Interview with Professor Duncan McCargo

This post is part of New Mandala’s 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.  Duncan McCargo is Professor of Southeast Asian Politics at the University of Leeds.  His interview is the thirteenth in the New Mandala series. 

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor McCargo, thank you for taking the time to answer New Mandala‘s questions.  And I assure you, we have a good few questions.  Just to start – the story of how you first became involved in Southeast Asian Studies is not one that I have actually ever heard.  As I understand it, your first degree was in English literature of all things.  Can you tell us how you originally came to study Asia and, in particular, how you first came to study Thailand?

Professor McCargo: I became interested in Asia originally because I took a course in Japanese literature while I was on an exchange year in Massachusetts as part of my undergraduate degree.  I really wanted to go to Japan in the summer of 1985, but didn’t have enough money to get there, and so ended up deciding to take a more affordable backpacking trip to Thailand and Burma.  Later I did reach Japan, taught in a high school there for two years, essentially decided that Japan wasn’t really for me, and ended up returning to Thailand. I then spent a year at the AUA Language Centre in Bangkok where I taught English and studied Thai at the same time, while living with a Thai host family of gun and car dealers – with whom I’m still in regular contact.  Through my original notions of studying Japan, I ended up studying Thailand instead.        

Nicholas Farrelly: Since then your academic career has gone in all sorts of different directions and you have published on all manner of political and social processes.  I will get to a range of these other issues in a moment but, before I do, and because I know that it is a topic many of our readers are interested in, I would like to ask you about this idea of “network monarchy”.  It’s an idea you have become quite famous for recently.  Can you tell us what the genesis of this idea was?  When did you begin to conceptualise the Thai polity, and particularly its elites, in this way? 

Professor McCargo: Actually, I never set out to do any research on monarchy, and I have never really studied monarchy in any systematic way.  It was something I didn’t think about all that much for quite a number of years.  But in preparation for the April 2005 Thai Studies Conference in Northern Illinois, I was trying to get my head around the violent conflict in the South and how it was related to national politics. While trying to write what became a long paper on the subject, I realised you couldn’t really understand the way that Thaksin sought to increase his influence in an area like the South, without locating Thaksin’s power network – which Ukrist Pathmanand and I talk about quite a lot in our co-authored book, The Thaksinization of Thailand (NIAS 2005) – in relation to a pre-existing, older power network.

That’s when I started thinking about “network monarchy”.  The idea of network monarchy actually began life simply as an introductory section to my paper on Thaksin and the South.  I wasn’t really so interested in the idea of network monarchy per se but the paper became too big, reaching about 24,000 words at one point, and so I sliced it into two journal articles: one on the introductory material, and the other on Thaksin and the South.  And to my slight disappointment, most people seem more interested in the first part of the argument, but I remain more interested in the second. 

Of course, I tend to feel that the 2006 military coup and many other recent events have vindicated the core arguments I made about “network monarchy”, but I am also conscious that what I outlined in the Pacific Review article remains a very basic and simplistic sketch that really needs further elaboration.              

Nicholas Farrelly: Moving away from that for the moment, you have interests outside Thailand.  At Leeds you have supervised PhDs on topics to do with Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Vietnam.  You have also written about Japan and Cambodia, among other countries.  Do you ever struggle to keep up with developments in all of these very diverse countries?  What techniques do you use for keeping up-to-date with the many national and local situations that this breadth implies? 

Professor McCargo: I don’t really try to keep up-to-date with things. I don’t even really keep up-to-date on a day-to-day basis with what is going on in Thailand.  I usually focus on particular issues that interest me at the time.  So I really try to resist the temptation to be constantly updating myself: I don’t read a lot of newspapers or news sources.  I try to read books and articles, and do my own fieldwork-based research.  When I am focusing on a particular period I will go back and trawl through news sources and use tools like Lexis Nexis to search for key news articles I may need.  I am very resistant to the idea that I need to be constantly tracking current events, because I don’t believe that is really my job. 

So I am actually profoundly ignorant about what is going on in most of those countries, and if you asked me what had happened in almost any of them in the past month I would really struggle to answer.  I don’t try.  I am not one of these people who spend a lot of time keeping up with news and usually, at any given moment, I am only really interested in the one issue that I’m working on: I see myself as someone whose core activity is academic research. I really ought to be following a lot more things than I am, but I have always quite deliberately screened off the day-to-day crackle on the wires.  And I don’t spend a lot of time reading people’s websites or blogs either, to be perfectly honest.    

Nicholas Farrelly: That’s all very understandable.  Many of our readers probably don’t know that you have written a student textbook called Contemporary Japan, which was first published in 2000.  In its field, I might add, it is very well regarded.  You have also edited a book entitled Rethinking Vietnam (2004).  What are the limits of your country knowledge?  Would you ever hope to, say, write more often about Chinese or Indian or Indonesian politics?   How far do you think you could spread yourself?   

Professor McCargo: Well, I’ve always said I don’t really know anything much about Japan and I’m quite upfront in the preface of the book where I write that it’s a summary of secondary sources, for the most part.  That book I developed as a result of teaching on Japan for a number of years at Leeds. 

I had a disturbing experience a few years ago when I was doing research in Indonesia and I met somebody I’d known at SOAS.  She pointed her finger at me – this was in somebody’s house, actually, where I had bumped into her by chance – and said, “Duncan McCargo, what are you doing here?  You do Thailand”.  And this comment provoked me to no end.  I really don’t want to be labelled as somebody who just does Thailand.  So I have always tried to have other stuff going on in between projects or sometimes in parallel with projects on Thailand.  I have done some work on Cambodia (having spent a year there recently), but I’m especially keen on Vietnam, I really like Indonesia, and I’m quite interested in Japan. But I would like to have a handle at some level on, or have done some work on, all the major countries of Southeast Asia.  I don’t really aspire to do anything on, say, India or China, but Bangladesh (where I have had a couple of PhD students, as you said) is a very interesting country, which I might like to learn more about. 

This is not because I ever expect to do anything ground-breakingly original on these other countries, but I do need to view the Thailand stuff through a comparative perspective, and to have a sense of wider trends and issues.  I think it’s dangerous to go down this road of branding yourself, or being branded by others, as somebody who only works on one country.  I even published a comparative book, Media and Politics in Pacific Asia (Routledge 2003), which draws on fieldwork in Japan, Indonesia and Hong Kong, as well as repackaging some of the arguments in my earlier work Politics and the Press in Thailand (Routledge 2000). That said, I may actually have spent too much time over the past ten years or so trying to prove that I could work on other countries. At the moment, there is so much happening in Thailand, and so few people doing serious research on the country’s politics, that I need to stay primarily focused on my core Thai work.

Nicholas Farrelly: In that regard do you have any interests, or is there any attraction, in studying Burma?

Professor McCargo: Well, I’ve personally boycotted Burma since 1988 because of my unhappiness with the military regime. Various people keep telling me that I should review that decision; that it’s about time I abandoned my Burma boycott. But at the moment, I’m still not going there.  And because of the way I work, a place I don’t visit is a place I can’t study.        

Nicholas Farrelly: I guess a bit like the woman you described earlier, most New Mandala readers will know you as a Thailand expert, so it makes sense to turn my questions back in that direction.  Your doctoral research, and one of your key early publications, focussed on the life and work of Chamlong Srimuang (Chamlong Srimuang and the New Thai Politics, Hurst 1997).  I would like to know if you continue to follow his progress closely, if at all.   

Professor McCargo: Well, Chamlong did, of course, stage a comeback.  I hadn’t been in touch with Chamlong for a long time but, to tell you the truth, in December 2005 I sent him a Christmas card which is rather ironic because he’s not really much of a Christmas card guy.  In the Christmas card I wrote, “Do you think Thaksin can last another year?”  At that time Chamlong had been very much pro-Thaksin. 

Greatly, to my surprise I was sitting down and having dinner in Pattani on about 6 January 2006 when my mobile phone rang, and the voice on the phone said, “Professor McCargo this is Chamlong Srimuang. About your question”.  I was quite taken aback.  And he said, “Well, I’ve been supporting him up until now”, and I said, “Yes I know you have”.  And he said, “But I’m thinking about what to do next”.  And then I said, “Well it would be a good idea if you did some more thinking on that”.  He then said, “Please send me a copy of your book about me because I’ve lost the one you gave me”. 

I haven’t been in touch with him since, but within a couple of weeks of that phone call he had come out and turned 180-degrees from supporting Thaksin to being one of the primary leaders of the movement against him – and the rest is history.  So he retains a capacity to surprise and to influence political developments.  But I’m not in daily touch with him, or anything.  I haven’t decided whether or not to send him another Christmas card this year. The PAD seems to have given him a new lease of life – he’s not the kind of guy to be satisfied with running a dogs’ home and a leadership school. His surfeit of energy is admirable in a 73 year old, whatever you think about the way he directs that energy. He never ceases to amaze.  

Nicholas Farrelly: Speaking of those historic developments, when you co-wrote The Thaksinization of Thailand, did you expect that Thaksin’s rule would end with a royalist-military coup?  In the final section of that book you offered a number of possible scenarios.  Does the September 2006 outcome fit under the various possibilities that you and Ukrist envisaged? 

Professor McCargo: I’m not saying that I expected Thaksin to be ousted by a military coup in 2006.  The book was generally criticised when it came out, by a lot of my Thai colleagues, for being too harsh on Thaksin.  The chapter, of which Ukrist was the primary author, in which we argued that the military was re-politicising and gradually asserting its role was a chapter that many Thai academics were extremely unhappy with.  It turned out to be somewhat prescient, but that prescience was more Ukrist’s than mine.  And of the four scenarios we ended with in our conclusion, ‘Thaksin Disincorporated’ turned out to be correct in several respects.  We talked about Thaksin being toppled by a monumental political crisis after antagonising ultra-conservative forces in Thai society and becoming profoundly alienated from the urban electorate – all developments that actually took place. We also mentioned May-1992 style demonstrations against him. While 2006 never saw demonstrations on the scale of May 1992, there were certainly large anti-Thaksin protests – a possibility many people thought was absolutely ridiculous when we wrote the book.

Nicholas Farrelly: This was at the height of the Thaksin juggernaut.

Professor McCargo: Right, that’s right.  But anyone who goes around predicting what is going to happen in Thailand is completely crazy.  I believe, as I’ve said before, that orthodoxy is the enemy of understanding anything seriously. 

Nicholas Farrelly: Of course, over the past couple of years, Thai politics has never been far from the international headlines.  From the coup, to Oliver Jufer, to Paul Handley and Thaksin’s footballing ambitions, there has been much to keep journalists and editors interested.  Over this time you have been regularly quoted in the international media.  Has your own understanding and analysis of the political situation changed since those hazy days of September 2006 when everyone was trying to work out had just happened and what it all meant?  Are there issues that you feel journalists and editors still need to better explain when it comes to Thai politics?  What are some of those issues?   

Professor McCargo: I don’t know where to start answering that question actually.  I have been trying, perversely, not to take too much interest in what has been going on in Thailand nationally as I have been trying to write up my research on the south.  In the immediate aftermath of the coup I gave quite a lot of interviews on essentially the same theme, saying that it’s just a matter of time before this all begins to unravel.  And I have done very few interviews and made relatively few media interventions since late 2006, because I have just been trying to concentrate on getting on with my work and I have never followed, day-to-day, all of the twists and turns of the new draft constitution, the re-born political parties, the political scrambling post-election, the PAD protests, and so on.

I don’t want to criticise journalists for their coverage of Thailand because there just isn’t enough of it and we desperately need anybody who can cover the place to write something.  The sad thing to me is how little attention, internationally, has been paid to Thailand since the coup.  We had the coup and there were people calling me up wanting to talk to me for about a week; but since then major developments like the new constitution or the banning of Thai Rak Thai, or even the December 2007 election, have received very little attention.  The only thing that has been a real news story in the UK has been a bit of the stuff on Manchester City.  So I would like to start with a plea for people just to write more, because it is just amazing how the people responsible for the coup have been able to get away with very little critical coverage or discussion of subsequent developments.  That’s my not very good answer to that question. 

Nicholas Farrelly: In September 2006, in Foreign Affairs, you wrote an article titled “Toxic Thaksin”.  There you argued that, “To date, the public stance of the United States has been far too ambiguous: a strong statement from a senior member of the administration is overdue. Thaksin deserved to go, but not in this crude, retrograde fashion, which sets a dangerous precedent both for Thailand and the wider region”.  From the perspective of today, what do you think are the regional implications of Thailand’s September 2006 coup?  Has it set back the task of political reform in countries like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma?  If so, how?

Professor McCargo: It has made military coups or de facto military coups even more legitimate in places like Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan.  Casting the net a bit wider, I think it sent out the message that it was still okay to have military interventions in politics.  I believe there is a new wave of military coups or alternative forms of military interventions into politics which the Thai coup formed part of, and that does have dangerous implications.  I was in Indonesia, for example, for a workshop in February 2007, and it was quite clear that a lot of people from around the region thought that the fact that the Thais had staged a coup made it incrementally more possible for the Indonesian or Philippine military to think about having a coup.  And when the Burmese had another crackdown last year, the fact that the Thais themselves had just experienced, a military coup, couldn’t claim to be a democracy, and couldn’t really claim to be against military interventions in politics undercut the position of Thailand and of ASEAN more generally in framing a response.  So it certainly did no harm from the point of view of the Burmese military regime.  In every way it’s a regressive step, and I stand by what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the coup itself.

