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Conversation with a philosopher: When ‘goodness’ and ‘good people’ make democracy go backwards.

 Interview and editing by Pinpaka Ngamson

Translation and notes by Alec Bamford



This article was contributed to Documenta 12 Magazine Project




"Is doing this bad or not, friends?" This question has been familiar to Thais since the beginning of 2006 when the movement to oust Thaksin Shinawatra1 started up. The discourse of Thaksin as a bad person was repeated and emphasized until the moral conscience of those who follow politics was so jolted that it cracked open in a months-long show of force on the streets.


After information was clearly made public on the stage that was called the People's Alliance for Democracy2, the question that kept pricking the conscience of the participants in the rallies and which wouldn't go away was, ‘bad or not?' And certainly the answer from most of the people in the rallies was ‘ba-a-ad'.


But after the coup on 19 September 2006, which successfully chased away a Thai leader accused of having low moral standards, Thailand got a Prime Minister3 with a guarantee of being really good from the President of the Privy Council4, who himself is praised by Thai society as a good person. But it seems that many academics and students (who still remain a minority voice) have instead lined up to ask questions about the process by which Thailand booted out an elected Prime Minister and got in his place a Prime Minister installed by a coup.


Are the moral standards of these academic and students too low to accept a leader who is a good person? Or do these people lack a belief in the morals of their rulers? Or is the level of morality in Thai society still not high enough to support, without scepticism, good people as their political rulers?


Prachatai spoke with Dr Kasem Penpinan, a professor of philosophy in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University. He is trying to say that accusing a leader in a democratic on charges based on goodness or badness is like a game of chess in which different players use different chess boards, because in the end goodness and the democratic system are not the same thing, and, excuse me ... denouncing other people who you think are bad does not show a very high level of morality in the people who are doing the denouncing.




Can the principles of a benevolent monarch, which Thai society upholds, co-exist with politics in the era of globalization?


I think that new ideas have been created to do with the characteristics of goodness, a good person, a moral person as a discourse in response to the knowledge, ability or understanding of a leader, or the role of a leader on the political stage in a democratic system.


The success of using different concepts of virtue and goodness is effective when Thai politics falls into the worldview of dividing good from bad, white from black, angels from devils. And this is a big problem of the present democratic system. One the one hand, there is a form of substantive democracy5, which believes that there is a real core which covers the content of democracy, especially as regards ethnical issues of the role of political leaders and the form of political society that we see.


The whole problem, as I see it, is that this form of politics does not work. And at the same time, we fall into the trap of defrauding the understanding of the essence of goodness, virtue and ethics.


The issue that you face me with is that when we speak of the essence of politics, I think the most important political problem is not just based on virtue. The political problem is to talk of social justice, the form of administration, the role of rulers and the ruled and different groups in the political community with the most important aim being to set a direction for society.


But in the past, Thai politics has not reached the point where we can set the direction for society. Thai politics is a politics of the elite and the power structure of Thai society forces everyone to move to the centre of political power.


The problems that arise have not been the problem of managing for the benefit of society or setting the direction for society. People in society have not had the right to choose the direction that they themselves want. It has been set by a power play of the politics of the elite. If you enter elite political circles, you can have many different roles but at the same time you cannot promote a direction in a political form, especially a direction for policies that will benefit society.


In think that Thai politics under Thaksin built a new political culture and changed Thai people's views on politics by talking of policy-making.


OK, policies may be good or bad, they may overlap or have various problems, we know that and it's a problem we have to solve. But at least the important basic idea is to talk about social policies. This is the content that I see as important and this is important directly because may help Thai politics to escape the trap of seeing things as black or white, good or bad.


Another thing is that Thai politics should develop to what is called deliberative democracy. This means that there are processes in the political system which create general benefit for society. And at the same time, these processes can be scrutinized and questioned and have a greater role in the real lives of people in society. For example, when we speak about ourselves, we may be speaking about problems of rights and freedoms as a basis of fundamental requirements that can be demonstrated. We may be speaking about processes of management, check and balances of power, transparency in the procedures of national administration, the role of communicating the truth. Or we may be speaking of an exchange of views. This is a society of accountability through various processes that have been properly thought out, with everyone having the right to an opinion, to the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms and to participation in policy-making, while at the same time being held accountable.


