Ethnicity, culture and political venom

17 11 2013

Yesterday, we added this as an update on a vaguely related post that we have now decided to make a post by itself:

While reading the newspapers today, PPT was also a bit taken aback to suddenly come across a couple of pieces raising race as an issue. We have already posted the story from The Economist, and in that it is noted that: “… Thaksin, an ethnic-Chinese billionaire, is an odd leader for a group dominated by non-Chinese Thais from the north-east. But they like the populist economic policies, such as a rice-price support scheme attacked this week by the IMF, which he and his sister have pursued.” Well, they are also claimed to like the king, and he’s Sino-Thai too, as are almost all of Thailand’s big business people and major politicians. Northeasterners were particularly attracted to Chatichai Choonhavan, and he was also Sino-Thai.

But it is at the Bangkok Post that the ethnicity line is used more mischievously. In an editorial, the Post states at length that Yingluck’s decision-making in government is driven by her ethnicity:

the Thai-Chinese community champions the family unit. Whether in business or politics, the family is ever present. Never underestimate its cultural importance. As a younger sister – youngest in fact – of a Thai or Thai-Chinese family, obedience to elder family members, especially the patriarch, is the norm, the honourable, time-honoured, expected and righteous thing to do.

It hammers this line and concludes:

Leadership means one must be made of stern stuff. If one can’t stand up for oneself, how can one stand up for one’s country? Between the choice of family and country, as the prime minster, Ms Yingluck must choose the country first, in every single decision.

It does seem odd that suddenly ethnicity is made to matter.

Of course, they could have mentioned the king as an example of a Sino-Thai who has put country before family. But perhaps that example is a bit difficult to deal with as he isn’t the youngest daughter in the clan and his family has done very nicely indeed, with various members of the family doing pretty much what they like with the benefit of taxpayer funding.

The reason we are elevating and update to a post is to continue attention to the Bangkok Post’s sudden and one-sided attention to culturalist explanations of behavior. While most of what Voranai Vanijaka says in his op-ed at the Post is seemingly a mixture of culturalist half-truths and smart-arsed cynicism, we must agree that this paragraph really struck a chord:

We are a society built upon cults of personalities, relationships and superstitions. As such, we have a difficult time differentiating personalities from ideals, and we tend to attach our loyalties and beliefs to personalities, rather than ideals. Democracy takes a back seat.

He’s right about this. And Thailand is less than a month from its really, really big enforced celebration of its biggest personality cult. The king’s birthday has grown from a relatively small affair in the 1940s to become (North Korea-like) a huge celebration of a deified individual, making his birthday a national day, father’s day and the embodiment of “Thai culture.” Of course, it is all based on half-truths, cynical marketing and the triumph of the palace’s political manipulators.

Voranai mentions General Prem Tinsulanonda’s period as prime minister in the 1980s: “After Gen Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down in 1988, Thailand began a new experiment with democracy. The result was one heartbreak after another.”

Of course it has been like this. As much as anyone since General Sarit Thanarat, Prem worked assiduously to promote and fund the monarchy. He is responsible, as much as Sarit and the king himself for creating a democracy that was doomed to fragility and the palace’s repeated intervention in politics. It is not going too far to say that democratic politics is weak in Thailand because that’s how the police power brokers like it.

Ethnicity and culture can be powerful, but they have little to do with this outcome. Instead look to the nest of political vipers – palace, military, judiciary and Sino-Thai tycoons – that have their political way and enrich themselves.


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