Craze for the Nation and Fear

ความคลั่งชาติและความกลัว

Not so many days ago I saw on Facebook a comment by a Yellow-Shirt supporter that staggered me, though it didn’t quite knock me off my chair. It went something like this:

Some people called us คลั่งชาติ. So what? We’re still better than those who are not only not helping but only get in the way.

Not shocking by Thai Facebook standard these days surely, but very telling and thought provoking. So, what is this word คลั่งชาติ?

Literally คลั่งชาติ /khlâng châat/ translates as “crazy for the nation.” In bookspeak it’s “ultra-nationalism” or nationalism (ชาตินิยม /châat ní-yom/) in overdrive.

Crazy for LOVE

It wasn’t so much the word (คลั่งชาติ /khlâng châat/) itself that caught my attention (since it’s nothing new), or even the commenter’s tacit admission that she was indeed crazy for love of the country, though I thought that was interesting too. What intrigued (and staggered) me was that the person thought she was “better than those who are not only not helping but only get in the way.” At first (still a bit dazed from staggering) I wondered: not helping to do what?; getting in the way of what? (The person inconsiderately left the comment hanging like that.)

Then I had a palm-on-the-forehead moment. What was left unsaid was (duh!) helping “to protect the nation.” Suddenly Thai people’s loud cries about protecting and saving major national institutions flooded my consciousness (and made me momentarily dizzy). Images of many signs and slogans flashed through my brains: those in the pro-government rallies, on numerous Facebook pages, in the mainstream media, on Twitter, etc. where I found Thais talking politics. These words popped up again and again: “protect” (ปกป้อง /pòk-pÔOng/), “save” (พิทักษ์ /phí-ták/), “preserve” (รักษา /rák-sǎa/), “praise” (ยกย่อง /yók-yÔOng/), “uphold” (เชิดชู /chôoet-chuu/). One that popped up the most is the word “love” (รัก /ràk/).

Yes, “LOVE” (to reflect the true sentiment it is spelled in capital letters). But this is not the kind of romantic love that we know and seek everyday. It is a higher, long-lasting, undying, etched-in-the-heart-and-soul kind of LOVE that romantic love can never hope to compare. It’s the kind of LOVE that borders on maniacal worship that is reserved solely for the Nation, Religion and King (ชาติ ศาสน์ กษัตริย์ /ràk châat sàat kà-sàt/). This is patriotic LOVE (รักชาติ /ràk châat/), “LOVE of the NATION,” that Thais have for the motherland. It’s LOVE that is greater than life itself (รักชาติยิ่งชีพ /rák châat yîng chîip/) that soldiers defending national territories at war are expected to feel.

What’s unusual is that in Thailand civilians feel this kind of LOVE everyday, though on some days more than others. Recent days have been the days that this LOVE is roused to a new height as though the country were at war and in danger of losing its sovereignty. All of a sudden, ordinary citizens rise up and assume the role of the “Protectors of the Nation,”  “Preservers of the Land” (ผู้ปกป้องแผ่นดิน /phûu pòk-pÔOng phÈEn-din/), zealously “protecting the institution” (ปกป้องสถาบัน /pòk-pÔOng sà-thǎa-ban/), even leaving the soldiers the official protectors a little disconcerted.

From LOVE to CRAZE

Thais use the expression รักชาติ /ràk châat/ in both positive and negative terms. Those feeling strong attachment and adulation for the country say they รักชาติ “LOVE the NATION”. A large of number of these patriots have recently been quick to accuse those who they believe or suspect to lack that LOVE as ไม่รักชาติ /mâi rák châat/, “unpatriotic”. And if the suspicion is strong that a person or group is not feeling due LOVE and devotion to any of the three key institutions, the person or group’s loyalty to the Thai nation is questioned. What often follows is a branding of that person or group as ไม่ใช่คนไทย /mâi châi khon thai/ (“not Thai”). They may be asked a question เป็นคนไทยหรือเปล่า /pen khon thai rǔue plàw/ (“Are you Thai?”), though the question is more rhetorical and accusatory than literal. Ultimately, if the person or group has been decided (with or without sound evidence), the strongest condemnation ensues: คนขายชาติ /khon khǎay châat/ or ทรยศชาติ /tOO-ra-yot châat/ (“traitor”) or กบฏ /kà-bòt/ (“rebel”).

