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23 May, 2010

Thailand After the Red-Shirt Crisis: Will We Learn to Value What We Lost?

Originally Published:  23 May 2010

The people of Bangkok, the well educated, intelligent, middle-class people we claim to be, have just learnt what it is like to be terrorised and occupied. As a result, the nation is in the throes of a long-overdue process aptly reflected in the long-standing theme and title of this column – Soul-Searching.

A people whose country’s name means “Land of the Free” finally has learnt the value of being free, as well the value of simple pleasures such as the freedom to move, shop, and communicate. As normal life resumes, we will hopefully learn to value the many things we take for granted, especially the safety and security for families, friends and property.

Indeed, we do not often value what we have until we lose it. We Bangkokians overestimated our capabilities, intelligence and ability to influence events; and underestimated the anger, frustration and bitterness of those down at the lower rung of the ladder.

Oh, we wailed, how could this happen to us? This is completely unlike the Thai people we know. Maybe we didn’t know ourselves well enough. Maybe we were just deluding ourselves. The “have’s” are prone to doing that, sitting in our ivory towers, lording over the “have-nots”. Maybe we are not as smart as we claim to be. That alone should be a lesson in humility.

In what is turning out to be a roaring Year of the Tiger, Thaksin Shinawatra has won. His presence will always be a reminder to us of how wrong we were. We owe him a debt of gratitude for teaching us lessons we will never forget. For example:

<> The value of Buddhism, a religion of moderation: Are we a country of moderation? Hardly. Our entire economic systems are designed for excess. Our economies and societies have been managed in ways that directly contradict the teachings of Buddhism (and, I should add, Islam). If both the source of suffering and its solution are plainly laid out in Buddhist tenets, why should we be surprised by the suffering that ensues when we ignore and/or violate those tenets?

<> The value of a wise King: A New York Times article claimed that His Majesty the King is seeing his power ebb. Quite the opposite. By not coming to our “rescue”, was HM indicating how tired he is of having to bail us out of repeated crises that are largely the result of failing to heed his guidance in the first place? Didn’t his golden silence in fact elevate the value of his past advice and remind us of the approaching day when he will not be there to give it? By merely telling the judges to do their duty, wasn’t he indirectly telling us that we all have failed to our duty?

He has not failed us; we have failed him. If children don’t heed years of parental advice, they have only themselves to blame.

<> We learnt what it is like to be occupied. How outraged we were by the inconvenience of just a few weeks of encroachment on our offices, homes, shopping and entertainment places. Spare a thought for the millions of people living under occupation and languishing in refugee camps worldwide, with no end in sight. Will we start showing some sympathy and empathy for them, or just return to business as usual? All those in the western embassies which had to be evacuated as well those ensconced in the ivory towers of UNESCAP, take note.

<> We learnt that all forms of violence have a root cause. Sure, we all abhor violence but there is always a deeper, underlying reason. The red-shirts have gone but their grievances remain. As long as the poor continue to feel exploited, disempowered and disenfranchised, the cycle of violence will repeat itself. Whether you call it “terrorism” or anything else, violence is common to everyone, no matter how peaceful and peace-loving they may claim to be.

<> We learnt to better appreciate the problems of the poor. If the can rich sell their souls, why should the poor have any qualms about selling both their votes AND their souls. Inequalities and imbalances abound everywhere, especially in critical sectors like income, education and health care. Can we find ways of measuring the gap, and eventually plugging it?

<> We learnt that financial terrorists can be equally as dangerous as terrorists on the ground. When individuals amass so much money, and use it for nefarious purposes, instability is bound to follow. Many more such individuals are emerging on the global stage, and becoming equally as powerful. The instability at the global level is the direct result of this.

Looking ahead, we cannot fail to see that we are a unique country – the only country to have been hit by an economic crisis, a health crisis, a natural disaster and now an internally-triggered geopolitical crisis. Alongside, we face environmental problems such as deforestation, social problems such as the rich-poor income gap, and many others.

We are also unique in having three levels of leadership – the spiritual that seeks to underpin our moral and ethical standards; the royal leadership which acts as a unifying factor and provides guidance; and the political leadership which rotates with every election or military coup.

However, we over-expect the political leaders to deliver the goods, run for help to the royal leaders when they don’t, and totally ignore the fact that it is our own personal failure to voluntarily abide by the spiritual codes of conduct handed down since the days of yore which triggers the cycle of crises in the first place.

In other words, charity begins at home. “Internal” democracy is far more important than the “external”. Making the right personal choices has far greater value than choosing the right political leaders.

Countries are no different from humans, vast networks of inter-connected nerve centres, transportation, municipal and defence mechanisms. Both humans and countries are prone to sicknesses, which may vary in intensity. Treatments, too, differ in duration, and have to zap both the symptoms and the cause.

Many sicknesses are triggered by our own behavioural mistakes. In order to avert a relapse, a behavioural change becomes imperative. That is when both individuals and countries begin soul-searching, the outcome of which can make all the difference between life and death.

Thailand has overcome this latest bout of sickness. What next? A recovery? Or a relapse?