Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Outspoken about Thailand

Published on April 24, 2008
Pornpimol Kanchanalak
The 2005 movie "One Nation Under Siege" by filmmaker William Lewis opens with US President George W Bush saying: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." That declaration left many countries shaking in their boots. They were called upon to take a side.
The mood of the world at that time went from horror-filled fascination to just horror.
That perhaps, is how Thai people are feeling now.
The other day, an acquaintance made a casual observation - he was wondering why Thai people nowadays are so gullible. I looked at newspaper headlines and front pages - they concerned predictions by fortune-tellers.
Apparently, we really do not know whom to believe; we are worried, and we do not know where or how things will end up. So we seek solace, and maybe closure, from clairvoyants.
Socially and culturally, we have gone asunder. Songkran celebrations gave us a glimpse of what we have become. A friend was driving to Wat Paknam during Songkran to make merit. What she saw on the road in front of the temple shocked her.
People were crazed. Young and old males, females and transvestites were making lewd gestures and some of them were performing acts that were outright obscene. There are no holds barred when it comes to "fun". Respect and even awareness of social responsibility are disappearing in quicksand. Sex and drugs among teens are common. Polls show young people think corruption is more or less acceptable. There are teachers who deal methamphetamine in schools.
In terms of religion, as many temples in Bangkok are getting buried under the city's ubiquitous "expressways", our appreciation of core religious teachings is being buried with them. Many who are supposed to uphold and justify our appreciation in religion have betrayed the public trust. Such betrayals take with them our faith, and magnify our doubts. As religion becomes more obscure and seemingly irrelevant, we hold on to its fringes. We focus on the form of worship, rather than searching for the religion's essence.
Economically, people in the streets are desperate - so desperate that some help themselves by looting copper in power lines, and steel or metal from manhole covers. Most investors are in a "holding" position. In these times of uncertainty, they are better off keeping their heads down.
Thailand is not at the centre of the radar screens of foreign investors with deep pockets who are looking for new investments. They seem to prefer our neighbouring countries. One explanation I heard for this
is that they know they have to deal with kickbacks. In other countries, they know who the players are, there are not that many, and they get results. In Thailand, there are so many players and results aren't guaranteed once payment is made.
We are the rice bowl of Asia, and the world's number-one rice exporter. Yet, rice husks, the inedible by-product of milling, once a symbol of abject poverty, now cost about Bt1,000 per kilo, about a 100 per cent increase from January. During the same period, the price of gold has increased by 2 per cent. All of a sudden, the statement commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette - "Let them eat cake" - seems to make more sense.
When it comes to the government, bureaucrats - the indispensable engine of government who ensure policy continuity - are feeling disenfranchised and crippled with fear. They are fearful of retribution if they make a "false" move that ends up displeasing someone with powerful connections. Naturally, many choose to play it safe by doing nothing. Or they run for political cover, taking to heart the old adage, "He who travels alone travels fast, but not in safety".
Many do not want to take sides. But by not taking sides they could be perceived as having taken one. And fingers are pointing. Some have privately confided that they no longer feel they have any honour or pride left. Voluntarily or not, they have fallen pray to political football.
The situation in the South has not been improving. Yet, there is no clear strategy concerning how to deal effectively with this ticking time-bomb. Could our southern flank be another French Algeria waiting to happen?
Politically, well, how can I put it gently?
There is a saying that we did not lose Ayutthaya to Burma, we lost it to our own divisiveness.
It was a time when too many Thais in high positions did not have the interest of the country as a whole at heart, only their own interests. They were blinded by greed and ambition, and obsessed with revenge.
The destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767 has faded from our memories, and we are now living proof that history tends to repeat itself.
We did not learn, so we cannot see. These days everything is zero-sum. Either you are with "us" or with "them". The fact that both the "us" and the "them" are the same people, sharing the same land and, in the end, the same fate, is lost on many.
Provincial politics have been on autopilot. The big brothers in Bangkok are still squabbling, so the little brothers wait for the dust to settle. As for their constituents, the majority of our population just tries to get by. Some wait for handouts to trickle down; many just wait. They have been waiting all their lives, so what's the big deal?
Back in Bangkok, there is no sign that the dust is settling. Instead, the powers-that-be are kicking up more of it. Our political situation is stuck in a gridlock that is vicious and contentious.
Most dangerously, no one seems to be able to figure out how to get out of this debilitating mess. No one is willing to take the first step back.
The US can go bomb the daylights out of Iraq in pursuit of al-Qaeda, They may try, as President Bush said, to "smoke them out and get them running, and bring them to justice". We are in a predicament that is much worse. We cannot go bomb anybody. The enemy is within. The enemy is us.
So I would humbly surmise, we have become a gang that cannot shoot straight. The only place our bullets, none of which are silver, are landing is in our feet.
And even there, we are running out of room.
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