Guest Column

Thailand’s Lurch Towards Normalcy

By Withaya Huanok 24 May 2014

New drivers attempting to navigate the streets of any major city in Thailand often find it a daunting task. Rules are often but suggestions, lane lines essentially meaningless, and traffic lights routinely disregarded. Stop signs? The high prevalence of chalk markings at such intersections, usually outlines of cars or motorbikes on the road, attests to their efficacy. In reality, most are not “accidents,” which implies that the incident could not have been prevented. According to the World Health Organization, Thailand’s road fatality rate, 38.1 per 100,000 people in 2010, is the third highest worldwide, surpassing any Asian nation and only slightly behind those of Niue and the Dominican Republic. The top reasons for road incidents in Thailand: failure to abide by traffic laws and drunk driving, among others.

The behavior of motorists on the streets is emblematic of a pervasive mentality that rules can be bent or broken, depending on the rule, and the individual(s) involved, and extends well beyond our streets. Tolerance of impunity has increasingly becoming a social and political norm in this country.

On May 15, villagers in Ban Na Nong Bong in Wang Saphung district, Loei, who were protesting a gold mine nearby, which is accused of polluting the land and water supplies and causing health problems in the community, were brutally attacked by hundreds of thugs clad in black balaclavas. The villagers were threatened, tied up, beaten; guns were fired in the air, and their barriers dismantled. The police have done little, unsurprising as the leader of the gang was later identified by villagers as being a Thai lieutenant general, PorametPomnak.

Just several weeks earlier, ethnic Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, disappeared following his arrest by Kaeng Krachan National Park officers. He had run afoul of such in his work documenting and publicizing abuses and violence committed against the local community, allegedly by park officials, in Petchaburi. His whereabouts remain unknown.

The sad reality is that there is no shortage of examples of impunity and flouting, or outright dismissal, of the law in Thailand, and the coup d’état yesterday is no exception to the rule. Indeed, it follows the unspoken rule here that, the bigger your guns (figuratively and literally), the more the rules can be bent or broken for you. General Prayuth Chanocha, in seizing power, justified it as being “in order for the country to return to normal quickly,” and yesterday’s putsch brings Thailand’s statistic to 19 actual or attempted coups since the formal end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Like road accident fatalities, this is an unenviably high statistic.

At best, this coup is akin to taking paracetamol to temporarily mask the symptom, fever, of malaria. It is the morphine that eases the persistent cough of tuberculosis, calming the patient to allow for sleep and the visitations of the drug’s namesake Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. It does not address the fatal underlying disease. Indeed, it stands to exacerbate such, rendering the prospects of successful therapy all-the-more distant in the future.

If the disease is truly to be addressed, one key issue that urgently needs to be dealt with is our tolerance of impunity, a mentality fostered by the cardinal Thai value of face-saving and an awe for authority that renders on obsequious, drummed in at an early age. In this, the color of one’s shirt, be it red, yellow, khaki, or olive green, is immaterial. Lest we forget, Thailand’s self-styled icon of democracy, deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has never been held to account for the thousands of extrajudicial killings that occurred during a “War on Drugs” during his tenure as Prime Minister, many of the victims simply “guilty” of being of a hill tribe.

If Thailand is truly to move forward, very real grievances must be addressed, issues such as uneven distribution of power, rights and resources, not a silencing of those who would attempt such. This extends to all of the peoples of this country.

This coup is highly unlikely to achieve General Prayuth’s stated goal of a “society to love and be at peace again,” and end years of political deadlock, which have already resulted in 28 deaths and over 700 injuries in the last half-year. Indeed, it is more likely to generate more animosity against this harsh backlash, lurching Thailand back to what has become its regular dysfunctional normalcy which is its increasingly polarized and violent politics.

Withaya Huanok is a Thai physician working in Chiang Mai.