April 5, 2010

The Thais they are a’ changin’

Filed under: Blog — Tags: , , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:18 pm

Having lived in Thailand for five years, I’ve been following the recent uprising and protests of the “Red Shirts” with bated breath. Having some familiarity with the Thai character (generally speaking), it shocks me to see such an impassioned and drawn-out conflict. I know the Thais as a non-confrontational people. For this to be happening, they have to be really angry and fed up.

One of the most attractive traits of the Thai people is their easy smile and unfailing friendliness and politeness. Whenever I think of Thailand, I equate it with those characteristics. But it seems the times they are a’ changin’, to quote Bob Dylan.

A recent The New York Times article by Thomas Fuller describes a changing culture brought on by discontent. “Thai Protesters Shed Culture of Restraint” describes how modern technology is playing a part in changing the Thai culture. Those traits that I hold so dear are being eroded, but perhaps for a good cause – class equality.

In an ironic twist, mobile phones made accessible to the poor by the former Prime Minister Thaksin, are facilitating the movement of the “Red Shirts”, who are protesting the removal of Thaksin from power. Combining access to information and grass roots organization, the “Prai”, or lower class citizens are standing up for their rights.

An excerpt: “The once deeply ingrained cultural mores that discouraged displays of anger, that prized politeness and justified the entitlements of the royalty and the elite have been eroded by technology and mobility.

The traditional restraints on aggressive and argumentative behavior — the Buddhist clergy and a once deeply held fear of bad karma, among other factors — have been weakened, says William J. Klausner, an expert on Thai culture and Buddhism who has studied village life since he moved to Thailand in the 1950s.

Thailand appears to be losing a small part of what has long attracted millions of tourists to its shores: a culture of unflappable, bend-over-backwards politeness.”

Not only is a culture changing, but a historical and religious foundation is being questioned. The opinion has been that the Thai are as accommodating as they are for two reasons: because they were not subjected to imperialism or colonialism, and because they have such a strong Buddhist faith. That is why this new wave of change concerns me. Change is good, especially if it means increasing equality between the rich and poor. But if that change threatens long-held truths and basic values, where will it end? How far will it go? Are we looking at a revolution in the making?

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