Joana Stella Kompa – Thailand heading to a failed nation?

Joana Stella Kompa - Thailand heading to a failed nation? - Live Encounters Magazine May 2014

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Is Thailand Heading Towards a Failed Nation? About the permeation of violence into Thai society – Joana Stella Kompa, Program Director for Multimedia Design and Visual Communication at Raffles International College, Bangkok, Thailand.


The following reflections attempt to explain the permeation of violence into Thai civil society, one of the world’s most friendly and cheerful cultures. Since the investigated processes appear to have similarities to recent turmoil in other cultures such as e.g., Egypt or Turkey, understanding the underlying processes for developing potential interventions are crucial. This essay does not elaborate on the pathological violence in the South of Thailand which would be deserving of a separate investigation.

1. The Historical Lack of Democratic Experience

I am a social psychologist and educator and have been living in Thailand for the past nine years. I remember when I had to vacate my apartment in Soi Nai Lert in 2010, with grenades and bombs going off in the streets nearby and fully armed soldiers setting up sandbag-barricades right in my lane. My home was located in the ‘nowhere land’ between the red-shirt fortress in Rachaprasong, set up by the protesters defying the overthrow of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, and the military forces who staged the coup. Not a particularly good place to be at the time. Bangkok subsequently descended into chaos, riots broke out in many parts of the inner city and buildings were set on fire while redshirt street-fighters challenged the military until they eventually had to surrender. This was in May 2010 and Thailand has since never been the same again. What happened to the ‘Land of Smiles’?

Thai political history has never been peaceful and hardly gave grounds for smiles despite Thailand being declared a constitutional democratic monarchy in 1932. Violent, oppressive and aggressive behavior emerged in regular cycles from dictatorial leaders and military coups, from self-entitled elites who aimed for absolute power and control. In the 1960s Thai politics were dominated by the authoritarian rule of field marshal Sarit Thanarat who abrogated the constitution and dissolved parliament to set up a one-party dictatorship under his ‘Revolutionary Party’. He orchestrated violent crackdowns on perceived enemies of the state. His successor, Thanom Kittikachorn (1963-1973), a military leader who ruled Thailand between with an iron fist, was responsible for the student massacre at Thammasat University on the 6th of October 1976.

When I met famous Thai photographer and social activist Manit Sriwanicpoom during a workshop he showed the participants some rare historical photographs of the event. The picture I could never forget was one of several killed students, their bodies lined up on the ground while a soldier was smashing wooden ploughs into their faces so that they could later not be identified. Manit mentioned that even today most families who had lost their children do not talk about these horrific incidents.

Most authoritarian Prime Ministers of recent Thai history such as Thanin Kraivichien (1976-1977) or Chatichai Choonhavan (1988-1991) were eventually overthrown by the military on accusations of dividing the country, suspending or abusing democracy, massive corruption and abuse of power. Arguably the only exception in this traumatizing series of rulers was Prem Tinsulanonda (1980-1988) who supported education, aimed for the eradication of poverty and who advocated national unity. He was still a royal reformer rather than a progressive democrat. Thaksin Shinawatra (2001-2006), his successor, was overthrown in a military coup d’état and was convicted of massive corruption, abuse of power, selling off national assets to Singapore, money laundering and tax evasion and lives in exile ever since. From the outside it appears that the same sad song repeats itself over and over again. On a more detailed note most self-serving leaders acted on behalf of their families and cronies. Harvard-educated Thailand expert Jeffrey Race mentions that during the 60s and 70s the ‘United Thai People’s Party’ served e.g., the domination of the Kittichakorn and Charusathien families while the ‘Chat Thai Party’ served the Choonhavan and Adireksarn families.

It is safe to conclude that for valid historical reasons Thai people have little or no collective trust in any government, no matter which political color. Thais, like many other non-Western cultures, never had a chance to develop a collective learning experience with an evolving, functioning and reliable democracy. Instead, the frustrating experience of exclusion from power and marginalization by powerful families and the military is deeply ingrained in collective memory.

2. What Creates Societal Divide?

Explanations of aggressive group behavior are commonly based on biology, frustration (leading to anger and hostility) and social learning, meaning that by observing others obtaining their goals via aggressive behavior we collectively learn that aggression pays. In addition, group dynamics in the cultural context of a non-individualistic, socio-centered society appear to add to the amplification of aggression, cognitively cemented by the loss of shared societal values and beliefs.

