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  • Educating Thai Democracy
  • Chai-Anan Samudavanija (bio)

Since the beginning of my career as a political scientist in Thailand almost two decades ago, I have pursued a parallel career as an advocate and activist on behalf of representative democracy and participatory political institutions. At one time or another I have served as a leader of student demonstrators, an advisor to prime ministers, a drafter of proposed laws and constitutions, a university professor, and—more recently—director of the Institute of Public Policy Studies, a prodemocratic "think tank." The single theme that links together all my various titles and job descriptions is, I believe, my role as a civic educator. To explain to my fellow citizens why they should want to make their country a democracy, and to show them how it can be done, have always been my goals. [End Page 104]

The task has not been simple, not least because the ground has often given way under my feet. Recent Thai history is a story of sweeping transformations and dizzying political uncertainty. The late 1950s and 1960s ushered in a series of rapid, far-reaching social and economic changes whose effects are still making themselves strongly felt. The economy expanded at a clip of around 7 percent a year as urbanization and industrialization surged, especially in and around the capital of Bangkok. Improved public health programs were fostering explosive population growth; for the first time ever in Thai history, new land for agriculture was running short and the countryside was becoming crowded. Income disparities, meanwhile, were widening in ways apparent to rich and poor alike. Moreover, Thais were coming into close contact with the modern West in the form of tourists, imported goods, and the thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed on Thai soil. In view of this tremendous ferment, it is hardly surprising that new groups were emerging in Thai society, or that hitherto muted demands for participation were mounting in volume and intensity.

Yet throughout the course of these eventful years, Thailand's political system remained sadly stagnant. Military rulers like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (prime minister, 1958-63) and his successor Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn (1963-73) maintained order through a combination of bribes, threats, and coercion. Potential opponents became targets of intimidation or suppression, intellectuals and businessmen were co-opted, and the media was subjected to state control. Patronage and outright corruption were widespread. Such an ossified political system could no longer meet existing needs, let alone those of the future.

Before 1973, rates of political participation were very low. National elections were held intermittently and turnout was always relatively light. Such organized interest groups as did exist were mainly commercial and trade associations, all operating under close official supervision. Groups seeking to influence public policy in the interest of farmers and workers were almost nonexistent. At the same time, however, a multitude of subgroups based on intricate networks of patronage could be found clustered around Thailand's powerful state bureaucracy. These groups competed for control over limited budgets and such lucrative bureaucratic functions as the granting of public contracts, permits, and licenses. Big business interests, meanwhile, formed tight alliances with bureaucratic politicians, Pervasive corruption ensured the thorough intermingling of personal and group interests.

A student-led uprising in October 1973 toppled Prime Minister Thanom and led King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's constitutional monarch, to name Sanya Thammasak, one-time chief justice of the Supreme Court and rector of Thammasat University, as the new premier. Open politics and democratic experimentation had returned. The new democratic regime, however, suffered from an extremely low level of [End Page 105] political institutionalization, while the "opening up" of politics soon resulted in an overload of fresh demands on the system.

Among the many necessities pressing on Thailand's political system in the wake of the student demonstrations and the military's fall from power, two stood out as most critical. The first was the need to restructure the old political and patronage relationships left behind by the ousted military rulers. Second, the constitution, the National Assembly, and the party system—the institutional guarantors of stable democracy—would have to be completely refurbished. These two problems, knotty in themselves, were...


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