Do not discount the expatriate

Do not discount the expatriate

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha this week addressed the UN General Assembly in New York. What do you think was going through his mind as he spoke? Was he nervous? What was his pulse rate?

The PM does not strike me as the type to succumb to stage fright, but surely he suspected that he was speaking to a dubious, if not wholly disinterested, audience. I like to imagine that he finished speaking and was greeted by a vast tundra of silence, broken only by a sneeze, or a yawn, followed by a piercing question, called out from somewhere in the back: "But, like, the beaches -- they're OK, right?"

In all fairness, the EU delegation last week did criticise Prayut ahead of his appearance at the UN, calling for a return to democracy in Thailand. It was a softball of a demand, everything but automated, and would easily have rolled off the PM's back. In his heart, I think, Prayut knows that what happens in Thailand is of no real consequence to the Western world, especially now, with so much attention focused on problems in Syria and the Middle East, thus giving him free reign to make promises for which he will not be held accountable. So Prayut stood at the podium and he said what he needed -- and what he was expected -- to say. Soon he will board an aeroplane, headed home, his words nothing but wispy memories in the minds of UN delegates.

Thailand, indeed, is a country where words speak louder than actions, where preventative measures are cast aside in favour of the reactionary proclamation. When the US kept Thailand in the third (and lowest) tier in its latest report on human trafficking, for example, what was Thailand's response? Why, a vow to eliminate human trafficking! And what is the motive of the recent terrorist attack at Erawan Shrine, according to police? You got it, baby -- human traffickers, taking revenge for the subsequent crackdown on the abhorrent crime. It is too perfect -- a murderous attack presented as a noble yet unwilling sacrifice made by this nation's people in the name of Doing The Right Thing.

Western expatriates in Thailand, meanwhile, certainly don't believe a word uttered by those who lead the country -- the consensus among them is that those accused of the bombing have been set up, similar to the widely shared belief that the pair of Myanmar migrant workers currently on trial for last year's murder of two British backpackers in Koh Tao were framed, in a bid to protect members of the Thai mafia who run the island. A quick scan of comments on social media or on this publication's website testifies to that.

There is much discord, as well, between the expatriate community and the perceived tyrannical actions of the Thai government. Many Thais are also sceptical, but to speak out as a citizen of this county is perilous. When a Westerner criticises, he is merely an ignorant outsider. When that criticism comes from a Thai, it is a matter of national security.

Dissent, then, in Thailand does not exist as it does in the Western world. Critical opinions must be bland and vapid -- or obfuscated in metaphor -- lest they be met with incomprehension or, in the worst cases, a frenzied, pack-minded hostility of the most vicious nature. Groupthink is the only way to maintain the status quo of hierarchy and tradition that anchors this nation. This is where the expatriate's voice begins to bear weight. When a people are forcibly silenced, look for objectivity in those who are not trapped inside oppression's sphere of influence. Look to the outsider, who might not understand the varied intricacies of the Thai way, but who almost certainly has a vested interest in the country's well being, if only because it directly affects his ease of life.

The expatriate is important at a time like this because he acts as a substitute for those in the West who wield authentic power, but whose voices are in absentia. Except for banal generalisations, you won't see much honesty from the UN pertaining to Thailand's current situation. The organisation is mired by diplomacy and its delegates are too far removed, focused on other, admittedly more pressing, issues.

A UN delegate is distant from the violent heat of the pervasive wrongdoing occurring in Thailand just as a military general is detached, mentally and physically, from the suffering of a bloodied and devastated infantry battalion.

The expatriate, however, lives in the fray, hears the explosions, feels them reverberate through his chest. He might not be a soldier, he might not fight, but he does witness atrocities first-hand. He smells the metallic scent of blood in the air.

And he has all the more reason for genuine concern.


Adam Kohut is the subeditor for Guru magazine of the Bangkok Post.

Adam Kohut

Sub-editor for Guru magazine

Adam Kohut is the sub-editor for Guru magazine of the Bangkok Post.

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