During the 10th International Conference on Thai Studies at Thammasat University in January 2008, Fah Diew Kan interviewed Andrew Walker, an anthropologist from the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australia National University, after his presentation on ‘Royal Sufficiency and Elite Misrepresentation of Rural Livelihoods’ in one of the panels.
Walker started his PhD research in South East Asia in 1993, and has published several papers on rural development, resource management, and modernization in northern Thailand.
Currently, he and his colleague run the New Mandala blog that provides analyses and perspectives on peninsular South East Asia.
He has just completed a 4-year field research project in a village in Chiang Mai. The research has resulted in the analysis of the Sufficiency Economy which he presented at the Thai Studies Conference, and the article ‘The Rural Constitution and Everyday Politics of Elections in Northern Thailand’ published in the Journal of Contemporary Asia in early 2008.
You have tried to use the findings from your field work to say that the real economy of rural Thailand does not match the rural economy envisaged in Sufficiency Economy, and to show how distorted the elite representation of rural Thailand is. The problem is that the Thai people in general don’t really see the SE as a representation of the real rural Thailand, rather as a public awareness campaign to return to a decent lifestyle.
Andrew – I think the key point is that the sufficiency economy is a regulatory vision. It’s about regulating people’s behavior. It’s not about describing what rural life is really like. It’s a system of moral regulation about how people should behave, and in the same way it’s making a negative comment on the way people are apparently behaving. It’s suggesting people are too greedy, or take too many risks. So it’s a system of moral regulation. But I think at the same time even though we can say they are not trying to paint a true picture of rural society, it’s based on a view, and especially when we talk about the King’s New Agricultural Theory, it’s based on a view that agriculture has the potential to provide a basis for local sufficiency. In the work I’m doing, that’s the key point that I want to challenge. I disagree that agriculture does have the potential to provide a basis for local sufficiency. To put the issue very simply, there are simply not enough agricultural resources to support the livelihoods that people in the rural area want. And there might be enough agricultural resources to support people at the very basic, very subsistence-oriented lifestyle, but that’s not the lifestyle that people in the rural area are interested in. People want education for their children. People want to improve their housing. People want to watch television. People want to have the internet at home. All those sorts of things. So in terms of meeting people’s livelihood expectations, we need a diverse economy in rural areas, we cannot rely on agriculture as the base.
What’re the key problems with sufficiency economy? It’s that it doesn’t accept those people’s aspirations. It’s saying to people you should not aspire to have a television. You shouldn’t aspire to send your children off to universities. You should be relatively content with a simple rural life and I think that’s what’s fundamentally undemocratic about the sufficiency economy that it doesn’t accept people’s aspirations. The thing that made me a little bit angry is that this philosophy is promoted by people who are incredibly wealthy. People who have extraordinary wealth are saying to the people who aspire to have television, “it isn’t appropriate.” That’s what makes me a little bit angry about the sufficiency economy. I think it’s hypocrisy of the people who promote it.
I think there’s an intellectual trend in some aspects of Thai thinking about the moral legitimacy of a simple rural based lifestyle. And I think you can see it in the sufficiency economy. You can see it in a lot of the community culture thinking - that there is sort of authentic legitimate morality based in the rural lifestyle. I think it’s an intellectual trend in Thai society and culture. I can’t see Thailand ever going to the point where we are going to say to the people that you gotta leave the cities and go back start farming the land. I can’t see that ever happening. But I can see the possibility that, for example funds for rural development being reduced or cut back based on a view that people should be making provision for themselves. I suppose this is part of the current political use of the sufficiency economy. The sufficiency economy has been used to attack the Thaksin government schemes for local economic development. These are portrayed as the opposite to the sufficiency economy: the village fund, SML, the rural enterprise scheme. These are what the current [Gen Surayud] government is attacking. They are continually talking SE. But in terms of the impact on the public policies, in terms of taking pressure off the government to improve access to government services in rural areas, to improve access to education, to provide and expand infrastructure…in terms of reducing that pressure, I think it already has a significance.
