Unmaking Civil Society: Activist Schisms and Autonomous Politics in Thailand
- Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 36, Number 3, December 2014
- pp. 356-385
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This article examines the shifting terrain of politics in Thailand since 1992. To do so, it re-evaluates the democratization literature that sought to understand the relationship between Thai civil society and democratic consolidation and explores the disagreements within activist networks that have emerged in recent years. These simultaneous analyses reveal that (1) the civil society literature was itself political, and (2) that such a characterization obscured the growing schisms within the activist networks thought to comprise civil society around questions of democracy. To demonstrate this argument, I describe the overlapping terrain of government Thaksin created and its effects on coalitions of urban activists. These shifting frameworks of government reduced the power of many previous activist networks by redirecting money through new state agencies like the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI). They also exposed the kinds of power relations central to the longstanding project of governing the poor that many citizens had to engage with in order to gain state benefits. Although many citizens continue to participate in these projects, they have begun to express their demands for autonomous political voice elsewhere. What is at stake in these disagreements and Thailand’s larger political quandary is not the boundaries of civil society, but rather a contest over who is a proper political subject and what constitutes proper politics.