Saturday, October 02, 2010

Willam J. Klausner on Thai Troubled Politics (part 2)

Of prime importance in beginning the process towards achieving mutual trust and empathy is the need to decipher the underlying causes of the so-called rural-urban divide and to address them. As a son-in-law of the northeast, I will focus on isaan when commenting on rural society. The stereotype of villagers largely held by those in urban society must be challenged and overcome. Urban society is largely in the throes of a serious cultural lag as it still sees rural folk as uneducated and narrow minded provincials. Such a view no longer represents either the social or political reality. Rural society has undergone a cosmic change during the past half century which urban dwellers often simply refuse to recognize or accept. Rural society has evolved from a barter focused sustainable economy to a cash and consumer oriented society. Mutual help/reciprocal labor has given way to hired laborers who even follow service hours. Family labor has markedly decreased as the norm of five or six children has given the way to only one, two or three children at the most, and the younger generation is now pursuing higher education and careers beyond the village. The limit of a four year primary education has long since passed as many of the younger generation have completed high school and gone on to college and university.

Villagers’ understanding of the world beyond their rural confines has expanded significantly as mobility markedly increased beginning in the mid-sixties. Villagers have left to work in the provincial centers, in Bangkok and further abroad in Middle East, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan etc… In most villages today, off-farm income in greater than in-farm income. And advances in communication technologies and rural electrification have resulted in villagers no longer being dependent on the rural focused bamboo radio or rice harp. They have become connected and conversant with urban worlds via television, newspapers, radios, computers/internet, DVDs, mobile and land line phones.

Rural society more and more, has taken on the trappings of the city with increased gambling, drugs, debt, competition and consumerism etc… Villagers have, thus, become “cosmopolitan villagers”, and when found working in urban environment, they become “rural cosmopolitans”. One should remember former villagers working in Bangkok are generally in low paid jobs and identify themselves with the urban poor. One might go even further and say villagers have a better understanding of what it means to be a Thai citizen, in its fullest and most inclusive sense, as they understand both worlds unlike urban folk who have become provincial ensconced in their more narrow environment.

If those in urban areas are to fully understand and empathize with villagers, there must be a realization that villagers, besides being better educated and tuned into the world outside, have overcome their antipathy to confrontation and to a total reliance on karma as an explanation of their disadvantaged state. The villagers are increasingly ready to openly confront authority. While there have been several factors that have influenced such attitudinal changes, the fact they now have political cover to challenge and confront authority should be recognized.

However, the villagers’ main argument is with officialdom, persons of influence, including businessmen at the provincial level, who treat them with not so disguised disdain. The villagers no longer have to rely on the indirect weapons of the weak with dealing with authority, including songs and folk tales where those in positions of authority are bested by common folk. They are now ready to demand that they be respected and treated fairly ; that they be valued for their local wisdom ; that their dignity and worth be recognized. They want those they vote for to remain in power and to respond to their needs in terms of gaining a larger share of the material benefits pie. Though they have an increased level of social and political consciousness, this does not mean, at this stage, that they are committed to structural changes necessary to bring about liberal democratic governance.
If perceptions of rural society changes become more realistic, perhaps we will increasingly view the glass of the Thai body politic as half full, not half empty. I would be happy to define further important changes in village society over the past decades if time permits and it is deemed relevant to do so.

Lastly, one might profitably discuss the role play of the Sangha as a factor militating against resolution of conflicts and tensions in Thai society today. At the village level, the monks, with a few exception, no longer play a role as community leaders in the secular lives of the villagers. With the exception of meditation adepts and charismatic “development monks” engaged in community development programs, most of the rural Sangha confines itself to religious teachings and participation in rituals and ceremonies. Many northeastern temples have only a few elder monks in residence. This change in role play has been influenced by the intrusion of the State in areas previously the province of Sangha, increased educational opportunities for the youth and a cash and consumer oriented society. In Bangkok, resident monks from the northeast have become entangled in confrontational and divisive behavior as they openly participate in political protests. It would appear, to paraphrase an old saying, “you can take the monk out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of the monk”. As with their lay protestors, the monks have their own hidden agendas. As they join in protesting and confronting authority, they are indirectly protesting against an authoritarian gentocracy that administers the Sangha.

