Review of Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand

Yoshinori Nishizaki, Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand: The Making of Banharn-buri.

Ithaca, New York: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, Studies on Southeast Asia No. 53, 2011.  Pp. xvii, 254; maps, figures, photographs, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Michael Montesano.

Sometime after Yoshinori Nishizaki arrived at the Universityof Washingtonas a doctoral student, his advisor—the Cornell-trained Indonesianist Dan Lev [1]—“cautioned [him] against doing pretentious research on ‘Third World democratization’” (p. xv).  A   mong its many other virtues, Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand testifies eloquently to Nishizaki’s having kept faith with the late Professor Lev.

Today, rather astoundingly, North American “political science”, along with some of its European imitators, honestly expects students of the region to regard broad national-level evaluations of the state of “democracy” in Southeast Asiaas serious scholarship.  Coming in this context, Nishizaki’s book will represent a source of relief for some Southeast Asianists, even as it should represent a source of deep shame to many others who would claim that status.  One only fears that a good number of those others remain too mesmerized by the currently operative canons of their “field” to know that they ought in fact be ashamed [2].

The additional virtues of Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand are, as said, many.  The volume is superbly and inventively researched.  It artfully tells a fascinating story. It is cleverly and engagingly argued. It draws on formidable language skills. It nowise shies from important theoretical propositions—propositions which, one must hope, other scholars will abandon their shallow studies of national politics inThailand and its neighbors to engage.  And, in a work of astonishing empirical detail, the editorial errors (for example, “Kachonprasert” for “Kachonprasat” on pp. 174 and 184; “Asian Olympic Games” for “Asian Games” on p. 105) are few.

Nishizaki uses the career of former Thai prime minister and long-time Suphanburi member of parliament Banhan Sinlapa-acha to explore the political world of provincial Thailand.  He casts his book, first, as a critique of the long influential—often painfully influential, for its familiarity among scholars not specializing on Thailand—“chao pho” or “godfather” school of Thai politics and, second, as an examination of the bases of Banhan’s support among the people of Suphanburi and thus of the nature of the much noted urban-rural divide in Thai politics.  In his effort to rethink “domination in the Thai countryside” (p. 7), Nishizaki seeks to de-emphasize the violence, electoral fraud, “private patronage”, and “pork-barrel politics” (p. 14) central to the “chao pho”-centered understanding of provincial politics in post-1970Thailand.  Rejecting related assumptions about the ignorance and venality of the provincial voter, he proposes an “ideational” (p. 189) and collective rather than materialistic and selfish basis for the electoral support that Banhan long enjoyed in Suphanburi.

In conceptual terms, Nishizaki frames his case with great care and even greater insight. Drawing not least on Edward Said, he posits an imagined “social geography” (p. 19) in which provincial “backwardness” (p. 21) stands in contrast, in the Thai case, to “kanphatthana” or “development” (p. 27).  The reality of this understood spatial hierarchy will be instantly clear to any reader who has spent appreciable periods of time in provincial Southeast Asia. Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand places this reality at the foundation of its “social-psychological explanation” (p. 24) for the Banhan phenomenon.  It develops this foundation both empirically—through attention to Banhan’s actions, the institutional setting in which he has operated, and his “clientelist network” (p. 24)—and theoretically—through recourse to the concept of “collective social narratives” (p. 206) and to social identity theory.  Nishizaki’s use of the latter—which he fortifies by means of comparisons both with other Thai politicians and with Tanaka Kakuei of Niigata, Ferdinand Edralin Marcos of Ilokos, and Kim Dae Jung of Jeolla—gives his book a dimension that awaits validation or perhaps amendment, refutation, or (as the “political scientists” would put it) “disconfirmation” by other scholars.

Nishizaki makes the case that Banhan has through his long career and the “development” that he has brought to Suphanburi—above all in the form of roads, schools, hospital facilities, and other physical infrastructure—created and imbued with new pride a sense of provincial identity.  The Thai context, one characterized by a history of internal migration and weak identification with “native place”, makes this proposition a striking one. And Nishizaki indeed allows that, rather like Lauriston Sharp’s and Lucien Hanks’s Bang Chan under the leadership of Kamnan Phluem during the early decades of the last century [3], “Banharn-buri” (p. 24) and the provincial pride evoked by the term may not last much beyond the demise of its now eighty-year-old creator.

Flowing from the provision of collective goods rather than of material benefits offered to individual residents of Suphanburi and from voters’ ideational response to the “development” of their province, what Banhan has achieved was possible in an institutional context that Nishizaki terms Thailand’s “patrimonial democratic state”, marked by a “weak” division between public and private (p. 24).  Through, that is, his mastery of budgetary processes and of bureaucratic appointments and transfers, Banhan has proved able to turn the Thai state, its ministries, departments, and divisions into his personal tools for the “development” of Suphanburi.  Nishizaki builds on his description of this institutional context with an exceptionally shrewd and original insight into the nature of the Thai “bureaucratic polity”.  He points out that the nature of local representatives ofThailand’s post-1957 developmental state—“arrogant, insensitive, dishonest, inefficient, unresponsive, lazy, slow, irresponsible, insincere, haphazard, untrustworthy” (p. 43)—in the eyes of the people of Suphanburi led those people to consider that state unfeeling, crooked, and ineffectual.  These views created the ideal opening for Banhan to manipulate the Thai state for the collective good of the people of his native province.

