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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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.