In Search of Liberalism: Ideological Traditions, Translations and Troubles in Thailand
- Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 32, Number 3, November 2017
- pp. 531-561
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The history of political thought in Southeast Asia has overwhelmingly focused on nationalism and on socialism and Marxism. Little has been written about the fate of liberalism in the region. This is in stark contrast with the literature that in recent years has emerged on liberal political thought in South and East Asian contexts. Seeking to make a Southeast Asian contribution to this literature, this article asks: Is there liberalism in Thailand? To answer the question, it surveys the existing literature on Thai political thought, outlines the history of the reproduction of the Western liberal canon in Thai translation, and takes stock of contemporary political debates. What does it find? First, that while one might find liberals in Thai history, there is no liberalism. Second, that serious intellectual engagement with liberal political thought occurred comparatively late and has remained modest in Thailand, but that the spectre of Rousseau has nevertheless stalked Thai politics for more than eight decades. Third, and finally, that some Thai intellectual historians and other writers have responded to the country's recent political troubles — in the form of increasing political polarization, intractable and often violent conflict, two military coups, and the ill health and subsequent death of King Bhumibol — by laying the intellectual groundwork for a liberal form of Thai nationalism.