Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Domestic and Cross-Border Politics

I recently went with some members of my Rotary club to a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma (Myanmar) border, where we were managing a project. It was extraordinary to appreciate again how different the two countries are. At one point we went to a temple, half of which was recently moved by international agreement to the Myanmar side of the border. Once the border dispute was settled, the Myanmar authorities destroyed the village on their side and forced the Shan villagers to flee to Thailand. The army took over the concrete temple buildings and filled them with soldiers. The border now bristles with these people, who have also laid land mines just inside their country. It's hard to believe the cruelty of the Burmese government to its ethnic (for example, Shan) minorities. This kind of thing is routine. On the positive side, a sort of "normal" life has been created in the camp compliments of the Buddhist temple and an NGO. The people live in single-family thatched bamboo huts, the kids receive a basic education at the nearby temple, many of the women receive vocational training like dressmaking and crafts, and the men and some of the younger women go off to the fields to pick chillies or whatever happens to be in season. Of course, they do not have Thai citizenship so their movements are at the discretion of the Thai officials. Who knows what the future holds for them, but at least for now they don't have to live in fear. An Australian man, Laurie Maund, is the advocate for these people. Among many other accomplishments, Laurie is a driving force behind education for AIDS prevention in Northern Thailand and across the border. He spent many years as a traveling monk (no home and no possessions except for an umbrella which served as a shelter) in Isaan in northeastern Thailand. For my wife and me, Thailand now has much of the feeling of home. Still, the cultural differences are many, and profound. In particular, Thais see the world quite differently from the way we view it in the West. We have both read (and observed) a great deal that deals with this topic. Here is our quick summary and general observations: Westerners see things as rather black and white, while East Asians see them as heavily nuanced by relationships. Beliefs in the equality of man and in human rights are very real in the west. In east Asia, patron-client relationships are more important. And the immediate family is an incredibly powerful social unit. As I wrote to my friends in Canada last August,
the political situation here is an incredible mess!!! Although the country is actually running fairly smoothly. Thailand has not had a functioning government since February. That's when the breathtakingly corrupt prime minister and his cronies in government finally reached a level of corruption even Thailand couldn't handle. After weeks of mass protests and a rigged snap election that the opposition parties boycotted (the key members of the country's Election Commission were later thrown in jail for this travesty), the courts overturned the election and demanded a new one. It will probably be held in October. Until then, the country is unable to make serious policy decisions. Not only that, the courts are now considering whether to order Thailand's former governing political party disbanded! Thailand is in the odd situation of being under rule by the law, rather than of the law. The good news about all this, of course, is that the country has resorted to the courts rather than the military to solve its problems. This reflects a rather impressive political maturity for this part of the world. After all, the last coup in this country came only 14 years ago, and like many of the others it involved a great deal of civilian blood being shed.
Thailand's most recent putsch came barely one month later, turning these words into ashes in the mouth. The coup may have been justifiable, since the previous government was indeed corrupt. However, its successor has shown itself to be incompetent. The political situation is still a mess, and Thailand's political, social and economic lives all suffer. There is still a great deal of blood being spilled in this country, but it is mostly limited to the three (Muslim) southernmost provinces. A tragic, shadowy insurgency has been going on down there for three and a half years, and both governments have ham-handedly handled it from the start. People are being killed by both the terrorism of the insurgents and nastiness of the military, who waltz over western concepts of human rights. Unless there's a particularly horrific incident, the almost daily killings are covered on the inside pages of the Bangkok Post.
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