thailand’s travails

Posted on May 28, 2007


I’ve always loved Thailand and Thais. What’s not to love about charming, easy-going and tolerant people with ever-ready huge smiles and a country of such natural gorgeousness?

Which makes the two recent political developments in Thailand extremely incongruent and distressing for Thailand’s image to the outside world.

One concerns the appointment of a former Thai “assassin” and commando to be the country’s supreme security adviser, the other, the willingness of the military interim government to declare Buddhism Thailand’s national religion.

Both developments are interlinked, unfortunately, to Thailand’s unresolvable problem in the South, its restive provinces with large Muslim majorities.

And both moves can be seen as being irresponsibly reckless by the junta.

Some might argue that it makes sense to declare Buddhism Thailand’s national religion anyway, seeing that over 90 per cent of its population are Buddhists, of which a large majority are devout.

But the decision is made under unsound motivations – largely a quick-fix populist move to gain more support for the coup leaders who overthrew former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year, and stop radicalized Buddhist monks from marching on the streets, as dissatisfaction toward the coup leaders grow and more pressure is put on its already besieged administration.

Adopting Buddhism as the country’s religion also goes against the tenets of Buddhism, which essentially calls for tolerance and understanding of everyone, not just of Buddhists. The radicalized Buddhists who have been clamoring for the inclusion of Buddhism in the nation’s constitution as the official religion is regretfully misled in its campaign.

But most alarmingly, the adoption of Buddhism as Thailand’s state religion is likely to re-ignite, or even exacerbate tensions in the Muslim South. This, even as the central government have failed to stop the bloodshed that continues raging in the three southernmost predominantly Muslim provinces of Thailand.

According to the International Herald Tribune, more than 2, 000 people from both sides of the religious divide have been killed since 2004, with Muslims and Buddhists in open war sometimes. Mosques and temples alike have been bombed, while monks and civilians have perished in the fierce sectarian conflict.

Recognizing Buddhism is only going to fuel suspicions of marginalization by the Muslim minority, and may even make Thailand’s battle akin to that of Sri Lanka, experts told the IHT.

Add to this volatile mix, the appointment of former assassin and retired general Pallop Pinmanee as the security supremo, most likely brought in to tame the restive southern provinces.

What’s risible is Pinmanee’s blase disregard for the rule of the law, endorsing extra-judicial killings and declaring that if the government can’t make the Muslim insurgents surrender, they have to be “destroyed”.

I’m not sure how that type of brutal mentality is going to help in winning over Thailand’s Muslim population, which is already suspicious and resentful towards the government’s past tactics. It’s definitely not going to help in winning their “hearts and minds” when they know they’re dealing with such uncompromising personnel.

The coup leaders currently in government in Thailand clearly are besieged by their lack of demonstrable progress and are resorting to quick-fix methods to ease pressure off themselves. But if they were serious about doing good for Thailand as they’ve claimed, they’ll do very well to abide by the Buddhist principles they profess to espouse – show tolerance and understanding of others, remember the principles of karma and vipaka, and act such that they do no harm to others. Little victories might earn them some reprieve for now, but they should be keeping their eye on the long term and not do more damage for Thailand than they already have.