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. [Originally published in New Mandala]

Dr. Daniel H. Unger 

1955–2017

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 licence. 

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Death of a Monarch or an Oligarch?

At the end of a king’s long reign, it won’t just be a game of thrones that plays out in Thailand – it will be a game of gold.

The Associated Press recently published an article on the “Thai monarchy’s billions.” This makes for an important, if brief, reminder that there is more than just the power of quasi-governmental position or the power of ideology to the elite role that the late monarch held within the Thai polity.

Because the King could also readily command a power of mobilisation and could have, at least theoretically, commanded a certain power of coercion if the Thai nation were to ever actually slip into a prolonged, violent emergency, he also commanded a remarkable degree of power in terms of raw material wealth.

An extreme concentration of material wealth has political consequences. Thailand, in this regard, is no different than any other polity across the globe. What is unique about Thailand is that its wealthiest citizen also happened be the focal point of so many other bases of elite power. The late monarch was both an elite and an oligarch. And as he was arguably the top elite amidst a network of various elites, he was also the top oligarch.

Thus, as objectively and level-headed as one can be about such things, we should do well to review the state of Thailand’s oligarchy at this juncture of the late monarch’s—the late top oligarch’s—death.

As a side note on motivation for this piece, it should also be plainly stated that one does not mull over economic inequality simply for the sake of getting a pat on the back by our overly-represented, Left-leaning colleagues in academia. Nor does one do this in order to conjure up even rarer arguments for the late monarch’s well-recorded and, at times, patently undemocratic tendencies. Rather, one ought to review the late King’s material wealth as social power simply because in Thailand it is an empirical fact that money matters quite a great deal on the political stage, both locally and nationally.

With the King’s passing, what has changed about oligarchy in Thailand? What has stayed the same? Beginning with the latter, the overall structure of oligarchy has not changed within Thailand since Thursday, 13 October 2016.

There are still incredibly… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; any original credit for image/photo at the top of this post via Bloomberg. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Who Would Voters with No Votes Vote For?

An exercise in extending absentee suffrage for Myanmar’s citizens abroad.

The 2015 election in Myanmar marked a major milestone in the country’s political transition and return to democracy. But some people were left out of the historic vote.

The reasons to not allow an individual to vote are as much a part of the history of all our great liberal democracies as they are a continual reminder to remain vigilant for those of us who may have lost that right somehow. In the past, some of us did not own property, were not the right kind of ‘white’ (Northern European), were not men, a tad too tanned or rather much too noir, or simply too young to vote — yet not too young to make the ultimate sacrifice in “foreign war.”

If the above reflects too much of the Western experience, then one could also include reasons like class, religion or lack of, language or dialect, caste, cult, ideology, marriage status, education level, sexual preference, and on and on.

Think of some ridiculous social cleavage, some cultural hang-up of yesteryear, and the astute comparative political scientist will ultimately be able to pluck another tawdry example from an even more exotic, backward republic. Give the polity an election and it will collectively vomit out some new excuse for democratic exclusion come election day.

But how does one analyse the individual who once had a political right and has now lost it? How about the individual who lost the right to vote for no reason other than not being at the right place at the right time on election day? A loss on grounds of a technicality—of logistics?

In Myanmar’s 2015 election, they had a constitutional mechanism ready to thwart such a possibility. In the 2010 House of Representatives Election Law, a provision exists in Chapter IX, section 45 to 47, which allows for an “advance ballot.” This is meant to assist those citizens who are bedridden, who may be out of the township on business, or who may be even so far away as to be beyond the territorial sovereignty of the state. Though what is legislated through Parliament and what is effected via on-the-ground operations, alas, proved to be very different.

Of those who were registered… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; image-photo credit for this post via ITV. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Millennia-Long Histories and Burmese Migrations into Thailand

For the approximately three million people from Myanmar in Thailand now, the main narrative on migration is essentially binary. The argument generally goes that one is either a labourer or one is a refugee. In terms of causation, the former is enticed to move for “voluntary” reasons of economic want, while the latter is propelled for “forced” reasons of political exigency.

This is, perhaps, something of a simplification of the research of others, but the deeper one delves into the literature of at least three specific areas or disciplines of study—contemporary migration policy analysis, international refugee and labour law, and any humanitarian or NGO-type study—the more one realises that this refugee-vs-labourer binary is the essential theoretical framework for analysis. I worry that this is more of a trope than something backed by on-the-ground evidence.

Last year Adam Saltsman made an argument in The Diplomat that too much of a differentiation between refugees and labourers may actually do harm to those who analysts and scholars may wish to help, now that so many of the once “refugees” have already entered the labour pool in Thailand. He argues that “advocacy for refugees must be linked with advocacy for migrants and for labour rights” in order to come to any “durable solutions.”