Middle-class people, in Bangkok in particular, seem to buy the idea of morality and ethical values promotion. Do you see a connection between the middle-class promoted morality and the moral regulation of the Sufficiency Economy?
Andrew – I think the middle class in Bangkok need to have some sort of sense that there is a genuine authentic moral Thai culture. They want to go to Paragon, to ride on the Skytrain. They’d like to reassure themselves that moral authentic Thai culture is somewhere. So they project it on to rural areas. In a sense, they want to put a moral burden on the rural Thailand so that they can continue to carry on with a consumerist lifestyle. There’s all this great criticism and concern about Thaksin’s million baht fund per village, about encouraging debt, encouraging credit. But very little criticism of credit card debt in Bangkok. So everyone in Bangkok is running around, running up their credit card bills. All that people are talking about is the fact that poor farmers pay 20,000 baht to buy a mobile phone. They are extending this moral pressure to the rural people. Obviously this is also about the contemporary political situation where there’s constantly this attempt to delegitimize the electoral power of the rural area, and this is done through the discourse of vote-buying, that these people are selling their votes for money. To me, this is the link between sufficiency economy and sufficiency democracy. Sufficiency economy is saying rural people have lost their traditional values, and have become attached to a system of production and should go back to a more local life. Sufficiency democracy is saying rural people shouldn’t really participate that much in the national political system, because when they do participate, they just sell their votes. In both senses, there’s this notion that rural people are incapable of dealing either with the modern economy or the modern political system. I think these are the key reasons why, since the coup, the sufficiency economy has become such a key part of the government’s agenda to contribute to this delegitimization of rural people’s support of Thaksin.
Can you give an example to show how the Sufficiency Economy delegitimizes rural people’s politics?
Andrew – My obvious example is the way this has become the central policy framework of the post coup government. I think a lot of examples are the way in which what Thaksin government was doing has been re-badged as sufficiency economy schemes. In the villages where I’ve been working, Thaksin’s poverty alleviation schemes are now…literally there’re new signs being put up, new stickers that they are now sufficiency agriculture schemes. In a sense, this SE vision has been promoted not just as part of the government’s national political agenda, but it is promoted right on to the local level.
I think the link to Sufficiency Democracy, I think it’s a link in discourse. I don’t think we can really see specific provision whereby some SE initiatives can be linked to that particular vision for electoral politics. But I think if you look at the way the political discussion has developed over the last year or so in Thailand, these things symbolically reinforce each other. I’m saying I can’t give specific examples because it’s taking place at the level of discourse, the level of symbols.
But there is one specific example. There’s a very good interview with Gen Sonthi [leader of Sept 19 coup] and this is the point when he links the concern about undercurrents all the time (it is not talked so much now) and the danger of the vote buying. And for him, quite explicitly the villagers need to be educated in SE. So I think there is this thing that money destroyed authentic Thai village life. And this is drawn upon in the discourses of SE, and also drawn upon all the time in the discourse of vote buying. It’s all about the problem of money, the villagers.
The middle class are the consumers of the SE?
Andrew - I think they are. I think it’s a product for the middle class both to feel reassured that there is a potential authentic moral Thai culture out there, and it also helps the middle class to feel comfortable about the idea of supporting a coup…that, OK, rural people’s votes didn’t really matter because they weren’t living in accordance with the SE principle. So that is much directed to comforting, in a sense, the middle class.
Can you elaborate the Sufficiency Democracy?
