Morning Muse: Illiberal Liberalism

*Originally posted December 29th 2013*


The people attempting to tear down Thailand’s flawed democratic system do not believe in the principle of one man-one vote. In this, they are in agreement with earlier liberal reformers in western nations where the poor, the halt, the lame, the ‘colored’ and the women were excluded from the franchise as “unfit”. Modern liberal democracies still exclude large numbers of their citizens from the voting population based on judgements that they are not capable of democratic responsibilities.

In those western nations, there is a large consensus concerning something we might best call “equality”, no matter how qualified and restricted by conditionality. Observation would suggest that this broad sense of “equality” does not share the same large social consensus in many Asian nations, even those where it  is enshrined in law.

In Thailand, which we hear again and again is a Buddhist country, the belief in some version or other of the notion of accumulated merit is spread across a large number of people and is enshrined both explicitly and implicitly in institutions and behaviors that make up Thai society and culture. Put in simple terms, to many Thais some people are born “better” than others. So when anti-democratic protestors call for a council of “good people” to rule the country, they are not just pulling this notion out of a rhetorical bag of tricks to justify their inherent fascist tendencies (although there is that too); they are speaking out of a firm societally conditioned belief in inequality.

Many years ago, my first real Thai friend explained to me why it would be a “sin” for her to give money to a beggar. We were in Vancouver at the time so the question was relevant to our shared daily experience. Because there was the possibility that a beggar would use the money for drugs or some other evil purpose, and because she would be responsible for said evil as the financial enabler, she would gain demerit for the beggar getting stoned. When asked about whether the government in Thailand should be giving money to alleviate the poverty there, she reacted the same way. Poor Thais would waste the money, being uneducated and therefore irresponsible. The poor should be taken care of rather than empowered to take care of themselves. “We” had the responsibility.

I learned on my first visit to her home in Bangkok that a well-respected monk made regular trips from his wat in the countryside to give talks at her family compound. The faithful who came in surprisingly large numbers received both spiritual and physical nourishment and family members and the live-in servants were eagerly involved in doling out both. I had never thought to see something so like “noblesse oblige” operating at this level in my lifetime. I must admit, I was horrified.

Like those old Calvinists who believed that the mark of their predetermined ascent into heaven was their wealth, many Thais, both rich and poor, believe that material abundance is a measure of moral superiority. To be born into money is a sign of merit; to be seen to scrabble for it (as is the case with the loathed provincial politicians who play the role of bogeyman in these people’s horror tales about democracy), is a sign of many things, none of them good, but it mainly signals an unwillingness to know your place.

So to call the refusal to accept the notion of “equality” of all citizens immoral, as someone has done recently in my Twitter stream, is to reject out of hand the morality of people who think differently. And to suggest that they have the “right” to believe in the superiority of certain people but not to force others to accept it while at the same time insisting that the principle of equality be made the basis of a one-man one-vote democratic system for formulating and enforcing laws is to indulge in an unconscious hypocrisy so vast that it beggars the imagination.



Morning Memo: Down by Law

Lawyers everywhere argue definitions of terms, interpretations of clauses, and whether or not particular acts or circumstances fit those terms and clauses as defined and interpreted in their arguments before a court. Judges everywhere do the same when making and justifying their decisions. The law may be an ass everywhere, but in countries that follow “rule-of-law” it is an exhaustively rational ass that, while liable to being bent out of shape, is rarely actually broken in the legal proceedings in and before a court.

In Thailand, as in much of Asia, what we witness is not so much “rule-of-law” but “rule-by-law”, which means that law is applied selectively and interpreted strategically rather than universally and rationally.

It means that the law is both political and personal, and, given that the personal is the political in Thailand in a way that ’68ers never imagined might be the case if their beloved formula were actually put into practice, it means that “persons” rule in Thailand, not law.

So when Thaksin Shinawatra was looked on favorably by the military and the bureaucracy and the palace, henceforth to be known as the phuyai or “big people”, and he was charged with deliberately concealing assets during his first election campaign as head of Thai Rak Thai, it was the duty of the court to find him not guilty and thereby allow him to slide into the Prime Minister’s chair with a clean record.

A few years later, when he had enraged the bulk of the phuyai by refusing to act like “one of the boys” in dealing out graft and sharing power amongst the usual suspects, a specially convened court found him guilty of helping his wife buy a piece of property. Oddly enough, the property in question was bought at market rates and it is difficult to see why it required the weight of the PM’s office to get the sale closed.

No matter. The military coup that had removed him from office had been justified by charges of corruption, so it was the court’s duty to find him guilty of corruption. The difficulty for the court was not so much to find instances of corruption that would “stand up” in court as it was to find an instance that did not risk involving supporters of the junta and the wider circle of phuyai. And given the near-impossibility of that task, they did well under very adverse conditions.

