Xenophobia will lead us all nowhere
On Tuesday’s TV news, I watched Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha take a few swipes at politicians and members of the media, who purportedly failed to do their jobs and damaged the country.
His comments followed a gloomy weekend of military summonses and detentions of critics, former government members and journalists. Weary-eyed, I sat through the television programme — until one sentence made me jump from my seat.
It was a question, directed at Human Rights Watch researcher Sunai Phasuk, who questioned the use of Section 44 to arbitrarily detain regime critics. “Was he born Thai?” Gen Prayut asked.
While the comment fitted so casually into the prime minister’s indignant speech, remarks like these are not only xenophobic, they’re also dangerous. Calling people who hold divergent views “non-Thais” is to dismiss their voices and goes against any moves the government claims it is carrying out to drive the country towards democracy. The mantra of the military top brass is “reconciliation” but such comments only stir conflict.
As a bi-national, the "Are you Thai?" ridicule hit me hard. Some opinions I have voiced in the past which did not go down well with Thai traditional values have been met with similar responses, hinting at my foreignness. I found the whole situation unfair, and hurtful.
Rather than confronting my opinions reasonably, these remarks aimed to alienate me, stripping me of my sense of belonging and legitimacy to speak out. I felt even more sadness as I watched the country’s most powerful man point his finger at Mr Sunai, whose name is more Thai than one I could ever wish for, asking him to prove his loyalty to the nation by falling in line.
Gen Prayut’s attack on foreigners is actually no stranger to our society. These views are widely shared and deeply rooted in mainstream circles, fuelled by the “Thainess” fable of a homogeneous and obedient society. Dissenters are cast out as outsiders.
Nonetheless, plucking someone out from the crowd and exposing them on a social pillory is to turn them into targets. By branding individuals as “others”, Gen Prayut helped to remove any protection they could benefit from, rendering them more vulnerable to attacks.
His naming and shaming will only comfort so-called patriots who believe such views are standard and embolden them to harden their stance against critics and those they see as marginal elements of Thai society. That is why I believe it is dangerous.
Earlier this month, a high-school student from the Education for Liberation of Siam movement was removed from an auditorium where Gen Prayut was speaking, after he raised a banner suggesting that the subject of civic duties be removed from school curricula.
Gen Prayut reportedly instructed security guards to take good care of the student “if he is on the government’s side”, drawing laughter from the crowd. Call me a bore if you want, but I fail to see the funny side of such a comment.
Following last year’s military coup, Gen Prayut became head of the government. Regardless of his legitimacy or lack thereof, as premier, his duty is to serve and protect the interests of all Thais — not only those he considers to be “on his side”.
And what is the definition of a “Thai” anyway? Is it someone who always agrees with the prime minister? Someone who doesn’t question his government’s decision and actions? A person who can memorise the junta’s 12 core values?
Such a rationale points to a conservative and outdated view. These criteria deny the multiculturalism and divergent opinions that exist in Thailand, marginalising and discriminating against the vast majority of the population.
Labelling individuals as non-Thai is to deny them an identity or cultural attachments they may or may not have. It is for each individual to decide whether they recognise themselves in “Thai” values, and this cannot be done through a 12-point checklist.
Furthermore, those who don’t adhere to the rules become criminalised. Under military rule, safeguarding their human and civic rights becomes even more difficult. The right to voice an opinion, the right not to be held incommunicado, are basic rights. Leaders may shrug their shoulders, calling democracy and human rights Western inventions, but the fact is, the nationalism or capitalism they embrace so dearly actually originated in the West.
A narrow mindset and zealous patriotism will lead us nowhere, as opposed to forward and critical thinking.
Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong is a news reporter, Bangkok Post.
Former features writer
Ariane Sutthavong is a former features writer for the Bangkok Post.