Andrew – SD is the idea that electoral power should be constrained, that the political system should be hardly based on electoral power, that should be limited by, for example, the power of the judiciary, the power of the bureaucracy, and of course both of those are interlinked to the power of the King. So I think SD is saying that, just like SE says you should limit your involvement in the external economic system, SD says, people, you should limit your involvement in the political system. Yes, you can go and vote, but the people you vote for are going to be constrained by the judiciary, by the half-appointed Senate, by various powers given to bureaucrats, judges, privy council, whatever. It’s exactly the same philosophy about limiting people’s involvement to fairly local specific concerns. When people talk about Thai-style democracy, or Asian-style democracy, I think it is a similar sort of idea. I think SE is a nice way of linking that.
What about the panel on SE yesterday?
Andrew – The discussion yesterday was primarily critical of the idea of SE, critical at various levels. In my own presentation, I was saying the SE model doesn’t really work in a local village economic system. The economic system in the village is a diverse and externally oriented economy. And to talk about a basis of local sufficiency agriculture is not practical.
One of the other important presentations by Peter Bell was much more looking at national development strategy. His argument is that SE is a critique of capitalism, and a critique of globalization. But that doesn’t really provide any framework on national economic development. So in a way, it’s a reaction against globalization, a reaction against capitalism. But it says nothing about how we might move ahead with national economic development, and in particular issues of redistribution, and issues of inequality in access to resources and government services within Thailand.
All the views were critical of the relevance of SE. But there were also some people there who raised the views that, I think, they accepted those arguments in economic terms. But their view is SE is more about a moral idea against greed, drawing on ideas from Buddhist economics that says to people at individual level to try to live a life that is less dominated by greed, and not try to acquire more and more. There’re some views though that although it might not be that relevant or useful in an economic development sense, perhaps at an individual level it might be more useful.
You say that SE is not in line with the real rural economy. If so, there must be some kind of tensions. If SE is in conflict with the rural lifestyle, how do villagers react to SE; ignore, resist, or accept it?
Andrew – First of all, there’re a lot of different people in rural Thailand, so there are a lot of different opinions.
The second point is the people I work with in the village are sensible and pragmatic. I realize that in the current political environment, it’s useful to use the language of SE. If I were applying for a project from the local government, to ask for some money for something, of course I’ll call the project an SE project. Of course when I have to march in the Loy Krathong ceremony at the District Office, I will have a banner about SE. So they will use this to promote their own interests, they’re not silly. In my experience [of] talking to people more directly about it, the best way to summarize the view is they respect the theory because it’s associated with the King. But they say it’s not relevant to us. They say it’s a good idea, it’s a good theory, but it’s not relevant to us. Let me give you a couple of examples. First one is a joke, a funny example. I was having dinner with one farmer and we were watching television, the television’s receiving signal was terrible, very bad. It was up in the mountain. And he said I’m sorry, Ajarn, this is the King’s television. I said, ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘sufficiency TV’. They use this approach, when something’s not good enough, that’s ‘sufficiency’. Another farmer is growing corn, and the corn crop failed, very little corn, so he couldn’t sell them. So he said I will take them myself like SE. Of course he didn’t take it himself, he just threw them away. But I think they use it to explain when things don’t really work out, that people should live like the King says. So it’s bit of a joke.
I also think there’s a more explicit discourse that says, and one woman in particular said, that SE is about telling young people in the village don’t go and compete in the labour market in the urban areas because urban people are worried about competition in the labour market. Her view is that as rural people are getting more educated, urban people are worried about competition for jobs, so [it says] just to stay in a village. So I think this is an explicit critique of SE, but they must have some trust before they are willing to talk about it frankly because it’s so strongly associated with the King.
It wasn’t designed to be this way, right?
Andrew – Yes. It wasn’t designed to be this way. They see the contradiction between SE and, for example, the Royal Projects. And some of them feel the Royal Projects [promote] cash crops for export, which is totally contrary to the SE principles. Once again, they think it is irrelevant for us because even the King’s own project doesn’t seem to be operating according to the SE principles.
Is SE going to have the same fate as of other projects in Gen Prem’s era?
