Politics as National Temperament

So apparently there was a truce today (December 3) between Thai protesters and the police.

When protests go down in Bangkok, there is always an eventual—if temporary—truce.

Since the post-World War II era, Thai politics have been inflammatory and unstable, with regular cycles of military coups and popular revolutions. There’s nothing endemic to Thailand about this. As with most developing nations, Thailand is in a transitional period between its agrarian, slave-holding past (slavery was gradually abolished over a period of several decades, ultimately ending in 1911) and its reincarnation as a modern democratic state with one of Southeast Asia’s strongest economies.

Large swaths of the population in Bangkok hold college degrees, drive Peugeots and BMWs, and on weekends gather in posh malls, ice cream parlors, or pastry shops. Yet in the rural areas—as in most developing countries—literacy, electricity, and plumbing are luxuries. (Actually, even in Bangkok, good plumbing is something to appreciate. Deeply.) In the countryside, monks still paddle down ancient klong to gather their morning alms. Many of Bangkok’s sex workers are trafficked from the countryside, some of them sold to pimps so that their families can pay for televisions or school fees (a popular Thai song depicts a family selling their daughter into sex slavery for a television).

Thailand also has numerous social justice issues that complicate the picture further—a Muslim majority in the South is underrepresented in government and media, and various ethnic groups in the North are commonly regarded as quaint curiosities. There is also a substantial servant class in Bangkok, a remnant of Thailand’s slave system. So in addition to the usual challenges of modernizing a country’s infrastructure amid fractious social groups, Thailand has the added burden of something like the U.S. period of Reconstruction.

All of this makes for a crucible where the contests over modernization between rich and poor, literate and illiterate, Buddhist and Muslim, majority and minority play out in difficult—yet reliable—ways.

Power Plays

One of the best illustrations of the social schism is a rural resort that caters to Bangkok elites. For hundreds of baht a night, Thai CEOs and politicos can get away from it all, check into luxurious suites, and—from their balconies and air-conditioned rooms—watch farmers harvest rice paddies.

Talk about going all Brave New World.

So of course the lower class must be up in arms from time to time. And I loved today’s New York Times article. Thomas Fuller described the latest scene in Bangkok: the police opened their compound, laid down their shields, and allowed the protesters to enter. And in turn, the protesters in flip-flops, polo shirts, and sunglasses snapped photos with the officers and handed them flowers. But a tone of befuddlement seeped into most Western coverage.

Could it be because the King’s birthday is coming up soon?

Maybe the police simply realized they were supporting the protesters by giving them something to fight against?

Maybe the government took the protesters too literally when they said their primary goal was to occupy government buildings—and decided the best tactic would be to give them what they wanted?

Kamronvit Thoopkrachang, the police chief, is reported as telling Reuters, “It is government policy to avoid confrontation.”

I laughed.

The chief was clearly aware he was talking to foreigners, specifically Farang. Westerners. Whom he doesn’t trust to grasp the nuances of Thai history.

Confrontation Without Confrontation

Thai etiquette and social norms have served the country well. During the European colonial heyday in Southeast Asia, Thailand was the only country that retained political independence. They also cannily handled Japanese imperialists during World War II. A favorite Thai tactic throughout history has always been to win the contest by making no contest. And it has worked so far. Beautifully.

It is simply Thai policy to avoid confrontation.

And when the police surrendered, the protesters one-upped them by extending flowers and taking snapshots that sealed them all as friends. Thai etiquette demanded nothing less.

And Charupong Reungsuwan, the nation’s Minister of the Interior, was also behaving properly when he told reporters he was “confused”.

This is a polite way to either refuse to discuss in-house problems with outsiders or to dismiss the larger social issues behind the protests—or both.

But the problem with Thai non-confrontation is that, like most political strategies adapted to the twentieth century, it is miserably outdated in the globalized twenty-first century. It’s counterproductive.

It’s unlikely that the Minister of the Interior is truly “confused” by the lower-class resentment toward Thailand’s centralized power structure. And it’s also unlikely he fails to understand the deep distrust, even rage, the masses harbor for Thaksin’s powerful family and their ongoing control of the government—even in exile.

Down the (Not-Yet-Paved) Road Ahead

Thailand’s cyclical protests and revolutions—generally every five to ten years—are symptoms of a larger but more intractable problem than a few individuals vying for political power: Thailand’s marginalized groups are simply tired of being marginalized. And with easy access to the internet, enhanced transportation, and widespread cell phone use, the have-nots can see exactly what it is they don’t have.

But Thailand lacks the stability and economic resources to tackle its broad social equity problems. When you are simply trying to hold a country together, support a capitalist economy, and modernize the most valuable areas (Bangkok’s “sky train” is an excellent example of government investment in Bangkok rather than the underdeveloped rural areas), it simply isn’t possible to solve every social problem. And since most politicians are also CEOs and other high-rollers in the nation’s economy, they make ruthlessly sound business choices when it comes to national policy.

It’s so much easier to simply say you are confused. After all, your chauffeur drove you to Parliament in your BMW, and your maid’s daughter is enrolled in college. So what problem is there?  

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