Thai politics and SE Asian power paradigm

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Marzuki Darusman and Budiono Kusumohamidjojo, Jakarta

developments in Thailand following the ousting of prime minister
Thaksin Shinawatra in September last year are worth a closer look from
a regional perspective. Military coups have been a common part of
modern Thai history, going back to the days of the constitutionalist
premier Pridi Bhanomyong in the 1930s.

However, last year’s September Coup has apparently taken a different
character. Staged by the army under the helm of General Sonthi
Boonyaratglin, the coup initially promised stabilizing measures to help
the nation cope with a climate of political conflict and violence in
its southernmost provinces.

Time soon showed that measures taken by the government of Surayud
Chulanont appeared to be unusual for Thailand, seemingly drawing the
country to a political standstill. The Thais in general have grown to
become familiar with a relatively free press and a liberal economy that
embraces foreign investment.

These conditions have been restricted by the present government.
Nevertheless, the violent conflict in southern Thailand does not simply
reflect the uprising of a Muslim minority in a Buddhist-dominated
kingdom. It obviously demonstrates the development of a phenomenon of
cultural pluralism not reckoned with in the realm of Thai tradition to

It has
been accompanied by the effects of globalization, which permeate the
fabric of a Thai society believed to be vehemently reliant on royal
kinship and Buddhist values. Last year’s coup, which was eventually
endorsed by the king, now appears to have disclosed an undercurrent
that belies the dynamics of Thai society, and is hitherto concentrated
around Bangkok’s power centers.

There is a general acceptance that Thailand’s political stability rests
on royal kinship, if not on a royal blessing. However, there have been
recent indications demonstrating that the Thai government should now
take into account socio-political processes that have so far been
deemed to be of peripheral importance.

This notion is in line with developments at a global level, which tend
to have an effect on all countries. Despite the pros and cons vis-a-vis
globalization, one of its positive aspects is that poverty will not
remain isolated and hidden, such as in the southern Thai provinces.

Developments following last year’s coup indicate a trend toward a
power-sharing regime typical of Southeast Asian countries, particularly
evidenced since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The trend marks the
fading of the Weberian doctrine that political power rests with the
state alone.

Generally speaking, the situation of “power absolutism” in Southeast
Asia requires that it be shared among a broad base of both formal and
informal power players. Opposition should be installed in the ruling
class to make having a ruling class possible. The ongoing tensions in
Myanmar and the Philippines, albeit representing two contrasting
systems, provide a typical example of the struggle for such
power-sharing among the various fractions of the respective societies.

Thailand may very well be entering a new era in its long history, which
has been exempt from the colonialism that marred the whole of Southeast
Asia. Although the identity of that era is yet to be defined, we can
assume that the Thai people will soon undertake adjustments to cope
with the new calls of the age.

Thai history is notably remarkable because of the excellent capacity of
its protagonists, the Thai people, to adjust to new challenges and
opportunities. Nevertheless, it seems that a new power-sharing paradigm
might well need to be a feature of the new era.

This would of course entail far-reaching institutional reforms
commensurate with those undertaken by the respected King Rama V in the
19th century. Such a process could only contribute positively to the
regional equilibrium in Southeast Asia and thus better serve security
in the region.

Marzuki Darusman is a member of Parliament and Budiono Kusumohamidjojo
is a Professor of Philosophy. Both are based in Jakarta.

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