Thai Politics: Between Democracy and Its Discontents

Review of Daniel H. Unger and Chandra Mahakanjana’s Thai Politics: Between Democracy and Its Discontents (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2016).

Despite Appearances, Something Is Missing at the Heart of Thai Democracy

This rainy season marks eighty-five years since Thailand had its first experiment in democracy. Before 24 June 1932, the country had been ruled by royal absolutism. Many wonder, since the nation experienced a democratic revolution so long ago, why it is under the control of a military-imposed government in 2017. After a total of nineteen coups over the last century, what is holding back Thailand’s embrace of liberal democracy?

An important piece of the puzzle, which is almost always overlooked, goes back to the very nature of that first democratic revolution. Though the revolution may have been “democratic”, it most definitely wasn’t “liberal”.

The real challenge for Thailand is that, despite its repeated attempts at an expansion of democratic processes and inclusion, the nation has sorely fallen behind in its commitment to the natural liberties of its citizenry. Thais, when they do experiment with democracy, almost always place democratic processes over liberal institutions in their understanding of the liberal democratic regime.

Recent events in Thailand have illustrated this problem. The accession and fall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with his palpably democratic pedigree after multiple wins at the ballot box in 2001, 2005, 2006 and by proxy in 2007, 2011 and 2014, proved to be as exciting for some voters as it was horrifying for others. The military coups in 2006 and 2014, and the months of public demonstrations in downtown Bangkok that always preceded them, were downstream from a fundamental disagreement between those who emphasise liberal principles of government and those who emphasise democratic principles.

The contention here is that by embracing democracy without first securing liberal rights and institutions, Thailand has had to swing widely from the excessive, utopian-like embraces of democratic elections to even more pathetic retreats into the faux security proffered by the men in olive green.

Revisiting the People’s Party founding document of the 1932 revolution is instructive. One can argue that the seeds of the current calamity were already sown in the six principles of the revolutionary vanguard at that time:

1. Maintain securely the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic etc.;

2. Maintain public safety within the country and greatly reduce crime;

3. Improve the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for all, and drawing up a national economic plan, not leaving the people to go hungry;

4. Provide the people with equal rights (so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present);

5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles;

6. Provide the people with full education.

Not until the fifth principle in the People’s Party demands did liberty and freedom make an appearance. Furthermore, those natural liberties were allowed only as long as “this does not conflict with the above four principles”. Basic components of liberalism like natural liberties, balancing institutions, freedom of expression, religious liberties and the right to one’s own property were an afterthought at best—some not mentioned at all.

The reason we can refer to this event in 1932 as a “democratic” revolution, despite its brevity, is that it carried with it a commitment to equal voting rights in general democratic elections. The democratic element of the new regime worked fine. So why did this first attempt at democracy in Thailand fail? Perhaps more importantly, why do nearly all unadorned democracies in the world since the time when Plato and Aristotle theorised about them eventually crumble?

One of the more frustrating blind spots in the study of Thai politics today—and comparative politics more broadly—is the tendency to… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Mekong Review by T. F. Rhoden (also here at Academia); photo image credit of the plaque image from Thailand for this re-post goes to The Isaan Record. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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He Runs the Moon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Wendy Brandmark’s He Runs the Moon: Tales from the Cities

Sometimes the setting of stories, the barrios and backstreets and weighty avenues of childhood remembrances, prove to be as powerful to the narrative as the protagonists themselves. He Runs The Moon: Tales From The Cities by Wendy Brandmark vibrates with an urban milieu that can be both inviting and at times meaningfully oppressive. The tales here, which flitter from Denver, Colorado, to the Bronx, New York, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, are compiled together in a highly recommended collection of short stories.

All characters sharpen their speech, experiences, and epiphanies against this metropolitan whetstone.

Witnessing how the city-body becomes an agent in its own right is pleasantly hypnotizing. In the first part of seven stories set in Denver, ‘My Red Mustang’ captures this sentiment of city-as-agent well, as the female protagonist frets over what to do with an attractive-yet-unwanted automobile beyond its time, whilst street upon street of Denver comes alive to keep her vehicle in motion for just one more traffic light. This is more than just atmospheric indulgence. These kernels of urban truth dazzle in their own way as much as they hold the logic of the plot together. ‘Irony’, another story from this initial set, as well as having one of the more humourous plotlines, also works with the city of Denver as the main character struggles with some of the sodden truths of sexual iniquity.

