This post is the first in a series from our Bangkok correspondent, H. Numan.
As an avid reader of the Gates of Vienna, and living in the land of smiles, I would like to contribute as well with news and facts from my spot on the globe in a column Bangkok Reporting. My first report will be an essay to brief you about the general situation:
Thailand is a beautiful country in Asia. It has never been colonized, something the Thais are quite proud about. In fact, it was the result of luck and skillful bargaining. Thailand, or rather Siam as it was called then, was exactly on the borders of French Indochinese and British Indian influences. If the British showed a bit too much interest in Thai real estate, the king politely informed them that his French friends would like it. And likewise, if the French got overly interested in Thai real estate, the king told them his British neighbors didn’t appreciate it. Thus, Thailand remained free. Sure, they had to grant a lot of concessions. Even today some Thais are quite angry about France taking away their possessions in Cambodia. The British took parts of the Malay Peninsula. But nevertheless, Thailand remained free of Western influences for a long time.
Thailand means “land of the free”; a mixture of the Thai word Thai meaning free and the western word “land”. In Thai, the country is called Prathet Thai. Prathet is the Thai word for “land”. Thailand is mainly a Buddhist nation. Almost 95% of the population is Buddhist, 4% Muslim, and 1% Christian, evenly split between Roman Catholics (0.5%) and various Protestant denominations (0.5%). Most of those Muslims live in the deep south of the country, but you can find substantial Muslim enclaves in Bangkok as well. We have a lot of problems with the Muslims in the south, and I will be reporting about them. In Bangkok, no problems at all. I’ve been many times in several predominantly Muslim areas, without any problem.
A bit more about Thailand: Thais are taught from very young age that Thailand rests firmly on three pillars: the monarchy, the Buddhist religion and the nation itself. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej reigns under the name Rama IX and is highly revered. He is the longest-reigning monarch in the world: this year he will become 80 years old, and has held the throne for more than sixty years. Thais are highly deferential towards all monarchies but especially their own. All kings are held in high respect, but the most revered kings are Rama V (known as King Chulalongkorn in the West) and the present king, Rama IX. Royal occasions are national occasions and celebrated nationwide. Sunday 12 August, for example, was the queen’s birthday. In Thailand this is Mother’s day. Father’s day we celebrate, I’d say almost of course, on 5 December; the king’s birthday. You see portraits of members of the royal family literally everywhere. Even in a humble stall along the road you see a portrait of the king. Or maybe a little shrine dedicated to King Chulalongkorn. You see them certainly in all offices, almost all private homes, all hotels – just about anywhere.
In my office we have such a little shrine: a portrait of King Chulalongkorn, where some of my staff burn incense every day. On Thursdays (the day of his birth) they place some snacks, a little glass of Thai whiskey and a cigar next to the incense. He liked those very much. King Chulalongkorn is widely revered for abolishing slavery, starting modern administration (he set up the first real ministries), building railroads and public education. He was the first Thai monarch to travel abroad. In Sweden, in Ragunda, a Thai sala (pavilion) was build in 1997 to honor the centennial of that visit. When it was opened, many well-to-do Thais travelled to Sweden for the sole reason of visiting this pavilion.
Personally, I agree that King Chulalongkorn was a very important monarch for Thailand, but think he continued on the path set out by his father King Mongkut (Rama IV). This king is somewhat underestimated in Thai history. He was well educated, spoke many languages, amongst others Latin, and through his very capable policies Thailand remained free of colonial influences. Suppose you visit Bangkok right now: you see practically everybody wearing something yellow. Yellow T-shirts, polo shirts, skirts, neckties. This is to honor King Bhumipol, who was born on a Monday. The color of Monday is yellow. (All days of the week have their own color.) It’s not just a fashion statement: on every Monday you see more than 60% of all Bangkokians wearing a yellow shirt.
The problems in the south
As I said, Muslims and others live in Thailand in harmony. They have full freedom of religion. Far more, in a way, than they enjoy in the Western world. Wearing headscarves is not compulsory. You do see quite a few girls wearing a headscarf. The call to prayer is broadcast in the whole area by megaphones on electric poles. (Something which will soon be allowed in several Western nations as well…) Most of those wearing headscarves come from the south. And in the south we have some major problems.
The two provinces bordering Malaysia are predominantly Muslim. The sultans of that time (somewhere in the late 19th century) swore allegiance to the Thai king and their domains were integrated in Thailand, but not without difficulties. The Deep South is the Thai equivalent of Siberia. Generations of incompetent and/or corrupt government officials were send in disgrace to a posting there. In the South they could do as they pleased, provided they acted with some discretion. Not very surprising, the Southerners did not really appreciate this. Many Thai governments, especially around the WW2 period tried to enforce ‘Thainess‘ nationwide, also in the South. Thainess includes among others Buddhism and the Thai language, and was resented by the Southerners. The Southerners are ethnically, culturally and linguistically far more related to Malaysia. This enforced Thainess met some serious resistance.