I believe in what George Orwell said: ‘Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely'.6 This means that power leads to corruption and the highest power tends to lead to greater corruption.


Political problems aren't problems of having good leaders or people who have political influence. Right now we could say that the Prime Minister is a good person and everyone believes he is a good person. This is not a democratic process. This is not a political world that is democratic. For people to say that a certain person is a good person, and being a good person you have to follow him in being good, that's not right.


The essence of political activity is not a matter of getting a good person to run the country, but of checks and balances between different political processes. And this is an important condition of democratic systems that makes democratic systems work.


The problem of virtue or goodness is an ethical problem related to things called conduct of life. Each person conducts her or his life on a basis of virtue and goodness and knows the goals of life.


When moral codes become the criteria for governing or guiding action, it is what we call moral law.


Ethics in essence relates to the individual more than it is a social problem, because the content of society, the most important thing when people co-exist is justice. Certainly justice is not separate from virtue, but justice has much broader limits than the problems of individuals. Justice is a social problem of both society and how the individual can exercise rights and freedoms in living together. This is the basic problem, the root problem of political philosophy.


Political philosophy begins with the political relationship between the person and the community and how this can be resolved with justice. A clear answer is given in Plato's Republic. Plato begins with the question of what form of politics will preserve justice in society. This means how the individual and society can co-exist in peace.


But why does the issue of virtue get into Thai politics, especially when the President of the Privy Council guarantees that Gen Surayud Chulalont is a good person and that's it?


As I said from the beginning, Thai society still sees politics as black and white, the politics of good and evil. I don't want to use the words good and bad. In the real world and the theology of thought we are stuck with a worldview of good and evil.


But I use the words good and evil when we are speaking from the perspective of the deciding the value of morals.


In this kind of politics, a worldview based on good and evil in the sense of moral judgements is deciding values based on a moral code.


Where does this good-bad, black-white viewpoint come from? Why is Thai society in this good-bad, black-white situation?


This comes from a background where you choose to stand on goodness. That is, when you say you are a good person, you can say what a bad person is. A victory in politics from a traditional perspective is a victory where you place yourself on a standpoint of goodness. So when you use a moral standpoint, you can clearly state that anything that is not good is something that is evil. This has always had a clear form in Thai society in problems of corruption, problems of conflict of interest, problems of interference in the system of checks and balances or the failure to follow social rules.


The anti-Thaksin protestors made demands that are silly accepted in Thai society. But they did not see through to the stage of how to be accountable, which means they were not using a democratic process.


Now we are talking of systems, or of whole systems. When we talk of these problems, they are not problems of individuals but system problems where it is necessary to build roots of accountability to make it work.


I do not believe that good people and bad people are different when you enter circles of power, because as I have said, power corrupts. The corruption of power is when you do not know, in making a decision, what the result will be because you cannot control the result.


The problem is not your intention or your being a good person, because the morals of rulers or the morals of leaders are not based on whether you are a good person or a bad person but are based on how you manage the rationale for having a state or how you manage to maintain power and best benefit political society.


Machiavelli taught that the goal of a leader is to maintain his own power and keep society peaceful because a peaceful society is one where everything is ordered and everyone has a happy life. That is, the virtue of a leader is different from the virtue of the individual.


Politics had today developed to laying a foundation of social principles, procedures or rues to be sued to control or monitor various processes in politics itself.


I think that on the development that occurred before the coup, the democratic system or procedures were working. What it did best was to show different views because on a democratic basis, having individual rights and freedoms means you can express your opinions and your opinions and mine don't have to be the same, we don't have to agree. Differences are things that occur all the time.


But the important problem with differences is accepting differences. This society does not accept differences. I think that this is the biggest problem. And not accepting differences means that the rules or procedures or basic principles of democracy do not work as they should. At the same time you abuse differences for reasons of unanimity. Unanimity in Thai society is unanimity based on state security where you don't have the right to see things differently.


But doesn't every state have a need to find common ground so that people have a feeling of belonging to the same nation?