Accusing someone of treason or instigating a rebellion is very serious in any country, including Thailand where conviction of treason carries a death penalty or life imprisonment. Although in today’s Thailand few people get convicted of treason, being merely accused will likely make one an outcast (not to mention possible real dangers for personal safety). Past Thai “rebels” and “traitors” invariably ended up with life in exile. Those deemed “unpatriotic” may face life in prison (เข้ากรง /khâw krong/) for long years or find they don’t have a land to stand on (ไม่มีแผ่นดินอยู่ /mâi mii phÈEn-din yùu/ as aspiring “rebels” are often warned.

Given such harsh punishment, why are Thais so quick to brand their fellow Thais “traitors” and “rebels”, or “unpatriotic”?

I believe it is due to their “LOVE of the NATION” that has gone to excess. The LOVE has become the “CRAZE of the NATION.” And as mentioned earlier, this LOVE is greater than life, so even in a society in which people relate to one another as “brothers and sisters” (พี่น้อง /phîi nÔOng/), the social kinship is overridden by this LOVE – or CRAZE, rather. Brothers and sisters suspected of committing a “thought crime” may be put at an arm’s length. Recent development in this regard has become quite alarming. Brothers and sisters suspected of national disloyalty can be publicly vilified and pilloried, like on this Facebook page. Today dutiful patriotic citizens are following Big Brother’s instruction to report suspected unpatriotic thought criminals. Phone numbers to report such crimes have been widely circulated via Facebook and Twitter and probably other places where I haven’t looked.

CRAZE from FEAR

You ask how a healthy patriotic love became crazy LOVE and transformed into CRAZE for the NATION? I could be wrong, but I think fear has much to do with LOVE turning into CRAZE. But if you asked how the original love ever became crazy LOVE to begin with, then I suggest you read my previous article “Harmony and Hate.”

So, when love has been contaminated by FEAR, it becomes crazy and irrational LOVE. And as is often the case, irrational love further breeds irrational fear which further poisons and breeds hate.

But FEAR of what?

I admit I don’t fully understand this. But I’ve just had a glimpse of such irrational fear – not one so potent but distinct enough to have surprised me and gave me some understanding.

I witnessed up close a few days ago how one of my good friends (a perfectly nice and extremely friendly and kind person) was very afraid of passing through a street – in a car with friends – where there was a very small gathering of Red Shirts. There wasn’t any fighting or confrontation going on. No protesters carried anything resembling weapons that I could see, though they made some loud noises. All sticks were attached to either a red flag or a Thai national flag, which the protesters were waving. The incident wasn’t in Bangkok (but my friend is from Bangkok) and it happened just at the time that the Red Shirts were storming in Chula Hospital and we were checking our Blackberries and iPhones for news updates.

Noted Thai historian Thongchai Wanichakul wrote a very insightful analysis of fear of the Red Shirts among the Bangkokians today on New Mandala. In the context of the Reds’ “invasion” of Chula Hospital, he said many Bangkokians were “ready to be frightened.”

Their fear of the Reds is real, no matter if they have never witnessed a horror by the Reds. They can learn about the Reds’ horror everyday from the media.

(See more of his in-depth analysis on New Mandala – highly recommended.)

Real and Manufactured Fear

The role of media in stoking the fear among the Bangkokians is critical of course. But all the recent psy ops by the government and anti-Red forces in my view have fallen on already fertile grounds because, as Prof. Thongchai suggested, people are “ready to be frightened.” Their fear has turned into FEAR with heavy stoking, but the original fear was already there.

