CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS – The Thai political crisis, which has resurfaced since the coup of May 22, 2014, has been closely monitored by the international community. The military overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and has since claimed to undertake political reforms. But up to this point, there have been no concrete reforms, nor any prospect of a fresh election. Thailand may have to live with military rule for some time.
Amid many observers of Thai politics, there is a professor who is keen to learn more about the crisis in Thailand. Professor Noam Chomsky — one of the world’s most renowned academics, political commentators and social justice activists — has been following political developments in Thailand for a long while.
I had a chance to meet Chomsky and interview him. Our meeting took place Sept. 25 in his office inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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 Gen. 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 in Thailand.
Chomsky offered his view on authoritarian rule in today’s world and how it works against the tide of democratization. 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 has been the case particularly since 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 explains why Thai politics has become muddled and complicated. The global trend shows that the 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 marginalized. This discussion led us to focus on the surge in cases involving lese-majeste charges.
He told me that he remembers signing a petition many years ago calling for reform of lese-majeste law in Thailand. But he also said his effort was futile. He believes that without immediate reform of the law, the monarchy will 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 that seemed to have “hypnotized” Thais to continue to vote for his political proxies.
But Chomsky is also suspicious of Thaksin’s competitive political script, which is 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 democratization.
Chomsky also asked why Thaksin’s political opponents, be they opposition parties or enemies in the old establishment, have failed to initiate better and more commercialized policies designed to win the hearts and minds of Thai villagers. I could only say that they are 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 a country where marginalized 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 socioeconomic conditions and the implications for foreign investors in Thailand. Again, I could only provide him with a pessimistic outlook. Chomsky lamented that it is unfortunate for Thailand to have fallen into its own political trap.
Apart from these critical questions, Chomsky was also perplexed to see so many middle-class Thais offering their support to the military government. What has gone wrong with them? Many of the anti-Yingluck protesters, prior to the coup of 2014, were identified as middle-class Bangkokians. Their violent protest paved the way for the military to intervene in politics. Clearly, these protesters saw the benefits of having the military in charge of politics at this critical royal transitional period.
Before we parted, I 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, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, is currently a distinguished fellow at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University.