Many of the stories in this collection were… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Sabatoge Reviews by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to Robert Cash via Wikipedia. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Authoritarian Desires: Kenzaburo Oe on Masturbation and the Japanese Right

Review of Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels (OR Books, 2016)

Reading in Thai, Thinking in Japanese

This combination of two stories by Kenzaburo Oe entitled Seventeen & J: Two Novels has disturbed me. I wish this disturbance upon you as well.

Why? Well because it turns out that this is a fantastic set of stories from a time when Oe was at the start of his publishing career in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What is so mesmerizing is how apt they feel to the times today in late 2016, as well as how well they travel beyond the sea-wet shores of insular Japan.

Read this book. Read it now before the American elections.

Recommended to me by a Japanese-speaking friend, this early work by the Nobel Laureate has been translated only once into English by Luk Van Haute. Because I cannot speak, read, or write Japanese myself, I always try to search out a translation into the only Asian language I am any good at in order to get somewhat “closer” to the language and culture in which the book was originally composed. For me, that’s in Thai.

And, indeed, it may sound silly for an American to be reading Japanese in Thai, but I still remember the first time I read a nonfiction piece by Haruki Murakami not in English, but in Thai. The effect was amazing, and in many ways the author’s voice shone through in a way that it never had in any English translations I had consumed before. What had been a trip to the Thai book store and an encounter with a Thai-translation of Murakami—where I thought to myself, why bothering to wait for the English translation when you can already do Thai well enough?—later became a general rule of mine when reading something originally done in Japanese: to always find the Thai translation first.

For one example out of many: Thai has a way of reproducing the rich variety of pronouns of hierarchy, of class, of family, of gender and so on found in Japanese that burrows toward some delightful, extra depth of meaning. Every wail and whine of a protagonist weighs heavier than it would be if the prose were translated into English.

Alas, though a few of Oe’s texts have been put into Thai, the vast majority of his works have not been, including these two shorter tales. Thus, English translation it was! Below is an interview with the author at Berkeley in 1999.

An Ode to Onanism

Has there ever been a work of fiction dedicated to a protagonist’s journey, which was purely mediated through an exploration of teenage masturbation? I’m almost embarrassed to say that I cannot think of one. Almost. Nevertheless, until I do find such a text, I will allow for the novella-like tale of Seventeen to stand in for that book.

The whole bit about playing with one’s self as a subject of a story is something of a stretch—particularly in its youthful form. But Oe’s genius here is how the act of onanism is combined with sentiments of pubescent, far-Right politics. This is also why I think others, particularly Americans at this moment, should have a go at this story.

The protagonist is an honest enough, though confused, little Japanese boy, who putters about his high school and homestead, arguing with his older sister and parents about the mundane and occasionally pestering them about the political situation of a postwar Japan. Peppered about this narrative are sticky episodes of the most imaginative and picturesque scenes of a seventeen-year-old hurting himself through private exultation.

In one scene, he’ll be alone jerking it. In another scene, he’ll be in a political diatribe against someone in his social circle.

In one more scene, he’ll be at it again, in some spiteful, self-hating-yet-self-loving beating of his manhood. And again in another scene, he’ll be joining an authoritarian, war-hungry Japanese political party—to which will be followed by yet another round of self play.

The interchange and abrupt bouncing back and forth between Japanese Imperialist thought and angst-ridden wanking is transfixing. The combination of youthful fascism with male masturbation hits the reader at some political psychological level that one may have never even known existed.

This is political psychology of the far Right, presented in a form that no one thought could be so stirring for a reader’s intuition.

Universal, Yet Shaded Differently

In this age in the West, masturbation is, perhaps, something of a ho-hum topic for many. Many guys do it. Many girls do it. We all do it, especially if you are young. Though I would assume the frequency is higher for the male of our species. We just don’t go around talking about it like we do the weather.

Though despite the act’s universality in terms of something found in most political societies across time and space, some differences probably persist in how one sex (gender?) or the other may go about their masturbation. This is neither a recognition of the difference in physicality of it (ha!) nor an understanding of the functional differences in how it helps to keep alive the sexual when we are alone. No, rather, this is a difference in the psychology behind the act.

When one is not in the company of others, with no one watching, it is difficult to accept that the thoughts and internal whispering of the mind of men and women are the same when they engage upon this play. The way guys go about it and the way girls go about it—up there, hidden in the psyche and the soul—cannot be the same.

