Scott Hipsher

Reflections on culture and the political situation

I wish I had the answers to Thailand's political problems.


It is difficult to pass up the opportunity to reflect on the recent tragic events that have happened in Bangkok and in other locations throughout the country. The ongoing political confrontations of the past 3 years do have an effect on all of us with a connection to the country, and with three-quarters of my household holding Thai passports I am obviously interested in the future of the country and its political "development." Although here in the heat of the moment it is easy to choose sides, yellow or red, I will attempt to resist the temptation to turn this into a political rant and attempt to look at the situation from a wider and hopeful more objective perspective in which can help to put the situation in context.

In September of 2007 I was in Bangkok teaching a course in research methodology for an MA in international relations program. To illustrate the use of quantitative research methodology I assigned the students to read an article called Exploring the Dynamics of the Democratic Peace written by Cerman and Rao (2001) in which we would then discuss the methodology used the following week. However between assigning the article to study and the discussion, the coup of 2007 happened. When returning to the classroom, the content of the article in this specific context made it nearly impossible to focus on the methodology, therefore instead the conversation in the class turned to the actual results of the research.

In one of those strange twists of fate that seem to happen from time to time, the article I had chosen in order to study the research methodology was about the long-term effects of non-democratic (and democratic) changes in governments. Basically the results of this very detailed quantitative study showed that on average non-democratic (such as the coup of 2007) regime changes led to a series of future episodes of political violence. On the other hand, the longer the tradition a country had of democratic transfers of power the less likely there is to be political violence after a change in government. Therefore, I suggested to the class if we accept the results of the research, the coup would not be the end of violent political confrontation, but only the beginning. But I assumed, oh no, Thailand is different and Thais do not kill other Thais for political purposes. Yet it appears Thailand has followed the pattern of other nations struggling to find the path to democracy in engaging in this cycle of violence following the coup as predicted by the research.

While Thailand is following the pattern of violence seen in other nations where political leaders do not accept the results of the electoral process, Thailand of course has it own unique history and culture. On the other hand, the country does share both a religious tradition and a history of non-elected governments coming to power with its neighbors in Southeast Asia. Studying Thailand's neighbors who have similar cultural values and how they have handled political changes might provide some context in which to place the current situation in.

In my latest book, Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Theravada Buddhist Countries, I devoted a chapter to the political situation of the region and the lack of a democratic tradition taking hold. I don't want to get into the debate of whether the current Thai government was democratically elected or not, but having a non-elected government has been the norm, not the exception, throughout Thai history. This is a tradition Thailand shares with the other countries in Southeast Asia with majority Theravada Buddhist populations.

While seeing this correlation between having a major Theravada Buddhist population and non-elected governments is quite strong, we know that correlation does not automatically equate to causation. In other words, there may other factors beside (or in combination with) with practicing Theravada Buddhism which is causing the struggle for democracy to take hold. Also it should be acknowledged there are many other Asian countries, as well as countries in other locations, which have or have had in recent times non-elected governments. And it should also be realized "democracy" takes on different forms in different cultures. Therefore democracy in Thailand might share underlying values with other democratic nations, it would also be expected to have some of its own unique features.

Nevertheless there have been many scholars who find the values found in the Theravada Buddhism teachings, such as belief in Karma, emphasis on the ever-changing nature of the universe, and the advocating of detachment from earthy concerns, do not provide a fertile field for democracy to grow out of. For example, "doctrinal Buddhism provides a weak basis for democratic principles" (Jackson, 2003: 245). This is not to suggest democracy is incompatible with Thai values, but as yet seeing a strong functioning democracy where changes in leadership consistently come from free and fair elections in any of the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia is still only a hypothesis that has not been proven.

Looking at the other countries in the region that share religious traditions, a similar struggle to develop a democratic system of politics where dissent is allowed and the results of elections are respected is seen. In Cambodia, the horrific example of the non-elected Khmer Rouge regime is a classic example of the dangers of having a government that does not need to respond to the wishes of voters, but the regimes that came before the Khmer Rouge were not exactly shining examples of democracies in the Western sense of the word either. For example:

"The two most consistent aspects of Sihanouk's domestic policy were his intolerance of dissent and his tendency to identify his opponents with foreign powers. To be a Cambodian, in his view, meant being pro-Sihanouk, just as Sihanouk himself, the father of the Cambodian family was pro-Cambodian. There was no real tradition of pluralist politics in the country, and throughout the Sihanouk era, dissent was viewed as a mixture of treason and lese majeste" (Chandler, 2000: 197).

Does this assessment of the previous political style seen in Cambodia have any similarities to charges against current and recent governments by their opponents in Thailand?

"Cambodian history since World War II, and probably for a much longer period, can be characterized in part as a chronic failure of contending groups of patrons and their clients to compromise, cooperate, or share power. These hegemonic tendencies, familiar in other Southeast Asian countries, have deep roots in Cambodia's past" (Chandler 2000: 245).

Does the current difficulties in Thailand also have deep roots in its past?

Laos PDR does not have an elected government and apparently there is little push for democracy in the country, and in recent times the "communist" government of Laos has attempted to identify itself and its non-democratic nature with the preservation of Laos' Theravada Buddhist heritage (Pholsena 2004; Tappe 2007). It would appear this appeal to Buddhist values is working to keep dissent and a push for a democratic government from firmly taking root.

And of course we have not seen democracy in Burma/Myanmar. And it would be difficult to find much success in the countries military-non-elected rule.

