<Note: It took me a while to write this post about Thailand. I’ve never written about my hometown because I don’t think I know enough about it, but the recent bombing incited a nagging thought that I’ve had about Thailand for a long time now. So here goes.>
Last week, a bomb detonated in the heart of Chidlom district, a busy area with lots of foreigners, especially those from China. The incident, a shocking and tragic act of terrorism, left Bangkokians stunned and flustered. Many wondered who was heartless enough to commit such a barbaric act. True to the Thai compassion, many offered help, whether through blood donation, acting as a translator or offering free food and transportation to the relatives of those injured or deceased in the bombing. The outpouring of support was uplifting, yet I was left with an uneasy feeling at the depth of the conversations that took place afterwards.
You see, I think Thailand isn’t critical enough about Thailand. Now, let me say upfront that as someone who had studied abroad since middle school, I have been jaded with Thai politics and stopped following it for quite some time now. Since I didn’t spend my most formative years in Thailand and was heavily influenced by Western values, my lack of ‘Thainess’ perhaps means that I’m not in the best position to critique Thailand. But whatever Thainess that’s left in me is making me concerned about the country that I was born in.
People used to know of Thailand as a peaceful, compassionate, relaxing, and smiley country. After all, we are (was?) The Land of Smiles. We used to embody this moniker. We used to always (well, not always, but more often than now) be in a good mood and we used to really look out for one another. While examples of the Thai goodwill can still be seen from time to time, we really weren’t the nation we once was. Alas, as Thailand continued to open its arm to foreign tourists as well as investments, we also brought in the Western model of capitalism based on materialism and the incessant race for more. Shopping malls started appearing all around Bangkok, seemingly without end. As more money and people flowed in, the lucky few who had the means and the business know-how started restaurants, bars, high-rises, massage parlors, and sports clubs to cater to the increased wealth amongst the Thai elites and expatriates.
The influx of wealth was never distributed equally. The income disparity in Thailand continued to grow at an alarming rate. Our obedience has made it really easy for the elites to rip us off, pay us piss-poor wages while pocketing the majority of the wealth. Thais, along with the rest of the world, became more absorbed in this race for more–and more self-centered in the process. Nowadays, we are infinitely more conscious about our social image; our happiness is increasingly being defined by others. Ironically, as we become more concerned about our social status, we have been really focused on making sure we are enjoying our lives and never really stopped to question the status quo. Why do the poor remain poor? Why is there so much crime? Why is women still not getting equality in the workplace?
Part of the blame can be attributed to the Thai system of hierarchy based on seniority. We are taught not to question those older than us, and to be submissive to authority; they always know better. Teachers who have taught Thai students know them for their reticence. Even when students don’t understand what’s being taught, they are afraid to ask questions. Or if they disagree with what the teacher says, they mostly keep their opinions to themselves. (This is perhaps the single most infuriating habit in Thailand. It drives me insane.) Consequently, in various education rankings worldwide, Thailand performs very poorly. Students are taught how to memorize, but not how to think critically.
Thais today seem more engaged in the celebrities’ personal lives than the state of their city or government. We love learning about who’s dating who and what this celebrity has been up to lately, but why are we not as fired up about the media censorship in this country or the number of homeless people in Bangkok?
Nobody knows why Bangkok was targeted for the blast. Many people were engaged in the discussions/speculations of suspects, but what was lacking was a higher level of discussion around the state of Thailand today that I felt the bombing should have prompted. What got Thailand to the point where we have become a bomb target? Why are we facing such heavy criticism from the international community? Why is Thai politics perpetually in flux?
My point is this: Considering the state of Thailand, why are we not more pissed off? Unless we become more engaged in civic issues, we all will have to watch as other well-prepared countries pass us by as we descend into further chaos.