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This report offers a summary of the seventh event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Democracy in Thailand: Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism,” which took place online on November 30, 2023. Dr. Michael Montesano moderated the panel, featuring insights from three distinguished panelists.
Report by Andrea Guidotti
This report provides an overview of the seventh event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled "Democracy in Thailand: Navigating Populism and Authoritarianism," held online on November 30, 2023. Moderated by Dr. Michael Montesano, Associate Senior Fellow at the Thailand Studies Programme, Yusof Ishak Institute – ISEAS, the panel featured speakers Dr. Petra Alderman, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and Research Fellow of CEDAR, Itsakul Unahakate, PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and Lecturer at Thammasat University, and Pattanun Arunpreechawat from NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
In his opening remarks, Dr. Michael Montesano delved into the unique nature of populism in Thailand, emphasizing its distinctiveness and the challenges it poses for comparative analysis. He noted that while Thai populism may seem peculiar, it is crucial to understand movements like populism and authoritarianism within their specific local context to draw meaningful comparisons. The entry of populism into Thailand’s political discourse gained prominence over two decades ago with Thaksin Shinawatra’s premiership in 2001. Thaksin’s extravagant program, particularly targeting rural ties, introduced policies such as a moratorium on village development funds for farms and low-cost access to healthcare. Despite being perceived as unprecedented welfare measures for rural Thailand, they were often misunderstood and overlooked by commentators at the time.
Dr. Montesano explained that since Thaksin and his party introduced populist ideas and programs, policies deemed populist have been replicated in the platforms of almost all Thai political parties and even by the military dictatorship that took power in Bangkok in 2014. The key to Thaksin’s policy success lies in his ability to align programs with rhetoric and behavior, emphasizing his direct connection with the Thai people. Furthermore, this unmediated relationship with the Thai people was seen by many in the Bangkok elite as a challenge to another figure attempting to build a connection with the people, namely the Monarch.
Dr. Montesano highlighted that the question of mediation, or lack thereof, between the people and the government in Thailand is crucial not only to populism but also to manifestations of authoritarianism in the country. According to him, understanding Thai authoritarianism is more challenging than understanding Thai populism because pinpointing its precise onset is difficult. Does it date from the early 1890s when King Chulalongkorn reformed the government, endowing Royal absolutism with unprecedented power? Does it date to the 1930s when a small civilian military faction abolished the Thai absolute monarchy? Or does it date back to the long series of military governments from just before the Pacific War up to the very recent past, giving the country its current reputation for coups and dictatorships?
He concluded by emphasizing that the critical point is that both in the 1930s and during the Cold War era, high authoritarianism was, in fact, centered on the same concerns as Thaksin’s populism. The faction of civil servants and soldiers that seized power from the absolute monarchy in 1932 did so in the name of the people. Similarly, the counterinsurgency doctrine that the military-led government in Bangkok unveiled in 1980 espoused a version of democracy rooted in an unmediated relationship between the state and the people. Even the military dictatorship of 2014 to 2019 inherited this same idea regarding the relationship of the state to the Thai people from the counterinsurgency era.Hence, it can be stated that Thai authoritarianism has often been rooted in an effort to address the same need that underlies Thai populism: the necessity to establish connections between the demos and the state without the mediating structures of liberal democracy.
Dr. Petra Alderman: “Political Legitimation and Authoritarian Nation Branding in Thailand”
Dr. Petra Alderman stated that Thailand embraced nation branding during Thaksin’s premiership. This adoption was influenced by the premier’s business-oriented approach to politics and his association with numerous marketers. Thaksin’s brand presented an alternative strategic myth to the conservative triadic Thai expression of national identity, typically formulated as a nation-religion-king triad. The traditional triad is rooted in principles of deference, obedience, and strict social hierarchy. In contrast, Thaksin’s “nation economy” brand promoted the idea of a successful and competitive Thailand filled with business-minded individuals, aspiring to be on par with Western industrialized nations.
