Division, state patronage hamper progress
Civil society in Thailand is facing a gigantic dilemma. Many in mainstream civil society may realise that some of us have been out of touch with the plight of ordinary people while developing a more cosy relationship with the state in the hope that it can help us reach our goals.
Under such circumstances, there exist not-so-convenient truths that we need to confront and tackle them in order to move forward.
First of all, we should admit that many of us have not given sufficient attention to rights and freedom of ordinary people who are not beneficiaries of our work. For example, we did not react to the arrest and imprisonment of Jatupat Bunpattararaksa, or Pai Dao Din, for his campaign ahead of the charter referendum. What Pai did was not different from a countless number of civil society movements on environment, health, socio-economic and energy issues. Our ignorance about this and other unrelated issues has fragmented us, we work on specific areas that serve our agenda. Rights and freedom of the average citizens, as a result, no longer form a foundation of our universal principles. Our energy has been gradually dropped.
Secondly, we have developed a cosy relationship with the state. Many of us have little choice but to blend ourselves into the patronage circle employed by the state in an exchange for opportunities to push for policy change and seek support through state mechanisms. For example, in the wake of the 2006 and 2014 coups, few of us have become vocal critics of the military and its questionable and unjust acts. Instead, some of us have formed an alliance with the military governments while keeping silent in the hope that in doing so we may have a chance to push for policy changes in accordance with our belief.
I am not saying that we should detach ourselves from the state. I myself have worked through state mechanisms when running campaigns against the Pak Moon dam or the coal power plant in Krabi. However, we have to admit that many of us, myself included, remain silent in certain occasions or speak up in a way that it is not an outright opposition to the government.
As we strive to save our small window of opportunities, the state has increasingly questioned some principles and values that we once held. These include universal health coverage, free and alternative education and holistic health. Many of us still remain complacent over potential changes by the state, adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
Third, we still prefer to live in our own "dignified" comfort zone. We have our own forums, language and tactics. Even though they are as valuable as we want them to be, we have barely shared our assets through other platforms we are not familiar with. For example, we have rarely tapped into pop culture or mainstream culture to help us reach our goals. Instead, we have remotely questioned pop culture (such as why so many are catching the Pokemon monsters), rather than trying to be part of it.
Staying in our comfort zone has narrowed our vision and tired our mission to bring about social change.
Fourth, we still offer our "concerns" about social problems rather than give hope. It is, however, still a good sales pitch among the mainstream and online media outlets. Hope, on the other hand, has been bestowed by the state and the private sector.
Lastly, even though we perform as part of the civil society, we have to admit that many of us do not believe in the righteous authority of ordinary people. Strangely, we hold a belief that being part of civil society means our thoughts and movements have been polished and as a result we are entitled to righteous power to bring about change. Some of us believe that ordinary citizens who have not gone through the polishing process should not hold such authority.
Exalting ourselves higher than the people has made us largely unaware actual social problems, authentic feelings, actual hope and true forces of society. As a result, our collective level of energy has dropped and we have become increasingly more dependent on the state's patronage.
These realities have been the setbacks and we need to rethink our approach.
First of all, we need to redefine "universal" principles as a foundation for civil society movements. Everyone should be entitled to these shared principles, notwithstanding their different beliefs or political stances. As long as they exercise their rights based on these shared values, they should receive moral support from civil society groups.
Without rethinking approaches and upholding these universal principles, civil society will become just another network of people working in the same fields under the patronage of the state. We will be out of touch with people who do not share the same interests or the same beliefs.
The next step for us is to dig deeper into the thoughts and livelihoods of people. We need to learn and explore why they think differently as a search for our new energy and new goals. Then, it can lead to social change. We should abandon the traditional notion of us taking a guiding role and offering the same old solutions.
This means we need to get out of our comfort zone and work with people from different groups applying different approaches, even though it may bring about less predictable outcomes. At the end, we should not rely on the state's patronage but depend more on responses from people and resources related to them such as local administrative bodies.
Support from the state, if it happens, should not be given at the mercy of someone or as a means to hail a government's policies. It must be driven by the needs of the people who share with us the same righteous authority.
Decharut Sukkamnoed, PhD, teaches at Kasetsart University and is a key member of several civic groups.
Kasetsart University lecturer
Decharut Sukkumnoed, PhD, is an economist, lecturer at Kasetsart University's Faculty of Agricultural Economics. He is known for his role as a social critic.