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Saturday, April 04, 2009
The dawning of new realities
Not too long ago, it was an unspoken rule in Thai politics that if you were ousted from the seat of power, you just stayed low, kept your bitterness to yourself, let the dust settle, and you would soon be allowed to return home to enjoy the riches you had accumulated, minus the political power you once had.
That was what strongmen Thanom Kittikachorn and Prapass Charusathiara did. So did former prime ministers Chatichai Choonhavan and Suchinda Kraprayoon. That is also what many military bosses and other phuyai in Thai society, including his former fortune-teller, have been telling Thaksin Shinawatra to do.
The fugitive former prime minister has refused to play by the old rules, choosing instead to stir up a storm to reclaim power and - if that fails - to bring his enemies down with him.
It would be too easy to pass off his reaction as the reflection of an imperial persona.
His giant ego and fierce stubbornness definitely play a role in his political tantrums. So does his choice to listen only to the fortune-tellers who tell him what he wants to hear. But we just cannot dismiss the fact that we are now living in a different Thailand where the old rules and traditional beliefs are crumbling fast.
From a sleepy, agrarian society with a set of beliefs to maintain working relations in a highly hierarchical and unequal society, the rush to modernise the country during these past four decades has opened up society and given the populace new aspirations which challenge the old norms.
Fierce materialism and the consumer culture have been much condemned for our current ills. But to blame it on greed alone would be misleading. In a highly hierarchical society where birthplace and family decide where you are in society as well as what you can and cannot do, people naturally embrace any new criteria that make them feel more free or more equal.
For some it is the freedom to express one's views without fear of persecution, which inevitably challenges censorship from the traditional establishment. For others, there is nothing more important in their world of consumerism than to possess material goods and to buy services in order to feel equal, even superior, to others.
Since unregulated development has rapidly siphoned natural resources from the rural sector to feed insatiable consumerism, many localities have taken refuge in their ethnic and tribal identities to resist the plundering by state and big business.
They are not the only ones who take refuge in old values. The unsettling change has also pushed many to seek inner security in the glorification of old traditions or the myth of Thai-ness, selectively recognising only its moral elements while dismissing its tacit endorsement of inequality.
Amid this social fragmentation, the old norms which demand uniform obedience no longer work. Each group is seeking their own different answers while democracy is differently defined.
The rise in southern violence. The challenge to the draconian lese majeste law. The grassroots movements for land reform and community rights to protect natural resources, community health and local ways of life. The emergence of the yellow-shirted anti-Thaksin PAD movement. These are all reactions to counter perceived oppression that will shake the status quo before the new rules are drawn.
Like it or not, Thaksin's refusal to play by the old political rules and the support he gets from the red shirts are also indicative of Thailand's new realities.
How to preserve peace among competing interests while fostering an open environment that is more equal and free?
Peaceful transition might have a chance if each conflicting party learns to objectively observe changes to realise the law of impermanence - that all things arise and pass away, including themselves - and thus to accommodate new rules in new realities.
Short of this, any intervention out of old views and prejudices will mostly tighten the entangled political knots and further inflame the conflict.