Just wrapping up here on what was a long but very productive week!
As part of the research that we’re doing here this summer, one of our main goals is to create and send out a survey which we can then analyze the results of this fall. We’ve got a good draft of it going that we’ve been working on for the past month, but we spent a solid chunk of this week interviewing people to get a better feel for how our questions might be viewed and overall how we can better improve the focus of our research. There is much more careful effort and meticulous effort than I think I had previously guessed might go into field research.
There are a few sub-projects within our group that different students are working on, but we are all focused on looking at how democracy is viewed in Thailand and some of the different aspects of Thai culture or religion that might influence peoples’ views about it. The particular group that I’m working with is looking at how Buddhism influences views about women in Thailand, thus creating a gender inequality gap that that makes it more difficult for women to participate in active goals in government.
Democracy in Thailand has a shaky past and since the absolute monarchy was overthrown and a constitutional monarchy was established in 1932, there have been been 12 coups (a takeover of the government by the military)– and that’s not even including all of the attempted coups that took place during that time. Power has changed hands frequently and Thailand has seen more than a couple of dictator-like figures become Prime Minister. Throughout all of the change, one constant that has remained largely unchanged is the monarchy where the King is highly respected, with greater prominence in recent years. With the most recent coup being in 2014, Thailand’s current government is military run, so you might understand why studying democracy– or at times the lack thereof– might be such an interesting topic here. It also means that you have to be careful how you phrase things and approach people about the topic.
As part of our interviews we met with many professors at Chiang Mai University from various different departments. We also met with some religious leaders and then had focus groups where we asked different groups of people our questions to get a better feel for how the general public might react to them. One thing that I thought was interesting is how complacent some people were with the current form of government, even though it is still very far from being a full democracy. Quite a few people that we talked to didn’t seem to care very much about the what form the current government took and who was running it so long as their needs were met, especially economically. It made sense hearing people express this because one of the major problems that is seen in the government here is high levels of corruption, especially as seen in elections with things such as vote buying. Some of the Buddhist values seem to create a sense of honesty and loyalty where if people are given money to vote for a certain candidate, they feel a deep obligation to actually do so when the time to vote comes around. Looking back at the more recent era of Thai history going from 1932 onward, there have been other tactics that leaders have used to influence the electoral power of the public and at times it has been prevalent for those in power to do things such as dissolve opposing political parties or rig elections in order to maintain a firm hold on their power.
Again going back to the Buddhist values and teachings, we heard emphasized in many of our interviews is the idea that fewer women actively participate in government precisely because of the high level of corruption in politics. We will need to do more research to find out if women are typically more devout Buddhists than their male counterparts, but this would help to explain why women in particular feel a stronger desire to avoid participation in activities or roles that lead them to be dishonest or ruin their image. There are also ideas of women primarily belonging in the home and being discouraged from taking powerful roles in society that we will do more research on to find out if these ideas are more link to Buddhism or Thai values and culture in general, although sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the two since such a large majority of the people here identify themselves as Buddhists. An important takeaway that I got from the interviews is that even though anyone you ask will say that they think that politics and government are and ought to be separate, from talking to people we got the idea that people often subconsciously combine the two in their mind when making evaluations on Thai politics.
We did take some breaks from the interviews during the week, and one thing that we did is take a Thai cooking class where we learned how to make fried rice, spring rolls, and mango sticky rice. Like many cultures, food is a very important aspect of Thai culture and learning how to make some classic dishes helped me to have a greater cultural appreciation for Thailand. And also I mean the food is pretty delicious, and even more so when you make it yourself 😉