Authoritarian Culture and the Struggle for Human Rights in Thailand

Human Rights Dialogue 1.3 (Winter 1995): "International Human Rights and Asian Commitment"

Human rights issues related to the historical and cultural attributes of Asia are now being bandied about in the international arena as the so-called "Asian Way of Human Rights." Thailand has not openly joined these Asian countries—especially China, Malaysia, and Singapore—in promoting a discourse about an Asian Way of Human Rights. The Thai government, nonetheless, seems to agree to some extent with that discourse, which is related to trade and economic competition between Asia and the West, and borrows the idea to justify a policy of "constructive engagement" with the dictatorial government of neighboring Myanmar.

Thailand is generally regarded as an established Buddhist society. But in reality the basic tenets of Buddhism—that is, moral enlightenment with wisdom and loving kindness—have not been upheld in practice in Thai society, particularly by the ruling elite. Rather, an authoritarian culture, which places power over reason and wisdom, has been dominant. The distortion of religious tenets occurs because religion exists not in a vacuum but within a sociopolitical context. What religion is believed to be at any given time or to say on any specific matter is the product of competing human perceptions and prevailing socioeconomic forces.

Authoritarian ideas in Thailand stem directly from the cult of divine kingship going back to premodern times. This cult existed side by side with Dharmist legal and political philosophy, contributing to a double standard in Thai legal and political philosophy. On the one hand, there were laws that constrained the unjust power of the king. But there were also laws that upheld the godlike status of the king, endowing him with the power to exercise his will however he pleased. The combination of a Hindu notion of divine kingship and a feudal absolute monarchy reinforced authoritarianism as the dominant political culture of ancient Thai society. This culture has survived into the present, where it has clashed with a modern culture of democracy and human rights.

Prior to the nineteenth century, Thai society as a "duty-based" society had no experience with the Western concept of human rights. Western ideas about freedom and liberty were imported to Thailand during the reign of King Chulalongkorn the Great (1868–1910) when the American Constitution was translated into Thai and made available to the public. After that publication, Preedee Panomyonk, a lawyer and a leader of democratic change in Thailand, brought the idea of human rights to wider public attention in his textbook on administrative law. Later, his ideas of human rights developed into the Declaration of the People s Revolutionary Committee in 1932, thereby establishing the first democratic system in Thailand.

The 1932 Declaration marked the introduction of human rights into Thai culture. Its roots, however, were not deep enough to withstand the sway of the entrenched authoritarian culture. The newly born human rights thought was held hostage to the complexity and prolonged power struggle that followed the revolution. Even Preedee Panomyonk was forced to temporarily leave Thailand during the power struggle after being charged with communist involvement. Thailand s first anticommunist law was enacted shortly thereafter in 1933. Then a cycle of coup d états took place that exposed the lack of commitment to human rights. A number of unjust laws were enacted, including martial law decrees, the Anti-Communist Law, the Law on Special Tribunals for Political Trials, and the Censorship Law. After a 1947 coup and following the total collapse of Preedee s minority progressive wing, right-wing political groups led by Field Marshall Piboonsongkram and Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat moved toward a more overtly authoritarian style of politics.

During the post–World War II period the United States had significant influence in the political events of Thaiand though not always to the benefit of human rights. The economic policy of state capitalism of the Piboonsongkram government had strengthened its authoritarian rule, but because this policy ran counter to the free market interests of the U.S. by impeding the growth of global capitalism, the United States put its support behind the pro-American Field Marshall Sarit. In 1958, Field Marshall Sarit s coup toppled the Piboonsongkram government, resulting in a prolonged period of absolute dictatorship. This represented the cornerstone of the American imperialist strategy to extensively influence Thailand s economy and politics up until 1973. Economic planning under the American model of industrialization and modernization emphasized economic growth over equity and received support during this period from the Investment Promotion Law as well as the Anti-Labor Strike Law, which was passed in the form of a military decree. The dictatorial government cited national security from both external and internal threats to justify its comprehensive infiltration into political and economic life, actions that were encouraged by the American strategy of containment to prevent the spread of communism in Asia.

A surge in the human rights discourse in Thai society followed the October 14, 1973 popular uprising that successfully overthrew the reigning authoritarian regime of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn. The overthrow scattered the conservative political and economic forces, creating more political space for the middle class and the capitalists. The market structures that permitted the development of human rights in the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were also present in Thailand at this time. In addition, the popular movement for democracy and the eventual collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand also served as a catalyst for the development of human rights. But before the fruits of this development could ripen, the people of Thailand had to endure more brutality and bloodshed. Thai society experienced devastation in the massacre of students and demonstrators in October 1976 at Thammasat University and in the events of "Bloody May" from May 17 to 20, 1992.

The Bloody May incident revealed the continuance of an authoritarian culture and the strength of conservative interest groups in Thai society, especially within the middle class, that challenge human rights. It is important to note that this authoritarian culture is buttressed by a system of patron-client relationships, remnants of Thailand s feudal era. These patron-client relationships created a hierarchical system within various sectors of society, especially the military, the elected government, and the rural areas, that has resulted in corruption and vote buying prevalent in rural areas today. The 1992 crisis was quickly resolved by the intervention of King Bhumipol, the resignation of General Suchinda as prime minister, and the promulgation of a general amnesty. The restoration of democracy, however, has not left Thailand free from the threat of authoritarian rule.

The continuing influence of "authoritarian groups" in Thailand is evident not only in the political sphere but also in the current direction of social development, modernization, and rapid industrialization. Despite the high rate of economic growth, the prolonged problem of inequitable income distribution will likely remain unresolved or even worsen. The gradual collapse of the agricultural sector as a result of tremendous migration of labor toward the industrial and service sectors has increased the exploitation of women and children labor. While sustainable development and human-based strategies of economic and social development are much debated at economic planning meetings and in research papers, the realization of these ideas is impeded by persistent economic, political, and cultural structures. These structures remain strongly attached to the old economic growth paradigm that emphasizes achievements in life related to "having" many secular goods rather than being a "good" human.

*1* This is an edited excerpt from "The Authoritarian Culture, State Security Law and the Asian Way of Human Rights: Thailand at the Cross Road," prepared for the International Conference on National Security Laws in the Asia-Pacific, Seoul, Korea, November 22-24, 1995.

Read More: Human Rights, Human Rights, Asia, Southeast Asia, Thailand

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