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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The Sad Part Was

A review of by T. F. Rhoden of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was, translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

Thailand’s most popular literary writers rarely get an introduction onto the world stage. An English language newspaper like The Bangkok Post will hint at the greatness of one seminal Thai author or another in their arts and culture section. But non-Thai readers will be clueless as to why. That short stories by the Thai writer Prabda Yoon are now available in his first English language anthology The Sad Part Was is at least one significant corrective. Nearly two decades after Prabda caught the attention of Thai readers and won the S.E.A. Write Award, non-Thais are gifted this rare opportunity to enjoy his works through Mui Poopoksakul’s fluid translation.

Prabda’s writing is playful and creative. For international readers, the breakdown of plot structure, cryptic and sudden endings, and wordplay in general are well understood techniques. But when short story collection Probability came out in 2000, Prabda hit upon a freshness and spontaneity that was less well represented in the realistic writing in Thailand at the time.

One example is in the story “Marut by the Sea”. The burgeoning storyline of the main character Marut’s story is suddenly interrupted by a voice meant to represent some stylized, self-loathing voice of the author’s subconscious. The reader is forced to grapple with this interjecting voice as it obliterates the narrative logic:

You should comprehend by now, given my elaboration thus far, that whoever wrote that book dearest to you is no finer a human being than anybody else. He has no clue what he’s done. Do you know how I got the opportunity to pop up and communicate with you today? It’s simple. Prabda hasn’t come up with a plausible reason for why Marut is sitting by the sea.

You might be thinking that I’m part of his genius. Don’t.

The uninvited authorial voice does not let up. It continues to hold the plot of Marut’s tale hostage, speaking directly to the reader, until the last few words of the story itself. For Thai literature, the effect of the author’s interruption is striking.

All of the short stories work from a vantage point not normally accessible to non-Thai readers. Some comment on how… [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 downtown Bangkok for this re-post goes to the awesome Philippe Lai. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Last Gods of Indochine

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Samuel Ferrer’s The Last Gods of Indochine.

Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.

The novel unfurls over two distinct and widely separated periods of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s past. The first is embodied by the protagonist Jacqueline Mouhot in her visit to Angkor during the interwar years in French Indochina. The second period is set in opposition to, and ultimately intertwined with, the 13th-century struggles of a peasant by the name of Paaku against a despotic monarch of the ancient Khmer Empire.

Jacqueline Mouhot is the granddaughter of explorer and naturalist grandfather Henri Mouhot (1826-61), whose steps she seeks to retrace after receiving an invitation by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to an opening of a temple restoration project in his honor.  Her story is a familiar one of self-discovery in foreign lands, complicated by the tragic choices she had to make as a volunteer nurse with the Anglo-French Red Cross during the Great War and her struggle to face that earlier period in her life.

The granddaughter Jacqueline and her interactions with her contemporaries in colonial Cambodia are fictional. Many of the names that appear in her travels—archeologists Louis Finot (1864-1935) and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949), curator Henri Marchal (1876-1970), and the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945)—are however historical. They all represent a bygone era during which to be a professional “Orientalist” did not immediately connote a problematic image of western imperialism.

The story itself is driven not so much by the adventures of Jacqueline, but rather by the preternatural connection she has with… [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 Angkor Wat for this re-post goes to the talented Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Caretaking Democratization

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Renaud Egreteau’s Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar

Why have the Burmese armed forces withdrawn from direct control of the state? Why have they allowed a “hybrid” regime, with a representatively elected government, to form? What moniker does one use for this new, neither fully authoritarian, nor fully democratic, Myanmar? Indeed, what spurred the recent deepening of political liberalization and widening of democratization across the nation. And why now and not decades earlier?

These are some of the questions which imbue Renaud Egreteau’s excellent Caretaking Democratization: The Military and Political Change in Myanmar (Oxford University Press, 2016) with a saliency and urgency for those wishing to apprehend Myanmar today.

In what this reviewer considers to be the most important publication of the decade on the subject of Myanmar’s democratization, Egreteau argues that the “transition has been driven from above, by ruling Burmese elites—especially military ones—in a clear position of strength since the early 2000s.” By initiating a “well-thought-out”, “caretaking”, and “pacted” transition since 2011, “the Tatmadaw leadership merely chose to move down a notch on the scale of political intervention.” This analysis reminds us that there is more here than some naïve romanticizing of “Burma’s Spring.”

