In the United States, when a citizen comes into conflict with a police officer, the citizen would likely throw out this phrase: “I know my rights!”
In Thailand, a citizen would instead make an implied threat with a simple rhetorical question: “Do you know who my daddy is?” or something else that would imply he or she has connections in high places.
While Americans have no love for the police officer, they still, in general, have some faith in the legal system, and more importantly in the constitution that clearly spells out their rights as citizens. Similarly, the Thai citizen has no love for the police officer, but he also has absolutely no faith in the legal system and doesn’t even know which version of over-complicated and ever-changing constitutions are in effect right now. So instead, he relies on personal relationships. This cultural difference didn’t just magically happen. A society is the sum of its history, and divergent pasts mean different present realities.
Western culture looks to Athen’s democracy as the starting point of its democratic ideals. It looks to Rome’s legal system for the foundation for its social structures. Emerging from a thousand years of the so-called Dark Ages, feudal Western society evolved through a Renaissance that brought about liberalization in the arts, culture and science. The Age of Discovery opened doors to the world. The Age of Reason gave logic and rationality. The Age of Enlightenment argued for humanism and the principles of human rights. The Industrial Revolution introduced modern technology, the capitalist market system and also the middle class.
Meanwhile, during those times, Western colonialists raped, pillaged, plundered and committed genocide across the globe to reap the world’s wealth and resources to build modern Western civilization. It’s good to win; it sucks to lose, that’s just the fact of life – and there’s nothing “politically correct” about it. So here we are today.
Modern democracy is based on the principles of human rights founded through reason, liberalism and the notion that all men are created equal. Hence we have the ideals of justice, liberty and equality. For there to be justice, there must be a legal system that is objective, balanced and transparent. For there to be liberty, there must be freedom of speech and expression, usually coupled with freedom from authoritarianism and tyranny. For there to be equality, all men and women must be treated equally under the law.
(Note: Ideals and reality never match perfectly; therefore, justice, liberty and equality struggle even in Western democracies plagued by social upheaval.)
Obviously modern Thai society does not identify with Greek democracy or Roman laws. With a rote and ineffective education system, we barely even study them. Thailand went straight from feudalism and into democracy, bypassing periods of liberalization, reason and enlightenment that are the logical steps to arrive at humanistic democratic ideals.
We live all our lives as the dust under feet in a Hindu-Buddhist religio-political feudalistic system, as it has been for some 800 years since the time of the Sukhotai Era. Then one day in 1932, we woke up and, “Voila, democracy!” We have since spent the ensuing 80-plus years bouncing like a ping-pong ball between quasi-democracy and military dictatorship. All the while, we are still considered mere dust under feet.
It stands to reason then that we are quite confused. And when we feel uncertain and threatened, it is human nature to reach for safety. That safety isn’t found in a just legal system or constitution that guarantees our rights as citizens of the kingdom of Thailand. That safety is found in a feudal network of connections headed by some powerful patron who can help us out by pulling strings, hence: “Do you know who my daddy is?”
The entire system is based on inequality and arbitrary use of power; hence, corruption.
A court’s verdict cannot be questioned, summary execution by police is common, and suspects are assumed guilty before proven innocent. Arbitrary detention is the norm, laws such as lese majeste are used as political tools to terrorize citizens and the opposition. These are the circumstances even under so-called democratic rule, nevermind the junta.
Democracy isn’t just about having elections. It is a belief system that must be culturally ingrained and instilled in the hearts and minds of the people. Democracy isn’t just a word that one preaches, it involves the principles of human rights that one must live by.
The way forward for Thailand is to replace feudal values with ideals of justice, liberty and equality under the law. For the people to put trust and faith in these values.
But of course, that’s not the present reality of who we are and how we live as a people. The past dictates the present, unfortunately. But we can use the present to dictate the future, which can either be fortunate or unfortunate. that’s entirely up to us.
Thailand doesn’t have the benefit of centuries of historical and cultural evolution that brought us to democratic and humanist ideals. Re-engineering a culture, from how we think to what we believe, is no easy task. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – and it can be done while preserving respect for tradition.