Voranai: Tears of the Junta

Voranai VanijakaIt’s been nearly a month since the royal funeral for King Rama IX. As the kingdom comes to terms with the great loss and pushes on into the future, an incident of note is worth discussing.

Many photos and VDO clips surrounding the funeral ceremony have been circulated and commented on. Of note is Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha wiping tears from his eyes.

The social media reaction can be summed up as follows: He truly loves King Rama IX and keeps the peace in the streets. No matter the allegations of abuse, corruption, mismanagement or incompetence, in the eyes of many people, all is forgiven or at least excused, if not outright denied by turning a blind eye. This is because his tears are genuine and peace is desired. Hence, he’s deemed fit to be Thailand’s leader.

Emotion is a powerful thing, and surely the tears of the prime minister were as sincere as those of millions other Thais who also wept for the loss. As well, to say that he keeps peace in the streets is a statement of fact. Anyone who has ever lived through times of violence and civil strife should appreciate the benefits of having peace in the streets.

But at what price?

Here’s a quote attributed to one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

There’s a debate as to what Franklin was actually referring to, as the context of today is vastly difference from 200 years ago. Nonetheless, in the context of a modern liberal democracy, people have interpreted the meaning to fight for personal freedom and liberty come what may, as opposed to sacrificing them in the interests of comfort and safety.

But Franklin was an American founding father, not a Thai one. The modern interpretation of the quote is in the spirit of Western liberal politics, which isn’t the same as that of a conservative, Southeast Asian, Hindu-Buddhist kingdom steeped in feudal traditions.

Through more than a decade of Thailand’s political strife, many observers have questioned how the affluent and educated urbanites could cast aside democracy and welcome dictatorship. The answer is a sarcastic quip drenched in generalities: You can take a Thai out of the kingdom, but you can’t take the kingdom out of a Thai.

Meaning, we are the sum of our past. The collective conscience of a nation, or a people, is molded by centuries of traditions still taught and celebrated today. One may have a Western education, be well versed in all things liberal and international, but still be Thai. As such, traditions dictate that at the heart of being Thai is communalism over individuality, conformity over independence and – more important than any principles – the institution of the monarchy.

In the West, democracy is in the social conscience. Liberals and conservatives may be at each other’s throats, but both believe in democracy. Even fascist political parties have to contest in democratic elections. Western democracy has been centuries in the making, struggling through wars and destruction to eventual triumph. And though today some may call it into question, democracy is still the shared value.

There are no founding fathers expounding democracy here in Thailand. But there is the concept of “father of the nation.” They are the kings of the Chakri Dynasty, from the first to the present. Furthermore, there have been no destructive wars to tear down old institutions to be replaced by new ones, as happened in Western nations and even Thailand’s neighbors.

Compared to the historical roller-coaster of Western history for the past couple of centuries, the fabric of our present-day kingdom has barely been touched and has hardly changed since its founding a little over 200 years ago.

But that doesn’t mean the Thai kingship and democratic ideals can’t be compatible.

As the nation comes to terms with the great loss and pushes on into the future, with an immediate one being the promised elections of November 2018, we must understand that traditions can’t simply be erased and replaced by democracy, nor expect traditions to bow down to new ideals.

The Thai monarchy and its place in society isn’t the same as with Western monarchies. For democracy to succeed in Thailand, it must come to terms with the power and prestige the monarchy holds. There must be a partnership between democratic and royal institutions.

This new partnership will see the military as not only defender of the monarchy, but also defender of democracy and the people. The latter being a role the military has not always fulfilled in the past.

Obviously, this is easier typed than done. Clearly, this will be a Thai-style democracy, not a Western one. But like the mantra for multinational companies “think global, act local,” the reality of traditions cannot be ignored.

In an alternate reality, the national leader who wept at the late king’s funeral would be a democratically elected one, not a junta leader. But alternate realities only exist in fantasy.