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I write about anything I come across that I find thought-provoking. Please feel free to leave comments. I would love to discuss them with people.

– M.

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Trump and Thaksin: the striking parallels between US and Thai politics

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A year ago (or perhaps as recently as the eve of November 8th, 2016), few would have thought to draw comparisons between the politics of the US and Thailand. The former is/was the world’s model liberal democracy, while the latter has suffered through a tumultuous cycle of elections, mass protests, parliamentary dissolutions, and coups d’état. Each time Thai politics became destabilized, the US envoy was quick to express concern for the situation, issue travel warnings, and encourage Thailand’s swift return to democracy, much to the chagrin of Thai officials. Yet, with the US now on the brink of turning into a fascist state, some smug Thai diplomats would no doubt savor the opportunity to ‘express concern’ for the freedom of the American people. Alas, doing so under the current military regime would be all too ironic.

Trump’s rise to power closely mirrors that of Thaksin almost two decades earlier. Both were successful (?) business moguls who, while immensely wealthy, successfully marketed themselves as the poor man’s champion. That Trump left a string of bankruptcies and unpaid contracts in his wake is no matter, since his deal-making persona and lavish lifestyle—signaling financial success—had already been widely propagated to the reality-tv-consuming public. It is immensely curious how two rich men endeared themselves to the lower class so successfully, despite making no attempts to hide their wealth. While they were members of the economic elite, both Trump and Thaksin were political outsiders rather than career politicians. This boosted their appeal to voters who had become disillusioned with the existing political elite. Thaksin’s platform was to run Thailand like a business, with him as its CEO. He referred to the country as “Thailand Company” during his campaign. Similarly, many Trump voters were attracted to his straight-talking, deal-making style, as well as his experience as a businessman.

Many people have attributed Trump’s victory to a “marginalized” white working class, neglected by their government. Whether this marginalization is real or a mere reduction in privilege relative to minorities is irrelevant, because the feeling of being marginalized is enough to create discontent. Social cleavages create opportunities for the rise of radical leaders. Trump and Thaksin rode waves of discontent in much the same way that the Nazis did in the wake of the Great Depression. The only difference would be the lines along which those social cleavages are formed. The exit polls of the 2016 presidential election indicate that the political divide is largely racial rather than income-driven (those above the $50,000 mark voted predominantly republican, although this was also the case in the 2012 elections). Even accounting for education, the racial factor cannot be dismissed; the majority of white college graduates voted for Trump.

In racially-homogenous Thailand, on the other hand, the political divide appears to run along class lines, pitting Thailand’s affluent urban dwellers against the rural poor. The latter largely sat out the economic boom of the early 90s while Bangkok flourished. Furthermore, the bubble and subsequent collapse of the baht during the Asian Financial Crisis drove a large wedge between those crushed by foreign debt that tripled overnight, and those who got out early. The stark inequality was another source of tension which likely fed discontent, paving the way for Thaksin’s radical economic policies.

Another similarity that has emerged is the tendency to wield patriotism as a political weapon. In Thailand, patriotism and loyalty to the monarchy are expressed interchangeably. The blurred line delineating monarchy from state is by design and has its origins in the official nationalism of the 1910s (see “The Origins of Thai-Chinese Identity”). At the height of the anti-Thaksin movement, protestors donned yellow shirts to declare their loyalty to the monarchy, thus granting their cause a moral legitimacy of sorts. Likewise, in the panic since Trump’s executive ban on visitors from seven muslim-majority countries, a term that gets thrown around a lot is “un-American”. Patriotism is powerful: calling someone or something un-American equates them/it to a threat to national values and identity—a sovereign threat.

The reasons for the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin can be debated, but Thaksin is widely seen as a figure that threatened to unseat the monarchy; and in Thailand, any threat to the monarchy is a sovereign threat. The question is, what kind of sovereign threat would it take for America to see its first coup?

 

Thailand’s Existential Crisis: Turmoil Looms as the Country Mourns the Loss of a Beloved King

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The passing of King Bhumibol has brought out the best in Thais, but also the worst.

