The last time I saw my old friend, she had finally given up on her magazine dedicated to what we used to call “upcountry” householders. She lamented the passing of “paradise”, a Thailand she and I had known in the late 1940s when I was a young reporter for a local Bangkok English-language newspaper. “Rice in the paddy and shrimp in the klong [canal]” and all is right with the world went the old saying.
“Modernity” with all its problems had come to the devoutly Buddhist land, preindustrial but with abundant resources. Rites of passage once required young men to spend months in the wat [temple] with their begging bowls. Every morning my friend along with most housewives seeking to “make merit” toward a future existence through charity were at their doorstep dishing out rice and Thai curries to them.
But now the klongs in sea level Bangkok are filled – originally by a corrupt French contractor which produced continual flooding. The stench of diesel replaces cardamom drifting from night markets with the world’s most exotic menu. One might have eaten in Yawarat, sarcastically called “Chinatown”. For since cheap ocean passage after the opening of Suez in the mid-19th century with British and French maritime expansion, Bangkok was a Sino-Thai city, flooded with South China immigrants.
Modernization was, of course, beneficial. Health standards improved. The arid northeast no longer survived by sending migrants to the capital. In recent years, investors saw Thailand as Southeast Asia’s auto manufacturing center. Not only No. 1 rice exporter, worldwide housewives snapped up Thai processed delicacies. And Thailand is destination for sophisticated European tourists, replacing the 60s backpackers who came for pot and sex.
But all this is threatened by a social breakdown. Coming for several decades, it reached crescendo in 2006 with the fall of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Ironically, the billionaire politician was brought down by his neighbors, the Singaporeans. Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew who styles himself leader of a squeaky-clean regime does not follow the old adage admonishing Caesar’s wife to be above suspicion. For it was his daughter-in-law’s Singapore sovereign fund, Temasek, who blew up Mr. Thaksin
Temasek, moving away from funding of Singapore’s manufacturing base — eroded in no small part by China – has gone farther afield. In Bangkok, Mrs. Ho Ching, Lee’s son, the Prime Minister’s wife, negotiated an under-the-table $2 billion plus deal for Mr. Thaksin’s telecommunications empire. It was acquired through government, his detractors say. When he escaped taxation on the deal, it was too much for Bangkok’s Sino-Thai professional elite, fed up with unlimited corruption. They supported a military takeover. When Mr. Thaksin won another election, he was ousted again.
But Mr. Thaksin had long since won the hearts and minds of the rural population through a populist program including medical services. Gone is the old division of labor – Bangkok Sino-Thai families dominating the bureaucracy but rural ethnic Thai arriving at higher echelons through the military. [Mr. Thaksin, unlike yesteryear’s Sino-Thai, makes no bones about his Chinese origins, even going on a traditional kowtow to South China to his grandfather’s grave]
Out of office but not out of money – even though a court recently seized $1.5 billion, about half his formal Thai holdings – Mr. Thaksin has been feeding his supporters from exile. His Red Shirts followers and their Yellow Shirts opponents – far too reminiscent of Germany on the eve of Hitler’s takeover – threaten law and order. The beloved but aging King Phumipol Aduldet is increasingly powerless to play his traditional referee role.
During the Vietnam War a prominent Thai general told me his country could successfully continue to assimilate the Chinese immigration if the U.S. assured regional security. But now, not only is there a threat in the south where Muslim Malay ethnics link with internationalist jihadists, but Chinese no longer arrive only by sea and air .More and more the Chinese export juggernaut is plowing into Thailand’s markets – with trade growing 20% annually. Politically, the old isolation along the northern border with southern China disappears as Beijing pushes communications and development south along the Mekong River.
Continuing destructive domestic violence – billions in tourism have already been lost after 38 countries issued travel warnings – could spell disaster.
The Thais have a caution in Burma next door. There military thugs for decades have squandered human and raw materials resources. Burma’s repressive regime is Beijing’s ally to whom it supplies weapons and a market for oil. And Washington is no longer Southeast Asia’s Big Brother. The U.S., certainly under an Obama Administration preoccupied with domestic troubles and two wars in the Middle East, seeks accommodation with Burma as with other old antagonists.
Thailand, like so much of the rest of the world, is now adrift in a welter of conflicting domestic and world currents. Long gone are the days of the national leitmotiv “mai pen rai”, “[never mind], it is not important”.