It maybe pointed out that a majority of the student body at the two Buddhist universities in Bangkok come from the northeast and many more live in Wats almost exclusively composed of northeast monks and temple boys, for example, Wat Sapathum, Wat Noranad, Wat Prasrimahatad, Wat Takian etc… Such political involvement of monks is in contradiction of the rules of discipline (vinai) and to a previously unwritten agreement on the part of the State authorities, lay Buddhist leaders and the Council of Elders that any political involvement was both inappropriate and forbidden. During recent political protests, monks from up-country, as well as Bangkok based monks, were actively involved and, yet, the Sangha authorities issued no statement cautioning monks to avoid such involvement. This does not bode well for the future of the Sangha, a traditional moral voice for moderation and conciliation, has become enmeshed in divisive, political conflicts.

I hope the above comments on the not so controlled chaos of the Thai body politic today will be taken in the constructive spirit intended.

Professor William J. Klausner
Senior Fellow, ISIS Thailand
30th September 2010

Friday, October 01, 2010

William J. Klausner on Thai Politics at ISIS (Chula U), Part One

I wish to thanks Ajahn Jay (Thitinan Pongsudhirak) for providing me with the opportunity to participate in this conference and to further a dialogue I have pursued with Paul (Wedel) and especially with Jim (Stent) who has been a favorite interlocutor over the past several decades.

As an aging absent minded professor who has lived in Thailand for fifty years and is now well into his anecdote age, the trajectory of the past weighs more heavily than that of the future.

However, that can be useful in interpreting Thailand’s troubles today. The past is very much a central part of the present conflicts and tensions in Thai society. Despite the dramatic transformation of Thai society in the past half century and the realization that “the future is not what is was”, the past, as William Faulkner noted, “is not dead. It’s not even past”. The traditional past was rooted in hierarchy, in both its values and institutions. Though there was a surface stability, social, economic, political and legal inequalities prevailed.

These hierarchical structures and values have a remarkable staying power and are ever present in traditional centers of power as they shape the behavior, attitudes and perspectives of bureaucracy, police, army, judiciary, medical profession etc… However they have come under increasing pressure and challenge from an opposing set of antithetical core values associated with globalization, civil society and liberal democracy that emphasize individualism, egalitarianism, rule of law, popular participation, good governance. In the long run, it will be the resolution of this conflict and the form it takes that will determine both the style of governance and the extent to which there will be a more just and equitable society. Given the accelerating pressures, including a rising political and social consciousness on the part of the rural electorate, reforms in all sectors of society will ultimately have to be undertaken, however long it takes and despite continuing opposition.

Such reforms will be necessary across the board in education, in the legal sphere, in economic and political structures and in the channeling outside input into policy formulation and implementation. There must be also the political will to undertake these reforms in an atmosphere of civil and rational discourse. As one of the characters of the Italian novel “The Guepard” cautioned an establishment elder : “If you want things to stay the same, things will have to change”.

At present, the above conflict between the two forces mentioned has been somewhat muted and under the radar. Civil society and third force centrist elements have found little social and political space to make their voices heard. Though there are those who are truly committed to liberal democratic values in all color co-ordinated camps, they do not represent a critical mass. There seems to be little effort to wean away these democratic elements and have them join together with civil society to forge a centrist political force to be reckoned with. Despite the banners extolling democracy held high by one and all, the struggle today seems to be rather one for power and authority with little expectation that there would be any significant change in the form of governance. Mutual trust and empathy, as well as readiness to conciliate, compromise and accommodate, are largely absent. Zero sum attitudes prevail.

Whether in the short or long term, one cannot proceed towards reconciliation resolution and productive synergy of opposing forces unless there is mutual trust and a deeper understanding of the fissures and divisions in all their complexities so prevalent in Thai society today. (to follow…).