representation to realise the ‘general will’ of the people under military leadership. In keeping with that line, Sondhi argued that the military, in new politics, could intervene in politics when, among other things, the government was corrupt and when a government failed to act on cases of lèse-majesté. He proposed that the military come under the control of the Crown, not an elected government (Connors 2008e)
 Several PAD leaders have rejected the idea that Sondhi's version of ‘New Politics’ is official PAD policy (interview with author, Bangkok, August 5 and August 7, 2008). They have also criticised Sondhi's proposal for defined conditions enabling military intervention. But they did not do so publicly for fear of creating disunity in PAD during what they claimed were conditions of ‘war’.
Nevertheless, ‘New Politics’ came to fore after PAD's occupation of government house. It substituted for a clear objective beyond destroying the ‘Thaksin system’. The elitist nature of ‘New Politics’ led to severe criticism of PAD for anti-democratic posturing. In response, PAD issued a statement recounting its objections to Thaksin and the Samak government, explained its concern for checks and balances and for the rule of law, and explained that its proposal of selected/occupational representatives was merely a proposal for discussion and subject to majority support – it was not something it wanted to impose on Thailand. PAD re-affirmed that it would remain in the bounds of ‘democracy with the king as head of state’ (People's Alliance for Democracy, 2008b)
Whatever, the status of the ‘New Politics’ idea, it is important to note that the idea of restrictive systems of representative democracy in which one person does not equal one vote is not a feature only of corporatist semi-fascist origin. England's most famous liberal J.S. Mill, the author of On Liberty, argued that to restrict the impact of the ‘ignorant’ on electoral outcomes the educated might (and by extension the propertied) be granted a plurality of votes (Mill 1862) PAD's elitism has a liberal rationale too.

In the current circumstances of Thailand, Sondhi's call, however vague and undeveloped, is indicative of a liberal-conservatism that springs from the common cause between conservatives connected to the palace, military and bureaucracy, and elitist liberals against the politics of new capital and its articulation with the democratic mass. In battling that enemy, PAD seemed willingly oblivious to the authoritarian disposition of its chosen allies.

Characterised mistakenly by some as simply fascist, PAD ideologues continue to fashion a hybrid civic, liberal-conservative and corporatist rhetoric that reflects the contradictory nature of its constituency. A day before the seizure of government house, PAD ideologue Pramoj Nakornthap (2008) explained the rationale of the ‘general uprising’ in very Lockean terms:

.. the monopoly of power in the hands of the police and the military is power granted by the people to the government on a temporary basis, as a guarantee of happiness and safety of the people. Sometimes a government abuses its authority and turns on the people. In cases such as this while a general uprising may meet with momentary misfortune, a people's movement that has goodness and patriotism [on its side] will have enough energy to re-emerge stronger than before, until its final victory …