We have some business in Thailand, so current events there always register on the radar, particularly when they sound like this:
Thai troops fired tear gas and bullets at protesters, who responded with stones, slingshots and homemade rockets, turning parts of downtown Bangkok into a battlefield on Friday as the military moved to seal off a broad area where the protesters, known as red shirts, have camped for weeks.
Most (but not all) of our operations are in the benign middle of the country — not far enough south where there are Islamic-related tensions, not far enough north to risk involvement in the periodic counter-insurgency and coup events that seem a norm in Thai history.
(Thailand is a very long north-to-south country, in case you’ve never taken a good look at the map. If you go to Bangkok, you’re still south of the vast majority of the country, yet you’re still well north of a lot of the beach resorts you might hear about on the peninsula.)
An international relations expert here put something on our discussion list to share some thoughts. He’s not an Asia expert, but he is a comparativist well-versed in Third World patterns. And he always has interesting observations.
One of the variables commonly ascribed to Thailand is that they have a culture that discourages violent upheaval — that a coup there is different from a coup elsewhere; it happens often, but with little bloodshed. Something about those Buddhists and their zen-like demeanor, the thinking goes.
(And Thai Buddhism is indeed its own unique brand, influenced in part by the land’s cultural history and in part by all those oh-so-helpful Christian missionaries who have historically found Thailand’s beaches nice for relaxing people ripe for converting. I know that not because I know stuff, but because I get to interview professors from time to time in my work.)
Anyway, I’m sharing here some of what the expert wrote about the current events, because it’s an interesting non-news-article take on things. (Names obscured/text plagiarized to protect my own half-anonymity):
I’ve never bought the notion that “mai pen rai” meant that the Thai social order is conflict adverse.
Foreign analysis has tended over the last few years, it seems to me, to sympathize with the views of the cosmopolitan Bangkok elite and middle class. Thaksin may be nothing more than a populist version of the kleptocracy that’s ruled the country, but overthrowing him four years ago sent a message of exclusion to the poorest sectors of the population, especially in the Northeast. Those who accepted the coup as the lesser evil to rid the country of Thaksin must accept the lion’s share of responsibility for the deteriorating situation today.
Four years ago I argued that we were at the beginning, not the end of a process that might lead to greater instability. I hope I may yet be proved wrong, but the assassination of the “red shirt” general and the divisions, now exposed in the Thai military, suggest the worst is yet to come.
The deeper roots of the Thai crisis are in the model of development that has benefited some sectors of the population much more than others. This model is deeply imbedded in a process of globalization that has produced tremendous advancement for hundreds of millions of people in some third world nations and excluded many billions of others in those same places. The reactions have taken different forms, some democratic and hopeful, some violent and even nihilistic: social movements, reactionary populism, progressive populism, Maoist insurgencies, indigenous revolts, terrorism, etc. “Think globally, act locally” is taking on an increasingly ominous meaning.
If you have been following the “back story” of how this is evolving in the north east, then you know that the demonstrators have developed and extensive and deeply rooted support network in the North East. It seems inevitable that the urban conflict will spread north, and we’ll see counter-insurgency. Here in the US, that will increasing be depicted as part of the “war on terror.”
This is maybe where I should confess my father was a political scientist who did a whole lot of comparative culture study.
He wasn’t always right (counter: Or has it simply not been enough time to prove it?), but he was always fascinating when he’d talk about stuff like this. Before we had cable and before there was the History Channel (well, and before it became the All-Hitler Channel), I could get my learnin’ TV fix by just getting my dad riffing on one culture/event or another. It didn’t take much of a prompt to put him into class lecture mode. (“Dad, Iran’s ripe for democracy, isn’t it?” Whhooooosh came the 30-minute rebuttal.)
When you have a distant, perhaps undiagnosed Asperger’s dude for a dad, you look for whatever avenue of connection you can find.
And maybe, as a result, you grow up paying attention to every corner of the world when you have the time? Don’t know which, chicken or egg — or immaculate conception? — is to blame for my interest in this stuff, but it might be due to it once being one of two ways (hockey being the other) I could connect with the father.
Regardless, I still enjoy hearing a poli-sci professor telling me what’s really going on somewhere. Now that I think of it, it could be that a big part of my job is just acting out my daddy issues.