Today was a day for Thai society, on a very small scale, to take a breath and look around. I had my second illuminating discussion of the day with a student of Chulalongkorn University. The central question was: How do we make sense of people around us thinking that red shirts deserve to die by the hands of the army?
Interestingly her first response was looking at class background and her different upbringing: coming from a struggling family that understands what it means to suffer inequality. Her friends have been, as she put it, “raised in good families” so they find it hard to understand what these people are asking for. The concept of “good people” (poo dee) in Thailand, especially in how the concept of such has been used by this government in its attempt to create a “Moderate Society” (MoSo), could easily be the argument of a whole book in its complexity, huge disciplining role, and hegemonic power in rephrasing economic domination. The question then becomes how does a “good person”, a moderate member of society, come to think that the state has the right, or rather the duty, to kill people for disrupting life in a commercial area of the city? Or, to put it in the way our friends who stand with the military would, how is it that a “peaceful nation under the genius excellent king” comes to be so divided? How did suddenly the land of smiles turn into the land of tense faces?
These questions are running through Thai society in these days, on both sides of the red/yellow division and repeatedly asked and discussed with friends or young foreign researchers like me. As she put it, “people around me are feeling sad and depressed” and these feelings are flowing around, carved in disoriented faces. What happened to us?
First of all let us take a look at the textbook perception of Thailand as a unified peaceful nation. Thailand had 10 coup d’états since 1971, the highest rate in the world. It has suffered from a long-standing insurgency in the south, washed in the blood of thousands of citizens. Thailand is ranked 9th in the world for numbers of murders per year and the 14th for murders per capita. Thai murderers like gun powder: Thailand ranks first in the world for percentage of homicides committed by firearms.
The idea of the peaceful unified nation, evidently more a way in which Thai society thinks of itself than a social reality, sits at the roots of the modern Thai state, organized around the triad “Nation, Buddhism, and King” proposed by King Rama VI and repeated over and over again in every school of the Kingdom. Since then the concept has been purposefully broadcasted through a series of purposeful techniques, from textbooks to nation-wide campaigns, from tourist slogans to TV advertisements. The MoSo campaign, launched by the actual government with the support of Internal Security Operation Command(again another book should be written on ISOC from its anti-communist origins to the present roles), is a good example of one of these techniques. The latest chapter of a centuries-long attempt to transform individual behaviors desired by the state into a perceived national character. As always, hegemonic projects remain incomplete and, in need for constantly filling its own cracks, end up tripping on them leaving people puzzled, suddenly facing a ravine.
It is an interesting conversation and she keeps bringing questions to the table, echoing conversations that you can hear everywhere around you. But then what position do we take if one says, 'so, that it's old system, rotten, we're living in, and nothing we can change'? "It's one of the questions my best friend asks me,” she adds. The conversation gets philosophical. It is the old Hamlet question: is it better to accept a known reality, with all its pitfalls, or to jump into a new stage, taking a step into the dark? Humanity divides over this question and Thai society is no exception. “Yes,” she replies in her ardent activism, “and there are people who don't believe they can change, they have power. We create the system not just let the system control us. Many NGOs work for the grassroots but they don't believe in the people”. Silence for a second. “I think many people believe things can change but just don't want them to,” I reply. “I think if we look at yellow shirts in this case as people who don't believe they can change stuff we are making things too simple, assuming that deep inside they think things need to be changed. Many people want things to be the same and not only for personal benefits, maybe also for that very human fear of the dark.” “I see your point, but that seems to be very passive though.” She says, discouraged, “Or very active in preserving things.” I intervene. “You can say anything but that some of them have been passive. They actively took a position, went to Silom to protest, press the government, put themselves at risk at Victory Monument. They actively want things to remain as they are”. She pauses. “So some people want to be ruled and some people don't want” she concludes dissatisfied.