Provincializing Thai Politics

Nishizaki Yoshinori


Corruption and Democracy in Thailand
Pasuk Phongpaichit and Sungsidh Piriyarangsan

Chiang Mai / Silkworm Books / 1994

 Money and Power in Provincial Thailand
Edited by Ruth McVey

Honolulu / University of Hawaii Press / 2000

Thailand has undergone two great changes in the last several decades: democratization and capitalist growth. Whether Thailand has democratized in substance is debatable, but there is little doubt that since the student-led “revolution” of 1973, it has made a determined, if slow, move away from military rule toward a more inclusionary form of political representation. Political change has been accompanied by rapid industrialization, which has irreversibly transformed the structure of Thailand’s formerly agriculture-based economy. To date, scholars have analyzed the causes and effects of these changes with a primary focus on the capital city of Bangkok as if it constituted the whole of Thailand. Democratization and industrialization, however, have transformed rural, provincial Thailand just as much, to the point, in fact, where the stereotyped image of a backward peasant society no longer holds true. A detailed study of new rural Thailand has been overdue.

This is the significance of the two books under review. While not concerned exclusively with rural Thailand, Corruption and Democracy in Thailand, written by the country’s two foremost political economists, does aim to delineate the impact of ongoing democratization on rural politics and society. In particular, the book highlights the seedier aspects of the countryside, such as corruption, murder, and violence, which the authors regard as the direct consequences of democratization. Money and Power in Provincial Thailand, edited by Ruth McVey, a respected doyen of Southeast Asian studies, has a much more explicit rural focus, analyzing how new patterns of political and economic domination have emerged out of the growing rural-Bangkok nexus. While falling short of advancing well-formulated frameworks for analysis, both books still throw much light on the dynamics of rural transformations and help remedy the Bangkok-centric focus that has marked the bulk of the Thai politics literature.

These books describe and analyze three specific social phenomena in Thailand: the rise of local bosses or gangsters known as chao pho; the growth of politically active provincial capitalist and middle classes; and the rising level of corruption. Such phenomena point to an increasingly rural tilt to Thai politics as a whole, which can no longer be understood with reference to politicians, capitalists, and state officials in Bangkok alone. Furthermore, these changes call into serious question two existing conceptual models of Thailand’s political system: Fred Riggs’ well-known “bureaucratic polity” (1966) that sees Thai politics as essentially dominated by the military and civil service to the exclusion of non-bureaucratic forces, and Anek Laothamatas’s more recent “liberal corporatism” (1991) that argues for a much more inclusionary form of group-based interest representation. I will suggest that Thailand’s post-1973 polity can be better understood as “patrimonial democracy,” a type of politics that synergistically combines Max Weber’s well-known notion of patrimonialism with emerging electoral practices. Much more inclusionary than bureaucratic polity, the patrimonial democracy model sees participants as articulating their personal or particularistic interests, rather than the collective interests of Anek’s liberal corporatist model.


The Rise of Chao Pho

The political ascendance of violence-prone rural chao pho (literally godfathers) is perhaps the most unsavory aspect of post-1973 Thai democratization. As such, these  “men of (dark) influence” are discussed at length in both books. In Money and Power, after McVey’s neat stage-setting introduction, three successive chapters, written by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Sombat Chantornvong, and James Ockey, analyze the historical process through which chao pho have acquired their current power as key players occupying the “middle distance between capital and countryside.” Likewise, Pasuk and Sungsidh’s Corruption and Democracy devotes its longest and most informative chapter to five representative chao pho.

These chapters overlap considerably in content, analyzing the same phenomenon from essentially the same perspective. Minor differences aside, they concur on the trajectory of chao pho’s incremental growth through three roughly divided phases. The starting point is before 1960, a period when two local conditions laid the foundation for the rise of chao pho. First, provincial Thai culture favored (and still favors) nak leng-type leaders, men with manly, tough, daring, decisive, and law-breaking attributes (incidentally quite similar to Machiavelli’s notion of virtu in The Prince). Second, despite King Chulalongkorn’s administrative reforms initiated in the late 19th century, the state’s control and surveillance of the countryside was far from effective. The attendant institutional vacuum, coupled with the local cultural template, enabled chao pho involved in illicit and highly profitable trades to emerge as paternal yet feared community leaders, to whom locals could turn for protection against state and capitalist encroachment. Chao pho thus began to wield enormous informal influence (itthiphon) in their communities beyond the gaze and reach of the central state.