In a somewhat simplistic analogy, the original fear was like a fear of a poor distant cousin who’s considered embarrassingly simple and uncouth and good for nothing. The Bangkokian doesn’t know much about this cousin at all and has never really paid attention to what he really does or who he really is – least about his problems. This cousin is said to be to be in town, so the Bangkokian is a bit anxious that he might come to visit to ask for money or cause a nuisance. Then the potty-mouthed gossip mongers in the neighborhood start retelling her the scary accounts they heard from someone who knew someone else who had it on a “good authority” that this distant cousin might actually be a fugitive suspected of violent crimes, possibly even murder. The Bangkokian has listened to this for days. Even her friends who have heard the same “news” from the same gossip mongers start warning her to avoid this cousin.

So, the original fear mixed with embarrassment and a little disdain became FEAR of supposed dangers. The potentially embarrassing distant poor relative became a scary, dangerous monster worthy of major FEAR.

In all this, the Bangkokian doesn’t really have the full facts about that cousin but she’s not going to take any chances and receive him in her house. She figures it’s better to be safe than sorry and proceeds to close all the doors and windows and pretend she isn’t home. If there’ll be any strange knocks on the door, she thinks she’ll call the police – or, on second thought, maybe not, since she doesn’t trust the police much either. So she might have to call a trusted neighbor with guns for help then.

The Danger of Fear

The FEAR that Bangkokians have of the Red Shirts seems irrational and at least partly manufactured. But manufactured or real, irrational or otherwise, this FEAR is dangerous for both the present and future of Thailand.

In times of uncertainty and conflict, fear is normal, and there may be some cause for legitimate fear of some elements in the Red Shirts. However, fear that is out of proportion can become paranoia and paranoia is no basis for rational thinking or finding solution to the conflict, or sustainable peace and reconciliation in a society long term.

Both sides of the divide in the current Thai conflict have been guilty of stoking hatred and fear. The power struggle may come down to Thais killing Thais as many of us fear, or as it seems hopeful this evening, end in a compromise without further bloodshed (see reports by AP and BBC). But nothing is certain.

However it will end, there remains a real danger of Thais viewing Thais as “enemies” after such an intense and sustained period of vilification. The ugly face that each side has painted on the other may follow to haunt us in the future like our own shadow.

The question is: Will we recognize this shadow as our own and reconcile with the ugly past? Will we learn to care and respect each other as human beings on a more equal footing? Or will we continue to be scared by our own shadow and mistake it for an enemy to loath and fear?

Change is scary. Losing something you’ve always taken for granted is even scarier. But I hope eventually Thais will learn to learn a lesson when that time of change comes.

6 responses to “Craze for the Nation and Fear

  1. I think that the fear the Bangkokians feel has developed over the fact that there does not seem to be an impartial authority in the conflict anymore.
    Such an authority would be the legislative and executive forces of the country (judges, police and military).
    The police has failed to arrest certain elements for their criminal acts, the military cannot do the job of the police and as long as nobody is charged, courts cannot consider (or they release the culprits after receiving money or pressure).
    Then further, the govt has spoken of reconciliation and forgiveness as soon as the conflict is over. You cannot consider forgiveness for acts that are either criminal before the law or have not even been commited yet. What a stupid proposal by the government.
    Forgive those who cannot be held responsible out of their desperation or fear but, not the leaders (no matter red, yellow, or whatever silly color).

    Rehabilitation of politicians who were punished before a court for whatever reason has a long tradition in Thailand. Bangkokians (and others of course) know that. And they feel that with a change in government or political rule, those who have been legally restricted from participation in politics will again be rehabilitated. The fear is real as I understand, and far from unreal paranoia.

    Thailand has to ask itself why it always resorts to this tradition of rehabilitation of their criminal elite. Nobody should seek vengeance but, influential people and politicians who were legally punished for their wrongdoings should not be pardoned the way it is constantly done in Thailand.