Andrew – I think it’s a similar sort of national program or moral renewal regulation. And like I say, people pick up the slogan and talk about it and use the expression, but it’s hard to explain, but they just find it hard to see how it relates to their lives. Because the people, oh, you know, they say that I want to live a life of SE. And you say, ‘What does that mean? What about a mobile phone? Is that SE?’ ‘Ah, yes.’ ‘What about your TV? Is that SE?’ ‘Yes, yes.’ ‘What about your children going to universities? Is That SE?’ ‘Yes.’ So for them, everything becomes SE, and it just loses any meaning. It just becomes just like a slogan, or symbol.
If SE can be used and interpreted to serve anyone’s interest, what is the problem when villagers or intellectuals use it to empower themselves?
Andrew – I got different views from a lot of Ajarns (university teachers), specifically Ajarns in Chiang Mai who see globalization and the state as having sort of destroyed village culture. I think there’s no question that globalization, capitalism, and the state have changed village culture, but I think a lot of the changes have been for the better. So I think in terms of local people’s views and aspirations, many of the changes brought about by economic modernization have improved their lifestyles. Let me give you an example. When you talk about the past, the people where I worked in Northern Thailand, one of the main things they’re talking about is being hungry. They simply didn’t have enough rice to last a full year. They had to walk across the mountain to try to buy rice in another village, or they had to go out to do wage labour in Chiang Mai to get rice. And it’s quite clear now that people produce enough rice, and can generate income to buy rice. So I’ve never accepted this view that the village economy or society or culture has been destroyed by globalization. So in that sense, I don’t really think it needs protection. I don’t think people in rural Thailand want protection from the market, or protection from the state. They want more markets. They want more and better and more equal access to the market, so they’re not exploited neither by the middlemen [or others]. They want more direct access. In my experience, people don’t want less state. They want more services from the state. They want the state to deliver the sorts of services that the state delivers in Bangkok. This is where I disagree with a lot of the community culture sort of approach, because I think it’s very similar to the SE approach. And I think, to put it very bluntly, it makes a virtue out of poverty. It’s saying, in a sense, poverty is a desirable and moral thing and that the sort of modernization we’ve seen in rural Thailand has undermined that.
In your view, what are the similarities and differences between SE and the idea of community economy and culture championed by intellectuals and NGOs?
Andrew – The similarity is, in both cases, there’s an emphasis on the primary importance of subsistence agriculture as a basis for social life, cultural life, and economic life. I think that’s the key similarity.
I think the key difference is that the community culture approach is a much more grassroots approach. It’s much more based on community empowerment, and in a sense a bottom up process. Whereas I think the SE approach is much more clearly driven by the state, by people from outside the village. It’s much more clearly a philosophy that is being promoted, encouraged within the village. I think that’s the difference. But sometimes I think it is not a big difference. Sometimes I think that community culture philosophy is also something very much from the outside that comes from an academic perspective that is critical of the market and the state. The key point for me is that I don’t find that critique of the market and the state when I talk to villagers. I hear people complain about the market, and complain about the state, not because they want to reject it, but because they feel their access to it is not as good as it should be. So that’s where I think…even now I think there is a difference between the community culture stream and the SE stream, I think ultimately they end up being very similar.
You may not see SE as only an economic tool, but also an ideological one. Likewise, how is the community economy and culture approach as an ideological tool different from SE?
Andrew – Let me answer in an indirect way. People have said that community culture can be an ideological tool of empowerment. I think it’s failed. A good example of that is how a lot of NGOs, academics, activists responded to the coup and to Thaksin. They had built their campaign for empowerment on this image of a subsistence economy and of non-commercial values. And then they see farmers going out and supporting Thaksin’s program of commercialization, enterprise development, village funds. So farmers just didn’t fit within this empowerment framework that the community culture school had promoted. So when the coup happened, what did the advocates of community culture do? Did they side with the farmers and say we support your election of Thaksin? I think they didn’t know what to do. And I think that’s part of the failure of the empowerment campaign using community culture. So that’s the roundabout way of talking about this issue. I suppose we talk about some other ways in which SE can be used as an ideological tool too. And I think so far it’s been hardly successful. But I do also sometimes think the election on Dec 23 was the end of the sufficiency economy. People voted against the sufficiency economy. And I think if that election result is allowed to stand, we will see SE start to fade away.
