EMINENT intellectual Seksan Prasertkul has called on people with varying ideologies – conservatives and progressives – to tolerate their differences and have an authentic dialogue so that Thai society can move forward with dynamism based on both “change and continuity”.
“Thai contexts have been born out of variety. What comes as ‘Thainess’ today is a blend of diversity. There is no reason to stop this liberalism,” said Seksan, who was delivering a special lecture at Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan campus.
“It is impossible to stay amid our differences if we do not first take a step back to leave space for humanity to grow,” he continued. “In these differences lie the universality that connect us to each other.”
Seksan, who has largely avoided public appearances or commentaries, yesterday came out in public for a biennial lecture in tribute to late economist and former Thammasat University rector Puey Ungphakorn.
The special lecture, entitled “Thailand in Thoughts: Thoughts in Thailand”, was held as political movements and new parties emerge even as the junta government, which marks its fourth anniversary this May, has tried to smother public discourse.
Rooted in a pro-democracy background as a student activist leader in the October 1973 demonstration, Seksan however pointed out flaws in public participation that have emerged in recent years in Thailand’s democratic society.
While the established elite monopolise the use of the powerful vocabulary such as “goodness and Thainess” to justify their power and reinforce the status quo, the progressive camp has yet to set democratic roots deeply in the country since the 1932 revolution changed the nation from an absolute monarchy to a democracy, he said.
Seksan argued that politicians should have pushed forward decentralisation of power to local areas, made more genuine connections between legislation and the citizens, and bureaucratic reforms to allow more transparency.
“These would help ensure the importance of civil society, the press and public criticism in society. This will help democracy prosper even more than holding an election, the sole mechanism that politicians like to point to,” he said.
Thai-style democracy has been involved with traditionalism and patron-client systems, barring people’s access to decision-making processes, and eventually causing public dissatisfaction and hence mass politics.
“Mass politics are what make democracy much less flexible. It plants a ‘winner takes all’ perception in people regarding politics,” he said. “It could also cause anarchy and eventually make people turn to a coup.”
While there are pro-democracy, progressive blocs in Thailand, their challenges are how to interpret foreign schools of thought to fit the Thai contexts and be accepted, he said.
They are always in a race to take time and space from the conservatives, who have state mechanisms to reproduce their thoughts and keep the upper hands but are still hindered in their attempts to convey old-school nationalism and traditionalism to modern society.
“The conservative society relies on the state to boost its egoism while the state claims a reason to protect the national interest. They refer to each other,” he explained.
One prominent example is the frequently claimed term “good people”, which is simple yet effective with being contemporary, linking to morality, broad definitions and ideal independence from any social hierarchy.
“But with every good always comes every bad. Those regarding themselves as ‘good people’ would automatically regard others as bad and morally lower. It brings about collectivism, installing power among themselves over others,” he said.
“This is demonisation and hence dehumanisation of the others, which should actually be called real sins.”
In the Thai political context, the “good people” discourse was hugely adopted during the 2013-14 protests against the elected civilian government, and leading some to support a coup.
“The perception was that the ruling power should be in the hands of ‘good people’ only. Bad people shouldn’t have such chances,” he said.
“But people deemed as ‘bad people’ were not only the elected government but also the people who elected them,” he said. “The ‘good people’ then turned out to be the educated, upper-class people while local people with less knowledge were dismissed as ‘bad’.”
He added that the gist of democracy and freedom is not predicated on serving only the good people but instead make virtue accessible to everyone.
“Calling yourselves good people just to accumulate all the powers to your camp is just wrong by all means,” he concluded.