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Paternalism, the Führerprinzip, and the Psychology of Authoritarian Leadership in Thailand

Paternalism is highly identified with the Thai system of rule, to the extent that the Sukothai-era King Ramkhamhaeng, a playable character in the massively popular game Civilization 5, possesses the unique ability of "Father Governs Children", which increases the level of loyalty to the ruler. The concept of paternalism in Buddhism dates back to the Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great (r. c238-c.262 BCE). In the Kalinga edicts, which date after the beginning of his patronage of Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka addressed everyone as his ‘children’, and one of his self-given titles was Priyadarśin ("He who regards everyone with affection"). Examples of his paternalism included the building of hospices, the digging of wells, the planting of trees alongside roads to provide shade, and tolerance of all religions.

Paternal rule in Buddhism is not associated with the unbridled power of a pagan absolute ruler or tyrant as it also associated with the characteristics of the Dhammaraja, or dhammic monarch, as embodied in the person of King Lithai, Mahadhamaraja I, i.e., King Lithai, the First Great Dhammic Monarch, a grandson of King Ramkhamhaeng who ruled from 1347-1368 CE. Lithai wrote the Tri-Bhumi Phra Ruang, a major work of Theravadan cosmology which included the Buddhist 10 Kingly Virtues or Dasavidha-rājadhamma, namely charity, morality, altruism, honesty, gentleness, self-control, non-anger, non-violence, forbearance, and uprightness. The present king of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol, is closely associated with these qualities to the extent that some Thai people believe His Majesty, were it not for the fact that he is a temporal ruler, would have attained Buddhist sainthood, the Bodhisattva nature, and His Majesty is often referred to as the ‘Father of the Country’.

However, there is a dark side to paternalism, namely the tyranny of an absolute ruler, a discussed by Professor Thak Chaloemtiarana in his seminal work, Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism, which focuses on one of Thailand’s greatest and most feared military rulers, Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat, who ruled Thailand from 1957 to 1963. Sarit fought against the British Empire in the Japanese/Thai campaign in the Shan States in Burma and stayed on in the army after WWII, rising to Commander of the Royal Thai Army in 1954. As the Cold War approached, he threw in his lot with the US. Sarit rejected democracy in favor of single party rule and proposed himself as a heroic authoritarian genius who would build on historical Thai ideologies, such as paternalism, to bring ‘development’ to the Thai state. In order to achieve Thai-style development via centralized planning of rural and educational schemes, Sarit abrogated the constitution and dissolved parliament. Given the lack of many genuine communists in Thailand and the need to demonize an internal ‘Other’, Sarit instituted strict censorship of the media and of any Left-leaning intellectuals. It was only following his death that his massive use of the state treasure to amass a personal fortune of 140 million USD became clear. Despite this, Sarit is still heavily respected for his ability to ‘develop’ the country.

Sarit’s role model was undoubtedly Field Marshall Plaek Phibulsonggram, one of Thailand’s most successful military rulers, who was effectively dictator from 1938 to 1944 and then again from 1948 to 1957. The two differed, however, because Phibulsonggram in theory promoted constitutionalism. Nevertheless, together with the Bushido concept, during the 1930’s and under his first period of rule, a form of weak fascism was developed in Thailand, resting on the cult of the leader or ‘Führerprinzip’. The Führerprinzip, which emphasizes the heroic paternalistic figure, both past and present, is the heart of political fascism’s form of paternalism and was readily understood by Phibulsonggram and Thailand’s greatest propagandist, Luang Wichit Wachakarn. Following the adoption of this aspect of fascism, Phibulsonggram’s photographs and slogans could be found everywhere, and anti-Chinese rhetoric was combined with propaganda promoting the ‘Great Thai Empire’ – the principle of pan Thai-ism, the Thai version of Aryanism. Essentially, the Führerprinzip combines within one person the executive, judicial, and legislative power in the form of an authoritarian leader who embodies the struggle of a homogenous chosen race against its political enemies, both internal and external, representing a zeitgeist – a spirit of the times. In Thailand, this found form in Phibulsonggram’s 12 Cultural Mandates – a vision for a new nationalist socialist utopia founded on totalitarianism, complete with a new name for the country and for the people, instructions in how to treat foreigners as potential enemies, a new national anthem, and instructions in how to dress and how long to sleep, as well as when to shower and what to do on holidays.

The Führerprinzip was expounded upon by supporters in the 1930’s, such as Carl Schmitt, and resulted in the common Nuremberg Trial defense of ‘only following orders’. In fact, the psychology of fascist authoritarian leaders has been examined in some depth because it led to the Holocaust – a fact worth recalling in present-day Thailand given that a senior Thai monk in a royally-patronized monastery has called for any death of a Buddhist in the insurgency in the Deep South to be met with the arson of a mosque. Essentially, while authoritarians follow right-wing leaders, as discussed in the Thai context here, right-wing leaders demonstrate a high ‘social dominance orientation’. This means that they like to wield power and intimidate, and they do this because they tend to be ruthless and do not believe everyone is equal, instead being prejudiced against subordinate or disadvantaged groups, such as women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals. Moreover, they are attracted to employment in socially hierarchical professions, such as the police and the military, and they tend to disagree with affirmative action for minorities.

This psychology of fascist paternalism, born out of the Italian and German experiences, has led to most of Thailand’s post-war military dictators – as well as the authoritarian demagoguery of Thaksin Shinawatra. This legacy, quite possibly together with the stress associated with the Herculean task of graft-busting he appears to have taken on, explains Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha’s recent outburst that he would dispense with ‘attitude adjustment’, simply imprison dissidents, and isolate Thailand from the rest of the world if necessary – and the psychology of authoritarian followers explains why the majority of Thai people polled supported General Prayut’s comment. However, the Buddhist aspect to the strain of paternalism adopted by General Prayut may explain why he has not actually ‘disappeared’ anyone yet – unlike previous Thai military dictators.

To conclude, tragically, there is still a direct connection between Thailand’s experience prior to and during World War II and the present, one which has not yet been exorcised. Siam’s embrace of French inferior race theory, an internal form of colonization borrowed from the experience of British India, and the adoption of the Führerprinzip are all Contact Ghosts in the Shell. It is the task of the international community, especially the friends of Thailand and those who have dedicated themselves to the rejection of fascism whether social or political, such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, to work with Thailand to address this unfortunate inheritance.\