Apart from SE, how is your ‘rural constitution’ in rural Thailand different from the ‘cultural constitution’ as presented by Nidhi Eawsriwong?
Andrew – I suppose I call it a rural constitution to be provocative. When people think about the constitution, they think about some special document written by judges and certain groups of people and handed down by the king. And I was trying to say there’s also a constitution in the village. And it’s the sort of values and beliefs people have about how the political system should be organized. I think it’s very similar to the cultural constitution described by Nidhi, but I think he’s described one type of cultural constitution which is quite an elite version, one in which the King has a central role. I think in a rural constitution it’s another type of cultural constitution, it’s not an elite cultural constitution.
How is the rural constitution important to rural day-to-day politics? And how does it help us understand Thai politics?
Andrew - I think the most important thing it contributes is the challenge to the dominant discourse of vote-buying. When people talk about rural politics in Thailand, they tend to talk about vote-buying and rural voters going out selling their votes. And in putting forward this concept I was trying to say that people don’t just sell their votes. They make decisions based on a whole set of political values. And I think that’s the most important contribution I can make to say that we need to understand what rural people’s political values are, not just dismissing that these people sell their votes.
Although NGOs and some academics think villagers are fooled by Thaksin’ populism, they still try to put forth a different explanation of the grassroots politics through the discourse of social movements and civil society to say that villagers are not passive, but political actors.
Andrew –Most rural people aren’t involved in social movements or NGOs or grassroots politics. In some areas, these organizations or civil society are important, but most rural people are not involved in those sorts of things. So I think if we’re going to write about rural politics in terms of civil society, we leave out a large percentage of the rural population. My aim was to say, yes, these things can be important but we are also going to look at electoral politics. Civil society is often very suspicious about electoral politics. They don’t like politicians. They don’t like the idea of elections. But I think we need to look at the way in which rural people participate in electoral politics. And that’s why I developed this idea of rural constitution.
How do the election results (Dec 23, 2007) reflect the rural constitution?
Andrew – I think it’s too early to say. I would like to do a lot more research about the specific values people drew upon in making decisions about the most recent election. A lot of the values I talked about in my paper, values like localism, good administration, good support from elected representatives, I think they are relevant. But in the last election, there was also a lot of interest in the whole issue of the military government and the coup. That also influenced the way people made decisions about their votes. I suppose my answer here is let’s make sure people do some good research on what influenced people’s voting decisions in the last election, rather than just say they’re in Isan, so they voted for Thai Rak Thai. That’s boring. Let’s go and find out why they voted for Thai Rak Thai. Not Thai Rak Thai. PPP
Despite the elite’s efforts to bring politics back to the pre-Thaksin days through the coup and the 2007 charter, given the election results, the elite cannot convince the rural people not to vote for the People’s Power Party. Can we say that Thai politics will never turn back?
Andrew – I don’t think it’s just the same old view. I think they have responded to the things that have happened, to the coup. I haven’t been back in the village where I have been working since the election. But I have a research assistant to interview. People reflect and talk about the military government all the time. So I think their political views have developed and changed partly in response to the coup and the incidents since then. So I don’t think it’s just a matter of them going back to Thaksin or going back to the old government or going to get the government back. I think they’re sort of looking forward to a new type of government.
During the last election campaign, the policies of each party are almost the same, with some even being more populist than the Thai Rak Thai. Does it mean that people no longer need to have the Thai Rak Thai or the PPP, because even the Democrats also offer similar things?