Alongside heartwarming stories of unity and kindness, of volunteers handing out water and snacks to the hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered outside the grand palace gates, there are also alarming videos of an angry mobs. One mob surrounded a police station, demanding the arrest of a woman who allegedly committed lese majeste by insulting the late king on social media. Another mob stormed a food stall in search of the owner’s son who also posted offensive remarks. The crowd eventually agreed to disperse, but not before singing the royal anthem.

The cultish reverence Thais express for King Bhumibol has been the tenuous bond bridging the political divide over the years. During the brief decade of democratic rule between the mid-90’s and 2006, now-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra emerged as a divisive figure in Thai politics: his populist policies made him highly popular amongst the rural poor, while the urban middle class saw him as corrupt. His critics also accused the pro-Thaksin faction of aspiring to the establishment of a Thai republic — an aspiration that was perhaps prevalent among just a subset of Thaksin supporters. Of course, Thaksin was not the source of division, but he certainly catalyzed the polarization of fragmentary tendencies.

Love of the king was at times brandished as a political weapon, perhaps like patriotism in America. To be accused of being disloyal to the monarchy would have elicited a social wrath similar to (or more extreme than) what Donald Trump faced when he derided Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star mother who accompanied her husband onstage at the Democratic National Convention.

However, another side of this collective respect for the king was its ability to bring people together. Concerned that conflicts and disunity would burden the king, Thais have kept turmoil from boiling over and descending into violence — or, they at least preserved the rarity of such occurrences.

King Bhumibol earned the love and respect of his subjects by devoting himself to development projects and making himself visible and accessible during his active years. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, however, does not enjoy the level of reverence that his father did. This begs the question: can a king who is deemed less legitimate in the eyes of the Thai public maintain unity? Or will existing political fault lines reemerge, freed from any need to respect the wishes of a revered king?

If the latter plays out, the monarchy as an institution may be at stake and, because of the historical political alliance between the military and the palace, it is the junta who stands to lose the most. Thailand has been under military rule for most of its history since becoming a constitutional monarchy, but even during democratic rule, the military was never far removed from politics. It has managed to maintain political legitimacy by claiming to defend the interests of the crown.

With the accession of the Crown Prince, underground anti-royalist factions may start gaining traction. Whether the public will acquiesce to the accession — and if not, what the military’s response would be —remains among the many questions in the minds of Thais during this disorienting period. The death of King Bhumibol marks the end of an era, a definitive shift in the monarchy’s place in the hearts of the Thai people, and possibly edges Thailand closer towards institutional reform.

 

Originally published in The SAIS Observer, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Newspaper, on November 6, 2016.

Fear

Fear, I have learned, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fruitless struggles to avert my fears are both exhausting and inevitably painful. And they are plenty:  fear of being forgettable, fear of not being loved, fear of loved ones dying, fear of being alone. I suppose I should be asking myself, Why be afraid? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Nobody ever died from loneliness.
And yet I can’t rid myself of these irrational fears. Our individual lives are so insignificant; still, I want someone to be there at the end to tell me I wasn’t alone in my trivial pleasures and suffering.

A Clean Coup?

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“Never forget who cheated our country”: One of the sculptures featured at the “Museum of Corruption” depicts a corruption case involving funds intended for building police stations

Almost two years after the 2014 coup, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha is pleased with the progress Thailand has made in curbing corruption. Last year, Transparency International placed Thailand 76th out of 168 countries on its 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), moving it up 9 places to rank third amongst ASEAN countries (behind Singapore and Malaysia), according to Government spokesperson Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd. However, the self-congratulatory claim may be a little overstated, given that Thailand attained the same score of 38 out of 100 as it did in 2014, where 175 countries were included in the survey (versus 168 countries the following year). The score of 38 is nonetheless up three points from the 2013 CPI, which begs the question of how a military government has seemingly managed to attain a cleaner image than a civilian government.

