Time ripe for whole new take on 'Thainess'

Time ripe for whole new take on 'Thainess'

More than 5,000 people have been killed and millions of people are living in paralysing fear as the insurgency in the far South has now raged for nearly 10 years.

So what's the cure?

More than 180 billion baht has been spent over the past decade to beef up the army and support development programmes. But apparently it hasn't worked. Meanwhile, the high-profile peace talks effort is now stuck in the quagmire.

How many more children will become orphans? How many more widows? How many more deaths?

Ethnic Malay Muslims' long-suppressed resentment against ethnic and political oppression has turned explosive in the three southernmost provinces, with no signs of abating. But they are certainly not the only group of people subjected to discrimination by the dominant ethnic Thai state.

Nearly a million hill peoples and forest dwellers are still treated as outsiders _ criminals even, since most live in protected forests. Viewed as national security threats, hundreds of thousands of them are refused citizenship although many are natives to the land.

Being stateless means they do not exist as legal persons; thus they lack basic rights and access to public services. Without opportunities in life, many are pushed into the underground world: the girls into the flesh trade, the boys into the arms of drug lords.

Millions of migrant workers also suffer systematic abuse from cultural prejudice and oppressive laws. Their children are neglected, and this is creating a social time bomb.

We live in a country that prides itself on Buddhist compassion, but a more powerful creed seems to make "us" heartless toward "them".

In the face of huge and complex problems, can an individual do anything to turn the tide?

For those of you who don't think you can, I suggest you follow an example set by former prime minister Anand Panyarachun.

In 2006, the National Reconciliation Commission that he chaired proposed a set of recommendations to the government as a roadmap to restoring peace in the troubled South. In a nutshell, it advised the government to respect the southern Muslims' cultural identity and aspirations, and form policies accordingly.

Respect, he stressed, is the key.

The peace proposals were spurned, but this is what he began doing as an individual.

"I like to challenge people by asking them to define 'Thainess'," he told a gathering of ethnic Thai Karen recently about his personal tactic to question the very core of ethnic prejudice _ the myth of Thainess, the illusion of racial purity.

"No one can tell me what it is," he said.

But his question made them think. At a loss, they instead told him of their ancestry which is almost always an inter-racial and ethnic hodgepodge.

He is no exception, he said. His father was from ethnic Mon lineage. His mother from kae Chinese heritage.

It is why he said he preferred the country's old name Siam Prathet, which denotes a homeland for people of different ethnicities, not only for ethnic Thais.

"Ours is a country of cultural pluralities. We have hundreds of ethnic groups and dialects. It's pity we don't know our history, our roots," he said, blaming it on textbook history which focuses on territorial losses and gains while perpetuating traditional hatred and rivalry with neighbouring countries.

Mr Anand also has a recipe to help overcome the creed of racial superiority.

"Open your heart. Be colour blind. Be race blind. See instead our fellow human beings bonded by love for the same homeland.

"Understand the truth that differences are not weaknesses, but our strengths." Scientifically speaking, he added, people born of mixed ancestry are also stronger and smarter than those from inbreeding. "The question is whether or not we can see and use these differences properly," he said. "If we can transcend our prejudices, respect others' differences, our society will be much more peaceful."

To empathise with others' differences, the best way is perhaps through the realisation that one actually shares so many similarities.

Don't be surprised then that if you meet Mr Anand, he might ask you to define "Thainess".

When ethnic conflicts and injustice are growing more overwhelming by the day, his question is his way of saying "I am not giving up".

Nor should we.

Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

Sanitsuda Ekachai

Former editorial pages editor

Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.

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