We're all in, or under, the army now
Consider a hypothetical scenario: You're driving and your car accidentally bumps into the vehicle in front of you. The driver of the other car steps out. It's just an accident, but the thing is, he's a military officer in his shining uniform. What would your first reaction be?
And would that reaction be different if the other party is, say, an engineer, a journalist, a foreman, a civil servant, or a white-collar office worker? Why, we ask ourselves, does in this country the sight of a military person inspire a cocktail of feelings -- admiration, worry, fear? Is it now, or has it always been this way? Is it our own paranoia, our ungrounded, needless anxiety that tells us to be intimidated, or is it something else, something subconscious, pre-programmed and deep-rooted, dating back at least to the 1950s, if not further?
In most other countries, if the other party steps out in military get-up, it doesn't make much difference: He's just a soldier, a legitimate, tax-funded profession just like a government doctor or teacher. Could we put our hands on our hearts and say that is also the case here, in our wonderful land of a thousand generals?
Now we have a real scenario: On Thursday the wedding bells tolled in Khon Kaen, and people went livid. Lt Col Pitakphol Choosri, with the help of local police, cordoned off a sizeable portion of a northeastern highway in Ta Phra district to clear space for his wedding procession toward the bride's abode, a roadside seafood restaurant (they say the crab is great, but no thanks). It was 8am (the good monk had prescribed that propitious hour), and rush-hour traffic went comatose with the tail-end stacking up for 10km.
Tempers flared, naturally. One motorist, a doctor who was late for her patients, braved the police line to vent her anger, and she reported that one of the soldiers at the scene took her picture. A bad sign, lady, for the post-May 22 understanding stipulates that you're in trouble if the military fancies you enough to take your photo.
The groom apologised. He said he thought the procession would take "only eight minutes" of blockage -- though everyone knows a Thai wedding procession usually takes far longer than that, sometimes a whole weekend. The mother-in-law seafood tycoon also apologised. She had asked permission from the authorities to close "one lane of traffic". How marvellous. I want to try asking for permission to play football on Rama IV Road at 8am. But anyway, the most heartwarming statement came from army spokesman Col Winthai Suvaree, who defended the fiasco by claiming the groom was a good soldier and there was no blockage whatsoever. The problem, he said, was when more guests had showed up than expected (more envelopes, too?).
Never mind the conflicting intel. What's most curious is why the army spokesman had to come out and say anything about a local incident brought on by an individual's misjudgement (or arrogance). That's because in our increasingly, unstoppably militarised state, the army has to justify -- not just clarify -- everything, even a military groom's poorly managed wedding. In our increasingly militarised state, a person becomes instinctively -- automatically, spontaneously, reflexively -- paranoid when his car gets into an accident with a soldier, an actual case which made news a few months ago. In our increasingly militarised state, the defence budget soars like Icarus shooting for the sun. In this state, more and more soldiers are appointed to the governing boards of profitable state enterprises. And in our increasingly militarised state, we watch in wonder as soldiers in uniform are invited to a primary school to give "career guidance" to little children, as happened two weeks ago at a prestigious Bangkok school.
We shouldn't be wondering, actually, because children climb tanks and mock-fire machine guns on every Children's Day, and for a half a century young male students have had to to wear their hair in the military-style crew cut. Why? Because it's in our heads, as well as on our heads: The dream of this nation has always been inseparable from the dream of the military.
The car-accident scenario isn't meant to generalise or condemn; officers who don't exploit their uniform or privilege are the majority, or so I hope. But in the third year and counting in Juntaland, feeling the pressing dominance is inevitable. It is inevitable, too, to consider if the people actually share the military's dreams -- do we want submarines or health care, tanks or schools, more generals or more teachers? The seeds of militarisation were planted decades ago, but their bitter fruits have never blossomed in such profusion until today.
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.