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(September 21, 2018) Remembering Chai-anan Samudavanija - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

In death, as in life, Chai-anan Samudavanija always outshines. More than two decades after he left an academic career for policy work and a public intellectual role, Chai-anan's scholarly output is still cited more than any other social scientist. His passing, at 74, reflects Thailand's circuitous political trajectory and the shortcomings of the country's higher education. Until Thai academic standards are better incentivised and upgraded, few scholars are likely to scale international heights of scholarship and thought leadership anywhere near Chai-anan's achievements.

Accessing academic search engines on the internet, such as Google scholar, will display some 1,130 hits for Chai-anan. No other academic expert in the fields of law and political science in Thailand match that level. It means that Chai-anan's works have been mentioned in other people's writing and research that many times over the years, demonstrating a scholarly reach and global intellectual influence.

At top-ranking universities with a strong research base and education standards, citations in internationally recognised academic search engines count substantially. Thus, it is easy to see why Thailand's university rankings have been sliding downwards in leading international surveys.

All you have to do is plug in the names of Thai lecturers into Google scholar (with correct English-language spellings) and then do the same for peers from other countries, such as Singapore or Japan, let alone the United States and United Kingdom. The difference is vast and stark. Most Thai scholars are hardly known outside Thailand.

The reason higher education in Thailand remains in the doldrums and the country's research base is paltry is because Thai lecturers and researchers are not held to the highest international academic standards. Rather, Thailand has come up with its own hybrid assessment and promotional system that provides more incentives for domestic consumption and bureaucratic requirements. Research excellence in the international realm is not prioritised.

None of this was ever a problem for Chai-anan. From the outset, his audience was not a Thai bubble, but the world. He was the only Thai political scientist who tried to come up with a theory of the state for developing countries. He called it the three-dimensional state, pivoting around and fluctuating between the needs and imperatives for development, security and participation in a moving mix. Transitioning and consolidating democracies are bent more towards the development and participation axes, whereas autocratic governments lean more on security and development. Chai-anan's theoretical contribution was neither elegant nor parsimonious, certainly not universally accepted. But no Thai political scientist had ever gone that far in the field at the time or since.

Chai-anan's thinking about the state translated into several seminal articles, depicting Thailand in the 1980s as a "stable semi-democracy" and arguing that "globalisation" would "bypass" coup-making generals because they would not be willing to step aside. Yet, Political Conflict in Thailand (co-authored with David Morell) remains his most cited work as a thorough and incisive analysis of Thailand's turbulent politics in the 1970s.

Adding to his scholarly achievements was policy work. An adviser to two prime ministers in the 1980s, Chai-anan was a constitution drafter in 1974 and played a leading role in writing the 1997 charter. He was also on the governing councils of Chulalongkorn University, his professional base, and a host of others, including Chiang Mai, Silpakorn and Mahidol, serving on committees for education improvement and reform. But his first love by way of educational institutions must have been Vajiravudh College, the prestigious all-boys primary and secondary school, where he returned as superintendent when he was about to turn 60.

Apart from government advisory roles, reform committees and charter drafting, the professor was directly engaged in politics. After Thaksin Shinawatra won the January 2001 election and took office, Chai-anan soon became a member of the policymaking inner sanctum -- the government's brain trust at the time that included current Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak. This was the period when Chai-anan became chairman of Thai Airways International. But when allegations of conflicts of interest and abuse of power overwhelmed the Thaksin regime, Chai-anan joined his intellectual companion and longtime friend, Sondhi Limthongkul, of the Manager Media Group in forming and propelling the People's Alliance for Democracy, whose street demonstrations partly paved the way for the coup in September 2006.

In Thailand's rough-and-tumble political arena over the past 13 years, Chai-anan never shied or shrank from making his own stand. It was supported by some and opposed by others. None of it matters now for how Chai-anan's exceptional brilliance and exemplary scholarly accomplishments should be seen in hindsight.

And he was kind and generous to younger minds. Having read his work and wanting to meet him and learn, I first wrote a letter to Professor Chai-anan in 1991 while a postgraduate student. He wrote back, with a stamp affixed in those days, and took a complete stranger under his wing, showing me how Thai politics worked by letting me tag along and observe. He said being observant and participant was the best way to learn.

Eventually, to my delight and surprise, I inherited his office on becoming a newly minted lecturer. Chai-anan was larger than life, fierce and feisty in spirit, an inspiration and example in his prime to younger generations, a Thai scholar whose intellect, analysis and articulation stood him in equal stead with the best in the field anywhere.

When the short-lived 1997 constitution was still operational, Chai-anan was upbeat and optimistic like many others who had seen the military dictatorship and ensuing pro-democracy overthrow and street violence in 1991-92.

In a December 2002 epilogue to a collection of his published papers, his observations still echo with implications and question marks today: "As an active participant in most important political events throughout this turbulent period, I have noticed a great resilience in Thai society emanating from a shared reverence of the monarchy by all groups of citizens. The monarchy is deeply institutionalised socially and culturally, while political institutions have suffered greatly from discontinuity and crises. The kind of stability Thai society has had is therefore personalised rather than systemic."

Prof Chai-anan's writings are available here