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Proposed disenfranchisement of ethnic Northerners real, explained

Prachatai recently carried a column by this author suggesting, based on this column by the Bangkok Pundit in association with Allen Hicken of www.thaidatapoints.com, that over 30 mountain peoples in the North, as well as the approximately six million Khon Mueang, would be disenfranchised in the proposed MMP party list (not constituency) system to the extent that the vote of an Upper Central Thai (majority ethnic Central Thais) would be worth approximately 2.5 votes of a Thai from the North. Also under-represented would be the Thai Lao and Phu Tai of the Upper Northeast, while the Lower Northeast, including the Thai Northern Khmer, would be over-represented.

This column also suggested that this could be an inadvertent mistake due, perhaps, to some faulty arithmetic on the part of the relevant committee, particularly as the original Bangkok Pundit column pointed out that this was nearly a world-beatingly unequal allocation: “Using Samuels and Snyder’s (2010) malapportionment score the malapportionment score for the party list tier is 12.8%, meaning that nearly 13 percent of the party list tiers are unfairly apportioned.”

The latest analysis by the Bangkok Pundit and Allen Hicken of www.thaidatapoints.com suggests only weak support for the hypothesis that this benefits the Democrat Party in this column, with this third column suggesting the main reason for the disparity is the desire to provide opportunities for smaller parties in areas where there has historically been support for third parties such as Bhum Jai Thai, e.g., the Lower Northeast and Upper Central regions.

However, the same column points out in some detailed analysis that this strategy is unlikely to work because parties like Bhum Jai Thai have historically won in the constituency system and not on the party list system because of the polarization of Thai politics.

Therefore, one can reassert the stance that the proposed system does disenfranchise 10.4 million inhabitants of the North and, to a much lesser extent, disenfranchises 10.9 million Upper Northeasterners. At the same time, it benefits 11.4 million Upper Central Thais a lot and 11.0 million Lower Northeasterners to a lesser extent.

Given that this column notes the fact that Thailand’s military is likely viewing itself as engaged in fourth-generation warfare which it is determined not to lose, how are we to interpret this strategic move? Presumably, the Thai military is actively considering whether or not the possibility of creating an anti-Thaksin grand coalition of the Democrats and smaller parties in the next election will be worth this ethnic disenfranchisement. But, what is a realistic scenario if the disenfranchisement takes place?

Firstly, there is little doubt that this level of “malapportionment”, if codified, is likely to get the attention of Pheu Thai. Secondly, Pheu Thai will be able to portray this as creating an ethnicity-based second class of citizenship in the North, effectively creating a “District North” in a Thailand which already risks parallels with the “Panem” of the Hunger Games series. Thirdly, without a complex understanding of the proposed MMP system, it will be also be easy for Pheu Thai to suggest that the Central Thais and “Friends of Newin” clique, which has strong support among the Thai Northern Khmers in some part due to Newin Chidchob’s Khmer ancestry and who are already seen as traitors to Thaksin, are valued by the Thai state, i.e. the military government, over the Khon Mueang, the mountain peoples, and the Thai Lao of the Upper Northeast.

This may sound messy, especially given the fact that the PAD, the PDRC, and the Thai military all tend to portray Cambodia as an enemy due to a historical rivalry, the Phra Wiharn Temple saga, and Hun Sen’s support for Thaksin. However, there is little doubt that Thaksin, who is ethno-regionally a (Sino-Thai) Northerner, who speaks Khammueang and has attempted to speak and even sing in Thai Lao in his phone ins and video calls to his rallies, is capable of exploiting ethno-political fractures in the Thai nation state, particularly as they continue to go publicly unrecognized in areas as diverse as education, the economy, and healthcare.

In other words, unless proportional parity is restored by the time the electoral system become codified, Thaksin will likely be able to rally his traditional supporters in the North and Northeast and again engage in polarized politics, but this time along clear ethnic lines. Metaphors such as “tinder box” and “ticking time bomb” do not do the issue justice. In a worst case scenario, Thaksin will be able to light the North and Upper Northeast on fire, at the same time increasing negative sentiment towards the Thai Northern Khmers, with the clear risk of ethnic violence. In this scenario, the level of disenfranchisement is enough to justify revolution.

How was this strategic error made by the Thai military and the current state apparatus? Simply put, ethnic identities in Thailand are recognized when convenient (e.g., for cultural tourism) and not recognized when inconvenient, or whenever there is a need to stress “Thainess”. In particular, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand has only a very weak remit in the area of preserving ethnic rights as ethnic minorities are not listed in the Thai constitution. This means ethnic minorities have either weak or non-existent rights to sue the state or private entities over socio-economic inequalities or even portrayal in the media. This is a legacy of the policy of the Thaification of the Thai Lao in the face of French colonialism and the Thaification of the former Kingdom of Chiang Mai in the face of Cold-War geopolitics, both of which had their identity erased in favour of Bangkok-centered geographical neologisms.

It is also a legacy of the 1939-1942 hyper-nationalist development of the Ratthaniyom, or 12 Cultural Mandates, including the re-naming of Siam as Thailand (Mandate 1), the mandating of Thai as the national language (Mandate 9), and the erasure of all ethnic identities, subsumed under the “Thai” national identity (Mandate 3).

In the long run, there are only two ways to prevent the ethno-political fault lines in the Thai nation state from being exploited. The first is to systematically suppress all and any elements of ethnic differences in favour of a pan-national identity, as in Aryanisation. Historically, following the ideology of the main modern nation states to attempt this task, this can be achieved by first creating internal and then external enemies, preferably in both cases along ideological grounds, such as communists. However, this risks both ethnic cleansing and the development of a propaganda-based chain of logic which ends up leading to torture and disappearances. It is also difficult to think of a case in the modern era where this strategy has actually worked.

The second way is to heal the ethnic differences, beginning, as in the examples of India and South Africa, with recognizing ethnic minorities in constitutions, developing national language policies with regional and local languages, and then seeking to systematically address obvious disparities in how ethnic minorities are treated within the socio-economic system, either through targeting inequalities or by granting a level of autonomy.

Let us hope that the military government removes the potential for ethnicity-based chaos if the party-list disenfranchisement goes ahead and chooses the best option for a long-term solution to Thailand’s ethnic troubles.

About the author:

John Draper

BA Mod Hist (Oxon), MA App Ling (Hons, University of Southern Queensland)
Project Officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Program (ICMRP)
College of Local Administration (COLA)
Khon Kaen University

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