Thursday, July 31, 2008

'Nationalism is a Fiction: It Requires the Willing Suspension of Disbelief'

The above title quote is from an article called The Narcissim of Minor Difference by Michael Ignatieff.

And it seems rather apt here.

The following images are from a forwarded email that is making the rounds in Thailand.

It is titled "ประเทศไทย ช่วยกันส่งต่อให้มากๆ นะ" which translates roughly as: Help Thailand by forwarding this message.

The content is clear without the need to read Thai - Thailand was, and still is, in threat of being riped apart by rapacious colonial powers and neighbours.

And everyone wants a peice; the English, the French, the Chinese, the Burmese, and the Cambodians.

The timeliness of the message, in particular to the Preah Vihear temple dispute is clear.

But, to believe this nationalist nonsense, does require the suspension of disbelief. The series of images show an imaginary Thailand that nationalists belief once existed.

But it never did of course.

It was never a unified and demarcated territory until AFTER the colonial powers demarcated British Burma/Malay and French Indochine.

There was conquest and there were 'Thai' armies laying siege to other disparate kingdoms but it was never a demarcated territory as this nationalist propaganda suggests.

The main point in Ignatieff's article - which is focused on the war in the Balkans - is that "neighbours once ignorant of the very idea that they belong to opposing civilizations begin to think - and hate - in these terms; how they vilify and demonize people they once called friends; how, in short, the seeds of mutual paranoia are sown, grain by grain, on the soil of common life."

These maps are the seeds of growing nationalism, and the seeds of hate between neighbours who share a common land.

Is Thailand a Failed State?

Thai Solider outside a mosque in Ampur Bananstar, Yala province.

Is Thailand a failed state?

The short answer, I think, is no, but the longer answer is maybe.

I once talked with Dr Chaiwat Satha-anand from Thammasat University – a prominent academics and a common face on Thai TV – who told me; “Thailand is not a failed state…but we are starting to show signs of failure.

He was talking about the southern crisis and was specifically talking about the life of southern residents.

He told me that there is a panic for legitimacy in the Thai government, a panic that started in Thaksin's time and has gone on to consume the various governments since.

Samak's government is particularly at risk and can only focus on its own survival. It has no time, no moral authority, and apparently no will to try to resolve the violent rebellion in the southern border provinces.

And law, already suffering in the border provinces, has further broken down in the south. Justice does not exist and citizens have resorted to carrying guns for their own protection because the state can not protect them.

This is a fundamental problem in that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force. Not only are armed insurgents challenging that, but ordinary people have decided to take their own safety, and the law, into their own hands.

The government has imposed draconian laws, such as the emergency decree and marshal law, that strip citizens of their rights and has give the security forces immunity from prosecution. The military, the police, and a growing number of armed militias are now operating with complete legal immunity.

The violence has also divided the community.

In the past, the Thai-Buddhists and the Malay-Muslim citizens were not divided by some bizarre civilizational barrier but lived in a distinctly multicultural space that was characterised by ethnic and religious diversity.

Now, the corrosive persistence of violence and poisonous nationalisms are pushing a divide between Thai Buddhist and Malay Muslim citizens.

But compared to failed states like Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, Thailand doesn’t compare.

Burma is in utter shambles, so poverty stricken, repressed, and ethnically divided that some experts will admit that a resolution to the vast problems there might never emerge.

Cambodia is ruled by the self proclaimed 'strong man' Hun Sen for over 20 years and the country is also mired in poverty, and deeply scared from a genocide which the country has yet to reconcile with itself.

Laos is simply a communist museum, locked into the past, and seems unlikely to wake up to the modern world.

So, no Thailand is not a failed state but, as professor Chaiwat said, it is showing signs of being one.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

We Love Udon...So We Will Kill

*Warning* The first video is a little nasty as one PAD member seems to get set on by a pack "We Love Udon" animals. The police reaction is a case in point, the seem to do nothing.