From the 1960s to 1973, a big impetus to chao pho‘s growth was the massive amount of capital that the US-backed, anti-communist military regime of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958-63) and his crony General Thanom Kittikachorn (1963-73) infused into rural areas for infrastructure-building. Chao pho capitalized on the consequent construction boom, using the wealth they accumulated to build and cement a pyramid of local clients extending from state officials to peasants. No less important, the military regime, ostensibly committed to clamping down on criminals, allowed chao pho to exist and grow because their cooperation was needed for efficient local taxation to finance rapid urban industrialization. The state even appointed chao pho as sub-district chiefs and village heads. This local-level modus vivendi between a “weak state” and a “strong society” contributed to the consolidation of chao pho’s already well-established local spheres of influence.

Finally, electoral politics, introduced after the fall of military rule in 1973, has ushered in chao pho’s rise to power at the national level. With vast local patronage and coercive resources at their disposal, chao pho now emerged as much sought-after hua khanaen (vote harvesters) for Bangkok’s politicians and parties. Some chao pho have used their vote-mobilizing capacity to put themselves or their cronies in office. A few notable chao pho have even obtained cabinet positions in the central state, as shown by the appointments of Narong Wongwan (an alleged drug trafficker denied entry to the US) and the son of Kamnan Po (reputedly one of the most violent “godfathers” from Chonburi). Where chao pho once exercised informal (illegitimate) influence in the provinces outside the confines of the state, the post-1973 democratic transition, by linking the countryside to Bangkok, has catapulted them deep into the state as legitimate, national-level power holders with the “right” to use their public positions to enrich themselves and their supporters. The economic boom of the late 1980s to early 1990s enabled chao pho to branch into legal businesses and further consolidate their economic and political base. The consequent dominance of chao pho at present has reversed their traditional relationship with state officials: chao pho (and their supporters) now subordinate state officials, as demonstrated by Ockey’s account of the transfer of Phichit’s governor in 1989.Competent as it is, this analysis of the origin and modus operandi of chao pho contains little that is wholly novel or provocative. Since Benedict Anderson published “Murder and Progress in Modern Siam” (1990), those scholars on the academic bandwagon of provincial bossism—notably Ockey and Sombat—have made the same point elsewhere. (One may detect an element of uniformist Thai scholarship that Anderson deplored back in 1978.) Moreover, this analysis relies almost exclusively on secondary sources, like newspapers published in Bangkok, adducing little but circumstantial and anecdotal evidence to paint a picture of Thai rural politics as viewed by Bangkok-based, western-educated intellectuals. The above analysis therefore can’t explain why some prominent chao pho have suffered humiliating electoral losses. Further studies of chao pho and their dominance (or lack thereof) need to be based on more extensive and anthropological fieldwork, not on the assumptions that academics in air-conditioned ivory towers make about the thoughts and behavior of rural voters.

This critique notwithstanding, the analysis does describe, in general and jargon-free terms, how chao pho have emerged as the new provincial and national elites by depending on, colluding with, and plundering the weak institutional state in the broad context of growing democratization and rapid capitalist development. The rise to power of chao pho has been an integral part of these twin changes.

Provincial Capitalist/Middle Classes

Chao pho hardly constitute the whole provincial capitalist class, although they are part of it. There are actually many provincial capitalists who come from legitimate market backgrounds. Equally noteworthy is the growth of an increasingly well-educated, organized, and politically assertive middle class. The growth of these two classes is only tangentially noted by Pasuk and Sungsidh, but directly addressed in the second, more interesting part of McVey’s volume that comprises five chapters. While differing in quality, these chapters, all based on extensive fieldwork, give an insight into locally specific contexts in which nation-level politics and economy shape, and are shaped by, the growth of provincial capitalist and middle classes.

