Politics in Thailand, as in most countries, is a tug of war between the past and the future. The constitution and institutions function as setting the ground rules for the tug of war and assign referees who show a red card when one side violates the rules. That is the theory. Nation states arose as way to exercise on sovereignty over geographic borders. The idea of exercise of that sovereignty as the internal affairs of states within those borders is an old, established one.
It is hard to let go of the idea that geographic borders will matter less in the future. Borders are in the processing of diminishing in importance with collateral consequences for sovereignty, constitutions and political institutions. Place matters less than it once did. Place is analogue. We have entered a digital world that, for communications purposes, makes geographic borders irrelevant.
For hundreds of years the British parliamentary system has been a model for establishing and enforcing the ground rules. It has functioned successfully in many countries including my own, Canada. That functionality, along with the underlying idea of secure geographical borders, aren’t often discussed. Not because they are off limits for political discussion, but because people has assumed that the present is pretty much a reflection of the past.
What is the game changer? What is making the old political paradigm shaky in Thailand and elsewhere? Part of the answer can be traced to the amount, speed, and nature of the information along a new distribution system. The torrid of words, videos, opinions, articles, and images delivers a megaton of information into a system that was geared for the days of the self-loading musket.
The Red Shirts in Thailand are a case study in how this change is working through a political system. Think of the Red shirts as the canary in the Thailand political coal mine, and Thailand as the canary in the global political coal mine. By and large the rural population in the North and Northeast of Thailand (the South is a different story to be dealt with another time) has a much higher standard of living than was enjoyed twenty years ago. Traveling in Isan in the 1980s, I found villages where most houses didn’t have electricity or TV. Neighbors exchanged information with neighbors, and the visitors who came into the village brought in ideas and information. But those ideas and information were not significant to the overall attitude or to the image of the villagers.
Political commentators have a variety of explanations for the Red Shirt movement, the demonstrations in Bangkok, and the resentment and anger that has been said to be the cause, by some, and the effect, by others. The question I have is with the improved standard of living, why did all of this happen in 2010? Commentators are divided over the significance of urban elites as opposed to rural populist, ethnic divisions, regional difference including language and historical variations underpinning the regions, economic grievances, distribution of wealth and so forth. There is an element of truth in each. But there is something still missing in the analysis. The role of how new information sources and networks have come together to shape expectations and drive behavior.
One wild card has been the role of the Internet, SMS, Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks. These forces have been building for some time. Thus it is reasonable to ask the question, “Why now?”
There is a considerable audience, including the government, which answers this question by tracing the organization and financing of the Red Shirts to ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Let’s examine this answer by going back in time. In ancient times, when someone was exiled that was the end of that person’s influence. They no longer officially existed, and they could be forgotten simply because no reminder was left behind. Information about them was ‘lost’ in the system. People ‘forgot’ about the exile. But in modern times, the Internet has made this kind of ‘forgetting’ obsolete. Exile no longer works to cut off the exiled person’s influence as the flow of words, sound bites, and images continue giving the exile a virtual presence.
To the frustration of the authorities, the exile is not physically present but is able to finance and lead from a distance with nearly same efficiency. Being absent no longer matters. This is the age of drone warfare. The government has reacted with vilification and censorship. Neither approach has been particularly effective to drive a wedge between the exiled and his followers (paid for or otherwise). This approach of enforced forgetting worked well in the past. But that time has passed. Now no one can be forced to forget. Especially when a digital presence can’t be erased. Exile no longer has the same meaning as in the past. Indeed a case can be made that such an approach undermines the institutions that referee the tug of war between the past and future.
Why has that time passed not just in Thailand but everywhere else?
The governments and institutions they control are no longer in full control of the message. The villages no longer are limited to TV and radio controlled by the government. The authorities could control what people knew about political activities and institutions of power and authority. And just as important, they could limit the amount of information about how such power and authority was exercised.
Over the next 20 to 50 years, all of this will change dramatically. Not just for Thailand but for governance around the world. What the Red Shirts are showing us is the desire to reallocate power even though those who are upset about political arrangements are materially better off than their parents and grandparents. It is not just about who has the money. Governments have been accustomed to setting rules about monitoring its citizens but have not been forthcoming about monitoring the people who exercise power. In the past, people accepted this unequal monitoring as the normal order of things.
That has changed and the change will accelerate as the bandwidth expands. It is the expansion of the bandwidth to the countryside and slums of large cities that allows vast amounts of information to be pumped into the collective consciousness. Information is also cheap. You no longer need to be rich to be informed. Use Skype and make international calls for free. Post your latest fashions, opinions, and rants on your Facebook page. Twitter your friends when you are happy, or when you are sad. The images and opinions and dreams of the world are alive and in your face twenty-four hours a day.
We are close to the day when the bandwidth will allow everyone (and I choose that word carefully) to monitor every heart beat, every activity, conversation, opinion, association twenty-four hours a day. This is abhorrent to most of us. But the future doesn’t belong to us; it belongs to a generation that will have different concepts of privacy than us. A new generation of political leaders will run on platforms that include a commitment to ‘life-blogging’. They will pledge to not turn the camera off during the tenure of their office. Every room, every meal, every person they meet, when they sleep, who they sleep with, will be recorded.
In Thailand there is a 24/7 TV Channel called Panda Channel. The camera is always on Lin Ping and her mother. A Panda’s life watched in ‘real time’ on TV has modeling potential for where we are going with the new technology. The CCTV cameras are the start. Life will be led in front of such cameras. The public record will account for all time, all conversations, and activities. The standby arguments of national security will no longer carry the day to turn the camera off. The kind of deception, trickery, corruption and deceits of the past will be viewed by future generations as a primitive system that led to wars, massacres, starvations, and related nastiness our species is noted for. The most monitored class will become the political class. The arrival of Panda Channel for the political class, of course, might never happen. But that’s the direction politicians will head because most of them want attention twenty-four an hour before an audiences. Meaning, PM TV could catch on. One day. Whatever the distribution, the possibility that their activity is audited twenty-four hours a day would alter significantly alter politics.
We occupy the very beginning of great political change. No one can predict how the existing institutions will change to accompany a networked information system that puts those in power inside a fish bowl. All the signs point to the big fish of the ocean being forced inside an aquarium. Communication technologies, storage and retrieval system will continue to become cheaper and more powerful, with more demands for a changed political arrangement. The Red Shirts in Thailand are an example of how the early days in this transition when the existing power structures react to build a moat to protect against a digital communications revolution. In the telecommunications tug of war, governments around the world will be pulled kicking and screaming into the future.