Forsooth, a She Bop will never be a Blister in the Sun.

Oe’s protagonist is male and because of it the story takes unanticipated turns that would be nearly impossible to guess at if the character had been female. Some of these turns were so wild that the second part of Seventeen, where the main character is purported to assassinate a Left-leaning parliamentarian, has actually never been translated into English! Trust me, mix political psychological into the act, and this quickly becomes guy’s-stuff-only territory.

(Seriously, someone translate Part II of the story into English or Thai for me so I can read it. I’m looking at you Jay Rubin of Harvard and/or you เดือนเต็ม กฤษดาธานนท์ of Chulanlongkorn; let’s get cracking on this to help the non-Japanese-speaking peasantry like me confront our demons.)

Right or Left?

If you are of the Left yourself (what is mis-termed “liberal” for you Americans), then you may be smirking to yourself right now. For surely, if one were to mix masturbation with any political sentiment it would have to be the intuitions that traverse the mind of the far-Right or the fascistic. Correct? Conservatives with an authoritarian bent like to wank it when no one’s looking. Right?

Not so fast. And I suspect that Oe may agree with me on this one.

The protagonist male could just as easily been composed as some milksop, easily-offended, weakling of a Leftist and enjoyed masturbating twelve times a day. That is, the solipsistic act of male onanism could have as easily been paired with the political psychology of Right-wing jingoism as it could have with the political psychology of Left-wing statism.

Does not the awkward, mamma’s-boy communist also enjoy a wank from time to time? Who really goes at it more often?

Now that is a topic worth pursuing a Ph.D in.

Wonderful Read

Again, if there ever were a time and a place for those of you of the West to consider reading Kenzaburo Oe’s Seventeen & J: Two Novels, the fall of 2016 is the time to do so.

I highly recommend this delightful tale of Japanese political psychology and adolescent self–(destruction)-gratification.

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. Any image-photo credit for the top of this post via the talented Kotaku. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license. 

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All the Single Men: Rebecca Traister on Single Women

Review by T. F. Rhoden of Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon & Schuster 2016).

Pungent Demographics

Demographics, when gone sour, degrade into identity politics.

Anything that places the tribe above the individual is troublesome at the very least. By tribe, I simply mean any grouping: nation, gender, race, ethnicity, sex, class, religion, caste, cult, and so on.

Take any one of these group identifiers to an extreme and tribalism proves, yet again, to be toxic to political society. Moderation in all things…tribalism and identity politics are not.

Yet, on that note of moderation, I sometimes worry that individualism can be taken to an extreme as well. Thus to challenge the notion of individualism at times is very important. Though I still maintain it as something of a political axiom—that the continuance of individual freedom is about as good as it can get in any polity—when an opportunity comes to either intelligently challenge this or at least provide a new perspective, we would do well to avail ourselves of it.

Watching Rebecca Traister make a pitch for her new publication All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation on Real Time with Bill Maher, I realized that reading over her perspective and maybe internalizing some of her argument would be a great opportunity to challenge assumptions.

It Raises the Bar on Men’s Behavior

And if we learn anything in this very readable and enjoyable book, it’s that the bar on men’s behavior has risen over the half millennium—more specifically past century—in all realms of our political society.

The first few chapters provide a quick, yet pointed, history of some of the ways in which men have institutionalized social customs that cage “the fairer sex” into unequal partnerships. This review of past idiocies claimed in the name of gender over individual freedom should serve as a reminder of how much better we all have it today in advanced industrial liberal democracies.

Some salient points for me were that I hadn’t realized coverture had lasted so long in some areas of the United States. Though I often joke about the “patriarchy” when someone asserts that it still exists in America in 2016, these bits of institutionalized political and legal discrimination against women of the past serve as empirical evidence that once, indeed, something like a patriarchy did very much pervade the American polity.

(Note to self: finally get around to reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s history on the French revolution!)

Throughout All the Single Ladies, Traister is always quick to point out that the identity of the female also “intersects” with other identities—the most “problematic” of them being where one is not only female, but also “black” and/or “poor.” The challenge of less-than-voluntary marriage options faced by a middle-class “white” woman were not always the same faced by poor black females. There are numerous examples of this throughout the text.

Stadtluft Macht Frei nach Jahr und Tag

It is on this point of empirics that Traister shines for this reader. She does a wonderful job of bringing up and reviewing an array of contemporary statistics.