Andrew – I think in a way the policies of the parties are not much different. And certainly from the report from the village where I’ve been working people simply don’t believe the Democrat Party. They don’t have that sort of credibility to actually deliver some of the things they promise. People don’t have that faith or trust in the North or Northeast in the Democrat Party. And I think there’s a sense that even though on paper the policies might not be that different, people have that sense of trust in PPP/Thai Rak Thai.
The ‘rural constitution’ must be locally specific, so there must be many different versions of it?
Andrew – There are lots of different rural constitutions. But I think there’re probably some general principles that people often draw upon when they make their political decisions. But once again one of my motivations in drawing about this rural constitution is to say let’s go and start doing research on each other’s rural constitutions, and let’s start comparing them, let’s start finding out what’s different. What’s the rural constitution in the South which say we’re gonna vote for Democrat? There must be some sort of different political values. There must be different political values in Isan, and in Bangkok. We really have very little research about what local political values are in Thailand, because people tend to explain politics in terms of vote buying, canvassers, cronyism, always based on the elite mobilizing people’s votes. So people sort of ignore local political culture. What I’m saying is let’s go and look at the political culture how people make decisions. Yes, of course, there’re canvassers, of course there’s some vote-buying. But it just doesn’t explain everything, only some of it.
Usually, one hears analyses that portray Thai rural people as passive, deceived, naïve, irrational, and uninformed. But your work on the rural constitution seems to say that rural people are smart, sensible and active. Does it swing to the other extreme?
Andrew – It’s gotta be a middle ground. Not all farmers or rural people are smart. There are stupid farmers, smart farmers, average farmers. Just like there are smart teachers, stupid teachers. They’re just people. I don’t want to be romantic that they’re all very carefully thinking about politics. But I think they have an active political culture. I think there’s an active culture of political discussion and political debate and political evaluation, that’s going on all the time. People say villagers didn’t care about Thaksin’s corruption. Villagers debate and discuss about corruption all the time. One of the main things they’re debating and discussing in terms of local politics, in terms of national politics. Villagers made a decision that, yes, Thaksin was corrupt in some senses, but he did other things that were good, and on balance they want to vote for him. I don’t want to imply that all villagers are geniuses, they’re just the usual people, but there is a political culture in the village, not a passive, accepting, whatever.
How are the community’s culture and values in your work different from those in Chattip Natsupa’s work?
Andrew – To put it very simply, I see the village as one point in a network that extends regionally, nationally, sometimes internationally. Culture and economy is formed in a network. When I talk about village economy or community culture, it’s more isolated, it’s not that sense of connection. It’s a node. It’s a point in a network. The village is formed in terms of relationship with the state, relationship with capitalism, relationship with politics. The community culture approach sees that culture or society is formed in terms of its specific location. But I look at connections, networks
Can you see the dynamic of the rural constitution, and how it will change?
Andrew – I don’t think we know because I think we don’t have a strong historical sense of what rural political culture has been. We have some studies done, for example, in the 1970s, during the period of the Peasants Federation of Thailand, I think we have some sense of what rural political culture might have been then. But I think since then there hasn’t been much work done, so it’s hard to start to make judgments about how this rural political culture develops or changes or responds. I hope we are just at the start of understanding it more deeply, understanding its evolution. But I think we gotta think of ways of studying it, because it’s not easy to know how to study politics in Thailand that doesn’t focus on the elite. So much of Thai political analysis focuses on the elite, the monarchy, provincial businessmen, mafia or whatever. I think we’ve got to start looking at the village political culture.
Do you think the village political culture is part of Thai civil society?
Andrew – It depends on how you define civil society. If you define civil society in terms of NGOs, in terms of social movements, I think it’s different. To me it’s much bigger. Like I’m talking about the people where I work, in the village I work, they’re not interested in NGOs. They’re quite suspicious of NGOs. There are NGOs in some other villages nearby. Are they involved in social movements? Not really. So I’m talking about a sort of a more informal political culture, more unstructured political culture. I spoke of civil society in a broad sense. It’s not the state. It’s not the bureaucracy.
