A series of political super storms has hit Thailand in recent years—in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013. That’s a lot of bad weather. The turmoil and fallout have occurred with the frequency of super typhoons, with each bringing more damage than the last. At the moment a number of commentators in Thailand and abroad, like weathermen, are trying to forecast the political weather in the days, weeks and months to come. Most are finding it difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence.
Political predictions in Thailand suffer from limitations comparable to those of weather forecasting. The political climate involves complex systems that constantly change, reassemble, merge, expand or shrink in ways that are uncertain until they happen. I’d like to examine one feature of the ongoing turmoil—the cultural world of kreng jai—that may partially explain the political instability of Thailand’s recent past.
Some years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, which reviews the large (seemingly limitless) Thai language vocabulary about the heart. The Thai expression kreng jai has the longest entry in the book and was the most difficult to explain in English. I wrote: “The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful positions such as a high-ranking police officer.”
What is driving the political turmoil, in my view, is a breakdown of this ancient kreng jai system that has until now been the bedrock of the political establishment. The patronage system, the pee/nong—older and younger person system and the automatic deference to rank, uniform and position were built from the stone and cement of kreng jai. Even voting has been fenced in by the unwritten rules of deference.
There is much talk recently of vote buying, talk that is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of a popularly elected government. The historical record indicates that the exchange of gifts and benefits for votes has long been a feature of Thai politics and is another example of the kreng jai tradition. Poor villagers deferred to the educated, well-dressed “betters” with more power and money because that was how the system worked. Gift giving was the oil that lubricated the system.
In the kreng jai system it was inappropriate, rude and unforgiveable to question or criticize people in power or who hold positions of authority. From a policeman to a village head man to a schoolteacher or civil servant—the status was sufficient to guarantee compliance without worry of being asked to justify an action or a policy or a belief.
Until recently there was a widely accepted faith that an older person would take care and protect a younger person. That those with power, in return for deference to them, would keep the poorer, “powerless” people from harm’s way. What has happened in Thailand is that the faith in this grand bargain promised by kreng jai has been broken—with a new political consciousness arising from a fledgling system of electoral politics.
Once the general population of voters understood that they had power in their vote, they started to wonder about the role of kreng jai in a world of newly empowered voters. This modern, new power to elect officials promised to secure for them a better life than the one they had traditionally received under a pure kreng jai system. What happened next? Pretty much what you’d expect—people’s previously unshaken belief in the old faith that had driven the political process was replaced by doubt and skepticism. In response, both anti-government and government officials have attempted to reinforce the kreng jai system by taking advantage of the legal tools of criminal defamation as defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté) and The Computer Crime Act.
A yawning political divide has opened up between those who wish to institutionalize a political system based on the old notion of kreng jai and those who wish a substantial modification of automatic deference as the appropriate attitude toward the political elites. To this extent the elites on both sides of the current political impasse share the same interest. It shouldn’t be overlooked that a separate kreng jai system operates inside the class of elites. In fact, the more one investigates kreng jai, the more one starts to see that, like the weather, it quickly becomes very complicated.
Thailand’s anti-democratic forces are embracing the idea of kreng jai to preserve their world. That means a code of conduct based on deference within the elite class and between the elite class and everyone else. The Bangkok elites rail against Thaksin Shinawatra, who comes from a Chinese political/commercial family in Chiang Mai, with the kind of deep, committed hatred that can be understood as emerging from their existential fear of his growing power. Like the Israelis’ hatred for the Iranians, nothing and no one is going to change the emotional voltage.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s mistake was to play the popularity card to trump the informal kreng jai code among the elites—one that kept a rough parity of power so no one was hugely more influential than the others. The Bangkok elites saw Thaksin’s political agenda as a betrayal of the long-standing elite power arrangements. He refused to honor those informal arrangements in a way that made them feel threatened. The Bangkok elites had every reason to support the 2006 coup against this internal kreng jai violator and encourager of the upcountry voters’ growing inclination to seek political power rather going through the old patronage system.
Of course, it might be said that Thaksin created his own personal kreng jai system, perverting the original one for his own personal profit. Another view is that Thaksin saw an opportunity to ride a wave of cultural and social change. He hadn’t created that wave that threatened to wash out the old temple walls of kreng jai. But he found clever political ways to tap into the power of that wave through health-care programs and other populist policies that kreng jai had never delivered.
The start of the current round of turmoil began when the government tried to enact a grand bargain among the elites. The idea was to pass an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin and the opposing Bangkok elite side of all crimes since the 2006 coup.
The opaque nature of power arrangements and agreements on the informal side of Thai politics hints without any solid evidence that a deal was struck and provided cover for the government’s push to enact the amnesty bill. Whatever the deal was (assuming there was one), it excluded the people who had gone into the street to protest against the regime installed by the 2006 coup. Those people, under the proposed legislation, would remain in prison. The stark reality sent a clear message—the “little” people in prison would have to accept their karma. It was a deal by, for and between the elites only.
