Interview with Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit

Over the coming months, New Mandala will continue to 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 fourth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Chulalongkorn University’s Professor Pasuk Phongpaichit.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Pasuk, thank you for agreeing to take part in our series of interviews with prominent personalities in Southeast Asian Studies.  Many New Mandala readers will already know that you are one of the most prolific Thai academics.  You maintain a hectic publishing schedule and now enjoy a worldwide reputation for your writings on a range of political and economic topics.  What motivates you to continue writing about Thailand – its history, society and economy?

Professor Pasuk: It began with my own curiosity. I wanted to understand what is going on in the Thai economy and society in order to find ways to influence its direction. Later I wanted to share the findings and analysis with others so as to expand the number of people influencing the society’s directions. I believe that any change for the better will come from better knowledge, good ideas, and social movements.

Nicholas Farrelly: Some of your early publications focussed on the group of women that you called “Bangkok masseuses”.  Back in the early 1980s you commented on the contribution that “peasant girls” in Bangkok make to the national economy.  At the time, your critical reflections were considered provocative by many in Thai society.  I would be interested to hear whether you think that the argument you made in 1982 is still relevant today?  Has the situation of young, female migrants from rural areas changed over the past 25 years?

Professor Pasuk: My argument focused on poverty as the major cause pushing poor girls into prostitution. Of course there was also a high demand and agents actively facilitating the migration. Poverty has declined over the years, but the inequality of income has got wider, and this increasing gap has continued to be one of the factors underlying the entry into prostitution. However the situation has become much more complex. As local girls move up the social ladder, but demand remains high, agents have moved further afield to find supplies among disadvantaged minorities in neighbouring countries. Women in general have also become more independent in their thinking and world views. It’s not uncommon now to find young women making their own relatively well-informed decision to become sex workers of their own accord. Since my study, the trade has become much more complex.

Nicholas Farrelly: Articles about you often describe your life as an economist as a fight against injustice in the service of Thailand’s poor.  Do you feel that conditions for Thailand’s working classes have generally improved over the past two decades?  Are there structural factors that continue to impede any improvements in their lives?

Professor Pasuk: Yes, the conditions for many people have got a lot better. But the benefits from Thailand’s rather successful economy have been very unequally distributed. I suspect that the root cause lies in politics. Thai elites do not appreciate equality and are still unwilling to get rid of structural constraints which limit the opportunities open to a lot of disadvantaged people. This mentality is a big problem.

Nicholas Farrelly: Your long-term collaboration with your husband, Chris Baker, has become a prominent part of both your academic life and the wider Thai Studies landscape.  Anybody who briefly peruses the shelves of an English-language bookshop in Bangkok will see the fruits of your collective efforts.  How would you characterize your working relationship?

Professor Pasuk: It’s been a very creative relationship, and I guess we are very lucky that it seems to work. We come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different disciplines, and that means we often disagree. We can fight like hell over a single sentence, and then come back and do it again tomorrow. We learn a lot from one another. It’s also fun.

Nicholas Farrelly: With your husband, you have produced some of the most widely read translations of Thai language publications.  These include writings by Pridi Phanomyong, Nidhi Eoseewong and Chatthip Nartsupha.  As I understand it, you are now translating the epic, Khun Chang Khun Paen.  What is the motivation for these projects? What contribution do you see them making?

Professor Pasuk: Very little Thai intellectual work finds its way to the outside world. Lots of people were ready to criticize Chatthip’s ideas even though they could not actually read what he had said. Pridi deserves a place in the pantheon of great Asian leaders of the twentieth century, but very few have ever heard of him. Ben Andersen began the translation of Nidhi’s book in the 1980s but then somehow it went astray for two decades. The basic motive for this work is a conviction about the importance of sharing knowledge. Also Chris and I have some comparative advantage for this kind of work. Khun Chang Khun Phaen is arguably the most unique and original work in old Thai literature. Most other major old works are adaptations of texts from elsewhere (Ramakian, Inao, etc). Also, KCKP came out of oral tradition. It’s about relatively ordinary people, and it reflects their mentality. Most of all, it’s a great story, and full of amazing scenes. Up to now it has been invisible to outsiders because of the language. We feel it deserves to be appreciated internationally. We are also having lots of fun doing it.

Nicholas Farrelly: Turning to politics, in a 2000 interview with TIME you spoke of your wariness about the increasing power of Thaksin’s political juggernaut. Back then you said, “A lot of people can’t make the distinction between running a business and running a country. In a business you can dictate, but in a country you just can’t, especially in a country like Thailand where social divisions are great. If you want to judge Thaksin on his past work in politics and government, it’s a complete failure. But people have conveniently forgotten that, already. It’s very dangerous to let Thaksin succeed, on many counts, especially ‘money politics’”. Do you feel vindicated by subsequent events?

