So I admit to joining Facebook!
The only reason I mention this is that in setting up my profile, I was invited to post my favourite quotations. This is an interesting exercise and worthy of some thought. The three I came up with are listed below:
“I can resist everything but temptation" – Oscar Wilde
"Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves" – Confucius
"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter" – Mark Twain
The Oscar Wilde quote is an old favourite albeit rather trite. That being said, I do like it because it accurately reflects human nature. The second two provide a salutary lesson in conflict management.
Much has been written on your website about the civil unrest in Thailand. I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the schism in Thai politics. At a high level it would appear to be a class based conflict with the urban middle classes and Thai Chinese business owners on one side and the disenfranchised rural poor and Thai Laos farmers on the other. An aggravating factor being Thaksin Shinawatra’s political ambitions, coupled with his alleged funding of the red shirt anti-government protests. I realise this is an over simplistic analysis, as some of the “red shirts” are not Thaksin supporters.
My wife recently returned to Thailand to attend a family funeral. Her family lives in a central Thai province largely unaffected by the recent troubles. What is interesting is that my wife’s friends, mainly Bangkok based tour guides and school teachers living in central Thailand appear to be equally divided in terms of indentifying with the two political factions. I have deliberately not used the word allegiance, because I don’t believe any of them support the violence and economic sabotage employed by both sides. In stating this, I am also taking into account the occupation of Suvarnabhumi airport by the PAD back in 2008. Clearly they have a right and possibly a duty to vote, and may well select a party in either the red or yellow camp. However, what they are doing is explicitly expressing a preference for a political philosophy in terms of either red or yellow shirt, rather than simply choosing to support a political party based on the relative merits of election pledges provided. I don’t know why this should be, other than perhaps being driven by a polarisation of political opinion steered by media coverage. Whatever the underlying reason it strikes me as being an undesirable outcome in terms of Thailand ever achieving a government capable of representing the whole country.
Assuming this political divide in Thailand runs throughout the whole of society (i.e. within professions and occupations not ideologically aligned by class to one side or the other) then this is a more complex issue than is commonly being presented through the foreign media. In fairness I accept that this may not be the case, given the very small sample of both professions and individuals canvassed. Even so, it is clear that the division within Thai society is such that no solution is likely to be achieved through the normal political process, in that a coalition of like-minded parties, be it either red or yellow shirt leaning, will ever be able to unify the country.
On this basis, I can see five possible scenarios for the future direction of Thailand.
1. Anarchy and civil war.
2. The army stages another coup and the country returns to military dictatorship. This is a likely scenario, once the generals accept that an army backed “yellow shirt” civilian administration is unable to deliver secure governance.
3. The country unites behind the King, suspends democracy and returns to its pre 1932 status as an absolute monarchy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is publicly revered by everyone in the Kingdom. As such he has the capability to be a unifying force for good, although given his age and current state of health coupled with concerns about the succession, this is unlikely to provide a viable long term solution.
4. Thailand maintains the democratic status quo, alternating between a red or yellow shirt led coalition, with neither grouping being able to achieve the popular consent needed to avoid ongoing civil unrest.
5. The politicians set aside their differences, and come together to work for the national good. This would require a broad based coalition of national unity, delivering on a manifesto acceptable to all social classes. Logically, this is the most sensible course of action, assuming that politicians of a suitable calibre and integrity can be found and elected. However, a healthy cynicism does not inspire me with confidence that this will be the case.
In considering the integrity and good-will of the political process, a few more quotations come to mind.
"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men" – Lord Acton.
“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul” – George Bernard Shaw
“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other” – Oscar Ameringer
“Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right” – H.L. Mencken
“We'd all like to vote for the best man, but he's never a candidate” – Frank McKinney
The question then arises as to whether the Thai people deserve their leaders. I think one can reasonably argue there is a high degree of corruption and skulduggery within Thai politics. Indeed corruption as a modus operandi is entrenched throughout Thai society.