Mob violence is really an ugly thing in Thailand.

As the following videos show, a group belligerent thugs calling themselves "We Love Udon" have decided to back up Samak's flailing government and physically put down a People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest. I believe two died in the incident.

I have no respect for PAD. Their view of 'democracy' would be comical if it wasn't so disturbingly anti-democratic. And their acerbic ultra-nationalism hatred is seriously dangerous and represents the very worst of type of nationalist poison that infects societies and directs them onto a path of violence against minorities, against political opposition, on other religions, and eventually violence that often turns on itself killing the same fools who instigated it.

So, although I dont really feel bad that PAD lunatics are getting beaten by other lunatics, I do worry about how the police failed to intervene. Peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democartic process and the police are supposed to maintain order.

Yet Thai police have two reactions to virtually all violent incidents. The first is to ignore the situation, allow it to grow out of control, and wait until people are injured or killed.

The other process is to unleash brutal violence on any one in their path.

As these videos show, Thailand's notoriously incompetent and corrupt police decided to watch the violence instead of stop it.

When a riot begins, they are the law and their duty is to protect the people - even if that means keeping two ignorant, hate fulled, and violent groups from slaughtering each other.

Friday, July 25, 2008

First-Ever Thai/Pattani-Malay Dictionary

When the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC) – a government sanctioned commission comprised of academics, civil society leaders, and politicians tasked with recommending ways to relieve violence in the southern border provinces – recommended in 2006 that Pattani-Malay become a working language for the southern border provinces the idea was shot down by various spoilers.

The most devastating was most likely Privy Council President and former Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda. He employed an ultra-nationalist tone and claimed that "We cannot accept that [proposal] as we are Thai. The country is Thai and the language is Thai”.

Such narrow minded nationalist restrictions on what it means to be Thai are, of course, far from the ethnic/linguistic realities of Thailand.

For the majority of southern Muslims, their first language is Pattani-Malay. The language exists only in spoken form and is sometimes mistakenly called Yawi (อาวี) which is actually the name of the language when written with the Arabic script. The language is a dialect of Malay and can be heard in most of peninsular Thailand and even in some neighborhoods of the capital Bangkok. In the southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat it is the most commonly used language and has strong roots in the culture and religion of the region.

Essentially, the language has roughly two million speakers and, if their knowledge of Thai is weak, they have no way to communicate with government officials.

And the NRC report addressed this cultural/communication barrier when the wrote “one cause of violence in the region stems from the actions of government officials. In particular, some civil servants who exercise state authority in the three southern border provinces do not understand religion, culture, language, and way of life of Thai Muslims”.

Their rational was that the relationship between government institutions and the Thai-Muslim population was dysfunctional and that improving the lines of communication was a key to deescalating tension in the region.

So, despite ultra-nationalist spoilers like General Prem, it is great to see that the first Thai/Pattani-Malay dictionary has been published.

If the dictionary can help ease communication barriers between the civil service and the local population, then it is an important step in mitigating sources of conflict on the southern border.

This dicationary has been publish by the Asia Foundation and more information can be found here: First-Ever Thai/Pattani-Malay Dictionary

Getting Away With Murder in Thailand

The always insightful Rule of Lords has a great peice on the insitutionalized impunity that Thai security forces opperate with.

"The effect of all of this is to make the proper working of the courts impossible, and for many, the criminal justice system little more than a cruel farce; for others like Yapa Koseng, just plain cruel. When a police charge sheet is crowded with the name of every member of a department as investigators, when undercover agents run around the countryside without keeping diaries of their activities, when army officers don’t know who is doing what under their command, getting away with murder is easy."

It is simply astounding that the security forces can not understand that their own violent behaviour is one of the primary causes of unrest in the southern border provinces.

In every interview I have done and every casual question asked to Malay-Muslim residents in the deep south about how they feel about the soldiers the answer is the same.

They live in fear of the military and police.

For an apt assesment of how Thai security forces act with legal (and presumably moral) impunity, please see the Rule of Lords: The Mechanics of Murder

Saturday, July 5, 2008


I know the clips are not new, but two of the most reliable American...ah 'journalists' - Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - take a cheap, albeit very funny, stereotype pot shot at Thailand:

"Apparently, he was the only world leader smart enough NOT to bring a date to Bangkok."

"Then, your busy bottle takes a quick jaunt to Bangkok for a well earned massage....with happy ending."

Friday, July 4, 2008

Fear of Army Cover-Up in Imam’s Death

The view from inside a Thai military jeep patrolling the border.

Human Rights Watch has just recently raised concern that the case of the Iman who was killed in military custody will be covered-up.

“Imam Yapa’s case is a test for the Thai Army on whether it can hold abusers in its ranks accountable,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch is correct, of course, that this case is an important example of military accountability.

But, as many Thais and foreign observers already know, there has never been much accountability for military abuses and the possibility of justice is unlikely.

Yet it is not only a history of military abuses going unpunished that makes justice unlikely. It is a combination of the current weak government and the military's role as protector of the nation that will prevent justice.

The present government, which could win a huge public relations victory in the troubled border provinces by proving that the government will uphold the rule of law and protect the citizens from military abuses, is hobbled by its fears of being ousted.

Rumors of another coup d'etat have reached fever pitch this week and Prime Minister Samak told reporters last night that he feared being seized at the airport upon his return from overseas in a military putsch similar to what happened in 1991 to Gen Chatichai Choonhavan.

There is a palatable sense that the military might seize power again and the government is unlikely to concentrate on anything other than its own immediate survival and certainly would not venture into a topic that places them in direct conflict with the military.

The second reason, the military's role protecting the nation, is more complex.

The Thai military has a deeply ingrained belief that its sacred duty is guided by the higher moral ground of protecting the nation.

In the recent past, the military's role of protecting the nation was dominated by fighting communism in the jungles and remote borderlands. Yet what is less known, is that fighting the communist threat was also understood as fighting to protect the monarchy.

Much of the anti-communist rhetoric used in Thailand was based on the idea that communism was somehow the antitheses of Thainess (ความเป็นไทย). The military's role of protecting Thailand from communism was based on the idea that they were protecting Thai identity - which holds the monarchy as a central tenet of Thai identity - from the foreign entity that was communism.

After all, had communism succeeded, scenarios like what happened to the Lao and Cambodian monarchies after the communist victories, might also happen in Thailand.

Today, with the threat of communism gone, Thailand's huge military remains but has lost its primary enemy. It still has a duty to protect the monarchy but now they must creatively interpret who their enemy is.

As some academics have suggested, the military has found one enemy in democracy. If politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra can rise to such lofty heights, heights that some believed to be closing in on the echelons of the monarchy, then democracy should not be trusted - hence the 2006 coup and the precarious situation of the current government.

The last enemy is anyone who threatens Thai territory and the southern insurgents certainly fall into this category of enemy.

Some in the military might also understand southern insurgents to not only be threatening Thai territory but also threatening the monarchy.

Muslims, as an article of faith, should only bow down to Allah and never to another human or to another god. This places them in conflict with highly ritualized demonstrations of respect that Thais honor their monarchy with.

Unfortunately, the soldiers that were supposed to be 'interrogating' the Imam might have understood him to represent both types of enemy that they have a sacred moral duty to fight.

And being perceived to be an enemy of the Thai military, a military that is not accountable to its own government, bodes unwell for any hope of justice in this case.

It also means that for the military to prosecute its own soldiers they would have to place a higher value upon the rights of citizens than upon their own self-assigned sacred duty to protect the nation and the monarchy.

This is extremely unlikely.

To read the Human Rights Watch report, please follow this link:
Commanding Officer Refused to Implicate Abusive Soldiers