As the first panelist, Dr. Petra Alderman presented the key ideas from her book Branding Authoritarian Nations: Political Legitimation and Strategic National Myths in Military-Ruled Thailand, which focuses on nation branding in Thailand but is also broadly applicable to various authoritarian contexts.
Dr. Alderman explained that nation branding involves a unified way of representing a country, often through slogans like ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Britain is great,’ as well as logos and visuals. A clear example is a poster from Great Britain in a campaign which was launched back in 2015 at the time of David Cameron government. The concept of branding nations as products or corporations originated in the late 1990s in American and British branding circles, with Simon Anholt considered a key figure. Initially, the idea was for countries to engage in nation branding to enhance their global competitiveness, attracting more tourists and investors. The focus has often been on the external projection of countries, overlooking the domestic dimension of nation branding.
She highlighted three key points. First, nation branding is a profound political practice that merits careful study. Second, a shift in perspective is needed, moving away from an excessive focus on external manifestations to understanding its domestic implications. Third, discussing authoritarian nation branding is most effective when viewed through the lens of political legitimation. The potential for legitimation in nation branding lies in its capacity to generate strategic national myths—selective interpretations of the nation’s past and present character. These myths encompass future visions and aspirations, often rooted in a blend of economic and cultural goals. Their strategic nature is evident in how they aim to influence perceptions of the country’s elite, their interests, and the functioning of domestic power arrangements.
Dr. Alderman then contextualized this practice in Thailand, noting that the country embraced nation branding during Thaksin’s premiership from 2001 to 2006. This adoption was influenced by the premier’s business-oriented approach to politics and his association with numerous marketers. Thaksin’s brand presented an alternative strategic myth to the conservative triadic Thai expression of national identity, typically formulated as a nation-religion-king triad. The traditional triad is rooted in principles of deference, obedience, and strict social hierarchy. In contrast, Thaksin’s "nation economy" brand promoted the idea of a successful and competitive Thailand filled with business-minded individuals, aspiring to be on par with Western industrialized nations.
Dr. Alderman stated that significant changes were implemented by the NCPO after the 2014 military coup, adopting a different approach driven by distinct needs. The new regime focused on information operations, targeting perceived enemies, and attempting to alter their mindset. In Thai context, the enemy was often the domestic audience, particularly those opposing the coup and the regime. The NCPO aimed to delegitimize the "nation economy" Thaksin brand, steering people back toward the more conservative expression of Thai identity symbolized by the nation-religion-king triad. The NCPO introduced a new strategic national myth depicting a creatively modernizing but culturally and socially traditional Thailand. This narrative urged Thai people to reject the Shinawatra family, provincial identities, and social aspirations in favor of semi-authoritarian rule under the new regime.
As an illustration of the NCPO’s strategy, Dr. Alderman highlighted "Thailand 4.0," a relatively short-lived project launched in March/April 2016 as Thailand’s flagship economic policy. It had a robust external component, signaling to the world that Thailand was aligning with the global trend toward Industry 4.0 and was an attractive investment destination. Simultaneously, Thailand 4.0 had a substantial internal dimension, initially presented as an economic policy but primarily serving as a tool for political legitimation for the NCPO. Essentially, Thailand 4.0 presented an enticing vision of the future to Thai people in exchange for their support, trust, and loyalty to the military government. It was basically narrating that it is not just the Thaksin government that could deliver all these exciting economic visions but also the NCPO is able to do the same.
Itsakul Unahakate: “Authoritarian Ministry of Truth: A Case of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center”
Unakahate: The audience in Thailand is introduced to four state-centered responses: direct communication, fact-checking (systematic assessments of claims made by public officials and institutions with an attempt to verify their accuracy), content removal or blocking, and criminal sanctions. In democracies, journalists or third-party fact-checkers often play a role, with government support provided through funding or coordination with independent bodies to avoid partisanship. In contrast, authoritarian regimes strive to act as the Ministry of Truth by establishing their own fact-checking agencies, which may lack guaranteed independence.
