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 Such a view no longer represents either the social or political reality.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

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