Unity through disunity

THAILAND - When Thailand's military seized power in a coup in May, few were surprised.

The daily drumbeat of street protests, the closure of public offices, and sporadic violence had deadened economic growth, frightened tourists, and cast doubt on the country's stability. Here in Singapore, many with whom I spoke about the coup shrugged: Stability might lead to better economic growth. Besides, aren't these things always happening in Thailand?

Such an attitude parallels that of the military junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha. Democracy was suspended, according to the junta, for the sake of national unity.

Supporters praised the coup as being particularly "Thai", invoking an idea of the Thai political process that involves a force - the military - above the political fray, ready to intervene if things get out of hand.

The junta has criticised foreign journalists and Thais critical of the coup for not recognising the cultural nature of the process and of undermining their efforts to heal national divisions.

To this end, they have sponsored free showings of nationalist films (perhaps as a counter to the sudden popularity of a three-finger salute taken from the Hollywood film The Hunger Games as an anti-coup meme), promoting concerts and other programmes to bolster "happiness" and "unity".

A new classroom curriculum, complete with new textbooks, with a new focus on history and a citizen's duties to the nation, is in the works.

The junta is correct in that coups d'etat have been a regular feature of Thai political life, with the present one the 13th successful coup since 1932.

But coups, and the promulgation of a more authoritarian, military- and monarchy-led democracy (hailed in Bangkok as "Thai-style democracy") are not unique to Thailand.

Earlier military dictatorships made similar claims - South Korea's Park Chung Hee, for instance, described his rule in nearly identical terms as "Korean-style democracy". Indeed, the junta's ham-fisted attempts to limit protest by rounding up academics, banning the distribution of leaflets, and summoning the heads of media outlets for stern talks (Facebook and Google were invited, but unsurprisingly did not show), recall vividly the era of Cold War dictators.

But there is a larger question here, beyond the idea that coups are particularly "Thai": Why would one need to maintain unity with force?

Something that is united should not have to be squeezed together with violent pressure. Why is unity such a problem in Thailand now?

In order to understand this, we must look deeper at the historical, ethnic, and social landscape of the country.

Junta's version of history

FIRST, the junta's efforts at promoting unity are fixed upon history, or, rather, the promotion of its version of it. The film to which the junta is currently offering free tickets is the fifth in a line of recent big-budget historical action-dramas, written by minor royal Chatrichalerm Yukol and starring army Lieutenant-Colonel Wachana Sawatdee. These tell about the exploits of the Siamese king Naresuan (1590-1605) and his battles against Burmese invaders (Siam is the pre-1939 name given to what is now Thailand).

In a similar vein, in the as-yet unwritten textbooks the junta seeks to emphasise a "great man" version of Thai history and the duties that citizens have in serving their nation.

The military feels that these will instill a greater sense of loyalty and "Thai-ness" into the population.

But nationalism is not the lesson one learns from Thai history. Indeed, Thai history more often challenges rather than asserts nationalist assumptions.

Historian Thongchai Winichakul reveals in his 1994 study, Siam Mapped, that, instead of a grand Siamese empire gradually losing ground to invasive foreign powers, mainland South-east Asian history has been characterised by a variety of sometimes-unified, sometimes-independent city-states with fluctuating, ill-defined borders, borders that map poorly onto present-day divisions between Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Cities such as Chiang Mai (Lanna), Vientiane, Ava (in present-day Myanmar) and Bangkok spread their influence in overlapping spheres, waxing and waning with the power of the centre. This allowed for a great linguistic and ethnic diversity, spanning what would later, only via conflict with invading European powers, be thought of as borders.

Indeed, as Thai historian Thanet Aphornsuvan has noted, the very term "Thai" as a term referring to a particular group of people (as opposed to a general word meaning "person") is of relatively recent construction, as is its present-day definition - "the free".

Becoming 'Thai'

IDENTIFICATION with Bangkok, rather than with this or that river valley, or this or that city, is similarly new. In a 1956-58 survey by the anthropologist Charles Keyes among villagers in Thailand's north-east, no one identified themselves as being "khon Thai", a Thai person. But they recognised pressure from state outlets pushing them towards "Thainess".

