Monday, April 13, 2009

Thailand and the discourse of being a "real" Thai

I'm becoming increasingly frightened by the violence in Thailand. It's not just that I'm losing my attachment to the image of "Siam Mueang Yim" (Thailand, land of smiles). Those of us who love and have worked in Thailand, and many many Thai, have long laughingly referred to it as "Thailand, Land of Snarls." But there were clear cultural codes and severe social consequences to open expression of anger, antagonism and violence. There were places to express that, and of course anyone who has (like me) watched their gentle and good-natured elderly Thai landlady go crazy yelling "kill 'em kill 'em" while watching a boxing match knows that there's no essential Thai happy and smiling nature! and then there's the violence daily displayed on the front pages of Thai newspapers. Or the time the same Thai landlady told me she couldn't continue lie to me to a married man who was trying to date me (whenever he called, I was to be "up in the mountains" doing research) because he'd soon figure it out and might plant a bomb at our house.

But this level of on-going street violence is unprecedented as far as I can see.

The "Yellow Shirts" (royalist or traditional military/aristocratic elite) claim that Thaksin and his party had to be thrown out (even if legally elected) because of corruption. That’s the pot calling the kettle black. There is the high level, systemic, deep-seated, highly secretive corruption of upper class controlled governments. For fear of lese majeste laws (no matter how far-fetched the accusations), I'll say no more.

Then there’s Thaksin’s populist movement, also horribly corrupt — but less well-hidden, and probably of much smaller scale as not built into the system of government and understandings of ’superiors’ and ‘inferiors.’

So, you’ve got royalists vs. republicans, although all call themselves pro-King given political discourse in Thailand; you’ve got the working and middle classes, long cut out of any political power, and the elites; you’ve got people for the legally elected political party vs. those who define the legally elected party as inherently illegal.

And all argue that their perspective is the only true one because they are the only true Thais. To say that your perception is more accurate because you are a Thai person is to say that all Thai people must have your perspective to be truly Thai.

I'm reading Penny Edwards' Cambodge and perhaps it's this intersection that brings me to this observation: This kind of political discourse is veering dangerously close to that of the ‘year zero’ party in Cambodia. The independence and nationalist movements in Cambodia wrote in a discourse of 'true' Khmer culture. "The Original Khmer" was an early pen name of Pol Pot!. How far will this go?

The genie is out of the bottle and the land of smiles is not even a facade any more.

Good luck to ALL the Thai people in the continuing crisis.