Thailand Searches for a New Path

The confrontation in downtown Bangkok that ended May 19 with the use of force has shocked the Thai people and the world. A tolerant country likeThailand was supposed to be better than this. Demagogues on both sides of the political divide have spent months appealing to the people's worst instincts. Never has urban warfare rocked the entire nation like this.

The scorched earth has exposed hard truths about the Thai national fabric. Could the cliché "Land of Smiles" been just that? A cliché? If so, has the world been bamboozled by other myths about Thailand?

So where does the country go now? Can a new Thailand still rise from the ashes of prejudice and hate to become a nation closer to its shared democratic aspirations than to its centuries-old and carefully crafted fantasies of greatness?

"Superficial and stuck up Bangkokians finally get the leader they deserve who destroys their city," said one Bangkok resident, referring to the debonair Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, who many Thais, especially the rural rebels,believe did not give peace a real chance by being disdainful of the opposition from the very beginning of his walk to power. And not talking a whole lot to them.

There is plenty of blame to go around. This moment is too big for petty scores. A semblance of calm has returned to the country but Thailand is far from normal. Perhaps it never was. Thais tend to see themselves as special. They were never colonized the way their neighbors were. Their king is the world's longest-reigning monarch. Bhumibol Adulyadej is to them divine. But their feudal history, culture and language are by no means as unique as they are led to believe for them to be so proud. The treatment of minorities in the South, the displaced Rohingyas or even their neighbors has not been exemplary.

For reconciliation to begin, self-awareness is a good place to start. The danger now is that all the bitter divisions could lead to an irreversible North-South cleavage and a clamor by upcountry masses for a breakaway government. There are historical precedents, and complacency about the Thai identity and bonds could prove disastrous. These ties might not withstand the aftershocks of the political developments of the past few years. A long series of coups culminating in the 2006 ouster of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was the catalyst for long-simmering and underlying grievances of justice and equality to boil over.

A number of anti-government Red Shirt followers in the Northeast flung their Thai ID cards in disgust when they lost the latest battle against the entrenched political forces. "It will blow over," came the response from some in the establishment. Neighboring Indonesia, once just as highly-centralized as Thailand, could offer its lessons in regional autonomy and constitutional amendments as Thais seek to fathom the tragedy.

The second danger is that Thailand risks seeing a further erosion of its freedoms. The government's quick fallback on exceptional powers to address political polarization, whether in its use of the Internal Security Act or the Emergency Decree is, as Human Rights Watch noted, a "slippery slope" towards serious abuses. HRW's early warning of "live fire zones" in neighborhood areas turning into "free fire zones" did become just that. With many of the key leaders of the opposition now detained or banned from politics, there's no telling how the nation's oldest ruling party, the Democrats, will behave in the aftermath of May 19. As Asia Sentinel reported on May 19, in the last upheavals in 1973, 1976 and 1992, the record has been ominous. There has been precious little reconciliation and plenty of retribution.

The travel writer Paul Theroux, an Asia aficionado who returned to Bangkok last year, said to me in an interview then that countries open and countries close: "I once passed through Afghanistan to get to Bangkok. I went through Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Peshawar. I would have to be insane to try that now," said Theroux, who did not predict Afghanistan would be a no-go zone.

Thailand has the world's harshest lèse-majesté laws and a conservative history of semi-authoritarianism. Bangkok is no Afghanistan or Burma, it is today at a defining crossroads.

The unfolding civil war has no rules. People are being picked off one by one for their politics. Ronin ninjas allied with the opposition and fully armed soldiers lurk in shimmering skyscrapers in the heart of the capital. Ordinary citizens and foreigners are caught in the rat-a-tat-tat crossfire. Medical and rescue workers are attacked. Hospital patients in the central district have had to be evacuated. Corpses can be stolen from the morgue. Children are used as human shields. A temple massacre that took place inthis deeply Buddhist society on May 19 has overturned all assumptions about this mythical Thailand whose magic has been so alluring to many Westerners for so long.

Thailand's ritual politeness encapsulated in the "Land of Smiles" has been its saving grace. It is a gentle place and the people are warm. It should not however close its eyes to the violence – domestic and political – that is also its hallmark. Thai arthouse director Apichatpong Weerasethakal, who flew out of Bangkok "as the city was burning" to receive the Cannes Film Festival's Palm d'Or award described Thailand as "a violent country controlled by a group of mafia." It is another way of saying the "hot-head and sore loser" syndrome may be a stereotype of Thais but an unexamined one.

What to do? Political dialogue, parliamentary or military maneuverings, royal and judicial fiats could all come if early elections are off the table. More violence cannot be ruled out. A Thai language expert, Dr. Kirk R. Person, warned against reviving words that have fallen out of usage like "phrai" or "commoner" that are reminiscent of days of yore when Thailand was overrun by elephants and swashbuckling warriors. Employed by the opposition, they only intensify hatreds. Similarly, the government's branding of Thaksin as "a bloody terrorist" is not helpful either. The Thai language, according to Person, is very hierarchical. There are 40 different pronouns to show the rank of the people speaking. Politicians could start with the humble "it starts with me".

Thailand is America's oldest Asian ally and America could offer its lessons from its civil war at a time when Thailand needs its friends. As Abraham Lincoln put it, Thailand needs to show, now more than ever, "malice toward none and charity for all" so that it can bind up the nation's wounds to achieve a just and lasting peace.

Haseenah Koyakutty is a freelance Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok.