For weeks, a steady stream of four-letter words have run through my mind in connection to the unfolding events in Thailand. Most of these words have reflected either my fear of what might happen next or my frustration at my failure to make sense of what has already transpired. Unfortunately, while many of these four-letter words possess a transgressive pleasure, they lack analytic possibility. In turn, the words appropriate for polite conversation are marked by their absence, rather than their presence, in Thai politics: a lack of justice, the impossibility of fairness, the dwindling of the already-faint rule of law, and the disappearance of impartiality. Instead, what is present is a politics of murk, a murky politics, or in Thai, การเมืองมืด.
Removed from politics, what characterizes murk? According to Merriam-Webster, murk is “gloom, darkness, fog.” Murky is “characterized by a heavy dimness or obscurity caused by or like that caused by overhanging fog or smoke; characterized by thickness and heaviness of air; darkly vague or obscure.” The most recent edition of the Royal Institute dictionary defines มืด as “missing light, for example a waning moon; to have little light, for example, you should not read books when it is murky because it will damage your eyesight; the implicit meaning refers to that which is known but cannot be seen, for example, an invisible hand; the time close to dawn, for example waking but it is murky; nighttime, for example, its already murky, why don’t you turn on the lights?” ["ว. ขาดแสงสว่าง เช่น เดือนมืด, มีแสงสว่างน้อย เช่น ไม่ควรอ่านหนังสือในที่มืด เพราะจะทำให้เสียสายตา, โดยปริยายหมายความว่า เหลือรู้เหลือเห็น เช่น มือมืด. น. เวลาใกล้ฟ้าสาง เช่นตื่นแต่มืด คำ่ เช่น มืดแล้วทำไมไม่เปิดไฟ" (865)]. In the Royal Institute definition, murky is characterized as dim, shadowy, and the unknown.
Murky politics are similarly characterized by lack, erasure, and uncertainty. As Thongchai Winichakul noted a few weeks ago, the space for frank dissent and discussion is disappearing. Every public statement or writing about the current state of politics, including this short essay, risks being cast as either pro-PAD or pro-TRT/PPP, with little space in-between. Offering an example of censure in another register, on 17 October, drawing on reporting by the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, the Asian Human Rights Commission reported that a community radio station in Kanchanaburi was closed under unclear circumstances. These restrictions on speech have bodily implications as well, as the possibility of contention without violence or medical help after violence disappears. During the clash between the PAD and the police on 7 October, reports indicate that the police used dangerous, untested canisters of tear gas and the PAD used their own stash of weapons to fight the police. The temporary refusals by physicians to treat police after 7 October also indicated a dangerous precedent. On 7 October, police were deemed unworthy of medical care at Chulalongkorn University Hospital. Who next? How can dissent exist, let alone flourish, without basic guarantees on safety and restraint for all parties involved?
Perhaps most worrying about the politics of murk in Thailand is that the ability to imagine a just, future democracy — or a path out of the current situation without a coup or violence — is waning. Instead, recalling Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the development of totalitarianism in mid-century European politics, dire predictions of disaster for those who do not heed one call or another proliferate. My point is not to suggest that Thailand today is analogous to post-war Europe, but rather to point to the danger when any ideology — of party, ruler, or nation — becomes unquestionable.
Counteracting murky politics will require the imagination and labor of many people. One strategy for creating a just future is to critically remember the past. In the excellent Rule of Lords column, Awzar Thi recently called on the human rights community to remove itself from politics and “make a clear psychological and rhetorical break from the concepts of society and state upon which the perpetrators of cruelty and guarantors of impunity depend.” He draws on the memory of Jit Phumisak to demonstrate the necessity of questioning the established order. Writing in the long aftermath of the dissolution of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), in Commodifying Marxism: The Formation of Modern Thai Radical Culture, 1927-1958, Kasian Tejapira argues that “… there still exist in Thailand the residual nuts and bolts of cultural resistance that had been tempered and molded by the long, frictional combination of communism and Thai culture. And that as long as the modern ravages of dictatorship and capitalism are still visited upon the Thais, there will be enough new radicals to reassemble them into powerful cultural weapons in the fight for their own and humanity’s survival and dignity” (202). Finding what remains of a progressive past — one in which the ruling order was peacefully challenged through the actions of courageous individuals — in order to create a Thai future in which humanity can survive is urgent. In addition to Jit and the early Marxian cultural-political thinkers mentioned above, a radical remembering of the risks and struggles of the students, farmers, and workers between 1973 and 1976 and the courageous actions of human rights defenders and environmental activists in the face of state and private sector violence during the Thaksin government are two places to begin. The urgency of doing so will remain even once the current crisis is resolved, not least because the residue which will be left by the murky politics of the present remains as yet unknown.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Peace & Conflict Studies at Colgate University.