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Blood is thicker than water

Reviewed item: 

Reviewer: Niels Mulder
Reviewed publication:
Nishizaki, Yoshinori. 2011. Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand; The Making of Banharn-buri. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications. xviii + 254 pages. ISBN 978-087727-753-8 pb.

Collective identity
This is a book about collective identity, a delightfully slippery concept that can only be negated at the peril of straying into positivism and 'objectivity'. In order to avoid the concept, social surveyors tend to reduce "why people vote for or like a particular politician" to an impressive set of 'objective' indicators in order to exclude deep-seated sensitivities of subjectivity, identity, and self-esteem. Taking such sensitivities into account can only result in 'soft science'. In this impressive study, however, Nishizaki succeeds in substantiating the slippery concept while demonstrating that feelings of identity can be crucial to explain the facts of life on the ground. In any nation-state, schools are tasked with moulding the collective identity of its wards, such as through instilling pride in history and being. Such pride should preferably result in the fierce nationalism of "right or wrong, my country!" If school is successful in this endeavour, nasty 'objective' questions become objectionable—however obvious they may be to outsiders. In the process of analysing a plethora of factors that contribute to the population's recently acquired pride in their province of Suphanburi, the Banharn factor persistently stands out. Over the past fifty years, their positive identity feelings have been nourished and grown strong through the philanthropy, and the political and business acumen of Banharn Silpa-archa (MP as of 1976; PM 1995-96), so turning Suphanburi into Banharn-buri.

Countryside versus city
The study also addresses the question of identity vis-à-vis others, in this case the self-ascribed identity of 'sophisticated' urbanites versus 'ignorant country bumpkins'. As in many other places, these opposing—albeit one-sided—identity labels run deep in Thailand. It brought to mind how I, too, was infected by the superiority virus when, in May 1966, I had picked up enough Bangkok Chinese to lard my fledgling Thai, so as to be able to set myself apart from the influx of provincials in search of seasonal jobs. I had the good fortune of celebrating this discrimination in the company of my girl-friend from the rural North who subsequently read me a severe lecture. We, from city or university, are no better than others, and our assumptions, whether in the ivory tower or in smug newspaper columns, rather show our ignorance about life in places not our own. Agreeing with Nishizaki, I think this to be a serious problem that, as he argues, actuates the divide between urban elitists—planners, civil servants, academics, politicians, etc.—and the countryside, and that was, in the cases of the ouster of Banharn as PM (1996) and the undoing of populist PM Thaksin (2006) clearly in the open through the anti-democratic involvement of Palace, military, Privy Council, and Constitutional Court. According to those high-up, the people in the countryside do not understand democracy, and thus the school should teach 'the Thai democratic way of life' (Mulder 2003: ch. 1; Mulder 2012: 85-6) that, according to royalist-conservative legerdemain, should bar the popular representatives from the vote-rich provinces from national politics.

'Country bumpkins' are rational
Naturally, people beyond the capital region have very good reasons to vote as they vote, and it is to Nishizaki's credit that he effectively demolishes the elitist prejudices about vote-buying, pork barrel, patrimonialism, and corruption. It is not that such may or may not play a role in electoral contests, but they lack sufficient explanatory power as they exclude subjective reasoning and motivations. Through his emphasis on the latter two, he highlights the identity dimension: people in Banharn-buri have become proud of their once neglected province. Banharn's steady boost of their self-respect has translated into winning elections hands down. He doesn't need to buy votes, to use violence and intimidation, and in a 'patrimonial democratic system'—of which the elite is very much a part—the line between private and public is permeable, and has never been drawn other than as a weapon to discredit certain power-wielders.

Comparison and detail
Nishizaki strengthens his argument about the importance of collective identity—pride in region, in 'our man'—through comparing with similar cases, within Thailand, and elsewhere in East Asia, such as with Kakuei Tanaka (Japanese PM), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippine President), and Kim Dae Jung (South-Korean President). All these politicians hailed from relatively deprived provinces where they built unassailable godfather reputations while inspiring the self-respect of their constituents in a manner that no scandal can undo even decades after their coming down. To Ilocanos, Marcos's 'politics of plunder' are irrelevant; to them, he was and remains the greatest. In a similar vein, the corruption Banharn is said to be involved in cannot make a dent in his reputation of being Suphanburi's best son. At a high level, the study can be read as a discussion of the problems following in the wake of the 'democratisation' of second and third-world polities the world over. As the Thai case goes, these are specified in the introductory chapter on rethinking domination in the countryside. At the micro level, the points raised are then elaborated in tracing the historical origin of Banharn's dominance and his subsequent career in provincial and national politics, and in the people's resultant sense of identification with 'Banharn-buri'. To this end, the study is based on refreshingly, albeit exhaustive, field-work among all layers of Suphanburi's population. This yielded an impressive range of interview statements that are juxtaposed with an abundance of documentary evidence, ranging from newspapers to official records, and with gossip and small talk that altogether score the main point of the thesis—viz., the relevance of the study of mentality—and that demonstrate the importance of meticulous anthropological field work, of personally knowing the people one writes about.. The author is conscious of the fact that the amount of data he provides may strike the reader as "too much" (31). Nishizaki justifies this through criticising the tendency in (American) political science to aim for (grand) theory on the basis of skin-deep empirical data. I cannot but agree with most of his messages that altogether grew into a sterling example of Febvre's vision of the pertinence of studying the histoire des mentalités as a key to understanding social history, and concurrent and present-day behaviour and process (Burke 1973: 12-26).

Burke, P. (ed). 1973. A New Kind of History from the Writings of Lucien Febvre. New York: Harper and Row.
Mulder, Niels. 2003. Southeast Asian Images; Towards Civil Society? Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
Mulder, Niels. 2012. Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia. Saarbruecken: Lambert Academic Publishing.

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