Since that time, a Thaksin “nominee” administration has been removed from power by this sort of “legal” means and the present incarnation under Thaksin’s sister Yingluck has been blocked from exercising its constitutional legislative powers by equally suspect “legal” decisions on a number of occasions. It seems that we are about to have another such decision put an end to both this administration and the planned elections that would undoubtedly return it to power and reinforce its legitimacy.

Given that this “rule-by-law” approach is SOP in Thailand and has been brazenly used repeatedly over the past 7 years, it is curious to see so many commentators on the situation puzzling over the legality of such things as delaying the election.

Legal arguments do not decide how things are done in “rule-by-law” states, just how what is decided and done is justified after the fact. The difference is immense.


Morning Moan

It’s interesting… in a very dull sort of way… that so many foreigners who comment on Thai politics call the Yellowshirts (in whatever guise or incarnation) “fascist” or “anti-democratic”, which they so obviously are, and yet feign outrage with each and every manifestation of the fascistic and anti-democratic nature of the movement. If they are truly fascist and anti-democratic, why the repeated expressions of surprise? And even more to the point, what is the point of doing these little bits of “analysis” that each and every time seem to rediscover the simple fact of the fascist, anti-democratic thrust of the movement?


Another Morning Muse

A few hours after I posted yesterday’s Muse, UDD co-leader Nattawut announced that the Reds would not be coming to Bangkok, thus delaying the inevitably violent confrontation between two determined and armed “protest” groups. So no “big day” yesterday. Which is not to say that anything has changed.

One of the reasons I set up this blog in the first place was to explore the way “farang” tend to discuss Thai politics in order to come to some understanding of the role of the observer in shaping and defining the observed. Recently on Twitter I have been engaged in a childish and not very intelligent exchange with a couple of constant commentators on Thai politics who, along with many, many other foreigners, tend to dismiss the majority of actors in the Thai political arena as, yes, you guessed it, “stupid and childish”.

In my view, what we are watching unfold in recent weeks is a tweaked replay of every PAD/Yellowshirt/Royalist bid to remove Thaksin from power that has taken place since 2005. And there is nothing either stupid or childish about the way these things unfold: move, countermove, manipulation of media, appeal to foreign opinion, dismissal of foreign opinion, threats of violence, accusations of oppression and brutality, violence, violence and more violence.

Over the past few years, since a certain person made a speech indicating that such a thing should happen, judges in the various courts charged with responsibility for “political” and constitutional affairs have played a greater and more decisive role in creating outcomes in the extra-parliamentary battles that determine Thai politics far more than either elections or legislative action do.

To a great extent, this new judicial activism has replaced the military coup that has always been the preferred method of keeping power in the hands of the “elite” when parliaments look to be getting out of control. It is an innovation that will no doubt slowly spread around the world and has already done so in Egypt. And there is nothing “stupid” about this Thai innovation, regardless of how obviously corrupt and undemocratic it is, because what it does is make it impossible for the usual suspects of the liberal-left variety to point to the obviously evil and discredited military coup as a way of denying legitimacy to whatever governments are set up in the wake of a traditional coup.

But that is just the tip of an iceberg that will have to dealt with in a longer post.

I think the reason so many foreign observers and Thai “liberals” (who have almost always spent years outside the country getting an education, working, or both) are so dismissive of the machinations and manipulators in Thai politics, as well as the ordinary people who take part on either side of the divide, is that they are unwilling to see that what constitutes “politics” in Thailand and what is labeled “politics” in the predominantly liberal-democratic developed world are two different things altogether.

In Thailand, there is no liberal democratic framework within which “political” questions may be decided, as there is in western countries. The political question in Thailand is “Who rules?”, not “How shall we spend our tax money?” And as long as that is the question that politics is required to answer, the violence and structural manipulations involving courts and constitutions and all forms of extra-parliamentary chicanery will be the order of the day, particularly, ultimately, the violence.

What is happening in Thailand, again, over the past 7 years is a struggle to change the nature of the whole system of governance, not because someone like Thaksin has decided to idealistically “gift” the people of Thailand with democratic sovereignty, but because the highly imperfect system of democracy has again emerged as a possible solution to problems raised by the question “Who rules?”

To expect that struggles over a political question that has given birth to such things as the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions should somehow take on the appearance of the televised inanity that is politics in the US or Great Britain is more than a little “stupid”. And to treat the deaths of Thai citizens on either side of the divide as nothing more than the manifestation of “childishness” is not only naive and childish in itself, it is deeply offensive.