Thai police stand guard outside a military compound before former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives to report to Thailand's ruling military. Photo: Getty
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Myths that have kept Thailand together now risk tearing it apart following military coup

The danger now is that myth, not sense, will come to define Thai citizenship in the wake of the army’s latest intervention.

For more than 80 years, Thailand has been struggling to build a stable and functioning democracy. On the afternoon of Thursday 22 May, that process was set back again with the country’s 12th military coup. Once again, Thailand has seen its constitution torn up, and its political leaders detained.

The military announced it was taking control of the government, banned political gatherings of more than five people, and imposed a nationwide curfew. Explaining the move to the nation, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha claimed that the purpose of the coup was to bring peace to the streets and unity to the people.

But Thailand is far from united. The danger now is that myth, not sense, will come to define Thai citizenship in the wake of the army’s intervention. And even worse, with political rights curtailed, calls for unity will do nothing but destabilise the nation and threaten the security of all Thai lives.

High pressure

Political rights in Thailand have been hard-won indeed and while most of the country’s coups have been peaceful, others haven’t. In 1973, 1976 and 1992, protesters who fought for wider participation and democratic government were gunned down in the name of protecting the nation. Since 2006, many more have lost their lives fighting for a stronger democracy.

But the country has ultimately failed to build a strong civil society that can support a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and economically segregated mix of communities. And that failure has left Thailand ripe for military intervention on the pretext of “unity”.

This idea of Thai unity is based on a historical myth, one that puts enormous pressure on people to conform and leaves little room to express themselves freely. Thai students are taught a national history based on the premise of historic independence; unlike its South-East Asian neighbours who were all colonised by Western powers, Thailand has supposedly been able to maintain its distinctive traditions and its unique way of life.

Radio and TV shows regularly discuss the reasons why foreigners love Thailand, Thai food and the Thai “character”. Interspersed throughout all TV schedules are endless depictions of the Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, projected to the country as a stabilising influence – and for the most ardent royalists as “the father of the nation”.

Uniquely Thai

All of these ideas have a basis in history, but they have also long been used to restrict what it means to be a citizen of the Thai nation. During the Cold War in particular, the idea that Thailand was defined by a unique set of cultural and social markers was propagated both by the military regimes that governed the country and by the United States, which sought to support authoritarian rule.

Maintaining stability was everything; the myths that bound all Thais together became tools for building a civil religion to protect the country from communism. In this climate, ideas of cultural citizenship became dominant. With political freedoms restricted, the commitment to securing a unique Thai way of life became a key way to unify the country’s fragmented political and economic constituencies.

It was also used on numerous occasions to sanction violence, most notably in 1976, when students protesting the imminent return to military dictatorship were gunned down within their university walls.

The charge that they were “not Thai” struck a powerful chord in a society that had been swamped with pro-American, pro-Royalist, pro-Thai propaganda for over a decade. With civil liberties suspended, hysteria reigned, and violence against those accused of defaming the monarchy and the nation was accepted as legitimate.

Just keep quiet

The world has changed since the Cold War, but many of the myths about what it means to be Thai remain. While Bangkok, home to the United Nations in Asia, frequently holds conferences and seminars about the importance of universal rights, the rights of Thais themselves come with heavy qualifications.

Most notable among these is the lèse-majesté law, which condemns Thais to up to 15 years in prison for remarks deemed critical of the monarchy. It fails to receive the level of international criticism that similar laws earn elsewhere.

Conventions like these are dangerous, not just because they impede citizens' freedoms, but because they maintain a climate of uncertainty and fear. Their ultimate effect is that Thai political life, which in principle is governed by a constitution, is just as much controlled by deep cultural taboos that limit behaviour, thought and speech.

Refusing to show respect for the king, to take pride in the country, to maintain the image of harmony to foreign tourists can all too easily be deemed “un-Thai”. At a time of crisis, particularly with the formal constitution suspended, these taboos risk dominating the lives of all Thais.

In the coming days, there will be many reactions to what has happened in Thailand. Some Thais will celebrate what they hope to be the end of a political conflict that has lasted years. Others will be angry at the suspension of their rights, but will be kept from articulating how they feel for fear of the consequences.

The ultimate tragedy, though, is that the myths that have been perpetuated to keep Thailand together will now be used to tear it apart.

The ConversationMatthew Phillips has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.