Dreams of national unity

22 January 2007

Over the last few weeks, Chang Noi has spent a lot of time traveling in Bangkok taxis. Usually you need some small-talk before asking about politics. But the drivers launched off unprompted almost before the door was closed and the meter button pressed. The message went something like this.”

“Why did they get rid of him? Everything is getting worse, going slower. People are not spending money like before, instead they’re waiting. Projects are all stopped. The stockmarket is down. Tourists are staying away. It affects us taxis, you know. My daily takings are down, way down.”

“It’s even worse back in the village. The price of rice has dropped to around half. How can people survive? And the army is making all sorts of trouble. I can’t even drive this taxi home and bring my family to Bangkok. I’ll get stopped. If you ask me, 99.9 percent of taxi drivers want him back. And 99.9 percent of people in the village want him back.”

“But people say he didn’t respect the King. You love the King and you want Thaksin back. Why does there seem to be a problem?”

“Yes. That puzzles me too (phom ko ngong muenkan).”

Among the four reasons which the junta gave for staging the coup was that Thaksin had “caused an unprecedented rift in society” and they “needed to seize power to control the situation, to restore normalcy and to create unity as soon as possible.”

Unity is a standard piece of Thai coup rhetoric, and of Thai military ideology. The military began justifying its power on grounds it had the ability to create unity back in the 1930s. The formula became especially important during the Cold War. The word has tended to surface in the self-justification of coups which shut down the democratic process (1947, 1976, 2006). The party concocted by the junta to extend its power after the 1991 coup was called Samakkhitham, the party of righteous unity.

But unity does not mean what it claims to mean. No society is truly unified. What unity means is acceptance, tolerance, resignation or perhaps, simplest of all, defeat. After 1976, the military imposed unity by crushing popular organizations, hiring vigilante groups in the villages, intimidating local leaders, and disappearing those who did not get the message. The result was not unity, but sullen acceptance.

The divisions that disunite Thai society are very real. They have got worse over the last generation as the economy rode a rollercoaster of boom and bust, the tycoons made fortunes way beyond the dreams of earlier years, the urban middle class became wrapped up in globalization and turned its back on its own society, and the rural economy fell steadily further and further behind.

The politicization of this division was inevitable, but developed rather slowly. By the late 1980s, the Cold War was over, insurgency was dead, and the military stopped policing the politics of the mass. Through the 1990s, NGOs and local movements galvanized people around issues of rights, livelihood, resources, and environment. In 1997, villagers were hit by a massive crisis which they had done nothing to cause, which caused them untold grief, and for which they got no relief like the financiers and speculators.

Thaksin did not create the disunity. It was there already. Nor did he spark the politicization of that disunity. That had already begun. He simply sharpened it, and profited from it. Removing him does not close the divisions in society by one centimeter.

What has the post-coup government been doing “to restore normalcy and to create unity as soon as possible”? It has taken the subsidy away from rice which has brought the price crashing down. It has told the poor, wait please we’ll get round to you some time. It has sent a contingent of over 13,000 troops to police political activity, so people have a regular reminder of the bad old days a quarter of a century ago. It wants to bring back hopeless and hated projects like the Kaeng Sua Ten dam. It is restricting people moving around. Now the harvest is over, tens of thousands of people move from their home village to find work elsewhere. Whole villages are contracted to go by the truckload to cut sugarcane in Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi, and Chonburi. Now they have to get a permit from local officials, and tolerate hold-ups at countless checkpoints. It’s like crossing national boundaries, not moving across your own unified country.

The military doesn’t really have any idea how to “create unity.” It just knows that in the past it was successful in creating the sullen acceptance that gave a semblance of unity. But the society is not the same as thirty years ago. The rise of elective politics has been truly empowering. The military cannot intimidate as easily as it could in the past. One of the most significant developments since 19 September has been that the party politicians and local politicians have not meekly accepted the coup. They have been openly defiant, regularly calling for the return of parliament.

In a society as complex as modern Thailand, representative institutions, however flawed, are a much better way of managing the divisions and competing interests than authoritarianism wielding a myth of unity. Only people who live outside normal society, in something like the structured world of the military, can dream of unity.

The fear is that as the coup government’s policies fail, and their support dwindles, their natural instinct will be do more of what they know best. Already that downward spiral has begun: the retention of martial law, the establishment of the special forces, restrictions on the media, and the order to airbrush Thaksin out of the media just like a totalitarian state.

Perhaps the coup government will eventually achieve unity – by uniting the country against themselves.