Finally, an educated farang has come out to say that the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Economist don’t understand what the Thais think. Professor Stephen Young happened to pass by Bangkok, and he was interviewed by Suthichai Yoon on TV. From the interview, you can see that he really undertands Thailand very well. His view is quite impartial, coming from a man who have spent many years in Thailand.
In an exclusive interview with Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon, Professor Stephen Young – credited among those who discovered the bronze-age site of Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand in 1966 (now a Unesco world-heritage site) – deplores the “ridiculous” national division he insists has resulted from Thaksin Shinawatra’s “imperial” ambition.
Suthichai Yoon: Professor Young, you’ve been watching Thai politics closely, the red shirts, the yellow shirts, and of course you are part of Thailand as well. You grew up here, you went to the international school here. Looking from afar now, what do you think of Thailand; does it still have a future?
Professor Young: Well, I think that’s the right question to ask. If you look at Thailand from afar, most foreigners don’t know much about what’s going on. The Western idea, the Western press coverage is very superficial.
SY: Even the New York Times?
PY: Yes, the New York Times especially. The Washington Post. The Economist. Foreigners don’t know the way the Thais think. I’m more worried now about Thailand than ever before. When I first came here in 1961, that was 48 years ago, and my father was the American ambassador, we had a wonderful family relationship with Thailand. Maybe different from many foreigners. I don’t speak Thai so well anymore, but I have a feeling that there’s something special to us, to our family, my father, my mother, or myself, my brother, my sister about Thailand. We care about Thailand. My dad was close to His Majesty, close to [ex-PM Field Marshal] Sarit [Thanarat], and in 1961 there was this [big] gap between the Bangkok elite and the rural poor, a real gap. So, today, 2009, when I hear the red shirts say there’s a gap between Bangkok and ban nok [upcountry], I think it’s ridiculous. Today, there’s a gap, but in 1961 it was much bigger.
I just went back to Ban Chiang. When I went there 43 years ago, there was no electricity, no flush toilet, and if you needed hot water, you had to boil it. Chicken was too expensive. You had to eat little fish from the pond. Today there’s electricity, flush toilets, hot water and ATM machines. Most of the houses have Internet.
SY: At that time, there wasn’t even a telephone.
PY: No telephone. Radios. I remember we had radios with batteries. The strongest station was communist Chinese, broadcasting Chinese propaganda, so I remembered sitting in Ban Chiang listening to Chinese communist propaganda, and in Thai.
SY: From Beijing?
PY: From Beijing. Radio Beijing. Today it’s television, international television. The people are watching soccer games in Europe. The people have cell phones. A lady who was with me was calling another lady to tell the car to pick me up at the airport. This is modern Thailand. So many changes.
In 1961 it was my dad, with the passion of His Majesty and Field Marshal Sarit. He was a dictator, a military dictator, he was a tough guy, but he cared about the people, especially Isaan [the Northeast], and His Majesty also cared about Isaan. So the government began all these programmes. The roads in Ban Chiang are all cement. Before, it was dirt road. Thailand has done so much and I think in particular, the people in Bangkok, the Bangkok elite.
In particular His Majesty deserves appreciation for what he’s done for Thailand. So when I hear all these strange things about Thailand not having this and that, the need to change, some intellectuals want to run a revolution or something, I think this is crazy. It makes no sense to me.
SY: Why do you think they have this rumbling about change?
PY: My feeling, quite frankly, is that this goes back to the ambition of one man.
PY: Thaksin. And I ask myself why is he such a threat to Thailand?
SY: You knew him before?
PY: No. Only by reputation. When I first heard of him, when he started the Shin Corporation, what I heard was: he’s a police major who got a contract from the government for telephones after one of the coups. Now I ask myself, back then, 1993, something like that, how do you get a contract from the government? What do you have to do to get a contract? And I noticed Khun Thaksin made more money, became more wealthy, all because he has a government licence.
SY: A monopoly.
PY: A monopoly, not because he was out there working like other people. He had a monopoly that the government gave him. The Thai people represented by the government gave him an exclusive, elitist, monopolistic special privilege. This is aristocracy. This is elitism. This is not a man who started poor in a village and worked his way up. He has special connections and I’ve seen him use many special connections. But I’ve never seen Thai society so divided. Even the divisions over the West during the time of King Rama 4 and 5 were not this serious, neither was the division over the communists. The communists failed in Thailand. They could not divide the Thai people.
Thaksin has divided the Thai people and this is sad. The Thai people should not be so divided and angry. Even my family friends, the family is divided. Some of the brothers and sisters are yellow, and some are red. And around the dinner table, they argue and get angry. So I think … sabai … where did it go?
SY: But Thaksin claimed that he changed the face of Thai politics. He made the masses, the rural people, speak up for the first time. It’s the first time they benefited from politics. They can touch, consume and eat politics.