The second panelist, Itsakul Unahakate, presented a pre-recorded session titled ‘Authoritarian Ministry of Truth: A Case of Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center,’ which delved into the operations of anti-fake news centers in Thailand during the Covid-19 pandemic. His research is grounded in the notion that fake news can have social consequences, particularly during the pandemic, potentially justifying government intervention. This raises concerns about the potential impact on freedom of expression and democratization, especially in authoritarian regimes. While many studies examine the effects on civil liberties and freedom of expression, only a few explain the reasons behind the use of these responses. Different responses take various intrusive forms and affect freedom of expression differently. The research question is: What explains the variation in the state’s responses to fake news, and when does the state refrain from taking action?
The audience is introduced to four state-centered responses: direct communication, fact-checking (systematic assessments of claims made by public officials and institutions with an attempt to verify their accuracy), content removal or blocking, and criminal sanctions. A noteworthy distinction is observed between democratic and Asian countries in their approach to information correction. In democracies, journalists or third-party fact-checkers often play a role, with government support provided through funding or coordination with independent bodies to avoid partisanship. In contrast, authoritarian regimes strive to act as the Ministry of Truth by establishing their own fact-checking agencies, which may lack guaranteed independence.
Scholar Unahakate also detailed the methodology employed in the study. Data collection occurred between March 2020 and September 2022, encompassing the first six months after the declaration of a state of emergency under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, which granted the government additional administrative power due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The decree allowed for criminal charges, including imprisonment, against offenders. The data were sourced from two fact-checking centers: Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Centre (AFNC) and AFP Thailand. The coding process followed the International Fact-Checking Network’s principles of non-partisanship and transparency, ensuring that fact-checkers justify why and how they select and assess claims. Finally, data were analyzed using qualitative Nvivo content analysis, comparing the patterns of AFNC and AFP reports to understand their approaches to fact-checking news.
Regarding the findings, during the first three months after the emergency decree’s announcement, the AFNC primarily focused its infection reports on the government’s Covid-19 policies and measures, as well as virus prevention and treatment. In the subsequent three months, there was a shift towards health-related news. A similar pattern was observed in AFP reports. However, noteworthy is that certain issues, such as protests, were only covered by AFP Thailand reports. In terms of sources, the AFNC often does not specify claim origins, frequently using unspecified sources. At best, the AFNC may select a less important claim than the available options; at worst, it might fabricate a claim to serve government agendas. Conversely, AFP utilized various sources, with AFNC often referring to government agencies like the Ministry of Public Health or the Department of Public Relations.
Unahakate concluded by highlighting the research outcomes. There are notable differences between the reports of the two fact-checking centers: around one-sixth of the claims in the AFNC are considered true, while none are in AFP. In essence, substantial disparities exist between the reports of the two fact-checkers. The AFNC appears to be a deficient fact-checker, at least based on the standards set by the IFNC Code of Principles regarding transparency and impartiality. Furthermore, the AFNC may have concealed objectives beyond its fact-checking responsibilities.
Pattanun Arunpreechawat: “Youth Perspective: Is Populism for the People? An Ecofeminist Movement from Thailand”
Pattanun Arunpreechawat’s central argument posits that many Thai populist policies lack inclusivity, disproportionately benefiting specific segments of society. In this context, feminism is defined as the eradication of factors contributing to the ongoing systemic domination or subordination of women. Ecology, on the other hand, signifies an environmental philosophy valuing all living beings for their intrinsic existence, not solely for their utility to humans. Ecofeminism, therefore, asserts that there are significant connections—historical, experiential, symbolic, and theoretical—between the domination of women and the domination of nature.
