CLOSING THE BORDERS ... AGAIN
By Andrew Biggs
The prime minister’s threat to close the country sent all sorts of strange ripples throughout Thailand.
This column begins with the ardent hope that you already know this news, because if so I am saved a needless one hundred words explaining its background, thus allowing me to extrapolate my watertight theories and opinions on the topic for an extra one hundred words.
Ardent hope? Journalists are taught from an early age not to hold any ardent hopes, and to explain everything in a story as though the reader is an uninformed 14-year-old. At least that is what was beaten into me as a cadet journalist, and the “uninformed 14-year-old” bit is not casting aspersions on you, the reader, but more forcing us, the journalists, to be meticulous in our explanations and fact-finding.
(How ironic that that explanation alone has cost me one hundred words, thus ending any chance of my espousing watertight theories and opinions, while still obliged to provide you with the background to this story.)
This is what happened; Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha attended a meeting known as the Five-River Convergence held ten days ago. The five rivers were the junta, the military-appointed cabinet, the National Assembly, the constitution drafters and the National Reform Steering Assembly.
As part of his two-hour speech, the Prime Minister got a little worked up and said he would do everything necessary to return happiness to Thailand, “even if that meant closing the country.”
The PM’s critics came rapidly and venomously. What was he doing saying such things, what with Thailand’s international reputation already in tatters thanks to a coup, not to mention an impending EU ban on Thai seafood, a worldwide ban on Thai aviation, a dubious court case on Samui and some equally-dubious Southern generals burying Rohingya refugees? Actually when you bundle all those things into a single paragraph, closing the country may not be such a bad thing after all.
Relax, said the government. The prime minister was only joking. And it is true, our prime minister does sometimes shoot from the lip, and it is easy to take things out of context. This is the same man who blamed foreign tourists wearing bikinis for causing innocent Thai men — I beg your pardon, Burmese itinerants — to rape and bludgeon tourists to death on remote islands.
If outrage from business and social sectors was the first ripple, nothing prepared us for the second.
A quick Dusit Poll was taken of the Thai population. It revealed that academics and business folk were seething – but the general populace sure as heck wasn’t.
Most people agreed with the Prime Minister. Fifty-five per cent of all Thais. Close the country if necessary! If that’s what it takes to restore Thailand to its glory, then yes, board up Suvarnabhumi, build giant walls at all border crossings, but first boot out all the foreigners.
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but that gave me a queasy feeling. It was either that or the cheap gin I quaffed down after the Absolut ran out last night, but let’s assume the former. There is something a little sinister, isn’t there, about the so-called Land of Smiles that attracts an annual 30 million foreign tourists suddenly turning around and pointing them all towards the door.
But the general populace is onside with the Prime Minister. If closing the country means cleaning things up, then go do it. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time.
That’s right. It happened here once before, exactly 327 years ago, when all foreigners were booted out, and the country closed its doors and remained closed for a good 138 years before we were allowed back in. Worst of all, the closure didn’t seem to harm the country at all. It positively prospered.
There is an interesting period of Siamese history that revolves around a Greek man named Constantine Phaulkon, who ended up in Ayuthaya, the capital of Siam, during the reign of King Narai in the mid to late 17th century. A great weekend trip from Bangkok is to go to Lopburi, just north of Ayuthaya, and visit King Narai’s Palace, a magnificent structure with much of this colorful history explained.
King Narai had diplomatic ties with King Louis XIV of France and there were diplomatic missions to and from both countries, including one Siamese mission to Paris in 1686, two years before boot-out-the-farangs-year.
At the time Ayuthaya was one of the biggest cities in the world, and a cosmopolitan one at that, as Phaulkon discovered upon arrival. There were pockets of Portuguese, Japanese, Dutch, Persians, British and French.
Phaulkon arrived in 1675 as a merchant of the East India Company. In a very short time he mastered the Thai language and got a job in the Treasury. Along the way, he befriended King Narai to the point of being his confidante. This is where it gets murky.
Some believed Phaulkon had his eye on the throne. Others believed he was paving the way for the French to control the kingdom, since the French had such a large and influential force at the time. There was a religious fear as well, since Christianity was permeating the royal court thanks to Phaulkon and the French, and the Buddhist clergy were unhappy.
King Narai had an evil brother called Phetracha (we’re allowed to call him evil for reasons about to be explained), who was Phaulkon’s nemesis. Phetracha was either perturbed by Phualkon’s shadowy motives or simply jealous of Phaulkon’s close proximity to the King.
In a dramatic turn of events, King Narai fell gravely ill with dropsy (now known as edema). He called Phaulkon and his family together and announced his daughter would succeed him. Phetracha saw his opportunity and on June 5, 1688, he staged a coup against the dying King. He quickly executed Phaulkon for treason along with Narai’s son and brothers. King Narai died a few days later, after which Phetracha announced he was the new King. Narai’s daughter, the intended heir to the throne, was forced to marry King Phetracha.
One of the first things the new king did was boot out the French. Some 40,000 Siamese troops stormed the French in Bangkok and held them under siege for four months before sending them sailing. Then they kicked everybody else out.
It is believed some missionaries were allowed to stay, but for most foreigners, they were no longer welcome in Siam. It would be a bit like the General Prayut today booting all of us out but allowing Father Joe at the Mercy Center in Khlong Toey to hang around. Unfair, but understandable.
Siam remained closed to foreigners from 1688 until 1826, when the British were finally allowed to enter. The French would trickle back some 30 years later. So much happened within that period. The early 1700s was a golden age for Ayuthaya; then Ayuthaya fell to the Burmese in 1767. The Thais fled to Thonburi and set up the new capital there, soon crossing the river to what is now the Grand Palace and Rattanakosin. That all happened without any foreign influence — other than the Burmese, of course.
I have simplified a very complicated series of events to point out that yes, Thailand has a historical precedent in wanting to close itself off. It worked last time. It could work again. Perhaps that is why the Prime Minister can make such a comment and get away with it.
But what a story! What a climate to be living in: times of jealousy, jingoism, ethocentricity and betrayal. Oh but I am speaking of 1688, aren’t I.