Tuesday, October 21, 2008

democracy and national identity in Thailand

Democracy and National Identity in Thailand
Kasian Tejapira

DEMOCRACY AND NATIONAL IDENTITY IN THAILAND. By Michael Kelly Connors. Copenhagen (Denmark): NTAS Press, 2007. xviii, 293 pp. US$27.00, paper. ISBN978-87-7694-002-7.

Scholars of Thai studies who lived through the unprecedented extreme and violent ideological polarization in Thai politics in the latter half of the 1970s--when right-wing mobs oftentimes sang blood-curdling anti-communist songs (such as "Nak phanedin" or Scum of the Earth) while shooting, throwing bombs at and lynching radical student activists, while the latter ducked down, cried out in anger and, in turn, burst into revolutionary songs (such as "Wirachon patiwat"or Revolutionary Heroes)--must have acutely felt the dearth of scholarly study of Thai ideological formation and cultural politics adequately address its powerful role and crucial importance in modern Thai history.
Now, thirty years, four coups, one mass uprising and eight constitutions later, the scholarly landscape of Thailand has changed dramatically. In the comparatively less polarized and violent, and more liberal and open, political environment of recent years, a new corpus of works has been written, initially by a handful of Western scholars, and then increasingly by their Thai colleagues and students, many of whom are former radical activists and intellectuals of the 1970s and subsequent generations who have taken an avid interest in Western Marxist and post-structuralist theories in cultural studies. Following in the footsteps of such pioneers as Benedict Anderson, Craig Reynolds, Andrew Turton and Thak Chaloemtiarana, works by these scholars have furnished Thai studies with path-breaking illumination on the ideological and cultural-political dimensions of Thai official nationalism, the monarchy, public intellectuals, Thainess and Chineseness, consumerism, etc., and have given rise to such fecund and generalizable conceptual innovations as cultural constitution (Nidhi Aeusrivongse), geo-body (Thongchai Winichakul), ethno-ideology (the present reviewer), network of discourse (Prajak Kongkirati) and royal hegemony (Chanida Chitbundid), to name a few.
Connors' Democracy and National Identify in Thailand (first published in 2003) both builds on and further develops the said scholarship. Making sensible, adroit and fruitful use of Antonio Gramsci's theory of hegemony and Michel Foucault's concept of governmentality (chapter 2), he offers an insightful and penetrating analytical, critical history of democracy in modern Thai politics as a series of overlapping and conflicting projects by various groups of state elites to build their respective political hegemony and inculcate varying rationalities of government into the people, in articulation with the established official national identity. Thus, after the People's Party's constitutional democracy of the pre-WWII period had turned into Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat's Thai-style democracy in the early 1960s (chapter 3), hence loosening democracy from the ideal hyper-Western frame of reference for further "Thaifying" metamorphoses, there emerged in rough succession; 1) the statist project of developmental but. ever-delayed liberalism, both to fight communism and fend off electoral democracy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then again in the 1980s (chapters 4 & 5); 2) the liberal project of liberalization and political reform in reaction to the right-wing extremist massacre and coup of 1976, and then again in the aftermath of the mass uprising against military rule and corrupt electocracy in 1992 (chapters 7 & 8); and 3) the communitarian project of participatory democratization and concrete interest-based political struggle in the late 1990s and especially after the 1997 economic meltdown (chapter 9). The picture of the Thai political landscape at the advent of the second millennium painted by the author is that of a budding elitist liberal democratic regime under the political reform constitution of 1997, based upon a mutually accommodating and beneficial if fundamentally divergent and uneasy coalition between the liberals and communitarians, held together by the monarchy as a nodal point (chapter 6 is devoted to the rise to dominance of the current monarch alongside the cultural-political construction of so-called Thai-style "Democracy with the King as Head of State"). The new edition of the book provides updated information and more extended analysis of the rise to power through parliamentary elections of the Thaksin Shinawatra government and the challenge it posed to the liberal-communitarian project under royal hegemony (chapter 10), and ends with a postscript on the military coup of 19 September 2006, which toppled both PM Thaksin and, again, democracy in Thailand.
Being no friend of coups and military dictatorship, Connors nonetheless maintains a principled critical stance on the neo-liberal, populist and authoritarian record of the popularly elected Thaksin government amidst the prevalent, rather uncritical post-coup fad for electoralism in Thailand. Furthermore, his conceptual coinage of democrasubjeclion, succinctly defined as "the subjection of people to imaginary forms of their own rule "(18,21), amounts to a radical and thorough critique of the potentially oppressive and exploitative, ideological and institutional work that democracy does to produce subject-citizens out of the raw material of people, and should be applicable to any people still haunted by democracy.
Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand
COPYRIGHT 2008 University of British ColumbiaCOPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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