Regarding political conflict in Thailand, many years ago I proposed that the political system (relations of power) is unable to adapt and broaden itself to accept the expansion of a new group of people who I referred to as the lower middle-class. This group of people is vast and needs a space to politically negotiate within the system, because their lives, their worldviews, and their interests have changed.
As long as the elites in the political system refuse to adjust, violent conflict will continue. In the many years that have passed, I have not seen any sign that the elites comprehend the necessity of doing so. Nor any sign that they are ready to find a means to negotiate with this newly political group of people in order to modulate the political system.
But in the last year, I think that the opportunity for modulation of the political system is becoming more and more evident to all sides. And it is becoming more possible that the modulation will occur to an extent that is quite acceptable to all sides so that they can then change course to struggle with one another inside the system (this does not mean only in parliament) without violence arising. This, however, is not without many other obstacles which would make the route towards the orderliness bumpy. But I think it will be better than before
So, let me talk about some good signs that have appeared lately.
In no way can I foretell whether or not there will be another coup. But the coup has become a tool without the efficiency it once had. At a minimum, the last coup made this manifestly clear to the old elites. In addition to that, although some people among the old elites perhaps do not yet see this (such as those who are behind the Pitak Siam movement), they are unlikely to be able to use a coup. This is because the army will not agree to be an instrument of any given side. At least not in the immediate future.
Without an instrument of suppression or deceleration of the modulation of the political system, the old elites have to turn to other tools which seem to be more politically correct. Important tools were designed and embedded in the 2007 Constitution, namely independent organizations that are not actually independent, various judicial processes that cannot be examined or restrained except by the group of old elites, and the Senate, half of which is appointed.
This is why they must obstruct the drafting of a new constitution in every way possible. Even the Constitutional Court must give outlandish “advice.”
What remains interesting is that even the masses are involved in this conflict about the constitution. But it has not become a large political crisis. Each side uses its own media in the debate; some with reasons, some with emotion. Nevertheless, it has not erupted into brawls or riots.
Like the coup, using big demonstrations to create the conditions to compel [action] has become a less effective tool for the movement of the masses. Therefore, the opportunity to have a big protest that leads to fighting is greatly reduced. In fact, I think that the issues that drew people to join those big protests have largely lost their power, such as the issue of violating the institution of the monarchy. This pulled many people to join protests from 6 October 1976 up until now -- it is not as magical as before. Those people who still want to use this issue have to think about how and in what fashion they are going to present the issue to arouse people. Whether other issues, such as the territorial integrity of the border will arouse people or not, we will have to wait for the decision from the International Court of Justice. But I will venture to doubt that it will certainly not (arouse people), because in actuality, there are many more border issues with Thailand’s neighbours in all directions which are still ambiguous. The problem is how to solve that ambiguity: through peace or war?
As a matter of fact, I suspect that the political elites of any side are startled by “mass politics.” Thai elites have used “mass politics” for a long time, since before 14 October. But they used only the form [of mass politics] (used its appearance of mass politics as an excuse), such as proclaiming war with the Axis powers, demanding land from the French, and bringing down “dirty” elections. “Mass politics” were widely deployed as never before by one group of the elite class during 14 October. But they used it along with an antiquated hope that once the rulers were deposed, the mass would then return home to slumber as usual. Circumstances were not as expected. 14 October was real “mass politics,” not just the “appearance” of it. The students were one flank of the mass who refused dormancy and also remained beyond control of the elite class. Therefore, another flank of “mass politics” needed to be created to destroy that of the students.
This, in effect, amounted to increasing the power of the real opposition party of the system (at that time); i.e., the CPT [Communist Party of Thailand].It was a lesson that if violent tactics are used to destroy the strength of “mass politics,” the enemy of the system will become ever more militant (whether or not the elite class learned from this is unknown). Eventually, real “mass politics” are very dangerous to political elites. This is because the power of “mass politics” to destroy the system is very intense, and cannot be controlled, particularly by those in power. Traditional political systems in societies around the world have all collapsed under “mass politics.”
In fact, look at monarchies anywhere in the world. There are only two groups who truly “topple kings.” They are “mass politics” and military dictatorship. Because either ‘mass politics’ or military can always forge its own free will. And this free will may not necessarily be in line with the will of the existing political system.