Sure, but when I talk of differences, I am speaking on the basis of rights and freedoms to have different opinions in accordance with the rights of a democratic society. This is, everyone must have the right to different opinions, but in the end, you have to accept differences. I don't agree with you, but I have to respect your views.


Now, differences in political opinions are managed by various means, such as elections as one democratic political process. Whether you like this person or you don't like them, if you lose the election you have to accept it by the rules that say if the person you support doesn't get elected, and the person you don't agree with, whose policies you don't like, does get elected, you have to accept it,.


In the end, the rules set limits. To speak directly, the opposition parties or the side that did not agree with the policies of the Thaksin government knew one thing, that they would lose the election. Why? Because democracy counts your vote, the vote of the people on the street, etc. However high your prestige, you only get one vote. Those are the common rules of a democratic society, but Thai political society discredits this way of counting votes.


In English there is an interplay between the word count and account. In discussing democracy, you count votes but what else do you take into account?


But the point that I want to raise is that there are democratic rules. They say that you have to allow differences. I the rules say that elections are indicators that you must accept, you must use the election and if your side loses, what will you do? You have to hold them accountable, you have to criticize.


The problem is that you have to respect the individual who has been elected because a lot of people think differently from you and all those people chose that person because they see a good outcome of that person is elected.


I think an example is the US election between Gore and Bush. I think that before the election, American society was clearly split in to 2 sides, because Bush won the Electoral College vote while Gore won the popular vote. The problem rose in Florida. They could not agree on who should be president. In the end, the Supreme Court rules that Bush won. We know about this problem. The point is that Bush won and became president.


OK, you don't like it, you argue about the policies of the Bush administration, you hold him accountable. Certainly a lot of people don't agree with the Iraq War or the War Against Terror. These people have a loud voice in society.


But you said that if you lose, you hold them accountable. The Alliance side did this too.


I myself think that Alliance did not hold Thaksin accountable. To do this properly, you base it on data and correct information. What the Alliance did, I think, was more like making accusations. I listened to the Alliance speeches, and I couldn't any real content of political information.


What the Alliance did was build political sentiment, or a politics of good and evil. They were trying to say how Thaksin was bad. And everyone was made to understand that what the alliance did was correct and good, by demonizing the victim. And the victor was the Thaksin government, whether they presented society any data or information on that or not. They had many topics that they talked about but the problem was we never saw any facts in them. And what was worst was that they took the role of decision-makers. They were society's judge of the Thaksin government through sentiment. They say that the Thaksin system is bad, is a tyranny, is various things. I think all this is a judgement that they make.


The worst thing that the Alliance did was to make it impossible to separate problems that the Thaksin government created and problems of transparency to do with problems of the democratic system itself.


The problems with the Thaksin system were problems of the democratic system and the solution is to make the mechanisms work. And I think that throughout then past year, there have been efforts to improve various conditions that will allow these mechanisms to work. I think that whether any of these efforts are good or bad is another matter. But at least it is visible proof that that these things have to work. And the rules of society and social peace will occur when democratic mechanisms really work and work effectively.


But in the end, this did not happen, and not just because of the coup. But I think the bad things were like the coup, using the sentiment of society, turning politics into a politics of black and white or a politics of good and bad. This clearly limits political decisions by having no understanding, no procedures, no basic rules of a democratic system. And at the same time, the content of democracy is seriously abused by what is called political sentiment.


So Thai local wisdom, when we talk of the structure if accountability for leaders in a democratic structure, or the Ten Virtues of a King7, can't these be used?


I think that this is a different matter. I think that debate in society overlaps with another issue so that it becomes the same thing. For example, when we speak of the Ten Virtues of a King, we are thinking of a leader in theocratic system. We are talking of power in an absolute monarchy.


The Ten Virtues of a King are like a set of principles to control the conscience of a ruler, but it's not democracy.


Control systems in a democratic system work through a process of checks and balances. This system of checks and balances makes procedures transparent. You have to answer the question, when you have done something; you have to be able to answer for the mistakes that were made or what the solutions are, and how everyone benefited.


