The political situation in Thailand is probably less familiar, less understood to most of us than those in, say, Burma or Tibet, so Danny Fisher sits down with an expert to discuss the recent turmoil.
My friend and former colleague, anthropologist and Thailand scholar Erick D. White, is uniquely equipped to help us gain a clearer picture of current issues in Thailand. Erick has been an instructor on the Antioch Buddhist Studies in India Program for the last six years, teaching classes on the Anthropology of Contemporary Buddhism and the History of South Asian Buddhism. He is currently completing his dissertation in Anthropology at Cornell University based on several years of fieldwork studying Thai popular religion and the subculture of spirit possession in contemporary Bangkok. We “spoke” via email.
Erick, I remember when you and I were working together in India in 2006 and news broke that Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a military coup. As I understand it, the “Red Shirts” demonstrating against the government right now are supporters of his, and they want the current Parliament dissolved and new elections to be held. Is this right? Would you help us fill in the blanks?
The “Red Shirts” is a broad, expanding social movement that contains many different distinct groups and ideologies within it. Initially it consisted more exclusively of supporters of Thaksin, but over time it has diversified. Journalists, commentators and “Red Shirt” supporters themselves recognize this diversity, and there are increasingly disagreements and debates over ideology and strategy within the umbrella-like movement. In general over the course of the last year or so, the centrality of Thaksin has declined, as more and more supporters identify themselves as more concerned with ending military dominance of Thai politics and restoring democracy than rehabilitating Thaksin’s personal political fortunes or the political party associated with him. The relative balance of these differing goals within the movement is a subject of much debate though.
The “Red Shirts’” current immediate objective is to have Parliament dissolved and new elections held. The current ruling coalition was formed through parliamentary maneuvers, rather than direct elections, after the courts ordered the dissolution of the previous coalition’s main political party at the end of 2008. This party was a descendent of Thaksin’s pre-coup political party. The “Red Shirts” believe that these parliamentary maneuvers were engineered by the military and the palace, and that the current Democrat Party led coalition is therefore illegitimate. They argue that sovereignty should be returned to the people and elections held so that a governing coalition with legitimacy can be formed. Many political observers believe that if elections were held the Democrat Party would not gain a majority at the polls and thus could not form the next government. The “Red Shirts” believe that this, more than anything else, is why the government – and its institutional supporters – resist calling for new elections.
Two good blogs for following the twists and turns of Thai politics are: http://us.asiancorrespondent.com/bangkok-pundit-blog and http://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/.
There have been mentions in some of the media coverage about the participation of Buddhist monks in these demonstrations. Would you say something about the sangha’s involvement and/or non-involvement in what’s happening? What reasons do these monastics have for supporting the “Red Shirts” in particular?
A general norm in Thailand is that Buddhist monks should be above politics. Nonetheless, historically this has never been the case, at least with a vocal minority. During the political turmoil of the past several years, individual monks and even groups of monastics have come out publicly in support of various political factions. Sometimes they have done so directly, and sometimes indirectly. Sometimes they have supported political factions privately and sometimes publicly. Regardless of the political faction demonstrating, it has not been uncommon to see Buddhist monks observing or even joining in a partisan manner on the side of certain demonstrators. Obviously, it is easier for Buddhist monks to do so when these demonstrations are seen as emerging from general social movements seeking reform and progress rather than specific political parties seeking electoral gain. The growth of various politically-oriented social movements since the coup of 2006, along with the increasing polarization of the electorate, has made it easier and more common for monks to participate in a partisan manner in public demonstrations.
I have not read much that investigates why monastics are currently publicly joining demonstrations in support of the “Red Shirts.” One would assume that the two general reasons of either support for Thaksin or support for democracy that animate the “Red Shirts” more generally would apply to monks as well. Presumably it would be more appropriate for them to give the latter reason than the former reason, but monks hold the normal range of political opinions, preferences and ideologies as the rest of the Thai population so more politically partisan reasons would not be surprising. I did read one newspaper report claiming that many monks out in support of the “Red Shirts” come from a famous monastery in Chiang Mai, and Chiang Mai is a bastion of strong support for Thaksin. But clearly monastics out in support of the “Red Shirts” and participating in the current demonstrations come from other parts of the country as well, and not just regions or provinces that support Thaksin or the parliamentary opposition.
As I understand it, the protestors’ spilling of their own blood in recent demonstrations has a lot of symbolic meaning in terms of supernatural beliefs of Thai Buddhists. Would you say something about this?
