Clan Status in Thai Politics


A review of Trakun, Politics and the Thai State, by Katja Rangsivek.

Most Thai newspapers regularly devote at least a couple of pages to photos depicting charity parties, lavish wedding receptions and other high society events. Katja Rangsivek’s well researched and comprehensive study of political trakun (ตระกูลการเมอืง) in Thailand illustrates well why seemingly trivial gossip from the Thai elite is politically significant. In Thailand, the private is of high public interest.

Rangsivek’s dissertation exposes an implicit and unspoken, and therefore often ignored, aspect of Thai politics, the trakun—a patrilineal clan structure which Rangsivek defines as consisting of: “the direct paternal descendants of a known ancestor” (p. 59). The trakun is highly associated with a surname, which is passed on via the male line. Rangsivek further describes the belonging to a trakun as the privilege of the upper class—not everybody has a trakun. However, a trakun is not something that a family establishes on its own. Rather, it is something which is defined by outsiders (p 60). The dynamics of this trakun structure have affected Thai politics since the 1932 revolution and the fall of the absolute monarchy and continue to have a significant impact today. Rangsivek explains that these families have come to dominate in Thailand by engaging in politics over several generations and filling key positions of the state. Symbolic capital is reproduced through socialization from one generation to the next and through strategic marriages and alliances. Upon the death of one member of the trakun, symbolic capital is transferred to other family members during the funeral service.

In Trakun, Politics and the Thai State the reader is taken through the phenomenon of political trakun at a highly tense period of contemporary Thai politics. The data collection and the conducting of interviews took place from February to August 2010 and from May to August 2011. During the May 2010 street protests against Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government in Bangkok, more than ninety people were killed, predominantly Red-shirt protesters, and in May 2011 Abhisit dissolved the parliament and the 3 July election was won by Yingluck Shinawatra—sister of the controversial ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Both events are important landmarks in the political crisis which has plagued Thailand since 2005. While this political crisis by no means is at the core of Rangsivek’s dissertation, the context under which the study was conducted makes the dissertation important both as an account relevant to the political struggles and as documentation of central figures within Thailand’s crisis. The fact that Rangsivek accompanied Yingluck during some of her election campaigning is a great strength of her dissertation.

This study is based on an impressive collection of data (Chapter 2). Rangsivek has conducted more than sixty interviews with former or current members of parliament, in addition to some family members, and accompanied four politicians campaigning for the 2011 election. She has moreover carried out a mapping of political trakun in parliament and the senate in the period 1937-2012, and analyzed a number of original Thai language sources, newspapers, and cremation volumes. The useful appendix to the dissertation contains kinship charts of some highly influential trakun, a chart of the various categories of mortuary urns, and a bibliography of over sixty different cremation volumes used in the study. The reader will also appreciate the helpful rendering of original quotes in Thai. The original quotes, as well as the effort to spell out names and key terms and concepts in Thai throughout the thesis, improve the transparency of Rangsivek’s analysis.

Trakun, Politics and the Thai State shows how political families have played an integral role in Thai politics and explores the inner workings of political families. It explores question such as, how are marriages made? How do these families position themselves and their offspring to be able to remain on the political stage? What roles do individual members of the families have to perform (p. 29)? In Chapter 1 Rangsivek’s literature review illustrates the research gap that exists with regard to thorough analyses of the role of trakun in Thailand. She sets out to fill parts of the gap in a study of five trakun, influential at various times since the political watershed of 1932. The five trakun are:

  • Choonhavan: Part of the Ratchakru Group, 1947-1957 and 1980-2000.
  • Kittikachorn: 1957-1973.
  • Shinawatra: since 2001.
  • Techaphaybun: Business trakun expanding into politics in the 1980s.
  • Suwanchawee: Since the 1990s.

In Chapter 3 Rangsivek places the term trakun in the Thai context and contrasts it to other concepts such as family (ครอบครัว) and kin (ญาติ). The term is defined and discussed in relation to other studies on the subject. She then moves on to position the trakun within the classical sociological stratification theories of class, status, and, in Chapter 4, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital, which forms the conceptual framework of the study.

In Chapter 5 Rangsivek demonstrates the crucial part played by trakun in Thai politics since the implementation of the constitutional period with an impressive mapping of their presence in cabinet, parliament, and senate, as well as their relative importance to other elites (i.e. royals, nobles, and military). The mapping also nicely illustrates the shifting influence of various elites following crucial events in contemporary Thai history, such as 1957, 1973, 1976, 1991, and 2006.

The extensive ethnographic material collected for this study is presented to the reader in Chapters 6, 7 and 8. As Rangsivek notes, the persistence or downfall of political trakun is chiefly brought about by the success with which they negotiate their family affairs (p.32). How marriages fulfill the acquisition of capital, the creation of new alliances, the reinforcement of existing alliances and, thus, the solidarity of the group, and secures promising sons-in-law as heirs, is therefore devoted firm coverage. She also elaborates on the division of labor within the trakun. The workings of political trakun are examined through the function of a politician’s home, the role of each family member during election campaigns and in the education of the next generation, as well as how loyalty in the group is enforced.

Finally, Rangsivek scrutinizes the funeral as a show case of symbolic capital and discusses the importance of cremation volumes to the trakun and the preservation of symbolic capital after the passing of a family head. The trakun utilizes traditional funeral rituals for their political purposes and signs of capital and rank are employed to showcase the importance of the deceased and the trakun as a whole for the purpose of transferring the deceased’s symbolic capital to the next generation. The funeral is further useful in the recreation of political networks with other politicians and with the voters.

With Trakun, Politics and the Thai State Rangsivek has produced a welcome contribution to the research on Thai politics. With its meticulous mapping of the history of political trakun, combined with the in-depth ethnography on five of Thailand’s most powerful trakun, the study constitutes an excellent addition to the works of other scholars.

Marte Nilsen
Senior Researcher
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

Primary Sources

Cremation volumes

Dissertation Information

University of Copenhagen. 2013. 303 pp. Advisor: Cynthia Gek Hua Cho.

Image: Abhisit Vejjajiva. Wikimedia.

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