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National Identity Crisis and ‘Thainess’

[This abstract is for a paper intended for presentation at the Governance, Human Rights & Development:, Challenges for Southeast Asia and Beyond, Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand, 19-20 May 2011. While travel plans interrupted the presentation and completion of the longer paper, this abstract may prove of brief interest in the subject of what is termed ‘Thainess,’ an elusive characteristic said both to be imaginary and real. - Frank G Anderson]

This study attempts to verify whether or not the Thai nation-state is capable of pursuing legitimate democratic reform. Is Thailand so unique that traditionally non-Thai standards can not be used to judge the country or be applied to it?

The study and subsequent research revealed that the current reinvigoration of dated beliefs, closely identified as “Thainess,1” has had and will continue to have a detrimental effect on Thailand’s long-term opportunities for democracy. The study looks at whether the Thai state’s current effort to protect itself is well-founded, or if it is largely designed to preserve the status of the power elite2 and insulate dated institutions from change.
 
From 1997 to 2005, this author founded and operated northeast Thailand’s first local English language newspaper, the Korat Post. The paper was founded to provide a capstone project for an MBA in information management, and to gather material for a study on how much democracy and freedom of speech in Thailand exist on a local level on the one hand, and what can be done, on the other, to enhance what already exists.

The study identifies key problem areas in making progress toward democratic reform; for example, ultra-nationalism combined with implied citizen identity based on “Thainess.”. Findings over the eight years of the Korat Post’s operation verify that there is a great deal of conservative pressure on everyone, including the media, to restrict dissemination of information to ‘safe’ discourse that reflects positively on institutions and persons, and to avoid topics that are offensive to persons in positions of power – notably politicians, the military, police and the royal institution3. The consequences of not abiding by these limitations seldom but do occasionally include death, rarely satisfactorily investigated after the fact.

The study indicates that local media are by economic necessity, legislation and ever-present threat of seizure and arrest self-censoring and generally compliant with state, commercial and other pressures to ‘follow the leader.’ Findings also reveal that in general provincial (outside Bangkok) Thai media are heavily reliant on the ‘goodwill’ of a select few but powerful and influential persons who will not tolerate pressures toward change in Thai society, even from within by Thais. Finally, the study indicates that to continue to function as a democratic between the state and the people Thai media must develop alternate sources of income other than advertising. In one notable example, the Korat Daily newspaper, published in downtown Korat, is a well-run daily with significant advertising but financially backed up by the owner’s main line of business – printing.

The 2006 coup and its aftermath reintroduced mass censorship in the country, caused alarm and brought domestic and international condemnation. Given advances in computer technology and lack of human rights protections in pre and post-investigative procedures, the Thai state has been making inroads against the right of free expression - ostensibly in the name of national security.  The combination of traditional values and renewed state emphasis on them, backed by harsh new legislation, has resulted in a significant setback for Thai democracy.

What is recognized as being Thai, and what is seen as foreign? At what point does foreign become Thai?

Online searches in Thai and English to obtain a concise definition of “Thainess” become a journey into symbology, indoctrination, political correctness and prejudice – both voluntary and involuntary. “Thainess” is perceived as a quality of worthiness, acceptance or rejection based on appearance, behavior and speech. One often hears, for example, “Aren’t you Thai?” or “Are you Thai or not?” 

Thainess, or “khwam pen Thai” is a value system that prescribes what is acceptable from what is not, what is Thai from what is not. For example, all Thais are expected - and face stringent legislative, social and cultural reinforcement – to demonstrate loyalty and respect for the country’s three pillars – the nation, the religion (almost universally promoted as Buddhism), and the monarchy. While diversity is officially recognized and often cited as another pillar of social justice it is not welcome in Thailand when it comes to challenging traditional beliefs in these three areas. The question then becomes, who is it that does not welcome such differences of views?