In general, the use of blood has little if any resonance in Theravada Buddhist rituals, mythology or beliefs. Similarly, there is little if any tradition of Theravada monastics engaging in the kinds of self-inflicted violence or martyrdom that sometimes arises in Mahayana or East Asian Buddhism. Consequently, the spilling of blood would have decidedly non-Buddhist associations among most Thais, I suspect. Most Thais, especially religious elites, associate bloodletting and ritual sacrifice with “animism” and immoral black magic, and therefore as something decidedly non-Buddhist in character. It wasn’t accidental, I believe, that the central religious actors in these rituals of public political protest were self-identified Brahmins who explained their rituals as Brahmanistic in character. Even in this case, however, there was debate and disagreement as to the character and propriety of these rituals within the community of Thai Brahmins. Thai religious commentators in general, in fact, disagreed about the proper way to religiously interpret these acts, and most that I read attributed it to “non-Buddhist” or degenerate Buddhist influences.
To my eye, the more relevant frame of reference for understanding these rituals is history and politics. Thai history, both modern and pre-modern, is filled with numerous accounts of individuals sacrificing their blood — literally and metaphorically — for the benefit of a larger community. Thai political demonstrations in Bangkok in the modern era, and especially during high points of dramatic political demonstration in the 70s, 90s, and the last decade, have frequently resulted in blood letting, with demonstrators left beaten or killed at the hands of their political opponents, the police or the military. It seems to me that this frame of reference was more frequently referred to by “Red Shirt” demonstrators when they were interviewed by journalists with regards to their voluntary acts of blood “sacrifice”. These recent rituals of spilling blood innovatively combined this modern political frame of reference with another distinct but common tactic of public protest in Thailand, the ritual cursing of one’s enemies. Typically these ritual curses don’t involve blood letting or the use of blood at all, however.
One can read about disagreements regarding the propriety of these rituals within the Brahmin community in this newspaper article, and in this extended description of the protests, which includes a discussion with the Brahmin at the center of the ritual. One can also read about differing religious interpretations of these blood rituals here.
On another issue, you’ve left some really insightful, important comments at my blog and elsewhere about the international media’s coverage of the violence in southern Thailand. I think it would be fair to say that here has been a tendency for these news agencies to report on what’s happening there as a “Buddhist vs. Muslim” issue. Would you say something more about what’s going on in the restive south?
Coverage and popular press discussions of the violence and insurgency in Thailand’s deep south has been increasingly overshadowed in the past year or so by the continuing volatile politics of parties, parliament and protest in Bangkok. In general, the violence declined sharply between 2007 and 2008, with both the number of deaths and injuries and the number of violent incidents decreasing. This was primarily due to changes in the counter-insurgency tactics of the Thai state and an increased military presence in the area suffering from insurgent violence. But in 2009 the violence began to increase again. How much of the violence in the deep south is the result of insurgents versus other sources — crime, political opportunism, etc. — however remains a subject of much debate among observers and analysts. A recent overview of the trends and dynamics of the past six years of violence in southern Thailand can be found here.
Debate over the role of religion in this violence has expanded as well in previous years. Scholars have by now more closely studied the ideological and institutional role of Buddhism in this violence, and some — most prominently Michael Jerryson — have found it to have a more prominent significance than previous scholars claimed. Narratives by ethnic Thais Buddhists, in the South and elsewhere, regarding the need to defend a Buddhist homeland from invasion by Islam and to prevent the dismemberment of a Buddhist nation have gained greater prominence. Also, Jerryson has argued that the state’s counter-insurgency tactics have led to the militarization of Thai temples and, by extension, the Thai Sangha in the deep south. An article by him in this vein can be found in this edited volume. Similarly, some commentators and scholars now argue that Islam is more explicitly and directly involved — ideologically and institutionally — in the claims of the insurgents and its appeal to locals than was previously asserted. Given the shadowy character of the insurgency, however, the intentions and actions of the insurgents remain very difficult to accurately ascertain. Even if they accept this fact, however, almost all commentators continue to believe that the causes of the insurgency result primarily from the aggrieved politics of a dominated ethnic minority seeking greater autonomy and self-governance. Similarly, almost none would see this as primarily a struggle between two religious communities. Instead, most see two religious communities and their actors as being increasingly and inextricably drawn into a more enduring and complicated violent political struggle.