Sawasdee kha, shall I destroy my country for you? by mattsteinglass
April 11, 2009, 6:13 pm
Filed under: Southeast Asia

For the second time in six months, Thailand is dismembering itself in public. For a country so intensely concerned with saving face, it doesn’t seem to be expending a lot of effort in that direction lately. But on each of the occasions I’ve visited Thailand during periods of political upheaval — first during the mass demonstrations in 2006 that led to Thaksin’s ouster, then last fall during the demos that ultimately ousted his proxy government — I’ve had the impression that the Thais were busy pretending everything was hunky dory to each other that they lost sight of just how risky the situation actually was and of what the international consequences would likely be.

In 2006 no one in the self-styled democratic popular opposition movement had the slightest concern that abrogating the constitution and unseating a popularly elected government might undermine the resilience of the country’s young democracy. In 2008 nobody seemed to care about long-term consequences to the country’s tourism industry if protestors shut down the country’s international airport. It wasn’t that they said “the hell with the tourists, this is democracy”; they just pretended that Bangkok’s desirability as a hub and transit airport wouldn’t be affected. (Five months later, my mother-in-law, who’s visiting from Holland, deliberately flew through Singapore to avoid Bangkok because of the lingering sense of political unreliability.)

The classic line on the Thais is that their culture lacks methods of intermediate conflict resolution: things stay exaggeratedly sweet and friendly, unperturbed, concealing the actual buildup of tension, until finally they explode. That certainly seems to be what’s happening today. In Southeast Asia, adherence to protocol is extremely important. The cancellation of the Thai-hosted ASEAN summit, for the second time, is something the Thais will not easily live down amongst their peers.


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