Spare young from coup-induced ‘fatigue’

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha prepares to give a speech at Mahidol University. A recent book emphasises that children brought up under the rule of military regimes are more likely to embrace authoritarian values. SEKSAN ROJJANAMETAKUN

In the post-WWII era, Thailand has emerged as a “swing state” between democracy and authoritarianism, with fewer years of the former. As the country remains under military rule, a recent book by Giovanna Dore of John Hopkins University (JHU) offers an insight for Thais as it emphasises that children brought up under military regimes are more likely to embrace authoritarian values.

This so-called “Nazi effect” of militarised propaganda turns children into right-wing authoritarians, submissive traditionalists who are aggressive to those perceived as “others”.

Based on data obtained via two JHU surveys, one administered in Bangkok in 2000 and another nationally in 2011, democracy as a concept appears reasonably well understood and was favourably received, at least in 2011. However, many Thais are not fully dedicated to it.

In 2011, 79% of citizens considered a democratic political system to be “good”, while 62% echoed the same sentiments about dictatorship. Some 55% described a technocracy positively, and 43% said military rule was good.

As such, citizens are still strongly attached to authoritarian forms of government, meaning democracy is not the only game in town. This ambiguity clearly affects the development of democracy and causes the continuance of authoritarian ideology.

In fact, 56% of Thais demonstrate strong or borderline authoritarian attitudes, while only 38% demonstrate strong or borderline democratic attitudes. Furthermore, over 45% appreciate both authoritarian and democratic systems.

These citizens, who support democratic principles but not necessarily democratic regimes, are easily swayed by authoritarian dictators. At present, citizens and their children are being deliberately targeted with propaganda to reject democracy, via the current military government’s 20-year strategic plan. Meanwhile, the senate is packed with military men and children are being further “militarised” in schools.

Furthermore, a comparison of the 2001 and 2011 surveys indicates that Bangkok residents have become more authoritarian, with 53% supporting authoritarianism in 2001 and 64% in 2011, while 59% demonstrated democratic values in 2001 but only 28% in 2011.

In contrast, rural Thais, many of whom are impoverished and from ethnic minorities, are twice as likely to demonstrate democratic support.

From 2001-2011, Thailand suffered from weak democracy. Consequently, many Thais are highly cynical politically. It is understandable that many citizens are readily swayed against democracy, influenced by a cycle of coups and constitutions. Further, the junta’s support for traditional values, such as the paternalism adopted by former prime minister Field Marshal Sarit Thanarath, is designed to promote authoritarianism.

Basically, citizens’ ambivalence to democracy results from “civic fatigue” due to coups, expressed as a desire for “reform”. In 2011, 32% believed political parties were most in need of reform, followed by the premiership (16%) — an indication that new and better political parties are needed for the 2018 elections.

The underlying problem is a party system that gravitates toward big parties vulnerable to personality dominance, promotes short-term interests, lacks significant ideological principles or policy platforms, and demonstrates strong factionalisation and pronounced regionalisation. The emphasis on reducing the power of the prime minister reflects the risks of personal and electoral authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, in Thailand membership of civil society organisations (CSOs) seems to negatively affect the ability to define democracy. This may be because members of CSOs are more likely to be well-educated, upper- and middle-class citizens in Bangkok, who have expressed support for the relapse into authoritarianism since 2006 — the year the military staged a coup to oust the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Overall, citizens’ conceptions of democracy are simplistic, mainly focusing on procedural democracy and political liberties in the form of democratic institutions and political processes (57%), followed by civil liberties (27%), rights (5%), and on developing the economy and private property (1%).

This focus on process over substance, such as human rights or wealth redistribution to promote the economy, contrasts with political developments in countries like Indonesia or South Korea, whose economic progress followed democratisation and substantial wealth redistribution — putting money in the pockets of the poor, who are more likely to spend it.

Some 52% of Thais see elections as a real opportunity for democratic participation. However, 37% cynically see them merely as patronage opportunities and 18% see them as a “waste of time”. In total, 63% appear to be stating that democratic procedures like elections are important but that they are broken or that, despite a high turnout of voters, participation is merely a ritual nod to authority rather than an opportunity to influence government policy.

The socialisation of citizens is crucial. Essentially, as Ms Dore of John Hopkins University says, the “more a person experiences democracy, the greater the probability that he or she will affectively support democracy as a political system”, or, more specifically, “support for the regime is initially shaped by early socialisation and then evolves continuously throughout adult life as initial beliefs are reinforced or challenged by later experiences”.

The main components are “the number of years a country has been a democracy; the predominant values in a country; and the quality of the democratic system”.

The consequences are disturbing, as post-WWII Thailand has had fewer years of democracy than authoritarianism, with its wars, purges, and propaganda. In addition, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s “12 Core Values of Thai People” embody ultra-nationalist political ideology, and in their being mandated in all schools, via chants, top-down right-wing authoritarianism.

Moreover, the German experience with the Nazis shows that citizens of authoritarian regimes may remain wedded to the political values and systems of authoritarianism, such as racial prejudice, even after years of democracy. This is especially true for children brought up in these regimes.

To conclude, at stake is whether our children value human rights and cosmopolitanism, or whether they become submissive ethnocentric conventionalists. If the latter, they may grow to accept torture and the use of foreign labourers in slave-like conditions, for instance. They will be taught to praise weapons of war such as tanks and submarines. They will also learn to regard ethnic minorities and foreigners as social “others”.

This already happened once in Thailand, in the 1939-1945 fascist-era, when the Thai cultural mandates — a series of state decrees — promoted racial discrimination by banning the self-identification of ethnic minorities and barred Thais from associating with foreigners.

As the current regime continues, we must ask ourselves whether we are fighting hard enough on behalf of our children for a better future for Thai democracy, or whether we are permitting a descent into militarism and a mind-set geared to war.