Interview with Professor Kevin Hewison – Part Two

Over the coming months, New Mandala will publish a series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies.  These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field.

The third in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with the University of North Carolina’s Professor Kevin Hewison.

This interview has been posted in two parts.  The first part focussed on the general field of Southeast Asian Studies and Professor Hewison’s career.  The second part, which is posted below, discusses  his work at the University of North Carolina and his thoughts on the state of Thai politics. 

Nicholas Farrelly: In 2005, you moved from a professorship at the City University of Hong Kong to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In your current position you are Director of the Carolina Asia Center. How does life as a professor at a major American University compare to your previous experiences in Australia and Hong Kong?

Professor Kevin Hewison: It’s very different and I am still learning the system. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a top public school – the first public university in the US – and this history develops a particular university culture. I can illustrate this with a personal story.

When I was interviewed for my position at UNC-CH, it was the first time I had been interviewed for a job in the US. I’d done interviews in Hong Kong, Australia and England, and I prepared for the Carolina interview based on that experience. However, the Carolina “interview” was very different. First, it was conducted over several days of formal interviews, a presentation, discussions, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and drinks. I was staggered to find that many of the UNC people were intent not on interrogating me (as was the custom in Australia and England) but in telling me of the University’s strengths and encouraging me to consider the position should it be offered. In other words, there was as much selling of Carolina as there was of me selling myself to them. Much of the time in this process was spent in conversation. I have since discovered that this is the way we do things here, where recruitment and retention is competitive.

UNC-Chapel Hill is a very collegial place. Sure there are debates and disputes, but (so far at least) these are handled in a very polite manner. Coming from Hong Kong, I was initially taken aback by meetings here that seemed to go on and on. But this is a part of this collegiality. I don’t know if this is just a Carolina trait or it is more generalised.

I also find the role of academic faculty to be more central here than in Hong Kong, Australia and England. To me, it seems that the faculty essentially govern the University and departmental decision-making is very much a collective responsibility. While heads of department have considerable power, this is extensively moderated by the faculty. This is quite different from my experience in Hong Kong. While it is some years since I have taught in Australia, the thing that was most destructive of university life was the way in which senior administrators danced to the government’s policy tunes. That’s not the case here. We are a state university and serve the state, but there seems to be more of a view that universities can be trusted to do their jobs well. Perhaps this has something to do with all the rankings that come out from various sources.

I am also very impressed by the way that tenure decisions are made. Of course, tenure decisions are critically important for making and breaking careers, so one expects that they would be handled carefully and professionally. I have generally found the UNC-CH system to be rigorous, fair and transparent. I am sure that there must be exceptions, but the process is both more demanding and more transparent than I remember in Hong Kong and Australia and certainly far superior to other places where I have worked.

Another difference I notice relates to money and the role of alumni. UNC-Chapel Hill is not the wealthiest university in the country, but we do well. Our most recent fund-raising campaign, being completed at the end of this year, raised well in excess of US$2 billion. This means that the University grounds and buildings are well-kept and modern in terms of teaching technologies, the Library is fabulous, and good ideas are supported. Sure, some departments struggle a bit and there are sometimes complaints, but overall, I have found that the average faculty member does not have to worry about money. Except, of course, for research and salary! But even in these areas there are not too many complaints. Clearly, faculty do better at some of the wealthy private universities, but most Carolina faculty seem pretty content with their lot.

Perhaps the biggest shock for me in terms of academic orientation is the gulf that exists between disciplines and area studies. To begin with the personal, and I will be generalising. While I think I can reasonably claim to be a political scientist, it seems that this is not necessarily the perception people in Political Science have of me in the US. Because I have concentrated my studies on Thailand and Southeast Asia, I am seen as an “area specialist.” However, when I get together with people who are happily “area specialists,” I am not really up on the language, literature and cultures stuff that is considered de rigueur for area studies specialists. At US conferences on Asia, it is fascinating that the “hard” social sciences – sociology, political science, geography – seem to look down on area studies as too narrow. They seem to believe that empirical studies are the stuff of disciplines. On the other hand, area studies specialists tend to look down their noses at these social scientists as lacking the in-depth language and cultural skills required for good fieldwork. I can see both sides of the argument, but the gulf between the too sides is way wider than anywhere else I have been.

