22 September 2010

Article: Urbanity, Class and Post-democracy in Thailand

Jim Glassman, "'The Provinces Elect Governments, Bangkok Overthrows Them': Urbanity, Class and Post-democracy in Thailand" ("Urban Studies", 47 [6], May 2010: pp. 1301-23):


Abstract: "Urban social movements are often associated with what are considered 'progressive' causes and most activists involved in such movements are inclined to describe themselves in such terms. The Thai coup of September 2006 poses problems for any such easy identification. Although executed by the military, on behalf of royalist interests, the coup was supported by an array of primarily Bangkok-based and middle-class groups, many of them associated with organisations such as NGOs and state enterprise unions. Although some of these groups claimed anti-neo-liberal political orientations, their support for the coup effectively placed them on the side of forces opposed to quasi-Keynesian policies and in favour of specific forms of neo-liberalism – at least for Thai villagers. This paper explores this development by focusing on the Bangkok/upcountry and urban/rural divisions in Thai politics, which, although socially constructed, have taken on political substance, in part because of their grounding in regionally differentiated class structures."

Excerpts: "I argue that the coup of 2006 and its sequelae represent a slide towards 'post-democracy' – a condition where democratic political forms achieved through previous social struggles (for example, a multiparty parliament) are subverted by both differential structural power (for example, the wealth and influence of royalist institutions) and overt attempts to reign in popular influence (for example, attempts to make much of the parliament appointed, rather than elected). This slide is driven in part by the interests of an embattled middle class, stronger in Bangkok than elsewhere in the country, which cannot consistently get all that it wants out of conventional parliamentary politics. [...]

"Confronted by the contradiction between a putative commitment to democracy and the reality of enormous social privileges which they attempt to maintain, many Bangkok groups – including some 'progressive' activists – have increasingly looked to conservative forces, chiefly the monarchy, to protect their interests and impose forms of development and social order. This tendency was already apparent before the 2006 coup, but became especially evident at that point. [...] Thailand seems to have entered a period of 'post-democracy', a situation in which there is still a functioning multiparty parliament but in which governments elected by the majority cannot effectively function or carry out policies because of Bangkok-based and royalist opposition. [...]

"Bangkok-based social movements and pro-coup middle classes have emerged on the side of 'post-democracy', utilising their disproportionate political power and media exposure to overturn these political decisions. In short, Bangkok is not a site of the most progressive democratic sentiment, while the countryside is neither a site of purely corrupt patronage systems nor of the romantic rural idyll. [...] [I]n the context of on-going divergence between the prospects of the Bangkok middle classes and other Thai social groups, Thailand seems for now to have entered a 'post-democratic' period in which Bangkok political activists and opinion leaders will continue their attempts to derail the political challenges emanating from outside the capital."

The article contains an extensive bibliography of relevant literature.

Jim Glassman is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia.

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