One of Thailand's greatest points of pride is that the country has never been controlled by Western colonial powers. Ask any Thai why that was the case, and they will cite the culture of openness and flexibility that enabled the country to learn from the outside world in order to readjust old ways and meet new challenges.
Being a predominantly Buddhist country, we Thais also believe that ours is a land of compassion and hospitality, especially toward visitors. This is reflected in the old Thai expression, "Whoever comes to our home, we must welcome them".
Thailand has benefited from this open culture both politically and economically. The modernisation process initiated by King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn played an important role in keeping the country safe from the threat of Western colonisation. By embracing an influx of Chinese migrants during the early Rattanakosin period, Thailand was given a strong business sector which has helped the country succeed in a competitive global economy.
We now need to ask ourselves if we still possess these same cultural qualities, or whether they have become just hollow stereotypes.
It is only three weeks into 2013, yet Thailand has already been lambasted by the international community twice. The first was over the handling of an influx of ethnic Muslim Rohingya who arrived illegally from Myanmar. The other was over the 10-year prison sentence given to former Voice of Taksin editor Somyot Prueksakasemsuk on lese majeste charges, a ruling which the international community sees as going against the democratic principle of freedom of expression.
On the Rohingya issue, the government was heavily criticised over the New Year period for allowing the military to hastily deport some 70 illegal migrants. Many said the deportation, which was handled in a rather murky fashion, played directly into the hands of human traffickers. So when some 850 Rohingya, including women and young children, were detained during raids in Songkhla province earlier this month, the government had little choice but to offer them humanitarian aid.
But the public relations stunt was short-lived. Any hopes of a lasting crackdown on human traffickers and systematic procedures to help Rohingya migrants were dashed when the Department of Special Investigation said on Wednesday that there was no evidence of human trafficking. The stateless Rohingya will now be charged with illegal entry and deported back to Myanmar.
Amid international condemnation of Thailand's dismal performance in combating human trafficking, another blow to the country's reputation was delivered in the form of Wednesday's lese majeste ruling against Somyot.
Despite pleas from rights groups both here and abroad for the powers-that-be to uphold freedom of expression, the court seems unable to understand the negative repercussions the ruling may generate, not only to the judiciary, but also to the revered institution of the monarchy.
The authorities' handling of the Rohingya issue in particular and migrant workers in general reflects a lack of understanding about our ageing society, which demands a new batch of young and productive workers. The way they deal with political dissent also shows how out of touch they are with the new political demands of a more open society.
To overcome these modern-day challenges, we now more than ever need to learn from our forefathers' wisdom to readjust ourselves, overcome demographic hiccups, divisive politics, and to be part of the international community.