2.1 Biology and Culture: Nurture informing Nature

Thais are by nature a friendly, kind and polite people. We won’t find aggressive Western institutions and habits of public aggression in Thailand such as vandalizing football hooligans torching stadiums or teenagers entering late night trains with beer bottles harassing fellow passengers. Thais enjoy, compared to Westerners, a very feminine biology which expresses itself in the more fragile body build of men and women alike. An anthropologist friend of mine joked that Westerners appear like‘Frankensteins’ next to average Thais.

Thai music, TV-shows, politeness particles at the end of sentences (‘kah’ for female and ‘kap/ kapom’ for males) and never-ending smiles during conversations are good examples for the soft, consensual and non-aggressive nature of Thais. Theravada Buddhism finally serves as the framework for non-violent daily practice, not just belief. Thais do not enjoy fighting with Thais, this is why aggressive political disagreements may flare up such as in 2010, but also might be short lived and disappear like a spook. Biology and culture do not inform much about the current aggression we witness in the political sphere.

2.2 Frustration: Status Disparities in a Hierarchical Society

Unlike most previous military rulers, Thaksin Shinawatra was a business tycoon who declared himself as a representative the rural poor. In proposing a break from the hierarchical structure of Thai society by handing power to the people (his party was called ‘Thai Rak Thai’, ‘Thais love Thais’) he set a historical precedence. Thaksin cleverly instrumentalized the deep-rooted frustrations of many farmers in the North and North-East of Thailand through populist politics and gave them a voice. The previously powerless farmers learned fast to exercise their democratic rights through the ballot box. This otherwise commendable development lead paradoxically to one of the deepest divides in Thai society. The reasons are manifold.

To start with, the rural poor felt empowered to rule without submitting to compromise, defining their version of democracy as undisputable majoritism. They felt entitled to status and to benefit from the offered populist policies by Thaksin that, from an economic perspective, were in fact loss-making and financially unsustainable schemata. The Thaksin-loyal ‘red-shirts’, as they are commonly known, have organized themselves under the umbrella of the ‘United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’ (UDD). Secondly, it became obvious to the urban and educated middle-classes that Thaksin used his popularity for advancing massive corruption while undermining democratic institutions and muzzling any opposition.

It didn’t take long until yellow-shirt royalists and members of the Bangkok middle class formed their own alliance known as the PDRC (‘People’s Democratic Reform Committee’) and voiced out their unwillingness to finance a corrupt regime involved in loss-making populist policies. To speak with the ‘Theory of Justice’ of John Rawls both parties do not regard the existing social contract as just and fair for either. Thai society lost its consensus while participants do not perceive themselves any more as a single Thai people (behind Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, the assumption of basic equality), but as irreconcilable enemies instead. Small separatist red-shirt groups even called for an independent ‘Lanna’ State in the North of Thailand. The argument of status and status disparity is a relevant research topic and does express deep-rooted frustrations. However, the mere existence of opposing political interests may not sufficiently explain why the political divide is expressed by massively aggressive mutual disrespect and even public displays of hatred. Social psychology can yield deeper insights.

2.3 Group Polarization within a Socio-centered Society: A Working Hypothesis why Groups Self-isolate

The well-researched effect of group polarization states that groups tend to make more extreme decisions than individual members by themselves. Since, in a socio-centered culture such as Thailand, almost all decision-making and reasoning processes are facilitated within groups, the cultural disposition in situ appears to function as a catalyst for group-polarization processes. Groups form furthermore identification models, means of self-categorization, prompting their members into role compliance.

Solomon Ash’s experiments on social compliance provide strong arguments within the Thai context: Most red- and yellow shirt members are convinced that their group is factually right, stating their informational conformity. Disagreeing and suffering the discomfort of cognitive dissonance with one’s group is not a natural option in a socio-centered culture. Even if one would dare to think any differently, the fear of punishment, given the outright aggressive nature of one’s group, forces members into normative conformity.

The informational and normative conformity of conflicting parties appears to be amplified by the absence of independent individual accounts. Unlike media programs in Western countries that invite divergent parties to their programs to debate their views critically in public, Thai TV media are owned by their respective groups. ‘Red-shirt’ members watch for example propaganda on ‘Asia Update’ while ‘Yellow-shirt’ members watch propaganda on ‘Bluesky TV’-channel. It is needless to say that these extreme polarizations are cementing the nation’s democratic stasis by institutionalizing each group’s informational conformity.

