Thainess: History doesn't repeat, but rhymes

Thainess: History doesn't repeat, but rhymes

'Thai niyom' meaning Thai-ness appears to mean many things to many people, but Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha sees it as capable of raising his regime's image. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)
'Thai niyom' meaning Thai-ness appears to mean many things to many people, but Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha sees it as capable of raising his regime's image. (Photo by Chanat Katanyu)

The government's rolling out of its new Thai Niyom, or "Thainess", campaign, is a classic case of a military regime attempting to survive a downturn in popularity.

The promotion of Thainess is a typical tactic employed by military governments in this country to drum up support for their political and social agendas.

Generally, it is hard to give an exact definition of Thainess. It usually depends on who uses the term and for which audience. And governments tend to assume they have the right to define what it means for the rest of us.

Paritta Wangkiat is a reporter, Bangkok Post.

For me, the government's use of the term Thai Niyom reflects a desperate effort to maintain its status quo and improve its deteriorating popularity.

The phrase Thai Niyom was initially used by Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha on Children's Day last month, seemingly instructing kids to adopt Thai values and behave like "good Thais".

Since then it has become part of the government's Thai Niyom Yangyuen programme, a major campaign to be implemented over the next six months.

This aims to promote Thainess and integrate it into every dimension of development including economic improvement, society and security enhancement, sustainable living, awareness of civil rights and "Thai-style democracy".

During his weekly televised address last Friday, Gen Prayut explained the term Thai Niyom in detail, saying it is a quality belonging to people who take pride in their roots while remaining open to internationally accepted principles.

He also defined Thai Niyom as a developmental approach based on the needs of the Thai people. At one point, it carried a political connotation as Gen Prayut linked it to his regime's controversial 20-year national strategy and its reform agenda.

He also described Thai Niyom as part of his government's Pracharat -- or "state-people partnership" -- policy.

Moreover, the premier linked Thainess to other values and practices such as morality and "Thai-style democracy", which can be different from the Western idea of democracy.

The variety of vague definitions and meanings of Thainess that Gen Prayut has given the public has sown confusion, making it possible for government agencies to interpret the term in whatever way best suits their working agenda.

The Interior Ministry, for one, has been quick to implement the idea, setting up a committee comprising 61 bureaucrats, security and military personnel to drive the programme home in all provinces.

The government said it planned to spend as much as 100 billion baht on the project. It will start by assigning 7,663 teams made up of bureaucrats, security officials, local scholars and volunteers to survey 83,151 communities and villages. These teams will identify local needs and then propose and develop ideas for development projects (which will reflect "Thai-style" development).

Gen Prayut also pledged to "work hard". He plans to take field trips to several provinces from February to June to promote the campaign and meet local people including those in the Pheu Thai Party's strongholds in the northern and northeastern regions.

From my understanding of his speech, Thai Niyom could mean pursuing plans and projects the government has already been proposed and implemented.

In such a case it would be pointless for the government to spend such a large budget on trying to figure out the needs of local people -- just to end up following its original development plans.

But if a survey like this must be carried out then we should ask whether the government plans to incorporate all of people's requirements into its plans or whether it will be more selective and only pick those it likes.

The latter is the most likely scenario. I can't help but feel pessimistic and assume the government will most probably exclude unfavourable voices from its Thainess programme. I say this based on what we've seen so far in terms of the regime's suppression of opinions and activities which it has disapproved of.

Since the 2014 coup the military has taken its opponents to military camps for "attitude adjustment" while adopting a policy of suppressing and intimidating anti-government movements and its critics.

The regime introduced the term "persons with different opinions" to describe its opponents, critics or anti-coup activists. This reflects its attempt to exclude them from the mainstream.

On Monday a legal affairs officer from the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) filed a complaint with the police accusing pro-democracy activists of violating the NCPO's ban on political gatherings of more than a handful of people. The activists met in Bangkok on Saturday to call for an election.

Many critics see the Thai Niyom project as a costly propaganda campaign that will greatly benefit key military figures who could potentially use it to promote themselves as future election candidates or even as an outsider prime minister.

What concerns me even more is the absolute-power approach, or using the state budget and centralised power to monopolise aspects of Thainess.

The programme will only adopt "approved" values while ignoring those cherished by others. This approach, also used in the handling of conflicts in the deep South, could do more harm than good to society.

Throughout our history, whenever the state has tried to define a Thai identity, it has usually ended up giving supremacy to one group over others.

One example would be presenting Buddhism as the national religion, which grants it a higher priority than other religions; or Thai culture itself, which is mainly based on cultural practices of the Central region.

Many people may not be aware of this but we have a National Identity Office, which operates under the Education Ministry, to promote and define Thainess.

So it is important to question what exactly is meant by the term Thainess.

Can ordinary people define the term in their own way and identify the values associated with Thainess based a single or group point of view?

What is lacking in the government's Thainess programme is respect for diversity. Our nation is made up of diverse groups of people and their collective contribution is immeasurable. Having a united country does not mean that every citizen must think in the same box.

Respecting diversity will lead to respect for rights and equality. It is a fundamental principle for building reconciliation, which is also one of this government's goals, to assure no one gets excluded.

As long as the Thai Niyom campaign is run by those who fail to understand this fundamental principle, it will fail to address the needs of the Thai people. The programme seems reminiscent of earlier precedents, with the state exploiting the term Thainess to serve its own interests.

Paritta Wangkiat

Columnist

Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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