PY: I think that’s ridiculous. Rural people in their communities have always had their patrons. They can always have some influence in this group and that group. I have my view, my patron. I look up to you, you take care of me. You are at the provincial level and you reach the Bangkok level, so I can get it to the Bangkok level only through you. This has been true for a long time.
Thaksin is in exile. He wants a pardon, he wants his money back, he doesn’t want the conviction. Other Thai political leaders have not acted like that, if you look back.
SY: All the way back to Pridi Panomyong?
PY: Before that. We had the coup of 1932 and Prince Nakornsawan, the powerful Chakri prince, was asked to leave. He did, and he died in exile and never came back. His Majesty King Prachatipok felt there was a new situation and he abdicated. He went to England. He died in England. At his cremation, in 1941 I think, there were his queen and several relatives. No complaints. Pridi: He felt the situation changed. He left. General Pao, the powerful police general, left when Sarit took over and did not come back. Sarit, after he died, there was an argument how much money he made and the government took the money back. The family did not argue. Khun Thanom lost his money and went into exile. So I ask myself why is Thaksin different? Why doesn’t he think like a Thai?
PY: I think it’s because he’s not really a Thai Thai. He has other ideas in his head. He does not say kreng jai. He does not think about merit and sin. He thinks about how he can be a powerful man. He wants to be the leader of everybody, the big boss of everybody. This kind of thinking to me reflects not Thai Buddhism, but Chinese imperial thinking. The imperial thinking of the Chinese emperor. The Chinese theory. If you read about this, and I’ve studied a lot about it, we see this thinking.
So everything that Thaksin does, how he ran his government, how he put his money here and there, it’s just like 2,000 years ago. Same thinking. This idea was that, above the earth is heaven, or tian, and there’s one man- and underneath is everybody else. And when Thaksin wants to control the government, police, army, judges, businesses, TV, newspapers – that’s bringing everything under him. No Thai leader in history has ever tried to do this. King Naresuen never tried to do this. King Rama I didn’t try to do this. This is something new and different. Therefore, the Thai people are divided over this. Something new was added by Thaksin.
(This is the second of a two-part series. See the full version of the interview on the Nation Channel at 2pm this Friday.)
SY: When Western journalists write about Thaksin, they say he is still the most popular man among the rural people, that the poor and the underprivileged look upon him as their saviour.
PY: Again, that’s foreigners who don’t understand Thailand. It’s clear Thaksin still has many followers, but in Thailand the small people have always looked up to somebody. They always have some sort of a patron.
SY: But Thaksin wanted to cut all those levels, those tiers out, so that he could rule directly.
PY: Again, Thaksin’s idea is a cosmic Chinese idea about “I’m a magical person”. I understand that he believes in fortune-tellers. He had some fortune-teller in Chiang Mai who said he alone was the big man and everyone worked under him. It’s not the old-fashioned type of partnership. Everyone worked for Thaksin. That’s not American loyalty. That’s just saying that if you are a powerful man, and have lots of money and you’ll give me some money, then I’ll take the money. If you use that power of money to undermine the constitution and the law, to say bad things about other people, then it’s unethical.
SY: Is it democratic?
PY: The question is democracy without ethics, is that good? I would argue yes, it’s democratic, but without ethics, or morality, then it’s bad. The point is, democracy here is the not the goal; justice is the goal. In Western thinking, going back to Aristotle, if you are democratic but corrupt, if you abuse people, what we call the tyranny of the people, you are immoral, you are unjust; it’s a bad system. What Aristotle said is, every system, whether it’s monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, you must have law and ethics and justice to control abusive power. You don’t want rulers to seek power and money for themselves. So I look at Thaksin and I ask, where does his money come from? It comes from the Thai people, from special relationships. He used the government and politics in many ways to make himself wealthy.
SY: In democracy, he says he believes in elections, so every time you challenge him, he will say let’s go to the people and have an election. That will prove everything and that’s democracy.
PY: It proves nothing. The communists have elections. Stalin had elections. Hitler had elections. An example of where Thailand could go wrong is provided by Juan Peron in Argentina. And Thaksin is closer to the dictators of Latin America than to anybody in Thai history. We see it now with Chavez. They hold elections. They go to the poor people. They blame the rich. They say, poor people, vote for me, I’ll punish the rich. We’ll take money from the rich and give it to you. So they mobilise 50 per cent of the poor people to attack 30 per cent. Argentina in the 1930s, before Juan Peron, was a very wealthy country.
SY: He was very popular. Poor people liked him.
PY: Poor people liked him but he ruined the economy. He created a dictator political party and now, 70 years later, Argentina still has difficulties. It’s not a wealthy country and they are split, divided. They fight in politics. That may happen to Thailand if you have populism. The issue is not that Thaksin can get a majority vote. The issue is who can provide social justice, who can govern with ethics, who can have checks and balances, who can listen to the people, who can live under the law – and I see that Thai people are still arguing about this. It makes me so sad because Thailand should be happy. Thailand has so many good things, like Buddhism. And Thai people are good people.
