To begin, we must consider the theatre’s front of stage – the public sphere into which Thailand’s military has entered and assumed the status of a lead player. Within this, the third act, His Majesty King Bhumibol’s legacy is already well understood. The military-interpreted folio emerged in July 2014 in the form of the 12 Core Values of Thai People, a document relying on the National Identity Board’s pronouncements, patriotic values, and constitutions for Buddhist living such as that of Bhikku PA Payutto, themselves based on teachings such as the Sigalovada Sutra.
The 10th of these values and one subject of General Prayut’s mission to the UN is His Majesty’s philosophy of sufficiency economy (PSE). Formulated at a time when ecological awareness was flowering and owing in part to Buddhist economics, the PSE was rapidly adopted following the 1997 economic crisis. The PSE was deliberately not a royal command and was integrated, under a democratically elected government, into the country’s planning process.
Thus, Thailand’s National Economic and Social Development Board, beginning with the Ninth Plan (2002-2006), has made the PSE the introductory matter of its plans – though the implementation of the philosophy is a challenge because it involves interpreting the royal will. The only comparison is with the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness, which has experienced similar problems in terms of framing policy indicators.
Yet both the PSE and GNH have won the interest of the UN, since Buddhist philosophies of sustainability offer a solution to a world where global climate change is very real; where economic inequalities, failing ecosystems and water are leading to conflicts, mass migrations and radical religious movements; and where not just oil but all mineral resources are now recognised as finite.
Climactic and resource pressures are already affecting Thailand, and it is here, domestically, where the UN and other observers are most curious – for in promoting the PSE internationally, the Thai military is inviting the audience to judge its performance on the stage in terms of authenticity. And it is here where the cases of thousands of Thai villagers who live near coal-fired power plants, potash mines and gold mines, especially in the Northeast and the South, must be a cause for concern.
Authenticity to the PSE demands the authorities cannot simply follow a court order and ignore hospital records showing unexplained deaths. Instead, they must apply the PSE and exercise moderation and prudence in order to help villagers develop social immunity or resilience – meaning internationally recognised environmental impact assessments and follow-up studies not compromised by financial links between industry and researchers. As His Majesty pointed out on forestry encroachment, “The law enforcers are more to blame than the people… Legally speaking, these villagers are violating the law which was legitimately made. But… they have human rights. It’s a case of the government violating the people, not the other way round.”
This truth has perhaps just been realised in the state’s freezing of new gold mine licences.
Crucially, the military cannot fulfil the role of both director and critic as regards the PSE. We know this to be true because of the ninth core value – to act in accordance with His Majesty’s teachings. Though it may appear vague to foreigners, the ninth value is well known to Thais. For foreigners, the King’s advice was expounded upon in the play’s first folio – the biography “King Bhumibol Adulyadej: A Life’s Work”, which covers His Majesty’s counsel in areas such as national development, health and education, for example: “To achieved desired results that are also beneficial and morally just, you need more than just knowledge. You need honesty, sincerity and justice.”
The Ninth Reign is thus a morality play, its third act not meant to be a tragedy but the gala performance of a momentous chapter of the Chakri dynasty, in one of the few remaining Buddhist kingdoms. Yet, for this to happen, the military cannot accuse those whose natural resources and labour are being exploited of being seditious, of being “un-Thai”. The Lord Buddha’s sermon on the Brahmins must be recalled: all, no matter their social position, have equal chance of enlightenment and thus must have equality of opportunity.
For the PSE to be accepted internationally, the UN must have the opportunity to do more than provide a platform for it, as was the case in the 2007 UNDP Country Report. Instead, the UN can bring the critics of the PSE into dialogue with its proponents. As His Majesty pointed out, “If a royal project cannot be commented on, Thailand cannot develop.”
There is urgency here: Thailand is currently drafting its Twelfth National Economic and Social Development Plan, 2015 has been pronounced the “Year of Evaluation” due to the transformation of the Millennium Goals into Sustainable Development Goals, and also this year the UN and Thailand are drawing up the 2017-2021 Country Framework Partnership. An honest appraisal of the PSE is required if the potential Kofi Annan saw in it in his dialogue with His Majesty is to be realised.
If treated scientifically, the PSE could make a global impact in the same way that GNH has, with countries such as the UK now incorporating it as an alternative indicator. For this to happen, though, Prime Minister Prayut needs to transcend the drilled-in instincts of a soldier and become a statesman. Then, when the curtain closes for the last time, the military will receive applause for their stage management rather than harsh reviews for an insincere performance which seeks only total long-term information control of the theatre and its public.
John Draper is studying a PhD in Public Administration, focusing on the 12 Core Values of Thai People and the philosophy of sufficiency economy, at Khon Kaen University.