“Just don’t write about the royal family or even 112 itself if you still want to go back to your home country. You know where the limit is, right?”
These are the words spoken to me by my friend, who is also from Thailand, as I told him that I decided to write a blog post assignment about Thai politics. I responded in silence, knowing that it was not at all an exaggeration. 112 is an article code refers to a Thai law on the monarchy, a Lèse-majesté: “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished with imprisonment of three to fifteen years.” Although in theory Thailand’s monarchy is above political division, the king, with no formal political powers, is still highly respected by Thai citizens.
As far back as I can remember, Thailand has always been in the midst of a crisis involving politics and corruption, with the prolonged series of political protests in Bangkok from the yellow-shirts and the red-shirts. The yellow-shirts, backed up by many Bangkok middle-upper classes and higher educated people, favor a form of guided democracy loyal to the monarchy. The red-shirts gain their supports mainly from the poorer and more rural northerners and northeasterners who support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But above these political groups, the most important Thai political actors wear camouflage and black, the Thai armed forces. In 2006 and 2014, the military staged nonviolent coups in order to retrieve power from the highly corruptive Shinawatra family.
But to understand Thai politics, one can’t simply study political science or read news articles. The political issues in Thailand are rather about the society, culture, and people. For example, because Thai culture places great emphasis on respect for elders and superiors, it has established the system of old money families and deep connection between the elites and military, leading to allowance for those in authority to corrupt. I too have to admit that my family, with all the privileges, is one of the Bangkok upper-classers. So when I read Buruma’s article Why one of Asia’s most open societies keeps turning to military rule from the Harper’s Magazine, I responded with mixed feelings: somewhat agreed and disagreed, but most importantly, attacked.
When I forwarded the article to my dad, he wrote back to me: “Such a boring article. The author, like other Western people, thinks coup is always wrong. In fact, Thaksin uses his power to protect his wealth and uses tax payers’ money to bribe the poor people.” Although my dad has identified himself as a yellow-shirts’ supporter, his point about significant difference between Thais’ and non-Thais’ views of politics, I think, would be mutually agreed by both the red-shirts and yellow-shirts. Thailand has failed to achieve the ideals of complete democracy, not because it never attempts to do so, but because its citizens are not ready for true democracy; the elites still want their old power and the poor still sees Prime Minister’s corruption as acceptable if they marginally profit from it.
So why study US Government, Politics, and Citizenship when the only passport I hold is Thai? Why study about conservatives and liberals when those terminologies are nearly useless in Thai politics and can’t even be applied to the people? The answer to these questions was that it helps me understand not only American views on politics, but also how this ideal cannot be shortly achieved in Thailand. This complete democracy also requires change in mindsets around corruption and citizens to be better educated. Thai politics has become deeply intertwined with cultural expectations and is far too complicated for those who do live in the culture to understand.
Just like many articles in American newspapers, Buruma’s article uses the Western standard to look at the coup, along with other sensitive subjects, without exploring its true connection and position in Thai society. For Thais, politics has become similar to a religion in a sense that there are some untouchable subjects that can’t be proven as facts but are so critical to the core understanding.