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The first article in this series ended with a paragraph referring to a felt need to ‘reinvigorate’ Thainess as perceived - by the ruling elite, or as otherwise referred to, a loose confederation of mutual interest entities that former deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said during a public forum on 29 July do not exist. Suthep said, quote, “There has never been any class [separation] in Thailand.” Yet, he contradicted this statement back in June 2012 when he accused former premier Thaksin Shinawatra of sending “two upper class ladies and a gentleman” to speak with him1 … two opposite opinions on the same subject from the same person.

Thailand’s respected Royal Institute deems it appropriate to address the term class division or ‘social class,’ citing its importance in recent history. Its entry is short and does not specifically indicate that such a class stratification exists in Thailand.

The gist of the Institute’s specific reference to social class is that the term lost its relevance and meaning after World War II. The reality, however, is much different. Rather than any loss of relevance it is still generally understood by most sociologists – and the general public - that there are three general classes in almost any society – working class, middle class, and upper class. Social stratification is in part a constructed concept and in part one that a person is born into. Society is clearly stratified – not as it was in centuries past but certainly stratified, with commonalities like income, career, family name and connections, language and so on existing as fact. There is a certain degree of movement between classes, of course, limited but open to various initiatives. It is, in fact, that “land of opportunity” nature, or cited as, of the United States that supposedly allowed and allows people in lower classes of society in their countries of birth to move above and beyond what would have never been possible in their homelands2.

Suthep’s claim that Thailand has never had class separation is a statement he can make - but is immediately refuted by anyone who either isn’t “in his loop” - as he may have inadvertently been condescending to others while himself enjoying the privileges of class superiority, as well as by almost any student of history or observer of reality. Just as “sayin’ so don’t make it so,” neither does saying it is not so make it not so.

Thailand’s social stratification was in part engineered and accomplished with an early piece of social engineering known as the sakdina system, itself well-detailed in the Law of the Three Seals3 promulgated by Rama I. This code included very specific stipulations related to each member of Siamese society, including the monarchy, providing a certain number of “na” to the individual or his or her position.

Back in the days when a perceived need by Siamese rulers determined that such a ranking system had to be implemented, Siam was at a disadvantage that the giant United States, at the time, was not at. The latter had great unexplored territories and a vibrant capitalist infrastructure, as well as a strong central government that contributed toward at least a modicum of class equality – or at least, offered nearly limitless opportunity for anyone capable of taking advantage of it. For certain there was a working class and even slaves, and a middle class and an upper class and a very elite class. But given the huge breadth and scope of the American enterprise at that time in history there was no need to dictate who was what and that everyone had to demonstrate their place from time to time. This was not the case in Siam where slavery was not just accepted but remnants of such an ethic remain even in the 21st century4. The loose confederation was at various risks from within and without, and given the absolute monarchy governance at the time and need for national and institutional security, a clear top-down class system where everyone knows his or her place had to be implemented. That is, those were the perceptions.

Over the next century or so, Siam became Thailand and the Siamese subject became a Thai citizen – sort of. Modern communication and travel, growth in academic research and teaching of cultural similarities and differences eventually led to an intellectual challenge to the existing system, a challenge of credibility, a challenge of necessity, a challenge of authority. That challenge has become contemporary Thailand’s National Identity Crisis.

Dealing with society - when you are at the top and ruling all else5 - can’t be an easy task (But how many of us have had the chance to try it?). Relationships are complex and consensus on issues, policies, methods and timing is never a simple accomplishment – lots of compromise, trade-offs and losses as well as victories. But that does not obviate the need – moral, ethical and legal – for rulers/leadership, for civil servants, for government agencies, for teachers, religious leaders and law enforcement to provide two important social needs: first, protection, and second, enforcement. The latter has historically been nearly the only social need of the two satisfied in Thailand, and it is because of that, because of the institutional failure to provide protection, that such a litany of great injustices and further delays to justice has been the hallmark of the Thai justice system.

The sakdina system, replete with social inequality and associated expectations that place will be recognized and accepted, is still very much alive in 2012. Two writings, among many others, that address the sakdina system, its origins and current status in Thai society, and describe the many aspects of Thai behavior that result from the continuation of this regime, are: The State of Democracy in Thailand by Professor Robert Albritton, and The Last Orientals – The Thai Sakdina System.

The first work was written in 2008 and part of a presentation given to the Asian Barometer Conference in Taipei in June of that year. Several points made by the lecturer were made, of which the following are but a few selective views:

  1. One’s ranking in the sakdina system is derived from proximity to the monarchy. Members of the royal family were ranked in the tens of thousands of “na,” while those lower in society ranked less all the way through to slaves and the children of slaves who were at the bottom6.
  2. Guardians of the sakdina system work hard to - and enjoy the benefits from – ensuring that any government remains essentially weak. This was one of the issues that called for removal of Thaksin – his government was just too powerful. Such a strong government presented a direct threat to the continuation of the traditional aristocracy triad (nation, religion, monarchy).
  3. The poor, for whom Thaksin was their hero, vote quite differently than the middle class.
  4. Bangkok politics were in confrontation with those of the rural areas.
  5. Perceptions and commitment to democracy changed when the political balance of power shifted to the rural areas, a shift blunted at the moment but not quite broken.
  6. A great deal of law enforcement and judicial proceedings has its origins in the deference system inherent in sakdina.
  7. Democracy is in a battle with deeply rooted cultures of inequality. Even though the People’s Alliance for Democracy and Democrats now are citing corrupt politicians, neither camp has really given honest thought to the origin of all corruption in Thailand – society itself.
  8. The sakdina system imposes an identity upon the Thai through all aspects of social interaction, including education and public rituals.

