Dr. Pornchai Mongkhonvanit, President of Siam University, Ajarn Ekachai Chainuvati, law lecturer at Siam University, lecturers and students, it is a great honor for me to be here today address this distinguished gathering to mark this year’s UN International Day of Peace. As you may already be well aware, today I represent the Pridi Banomyong Institute, which was named after the late Pridi Banomyong, the man who co-led the revolt which ended absolute monarchy back in 1932, as a member of its executive committee. Before I bore you with further details about the institute let me go straight to making a confession: attention on peace is hard to sustain in a world of attention deficit, particularly when conflicts or war occur far away from home. In my case, as a professional journalist, the Ukrainian Embassy in Bangkok has been so kind as to keep sending me (and a few others in Thailand) its latest weekly update on the Russian invasion of Ukraine for over a year now. (The latest one I received was on Sept 19, and it’s called a “War Bulletin”.)
Please allow me to quote part of it here.
“War Bulletin, Sept 15, 18.00 CET”
“During the day, 17 combat clashes took place. Also, the Russian Federation carried out another airstrike by Iranian attack UAVs “Shaheed-136/131.” As a result of successful combat work by the components of the Defense Forces, all 17 enemy “shaheeds” were destroyed…”
This is just part of the bulletin, and my confession is that I have not been reading any of the bulletins sent to me by the Ukrainian Embassy in Bangkok for many months now, until I found it convenient to use it for the speech here today. No, I am not pro-Russia’s invasion.
In the days following the Russian Invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I wrote a column and made it clear the invasion (or “special military operation”) was unjustifiable and must be condemned and called on the Thai government to place peace over national interests. So, I suppose the Russian Embassy in Bangkok was aware and thus did not email me to update on its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
My confession is as the war in the far away land drags on I feel, as a Thai citizen and journalist, helpless, almost apathetic, as if there is little or nothing that I can do to contribute to peace in that part of the world.
Closer to home, I feel frustrated by the apathy of many Thais regarding the bloody suppression by the ruthless Burmese military junta and continuing conflicts in Myanmar, despite the fact that Thailand shares its longest border with Myanmar (2,202 kilometers in all to be exact) and Bangkok hosts an estimate of more than a million migrant workers from that neighboring country.
Many Thais seem oblivious and indifferent. During the weeks leading up to the general election in Thailand in May this year, very few political parties bother to tell the public what their foreign policy towards Myanmar’s military junta will be. Probably the majority, if not most, of the Thai voters would not care so they thought “what’s the point.”
Here lies a major obstacle for many Thais from truly becoming members of the international community, and in fostering world peace.
Thais cannot be parochial and apathetic and expect world peace. We have to be curious, get out of our “comfort zone” and transcend if not debunk the narrowly defined notion of nationalism (or ethnicity, language, culture, religion, and political belief) which dictates that we are “different” from foreigners and need to care more about G-to-G relations and interests than people-to-people relations. We need to pressure our respective governments to act more responsibly as members of the international community.
My message, particularly to students here at Siam University, especially Thais, is we have to learn to feel less Thai and try to be a world citizen. This requires learning foreign languages (and not just English, or we can free ourselves from the prison of one language that shapes the way we perceive the world), traveling (as opposed to ‘touristing’) to different countries, learning new cultures and recognizing that we share more in common than what divides us – so we can start restoring faith in humanity.
All these are much easier said than done, sometimes we feel desensitized by the bombardment of non-stop foreign news (or imprisoned by our own parochial social media echo chamber).But please, please do not give up and resist – give it a try, otherwise we cannot expect to have more actions for peace. Finally, please do not forget to read emails that some embassies, UNHCR, or UNICEF, may send to you in a desperate attempt to make you aware of what is happening outside your comfort zone.
The article was first given as a keynote speech at Siam University on September 21, 2023, to mark the UN International Day of Peace. The author delivered the speech in the capacity as executive committee of Pridi Banomyong Institute, a non-profit Institute promoting democracy, freedom, equality, and the legacies of the late statesman Pridi.