I think that we are talking about the criteria of different standards and these criteria don't go together. The problem is that Thai society is trying to build something they call Thai democracy. This is a Thai style of autocracy, or power in the form of masters, in the form of patrons. But we have never had a Thai form of democracy. In reality Thai society is an autocratic society.


But the Ten Virtues of a King are something that allows the Thai people to accept leaders at one level before they have any confidence that their leader has inherent virtue.


I don't believe that. I believe that the Ten Virtues of a King or the case of royal power in the book by Pramuan Rujanaseri8, is an attempt to reinvent a tradition that is already dead. And to revive this amid the difficulties that that exist with the rules of Thai democracy and to clothe it in layers of rhetoric such as your quotation of ancient royal traditions is something that happens in absolute monarchies not in democratic systems. I think that we, Thai society, are very confused between things called democratic processes and the customs of absolute monarchy, and think that the two things are the same.


What happens is that each group uses its own procedures for holding other groups to account. I think that each group is playing a different game, using different criteria, but it makes society see them as the same thing.


What is bad is that the criteria or rules or procedures of democracy have been made into something bad, something not good, but at the same time it is good and it is easy to speak about the morality of rulers.


But raising problems if morality, especially individuals who have risen to become a target of political attack in other countries?


Yes, but in the end they decide on their potential and ability to do the job, to administer and get results. One example that I can raise is the example of Clinton and Lewinsky. I think that was the biggest ethical debate on a political leader and was orchestrated by the media and the Republicans.


But in the end Clinton was exonerated and conformed and that wasn't because everyone ignored the ethical or moral problem. Everyone approved of an effective leader, a leader who got results. And the rules, according to the democratic process, accept this.


Sometimes, moral issues are very individual, like Clinton's case. That he had an affair with someone is a personal problem that does not concern political problems or capability. OK, the Lewinsky affair was a black mark for Clinton but everyone respects and praises Clinton for the results that he got for America over his 8 years.


To come back to Thailand, if we talk at the same level of how to put in place checks and balances in political power as the basis for the rules of democracy to make it effective, then whether a leader is good or bad, they must be accountable. We need leaders with ability and potential in national administration and who can make systems work.


The problem of Thai society is not a problem of finding someone good or bad, but the problem of Thai society is the problem of having effective or able leaders who will set the direction of society that people need and who can achieve development equal to other countries. In our political system we lag behind exactly because we don't lay down democratic procedures as a basis for society.


We need to leave behind the politics of good and bad or angels and devils and make democratic rules as a basis for policy, as a basis for accountability, and as a basis for people in society to be able to set a direction and goals of society themselves without having to rely on any power outside the constitution.


In a black-and-white type of politics you cannot really lay the basis for democratic procedures. This is my standpoint because the problem is not that you hold a person accountable for being good or bad. Being good or bad is an individual characteristic of each person. But the characteristics of a democratic society are the characteristics of effectiveness in doing the job and effectiveness in leading society.


My point is that it is not a problem that from now on bad people will become politicians. I think that society can learn that we must give experience to democratic society to learn this. OK, people's memories, we could say that Thai people or Thai society have short memories. But the problem is what is the experience that everyone in society has.


Memory and experience are different. We may not remember, but when we face something, we can acknowledge it or internalize the experience.


This coup, from my standpoint, is certainly illegitimate. But does society have the experience or not? I think that society is beginning to gain experience, but this experience is still not clear. We still cannot know what will follow. But what is certain is that there is inefficiency or confusion on politics under a bureaucratic or royalist government. Lagging behind in management processes will make the next question obvious.


The next question for society will not be whether Khun9 Surayud is a good person or not. But society will ask whether the government will be effective in solving national problems or not. A clear indication will in the end be that a good system of government will effectively work for the prosperity of society. I think that if we take an optimistic view, Thai society is progressing on that path.


I think that next year, Thai society will face many problems during the dry season. The picture that we will see is Thai society calling for leaders who are effective and able. Therefore if Thai society progresses to the next step, I believe that the black-and-white worldview will gradually disappear.


So a black-and-white view of politics or a good-and-bad worldview does not reflect that Thai society has a high level of morality?


