Feudal system stunts shoots of democracy
Why is Thailand’s path toward democracy hitting a brick wall? The country’s economy — despite its recent setback — has created a huge middle class and a more open society that seemed to be heading toward democracy. What is holding the country back?
The country takes pride in being the centre of orthodox Theravada Buddhism, considered to be closer to the Buddha’s original teachings. Why has the country become the centre of modern-day slavery?
Two news items this week may offer some answers. The first is about a senior teacher at Soeng Sang School in Nakhon Ratchasima slapping a student’s head in full public view. The outspoken student was demanding explanations about alleged misuse of parents’ donations. School authorities saw it as an unacceptable challenge to their power, which had to be stopped.
Thanks to the internet age, the video clip of the slapping has gone viral. The teacher's superior said the slapping was not a serious breach of discipline and moved him to an inactive post for seven days. Unperturbed, the teacher refused to apologise, saying he was doing his duty as a teacher to “teach” the students what is right.
The second news item involves a conscript’s petition to the government for being chained and shackled by a retired navy officer whom he was sent to work for as a servant.
The petition has triggered a public outcry against power abuse - both for the alleged slave-like abuse by the conscript’s master and the military’s systemic misuse and corruption of mandatory conscription.
Following the petition, the private was rebuked by the government spokesman for not making his complaint properly through the military chain of command. Meanwhile, the army chief quickly came out to defend the need for officers to get household help from conscripts.
There are no longer servant soldiers now, only service soldiers, he said without even a blink. The post is voluntary and conscripts compete fiercely among themselves to serve their bosses as they will be treated well and receive a broader experience from joining the army, he added.
As for the retired navy officer in the slavery scandal, he said the conscript was being used by his enemies to destroy his reputation and the navy itself. But he admitted punishing the private for not being able to sing the national anthem - a morning and evening routine in his household to express patriotism - by making him go on long runs.
As for the use of conscripts, paid by taxpayers to work as his servant, he simply said such a practice is normal and widespread in the military. So, what’s wrong? Army officers often allow conscripts, usually rich ones, to leave the barracks in return for which they pocket their 9,000-baht salaries themselves, he added.
Revealing, isn’t it? If this is not systemic corruption, what is? When I heard of the slapping incident at Soeng Sang School, I felt that it was a microcosm of what is happening in the country. The young generation is challenging old-school authoritarianism that breeds a closed and corrupt system. The student demanded transparency. He demanded to have a voice. He got a violent slap on the head and the school system thinks it is not a big deal.
The enslaved conscript scandal, meanwhile, exposes deep feudalism in the military, which explains why what they are doing is out of sync with the modern world. What amazes me in both incidents is the total lack of guilt, the total belief that what they are doing is right when it is totally wrong. When the education system is deep in militarism while seeing its duty as cultivating the next generations of subjugated populace, there's no need to ask why we have stunted democracy here.
Feudalism and slavery often go hand-in-hand. Come to think of it, forced conscription is one kind of slavery, isn’t it? Tales of physical violence, harassment, labour abuse - even torture - are rife among conscripts. Sadly, the feudal mentality is not exclusive to the military. The belief we can treat others as less than human because they are lesser beings is widely shared. It is why ethnic minorities, migrants and the poor are treated so badly.
Is there a chance of ending this system? Tough luck. The regime recently announced plans to boost army reserves. Those who resist will be punished. The country is heading full force toward being a military state. It is as if the country were at war. Maybe it is - with itself.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
Former editorial pages editor
Sanitsuda Ekachai is a former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post. She writes on social issues, gender, and Thai Buddhism.