Thai style democracy – “Asian values” reborn?

Amidst the prolific discussion of the Thai coup is an emerging argument about “Thai-style democracy.” In an eloquent paper presented at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, Thai scholar Pattana Kitiarsa provides a number of explanations of the “gentle, bloodless” coup in terms of what he calls “Thai-style democracy”. This is a non-western form of democracy based on distinctively Thai cultural values. Thaksin’s downfall is explained in terms of his lack of Buddhist virtue and legitimate authority:

Thaksin’s deep crisis of legitimacy, despite having full control of power, reflects the fact that he had failed miserably to convert his power into the Buddhist ideal of moral and political authority.

While accounts of legitimacy that rely on Western democratic rationality may point to the importance of Thaksin’s electoral victories, Pattana points to the importance of “Thai Buddhist-based cultural paradigms.” He quotes from the Buddhist thinker, Sulak:

I hope I shall live that long to be able to witness the return of Thai democracy to its roots in the Buddha Dhamma—despite the destruction of Thai Democracy by Mara [the devil] who happens to be the chief executive of the Thai nation at present.

Culturally embedded interpretations of the coup are certainly valuable. But the emerging argument about Thai-style democracy appears to play nicely into the ongoing project of discrediting Thaksin’s electoral mandate. A focus on elections is portrayed as a particularly “Western” take on democracy that ignores the Buddhist-informed subtleties of politics in Thailand.

But I don’t think that culturally sensitive anthropological analysis should lead us away from the fact that the Thaksin government was handsomely elected three times. One of the implications of the Thai-style democracy argument is that only elite thinkers like Saneh, Prawet and Sulak are in a position to make legitimate judgements about Buddhist values. But why can’t the voting populace make similarly culturally embedded judgements? Aren’t they in an equally good position to make judgements about Buddhist virtue, morality and legitimate power? Or was there a requirement that votes be cast according to “Western” values? Pattana gives some hints as to how he might respond to these questions (my emphasis):

[Thaksin’s] heroic image as the man with money and vision had deeply impressed the villagers. Chao ban [villagers] do not take Thaksin’s side in terms of class triumph over their urban counterpart. They do so because (1) they are indebted (pen ni bun khun) to his money (or their own tax money) and some material interests; (2) they more and more subscribe themselves to his model of success in life. With his money-politics success, Thaksin is their hero; and (3) they are impressed with his down-to-earth and populist political performances. The middle class media and scholars are struggling to truly understand the chao ban and their moral economy. Why do they fall easily into Thaksin’s populist traps? However, the bottom line is that Thaksin has not yet achieved his righteous status in the Buddhist ideal of leadership despite his large-scale state-funded vote-buying.

But whose bottom line is this? According to “Thai style democracy” it seems to be only elite thinkers who can draw bottom lines. By contrast, the voting populace is too mired in non-Buddhist and (seemingly) non-Thai populism and materialsim to make legitimate judgements. Again we a left with the view that the Thai populace is, in a sense, unready for democracy. Pattana writes:

The Thai as a people and as a nation are constantly structured to yearn for the great elitist leaders, who are morally qualified and charismatically capable of performing their masculine heroism for the good of the nation (not the democracy). The 19/9 events consolidate the thesis that there is still a long way to go in the grass-root struggles for civic, transparent democracy, because the fundamental aspects of Thai political structure and culture seem not to work that way.

Thai style democracy? Asian values? Democracy the Burmese way? I like what Amartya Sen had to say:

The recognition of diversity within different cultures is extremely important in the contemporary world, since we are constantly bombarded by oversimple generalizations about “Western civilization,” “Asian values,” “African cultures,” and so on. These unfounded readings of history and civilization are not only intellectually shallow, they also add to the divisiveness of the world in which we live. The authoritarian readings of Asian values that are increasingly championed in some quarters do not survive scrutiny. And the grand dichotomy between Asian values and European values adds little to our understanding, and much to the confounding of the normative basis of freedom and democracy.

I wonder if Thai style democracy is the sufficiency democracy I wrote about earlier?

About Andrew Walker