The political struggle over amnesty ironically ignited the current turmoil. What went wrong? A couple of factors fall into the category of miscalculation. The Bangkok elites have traditionally enjoyed the type of immunity that normally extends to foreign diplomats. The traditional elites had no real fear of criminal prosecution for their activities. Why would they need an amnesty bill when they already enjoyed virtual immunity? Thaksin had, in their view, betrayed them, and he was allowed to go and remain in exile. No one tried to stop him from leaving Thailand, and no one has tried very hard to get him back. For his betrayal, he’s hated at a distance. So for Thaksin, living in exile to use Skype and other high technological means, to go over their heads with an amnesty bill was intolerable. They perceived, from a distance, he’d found yet another way to overrule the traditional elites. His continued influence was an insult, another thumb in the eye and a display of power to force them to acknowledge his right to run the show.
What is interesting was the uproar the legislation caused. The hatred among the elites and their supporters for Thaksin’s betrayal intensified as they saw the amnesty bill as another attempt by Thaksin to pull the strings to overrule the verdict of exile and asset confiscation by the unofficial power structure. To add insult to their injury, he pointed to his legitimate right to have his way as he had gained the popular vote from what are, in their view, the “uneducated,” “stupid” and “unwashed masses.” The non-Thaksin elites were livid—how could these people who historically owed kreng jai to them ally with Thaksin to undermine their position and power?
Those same unwashed masses who delivered Thaksin his power also felt betrayed. They turned on him. For a brief moment the shared hatred of the traditional elites and the upcountry masses gave them a rare glimpse of solidarity. That didn’t last long. The elites might have funneled that joined hatred into meaningful political reform. But no, they seized the opportunity to go in for the kill by scotching a constitutional amendment to allow for a wholly elected Senate. While the little people fell outside the amnesty bill, the proposed amendment would empower them to extend their political voice to the upper house. The traditional elites saw the extension of the voting franchise to the Senate as another power grab by Thaksin.
With the amnesty bill Thaksin managed to alienate his friends and supporters and bring them in common cause with his old rivals. It would have been his weakest political moment. He was vulnerable. The traditional elites saw an opening to root out what they’d started to call the “Thaksin Regime” and to return Thailand to the pre-Thaksin political era. That was a far bridge to cross. How to get from the present to that ideal past? The big idea was for a government ruled by an unelected “People’s Council” which would complete the job of destroying the remaining elements of the “Thaksin Regime.”
The government’s and Thaksin’s miscalculation on the amnesty bill showed that they had not read the hearts and minds of the Thai masses very well either. This mistake gave the traditionalists an opening to attack the government, democracy and elections. The government is only lucky in that, as disappointed and betrayed as its supporters had felt with the bill, they understood a much higher cost would be paid if they were forced to return to the old full-blown kreng jai system enforced by edicts of the People’s Council, handpicked by the elites.
The yearning for the stability of a strong kreng jai underpinned the calls for the government not to dissolve parliament and hold new elections but rather to put democracy on hold. The elites have not quite caught up with the rank and file who have opted to leave their feudalistic deference behind. Kreng jai hasn’t vanished. It remains a value for many Thais. But the nature of deference is changing.
Globalization, social media, cheap travel and the Internet are forces that have chipped away at the Thai kreng jai system. Once exposed to the crosscurrents of ideas, thoughts and images, kreng jai begins to have a dated, worn and artificial quality. The ritual wai remains. I remember years ago buying a poster at the Weekend Market that showed more than a dozen different wais. This was a poster used in schools to teach students the intricate but meaningful differences in the kinds of wais and who was entitled to which kind. The wai a tourist receives, for instance, is part of the hospitality industry; it is a commodity, a product, one that makes foreigners feel special. It comes with a warm smile.
These political storms mask a greater change in the cultural atmosphere. The jet streams have shifted in the way most Thais perceive their relationships. It would be premature to say that kreng jai is gone. Indeed the kreng jai aspect will remain for a very long time. That said, the core faith has evolved from a kind of quasi-religion to a secular position that honoring and respecting people is a good thing—only they should earn that respect. That’s a big change. And that those with rank and status should be accountable to the masses is a full frontal assault on an ancient system that continues to resist, protest and posture.
Can a self-governing non-elected “People’s Council” of “good” people reinstate, defend and protect this cultural cornerstone of the political establishment? Think how long it has taken for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to change minds and hearts, and how incomplete that process is, and you start to have an idea that great shifts in belief systems happen over many generations. We live in a world where change has accelerated. Information is widely available and information is empowerment. So long as the schools and universities, the civil servants, the military and the courts draw ranks to retain the kreng jai system, the political turmoil will continue.
There are certain to be more political super storms as the existing elites have put their finger into the air, and they don’t like way the wind is blowing. It isn’t the government or the constitution that is the problem. It’s that Thais are changing a key feature of their hearts. The political climate is complex. There are hidden forces we can only guess at. There are connections and undercurrents that we are only vaguely aware of. No one element, in isolation, is ever the whole story. Shifts inside Thai culture are part of the political instability matrix. But there are other elements, such as technology, social media and the values and ideas flooding in from all directions.
To return Thais to the old system of kreng jai would require sealing off the country and imposing re-education camps. There are voices, here and there, that suggest such an alternative, but the reality is that going back to an idealized state of deference would be like speeding backwards on a moonless night on a mountain road without guard rails. It would no doubt end in a terrible accident. The question is, what will the new rules of the road be? That’s like asking what the weather will be next month. We can only guess at the most probable outcomes. No one knows.