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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Tribute to Daniel H. Unger

Professor Daniel Unger, Ajarn Danny, or more often just “Danny” as many called him, had a profound impact on many of his students at Northern Illinois University (NIU). T. F. Rhoden reflects on his acclaimed scholarship and ever inquisitive mind.

Dr. Daniel H. Unger 


The first time that I came across Danny Unger’s name was when I was still a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Sakon Nakhon in the middle 2000s. At the time, I had been placed with a rural subdistrict administrative organization (SAO) office to work on various community-based projects and became interested in the concept of social capital as it works—or doesn’t work—in Thai society. When I spotted a used copy of Danny’s Building Social Capital in Thailand in a Chiang Mai bookstore I picked it up immediately. The dedication to that book read:

To my parents, who gave me life and liberty.

And all the others without whom

I might have finished sooner

but been much less happy.

I felt something of a kindred spirit with the scholar after reading this. I knew that if I were ever to take classes on Thai studies at the university level, I would want to study with another soul who valued the happiness of friendship and family over all else. When I applied to university years later, having Danny Unger on the faculty in the Department of Political Science at NIU was the primary draw for me.

In fall 2011, I had my first class with Danny at NIU. I suspect that most of the political science students in the class balked at a reading list that averaged around 10 journal articles and four books per week. But I absolutely loved it.

The simple, yet powerful idea that “time is fateful” for that course provided me with the courage to propose and research a topic in Thailand that utilises historical progression in the core argument for my dissertation. There are very few practitioners of political science in the American tradition who can knowledgably teach from this perspective. One of my favorite articles by Danny makes free use of this types of analysis: “Sufficiency Economy and the Bourgeois Virtues.” His most recent book with Chandra Mahakanjana Thai Politics: Between Democracy and Its Discontents places the politics of Thailand in the context of centuries-long trends.

Danny also became a personal friend in that fall of 2011. I remember the house party he threw for all the comparative politics students early that semester. Some us of stayed until the sun came up the next morning. DeKalb, Illinois is not the most exciting place, so the willingness of Danny to open his house up to students as a place to gather, unwind, and have a bit of fun became something like a lifeline for many of us when we were not in Southeast Asia for research.

Over the years, Danny Unger touched the lives of many students during his time at Georgetown University and Northern Illinois University in America, and at the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) and Thammasat University in Thailand. Since I cannot name all of them here, I want to mention those students whom Danny mentored specifically as chair or co-chair of their doctoral dissertation while at NIU:

  • Paul Chambers, 2003, “Factions, Parties, Coalition Change and Cabinet Durability in Thailand:  1979-2001”
  • Chandranuj Mahakanjana, 2004, “Municipal Government, Social Capital, and Decentralization in Thailand”
  • Sokbunthoeun So, 2009, “Political Economy of Land Registration in Cambodia”
  • Punchada Sirivunnabood, 2009, “Local Political Party Branches in Thailand”
  • Nicolaus Harjanto, 2010, “Political Party Survival: The Golongan Karya Party and Electoral Politics in Indonesia 1999-2009”
  • Vasu Srivarathonbul, 2010, “Controlling Migrant Workers: Thailand’s Perspective”
  • Yanyong Innanchai, 2012, “The Roles of the Legislature and Civil Society in Civil-Military Relations”
  • Antwon Hampton, 2013, “Rapid Regime Responses:  An Urban Regime Analysis of Chicago’s and Miami’s Policy Responses to an Emerging Housing Crisis”
  • Pinitbhand Paribatra, 2013, “Thailand’s Relationship With It’s Neighbors: A Study of Border Conflict From 1973 to 2011”
  • Srie Honora Ramli, 2013, “From National to Local Elections: An Analysis of the Number of Political Parties Across Electoral Districts in Indonesia”
  • Joseph Scanlon, 2015, “Intent Through Event: The Promotion of Identity and Interests at the Olympic Games”
  • Thomas F. Rhoden, 2017, “Neither Migrant Nor Refugee: Comparative-Historical Study of Burmese Migration into Thailand”

The last time current NIU students met up with Ajarn Danny in Thailand was after the ENITS & ENITAS Awardee Presentation by the Institute of Thai Studies, Chulalongkorn University last year. He graciously invited many of us out for drinks afterward to review how the presentations went and what new areas of research we were undertaking. As always it was a joy (and a lot of fun!) to be with him.

