Why is Thailand in political turmoil once again? Some I hear blame “outsiders”. I disagree. What happens to Thailand, starts in Thailand; nowhere else, and succeeds or fails, thanks to Thai values and interests.
The current disagreements over what kind of political system is best for Thailand started even before 1932. Differences of opinion over the respective roles of the monarchy, the army and the non-royal political elite, produced the coup of 1932, the abdication of King Prajadhipok, the coup of 1947, the coup of 1958, protests and repression in 1973, the coup of 1976, years of half-democracy, the Constitution of 1997 that sought to stop the nefarious power of “money politics”, and 20 years of unending sharp partisan conflict beginning with the election of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.
Today’s protests are only one more episode in the still ongoing search for the right kind of political system for Thailand.
It is only right to ask: What has made the search so unsuccessful for so long? Why the continuing difficulty in reaching a lasting compromise among the different points of view?
Having come to Thailand first in 1961 and having listened to so many Thais — from Isan villagers to royalty ever since, I would like to share something I have learned about Thailand’s search for a successful political order.
The difficulty as I see it has been adjusting traditional Thai values to fit the needs of new circumstances brought on by modernisation. The task has been difficult; the adjustments needed not easily discerned.
For me, the central challenge continues to be how best to modernise the use of baramee, a kind of charisma associated with success.
The great German scholar, Max Weber, advised that we should use a concept of “ideal types” in understanding a people. An ideal type is an idea, an ideal, a core value, which explains and rationalises a culture, its society, and its politics.
For traditional Theravada Thailand, the foundational ideal has been personal baramee.
I think baramee is like a capital asset — providing means to accomplish life tasks. Some have more baramee than others. In traditional thinking, gaining charisma is linked to developing good character as taught by the Buddha through following the noble eightfold way.
Those perceived to have baramee become patrons and attract followers. Those with baramee are honoured by others with expressions of grengjai humility. Thai social structure and politics still revolve around patrons who benefit from grengjai and the personal entourages that circle around them.
The inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng gives us an ancient picture of a ruler with baramee. The book Traibhumi, written by his grandson Phya Lithai, later King Maha Thammaracha I, connected the possession of baramee in this life with one’s karma accumulated in prior incarnations.
In traditional, decentralised, Thai society, wealth and power were limited so only a few were credited with baramee. They became the political leaders. But starting in the reign of Rama V, modernisation brought new wealth and organisational sophistication to Thailand, with expanding economic, social, cultural, and political opportunities for many people. A middle class emerged in business, with westernised education, and in military and government hierarchies. The number of Thais who could claim some degree of baramee grew and grew.
Those who formerly would not have been born to elite families to inherit a legacy of baramee now sought to be included in high status social environments.
As Thailand prospered, in the 1960s, a variety of new paths to acquisition of baramee were created. Money and wealth provided one claim to baramee, leading to the money politics of the 1990s and afterwards.
In particular, the assignment of a formal status — royal honours, government office, rank in a company or other organisations — provided another basis for claiming baramee and entitlement to receiving grengjai gestures of subordination.
But as those claiming some degree of baramee expanded to embrace nearly half the population, the original ideal of baramee was watered down. Good character and genuine charisma were sidelined and more and more replaced by the exercise of naked power — economic and political. Thai social and political elites therefore lost credibility in the minds of many. Power without moral authority does not produced baramee and can’t maintain its legitimacy.
People may respond to superiors out of fear or self-interest, but the moral foundation of authority has atrophied. Disagreements and dissatisfactions have multiplied. Therefore, to me, Thai institutions need to expand their ability to be inclusive to keep pace with the increase in the number of Thais with legitimate claims to baramee. Merit and talent wherever found need more recognition by institutions and the culture.
There can no longer be only one national integrated hierarchy but rather a plurality of opportunities to contribute to society, culture, the economy, and politics. A modern response to baramee needs to reach down from traditional circles of high status individuals to see it wherever it can be found.
There can easily be a circulation of individuals in and out of responsible positions depending on the relevance of their baramee to the needs of the moment. This new dynamic would be a process seeking equilibrium among many rather than a narrow and vertical hierarchy limiting recognition of achievement and capability.
The Thai military accomplished an important step in this direction by instituting a mandatory retirement age so that the most senior officers could expect to rotate through the top positions.
Maintaining equilibrium can be achieved by checks and balances keeping raw power under restraint and providing scope to those with righteous baramee. In the economy avoiding monopolies and rent extraction through political favouritism would provide checks and balances. In politics, the constitution must provide the checks and balances.
Minimising the use of money and official position to claim baramee would bring Thais together in greater harmony and mutual respect. Expressions of grengjai would become more sincere. Standards of conduct for observing checks and balances are provided by the Thosapit Rachathamma, or the 10 ethical principles of wise, serving and caring leadership. Those principles inspired by the Buddha’s teachings are available for anyone to emulate and through their good conduct contribute to the nation.