A conversation with Chomsky

Pavin Chachavalpongpun (left) and Noam Chomsky. Photo supplied.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun (left) and Noam Chomsky. Photo supplied.


Pavin Chachavalpongpun discusses Thai politics, the monarchy, authoritarian rule and Thaksin with world-renowned public intellectual. 

Since the Thai coup of 22 May 2014, my life has been turned upside down.

The Thai junta summoned me twice for being critical of its intervention in politics. When I rejected the summons simply because I did not accept the legitimacy of the coup-makers, they issued a warrant for my arrest and revoked my passport. This forced me to apply for refugee status in Japan.

Throughout this tumultuous period, Professor Noam Chomsky – one of the world’s most renowned academics, political commentators and social-justice activists – offered his encouragement and support in the process of applying for my refugee status.

He helped appeal to the Japanese government to seriously consider my case, while at the same time condemning the Thai junta for its harassment against my basic human rights.

I had never met Chomsky prior to the coup in Thailand. Therefore, his sympathy towards my struggle was unexpected and much appreciated. So when I was invited to speak at the Thai Studies Program at Harvard University on 25 September, I dropped a note to Chomsky to see if he would be available to meet me. He said yes.

Our meeting took place on the same day at his office inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where we had a private conversation. As soon as I was invited to sit down, Chomsky fired off many hard-hitting questions. He was interested in three issues: the military, the monarchy, and Thaksin Shinawatra.

First, he asked if I could describe the performance of the current military government led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha. He was curious to know how the military government has been coping with both domestic and international pressure. At the same time, I was requested to give an update on the state of human rights inside Thailand.

Chomsky offered his view on authoritarian rule in today’s world and how it works against the tide of democratisation. He told me that any regime not supported by the people, in this century, should not last long. But in the Thai case, he admitted that there were factors contributory to the longevity of military rule. One of them is the monarchy.

He asked me to what extent the Thai monarchy has interfered in politics. I replied by referring to the shifting strategy of the monarchy and its involvement in politics.

The royal institution has broken its past modus operandi of pulling the strings behind the political scene, and is now playing politics in the open. This is particularly so after the 2006 coup, with the Queen attending the funeral of a yellow shirt and Princess Chulabhorn overtly supporting the anti-government protest led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

Chomsky responded by asserting that royal political involvement explained why Thai politics has become muddled and complicated. The global trend shows that monarchies of the world are shrinking. Working against the tide of democracy would only accelerate that shrinking process.

But he was also surprised by the fact that the Thai public has become tolerable to political interference by both the monarchy and the military, particularly among the politically marginalised. This discussion led us to focus on the surge in cases involving lèse-majesté charges.

He told me that he remembered signing a petition many years ago calling for a reform of lèse-majesté law in Thailand. But he also said, his effort was futile. He believed that without an immediate reform of the law, the monarchy would find it even more difficult to coexist with democracy.

Chomsky seemed to also be very fascinated by the fact that former Prime Minister Thaksin has still commanded love and respect from a number of red shirts in Thailand. He was curious about Thaksin’s effective populist policy which seemed to have “hypnotised” Thais to continue to vote for his political proxies.

But Chomsky was also suspicious of Thaksin’s competitive political script, which was greatly different from that of the “network monarchy”. He raised the pertinent question of how Thaksin’s political idea could really shift Thailand’s political landscape toward more democratisation.

Chomsky also asked why Thaksin’s political opponents, be they opposition parties or enemies in the old establishment, had failed to initiate better and more commercialised policies designed to win the hearts and minds of Thai villagers. I could only say that they were not interested in empowering the people, as such empowerment could challenge their own powerful position in the political and economic spheres.

Chomsky posed some other questions on the negative aspects of Thaksin’s populism but at the same time came to understand the reason why his populist tactics functioned well in the country where marginalised people are still struggling to gain access to political and economic resources.

This brought us to the last topic of discussion, the Thai economy. Chomsky was inquisitive about the economic consequences of the coup, the changing domestic socio-economic conditions, and the implications on foreign investors in Thailand. Again, I could only provide him with a pessimistic outlook. Chomsky lamented that it was unfortunate for Thailand to have fallen into its own political trap.

Aside from his inquisitiveness about the Thai political crisis, Chomsky asked me about my future plans, now that I have become a refugee fleeing my own country. What would I do from now on?

I assured him that my status in Japan was guaranteed and that I was just waiting to witness changes during this transitional period in Thailand. Should I need any assistance from him, he said, he would be willing to help as much as he could.

I then asked him a final question; how would he like to see Thailand in the future? Chomsky quickly replied, “A democratic state without interventions from non-elected institutions.”

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies and currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Walter H Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.