Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Red, Yellow, and Roots of Thai Turmoil

Angkor Wat bas-relief: Notice two types of troops in the Khmer Army, the Khmers on the left carrying shields, disciplined and keeping in rank. The ‘Syem’, either referring to their dark skin or possibly Siamese, were mercenaries stand in front of the main Khmer army. Probably as cannon fodder to wear down the opposition. Notice their generally ill-disciplined manner and long, unkempt hair. These troops, the Khmer army, march towards a battle against the Cham, who came from what is now Vietnam. (Source: The Southeast Asian Archaelogy Newsblog)

Monday, May 24, 2010
Op-Ed by MP

THE current political turmoil in Thailand is only the latest fission in a long suppressed socio-historical tension that can be traced back to the conception and evolution of the 'Siamese' dynasty as distinct from its closest cousin and rival that broke away to form the separate Kingdom of Laos. Some scholars assert that Siamese - a derivative of the word ‘Siem’ as in ‘Siem Reap’ in Khmer is a pejorative term meaning 'swarthy' (having a dark skin). Whether there is veracity to this assertion, successive Thai historians and nationalists have felt offended enough by the use as well as the implied or embedded connotations of the term to have demanded its replacement by the more acceptable adjective 'Thai' - meaning ‘free’ or freemen - in formal usage, which is in turn, a rendition of the ethnographic pronoun of T'ai, a reference to that linguistic group that would have once enclosed the forebears of the modern day peoples of Laos and 'Siam' as well as clusters of ethnic T'ai descends to be found still in Southern China today under the same bracket.

Inscriptions at Angkor also mentioned 'Siem Kuk' - Siamese war slaves or prisoners - and this fact has done little since to assuage the slighted sentiment of the Thai elite. Nevertheless, as a family grouping, they were, perhaps, as varied and eclectic as the Khmer-Mon linguistic entity. Note also the striking similarities between the Laotian and Thai languages - to unaccustomed ears both peoples could almost be mistaken for speaking the same tongue. Be that as it may, ambition, rivalry, historical animosity between the two ruling Houses, aided by (mostly, partial Thai scholars) have much to do with the way generations of Thais have distanced themselves from what they have been led to look down upon as sub-civilised, inferior races that now make up the main plank of the rural poor of Isan or the North-East - the stronghold of the so-called Red Shirts.

In the main, and at a risk of oversimplifying, Thailand’s political unrest can be viewed from two broad, but closely interlinked perspectives: 1) the historical perspective and, 2) the socio-economic perspective.

1) From the first perspective, Thai society can be seen as characterised by racial ethnic divisions and tensions that are the de facto legacy of Siamese aggrandisement and imperialism from the moment the first Thai state emerged and Thai civilisation created in supersession of the great Khmer civilisation that made possible that creation. By themselves ethnic patterns and distinctions are not necessarily sufficient ingredients for such a violent fracture – this may require other forces to give them cohesion or potency – yet they remain enduring, unwedded, or more accurately, unassimilated outlines illustrating the far from settled business of empire building as a historical process itself. In other words, Thai society, despite having enjoyed marked material progress in the modern era compared to the economic limbo that most of her neighbours have been in, is far from a melting pot success that successive Thai dynasties would have yearned for. The social neglect of the former provinces of Laos and Cambodia, or the subjects of the former Khmer Empire has been more a product of lack of interest on the part of Thai rulers than Thai or Siamese racism or deliberate ethnic discrimination per se. Although racial/ethnic sentiment can drive public policies, such prejudice should not be attributed to an overall ethnic majority, but to - at most - a handful of autocratic opportunists, who claim to represent that majority. This situation is precisely the case with Thailand’s semi-democratic, feudalistic stage in political economic development, which leads to the discussion of the second perspective.

2) Traditionally, analysts have identified the ‘Three Ms’ of Thai Monarchy, Military and Monks as the forces that bind together Thai society. While this model of explanation may facilitates our understanding somewhat and to an extent, I do feel it is rather superfluous a model, and may even mislead us into thinking that the Sangha or the Clergy who certainly have moral, ceremonial influence over lay community are in a position to translate that influence into effective political action, or that the Military is an autonomous institution only occasionally rolling the tanks onto the streets of Bangkok to enforce democratic mandate or referee political disputes.

It is also widely believed that the world’s longest reigning monarch today is an absolute Autocrat who wields decisive power in Thai politics conforming political outcomes to his personal wishes and agenda. My hunch is that while the King is certainly one of the wealthiest man in the world today, his overall political influence is more apparent than real. As in most developing, modernising economies – and more so in established post-industrial economies – a whole new powerbase of industrial economic elites in combination are the real powerhouses behind Thai political institutions. They may be Siamese, Sino-Thai, Sino-Khmer or whatever in origin, but they are the exclusive 2 percent of the entire population who command between them 80-90 percent of Thailand’s economic wealth. The economic status of the King alone allows us to place him legitimately among that 2 percent, and by way of deduction, we can also add Thaksin Shinawatra – the man who inspires and finances the Red Shirts’ mutiny – to that list.

Thaksin may not be the philanthropist that he wants his followers to think he is, but his definition of life’s success is in line with a family motto of ruthlessly and relentlessly strengthening and expanding infinitely his personal empire and that was what drove him into Thai politics in the first place. So instead of viewing the long neglected rural poor of Thailand as a burden and handicap for his administration, he proactively set about positively altering their economic conditions, banking on their reciprocated loyalty and political allegiance as fair rewards for his sacrifice and fruits of his labour. Where the Monarchy is content to let its traditional popular image be exploited in return for being allowed to conserve and add to its vast wealth through Crown Properties and other royal privileges, and where many of his rivals understood and accepted the rules and limits of patronage building, Mr Thaksin appeared to have trampled upon those sacred, unspoken vows, and inevitably aroused consternation and provoked ire among the Thai elite by effectively making a complete mockery of their carefully propped up White Elephant that is the Thai Monarchy.

This, in a nutshell, represents my view of the current Thai unrest. It is not meant nor pretended to be authoritative in any way, but a joiner to on-going public debate. I also hope my Thai friends find some positives in this amateur reflection and recognise that I have endeavoured to be as constructive and polite as the subject matter allows. I could prolong the discussion further by suggesting what needs to be done, but I think the Thai people know that already – perhaps better and more firmly than I do – that the Will of the people is something paramount and thus irresistible and is bound to prevail in the end, even if it takes longer than one would desire.


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