I think often it tends to be institutionalized, and based on organizations often dominated by the middle class. So when I’m talking about rural Thailand I think, yes, they have institutions. They have organizations. I think I wouldn’t necessarily define them as being part of civil society. And I also think there’s an informal culture that is not connected to any particular organization or social movement. As I said before, I think a lot of formal civil society has a very limited understanding of that culture. I think a lot of civil societies dealing with rural issues, for example, the community forest bill. Civil society really want community forests, but the farmers I work with in Northern Thailand are not interested in the community forest bill. There is no benefit for them. I think often there’s a gap between the campaigns of civil society and that sort of more immediate livelihood concerns of farmers.
What’s the explanation of village values if we’re moving toward industrial society?
Andrew – When I talk about a village constitution or rural constitution, I’m not saying an agricultural constitution. I think one of the important things we need to separate is the notion of village from agriculture. Most of these people, at least half of these people, make most of their money outside agriculture. So I think rural Thailand is no longer agricultural. So I think even in that sense, in an industrial sense, we can still have a rural constitution. We can still have a local constitution. We can still have a local neighbourhood constitution. I don’t think it needs to be based on agriculture. I don’t think authentic village culture is based on agriculture.
Nidhi’s ‘cultural constitution’ has the monarchy as the centre. Where is the monarchy in the rural constitution?
Andrew – I have never heard a villager explain their political decision in terms of the King. I’ve never heard someone say I would vote for Thaksin or I wouldn’t vote for Thaksin because he offended the king, or he supports the king or whatever. I think it’s not relevant. I think that’s the key difference from Nidhi. The cultural constitution puts the King at the heart. But I think the King is like a very big spirit you worship, you make offerings to, and you might seek protection from. But in terms of making political decisions they are pragmatic, and have nothing to do with the King.
Have you heard the phrase ‘love the King, care about Thaksin’? After the coup, there was an explanation that there was a conflict between people who love the King and Thaksin, but some explained that rural people ‘love the King, and care about Thaksin’
Andrew – I’ve never heard people talking in terms of a choice - Thaksin or the King. It’s not relevant. Thaksin is a political leader. The King is the King
Once again, it’s the thing that’s hard to research. It’s hard to go and ask people explicitly, ‘What do you think about the King and his role in politics and the coup?’ It’s very difficult to talk to people frankly. Once you mention the King, people start to talk clichés?
Please talk about your New Mandala blog: its background and objectives.
Andrew Walker – New Mandala was started in early 2006 by myself and by Nicholas Farrelly, who was a student at Australia National University but he’s now studying a PhD at Oxford University. Our objective was to provide an online space for alternative discussion of issues in mainland Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Southern China, Yunnan. Because we felt that even though there were a lot of academic discussions of those issues, there wasn’t really a place where there was an opportunity for people to present really alternative views and to debate some of the more sensitive issues in the region. That was my objective in setting up the website.
I think in terms of the impact of internet technology on the academic world. Some of the impacts of the internet weren’t so great because a lot of academics were just using the internet as a static medium, just to publish materials just like they might publish it in a book or a journal. I think the thing that really changed a lot over the past few years is that the internet has become much more interactive. I think that is the strength of New Mandala and the other websites like www.sameskybooks.org that it’s just not us providing content. It’s us engaging in debate and discussion with people who read the materials. So, to be honest, a lot of people who come to New Mandala to read the comments more than they come to read the actual posts that we put and I suppose one of the objectives is to encourage comments. In a way, what I like to see is a lot of people agreeing or disagreeing with what they’ve written rather than worrying too much about the specific content of the posts I provide there. So I think this is the key thing that I think is changing the academic world, the interactive nature of the internet at the moment because it’s opening up academic discussion to all sorts of people, to academics, to activists, to students, to anyone who wants to log onto the website, they can all participate in this debate, so in a way I think it’s creating greater democracy and participation in the academic world.
