Reviews & Articles
泰國的和解訊息 ∣ A Thai Reconciliation Message
at 1:03pm on 21st November 2017
Kamin Lertchaiprasert, For peace to happen we must kill...greed, anger, vanity, in ourselves first, 140x220cm, acrylic on canvas, 2010 (image taken from exhibition catalogue)
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A Thai Reconciliation Message
by John Batten
Political intrigue is a constant in Thailand, its presence a sort of secular undercurrent to the more obvious rhythms of Thai Buddhism and spirituality. Politics has for months, publicly at least, been largely put aside as Thailand mourned the death of King Bhumipol Adulyadej (Rama IX) that culminated in his elaborate public funeral ceremonies and private cremation a fortnight ago.
Thailand’s political upheavals in 2010 and 2013-2014 and violent street clashes between pro-government supporters (known as ‘Red Shirts’) of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister and then-incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and anti-government protesters (known as ‘Yellow Shirts’) culminated in a military coup d’état led by Army Commander General Prayut Chan-o-cha in May 2014. Prayut suspended most parts of the Thai constitution and currently heads an unelected military junta. This is untenable, but is a holding position to keep the streets free of further protests. An election has been promised in November 2018, but with the military retaining ultimate power under a new constitution the return of civilian governance will surely be negotiated, undoubtably behind closed doors.
It could be said that such political unrest is the norm in Thailand. The most recent coup d’état is the twelfth since 1932 and reflects Thailand’s history of internal political intrigue and a diverse society comprising such groups as an urbanised Bangkok governing elite and a far-flung rural population with little political clout, that can – at times – clash. The country is held together by Buddhism, strong cultural values, and respect for the monarchy. Add into the mix, however, is the always politically-involved Thai military and its wide-ranging business alliances and Thailand’s pivotal geopolitical position wedged between Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and a not-to-distant Vietnam and China requiring astute regional diplomacy.
Thailand has a surprisingly healthy history of free discussion on social, economic and political issues, but after the 2014 coup the media and the internet have been monitored and censored, blunting previous openness. Increasingly, the country’s strict lèse majesté laws have been used as an excuse to silence any opposition, often with the excuse that the monarchy or the political status quo have been maligned.
The origins of liberal thought are rooted in modern Thai history. Canny political maneuvering by the reformist Siam monarchs Mongkut (Rama IV) and Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in the face of European territorial expansion in the 19th-century allowed Siam to avoid colonization, the fate of a majority of its Asian neighbours. Thai diplomacy entailed both a Buddhist-like ‘middle way’ and negotiated alliances and treaties, including pivotal, but now-recognized as unequal trade concessions: to the British with (and negotiated through the British military/diplomatic base of Hong Kong) the Bowring Treaty of 1855 and territorial concessions to the French in the late 19th and early 20th century. Engagement with these potential European antagonists was tempered by the genuine willingness of Thai leaders to embrace Western ideas. During Chulalongkorn’s reign the implementation of reforms was real and saw the abolition of slavery, improved sanitation and infrastructure, a major overhaul of government administration and discussions to introduce a constitutional monarchy (eventually achieved in 1932) and democracy.
Friendly relations with the British ensured Thailand’s traditional rival, Burma, was neutralized by British colonial expansion. Likewise, the French expansion into Indo-China (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) offered another buffer from northern and eastern rivals – especially from a weakened China. Thailand itself was also a buffer between the British and French and their respective colonies – thus, Thai diplomacy often reflected the changing political situation in Europe and the world. This was seen most notably during the Cold War as Thailand aligned itself with the U.S.A., allowing the construction of U.S. army and air bases on Thai soil and used in bombing runs and military operations during the Vietnam War.
Thailand is often portrayed as enigmatic, a place of mystic; while Buddhist flexibility and spiritual beliefs can allow surprises. In a gesture to restore harmony – always a Buddhist aspiration - Imagine Peace was a reconciliation art exhibition mounted by the Thai Cultural Ministry and the Bangkok Metropolitan government just after the violent street protests of 2010. The exhibition, comprising Thailand’s major artists, pulled no punches in its depiction of the protests and reconsidered the political and social origins of the unrest.
It is remarkable that it was a Thai government agency that mounted such a potentially-sensitive political art exhibition. In Hong Kong, reconciliation after the Umbrella protests has been almost non-existent, and official bridge-building is only now tentatively happening under the new Lam administration. One of the fundamental messages seen in this exhibition was by artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert, who reproduced a page from Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper which had the headline “Bangkok Burning” emblazoned on it, the artist had then over-painted this page with a Thai-stylized skull, and entitled it: For peace to happen we must kill…greed, anger, vanity in ourselves first.
That is a universal maxim, but Hong Kong’s political antagonists should note that Kamin Lertchaiprasert’s simple admonishment is necessary before reconciliation. So, get your hands out and shake - for a government-initiated Umbrella reconciliation art exhibition would be expecting too much!
This opinion piece was first published in Ming Pao Weekly on 11 November 2017