My own forays into the study of the Burmese in Thailand have also generated qualitative as well as quantitative evidence to argue against this simple binary. This needs to be analysed more fully…[click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; all other written and photo credits appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Unequal Thailand

Book review published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden on Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker’s Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power (Singapore: NUS Press, 2015.

Does Thailand have an oligarchy? If so, how do we define it? And most importantly for this collection of essays, what is the proof of its existence in contemporary Thailand?

These are some of the main questions that pervade Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power, edited by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. Translated and reworked from a Thai-language edition, Su sangkom thai samoe na [Towards a More Equitable Thailand] published in 2014 by Matichon, this volume is a timely and useful review of some of the political economy issues facing Thailand today.

With nine chapters by Thai scholars and technocrats, the aim of the book is to provide up-to-date data and analysis on those material foundations that have fostered a growth in inequality and a strengthening of oligarchy in recent years. Some chapters do this better than others, but all provide insight into these issues.

In terms of raw empirical analysis, all of the research essays are a success, particularly the second chapter on… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for re-post from Matthijs van Oostrum via Atlantis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Myanmar Needs to Forgive Tax Dodgers

Whether motivated by greed or virtue, granting a one-time tax transparency amnesty to past evaders will help the country’s economic and political transformation.

With the new Yangon Stock Exchange (YSX) set to open in less than five months, now is good time to reflect on, not just the political liberalisation of Myanmar away from military authoritarianism and towards democratisation, but also on the evolution of the economic sphere.

And in particular, increased transparency.

A successful national bourse requires more than a modicum of transparency. “Transparency” itself can mean more than one thing. Openness to outside investigation, whether it be a corporation’s financial statements or a government bureau’s budget, can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the situation.

However, I argue that there is more good to be had — that is, not just more economic efficiency or effectiveness, but genuine honesty in the development process — if something like a “tax transparency amnesty” for domestic businesses in Myanmar were promulgated by a democratically elected parliament.

We all understand that “politics” and “money” often intersect, particularly at the commanding heights of a national state. Some manifestations of the politics-money nexus are useful whilst others are more than a little depressing; but there is one avatar in particular that is a scourge on Myanmar’s political economy. A tax transparency amnesty could prove analgesic to that still lingering sick-man of Myanmar’s economy: the crony capitalist.

If cronyism between government and businesses is one type of economic activity that could use a dose of transparency, Thomas Fuller’s recent piece in the New York Times is a dismal reminder of another kind of less-than-ideal investor-backing for some of Myanmar’s corporate entities. Illicit trading of items like poppy (now often as methamphetamine), timber, and precious stones are hidden on the former balance sheets of more than a few companies. A tax transparency amnesty could prove useful here as well, helping to highlight wealth and income that is more or less clean (though underreported in the past), whilst also reasserting the illegality of some commercial goods.

But what exactly is a “tax transparency amnesty” and how would it work?

A tax transparency amnesty would be a one-time opportunity for businesses and individuals to declare past hidden income or wealth for an agreed upon fee. Regardless of where the funds came from, all money in the system would be declared white: everyone would get a clean set of books.

The one-time fee would probably be a… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Dustin Main. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. white-compass-rose-th

Thailand’s Oligarchs Are Fighting

I want to believe that those who have taken to the street recently in Bangkok really do wish at heart to simply have a political system that is free from the influence of money. Or maybe we should say extreme amounts of wealth, like an ultra-extreme amount of wealth available only to the—not the top 1 percent—but the top .01 percent, top .001 percent, and, empirically speaking, really the top .0001 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people.

The influence of extreme inequalities of material wealth on national politics is a very good reason for those who work in salaried, white-collar professions in Bangkok to protest en masse. Honestly, the influence of extreme wealth on politics is a good reason for anyone to protest. And so, we should acknowledge that those on the street right now are acting of their own volition, correct? All of us have friends and colleagues who, whether we agree with them or not, are part of this protest, people whom we respect. We can acknowledge their passion. If this is a passion stirred by the direct consequences of extreme material wealth—the most salient example of this in Thai national politics being former PM Thaksin Shinawatra—then it is a legitimate passion, and more importantly, a legitimate reason to protest.

When political equality is hampered by economic inequality, can Thailand still have a liberal democracy? I wonder if this is at the heart of the problem. Does Thailand have something like a national oligarchy that is affecting, whether negatively or positively, some political outcomes? Does it make sense to ask if, casually speaking, the presence of a robust Thai oligarchy after Thaksin’s emergence on the national stage has conditioned, constrained, shaped, or some other way constituted the various events leading up to the 2006 coup, the crackdown of red-shirted protesters in 2010, the national elections in 2011, and the current round of protests in a way that if there were no Thai oligarchy would quite simply have not have occurred? Does Jeffery A. Winters’ thesis in his 2011 book Oligarchy apply to national case of Thailand as well?

PM Yingluck has made a public statement saying that… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; all other written and photo credits appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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