Krung Thep In The Rearview Mirror – Observations of Former Expat
As with many things in my life, I meant to get to this earlier but life intervened. Moving back to Farangland, settling a family, starting a new job, and dealing with two family tragedies caused the delay. Finally I got around to putting my thoughts to words.
I spent three full years living and working in Bangkok. Where I worked and what I did is not important other than the access it provided me to various parts of Thai society. Without too many details suffice to say I worked for a very large international entity with offices all over the world. My area of expertise is corporate security and as such I had weekly, and sometimes daily, contact with various elements of the Thai National Police and military (Stickman can vouch for me on this one) <Yep, it's true – Stick>. I was very fortunate as my firm provided me with lodging, handled all the visa / work permit issues, and generally looked after us logistically (home repairs, utility bills, transportation, etc.). Prior to my assignment, I visited Thailand 5 times, with several visits longer than 3 weeks.
The time I spent here was greatly enhanced by having a Thai wife. As a Bangkok native from an upper-middle class Thai / Chinese family and a Chula grad with a Masters degree from the US, she provided me a window to Bangkok and Thailand I never would have had. She translated words and events in a way I could understand. We definitely have our differences but have much more in common. She understands the Farang mind and helped me get the basics of the Thai mind.
Most of this is not new to a long term observer of Thai society but I provided them as a way of setting the stage for my conclusions.
Society – I’ve learned to look at Thai society as a three legged chair. The three legs are the monarchy, Buddhism, and the military / police. As long as those three are in balance, the chair stays upright. Likewise if you cross one of those legs in bad way, you’ll feel it.
At a basic level, Thailand essentially runs on a caste system similar to India (just fewer levels). At the top are the power brokers and king makers (not literally and no disrespect to His Majesty). This level is comprised of the senior members of the government (subject to change you know!), general grade officers in the police / military, and the upper echelon of Thai (heavily Thai / Chinese owned) business. This is where the real powers comes from. There are business and family relationships that tie these elements together and a collective sense of looking out for each other. They are very adept at keeping scrutiny at bay and insulating themselves from any accountability. Next would be the upper-middle and middle class comprised of business people and mid level police and military. These folks are trying to get to the next level and make up the network that does the dirty work of protecting the upper echelon. Following that would be the average person just getting by – small business owners, government bureaucrats, college professors, junior officers in the police / military, and maybe some of the folks working in the tourism / service industry. Below that is everyone else – probably about 90 % of the population.
I see this as a product of the hundreds of years of the monarchy – not a value judgment, just an observation. Prior to the dissolution of the absolute monarchy in 1932, I would say the power elites where almost exclusively within the monarchy. The establishment of a constitutional monarchy paved the way for the military and powerful businessmen to obtain a spot at the top and wield tremendous influence on politics.
For the most part, if you are not born into the club of the upper echelon, chances are you won’t be getting in. This is especially true in the business world. A person can work hard and provide a good life for his or her family. Entrepreneurs do exist but chances are unless your family has Chinese roots, you won’t make it to the big time. This is nothing more than human nature and exists throughout SE Asia. The powers that be keep things within their circle. It exists in every culture and is part of who we are. It just seems more pronounced here – at least through my lens.
Racism, and ethnicism (if that’s a word), are very prevalent but like many things in Thailand, it mostly stays below the surface. It goes back to the semi-caste system mentioned earlier. It took me some time but eventually even I could recognize a person from a part of Thailand other than Bangkok. Bangkok natives spot them in heartbeat. More than spotting them, they make judgments and generally assume the worst. Some folks have complained about a sense of xenophobia displayed by Thais. I for one have never even remotely seen or experienced that. Just the opposite. From my well-educated, English speaking in-laws to an Army 3-star to a Changwat Lt Gov, they all seemed open to foreigners and spoke freely about Thai politics, society, and history. Likely a product of a Western education and / or their desire to get a Farang’s read on the Thai situation.
Life is cheap in Thailand. Part of that is based on Buddhism fatalism. The other part is based on the fact it is easier to settle an issue by removing one of the parties. There are numerous stories of disagreements being settled with two shots to the head. Whether the “dark forces” are behind it or it’s just a business / political dispute being settled, this is a dirty part of society Thais don’t like to talk about.