Nicholas Farrelly: In early 2007, New Left Review provided you with the space to make a thorough appraisal of Paul Handley’s influential and important book on King Bhumibol.  You argued that, “The ever-more-vocal cult of Bhumibol, meanwhile, seems intended to drown out anxious mutterings about the succession. When millions of Thais donned yellow shirts in June 2006, their euphoria ill masked a mode of collective denial concerning the future of the monarchy, the unstable political order and the country as a whole. In a kingdom where violence lurks just below the surface-violence that the King helped quell in 1973 and 1992, but tacitly supported in October 1976-Bhumibol’s passing threatens to inaugurate a new episode of civil strife”.  Why do you think this “mode of collective denial” has become so widespread?  And are there real risks from this mode?

Professor McCargo: I do think that there is a mode of collective denial and incredible collective anxiety in Thailand now, and I see it on lots of different levels.  I saw it very clearly in the cult of Jatukham Ramathep amulets.  I have been going to Thailand for many years (not as many as some other people, of course), but I haven’t seen my Thai friends as agitated or anxious about a whole series of things.  I think it has become very difficult for people in Thailand to separate a whole set of issues.  One is anxiety about what is going on politically, one is anxiety about the king’s health, one is anxiety about what happens politically: is there going to be a succession crisis, a second coup, or another outbreak of violence? 

You’ll know that I have written in a couple of places that I believe the 1997 constitution was a preemptive strike designed to avert  political violence after a succession crisis, which I have on fairly good authority and have cited in my publications (including my edited volume Reforming Thai Politics, NIAS 2002).  Therefore, if the 1997 constitution is supposed to avert political violence after a succession crisis and the military tore it up on the night of the coup, on 19 September, then what is now supposed to avert political violence if there’s a succession crisis?  The answer is we don’t have any mechanisms left; and all attempts to reassert a mode of military, privy council-led virtuous rule of a kind that is clearly past its sell-buy date have failed. We can see that the Surayud government was unable to exert its authority, or to convince people that this is a mode of running the country that really works.  Nor has the widely-derided Samak government done much better. Therefore, if we can’t rely on political parties and institutions and we can’t rely on the virtuous people around the palace to stabilise things, then we don’t have any source of stability in the society to depend on.  And that’s quite a frightening prospect for many people in Thailand, since I believe that the whole point of the 1997 constitution was to avert this possibility of violence.           

Nicholas Farrelly: Why do you think the 2007 election failed to resolve Thailand’s ongoing political crisis?

Professor McCargo: Clearly the scenario was supposed to be that the Democrats and people sympathetic to the Surayud government project would be able to front a new administration that would carry on and, perhaps, more successfully execute, the objectives of the CNS-backed administration.  As I anticipated, this proved impossible to achieve. So it seems very much as I feared right after the September 2006 coup: the coup, the aftermath, the new constitution, the ructions within Thaksin’s party and so on, just come full circle and we’re back to a clash between network monarchy and an alternative power network still in some way influenced by or inspired by loyalty to Thaksin and/or his legacy. 

So we’re no further on; and we’re arguably in a worse situation than we were on 19 September 2006, because we haven’t got the 1997 constitution anymore, so Thailand can’t so easily go back to try and revive a liberal project that could form the basis of an alternative politics.  The liberal project has been discredited, the network monarchy and military intervention have been discredited, Samak and Thaksin are detested in many parts of the country, and Thais have nowhere to turn.  Thai society has become incredibly divided and those divisions have not been healed or addressed substantially by the coup or its aftermath. Nor is the in-your-face Samak government interested in trying to resolve those divisions. Around half the population supports Thaksin/Samak and around half the population reviles them. Neither side has made any headway in making its case to the Thai population.

Nicholas Farrelly: Clearly, these are all big issues for Thailand.  What role do you think academic researchers and, particularly, foreign researchers can play in understanding the current situation?

Professor McCargo: This works on several different levels. For my own part, I’ve always worked in close collaboration with Thai researchers. Using British government funded projects, I collaborated with a research team at Mahasarakham University for six years (1996-2002) and with another team at Prince of Songkhla University (PSU) for four years (2002-06); both links supported a constant traffic back-and-forth of Leeds and Thai colleagues. We learned an enormous amount from them, and they also benefited from the chance to step outside the fray for a while. Thai universities are very bureaucratised institutions, and academics (especially the more dynamic ones) are kept on constant treadmill of activity, much of it rather pointless. External support can really help Thai colleagues to develop their ideas and gain a more critical perspective on what is going on.

