The Irrawaddy

Thailand’s Political Palimpsest

Anti-government protesters gather inside Thailand’s Finance Ministry during a rally in central Bangkok on November 25, 2013. (Photo: Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom)

Despite Thailand’s trappings of modernity, particularly when it comes to politics, the country’s tribal roots remain all-too-visible.
“It’s too difficult,” said Christopher, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “Tonal languages are one of the vestiges of tribalism!” he exclaimed. An American formerly resident in Thailand, he had attempted to learn the language, to varying degrees of success, ever-stymied by the subtle tones of the Thai language.

“We are still a tribal people,” I rebutted, as we walked down bustling Sukhumvit Road, its skyscrapers, shopping malls, apartment complexes and trains ever-encroaching on what little sky is left to be seen from Bangkok’s streets. I was not talking about linguistics.

A palimpsest is a manuscript in which attempts have been made to scratch or wash out the text so that the paper can be reused. However, the original writing is often still legible. Similarly, despite Thailand’s trappings of modernity, particularly when it comes to politics, our tribal roots remain all-too-visible—our political palimpsest.

We have a bicameral parliament and a prime minister. We have televised parliamentary debates and local and national elections. We no longer pledge fealty to individual, local lordlings and their lords, who bear long, grandiose feudal titles. But today, thousands blindly do so for the likes of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or Suthep Thaugsuban, a leading figure in the current anti-government rallies who called for an end to the Thaksin regime and the installment of a “people’s government.”

For too many of us, such individuals can do no wrong. Never mind that the former has been indicted for massive corruption and, during his tenure as prime minister, launched a war on drugs that resulted in thousands of extrajudicial deaths (for which he has been accused of crimes against humanity), and who oversaw a freefall in indices of Thai press freedom. Never mind that the latter is no stranger to allegations of environmental destruction and shady land deals in his own hometown of Surat Thani, a massive scandal that unseated a Democrat government in 1995.

There are many others, far too many of whom have checkered pasts and shady presents that are conveniently overlooked in pursuit of a perceived common enemy tribe. Bells or whistles, hand or feet clappers, the result is cacophony.

Too many of us pledge allegiance to individuals who often promise big but deliver little, and we forgive them for that. We forgive them for nebulous, ever-shifting goals and goalposts, and overlook their opacity (particularly in deals involving vast sums of money, taxpayers’ or otherwise), their corrupt practices, vote-buying and nepotism, and human rights abuses. Many would tolerate—even welcome—the closure of roads and seizure of airports and government offices, intimidation and violence against others (including the media) if such deeds were done by “our” tribe. We are still too often held prisoner in our own feudal mindsets, loyal to our individual lordlings and their current causes.

This mindset pervades and perverts our politics, and democracy too often becomes but an empty byword, a distant backseat to our tribal affiliations. This reality underlies the reason why Thailand has more political dynasties than anywhere else in the world: In an analysis by King Prajadhipok’s Institute, during the country’s last election, July 3, 2011, 42 percent of members of parliament elected were replacing family members, more than next-closest Mexico (40 percent), the Philippines (37 percent), Argentina (10 percent), and the United States (6 percent). The ruling Pheu Thai Party topped the list, with 19 families “inheriting” the political torch, followed closely by the Democrats at 17.

For the same reason, election campaign materials by opposing candidates for political office are often nearly inseparable in message and, at best, superficial in political platform. With administrative reform tasked to such “lordlings,” it is difficult to envision durable, democratic reform in Thailand. Indeed, most of them have demonstrated their priorities with the match that ignited the current crisis: the expedited passage of a blanket amnesty bill at the questionable hour of 4am, a bill that would dismiss corruption charges against some of their own, including Thaksin Shinawatra.

Without a change in popular mindset, the faces of our lordlings and their official titles in government may shift, but the prospects for durable change in the Thai political system remain distant.

In 2004, Burma’s hated and feared spy chief, Gen Khin Nyunt, was purged by Gen Than Shwe, cementing his rule over the country. When asked about prospects then of durable reform, an exiled Burmese journalist colleague replied simply: “Alien versus Predator.”