It reflects nothing. I think that moral problems in Thai society are having more rules than working principles. There are rules forbidding this and forbidding that all the time. What is interesting is that when Thai people teach morality or teach religion, they stress precepts more than practice. When you forbid something, that means that anything that is not forbidden, you can do, you can do it. But the meaning of practice has not been taught, has not been planted in Thai society.


One problem of Thai society that makes me most uneasy is that when you run into any problem, you issue a regulation. What follows is that people look for loopholes in the regulations. I believe that in a good society or a democratic society, the rule of law has importance. But the rule of law creates guidelines to behaviour or guidelines to living peacefully in society.


When Thai society abuses the rule of law from the point of view of imposing restrictions, a clear example is student uniforms10. If a student wears a uniform, they are not wrong, but they may have found a loophole in the uniform regulations so they wear something that you do not want. What can you do?


The problem is that you can't do anything, because they have complied with all the regulations. But the loopholes are there because you put more importance on controlling than on building practice.


The rule of law will be effective when it build an approach to collective practice, rather than when it is used to single out restrictions of regulations. I think that this is another problem that arises in democratic processes.


Another problem is the issue of the constitution, which is the fundamental law, coming back into importance. It is always being ripped up. Constitutional law is not something that you write just as a set of articles, but constitutional law is a common process or rule that everyone in society accepts.


As far as I understand, many countries have constitutions with fewer articles than Thailand's and which are in use for much longer than in Thailand. This is not because their laws are better than ours, but because it has become a guideline for practice in society. I want to see Thai society use constitutional law or understand the constitution on the basis of guidelines for common practice rather than using it to investigate whether this person has done wrong or not. This becomes a regulation and in the end it is like a paper tiger, like drawing a tiger to scare the cow11, and in the end it is broken all the time.


I think that Thai law has not been rooted in concepts for society. Lawyers have become just technicians or what Acharn12 Somchai Prachasilpakan13 calls "barbers" and in the end, as technicians they will feel that other people who are not lawyers cannot understand the law, which I think is not the case.


The law represents the rules of society. Certainly everyone must know the law. This does not élan that everyone must know the law in the way that a lawyer does.. I think that lawyers may misunderstand. At the same time, lawyers seem to have special rights, because the language of the law is like a special language and righteousness under the law is a special righteousness of lawyers. Emphasizing the regulatory nature of the law responds to the autocratic nature of Thai society.


To sum up, I think that Thai politics is a matter of black and white or good and bad. In side clings to the flag of goodness and says what is good and are the people who say what is bad, and what is bad luck is that underlying what is bad, there are socio-political facts apparent in support of that.


The second point is that I see that society needs to move beyond the politics of black-and-white to a policy-based viewpoint. The problem of rulers is not that they are good rulers. Society needs rulers who have ability in national administration. And finally the third point is that is the law, which should serve as a guideline for practice in society rather than as restrictions or regulations.


If we can resolve all three issues, then I think it is really possible to restore order in a democratic political system. And it will involve another principle that we haven't yet really talked about, which is the problem of rights and freedoms, equity, justice and solidarity.


In the past, Thai society in its procedures sees the problem of rights too much in a concrete form, for example, seeing rights on an individual basis, such as voting.


And what is a non-concrete form?


Rights as the basis of citizenship. The best examples are rights that are alive in society, rights that set the direction of society. I think these are the most important rights. No one can take these rights away from you and these rights can be expressed in political action beyond just voting.


The right to decide the approach to living your life and to society are the most fundamental rights. Freedoms are things that you will exercise. I want Thai society to see rights as a basis for choosing your own life. This means you have a greater social role. This political culture is beginning to appear in some parts of society and what is interesting is that it is emerging at the grassroots level more than in urban society.


Does a black-and-white type of worldview have a role in burying problems of rights freedoms and solidarity?


It suppresses them. Simply put, black-and-white politics builds hierarchies in society and suppresses these basic rights. This suppression is like saying that this good person is more important than someone with Ability because we assume that if you are a good person, then what you do is good. This is something to fear and this does not lay a basis of reason but lays a basis of sentiment in society.


