Thailand: Civil Society Movement


Dr Helen Ross

Thai political analysts attribute Thailand's partial adoption of democracy as much to the acquiescence of an uncritical public as to reluctance on the parts of those holding political power to serve them wholeheartedly. They argue there is a need for citizens to appreciate their roles in contributing to good governance and become more discerning electors. Until this decade there has been little demand to strengthen democracy from outside the middle class and Bangkok - where lower socio-economic groups have also been active in demanding democracy.

The Civil Society movement (Thammarat) has emerged since the mid-1990s as a conscious effort to go beyond the existing campaigns for democratisation - important though these are - to create a new politics based on solving societal problems rather than relying on reforming the structures and processes of formal government. It is a coalition of the many non-government lobby and 'help' groups which have long existed in Thailand, under a common drive to recognise and promote their roles in achieving good governance. The movement is related to the alternate development movement active since the 1970s, which promotes an agenda of improving the well-being of people and environment rather than economic growth. The Civil Society movement is a network of voluntary organisations, embracing social welfare, education and conservation organisations, feminist groups, AIDS groups, the Forum of the Poor (a national coalition of village people supporting one another in lobbying to correct a wide range of grievances), groups promoting democracy, student groups, and local development groups. Its driving force is Civicnet, a network of regional civic forums created to support groups promoting locality and issue-based agendas.

It argues that good governance cannot be achieved by government alone, and that members of the public have an important role to play in policy-making, social and political change. This includes recognition of minority rights and the marginalised. Among the debates within the movement is the intellectual and spiritual role of Buddhist, Christian and animist religious values, interpreted in their original theological senses rather than as exemplified by the contemporary Buddhist establishment.

The movement's relationship with formal government stresses cooperation rather than conflict, for instance encouraging government officials to work constructively with communities. It is comfortable accepting some structures and processes of formal government, while seeking change to others. It seeks a role change from government, from paternalistic administration to fostering and listening to diverse groups working for the public interest through participatory processes.

There is a conscious effort to develop public attitudes to and participation in governance. For instance over the last three years Mahidol University convened an action research study (published in Thai as The Making of Thai Citizens), to foster thinking and debate about the nature and roles of Thailand's civil society, focusing on three rural provinces. A wide range of citizens participated, from villagers to NGO workers to monks, with the local universities playing a significant role in each province. These provinces continue to be active in the movement through Civicnet.

WATCHPOINT: How strongly will the civil society movement take root in provincial areas, and what will it contribute to changing public expectations of government and governance?


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