Turning now to the UK, we are a country that prides itself on the integrity and stability of our political system. Sadly this didn’t prevent us going to war in Iraq based on some dodgy intelligence dossier “sexed-up” by an unelected political adviser – Alistair Campbell, which confirmed a credible threat posed by some non-existent weapons of mass distraction – sorry destruction. In reality Saddam’s fate was sealed some month’s earlier at a meeting held between Prime Minister Tony Blair and George W Bush when it was agreed that the UK would support the US President in prosecuting a war to take care of his father’s unfinished business. I’m not arguing that Saddam Hussein was not a very bad man richly deserving of his subsequent appointment with the gallows, simply that the UK’s role in securing his fate was political chicanery of the very worst type. In any non-governmental organisation where a deception of such magnitude is commissioned and subsequently becomes public knowledge, the chief executive would have no option but to accept responsibility and resign immediately. Not only did Tony Blair keep his job, but in their infinite wisdom the British electorate re-elected him as Prime Minister in 2005. Since then we have endured the MP expenses scandal, where a significant number of our elected representatives from all three major political parties were shown to have been supplementing their salaries through dishonest and, or totally unjustified expenses claims. Claims home loans already paid off, duck-houses and adult movies come to mind. The recent filming of Sarah Duchess of York receiving 40K in used dollar bills as a down-payment for an introduction to Prince Andrew was indeed an edifying sight for all to behold. Given that this form of fund raising is no longer available to her, the lovely Sarah is now considering revisiting her divorce settlement of 14 years ago in an attempt to secure up to £7.5 million more from Prince Andrew. Our recent general election held on 6th May 2010 resulted in a hung parliament, indicating the British people were not prepared to deliver a mandate for any one political party to govern. Logically, this should have resulted in a Government of national unity. In actuality the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrat party, who with 57 seats in the House of Commons, secured little more than one fifth of the 258 seats won by the disenfranchised second placed Labour party. To my knowledge, at no point was the possibility a coalition between the first and second placed parties every considered, either by the politicians or in the national press. Clearly, this was not an option that was palatable to the hierarchy within either party, despite this being what the country voted for.
My purpose in highlighting the short-comings within the British Establishment, is to put into context the failure of the Thai leadership. Given the inclination, I’m sure that Stickman’s US, Australian and New Zealand readership could provide a similar damning indictment of their own governance. So, coming back to my earlier rhetorical question, do the Thai people deserve their leaders?
I should state that I have been married to a Thai national for ten years, have visited the country many times and that my interaction with Thai’s has been outside the bar scene. I have also had the privilege to be involved with a school exchange project between our two counties. We often have Thai teachers and sometimes students staying with us in England. I make no attempt to present a comprehensive, structured or even balanced analysis. My opinion is purely a personal view derived from the people I have met, and the things I have seen and done.
Continuing with the quotations theme:
“Opinions are like assholes, everybody has one” – Clint Eastwood
Some of you will have had experiences which may lead you to hold a diametrically opposed view – I understand and respect that!
My experience of Thai people has been overwhelmingly positive. I have been afforded friendship and treated with respect and kindness by the vast majority of people I have come into contact with. I think there are two reasons for this, firstly because I am associating with “normal” Thai people and secondly because I adopt a positive and polite attitude to those I meet. Those of your reporting negative behaviours should perhaps consider the type of person you are meeting. There are whores, pimps, gangsters, hustlers, con artists, thieves and thugs residing in every country. Would your experience in associating with these groups of people be any better in your home country, especially when drunk or in possession of large amounts of money?
As previously stated, corruption permeates Thai society from top to bottom. Given that the Thai police are poorly paid, it is unsurprising that those in tight brown shirts look to supplement their incomes through contributions solicited from their customers. Even routine activities such as a teacher seeking a transfer to another school, are often nigh on impossible to arrange unless the right palms have been crossed with silver. I don’t believe most Thai’s believe this is a good way to operate, simply that this is the way things are done. Thai people, perhaps influenced by their Buddhist religion, seem more able to accept things for what they are (good and bad) and get on with life, rather than wasting time and energy whinging about those things they cannot change.