To be sure, anti-corruption has always been a core initiative of this government; in fact, it was among the justifications for the coup. It is no secret that the 2014 coup was an attempt to redo the one in 2006, which failed to rid Thailand of the influence of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister and brother-in-law have both held the premiership since Thaksin’s removal. The Shinawatra clan has been accused of being heavily corrupt and nepotistic; Thaksin has been in self-imposed exile since he was ousted, fleeing a two-year prison sentence for corruption and Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, currently faces charges for her involvement in the corruption-plagued rice pledging scheme which cost the government billions in losses. Prayuth’s administration has also initiated popular anti-corruption campaigns such as โตไปไม่โกง (“Growing up Good”), a campaign which promotes emphasizing integrity and social responsibility in school curricula. The publicity of such campaigns, along with the high-profile prosecution of the rice pledging case, has perhaps lifted public perception of the state of corruption. But has the level of corruption actually decreased?

The military government has touted the need for reforms before the prospect of elections can be entertained. Article 44 of the provisional charter allows Prayuth executive power to push many of these reforms through much more quickly than if they had taken the conventional route, thus boosting the government’s reputation for ‘getting things done’. Many of these executive decisions have been controversial, such as a project to build 14 power plants, which was opposed by environmental groups, and the removal of seven National Health Security Office officials accused of corruption. Prayuth has reportedly used Article 44 more than 50 times since he came to power, a number which his critics deem excessive. The draft constitution, which will be decided on in a referendum later this year, contains a provisional clause that states that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the group that staged the coup – will maintain power until a new cabinet is installed, following elections. Articles 259 and 260 task the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) with drawing up “10 organic laws” for organizing and holding elections, with an 8-month deadline to complete them. If, however, the CDC fails to meet this deadline, the CDC would be dismissed and the NCPO would install a new drafting commission, with no further mention of a deadline. Thus, it appears that the draft, if passed, would consolidate Prayuth’s and the NCPO’s power.

On the positive side, the publicity around anti-corruption has spurred reactions from the general public. Perhaps encouraged by the government’s initiatives, the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand, a private sector-led group, launched a successful “Museum of Corruption” exhibition, featuring sculptures of ten high-profile corruption cases. The event was very well attended and the sculptures are now permanently installed at the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. If it is indeed the case that the government’s crackdown on corruption has not effectively reduced the level of corruption,  then at least it has made the public more vigilant and raised the level of intolerance towards corruption. Further, existing legislation which allowed bribery by Thai officials to be punishable by death (though the maximum penalty was never applied) was extended to include foreigners last year. The amendment no doubt signaled the government’s strong stance against corruption, which in turn may have had the effect of discouraging Thai corrupt officials, many of whom may have been unaware of the existing legislation.

The heightened public awareness that the government has raised will hopefully keep it accountable to its promises, including curbing corruption and maintaining the timeline to elections (currently set for 2017). Meanwhile, a public wary of Prayuth’s wielding of Article 44 is likely to keep a close watch on his administration’s behavior, ready to raise the alarm at the first sign of a budding cronyism – something Thailand has unfortunately become all too familiar with.

The Origins of Thai-Chinese Identity

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As Chinese New Year approaches, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the history of the largest overseas Chinese population in the world, in Thailand, and how its assimilation into domestic society stands out from the experiences of other overseas Chinese communities. Fourteen percent of the Thai population are of partial or full Chinese descent, according to the CIA World Factbook; but this statistic is likely a rough approximation, due to widespread intermarriage and seemingly fluid ethnic boundaries. Before we examine the Chinese assimilation into Thai society, however, it is informative to study the origins of Thai national identity.

The Emergence of a National Consciousness

The Thai word for ‘nation’ is chaat. Its original meaning derived from Pali-Sanskrit means “birth, race, lineage, and origin.” It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that the meaning of chaat came to encompass the concept of nation, initially only in reference to Western countries. For instance, a court document from 1850 refers to chaat amerikan, which implied a nation of people rather than an American race. (See Scot Barmé, Luang Wichit Wathakan and the Creation of a Thai Identity). Towards the end of the century, with Britain and France expanding their empires into Burma and Indochina, Prince Prisdang, Siamese ambassador to France, proposed to King Chulalongkorn the drafting of a constitution, in the interest of the Thai chaat, and to counter the growing threat of colonization from European countries.

Further, under Chulalongkorn’s reign, a feudal system known as sakdina was abolished in order to consolidate power. The system, instituted in the fifteenth century, subjected every male to a social hierarchy. Sakdina was measured in terms of land, although it did not translate directly to property rights; the highest ranking prince’s sakdina was 10,000 rai (approximately 4,000 acres) while prai, or common peasant, was designated 25 rai. Slaves were designated five rai. Each prai was registered under a nobleman for whom he had to serve for half the year; slaves were considered personal property of their masters and thus served full-time. With the sakdina system abolished and provincial noblemen stripped of their prai and slave labor, power was concentrated in Bangkok. Siamese citizens were now considered subjects of the state and civilian loyalties shifted from the provincial to the national level.

King Vajiravudh and the Three Pillars of the Nation

King Vajiravudh (1910-1925), the sixth king of the Chakri dynasty, initiated a campaign of official nationalism, building his discourse upon three pillars: chaat, religion (Buddhism), and the monarchy. He asserted the Buddhist view that kingship is essential for orderly life and the prevention of society’s descent into anarchy. Further, according to Buddhist belief, birth into kingship reflected the accumulation of good karma in past lives; therefore, by virtue of birth, kings were judged as possessing the moral capacities and legitimacy to rule. With the establishment of the tri-pillar concept of nation, Vajiravudh stipulated that a threat to the king was a threat to the nation.

Meanwhile, the overseas Chinese community had begun to grow rapidly. The most recent wave of immigrants were predominantly southern Chinese farmers from Guangdong province fleeing drought, poverty, and the communist revolution. This alarmed the king, who saw it as a threat to Thai national identity; he dispensed heavy criticism against the Chinese, famously in two articles (under the pen name ‘Asavapahu’) titled Wake up Thailand and The Jews of the Orient. In the latter he writes, “the Chinese are like the Jews…the Chinese were taught to divide humanity into two groups, namely Chinese and savages. From the perspective of the Chinese, Europeans are savages just like other (non-Chinese) Asians and blacks. Therefore, it goes without saying that the Chinese have no intention of doing honest business with us.” (Note: the text is in Thai; the translation is my own)

The Chinese Assimilation

Despite the rhetoric, formal policies were never enacted against the Chinese as the king recognized the Thai economy had by then grown dependent on cheap Chinese wage labor. Yet what the immigrants didn’t experience in formal discrimination, they did in bigotry. A derogatory term commonly used by Thais to refer to Chinese immigrants was Jek, intended to deride a person whose origins and ancestry were unknown; a nomad who peddled unskilled labor (Thak Chaloemtiarana speculates in his book Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism that the term has two possible derivations, the first is the word for the number ‘one’ in the Teochew dialect spoken by the vast majority of immigrants, and the second is the word for ‘uncle’). In order to assimilate into Thai society, many Chinese families abandoned their Chinese surnames in favor of Thai ones, following the royal decree of 1909 mandating that all Thai citizens adopt surnames (up until then, Thais had only first names but no surnames to identify lineage). The result was an almost complete assimilation of the ethnic Chinese population into society, many among the present economic and political elite. Today, a significant portion of the population, particularly in the central and northern areas, are of partial or full Chinese descent, although it is difficult to gauge due to the high incidence of intermarriage. Thai-Chinese individuals will commonly refer to themselves as Thai first and foremost, some even neglecting to identify themselves as ethnically Chinese.

The assimilation of the Chinese population in Thai curiously contrasts with that of its neighbor, Malaysia. Malaysia has the world’s second largest overseas Chinese community (after Thailand) and while it also experienced a large wave of immigrants from Guangdong and Fujian concurrently to Thailand, Chinese Malaysians remain highly segregated from the Malays. This difference is not attributable to socioeconomic factors as Chinese Malaysians occupy a similar position amongst the elite as the Chinese in Thailand. Further, the adoption of new last names which contributed to the partial blurring of Chinese identity was a phenomenon unseen in Malaysia.

The Chinese in present-day Thai society

Today, discriminatory attitudes towards Thais of Chinese descent are almost non-existent, perhaps only manifesting in diluted form as comical caricatures on TV shows (ill-mannered, nouveau riche, and greedy, for instance). But in everyday society the economic and political prominence of the Thai-Chinese are undeniable, and in this sense they are anything but a marginalized population. Bangkok’s Chinatown is a thriving commercial district teeming with shoppers year-round but especially busy during Chinese New Year and the Vegetarian Festival – festivals adopted and celebrated by the general population. The state’s historically discriminatory rhetoric coupled with a lack of formal exclusionary policies may have inadvertently facilitated assimilation though without causing the erasure of Chinese identity, which in turn has pervaded greater domestic society.

 

Quick Thoughts on Development

Ship breakers at Alang, Gujarat

Ship breakers at Alang, Gujarat

With grad school now well underway, I haven’t had much time to write (apart from papers), but I wanted to share a few topics my classmates and I have been discussing in my courses on international development. The material we have covered in classes thus far is so extensive and immensely intriguing but I present here a very tiny snippet…

When we think about international development, we tend to go for the quantifiable indicators, such as GDP per capita, the Gini coefficient (which measures income inequality), literacy rates, infant mortality rates, various indices quantifying corruption, human rights, the list goes on. Yet when a country improves its values on any one of these indices, is it necessarily developing?

At Alang Bay in Gujarat, India, the main industry is ship breaking; the world’s retired ships are sailed to Alang for destruction and the scraps are salvaged and sold. Over the years, the terrible work conditions in Alang, and frequent worker injuries and deaths from exposure to toxic materials, have drawn international outrage from organizations like Greenpeace, who sought to ban exporting ships to Alang. Greenpeace pressured European companies to scrap their ships safely, rather than having it done cheaply in developing countries, and succeeded in some cases, such as the boycott on Shell in 1995.

The reality, however, is that the economy of Alang depends on the ship breaking business. In his article for the Atlantic, William Langewiesche describes the comparatively worse conditions at other ship breaking ports. Workers at Alang earn a living; it is difficult to imagine a better alternative if ship breaking were to be taken from Alang.

Another interesting framework on the difference between developed and developing countries is presented in a paper by Douglass North, John Wallis, Steven Webb, and Barry Weingast. The authors outline the difference between ‘Limited Access Orders’ and ‘Open Access Order’. In the former, access to resources are restricted to the elite population and the way in which (formal or informal) institutions function for an individual depends on personal connections amongst the elite; in the latter, institutions are more standardized and impersonal.

Some degree of development is achievable in a limited access order, and in fact the formal institutions in a developing country can very much resemble those in place in developed countries, for example, a democratically elected government or property laws (enforcement, however is a very different issue). Furthermore, political and economical access orders may develop at a different pace; it may be relatively easier to gain open economic access than it is to gain open political access.

Thailand is a prime example of a limited access order, one where entrance into the economic elite can also facilitate entrance into the political elite (in some countries, barriers may be less fluid, for instance in the case of an elite ethnic group). In Thailand, if one accumulates sufficient wealth, or if one’s business gains commercial prominence, then it is possible to enter into the ranks of the business and hence political elite.
While in the US – a relatively open access order – it can be argued that institutions still favor the elite (whether by categorization of wealth, race, etc.), we see a very obvious breakdown of institutions in Thailand, when they are applied to members of the elite. Case in point: the heir to Red Bull who drove his Ferrari into a traffic policeman, killing him, before dragging his body several blocks down a busy Bangkok street, has yet to appear before a court; Praewa, the underage driver and daughter of a politician who plowed her car into a passenger van, killing nine, received a suspended two-year sentence and community service.

One final thought on development: when access to resources remains limited, is development possible without a transformation of the underlying social, economic, and political structures? I would argue no. Even in the presence of economic growth and relative modernization, the benefits of prosperity will also remain limited until institutions become standardized and independent of inter-elite relationships.