Regarding the state of “mass politics” in Thailand, I think that both the Red and Yellow groups have gradually developed independent wills of their own, to the point where those directing behind the scenes have difficulty directing and ensuring control. The work of the Yellows is not in tune with the “vanguard” of other conservative groups, such as the army, or the Democrat Party, or independent organizations, such as the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Khun Thaksin, the hero of the Red side, is increasingly aware of the ‘weight’ of the Red Shirts. Even he cannot exchange their lives, their flesh and blood, for an end to his case. This is because a vast number of the Red masses would not accept it, and have even come out to strongly condemn the hero. Khun Thaksin had to swiftly ask for forgiveness, blaming it on his fatigue and flu [as an excuse]. The burden of “mass politics” grows heavier and heavier day by day. Khun Thaksin can therefore only thank the Red Shirts for being the “vessel” that carried him to the other shore and implore them to go their separate ways.
Although it is weakened, “mass politics” is still present. It has not completely crumbled yet. As long as the political system does not adjust in line with economic and social transformation, “mass politics” will remain the only tool that can ultimately force an adjustment in the political system. But I think that “mass politics” is increasingly independent. And there is more prudence in the movement. This is because each side still has to accumulate significantly greater strength in order to successfully force the political system to adjust. My sense is that even the leaders who are great speakers, such as Khun Sonthi Limthongkul or Khun Nattawut Saikua, are losing their grip on “mass politics.” Perhaps it is becoming something that is more constructive. Besides, I think that both sides know well already that neither can decisively defeat the other.
The standstill reached in the conflict between the two sides offers the best circumstances for reconciliation. Some people are hearing the voices of people like Ajarn Chaiwat Satha-anand, which has not been heard by any side before. Meetings of the masses of both sides to discuss and exchange opinions can probably occur without their forebears being thrashed by their partisan media.
However, when we speak about reconciliation, the media and the leaders of both sides are uninterested in the “mass” and think that if the feuding leaders could just have a heart-to-heart chat, everything would end. But this would be a conclusion that would leave everything intact. The conflict in Thailand has progressed beyond the point where the leaders can reconcile with one another without changing anything, and everything will then be over. Do not forget that this conflict emerged in the form of “mass politics” from the beginning.
In this given situation, it’s also worth noticing that the conflict has developed into a disagreement over policies (for example, the rice price guarantee scheme, the 300 baht minimum wage, or the first-time car benefit). The dispute over ideals has been augmented by both Eastern and Western philosophical thought. I feel that the use of crude invectives and old arguments in the disputes is diminishing (perhaps they are still present on ASTV and for the Democrat Party). The news of a yellow shirt who was sentenced to a prison term for allegedly intending to harm police officers by hitting and running them over received sympathy and amicable behavior from Red Shirt people in prison. This is good news. And it reflects the positive atmosphere of improvement in the present.
But do not too hastily perceive that the sky is shining a bright gold yet. The road is not smooth yet, not like an auspicious sign that can be seen in the present.
The movement of the masses is not yet strong enough to cause “mass politics” to modulate the political system. But perhaps it will end up being resolved by the different groups within the elite class without anything changing. If it is like that, achieving peace will be hard.
These days, there are fewer media entities that aim to perform their duties honestly. Media workers are human, and inevitably choose a side. But after choosing a side, they still have to continue to perform their duty with integrity. People who sweep the streets have already chosen a side. But if they secretly dig holes in the road in order to cause their opponents to fall and break their legs, then they had better not call themselves street-sweepers anymore. It’s like that.
Society needs much more knowledge. But it is knowledge that must be built from research. Academics can come out to join the campaign of the masses. But they still have a specific duty of their own to continuing performing, and with faithfulness to this duty as well.
I think that media and knowledge are very important to make us continue to disagree without having to use violence. But at present, we lack them both.
The society lacks tools of politics. In particular, political parties cannot be used as a vehicle for dissolving disagreement, at all. This is because political parties turn disagreement into a scramble for power, instead of an opportunity to negotiate. There is still no propitious sign that suggests that political parties will change themselves.
It is perhaps not those who use colored shirts who have wrought collapse upon Thai society in the past decade. But it is other segments [of society], who seized upon the condition of “mass politics” to do not very much more than create a lack of order for negotiation with one another.
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn
This essay was originally published in Thai on 21 January 2013, in Ajarn Nidhi’s weekly column printed in the Monday edition of Matichon
newspaper. I read the essay as one in a pair with an essay he wrote in late November 2012, “Totalitarian Dictatorship,” which was an analysis of emergent rightist movements through the lens of Hannah Arendt’s ideas about the mass and totalitarian movements (this essay is available in English translation on Prachatai here
). In “Mass Politics and Reconciliation,” Ajarn Nidhi turns to look at present-day Thai politics, and ideologically-differently positioned actors, in a broad frame. Here, his conclusion is clear: the masses have changed, but the elites have, thus far, failed to do so. Given the changed masses, there may be the hope for a more progressive future. With the elites, less so.