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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.