Too Much Democracy

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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When The Future Comes Too Soon

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s When The Future Comes Too Soon.

For those who had been living under Western imperialism in Asia, the sudden loss of presumed superiority in almost all things political, social, and cultural of the European colonial powers after Japan’s sudden attack in late 1941 was a seminal event. Japan’s own, often violent, experiment in colonial administration that immediately took its place, lasting through to the summer of 1945, and its attempts at pan-Asianism reinforced for the many that the “civilizing” project need not demand colonial masters from abroad.

As many historical studies have argued, this changed the course of colonialism in Asia. In fiction, however, this perspective of former colonial subjects (as opposed to the colonials themselves) living through the daily trials brought about by the tumultuous events of the Second World War, particularly in mainland Southeast Asia, has been less well explored.

Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s novel When the Future Comes Too Soon is an important corrective—as well as an exciting read—on the subject. The story follows Mei Foong, a Malaysian-Chinese wife and mother, as her family attempt survival during the Japanese occupation of British Malaya.

A picturesque scene of colonial Malaya is developed throughout the novel. Its richness brings the reader closer to the baju styled garb, the sleeping barlay raised platforms of Malayan homes, the Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese dialects of Malayan Chinese, the Kempeitai secret police of Japan, the betel nut chewing of commoners, the local parang machetes of workers, the official British Resident, the hardwood chengai of the tropics, and an innumerable number of traditional honorifics and kinship terms of multilingual Malaya. The protagonist Mei Foong’s interactions in this world are colorful.

The struggle of multiethnic Malaya is paralleled in the… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Malaysian jungle for this re-post goes to this Leo from FWallpapers. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Notes of a Crocodile

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile, translated by Bonnie Huie.

Taiwan’s top court just recently ruled in favour of gay marriage, culminating in what could be Asia’s first jurisdiction to allow members of the same sex to marry. Despite many challenges that still persist politically with the ruling, it indicates a more liberal attitude toward non-heterosexual relationships than when Qiu Miaojin published the novel Notes of a Crocodile in the early 1990s.

Qiu’s frank exploration of lesbianism was a breakthrough for the island’s literature and for modern Chinese fiction as a whole. More than twenty years on, the English-speaking world can now also enjoy this daring, youthful and insightful book in a translation by Bonnie Huie.

Half journal and half epistolary, the story follows the troubled protagonist Lazi as she tries to understand her place in society during her years at university. Something of a misfit, Lazi explores the counterculture of Taipei as she struggles to embrace an identity that is labelled “queer”. The plot is driven by her relationships – some romantic, others more platonic – and the numerous failed attempts at lasting love for individuals who don’t fit the traditional, Taiwanese notion of heterosexuality.

In “Notebook #1” of the book, Lazi starts with an explicit admission. Her tone is straightforward and continues throughout the novel:

In the past I believed that every man had his own innate prototype of a woman, and that he would fall in love with the woman who most resembled his type. Although I’m a woman, I have a female prototype too.

However, regardless of the exploration of gender, the detailed self-inquiry of Lazi’s listless move from high school to college to her first post-university job constitutes a universal and empathetic coming-of-age story. Indeed, lesbianism is incidental to the power of the story.

Woven in between the chapters on Lazi’s story of young love is… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden with this edition of review published in South China Morning Post; photo image credit of Taipei for this re-post goes to this link. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Trivialities About Me and Myself

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Trivialities About Me and Myself

Outsider views of Singapore suffer from numerous preconceptions and generalizations, many the result of sometimes humorous foreign venting in online forums about the city-state’s overweening legal apparatus and legal codes. Yet Singapore is affluent and materially developed by any measure.

Nor is Singapore widely known as a place of literature, but that is at least in part because much of the city’s life lies behind language barriers. This perception is exacerbated by a national campaign, promoted by the city to advertise its strength as a destination for foreign investment rather than a cultural hub.