The Last Orientals – the Thai Sakdina System was written for History Planet blog in June 2011, three years later. The narrative provides a broad holistic overview of the sakdina system, why it was implemented and the impact it had on Thai culture. Reverting briefly to Suthep Thaugsuban, his posit during a televised political rally in August 2012 that Thailand was never divided into classes is also refuted by this blog notation. “Thai society had long been divided into two classes, the nobles and the masses, the Sakdina system clearly defined the roles within society of these two groups, how they would interact with each other and amongst themselves creating a strict social order based on the quantified worth of each individual.”

The Sakdina System is also called the Thai Feudal System, not so much out of analytical accuracy but from want of a more descriptive term. Thus public statements by many academics and opposition activists that the system is still very much active today rankles feelings. But as late as the turn of the 19th century the sakdina system was codified as the Law of Three Seals, in part affecting how much bearing a person’s testimony in court would have depending on his sakdina ranking. This has contemporary carry-over as several statements from judicial players have sounded as if their minds were already made up, before any trial proceedings, as to who was wrong and who was right. That early legal code replaced the ancient Siamese legal codes and acted as a forerunner of current Thai legal codes, civil and commercial, and criminal.

“Sakdina is probably still the most powerful influence on the Thai psyche today…In politics Sakdina sets the relationship between Thai government and the people, not in the western idea of a civil service, serving the public, but a higher caste considering the public slaves to be governed by them. Sakdina continues in the attitude that the people at the top of society should not be criticized by those lower than them and creates a culture of passive acceptance of authority everywhere, no matter how unjust or corrupt.”7

Sakdina involves deference, little self-actualization, patronage, blind loyalty, fatalistic beneficiary thinking, and dozens of other characteristics that are part and parcel of what we see as Thainess.

UK-based Thai academic Dr. Giles Ungpakorn, in a well-known banned-in-Thailand work has eloquently argued against and denied the presence of any sakdina remnants in today’s Thailand. He wrote, “The Thai State was transformed in order to pave the way for modern capitalism back in the 1870s and there are no remaining vestiges of a Sakdina system in Thailand.” Vestige is defined as “a trace, mark, or visible sign left by something (as an ancient city or a condition or practice) vanished or lost (2): the smallest quantity or trace.”  Professor Ungapakorn is detailed in his academic pursuits but given his Socialist leanings it may lead us to eclipse otherwise astute observations of the Thai sociopolitical scene.

Fellow Thai academic and Thammasart University lecturer Kasian Tejapira8 argued that a Thai class system did exist a few years earlier in a paper, Asian Modernity, delivered at the 6 July 2004 Berlin workshop with an entry titled, “Thainess, Ethno-nationalism and the State.” Besides referring to ‘definite class stratification in Thailand, he also spoke of “cultural schizophrenia becoming so chronic in Thai society that it has led to “illiberal democracy.” In moving Thailand into the modern world, preserving valid Thai cultural values and yet advancing in other positive ways, Tejapira writes that “the only sustainable modernity is the one that people learn to define and build for themselves, not the one decreed and imposed on or offered to them by other well-wishers.” Obviously the connotation of well-wisher is somewhat sarcastic and conveys a kind of condescension towards others by those who find their own causes noble and good.

The actual implementation of sakdina and state management of the kingdom under such a system was covered by Berger and Luckmann in what might be called an “all the way down” socialization.9  The process is one where an individual’s knowledge of reality is constructed from so-called self-validating “moments,” to wit: (1) externalization or projection, (2) objectivation or reification, (3) internalization and role alternation. While Berger and Luckmann did not study Thai society their findings parallel social processes in Thailand which casts doubts on claims that “a farang cannot know Thainess.” Their study also conflicts with the general Thai assumption that social man is - and should be, and remain - passive. The two researchers postulate instead that man is an active part of society, and that while swallowing reality as he knows it, will often act to change reality. This very concept is perhaps one of those currently at the forefront of undesirable elements that the traditionalist Thai elite continue to do their best to ensure does not become in vogue.  

Next in this series: National Identity Crisis and ‘Thainess’ - III – Implementation, Manifestation and Ramifications of Pseudo-Sakdina in 21st Century Thailand.

3  The Three Seals Legal Code was a complete revamp and reorganization of ancient Ayutthaya-period legal code, initiated by an unjust divorce case appealed to the king by the husband.
6  More on sakdina, with detailed explanations and examples of how many “na” an individual was ranked with, will be provided in the third article in this series on Thainess.
9  Berger and Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. First Anchor Books. 1967.

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