When Bangkok was just a French fort

The perception is that "them" _ the richer and more powerful _ manipulate, undermine and take from "us".

The game then is to take from them what we can, while giving them as little as we possibly can

On the Bangkok Post forum, a topic that arises from time to time is why Thailand is so open to foreign money, but so resistant to foreign ideas, influences and ownership.

Adopt Western school curriculums, but resist Western ways of learning and thinking. Embrace the democratic system, but thumb your nose at free speech and equality. Love foreign premier leagues, but limit the amount of foreign players in ours. Welcome foreigners, but charge dual prices, restrict occupations and make work permits a pain in the gluteus maximus.

We only have to look at history to see why all this is the case.

Everyone loves prosperity, but no one likes their sovereignty, traditions, values, identity and, most importantly, authority undermined. The following story isn't about good versus evil, nor is it exclusive to this land; it's a tale of conflicting interests begetting conflicts, which can and does happen just about everywhere.

When Phra Petracha led the 1688 Siamese Revolution that deposed King Narai the Great and established a new dynasty in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, he was merely following a trend common among non-Western nations of the time to resist Western encroachment.

The reign of King Narai was credited as one of the most prosperous periods of the Kingdom. It saw great commercial and diplomatic activity, with Siamese envoys visiting China, India, Persia, England, France and the Vatican. It was also a time when Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon became first counsellor to the king and one of the most powerful men in Ayutthaya.

To check Dutch and English encroachments, strong relations were established with France. A 1687 conflict with the British East India Company resulted in the banning of the company from the country and the temporary end of England's influence.

French officials and soldiers rose in the ranks of the Siamese aristocracy and military, while French missionaries challenged the power of the Buddhist clergy. There was also a rumour the king might adopt Christianity.

At this time Bangkok and Thon Buri were basically two French military forts. Among conservative forces and the Buddhist clergy, this was unacceptable and it was a matter of saving the Kingdom for the Thais. Between June and November of 1688, Phra Petracha and 40,000 Thai troops besieged 200 French soldiers at their Bangkok fort. Though the battle was a stalemate, the French position was untenable. The latter negotiated a withdrawal, ending the Siamese Revolution of 1688. Phaulkon was executed. The French were expelled. The Dutch and British were again permitted limited trade. Phra Petracha became king and established a new dynasty.

So opening up to the West begot a revolution that led to the fall of one dynasty, the rise of another and the adoption of isolationism as a national policy. Everyone enjoys prosperity, but matters of sovereignty, tradition, values, identity, and most importantly authority, take precedent. The world can turn upside down so easily. And we somehow won wars against the English and the French, but don't get too excited over that.

Down through the centuries there has been a tug-of-war between the need to open up and catch up, and the fear of losing sovereignty, tradition, values and identity, but most importantly authority. Territories were lost and regained. Wars fought, lost (the Franco-Siamese War of 1893) and won (the Franco-Thai war of 1940-41).

We are who we are today as a consequence of historical evolution on an individual, community and national level. The consequences of these conflicts were not just territories lost and gained, sovereignty preserved or reduced. They also resulted in the forming of the national psyche, the ''us versus them'' mentality.

The perception is that ''them'' _ the richer and more powerful _ manipulate, undermine and take from ''us''. The game then is to take from them what we can, while giving them as little as we possibly can. This mentality is neither right nor wrong; morality has nothing to do with it. It is merely a consequence of historical evolution. In fact, this is the game every nation plays.

If in the United States they put up walls to block would-be immigrants, if there's a cry against making Spanish the official second language, and if the religious right bemoan every shift and change in society, this too is all merely a matter of protecting sovereignty, tradition, values and identity, but most importantly authority, against encroachment. The same goes for Europe, where there's a raging conflict between native Christians and Islamic newcomers, along with frequent demonstrations and riots.

All of the above are not newly invented conflicts, but rather the latest manifestations of what has been going down for centuries and millennia.

This is not a debate over which nation has more conflicts and baggage or which is morally superior, but simply a statement that human conflicts are rather similar the world over. The conflicts merely manifest in different ways depending on the geopolitical evolution of each nation.

The conflict over Preah Vihear temple is no sillier, yet no less sentimental than the one over the Falkland Islands. The rage over the sale of Shin Corporation to Temasek Holdings is no more ludicrous than the animosity directed at a mosque in the middle of a European capital. Dual pricing is merely the poor and downtrodden bleeding the rich, for a change.

Misplaced, misunderstood and sometimes downright ludicrous, nationalism is a consequence of emotions, not logic. The only thing that is right, rational and sensible is to learn from whence we came, where we are and where we want to go. That's why we've just gone through centuries of history to explain why Thailand is so open to foreign money, but suspicious of and resistant to Western ideas and influences.

The former is simply because everybody loves money. The latter is merely because Thais at their core are no different from anyone else.

Nationalism, xenophobia, paranoia, fear, hate, mistrust and greed are not the monopoly of any race, creed, breed or passport-bearers. Sovereignty, tradition, values and identity, but most importantly authority, are what every society stands to protect _ at times for the right reasons and at times for the wrong reasons.

Readers who understand and recognise this might offer constructive criticisms on the way to work together for mutual benefit. Those who do not are getting ready to write comments degrading Thailand and celebrating their own perceived superiority, and thereby lending their hand to the perpetuation of the conflicts.

Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator