John Locke and Thailand's future

John Locke and Thailand's future

I have closely followed Thai politics since 1961 when my father, Kenneth Young, was US Ambassador to Thailand. The tension between Thai traditions and westernisation, which broke into the open with the revolution of 1932, is still unresolved after many constitutions, many protests and many coups.

That tension to me has unnecessarily placed the monarchy in opposition to popular democracy.

I concluded that those who choose populist democracy as the only way forward for a westernised Thailand were too much under the influence of the Jacobins in the French Revolution.

The 1932 coup against absolute monarchy was organised by the Khana Ratsadon, which included Pridi Banomyong, Plaek Pibulsonggram and Naep Phahonyothin. The group first gathered in February 1927 on the Rue du Sommerard in Paris.

Those French ideas, originated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, were also taken up by other Asian students educated in France -- Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh and Khieu Sampan of the Khmer Rouge.

A particularly excessive intensification of the tension occurred in the violent repression of protesters on Oct 6, 1976 and the imposition of the Thanin Kraivixian administration.

Seeking to be of help to a country which my family so much admires, I put together a short paper with some friends who also cared about Thailand very much: Thailand: Domino by Default.

Our premise was that dissension between the two extremes, not any communist insurgency, would cause Thailand to fall on its face like a domino losing its balance and toppling over on its own.

Our paper was translated into Thai and was widely read by the military. On Oct 20, 1977, the Thanin administration was then overthrown by Gen Kriangsak and Adm Sangad Chaloryu.

In giving reasons for the coup, Adm Sangad told the press that while some say Thailand will be another domino, that is not going to happen. Thailand was thus opened up to political evolution under a process called "half democracy".

I felt somewhat vindicated in our analysis and was relieved to see Thailand evolve towards a new politics grounded in a rising middle class.

A much better approach for Thailand to have taken in 1932 would have been to use the thinking on constitutional democracy of John Locke. Locke understood that a balance of powers is the best course to follow for any nation.

There need to be laws and institution for any community to flourish and there needs to be limits on those laws and the institutions to protect the people from abuse of power.

Locke's thinking and recommendations can easily be embraced within Buddhist teachings. In proposing a balance between people power and government authority, Locke found a middle way between the extremes of disruptive chaos on one side and self-seeking dictatorship on the other. Similarly, Lord Buddha taught that the dhamma could become our way in life if we avoid extremes.

Locke proposed a simple way to balance law with freedom -- he thought of government office as a trust, of those in power as trustees serving the people.

In Thai culture, the duties included in the Thosapit Rachathamma come very close in my mind to Locke's ideas about public office as a public trust.

According to Locke, public power cannot be given to anyone for selfish personal exploitation but only as a trust to be used to benefit others. Public office can never be owned or used as personal property.

A government official only holds power as a public trust. Like all stewards or trustees, he or she must be loyal to the beneficiary of the power and use due care in making decisions about how to use the power given in trust.

The due care in decision-making asked of all trustees aligns with the principles of the Thai practice of the Sufficiency Economy.

A decision-maker should act with good reasons, be moderate and always have resilient capacity at hand to meet risks and emergencies.

In addition, a good trustee must have knowledge and possess integrity. Thus, Locke's proposal that public office is a trust would be comfortably accepted by the Thai people.

As in the constitution of the United States, written with Locke's recommendations very much in mind, requirements for public office being executed as a public trust could become part of Thailand's constitutional order.

English and American precedents would serve the Thai people much better today than the divisive and failed experiments of the French Revolution.


Stephen B Young is Global Executive Director of Caux Round Table.


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