corruption_democracy_thailandThe first four of these chapters deal with the origin, make-up, economic activities, and political involvement of increasingly powerful non-chao pho capitalists. The historian Michael Montesano’s empirically rich and very interesting chapter takes a “biographical approach” to trace the origin, rather than the operation, of two powerful, arbitrarily chosen, provincial business elites: Surin Tothapthiang, president of Trang’s Provincial Chamber of Commerce, and Suchon Champhunot, Phisanulok’s veteran member of parliament. This sharply focused, individual-level analysis enlivens Thailand’s broad institutional milieu, which is often flattened and made faceless in the hands of positivist political scientists. Next, the political scientist Daniel Arghiros analyzes the (limited) utility of Ayutthaya’s Brick Manufacturing Association in helping its members win local office. He illuminates the specific workings of an ostensible economic interest group as a quasi-political machine and examines patron-client ties and business conflicts at the village level, intricacies which remain hidden behind Sombat and others’ sweeping, generalized accounts of rural politics. The economist Yoko Ueda gives a more descriptive (and dry) profile of Nakhon Ratchasima City’s sixty-seven important businessmen selected on the basis of membership in local business organizations. Finally, Kevin Hewison and Maniemai Thongyou take a similar look at an unrepresentative sample of twenty young, predominantly Sino-Thai capitalists—the “Young Turks” of Khon Kaen Province.

Three commonalities emerge from these analyses which apply to Bangkok-based capitalists as well. First, while Chinese or Sino-Thais control or dominate the bulk of provincial business, the importance of Chinese ethnic identity to business success is waning due to their growing assimilation into mainstream Thai society. Membership in Chinese associations was initially instrumental in establishing business contacts, but these widely known “Chinese connections” are being replaced by non-exclusive general business organizations that include indigenous Thais alongside Chinese and Sino-Thais. What Hewison and Maniemai call the “Thai-ification” of provincial capitalists is in progress.

Second, and more important for this essay, personal connections developed through organizational networks are crucial to business success. Local business organizations or associations provide the means for their members, Chinese and non-Chinese, to develop an incipient form of what Robert Putnam (1993) calls “social capital,” norms of interpersonal trust, cooperation, and reciprocity. Such norms allow distinctive local business practices to develop, such as the extension of informal loans and the illegal discounting of post-dated checks, and these practices, as discussed by Arghiros and Ueda, prove to be indispensable for initial capital accumulation. Equally important, organizational networks help members establish personal (and often corrupt) ties with important local- and national-level politicians and Bangkok-based capitalists. As Montesano says, for instance, Trang’s market society network linked Surin to Bangkok’s capital, especially to military-controlled Channel 7, which turned out to be a major break for his business empire. Nakhon Ratchasima’s Chamber of Commerce also functions, in no small part, to help its members develop personal connections with Bangkok-based businesses. It is from this context, in which personal connections “talk,” that powerful provincial economic elites have emerged. This pattern of growth is hardly confined to provincial capitalism; it is in fact quite consistent with the way Bangkok-based capital has grown, as Akira Suehiro has so richly documented (1989).

Third, participation in electoral politics has now become another important way provincial capitalists forge and institutionalize what might otherwise seem like corrupt personal patronage ties with “big people” in the state. Montesano’s account of Suchon is a good case in point. Suchon’s fortunes swelled after his election to parliament in 1969 brought him into legitimate contact with Prasit Kanchanawat, an executive of the powerful Bangkok Bank and close ally of General Praphat Charusathien who, along with Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn, ruled Thailand between 1963 and 1973. Following this pattern, many provincial capitalists now participate, directly or indirectly, in local- or national-level electoral politics. Such participation, as Pasuk and Sungsidh say, has become “very much part of business. It is part of building the network of contacts needed for doing business.” In addition to providing contacts, political office provides spoils of office. The intimate links between office and wealth, according to Pasuk and Sungsidh, are among the sad yet persistent legacies of Sarit and his military successors, who accumulated phenomenal wealth while in office. Businessmen-politicians who seek electoral office now are simply “responding to the demonstration effect.” They “consider [electoral] politics a natural extension of their accumulative efforts,” according to McVey. Intensified to a level where electoral candidates are willing to kill each other (see Anderson 1990), their competition for office is essentially a scramble for political patronage, favors, rents, and other particularistic benefits. Simply put, their participation in electoral politics is motivated less by their concern for the public good than by sordid personal interests. It is no coincidence, then, that Chatichai’s coalition government and cabinet, occupied by an all-time high percentage of provincial capitalists, are found by Pasuk and Sungsidh to be the most corrupt since Sarit’s era.

