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…).

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