Thailand’s conservatives seem incapable of filling their intellectual vacuum even as the left educates itself

One of the most commonly cited statistics in Thailand is that the average Thai reads around eight sentences — yes, sentences — of books in a year. Where this dubious number was sourced is unclear, and its veracity is highly questionable.

But even if it were true in the past, 2020 has likely changed this. Books are now flying off the shelves. And specific kinds of books, too: those pertaining to history, political science, and philosophy. Many of them are from the progressive publisher, Same Sky Books. Their titles include a new book by Nattapon Jaijing on Thai politics during the early Cold War and its relationship with the United States, a book by the same author on the 1932 revolution, and one by Tongchai Winichakul on the Thammasat University massacre.

Berk net” books is now the popular term for this genre: “eye opening.” And bookstores are not the only place they can be found. Google Drive folders filled with pirated PDFs are linked very commonly on Twitter. Included are a selection of banned books, long-ignored historical accounts, and academic studies — and they do not paint Thailand’s traditional institutions in the most flattering light.

Among the subversive books included in this folder is Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles, an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and The Devil’s Discus, Rayne Kruger’s investigation of the death of King Ananda Mahidol. Other offerings are Chom Nah Sakdina Thai (“The Face of Thai Feudalism”) by communist revolutionary Chit Phumisak and Pridi Banomyong’s yellow dossier on structural economic reforms.

It is completely unsurprising that such books would take Thai youth by storm. In a democratic country, they would simply be seen as normal books — revisionist books, perhaps, or primary sources from a past era: certainly nothing too scandalous. But in Thailand, where interpretations of history contrary to the official line are rarely taught in schools, they have been explosive.

We could go as far as to say as these books have been one of the key drivers of Thailand’s current protests. Many find the content, so contrary to the official orthodoxy, absolutely unforgettable. They provoke more questions. And what is this current movement about at its core, if not questioning the very underpinnings of the Thai state?

Faced with this onslaught against long-cherished beliefs and ideals, the authorities have found themselves hard-pressed to respond. Not that they have not tried. During the short severe state of emergency, police officers showed up at Same Sky Books to confiscate several books for inspection.

To little effect, of course.

Amid all the uproar that occurred during the state of emergency, this raid did not garner extensive media attention. But to ignore it would be wrong. It is the very sign of a failing rearguard intellectual battle for historical orthodoxy, not to mention for hearts and minds. The state can try to censor all they want, but the internet has made it all too easy to circumvent Thailand’s great wall.

Benedict Anderson once wrote in the 1970s that in Thailand, “the prevailing rhetoric had typically been conservative, conformist and royalist.” The same remains true today. Comfortable in power, dismissive of any ideological challenge, Thai conservatives have not needed to mount an intellectual defense of the core tenets of conservative-royalist ideology for years.

Let’s not skirt around the facts.

Now that this state ideology is being seriously challenged in unprecedented ways, it’s evident how lack of practice has resulted in arguments that no longer work with a new generation.

Debate is shut down rather than pursued. It’s difficult not to sense serious intellectual decay among the Thai right, which has become dominated by hardliners. Even warnings from fellow sensible conservatives are dismissed.

When a man showed up to an ultraroyalist protest, clad in yellow like all the other demonstrators but holding up a sign announcing his loyalty to the monarchy while denouncing the Prayut government, he was aggressively countered and forced to leave. Why must Thai royalism be married with authoritarianism? That the answer came in blows rather than in words says much about the current quality of discourse.

Even former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, a figure that comes close to commanding bipartisan respect, came under heavy criticism for hinting that Prayut should consider stepping down.

Anand’s suggestions went further than many in the right were willing to accept — an end to an appointed senate and amendment of the lèse majesté law, for instance — but the speed at which he was abandoned by many anti-reform royalists was still remarkable. One popular conservative account pleaded that Prayut give the former prime minister a proper hearing — “this is PM Anand, not lawyer Anon!” — but otherwise many charged that Anand was losing it in his old age.

If even fellow conservatives cannot be heard with an open mind just because they do not subscribe to the perspective that the status quo is perfectly tenable, what hope is there for debate and compromise between right and left?