The next question: what is the success of New Mandala? It’s hard to judge. I think we’ve been more successful than we thought we would be. So it meets our expectation, but our expectation was very low. At the moment, we get about a thousand hits per day. Some day if there’s a big issue we might get two thousand hits. Some days, we might get 5-600. We’re very happy with that and certainly the feeling we’ve got is that a lot of academics and students and other people with the interests in mainland Southeast Asia are fairly regular readers of New Mandala. And another thing that we have been pleased about is that a lot of the press, a lot of newspaper reporters seem to be monitoring New Mandala and we got a lot of requests for interviews and additional information from the press. In that sense, I think we’ve been successful. I think the main strong point as I said is the vigorous discussion. We get lots of comments. We get lots of debate. And we get some very frank and vigorous debates going on on the website. I think that’s our main strength. One of the disadvantages which I think is a difficult thing with our website, and with your website (www.sameskybooks.org) is the whole issue of people making anonymous comments. I think it’s a strong point and it’s a weak point. It’s a strong point because it really means that anyone can say what they want, without worrying about negative repercussions. But sometimes I also think it lets some people not to take responsibility for the comments they’re making. So sometimes it’s easy to be very critical of other people or to make comments that seem very radical when they’re anonymous. When you put your own name to a comment or a post, it’d make you a little bit more responsible for the content. I think the whole issue of anonymous discussion is a difficult one for an academic website, because the whole academic world is usually based on putting your name on what you write. We certainly don’t want to get rid of that feature of the website. As I said I think it’s important for people in terms of freedom of expression, but I think we have to think about some of the ways in which that can be regulated a little bit better. For example, sometimes we get a problem of people creating multiple identities, and sometimes they even start their own debate with themselves, agreeing with themselves. So to some extent that’s alright, but sometimes it makes discussions a little bit artificial and I think it reduces the value of the discussions a little bit.
Is New Mandala now like what you had in mind in the first place?
Andrew – I think what we had in mind that our website would be somewhat more academic than it is now. I think the thing that really changed New Mandala was the coup in Thailand. I think we started hosting New Mandala in June or July 2006, and then in September we had the coup. So all of a sudden we became much more involved in active political and public debate than we thought we would. So I think we’ve moved beyond being…I think our original intention, as I said, was more academic but now it’s much more, in a sense, a forum for active political discussion. But I think we still try to let them be a political discussion with an academic approach. Like as I am an anthropologist, I work in rural Thailand, I certainly try to bring that rural perspective to the discussions on national politics.
So you see that as a positive or negative thing?
Andrew – I think it’s a positive thing. I think there’s a danger of academics just talking to other academics, just communicating among themselves. And I think setting up a website like this and having key events happen like the coup in Thailand, like the protests in Burma last year, this brought you into public debate. Sometimes, as an academic I might be a bit reluctant to be drawn in. But I think it’s a good thing to put yourself in this position where in a sense you got that pressure on you to being drawn to more active public discussion.
This is the website of Andrew Walker (and Nicholas Farrelly). People followed your work long before New Mandala. Do you think the success of New Mandala is because of your work?
Andrew – In talking about the objectives, perhaps I haven’t talked about all the objectives. One of other objectives is like this: some part of it is self-promotion. In the academic world, you have to advertise yourself, no one else is going to advertise you. So for both Nick Farelly and myself, part of our objective was to expose our work to a wider audience. I think in the past my work has generated some interest in Thailand and amongst international scholars, but I certainly think the exposure to that work is greatly increased as a result of New Mandala. So I get a lot more inquiries and emails and contacts out of the posts that I put on New Mandala than I do out of an academic article I might publish.
In the last 6-8 months, we have a lot more guest posts. So we are keen that it’s not just our views that are being posted on the website