Thailand is Complicated

Published: 20th January 2008Author: Know Phuket

You meet a lot of barstool know-it-alls in Thailand. You know the guys, the ones who have all the answers. Whatever you want to know about Thailand, they are an expert. Whatever issue is in the news, they have the inside insight and they are so absolutely sure they are right. If you suggest maybe there is another angle they will dismiss it out of hand.

If there is one thing my years in Thailand have taught me about this country, it is that Thailand is complicated. The answers are often not as obvious as they seem at first glance. The logic behind Thai reasoning often has slightly off-skew subtle nuances that are not always plain to us.

The people who are absolutely sure they know what is going on are the ones who understand the country the least. Some of these experts have lived here for years while others are regular visitors to these shores. Whatever their level of experience in Thailand, if they are totally convinced they are an expert on all things Thai then they still do not really get the country. Thailand never ceases to throw up surprises.

There is something about Thai people that seems to encourage generalisations. So often you will hear the barstool expert declare that 'they are all' the same. 'They all cheat', 'they all like som-tam', etc. To a certain extent, I understand this tendency to generalise about Thais. They do have a strong national identity, which means they share many traits. Still it is ridiculous to say they are all the same. Of course, they are not all the same. It is a complex and varied country. Thailand is complicated.

Let's consider Thailand's thorny current political situation. Ask the average barstool expert what he thinks of ex Prime Minister Thaksin and you will probably get the same response. Thaksin is bad. He is corrupt. He was responsible for the drugs trade crackdown that led to the killings of 2,500 people, many of whom were undoubtedly minor players or even completely innocent. And of course, Thaksin is anti ex-pat.

These things are all true so it seems straightforward. Thaksin is bad. However, this is Thailand and the answers are rarely so straightforward. Thaksin did abuse his position of power for his own gain but that is standard practice in Thailand. There have not been many people in positions of power who did not do the same.

The west always promotes the benefits of democracy. Thaksin was the first Thai politician to realise that in a poor country like Thailand, if he could get the poor masses on board then democracy could work against the Thai elite. Thaksin introduced many policies that genuinely helped poor people. The Thai elite dismissed these policies as 'populist' and too expensive. Of course, 'populist' means popular and these policies were popular because they helped so many people - that is how democracy works.

Previously the poor Thai vote was always marginalised because they simply sold their votes to the highest bidder. All of the sudden they were offered an option that would actually work for them and they turned to him in their masses. They do not care that Thaksin was abusing his power for his own gain because he was also helping them. As far as they are concerned, every politician abuses his power.

Then there was the drug-trade crackdown and the extra-judicial killings that followed. A terrible series of events indeed and surely impossible to justify. Well I certainly won't try to justify them but I will say that judging these events by western standards does not work. Every government wants to crackdown on drug abuse. It is bad for the country's economy, never mind the untold misery it causes to many families.

The problem in Thailand is they cannot stop the flow of drugs. They have a long border with Burma, Laos and Cambodia which is impossible to police. Thailand also has a large population of poor young people who are susceptible to drug addiction.

Thailand has attempted to fight the drug trade through traditional judicial methods but it is a losing battle. When the judicial system is riddled with corruption, it is very difficult to prosecute wealthy drug barons who can bribe policemen and judges at every step of the process.

So they cannot stop the flow of drugs, there is a ready market for the drugs and it is very difficult to prosecute the suppliers. Thaksin decided to clampdown by extra-judicial means. I won't say it was a good decision, it was always going to have a short-term effect before the situation returned to the status-quo. However, if you ask parents of Thai teenagers what they think about the clampdown, most of them liked it. They felt Thaksin was protecting their children from temptation.

I am not trying to pass judgement on Thaksin one way or the other. The point I am trying to make is that like many things in Thailand, it is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. We have a corrupt politician who is abusing his power to make vast amounts of money so the military coup that overthrew him would seem like a good thing. However, he was democratically elected and we should believe in democracy, shouldn't we? Moreover, while he was lining his own pockets, he was also helping the poor people of the country. Thailand is complicated.

I am certainly not claiming to have all the answers. What I am saying is that the answers are not always obvious. You have to question what you hear. By all means listen to the barstool experts, they often tell a good story. Just remember there is usually another side to the story.

 




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