In addition to visiting the Thai exchange school on a number of occasions, I was also taken to see a special school for deaf children and witnessed at first hand the excellent work that the headmaster and his dedicated team have put in. Thailand does not generally have an enlightened approach to disabilities (including deafness) and sadly many of these children have been abandoned to the school by their mainly poor families. Disabled people are often shut away at home by their families and not taken out. Perhaps there is shame in having given birth to a disabled child? There is a paradox in the way that elderly parents and grandparents are respected and invariably well cared for by their extended families. Children, especially girls, see it as a duty to provide financial assistance for the care of their elderly parents. My wife regularly sends back money from her earnings in the UK to help take care of her sick and elderly mother. For a Thai, this duty of care may also include extending a helping hand to the rest of the family, as and when required. Care of the elderly is often something we deal with very badly in the UK, where old people may be seen as a nuisance, to be locked away in a residential home until such time as they have the good grace to die and release their inheritance for the benefit of their impatient children and grandchildren. Whereas in the UK elderly people not in residential care often live alone, those with families in Thailand will rarely do so. Perhaps we should learn from the Thai’s with regard to our care of the elderly and they in turn can learn from us to take a more enlightened view towards disability?
Whereas the English teachers and students visiting Thailand stayed in a hotel and communicated in their native tongue, our Thai visitors were boarded with local families and expected to speak English and eat English food. Most of the Thai students had never been abroad before, so everything was new to them, especially the cold weather. They are invited to travel to the UK at the end of the Thai school year in April, and may also visit during October or November. In my experience many Thai students are naturally shyer than their English counterparts, until they get to know you. On meeting them in Thailand, I would sometimes find they needed coaxing to speak in a classroom setting – for fear of making a mistake and losing face in front of their classmates. That being said they were curious and friendly, and would often come to talk to me freely on an individual basis between classes. In England, they were really taken out of their comfort zone, working in groups with other students and contributing to public presentations that they would never be expected to do back home. Before coming to England, they were couched in classic Thai dance and song would put on a show on their last day in school. Some of the boys would demonstrate martial arts. They had clearly worked very hard to perfect their performance and delivered to a high standard. Over the 10 days or so they were in England, almost without exception they succeeded in developing a warm relationship with their host families. They were also popular with the other English students in class. There were often tears shed on their final day in this country, adults included.
One thing that has become apparent to me is Thais are more gregarious than their UK counterparts and have a greater sense of fun. Perhaps they have more time to cultivate and maintain friendships? When a social group of Thais get together, it’s usually a noisy occasion with much laughter and joking. I have been invited to some great Thai parties and there is always something going on. Their fondness for speeches and Karaoke are not to everyone’s taste, but there is also music (excluding Karaoke), dancing, alcohol and food. Food is everywhere and in great variety and quantity. It can be purchased very cheaply from numerous takeaways, formally prepared on-site, and as often as not supplemented informally with small groups working together to run ad-hoc BBQ’s of fish and meat for all to share. As a guest, I am always looked after and made to feel most welcome. Someone will make sure that Khun Farang’s glass of beer or Thai whiskey is never empty and there is plenty of ice. And for those cynics among you – no, I am not footing the bill!
In the UK you normally need a formal arrangement to visit people at home, even family. In Thailand you can just drop in. If you do, then the first thing you will normally be asked is, “have you eaten”?
My wife has had to return to Thailand at short notice to attend the funeral of her sister’s husband. Unfortunately I was not able to go with her to pay my respects, but I’ve known him for 10 years and will miss him. He was a good man who died tragically before his time. We enjoyed many close fought games of snooker together. Despite both being hopeless at the game, there was much camaraderie in competition. Without a welfare state to fall back on, Thai people do what they can to support each other in times of adversity such as this. Friends came from all over the country to pay their respects and offer whatever comfort they could. It is traditional for those attending a funeral to donate money in an envelope to help defray the cost. Their generosity was heart warming, with railway workers and retirees living off a small pension donating 1,000 baht or more. This is a considerable amount for them to find, especially when taking into account the cost of travel and accommodation. Total contributions exceeded 200,000 baht. A princely sum and a credit to all involved.
So, to answer my own rhetorical question – No, I don’t believe that the Thai people deserve their leaders, they deserve much better!
Lots of interesting thoughts.