Understanding the cultural constitution

Understanding the cultural constitution

Nobody has had a good word to say about the 2014 interim constitution. Even those who were recently calling for a coup have kept their mouths shut. Most of the criticism, from home and abroad, has used Western norms of democracy and human rights as its paradigm. Here, I want to review the constitution using standards of Thai culture (according to my understanding of them).

A statue of the constitution on two traditional trays with pedestals atop the Democracy Monument. The “cultural constitution” refers to unwritten rules on safe political space created by the counterbalancing of authority and influence. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

In 1991, I wrote an article on The Thai cultural constitution, saying written constitutions did not matter in Thailand, which is why they can be ripped up regularly, but there is a "cultural constitution" of unwritten rules that even generals have to obey. I'm often asked: has this cultural constitution changed much since? Since the mid 1990s I think it has. But first, let me explain power in the Thai cultural constitution.

In old Thai culture, power is unified and indivisible. Even the power of a god and the power of a king are one and the same because the king is an incarnation of god. The concept of a division of powers — legislative, executive, and judicial — and balance among them is a Western idea.

In the past, Thais did not trust power because it meant taxes and military service, and so they looked for some form of counterbalance, in two ways. First, through Buddhism, which laid down standards for constraining the power of the king. Though the king could have an individual monk disrobed, he could not erase the principles in the Buddhist scriptures. Monks had to protect themselves by building up another kind of power or "influence" by gaining a reputation for expertise of some kind.

The second and more widely used method was to call on influence to counterbalance authority. Here "authority" is power that is recognised by law or custom while "influence" is power that is not recognised by law or custom. In old Thai kingdoms, the king's power was limited by the influence of powerful families, local lords, foreign traders and the heads of resident foreign communities.

The Thai common people can survive in the space created by the counterbalancing of authority and influence. Sometimes they call on authority to counter influence, and sometimes vice versa.

The police chief in any province is a very big fellow who can harass anyone by making some allegation that creates problems for years after. The provincial governor is the representative of authority but has limited means to intervene in such a matter. So people defend themselves by calling on the influence of the local godfather, or the influence of the local army commander, who has no authority to interfere in the work of the police chief but has local influence for sure (there have been cases of soldiers smashing up a police station).

Influence can also harass and oppress people. In the past, for example, the army created problems by detaining people's kids for being involved with communism. The families then had to call on some bigger influence, such as a more senior army officer, a minister, or MP. If using influence to counter influence did not work, they could try calling on authority by exposing the matter as big news in the popular press, forcing the authorities to intervene. As a last resort, they might go higher up the judicial system to a public prosecutor or judge to override the influence of the police.

In sum, ordinary Thais are used to counterbalancing influence and authority. They do not want either one to eliminate the other. Influence is dangerous, and authority is dangerous, but survival is possible if both exist.

I think the Thai cultural constitution has begun to change since the mid 1990s because influence is on the wane. The godfathers have moved their capital into above-ground, legal businesses. The army's role has declined since the collapse of communism, and from 1992 to 2006 soldiers returned to the barracks. At the same time, elected politicians have acquired a more prominent role. The 1997 Constitution gave some hope that a balance of powers (legislative, executive, judicial) would become more effective, and even the 2007 Constitution written by a coup junta retained the form of a balance among the powers.

In other words, because influence has waned, the cultural constitution has started to accept that power, once considered indivisible, can be divided into several parts, and that there should be institutions, mechanisms, and processes for creating a balance among these powers, rather in the Western fashion.

Although coups in Thailand are as common as rain falling, they still create stress for the Thai cultural constitution, because they raise influence (power unrecognised by law or custom) over and above authority (power recognised by law and custom). In plain words, a coup is a form of influence that destroys almost all institutions of authority except the monarchy, courts, and the oversight of the great world powers. The more the cultural constitution changes, the greater the stress.

Coup juntas since 1973 have tried to re-establish a semblance of authority as quickly as possible, either by writing a new constitution immediately, or by installing a government that is (ever so slightly) independent from the coup junta.

Many seem to think that Sarit Thanarat's coup of 1957 raised influence above authority for as long as 16 years. In truth Sarit was cleverer than that. From the start, he created an appearance of balance between influence and authority. His first prime minister, Pote Sarasin, was a civilian accepted both inside and outside the country. His ministers were former senior bureaucrats. He brought in academics whose expertise gave them some independence from the politics of influence, unlike the rectors of today whose enthusiastic cheering for the coup is quite pitiful.

The cleverness of Sarit is clearly evident when compared to the coups of Thanom Kittikachorn in 1971 and Thanin Kraivixien in 1976. Because neither understood the Thai cultural constitution, they projected an image of pure influence, and hence quickly faced opposition. Sarit knew how to transform some elements of influence to have the appearance of authority so that people felt reassured that influence was counterbalanced to some extent.

In the language of the cultural constitution, the 2014 interim charter fails to transform the influence of the coup by giving some appearance of authority. Indeed, this constitution adds to the image of pure influence created by the various heavy-handed measures adopted since the seizure of power, such as summoning people to "adjust their attitude", threatening the media, appointing the legislative assembly, and setting up a reform council whose nature we can guess.

Even though the junta is using influence to suppress influence in such areas as drugs, illegal timber, human trafficking, arms trade, and transport, these actions do not transform the influence of the coup into power that people trust. The Thai cultural constitution has always stated that power of any kind (both influence and authority) is not be trusted unless there is some effective form of counterbalance.

Surprisingly, many people now feel that the only power remaining to counterbalance influence is the oversight of the great world powers. That is why protest signs have to be written in English.

Some jurists and academics like to state that democracy is not compatible with Thai culture. I'd like to point out that dictatorship is not compatible with Thai culture either, because it allows those with power (both authority and influence) to do harm to people who have no means of protection.

Nidhi Eoseewong is a professor in history, a writer, and columnist. This article first appeared in Thai in Matichon, August 11, 2014. Translated by Chris Baker, a scholar based in Bangkok. 

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