This is because by quoting principles of Buddhist teaching or the Ten Virtues of a King, we see goodness as having more value than ability. The problem of Thai society, if we talk about how to give people with ability in national administration a role with the potential to work together and at the same time we can hold them accountable for their actions, this is the important key to making democracy work more effectively.


As far as solidarity is concerned, I believe that the basic concept is that of being older and younger siblings. This at least builds social relationships. When I look at solidarity, I don't look at it from the point of view of being siblings or members of the same family. I see social relationships as connections and when there are social relationships, building mutual acceptance is easy and the important thing to accept is difference. Whether you are different because of your skin, whether it is your birthplace, race, religion, or whatever you say, when you are siblings, when there is some disagreement, you can accept each other. But if you are talking at the society level, social solidarity is co-existence in society and accepting difference between each other on the basis of the rule of law, which is one guideline in accepting diversity. This is the important problem.


And in the end, on this issue of equality before the law, this equality means everyone has the same rights and freedoms that they can exercise. It's not that I have the eight to talk more or talk louder than you. No. I think that different voices should be expressed with the same weight, or equality. This will force the politics of leaders to contest politics with the participation of more people. I don't want to use the expression people's politics, but it is a politics where people have the opportunity or have an avenue for expression without anyone coming to lead them, without anyone being socially selected.


This may be seen as too idealistic, but I think that Thai society is going too far. I have never said that democracy is the best system of rule, but I do say that democracy is a better system than any other because you have the rights and freedoms that you can exercise to set your own direction. And this is better because you are ready to change, ready to push for improvement. But in any event, society needs time and experience for this. Society has to accept learning what is right and wrong and has to be ready to learn this approach or that approach and what society learns is something that is embedded in people in society in every period. This is what I want to say.


Did Thaksin give people at the grassroots level a greater sense of citizenship?


Definitely. I have not seen populist policies as something bad. I think that populist policies are a clear response to the leading political questions. This is the first time that the majority in country have seen a real political benefit from the democratic system. We may see the Village Funds14, SML/SME15 and so on in that light.


But I think that one development is that people have the power to decide for themselves. For example, you provide a Village Fund of one million baht and that one million baht can be used for anything. If this turns out bad, for example you use it to buy mobile phones, to buy things for your convenience, and the money is all gone, you have to be audited band judged by society. But if the one million baht is used to solve problems in society then that is acceptable.


I think that in this direction or approach, we have been attacking the bad side, rather than taking an overall view. For me, whether what happened is good or bad is a different matter from society being able to learn from it. I think that grassroots villagers learned to set an approach, learned how to live a life that they choose themselves. This is the clearest indicator.


I have not said that what happens these days is good but what happens is that it has taught people at the grassroots level, who are the majority in the country, to understand the basic principles of democracy, which begin with yourself. It begins with rights and freedoms in choosing the way of life that they want. OK, right and wrong is another matter that has to be developed. Society and communities accumulate lessons learned. I think we need this.


Thai society gradually learned about the righteous monarchy, about righteous rule, about rulers with the Ten Virtues of a King over a long period. But you must at least accept that this has power because it was built up. You must allow the lessons of democracy to be built up in the same way.


But I haven't said that villagers are ignorant, or that they don't know don't understand. Some people say that villagers lack an education, don't know, don't understand. I think that villagers do understand. The worldview of villagers is a worldview that relates to their lives not ours.


At the same time, villagers have a reason for choosing what is best for them. Why? If they choose what is best for them and it turns out not to be good, then one day they won't choose it. But the problem is how many alternatives you create for these people. Thai society hasn't created any alternative for people other than what the Thaksin government did. If you look at it from the point of view of policy politics, I have not yet seen any policies that give people alternatives. This does not include the sufficiency economy16, which is difficult to practice.


While villagers protect their own interests following the groups they are allied to, the middle class ... The problem with chasing Thaksin out is in the process that is called political aesthetics. This is a matter of perception, and does not relate to basic information. Politics becomes dramatized through sentiment. I think that the issue of the morals or ethics of leaders is based on sentiment more than ethical content.


The problem is that you attack Thaksin on the basis of the moral of leaders or good leaders, but you have not said what good morals are, what a good leader should do. I think that hasn't happened and society has responded badly, responded by sentiment more than a system of accountability.