There are many other differences – politics is so narrow, the role of former government officials seems much more pronounced, the same can be said for so-called think tanks. In general terms, however, I am finding academic life at Carolina agreeable.

Nicholas Farrelly: From your point of view, what is the future of Asian Studies at an institution like the University of North Carolina? Is there a rosy outlook?

Professor Kevin Hewison: Yes, I think so. We have about 75 faculty members with a declared Asian interest. The Carolina Asia Center was established in 2001 and the Curriculum in Asian Studies became a Department of Asian Studies in mid-2004.

One interesting thing about Carolina is that students matter and they advocate for things they want. In this sense, Asian Studies looks to be on a sound footing. For example, our Study Abroad Office has developed a range of academic programs in Asia, and student interest has shot up from a couple of dozen 5 years ago to 190 this year. This year we have more than 300 undergraduates studying Chinese, 200 learning Japanese and 120 studying Arabic. Hundreds more take classes taught in English that address Asian literature, arts, political economy, history and culture. The number of Asian Studies majors is growing by leaps and bounds.

Those numbers suggest a bright future with student support and the potential for greater alumni support in years to come. In fact, quite a number of alums have generously supported the growth of Asian Studies to date, with generous donations that support student scholarships and study abroad and faculty travel.

Southeast Asia currently lags behind East and South Asia, but I am seeing increased interest, and hopefully this area continues to attract students.  For me, our developing research agenda on Global Work is exciting.

Nicholas Farrelly: Do you entertain hopes or plans to return to Australia? Do you see yourself staying in the United States for many years to come?

Professor Kevin Hewison: I do not think that a return to Australia for academic work is on the cards. A while ago I toyed with the idea. However, as I thought more carefully about the US system and its attractions, I decided to stay in the US. A big incentive here is the long summer break, when one can “escape” for more then three months a year. This is very attractive compared with Australia. In addition, teaching loads are quite manageable and much lower than I had in Hong Kong, the students are talented, and one is not bogged down with all the managerialist quality issues that we had in Hong Kong and Australia. And, I have some great colleagues. The downside is the distance to Southeast Asia – at least 24 hours travelling. In the end, and at my age, I guess this means that I am in the US for the foreseeable future.

Nicholas Farrelly: Now on to Thailand: In your introduction to 1997’s Political Change in Thailand: Democracy and participation you wrote that “At first, many were pleased to see the end of a corrupt civilian government. However, it soon became clear that the military was not simply cleaning up politics and then returning to the barracks”. Back then you were writing about the military’s 1991 coup to remove the Chatichai government. Do you see shades of 1991/1992 in the current situation, or are conditions in 2006/2007 profoundly different?

Professor Kevin Hewison: I do see some similarities. You have singled out the area where the similarity is perhaps strongest. It is very clear that the current military leadership is seeking to embed its political role. Just a couple of days ago General Phasit Sonthikhan, reportedly deputy director of the Council for National Security Secretary’s Office, said that the political roles assumed by the armed forces in Burma and some African countries could be models for Thailand. He claimed the military in these countries played a role in politics to prevent it from mounting coups. Maybe he was misquoted or maybe his brain wasn’t in gear, but using Burma as a model for military involvement in politics is chilling.

That said, the differences are significant. This time the military seems to have learned from its negative experience in 1992. I think they are going to be tougher to push back to the barracks this time. One reason for this is the tremendous support they received for their “good coup” against Thaksin from the people Ji Ungpakorn aptly describes as “tank liberals.” Another is that they have exceptionally strong palace backing. Put these together and this is a powerful conservative alliance. The result is that I’m rather pessimistic about Thailand’s political future. As anyone who has read my recent work knows, I was a strong critic of Thaksin and his government. At the same time, I don’t think that the military or the conservatives who back them can ever be trusted. The censorship I see now is more pervasive and brazen than I can ever remember. The military-royalist propaganda is over the top. It is as if the government is advised by a committee composed of North Korean image makers and television advertising gurus who, while incompatible, must produce advertisements-cum-propaganda. The suppression of people in the countryside is heavy-handed. And the unabashed re-ordering of power so that the military and police can control all manner of things – political and business – is worrying.