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Later we saw the communist revolt in Malaysia. It took many years to subdue the revolt. Mainly (but not exclusively) because communist guerillas often crossed the border when in trouble; to retreat for some time into Thailand. The British and Malaysian army could not follow without starting a real war. The current problems in the South are, to my knowledge, not supported by the Malaysian government. However, the Malaysian government didn’t forget the Thai attitude to their problems, and won’t do a lot to apprehend Muslim insurgents crossing the border. More or less in the line of: “Here scumbags. Have a cigar out of your own box. A bit smelly, eh?”
The previous risings and revolts weren’t really suppressed. In the beginning of the 90’s a peace was negotiated between parties. For some time the situation remained calm. Law and order were maintained by the Royal Thai Police and locally recruited (mainly Muslim) army regiments. This changed under the early administration of the (ousted) premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Some incidents flared up and he acted with force. Martial law was declared, the police gave over the security task to the army, and regiments from the Northeastern provinces (read that as: staunchly Buddhist regiments) were moved in. The iron fist approach has not worked so far. Tensions are high, and guerilla attacks happen daily. The monthly death rate is well over a 100 casualties. Compare this with the civil war in North Ireland, where in 30 years the total casualty rate is slightly higher than our yearly casualty rate… In other words: more people are killed annually than in 30 years in Northern Ireland.
What is new is that nobody really knows what the goal is of the insurgents. Freedom of religion? They already have that. Their own language? They already have that too. A less harsh law? Maybe, but compared to Malaysia, Thai law is anything but harsh. Full independence? Yeah, the world is really waiting for a postage-stamp sized Shariah republic! The old independence movements seem to play second string at best. There is no known organization, but more or less the actions of groups of individuals. There is no set policy; it seems like: “Do whatever you (the Thai government) think is best. We just kick the Thais out, and we don’t care much how we do it. We don’t want independence; we want to be left alone. Want to use heavy force? Great! Please do! We invite you to!”
But there is a definite pattern of inflicting terror and fear on local Thai residents in the south: Thai villages are torched. Individuals are beheaded. Minivans, the normal means of communication between the villages, are held up and attacked. In a recent attack everybody was killed except the driver, who was Muslim. Schools are a prime target, so much so that many are on guard day and night. Teachers have been issued firearms and training by the government. Please notice that all Southern inhabitants are Thai. When I refer to ‘Thai villages’ this means villages mainly occupied by Buddhist Thais. A lot of Buddhist Thais went to live in the South for various reasons, and they are being seriously harassed to move out again.
After the coup d’etat in 2006 (the silk revolution) it was hoped the situation would calm down. General Sonthi Boonyaratglin became prime minister and is Muslim himself, The first to attain this high office. It was seen as a open hand from the government to start negotiations. So far, this never happened. On New Year’s Eve a series of eleven bombs went off in Bangkok (one about 200 meter from my house) killing a number of people. No motive was given, perpetrators didn’t claim responsibility. It just happened. It might very well have been done by somebody else, but I am very hard pressed to imagine somebody setting off eleven bombs in a major city for gambling debts, revenge or something similar.
I am a Dutch national, and was offered a job in Bangkok in 1994. I kind of liked it, apparently, as I am still here. As soon as I moved into Bangkok, I went to school to learn the language. Well, almost. I had to wait for three whole days to begin my first lessons. My job is in IT. I started as system administrator, and now work mainly as webmaster in designing beautiful (?) or at least informative sites. I’m not religious, or a bit more strongly phrased: atheist. However, I am interested in religion. All religions. Not that I like Mohammedanism, but I did read the Koran.
My hobbies are history in general, Thai history if I can find it. And “spirit houses”. Something that is almost unique to Thailand are little shrines dedicated to the spirits of the land. You see them everywhere in the Kingdom. I collect pictures about them, and try to find out the customs related to spirit houses.
As an emigrant myself, I can say that the most important thing one has to do is adapt to your new country. 65 million Thais do not have to changes their ways to make me feel comfortable, I have to adapt to them. They don’t have to learn my language, I have to learn theirs. If something is offensive to me: tough luck. I am a (long term) guest, and have to behave accordingly.
Does that say I am Thai? Far from it. Does that mean I have to give up being Dutch? Not at all! All the complaints I hear from left-wing sources are completely WRONG. If Muslims want to live in Sweden, they HAVE to learn Swedish. Likewise, if they want to settle down in The Netherlands, they have to learn the language, or bear the costs themselves if they cannot or want not. Nobody forces me to learn Thai. But it is highly appreciated. Nobody will force me to read and write Thai. But nobody will hand out translations to accommodate foreigners. If you can’t read it, hire a translator.
In other words: act with common sense, and behave with common sense. And all will be well.
This was Bangkok reporting,