History of Conspiracy
By Mue Meut
In the spring of 2010, military force was used to clear anti-government protestors from the streets of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital. During and after the crackdowns, conflicting accounts as to the number of casualties and who was behind them circulated widely. These accounts took shape as rumors, tall tales, news reports, blogs, and official announcements. As is normal in unclear circumstances, people tried to make sense of available information, cobbling together something coherent as best they could from bits of information. In many cases, what eventually took shape was, with justification, a tale of nefarious, sinister intentions. Conspiracy theories were, and continue to be, the currency of the day.
One way to think about the widespread resort to conspiracy theory as an explanation for recent events is that it is an aberration traceable to the political uncertainty and anxiety that the looming death of the current king inspires. Thailand, however, is not the only society in which conspiracy theories abound. America has its fair share, from the one about the current president being a foreign-born Muslim (and therefore un-American) to the ones about the moon landing and 9/11 being hoaxes perpetrated by the government. One writer in the New York Times recently noted: “It is no secret, especially here in America, that we live in a post-Enlightenment age in which rationality, science, evidence, logical argument and debate have lost the battle in many sectors, and perhaps even in society generally, to superstition, faith, opinion and orthodoxy. While we continue to make giant technological advances, we may be the first generation to have turned back the epochal clock – to have gone backward intellectually from advanced modes of thinking into old modes of belief” (Neal Gabler, “The Elusive Big Idea,” New York Times, 13 August 2011).
Conspiracy theory can be seen as part of a broad regression into the epistemological abyss, as the Times piece indicates, as a pathology, a weapon of the weak, the refuge of the marginalized, a style of politics, as a critical part of what governments do, or as a means of control and a strategy of power. There is some truth in all these views, but to dismiss it outright as a remnant of the mystified past means we have failed to engage the phenomenon critically, as a reflection of the radical skepticism that prevails in Thai society.
That conspiracy theory is a relic of the past is true so far as the elements that make it possible can be traced historically, to real events, real situations, to the years following the Second World War, when the police, the army, and other nodes of the Thai un-state began to exert violent force on political, social, and cultural life in the kingdom. It is no coincidence that ‘third hands’ (mue thi sam), ‘dark hands’ (mue muet), and unnamed ‘people with influence’ (phu mi ithiphon) emerged in the 1950s to become key agents of Thai history, driving events, criminal or otherwise. And it is not by chance that during this period, people have become caught up in a game of constant detection and interpretation, or as Robert Wilson calls it, a state of ‘guerilla ontology,’ to determine what is real and what is fabricated in daily life.
What this piece is about, then, is ultimately to get people to think about how the forms of representation employed are imbued with politics, resulting sometimes in situations we can’t anticipate.