Nicholas Farrelly: Many New Mandala readers will also know that you have written on globalisation and localisation in the Thai context. In a widely cited article from back in 2000 you concluded that “some will fall back on utopian visions, repackaging old ideas to face the significant challenges posed by capitalist globalization. While offering succour for some, such approaches represent a limited political strategy and risk diminishing the impact of NGO and social movement critiques of globalization”. Do you see “sufficiency economy” as representing this type of limited political strategy? Does “sufficiency economy”, in fact, diminish the impact of NGO and social movement critiques of globalization?

Professor Kevin Hewison: In that article in 2000, I was critical of a number of commentators who argued for nationalist, populist and especially localist responses to the economic crisis of 1997-98. In criticising localist responses, I was referring to a broad range of academics, public intellectuals, NGO and social movement activists and leaders, some business leaders and others, including King Bhumibol, drawn together by their mutual opposition to the IMF’s prescriptions for recovery. This was a disparate group and its intellectual coherence, forged in the cauldron of the crisis, declined as debate became more complicated and as the economic and political situation changed. It is from this time that we see the sufficiency economy (SE) idea promoted.

This is not the place to offer a detailed criticism of SE as an economic strategy. I simply observe that there have been some amazing theoretical contortions evidenced as some economists of Thailand have embraced SE. Some of them appear reluctant and unconvinced converts, but they sign on anyway, somehow seeing this as an act of loyalty.

Your question asks about SE as a political strategy. That’s a good question. While the Thaksin government inscribed SE in various planning documents and paid lip service to the notion, it is the military’s appointed government that has elevated SE to a political strategy. Prime Minister General Surayud and his military masters have made SE a marker of loyalty. SE provides an ideological reference for the conservatives who, via the coup and the junta, are working to prevent any diminution of their political and economic power. Of course, it was Thaksin’s massive electoral victories, popular appeal, neo-liberalism and welfare policies that challenged their power. SE marks the current government’s economic policies as different from “Thaksinomics.” (As a regular New Mandala reader, I must hasten to add that observing that Thaksin’s policies challenged the conservative elite is not to be taken as support for Thaksin).

Sufficiency Economy is essentially about keeping the poor in their place. The people and organisations that promote SE are a wonderfully contradictory lot. The king, promoting moderation, sits at the head of a family and institutional wealth that is huge, based on land ownership and large capitalist corporations. The Crown Property Bureau’s known institutional wealth is estimated more than US$40 billion. This is massive on the scale of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Prime Minister Surayud spends considerable time talking up SE and his government has made huge budget allocations to SE activities. Meanwhile, Surayud has declared collections of luxury cars and watches and expensive homes, despite having been on a relatively low military salary his entire career. The contradictions are massive. For the wealthy, SE means that they can enjoy their wealth so long as they do so within their means. For the poor, the advice is to make do. In class terms, SE becomes an ideology to justify inequalities.

That some NGOs and their leaders have been keen to adopt SE is not particularly surprising. If you go back to the crisis period of 1997-98, many of these people were saying that the crisis was an opportunity to go “back to the roots.” This was based on an ill-conceived notion of an idyllic Thai village society way back sometime. Some of these people undoubtedly see SE as another opportunity to promote this agenda. This kind of romanticism is not uncommon in societies that have experienced rapid capitalist development. It also seems to have a particular attraction for some of the Maoist CPT-ers who have discovered Buddhism. SE seems to encapsulate some of the rustic utopianism – is that a term? – of deglobalisers, recanting Maoists and resurgent Buddhists, sometimes in the same person! A number of my old friends – in NGOs and in academia – seem to have taken up SE with something akin to religious fervour. Back when they were promoting the cultural development perspective I was supportive of them for proposing something that was both flexible and practical on the ground. The recent UNDP report even took up some of those earlier activities and made them into SE successes! The problem now is that SE has become a model, an ideology and a political marker, and I don’t see that as a useful way forward for NGOs. Hopefully it is a cul-de-sac, and more innovative and progressive ideas will eventually re-emerge.

Nicholas Farrelly: In your opinion, are there any major holes in current research on mainland Southeast Asia? If you were encouraging an open-minded graduate student to begin looking at new issues, what would they be?