In the last chapter of McVey’s volume, James LoGerfo spotlights the nascent middle class in the six provinces, which, in the name of “clean politics,” spearheaded the multi-class protest of May 1992 against General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s assumption of power. This comparative macro-level analysis leaves much to be desired, however. In the first place, as LoGerfo himself admits, it fails to show any strong correlation between the occurrence of protest movements and the size of the middle class (or other key socio-economic indicators). The small and unrepresentative nature of his cases—six out of seventy-three provinces—would in any case have called any correlation into question. Second, he uses the undisaggregated, faceless middle class as the unit of analysis, seeing it as wonderfully unified behind the noble cause of “clean politics” and “democracy.” This view is based on the untenable, idealist assumption that every social class promotes its own reified “general class interests” in collective action movements, an assumption that dates back to Karl Marx and, more recently, to the widely read class analyses of Barrington Moore (1966), Theda Skocpol (1979), and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens (1992). LoGerfo ignores the fact that the middle class was deeply divided between pro-Suchinda, anti-Suchinda, and apathetic elements. Moreover, the fact that some well-educated members of the middle class took part in the anti-Suchinda protest doesn’t necessarily mean that their action was inspired by a commitment to “clean politics.” No doubt, some protest participants were sincerely interested in “clean politics,” but it is not farfetched to suppose that some local politicians, state officials, and small- and medium-sized capitalists (subsumed by LoGerfo under the rubric of middle class) were not uniformly motivated by a noble public principle. Given local elites’ rent-seeking behavior, their opposition to Suchinda may have stemmed from their calculation that his rise to power would bring to an end vibrant electoral politics that had afforded easy and personal access to power and wealth. It is worth remembering that a fair number of middle class people were beneficiaries of “dirty politics,” having attained wealth and social status precisely through personalistic and nepotistic practices that pervaded (and still pervade) rural Thailand. Thus it is a bit facile to make participation in the anti-Suchinda movement synonymous with a commitment to “clean politics.” Likewise, it is simplistic to see pro-Suchinda people and parties as dirty or anti-democratic. On the whole, LoGerfo’s analysis too neatly and falsely dichotomizes provincial society on the basis of support for or against “clean politics.” This critique is not meant as a plea for cynicism; rather, it calls for us not to ignore murky and seedy aspects of politics and society in attempting to apply a theory of collective action developed in the west.

In LoGerfo’s defense, however, I note that his analysis, one of the first to spotlight the role of the provincial middle class in collective action, does plausibly suggest (if not convincingly demonstrate) that at least some of its members, as organized in PollWatch, the Union for Civil Liberties, and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), have come to form the core of an increasingly robust civil society in provincial Thailand, a development that Pasuk and Sungsidh view as key to checking the resilient power of chao pho. Some middle-class people, whatever their motives, have joined with people from other classes to openly challenge the intentions of the Bangkok-based state. As protest movements have spread to the countryside, the passivity of rural people can no longer be taken for granted. Stated broadly, LoGerfo’s chapter and those on provincial capitalism hint at a much more complex provincial social structure than the current scholarship may lead us to believe, and this complexity inextricably links the provinces to political and economic developments in Bangkok.



 Office-based corruption—the misuse of office for private gain or the appropriation of public funds—has now reached epidemic proportions in Thailand. This is no surprise, given the growing involvement of rent-seeking provincial businessmen-politicians (both chao pho and non-chao pho) in electoral politics. Pasuk and Sungsidh take up this issue directly as another unsavory aspect of Thai-style democratization and capitalist growth. McVey’s volume also refers to it, in passing, under the more general rubric of “money politics.”

