William Putnam

On the Bangkok protests And Thailand's mysterious culture

Thailand is still something of an enigma to me


I am currently living in the one of Thailand's southeastern provinces, in a place called Trat Town. As I hear more news about the anti-government protests in Bangkok heating up, so to speak, I am surprised by how little it affects me out here.

I have heard stories about shootings, bomb threats, and Bangkok's largest luxury malls closing, but out in Trat life is just following its usual routines. I assumed that most Thai people were politically apathetic, but I am slightly astonished how little anyone discusses the protests out in the provinces. Bangkok is the epicenter of political activity in Thailand, but I assumed more people would get involved once the protests began to affect shopping.

Truthfully, I am having trouble understanding what is going on with the protests. Ostensibly, the red shirts support Thaksin while the yellow shirts want new leadership. However, what is it exactly that the yellow shirts are trying to accomplish? I understand that the current regime is corrupt, but will a new regime be any less so?

Until there is more transparency in government and a greater feeling of equality and fraternity among Thailand's citizens, I do not think a change of leadership will accomplish much. The reason Thais use the English vernacular word for corruption is because there is no Thai word for it. The closest word they have means something along the lines of defrauding the citizens without notifying the king.

The Thai people need a consciousness shift in how they conceive of themselves as citizens in a democracy. They need to stop thinking of themselves as subjects and people whose votes can be bought and begin to think of themselves as participants in the future direction of their homeland.

It's striking how little I understand Thailand, even though I have lived here for over a year. When I traveled to Vietnam, I read as much as I could on the country, its people, and its history. Though the country remains an enigma to almost anyone not from there, at least the information is available. If a person is so inclined, he or she can read books on contemporary Vietnamese politics, environmental developments, or ethnic minorities living in the highlands. He or she can also read novels by Graham Greene or Michael Herr and get a better sense of what the country was like at a particular time.

In Thailand, I find that most literature is on Bangkok's jails or prostitution industry, and most ethnographies portray the Thais as selfish and egocentric people (this may be true of some people, but many Thai people have been unbelievably friendly and helpful to me). There seems to be a clear lack of transparency into the Thai culture and mindset. To the foreigner, Thai culture and behavior remain nebulous.

Of course, I could be wrong about all this. What do I really know about Thailand anyway? To me, there is nothing more exhilarating than the process of figuring things out. However, until I learn how to decipher the code, Thailand will stay an enigma.

 




Comments

William, having worked with you in Trat, I know what you mean! I am back in the UK now, and there is nothing on the news channels about the protests. Whilst I wouldn't expect it to take much airtime, the little I can read on line now, suggests the country is sliding slowly into civil war! Mind you, Trat always seemed to be in a separate universe!

I often wonder about what the other ASEAN nations think of the situation. With a year to go, I cannot find anything online where any other ASEAN nation comments about this situation. I would have thought that the big issue for governments now will be the likelihood of the influx of many new residents and workers, particularly from Cambodia, I imagine, will have on the country, particularly with regard to Thai unemployment rates. I have no doubt that the problems of migration will be broadly similar to those we are currently experiencing I Europe (perceived or otherwise). I think if you will stay in Trat, you are going to find yourself on the front line of the ASEAN offensive, mainly because of your proximity) All I can say is good luck with that one!

By Mark, UK (24th December 2013)

The problems with the Thai political system goes back over 80 years as democracy was hijacked from the very beginning. The King of Thailand at the time who agreed to go from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy soon afterwards denounced what was being done in the name of democracy. This hijacking of democracy in Thailand continues to this day regardless of who is in power. There is concern that things could get out of hand but at least for now the head of the Thai military is staying neutral which is a very good thing, he is also taking steps to some how resolve the conflict peacefully. Also I was in Bangkok recently and came across a small group of anti-government protesters, mainly young men in trucks on loud speakers dressed in black, madly waving Thai flags. They seemed very fanatical and extremely nationalistic, to be honest it gave me the creeps as we all know historically where those type of movements have ended up leading to.

By Thomas, Thailand (24th December 2013)

It takes more than one year to understand a country.

What worries me is my wife who has a mai pen rai attitude on life is seriously concerned about the future of her country.

By Johhny, BKK (12th December 2013)

I agree, William.... with everything you said. Thai people, on the whole, have been nothing but kind to me. I think it's sad that the minority of people here in Bangkok are giving the rest of them a somewhat violent/bad name, especially considering I also view most Thais as apathetic--politically and otherwise. But I say, there's nothing wrong with that!

Living in Bangkok, I must say that aside from seeing the luxury shopping malls closed one day, I also haven't seen much (if any) of the protests. Even in the capitol here, if you aren't watching the news, you may not even know the unrest exists!

By Sam, Chatuchak, Bangkok (11th December 2013)

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