"General Ne Win's twenty- six-year rule of the country from 1962 until 1988 transformed the economy with a promising future into perhaps one of the least developed countries in the world. Its self-imposed mismanagement, isolationist policies, and distrust of foreigners all deprived the country of necessary skills, technology, and revenues" (Thawnghmung, 2008: 277).

Ne Win was initially quite popular as his regime ended street fighting and chaos in Rangoon/Yangoon. This example should remind us that while authoritarian methods to end dissent may provide short-term relief from chaos, the long-term costs have outweighed the short-term benefits in other locations and Thailand should tread carefully.

Looking at the political situations in neighboring countries may help provide some cultural perspectives in which to place the current events in context.

While it is easy for those of us who have lived in Thailand for years and think we know the country to rant and offer easy solutions to complex problems, but "The cultural values of Thailand offer an interesting avenue for understanding the Thai thought patterns underlying these recent political events. They also explain why Westerners might need to accept that they may never appreciate the Thai logic that has led to the current political mess" (Eldridge, 2008).

I wish I had the answers to Thailand's political problems and the ability to implement a solution to the current crisis, but I don't. It is a very complex situation happening in a context most of us foreigners may not fully understand. I have a very strong affection for Thailand, its people and culture, and I also am a huge advocate of "democracy" as the best form of government yet tried, therefore I am not yet ready to give up on seeing governments in Thailand coming to power on the basis of free and fair elections. However I am realistic enough to look at the evidence and the cultural context and see the move to a stable democracy is by no means assured and is unlikely to come about without further struggles and a new approach.

References

Cederman, L.E. and Rao, M.P. (2001). Exploring the dynamics of the democratic peace, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 45 (6): 818-834.

Chandler, D. (2000). A History of Cambodia, 3rd edn., Chiang Mai: Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Eldridge, K. (2008). The Thai psyche, Thailand's messy politics: Is culture the culprit?, Bangkok Post, November 29, 2008.

Jackson, P.A. (2003). Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and the Modernist Reform in Thailand, Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm.

Hipsher (2010). Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Theravada Buddhist Countries, Oxford: Routledge Publishing.

Pholsena, V. (2004). The changing historiographies of Laos: A focus on the early period, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 35(2): 235-59.

Tappe, O. (2007). A new banknote in the People's Republic: The iconography of the Kip and ideological transformation in Laos, 1957-2006, Internationales Asienforum, 38(1-2): 87-108.

 

Thawnghmung, A.M. (2008). Responding to strategies and programmes of Myanmar's military regime: An economic viewpoint, Southeast Asian Affairs 2008: 274-90.


Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,

The Nature of Asian Firms: An Evolutionary Perspective,

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries

as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.




Comments

Steve, you are right 2006.

Michael: You bring up some really interesting questions and points.

Looking at the scores of Hofstede’s dimensions of culture, Thailand has a higher power distance score (more accepting of hierarchies) than do most western societies, but Thailand’s scores are lower than many other Asian and other societies.

In the book I often referred to the Thai system of management (reflected also in Thai politics and society as a whole) as being more paternal than purely hierarchical. Thais do not blindly follow orders of the leaders of society, instead subordinates tend to expect both tangible and intangible benefits from giving their loyalty and have few qualms about abandoning a leader who fails to live up to the social contract.

This social contract and other factors have historically prevented the lower social classes from being powerless peasants, therefore I am not sure that traditional Thai culture needs to be radically altered to accommodate a more democratic society. But of course this remains theoretical as neither Thailand nor its neighbors which share a religion and many aspects of culture have developed democratic systems where political power changes hands peacefully.

In fact, many historians (at least some westerner ones I have read) believe that internal power struggles over succession lead to a weakening of power in Ayuthaya which allowed the Burmese invasions to succeed in both the 18th century and earlier.

I doubt we have seen the last of this current drama and the main players, but I am generally better at explaining events that have already happened that predicting them in advance. We will see, it should be interesting, but hopefully not tragic.

By Scott, Home in BKK this week (12th June 2010)

Steve, I don't want to be "pendantic", but it's actually 'pedantic'.

Scott, thanks for your angle on a really complex, complicated issue. It's rather surprising that so many foreign commentators seem to overlook the fact that culture starts with basic thought, and what seems 'logical' & 'obvious' in the view of a member of one culture may be quite the opposite from the perspective of another culture. Thai Buddhism, including animism, and local 'Pram' obviously do have a huge influence on values, aspirations & notions of right & wrong here, just as Christianity and classical Greek & Roman thought provide the basis of Western culture.

The interesting thing, though, will be to see how much of their culture the Thais are prepared to sacrifice in their quest for a more level playing field. After all, cultures are not fixed, they are dynamic. Western cultures have had to drop many old 'cultural' ideas, many of which had been justified as 'Christian', as their own versions of democracy evolved.

Whatever happens will be progressive in the end, I believe. It's too late to stop the movement that has started; too many people are waking up. Thaksin is not the whole issue by a long shot.

Looking forward to reading your 'Business Practices in Asia...'

By michael, Bangkok (11th June 2010)

I know how to fix Thailands problems. All foreigners leave Thailand and see how long it takes them to go bankrupt ... Yes this includes Ford, Mazda, KFC, McDonalds ETC ETC

By Kanadian, the beach (6th June 2010)

I don't like to be pendantic but wasn't the coup in 2006?

By steve, (2nd June 2010)

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