The current caretaker PM, Ms Yingluck Sinawatra, younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, uses her ‘Facebook’ site to voice out her sentiments rather than to address the nation in a professional manner to all Thai people. Social media serve as a retrospective individual confirmation of having made the right decision while publishing public displays of group-loyalty. This leaves little space left for potential change, open democratic intervention and reconciliation.

2.4 Learning Aggressive Behavior from the Government

On the 23rd of February 2014, Dab Daeng, a red-shirt leader from Chon Buri took to the stage during a red-shirt meeting in Nakhon Ratchasima. He announced to the audience that he had ‘good news’ to tell and addressed the audience with the following words:

“I have good news to tell my red-shirt brothers and sisters from all provinces. The PDRC members of Suthep (Thaungsuban) at the protest stage in Khao Saming (Trat province) were deservedly given a reception by the locals. Five PDRC people were killed and over 30 injured!”

Many people in the red-shirt crowd cheered, raised their fists and applauded in jubilation over the death and injuries of innocent and peaceful protesters (Bangkok Post, 24th February 2014 article: “Sickening, disgusting celebration of violence”).

Dab Daeng was eventually guided off stage by former Pheu Thai MP Worachai Hema while she expressed her disagreement with him, stating that red-shirts do not endorse violence. The example demonstrates that the group’s intrinsic and spontaneous motivation clearly does encompass violence. It also demonstrates on the other hand that a single courageous individual and role-model can puncture a group’s assumed power. These observations correspond with the second versions of Solomon Ash’s experiments that accommodate means of disagreement and the effect of individual disagreement on group conformity. We can confirm that theories of social learning do well apply in practice. Albert Bandura’s famous ‘Bobo Doll Experiment’ renders additional insights in learned aggression. In the original experiment children copy the violent behavior of a teacher who is abusing a ‘Bobo the Clown’- doll after the teacher has left the classroom. Members who follow their leaders copy their modes of engagement even in their absence. Violent role-models instigate violent followers while non-violent leaders promote non-violent modes of engagement.

The second case cites caretaker foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul threatening the Constitutional Court that a verdict against Yingluck Shinawatra could lead to violence that that “chaos will almost surely follow (…) I am not threatening the court, I am just speaking the truth.” The Constitutional Court and the National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC) are currently accused by UDD leaders to stage a ‘judicial coup’. In a similar third case caretaker Labour Minister Chalerm warned anti-government protesters that more grenade and bomb-attacks ‘may be possible’. His warning came in the wake of a deadly sniper-attack on protesters days before in Nontaburi. Both statements were made between the 2nd and 3rd of April 2014 (Bangkok Post).

Government representatives indirectly endorse violence and intimidation against the courts and anti-government protesters. Their messages signal to their followers that violence against anybody opposing the government is tolerated (as in positively understood) by representatives of the state.

The examples demonstrate that government representatives remain ambiguous and outright cynical on the use of violence. Caretaker PM Yingluck Shinawatra has never paid more than lip service. In fact, up to this date, not a single arrest on the numerous grenade and bomb-attacks or shootings at peaceful PDRC protesters has been made by government-loyal police. The fact that the government does not regard itself answerable to the law is troubling.

Red-shirts have de facto been given an implicit license to kill by their government. As has been shown the red-shirt movement is divided on the use of violence. Earlier this year red-shirt hardliner Suporn Attawong suggested setting up a militia of 600,000 young men to fight for the UDD and, if necessary, even give their lives to fight the PDRC. Several hundred fighters are currently reported to be trained in the North of Thailand, Udon Thani by red-shirt ‘Rambo of the North’ Kwanchai Pripana. The question of the emergence of a criminal, government-sanctioned society seems warranted. Once aggression is institutionalized it leaves little options to develop a Civil Society. To be fair it needs to be mentioned that the leader of the PDRC, Suthep Thaungsuban is not capable of specifying concrete goals either and that his ambiguous talk of returning Thailand to the ‘sovereignty of the people’ does sound like an self-entitlement of overthrowing a corrupt, but still legitimately elected government.

3. Between Civil War and Failed Nation

Recent polls indicate that about 60 percent of Thais see a real possibility of a Civil War should red-shirt militia and PDRC-followers clash in Bangkok. My personal take is that this may take the form of continuing social unrest, guerilla-warfare, rather than an all-out civil war, given the generally still peaceful nature of the Thai culture. Many farmers have been disillusioned by the government’s failing populist policies. The handouts to the poor have dried up and so has the loyalty of a significant part of the rural population. Most middle-class white-collar PDRC followers do not see themselves as potential street-fighters either, leaving a diminished playing field for potential trouble-seekers.

The paralyzing focus on the group conflict at hand has clouded bringing Thailand’s structural problems to discussion. Thailand, according to the GINI index, is the Asian country with the highest inequality. The unfairness of wealth distribution is curiously enough not an established topic in Thailand’s media since wealthy elites finance both the UDD and the PDRC. Thailand’s education system ranks in the global lower third according to the latest PISA study. In recent ‘O-Net’ (upper secondary) national study results, Thai students failed 6 out of 7 subjects below 50 except for Thai language with 54 out of 100 points. Broken families, the high rate of adolescent and single mothers, domestic violence, rampant corruption on all levels of life and high health risk behavior levels across the population are some of the pressing issues of Thailand.

A ‘failed nation’ may not necessarily be synonymous with a war-torn country, burnt streets and unforeseen casualties, but with a nation where dysfunctional systems have taken over public life beyond rational improvement and repair. Neither the UDD nor the PDRC have formulated tangible development goals and policy proposals for Thailand. This deficit may also be seen as an opportunity for intellectuals to fill the informational gap and to replace propaganda with discussing a national development plan, specific goals and budgets.

4. Potential Interventions in Aggressive Groups Conflict

Groups can exhaust themselves in mere domination attempts without contributing to improve the conditions under which their original conflict has emerged. Socio-centered cultures that cannot fall back on a tradition of intellectual debate and argument are more vulnerable to paralyzing group-conflicts than individualistic cultures. The following interventions conclude reasonable as feasible strategies:

• Disagreement by few self-confident individuals can puncture group consensus significantly, although disagreement may be experienced uncomfortable and challenging at first

• Establishing media channels that facilitate mutual and critical debate can break the spell of group-owned media that continuously repeat their meaningless mantras. Ethical education of journalists may make it harder for groups to recruit media professionals for propaganda

• Non-violent role models need to challenge aggressive representatives, even from their own group, and promote clear meta-contextual codes of non-violent and non-aggressive engagement inclusive of verbal aggression

• Institutionalizing a variety of parties, not just two head-on competing rivals, can shift the public focus to a greater diversity of perspectives

• Education plays a central role in preventing aggressive behavior from developing. Early development of social, cognitive and meta-cognitive skills is imperative to develop group competence in addressing problems rationally. Developmental psychology, parenting, upbringing and peer-relations set up the matrix upon which future group profiles consolidate

• Issues of status need to be taken seriously since frustration is a major source of aggression. The focus of political debate needs to be shifted towards the fairness of the social contract to everybody, not only self-appointed elites. Those who cement inequality need to be reminded of the inevitable consequences for society at large.

• Promoting cultural values of love, compassion, empathy and understanding the other supersede the seeding of hatred, disrespect and social divide. Communicative and collaborative social skills are a prerequisite for human development in global context.

Seini O’Connor and Ronald Fischer (2012) note in their study on corruption that cultures promoting social values such as individual autonomy, social diversity and more egalitarian structures are less likely to be corrupt, regardless of economic conditions. The authors’ findings, based on the analysis of 59 countries from 1980 to 2008, gives rise to the argument that traditional values such as social conformity, conservative social behavior and preference for hierarchical beliefs contribute to perpetuating poverty and social divide. As argued, group behavior and group identity definitions reside at the heart of inward-looking public attitudes and beliefs.

Authoritarian leaders and bullies are powerless without their followers. To shift the research focus from pathological leaders to the motivations of group-dynamics might hold the key to the long-term development of social justice and stability. It is our greatest hope that violence does not erupt after court judgments have been passed. If it does, Thailand loses a big part of her soul.


Joana Stella Kompa was born 1963 in Germany and has lived for the past 24 years in various cultures of Asia. She studied Journalism, New English Literature and Normative Ethics at Tübingen University as well as Philosophy of Mind and Theory of Knowledge at Oxford University. Joana has been working as a Senior Lecturer and Program Director for Media Design at Temasek Polytechnic (Singapore) and Raffles International College (Bangkok). Currently she is finishing her M(Sc) in Applied Psychology at Liverpool University. 


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