AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 401

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Session 401: Democracy and Crisis in Thailand

Organizer and Chair: Erik M Kuhonta, McGill University, Canada

Discussants: Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Kyoto University, Japan; Ehito Kimura, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

In 2010, Thailand went through its own version of “the year of living dangerously.” The April/May crisis was unprecedented in terms of its violence and divisiveness. How should we explain and contextualize this crisis? The panel’s four presenters and two discussants propose to discuss the crisis in a broader framework of democracy in Thailand. The papers generally employ structural frameworks to analyze various aspects of democracy in Thailand. In the first paper, Viengrat Nethipo, argues that the Thai political system is shaped by a triangle of power spheres, including the royal sphere, the elite sphere, and the sphere of influential people. The destabilization of this equilibrium explains the persistence of the crisis. Erik Kuhonta, in the second paper, examines the crisis in a comparative-historical perspective. Comparing two crises – 2010 and the mid-1970s – he argues that deep-seated inequalities cut across both periods, thereby reflecting structural problems in the polity. In the third paper, Aim Simpeng seeks to explain when members of parliament employ street politics. She posits that street politics is used by MPs when the benefits outweigh the costs as a means of enhancing their bargaining leverage vis-à-vis their legislative counterparts. Finally, Andrew Walker looks at the political culture of middle-income peasants. Walker observes that middle-income peasants are no longer engaged in resistance against the state, but in active use of the state to pursue their agenda.

Structural Context of the Thai Political Crisis: The Triangle of Power Spheres
Viengrat Nethipo, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

The current political crisis in Thailand has been intensified since the coup that overthrew the Thaksin government in 2006. Moreover, the violent protests and crackdowns in 2009 and 2010 divided society and caused nearly irreconcilable conflict. The conflict was often viewed in term of an anti-government movement on particular political issues or the movement of the poor against the powerful aristocrats. However this massive movement, especially the one led by the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, the Red Shirts) should be considered as a popular uprising generated by social change at large. What is the changing significance in the power structure that explains the harmonious politics in the past and the dispute at this moment? This paper discusses power structure by dividing it into the royal sphere, the elite sphere, and the sphere of influential people. These three spheres used to balance one another in the form of a triangle but each sphere has been changed in its crucial elements in the past decade. The Royal sphere is being challenged by its uncertain future. In the sphere of influential people, the strong political party and strong government of the Thaksin regime together with the decentralization process transformed the subjects into active citizens. These changes caused a split in the elite sphere; while some elites refer their legitimacy to the royal sphere, some refer to the voting majority. Therefore, the crisis persists for the reason that the balanced triangle can no longer be maintained.

Members of Parliament and Street Politics in Thailand
Aim Sinpeng, McGill University, Canada

Why do parliamentarians engage in extra-parliamentary social movements? Under what conditions do legislators take to the streets to demand a change in policy? This paper examines three social movements in Thailand, all led by Members of the Parliament (MPs), between the years 1991 and 2010. I argue that MPs pursue street politics as a strategy to enhance their own bargaining leverage vis-a-vis their legislative counterparts. Whether or not MPs engage in contentious politics depends upon three important factors: a) MPs' degree of agenda setting power within the legislature, b) the cost of mobilizing political support and c) the expected payoff of the policy outcome. The case of Thailand will demonstrate that parliamentarians resort to street politics when the benefits (policy payoff) are greater than costs (mobilization and agenda powers). Lessons from the Thai case may challenge the existing literature on social movements, suggesting that, in fact, elite-mass relationships are often top-down. Furthermore, the Thai movements can provide valuable lessons as to the challenges of newly democratizing states.

The 2010 Thai Crisis in Comparative-Historical Perspective
Erik M Kuhonta, McGill University, Canada

The 2010 crisis has been discussed by Thai analysts and journalists as the most violent and divisive in modern Thai history. While the rawness of this crisis reinforces this impression, it is also necessary to put the crisis in a comparative-historical perspective. To what extent are the causes of the crisis unique or in fact comparable to other crises in recent Thai history, especially that of the mid-1970s? In the 1970s, inequality, democracy, and the monarchy were salient issues that helped drive and mould social unrest. Divisions between city and country, between capital and labor, and between democrats and reactionary forces created a cauldron of instability and polarization. In the 2010 crisis we witness similar – though not equivalent - issues. Above all, political, social, and economic inequalities stand out as deeply divisive issues. I will therefore argue that the causes, issues, and ramifications of the crises of the 1970s and 2010 can be traced to systemic, unresolved inequalities.

The Political Culture of Thailand's Middle-income Peasants
Andrew Walker, Australian National University, Australia

Thailand's rapid economic growth means that absolute poverty is no longer a pressing livelihood concern for most people in rural Thailand. The Thai peasantry is now a middle-income peasantry in which the primary challenges are ongoing economic diversification and productivity improvement. The state has played a very important role in creating and maintaining this middle-income peasantry. A new social contract has emerged in which there is a strong political expectation that the state will actively support rural livelihoods. Thaksin Shinawatra capitalised on this expectation but he did not create it. This paper examines the political culture of this middle-income peasantry. Old frameworks for explaining peasant political behaviour, based on rebellion or resistance, are not particularly useful for understanding this culture. Modern peasant politics in Thailand is motivated not by an antagonistic relationship with the state but by a desire to draw the state into mutually beneficial transactions. That is why the Red Shirts came to Bangkok in such numbers in March 2010.