How ‘Are you Thai?’ Accuses and Deflects, Dangerously

Anti-government protesters demand the ouster of the elected government Dec. 9, 2013, in Bangkok.

If asked by a Thai who knows you are Thai whether you are actually Thai due to your political differences, expect something less than decent.

Thais who ask other Thais if they are Thai are simply trying to duck a real debate and shift it to a question of patriotism.

Take junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha’s deployment of the question last week when he referred to Thais who keep criticizing his regime to the world as an example.

Prayuth was quoted by Matichon Online, a sister organization of Khaosod English, as saying March 17 that he regrets some Thais who don’t understand the military government continue to criticize it. He ended with the formulaic question. “[You] have no love for your country. Are you Thai?”

Prayuth then went on to make a vague call for national unity.

So what’s wrong if a Thai asks a fellow Thai whether you are Thai although he or she knows all too well that you are Thai?

It’s a lame attempt to duck the real issue of debate. In case of Prayuth, instead of naming names of those Thais who criticized his military regime in English to the rest of the world and tackle the issues right on, Prayuth evaded the real debate.

The dictator unskillfully turned the tables by suggesting that whatever unspecified criticisms launched at the junta were in fact attacks against the nation and therefore, the attackers unpatriotic.

It’s abandonment of logic and argument as Prayuth resorts to character assassination of his critics by suggesting that they’re unpatriotic and possibly “un-Thai.”

It’s also an attempt to conflate himself with country, as if Prayuth has become Thailand, or at least Juntaland, and criticizing him and his regime is tantamount to attacking Thailand.

While it’s far from convincing, it can distract those who are comfortable with the politics of character assassination and ad hominem.

Character assassination aside, such tactics are also aimed at monopolizing Thainess. In this case, you are only Thai if you concur with Prayuth and how his junta runs things.

The fact is, there are many ways to be Thai as Thailand, like any large and complex society, is pluralistic by nature. No one should cheap shot you by asking you if you are Thai, knowing that you are.

What’s more, once you are no longer classified as Thai by fellow Thais, you become “the other” and a potential enemy. Suddenly you are no longer Thai, not “one of us,” blah, blah, blah.

Being defined as non-Thai can have fatal consequences. On Oct. 6, 1976, during the height of Cold War, dozens of Thais were shot, lynched or worse at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Their crime? Being communists, communist sympathizers and not Thai (but Vietnamese, given the times).

So Prayuth is not the first to employ this cheap but effective tactic. It’s been used time and again to restrict what Thais can or cannot do. Walk through a public space where the customary National Anthem is played loudly at 6pm without stopping and some may wonder if you are Thai. We’re wearing the straightjacket of “Thainess” all the time.

It’s time Thais try to liberate “Thainess” and themselves from conservative anti-democratic mold and embrace the multiplicities of Thainess and ways and rejoice in the freedom and political diversity befitting the meaning of Thailand as “Land of the Free.”

Let no one monopolize Thainess or patriotism, least of all a dictatorial usurper named Prayuth Chan-ocha.