In many ways the most rewarding and pleasurable chapters of Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand are those in which Nishizaki traces the history of Banhan’s achievements and for which he draws both on frankly wondrous and exemplary use of Suphanburi’s provincial newspapers and on interviews with more than a hundred of “the more than 400 Suphanburians” (p. 30) as well as many tens of  respondents from outside the province with whom he spoke—in many cases more than once—in field-work that took him to each of Suphanburi’s 111 tambon or sub-districts.

These chapters are no less important than they are pleasurable.  For in their detail and observation and in their success in capturing local perceptions and ideas and sentiments, these chapters develop and present a perspective on the experiences and understandings of the vast majority of Thailand’s people who live in the provinces.  They tie those experiences and understandings to the career of a major national political figure.  If a student of Thai society and politics is to take Thailandseriously, he or she must take the life of its provinces seriously.  The latter is a goal that is but poorly served through recourse to broad—and shallow—general frameworks of understanding, frameworks derived less from sustained empirical research than from flying visits whose import is the confirmation of preconception, the discovery of what one expects to discover. 

 Nishizaki’s account of the drama of Banhan’s securing the return of an invaluable Sukhothai-era bowl, appropriated by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat in 1962, to its rightful owner, Suphanburi’s Wat Suwannaphum, seven years later; his detailed narrative of the endless public ceremonies across the province in which Banhan has participated; and his close study of the visual and ideational impact of billboards promoting Banhan all over Suphanburi transport his reader to the provincial Thailand of the past thirty or so years.  His account of Banhan’s surveillance and disciplining of civil servants fleshes out his insight into the nature of the Thai bureaucratic polity at the grass-roots and helps explain the popularity that Banhan has won by taking personal command of the officers of that polity.  Nishizaki documents that popularity with humor, meticulousness, and ethnographic skill in Chapters Six and Seven of Political Authority and Provincial Authority in Thailand.  These chapters directly address and effectively confirm the reality that Banhan’s—and, importantly, his constituents’—vision of “development” remains narrowly focused on state investment in physical infrastructure.  The chapters will make clear to many readers just how long provincialThailand and much of its political class have remained under the spell of Field Marshal Sarit and his priorities.

The Thailand in which Banhan achieved what he did is now gone, supplanted by the Thailand wrought by economic and social transformations during the past quarter-century and by the conflict between Thaksin Chinnawat and his enemies during the past six years. In the provinces, that new Thailandis in no small part the Thailand of Andrew Walker’s forthcoming book, Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy [4]. Further, and as Nishizaki well appreciates, most Thai provinces have not been Suphanburi.  Not least, they have lacked Banhan Sinlapa-achas of their own. These considerations notwithstanding, Nishizaki’s study of Banhan and Suphanburi nevertheless retains great currency and value in at least three regards.

First, and as noted above, Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand builds a systematic, social-scientific approach to the politics of the provinces, in which most Thais and other Southeast Asians live.  In its elegance and robustness, this approach merits testing against other “cases” in the work of other social scientists.

Second, the book’s monumental success in capturing provincial perspectives on national political life ought at best inspire and at worst shame other scholars into undertaking comparably rich and well informed studies.  Like, that is, Duncan McCargo’s Tearing Apart the Land [5], Nishizaki’s book should render unpublishable and above all unread work on the political life of the region that fails to engage the empirical contours of that life in a manner rather more truly rigorous and informed than has become the norm in North American “political science”.

Third, and as Nishizaki argues with no little emotion in the concluding pages of his book, “the anti-rural and royal-nationalist populist discourse” (p. 235) and the understanding of the rural-urban divide in Thai politics that it reinforces represent the greatest threat to the country’s democracy.  For they legitimate both nakedly undemocratic visions of Thailand’s future and the Democrat Party’s indolent, deeply irresponsible assumption that rural voters (at least outside southern Thailand[6]) are simply too irrational for it successfully to court.

As a solution to Thailand’s deep and persistent crisis, Nishizaki prescribes the recognition of “rural voters as rational people who have their own legitimate reasons for supporting the politicians they do, just like their counterparts anywhere” (p. 236).  This is a prescription that he offers on the final page of a book written with the conviction that “area studies and political science . . . actually have enormous potential to enrich each other” (p. 31).  And it is in developing that prescription that the author of Political Identity and Provincial Identity in Thailand may in fact have made his contribution both to the study and to the practice of democracy in Thailand and Southeast Asia, a contribution of which even his teacher Dan Lev—for all his “typically wry sarcasm” (p. xv)—would have approved.

Michael Montesano is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and New Mandala’s book review editor;


1.  See Sebastiaan Pompe, “In Memoriam, Daniel S. Lev (1933–2006)”, Indonesia XCIII (April 2012): 197–207.

2. Nishizaki (p. 31) himself characterizes that field as one with “a tendency to aim for (grand) theory-building on the basis of skin-deep empirical data derived from secondary sources and/or superficial fieldwork.”

3. See Lauriston Sharp and Lucien M. Hanks, Bang Chan: Social History of a Rural Community in Thailand (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978), pp. 110 ff.  Note that Sharp and Hanks transliterate the name as “Phlym”.

4. Andrew Walker, Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, forthcoming, June 2012;

5. Duncan McCargo, Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand (Ithaca andLondon:CornellUniversity Press, 2008).

6.  See the important Marc Askew, Performing Political Identity: The Democrat Party in Southern Thailand (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2006).

About Mike Montesano, Book Review Editor