Pasuk and Sungsidh discuss the rise of political corruption in a historical context, starting with Sarit Thanarat’s authoritarian rule (1959-63), which first brought office-based corruption to the surface as a politically contentious issue, and ending with the democratic administration of Chatichai Choonhavan (1988-91), whose corrupt cabinet dominated by rural chao pho capitalists prompted the military to stage a coup in 1991. Pasuk and Sungsidh go beyond historical analysis to make a valiant attempt to measure the extent of corruption, a variable few scholars regard as amenable to quantification. Their interesting result: as Thailand made the transition from authoritarianism to democracy, the quantitative level of corruption increased in absolute terms and also as a percentage of the state budget and Gross Domestic Product. This is ironic, considering that popular opposition to corruption is said to have galvanized opposition to military rule in the past.

The reliability and validity of the official data (estimates of the Office of Auditor General and the Counter Corruption Committee), on which Pasuk and Sungsidh’s rudimentary quantitative analysis is based, are actually rather dubious. But their finding—quite a plausible one—of a correlation or causal link between corruption and democracy is worth further investigation. It lends support to Ueda and others’ argument that businessmen-politicians participate in electoral politics in search of rent-seeking opportunities. (Such investigation would also be of great interest to those concerned about corruption in other semi-democracies like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Russia, Mexico, and Brazil.) Equally important, Pasuk and Sungsidh’s finding suggests that office-based corruption, traditionally concentrated in Bangkok, has spread down to village-level branches of the state to an alarming extent; the Ministries of Interior, Agriculture, and Communications, directly concerned with rural infrastructure development, are all implicated in corruption. These ministries and the departments they control—Highway, Irrigation, Public Works, Provincial Police, Local Administration—easily come into lucrative contact with provincial capitalists, especially construction contractors, most of whom now participate in all levels of electoral politics. What has made such contact a “normal” or institutionalized aspect of state-society and Bangkok-rural linkages is no doubt Chatichai’s unprecedentedly corrupt government whose “buffet cabinet” consisted largely of rural construction contractors or those with close links to the provincial construction industry. These cabinet ministers, by paying hefty kickbacks to the government departments concerned, channeled a large number of “pork-barrel” projects to their respective constituencies to the benefit of their own or their cronies’ companies. The growing provincialization of Thai politics, as indicated by the political rise of chao pho and provincial capitalists, has thus almost inevitably entailed a growing provincialization of corruption, too.

What is responsible for this spread of corruption is not simply the widely noted salience of patron-client ties in Thai society, but also the broad institutional milieu in which the rule of law is still deficient. Embodying this institutional weakness is the instrumental, yet cozy, symbiosis between the police and chao pho. Pasuk and Sungsidh highlight Nakhon Sawan’s district police chiefs to show that badly paid provincial police officers at all levels eagerly take protection money from illegal businesses run by chao pho. Effectively co-opted, some even moonlight as personal guards and professional gunmen for chao pho and other violence-prone businessmen, whose illicit business, including murder, is then more easily accomplished. (It may be no accident that Chonburi, Kamnan’s Po’s turf, has the highest crime rate of all provinces.) Unscrupulous non-chao pho capitalists and their bureaucratic patrons have similarly bought police connivance or legal impunity. Thus, the state’s law-enforcement officers, who should be in the vanguard of the fight against crooked capitalists, have instead played a pivotal role in maintaining their dominance and the accompanying rise of corruption in Bangkok and the provinces. This, of course, doesn’t mean that all police officers are venal; the presence of Seri Temiyawait, Chonburi’s provincial police chief who combated Kamnan Po, and other like-minded officers indicates that outright pessimism is unjustified. But they fight an uphill battle. Not surprisingly, the public lacks respect for, and trust in, the police and is becoming deeply cynical about the rule of law, as shown by the results of Pasuk and Sungsidh’s questionnaire. This poor public image, in turn, saps officers’ incentive to “shape up,” pushing them into a spiral of corruption.


A New Model?

These recent developments compels a critical reappraisal of the existing conceputal models of Thai politics. Thailand’s political system has long been analyzed in terms of Fred Riggs’s bureaucratic polity. In this model the bureaucracy, comprising the military and civil service, is the sole wielder of power. Non-bureaucratic forces such as political parties and capitalists are effectively excluded from power or rendered dependent on the bureaucracy for access to power. In the late 1980s, Anek Laothamatas called this model into question, arguing that the rise of extra-bureaucratic forces like organized business signaled the end of the bureaucratic polity. Thailand’s present system, according to Anek, can be better understood as a form of liberal corporatism, a pluralist system in which organically connected and more or less autonomous interest-based groups and organizations effectively voice their demands on the state. The two books reviewed here indicate that neither of these models is entirely accurate.

