Opinion: Thailand’s Patronage Decoupling

2020 is undoubtedly the year of abnormality. Although Covid-19 has introduced many “new normals” to our lives, Thailand’s political divide remains unbridged and as wide as it ever was. Six years after the NCPO’s coup d’etat that overthrew Yingluck’s government on the grounds of national security, the promise of political reconciliation seems to be nothing more than a distant dream.

Nonetheless, a notable difference between Thailand’s current political conflict and those of the past is the agenda has shifted from political faction allegiance to the uncharted (and perhaps dangerous) territory of political ideology. The current social movement, mainly driven by millenials and Gen-Z, demands a full transition from whatever Thailand is now into a democratic society.

In fact, it is extremely difficult for the younger generations to fathom how anyone, let alone the government with its senate and MPs, could possibly be against rudimentary concepts of human rights and equality. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that we understand – or least try to comprehend- the framework that has engendered the opposition to Thailand’s democratic development.

For many, it is the patronage system that has fostered these undemocratic tendencies.

Against the enlightenment

“All men are created equal” was the exact phrase written by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Constitution in 1776 and it has been ingrained into democracies around the world because of its simplicity and importance. Nonetheless, it is necessary to remind ourselves that the very concept of equality and democracy itself is a human construct and a western one at that. Rather than being absolute truths, many have chosen to think that human rights and equality are universal truths.

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that societies which has developed entirely differently from the West will operate under a completely different set of universal truths: that men are not created equally.

Deeply embedded into Thai society is the Buddhist concept of merit and karma. The differences in fortune and suffering at birth is justified via the notion of accumulated merits and karma from previous incarnations. The concept is not very different from India’s caste system, in fact, they share the same root. Therefore, those who are born into wealth and power are inherently “good” and are deserving of their place in society. This is the very foundation of Thailand’s patronage system.

Real world implications

Businesses in Thailand have seamlessly adapted to the patronage system. Instead of embracing competition and beating out competitors with superior products or services in the free market – the basic principle of capitalism – Thai businesses strive to acquire market privileges from patrons – who are inherently “good” – in order to capture the market unchallenged. The most obvious example of this comes in the form of government concessions in various industries, such as Duty-Free Retail, Telecommunications, Finance, Alcoholic Beverages, etc.

In other words, the market is not free. In fact, the market belongs to the patron. The patron then grants economic privileges to Thai entrepreneurs, who are now in debt (เป็นหนี้บุญคุณ) to the patron but are richly rewarded with market monopoly or oligopoly status. Therefore, even Thai businesses are founded on the basis of patronage and not competition.

And remember, there is no need to question the virtue of this setup because privilege is granted from the patron, who is inherently “good”. Ultimately, this economic setup eventually led to the segregation of The Patron, The Privileged, and The Rest – the very setup that led Thailand to the top of the economic inequality table and an abysmal Gini coefficient rank.

The patronage system is also prevalent in schools and households. Instead of viewing teaching and upbringing as a fundamental responsibility of teachers and parents, the relationship is structured where teachers and parents are the patrons, and the students and children are the ones being given privileges – and obviously forever indebted to their teachers and parents. Since the patron is inherently “good”, the patron must never be questioned, eventually grooming the new generation to accept authoritarianism.

This framework can be helpful in explaining Palang Pracharat’s electoral popularity in the previous election, especially in upcountry areas where conservative culture is still dominant. Of course, there were enough significant electoral irregularities that it would be foolish to claim that the previous election was free and fair. Nonetheless, it would be equally as foolish to claim that Palang Pracharat won the election entirely through electoral fraud and vote-buying.

This is why those in power and their supporters can proudly stand against human rights and equality in broad daylight. Obviously, they do not label themselves as selfish. Rather they believe they are deserving of their status in the society because they are the “good” people with merit, while those that desire to challenge this setup are simply below them, jealous or simply ungrateful (เนรคุณ).

Evolution or devolution?

But how did the new generation escape such a thinking framework?

Digitization struck Thailand so hard and fast that it caught the conservatives, who even struggled to install applications on their smartphones, off-guard. Although it is easy to understand the economic benefit of digitization, the conservatives do not realize that democratization has been subtly ingrained into Gen-Z along with the digitization movement. 

Gen-Z is the first generation to have been born after the invention of the Internet, and this undoubtedly has a drastic impact on their worldview. With the world’s information at one’s fingertips, it has never been harder for the Thai state to control the country’s historical narrative. Thailand’s tabooed modern history subjects, such as the Siamese Revolution of 1932, Student Massacre of 14 October, and Thammasat Massacre of 6 October, have become widely and publicly accessible on the Internet. They are the first generation where the Thai state’s monopoly on the country’s history through the national history curriculum has been dismantled.

Meanwhile, digital platforms – such as Gmail, Netflix, Instagram, Line, Youtube, etc. – democratizes services to users on a worldwide scale. Users of these digital services do not demand that they have privileged features that are available exclusively to them. Rather they demand that these services are efficient and user-friendly. To such a generation, 50-year-old public busses have become a symbol of the state’s inefficiency and corruption.

Additionally, the Buddhist faith continues to decline, especially among the new generation. How could you blame them with countless scandals involving monks continuing to hit front-page news in the past decade? (เณรคำ เณรแอร์ ธรรมกาย etc). With the unfiltered information readily available, the subtle ingrained values of democratization through digital services and the unpopularity of the Buddhist faith, the new generations are well placed to decouple themselves from the patronage system that dominated Thailand for much of its modern history.

Who are we to say which viewpoint is right or wrong. It depends where on the political spectrum the person is aligned.

But is that the right question to ask?

Shouldn’t the appropriate question rather be which value system will help to propel Thailand prosperously into the future? In the age of rapid modernization and interconnectivity, will the system that upheld the patrons and the privileged have a place in a world where competition is getting ever more fierce?

The conservatives surely have got to realize that it is time to make that evolutionary step and put aside its patronage system and beliefs, embracing competition and allowing a freer society to prosper in Thailand.

Should the conservatives continue to fight against the populist movement, it will be interpreted by the new generation as their future being taken away against their will. And should this situation continue to persist, then the conservatives will only have themselves to blame for the eventual people’s revolt.

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