The decades of military authoritarianism are over. The sordid “military junta” as a regime type has disbanded. The current government, particularly after the 2015 general election, is the most democratically representative since independence. But, the Burmese armed forces’ praetorian commitment to political intervention—some of these guaranteed by the 2008 Constitution—demonstrates that the military will continue to have a sizable effect on future developments. Egreteau is keen to remind us that the science of comparative politics is uncertain about the endpoint to this “transition.”

The introduction and initial chapter lay out the focus of the study, one that centers the years from 2010 to 2015 as instrumental. This positions the book as an indispensable resource for comparativists and international affairs scholars in understanding early-stage democratization. Despite the particularity, and peculiarity, of this “sui generis case”, Egreteau frequently utilizes other postcolonial examples to draw out similarities and differences where relevant. Core to the argument of the “planned withdrawal” of the Burmese military from the highest reigns of governmental power were those machinations of “inter-elite negotiations” which centered upon a “pact” between three specific segments of Myanmar’s polity. This “top-down” approach included soldier-turned-civilian leaders from the ancien régime, well-known and well-liked leaders from the pro-democracy opposition—foremost amongst them, Aung Sang Suu Kyi and elites of the National League for Democracy (NLD) political party—and leaders of politicized or armed ethnic groups, particularly those who appeared open to cease-fire negotiations.

Egreteau points out that incorporating… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Originally published in Tea Circle Oxford by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for the top of this re-post goes to awesome Randall Collis. 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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Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful

It is quite all right to hate democracy. T. F. Rhoden dislikes democracy immensely. Without classical liberalism, he argues, it is normal to mistrust democracy in its purer form. Democracy is dreadful without the classifier “liberal” in front – because liberalism is a safeguard against democracy’s inherent decadence of rule by the people.

Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful. Fortunately We Have Both

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, we might do well to pause briefly and consider the state of democracy as a regime type. Both elections make useful pedagogical tools. They toss into relief inherent aspects of this regime type – aspects that may appear hidden most of the time for many of us who fret over the condition of such things.

More than anything else, they should serve as a reminder that Britain and the United States are not pure democracies, but rather liberal democracies.

Democracy as Demagoguery

As long as no monarch, no military junta, no unelected revolutionary vanguard or commission impedes this process of the people in their governing body, then democracy can be said to be working well. The people – the demos – vote on some course of action, as in the EU referendum, or they vote on some individual to lead a slew of actions in the US example. For those who win at this process, then there is much at which to rejoice. For those who lose, there is even more to dread. Indeed, without some form of institutional brakes and constitutional liberties, very little can stop a demos from putting into power a “tyranny of the majority.”

Democracy in its purest forms captures the joys of a winning majority as much as it does the fears of a losing minority. The ancient Greeks knew this well. So too did many of the founders of American government. Democracy as a regime type is nothing other than a vehicle for the demagogue. A well working democracy is, in fact, demagoguery pure and simple.

One of the more humorous misadventures in the scholarly literature on political transitology and democratisation is how comparative political scientists have thought that they need to “depict a ‘new species’, a type of existing democracies that has yet to be theorised” whenever they encounter a democracy that appears wanton. When we think of democracy in this more fundamental and classical sense, democracy naturally appears less appealing to the contemporary thinker. Is it any wonder that for many of the people living under one of these truer forms of democracy, governmental rule may seem more capricious and less predictable? “Democratisation” takes on a more sobering, even sinister, meaning for those citizens who have lost at the ballot box.

Some theorists have gone out of their way to describe this uglier aspect of democracy and call it a “delegative democracy.” Yet if we could only remember that democracy always has this harsher aspect within it, one could leave out the moniker “delegative” altogether. Unchecked, unbalanced incompetence voted into power: this is democracy without liberalism.

Liberalism before Democracy

Democracy, when denuded and reaffirmed as “rule by the people”, does not in any way include… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Democratic Audit UK by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to ModDB. 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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