Thai people have a higher degree of respect for the military than the police. The military is viewed as the loyal protectors of the Kingdom with a true sense duty and honor. The members of the Thai military I’ve worked with are professional and competent. Unfortunately the senior levels are very politicized. Believe me there is no love lost between the military and police. The police are viewed as nothing more than thieves in uniform with contempt for the average citizen.
In my travels and work in various parts of the globe, I’ve found most people want the same things – a good job to support their family, a decent government, a sense of safety / security, and a better life for their kids. Thais are no different. The differences I see are the Thai people are truly gracious, kind at heart, and welcoming. I say this from a perspective of traveling to every region of Thailand and interacting with Thais at all levels. For every nightmare story you hear about a bad taxi driver, I can tell you one about a good one – like returning wallets (with credit cards), mobile phones, and passports that a Farang left behind. Most Thais are very good people – we just hear the stories of the bad ones. The good ones rarely make the news. They may not always tell the truth as a Westerner sees it, but that is more often than not out of “Graeng Jai” (the concept of not making another’s life difficult often junior to senior in direction) rather than inherent dishonesty.
Infrastructure – I can sum it up with one phrase “Not quite right and half-a*#”. While Thailand has made great strides in development in the last 20 years, the foundations are shaky at best. Further, once you move away from Bangkok and a few other major cities, it drops off considerably. Infrastructure can be either hard (highways, public utilities, hospitals, airports, ports) or soft (banking, educations, government institutions, business practices). With a few exceptions, none of these work very well. The hard infrastructure that is well developed is geared towards exports and business.
Corruption – where do I start? When my wife turned 16, she went to get her driver’s license. Daddy made a few phone calls, passed an envelope, and voila – lifetime license with no written or road test. Corruption is present at every level and affects everyone. I readily accept that corruption is present in the US – we just call them lobbyist and force them to register. The difference is when they go bad and get caught, they go to jail. There are hundreds of former public officials and cops in jail in the US. I’d be hard-pressed to find five or ten in Thailand. Corruption in law enforcement is a big problem. Most Thais will rationalize it and say that’s just the way it is. In my experience, most if not all Thai police are corrupt to some degree. Mostly it’s “Tad Nam” – Thai for going with the flow. The police are basically a mafia. They keep two sets of books and collections happen on a very tight schedule. Promotions and assignments are based on your earning capability and the amount you kick up. I’ve met a few Thai police officers who I admire and respect as they’ve resisted the temptation to completely give in to the dark side often at risk to the their personal safety and to the detriment of their careers. They are the exception. I’ve read one study that showed police corruption decreased when the entry level police officer received a salary that was greater than two and half times the minimum wage. The Thai police are right at that level but it won’t make a difference in the near term. There have been some efforts at police reform but I don’t see any real fundamental changes happening in the near or mid term.
Politics – books have been written on this and I don’t have any special insights. To me it seems dysfunctional – up is down, left is right, and black is white. Those in elected office, with few exceptions, are there to do one thing – line their pockets through bribery, rigged bidding, and crooked land deals. Sure they try to deliver the goods to the unwashed and do okay in some areas like healthcare. When you look at the history, you see as many coups since 1945 as the US has had elections. The fundamental missing component of a functioning Thai democracy is a peaceful transition of leadership. The period from 1992 to 2006 was seen as good start. Actually, Thaksin was the only sitting PM to be re-elected to second term. We all know how that ended. I don’t see things getting any better until the level of education and sense of involvement is drastically elevated to point where the average Thai voter makes informed uninfluenced decisions on how they want to be governed. Won’t happen in my life time.
When you get down to it, it could be better described as modern feudalism. As long as Thailand remains an agriculture-based economy, with nearly 50% of the population engaged in that sector, this won’t change. Obviously Thailand has a vibrant manufacturing base (44% of GDP) and continues to be a good place to do that. Tourism will remain the jewel in the economic crown but that can only happen in stable political environment. While woefully better off than most of its immediate neighbors, Thailand has so much potential that goes unrealized due to the current way of governing and dodgy business practices.
In my view the current government tried to fix something that wasn’t broken (surely bent but not broken), broke it, and now has a mess on their hands. What they have almost guaranteed is a weak central government and a flawed constitution and election process. The upcoming election is huge. The Thai people need to rise up and demand a functioning government ruled by a viable constitution backed by the rule of law.
Safety / Security – On a day to basis, as far as Farangs are concerned, Thailand is a very safe place. Biggest problems are traffic accidents and drunk driving. Most crime against Farangs is non-confrontational and involves some type of scam or slight of hand. In most cases where Farangs are victims of violent crime, there is usually a back story and the Farang had some type of relationship with the people involved. As insidious as the corrupt mafia-like police are, there are other elements of trans-national crime present in Thailand. Whether it is Eastern European, Japanese, or others closer to Thailand, most of these players operate freely in Thailand. Though no longer a major producer of narcotics, Thailand is now a consumer due to its relative economic growth. When Thai police are pulling guys with stomachs full of cocaine off airplanes from Columbia, you have a problem.
Terrorism will continue to be a concern. Thailand is viewed as a country of convenience for both international terrorists and organized crime. If a bad guy could design a place to operate, he would use all the factors present in Thailand. Open borders, corrupt police, decent banking system, good medical care, availability of forged travel documents, and a place where foreigners (at least those with money) are accepted and tolerated. Historically, Al-Qaeda has used Thailand as transit point and a logistic base. One theory behind this is the possibility the bad guys want to keep Thailand as a place to do the little things they need to do – plan, rest, lay low, and move money. There is a history of active plots here but none have come to fruition. In August of 2003, Thai Police arrested a major figure in Ayuthaya, an Indonesian known as Hambali. Several of his associates were arrested also. Exactly what Hambali was doing was not revealed but suffice to say he was major player. He would not have left Indonesia without a purpose. The Thais have made great strides countering international terrorism. They have some more work to do but in general they get it. The domestic situation is another thing.
As I fire up my crystal ball, I know this is a sensitive topic. My sense is that in the near future (less than one year) Thailand will face something no one wants to talk about. Three or four generations of tradition, service to his country and insightful leadership will be gone. I’ll wager very few people in Thailand remember anything else. I have no idea how that will play out but fear others may use that period as a pretext to grab power in the name of stability. My worst case scenario is somewhat of a perfect storm. A combination of a natural disaster, economic crisis, and political turmoil could lead to a serious breakdown in Thai society. I don’t see that happening, but even 2 out 3 happening at the same time could be bad. I just don’t think the Thai government (this one or the next one) is capable of dealing with it.
There are serious tensions below the surface. Whether it be political, ethnic, or religious (not subsurface there!), these conflicts will eventually spread unless the pressure is released skillfully. The Thais are not good at conflict resolution. I tell people they are good at going from 0 to 160 in 3 seconds. Take the police for example. Many a time we’ve heard the story. Khun Farang gets detained and is politely escorted to the truck without handcuffs. Khun Farang, usually full of liquid courage, takes a swing at Sgt. Somchai. Sgt. Somchai and the rest of his rugby side proceed to extract a bit of street justice. Insert random Thai guy for the Sgt. and the story remains the same. Thais deal with problems by ignoring them or shooting them – no real middle ground.
I tried not to be negative though some may get that tone. Rather I wanted to convey a realistic sense of the serious issues facing Thailand.
I met some great people during my time there. My mother-in-law is a wonderful woman and accepted me like one of her own. The nieces and nephews think it’s cool to have a Farang uncle. Guys like Stick and DaveTheRave made Thailand much more memorable place and I consider them friends. Hopefully the feeling is mutual.
For all its warts, Thailand continues to a great place. Part of me will always be there (not that part!) and I know Thailand is in my future. We’ll just have to wait and see what Thailand will be.
I really enjoyed your perspective and agreed with pretty much all of it. Your unique perspective allowed you to really see a side of Thailand that most of us don't, and I am not talking about your family connections!