These interventions can also lead to important publications, like the volume on the South which emerged from the PSU collaboration (Rethinking Thailand’s Southern Violence, NUS Press 2007), and the book on Thaksin that I co-wrote with Ukrist. This also applies to PhD students: seven Thais have finished their PhDs under my supervision since 2001. Training PhD students and helping them to gain more nuanced, critical and fieldwork-based perspectives is a very important part of my work, this rather curious kind of import-export business. I’m immensely proud of the Leeds PhD graduates who are now back teaching, researching and working in various Thai universities and organisations.

But apart from the hands-on training and collaboration stuff, foreigners continue to play an important role by saying uncomfortable things that people in Thailand often don’t want to say (or sometimes even hear) themselves. I’m an awkward character from the North of England. I have another life outside Thailand, and in many ways I am not part of the Thai system. I have a permanent job in a British university. This gives me and people like me a certain license. Along with that license goes a kind of responsibility to make annoying, critical statements – whether about Thaksin, the monarchical network, the South, the coup, or whatever – in the hope of provoking some sort of reaction.

Nicholas Farrelly: As a foreign researcher, are you ever challenged for commenting on Thai society and politics?  Do people ever intimate that because you are a farang you can’t really comprehend what is going on?  In your experience, is such recourse to exceptionalism at all prevalent?

Professor McCargo: I have been incredibly lucky over the years: wherever I have gone, and whatever I have wanted to study or explore, I have met Thais who were ready to assist and support me in surprising and generous ways. There are always a few people who will come back at you with essentialist arguments that foreigners can’t understand Thailand. I am not really worried about that kind of reaction, because actually I don’t claim to know much about Thailand. I struggle to achieve a certain level of understanding on the specific topics that I try to research, but the challenge of trying to study and write about Thailand is a constant exercise in humility.

I do always remind those people who advance essentialist arguments, however, that I also know very little about my own country, Britain, because I have never studied it systematically or done any fieldwork-based research there. That response often gives them pause for thought: how much do any of us know about anything, in the end?

Nicholas Farrelly: Finally, I would like to ask you about your recent years of research in southern Thailand.  What are your conclusions? Under current conditions, how difficult is field research in that part of the country?  Do you have any advice for researchers who are hoping to explore and explain the southern provinces in the years ahead?  Is there any important research that is simply impossible to undertake?

Professor McCargo: My book on the South has just been published (Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand, Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), and three years of intensive focus on the political conflict in the region are now drawing to an end. It’s hard to summarise the arguments of the book in a few sentences, but essentially I am viewing the Southern Thai conflict as a political problem. Both the Islamic and the political elite of Malay Muslim society were largely coopted by the Thai state from the 1980s onwards; as a result, they have lost their leadership roles in society, creating a vacuum into which a resurgent militant movement has entered. Given the generally inept (occasionally brutal) response by the Thai security forces, the militants have been able to gain considerable legitimacy, while the credibility of the Thai state has been in freefall. I argue that the only solution to the crisis is to restore the legitimacy of the Thai state through new governance arrangements, which might involve some form of decentralization or ‘autonomy’ (probably called something else).

Writing the book was a challenge. I spent a year based in Pattani, interviewing more than 270 people and travelling all over the three provinces, including lots of really dodgy places. The book is based almost entirely on my own fieldwork; I’m really tired of this trend towards academic books and articles that have virtually no empirical basis, endlessly reviewing secondary sources, journalistic accounts, and material found on the internet (although I have sometimes written such pieces myself, of course). I’d urge people to get off-line and to get out there (wherever it is for you) if at all possible.

My original plan was to base myself in the Pattani town of Saiburi, in order to do a kind of political ethnography of the conflict, but my Thai and Malay-Muslim friends and colleagues encouraged me to work from the PSU Pattani campus instead, essentially for reasons of security. As a result, my book has more breadth and less depth than I first envisaged. The PSU campus is an agreeable and relatively safe place to spend a year, but part of me still wishes I had been bold enough to stick to the original plan. I would encourage others to conduct fieldwork in the South, but you have to find a way of doing this that works for you. It’s not a place where you can easily operate unsupported; you need to establish a local network, and be ready to take people’s advice. If you can do this, the rewards are enormous – there is just so much to be learned.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor McCargo, thank you for taking the time to participate in New Mandala‘s interview series.  It has been wonderful having you involved.

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