Evidence that more and more women are waiting longer to get married, or even more important, opting out of the civil institution altogether, are on display here. These numbers go into the larger aggregate average that in the United States there are today simply more people who have not gotten hitched than there are people who are married.

And where can all these single people be found? Well if it’s single females, look to the city!

The in-depth interviews Traister peppers throughout the text go to show that not only are there demographically more single women than married women living in American cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and so on, these single women also feel freer in the city. The image Traister paints of her and her colleagues lounging about in fashionable cafes and bars in downtown Manhattan is vividly captured and reinforced by these interviews.

This actually surprised me. And I almost wish that I had spent more time in America’s largest metropolises when I was younger and single myself as opposed to loafing around Europe and Asia for the past fifteen years. If you are a hetero male on the right side of thirty, are able to maintain a job, and know how to tuck in your shirt, the odds really are in your favor in the bigger cities.

Granted, you may not get hitched immediately if you’re into that type of thing, but rather one ought to be able to stumble upon a phone number or two without too much difficulty…if only I’d known. (And here’s some proof, guys! Jeez.)

Feeling Good

One odd element of this text for any reader that doesn’t have a yoni is how important feelings are in general for the non-male.

Perhaps I’m not putting this right, but as a reader who happens to be a man, one is tempted to ask oneself again and again, “Why do women care what others think about them so much?” On every third page, another episode or interview or example is provided showing how much the interviewee or respondent is worried about how they are being perceived. I wish to ask, “Why do they take corporate-funded media stereotypes so seriously?”

Again, this may not be a fair admission on my part, but I hadn’t realized how much this sense of “I’m a woman” and “The world sees me as a woman” can pervade the feelings and self-identity of what would otherwise just be an individual who happens to be a female.

I do not know the answer to this, but I find it perplexing and fascinating at the same time: Does this mean that if an individual is an female, she sees herself or rather feels herself to be female first, and individual second? Really? This cannot possibly be the case for everyone. But either way, the book leaves the reader who happens to be male with the impression that women (in terms of sex, gender, or whatever) are in some sense wedded to the idea of being “a woman” more than being a person or “an individual” who, again, just happens to be female. This also makes me wonder how many people purchased this book in order to make themselves feel better because they happen to be women who liked the title? 

If I ever have a child who turns out to be born female—if I teach her nothing else it will be simply to not take one’s gender too seriously and always see herself as a free individual, with her own agency and own path to blaze forward, and to live life without any pathology that asserts tribe over person.

Solutions, Thank You!

Because the book is written more in a journalistic than academic style, much of the overly wordy brooding misunderstood as “Theory” with a capital T is avoided. (Note: Bruce Bawer is insightful on this last point.) That is not to say that the book does not offer up a critique, but rather it does more than this.

Toward the very end Traister provides a list of solutions. I am thankful for this and I wish more writers would do this because it is not an easy thing to do. Never forget that to “problematize” and “critique” some newly spotted sociopolitical inequity is not the same thing as offering a solution.

She provided thirteen specific (and bullet-pointed!) policies and attitudes “that must be readjusted and readjudicated as the swelling numbers of unmarried American women move forward into the world.” I cannot reproduce them all here but only say that some are easier to accept than others.

Many of the solutions seem to call for government having a larger role in everyone’s lives. To read “readjust” and “readjudicate” as anything other then an invitation for the state to meddle even further into the lives of individuals is difficult to do.

But because this section is only three or four pages of the book, I would prefer to wait until a fuller argument from her that really fleshes out how one goes about putting all these solutions into operation. Perhaps this will be Taister’s next book?

Wonderful Read

Less critique and more next steps would make a natural followup publication to this book. I suspect that there would be much more for this reader to argue against if such a work were composed.

However, for this book, I found that All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation to be an informative and enjoyable read. And again, unlike my own silly, stilted style above, Rebecca Traister’s prose flows easily.

Like all works that have a feminist edge to them, I always learn something new, as well as occasionally cringe in disbelief as befitting any free individual who happens to be linga-endowed. There is so much about the experience of being an individual who happens to be a woman that I shall never understand. But texts like these help in no small way to provide perspective; they are always an exercise in “consciousness raising” and that is a good thing!

So whether raised, or lowered, or knocked about a bit by new ideas, my free conscious self can very easily recommend this book to others.

In an effort to further strengthen any moderate political position, read this book!

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*Reviewed by T. F. Rhoden. The image-photo credit for the top of this post via Fieldnotes From Catie. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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