As the final panelist, Pattanun Arunpreechawat presented from a youth perspective, focusing on a specific definition of populism related to macroeconomic strategies prioritizing economic growth, national development, and fair income distribution. Politicians implementing these populist policies often target the rural poor and claim to represent the interests of the people. The key question revolves around who truly benefits from these populist policies and in what ways. Her presentation narrowed its focus to bilateral trade agreements, highlighting positive impacts such as promoting growth, creating new jobs, increasing GDP, and attracting foreign investments. On the flip side, negative impacts include environmental degradation, job displacement, and unequal distribution, sometimes leading to land disputes.
Her argument is framed within an ecofeminist framework, which examines the interconnection between environmental issues and the challenges faced by marginalized groups, such as women and the rural poor. This perspective highlights how certain populist policies overlook the exploitation and oppression of these groups. The central argument posits that many Thai populist policies lack inclusivity, disproportionately benefiting specific segments of society. In this context, feminism is defined as the eradication of factors contributing to the ongoing systemic domination or subordination of women. Ecology, on the other hand, signifies an environmental philosophy valuing all living beings for their intrinsic existence, not solely for their utility to humans. Ecofeminism, therefore, asserts that there are significant connections—historical, experiential, symbolic, and theoretical—between the domination of women and the domination of nature. In this regard, Elisabeth Warren contends that environmental issues are feminist because the environment is intricately linked to rural and household economies governed by women. Additionally, women tend to be more reliant on natural resources than men due to societal norms and gender roles, and they bear a disproportionate burden from environmental degradation and the destruction of forests.
Arunpreechawat presented a compelling example from Thailand that illustrates the intertwined patterns of domination over both women and nature—the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), which became effective in 2005. Through this agreement, the corporation Kingsgate Consolidated obtained a concession from the Thai government to mine gold ore in three provinces: Phichit, Phitsanulok, and Phetchabun. Akara Resources, a Thai subsidiary of the Australian mining company, initiated mining operations in 2001 in Phichit under the project named ‘The Chatree Mining Complex.’ Due to the use of Cyanide, a toxic chemical substance, in gold extraction, villagers filed a lawsuit against the company in 2016, alleging violations of the National Environmental Quality Act.
Amid reports and under the Prayut government, Thailand decided to halt the mining operation in 2017, citing health and environmental concerns. However, this victory for the villagers and environmental activists was short-lived. Thailand faced a lawsuit from Kingsgate Consolidated itself, demanding over 30 million baht (USD 866 million) through the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), an agreement mechanism that grants the company the right to sue a nation.
She then delved into the various implications arising from this example. Concerning health, numerous studies revealed that there were elevated levels of heavy metals exceeding healthy standards in the bloodstream, a high level of cyanide contamination was observed, mining workers experienced health deterioration, and long exposure to such toxins through inhalation could lead to central nervous system toxicity. Regarding the environment, the mining sites released toxic leakages into the environment and paddy fields, causing high concentrations of metals in the lotus pond and paddy fields, along with elevated levels of air pollution. In terms of society, a significant clash unfolded between mining supporters and anti-mining activists: while free trade agreements or mining sites created jobs and reduced poverty, the detrimental health impacts were severe. Many villagers were instructed to relocate, and the activists who filed the lawsuit faced defamation charges.
In conclusion, Pattanun Arunpreechawat emphasized that this case is not isolated, as women in agriculture and other provinces often lead the fight against environmental injustices that affect not only women but also men and children. This process can be perceived as a form of slow violence, as it may not be immediately apparent. In this context, ecofeminism serves to uncover the connections between issues of oppression, environmental domination, and women, illustrating that these problems cannot be addressed in isolation. The empirical evidence demonstrates how populist policies (such as FTAs) with poor environmental practices impact women’s lives, highlighting the conflict between national economic growth and the rural poor. It also underscores how mainstream policies often reflect, reinforce, or create practices that devalue, subvert, or render invisible the actual needs and contributions of women and the underprivileged.