According to several Thai and foreign academic studies and dozens of political commentaries, the answer is the ‘elite’ and those who support – willfully or blindly - this powerful and uncompromising component of traditional Siamese society. Basically what is being described is an umbrella organization that takes its strength from political, cultural and social elitism – a typical and ancient form of the patronage system. Those above look out for those below but with the implicit understanding that at all times those below must remain compliant and loyal. The system is reinforced constantly by a panoply of rigid cultural practices, legislated social structure and a state-applied public relations apparatus that perpetuates elitism, promotes unity in thought, belief, speech and behavior. This system also guards its interests by severely curtailing and punishing those who would challenge the way things are ‘done.’

The question of motive is paramount to being able to ascertain whether or not such a rigid patronage system in this 21st century is survivable or even capable of change. As history has shown time and time again in other cultures, eventually push comes to shove and all is set aside in a rude awakening that leads to loss of life but opens the window toward personal freedom. Is the motive in perpetuating an ancient sociopolitical system such as in Thailand to guard the interests of a benevolent elite or is it to guard the interests of an elite that has its own interests at heart first and foremost? Is such an elite segment of society so blinded by its self-perceived sage wisdom that it feels totally justified in taking whatever measures it feels needed to continue the goose-step? Is such an elite capable of ever stepping aside in the interests of not just change in a modern world but in the interests of people who have a right to be free, to think for themselves and to challenge the beliefs that they are constantly told are the beliefs of what it means to be Thai?

Anyone familiar with the “Thai way” can recite dozens of anecdotes about how Thailand has staved off one colonial power after another to remain independent, or how particular political and social situations were handled in a graceful way to resolve intense confrontations. The same observers will also, however, cite countless criminal proceedings against what have been called democracy activists – many of whom were ‘guilty’ of crossing the “Thainess” line by inquiring into the forbidden-to-discuss subject of the Thai monarchy. These observers will recount the dozen and a half Thai constitutions that have come and gone under military coup, the blood in the middle of Thai streets shed by activists and the many losses of freedom that has taken place in Thailand from the year 2000 onward. Amongst all of this was the phrase “Thainess” drummed beat-box style by the elite and their willing cadre of social engineers.

Basically what has occurred in Thailand over the last decade is not just recognition that regimentation is not producing social justice but that it is becoming a less effective tool in perpetuating elitist control. Inhibiting any meaningful application of this realization to improve social justice and increase freedom is an elitist propaganda machine – run by the state, government, military and other elite factions - that dismisses a genuine immediate need for reform in a cacophony of Thainess-related ‘reminders.’ If these ‘reminders’ don’t work they are reinforced with those that do – intimidation, identification as an enemy of the state, religion and monarchy, allegations of endangering national security, arrest and detention… where determined to be necessary, assassination. In the latter matter two recent cases illustrate the complete autonomy and lack of accountability that powerful forces in Thailand enjoy. The first was the unsuccessful attempt to murder media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul; the second was the successful assassination of “Sae Daeng,” a Thai army officer. Both men were formerly close associates of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Paralleling this realization by the country’s elites that their grip had slipped somewhat and their traditional hold on power was being challenged on many fronts was realization by the same powers that they needed to ‘reinvigorate’ the process of “Thainess” as they viewed it by resorting to legislation, emergency decrees, media propaganda and other forms of coercion and use of ‘reminders’ that too much change will not be permitted. Publicly standing in front of the elite to make sure the message is understood are the Thai military and police – well-armed, well-funded and well-organized.

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1. The Construction of Mainstream Thought on “Thainess” and the “Truth” Constructed by “Thainess”,Saichol Sattayanurak. …the concept of “Thainess” as defined by Thai intellectuals was designed in response to political problems that faced the ruling class in each era, as well as to use “Thainess” in the construction of the social and political structure desired by the political elite. This ideology has been so consistently cultivated in the society that it became a “system of truth” that is highly influential on the way Thais think, and constructed many important “truths” in Thai polity.

2. Charles Wright Mills, 1916-1962:”By the power elite, we refer to those political, economic, and military circles which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences. In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them.”

3. Lese majeste, defaming the monarchy or its members, is enshrined in Article 112 of the Thai Constitution as well as in more current legislation such as the Computer Crimes Act. In one extreme case, the editor of Prachatai website was threatened with over 50 years imprisonment because of alleged lese majeste material she failed to remove from her website in time.