“Moral people” or democracy

18 03 2014

Charles Keyes is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and the author of the brand new book Finding Their Voice: Northeastern Villagers and the Thai State. He has an op-ed at Aljazeera America that will have quite a few arguing that this old hand and respected academic has somehow “sold out” to the “dark side.”

In fact, Keyes has recognized that Thailand has undergone great changes and is alerting others to this fact and its political meanings.

Keyes begins with a simple point: “For nearly a decade there have been large-scale protests, primarily in the capital, Bangkok, with supporters of royalist elites confronting those who favor representative democracy.” The most recent street politics are explained as having very high stakes: “whether Thailand can remain a democracy and, if so, what kind of democracy.”

On anti-democracy leader Suthep Thaugsuban and his movement: “Despite constant references to democracy, Suthep and his followers are far from seeking democratic reforms.” As most observers know, “Suthep and his … PDRC are insisting on Yingluck [Shinawatra]’s withdrawal from politics and for her democratically elected government to be replaced by a royally appointed committee…”.

The professor says the anti-democrats want “rule by moral people — appointed by the king.” As he points out, this is in opposition to all recent elections, and is justified by what PPT would see as a nasty racism:

The Democrat Party and its middle-class and royalist backers dismiss Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party supporters as ignorant peasants whose votes were bought primarily through populist government programs.

Having spent five decades studying Thailand and the Northeast, he dismisses this perspective:

In contrast, villagers in the north and northeastern parts of the country — Pheu Thai’s stronghold — are committed to democracy and believe they should have an equal say in determining Thailand’s political order.

Of course, they should have an equal say. However, PPT points out that this is anathema for the anti-democrats because they also reject notions of equality.

Keyes points out that economic change, education and migration for work means former peasant households have “become cosmopolitan villagers, with a sophisticated understanding of the larger world.” In other countries they are farmers, often with political clout, but not in Thailand.

The change came with what PPT has designated the “Thaksin revolution.”

The result, as Keyes explains is:

Unfortunately for these constituents, Thaksin and his family, including Yingluck, have generated widespread disapproval, even hatred, from the old royalist and bureaucratic elite, the middle class and many nongovernmental organizations.

Much of the chronology that Keyes explains will be known to PPT readers. He does, however, comment on the current political crisis: “The current stalemate threatens to degenerate into tit-for-tat violence, if not civil war.” He thinks the “country’s future hinges on the manifestation of … differences in electoral democracy, not confrontations on the streets.”

The silence on the monarchy is deafening. Yet that silence by this old hand is doing away with the manufactured notion that the “revered monarchy” has a role in solving the current crisis in contemporary Thailand. Of course, the palace, its hangers-on and the hierarchical lot in the military will disagree, but it is the people that matter.