Thailand: The art of (considering) the possible by Timo Kivimäki, NIAS

21. Dec 2007

For more than 20 years, Southeast Asia has been a laboratory of military politics, democratization, and drastic political change. Stable but violent authoritarian military and civilian governments have had to step down abruptly (Suharto 1998; Marcos 1986, for example). The dominance of militaries has suddenly declined in many areas of protracted conflict (Aceh 2005 & 1998, East Timor 1999, and Papua 1998, for example) of the region. But the process has not been without setbacks as Thailand 2006, Burma/Myanmar 2004 and Aceh 2003, Patani 2003 & 2006 and Papua 2001 testify.

Fundamental political changes pose a challenge for traditional Asian studies and regional studies in social science. It has often been the main specialists of a country who have been the last to grasp the potential for change in “their countries”. When Suharto fell and the country embarked into a democratic course, it was the Indonesianists who were the last to acknowledge the change. Similarly, it is the best specialists of the Myanmar political system who now overestimate the durability of the mechanisms of authoritarian stability that they have been studying for decades. Their focus has been on the modalities that have actualized; on the choices that have been made, not on those that could have been taken, on the causal coincidents that materialized, not on those that did not but could have.

For the students of Thai democratization in the 1990s, the coup of 2006 might have come as a surprise. Focus on the consolidating mechanisms of democracy can have confused Thai specialists of the potential of non-democratic tendencies taking over. The Thai coup of 2006 reminds us that expertise of an area requires an approach where the actual developments can be related to the possible developments that could take place. A specialist of Thailand cannot really understand this complex country unless she or he is able see the potentials it has for a fundamental change.

Comparative perspectives are often necessary for the understanding of potentials: systematized lessons from other democratizing countries could reveal more about the risks that Thailand faced, than the mere scrutiny of what has been happening in Thailand. Furthermore, the study of the junctures of political discontinuity; coups, democratization, revolutions, etc, is especially useful for revealing what is possible in Thailand, but also for systematizing lessons for other democratizing countries. Only by systematically studying the lessons of fundamental change can we learn about the potentials and risks. In order to be instrumental for positive change scholars need to be able to identify and reveal the potentials for improvements. But they also need to be able to find and warn about the potential risks on the path to progress. This is why the Southeast Asian laboratory of change is interesting. This is also why the current issue of NIASnytt, about the Thai coup and the potentials for post-coup politics, exemplifies scholarship that makes a difference.