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The ghosts of Thai politics’ past

Thailand’s political landscape seems haunted by figures, events and images that once symbolised progressive change. Such change arguably has not come, yet the same symbols linger on, in newspapers, activist pamphlets and state media.

The country remains caught in a cycle of brief elected governments and military interventions, with the referendum last month that accepted a new draft constitution — to be Thailand’s twentieth — symptomatic of rather than a cure for this dysfunctional circle. New developments in Thai politics, in short, frequently have the eerie banality of deja-vu.

Thai Rak Thai was reborn as Pheu Thai, yet both parties have been anchored in the iconic Shinawatra name. Since the 1930s, Thailand has seen also countless military leaders from Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, to current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. While each junta has had its idiosyncrasies, all have drawn at least some degree on familiar events and iconography: a coup, perhaps a new constitution, the language of stability and the same promises of reform and a return to democracy.

Even colour in Thai politics is value-laden and conjures up either establishment or anti-establishment histories: the fiery hue of red shirts, the golden dye of their yellow counterparts, the murky green of military garb.

These political symbols are immediately recognisable, yet their meanings may be tiring towards a deathly weariness. As the anthropologist Andrew Johnson has shown, symbols of progress, if left unfulfilled, begin to represent the loss of progress instead.

In a paper titled ‘Progress and its Ruins: Ghosts, Migrants and the Uncanny in Thailand’, Johnson draws parallels between the phenomena of ghosts, and the breakdown of symbols of change. He documents how the actual experience of superficially modern phenomena does not always meet expectations or result in happiness.

For Johnson’s subjects, breakdowns of faith in progress manifested in turn in visions of ghosts: “ghosts emerge at a particular point in time, when hopes about increasing prosperity and future progress fall into doubt”. Ghosts, in their harking back to the past, represent the impossibility of a clean break from yesterday’s problems: ‘‘Haunting ghosts … show failed moments of potential … they question the power of progress to change lives for the better”.

Johnson describes, for example, the paradoxical progress and failure symbolised by high-rise buildings in Chiang Mai that were left unfinished or unused in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian economic crisis: ‘there was even a stock exchange complete with banks of monitors and a trading floor that fell into ruin, never used again’. In this ghostly new light, previous icons of dynamic progress began to symbolise stasis.

Johnson’s concerns over the fossilisation of icons of economic progress in Thailand spark questions over whether political symbols, discourses and images commonly employed by political movements in Thailand are also becoming outdated — ghosts of another kind.

Constitutions in Thailand, for instance, brought in 1997 watershed reforms and the promise of a return of power to the people. Yet Thailand’s current draft constitution is viewed essentially unanimously as entrenching — once again — military rule for the immediate future. Reforms to the electoral system will strike a blow to the country’s large political parties.

It is little wonder that the August referendum enjoyed barely modest voter turnout, given that constitutions in Thailand are haunted by histories of being short-lived, and seem associated with the monotonous grind of day-to-day power struggles more so than meaningful reform. In this context, it is unclear whether a red shirt — symbolic of the Thaksin era of populism and majority rule — would be viewed by most as subversive, or as the dying ember of a failed movement. On the other end of the spectrum, it is likely that a constitution alone embodies enough symbolic weight to confer legitimacy to the junta.

In another paper, Johnson documents how local communities adapt to uncertainties in their lives — their fear of ghosts — through creative and spontaneous rituals that change what these ghosts represent (for example, sacrificial routines to persuade a malevolent ghost into being a benefactor). With Thai politics having been caught in deadlock between electoral politics and military intervention for years, actors may likewise have to deploy new symbols and frame old ideologies innovatively to maintain relevance — and even better, win further public resonance.

With some worrying deftness, the junta appears to have recognised accordingly that their old tricks of coup-making, and legitimation on grounds of either state stability or economic development, may no longer cut it. Reforms in the new draft constitution that blur the lines between the military and democratic institutions, such as an appointed senate, may be an attempt to entrench power through democratic institutions rather than over them. A new democratic façade may also be seen in recent calls for a political party to form around Prayuth.

The burden of seeing through the junta’s changing tactics, and ‘democratic’ new garb, rests on the Thai public. Yet in recent years, the campaigns of political parties in Thailand have been slower to innovate than the junta.

Last month at a public panel convened at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, for example, representatives from both the Pheu Thai party and the Democrat party conceded that their campaigns, methods and language no longer resonate as strongly as they once did with grassroots supporters. There have been few public indications from major parties on how they will adapt to the conditions laid by the draft charter.

From a more optimistic perspective, other analysts have documented the creative protest strategies employed by student activists to proliferate compelling new symbols and narratives of resistance: sandwich protesters, draft-charter reading sessions with teddy bears and, of course, a multi-coloured ‘vote no’ campaign.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s work provides no clear-cut advice on how to move past ghostly stasis, to revive symbols of progress with new life. What is clear is that one crucial part of Thailand’s politics is a race between rival actors to develop new symbols, and reinvigorate narratives, so that they act as inspiring visions of the future — rather than as reminders of a lost past.

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