The theme of unity comes into the Thai narrative in the 20th century. Eager to spread Bangkok's influence, Siamese kings, together with the civil administration, enforced changes upon regional forms of Buddhism (for example, in the Sangha Act of 1902), abolished the official use of local languages such as Northern Thai, Shan, or Laotian; ousted local monarchies; and, with the 1932 change of "Siam" to "Thailand", retrospectively cast the label "Thai" onto history.

Those who never considered themselves to be "Thai" suddenly became categorised as deeply, intrinsically, ethnically so, even though less than half of Thais, according to William Smalley's 1994 Linguistic Diversity and National Unity, speak the Central Thai of Bangkok as their mother tongue. Others speak Northern Thai (about 10 per cent), Laotian (about 25 per cent), Southern Thai (about 8 per cent), Khmer or Malay (about 2 per cent each), or a staggering array of other tongues.

Even in Bangkok, Thais who opposed heavy-handed or centralised rule became cast as somehow non-Thai. In the 1970s, Thais who embraced communism were accused of being secret Vietnamese or Chinese infiltrators. Present-day Thais dissatisfied with the coup or supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are similarly accused of being infiltrated by Burmese or Khmer migrants or, barring that, simply being overly influenced by Western media.

Unity, then, only existed in the imaginations of those promoting unity.

In reality, outside of Bangkok or within certain circles, dissenting or just different voices existed. Fissures ran between rural Thais and Bangkok, between the poor and the rich, between those without military or monarchical links and those with them.

New fissures

OCCASIONALLY these fissures would crack, but it is only now that we are seeing a simultaneous split along multiple lines: region, class, and ideology.

The question of "why now?" has multiple answers. First, the Thai electorate has suddenly come into its own. Whereas in a former time, rural Thais might cast votes for whichever politician that dropped money into their village, times have changed. Present-day "Red" voters that I have interviewed are savvier, supporting candidates who, they feel, promote policies that they believe will be of benefit. And, significantly, they have seen their efforts rewarded with successive electoral victories in 2001, 2007, and 2011. This is not corruption, as the junta and supporters allege. Rather, this is democratic politics.

Second, social media has dramatically changed the way that information is distributed. Whereas at one point in time the generals could simply shut down television stations, dissidents now have ready access to counter-narratives.

Highlighting the freed power of social media, flash mobs appeared instantly after the coup, groups of pro-democratic protesters silently reading George Orwell together or flashing the three-finger Hunger Games salute. The nimbleness and omnipresence of social media makes it a platform that the junta, with its Cold War-era thinking, will find it hard to suppress.

Finally, the era of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, currently in his late 80s and in poor health, is coming to a close. While open discussion about the monarchy is illegal in Thailand under Article 112 of the Thai Constitution, few doubt that the country will face a succession crisis in the coming years.

Since the 1950s, the monarchy has been used as a symbol - largely by military governments - of unity and patriotism. But the currently skyrocketing cases of violations of Article 112, point towards its decreasing power over the hearts and minds of ordinary Thais and increasingly frantic (and counterproductive) attempts to re-establish its dominance. Stories of a loss of faith in the royal institution, literally "to have become enlightened" (ta sawang), have proliferated in direct proportion to the heavy use of the law.

Ultimately, these signs point to a key shift in Thai political consciousness.

The notion that the state is not a thing projected upon the rural regions from the centre, but something that comes from the citizenry. It is a shift that points towards recognising the diversity and disunity of Thais, towards decentralisation.

It is not, as the junta seems to believe, the reassertion of strong and centralised rule. It is a move away from a 20th-century mindset of command and control and towards a new idea of belonging as citizens, not subjects.

The mission for Gen Prayuth should not be to convince others to see Thailand the way he sees Thailand. Rather, perhaps he should take a cue from his own citizens and look hard at the changing landscape of his own nation, with open eyes.


Andrew Alan Johnson

The writer is assistant professor of anthropology at Yale-NUS College. A fluent Thai speaker, his research interest is the history and religion of Thailand, especially Thailand's North or the Thai-Lao border area.

This article was first published on June 20, 2014.
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