The bureaucratic polity model is clearly no longer relevant. The introduction of electoral politics and the attendant diffusion of power to the provinces have expanded the scope of political competition to include provincial business people and local politicians who had formerly been excluded. There are now strong indications that these extra-bureaucratic forces are effectively making their voices heard, as exemplified by the success of Phichit’s locally elected kamnan (sub-district chiefs) in engineering the transfer of their centrally appointed governor in 1989. To argue that the bureaucratic polity model is still applicable in the face of this and other hard evidence is not terribly convincing.

But to view the appearance of non-bureaucratic forces as indicating the advent of liberal corporatism may be equally inaccurate. As the contributors to McVey’s volume describe them, many of the new provincial organizations are far from the unified lobbying/interest groups associated with the liberal corporatist model. As Arghiros shows, for instance, the Brick Manufacturers Association of Ayutthaya is riddled with personal strife among its members. It is little more than a loosely organized, pseudo-political group that exists primarily to serve the political ambitions of individual members; it does not represent and champion what plural political economists might call the collective sectoral interests of brickmakers. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether this association consists of brickmakers or not, as suggested by the presence of non-brickmakers in its membership. Similarly, leading entrepreneurs in Khorat have formed local groups such as “Klum Mit Pracha,” “Friends Unite Group,” and “Friendly Get-Together ’31,” but as Ueda argues, these are essentially politically motivated springboards from which their members seek political office in search of rent-seeking opportunities. Moreover, many local capitalists exert their influence over civil servants, not formally through organized groups, but informally through personal contacts that electoral politics help to establish. If local business is organized in the form of clubs, associations, and chambers, it is because such organization enables members to establish and institutionalize privileged personal access to power holders.

 If we can derive any generalization from the books under review, it is that Thailand has evolved from a bureaucratic polity into patrimonial democracy, a system characterized by the apparently happy synergy between patrimonial elements as described by Weber (1964, 1978) and the form (as opposed to the substance) of democracy. Patrimonialism, which marked Thailand’s state-society relations in the era of the bureaucratic polity (see Jacobs, 1971), has not faded away with the introduction of democracy. In fact, it persists, and indeed thrives, within the shell of democracy. Democratization has merely changed the form of political participation, while keeping the long-standing patrimonial nature of state-society interaction intact. It is this continuity that explains the rise of chao pho, new classes, and corruption in rural Thailand.

Police complicity in corruption and crime typifies the most salient feature of patrimonialism—the weak boundary between the public and private, the inability or unwillingness of state officials to differentiate between public and private interests. Police officers show little moral compunction about using their power to put their own interests above society’s, turning public office, in effect, into personal fiefs. Misuse of office by the police is actually nothing new, but democratization has made this particularistic behavior a national epidemic by multiplying juicy points of contact between the state and society, not only in Bangkok but also throughout the provinces. It comes as little surprise, then, that bribery, fraud, violence, murder, and injustice have come to the fore since 1973.

The blurred distinction between public and private has also aided the growth of provincial capitalism. In patrimonial society, Weber says, only one type of capitalism can grow, “politically oriented capitalism” in which political connections, networks, and patronage are of paramount importance to one’s business success. This nicely describes the way many prominent provincial (and Bangkok) capitalists have built their current wealth. The “spirit of capitalism”—an ascetic work ethic—may keep one from starving, but alone would not make one wealthy. To go far in the business world requires personal links with political “big shots” in the state. The Thai state, contrary to the recently advanced view of some political economists, continues to be riddled with favoritism and nepotism, and harnessing its power through personal contacts is just as crucial to attaining wealth in the present democratic period as in the authoritarian past. In fact, democratization has made it easier for those formerly constrained by the bureaucratic polity, particularly provincial capitalists, to establish personal connections, not just with one or two power holders in Bangkok, but with politicians and officials throughout the state at every level, and to use these connections for private economic gain. As a result, a competitive brand of politically oriented capitalism emerged to promote rapid economic growth both in Bangkok and rural Thailand from the late 1980s, until its long-term detrimental effects came to the surface in 1997, ushering in the present financial crisis. This turn of events, however, has not wholly undermined politically oriented capitalism, but only reduced the size of the economic pie. Longstanding patrimonial state-society relations, while subjected to increasingly severe criticism, still remain largely intact. To view the workings of Thailand’s political economy in purely instrumental, squeaky-clean terms of formal “input” by interest groups only conceals and distorts the persistently patrimonial nature of the state-society ties that fundamentally caused Thailand’s recent economic boom and bust.