Much ink may be spilled to delegitimate the protestors’ ideas. Link it to Thaksin. Call it a Western conspiracy. Say they’re brainwashed. Throw everything but the kitchen sink. The only problem is that the new generation of protestors, precisely the ones who they want to persuade, no longer find such arguments persuasive. What many right-wing hardliners do not realize is that their basic toolbox no longer work in this war for hearts and minds.

Forced to defend too many indefensible positions — even moderate voices in academia are pressuring for change — it is unsurprising that there is very little fruitful ideas-based debate about the future of this country. Ultimately, this is a shame, because there is much to discuss. The ten demands, for example, are very much up for debate — but no figure in government, or in hardline groups such as Thai Pakdee, have been willing to engage in a head-on evidence-based argument about them.

Neither have they outlined concrete approaches to better Thailand through alternative avenues of reform, such as reform of the bureaucracy, which would be fertile ground for discussion.

Yet even more strange than their failure to articulate their case for the status quo in the present, however, is the fact that conservatives are struggling so much to defend the past. In just a few years, as the berk net books proliferated, once hegemonic ideas about Thai history have been overturned at remarkable speed.

Of course, it is natural that there are many academic perspectives on Thailand’s history, and the berk net genre of books reflects a side of the story that the authorities can no longer suppress. But as any good historian is bound to do, sources must be handled with care and given the difficulty of researching the subject material, with a healthy dose of skepticism.

We’ll use The King Never Smiles, one of the most popular items of the berk net genre, as an example. Academic Paul Chambers notes in a review that it still suffers from “an incredible dearth of references in too many places,” which “compels readers to either take Handley at his word or doubt the veracity of some of his contentions.”

Readers, Chambers writes, “are left wondering whether The King Never Smiles is a quilt partly composed of rumor and innuendo.”

This is not meant as an indictment of The King Never Smiles — Chambers himself provides much praise for the book, and I leave overall judgment for the reader’s discretion — but simply a reminder that to rely on a single source and consider oneself enlightened would be a folly of its own type. The past, as much as the present, is up for debate.

The inevitable question that follows, however, is this: if a royalist asks someone reading berk net books to consider alternative perspectives, where can they be found?

As James Ockey writes in his own review of The King Never Smiles, “the lack of other scholarly biographies on the king has given Handley’s book more prominence and ultimately more influence than it otherwise [would] have received…Handley would be but one of many points of view.”

The truth of the matter is that there is that while the Thai left now has its own ecosystem of academic scholarship that can be used to open the eyes of readers, the Thai right has very little that is equivalent. As a widely-retweeted netizen wrote, “I opened my eyes with information that is sourced and is based on evidence. Not with the stuff you salim read on Facebook or that your relatives send you on LINE!”

I, for one, see no need to fully repudiate the past. I do not think, as many increasingly believe, that Thailand’s history is all propaganda, or that it is all bad. In the words of a friend, “nothing is black or white — we must see the world in grey.”  A more balanced interpretation of Thai history should be possible. Yet with the current state of conservative discourse, this is a difficult position to argue.

It shouldn’t have to be that way.

One of the more interesting Twitter threads I have seen in recent weeks was one on the Royal Rainmaking Project, which is a cloud seeding program initiated by King Bhumibol. “This thread will discuss the question of whether King Rama IX ‘copied’ artificial rainmaking,” the thread began, before diving into a history of artificial rainmaking, the techniques that the king devised to improve on it, and citations from patents and studies of the project.

It was comprehensive, objective and evidence-based: a combination that is strikingly lacking in current hardline rightwing discourse. We could certainly use more of this type of writing and communication from Thailand’s moderate conservatives. Indeed, it may even be needed: as I wrote about in a previous piece, there is a fair amount of simply inaccurate historical information floating around that enflames emotions but would fail basic fact-checks.

But the bottom line is this: as long as hardliners dominate and a failing old toolbox is used, they will find themselves continue to be upended by a digital generation they do not understand and whose language they do not speak. If they want to talk to them at the same wavelength, they will need to see the world as it is, not as they want it to be, and adapt accordingly.

As it currently stands, Thai conservatives are struggling to fight a rearguard intellectual battle for both the present and the past. And while they may win the battle for Thailand’s future with sheer power, they have yet to find the answer to win this battle of minds.

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