    The fear will only disappear when Thais can feel that there is an impartial system which protects them.
    I turn your love-fear constellation around into fear-love.
    Is it possible that the fear of the authority has turned into love and craze so that people do not need to fear it anymore? You don’t need to fear what you love. Now they fear the collapse of their love. Hmm. I am caught in confusion myself now…
    Best Regards!

  2. Armin, thanks for your thoughtful comment on this post and other posts. I enjoy reading them. Certainly the fear is real and there are many reasons for the fear – justified or not. The current Thai political crisis is extremely complex with a deep root and various, sometimes conflicting, factors that are both old and new. So, it’s difficult to explain it away easily. Here I only touched on one aspect of the problem.

    IMO human emotions are difficult to explain and understand, but they are also intriguing. And sometimes in the process of explaining we find ourselves further confused. 🙂 Put it in the context of politics, it’s hard to keep track of a coherent thought, I think.

    Though we’d love to see more observation and respect of lofty principles like equality, fairness and justice, but at least in Thailand at this stage of its political development, politics still remains largely business of negotiation and compromise among the elites who look out primarily for their own interests.

    Of course, I really do hope that the emerging political awareness at the grassroots level as manifest in the Red shirt movement (Thaksin notwithstanding) and hopefully among many urban Thais as well, will yield fruits long term. I hope that little people will have a greater part in the political process as a result of this so that people who died will not have died in vain. A positive change will be measured in how much in the future the little will be party in the negotiation for sharing of power and resources.

    My other wish is simple: that the urban middle and upper classes acknowledge and appreciate that there exist inequalities and injustice in our society. With that knowledge, I believe empathy is more forthcoming and we’re on the path of understanding and respect.

  3. Very enlightening article.

    Now what do I say to the people who call me “Thai” just because I speak the language and have lived here for a long time. I have always found it deeply insulting to be called Thai. I live here, but to be compared to narrow minded nationalist bigots is a bit much. What is a good reply to shut such people up?

    • Thanks Donatella for stopping by. I have actually pondered over your question for some days now, but failed to come up with a good line for you to shut up such “nationalist bigots”. Tried as I might I couldn’t find a Thai equivalent for “a pot calling a kettle black.” Perhaps I wasn’t on the right track, but you’ll have to forgive me for my temporary brain freeze. 🙂

  4. Kaewmala, from what I’ve seen and read, I do believe that there is a growing acknowledgment that inequalities exist. I personally was surprised to note this insistance from some of the Pinks/Yellows/No-colours.

    For the fear, I felt similar. The first Red Shirts marching around Bangkok were freshly passionate about their cause. They came in all shapes and sizes: Farmers, students, beauties, babies, mothers and fathers. Waving flags and smiling, it was easy to return their enthusiasm.

    Then a few weeks ago, rough characters moved into the perimeter of the Red Shirt camp. They were brooding, watchful men. Feeling uneasy (feeling threatened?), I didn’t wander around the encampment as before. With my imagination growing, I likened them to the criminal element I’ve read about on forums and in the Thai papers: Lawless, nasty, quick to anger. The type of relative you’d bar your door to.

    On top of everything else, we had the illusive black-shirted snipers who could strike at any time. They didn’t, but the fear of what they were capable of was harm enough.

    The worry that fed the fear was this one question: When this is all over, will those with dangerous dispositions go back to where they came from? Or, after tasting life in Bangkok, will they decided to stay?

  5. Keawmala thanks for your article

    unfortunately, its terribly easy for politicians, and I suppose politics/psychology-savvy elites and generals to use fear to achieve repression of democratic principles (like Bush, Hitler, Stalin, etc)

    just to pick on a point in Armins comment I think the Thai police in their actions and reputation suffer greatly from interference by the military

    without the military I think the police would be able to perform much better

    I hasten to add that in terms of human rights abuses its my perception that the Border Patrol Police are often the origin of abuses that are blamed on the police.

    the Border Patrol “Police” are actually under military command and are not police at all, the mis-naming may be intentional to enable smearing of the police

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