I don't myself believe that Thaksin is a tyrant because Thaksin still plays by democratic rules. Certainly Thaksin abused his power. I don't argue with this. But society is monitoring, society is proceeding in that direction and he cannot dictate to society. If he could dictate to society as a whole, you may be able to use the word tyrant. A tyrant in a democratic system is a righteous ruler who arises from sentiment.


When people compare Thaksin with Hitler, I want to say that this is wrong. I may not have had direct experience but some of my teachers were Hitler's victims and Hitler arose from social sentiment, he did not arise from a knowledge base, he did not arise from a democratic process. The sentiment of German society at that time was that the country was overwhelmed with problems. People needed a leader with charisma who could play on the collective feelings of society. Once you play on society's feelings, you rely on the democratic process to build you into a leader.


The fist thing that Thaksin did was to learn the rules. The next step was to play by the rules. And the third step was to set the rules. This third step is what we have to hold him to account for. But the problem is that that he hasn't been held to account for this third step. The clear case is changing policy into law. This is really bad, and society has never scrutinized this. Or using loopholes or taking advantage in drafting or setting the rules. This is the real problem that the Thaksin government created.

1 Thaksin Shinawatra was Prime Minister of Thailand from 2000 until, after months of street protests, he was ousted in a military coup on 19 September 2006. For more information see

2 The PAD was an ad hoc anti-Thaksin coalition of some elements of civil society, a business rival, and erstwhile political allies of Thaksin. For more information see

3 Gen Surayud Chulanont

4 Former Prime Minister (1980-88) Gen Prem Tinsulanonda

5 The speaker uses a number of English-language vocabulary items, in accordance with normal academic practice in Thailand. These have been transcribed in English in the original. These have been copied in this translation (with appropriate grammatical endings added), where they are marked by italics.

6 The speaker gives the quotation in English but slightly misquotes and misattributes the quotation. The correct quotation is ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. This is attributed to Lord Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton) in a letter of 3 April 1887.

7 The Ten Virtues of a King are part of the Buddhist teachings, which were developed in the context of society at that time, but which still form part of modern Thai education. The ten virtues are generosity, morality, self-sacrifice, honesty, kindness, self-control, lack of anger, non-violence, patience and conformity to the law.

8 Pramuan Rujanaseri, Deputy Minister of the Interior in the Thaksin government, former Thai Rak Thai MP and career Ministry of Interior official (provincial governor) published ‘Royal Power' in 2005. The basic argument is that even after the change from an absolute to constitutional monarchy in Thailand, the King is still above the constitution.

9 Khun is the honorific equivalent to Mr.

10 Thai students wear uniforms from kindergarten to undergraduate level. There are constant complaints about female university students wearing technically correct uniforms that are too tight-fitting or too revealing.

11 This is self-explanatory Thai proverb.

12 Acharn is the honorific for teachers.

13 Dean of the Faculty of Law, Chiang Mai University.

14 The Village Fund scheme provided a 1 million baht line of credit for each village in the country, to be managed by the villagers themselves. It was a stated policy of the Thai Rak Thai party in the 2000 elections and implemented by the Thaksin government.

15 SME refers to another policy of the Thaksin government, a 15.7 billion baht credit line for Small- and Medium-size Enterprises. It is not clear what the reference to ‘SML' is (the Thai is a transliteration of the English acronym). It may be a slip of the tongue that was included in the transcript of the interview.

16 The sufficiency economy is a concept that was developed by HM the King based on his experience of the development work of the Royal Projects and grounded in Buddhist philosophy. It was proposed by HM the King in his 1997 Birthday Speech from the throne as an alternative development strategy to the one that had led to the 1997 economic collapse. It was adopted as a national policy by the government installed after the 2006 coup and is now enshrined in the 2007 constitution. The exact meaning, underlying philosophy and practical implications of the sufficiency economy have been widely debated and remain unclear and open to widely different interpretations. The establishment view of the sufficiency economy can be seen in papers available at Examples of the practice of the sufficiency economy and the views of villagers can be found in the UNDP's Thailand Human Development Report 2007.


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