Professor Kevin Hewison: When I began studying Thailand seriously I can recall only one established scholar who was arrogant and uninclined to give time to an apprentice Thailand scholar. He was at a major Australian university and was dismissive of a number of students who have since gone on to become well-known in Thai studies. The response of all other scholars was generous and supportive. In particular, I recall John Girling being remarkably kind and generous with his time and advice. Gehan Wijeyewardene, Baas Terwiel and Michael Vickery were also very supportive. In Thailand, Chatthip Nartsupha, Suthy Prasartset and Pasuk Phongpaichit were similarly generous. These scholars provided wonderful support, and I like to follow their examples, and help out young scholars where I can. So it is in that spirit that these general comments are offered.

There’s lots that can be done and I’m not sure that all of it has to be “new.” I feel that graduate students in Southeast Asian studies are sometimes working at levels that are way too micro and we lose the big picture. Some of this has to do with the pernicious influence of American-style “area studies” that have been imbued with some of the less attractive traits of cultural studies approaches. There are big issues that still need more work – class, migration, work, ownership, wealth, production, authoritarianism, political management and so on. These topics are not very trendy, but I can’t help thinking that these are the issues that determine how societies are structured, managed and fractured. I have always been interested in studies that show how economic and political power is appropriated and used and good graduate students continue to have plenty of scope for topics in this broad area.

To add a couple of topics to the list, I am keen to see more work done on the various contemporary linkages between China and Southeast Asia. This relationship has expanded so rapidly that I think researchers have been left behind. The other topic that I think might be deserving of more attention is borders. As globalisation has intensified, borders are being conceptualised in different ways by governments, business and workers. Trade zones, employment zones, agricultural and industrial production enclaves and so on are becoming more common and governments are seeking new ways to regulate borders. These make for interesting topics of research.

Nicholas Farrelly: Following this question, do you see the study of the Thai monarchy and its political role as a key area for future scholarly reflection? Or are there other potentially controversial issues that you feel are deserving of far more attention?

Professor Kevin Hewison: I think the monarchy’s political and economic roles deserve far more scrutiny than they have had to date. Paul Handley’s book is a great beginning, but there is room for far more research. Doing such research in Thailand is likely to be problematic, but there are opportunities elsewhere; here I’m thinking of government archives in the UK and the US. I think the latter would be most interesting, especially for the 1973-76 period, the role of the US in promoting the monarchy and supporting it, and the contacts between various US government agencies and the palace.

Other topics? I guess my suggestions are grounded in recent events. It is time for more studies of the military. Not much has been done in recent years, and the coup reminds us not to neglect them. After 1992 we saw a bunch of studies of the middle class and “civil society.” It’s time to revisit these issues. I’m bored with studies that praise “civil society” as critical for democratisation but don’t dissect this assumption or civil society. I’d also like to see some studies of the demobilisation of political movements and social classes. It would also seem that some critical assessment of the judiciary are necessary. Finally, and inevitably, there will be the need to dissect the Thaksin interregnum and the movements to get rid of him, especially PAD and its constituent elements.

Nicholas Farrelly: And, finally, in early 2007, there were calls in some quarters for a boycott of the 10th International Conference on Thai Studies that will be held in Bangkok in January 2008.  What are your thoughts on academic boycotts, in general, and, in particular, about this effort to discourage attendance at the Bangkok conference?

Professor Kevin Hewison: While I am not a fan of academic boycotts, I did initially support the calls for an ICTS boycott. I am now torn. I feel that a boycott of ICTS is warranted if the military and its government is not going to allow the kind of free expression demanded of an international conference. I still have serious reservations about this, but I have signed up for a panel. I know that a number of panels have been proposed by Thongchai Winichakul and his colleagues that seek to take on big issues – for example, the role of the monarchy – and I know these have been accepted. That’s good and proper, but I do still have concerns as to whether there will be free and frank debate. If there’s not, then there’s still a case for boycotting and I’d probably join it. That said, not boycotting can also have advantages. I remember the 1984 conference where a number of us got a letter together, signed by many foreign participants, to oppose the jailing of dissidents. That made front page news in Bangkok and I believe it had an impact on getting people released. Interestingly, given recent events, that letter was addressed to then Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda. So I guess I am currently sitting atop the sharp part of the picket fence.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you, Professor Hewison, for being a part of New Mandala‘s interview series.  And good luck with your work for the rest of the year! 

About Nicholas Farrelly