Those students at Northern Illinois University who studied with Danny Unger and knew him personally are grieved by his loss. His quick wit, warmth, diverse interests, intelligence, and support for us younger scholars will be missed dearly.

T.F. Rhoden is a PhD Candidate at Northern Illinois University. Photo above was taken in July 2016 in Bangkok with Danny Unger and NIU political science doctoral students Iqra Anugrah and T. F. Rhoden.

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons license. 


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No Burmese Returning: Economics Across Myanmar-Thailand Border


As Myanmar’s national politics change from a military authoritarian regime toward civilian rule, this paper seeks to understand whether Burmese emigrants abroad are starting to return home. By placing the specific case study of net migration flows across the Myanmar-Thailand land border into a larger study of all of net migration flows across all other land borders around the globe, a comparison can be made as to the direction and the amount of these net migration flows. We argue that, regardless of the political situation, when surveying the top large-scale net migration flows of over 350,000 people, fairly simple economic indicators help us to predict that, ceteris paribus, the direction of any net migration flow will move from poorer to wealthier country. Material differences in wealth, however, do not help to predict the amount of that net migration flow. We conclude that because of prevailing magnitudes of material difference between Myanmar and Thailand, we see nothing that suggests that Burmese migrants have started to return home in any large numbers.

Keywords: Myanmar-Thailand border, Burmese migration, Myanmar, land border, migration, Burmese economy, Thai economy.

Introduction & Background

For the Myanmar-Thailand border, the direction of net migration flows has been going one way since at least the 1980s; whether these migrants have been economic immigrants or political refugees, year after year, more Burmese have been living in Thailand then Thais living in Myanmar. Yet, if we follow the news in Southeast Asia today, a new trend appears to be surfacing whereby everyone these days seems to be going to Myanmar. Over the past year, current and former heads of government such as Barak Obama, Tony Blair, Manmohan Singh, Shinzo Abe, and David Cameron, as well as European Commission President José Barroso have visited. In 2013, Myanmar had its first high-profile tech company visit by Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt of Google Inc. The nonprofit Institute of International Education facilitated nine American universities recently in sending representatives to Myanmar to inquire upon exchange opportunities for faculty and students in the future. Multilateral organizations and foreign government officials reestablishing diplomatic relations, also have been streaming into Myanmar. Accordingly, international weekly seat capacity for all airlines flying into Myanmar has doubled from around 40,000 a week in August 2012 to over 80,000 a week by January 2013 to meet the new demand. All this activity represents a dramatic reversal from years past.

For decades, the Burmese government made it fairly difficult for foreigners to travel to, or do business in, Myanmar. And after the military regime failed to respect the outcome of elections in 1991, many foreigners eschewed Myanmar altogether. Traveling there risked the wrath of critics of the country’s ruling generals, particularly by those activists working for a regime change. These critics urged maximum isolation of the regime as a means of putting pressure on the generals to release political prisoners, negotiate with ethnic minorities, and hold free and fair elections. However, the regime launched radical changes in 2003 with its “road map to democracy”. In consequence, as the regime has delivered on allowing national elections in the last few years, outsiders are scrambling to get into Myanmar. If foreigners are now flocking to get into Myanmar, what about the Burmese? Until very recently, Myanmar was not only a country many outsiders avoided, but one in which insiders were spilling out in great numbers and in particular into Thailand. Now that so many foreigners want to get into Burma, will this mean that the Burmese will feel less of an urgent need to get out? Could the direction of net migration across the Myanmar-Thailand border have reversed, or at the very least slowed down?

Myanmar remains an extremely poor country with few economic opportunities for local employment. For political reasons, but economic ones as well, the Burmese… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in International Journal of East Asian Students of Thammasat University, Thailand, by T. F. Rhoden and D. Unger; photo credit goes to Rohan Radheya via The Diplomat. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.