Blind love of nation is the blindest of all
Feel the force of Thai jingoism. Feel it online and at the US embassy, as they march forward like sandmen with sticks to battle the evil Darth Vader. How dare the meddling imperialist. How rude, how hypocritical!, shout the vanguards, waving bamboo spears. This is because on Thursday the new US ambassador Glyn T Davies said something that rattled the patriots — something sensible — about how people who peacefully voice their opinion shouldn’t be put in jail, referring to the excessive punishment of the lese majeste law. As expected, just hours later the nationalists banged their kettledrums.
Dear Darth, the force has awoken. The Rubbish Collection Organisation — which isn’t an organisation but a soap opera version of right-wing desperadoes — has called out the “moral degradation” of those who disrespect the revered institution, implying that the US has egged it on. “We Thai people,” it declares using the collective pronoun without asking our permission, “express our disagreement with the view [of the ambassador] that will jeopardise peace in the region.” Then the firebrand monk Phra Buddha Isara wrote that the ambassador was disrespectful, bullying, and belittling the human dignity of all Thais. Naturally: Time to picket the US Embassy. In October, when the monk played Moses by parting the traffic and leading his children to Witthayu Road, it was to protest against Human Rights Watch, which doesn’t have an office there to begin with. This time, at least he picked the right address for his band of ultra-believers who converged there yesterday.
What the ambassador said had been said before by many people, in shouts and murmurs, in blood and in ink, in good faith mostly and in anger when it was necessary. Thirty years in jail for saying something, harsher than what homicide convicts are guilty of, or when the charge has been slapped left, right and centre in recent weeks, including more on the same day Mr Davies spoke — it’s not too much to raise the point of human dignity. Those who have voiced concern about the law do it not because they believe they can change anything, not now and not in the near future, but because not doing so would be a betrayal of their conscience, which is the smallest and yet the most sacred thing in life.
But every time a foreigner says it, a naïve foreigner who knows nothing and who still wears shoes in a house!, it stings. And especially when the great eagle says it, it drives the patriots’ indignation to the max. This is from the country that has a hand in protracted turmoil in many parts of the world and with a history of interference that leaves messy results. Our patriots spell out the litany of US sins, from Vietnam to Iraq, though I have a feeling these people would be among the first in line to get a lifetime visa to the US should Washington introduce one.
No one is immune to hypocrisy. In international relations it’s sometimes called diplomacy, a game played with sticks and olive branches, in light and in shadow. Recently the US has cajoled us to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and suddenly this jab at our hot law. That’s how the cards are dealt, and it’s understandable — just as understandable as how the Chinese lean militarily close to us with a joint air show and yet prepare to charge us a fat interest rate for the planned high-speed train. In circumstances when the patriots feel embattled, when the junta’s island of pre-modernism is getting squeezed because the world is closing in, the ambasssador’s remark fits into our chauvinistic playbook: when you set your own house on fire, blame the neighbour who sticks his nose in.
The warped mentality of nationalists is sometimes beyond understanding. After the Nov 13 Paris attacks, some right-wing groups evoked the incident of 1893 when French gunboats sailed into Siamese waters — a case of colonial aggression — to show that what happened in Paris was a just case of karmic retribution for carving up our land. They’re not on drugs, these people, they’re just callous and hypocritical, because they would never remember the case of Siamese aggression in the old North and South, because nationalism is about pushing blame and excluding others, even dumping them under the term “rubbish”.
And yet the force has awoken. The more the ultra-nationalists feel insecure, the more they’ll act up, and I only fear that this would mean more head-on-the-pike against free speech just to prove that Darth Vader could never enslave us with their ideas. It’s brazen that they cited the trampling of “human dignity” by foreigners, and yet never pause to consider who has done most of the trampling. Love is blind, and blind love of a nation is the blindest of all.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.