The novel Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon does two things splendidly to disabuse these notions. First, the novel is a much-needed corrective to the usual stereotypes. The author, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the Southeast Asian Writers Award as well as a prolific poetic, utilizes his work to critique the technocratic veneer of the island nation.

Second, the book employs a theme of the human condition as it intersects with modernity. Big words often used to describe Singapore’s experience of modernity—industrialization, modernization, legalization, and now financialization—do not tell us much about the personal level. Rather, this novel is about one man’s struggle with a breakneck world of change. Though the color is local, the story is global.

The author’s interpretation of the Singaporean dilemma is funneled through the protagonist Ah-hui and his struggle with the ‘Self’. This Self is a voice in Ah-hui’s head that represents one aspect of his ego. Ah-hui speaks to the Self, as if the Self were a separate being. Ah-hui and the Self argue and disagree. Sometimes Ah-hui is the victor. In these instances, an ethic of material profit and consumption wins. Sometimes the Self is the champion. This is meant to represent traditional values. In Ah-hui’s case, the Self will often prefer the exegesis of classical Chinese literature or the righteousness found in the defense of those who have been left behind in Singapore’s expanding economy.

The confrontation between Ah-hui and the Self is reflected on two levels. In as much as the Singaporean city-state moves away from Confucianism, so too does Ah-hui… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; watercolor image credit for this re-post goes to Khor Seow Hooi at The Colours of Heritage. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Review of Texaners by Jessica Gregory

Review

Reviewed by Jessica Gregory at Sabatoge Reviews for T. F. Rhoden’s Texaners: Eight Short Stories.

‘…those perfectly imperfect souls of expansive, yet common diversity.’
Texaners

What comes to mind when thinking of Texas? What stands out from the jumble of imagery that us non-Texans have subconsciously absorbed from various transmitters? Some montage of the following, I would say: the lonely ranches in the desert with their clanking windmills; the Rio Grande; cowboys silhouetted by the red setting sun; Country and Western music; the Dallas theme-tune; gun-toting, shooting, Second Amendment espousing Republicans; George W Bush; oil fields; all wrapped up in the sweltering Texan heat. And in light of this, this reviewer can readily understand Rhoden’s compulsion to attempt to debunk these stereotypes. As Rhoden himself says:

These stories are about new Texans—new Texaners. These children of the new Texas have no idea, no connection aside from locale, of that Texas of yesteryear.

Instead of cowboys Rhoden is exploring suburban, city, Texan life, particularly from the perspective of those that don’t find themselves apart of the Texan stereotype – the students, the immigrants, the multiracial, the liberal, the artists, among others. Rhoden has cited James Joyce’s Dubliners as a source of inspiration for this collection, and so he has set the bar high when attempting to emulate Joyce’s exploration of place-based identity.

Texaners consists of eight short stories. From the outset we are cast into a world far… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review originally published in Sabatoge Reviews by Jessica Gregory; image credit for this re-post via City-Data. 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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Karen Language Phrasebook: Basics of Sgaw Dialect

A new book for a new year!

Karen Language Phrasebook: Basics of the Sgaw Dialect can be purchased through normal book distributors, including Amazon or directly from White Lotus Press.

Description

Comprehensive guide to the basics of Sgaw dialect of Karen language. Learn key phrases and words to use with any Karen companion, whether they live in Myanmar, Thailand, or wherever in the world. Phrasebook is for more than just learning to survive in a Karen-speaking environment. The goal is also to help you make new friends!

Chapters include: Preface; Acknowledgements; 1) Intro; 2) Basics; 3) Saying Hello; 4) Personal Info; 5) Getting Around; 6) Tea Shop Dining; 7) Staying the Night; 8) Shopping; and 9) Health Bibliography.

Paperback: 126 pages
Publisher: White Lotus Press (2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 974849599X
ISBN-13: 978-9748495996
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.3 x 8.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 7.7 ounces

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*Original book copyright held by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit to this blog post goes to Khin Maung Kyaw. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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