Facing Up to Politics

 |  October 27, 2011

The political landscape is radically terraforming around us with the new national government, cabinet reshuffles and abortive attempts at policy implementation. As this occurs, the need to step back and take stock of the pervading climate of political opinion and gain some perspective on this volatile and polarising force known as politics becomes all the more pronounced.

In this, a series of six interviews will be conducted with local citizens from a broad cross-section of society; starting with a selection from the academia, to representatives of the political establishment, and finally a ground level perspective from average citizens, we will first be hearing the learned views of Dr. Tanet Chareonmuang, a professor of political science at Chiang Mai University.

Dr. Tanet studied at Prince Royal’s College, though graduated from Pacific Grove High School in California, where he spent his final year. Returning to Thailand, he then completed a BA with Honours in Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, then a Masters degree and doctorate in Russian Area Studies and Comparative Politics from Georgetown University and Northern Illinois University, respectively.

He is deeply involved in local community movements focusing on such issues as the recognition and proliferation of Lanna language and culture among citizens of the north, and in this capacity often speaks at universities both in Thailand and abroad. He recently travelled to the US with a group of academic supporters of the red movement to give lectures at forum events. 2011 marks the 20 year anniversary of his ongoing campaign for a locally elected provincial governorship.

Sitting down with Dr. Tanet, one is immediately struck by his unassumingly rustic appearance; traditional Lanna garb, socks in leather sandals, straight black hair naturally parted to the side, prominent facial features and, most strikingly, the way in which his rich and resoundingly baritone voice conveys each considered phrase with more than a touch of ironic humour.

Dr. Tanet sees very few differences between modern western and Thai political systems, apart from their initial genesis. Thailand’s system was never recast through the furnace of post-colonial revolution, and thus, never saw reformation of the bastions that stood, and still stand today: a strong ruling class, heavily centralised administration and a militarised political system with a bureaucracy dominated by aristocrats. These problems have been exacerbated by a profoundly imbalanced history of development. Economic aid from the US, dating back to foreign policy decisions made during the Vietnam War stimulated the economy greatly, but without similar growth in cultural and political awareness; “because (knowledge of) politics and culture don’t support the economy. Privileges, double standards oppose this.”

According to Dr. Tanet, the current government, beset by the problems described above but, most importantly, elected by the people, should be able to run out its term in the interests of furthering democratic process. But “people who are used to aristocratic means, used to privileges, want a government that makes them happy, they want a government that they like. We still have a problem with political instability; we don’t know when the armed forces will come in and kick out this government, which has happened many, many times in the past, and we are afraid it may happen again. But that’s going to be a shame on Thailand that will hurt international communities, that will hurt the free enterprise economic system, that will hurt everybody.”

So as he sees it, the staggered limp to democratic freedom and true representation is further hampered by continual intervention by the military, to whom he says, “Give politicians a chance, give the people a chance. These two have never been given a chance in Thailand, and that’s what hurts the country.”

The problems he perceives as inherent weaknesses in the regional and national governments are threefold. Political instability brought about by the ever-looming threat of coups d’etat along with appointments that siphon power from the elected representatives, over-centralisation that means “local problems are not solved, because local organisations are so weak,” and finally “a very, very unreasonable education system…run totally by aristocrats. As a result of this system, there is a distinct lack of interdisciplinary, comprehensive instruction, whereby students have “no knowledge of local history and no knowledge of politics. In fact, they have been trained to be apolitical”. So generation after generation are given occupationally specific inculcation, “Thailand ends up with a big bunch of technicians; well trained, good looking, making a lot of money…but political buffalos. They’re not stupid, but they are ignorant. They don’t know because Thailand’s education system suffers from over-specialisation.”

Shifting focus to the lower classes, the picture he paints is of a rural citizenry whose first real taste of politics came with Thaksin Shinawatra’s economic and social welfare reforms. “(He) made some public policies tangible. He was the first ever prime minister in Thailand who made democracy edible…edible to them. So they’ve been enlightened by that.” And this enlightenment is spreading. With each year that passes, an ever increasing sense self awareness is propelling the under-classes through an education in history, politics and a fundamental entitlement to political rights and freedoms. Speaking of the red supporters in his own family whose education level is generally not above middle school, Dr. Tanet says: “I used to teach them, I used to help them, I used to tell them everything, and they would listen very carefully. You know, now, over the past 5 years, I don’t have to do that. They are lecturing me!”

So as it stands, participatory democracy is yet to come into itself, yet to realise itself in the eyes of the masses. Within the red movement lie the seeds of this self realisation, a sense of political enlightenment and the furthering of democracy as more than just a ‘magical’ word; for it to become a force of true representation and indeed, participation. For this word, this ideal, has been misused in the past by those who would seize power in its name: “The military was very smart. They made a coup d’etat, but they didn’t call it a coup d’etat, they called it democratic reform, political reform. So every time they kick out the elected government, they call themselves “The Democratic Reform Council”. See? Everyone is confused…and haven’t been very active in the past. But now they know.”

Faced with an analogy of the red movement as a bucking bull, given to me by another academic, with Taksin precariously gripping the animal as it flails around, increasingly more self-aware, ready to fling him off just as soon as their respective aims diverge, he responded: “Absolutely, Absolutely…you know why? Because it’s not a five day, or one month movement. It’s been a five year movement now. So now they’ve been standing up, supporting themselves. They have learned…a lot of people have crossed over that obstacle [and can say]: “We can be on our own, without him, without his leadership. And if the Yingluck government betrays them, there will be a new party, for sure…I guarantee it…”

“Whether you like it or not, they are a genuine, self conscious, group of people. Trying to help themselves, they become educated…enlightened…” he concludes.