Contrary to popular expectations, the transition to democracy has not killed patrimonialism but has actually reinforced it. Because of this, those who are in a position to reap handsome personal benefits from the blurred line between public and private—chao pho, provincial capitalists, state officials, and their friends and relatives in parliament—have every reason to support democracy as it has emerged since 1973. If patrimonialism and democracy are not incompatible with each other in the Thai context (and in many other contexts, for that matter), perhaps we should incorporate this symbiosis into our understanding of democracy. It is what makes democracy “tick” in Thailand, especially rural Thailand.

Given this, substantial obstacles may lie ahead in moving the current form of democracy in a more rational-legal direction. Many Thai scholars tend to advance a moralistic argument that politicians, especially rural-based politicians, must put public interests before private interests. Fair enough, but we should recognize that the patrimonial nature of democracy has benefited crooked politicians so much that they have few incentives to change their behavior. Their interests lie precisely in maintaining the status quo. Given their numerical and local-level strength, these politicians can effectively sabotage any sincere efforts that a few honest, well-intentioned leaders might make to build a more transparent regime.

Some scholars may argue that economic development will gradually cause patrimonialism to disappear, but to the extent that economic growth in rural Thailand is generated by rents and other personal favors, it serves to strengthen, not weaken, capitalists’ support for the current form of patrimonial democracy. Economic growth may produce a large, well-educated middle class with an interest in “clean politics,” but this class ultimately lacks the capacity to impose its will; it doesn’t have the money (not to mention the guns) to participate directly in politics. All this class can do is to protest against serious abuses of power and rampant corruption, as it did in 1992. NGOs may play an important part in remedying some specific problems, like population growth, child labor, and environmental degradation, but can do little to change longstanding features of state-society relations. Even a powerful international organization like the International Monetary Fund can only impose liberalization, privatization, or deregulation in some sectors of the Thai economy. Given Thailand’s relatively light dependence on foreign capital, it is doubtful, too, that multi-national corporations, even in the much-touted age of globalization, can exert sufficient structural pressure on the Thai state to build transparent institutions, though they may be able to win specific policy changes. It is easy to talk about the need to root out patrimonialism, but it may be quite hard to achieve in practice.

Similarly, it is rather off the mark to argue normatively that Thai democracy, which benefits only a tiny number of elites, should move in a plural direction, as Pasuk and Baker seem to do in concluding that chao sua (Bangkok-based capitalists) and chao pho “have to make their peace with the chao thi” (peasants). This rather hackneyed conclusion misses the point that the dominance of chao sua and chao pho rests precisely on the subordination of peasants. This subordination is essential for the stability of patrimonial democracy, allowing elites, especially rural-based elites, to monopolize particularistic benefits without fear of lower-class political activism. As long as peasants remain economically and politically weak, chao pho and other rural elites can continue to enhance their populist appeal by paying lip service to peasants’ chronic problems, holding local charity rituals in the image of the benevolent King, or otherwise displaying their paternal leadership. Again, the interests of the dominant class lie in maintaining the current form of democracy. They have few incentives to change it.

The books under review show that the dynamics of present-day Thai politics cannot be understood without reference to the countryside and its links with Bangkok. It is now incumbent on Thai scholars to use the major findings of the books to critically examine existing models of Thai politics and develop an appropriate theoretical framework within which the growing “ruralization” of Thai politics can better be understood.

Nishizaki Yoshinori
Nishizaki Yoshinori is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Washington with an interest in state-society relations in Thailand.

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 1 (March 2002). Power and Politics


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