Professor Pasuk: Thaksin is not all black. I welcomed his “populist” policies, for all their imperfections. Probably in spite of himself, he became the leader of a powerful movement in Thailand bubbling up from below. He has changed things in ways which I hope will be permanent. But as your quote notes, I was always suspicious of him as a big businessman, and I think that suspicion was vindicated by events. He came into politics because of his business interests and he was never able to separate the two. He thought he could act like a typical Thai tao-kae CEO and push everybody else around, and in the end that meant he was a very bad politician who failed to understand the political environment properly. Back in 2000, I did not see that he was also flawed in other ways which emerged in the violent way he approached the drug problem and the southern problem. Many people, including me, would like to see him being put on trial on these issues.  However one of his key legacies will be to make ordinary people realise the importance of their votes in a democratic system. They can get political leaders to do things for them. That is much better education in democracy than being lectured by bureaucrats.

Nicholas Farrelly: Your most comprehensive account of the Thaksin years is the book you co-authored with Chris Baker, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand.  In Chapter 3, you write that “Thaksin’s rise to power was framed by the 1997 economic crisis and by the new new 1997 constitution.  In different ways, these two factors rang down the curtain on the political system that had developed over the prior two decades”.  After Thaksin’s downfall, do you now expect a return to the political system that developed before 1997?

Professor Pasuk: Yes, at least for a while. We are probably going back to something like the coalition politics of the 1990s, mixed with the military oversight of the 1980s. But you can’t really go backwards. Thai politics can seem very messy, but it also moves very fast. Think back over the last twenty years. It’s always a mistake to predict Thailand’s political future using a straight-line method.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a recent interview with Australia’s ABC Radio, you reflected on Thaksin’s post-coup predicament.  You said that “in the history of Thailand, any leader who’s been pushed out by military coup has never come back as a big player. Whatever happens, five years from now he could not enter politics. But after this five years, you never know.”  In this comment you leave the door open for Thaksin to return in years, or decades, to come.  Recently you have also warned that the proposed 2007 constitution will leave opportunities for the military and other elites to play a political role.  Do you foresee further repetition in the pattern of coups and social division?  Are there any reasons to expect that in twenty years time Thailand will enjoy democratic political transitions and a stable constitutional environment?

Professor Pasuk: It will take some time to reduce the military role in Thai politics again. Sigh. In this respect, we are going back to the post 1976 period. There will be a series of clashes, some of which will be rather violent before we can achieve a stable constitutional environment again. I don’t think the immediate future looks very good.

Nicholas Farrelly: Following this question, from your perspective, what are the best and worst case scenarios for the future of Thai society?

Professor Pasuk: I think countries embrace democracy when they realize it’s an efficient way to manage social conflicts. Our trouble at present is that the major political actors do not yet see things this way. Thaksin had the very real legitimacy of being a popularly elected premier. But he also tried to fix the system to increase his own power and diminish the influence of others. The coup regime is by definition much worse, and it has written a constitution which deliberately tries to distort the allocation of power. Both these sides are trying to fix the rules, rather than playing by them.

Our old elites don’t like to face up to the fact that society does have conflict. Instead they have dreams about “reconciliation” and “national unity” which actually mean denying power to people who have different ideas and demands. Getting beyond this stage will be very difficult. I still have faith that the movement for change has to come from below. That’s why education, a free media, open debate, production and circulation of knowledge are very important.

Nicholas Farrelly: Before I finish the interview, I should acknowledge that many years ago your book Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja: Thailand’s Illegal Economy and Public Policy made a big impression on me.  Reading a thorough account of the profitable and shady deals going on under the surface of the Thai political economy was, I must say, a revelation.  Do you feel that your research on these issues has led to any improvement in the management of the illegal economy?  In 2007, what would an agenda for genuine reform look like?

Professor Pasuk: The real message of Guns, Girls was that we have to reform the police before we can dream of managing the illegal economy and controlling its social and political consequences. I think we have come a small distance on this issue. At least police reform is now being discussed. When all the old police chiefs came out to oppose the recent reform proposals, you had a hint that something significant might be happening.

Thaksin wanted to legalize all kinds of gambling. We opposed legalizing casinos because we knew it would be a political deal with no social controls. We urged him to focus on the lotteries. Unfortunately his scheme was very un-transparent, but I think it moved in the right direction. In the long run it makes no sense to criminalize gambling, partly because it results in so much corruption of the police. But we have to approach change in the right sequence.

Nicholas Farrelly:Finally, at your aluma mater, Monash University, you are celebrated as a “prominent graduate”.  According to their website you have “a reputation as one of Asia’s most courageous and outspoken scholars”.  And in a 1999 article Businessweek described you as an “unflappable crusader”.  How do you see your own reputation?  Do you ever hope to use your academic profile to make a transition to politics?  As a fighter for economic and social justice, do you have any ambitions to seek public office?

Professor Pasuk: My strength lies in researching and writing. I’m not much of an activist though I help and support many activists, and I admire them a lot. I’ve got no interest in political office. From a western viewpoint, it’s easy to be cynical about the role of intellectuals. But in Thailand we still suffer from a deficit of knowledge, restrictions on the free circulation of ideas, and terrible imbalance in the access to education and information.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you for taking the time to answer New Mandala’s questions.  It has been great to have you involved in our interview series.