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6 Feb, 2000

Has Thailand Lost the Virtues of the Middle Path?

Originally Published: 06 Feb 2000

There can be few better representations of a country that has long forgotten its spiritually-mandated middle-path than Thailand’s recent spats with the Burmese.

In the first case last year, the alleged terrorists who took over the embassy were given a comfortable exit to the border, courtesy of our deputy foreign minister who cited the year of His Majesty the King’s 72nd birthday celebrations as a reason for wanting to end the standoff peacefully.

People who were essentially criminals were allowed to go free in the interests of avoiding bloodshed. When numerous letters appeared in this and other newspapers warning that letting criminals go free will only encourage a repeat performance, the rebuttal was that Thais were peace-loving people and masters at diplomacy; remember how the late Chatchai Choonhavan had ended the siege of the Israeli embassy two decades ago?

Well, the warnings were proved right, and the terrorists struck again, this time laying siege to a hospital.

This time, the reaction was exactly the opposite. The whole bunch was shot dead, saving us taxpayers a whole lot of money in having them as our guests while investigations took their course.

But notice the now totally contrasting reactions. ‘They were terrorists, and they deserved it’; ‘they took innocent people hostage and they deserved it’; ‘Thai lives were at stake’. ‘Well, we let you go free last time, you abused it and now you bloody well deserve it’.

Both of the two ‘solutions’ — letting them go free in the first instance and shooting them in cold blood in the second — were wrong. The right way — the middle path of Buddhism, the straight path of Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Hinduism and all other religions — in both instances was to arrest them and give them a fair trial. That they would have been convicted was of little doubt, but there was a legal process involved.

Either way, Thailand comes out looking a bit odd; the first time it made enemies with the military junta. This time it made enemies with the Burmese opposition groups. In the eyes of the international community, and by the norms of international law, it did not act correctly either way.

But then, both incidents were only to expected. Thailand has long forgotten the virtues of following the middle path so abundantly preached by the religion it professes to follow. Those looking for further proof of this have just been handed it on a platter.


More symbolism is still to come. Three major events to be held this month will manifest the strains and stress within Thailand as it strives to come to terms with its short-, medium- and long-term pursuit of development.

SHORT-TERM: The Board of Investment Fair this week is intended to hail the return of sunshine times for the national economy. Throngs will be heading for the Fair to find a suitable place for the sunbath and develop a rosy and profitable tan. Yes, short-term revival is critical. People need to get their cash-flows moving again in order to pay their debts and return to normalcy. The country, too, needs this; bankrupt businesses mean lower tax revenues which further impedes the provision of health, education and social services.

MEDIUM-TERM: Also seeing the light of day is the age of globalisation. That’s when the sun shining on the economy begins to turn a bit hot. Temperatures will be rising at the UNCTAD meeting next week as Thailand joins other countries in trying to decide whether it is ready for the medium-term impact of globalisation. Some countries will be trying to turn up the heat a little faster; others like Thailand will be seeking to delay it until they’ve got a thick layer of suntan lotion applied on the exposed parts. Many others will be hoping for a few dark clouds to move into place and drench them with some showers.

LONG-TERM: One problem with using the symbolism of sunshine to describe economic recoveries is that every sunrise is followed by a sunset. People who bask in the glory of sunrise seem to delude themselves into believing that the sun is never going to set. Sooner or later, it will. That is the irrefutable law of creation.

Those with a long-term, spiritual and philosophic approach to life are more realistic about the cycles of sunrise and sunset, and hence better placed psychologically to cope. Hundreds of people with precisely such an approach will be gathering in Chiang Mai between February 14-19 for the Silver Dove Congress. Interestingly, those dates are right on top of the UNCTAD bash.

The Silver Dove Club was founded in Thailand’s northern capital to bring together people seeking ”a life of understanding, harmony, prosperity, compassion, peace and love.” They are involved with the search for spiritual serenity and want to achieve a deeper level of prosperity and sustainability than those attending events like UNCTAD and the BoI Fair.

In fact, all three events are interlinked and part of the same cycle of life. Humans have to work to live. That means they need jobs and growing economies. At the same time, they need to keep in mind the medium- and long-term perspective to ensure that the pursuit of material satisfaction is not accompanied by spiritual starvation.

Today, these conferences and fairs are being held separately. But there is growing awareness world-wide that all these disciplines are inter-linked and indeed have much to learn from each other. No discussion of ‘holistic solutions’ or ‘sustainable development’ can be complete without bringing all the elements to the table.

I found it intriguing that the three events are juxtaposed in exactly the right sequence. No doubt, they will all abound with discussions of life in an era of increasing instability and volatility. Though they will be focused on ”the most poignant issues of today’s world,” they will be seeking to achieve the same goals from different directions.

Which is exactly why I plan to attend all three. I daresay I will enjoy the Silver Dove congress most because it promises to be an ”informative and joyful gathering and a time of unforgettable values and international friendship.” The first two events may help me fill my breadbasket but the third will help fulfill the search for something deeper.

True, we are all in pursuit of long-term atonement, but we still have to get past tomorrow first.