The Constitution of 1997 was a good one, and what happened? Somebody with money came in and, like a mouse, took away all the cheese. The goodness of the Constitution disappears and the people are upset. They protest. He refused to compromise. Coup d’etat. People don’t like this and you have the cycle going on for three years now. That’s a long time.
SY: Thaksin said the September 2006 coup got rid of him and since then he has been mistreated all along, and the rule of law was not there; the present powers used a double standard against him. He said a few weeks ago that he never mistreated anybody, that he alone has been mistreated. He’s the victim.
PY: I’ve heard him say this for a long time. I don’t see how you can be a victim when you can accumulate 2 billion dollars in assets inside Thailand, and we don’t know how much money he had outside. Last year, there was a newspaper story that said he had 1.5 billion US dollars outside Thailand, most of which he lost in the financial crisis.
I tell myself, let’s take the 2 billion dollars he has inside Thailand. If you have that kind of money, why are you a victim? Politics is not about giving you a chance to make lots of money, it’s about serving the people, and if the people don’t want you anymore, you retire, like those other leaders who left Thailand when politics changed.
Now the coup violated the norm of the constitution, but I think there’s an argument. Before that, Thaksin had violated the spirit of the Constitution and was undermining the law, and thereby raised questions about his legitimacy. He compromised his own legitimacy. People took to the streets, saying the way he used power was beyond the constitution. His excesses started a process of decline and the coup was part of the decline. So we look at the cause and not the coup. We look at what caused the coup – and that was his pattern of government.
SY: Do you agree with the coup?
PY: At the time, my feeling was one of sadness, because what were the choices for Thailand. If you continued with Thaksin, you would end up with this notion of Chinese dictatorship. That’s not good for Thailand, but if you went with the coup, it’s against the constitution. And you don’t know what’s going to happen. When Thailand has two very bad choices, I’m very sad. Very sad.
SY: Thailand shouldn’t be put in that position.
PY: It shouldn’t. And I then go to who put Thailand in that position. It wasn’t the military, it wasn’t Abhisit. It wasn’t Privy Council Chief Prem; none of these people. It was one guy and his team.
SY: Thaksin blamed General Prem for all his troubles too.
PY: Thaksin is a very clever man. He knows the heart of the Thai people. He knows what to say to get the Thai people to maybe think like him. To me, in English, that’s what we call a demagogue. This is a person who is not sincere. He studies you and your emotions and tells you what you want to hear, not because he likes you and cares about you, but because he wants something from you. What Thaksin wanted from you is your vote or your loyalty, or for you to say bad things about the yellow shirts. This is divisive politics.
SY: Thaksin said those against him were people who lost interest because he was in power. He said he tried to bring justice to Thailand and make things equal, so those affected by his good intentions are now up against him.
PY: First of all, I accept that Thaksin might have had good intentions. I don’t know the man. I can only judge the man by his actions. And his actions were to bring the power of everything under him, where he is the boss. He said he took away power from those people because they were greedy, bad people, they were aristocratic, elite, and didn’t care about people.
SY: “Ammat” (Top royal advisers).
PY: Well, who has more ammats? He has more. He’s the man of ammat. He’s not a man of clout. He has good fortune but doesn’t have clout. Well, when I say he doesn’t have clout, I use the word in an old-fashioned way. The true meaning is that the person must have good education, a moral foundation, a past life of a good person – and you have moral authority, moral legitimacy that comes from self-control and respect for others. So Thaksin doesn’t have clout [baramee]; but he has vassana [good fortune], so he uses power. He has got to take power away from the people.
The contributions of General Prem in the 1980s were very constructive. I think General Prem deserved some appreciation and respect. He’s an older man now but he moved Thailand in the period of half democracy. He took over from a tradition of violence, military dictatorship, and moved Thailand towards half democracy. It’s an evolution. It’s an important evolution.
If Khun Prem had not done that when there was a crisis in 1991, 1992 with General Suchinda, there would be no middle class, because I think General Suchinda thought he could win with the coup. He was surprised because the Thai people didn’t like it.
Professor Stephen B Young is the global executive director of the Caux Round Table and an editorial commentator for Twin Cities Daily Planet newswire. He was educated at the International School Bangkok, Harvard College (graduating Magna Cum Laud) and Harvard Law School (graduating Cum Laud). In 1966 he discovered the bronze-age site of Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand, which is now a Unesco world-heritage site. He was a former assistant dean at Harvard Law School and a former dean of Hamline University School of Law. He is widely recognised for his knowledge of Asian history and politics, and has taught at various prestigious institutes. His articles have been published in well-known newspapers including the New York Times.
Published on September 10, 2009